IT’S the most wonderful time of the year….
Mitch grinned as he hummed along with the carol playing on the radio, though most of his attention was on the package he was wrapping so carefully. There was zero chance that it would look professionally wrapped no matter how much painstaking care he applied, but he did want it to be as pretty as possible, while leaving no doubt that he’d gone to the effort himself.
Todd would laugh, he knew, but that was fine. Mitch loved that laugh. It always made him smile, even when it was at Mitch’s expense, which was most of the time. That was fine too. Mitch had no illusions about himself, after all. He was damned good at his job—in fact he’d just been promoted to head researcher and fact checker at the magazine, due largely to his near-obsessive attention to detail—but his social skills weren’t the best. He also wasn’t the buffed-up type of gay man who could demand the attention of guys like Todd, which made it that much more amazing that they were dating. If Todd found Mitch amusing, that was a good thing, wasn’t it?
Mitch found Todd exciting and interesting, not to mention hotter than the fires of hell. Todd was tall and strong, with muscles that bulged just enough to show the hours he spent at the gym, whereas even when Mitch bothered with working out, he never became anything but what he was—long and lanky. Then again, Mitch didn’t need to be cut like Todd. Todd was a cop and used his strength on a daily basis, keeping the city safe for people like Mitch. Pansies like Mitch, as Todd liked to say, but Mitch knew he was joking when he said it that way. Todd had to be joking, considering Todd was gay too.
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style….
The song changed and Mitch continued to hum, trying to pick the stray tape from his fingers and getting hopelessly tangled in it. Then he somehow managed to get the ribbon attached to the tape that was stuck to his hands, and things only went downhill from there. The ribbon unspooled and tied itself in a knot that somehow grabbed on to the corner of the wrapping paper, tearing it as Mitch shook his hands in an effort to shake tape and ribbon free. The ragged edge of torn paper flapped around, and the next thing Mitch knew, the open box of tinsel was in the air, and long silver strands of shining plastic started raining down on him, joining with the horrific mess and sticking everywhere.
Mitch wasn’t humming anymore when his best friend, Sam, entered the living room. In fact, Mitch was scowling at the mess he’d made and trying to figure out the best way to get himself out of it without making things worse.
“Smile for the camera, puffalump,” Sam said cheerfully, and Mitch only scowled more as Sam’s cell phone made an appearance, the tiny lens pointing right at him. “Come on, Mitch. Show me those pearly whites. This can totally be my Christmas card picture for next year!”
Try as he might, Mitch couldn’t maintain his disgust in the face of Sam’s jaunty grin. If Mitch were being honest, that was part of why he and Sam were best friends. They always managed to cheer each other up, no matter what had gone wrong.
“Oh, fine,” Mitch said, shooting for grumpy, but even he could hear the sudden laughter in his own voice. “Take your stupid picture. Nothing makes me happier than constant photographic proof of my inability to perform even the simplest tasks without providing comic relief.”
Sam laughed, taking shots from a few different angles while Mitch smiled. “I’ll just add these to the ‘Mitch in strange peril’ file on my computer.” He put his phone away, thank God, then moved closer, already leaning down to start removing the Christmas massacre from Mitch’s hands and hair, where the tinsel had gone wild. “What were you trying to do, anyway? Wrap yourself?”
Mitch shook his head, wincing when a strand of tinsel that had wrapped around his ear pulled tight. “I was wrapping Todd’s Christmas present, if you really want to know. Obviously it didn’t go well.”
Sam snorted and continued de-tinseling Mitch’s head. Mitch started to raise his hands to help but then thought better of it. The last thing he needed was tape and ribbon in his hair, as well. “Just be glad you gave me a key,” Sam murmured, on his knees now, his chest so close to Mitch’s face, Mitch could smell the lingering sharpness of winter on Sam’s shirt. “I know it’s only for emergencies, but I think this qualifies.”
Yeah, Mitch thought so too. “How did you know I needed you?” he muttered back, because he had to say something. “Is it still snowing?” Okay, two very unconnected questions, but Sam knew him well enough after the three years they’d been neighbors that Mitch figured the guy was used to it.
“Barely,” Sam replied, answering the last question first. “Flurries, more than anything else. You know, those tiny flakes that are powdery and dry? They’ll probably stop completely in the next few hours. And I knew you were in trouble because I could hear the radio, but you weren’t singing along. Well, that and you didn’t answer when I knocked. I should have known it had something to do with Toad.”
“Todd,” Mitch corrected, though he had little hope that Sam would take the hint. Sam had never come out and said so, but Mitch knew his best friend didn’t like his boyfriend. Calling Todd Toad was the only way Sam ever showed it, but Mitch knew. It was a shame, really, because Mitch would have enjoyed it if the two most important people in his life were friendly. That didn’t seem likely to happen, though. It wasn’t just Sam, anyway. Todd wasn’t exactly fond of Sam, either, though Todd was definitely more vocal about it than Sam had ever been. “And are you seriously blaming Todd for my inability to wrap a present without creating my own personal holiday Armageddon? He wasn’t even here!”
Sam laughed and shook his head, starting to pry the tape and other detritus from Mitch’s hands. “Nope. I’m just being bitchy.” Sam grinned, balling up one shaggy clump of tinsel and ribbon. “Only because you have someone to spend the holidays with, while I don’t. This will be the first Christmas we’re not doing dinner together since we met, so maybe I’m a little bitter that you have a man, and I’m entirely single.”
That made more sense than Todd’s suggestion that Sam was jealous of him, Mitch realized. He and Sam might as well have formed their own alone-for-the-holidays club, right up until this winter. Sure they’d both dated and such, but somehow they’d always been on their own at Christmas. It made sense that Sam would feel cast adrift since Mitch actually had a boyfriend this year.
“Well, there’s always my birthday,” Mitch suggested, hoping to comfort Sam a bit. “I don’t have any plans other than calling my dad and having our annual ‘discussion’ about my future, or lack thereof. He firmly believes the Internet is going to replace printed magazines, and okay, he has a point, but we’re already online, and I don’t see my job going away. Some of the articles we get are just wrong, in so many ways. So yep. Our traditional disagreement.” Mitch wrinkled his nose.
“And then you’ll get into that whole ‘why did Mom have to have me the day after Christmas’ thing with him, you’ll both cry because you miss her, and by the time you finish talking to him, you’ll be a soggy, snot-streaked mess.” Sam smiled brightly, tugging another bunch of holiday cheer from Mitch’s hands. “Thanks! That sounds like a super-fun time!” Another piece of tape-and-tinsel left Mitch’s skin. “Actually, I mean that. I’m in for the birthday thing. I’m just surprised you don’t have plans with Toad.”
Mitch shrugged, then blew a sharp breath upward, trying to dislodge the strand of silver that threatened to get into his eye. “Todd’s working,” he said simply. “He and the other single officers volunteered to cover shifts so the guys with families could spend a bit more time at home.”
Sam arched one sleek brow, then shrugged as he removed the offending piece of tinsel from Mitch’s face. “That’s nice of them. I’m surprised they don’t want to spend the time with their girlfriends, though. Or boyfriend, in Toad’s case. He’s a real prince.”
Mitch smiled. “He is. So we’re on for my birthday, then?” He didn’t really need reassurance, but he wanted to hear Sam say yes again. He liked it when Sam said yes.
“Duh. But just so you know, we’re going out somewhere. I refuse to sit around your apartment eating leftovers from your Christmas dinner with Officer Toad. I’ll find somewhere good to go. There will be copious amounts of alcohol and good food involved. Deal?”
Mitch laughed and held very still as Sam pried the last of the offending wrapping material from his hands; then he flexed his fingers, glorying in the freedom and lack of ribbon shackles. “Deal. And thanks for breaking me out of the holiday-gone-wrong experiment in wrapping. I don’t suppose you feel like helping me do it right?” He gave Sam his best puppy-dog-eyes look, grinning when Sam caved.
“Fine. But only because I don’t want to see you looking all pathetic and helpless again. What did you get him, anyway?”
Mitch looked at the box that was mostly buried under the tinsel, ribbon, and torn wrapping paper. “A new holster,” he admitted. “I know it’s not the most romantic-sounding present, but it’s what he wants, and it’s regulation too. Calf skin, but regulation. It was either that or a new gun safe. I actually got both, but I think the holster’s better for Christmas. I’ll give him the gun safe for Valentine’s Day.” He really wished Todd wanted something romantic, but Mitch couldn’t deny that the holster and safe would be useful, considering Todd’s profession.
Sam chuckled and started organizing the mess on the floor. “Remind me never to date a cop. There’s no poetry in a holster or a gun safe. And if you really think about it, isn’t ‘gun safe’ kind of an oxymoron? So what are you making for Christmas dinner?”
Yeah, that was Sam, Mitch thought, affection swelling in his chest. Sweet and caring and willing to avoid arguing about Mitch’s choices. Sam would learn to like Todd eventually, Mitch was sure. Mitch had only been dating Todd for three months, after all, and Sam hadn’t spent more than a few evenings with them as a couple.
Sam would have to like Todd eventually, Mitch told himself sternly, because there was no way Mitch was going to give up either his boyfriend or his best friend. Maybe they could all spend New Year’s Eve together… and maybe Todd had a single gay friend for Sam, though Mitch would never admit to thinking that. Still, if Todd showed up with some hot gay guy for Sam on New Year’s Eve, what could it hurt? It was time for Sam to move on. Past time, really.
Mitch made a mental note to talk to Todd about it, then returned his attention to the way Sam’s nimble fingers went about wrapping Todd’s present without a single incident of demonic tape or possessed ribbon. It was amazing.
CHRISTMAS EVE started out well, with Todd showing up just after two in the afternoon. They watched some of the holiday specials on TV, had a couple drinks—wine for Mitch, vodka for Todd—and ended up messing around on the couch while the ham Mitch had in the oven for Christmas Eve dinner finished cooking.
Dinner was good, and Mitch felt a warm glow at how much Todd ate. He felt an entirely different but even warmer glow when Todd pushed away from the table and then dragged him off to the bedroom. Some guys got sleepy after a big meal, but Todd always got horny.
“That was good, babe,” Todd mumbled as he pulled out of Mitch and discarded the used condom on the floor beside the bed. “Merry fucking Christmas to me.”
Mitch didn’t answer right away. He was too busy jerking himself off, striving for the orgasm he hadn’t quite reached by the time Todd finished. “Uhn. Uh-huh,” he managed, holding himself up with one hand while his hips rocked up into the air, then down, driving his cock through his own fist. It didn’t take long before Mitch grunted and splattered the sheets beneath him with small shots of seed. He heaved a relieved sigh and collapsed, turning onto his side as he caught his breath.
“Only good?” Mitch asked a few moments later, looking at Todd curiously. “You usually say great.” It was true too. Todd might not kiss or even suck cock, but he’d never been short with his praise for the tightness of Mitch’s ass before. “Todd, tell me what’s wrong. Is it something with work? You know I’m always willing to listen.”
Todd shrugged, his mouth tightening into a hard line that Mitch didn’t like at all. “It’s nothing. I just thought…. Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
“You thought what?” Mitch wanted to close the two feet between them and hold Todd until the man said whatever was on his mind, but that was out of the question. Todd was farsighted and liked to be able to see Mitch clearly when they talked, even after sex. Maybe especially after sex. “Whatever it is, it does matter. If it matters to you, it matters to me. That’s what being in a relationship is all about.”
“Fine,” Todd grumbled. “I guess I thought Christmas would be different. We’re together and everything, so when you said this was gonna be a special holiday, I thought you meant we could get rid of the rubbers. I mean, do we really need them? I just want…. I don’t know how to say it in the girly way you want, okay? I just want to fuck you without a rubber. This doesn’t feel real yet, and it won’t until we do that, and I guess I don’t get why you’re being such a fucking princess about it.”
The strange part was that Todd sounded more angry than disappointed. Like he’d really expected Mitch to do the one thing Mitch had never done before just because it was Christmas. It wasn’t even that Mitch didn’t want to, because he kind of did. He liked the idea of belonging to Todd that way. He even looked forward to the day that he and Todd shared a home and were a couple in the eyes of God and the world. When that happened, he would be more than happy to feel Todd come inside him without the barrier of latex between them. They just weren’t there yet.
They hadn’t been tested together, they didn’t live together, and the great state of Massachusetts hadn’t recognized their union-of-hearts because they weren’t married. Besides which, it had only been three months, and Mitch wasn’t ready for any of those things, even with Todd. Explaining that to Todd yet again was unlikely to have the evening end well, though.
“I think we haven’t been tested for STDs,” Mitch finally answered, leaving the question of marriage alone for the moment, though he had never mentioned it to Todd. “And I think taking that step is really big and important, but it would be beyond stupid to do it without documentation that neither of us has anything we don’t know about that could be detrimental to the other. Do you know how many—”
“Jesus Christ! Shut the fuck up, will you?” Todd frowned. “The last thing I need right now is to have you rattling off statistics and shit! I get it if you think you have some kind of disease or whatever from spreading yourself around, but I’m not gonna catch it by fucking you. I’d only be in danger if you were fucking me, and we both know that’s never gonna happen. So get down off the fucking cross, Mitch-bitch! You keep saying you love me, but you won’t even let me fucking come in you. What the fuck kind of love is that?”
God. Mitch’s whole future flashed before his eyes, but in reverse. He and Todd were old in his vision, living in a nice little Victorian, their grandkids playing out front while the fall leaves fell upward and Sam smiled. They were middle-aged, watching their adopted daughter get married to a nice young man who cared for her. They were house-hunting, determined to find the perfect place for the family they hoped to build, both of them grateful that Sam knew their tastes well enough to narrow the field. Todd was smiling at him as he and Mitch exchanged rings. He saw Todd laughing, saying his things would never all fit in Mitch’s apartment when they moved in together, and Sam offering to take Todd’s porn off his hands to make more room.
It all shattered in an instant, leaving Mitch feeling cold and shaken.
“I guess it’s not,” he whispered. “Not for you, anyway.” Mitch’s voice grew stronger as he rolled from the bed and turned on the overhead light before he started gathering Todd’s things, throwing them at the man on the bed, piece by piece. “I’m not sure you even know what love is! God, I’m such a fool! Sam was right not to like you! I can’t believe I ever believed in you, and God knows I can’t believe I ever thought you loved me!” Mitch felt his eyes tearing up and shook the sensation away through sheer force of will. “You’ve never said it, not even once, and now I know you never will. Go ahead and tell me I’m wrong! I dare you!”
If Mitch had been any less heartbroken, the look of stunned surprise on Todd’s face would have made him laugh. As it was, though, he couldn’t find anything funny in it, not even when the brown-streaked white briefs he flung at Todd next hit the man in the face. “And learn how to wipe, asshole! Or how to wipe your asshole, asshole! Now get dressed and get out!”
“You don’t mean that,” Todd said, though the look on his face said that even Todd didn’t believe his own words. “Come on, Mitch. You know you don’t mean that. We’re good together, right? Okay, you’re not ready to do the whole bareback thing. You could have just said so! It doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, no matter what that fucking faggot friend of yours says! Sam’s just jealous that you’re with me. You have to know that! Now stop this shit and get back in the fucking bed. It’s Christmas Eve!”
“Yeah?” Mitch didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did it stayed lost for a while. “So what did you get me for Christmas, Todd? You sure didn’t walk in here with a gift. What if I want to fuck your ass for Christmas, huh? What if I tell you I’m okay with you fucking me bareback as long as I can do it to you first? Because that’s the deal, babe. Anything you want to do to me because it’s Christmas, I get to do to you first. So roll over, big boy. Let me at that hot ass of yours.”
Todd shook his head, clutching his clothes to his chest like they were a teddy bear. “You don’t mean that, babe. Shit, you know I don’t do that. And neither do you. You like being stuffed full of cock. It’s your thing. You don’t want to fuck me, and you know it.”
Mitch rolled his eyes and turned away, opening the top drawer of his dresser and pulling out a pair of underwear. He stepped into the boxer-briefs and pulled them up, then turned back to the bed and Todd. “How would you know what I want? You for damned sure never asked. And I think you’d really better get dressed now, or do I need to call the police to have you removed? I’m sure they have enough domestic disturbance calls already, but what’s one more? Are you even out at work? I know you said you were, but now that I think about it, you’ve never introduced me to another cop as your boyfriend.”
The suddenly panicked expression on Todd’s face answered the question better than any words could have done, and Mitch groaned silently at what a fool he’d been.
“We could have been good together,” Todd announced, his voice more of a snarl than anything else. “It didn’t have to be like this. Fuck, everything would be fine if you weren’t such a fucking pansy. Asshole. Good luck finding anyone to believe you if you start spreading your lies about me being a fucking fag.”
“I don’t need to say anything,” Mitch said with as much dignity as he could muster while standing there in his underwear with the imprint of Todd’s teeth still throbbing on his shoulder. “As long as you leave and never come back, I have no intention of outing you to anyone. Just pretend we never met; how about that?”
Todd glared. “No fucking problem. And Merry fucking Christmas, you gay piece of shit.”
Mitch stood there in his bedroom and stared at the open door Todd had just stormed through, his eyes wide as he wondered how he had ever thought he and Todd had a relationship, much less a loving one. He heard the front door slam closed hard enough to rattle the bedroom window, then sank to his knees, the tears that had threatened earlier finally making their appearance.
He didn’t notice the passage of time. He just knelt there and sobbed silently, his chest heaving with the sounds he couldn’t get out. Then, somehow, Sam was there, and Mitch felt arms around him, holding him, providing comfort, and the raw, hoarse cries finally broke free.
“I thought I loved him,” Mitch gasped a while later, still in Sam’s arms, though by then he was holding on, not merely being held. “I really thought I loved him. God, what’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” Sam answered, his lips moving just enough against Mitch’s hair that Mitch felt it. “There’s nothing wrong with you, puffalump. Toad wasn’t right for you, is all. But you’ll find someone who is one day, and he’ll know he’s the luckiest son of a bitch who ever lived.”
Mitch barked a small laugh at that. “I don’t think so. I doubt I could ever fall for someone who thought that little of his own mother.”
Sam’s answering chuckle was muted. “Okay. No guys who don’t love their mamas. Got it. Now, do you think we could get up off the floor? I’m not opposed to kneeling, but I usually prefer it to involve fluids other than tears and snot.”
God, Sam was good for him. Mitch couldn’t deny that. He would have been doing something other than laughing right then if it weren’t for Sam. “Sorry,” he said as he struggled to his feet, somehow keeping his hold on his best friend. “I didn’t mean to slime you.”
Sam shrugged. “If that’s the worst thing that happens to me this year, I figure I’m doing okay. Why don’t you go have a shower? It’ll help with the sinus congestion. I’ll take care of things out here.” He grinned. “I’ll even put the leftover food away before it turns into a bacterial paradise.”
Mitch spent more time in the shower than he’d expected to, mostly because he couldn’t seem to get clean. At least, he didn’t feel clean, even after what had to be twenty-five minutes with his preferred shower gel and the hottest water he could stand. He’d probably expelled a gallon of mucus too.
He spent a fair amount of that time thanking God for not letting him forget about condoms, even while he soaped himself repeatedly. He didn’t want any part of Todd still inside him after what had happened.
Eventually the water started to go cool, and Mitch had to stop washing. He still felt dirty, though. He followed up the shower with a long and thorough rubdown with isopropyl alcohol. It stung a little, but it helped. Even though Mitch knew he was being ridiculous, he felt better with his skin disinfected.
By the time he left the bathroom, his bedroom had been put to rights. The clothes he’d discarded so easily during the mad fumble toward the bed with Todd were gone, and the sheets had been changed to the blue striped set that had been in the dryer. When Mitch focused, he could hear the washer in his kitchen running.
A pair of flannel pajamas he’d never seen before was laid out on the bed, and Mitch dropped the towel he’d wrapped around his hips, letting it fall in a damp tangle as he pulled the new pajamas over his nakedness. Unlike most new flannel, the pajamas felt soft and fluffy against his skin, and Mitch smiled just a little. It was obvious that Sam had left the pajamas there for him, but Mitch knew they weren’t Sam’s. They were too big to be Sam’s.
“Sorry.” Mitch turned toward the door in response to Sam’s voice, only to see Sam smiling a bit sheepishly there. “Those were your Christmas present. I even wrapped the box up all nice and pretty, but I figured… you know, after everything that happened, I thought it would just be mean to make you tear through wrapping paper and stuff. How are you feeling?”
For whatever reason, Mitch found himself answering honestly. Then again, he and Sam had seen each other through all sorts of bad times. Some had been truly bad, while others had been just uncomfortable or simply annoying. Mitch had no reason to lie, and he didn’t.
“I…. Fragile, I guess,” he said. “Stupid too. And lucky that I found out what you apparently knew all along, before it was too late.” He blinked away a few new tears. “How could I not see what he was? I was right there for three months, and I never even suspected that he was such a… I don’t know how to even say it. ‘Douchebag’ would be an insult to douchebags everywhere.”
His attempt at a joke seemed to work because Sam laughed for just a second or two. Then Sam crossed the room and slung one arm over Mitch’s shoulders. It was only then that Mitch realized Sam was in plaid pajama pants and a T-shirt.
“It would,” Sam agreed. “And we wouldn’t want you to offend the douchebags of the world. They might stop buying your magazine.”
Mitch tried not to laugh but failed. “Hey! No dissing the people who pay my salary!” But thank God for Sam. Mitch had a sneaking suspicion that he’d still be a sobbing heap on the floor if Sam hadn’t shown up to look after him. “Thanks, Sam. For everything, but especially for the jammies. They’re really comfy.”
Sam smiled, his arm tightening around Mitch’s shoulders in a way that felt really, really good. Like Mitch wasn’t as alone as he’d felt earlier. “I washed them a few times,” Sam said quietly. “Flannel usually shrinks, and it can feel rough when it’s new, so I washed them and used an ass-load of fabric softener. I wanted you to actually wear them, and I know how sensitive your skin can be. Now, let’s get you into bed, okay? It’s been a rough day. If you’re not exhausted, you should be.”
Mitch tried to say he wasn’t tired, but instead of words to that effect, a yawn left him. Then another. “You may be right,” he finally managed, and Sam nodded.
“I’d be surprised if I weren’t,” Sam said, pulling the sheets and blankets back from the side of the bed Mitch had thought of as Todd’s. “I figure you’re wrecked by now, emotionally and physically. So, in you go.”
Mitch bit his lip, staring at the expanse of blue-striped cotton. “I usually sleep on the other side.”
Sam shrugged and pushed Mitch toward the mattress. “All the more reason to sleep on this side tonight. I didn’t hear everything that went on, but I heard enough. Remember, my bedroom is right above yours. I don’t want you having nightmares about Toad, and maybe sleeping on this side will help.”
Mitch doubted it, but he let Sam get him settled on the wrong side of the bed anyway. “Sam?” he said as Sam stepped back and started to turn toward the bedroom door. “Thank you. For everything.”
“Whatever you need, Mitch,” Sam replied, a small, wistful-looking smile on his lips. “You know that, right? Whatever you need. Anytime.”
Mitch swallowed the lump in his throat, then sat up. “I…. Look. I know this is going to sound weird, but… do you think you could maybe stay here tonight? I just don’t want…. I don’t know. I don’t think I can sleep if I’m alone.”
Sam’s smile grew just a bit, and he nodded before flipping the switch for the overhead light. “Not a problem,” Sam said, the bed dipping beside Mitch as Sam climbed in. “You’re not alone at all. Now come here, puffalump. I have a feeling you need to be held tonight.”
Mitch hadn’t even considered that, but once Sam put the thought in his head, Mitch knew it was the truth. He really did need to be held, even if it was just by his best friend.
“Thanks, Sam,” Mitch murmured as he turned onto his side and shifted closer. “Just so you know, I… really thought he was someone special, but I guess not.”
Sam sighed. “There’s someone out there for you. I know there is. There’s even this old saying. ‘When life closes one door, it opens another.’ There’s another door out there for you, puffalump. It’s just a question of finding it.”
“I’m not sure I believe that,” Mitch whispered, “but thanks, Sam.”
Sam’s arm wrapped around him, dragging him up against that slender body, and Mitch relaxed into that hold. His cheek rested on Sam’s chest, and he breathed a soft sigh of relief. Then Sam’s fingers started carding through his hair, and the action was regular enough, soothing enough, that Mitch drifted off without a single worry. Sam had his back, just like Sam always did, and that was more than enough.