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Thirteen Christmas Traditions
Goddamned slush in his boots and goddamned slush down the back of his neck and goddamned slush making the normally quick drive home from work into an extended, jaw-cramping, headache-engendering nightmare. Goddamned last-minute shoppers driving like it was a sunny day in June.
At least he had some rest coming, Jim thought. Seniority, and an undignified amount of wheedling with Simon, had gotten him an unheard-of four days off for Christmas. He entered the elevator thinking longingly of the dark loft, the silence, the much-needed sleep that he was going to catch up on.
Of course, there was always the possibility that there would be no darkness, no silence, no sleep. There was always the possibility that the whole third floor would smell like something that hadn't been smelled since some anonymous Celt wrote that it would generate visions of the spirit world. Or that as soon as he opened the door Blair would be waving a candy cane in his face and demanding to know whether he could smell any actual essence of peppermint.
Jim was only a little surprised to find himself smiling. Somewhere along the line, all the uproar had stopped irritating him. And then somewhere else along the line -- along what was turning out to be a very strange line indeed -- he seemed to have started enjoying it. It boggled the imagination, but there it was. After years of applying all his effort to making his life run smoothly, he was sharing an apartment with the Lord of the Unexpected, and it was ... fun.
It was profoundly weird.
And as soon as the doors slid open, he could feel the smile turning into a full-scale grin, because sure enough, something unpredictable was brewing.
There was something tall and green in the loft doorway. And it was moving.
Blair's head appeared over the top of the greenery. "I hope it's all right, Jim," he called down the hall. "If you don't want it here we can put it out on the balcony or something, but I just thought, you know, festive season, it'd be nice to have some decorations and stuff, but if you'd rather not --"
"Bring home the whole forest if you want, Sandburg, be my guest," Jim growled, hastily wiping the grin off his face. "I didn't even know you celebrated Christmas."
"I celebrate everything, man. Yule, Hanukkah, Sacaea, Saturnalia, Yalda, Dosmoche, Chaomos -- the Buddhist festival of the broken needles --" Blair manhandled the tree the rest of the way through the door, then scrambled over it and began dragging it through the apartment. "You'd be amazed, man, nearly every single culture has some light-related festival this time of year. It is so cool. You just light a candle or hang some leaves, and you're part of human rituals stretching back to the Stone Age." His voice came filtering through a faceful of greenery.
"Here," Jim said, taking the other side, and -- "Damn! What's so heavy down ... jesus, Sandburg, that pot must weigh forty pounds empty! You couldn't just cut a tree?"
"Oh, kill a perfectly healthy tree and drag its corpse into the living room, Jim," Blair panted. "Way to celebrate the festival of rebirth and eternal life."
"I'm not talking, you know, clubbing to death a cuddly endangered baby free-range fir tree, Sandburg," Jim grumbled. "I'm talking about going to a nice clean farm, where trees are raised knowing that their destiny is to be Christmas trees --"
"It's just the principle, man," Blair said. "I don't want dead stuff in the living room for solstice. It seems like bad luck or something. Besides, this is more, you know, green -- I mean metaphorically. They drop off the tree, we enjoy it until January, they pick it up and keep it healthy until next year. No clogging up the landfill."
Jim raised his eyebrows at Blair over the branches.
"No dragging a dead tree down the back steps in the middle of a cold January rain, Jim, think about that."
"I see your point." Jim nodded toward the wall. "In front of the window?"
"Yeah, sounds good, if there's an electrical outlet close by," Blair said. "Not too close to the fireplace, though."
"Outlet's right there," Jim said. "So where did you get this fine environmentally correct tree?"
Blair straightened up, sighing. "I'm renting it from the Boy Scouts," he said. "I decided that my qualms about the organization didn't balance out against my objections to killing a tree for a month of enjoyment --"
"You have qualms about the Boy Scouts? What else do you object to? Apple pie? Snoopy?" Jim was brushing needles off his chest.
"Naw, man, Snoopy's the greatest, he represents the awesome power of the imagination and the centrality of narrative in human life," Blair said. "But the Scouts ... I just don't know. Quasi-military hierarchy, uniforms, Pledge of Allegiance, semi-official requirement of heterosexuality and Christianity ... I just don't know." He shook his head. "But they rent a great tree."
"Quasi-military," Jim snorted. "I'll tell you what. If you read the Boy Scout mission statement you might find something to object to, but in real life, scouting is all about three things." He counted them off, with mock seriousness, on his fingers. "Number one: You've got to be able to sleep anywhere. Number two: You've got to be able to piss in front of other people. And number three: You've got to be able to eat anything, no matter how rank. It's great preparation for adult life."
"If that's what adult life means to you, it explains a whole lot," Blair said. "So where do you keep your Christmas tree ornaments?"
"Don't have any."
"None? Not a one?"
"Not a one, Sandburg. Carolyn brought them with her when we got married, and Carolyn took them when she went."
Blair opened his mouth and then shut it again. "All right," he said, "put on your coat, we'll go buy some."
"Shit," Jim said, one arm already in his coat, and they went back out into the slush.
"Man, it's like full metal Santa in here," Blair said, looking in awe at the trees hanging from the ceiling of the discount giant. "You want plastic holly plants? Red and green trash bags? Here, uh, chocolate sardines? I know you're gonna want some of those bayberry candles, man, and that musical garland ... aw, come on, Jim, just dial down and get it over with," because Jim was stopped dead on the threshold as impatient shoppers squeezed around him.
Jim finally staggered forward. "Now I remember why I try never to buy anything but milk from Thanksgiving to New Year's," he said. "All right, let's split up and do this fast. You get ornaments and I'll get lights and I'll meet you at the checkout in fifteen minutes. And -- hey! Sandburg!" he shouted as they separated. "No tinsel!"
"Aw, man!" Blair pawed through Jim's shopping basket. "White lights? No colors? No chaser bulb? No adapter to make them flash in time with the music?"
Jim put his hand over his eyes. "Run over to Aisle Nine and grab me some aspirin, will you, Sandburg?"
"No, no, no. You plug the lights in before you put them on," Blair said. "It's more fun that way."
"No," Jim said patiently, "you leave them all off until you're done, and then when you turn them on you get the full effect. You postpone gratification, ever hear of that, Sandburg?"
"Yeah, from people who don't know how to have any fun," Blair said. "What are you doing? Can we get on with it?"
"I am getting in with it," Jim said from under the tree. "Hand me that duct tape, will you?'
"What the heck are you doing under there?"
"I'm running the extension cord up the trunk," Jim said patiently. "The plug will be in the middle of the trunk, and all the lights can plug into there."
"Shit," Blair muttered. "Have yourself an efficient little Christmas, man." He handed Jim the duct tape. "I'm feeling bored and useless here, Jim, which is really warping my Christmas spirit."
"Well, go put on some music, then," Jim said. "You want Christmas music, look under G in the jazz section."
"Section 5, row R-3, subcategory 239-X," Blair muttered as he made his way to the CD shelves. "You'd better not mean G as in Kenny, man, or I'll have to ... oh wow! Oh, man, Jim, this is the greatest!" He was grinning his widest grin as he started up the stereo and the cast of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" sang out a melancholy "Christmastime is here ..."
Even surrounded by evergreen branches, Jim could smell the cinnamon. "Whatcha making?" he called into the kitchen.
"Mulled cider," Blair said. "Mulled apple juice, actually, but it will have to do."
"Good idea," Jim said. "By the time it's hot, I'll be done with the lights and you can hang the ornaments."
"Great. Why don't you put that Sentinel nose to use and tell me where the whole cloves went to?"
"Top row, between the cinnamon and the curry," Jim said, smiling.
"Whoa!" Blair's brown ragg socks came into Jim's line of vision. "Jim, man, this is incredible, you never told me you ... aw, shit. You're yankin' my chain, aren't you?" He aimed a soft kick at Jim's thigh. "Dickhead."
"Gotcha," Jim said. "But that is where the cloves are. Unless you decided to stick them under the sink with the garbage bags."
"Colonial tradition," Blair said. He hung the glass pickle, which was a poisonous green, on one of the lower branches. "Supposed to be good luck. I don't feel I can afford to turn down any source of luck I might find, you know?"
"Well, Chief, you got a nice selection in so little time, I have to admit," Jim said. "I figured you'd just buy a couple of boxes of those glass things."
"Bo-ring," Blair pronounced. "I mean, it's bad enough to have to buy all the ornaments at one time in one store instead of, I don't know, going up to the attic to bring down the battered old box with all your traditional decorations in it. The least I could do is pick them out one by one."
"What is that, a Christmas giraffe?"
"There's a whole bunch of animals in there. I thought they were cool." Blair hung a kangaroo, stepped back consideringly, then moved it to a higher branch.
"So you're all into these Christmas traditions, why don't you have a battered old box of ornaments?"
"Oh no. It's Grandma who's supposed to have the ornaments. A rolling stone gathers no tinsel, Jim. Here, put this one over there; I don't want two fish together." Blair began snapping hollow crescent moons over some of the lights. "I mean, I didn't exactly have the kind of childhood that gets you a battered box of traditional anything, you know?"
"Mm, I can see that," Jim said. "Did you celebrate Christmas at all?"
"Sometimes," Blair said. "I mean, of course we didn't celebrate the religious Christmas. The other stuff sort of depended on that year's enthusiasm. We did a menorah I think twice, and we did the Santa Claus thing a few times, and one year in Naomi's Wicca phase we did Sunreturn, with all-night singing around the bonfire, which was cool." He picked through the ornament bag. "I need something red over here."
Jim handed him a cardinal.
"Thanks," Blair said. "I mean, when I say it that way it sounds pathetic, but it wasn't, man, it was an adventure to do something different every year, you know? But if you're going to bother to do a Christmas tree, you ought to do it right." He dug into the bag again. "Oh, here's the topper," he said, and held out a near-life-size Grinch head. "I couldn't resist. Tall guy puts it on the tree. That's the rule."
"So did you have anything in mind for dinner?" Jim said.
"No, not really. Anything good in the fridge?"
"Not much," Jim said with his head inside the refrigerator. "Wait a minute. There's almost all that Thai garlic shrimp from Thursday. If we make some rice, that'll be enough for both of us."
"Cool," Blair said. "In parts of Italy, seafood is the traditional Christmas eve feast. Of course, they make, what is it, twelve different seafood dishes for the twelve apostles?"
Jim snorted. "How about twelve shrimp each?" He put the water on to boil.
9. Yule log
"You know what we need? We need a fire," Blair said.
"How about you finish these dishes and I'll start one."
By the time Jim came back with an armload of firewood from the storage closet, Blair was hanging up the towel. "Did you know," he said, "that the original Yule Log was a solstice vigil designed to symbolize the sun on the longest night in the year?"
"Mm?" Jim asked distractedly from the fireplace.
"Yeah. It was supposed to burn all night long. Terrible, terrible bad luck if it went out. Many cultures consider this to be a dangerous time of year, you know, barriers are thin and strange things can creep into the world if you're not careful. You want some more cider if I heat it up?"
"Sure," Jim said.
"So what was your Christmas like when you were a kid?"
"It was pretty nice, I guess." Jim was crumpling newspapers for kindling.
"And I guess when you were with Carolyn you did a tree and all?"
"Holidays really sucked, if you wanna know the truth," Jim said. "Carolyn always had to work late -- Fourth of July weekend, her birthday, you name it. Got to be almost a joke. And then there was the Thanksgiving when I was elbow-deep in turkey stuffing and I got called in help arrest a naked arsonist." He grunted with satisfaction as the first log began to catch. "We finally figured out that we'd have more fun if we just dropped the whole Good Housekeeping thing. That Christmas Eve when we were married, we went out to the latest late show of the tackiest movie we could find and then picked up a pizza and ate it on the living room floor at midnight."
He brushed his hands off and went to the stereo to put in a new CD. A beatnik-style Jingle Bells poured out of the speakers.
"Hey, cool, what is that?" Blair said, taking the case out of Jim's hand. "Oh, yeah, you bought this for the music and not for the chick in the Santa miniskirt," he grinned.
"Yeah, right," Jim said. "Bring the cider and turn out the lights, and we'll light up the tree."
"Whoa," breathed Blair from the couch as the tree lights came on.
Jim grinned over his shoulder at him. "Told you it was better to wait until it was all set up before you turned the lights on."
"That's beautiful," Blair said. Jim came and sat next to him on the couch, and they sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the fire and watching the tree.
"So, listen," Jim said. "Like I said, I didn't know if you celebrated Christmas, so I, uh, didn't get you anything."
" 's OK," Blair said. "I didn't get you anything either."
"Good," Jim said.
There was another short silence, broken only by a woman's soft voice singing that her mother was in the kitchen, cookin' up a storm. Lit by the fire, their reflections were dimly visible in the window.
"So, Jim," Blair said. "Spirit of the season, man, thanks for all this, you know? I mean, for letting me, like, take over your life, move into your house, and stuff."
Jim shook his head, almost angrily. "Don't thank me," he said. "I mean, I've got a good list here too, starting with little things like pushing me out of the way of fast-moving trucks."
"You're welcome, man, any time," Blair said, smiling. "Any time you've got a garbage truck bearing down on you, I'm your guy."
Jim looked into the fire. "There's things I ought to say more often," he said. "These last few months, since you've been living here ... Well, I mean, I needed your help. For the senses. And that's great, it's great to know I can count on you. I know all this was more than you really signed on for and you've really, your improvisational talent is amazing.
"But that's not ... " He sighed. "It was lonesome around here. Before. I didn't even know it until I had somebody to come home to. And you, with all your weird stuff, I never know when I open the door what I'm gonna see, what I'm gonna hear, it's wild." He gave Blair a shy smile. "Living with you is fun."
Blair looked at Jim and grinned. "Fuck this manly shit," he said, and launched himself across the couch, crushing Jim into a breath-stealing hug. Jim hugged him back, awkwardly, one-armed.
"Love you, man," Blair said into Jim's neck.
Jim closed his eyes. "You too," he said very softly.
After a few moments Blair sat back, leaning his elbow on the back of the couch. "You were lonesome?" he said. Jim nodded. "Me too," said Blair.
Jim looked at him, baffled. "You have a million friends," he said. "You've got the phone ringing all day long, girls you just met start showing up on Saturday mornings to see if you're busy. You can get in five conversations between the door of the restaurant and the table."
"Those aren't friends, Jim," Blair said patiently. "Those are people I'm friendly with, but they're not friends. Pseudofriends. Semifriends."
"What's the difference?"
Blair frowned. "It's, I don't know, I can't put my finger on it. But. OK, you get mad at me sometimes."
"That proves I'm your friend?"
"Yeah," Blair said. "Before I met you, it was getting to where the only person who could be bothered to get mad at me was Naomi."
"Well, hey, if it'll prove my affection, I'll yell more," Jim said. "You're not lonesome any more?"
"Uh-uh." Blair was looking at the fire and rubbing one sock-clad foot on the rug. Jim looked at him narrowly and smiled a small smile.
"Just how much of this manly shit," he said slowly, "are you willing to dispense with?"
"What?" Blair almost squeaked.
"C'mere." Jim closed the small space between them and wrapped his arm around Blair.
Blair looked up at him dubiously. "James Ellison, are you making a pass at me?"
"Mhm," Jim said, giving Blair's shoulder a companionable squeeze. "Am I getting anywhere?"
"You got it all backwards, man," Blair said. "First the pass, then the relationship, then you get them to move in with you." He leaned his cheek down against Jim's hand. "You're serious, aren't you."
"Yeah," Jim said.
"This would ... this would change everything, you know."
"Yeah," Jim said again. "I'm ready."
"Yeah, OK, me too," Blair said a little breathlessly, and he placed an awkward kiss on Jim's jaw.
Jim touched Blair's face. "You done the guy thing before?"
Blair leaned into the touch. "No, actually," he said. "But you have this high opinion of my improvisational talent ..."
"I do, yes," Jim said, and kissed him hard.
12. Santa Claus
Wrapped up in kisses, Jim slid down until he was lying on his back and Blair was leaning on his chest. "This was a good idea," Blair said.
"You sound like we decided to rent a video or something, Sandburg," Jim said, and he pushed his hands up under Blair's sweater, and Blair arched up and took a shuddery breath as Jim's warm hands slid up his back.
"Are you gonna --" He swallowed hard as Jim's hands came around his ribcage. "Are you still gonna be calling me Sandburg when we're naked?"
Jim found his nipples and pinched them, not quite gently. "Blair," he said. "Blair," and he pushed them both up and pulled Blair's sweater off and lowered his mouth to tongue a nipple. "Blair."
"Ahh," Blair said. He pulled weakly at Jim's denim shirt. Jim pulled it off over his head and dove back down on the other nipple. Blair's hands explored his shoulders as far as they could reach, then came up to cup the back of his head.
Jim moved his mouth up, licking Blair's collarbone, the underside of his chin, his ear. His hands skimmed down to hook in Blair's waistband. "Can I?" he said into Blair's ear.
"Like I ... like I'm gonna say no," Blair said.
"You can," Jim whispered.
"I won't," Blair said. "Anything, you can do anything to me."
Jim ran his tongue down the side of Blair's neck while his hands unfastened Blair's jeans. Blair thrust his hips up, pushing his cock into Jim's hands through the thick layer of his briefs, and then Blair made an impatient noise and shoved both garments off.
Jim sat back to look at his friend, naked in the light of the tree, breathing fast and looking at him with a rather lost expression. Jim kissed him. "It's OK," he said. "Let me do this." And he pushed Blair's knees apart and knelt between them, and stroked Blair's cock reverently with his fingertips, and then took it in his mouth.
"Oh god -- oh shit," Blair panted. "Jim, oh god, wait, I wanted, I can't --" and before Jim could make a third stroke Blair was coming, throbbing in his mouth, one hand fisted in the cushion and one holding hard to the back of Jim's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting, so different, I didn't know it would feel --"
Jim came back up on the couch and gathered Blair up in his arms and kissed him softly. "Sh," he whispered. "It was good, it was good, I wanted that, I wanted to make you come. Blair," he sighed.
"God, Jim," Blair said, lips moving against Jim's jaw. "I can't believe how that felt. I can't believe this is real." He ran his hand over Jim's shoulder, down his arm, interlaced their fingers briefly, then made the return journey up the center of Jim's chest. "Tell me what you want."
Jim took Blair's moving hand and slid it across his chest to his nipple. "Ohh," he said as Blair took the hint, rubbing gentle circles around it before rolling it between his finger and thumb. "Yeah." Then he took Blair's hand again and pushed it down his body to cup his cock through his jeans.
Blair was watching Jim's face, raptly. Jim laid his head against the back of the couch as curious fingers explored him through his jeans. He could see the tree lights faintly even with his eyes closed.
"Do you want to touch me?" he asked hoarsely.
"God, yes," Blair said, and Jim unbuttoned his jeans.
"Boxers," Blair said. He was touching tentatively, still exploring. Jim lifted the waistband away from his body, and Blair's warm fingers moved inside to stroke and slide, still moving slowly, a little uncertain. "I'll -- if you want me to --" he said.
Jim pushed jeans and boxers down to his thighs and then hooked his hand around the back of Blair's head. "I want your hand," he said, "and I want you to kiss me."
Blair closed his eyes and licked Jim's lower lip, slowly, and his hand tightened and found a rhythm as the kiss deepened. Then he moved just a fraction out of the kiss and brought his hand up and licked his palm, and Jim growled and licked it too, and Blair's breath caught. He wrapped his wet hand around Jim's cock and finally, finally gave Jim the pressure and the speed that he needed. Jim began to push his hips up into Blair's grip.
"God, you're hot," Blair whispered against his mouth. "Did you know I'd been thinking about you like this?"
"Didn't know -- hoped --" Jim panted. "Faster. Please."
"Yeah," Blair said, "I've imagined doing this to you so many times, Jim," and he bit Jim's lip and pumped him hard and Jim gasped and thrust up hard, twice, three times, and then he was coming, holding Blair's hand with his own, showing him how to ease the pressure, slow the rhythm, take him through, bring him home.
Blair kissed him gently, and dipped a curious finger in the puddle on his belly, and brought it to his mouth. "God, Blair," Jim said, and pulled him down for a long, soft kiss.
Then Blair reached across Jim to snag his shirt and used it to mop him off, and tugged at his jeans. "On or off would be more dignified," he said.
"Oh, now you're worried about dignity?" Jim pushed his pants off, then slid down again to lie on his back on the couch, bringing Blair down on top of him. "You OK with this?"
Blair nodded enthusiastically. "I am so OK with this, you wouldn't believe how OK I am," he said. "I'm going to have to write a nice thank-you to Santa Claus."
"You know, nice as this is," Jim said after a long contented silence, "I don't think two people can sleep on this couch."
"Hey, you said you could sleep anywhere, Boy Scout," Blair said.
"Yeah. I also said I'd eat anything."
"Oh, such a flattering comparison, man." Blair started to sit up, but slid to the floor. "Oof," he said. "Gonna have to practice that 'getting off of a naked man' maneuver." He began gathering up their clothes.
"Come upstairs with me?" Jim asked.
Blair looked at him. "Sure," he said.
Jim swallowed. "I mean, move in with me?"
Blair smiled, and then he stood up and wrapped his arms around Jim and kissed him. "Yeah," he said. "Love to."
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