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.

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