"Home For Christmas"
Was it better to be alone at Christmas? Kerry glanced around the darkened room. There was no Christmas tree, and there were no carols on the stereo. John had insisted on both last year, but he'd moved out months ago. The place still felt strangely empty without him.
She touched the tiny wrapped package in her coat pocket. John had pressed it into her hands as she was leaving work. She'd been on her way, somewhat reluctantly, to breakfast with the Santa syndicate when he'd caught up to her. A quick "Merry Christmas, Kerry", a kiss on the cheek, and he was gone, leaving her pleasantly flustered.
Her "date" had been agreeable enough, even handsome. Despite his efforts, though, he was dull, and her mind wandered. Even if his conversation had been scintillating, she doubted if she'd have been able to forget the circumstances of their meeting. He was a patient, and she'd overseen his treatment -- treatment with rectal suppositories. No, the man was *not* a candidate for a relationship. Still, it was kind of him to take her to breakfast on Christmas morning, and she was glad to have the company, glad to put off her return to the too-quiet home.
Of course she had friends, and she'd received several invitations. She'd declined them all. Christmas was a time for family, and a time for happiness. This was her second Christmas without her adoptive parents. The first had been extremely difficult, but she found her memories seemed less disturbing with time.
Carter had been her lifeline the year before, jollying her out of her black mood. He'd insisted on putting up garish decorations, singing along with Christmas albums, and had even made a truly vile alcoholic punch, which Kerry had somehow managed to choke down. She withdrew the present from her pocket and removed her coat. After a moment's hesitation, she put it back on.
Carter surveyed the tree with satisfaction. This was his first Christmas truly on his own, and in his own apartment -- with no roommate, no girlfriend -- but he was determined to be cheerful. His family didn't have Christmas together anymore, but he'd kept up the tradition of cutting a tree from their own land. It didn't matter if there was no one to enjoy it with him -- he had the memory of his brother for company. They'd so loved Christmas when they were young, before the illness overcame Bobby. Maybe one day, John thought, he'd have a family of his own, and then he'd be able to recreate that excitement. One day. In the meantime, he did have friends and he had
his work. They were usually enough.
Kerry hesitated outside his door. She was fairly certain he'd avoid his family again this year, but would he be alone? His relationship with Elaine, short-lived as it was, had further distanced him from his grandparents, but maybe his sister was in town, or he'd gone to visit friends. Finally, she knocked, and was pleased to be answered by an impulsive hug.
He didn't ask why she'd come over, but did press her a little for details of her supposed Santa orgy. She, in turn, teased him about his recent blind date with another of Chuny's friends. "Chuny's not going to rest until you're settled down, you know. She's worried that you'll cave in to Lucy one of these days." She narrowed her eyes, playfully daring John to recall his and Lucy's fairly public tryst.
John looked at her sharply. He was still annoyed and embarrassed about that indiscretion. Kerry had tactfully remained silent about the encounter at work, but had harangued him mercilessly at home, and he hadn't forgotten it. He'd since kept a very public, very proper distance from Lucy, but imagined Kerry's eyes on them when they did happen to run into each other.
There was a slightly tense silence, which Kerry broke. "Why don't we open our presents?"
The awkwardness forgotten, Carter set to gleefully unwrapping Kerry's present -- his own copy of one of her import CDs. They shared a slightly eccentric taste in music, as Kerry had discovered when she'd finally consented to let him use the stereo.
John's gift to her left her momentarily speechless -- an antique cameo brooch. She'd once confided in him about the loss of her adoptive mother's jewelry in a burglary, and her disappointment at losing a particular brooch of great sentimental value. Of course this one wasn't the same, but she was touched that he'd remembered, and delighted that he'd given her such a lovely item.
As always in such moments, she tried to push him away. "Is this from a colleague, or from my former tenant?" she asked, not looking up at him.
And, as nearly always happened, he refused to be pushed. "It's from your friend", he said gently, and they smiled at each other for a brief moment. Then he rubbed his hands together briskly. "Now...I made some of that punch you liked so much last year..."
Kerry looked apprehensively at what John had brought her. Debating the best way to get through drinking the stuff, she at last decided that one gulp was the least painless option. What in God's name did he put in this drink, anyway? The tastes she seemed to decipher, as her teeth started to ache and her stomach knotted, were raspberry jam and vodka. Suppressing a shudder, she set the empty cup down and beamed. "It's every bit as good as I remembered it, John."
Pleased, he fairly snatched the cup back from her to refill it. Much to Kerry's relief, however, he was interrupted by the doorbell. She considered accidentally knocking the pitcher over while he was enroute to the door, but decided instead that the still-unseen visitor shouldn't be denied the particular pleasure of the punch. Still smiling at the thought, she turned to see whom John had escorted in, and humor vanished. "Doug," she said flatly.
"Kerry." Doug returned her curt nod, and an uncomfortable silence descended.
This had to be difficult for John, Kerry realized. She knew he and Doug had kept in close touch over the months -- her phone bills had attested to that -- but she and John hadn't discussed it. The few times she'd answered a call from Doug, she'd swallowed her enmity and had coolly, politely, taken down a message. That's what she'd do now -- she'd be polite and say goodbye quickly. John hated to see conflict between people he cared about, and it would upset him deeply to see bitterness between Kerry and Doug.
After some desultory small talk, Kerry made an excuse about being expected at Jeannie's, and made her way to the door. She paused to hug John, and whispered in his ear, "Be careful this time…okay?" He nodded, at a loss for words, and closed the door behind her.
John turned to see Doug, eyes closed, sprawled on the couch. "You know," Doug said, "that she's gone out to write 'Surrender Dorothy' in the air with her broomstick, or she's finding small animals to sacrifice for her cauldron. I don't know how you put up with her all those months you lived with her."
"Because I like her." John knew Doug would never cease to hold a grudge against Kerry, so he'd long since given up trying to argue against the insults. He decided, instead, to talk about what was really upsetting Doug. "So...how did it go?"
"They're beautiful. All three of them," Doug said with a small smile, which vanished as he continued. "I know I've only been gone a few months, but I felt like a stranger. The house looked...like I'd never been there. Except for the girls -- they're proof, I guess." He sipped the punch Kerry had left, and stared absently at the carpet.
"They are. And they have your last name, remember." John tried desperately to find something, anything positive to salvage. "You'll work something out, you know." He flopped down onto the couch beside Doug.
"About the girls, yes. About us, no." Doug shook his head. "Carol and I...we've...used each other up, in a way. Maybe we've been through too much." He paused, refilling his drink. "There's nothing left. She told me that months ago. And you know, I must have believed it, because I didn't come back."
"But now you have."
"Now I have. But not for Carol. For Tess, for Kate." Not trusting himself to look up, he added, "For you."
The subject they'd been avoiding over the past couple of days was finally out in the open. Doug wasn't back in the permanent sense of the word. He was visiting, and he'd return to Seattle in a few days...maybe alone, maybe not. He was staying with John, and the unspoken issue had hung in the air between them, making their conversations a little clumsy, their sleeping arrangements -- Doug was on the couch -- a little self-conscious. They had yet to either end or rekindle their on-off relationship, but Doug had hinted before the visit that he wanted John back.
What had spurred him to action were the calls from John's sister, Barbara. They'd become friends during Doug's relationship with John, and she provided him with a no-nonsense interpretation of events in Chicago. She told him that John was being an idiot, letting himself be manipulated by an older woman, yet again. That John's parents -- unbeknownst to him -- paid her off, so she'd leave the country. That his grandparents were planning an all-out assault to get him to quit medicine next year, when his residency finished. That Doug should get off his ass and sort out the mess he'd left in Chicago. That John still loved him. That Doug had better not hurt her brother again.
John, for his part, had been unwilling to give Doug an answer -- unwilling to interfere in any possible reconciliation between Doug and Carol. If there was any chance that they wanted to work out their differences, they deserved it. On a more selfish level, he had also wanted to be certain that he wasn't Doug's second choice, and a small, guilty part of him was reassured by Doug's protestations that the relationship with Carol was over -- for good this time. The visit this morning was confirmation of this, and was a relief to all of them. Now they could start getting on with their lives. Doug had been providing solid financial support, and would now confirm visitation plans with the children, Carol could move on emotionally at last, and John could...what, exactly? Go back into a relationship with Doug -- again -- and be constantly uncertain, insecure, wondering if it would last this time?
"If I'd asked, would you have come with me?" Doug asked quietly.
The question reverberated in John's mind. He'd asked it of himself many times over the previous months. His emotions said yes, of course he would have. Logic and pride demanded that he be a little more cautious. He gave the only answer he could. "You didn't ask."
"I'm asking now."
A kiss between his shoulder blades as his shirt was slipped off. "I love you". The scrape of a stubbled chin moving across his chest. "I love you." The words became stronger, more confident as the touches grew more insistent. John had waited so long to feel Doug's skin against his, and to hear him say those words. Could he trust him, though? Could he trust that this time, Doug wouldn't tell him that the words were a lie, that the touches were a mistake?
Strong fingers moved up his thigh, a warm tongue played along his groin, teasing him. Cold gel jolted him before the heat, the pressure of penetration. He whimpered, asking for and receiving more -- giving more -- before they reached completion, and lay exhausted. Another, once again gentle, kiss on his collarbone. "I love you." John also sensed the words that weren't spoken, but were implied. Love me. Trust me. Stay with me.
He took Doug's face in his hands. "I love you, too." I'll trust you again. Don't let me down.