Prologue: Last Christmas

 

IT WAS one of the worst fights they’d had in years. In fact, it had almost come to blows. During Christmas at their mother’s house, Tyler Lang and his twin brother, Averell, got into it loud and angry over Crowley Fredericks. Not in the way the brothers had gotten into it over Iris Greene in the tenth grade. This wasn’t about lust. Well, actually, it was almost entirely about lust—but on boneheaded Averell’s side and not Tyler’s. Shy, overweight Crowley was Tyler’s best friend, and that made Tyler defender of his, well, not honor, but yes, honor.

The brothers had bickered heatedly in Tyler’s room as Crowley lay passed out on the bed from hunger or from being seduced by a penniless ne’er-do-well like Rell who was never going anywhere and wasn’t near good enough for Crowley, or probably both.

The fight had proceeded as one would imagine—insults and threats and accusations and interrogations and the kinds of low blows only brothers could deliver. But Rell had done something Tyler could never have predicted with a million crystal balls specifically tuned to treachery. He’d invoked the name of David Griffith.

“Hey, Tyler? Who’s David?”

Who’s David?

Who’s David?

David wasn’t in any way, shape, or form relevant to their conversation—nay, the war they waged. More than that, he was none of Rell’s business!

Tyler stared in disbelief at his brother. Never mind all the insults and pettiness that had come before this moment. Never mind Averell’s:

You’re pretentious. And an asshole. And Crowley doesn’t even like you.

Or his:

You may think you’re so cultured, so underground. Oh, you befriended “the fat kid”—except that’s the problem, Tyler. You see him that way.

Or his:

I swear to God, Tyler, I’m going to find whatever website you’re getting these stupid insults from, and I’m going to shove it right up your ass.

No, his twin had actually trespassed into David Town. Didn’t Rell realize he couldn’t just lob a conversational grenade like that? There were rules to verbal sparring—brotherly or not—and Who’s David? was a veritable war crime, like shooting the field medic or some other barbarian nonsense.

David Griffith had nothing (less than nothing even) to do with the fact that Rell was… doing things with Tyler’s best friend. Besides, goddammit, Tyler had the moral high ground in this argument!

“Cretin.” It was a weak excuse for a comeback, but Tyler’s brain had snap-crackle-and-popped its way to a power surge.

“Oh, you’re not afraid to dish out all the insults when you think you’re winning, but you can’t take a simple question?”

Simple.

Simple. Rell was short-circuiting his brain. Didn’t he realize that? Was that why he was doing it? Purposely trying to make Tyler implode?

Tyler, who had been unconsciously backing toward the door, cut his brother with a sidelong glance. “David is no one. But Crowley? Crowley is my best friend, and you damn well better know what you’re doing, Rell.”

“Or what?”

“Or….” Tyler could as easily complete the threat as he could explain David.

 

 

Chapter One: Last Christmas Minus Two Weeks

 

DATE.

Tyler Lang had a date.

With that wall of muscle, that block of gym-toned abs, that… jock.

Tyler Lang had a date with a jock, who was also a man, but never mind that fact for a second! Jock. As in played sports that were not kickball and watched sports that were not, again, kickball. He was probably an idiot because all jocks were idiots and…. Why hadn’t Tyler said no? Two simple letters and an even simpler syllable. No! It had been Tyler’s first word. But with David Griffith smiling that impossible smile at him, his brain went pbbt.

Tyler ran a hand through his hair, mussing his styled undercut. He barely noticed.

“Is there a way out of this, Xondee?” he asked his former girlfriend/coworker/sometimes frenemy’s reflection in the mirror. She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, her legs crossed, somehow balancing all that gorgeous bottom with perfect grace. “Is there a way out of this?”

He could feign illness… or fake his own death. That was a reasonable thing to do, right? Death-fakery.

 

Dear Ms. Lang <stop> Your favorite son is dead <stop> The shame of accidentally accepting a jock’s invite caused Tyler’s untimely demise <stop> Don’t give his stuff to Rell. <stop>

 

Tyler had strict instructions in his In Case of Death folder that notifications were to be sent via telegram and funeral proceedings held off until it was raining. There was no way he was going to be announced as deaders on Twitter. And sunny funerals weren’t for him. If that wasn’t possible, he wanted his ashes to be compressed into a diamond or recycled into a tree. Something cool.

Okay, no—death-fakery wasn’t going to work. And besides, how was he going to let David know he was sick when they hadn’t exchanged phone numbers? God friggin’ crap for crap.

“Why don’t you just go by his apartment, tell him you’re not jocksexual, and, I dunno, meet up with me and DJ Raiz for some Star Pizza. I think the Winter Sounds might be playing tonight.”

His heart lurched at that. Star Pizza and the Winter Sounds. He could practically hear Patrick Keenan imploring him: Go, take the car and drive…. Except that song was about that Christmas town, McAdenville, and not about escaping one’s shameful jock date.

“Did I tell you he gave me a gift card to—”

“Target,” she lamented with him, pronouncing the name Tar-zhey, as if it were an art district macaron bakery and not a Big Box Store full of mass-produced crap.

“I can’t go.”

“Tyler,” she said calmly, staring down at her nails. “Go or don’t go, but please shut up about it. You’re boring me out.”

 

 

“HEY, YOU’RE just in time,” David Griffith said brightly as he pulled back the door. Seemed someone was feeling exactly one hundred and eighty degrees from Tyler’s feels. Tyler shifted awkwardly in the doorway, trying to force the words, Hey, so I’m not actually into doods, and if I was, your whole jock shtick isn’t going to work for me, past his lips. They wouldn’t come. It was the shirt. Who wore shirts that tight? He could be shirtless for all the good the thin fabric covering his hard chest was doing. It was distracting. “The burgers are hot, the beer’s cold, and I’ve got cable.”

“I don’t watch television.”

The words dropped like a stone between them, and for a second, David seemed lost as how to reply. Who didn’t watch television? Well, Tyler. Tyler didn’t watch television. Fuck. This was a mistake. He started to take a step back and ended up almost knocking into David’s neighbor—a little person—who was walking down the hall to her apartment. She exclaimed loudly, “Jesus, do you fucking watch where you’re going?”

It was enough to make Tyler freeze in place.

“That’s Sara. She’s nice,” David said.

Oh yeah, she seemed like the true embodiment of joy. Tyler turned to smile and wave, but she’d already disappeared.

“Well, get in here, then.” As Tyler walked forward, David continued, “So, what do you drink?”

“Mint juleps,” he replied, looking around the living room so he’d stop staring at David’s chestal-region. With a controlled breath, he forced himself to mindfully take in his surroundings. One wall was lined with DVDs, a huge television mounted in the middle of them like some sort of electronics god; the other wall was floor-to-ceiling CDs, no vinyl, of course. (Who had CDs? CDs weren’t even retro enough to be cool.) Then there was the wall nearest Tyler. Books. Lots of books. He moved toward them.

“Uh, I think we went through all the liquor at the last party. But the beer’s cold, like I said.”

“I only drink microbrews you probably haven’t….” Tyler only just managed to stop his distracted mouth from saying you probably haven’t heard of.

“I’ve got Budweiser.”

“I’ll take water.”

Tyler scanned the shelves in front of him, expecting—and finding—some sort of history-of-sports book. Quite a few of them, actually. But that was only one section of the shelving. David had a sizeable collection of fiction, classics and best sellers, a small section of graphic novels, and most surprising, philosophy. Tons of philosophy. Multiple copies of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

“Uh, what did you major in?” Tyler asked slowly. If David said philosophy, Tyler was going to turn around and walk out of this apartment. It would break the magic spell.

“Physical education and sports medicine,” David called from the kitchen.

Yep, that sounded about right. Because the towering block of marble was made to be a gym teacher.

“Better practice those whistle blows,” Tyler muttered to himself, turning away from the evidence that there was more to David than met the eye.

“But I’m working for my father right now. Here’s your water.” He reappeared in the living room and handed the glass to Tyler, who took it and allowed himself to be escorted over to the couch. “What about you? I mean, we met in political science.”

“Right. Yes. But no. I mean, I’m still sort of….” Figuring out if he wanted to go back to school or not. “BA in Journalism.”

“Really?”

Tyler didn’t like the surprise in David’s voice. He didn’t get to be surprised about Tyler’s life choices and schooling. “Yes, really.”

“No, I just mean that’s really cool. Are you going to be a reporter?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to?”

“I don’t know. I have an internship at Sound Magazine, so… maybe.”

The internship was fun. They didn’t let him write any articles, but he had handed coffee to almost all of his favorite columnists. But his stint there was almost up, so then what? He should have been blogging about what it was like to have an internship at Sound Magazine.

“We can eat any time you want,” David offered. “Everything’s ready to go.”

That was exactly what he wanted to hear. Tyler, who had been getting far too comfortable on that sofa cushion, practically sprang up. “Yes. Food.”

The burgers were delicious, which didn’t surprise Tyler in the least. In his mind he had a yes/no checklist about David. Things that fit—that the handsome jock could make burgers: yes. That seemed like the sort of thing meatheads would be able to do. That he had a wall of books that weren’t coated in an inch of dust: No. Sports medicine? Yes. Working for Daddy? Sure. At least until he worked on those whistle drills. That he had a friggin’ dimple when he smiled? Of course. Of course he did.

Tyler looked anywhere but at David while he ate, his gaze ultimately landing on the Christmas tree. He munched and squinted at the starbursts of color. He shouldn’t have said that thing about television.

“I’m glad you’re here, Tyler.”

Nope. Don’t look. Keep squinting at the tree.

“And I’m glad you feel the same way I do,” David continued.

Tyler swallowed his last bite of burger. Now or never. “I’m sorry, you know. I really am. I should have said absolutely no way in hell when you asked me to come over. I shouldn’t be here.”

Depending on how Tyler squinted, the shape of the starburst changed. Maybe he needed his prescription updated.

The silence dragged and he wished he could say it was burger bits and not guilt gnawing at his insides. He glanced over at David who… was grinning?

“Wow, okay, well, you wouldn’t have had to say it quite so emphatically.”

“You’re a-a jock.” Knocked off his axis by that grin… those lips…. Tyler stumbled over his words.

David studied Tyler with quiet bemusement and lifted one dark eyebrow.

“I have no idea why you’re smiling.”

“Because you make me smile,” David replied.

“But I’m rejecting you. Wait, you got that part, right?”

“Sure.”

“How many concussions have you had in your life?” Tyler asked.

“I promise. My brain’s totally intact. It’s just”—he picked up Tyler’s hand and gave it a squeeze—“all you’ve said so far is that I’m a jock.”

Holy raccoon tails, Batman! What the hell was happening to him? David’s large, warm hand on his was sending a roil of sensation through Tyler’s gut. A good roil of sensation. As opposed to, you know, emergency bathroom situations.

“D-do you have something else you prefer?” Tyler asked, telling himself he was going to leave his hand there just a second longer. “Sports enthusiast or something?”

“What do you call me to your friends?”

“David Griffith, of course.”

David cocked his head slightly, but it was all the accusation necessary to make Tyler crack.

“Well, I have names for your ilk….” Oh God. David had started to run his thumb along the side of Tyler’s hand and waves of… really pleasurable… sensations welled. “A jock, a cliché, a self-absorbed Abercrombie Broseph without two brain cells to rub together….” And then it came back to him. He yanked his hand away. “Jason Fucking Unger!”

“What?” The amusement left David’s face and confusion took hold. There! That was the dumb jock look he’d been expecting to see all evening.

“Why in the hell did you ask me out?” Tyler demanded.

“Wait, what?”

“You stand there in the hall with your nice smile and your pretty eyes, but you’re friends with Jason Unger.”

“Unger was my teammate.”

“Jason Unger is a pretentious prick fuck who took one look—seriously, one single look—at my friend Crowley, who is amazing, brilliant at the violin, super kind, and intelligent, and honestly, should be hosting concerts of his own—”

“I think you lost the point there, Tyler,” David said quietly.

“Unger took one look at Crowley, who had gotten up the courage to ask him out, and decided he was ‘too fat’ to date.”

“I’m sorry that happened to your friend.”

“You…. Well…. You should be!”

“Unger isn’t my friend, though.”

Tyler straightened. “Well… that’s good.”

“So that’s why you don’t want to go out?”

“Well, not entirely.”

“So, what, then?”

“We’re nothing alike,” Tyler said quickly. “And I’m… not sure….” He held up his hands in surrender. “I ruined that holding hands thing and I regret that now because it felt really good, but I’m sort of rejecting you, so—”

“Only sort of?” David asked and offered his upturned palm, which Tyler couldn’t decide whether to take or leave.

“Look. I’m only going to say this once, because if anyone asks me about this conversation, I’m going to deny it and say all your head-banging and concussions and steroid use has gotten to your brain cells.”

“I don’t—”

“I don’t know if I’m gay.”

“You don’t know if you’re gay?”

Tyler took a deep, steadying breath. “I’ve never experienced it.”

“‘Gayness’?”

“Right.”

“It’s not a glitter sensation that takes you over, Tyler.”

“I’ve always enjoyed sex with girls.”

“All right.”

“But… you’re not exactly the first guy I thought was good-looking.”

“Aesthetic appreciation isn’t—”

Gah! You aren’t supposed to talk like that.”

“Ah, you want me to dumb it down for you?”

“Yes,” Tyler said. “Because this conversation isn’t awkward enough without you challenging my preconceived notions about you.”

“Have you had sex with a guy?”

“No.”

“Have you wanted to?”

“Hard to answer. Maybe? I don’t know.”

“Tyler, why are you here? No straight guy ‘accidentally’ goes on a date with another dude. You’re not that polite. Sorry, but you aren’t.”

“I’m not,” Tyler agreed.

“All right,” David said. “So far your reasons for not wanting to be here are: I’m a jock, which you asked and I prefer ‘athlete.’ Then there’s me being friends with Jason Unger—which I’m not—and you don’t want to be here because you might have the occasional interest in men, which is sort of a good prerequisite for dating another male. Anything else?”

Tyler sighed. “Really it’s just we have absolutely nothing in common.”

“Right.”

“You like sports and mainstream beers and you get your fashion at, I’m guessing, Old Navy? Or Target, Walmart, or K-Mart when you’re broke.”

David shrugged. “And?”

“And… I don’t.”

“Tyler, look man, I like you. But if you don’t want to be here, you should go. You’ll have to take your hand back, though.”

Tyler looked down. Jesus! When had that happened? Damn sentient hand, moving into David’s palm without his permission. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Okay, fine. If he couldn’t get out of this with direct and sound logic, he would try the irrational. The completely, totally—did he say completely?—irrational. Tyler tightened his grip on David’s hand, leaned forward, and kissed him. But before a full second had passed, David burst out laughing against Tyler’s lips.

Tyler yanked back, heat suffusing his face.

“What?”

“That was the sourest prekiss expression I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s it, I’m leaving.”

“Tyler, you don’t have to go.”

“No sparks. Only laughter. Must leave.”

“No sparks because you looked like you were in physical pain and made me laugh. Why don’t you be a little more romantic about it?”

“Because I….” Don’t know what in the hell I’m doing. It was probably the first time in his life he really could say that. He’d learned things before. There had been a time when he hadn’t known how to knit, when he hadn’t known how to make gourmet chocolates, when he hadn’t known how to use a soldering iron—but those were just learning opportunities. But with this? He felt like he was standing out naked on the corner with only mistletoe to cover his bits.

“More like this.”

The second kiss was what Tyler would have called sweet if the word had been in his vocabulary. David’s lips were warm, soft, giving, and for a moment the kiss lingered on that edge of innocent, like a snowflake dancing through the sky. Then the world tipped and Tyler’s hands were in David’s hair and David was drawing him closer and, motherfuckinggod, they were kissing. Hard, searching lips, taking and giving, and it took him way too long to realize what he was doing. In fact, he might not have ever realized it if they hadn’t needed to breathe like humans do. It took a long moment for rational thought to come back to Tyler.

“I… I need to pee.”

It was a lie. It was such a lie. A combustible-pants-burning-everywhere lie! He stood quickly and stumbled toward the hall, hoping he was heading for the bathroom. It was an apartment, not a mansion—it wasn’t like he wouldn’t find it eventually. But as he walked down the hall, trying to form an excuse for getting the hell out of there before he went back to sucking David’s face off, he saw something much better than the bathroom and he grabbed his opportunity for escape.