BEST OF DAYS
Sometime well after midnight, in that magic time between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, Buck Wilmington popped awake like he'd been poked with a stick. The bedroom was nearly pitch black, and what little light there was seeped from under the door to the hall; company meant leaving the light on or hearing their friends bumping into the furniture every time somebody went to the head. He yawned silently and listened carefully to his sleeping partner while he waited for his eyes to adjust. It couldn't be two a.m. yet, the house was that quiet, and the sound of faint snoring from the familiar lump beside him told Buck that Chris was dead to the world. Chris would stay that way too, unless Buck disturbed him unnecessarily.
Buck eased onto his side to press himself against Chris's back, and slid his palm over his very favorite part of a body, woman or man. The smooth skin that stretched over the curve of Chris's lean hip felt powder-soft and furnace-warm, and his body twitched, unconsciously pushing back against Buck. Buck sighed, breathing in the smell of wheat-colored hair and his man. He couldn't even imagine how his life could get any better than it was right this minute.
Okay, maybe it had been even better a couple of hours ago....
He let his hand wander an inch or two further forward, until his fingertips just brushed the first soft hairs of Chris's groin. He didn't aim to arouse, but this little bit of disturbing was absolutely necessary, and if Buck didn't have things to do he might have disturbed Chris a whole lot more. It was approaching Christmas morning, after all, and there was no present in the world better than the one wrapped up in sheets and blankets beside him.
Exercising restraint few people gave him credit for having, Buck eased out from under the covers. He felt around for his Christmas bathrobe--red-and-green plaid that Chris said he ought to wear year-round, but that just wasn't gonna happen--and cinched it tight in the dark before slipping out of the bedroom.
Damn! The hardwood floor felt like ice on his bare feet. The air inside the house had a deeper chill than it'd had when they'd gone to bed, which pretty much confirmed the weather report; more snow had ridden in on a cold front that was taking the temperature outside far below freezing. Buck chafed at his arms, wondering how much snow they'd wake up to as he opened the basement door. Buck Wilmington was a man on a mission, and he didn't care what anybody said; even manly men liked special treatment, even if it was just from their manly friends. He snatched up his hidden Hefty bag of surprise presents, wrapped his arms around it to keep things in there quiet, and headed back upstairs.
It took work to climb the open plank stairs in the dark with his hands full. He succeeded, though, and pushed the door open silently, equally silently slipping into the hall and snicking the door shut behind him. Craftily he turned toward the living room, and just barely avoided dropping the garbage bag and waking up the whole damned house when he almost bumped into Vin. Vin was just standing there smiling, white teeth shining in the dim light, clearly pleased to have just scared the hell out of Buck in his own damned house.
If his hands weren't full, he'd have thumped Vin in the chest like the man deserved. But Vin looked so pleased with himself, Buck didn't even waste breath complaining. "Take something," he hissed instead, and shoved the garbage bag into Vin's arms.
"I didn't volunteer to play Santa," Vin said, too filled with energy and good nature for this time of morning, but he dutifully held the sack and followed Buck toward the den. "JD was still up last time I went to the john," Vin warned in a quiet whisper.
JD had unrolled a sleeping bag on the couch in the den so he could sleep with the Christmas tree and the fireplace. "Go check," Buck whispered back.
Vin eased up to the doorframe and ducked his head forward quick, like he expected to come under fire, and pulled back just as fast. A hand signal--ok--had Buck edging around Vin and into the den.
Christmas lights and the light from the dying fire painted a damned romantic picture that was ruined completely for Buck by the sound of JD mumbling in his sleep. Should've told JD and Vin to go home last night, he thought to himself. That way, it could've been him and Chris in here. He wouldn't have wasted effort on the couch, though. Nosirree, he'd have spread a big quilt out between the tree and the fireplace, stretched Chris across it and--
"Just don't say whatever it is you're thinking," Vin muttered, and Buck chuckled. Wasn't like being in love embarrassed him, after all, and the whole world knew that sex didn't.
He looked back at JD, who had somehow twisted the sleeping bag half off his body without rolling off the couch. "You don't need to worry about the kid," Buck told Vin in a normal speaking voice. "Long as you don't sound sneaky or say his name, he'll sleep through anything."
"Yeah," Buck replied.
"Okay, fine," Vin said, and set the bag down by the tree.
Buck was already on his knees trying to figure out how to get Chris's special present hidden back under a big box, but the spread of presents was in his way which, while annoying in the moment, was pretty nice, in the long run.
The first Christmas after Chris had assembled the team, everybody but him and Chris had had less than a month to get to know each other. Chris had boycotted an office holiday and half of the guys had exchanged gifts only after they'd found out that JD had bought everybody something. The year after, nobody had needed prodding to drop gifts on each other's office chairs on the last day of work before Christmas, and Vin had dragged JD out with him on Christmas morning, using the excuse that the horses needed tending and it was a nice thing to do on the holiday. Barn work had kept them out in the cold for half an hour, and the excuse had kept them at the house almost until almost dusk.
It meant a whole lot to Buck that the more time went by, the more holidays they all shared. This year they'd actually planned things right.
Christmas Eve had been drinks and old movies for those of the guys who could make it, and an invitation to sleep over for anybody wanted to stay. Vin and JD had accepted the offer, while everybody else would come out on Christmas morning to exchange gifts, spend a little quality time together away from the office, watch a little football on TV, and then see whether they could manage to cook a decent meal for themselves and a few friends who'd be stopping by throughout the day.
"Give me the bag, will you Vin?" Buck asked, and Vin knelt down by it and started to open it up. "No! Don't open it, just slide it over here."
"They're wrapped, Buck. Ain't like I'm gonna guess just by seeing the paper," Vin said.
"I don't take chances," Buck told him. "Chris has got a knack for looking at the outside of a package and being able to tell you what's inside it like he's got X-ray vision. You'll just have to wait til tomorrow when everybody's here."
"I ain't so sure everybody's gonna make it," Vin said. "Have you seen how that snow's coming down outside?"
Buck hadn't, but he didn't think a little snow would stop Josiah or Nathan, and since Vin was out here already, Buck would bet good money on Ezra showing up even if the guy had to steal a snowmobile from somewhere. "Highway'll be salted or plowed right off," he said. "They'll get here."
"Hope so," Vin said, pensive.
Buck didn't pry. He knew it was Ezra Vin was really thinking about, maybe because Ezra's Jag couldn't handle bad weather like Josiah's Suburban or Nathan's Explorer, but more likely because after almost five years on the job together, Vin and Ezra seemed to be starting something. Buck figured that was why Vin had accepted their invitation to spend the night, to give himself something better to do than sit at home alone while Ezra dealt with his mother.
These days, nothing said "Christmas" to Buck like good friends, good booze, and ribald misbehavior. It said a whole lot about family, that his and Chris's place was home base for all of the guys now. It was enough to warm his heart and--"Ow!" Pine needles poked his cheekbone, barely missing his eye, and Vin started laughing under his breath from the other side of the tree.
Buck glared between the boughs to where Vin, his face tinged a sickly green from the tree lights, leaned, laughing. "Sure your Santa act was worth it, hoss?" Vin asked him.
Buck resisted some choice words, mostly because it was two in the morning and he was still a little high on eggnog and lovemaking, and he couldn't think of any good enough. "Shut up and put these somewhere," he ordered, handing over the rest of the presents.
"Best get this done and get back there before he gets cold," Vin said, sounding mellow enough.
Buck might've said the same to Vin, if Ezra were here. But he had long ago learned not to meddle in the affairs of his friends... okay, not that long ago, and maybe he still meddled when he really wanted to because he liked to see people happy. But Ezra and Vin were grown men and work partners, so he'd been trying to keep his nose out of their business. Still, they were similar in age and temperament, and Buck saw all the ways they were alike, and plenty of ways that their differences complemented each other. He'd seen all of Ezra's prickliness and all of Vin's patience, and he'd seen the way Vin looked at Ezra sometimes, when he thought they were alone.
When everybody'd thought Ezra was straight.
Ezra had made damned sure everyone thought that, playing that undercover role as well as he played any other. When Ezra had finally decided he trusted them enough, or that he wanted Vin enough, to give up that game just last summer, Vin--whooee! He'd been pissed for about five minutes, but he'd had an interest there for far too long, and anger had faded to strategy so fast, it still made Buck smile to think on it.
That meandering train of thought pulled into the station about the time they got finished and backed out of the den. "Thanks, Vin," Buck said quietly. He had high hopes for Vin and Ezra, but if things between them blew up in their faces, the fireworks would rival the Fourth of July. Buck wasn't about to be the guy who'd lit that particular fuse.
Time would tell, and he had better things to think about right now: Chris waiting for him in bed, warm and boneless and smelling that warm, musk-whiskey-man smell that Buck could pick out anywhere.
He squeezed Vin's shoulder, a little wordless support just in case Vin was looking for some, and stepped past him to head back to his and Chris's bedroom. He stripped down as soon as he shut the door behind him, but once he slipped back under the covers he had to wait a minute, until his skin thawed enough to let him take his place against his partner. Skin as cold as Buck's had gotten on his little Christmas cheer delivery run would wake Chris up and in a mood like a stepped-on rattler.
As soon as Buck felt like he'd taken the chill off, he scooted toward the middle of the mattress, and as soon as his shoulder hit that bare spot between the pillows Chris's head rolled back, wedging between the pillow and Buck's biceps, and Buck smiled. Life just didn't get any better than this.
* * *
Buck still thought the same thing a couple of hours later when he floated up again from sleep. The house had gone from cold to freezing as the weather front had moved through, and it was still full dark outside. Stifling a yawn, he rolled over and reached for his wristwatch, fumbling for the button to light up the face: 5:15. Damn, later than he'd thought. Later than Chris's usual 4:45, but then Chris had put away quite a few last night and then he'd done more than right by Buck. Chris deserved to sleep in, and if Buck got out of this bed right now, Chris would.
He dressed fast and well against the deeper chill: his red thermal underwear, wool socks, his jeans and a thick, long-sleeved shirt saw him to the hallway and the thermostat. The fan, set on low, couldn't keep up against the cold encroaching from outside. Buck kicked it up a notch and nudged the thermostat up to 72. The house would be nice and cozy by the time he got back inside.
Even though the kitchen lights were off, somebody else was already up because coffee already half-filled the pot. He poured himself a big mug in the dark, opened the refrigerator and blinked against the light as he added milk and turned back to the counter to enjoy his first cup in the dark. It was good, better than his and Chris's usual supermarket stuff. He wondered if Ezra had decided to brave the drive before too much snow fell, and peered out the kitchen window.
Damn! The northeasters had delivered on their promise, dumping piles of snow before they blew a cold front in that had settled into the Denver basin. The moon hung low in the sky, almost set but plenty bright to reflect off all of that new snow. Yesterday, the view had been all brown and gray: winter-dead grasses, slushy mud puddles, and a few patches of dirty snow where trees or topography protected them from winter sun. Now it was a nighttime wonderland in stark black-and-white, deep shadows of night made starker by the thick blanket of snow.
He gulped down his coffee fast, determined to get out there and be the first to put footprints in all that white, and was just turning for the mudroom door when booted footsteps clunked quietly up the hall. Buck worried that Chris had gotten up after all, but it was Vin, already dressed down to his boots and holding his lined leather gloves in his hands.
"Hey, Buck," he greeted quietly. "Thought I'd give y'all an early Christmas present, take care of the horses this mornin'."
Buck nodded thanks, but he still wanted to mark up that virgin snow outside. "Wouldn't say no to the help, unless you don't want company."
Vin grinned back. "Wouldn't say no to the help."
Buck and Vin drained the first pot between the two huge mugs they filled for themselves and the silver bullet thermos Buck filled for Chris. He filled a glass with water and shook out a couple of pain pills, sliding them all toward Vin. "Do me a favor," he said as he started a second pot. "Take that stuff into our bedroom and put it on my nightstand."
"I ain't gonna wake him up?"
Buck shrugged. "You might, but you've got a better chance of getting in and out than me, this time of morning." He hesitated before adding, "He says I start fondling him in my sleep just before his alarm goes off." It wasn't the kind of thing he usually shared with folks, but it was Vin--and the idea of it was still kind of cute to Buck even after all these years.
Vin snorted startled amusement. "Damn, Buck! That really true?"
Buck shrugged. Chris had said it often enough, but he'd never been sure Chris wasn't just teasing him. "Guess you'd have to ask him."
Vin grabbed the thermos, glass, and pills. "Guess I wouldn't," he replied, laughing as he left the kitchen.
Buck turned toward the mudroom. The solid-core door did a good job of keeping out the cold, but the old brass doorknob felt like ice. When he pushed open the door the cold hit him hard even though he was ready for it, and his coat and boots felt frozen stiff. Sliding into them made him colder than he'd been without them, so he swung his arms around and stomped around to get his blood moving.
Vin joined him a minute later. "He's dead to the world in there." He cast a critical eye over Buck. "Thought you'd be worn out too this morning--unless you two carrying on on the way to bed last night was all show?"
"I'm like a professional athlete; the more I do it, the better I feel," Buck said with a leer, and pushed open the mudroom door. Vin pulled on his gloves while Buck stomped into cold boots and a colder overcoat and grabbed up his own work gloves, moving fast now to warm up. Vin was right on his heels when he stepped out onto the side porch and got hit by air so cold it burned at his lungs.
"God damn, I thought it was cold in the mudroom," Buck whispered, and breathed through his cupped hands to try and better the situation. The warm air he exhaled looked like thick white smoke.
"It was," Vin muttered beside him. Vin hunched his shoulders up and ducked further into his sheepskin collar. "Pretty enough to be worth it though," he added, voice low and reverent.
It was. Frigid air didn't take anything away from the view, and he had the full panorama now that he'd missed through the kitchen window: brilliant gray everywhere of moonlit snow, stars so bright and big in the cold, thin air, Buck felt like he could reach up and pull one down from the sky. Drifts had pushed up against the tree line, house, Vin's Jeep , and one side of the barn had a drift long and smooth enough that it looked like the barn roof just extended to the ground.
All this quiet beauty, broken only by the sounds of his and Vin's hard breaths and the scrunch of boots packing snow, made Buck feel like he was standing right inside a Christmas card.
He took it all in as he led the way up to the barn, feeling for the path under what must bee six inches of new snow. Even in his gloves, his hands were stiff enough that unlatching the barn gate took a couple of tries.
"Arthritis settin' in, Buck?" Vin teased.
"Keep laughing, smart guy," Buck muttered back. As a rule, he didn't mind being laughed at, didn't mind whatever it took to make a party merry, but right now his fingers ached with the and all he wanted was to get this damned steel chain unhooked. When he did, Vin stepped through the space, reached the barn first and swung up the wooden latch, opening the door wide.
Buck shut it behind himself. Barns were by design drafty places, but the hay stacked evenly across the loft combined with the heat generated by eight horses and two dogs in their straw-lined crates still made it noticeably warmer in here.
"Nice," he said, tugging off his gloves to flex his fingers and flip on the barn lights and water heaters. He whistled low to see if the dogs were willing to come out and say hello, and snorted when he barely got a whuff from the corner where they slept.
"Sooner we get to work, the sooner we'll get warm," Vin said, but Buck knew that Vin was more interested in spoiling his horse. Vin had a box of treats for Peso that he'd started sneaking to Chaucer too, spoiling both horses almost as much as Buck coddled his own gray.
"Worth it then," he agreed jovially, and gave Vin's shoulder a good-natured slap. Barn work was its own routine, even if Buck's share usually happened in the evenings. Vin came up after work a few days a week to pitch in, so even the company was familiar. Theirs was a ten-stall barn, but in the winters, the friendlier horses shared big box stalls: Merry and Quinn, Seeker and Chaucer, Beavis and Pony. Peso got his own stall because he tended to bite if he had to share a feed bin.
Vin grabbed the wheelbarrow and a pitchfork and started mucking stalls while Buck checked the heaters on the water troughs, using an old piece of pipe to break through the thin layer of ice in one problem trough. Merry, too lazy to crack the ice herself, sidled up almost immediately and nudged him out of the way so she could drink.
"Kid don't deserve you," Buck said fondly, scratching her behind the ear as he watched her long neck work. She wasn't really JD's horse; only Chris, Buck, Vin, and Ezra actually owned any of the animals here, but Buck and Chris, with Vin's help, kept the other mounts well-schooled enough that JD, Nathan, and Josiah--whose horse skills weren't completely useless, but weren't much to brag about either--could take them out when they wanted. The guys compensated by chipping in on maintenance costs, but since last summer when Ezra had bought Chaucer off Chris, Ezra liked to complain that the other guys were taking advantage by not shelling out more cash. Of course, everybody was shelling out more than Ezra had before he'd bought his horse, but Ezra was as happy to ignore facts in favor of a good story as Buck was.
Ezra had just bought this gelding last summer, and more than any single thing, that purchase had clued Buck into just how interested in Vin Ezra really was. "What about it, you matchmaking?" he asked the horse. He smiled when he got no answer and slipped out, heading to the next stall, and the next.
By the time Buck had made the rounds to all four stalls in use, his bare hand was freezing from the metal pipe. He stuck the pipe back into the bucket it lived in and stuffed his hands back into his gloves. You just couldn't properly appreciate an animal with gloves on, and that was all there was to it.
"Vin!" he called up the aisle. "What're you up to?"
"Peso," Vin's disembodied voice called from the back of the barn. Vin's horse had a stall across the barn aisle from Pony and Beavis; those two stalls were the biggest, and the ones best suited for strong-willed animals.
Buck grabbed a second pitchfork and helped rake out soiled straw and load it for compost. Vin rolled the wheelbarrow out while Buck flaked fresh straw into each stall. He was about to go for the box cutter and hay for feeding when Vin approached him and tilted his head toward the barn door. "Come here," Vin invited, quiet.
Buck followed, happy to indulge; Chris did all of this every morning--most of them alone--and said he liked it that way, that it helped him wake up properly, for which Buck was eternally grateful.
Vin led him out the barn door and into the barn yard. The sun had crested the mountains, bright white and cutting through the winter chill better than Buck had expected it to.
"Warming up," Vin said, musing.
Buck nodded agreement. "Thermostat at the house said minus eight when we left. Might be a little above zero, by now."
Vin cocked his head. "Warm enough to work the horses, you think?"
"What, now?" Buck asked. He didn't quite mean to squeak, but there was a warm house, and coffee, and Christmas presents and Chris and whiskey waiting for him.
Vin smirked. "Gonna have to do it sometime. Won't get any easier once we start drinkin'."
It wouldn't. Damn it. He'd had plans that involved an encore to Chris's performance in bed last night.
"Oh, don't even make that face," Vin derided, waving his hand. "Even if you're up for more all the time, ain't no way Chris is gonna let you at him sober with a bunch of us awake in the house listening."
"Nobody asked you to listen," Buck pointed out. Buck knew though, that entertaining the idea of more lovemaking was more habit than expectation on his part. Chris was no prude, but he was a surprisingly accommodating host. He'd no more stay in bed all morning with company in the house than he'd take sick days from work just to play hooky.
They opened the run-outs and scattered a bale of hay for the rest of the horses, and saddled up Merry and Quinn. Both mares were feeling their oats about now and could use the extra work, especially if JD or Nathan actually wanted to ride them any time soon. They were both good guys with great intentions, but they didn't have the love of horses Vin had, or the convenience of the ranch that Buck and Chris had, to be great horsemen.
He and Vin spent half an hour on the pair and decided to repeat the task with Seeker and Chaucer. When Buck ambled out of the barn hauling Chaucer's tack in his arms, he paused to squint toward the house. It looked just like he'd imagined in the dark: post-card perfect, with the sunlight slanting off the snow on the roof and the glass of the windows. Smoke puffed out the chimney, giving it an even more old-timey look. He could imagine a horse-drawn sleigh jingling over the rolling field between the house and the state road, and sighed his pleasure.
Better yet, Chris was in there somewhere. The knowledge made a pretty picture seem just about like heaven. He turned back to Chaucer and saddled the gelding; Chris would still be there when Buck got done.
* * *
Traditionally, Chris Larabee was an early riser. He was a sound sleeper, needed no more than five or six hours a night, and had a familiar routine that involved getting to the barn before either Buck or the sun were up and communing with the stock, mucking out stalls and flaking fresh hay while the dogs frolicked and his body warmed up from the work. Traditionally, though, they didn't have friends sleeping over on Christmas Eve. Traditionally he didn't get high enough on heavily spiked eggnog and whiskey shots to accept Buck's advances with a house full of company and wake up not exactly sure where he'd lost left clothes.
They'd been bad boys last night, he thought with a private smile. Hustling each other down the hall like teenagers, unable to hold in their laughter at either JD's teasing or Josiah's sanctimonious critique on their maturity. They'd locked the bedroom door and just fallen all over each other, hot and hard enough to work up a serious sweat before the moment seized Chris and he'd remembered.
Putting Adam to bed, locking the bedroom door, and something that could only and ever be called lovemaking after that, as connected as a husband and wife could be.
"Hey," Buck said from beneath him, eyes alight with amusement and pleasure.
"What're you laughing at?" Chris asked, trying to make the question sound dangerous.
"Nothing," Buck said, and pushed his hips up, his erection hard and warm as it slid along Chris's own. "Just happy you remembered."
Buck didn't say anything more, and Chris was grateful. During special moments he almost always thought of Sarah, of his old life, brief waves of memory that broke into the present; sometimes they saddened him, but more often than not these days, they didn't. "Yeah, I remembered," Chris said, not so sad now. In fact, he was happy to be right where he was, with a man who'd known him so long and loved him in spite of everything he'd learned on the road to this place, this bed, this life of theirs. He slid his knees in between Buck's. "What do you want?"
Buck's smile didn't fade, but his arms tightened around Chris's ribcage, his knees spread wider, and his chest lifted on a deeply indrawn breath. Blue eyes met his unflinchingly, wide open and unashamed in the presence of strong emotion. "I've already got all I want."
Chris felt the smile stretch his face and burrowed a little deeper under the covers. Well, he clearly remembered why and how he'd gotten naked, so the rest wasn't such a mystery. Buck succeeded at getting him naked more often than not, even when his goal didn't involve sweat and come and satisfaction.
He stretched a hand out to check; Buck's side of the bed was cold.
Still, Chris stayed under the covers, going so far as to tug the comforter up to his neck and get his cold shoulder back into the warmth. He had no complaints about how last night had gone, not even in the face of the ribbing he'd get when he finally got up. His body felt too sated, lax and loose even hours later, like his wrung-out muscles didn't know how to tighten back up again.
He might have complained about waking up alone, if Buck had been there to complain to.
Chris frowned and shook his head, then pushed himself up on a straight arm. The sun was definitely off the horizon; he really had slept late.
He squinted as he peered out the window at morning sunlight reflecting too brightly off what looked like a foot of new snow. The sunlight slanted through the blinds to paint the bed in stark stripes and burn his retinas. It was a hell of a lot later than usual; it had to be past seven.
His head throbbed gently. Josiah made eggnog the color of straight 151.
When he blinked blearily toward Buck's nightstand, he groaned with unadulterated love for his partner: there sat ibuprofen, a full glass of water, and a silver bullet thermos that had to contain coffee.
Chris rubbed briefly at his eyes, blocking out the morning for one more second, then scrubbed his fingers through his hair and flopped onto his belly to crawl across the rumpled bed. He took the pills, gulped down the glass of water, and opened the bullet thermos to sniff the rich aroma of Ezra Standish's private stash. He smiled.
It really was Christmas.
Chris was a man blessed with quick recovery time, so it only took about ten minutes for the headache to recede, the water to revive, and the coffee to demand more of his attention. It was good stuff, rich and smooth and satisfying. He still had houseguests, and the rest of the team would be filtering in before long. He propped pillows up against the headboard and held the last of the coffee in both hands, feeling the caffeine slide into his veins as he listened to the rhythms of home. Seemed like maybe he wasn't the only man still in bed; the house still had that sense of people sleeping.
Chris was in no hurry to change his state of affairs. It was warm under the covers, and Buck would have already rousted whoever was willing to help see to the horses. Buck would be back to roust him too, if he stayed holed up in here much longer.
That knowledge, and the distant sound of the dogs barking that filtered in from somewhere outside, was enough to finally make Chris drag his ass out of his warm bed. The furnace was working hard but it was still chilly and he dressed in record time, mentally cursing Buck because he couldn't find any wool socks. Buck kept stealing them on laundry day and Chris couldn't figure out where they went after that. Blue thermal underlayers, flannel button-down, and jeans later, Chris took a quick side-trip to the head to piss, brush his teeth and comb his unruly hair, and then headed out into the day. The floor was cold on his bare feet, and mentally he cursed Buck again out of habit. He'd find out where Buck stashed the warm socks if it was the last thing he ever did.
The house smelled just right, aged hardwood and pine needles and coffee. Light flooded in through the double-paned windows in the dining room in spite of the frost that had built up on them. Everything looked like Christmas, from the--he paused briefly to recount--ten? stockings tacked up in the front hall to the quiet thrum of remixed Christmas music to the barking of the dogs outside to Ezra Standish in Chris's kitchen.
Ezra sat reading Chris's newspaper and making a mess of it by the look of things; the various sections had been dissected and spread out in every which direction across the kitchen table. Chris nodded Ezra's way on his way to more coffee.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said. How that man could sound so formal and superior wearing only high-end thermal underwear and matching socks was beyond Chris.
"Mornin', Ezra. When did you get here?"
"I made the trek last night," Ezra replied. "The weather promised an unpleasant drive this morning, and the idea of following a snow plow for two hours was horrific enough to inspire me. So I borrowed Nathan's SUV after I returned my mother to her hotel."
Chris didn't ask what "last night" meant, since Ezra hadn't been here when he and Buck had gone to bed sometime after ten o'clock. He didn't ask if Nathan knew Ezra had borrowed his Explorer, because with Ezra you never knew, and Raine's car could handle the snow just as well. Chris didn't ask if Maude had really kept Ezra out late. He just filled his favorite mug and rested the heels of his hands on the butcher-block counter, and stared out the kitchen window with a smile.
Pine trees along the back of the yard bowed under their blankets of snow. Last night's fresh snowfall made everything look pristine; he had to peer closely to the footprints that led out toward the barn and made the whole scene even more beautiful to him. He knew if he pulled on boots and coat and tromped around outside, he'd find tracks from rabbits or raccoons, maybe a fox or two--maybe even paw prints from the dogs, if they'd decided it wasn't too cold to go exploring when the moon was high.
"Buck and Vin have braved the weather," Ezra said, coolly enough that Chris turned to give Ezra more careful scrutiny.
The newspaper hid most of Ezra, maybe by design. But they guy was here, and he'd clearly been here long enough to have stripped down for sleep or something else. "What's going on with you two, anyway?"
The newspaper in Ezra's hand snapped sharply, but that was Ezra's only tell. "Excuse me?"
Chris waved a hand and parked his hip against the counter, sipping at his coffee. "You don't have to tell me."
"Well, as my superior I'd think you wouldn't wish to know."
"As your superior who's bedded down with a subordinate for the last six years, I don't think I'd have a leg to stand on," Chris pointed out.
Ezra grinned, and finally looked up from his paper. "You do have a point."
Chris moved over to the table, pulled out a chair and dropped into it, close enough to Ezra that he could steal back sections of his newspaper. He wasn't going to ask again. Buck would dig up any dirt worth sharing anyway, and Chris privately thought Ezra and Vin were good for each other. "What're they doing out there?"
Ezra sniffed. "Riding, if you can believe it. In this."
Chris could believe it; the horses needed the work. Buck would be less bundled up than Vin, because Buck never thought about the cold until he was freezing his ass off. Of the pair of them, Vin was the man who planned ahead and Buck was the man who rolled through life like a tumbleweed. "They been out long?" he asked.
Ezra shrugged one shoulder before he answered. "They had Chaucer and Quinn in the practice ring, the last time I looked. They'll be back soon; you don't need to fetch him."
Chris hadn't exactly asked that, but he didn't mind Ezra trying to get in a subtle dig. Probably, he shouldn't have asked about Ezra and Vin, but it tickled Buck and it tickled Chris too. "Think I can live without him for an hour or two, Ezra," he said dryly.
Ezra's voice was barely above a whisper when he replied, "Sometimes I wonder." Before Chris could call him on it, Ezra changed the subject. "JD is still abed," he said, and now he sounded annoyed. "I don't know why you don't have cable in your guest rooms."
"Because we don't have many guests who complain," Chris replied. Ezra Standish was a news junkie, something that made all kinds of sense once you got to know the guy. "You could've gone into the den," Chris pointed out.
Ezra sighed behind his newspaper, then folded it into crisp quarters and set it down. "I can wait."
Chris hid his smile behind a big gulp of his coffee; Ezra was being considerate. JD wouldn't have given him the same courtesy if Ezra'd been sleeping in the only room with decent TV.
"If the house is waking, it's past time to dress," Ezra said to the room at large, and walked out.
Chris emptied his mug and took a few minutes to scan yesterday's headlines until Ezra got back. He definitely looked more like himself, in wool pants and a green sweater, but he was still in his sock feet.
Chris pushed out of his chair, reaching to slap Ezra's shoulder. "Come on," he ordered. "Josiah and Nathan'll be here any minute. Help me make breakfast."
"Must I?" Ezra said, sounding put upon.
"Hey, you could go out to the barn and take care of your horse," he offered. Under his breath he added, "It's Christmas, Ezra." He doubted the holiday meant much to Ezra, but the man was here.
Ezra barely gave him time to retrieve eggs, bacon, and hash browns from the fridge and flour from the cabinet before he heaved a put-upon sigh and stood. "Really? Hash browns come in bags?"
"I told you last week, you could cook anything you wanted to today. I didn't hear you volunteering for breakfast duty."
Ezra sniffed. "I didn't know that not volunteering meant I'd be eating food I could buy in a drive-through."
"Want to drive out and bring something back?" Chris teased. "There's a Jack-in-the-Box a few exits up the interstate."
"Oh shut up," Ezra sniped, retrieving a bowl and breaking eggs into it with polished, one-handed flair. He brightened visibly and added, "At least there's an upside. Anyone willing to eat this for breakfast is going to extremely impressed with dinner."
Chris grinned. He hadn't expected a compliment, and he hadn't been disappointed. "Omelets'd be good," Chris suggested. "Give me time to get the biscuits in first."
Ezra provided more company than actual help for a while, but by the time Chris had dropped the biscuit dough and put the pan in the oven, Ezra was showing himself to be every bit as skilled a cook as Chris knew he was. Ezra scrounged for breakfast-friendly vegetables and cheese and julienned and shaved and sliced while Chris handled the laying out of bacon on the griddle and the pouring of hash browns into the skillet. He'd just given up his place at the stove when he heard the dogs bark in the yard.
He peered out the kitchen window, expecting them to have scared up a rabbit or run the raccoons out from under the deck, but no. Buck and Vin were shins-deep in snow in the back yard, building a snowman. They'd been at it a while, as far as Chris could see: the big bottom snowball was complete and Buck was just squatting to lift the middle snowball up and into place. Chris craned his neck a little farther; the snow in the yard looked too unspoiled to have produced this. But the path to the barn looked almost bare, patches of gravel poking through the churned-up snow. Looked like they'd started this snowman at the barn. He nodded his head approvingly. That was probably the way Buck sold the idea to Vin, at first: Hey, Vin, might as well get this path cleared or Chris's gonna want to come out with the snow blower."
They didn't even own a snow blower, but that wouldn't keep Buck from saying they did.
As Vin started near the base of the headless snow-thing and rolled a spiral around it--kind of artistic, he thought. The dogs had finally crawled under the barn fence and come down to investigate. Chris chuckled under his breath; clearly, they couldn't tell if this thing was something to defend the house against, something that would give them treats, or something that needed to be pissed on to warn other predators away. He chuckled under his breath, waiting to see how they decided to judge the efforts of two grown men who should've been happy to run back inside this warm house. Only when Vin took determined strides toward the deck did Chris back away from the window enough that frost and the sun's reflection off windowpanes would hide him. Vin wasn't looking for help anyway; he was looking for snowman trim.
"Ezra," Chris said quietly. "You're gonna want to see this."
Ezra turned and stepped up beside him briefly, pretending to look at the naked snowman in the yard, the sun, the dogs, Buck--anything but Vin. For an undercover operative, the man wasn't very successful. But then, maybe Ezra wasn't trying all that hard. It was Christmas and Ezra was under the safety of Chris's roof and finally, after five good years, Ezra had given up the last of his in-office undercover operations.
Chris could only hope.
He turned his attention back out the window where Vin and Buck, both of them red-faced with the cold, were arguing over a squat armless snowman wearing Vin's gloves and Buck's hat while the dogs trotted circles around it, trying to see if it could be herded. He shook his head when Paint let Buck call her off her task for head petting and wrestling in the snow. Chris barely got the acknowledgment of having his gloved hand sniffed by the time he'd finished barn work--but by the time he'd finished barn work, it was still dark outside. He grinned.
Ezra's voice, reverently quiet, still startled him.
Curiosity radiated off Ezra, even though the man didn't say anything.
Chris half-shrugged his shoulder. "Just, the dogs won't come out of their crates for me when it's this cold."
"No doubt they don't see you as a creature on their level as they do Buck," Ezra surmised.
Chris laughed out loud and patted Ezra's shoulder. "Guess that's it," he agreed. "Make 'em some coffee while I keep the food from burning." Ezra surprised him by obliging without a word of complaint. By the time Vin and Buck had given up on their little masterpiece outside, stomped into the mudroom, pulled off their winter gear, and entered the kitchen, two big mugs of coffee sat on the table, Vin's sweet with a splash of milk, and Buck's almost white with it.
"Hell, Ezra, that's good service!" Buck said, ruining Ezra's generosity by pointing it out.
Vin handled Ezra better, just silently touching his shoulder as he slid into the bench seat Ezra had abandoned. "Thanks," he said once Ezra stopped glaring at Buck, and cradled his mug in both hands. "It's cold as hell out there."
"Yes well," Ezra said, mollified. "That's the only reason you two deserve a breakfast you don't have to cook yourselves."
"I can think of a couple of other reasons," Buck said. Chris didn't look Buck's way. He knew what he'd see; a sly smile, blue eyes warm with speculation, and enough sexual heat to embarrass Chris in front of people. Buck loved doing that. Somewhere behind him, Buck chortled, too damned self-satisfied. Chris felt his neck heat up and scowled at the pan, and Buck just laughed all the more. Bastard.
"I can't imagine anything you might have done to merit a hot breakfast, much less one that was prepared by hand." Ezra said, diverting Buck. Chris counted that as an early Christmas gift as he scowled at the griddle.
"You really want the gory details, Ezra?" Buck asked, a sexual challenge if Chris had ever heard one.
"'Gory' being the operative word," Ezra asided.
Buck chuckled and dropped the subject as fast as he'd started it. "What time did you get in last night, anyway? I never heard the car come in."
"Vin informs me that you all imbibed in too much of the pure rum Josiah calls egg nog," Ezra said, letting himself be led away from a subject nobody but Buck wanted to talk about in company. "I imagine I could have driven a tank through the yard and you wouldn't have noticed."
"Maybe so," Buck said agreeably. "So when did you get here?"
Ezra flapped a hand, dismissing the question. "Late."
Buck had a smirk on his face that boded well for him and ill for Ezra and Vin. "How late? I was up at two, see. Were you here then?"
"I didn't check my watch," Ezra said testily.
"Uh huh." Buck turned his considerable focus to Vin. "Vin? You check your watch?"
"Wasn't even wearin' it, that time of night," Vin said, bland as butter.
Buck's smile widened and Chris tried to hide his own grin. He was honestly curious about Buck's little game now.
"Well, was Ezra here when you and I bumped into each other in the hall?"
Vin's smile was pure innocence. "Don't rightly recall, Buck."
Buck leaned in close to Vin, mock whispering loud enough for JD, still asleep in the den, to hear: "If you don't remember it then he's doing something wrong, Vin."
"Buck!" Chris snapped, but he wasn't really that interested in calling his partner to heel. In fact, Chris looked forward to cornering Buck and finding out what he'd missed. But the television came on in the den just then, and that was all it took to give Ezra an out.
"I believe that is my call to better things," Ezra announced, and left.
Vin reached across the table to punch Vin's arm hard enough that Buck winced and said, "Ow!"
"You didn't have to try to embarrass him," Vin scolded.
"Oh, so y'all did something to be embarrassed about!" Buck said, voice filled with mirth.
Vin slid out of the bench seat and walked over to where Chris stood. When Chris tilted his head to meet Vin's eyes, Vin punched his arm too.
"What the hell was that for?" Chris groused, rubbing at his shoulder.
"That's for you not shutting Buck up when you know what he's gonna say," Vin griped, frowning.
"Yeah, like I've got any control over his mouth," Chris griped right back. "Get out of here if all you're gonna do is act like that," Chris ordered him.
With one last glare at each of them, Vin stalked out of the kitchen and left them to the cooking.
Buck let Vin pass, grinning like a hyena before he joined Chris at the stove. "You know, he's as good at hiding stuff as Ezra?" Buck asked, sounding impressed.
"What stuff?" Not that Buck needed prompting, but it was Christmas and Chris really was curious.
"You heard me say I bumped into Vin in the hall last night? It was around two a.m."
"Yeah. What were you doing up at two?"
"I--that's not important right now," Buck said, and Chris swallowed back his smile. It wasn't like he didn't know. "Anyway, there's Vin in the hallway and when I tell him goodnight, he says something about getting back to bed before 'he' gets cold. Thought he was talking about you at the time, but now I'm thinking Ezra must've snuck in by then. Think old Ezra called Vin, let him know he was coming?"
Chris chewed on that for a second while Buck laid paper towels into a plate to collect the bacon. "Any other reason for Vin to have been up so late?" he asked.
Buck whistled under his breath. "No. Smart sonofabitch."
Chris chortled. "What, keeping a secret from you so you wouldn't barge into the guest room and start making conversation when he had other plans? Bet your ass Vin's smart." Chris lowered his voice, feeling amused to be so conspiratorial. "Ezra was in his underwear when I came into the kitchen this morning."
"What!" Buck asked, sounding amused but trying--and failing--to look shocked.
Chris shrugged. "Long underwear. Longjohns and high-necked shirt, but still. Underwear."
JD wandering in effectively killed that conversation. "How come Ezra always picks what we watch?" he demanded. "I was minding my own business in there with ESPN, and he wants to watch the news. On Christmas, he still wants to watch the news."
Buck snorted. Chris shook his head, impressed. There was no reason in the world Ezra should get control of the remote, but if Ezra couldn't bludgeon you into doing his bidding, he'd make a bet and win, or complain until you gave in. Chris had learned early that the best way to avoid it was to announce what was going to be watched, as in "Come up if you want to watch the football game."
"Hey, kid," Buck said warmly. "Sleep okay?"
"Great." JD yawned. "Wha'timezzit?"
Buck set down the plate to go and put the kid in a friendly headlock. "Late enough you should've been up hours ago."
Chris waited until JD had broken free to call his partner to heel. "Come finish breakfast," he said quietly, and Buck ambled over.
"Looks dee-lish-ee-yous," Buck said, stretching out the word as he sneaked a piece of bacon off the griddle.
Chris swatted his knuckles with the spatula handle. "Get the eggs."
Chris made room for his partner at the stove when Buck set out the big skillet, working easily alongside him. Buck used a spoon to dip bacon grease out of the griddle and into the pan, threw diced-up vegetables into it, and bumped his hip against Chris's during the process, smiling whenever Chris looked his way. God, the man was easy to please most days; on Christmas, it didn't take any effort at all.
Vin wandered back in as Chris started pulling hash browns into a serving plate. "Josiah called. He and Nathan hit some heavy snow coming off the exit, but figures it shouldn't take him more than fifteen minutes to get here."
Without a word, Buck turned to the refrigerator and retrieved the egg carton, adding more to those Ezra had already scrambled in the bowl. "Somebody set the table," Buck called. "No sense waitin' on 'em and letting this get cold."
Vin slid behind them and pulled out seven plates, setting them around the built-in kitchen table. Seven men in a built-in bench seat and narrow kitchen table were a tight fit, but the dining room was off limits most days. It was definitely off-limits today until Ezra got in here and started directing operations for the holiday buffet. Chris might be the master of his domain, but he wasn't dumb enough to interfere with a man willing to be responsible for the whole Christmas dinner; he and Buck had a football game to watch.
Chris pulled the biscuits out of the oven and turned them onto a dishcloth, collected the bacon plate, and set the food on the table while Buck finished the scramble. He pulled a Pepsi out of the fridge for JD and refilled his coffee cup, then refilled Buck's, squeezing his partner's shoulder before taking his chair at the head of the table.
"I'll get Ezra," Vin offered.
Buck finished the eggs and was portioning them from the frying pan directly onto people's plates just as Ezra and Vin wandered back in. Buck grinned and raised his eyebrows at Chris; Vin had maybe taken a little longer than strictly necessary to call Ezra in to eat, and Buck wasn't about to let it slide. Chris frowned and extended his leg far enough to step on Buck's foot, then pressed harder in annoyance when he felt the wool sock against his own bare, cold toes. "It's Christmas," he muttered to call Buck to heel.
His message got through. By the time Buck had run water into the frying pan and turned back to the table, the speculation had faded to friendliness. "What's happening in the world, Ezra?" Buck asked, which was about all it took to get Ezra started on global events.
Chris pretty much ignored Ezra's news summaries and dug into his breakfast. If it was important enough JD would chime in, and if it wasn't, eating to Ezra's monologue this morning wasn't that different from eating to Buck's on plenty of others.
The noise of a car coming up the drive set off the dogs, followed a minute later by quick hard knock to the front door and Josiah coming in before anybody had to get up. "Morning, all," he called, as he and Nathan paused to tug off snowy boots. When he reached the kitchen he smiled all around. Chris examined the man, wondering what had him in such a good mood. Religious holidays, you could pretty much flip a coin as to what state Josiah would be in to greet them.
"Ezra, stop stealing my car," Nathan said from behind Josiah, answering the question Chris hadn't asked.
"I hardly stole it," Ezra huffed. "I left you a note!"
Nathan snorted. "Yeah, that makes all the difference. You're just lucky Raine hadn't already put her suitcase in the back."
"Luck had nothing to do with it," Ezra said. "I checked."
Nathan blinked in surprise, then shrugged off his annoyance and counted plates at the table. Clearly he'd waited to eat until he got here.
"Raine get off okay?" Buck called, and took a big forkful of eggs.
"Yeah," Nathan replied. "Drove her to the airport at five-thirty, then called Josiah to carpool out here."
"Missed you last night," Vin said sincerely, and Buck, his mouth full, nodded agreement along with JD and Chris.
Nathan smiled back. "Missed you guys too, but since I had to give her up on Christmas morning..." he trailed off. Raine had a special residency rotation for four weeks in Galveston, Texas, and medical residents didn't get to have schedules.
Josiah and Nathan had kicked off their snowy boots when they'd come through the door, but they still had their coats on. "Give me your coats and dig in," Chris ordered, rising to collect them and hang them by the front door. He stepped in a puddle of melting snow the size of Josiah's shoe on the way, and cursed silently. He weathered the cold a hell of a lot better than Buck, but he'd be damned if he wasn't going to find a decent pair of wool socks or go back into that kitchen and pull the pair right off Buck's feet.
He'd been rifling through Buck's closet and drawers for a good few minutes before he sensed his partner in the bedroom doorway; something about the man's amusement prickled Chris's attention like a breeze on his neck. "Shut up," he muttered from where he knelt, digging through the bottom drawer of Buck's bureau.
"Lookin' for your presents?" Buck asked, far too amused. This wasn't the first time a sock war had been waged for Buck's entertainment, and Chris had no idea why he didn't just demand to be shown the supply.
"You know what I'm looking for," he griped.
Paper rattled, and Chris finally looked up and saw the wrapped package Buck held. Rectangular, thickish, no hard corners... it could be socks. He held out a hand and glared, pure threat.
"Come on out," Buck said, clearly unthreatened. "We're gonna start opening stuff pretty soon."
So that was why Buck had been hiding the warm socks this time.
He spent a good minute trying to decide if he was going to give in gracefully or turn all of Buck's drawers out onto the bedroom floor, but in the end, he decided on being good company. Christmas music played from the den--he could hear it when he entered the hall. Nice.
He detoured through the kitchen for more coffee, where Josiah and Nathan still sat at the table, finishing up their meals. Vin and JD were at the kitchen sink, cleaning up after breakfast. The table that Josiah and Nathan weren't using was already wiped down and looked like a transfer station for a ridiculous amount of food, and Paint's head stuck out from just underneath the table. She'd clearly snuck in the front door while somebody was loading food in from Josiah's Suburban, and she had that hopeful look on her face that Chris was going to let her stay. They didn't let the dogs inside when company was around, but he'd stopped getting militant about the rule the day he'd caught Buck sneaking Paint in through the mud room.
"Morning Paint," Chris said, foregoing more coffee to kneel down and scritch behind her ears. "Where's Pinto?" The Border collie's ears pricked up and she licked his hand, sure now that she wasn't getting kicked out right away. He left her to settle under the table out of the way, and stepped squarely in another puddle, clearly melted snow that had fallen off the dog's paws or someone's boots.
"Buck!" he didn't quite yell, and when Buck didn't answer Chris stomped into the den where Buck lounged on the couch and Ezra had commandeered the recliner, and held out his hand. Somebody had started the fire anew and still, Chris retained his single-minded focus. "Give me the damned socks, Buck," he growled.
Quietly enough that Chris could ignore him, Ezra muttered, "Aren't we just filled with Christmas cheer?'
Buck just smiled, spread his arms wide along the back of the couch, and whistled for the dog. She bounded into the den and around the coffee table to half-jump into Buck's lap, tongue lolling happily and eyes wide open with adoration. It was almost pitiful, how much those two loved each other.
"Buck," he repeated, refusing to feel jealous. "Socks."
"Surprise, you mean," Buck admonished him, and finally nudged the dog off his lap and got up. Chris flexed his toes and stepped onto the area rug to dry the last bit of snow off his feet while Buck grabbed the package he'd brandished from the bedroom door. "Guess what it is," he said when he turned around.
Chris rolled his eyes. "Electric razor?" he asked, playing along as he ripped through the paper. "Fruitcake?" Ahh. He held in his hands the thickest, warmest, toughest pair of wool socks that his favorite brand made, and thought that in this moment, he loved these socks as much as Buck loved his dog. He balanced on one bare foot to pull a new sock onto the other. Bliss. He repeated the process, glanced briefly at the news that played silently on the TV, and decided that was a fair enough trade to keep Ezra from pretending to complain.
Even more bliss. He wiggled his toes in his socks, stupidly happy for this simplest of things, and walked to the couch where he bent to drop a kiss of thanks on Buck's cheek. It became a peck on the lips when Buck turned his head at the last minute. Crafty bastard, Chris thought with a smile.
Ezra evacuated the recliner and wandered off toward the kitchen, and Chris wasn't sure if Ezra wanted to give them some time alone, or start supervising dinner now that food had been loaded in, but he sat down on the couch anyway.
Buck grabbed the remote control and turned off the television. "Hey," Buck said beside him, sounding happy to his bones. "Feet warm?"
"Finally," Chris tried to grouse. "You had to hide socks for three weeks, just for this?"
Buck chuckled and dropped an arm around his shoulder. "Would have hid 'em longer, if I'd thought you wouldn't go ballistic and start tearing the house apart looking for 'em," he said. Chris nodded thoughtfully as he settled in against the bigger body; Buck had timed it pretty damned well, and the cold weather had helped him out this morning.
"Hey" again, softer this time.
Chris didn't need to ask, didn't need to look. In fact he closed his eyes before he tilted his head back and his chin Buck's way, inviting his partner to do his worst while they had a minute alone. The couch cushions dipped just before a warm mouth, soft lips, and agile tongue all combined with the scratch of beard stubble to stoke a fire in Chris's gut that wouldn't burn out any time soon. He sighed into Buck's mouth, working his lips gently, and inched his arm around Buck's back, hooking his fingers into the denim waistband. It would be too easy to get heated up, too easy to let Buck do what Buck did too damned well.
He needed a distraction that didn't involve JD or Ezra walking in on them and saying something stupid, and the faint taste of coffee in Buck's mouth was about as good as any other. It reminded him that he'd forgotten his refill, and that thought made him smile.
Buck would huff and act all offended if Chris broke this kiss just for coffee. He'd act all offended, but he'd follow Chris into the kitchen and pour another cup for himself too. He'd ooh and ahh over Ezra's grand dinner plans, and make jokes with Josiah and Vin, both of whom had volunteered to help, and he'd be a good host because being with friends made Buck happy.
Chris made Buck happy. It was a heady thought.
He lifted his hand to cup Buck's cheek and ended the kiss with a last press of lips. "Hey," he said, and smiled back into shining blue eyes.
Buck cleared his throat and chuckled. "Gonna be a looong day," he said, stretching out the word.
"You keep doing this every time they turn their heads, and it will be," he agreed.
Buck would. And it would be a long day. And it would be a good day. The best of days.
Chris looked forward to it all.
-the end (for now)-