Loaded down with his portfolio case and a backpack, Zach trundled into the apartment, tired from his long day of studio classes. As he opened the door, he called out, "Cody? Shaun? Anybody home?" Dropping his stuff by the front door, Zach looked around their living room and shook his head in wonder. There was evergreen boughs everywhere, a huge tree in the corner with lights and assorted boxes of ornaments half-opened around the base, and festive red and green garlands draped over everything.
Cody, wrapped in Christmas lights, came running up to him, hugging Zach around the knees. "We're decorating the tree, Zach! Except I'm the tree! Shaun said so. Look I'm all lighted up." He then twirled around, throwing out his arms so that the lights hung down like wings.
Zach said, "Looks good, big guy." More lights on the tree suddenly lit up, blinking furiously. Shaun crawled out from behind the tree, dragging more lights.
"Given it's our first Christmas, I thought we might go all out," Shaun said. Looking around at the Christmas explosion, Zach couldn't help wondering how much all the decorations had cost and what it would do to their budget. Shaun got up from the floor and came over, giving him a sweet, lingering kiss. Zach was finally over his reticence about affection in front of Cody, but it was a hard-won thing, especially when he was feeling out of his depth like now. Shaun pulled back and cocked his head. "Hey, what's up?"
Zach checked Cody but he was still spinning around, chanting, "I'm a tree. I'm a tree." Looking around the room again, he didn't want to spoil Shaun's mood, but he couldn't help asking, "I thought you were going out to get Cody new shoes?"
Shaun ducked his head. "Yeah, about that. We kind of got distracted by the Christmas aisle and forgot about the shoes. I'll take him out tomorrow."
"I'll take him."
Still trying to get Zach to look at him, Shaun replied, "No, really. It's my fault we forgot."
Zach crossed his arms. "I said I'll take him."
"Okay. What's wrong, really?" Shaun tugged on Zach's shoulder bringing him closer as he whispered his question.
"How much did all this cost?"
Shaun pulled him into a hug. "You know I got my book advance. We can totally afford it and if you can't spoil a kid at Christmas, when can you?"
Relaxing into Shaun's arms, feeling comforted as he always did when held tight by Shaun, Zach said, "I'll never be able to pay you back."
"We're a family now. There are no paybacks in family, right?"
Instead of answering, Zach held Shaun tighter and buried his face in Shaun's neck. He felt a small body snuggle up to his legs, and he looked down at where Cody had joined their hug and was beaming up at him. Zach said, "Let's go finish the tree, right Code-ster?"
Cody yelled his enthusiasm and ran to the boxes, to pull ornaments out. Zach and Shaun broke apart more slowly. Zach said, "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah. You're right. We're a family."
The next day, Zach took Cody out to buy shoes. They went to the strip mall a mile or so away from the apartment where there was a shoe store and an art store. Zach needed some erasers and some more drafting paper for one of his classes.
Cody ran ahead into the shoe store, attracted by the colorful Vans. Zach had to remind himself that they could afford them now and that he didn't have to steer Cody to the cheaper flip flops. He was a bit torn though. He didn't want to spend all of Shaun's money, but he wanted to get good shoes for Cody. Still undecided, he ambled after Cody as they looked at shoes, checking prices and calculating the tax inside his head.
Finally Cody settled on two pairs of shoes and after checking the prices, Zach bit his lip and pushed past his feelings of disquiet. Both shoes were priced in the mid-range. They were priced only five dollars apart, but he still found himself saying, "How about the tan ones, buddy? I like them the best." Five dollars could get Cody a Happy Meal.
Cheerfully, Cody agreed and raced to the cash register with his chosen shoes. Zach followed more slowly. He was happy that Cody had gotten to choose what he wanted instead of being forced by the cost to choose the cheapest ones available, but at the same time the voice in the back of his head that called him a kept boy was still there.
Zach paid with a smile for the cashier, letting Cody carry the bag. He took Cody's hand and walked down past the Mexican restaurant to the art store. The door jingled as they entered and the smell of paint and charcoal filled the air. Zach loved that smell. Not wanting Cody to run around and break things or get pastel all over his hands from the samples on display as he had the last time, Zach kept a tight hold on Cody's hand while he picked up his supplies. Cody was chattering about the cartoon he had watched that morning, so he was content anyway.
Going up to pay, Zach noticed a "Help Wanted" sign at the counter. Before he could rethink it, he asked, "Can I have an application?"
The cashier smiled and said, "It's only part-time, I'm afraid. We can't afford a full-time staffer yet."
"That's okay. I'm a student over at Cal Arts. I can only do part-time anyway."
Rustling around behind the counter, the cashier produced an application. "Here you go. We've gotten a lot of interest from other Cal Arts students, so you might have some competition."
"I also have cashiering experience."
More enthusiastically, the cashier said, "That'll definitely work in your favor."
Zach thanked the cashier and paid for his purchases. After some whining from Cody about being a big boy, he gave the new package to Cody to carry. Cody was loaded down, since the pad of paper was big, but Cody gamely staggered to the doorway. Both Zach and the cashier laughed, and Zach said, "Thanks a lot for the application."
The cashier waved good-bye and said, "My pleasure. Have a great day."
Zach came home from his first final worn out. Who knew Art History could be so demanding? Luckily most of his other classes required him to turn in final projects, and he had been diligently working on them all semester. He called out, "I'm home!"
The tree lights were lit and the living room looked beautiful. Zach felt more at home than he had felt since his mom died. He smiled and felt warmth bloom in his chest. Shaun answered, "In here," so Zach followed the sound of his voice into the kitchen. Shaun was stirring something on the stove, and had his back to Zach.
Feeling playful with the weight of his final off his shoulders, Zach wrapped his arms around Shaun from behind and squeezed tight. He kissed the back of Shaun's neck, closing his eyes.
Sounding a bit distant, Shaun said, "You have a phone message."
Raising an eyebrow, but not releasing Shaun, Zach said, "I'll check it later."
"I think you should check it now."
Suddenly worried about their custody of Cody, Zach asked, "Is it from Jeanne?"
Finally turning around and wrapping his arms around Zach so that they were hugging, Shaun said, "No, nothing like that. Don't worry."
Zach said, "Okay." Shaun was still acting weird, so Zach continued, "I guess I'll check the message anyway." Shaun nodded and released him.
Pressing play on the answering machine, Zach sat at a stool at the breakfast bar. The answering machine beeped and then a voice came on saying, "Hi Zach, this is Marcie Miller from Total Art Centre. We'd be happy to have you come work for us, so if you would like to give me a call back, we can make arrangements. Thank you."
Ducking his head, Zach said, "Oh."
Shaun said, "What is that about? We don't need the money."
"No. You don't need the money. I can't live off you forever."
"It's not forever. It's just until you're out of school."
Zach sighed. He wanted Shaun to understand where he was coming from, but he wasn't sure Shaun could, considering the different worlds they had grown up in. Still, he knew he had to try. He had learned the hard way that bottling stuff up just made him crazy. "I'd like to buy your Christmas present or your birthday present with my own money. I'd like Cody to see what responsibility is. I know we're a family, but I want to contribute to it too."
Shaun ran his hand over his head. "You do contribute. You take care of Cody and do more than your fair share of chores." Zach started to protest wanting to point out that Cody was his responsibility, but Shaun shushed him. "No, I see where you are coming from. I don't agree with it. I think you undervalue yourself and what you and Cody mean to me, but I see."
Zach waited but Shaun didn't say anything further, just stared at Zach with a little smile on his face. Finally unable to stand the silence, Zach pulled on Shaun's belt buckle to draw him closer and said, "So we're cool?"
Shaun kissed him, tilting his head and firmly silencing Zach. Zach moaned lightly, returning the kiss with more ardor. Exchanging open-mouthed kisses, fighting for control, their tongues battled for dominance. Finally the kisses slowed and grew more tender and Shaun murmured, "We're cool."
Waking up slowly, Zach snuggled closer to Shaun and his warmth. Shaun snuffled, but threw his arm around Zach and pulled him closer. Mumbling, Shaun said, "Merry Christmas."
Zach grinned and kissed Shaun on the cheek, then slid his mouth down so that they were kissing for real. Shaun said, "Morning breath."
Zach replied, "Morning breath is okay on Christmas. Merry Christmas to you too."
Kissing Zach, Shaun hummed his agreement and Zach could feel the smile tugging at Shaun's lips. Zach smiled too, and then they were both kissing and smiling like happy idiots. Shaun said, "I can't believe Cody is still sleeping."
A piping voice came from the end of the bed. "I'm not sleeping!"
Zach hid his face and laughed as Shaun said, "That's good buddy, because do you know what day it is?"
Cody said, "It's Christmas and Santa came! I saw all the presents, but I didn't open them. I was waiting for you guys to wake up."
Zach said, "That's pretty nice of you, Cody."
Cody climbed up onto the bed throwing his little body in between them. Luckily they had gotten into the habit of putting on boxers to sleep in. In a mock pained voice, Shaun said, "Oof!" and Cody started giggling.
"Can we open presents now? I've been good all morning, promise."
Feeling content but also excited, Zach said, "Yeah, we can open presents now."
Cody clambered off the bed and ran into the living room, shouting out his joy. Zach said, "I'll make sure he only sorts the presents by recipient if you make the coffee."
Shaun kissed him and said, "Deal."
Zach made his way to the living room where Cody was pulling out presents willy-nilly. He helped Cody sort the presents until Shaun joined them with two cups of steaming coffee. He told a grinning Shaun, "You're a life saver."
Shaun said, "I love you too."
Feeling the same tingle that he always got when Shaun said that to him, Zach smiled and tugged Shaun down onto the couch and into a kiss. Once the kiss was over and Shaun was settled, Zach asked, "What's the first present, Cody?"
Cody began distributing the presents as Zach had directed him to. He gave one to Shaun and Zach each and then took one for himself, settling on the couch between them. Shaun's present was from Zach, and he was nervous about it. He had blown almost all of his first paycheck on it and hoped that Shaun liked it. He was so busy watching Shaun, he didn't even open the present in his lap or pay too much attention to Cody when he opened a set of Legos besides a distracted, "You go, buddy."
Carefully sliding his fingers under the tape to open his present, by the time Shaun got his gift unwrapped, Zach was on pins and needles. Shaun said, "Oh my god."
Nervous, Zach said, "It's a netbook for when you travel or if you just want to go down to the cafe. This way you don't have to lug that huge laptop."
Shaun wrapped his hand around Zach's neck and said, "I love it. It's perfect." Zach searched Shaun's face, but Shaun was simply beaming at him, which convinced him that Shaun wasn't just sparing his feelings.
Cody said, "Open your present, Zach!"
Zach said, "I guess I forgot, didn't I?" The tag said 'from Santa,' which Zach knew meant that Shaun had bought it. Knowing that he would love anything Shaun got for him, he ripped the Santa Clause paper off, revealing a computer tablet. "Whoa!"
Cody and Shaun laughed at him, but Zach was too stunned to care. He flipped the box around reading all the fine print about what one could do with the tablet. "This is amazing! Thank you so much!"
Shaun said, "Don't thank me. Thank Santa."
Finally putting the present down, Zach leaned over Cody's head and kissed Shaun. "I'd rather kiss you."
"That works too."
Cody squirmed off the couch and shouted, "I'll get more presents!"
Zach, still kissing Shaun, opened his eyes and looked into Shaun's. Shaun smiled against his mouth, but then closed his eyes and pressed a hard kiss against Zach's mouth. Shaun broke the kiss and whispered, "Thanks for making this my best Christmas ever. I don't know where I would be without you and Cody, but there's no place I can imagine better."
Zach felt his heart swell. He said, "I love you too." Shaun laughed and Cody came back with new presents and Zach got ready for his own best Christmas ever.