For the fourth time in the last fifteen minutes, Jared sighs. “Chad, let’s go!”
There’s more rumbling from the loft of Chad’s apartment, things being knocked over and a colorful run of vulgarities, before Chad finally replies. “Okay, okay, fine. Just gotta get my suit right.”
Jared looks down at the everyday blue plaid shirt he’d chosen out of the few not-too-dirty items piling up at the end of his bed. Maybe he’s a bit underdressed.
Once Chad stumbles down the stairs, Jared sees his roommate is perhaps the one with a clothing problem.
“Ready, Freddie!” Chad shouts. “Let’s get our drink on.”
“What are you wearing?” Jared asks with narrowed eyes.
“What are you wearing?”
“Um, normal people clothes.”
Chad rights the white beard hanging loosely around his chin. “We’re not normal people.”
“Maybe you’re not,” Jared laughs. “But I am.” He thinks that Chad has never been anything close to normal and the head-to-toe bright red Santa costume does Chad no favors. Though the chubby stomach is pretty impressive on Chad’s typically thin frame.
“Dude,” Chad huffs. “It’s the Santa Pub Run.”
“And you gotta dress like Santa!”
Jared rolls his eyes. “Is that in the rules or something?”
“It’s in the name, dumbass.”
Instead of arguing, Jared points out, “You’re gonna throw up in your beard.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Of course you will. You never make it past the fourth bar before you’re on the curb, puking up Irish Car Bombs.” After a moment, Jared shrugs. “Ironic, really.”
“You gotta live in the moment, Jaybird. How else are you gonna break your streak?”
“Are we going or what?” Jared bitches, just to avoid another lecture about how he needs to get laid, immediately.
According to Chad, being gay means all the free sex a man could handle without being cockblocked by other chicks. But as Jared creeps into his mid thirties, he’s not into the love ‘em and leave ‘em style anymore. He spent most of his twenties sowing his oats as he tasted all the colors of the gay rainbow and figured out what he does and doesn’t like – in a partner and in bed.
Right now, having recently returned to his hometown for the next step of his career, Jared’s just up for hitting the annual festival downtown and traipsing up and down Main Street to hit all the bars participating in the pub run. See all the holiday colors in every storefront, hear the music, share some laughs with old friends, and get his money’s worth from the entry fee that is headed for charity. All in all, Jared considers it a decent way to spend a Saturday.
Chad’s already moving to the door and beyond their conversation. “I’m gonna nail so many hot chicks tonight.”
“Sure thing, Santa,” Jared faintly agrees with a big slap to Chad’s shoulder. “I’m sure that belly will impress all the ladies.”
On the front step of the apartment building, Chad grins between the stringy white hairs around his mouth. “I’ve got a mistletoe down there.”
Jared only thinks about it for a second. “Of course you do.”
Their first stop at the Rhodeshouse reminds him of early college, when he and Chad would get in without legal IDs and charm their way with the bartenders to get drinks throughout the night. It was never anywhere near the amount they could put back on an average weekday back at school, but being among the crowd with heady smoke and jukebox standards made it more fun than any frat party.
Now, it smells like stale cigarette ash and the jukebox stutters through a round of one-hit wonders he’d rather forget. Most of all because once Chad, Sophia, and Mike have a few shots of Fireball and an Irish Car Bomb in them, they think they know all the words.
“I get knocked down!” Chad screams, “But I get up again. Ain’t nothing gonna leave me now …”
“Wow,” someone says just behind Jared. It’s loud enough to gather his attention and direct enough that Jared thinks the guy was intending to do just that. “That is pretty tragic.”
Jared blinks at the view he has of a perfectly sculpted profile with dusty brown hair flicking in all directions and catching the colorful spot lights winding around the bar. The man is more than handsome with sweetheart pink lips and wide green eyes, and Jared knows he’s staring like a teenager with a porn magazine, but he’s spent the last thirty minutes talking to regulars and old high school pals that the model unknowingly posing next to him is a bright surprise.
“Not sure which is worse,” the guy continues on, “That this bar plays Chumbawumba or that they’re trying to sing it.”
Once he’s cleared his throat, Jared attempts to laugh then random words spill out of his mouth. “I once borrowed Chad’s Chumbawumba CD and he cried for months when I lost it.”
“He really loves the Chumba?”
“Wumba,” Jared replies then kicks himself for his lameness. “Sorry, but yeah. He’s totally a sap for the oldies .”
This model face morphs into something even more amazing. Child-like glee with a smile that boasts perfectly aligned Crest-white teeth. Jared is so struck by the happy smile, he checks out the exact angle of those teeth slanting inward and he imagines how that would feel against his tongue.
“Can you imagine that we’re old enough now that Chumbawumba is an oldie ?”
Jared snaps out of the daydream of licking a perfect stranger’s teeth to get back into the present and actually talk. “Now you’re just depressing me.”
“It could be worse.”
He finally manages to smile casually, like a normal human being, and turns to fully face the guy. He realizes that he’s sizing up what are the broadest fucking shoulders on a frame that’s also tight and lean, compact in all the right spots. Jared could feel guilty for cataloging all of the angles of his bowlegs or his chest rounding up to those delicious shoulders, but the guy is also wearing impressively fitted jeans and a Henley that show it all off.
Jared clears his throat as he clears his mind and pretends to be fully aware of what they’re talking about. “And what’s that?”
“They could be playing Savage Garden.”
He immediately shushes and leans in. “Dude, don’t you know? You say their name three times and they appear.”
Those heart-shaped lips turn up in a playful smile before opening to taunt Jared. “Savage Garden, Savage Gar—”
Jared clamps his hand over that beautiful mouth with his other hand around the back of his head. Now they’re left staring at each other through what Jared had intended to be a joke, but is obviously playing out terribly.
He attempts to chuckle as he lets go and apologizes. “I don’t think I’ve had enough to drink yet.” Another chuckle that sounds just as flat as he feels. “I should probably work on that. Before I go on touching a stranger’s mouth and stuff.” He winces at himself and quickly rushes to Chad. “We have to leave,” he insists, just inches from his friend’s face.
“Dude, come on!” Chad whines in between awkward attempts at the running man. The stuffed belly makes it worse. “Soph put in like twenty bucks. The Macarena’s next.”
Jared yanks the mustache-beard combo down to relay the seriousness of the situation. “I am not watching you do the Santa Macarena. I have embarrassed myself far beyond what I’m comfortable with after just one beer. I’m leaving.”
Chad pulls his beard back into place and huffs. “Yo, it’s Jaybird’s loss if you’re not up for Macarena-ing with Jolly Ole Saint Dick.”
“Yeah, definitely my loss,” he murmurs before turning to the front door and heading to the next bar.
At Heaven’s Gate, Jared orders two lemon drops and two beers. He downs the shots immediately then double-fists the bottles as he sifts through the crowd at the indie bar he’d visited a few times just after Megan turned 21 and she wanted to spend a low-key night with her brothers. Just like all those nights back when, the space is comfortably seated at wooden tables with matching chairs, plenty of space to move between, and the always scruffy Rob is on stage with a guitar, picking through an unknown song.
“Jared!” a girl squeals, again and again, as she runs over from the bar to latch onto his side. “So, so, so, so good to see you. Gosh, when did you get back? I heard you were coming home, but no one knew when or why or whatever else is happening with you. How’ve you been? Man, it’s been a few years. You’re still so tall.”
Once he can catch his breath, he recognizes Genevieve, his advanced biology lab partner from senior year. She’s still the joyful chatter bug she’d always been, open and friendly with those she knows and cares for. Then she shoots a flat glare at a couple passing by and watching them, just like she’d stay shut off from folks she didn’t know.
Getting back to Gen, he smiles easily and pats her head. “You’re still so short.”
She shoves at his side, barely making a dent in where he stands. “Oh shut up. You’re still such a menace.”
Jared hugs her to his side and kisses her hair to make up for it. They’d kept in touch for much of college as most in their tiny high school did over the last two decades. In the time he’s been off in the big city, he grew up and apart from most of them. Being back feels warm and comfortable, like an old pair of furry slippers.
“So what’re you up to now?” he asks her. “You still with … “
“Aldis,” she quickly finishes for him.
“Yeah, Aldis. How’s he?”
“He’s with Katie.”
Jared quickly frowns and tries to tug his foot out of his mouth. “Uh, sorry?”
Gen waves him off and rolls her eyes. “Not at all. I’ve got me a world-class hero now.” She points down the bar from where she’d come running, waving for attention until a handsome man with salt and pepper hair waves in return, bright eyes happy to see her even if she’s only been gone for two minutes. “Tom. Met him at the newspaper. I was tripping down the front steps and he swooped in to catch me before I smacked my head.”
“A real Superman,” Jared points out, using his beer bottle for the motion. That reminds him that he hasn’t touched his beers, either of them, and he drains half the bottle as Genevieve continues on about their engagement and wedding plans for next year.
“We’re thinking Fourth of July. A whole red, white, and blue theme. Some fireworks. It’ll be super fantastic. You should come!”
Jared chokes on his next drink of beer when he spots the guy from Rhodeshouse standing at the bar with a twenty in his hand and his eyes on Jared.
Genevieve frowns at his reaction. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. I just thought since you’re back home and all, and we used to be so close.”
He wipes his mouth then down his shirt where beer drenches through to his undershirt, cold against his skin. “No, no, that’s totally cool. I’m sorry,” he insists with a hand on her shoulder. “I just saw someone and I, well.”
Jared laughs at himself because it’s ridiculous to explain why he’s so nervous to see that guy again, after making such a fool of himself, and yet they’re all adults, right? He can move on smoothly from this whole scenario and just enjoy catching up with people like Genevieve. That was the whole point of him coming out here after all.
“Alright, well I should get back to Tom. Good to see you.”
She says it just as quickly as she disappears and Jared’s left staring at the Ken doll model coming towards him. He curses Genevieve under his breath for leaving him alone at this very moment. She could have waited another minute, surely.
“Hey,” the guy offers, simple and short. “You look like you could use a few of these.”
Jared laughs at the stack of napkins being held out to him and feels himself ease up with the quirky smile aimed back at him. “Yeah, I guess I could.” And he very much does, wiping himself from chin to chest.
“And maybe another one of these,” he suggests with a beer held out for Jared, “since you just lost half of it to flannel.”
“Uh, yeah, thanks,” Jared replies, trying his best to keep the question out of his tone. This is not how he figured his next encounter, if any, would start off after how ridiculous he was the last time.
Finally, the man offers his hand out to shake. “And you could probably use my name. Then we’re not strangers the next time you try to touch my mouth.”
Jared laughs as the guy’s eyes widen and his cheeks go pink. “Wow!” Jared exclaims. “Now that is tragic.”
“You were weird at the last bar. Now, just consider us even, alright?” Once they nod in agreement, he breathes in deep, lifting those perfectly sculpted shoulders up, then licks his beautifully plump lips. He seems to be resetting himself for a new conversation but Jared just thinks he’s being seduced. “Hi, I’m Jensen.”
Jared gulps at the heat in Jensen’s voice, at how well meaning he is when he looks right into Jared’s eyes. Without losing the intensity of that gaze, Jared puts all three beer bottles between the fingers of one hand, and shakes Jensen’s hand with a tight, sure grip. “Hi. I’m Jared.”
“That’s a firm grip you’ve got there.”
He gulps again and finally recognizes the twinkle in Jensen’s eyes. And the tiny twist of his lips. And the lightness to his voice. Finally recognizes that Jensen is flirting with him, and Jared suddenly feels comfortable to ease back into himself and just enjoy the moment. No more worrying about seeming like he was trying too hard or flirting with an unspeakably handsome man that could be straight.
Nope, the way Jensen keeps shaking his hand and staring right back tells Jared that this is something else entirely.
“Real firm,” Jensen adds as his eyes finally leave Jared’s gaze to check out Jared’s own shoulders and arms.
“Yeah, you, too,” he murmurs. Then he swallows in fear of going too far, yet he’s delighted when Jensen winks in reply. He suddenly wants to know everything and anything about Jensen, just to fill the night up with nothing but him. “So what brings you here?”
“To this bar? Well, I was hoping to find this silly fool who adorably stepped on his own feet.”
“Too bad he’s not here,” Jared jokes. “Or else I’d have to fight him.”
Jensen tips his head in thought and tsks. “Really too bad he’s not here. He was definitely cuter.”
Ohhhhhh Jared mimes as he pretends to be truly offended.
After they chuckle over the light joke, Jensen takes a long sip of his beer, emptying a good amount of the bottle. He takes a deep breath and nods. “But yeah, I’m out to meet up with some friends. They’re doing some pub crawl thing?”
Jared laughs, imagining all of their friends intertwined with the shenanigans of the Santa Claus Pub Run, which actually invites participants to run between each establishment rather than the traditional theory of crawling.
Jensen winces to Jared’s laughter then waves his beer around as he complains. “I know, it’s totally dumb. Grown men and they have to do this silly drunken game of trying to drink everything out of a bar before racing to the next one. Like, we’re older than this shit, ya know?”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Jared agrees with a fake smile. As much as he wasn’t into the theory of running, or how much he was shaking his head at Chad’s get up along with Sophia, Mike, and Kristen’s Santa hats and mistletoes, he’s a bit disappointed to hear Jensen mocking it immediately.
“My friend are idiots. But I’m glad I found you along the way. A lot more interesting than that crap.”
Now Jensen is grinning at him and Jared feels the butterflies dancing through the alcohol he’s downed in the last twenty minutes. And the drinks are catching up to him, he’s sure, because he’s lightheaded and giddy when he looks back at Jensen’s bright eyes. “Yeah, this is totally better.”
“What’s up, bitches!” Chad calls out upon his entrance to Heaven’s Gate. A whole gang of Santa, Mrs. Santa, and elf inspired participants spill into the place and raise the noise level immediately.
“Oh, no,” Jensen mumbles like a reindeer caught in headlights.
“Gaybird! There you are!” Chad yells as he wades through the crowd towards them.
“Um, you wanna get out of here?” Jensen offers.
Chad Santa-bellies up to the bar and flashes his credit card. “Southern Comfort for me and all my Santas. And my Gaybird, too!”
Jared does his best to not react to his very own special idiot. “Yes, immediately.”
Hell’s Door presents itself as an Irish bar with the gruff, bearded owner holding his own behind the oak bar. It’s a tight fit between the crowd of pub runners who have kept a stricter schedule than Chad and the rest of their gang. Luckily, Jared can then appreciate how close he and Jensen have to stand while waiting on their drinks.
“What d’you like?” Jensen asks and Jared wants to immediately pant out Jensen’s name along with every part of his body. “Shots?”
“Shots are good,” he replies instead with a quick head bob. His mind argues that shots are a very bad idea if he wants to keep these terrible thoughts to himself. Yet, there’s a deeper want that begs to be doing everything Jensen is, and to keep up with him as close as humanly possible. And if that means another pair of shots during their time listening to someone torment the crowd while doing Dropkick Murphys on karaoke, then Jared is happy to do it.
“So where’re you from?” Jensen asks while drinking his beer and eying Jared. “You’re not from around here are you?”
“Originally, yeah. It’s just been a while.”
“Ohhh, really?” Jensen sounds deeply interested when he continues, “Got some dark secret that’s kept you away? Or returning home like all those cheesy coming of age movies where you reunite with the high school love and make amends with your family?”
With a laugh, Jared nudges Jensen’s side. “Nothing nearly as exciting. I moved away for a job and now I’m moving back for one.”
“Now that’s intriguing. What kind of exciting career are you in that you get to traipse around the country?”
Jared swallows, knowing it’s nowhere near exciting, even when he’s deeply rooted to it. “I’m a teacher. High school English.”
“Holy fuck,” Jensen mumbles. “That’s kinda hot. I mean, if I had you while reading Hawthorne, I’d have a scarlet letter of my own.”
For the hundredth time since he’s met Jensen, Jared finds himself laughing then feeling warm and fuzzy with the instant connection. He’s torn between just living in the evening and flirting his way into a random hook-up, or doing his best to remain sane and cool and calm to make this last a little longer than closing time.
Jensen draws in a quick breath. “That’s weird isn’t it? I’m making it weird.”
“No, not weird at all,” Jared insists. Then he downs the second whiskey shot, sucking air through the burn, and letting the alcohol tell the truth for him. “If I had someone looking like you in my class? We’d be living a little less Scarlet Letter and a whole lot more Lolita.”
Eyes growing dark, Jensen’s voice drops an octave. “I can’t decide if I’m a terrible person for loving that reference.”
Jared leans in. “Am I terrible if I love that you got it?”
Jensen slowly shakes his head as his gaze slips from Jared’s eyes down his nose and to his lips. He licks his own lips as he watches Jared’s mouth, and Jared feels heat spill into his belly and his fingers twitch with the want to grab hold of Jensen and kiss the fuck out of him.
A crash at the front door breaks their spell and Jared looks over his shoulder to the new gang of pub runners pouring in, all laughing and yelling and calling to friends. One in particular is barking loudly from a black painted mouth, surrounded by a mess of red face paint covering the rest of the face.
Then Jared spots long dark hair and horns. “Is that Krampus? Jesus Christ, that’s messed up.”
Jensen chuckles oddly before draining the rest of his beer and slamming the bottle on the bar.
“Jenny!” Krampus yells towards them. “Jenny baby, I thought we’d lost you.”
Jared glances between the man and Jensen, once again, and finally eyes Jensen. “Do you know Krampus?”
“No! What? That idiot is all on his own. We should probably get out of here.”
The words rush out of Jensen’s mouth, just as fast as he is when he grabs Jared’s hand and leads them out the back door. They stumble into the alley and now have a view of the beer garden at The King’s Beard. Christmas lights make the place bright and the pub run participants keep it loud and lively. Jared thinks it’s quite nice to experience from afar with “Santa Baby” wafting through the air and the crowd singing along.
Then his eyes bug out when he sees a familiar Santa Claus step up on a table to belt out the remainder of the song, complete with supposedly seductive hip shimmies, hands roaming over his belly. With every move, the mistletoe hanging from his belt rattles around and Chad rocks his hips back and forth to draw more attention to it as a gaggle of scantily clad female elves crowd around him to cheer him on.
“Oh God, is that the same Santa who sang Chumbawumba?”
Jared looks to Jensen and fights with the proper response. Yes, it is, but admitting he knows this would also let Jensen in on the fact that the Santa is Jared’s lifelong best friend. And that Jared is along for the pub run, unlike Jensen who is so adamantly against the juvenile behavior.
“I don’t know, maybe?” Jared answers.
“Gaybird!” Chad yells. “C’mon, bud! I’m on my seventh car bomb. You gotta catch up!”
Jared shuts his eyes as he hears Jensen’s voice slowly test him. “Do you know that Santa?”
Now he attempts to laugh it off. “I mean, really, when you think about it, we all know Santa.”
“Is Santa puking? Oh gross.”
He could respond that surely Santa is throwing up, just like Jared had predicted, but then the poorly painted Krampus staggers through the back door and bumps into them. “Jenny! There you are!”
Jared lifts an eyebrow at the surprisingly rattled Jensen, now with Krampus shaking his arm.
“Dude, you’re missing out,” Krampus says … or more like slurs while flinging his long, black spray-painted hair back from where it keeps sticking to the paint on his cheek. “Danni’s like one shot away from doing Warren G.”
“You know Krampus,” Jared says rather than asks.
Jensen laughs awkwardly. “Yeah, but like you said, don’t we all?”
Krampus pushes himself off of Jensen to head back inside, but not before spinning around to point at them. “One more shot and it’s on.” As he re-enters the bar, he tips his head back and calls out, “Regulatorssssss! Mount up!”
With the door closed, Jared considers that entire event over, and with the music at The King’s Beard turning into a mellow round of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, he is pleased to think that Chad is also preoccupied.
“Um,” Jensen says just as Jared starts, “So!”
Clearing his throat, Jensen prepares himself for his admission, including a round of stretching his arms out and turning his head this way and that like he’s waiting for the pop. “So, um, yeah. I know Krampus.”
Jared doesn’t want to say anything in case it prohibits Jensen from further explaining. Because no matter the shots and handful of beers they’ve had throughout the night, Jared thinks I know Krampus is one hell of a start to a story.
“I’ve known him half my life. And it probably seems insane to be Krampus, but it’s actually kinda funny, don’t you think?”
Now Jensen giggles a little before sobering up to await a response. Jared, meanwhile, bites the inside of his cheek to keep from cracking up with absurd laughter.
“I mean, everyone else is doing Santa and reindeer and shit. And then you’ve got Krampus and his gang of angry elves.”
Jared swallows down a laugh, pressing his lips together. “There’re angry elves?”
Jensen sighs and runs hands through hair then in the air with frustration. “Yeah, I mean, what’s a Christmas king without his handmaidens, right?”
“Handmaidens?” Jared questions with a tiny giggle.
“You’re really gonna make me explain all this?”
Jared grins. “Please do.”
Jensen huffs and those impressively strong shoulders sag, still impressive and strong, only lower on his body. “Okay, fine, Danni and Hillarie and Elisabeth thought it’d be funny to dress up some kind of weird dark twisted Mrs. Claus, but for Krampus. And because Krampus is so weird and evil, then he doesn’t have a wife, but a bunch of mistresses.”
“Handmaidens,” he points out with a smirk.
“Oh, shut up,” Jensen argues with a quick shove at Jared’s chest. But it’s all done in jest, especially when Jared wraps his hands around Jensen’s wrists to tug around playfully.
“I thought you hated the pub run. It’s so juvenile,” Jared reminds him of his complaint.
“Just more embarrassed? I mean, my friends really are idiots. But, like, fun idiots.” Jensen huffs through Jared’s silence. “It’s so stupid, I know.”
“No, it’s cute,” Jared insists because he knows fun idiots so very well. He suddenly goes quiet as he realizes just how close they’re standing. And that they’re holding hands. And sharing one single inch of air between them. “Kinda like you,” he murmurs. Then licks his lips in preparation to finally touch Jensen’s mouth more appropriately than how this whole thing began.
“Gaybird, dude! What is more important than this barrel of King’s Ale I’m about to pound?”
They both turn to the beer garden where Chad is once again on a table, now waving his hands frantically for attention. His beard is surprisingly intact, but his jacket is gone. One of the victims of Chad’s drinking.
“Gaybird?” Jensen asks without moving.
“You know Santa?”
“Even longer story.”
Jensen cracks up immediately, falling against Jared and knocking his head against Jared’s shoulder.
Chad lowers his beard to show off the pathetic pout on his face. Jared waves him off in favor of the press of Jensen’s body against his, rattling through his drunken laughter. Still pissed off, Chad yanks the mistletoe from his belt and throws it at them with surprisingly impeccable aim.
The mistletoe lands within reach, so Jared bends over, picks it up, and turns it over in his hand. The sight of it calms Jensen of his ridiculous laughter and Jared can see the bob of Jensen’s Adam’s apple when he swallows roughly.
With a bit of liquid courage, Jared lifts it above his head and playfully points out: “Hey, look, a mis—”
That’s as far as he gets before Jensen shuts him up with an insistent kiss and even more insistent hands pulling at Jared’s shirt to bring them snug together. Jared immediately falls into the kiss, sliding his hands over Jensen’s face to cradle his head, tilting it to the side as he presses his tongue inside. He can feel the vibration of Jensen’s pleased noises and he twirls their tongues quicker than his own heart is racing or his head is spinning.
A familiar beat filters through the back door of Hell’s Gate and Jensen pulls back with an excited look. “I hate to break this up but you really ought to see Danni do Regulate.”
Jared smiles at the childlike glee on Jensen’s face, along with the blush on his cheeks and shine to his lips. He put those there. He did that. Jared’s smile grows wider with the knowledge. “Is she that good?”
“She’s that bad. But she’s also fully committed to it.”
Unsure what that could really entail, yet he’s more than happy to grip Jensen’s hand, Jared lets himself be led back inside.
Jared pockets the mistletoe so he can prompt a few kisses as the night continues with a stop at Revolution Brewery and Singer’s dueling piano bar. He definitely brings it out at the end of the night when he walks Jensen back to his apartment.
And maybe it makes a number of appearances throughout the night and early in the morning. Jensen surely doesn’t complain about it.