Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Haunted Christmas

Title:  The Haunted Christmas
Authors:  Natasha and Harmony
Holiday Challenge Prompt:  Sleigh
Characters:  Jake/Seth, Tilden/Luke/Mike

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I strung the lights across the mantle. We were back in the Ryder house, and even though I'd more or less made peace with the place, it still  looked a little spooky, even without the coffins, gravestones, and assorted skeletons.

Who’s idea had it been to decorate the house for Christmas? I couldn’t remember. And more to the point, why had I agreed to help? It was probably a mental lapse after the Halloween incident, plus Jake had wanted me to help. Right now I wanted to stay on the Jake’s good side. At least my butt had stopped hurting. Jake had been none too happy with my failed attempt at getting back at Pauley. No, sir, he hadn’t.  Of course, it hadn't helped that I'd skipped class to do it.

This room was the Victorian Christmas room. Heavy velvet ribbon hung elegantly draped over the fir’s branches, and shimmering glass bulbs hung from every limb. I still needed to string the popcorn for the tree, and Jake had made popcorn balls. A few of those had made it to the tree; the ones we didn’t eat.


I spun around and came face to face with Pauley and his friend Drake.  “Shit, Pauley! I thought you and Drake weren’t coming later. And it’s the wrong holiday for that anyway. I’ve had enough frights to last until next year.”

“Oh, Seth, my man, still all pouty over our little Halloween fun. I still can’t believe you fell through the floor.” Pauley broke into peals of laughter.

“Oh, shut up.” I turned back towards the tree. This was one of those stories that was going to live in infamy. Whatever had possessed me to tell Pauley all about my misadventure?  No doubt another mental lapse.

“Baby Seth can’t take a little teasing,” Drake said.

Pauley had known Drake for ages; they’d gone to kindergarden together or something. I didn’t think they were great friends, but they lived on the same floor in the dorm, and Drake had broken up with his long term girlfriend in October. Pauley, in his usual generous way, had included Drake in his activities to cheer him up. I hadn't gotten to know him very well during the haunted house project, but ever since Pauley had told him about our prank war and my falling into the secret passage, he hadn't let up making stupid jokes at my expense.  I didn't blame his girlfriend for dumping him. How Pauley could tolerate him was beyond me.  “For old times’ sake,” Pauley had said when I’d come close to throttling Drake after one too many cracks about creaking coffin lids and moaning ghosts.

“Boys, I thought Christmas was the holiday of peace and good will to all men.”

I peered into the gloom. Even in the middle of the day with all the lights turned on, people could hide in the shadows of this house. Behind Pauley in a murky corner stood three men that I didn’t recognize.

“Uh, sorry,” Pauley said, “I forgot to introduce our new help. “This is Tilden Blake and his two partners, Mike Stoller and Luke Griffith. Tilden’s a relative of Aunt Aetna and comes out to visit every five years or so. I’ve never quite figured out the genealogy.”

“I’m her cousin.” Tilden stepped forward into the brighter light of the Christmas tree bulbs. “You must be Seth. Pauley was telling me all about you, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Jake. We haven’t seen each other for almost ten years.”

I did a double take when Tilden smiled and his eyes turned a near violet shade. That was the guy on Meet Your Mate. Why hadn’t Pauley warned me, and what about Jake? He had to know he had a distant relative on TV, no matter how distant. Jake had never told me that he had another relative who was a top, and how could he not know? The guy advertised it on TV. Of course Jake never watched reality TV; he said it was exploitation, and he didn’t know that I was watching it. He thought I was studying.

“Hi, you’re the guys on Meet Your Mate.” I stumbled over the words. "That threesome from Boston."

“Yeah, that’s us,” Mike said with a wide grin. “Hey, don’t worry. We’re not as exciting or wild as the TV show portrays us. Just normal folk, and we’ve only got one top here.”

Yeah, I thought, I’d seen that top in action, and I hoped Jake didn’t get any ideas. Oh, God, what if Jake tells them? No one knew I was a brat, and I preferred it that way. Never mind the secret passage adventure; if Pauley found out Jake spanked me, I'd never live it down.

“So what do you want us to do?” Tilden asked.

“I thought you could turn the undecorated room into Russian Christmas, the one next to the Elvis room,” Pauley said.

“That’s a great combination -- Elvis and Grandfather Frost,” Mike said with a snort. "I can’t wait to seen this. The Snow Maiden dances to ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’”

“Behave.” Tilden ruffled Mike’s hair. “It’ll be fun. It’s better than admiring Aunt Aetna’s snow globes.”

“Please, if I ever see another snow globe...”

“I know, Misha.” Tilden said with an easy laugh. “It was Luke who wanted to see the ones from California.”

“I was trying to be nice,” Luke whined. “How was I to know that her attic was chock full of them?”

“I was only teasing.” Tilden pulled Luke close and kissed his forehead. “She’s eccentric, but I only thought it was fair my family meet my two partners, and she’s lonely. No young people to brighten her day.”

“Sorry," Luke said, scuffing the floor with the toe of his boot.

Tilden said something in a language I didn’t understand, and both young men smiled. “I also wanted to scream after the third commemorative Rose Bowl snow globe. But she’s a relative, and it’s Christmas -- a small sacrifice for family good will.”

I, like all the rest of my adopted family, avoided Aunt Aetna; not only did she have snow globes, but she also had cats, a vicious black tabby with a tattered ear who bit and a tiger striped monster who wailed all the time.

“So where do we find the supplies?” Tilden asked.

“What do you need?” I said, happy for the change of subject. I’d never been around another top besides Jake, and I was nervous when Tilden chided his brat. How was I supposed to behave around him?

“The usual Christmas stuff: lights, ornaments, tinsel, paper, and paints if you have them.  I was hoping to have Luke paint a Russian winter scene to hang on the wall.”

“All the extra supplies are in the basement,” Pauley said. “I know Seth would love to show you the way.”

“Thanks, Pauley,”  I spat. It was more than a month since Halloween, and Pauley was still needling me.

“Gentlemen, is there something I need to know about?” Tilden said, giving Pauley and me a hard stare.

“Nothing,” I mumbled, “follow me.” Damn, did I have a sign on my back saying I was a brat? The only good thing about going down the rickety stairs into the basement was the increased darkness made it impossible for Tilden to see my face. I was sure it was bright red.

As I carried the paints and supplies up the stairs, I tried to keep one eye on the secret passage and the other on any other potential hiding space, expecting Pauley or Drake to drop on us at any second. Well maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing, I thought, huffing up the stairs with a armfuls of painting supplies. Tilden didn’t seem shy about the whole topping thing. He’d probably let Pauley and Drake have it. I chuckled to myself; that would be justice.

Tilden and his partners were off creating some elaborate Russian Christmas scene, or at least I imagined it was elaborate with all the supplies they needed. Somehow I’d ended up trying to finish the Victorian Christmas tree. Thank God it wasn’t the Victorian era, not only did they have a hang up about sex, but they strung cranberries on the tree -- hard, little red berries impenetrable to all needles. I stuck myself with a needle for the fifth time in ten minutes. I cursed as my blood dripped on the popcorn.

“I think blood is the wrong holiday,” Drake leered behind me.

“Why don’t you try stringing these cranberries? I’m surprised the Victorians didn’t all die of lockjaw.” I stuck my finger in my mouth and sucked on the wound.

“The ghosts got them first.” Drake had grabbed the sheet we were using for a tree skirt and threw it over his head. “Whooo, I am the ghost of Christmas tetanus victims.”

“Funny. Will you knock it off?”

“Don’t be such a baby.”

“Shut up, Drake.”

“Is there a problem here?” Tilden was leaning against the door frame, his arms crossed.

“No, no problem.” I recognized that body language and didn’t need a full display of toppishness in front of Drake.

“Cranberries giving you trouble?”

“A little.” I shrugged.

“Drake and I will do them.” Tilden gave Drake a sweet smile and turned back to me. “I understand you’re quite the artist. Luke’s sketched out a mural worthy of the Louvre. I’m sure he’d love the help.”

I fled. Anything to get out from under this top’s gaze. Even when he was smiling, he was intimidating. I wished Jake were here.

Tilden hadn’t been kidding when when he said Luke was making an elaborate mural. The onion domes of a Russian orthodox church rose out of a snow covered steppe. A troika with only the faintest outline of the horses sketched out raced along the road. Away from the village and the church was a woodland scene with wildlife decorating a tree and Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden entertaining guests. Almost nothing had been colored. Both the Russian and English names had been penciled in under the figures and scenes, and Mike was busy cutting out letters.

“With Tilden, it has to be educational even during the Christmas holiday,” Mike muttered.

“Wow, this is cool,” I said, enthralled by the intricate detail. “What can I do?”

“You could start painting the village. Bright colors would be best, especially the church domes,” Luke replied, not looking up from his drawing.

I painted the church roofs first, solid gold, red and gold, and red and green. “We’re going to need more paint," I said when I was about three-fourths done and my supplies were running low. "I can’t make any more gold.”

“Maybe we could go on a shopping trip?” Mike stood and stretched. “If I cut out one more Russian letter, I’m going to go crazy.”

“We could run down to the mall,” I said.

“McDonald’s,” Mike said with enthusiasm. “Tilden’s great, but he’s the food police.”

I laughed. At least Jake didn’t monitor my food intake. I had something to be thankful for. I’d seen Tilden trying to cook on the Thanksgiving program. “What do you have, burnt toast every day?”

“No, Trent cooks,” Luke said as he cleaned his brush.

“Who’s Trent?”

“The third top in the household.” Luke replied.

“Not the big, dark-haired guy?”

“No that’s Milton,” Mike said.

“Three tops. Are you guys nuts?”

“Don’t tell the tops, but it’s kind of cool. There’s always someone there if you want it,” Mike said.

I shook my head. Those two had to be insane, plus Tilden seemed strict. He’d given me one hell of a look each time he’d interrupted my mild spatting, and Tilden didn’t even know I was a brat, at least I hoped he didn’t. “Pauley will loan me his car. I’ll go ask him. You two go talk to Tilden.”

“He’s not an ogre.” Mike laughed.

“No, that would be Milton,” Luke added.

“No, that would be Joshua.”

“Who’s Joshua?” I asked, confused and slightly jealous. I could hardly talk about discipline with Jake, and these two bantered it around with no more care than if they were talking about football scores.” I thought Trent and Milton were the other two tops.”

“They are,” Mike answered. “Joshua’s a family friend.”

“And he -- uh -- tops you?” I asked, wanting to know but not wanting to give away my own brat status.

“Only in an emergency, but he’s like Milton; he can’t breathe without being a top.” Mike shrugged. “You get used to it. What about you?”

“No, nothing like that.” I counted the paint tins, trying to hide my nervousness. “I’m just curious.” Both Luke and Mike were giving me long looks, as if they weren’t believing a word I said. Why not tell them? It’d be fun to compare notes. No, I thought, it’s private. I could see telling Luke. He seemed sweet, or at least the little bit of him I’d seen. Mike was too outgoing, pushy. He’d tell Pauley for sure, and then it would be all over.

The mall was teeming with people. I dropped some spare change in a bell ringer’s red bucket as we entered. I didn’t think a few quarters would go very far, but I felt guilty walking buy those earnest guys and gals with bells without making a small offering. “The art supply store is on the second floor.”

“I need to get some more lights,” Drake said. He'd come along ostensibly to buy more strands of white lights, but I thought the real purpose was to get away from stringing cranberries and to bug Mike and Luke. Their status as brats had become his new target. In the car, he'd kept making oblique references to spanking, and I’d thought Mike was going to throttle him.

“Meet us back here in forty-five minutes, Mike said, pointing at the life size cardboard cutout of a reindeer.

“Will the big bad top swat your butt if you’re late?”

“Oh, shut up. That joke’s getting old,” Mike said. “It seemed you were working hard on those cranberries under his eye.”

Drake gave him the middle finger salute and walked off.

“Is he always such a jerk?” Luke asked when Drake was out of earshot.

“Yeah,” I said, “sometimes worse.”  

Forty-five minutes later we were back at the reindeer, finishing the last of the McDonald’s. “So where’s the charming Drake?” Mike said, stuffing a fistful of fries in his mouth.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Luke elbowed Mike.

“He’s always late," I said. "Give him another five minutes, and if he doesn’t show, he’s probably at the Apple store."

We talked about school, comparing our classes and professors, and other safe neutral topics until Luke pointed out the time. “It’s been ten minutes. We promised Tilden we’d be back by one thirty.”

The two visiting brats followed me to the Apple store. If they’d thought the mall was crowded, the Apple store was impossible. People stood five deep in front of the computers; others were dragging black shirted employees around and talking earnestly about the merits of various iPods. We found Drake fiddling with a silver laptop, shooting the breeze with a fellow computer enthusiast.

“Come on, Drake," I said. "We need to go.”

“Give me a minute, Seth.” Drake turned back to the screen and pointed out something to his new friend.

“Drake, please, we need to get back,” Luke said.

“Baby going to piss in his pants if Daddy gets mad?”

Luke turned crimson, and Mike reached out and put his arm around his partner’s shoulders. “Fuck off, you bastard. You either come right now, or you can find your own ride home.”

“You don’t have the guts.”

“Just watch me.” Mike turned and marched out of the store with Luke and me trailing after him.

“Are we really going to leave him?” I said, unlocking the car doors with the key fob.

“I don’t see why not,” Mike muttered. “I gave him plenty of warning.”

I nodded and climbed in the car. Drake was a jerk, but I’d never have the nerve to strand him at the mall. Instead I’d stay and wait for him and then be in trouble for getting back late. Mike didn’t lack nerve.

“Hey, you’re back. I was beginning to think you were purchasing paint by way of Kamchatka,” Tilden said.”Did you find what you needed?”

Luke nodded.

“Where’s Drake?”

Mike and Luke shot quick glances at each other before I chimed in, “He met a friend at the mall. He said he’d find his own way home.” If Jake found out about the lie, I’d be dead meat. Stop worrying, I told myself. Drake will never say anything. Jake had warned Drake several times about his behavior, and they didn’t shoot the breeze together. I’d overheard Jake telling to leave me alone the other day, or he’d make sure we weren’t together.

Tilden nodded, but he gave all three of us a sharp look. I had a sinking feeling that Tilden was suspicious. Lying to a top was never a good idea even if he wasn’t mine.

“I need to take Aetna to the beauty parlor, and Pauley said he had to get to band practice. You might want to take the keys up to him, Seth. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” Tilden kissed each of his brats on the cheek as he headed out the door.

Pauley must have heard us because he came trotting down the stairs as soon as Tilden left. “Jake called and said he’d stop by after work. You can get a ride home with him. I’ll see you.” He was gone in a flurry of jackets and cold air.

The work went fast with three people and no one draping themselves in sheets or jumping out of coffins. I enjoyed working with Luke and Mike. Luke was a good artist, and Mike freely admitted he had no talent but was willing to fetch and carry, clean brushes, mix colors, and paint any large solid colored area. The scene soon took shape.  The sleigh blazed down the road; I could imagine the horses’ bells tinkling in the crisp air and the wind ruffling their manes.

“Boys.” A quiet voice with a distinct chill broke the silence. Tilden was standing behind us, his expression stern. “Put your paints away and come talk to me in the other room.”

I saw both Mike and Luke’s heads drop in a hurry and heard a whispered, “Yes, sir.” Tilden didn’t move; he stood behind us like a frozen ice statue. As we put the last brush into the water, he herded us into the other room and pointed at the pink velvet sofa. I hated this sofa. Pauley had found it abandoned on the side of the road, and we'd nearly broke our backs getting it loaded in the truck.

“Sit. Do you want to tell me who I ran into on the side of the road?”

I glanced at Mike and Luke. This was their top. They could answer. I didn’t think I was in the direct line of fire, but his glare was making me wish I could vanish up the chimney like St Nick.


“I don’t know, sir.” His eyes were huge, and I could tell they were swimming with tears.

“Do you three want to lie to me again?”

His glare was more frightening in person than it had been on TV. I tried to school my face into my most innocent expression.

“Should we start again? Why did Drake not come back with you from the mall?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mike try to catch Luke’s eye. Luke was playing with the strings of his Banner College sweatshirt, his cheeks red. Tilden said something in Russian that I didn’t understand but made Luke and Mike look like they wanted to crawl under the sofa.

“He was being a fucking asshole,” Mike muttered.

Tilden grabbed Mike and jerked him off the sofa. I shrank back against the arm. I didn’t want to be in this top’s path. I drew my knees against my chest, curling into a small ball; I wanted Jake. He’d be disappointed; I probably get spanked for my part in this misadventure, but I don’t know... Tilden frightened me. He’d sat down in the arm chair and tipped Mike over his knee. At least he hadn’t pulled the poor guy’s pants down.

“Do we need to finish this conversation with you looking at the floor?” Tilden punctuated each word with a swat. I know I was wincing at the sound of each swat, and Luke looked close to tears.

“It was just as much my fault as Mike’s. Stop! This isn’t fair.” Luke stood up and grabbed at Tilden’s arm.

“Luka, do you need to stand in the corner?”

“No, but it’s not fair.”

“Why?” Tilden’s voice was calm. He had stopped spanking Mike but hadn’t let him up.

“I was just as much involved as Mike.”

“Luka, I know you were both involved. All three of you participated in this folly." Tilden’s gaze fell on me, and I quickly went back to studying my lap. "That’s now why I spanked Misha. Mishenka, can you tell Luke what this is about?"

Mike’s voice sounded thick with tears, but he was far more together than I would’ve been over Jake’s lap. “I’m supposed to talk with you when I’m in trouble, not snap and get ugly.”

“Thank you,” Tilden rocked Mike to his feet and hugged him close. He kissed both his brats’ foreheads. “Are you two OK now?” He said something else in Russian that brought a small smile to Luke’s face. He guided both his brats back to the sofa. “Luka, you know you’re not to interfere when I need to discuss somethings with Misha.”

Luke nodded, his face red.

“I’d like you to write an essay on why you don’t interfere.” Tilden ruffled his hair. “Trust me. I know what you need, and if I mess up, Milton will have my head.”

Both Tilden’s brats smiled at that.

Shit. Tilden was now looking at me. He squatted in front of me and set his hand on my knee. If I could’ve faded into the horsehair stuffing of the sofa, I would’ve.

“You’ve not met another top, have you?”

“No.” My voice was tiny, and I felt disconnected from it.

“I have enough of my own trouble; I’m not looking for more.” Tilden gave me a half smile. “I just want to know what happened. It’s up to Jake to sort you out.” He gave me another half smile and stood up. “So what did happen, boys?”

“We bought the art supplies like we said, and Drake went to buy lights,” Luke said in a quiet but clear voice. “We arranged to meet, so we could get back in time.”

“I assume he didn’t show up,” Tilden said. “Did you make an effort to find him?”

“Yes, he was in the Apple store,” Luke said slowly.

Tilden waited, wanting us to fill in the rest of the details. “And you just left him in the Apple store?” he finally asked.

“No, we tried to get him to come with us.” Mike swung his foot against the sofa.

“And I imagine he refused to come. What did he say?”

We all looked at each other. None of us wanted to talk about the conversation.

“Seth, you haven’t contributed. What did Drake say?”

I swallowed hard and cleared my throat. “He called Luke daddy’s baby said he’d piss in his pants if you were mad.” I sniffled and blinked back tears.

Tilden gently traced a finger down Luke’s face. “I understand why you left him. All three of you are brats. You're not children; you don't play at being daddy’s little boy. I never see a brat that way, nor does any top who understands his role. Drake was being intentionally hurtful. He was the child here, but you still can’t leave someone to walk home in freezing weather.”

“I offered him a ride,” Mike complained. “He wouldn’t come. I figured he’d catch the bus or call a friend.”

“What should you have done?”

“Called you.”

“Right. He didn’t have his wallet or cell phone, and was wearing only a light jacket. I picked him up on the side of the road. I don’t think the punishment for obnoxious and childish behavior should be frostbite,” Tilden said.

We all nodded. I think we were too ashamed to say anything else.

Tilden reached into his pocket and flipped me his cell phone. “Call Jake. Tell him I’ll keep an eye on you until he gets here.”

I think that was meant to be reassuring, but I found it more than slightly frightening. I fumbled with the keys and punched in a number I knew by heart, followed by an extension. “Jake,” I said as soon as I heard the phone picked up.

“Seth, little one, what’s the matter?”

“I need you.” I couldn’t make myself say any more. I hoped he’d just come; I didn’t feel able to explain over the phone.

“Where are you?”

“At the Ryder house.”

“Why don’t you go home?” Jake knew how I felt about this house.

“Um -- I can’t.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” I could hear Jake’s effort at patience. He didn’t like to play twenty questions.

I swallowed hard. How did I explain this? I glanced at Tilden who must have seen my look of panic because he made a motion for the phone. Both relieved and concerned about what he might reveal, I handed the phone to Tilden.

“Jake, this is Tilden.”

I couldn’t tell what Jake was saying, but it must have been something about not knowing his distant cousin was in town because Tilden explained he’d only arrived yesterday and that he was looking forward to catching up with everyone.

“I’ve got your brat here, and he and my brats, shall we say, ended up in a spot of trouble. He’s fine, but he’d be happier if you were here.”  There was a pause as Tilden listened. He made a noncommittal noise of agreement and broke the connection. “He’ll be here as soon as he can. Let’s go into the kitchen.”

The kitchen was the one somewhat modern room in the house, probably having been redone in the fifties or early sixties. We weren't going to use it as part of the tour, and the counter and table were cluttered with junk. Tilden pointed to the table and shifted the spare light bulbs, extra boxes of tinsel, and a stray witch from Halloween to give us room to sit. He gave the grime encrusted coffee maker a disgusted look before hauling it to the sink and scraping out the molded coffee grounds. We all sat at the table, too stunned to even offer our assistance. Mike had reached across the table and taken Luke’s hand. I suddenly felt very alone. Tilden must have noticed because after he spooned out the last of the grounds he walked behind me and squeezed my shoulder.

“I’m not very happy that you three all lied to me, but it’s not the end of the world. I’m sure Jake will be good about it; he seemed reasonable on the phone.”

Good about it was a quaint way to put it. I was going to get spanked, and two strange brats and a top knew all about it.

Tilden passed us a package of paper and a couple of pens that he’d scrounged from a drawer. “Write a paragraph on exactly what happened today, and how it could have been prevented.” He held his hand out to Luke. “Come with me.”

Luke grasped the hand, his eyes down. I saw Mike run his hand down Luke’s back as his fellow brat walked by. I watched, both horrified and fascinated. Luke must have felt my eyes on his back because he turned around and and gave me a half grin, even though his eyes were wet with unshed tears. “I’ll be OK,” he mouthed to me and gave me the thumbs up sign with his free hand.

“I won’t kill him. I promise,”  Tilden said as he closed the kitchen door. I heard the thud of the hall door, and then the house reverberated with the sounds of a John Denver Christmas. Tilden must have found the portable CD player. The stairs creaked. I could imagine Tilden guiding his blond-haired partner up stairs and out of earshot.

Unfortunately he wasn’t out of earshot. I jerked as the sound of a hand against bare flesh penetrated the ceiling followed by a stifled yelp.

“It’ll be over quick. Tilden’s good at this,” Mike said. His voice sounded confident, but when I looked up from my paper, where I’d only managed a few lines, he was scrunched up in the chair and gripping his pen in a crushing grip. A louder yell escaped from upstairs, and we both flinched.

“Shit. How do you do this?”

“The other tops,” Mike grunted. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but we were both concentrating on pretending that we couldn’t hear what was going on upstairs. That took precedence over civilized conversation.

It seemed like ages, but according to my watch, less than fifteen minutes had passed when Tilden walked back in the kitchen, his arm draped over Luke’s shoulders. Luke leaned against his partner. His cheeks were red, and his eyes looked bloodshot, but he gave me a small smile when he caught me looking at him as if he thought he needed to cheer me up. He was the one who’d been spanked in public, and he was trying to raise my spirits.

Luke sat down with a badly hidden wince. Mike stood and wrapped his arms around Luke, kissing his cheek. To my surprise, Tilden ruffled my hair and whispered, “Hang in there. Jake will be here shortly.”

I felt my cheeks coloring, and then against my will a few tears spilled over my lashes. I buried my head in my hands.

“Do you want me to sit with you until Jake comes?” Tilden asked.

“No,” I said with false bravado, shaking my head fiercely. I wasn’t going to make Mike wait any longer. Tilden had one arm around Mike, who looked surprisingly calm and collected for a brat who knew he was going to be spanked. Even Luke, who’d just been spanked, was calmer than I was. Luke scooted his chair towards me, and I felt him put his hand on my knee.

“You’re safe with us,” Luke said, sounding far older and wiser than his twenty years accounted for. “Our tops have seen everything. You don’t need to hide.”

“I hope not everything. I can think of a few things I’d rather not see,” Tilden bantered back with him. Tilden rubbed my neck; his hand was hot. “Talk to Luke. He understands this.” He bent down and kissed the top of my head. I probably should have flinched. Here was a strange man kissing me, but it felt safe. Somehow they were all trying to tell me I was in their protected circle, or at least that’s what I thought they meant.

 Tilden must have been satisfied that I'd managed to rein in my fragile emotions because he disappeared upstairs with Mike. The same horrid noises wafted down the stairs and swirled around the house like lost ghosts. Luke jumped when he heard Mike cry, but he was doing a remarkable job of looking nonchalant for my benefit. After the third or fourth wail, I gave up, hid my face in my hands, and let the tears flow unchecked. I felt Luke’s hands on my shoulder as he rubbed, trying to calm me, the useless and hysterical brat.

I was crying so hard that I didn’t hear the car pull up or the door open. The next thing I felt were strong arms around my waist, and I was pulled onto Jake’s lap. He smelled faintly of cologne and office copy paper, and I unashamedly buried myself in his broad chest. He didn’t try to make sense of my crying, he just stroked my hair and murmured reassurances in my ear.

A few minutes later, Mike came back in the kitchen, wrapped in Tilden’s arms, his face partially hidden in his top’s sweater. I’d been crying so hard I hadn’t heard the spanking stop. Luke flew into Tilden’s arms, and they all three stood tangled together like a six legged mythological beast.

Tilden unwound himself from his partners to get a hand free. He shook Jake’s hand. “It’s been a long time.”

“Too long,” Jake said, keeping me tucked against his body. “I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

“It happens,” Tilden said with a easy smile. “We all learn from it, and it’s over. Did Seth tell you what happened?”


“I lied to Tilden,” I blurted out, ashamed.

“You didn’t do it alone, Seth.” Tilden’s voice was warm with a touch of humor. “You had two accomplices.”

“What happen, little one? You’re usually truthful,” Jake said as he kissed my forehead. 

“Drake was being a jerk, and we left him at the mall.”

“Where did the lying come in?”

“I told Tilden he found a ride home with friends.”

“Wait,” Tilden interrupted. “My two little urchins did nothing to enlighten me about the truth either.”

“So how did Tilden find out about this debacle?” Jake asked.

“I picked Drake up on the side of the road.”

“I see,” Jake said dryly, “one frozen jerk and a world class lie to a top. I think I have the picture.”

I buried myself back in Jake’s arms. I could feel the tears threatening again.

“We’re going to run down to the bakery.” Tilden hustled his two brats into their jackets, and they were gone in seconds.

“That was nice of them,” Jake said as we listened to the the sound of tires on the snow covered drive.

“He spanked them while I was here.”

“I think they’re used to it.” Jake stroked my hair. “Did that bother you, little one?”

“You--you'd never do that would you?  You’d never tell anyone?”

“Not unless you wanted me to.”

“I don’t want Pauley or your mom and dad to know.”

“They won’t,” Jake reassured me.

“But Tilden knew right away.”

“He’s an experienced top. He did nothing in front of Pauley or Drake that gave you away, did he?”

“No, but they’re so out about it.”

“They’re on national television,” Jake said with a snort. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to call a new conference.” Jake laughed and kissed me. “Let’s get this done. I don’t think they can spend hours at the bakery.”

“You’re going to spank me?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Because I lied to Tilden and abandoned Drake.”

“I’m more concerned about the lie. I know Drake.”

“I think Tilden was more upset about the lie too,” I said, playing with the buttons on Jake's shirt. “He separated Drake out from us this morning. They spent an hour stringing cranberries together.”

“Tilden deserves a medal,” Jake muttered. “He’s a good top. He was trying to keep you out of trouble. Were you two fighting?”

“Not really.”

Jake raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m going to let that slide because Tilden didn’t feel it was worth mentioning, but I’ve told you many times to stay away from him if he’s bothering you.”

“Why does Pauley hang out with him?”

“My brother doesn’t have the heart to tell him to go away. Stand up, Seth. Let’s get this done.”

I let Jake push me off his lap and before I knew it I was facing the floor, my pants around my ankles. A cold breeze blew across my exposed butt, and then his hand fell. Jake spanked hard and fast, and I was sobbing long before he stopped.

“OK, little one, no more lying to distant relatives.” Jake drew me to my feet and enfolded me in his strong arms. He guided me into the Victorian Christmas room and drew me down with him on the sofa. I laid my head in his lap while he stroked my hair.

I must have dozed off because I woke with a jolt at the sound of laughter from the kitchen. They were singing something with words I didn’t recognize, probably a Russian folk tune from the sound of it. Luke and Mike came charging through the room and thankfully ignored me as they disappeared into the Russian Christmas room. Tilden trailed behind them, carrying a box of pastries.

“Are you doing OK, little one?” His eyes were kind with a warmth that I couldn’t describe.

I nodded, struggling to sit up.

“Have a pastry. It’s a tradition in our family.” Tilden held the open box in front of my nose.

I took a small lime tart. I didn’t feel hungry, but I didn’t want to be rude. “I’m sorry,” I choked out, keeping my eyes down on my lap.

“Seth, look at me.” When I didn’t raise my head, I felt Tilden’s hand on my knee. He squeezed lightly. “Look at me,” he repeated.

I looked up.

“Do I look angry or upset?”

I searched his face for anger or disgust. “No.”

“It’s over and done with. Now, let’s get on with decorating this house. Luke would really like your help.”

I let Tilden pull me off the sofa and into a hug. I wanted to thank him for his kindness, but I couldn’t find the words. He must have known because he hugged me tighter before letting me go.

“Go on now, brat.” Tilden gave me a friendly swat on the butt. “Go help my disasters.”

Luke and Mike were sprawled across the floor, painting the mural and chatting in a combination of Russian and English. They both looked up when they heard the door.

“Finally escaped the eyes of the tops,” Luke said with a friendly grin.

“Yeah.” I nodded.

“You didn’t get the box of pastries. What kind of brat are you? Sheldon would have had the box for sure,” Mike said.

I started to shuffle my feet, embarrassed that I hadn’t fulfilled some kind of brat code when Mike burst out laughing.

“I’m only teasing, you goof. I think I’ve had my quota of junk food. Come help.” He waved a brush at me. “You’re the artist. I’m only a poor substitute.”

I knelt on the floor, and soon we were all painting. Mike and Luke were telling tall tales, or at least I hoped tall tales, about their lives with three tops. We were all laughing hysterically over the Mike’s description of Tilden thwarting Fiona when Jake and Tilden came in the room.

“Boys, we’d liked to get this done before next Christmas,” Jake teased.

“Oh, yes, sir. Very good, sir,” Mike shot back as we dissolved in another hopeless fit of laughter.

“Leave them. It’s a coffee and sugar overdose,” Tilden said with mock seriousness. “I’ve seen it before. The prescription is three to four hours without being hassled by tops, and they’ll be as right as rain. Have fun, boys. We’ll be stringing cranberries.” He made the cranberries sound like a brutal form of punishment, and we laughed again.

Somehow we finished the mural with only one or two minor accidents from giddiness.   I found myself feeling more and more comfortable as the day went on.  I was looking forward to spending more time with them on their visit. Maybe Jake and I could even go out East and visit them sometime.

That prospect was a little daunting, though. It would be hard for Jake and I to keep our relationship private in such an open household, and I wasn't sure I wanted several more strange tops and brats knowing about us. But it felt good having Tilden, Luke, and Mike know. Even if we never talked about it again, it had been freeing, for once, to share the secret.

The Best Gift

Author: Carol
Characters: Dillon and Gary

We were watching ‘A Christmas Story’; it’s one of Dillon’s favorites. He was laying out on the floor eating the home made rum balls my sister had sent us along with an assorted amount of cookies, candies, and my favorite honey nuts.  I was sitting on the sofa in my night pants with my feet resting on Dillon’s butt. Every now and then I would jiggle his butt with my feet making him laugh like a five year old.

“Why do you like this so much?” I asked him when he erupted into a fit of giggles watching Santa used his foot to push a  kid down the slide.   I thought the whole show was nonsense, but who am I to spoil Dillon’s seasonal fun.

Dillon turned his head to look at me and scrambled up to his hands and knees and   crawled over to me. He then sat up between my legs looking at me. He was so handsome with his bangs in his eyes, a light glow on his face--probably because of the rum balls and the brandy he’d been consuming, “Because I was the one who almost shot his eye out.” He said pointing to a small scare on the outside of his left eye.

Cupping my hands around his face I pulled him toward me and bent forward to kiss the small scar, “All better now?” I asked. He gave me a pout and shook his head no. I then kissed his eye, “How about now?” He again gave me the pouty lips and a headshake. I kissed his nose, “There?”  He shook his head no.  We did this until I took his mouth to mine. We kissed; I pulled him back with me until Dillon was straddling my hips. We kissed hard for a while, and it was Dillon who finally broke the kiss. He licked his lips and laid his head on my shoulder.  He let out a loud yawn, and I pulled the pink throw blanket around him.  He yawned again and snuggled deeper into my neck. I gently rubbed his back up and down thinking about all the silly little things he does that make me laugh.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked as I pulled the blanket up around his naked shoulders.

“The best gift I ever got,” I told him with a smile.  The blanked slipped back down his shoulder, so I pulled back up to keep him warm.

“What was that?” He asked with a small hint of hurt in his voice.
“You” I said kissing his nose.

“Yeah, you’re my best gift too.”  He got up and headed toward the bedroom.  “Well you and that MP3 player I got last year,” he said with a wag of his ass.

“Brat!” I yelled as I chased after him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Absolut Evergreen--My True Love Gave to Me

Title: Absolut Evergreen: My True Love Gave to Me
Author: Natasha
Holiday Challenge Prompt: True Love
Characters: Stan and Slava

Slava glanced at his watch. The plane should land in about thirty minutes if they didn’t spend an hour circling the airport. Flying this close to Christmas on the evening of the twenty-third seemed to have lightened the load. While Slava hadn’t gotten lucky enough to score an empty seat next to him, at least he wasn’t trapped between two people who tipped the scales at three hundred pounds. Instead he had what appeared to be a college age student on his right who never removed her iPod headphones and on the left a man reading his Bible. Slava counted his small blessings that the man hadn’t tried to engage him in religious conversation. Maybe like Slava, he was too busy trying to block out the screaming child two seats in front of them.

Slava flipped through the paperback he’d purchased at the newsstand. He’d heard how difficult is was to get published, but if this novel was testament to the general quality, a typing chimpanzee could get published. Neither the plot not the characters were interesting, and this ridiculously boisterous chow chow who neither shed nor bit the neighbors played a significant role in the plot, nosing out the bad guys. It was Slava’s experience that chows bit indiscriminately, both good and bad guys. Of course Stan would have loaned him a few books if he’d asked, but that would have meant packing and planning ahead. Slava wouldn’t have had two pairs of underwear if Stan hadn’t thrown a suitcase together for him this afternoon. From the quick dusting Stan had given Slava’s butt, Stan knew that the procrastination was intentional, and Slava admitted to himself wishful thinking. He’d hoped an emergency would delay him and make him miss the plane. By tomorrow it would have been too late to travel for Christmas.

It wasn’t that Slava was estranged from his family, at least not exactly; they just weren’t close. His parents knew he was gay in the abstract, and he’d mentioned that he had found a serious boyfriend. It’s what he hadn’t mentioned that was the sticking point. How did you explain that you lived with your boyfriend and his brother? It wasn’t like it was the most orthodox of relationships, and that was without mentioning the discipline. Even Slava didn’t understand that part, but then he was no Dr Phil.

His parents had been married more than forty years, but Slava wasn’t sure that was much of an accomplishment since their relationship consisted of either ignoring each other or yelling. He’d always felt they’d stayed together because getting a divorce was too much effort. His sister had married, divorced and then married again practically before the thank you cards came out from the first ceremony. His parents didn’t mind because his sister was everything he wasn’t. She’d gone into the human side of medicine and held a prestigious position in pediatric surgery. People didn’t ask her about their dogs’ worms at dinner parties. At least some of the more graphic aspects of veterinary medicine would shut up those strangers who always wanted to tell you how much they loved animals and how they’d considered veterinary medicine until they realized they couldn’t bear to watch an animal suffer or euthanize an animal. As if he liked using the blue juice.

The cabin announcement that they were on their final descent and to return the tray tables to their original upright and locked position interrupted Slava’s morbid thoughts. It was just as well because he didn’t want to think of the number of euthanasias he’d performed over the last few days. Holidays were always a busy time for that service with relatives arriving home who hadn’t seen the pet for months and being shocked at the deplorable condition of Fluffy or Fido.

Slava pulled his shopping bag from the overhead compartment. He wasn’t sure exactly what was in it. He knew Stan had put a tin of Mrs Larson’s Christmas cookies at the top because the idiots in security had required him to open the container and oohed and ahed over the pretty wreaths and little gingerbread boys. Tim had done Slava’s Christmas shopping for his sister and parents when it became obvious that Slava could walk through the mall for three hours and buy nothing but a soda at the food court or a new book at the bookstore. Tim’s preference was one of every new electronic gizmo, but he would shop for anything. He and his new girlfriend had haunted the small artisan stores in the center of their college town and purchased numerous eclectic PETA approved and fair trade items. Tim’s new girlfriend was nice enough, but she was off the deep end over various causes. Slava thought someone in her thirties would have more sense than to get arrested at a protest over commercial fishing practices. Lying naked in the street made up to look like a mermaid with signs decrying the suffering of fish had been over the top. To Slava, at least, there seemed to be far more pressing problems in the world. Stan had muttered something about the idiocy of children today, but he’d gone and bailed out both Tim and Clara. Tim hadn’t been an official part of the protest, but he was recording it for posterity and threatened a policeman when they arrested Clara. Slava knew that Tim had been pretty sore for the next couple of days; he didn’t think that Stan had said anything to Clara except to remind her to write the phone number of her lawyer in indelible ink on her hand next time she participated in illegal protests. Stan was always practical like that.

The talk of Christmas shopping and Slava’s inability to shop had spilled over to a discussion of Slava’s wardrobe, which he hadn’t updated since college; some of his clothes might even be from high school. Stan finally, in a fit of aggravation over Slava’s limited wardrobe of bleach and bloodstained pants, had sat his partner down in front of the computer, pointed him to the merchants of casual wear, and refused to let him get up until he’d purchased an entire new wardrobe. Today Slava was wearing charcoal corduroys and a pewter heather cotton sweater from his online shopping expedition. Or at least that was how the colors were described in the catalogue. Slava didn’t think he’d ever seen a pewter heather crayon; gray would have been a more than adequate description, and in these exotic colored duds he felt like he was auditioning for a teaching position at the college.

The terminal was busy with people darting towards loved ones or eyeing the ever changing array of flights on the the overhead screens. Slava strode through the terminal; one or both of his parents usually met him at the top of the escalators leading from the gate area. Today it was his mom. She was peering down at the holiday travelers as if she were irritated by being at the airport, but yet she’d insisting on picking him up instead of allowing him to get a rental car.

“Of course, honey. We’ll pick you up. You haven’t been home in six months, and we’re thrilled to have you for Christmas.”

If only Slava thought that was true. Somehow he’d never quite lived up to his parents’ expectations. As a boy, he could never win the big competition, he had piles of ribbons and trophies but never the big win, and as an adult he wasted his brains on animals instead of a more profitable and prestigious career in human medicine or finance.

His mom spotted him and waved; she was dressed in one of those ridiculous holiday sweaters that looked fine in the store surrounded by stuffed reindeer and artificial snow but were an embarrassment when worn in public.

“Merry Christmas, Mom.”

“Mstislav, honey, I’m so glad you made it home for Christmas. How was the flight?”

“Fine.” His mom had given him that foreign name that had resulted in several bloody noses in childhood, but she still couldn’t pronounce it. Stan could pronounce the consonant cluster mst without a vowel as a single sound; when his mom tried to say his name, it always came out with an additional i like it was the girl’s name Misty, and she would never call him Slava, claiming it was too hard to pronounce or sounded like slobber.

“Everybody’s so looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. We all want to hear about your new practice.” She went on, saying all the right things but meaning none of them. Maybe that was too harsh, but Slava had always felt some kind of disconnect between himself and his parents. They were always pleasant to a fault but in a distant way like he was from Mars and they were from Venus or whatever that book title had been. From a young age, Slava had been engrossed in the horses, a sport his parents neither liked nor understood. His mom had never overcome her fear of horses. Other kids’ parents had stood at ringside, polishing their offsprings’ boots or yammering with the trainer; his mom had dropped him off and gone to bridge or book club, and his dad was always too busy. Even now in his semi-retirement, he expected his dad would be on the cell or his Blackberry with his colleagues at the office. Derivative trading, he thought. At least Joe, his sister’s second husband, was interested in those things. He and Slava’s dad would decipher the mysteries of the stock market over Christmas dinner.

During the ride home, his mom chatted about people Slava didn’t really remember -- people from his high school class who had new babies or moved on to bigger and better things. “Anything new in your life, honey?”

“No, nothing -- work as usual. The practice is doing well. We’re busy.” Stan would have been all over him for this kind of pleasant evasion. When he asked how was work or what’s new, he wanted a full blow by blow explanation in stop gap motion with technicolor detail. Oh, God, that was Tim’s phrase when his brother was prying. Slava had been gone less than four hours, and he already missed them.

Slava plastered a fake smile on his face and asked his mom about the town council. That was one of her new projects, trying to regulate growth of the ever expanding suburbs. They chatted about impact fees --something that Slava found only slightly more interesting than derivatives -- the rest of the way home.

The house looked much as it had when he was growing up; it was still painted a conservative light gray with cream colored trim and windows. Slava remembered one year lobbying hard for dark red or green trim, but it was decided his idea was too radical. He shook hands with his father who had his eyes on his Blackberry, typing with one hand.

“I put you up in your old room. Will that be fine?” his mom asked.

“Yes, no problem.”

His old room was in the same physical location, but it had been redecorated while he was in college. Gone were his horse books and herd of model horses that roamed the bookshelves. Instead the room was painted a neutral pastel shade with the shelves full of potpourri and other meaningless knickknacks that made the room smell overwhelmingly like cinnamon and cloves. His mom would surely ask him to take the boxes of his stuff she’d packed up when she’d redecorated. He’d have to explain for the umpteenth time that he couldn’t fly with boxes of plastic horses. Did he want the things? He’d always told his mother to to toss his things or give them to a rummage sale. Stan would insist on taking them home. The two brothers unashamedly kept the oddest bits of detritus from their childhood. Two rooms were decorated with fading photos of them on ponies, silver cups, and ribbons long faded from royal blue and red to sky blue and pink. Slava’s stuff would fit right in there. Knowing Tim, he’d display the model horses complete with all their accoutrements across a giant table. They’d have barns, jumps, paddocks, with an army of plastic people to arrange in a perfect scene if Tim’s space fleet was anyway to judge. Every version of the Enterprise hung from the ceiling on fine wires, and strange creatures from Star Wars battled the evil empire on the shelves. Tim loved the damn stuff, and Stan indulged, even encouraged the collection. Slava had been with Stan when they’d pulled over to look at piles of junk at a roadside garage sale, looking for an elusive C3PO or Mr Spock with a three dimensional chess set.

Slava tossed his bag and coat on the bed; his cell phone clanked out bouncing on the floor. He picked it up but left it firmly turned off.  He knew he should turn it on and call Stan. He’d promised Stan that he’d call when he arrived, but right now he couldn’t face the gentle interrogation that would follow. Slava knew he couldn’t hide that he was upset. Away for the weekend and he was falling apart like a child on his first trip to summer camp -- disgraceful.


Tim chucked his boots off and tossed his hat and gloves on the floor.

“Don’t leave your stuff strewn all over the hall,” floated in from the living room.

“How’d you know, brother dearest?”

“I know you. Is Clara with you?”

“No, she had to work tonight, final Christmas rush. She’ll be here tomorrow for Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas day. I can’t believe you like her.”

“Why not?” Stan came into the hall and leaned on the wall. “She’s nice once you get beyond her fashion statements and political oddities, and her determination to embrace every extreme position means that our relationship won’t shock her.”

“I’m not planning on telling her our little secret.”

“I think it’s going to be pretty hard to hide if she’s as serious as I think you two are.”

“You’re not going to tell her, are you?”

“Of course not, little brother.” Stan mussed his brother’s hair, and Tim ducked and stuck his tongue out before suddenly getting more serious. “Do you think she’d accept living here?”

“This is serious,” Stan said with a soft chuckle.

“You think I’m moving too fast?”

“No, you just have a propensity for jumping in head first before testing the water’s depth.”

“Aren’t you a fine one to talk. You bring a vet out here to suture up a mare’s leg, get him stuck in a snow storm, and end up shacked up with man before the week’s out.”

“And wasn’t it you who was egging me on the whole time?” Stan said with a laugh. “Point taken though. I trust you. Do what you think is best,” he said, his tone more serious.

Tim reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a blue velvet box which he handed to his brother.

Stan opened the box and whistled, his brown eyes warm and full of good humor. “Nice.” The ring had two emeralds and two rubies flanking a center diamond. “When are you going to ask her?”

“I wanted to do it the same time you make Slava an honest man. I’ve seen the two rings you have.”

“I planned to do it at Christmas, but I guess New Years will have to do with him at his parents.”

“You are a romantic,” Tim laughed.


“You know, Slava cringes every time you do one of those intimate dinners for two.” Tim smiled, his eyes teasing. “You won’t let up until you’ve trained him to be as big a romantic softie as you are.”

“Brat.” Stan grabbed his brother and playfully landed a swat on his hip. “Didn’t you just ask me for advice on your love life, and now you’re insulting mine?”

Tim grinned, unrepentant. “Have you heard from your lover since he made it to his folks?”

“No, his cell phone’s off.”

“Ah, and he’s too far away for you to swat him. Non communication isn’t one of your favorite things.” Tim grinned brashly. “I’ve found out the hard way, and he will too when he gets home, I bet.”

Stan nodded. “I’ll make the choice a little more clear in his mind next time he goes on a little trip.”

“Don’t be too hard on him; he’s new at this. Plus I got his parents’ home number off his computer.”

“Have you been hacking into Slava’s computer?” Stan asked, the teasing gone from his voice.

Tim caught the change of tone and looked his brother straight in the eye with the most innocent expression he could muster. “It’s not password protected.”

“But you didn’t have permission to snoop,” Stan said, finishing the sentence.

“No, sir.” Tim didn’t usually call his brother sir, but when he was giving him that look he’d try anything to avoid a trip over Stan’s knees.

“Unless Slava gave you the number, don’t use it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tim had every intention of keeping his promise to Stan until he found himself on Christmas Eve punching in the number for Slava’s parents. Slava hadn’t contacted either of them, and Tim knew Slava had some big get together with the relatives that he was dreading tonight.

“The Blackthorn residence,” a woman’s voice said on the other end of the line.

“Is Slava there, please? This is Tim O’Neil; I’m a friend of his.”

“Oh, do you mean Mist? I’m Anna, his sister. I’ll get him.”

Slava had said some of his family called him Mist and that he hated it. He always thought of the girl’s name Misty or foul weather. Tim thought it sounded like a soft drink. Hadn’t there been a lemon lime  soda with that name?

“Hello, Tim.”

Tim could hear the uncertainty in Slava’s voice. He sounded like he did last winter when he’d been tiptoeing around the two of them, wanting to be part of the family but afraid of being rejected.

“None other,” Tim said, keeping his voice upbeat and boisterous.

“How’d you get my number?”

“From you computer.”  Tim heard the moment’s hesitation before Slava spoke again.

“Your brother know?”

“He knows I got the number. He doesn’t know I called, and yes, before you say anything, I’ll be in the woodshed, but it’s worth it. I was worried when you didn’t call.”

“I’m fine.”

“Oh, yeah, I know what Stan’s says when you answer that you’re fine. So how are you really?”

“I wish I was back with you guys,” Slava said in a choked voice.

“Hang in there; it’s only a few days. I can tell you that Stan misses you something fierce. You should call him.”

“I know, but I’ll worry him”

Tim knew, even though he couldn’t see Slava, that he’d be looking at the floor and worrying the buttons on his cuffs. “Talk to him.”

“I’m in trouble, aren’t I, for not calling?”

Tim smiled to himself. Slava was still awkward and shy about the whole discipline aspect of his relationship with Stan. “That’s my brother’s call, but I expect so. It’s still better to talk to him.”

“I can’t cope with anyone else being mad at me.”

“Stan’s not mad at you. Are your parent’s mad at you?” Tim heard the silence on the other end of the phone. Shit, Tim thought, he’d been too direct, and now Slava was going to clam up with more non revealing “I’m fine” type evasions.

“No, they’re just being my parents. Look, I have to go. I need to get ready for the party tonight. Bye. Thanks for calling.”

Tim heard the click of the phone. Slava hadn’t even waited for Tim to say good-bye. He’d spooked him. Damn. Stan was going to have his hide, right after he finished with Slava for not answering his phone.

Tim heard the sound of footsteps across the kitchen floor. He spun around, the phone still in his hand. Fortunately it was Mrs Larson; he didn’t feel up to explaining to Stan why he was standing staring at the phone, a grim expression on his face.

“Were you talking to Slava?”

What, are you taking lessons in clairvoyance from my brother? he thought. “I thought you were taking this afternoon and tomorrow off, visiting with your sister.”

“My sister came here, and time off doesn’t mean I can’t use my own kitchen. And don’t change the subject, young man. Were you on the phone with Slava?”

Tim nodded. It was no use pretending he wasn’t when Mrs Larson was in battle axe mode. Stan never understood why Mrs Larson seemed to scare the bejesus out of Tim. Of course, Mrs Larson was always the dear elderly housekeeper and cook with Stan, and she totally spoiled Slava. It was only with Tim that she unleashed her reign of terror.

“Poor Slava, family problems?”

“He didn’t say. He just sounded unhappy, very unhappy.”

Mrs Larson was pulling a picnic basket and a cooler out of a high cabinet shelf; she then grabbed a half dozen or more plastic containers and put them on the counter.

“It’s a bit cold for a picnic. Last time I checked the calendar said December, and we live in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“Don’t you get smart with me, Tim O’Neil. Of course it’s too cold for a picnic. I may be getting old, but I haven’t lost on my faculties,” Mrs Larson said, her hands on her hips. “You’re going to Slava’s for Christmas.”

“It’s an eight hour drive.”

“Yes, and if you leave tonight, you’ll make it in plenty of time for Christmas morning. Now go bring the car around, and we’ll get packed.”

“Mrs Larson, you’re wonderful,” Tim said, kissing her cheek. “How could I ever doubt you?”

Mrs Larson smiled, her eyes twinkling behind her glasses. “You could convince that girl of yours to eat something besides tofu and bean sprouts. It’s putting a crimp on my cooking, young man.”

Tim smiled. He’d seen Mrs Larson with Clara, standing with their heads nearly touching, stirring, and tasting a bubbling cauldron of stew. For all her complaining, Mrs Larson was having a great time expanding her repertoire into exotic, foreign, vegetarian cooking. Tim was sure there would be some mix of phyllo and spinach or artfully presented stuffed vegetables in the picnic basket.

“I’ll bring the car around,” Tim said, grabbing the keys for the Subaru off the hook where Stan insisted they keep them. Stan had a dim view of searching through ten pairs of dirty jeans in the laundry for the keys, plus the wash was hell on the remote door opener.

The two of them made quick work of packing the car. Tim loaded all the Christmas presents, including Slava’s gifts to them. Tim knew Slava would be embarrassed to be empty handed Christmas morning. Mrs Larson had clearly been plotting this for more than a few days because she had Stan’s and Tim’s dress clothes already packed in a hanging bag and had washed and folded all of Clara’s clothing. Technically Clara still rented a room in town, but more and more nights she was under their roof and gradually her clothes had overtaken two drawers and a good portion of Tim’s closet. Both Mrs Larson and Stan had been making noise about moving Tim and Clara to the other side of the house where they could have more privacy and a bedroom with a connecting sitting room. Tim was still living in the small bedroom that Stan had first given him when he’d thought his brother was only camping for a few weeks. For his part, Tim was hesitant to move. There was a comfort in knowing his brother was just across the hall and changing rooms signaled a permanent change in their relationship, both with Clara and with Stan. It was silly really; he’d bought Clara a ring--talk about suggesting permanency-- and he was hesitating about changing bedrooms. Tim expected Stan and Mrs Larson would make the decision for him. He’d come back in from the barn one day, and all his stuff would be moved. 

Mrs Larson handed Tim a stack of Clara’s clothes. “She’ll need these things.”

Tim looked at the clothes. He knew that Mrs Larson expected Clara to go, and even he expected Clara to go. She was always up for an adventure and going to her parents was not an option, but loading the stuff in the car without asking seemed presumptuous.

“She was planning to stay here for the holiday; she’ll want to go,” Mrs Larson said, seeming to read Tim’s mind. “You know, sweetie, she fits right in, and don’t you go hightailing it as soon as it gets serious. She has great plans for a kitchen garden and a community food bank garden next year. I’m sure Stan will be thrilled at her ideas.”

Tim swallowed hard. They were already planning new gardens. Before he knew it, Clara would be hanging chintz curtains in the bedroom and leading him down the aisle, wedding bells pealing. Even Mrs Larson was egging her on, and Tim thought she’d hate Clara at first sight with Clara’s multiple piercings and tattoos on her bare shoulders. Stan, in his ever calm way, had been right that Clara under all her disguises was a nice, genuine person. He’d picked up on it immediately and encouraged the relationship with Tim. Somehow Stan had even toned down her appearance; he’d never said anything, at least not directly, but he’d pointed out these interesting flowing sari like outfits to Tim and convinced Tim that Clara would look fabulous in them and that they would make a great birthday gift. She did look fabulous in them and the shimmering silk covered her shoulders and arms, hiding the tattoos. She still liked to wear bangle bracelets from wrist to elbow, and Stan had even indulged that excess by purchasing one for her for the winter solstice, a charm bracelet with the sun, moon, and Mother Earth, but as time went by several earrings and a nose and tongue stud seemed to have vanished. As far as Tim knew, Stan hadn’t said a word about them, but Clara had a healthy respect for Stan and more than once commented about his pristine appearance, as she put it. She’d seen him send Slava to change before dinner when he’d walk in with a blood spattered shirt or manure stains on his sleeve. She’d been an unwilling spectator the time when Slava had pitched a fit, and Stan had grabbed his elbow and walked him out of the kitchen. Slava didn’t make it back to dinner that night, and he’d looked red eyed later that evening when Tim saw him. The following night he had an ironed shirt, a belt, and loafers at dinner instead of steel toed work boots or bare feet.

“Why’s the Subaru on the circle drive?” Stan asked, coming in with Clara. Both of them had been doing last minute Christmas shopping; their cheeks were red from the cold, and they smelled faintly like the cinnamon and fresh roasted almonds from the vendor on the corner of the main square. “Are we going somewhere?”

Tim looked at Stan, who was staring at his brother with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Tim was saved from answering when Mrs Larson chimed in.

“Tim spoke to Slava earlier. He’s miserable; it would be inhumane for you to leave him to face his family alone this Christmas. The car’s all packed, and you should make it comfortably by morning with three drivers. Clara, dear, I packed your things, but you best make sure I packed the right things. I’m not as familiar with your habits as I am with the boys.

It was a testament to Stan’s flexibility and ready acknowledgment that the deck was stacked against him that he made no more than a cursory protest before disappearing upstairs to get one final item and chasing everybody into the car. He did give Tim a look that clearly said they’d be talking about this later and he’d better have a good explanation.


Slava was staring at the ceiling, his hands propped behind his head. The numbers on the clock glowed a miserable four AM. He was watching the numbers change, not from the excited anticipation of a child on Christmas morning but from stomach roiling dread. Twice he’d picked up his phone to call Stan, but now in the wee hours of the morning it was even more embarrassing and humiliating. What was he going to say? Hi, this is your idiot boyfriend, and I can’t sleep.

Last night hadn’t been awful. Well, at least not a high degree of awful. No one had shaken their finger at him and shamed him for his life choices, as his family quaintly put it; they tiptoed around the great big pink elephant in the closest. His parents and his sister knew he was gay but not a whisper since he’d been here about his life except to ask about the financial status of the practice, and that was his dad in the car on the way to the Christmas Eve party between the Sinatra and the Alvin and the Chipmunks’ CDs. Slava didn’t know what his more distant relatives thought. It was like he had nasty hemorrhagic diarrhea; it wasn’t discussed in polite company. He suspected at least a few of his cousins would be supportive, but how did he bring it up? Maybe he should have sent one of those Christmas letters catching people up on the news, bragging about the bathroom remodel, and boasting of your children’s success in high school. His letter would review his new practice and announce his gayness to the world.

His cell phone rang. From long habit of middle of the night calls, Slava pressed the talk button without taking his eyes from the idle ceiling fan. “Dr Blackthorn speaking.”


Slava interupted before Stan could get any further. “Stan, it’s four thirty in the morning.”

“I’m more than aware of that, and I’m parked in your parents’ driveway. Go downstairs, and let us in.”

Slava padded down the stairs, his cell phone still held to his ear. As he passed his parents’ door, he was relieved to see the light was still off and that he could hear his dad’s light snores. Slava turned the bolt and slid the chain back to see Stan, Tim, and Clara all crowded on the porch loaded down with boxes and bags like mules headed into the Grand Canyon.

“Shh, my parents are still asleep,” Slava said, staring at the people on the doorstep, his brain befuddled.

“Can you open the door a little farther so we can come in?” Stan said, giving Slava the look of a teacher trying to explain long division to a math phobic child for the hundredth time.

“It’s cold out here,” Tim added.

Slava scrambled back, opening the door wide. Stan unceremoniously dropped his bags in the hall and pulled Slava to his chest. Slava went, relieved to bury himself in those strong arms.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were this upset?” Stan whispered into Slava’s ear. “I don’t believe there’s been an interruption in the phone service.”

Slava pulled back and studied his lover’s face, the raised eyebrow, the steely glint in those usual warm, brown eyes. He was in trouble; there was no question about it. But there was also a slight smile on Stan’s lips, fleeting and quirk, but it had been there.

Stan pulled Slava back into the hug. “Yes, you’re in trouble, my boy, but nothing awful. It’s Christmas.”

Slava had a moment of panic. He was in his parents’ home; Clara was here. Stan couldn’t just pull him over his knee and start spanking. Explaining Stan, Tim, and Clara was going to be hard enough, let alone letting his boyfriend spank him.

“Don’t worry,” Stan whispered. “I’ve got you.” Stan kissed Slava on the forehead and pushed him away as he began directing the troops. “I’ll take my stuff upstairs. Slava show Tim where to find the kitchen so he can bring Mrs Larson’s stuff in. If I know her, she’s prepared us to feed a whole regiment. Is there a spare bedroom Tim and Clara can use?”

“There’s another guest room, but I don’t know where Mom keeps the sheets.”

“They can crash on the living room sofa until your parents wake. I need a shower; lead the way.”

It was so simple with Stan directing, only the mundane concerns with food, sleep, and showers. The slippery issue of bringing this reality home to his parents delayed until the practical matters had been covered. Slava pointed to the kitchen and led the way upstairs and to the shower. To Slava’s surprise, Stan grabbed his wrist and pulled him into the bathroom with him.

“So, my boy, I think you have some serious explaining to do.”

Slava gulped as Stan sat down on the toilet and pulled him down on his lap. At least he wasn’t looking at the white tiles and blue shag bathmat yet. “It’s nothing. It’s just my family.”

“And just your family made Tim so concerned that he, in collusion with Mrs Larson, nearly kidnapped me. Try again.”

“I’m supposed to want to be with my family over the holidays. It’s not like they’ve disowned me or anything.” Slava could feel the tears breaking over the rim of his eyes and cascading down his face. Stan’s censure always had this effect on him. Slava could be lying under a pile of crashed jumps, the horse galloping to the far side of the ring, and all that would escape his lips was a slight grunt, but if Stan raised his eyebrow and gave him that look, he’d start crying like the water works. Slava wiped a hand over his eyes, trying to stem the flow of tears, gave up, and buried himself in Stan’s chest.

Stan waited, not saying anything, letting his chin rest on his partner’s head. As the tears slowed, Stan murmured into his partner’s ear,” The holidays are always stressful. Don’t you ever read the Dear Abby column? I would have been more than happy to come with you, or have the whole gang of them at our house. We’ve got plenty of room. So why are we here, hmm?”

Slava hated this, the interrogation before his doom, but he knew Stan well enough it was either answer now or later, staring at the floor with a butt that was sore from the appetizer course. “I should’ve brought you into the loop -- not kept it hidden until I have a  meltdown.”

“Exactly.” Stan stood up and turned on the cold tap of the sink and the shower before rummaging in the drawer, finding the hair dryer, and turning it on full blast. He then sat down and rearranged Slava on his lap face down. “Are we clear why we’re doing this?”

“Yes,” Slava choked out as his pajama bottoms were whisked down.

As far as a spanking goes, it was neither particularly hard nor long, but Slava was sniffling before it started and full blown sobbing by the time the third spank fell. Stan held his crying partner tight, kissing his damp cheeks. Slava didn’t want to move; it was safe and warm in his lover’s arms.

“Come on. You’re a mess.” Stan kissed Slava again. Let’s take a shower. I’m sure your parents are going to wake soon, and I don’t want them seeing you like this. They’ll run me out of town with pitchforks.”

The sounds of Frosty the Snowman came wafting through the closed bathroom door.

“I didn’t know playing Christmas music at full volume constituted being quiet and not waking everyone. I’m going to kill my brother,” Stan muttered.

Slava heard a sharp rap on the bathroom door.

“Mstislav, are you OK in there? You’re not sick, are you? You’ve been in there a long time.”

“No, Dad. I’m just stiff from riding, pulled my shoulder. I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“There’s some aspirin in the medicine cabinet.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’ll be out shortly.” Slava listened to his dad’s footsteps move down the hall. How soon till he walked downstairs and found Tim and Clara?

“I hope you don’t lie that easily to me, brat,” Stan said, laughing.

“No, never. You won’t fall for it.”

“Brat, shower,” Stan growled. “Clara and Tim are going to have to hold the fort on their own for a few minutes. I don’t want to know what Tim comes up with. He can be quite creative.” Stan rolled his eyes, threw off his clothes, and pushed both of them into the shower.

Slava felt better after the shower. His eyes still felt gritty from the lack of sleep and crying, but it was comforting standing in a steamy bathroom wrapped only in an oversized towel while his lover shaved, Stan’s free arm resting around Slava’s shoulders.

Slava peeked out the door; the coast looked clear. They stepped out in the hall to take the two steps to Slava’s bedroom when his mother appeared from around the corner, dressed in a bathrobe and fur lined slippers. She stared at the stranger in the house wearing nothing but an apricot towel and back at her son. Slava looked back at her, too stunned to speak.

Fortunately Stan managed to gather his wits about him. Holding the towel up with one hand, he stepped forward, free hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Stan O’Neil. You must be Slava’s mother. I’m pleased to meet you, but if you don’t mind I’ve had a long drive and would like to change before getting better acquainted over breakfast.”

Slava’s mom shook Stan’s hand and murmured some incoherent pleasantries as she tried to regain her equilibrium. Stan cocked his head politely, repeated his greeting and introduction, and grabbed Slava and dragged him to the bedroom before breaking out into a soft chuckle.

“I don’t know if your mom thought she should call the police or wish me a merry Christmas. This will be one of those holidays talked about over the celebratory table for years to come.”

“Great,” Slava groaned.

“Stop.” Stan laughed. “She didn’t pull out a twenty-two and shoot me for trespassing. Come on. Get dressed so we can sort this out.”

When Stan and Slava made their way down stairs, Slava’s parents, along with Tim and Clara, were in the living room. It looked, outwardly at least, like a normal holiday scene. The Christmas tree was lit in solid red lights, and Frank Sinatra crooned, “I’ll be coming home for Christmas,” from the stereo. A warm blaze crackled in the fireplace, and the tree was piled high with presents. Some were ever brushing the lowest branches.

“Who are these people?” Slava’s dad asked as they walked in the room.

“This is Stan. Over there are Tim and Clara,”Slava said quickly, not looking at his dad.

“Mr Blackthorn,” Stan said, stepping in front of Slava and shielding his partner with his broad back. “I’m Stanislav O’Neil, Slava’s partner or boyfriend if you prefer. Over on the sofa is my brother, Tim O’Neil, and what I hope will soon be his fiance, Clara Shell.”

Slava saw Clara’s cheeks color, and she smiled before looking meaningfully into Tim’s eyes. Tim smiled and blushed, landing a chaste kiss on her lips.

Slava’s dad cleared his throat as if complete strangers crashing in Christmas morning should be taken in stride. “Anna and Joe, my daughter and her husband, will be here any moment, then we usually open gifts--if that’s all right with you?”

“Of course,” Stan said smoothly. “We’re the unexpected guests. Tim, did Mrs Larson send us with some breakfast treats? Why don’t you lay them out.”

Tim nodded and headed to the kitchen with Clara and Slava’s mom trailing behind. Stan and Slava sat on the sofa while Slava’s dad stared awkwardly at them from his armchair. “So what do you do for a living, Mr O’Neil?”

“Please call me Stan. I’m a professor of comparative literature at the New College. My brother and I also own a horse breeding operation together; that’s how I met your son.” Stan gave Slava a warm smile.

“I see.” Slava’s dad had always made disparaging remarks about academics, something along the lines if you can’t do, you teach.

“He also owns a twenty-five percent interest in his brother’s venture capital firm and has run a bed and breakfast,” Slava found himself babbling.

Tim walked back in carrying a plate of Mrs Larson’s Christmas breads. “It’s Christmas. We can talk about finance some other day, but I will say we were proud to offer the finances to your son to purchase one hundred percent of his previous practice and to start a new practice in town. We don’t usually do such small transactions, but it’s been very profitable for all parties.”

“What kind of deals do you usually put together?”

“Oh, Sandy, it’s Christmas,” Slava’s mom said, exasperated. “Can’t we talk about something else today? Did I hear you say you ran a bed and breakfast? I’ve always wanted to do that someday.”

Slava smiled to himself. The bed and breakfast schtick was like veterinary medicine. You always had to find out about the second cousin’s twice removed interest in running a country inn. Tim was deep in conversation with Slava’s dad about derivatives and other novel financial instruments, while Stan entertained Slava’s mom with tales of the heroic innkeeper. Slava sat on the sofa, watching the interchange with a deep sense of relief. Clara caught his eye, and they both smiled. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all?

Joe and Anna burst into the living room, weighted down with packages and still shedding winter coats. They came to an abrupt halt when they saw the new guests.

“Mom?” Anna turned towards her mother.

“These are friends of Slava’s who decided to drop by unexpectedly. Stan O’Neil, his brother Tim, and Clara. Clara, honey I’ve forgotten your last name. Forgive me.”

“It’s Shell, and don’t worry I’m terrible with names. I still call Stan and Slava the guys with the s names.” She laughed politely.

Stan stood up and shook Joe’s hand. “I’m Slava’s partner. It’s nice to meet you.”

Slava secretly wanted to cheer. Trust Stan to refuse to be introduced as a mere friend, but Slava cringed as he waited for his sister’s and her husband’s reactions. His sister looked at their mother, her eyes wide and questioning. Mom just shrugged and put a slice of Christmas bread on her plate. Joe looked like he was ready to take a step back, recovered, and shook Stan’s hand. Tim jumped into action with a sharp conversational hook back towards Christmas and presents.

“Don’t you think it’s time for Santa to show up? I understand we were awaiting your arrival to distribute the Christmas gifts. I’m not too old or too shy to admit I still love getting gifts.”

Everybody laughed at Tim’s little speech, relieved to change topics. Tim leapt under the tree and started to play Santa’s helper, passing gifts to everyone.

“This is from us,” Tim said handing Slava’s mom and dad identical packages wrapped in gold foil with red and green bows.

The packages had to be Mrs, Larson’s work, Slava thought. They were too perfect. He’d seen Tim wrap, and it looked like someone sat on it, and Stan seemed to prefer juvenile paper if the package in Slava’s hand was any way to judge. It was wrapped in cartoon like ponies and kids, with the kids flying off into bramble bushes and liverpools with lifeguards standing by.

“It’s so beautifully wrapped I hate to open it,” Slava’s mom said.

“Mrs Larson did that. We can’t wrap like that. It’s perishable, so it needs to be unwrapped,” Tim said

“Who is Mrs Larson?” Slava’s dad asked.

“Our housekeeper.”

“You have a housekeeper?” Anna asked, her plucked eyebrows rising into her hair line.”

“Yes,” Stan said simply. “She’s been with the family for years, and we’re a mess without her. I kept her on after I closed the bed and breakfast.”

Slava’s mom finished unwrapping the package. “Cheese, how nice. Thank you.”

Slava could tell from her expression and tone of voice that she wasn’t expecting cheese from her new son-in-law. Could Slava dare to think that was how she thought of Stan? Or was he just an obnoxious bore who crashed family Christmas gatherings?

“We keep a herd of sheep and goats, completely organic,” Stan said. “We put a leg of lamb and some chops in your freezer. We’d be happy to prepare the leg of lamb for dinner, but we didn’t know if you had other plans.”

“Oh, that’s lovely, boys.” She smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “We always have roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Christmas day but thank you. I’m sure it’s delicious.”

Slava knew his parents didn’t eat lamb and probably wouldn’t touch goat cheese, but at least they were being civil. Slava opened the package on his lap. It was new stirrup leathers.

“I got tired of bugging you to replace yours,” Stan said with and easy smile. Slava grinned; it would save him from another tedious lecture about worn stitching and safety.

“I didn’t know what to get you,” Slava said looking at the package on Stan’s lap. I hope you like them.” Slava had been desperate for Christmas ideas. He knew for Tim a new model for his Star Trek or Star Wars collection would fit the bill, but Stan left him baffled. What did you buy for your lover at your first Christmas together, especially for a lover who was as an incorrigible a romantic as Stan? If Stan were a girl, jewelry would fit the bill, but he could hardly see Stan in a diamond earring. Slava had been hanging endless strands of lights on one of the three Christmas trees that Stan and Tim were putting up when the idea hit him. He’d get ornaments for the twelve days of Christmas, and they could have their own Christmas tree next year. At first, Slava was going to mimic the gifts from the song, but then he decided to choose gifts more suitable to them for some of the days. The first package had a gift certificate for an heirloom pear tree from the local orchard and a partridge ornament with a note, “On a the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge and a pear tree.” It had seemed a good idea to his feverish brain when he bought the gifts, but now in the harsh light of day it was silly.

“Slava, do I take it there are twelve gifts on this theme?” Stan said, his eyes smiling.

“Yeah, I couldn’t think of anything. I thought we could have our own Christmas tree next year,” Slava muttered; he could feel his neck reddening.

Stan grabbed his partner and kissed his cheek. “I love it. I can’t wait to open my next eleven gifts but please promise me, no live animals.”

“No, I didn’t completely follow the song.”

The next gift was two trees a trimming instead of two turtle doves. Slava had given Stan two sets of Christmas lights, then three French chefs with tiny copper pots for ornaments and promised nights out at a restaurant, and then four whinnying colts with four horse ornaments: a jumper, a dressage horse, a event horse, and a driving horse.

“It’s my turn,” Stan said with a grin. I get to use this lyric and the next one.” Slava saw Stan glance over at Tim, and they both seemed to agree on something, and Tim reached into his pocket but didn’t withdraw his hand. “I only have one whinnying pony instead of four.” Stan handed Slava a small package that felt like a picture and an envelope.

Slava opened the picture. It was a picture of Cricket’s head and underneath on the frame was engraved “Mstislav Blackthorn’s Borden’s Cricket in Times Square.” Slava looked at Stan, not understanding.

“Open the envelope; it explains.” Both Stan and Tim were grinning wildly. Tim looked like he could hardly contain himself.

Slava tore the flap on the envelope and pulled out several sheets of paper. The first was a US Equestrian Federation amateur card.

“I had you sign the application with a bunch of other paperwork for your business. You weren’t paying any attention,” Tim said by way of explanation. “Open the other stuff.”

Slava unfolded a typed sheet of paper, and Stan handed him a pen.

“You’ll need to sign it to make it official.”

It was a bill of sale. “Three dollars and sixty-seven cents,” Slava read.

“That’s the change I found on our dresser from your pants pockets,” Stan said. “It’s not considered kosher if I give him to you. I didn’t want any complaints after you wipe the floor with your new amateur jumper.”

“You’re giving me Cricket?” Slava stared at the picture and the paper in disbelief. “I thought he was getting sold to that girl from New York.”

“I turned them down. We wanted you to have him. You can ride him around the pasture as an over talented pleasure horse, or you can try to set the world on fire with him. He’s yours, and we’ll support whatever you want to do with him. It’s time you had a horse that nobody will make a decision to sell but you.”

“He’s too nice to let hang out in the backyard.” Slava said, still not believing. There had to be some catch, like maybe a sham to let him ride as an amateur so the horse could be sold for more money.

“Then take him out and show the world what you can do when you’re mounted on a horse with real talent that’s not going to be sold to the next spoiled kid with a daddy with a big wallet,” Tim said. “He’s ready to go to Florida, and you can ride the sale horses too.”

“Tim, it’s Slava’s present. I know you want to get out of the cold. We’ll talk about campaigning him later if that’s what Slava wants.”

Slava couldn’t miss the unmistakable emphasis on it being his choice as Stan spoke. He thought he might cry. Cricket was a horse that children who rode dreamed of every night. Hardly bigger than a pony, and with his shoes off and feet trimmed he might slip under fourteen two; he could jump a small house, and stop wasn’t in his vocabulary. They’d fixed up the outside course last summer, and Cricket had charged over those obstacles like he had wings, even though Slava’s heart was sometimes in his throat at the size of the hedges and banks. They’d all started calling him Stroller after the British pony who jumped around the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

“He’s too good to keep hidden at home,” Slava said.

“Don’t worry about it, honey,” Stan said, giving Slava a hug. “We have plenty of time to decide, and I have a more important gift for number five and the golden rings.”

Slava watched, his brain still in a fog from Cricket, as Stan reached into his pocket and pulled out two small boxes and Tim pulled Clara form the sofa. He was also holding a small box.

“We only have three, but we’ll come up with something. On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me five golden rings,” Tim sang as he handed the box to Clara. She must have figured out what was going on because she was smiling broadly even as a tear escape from her eye.

Stan placed his hand under Slava’s chin and guided his lover’s eyes towards his face. I’m going to give you two boxes. Open the one in your right hand. If you want to go through with this, give me the box in your left hand.”

Slava’s brain must have short circuited because he still didn’t have an inkling what was going on, even though out of the corner of his eye he saw Tim kneel in front of Clara. Slava opened the box -- a gold ring with an inscription in both Cyrillic and Roman lettering lay on the velvet. He looked at Stan’s eyes; they looked anxious, more anxious than Slava had ever seen. He read the inscription, “two Slavas forever,” and then their full first names in Cyrillic script. Slava handed the box in his left hand to Stan, who drew Slava to his chest and put the ring on his partner’s finger.

“I love you.”

Somehow Slava managed to get the ring on Stan’s finger. His vision was blurred by tears, and his hand was shaking so hard he felt like he’d over indulged in his veterinary sedatives.

Stan scooped Slava into his arms and kissed him. Suddenly it didn’t matter that his parents and sister were watching. Slava wrapped his arms around Stan’s neck and pressed their lips together in the kiss of two lovers. The two of them forever.