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Shopping bags heaped inside, I shut the trunk and locked it, checking my list as I stepped back up on the curb. Yep, all the big items were taken care of, now it was just a matter of picking up some stocking-stuffers and other extras if I was feeling so inclined. Blowing on my hands and rubbing them together for warmth, I looked up and down Main Street decked out in all its holiday finest, and figured the credit cards could stand some more mileage.

Well, like the song says, Christmas comes but once a year and this was a good feeling, having some holiday spirit back. Even the snow pushed against the curb didn't get me down; that just turned parking into an adventure.

Speaking of which... I fed the parking meter again and pulled my gloves back on as I strolled along the sidewalk, dodging out of the way of some other shoppers who looked like they'd stampede over anyone who got between them and the last dancing Elmo on the shelf. Probably it was good to have an objective, but I was enjoying pausing to just look at a window display here and there and wait to see if inspiration jumped out at me. No luck in that department, but I did make a mental note to bring the kids down here this evening. They would get a real kick out of it then, everything lit up and glowing. Plus, they might want to pick out presents for Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Angus.

Crossing the street, I smiled at the Salvation Army Santa and pulled my gloves off again, digging out some loose change and dollar bills, happy to drop it all in the kettle. Santa smiled back and gave me a hearty, "Ho, ho, ho," his breath coming out in puffs of air as he rang his bell, and I pushed through the door of the bookstore. Coming in from the wintery afternoon, it felt too warm inside and I unbuttoned my overcoat, stopping to look over a rack of best sellers right up front. I pushed my glasses up, examining the titles -- read it, heard it sucked, would rather have someone poke me in the eye with a sharp stick than read it -- and decided to look further afield. I moved on, Burl Ives caroling away over the loudspeaker, cajoling everyone to have a holly, jolly Christmas.

"Give me time, I'm trying," I murmured, reaching for a Gone With the Wind dvd, my hand colliding with another guy's arm.

"You say something?" the other guy asked as we juggled the dvd between us.

"Oh, sorry." The box wound up firmly clasped in my hands and I gave him a sheepish smile. "I was just ... talking to myself."

"Yeah, there's a lot of that goin' around." An easygoing smile and a teasing look in a pair of dark blue eyes made it impossible for me to hang onto a shred of embarrassment. "Must have quite a hankering for Rhett and Scarlet."

It was easy to smile back. "Well, no, it's for my mother, actually. Looks like there's another copy, though, in case you can't live without Ashley."

He grinned back. "Well, I was thinking of getting it for one of my ex's, but," he gave me a really intense and personal look, "I have been known to be partial to blondes," he finished with a wink.

It really was warm in here; I could feel my face burning pretty badly for a second there. "Ahhh," I had to move away just a squidge, scanning more dvd titles as I pulled in a couple of deep breaths, "ex-wives plural?"

Apparently unaffected by the warmth or lack of air in the store, he just nodded. "Yep, three. Married one of 'em twice."

As usual, I said the first thing that popped into my head. "Well, everyone needs a hobby."

Unoffended, he laughed, staying close as I moved along the aisle. "What's that song about looking for love in all the wrong places? Guess that'd be my theme song."

I snorted. "Yes, well, mine would be can't get no satisfaction."

Something serious in his expression now, he looked me over and said, "Oh now, I find that one hard to believe."

Yes, because of course I do put every Sexiest Man Alive to shame. "Well, I'm ... not actually looking for satisfaction these days," I told him, not a clue about why a complete stranger was pulling out that confession. It was true, though. Dating, finding someone new wasn't high on my list of priorities. Someday, maybe, if the right person happened to come along, but I wasn't going to go out looking.

But I didn't want to dwell on all that right now. I wanted to get with Johnny Mathis's program and endorse his enthusiastic proclamation that this was the most wonderful time of the year.

"I'm Tobias Beecher, by the way," I said, offering introductions as I decided Holly was old enough to appreciate Roman Holiday and Sabrina.

"Chris Keller," he said as he picked up a boxed set of Hitchcock thrillers. He looked it over, decided against it, and put it back in favor of To Kill a Mockingbird.

"That's a good one."

"Yeah? I've never seen it."

And no, probably gawping at him wasn't what you might call cool, but, still... Pushing my glasses up I gave him a hard huff of disbelief and demanded, "Well how the hell can you have never seen To Killing a Mockingbird?"

Managing to look amused and taken aback at the same time, he returned, "Well how the hell do I know?" He shrugged. "Just never caught it."

"It's only one of the best movies ever made."

"Yeah?" He winked at me again, humor appearing to be win out over surprise at being accosted by a stranger and chastised for his viewing habits. "Better'n Naked Babes with Guns? 'Cause I heard Ebert and Roeper gave that two dicks up."

I fought to keep a straight face, but between his air of come on, I dare ya and a grandmotherly type giving us a look like we'd both farted, it was tough to keep from laughing. After a moment I managed to say, "Both have their merits," as primly as possibly.

We moved on, leaving grandma to the Disney section, Keller remarking, "I guess that's a favorite of yours, huh?"

"One of, yes. Atticus was one of my heroes growing up."

"Yeah? You wanted to be like him, all idealistic and honorable?"

"I did, yes," I admitted, wryly adding, "I'm not too sure it turned out that way, though." Then I gave him a suspicious look. "If you've never seen the movie how do you that about Atticus?"

He gave me a slow smile, head cocked slightly. "Well ya never asked me if I'd read the book, Tobias."

Well... "I guess I didn't." And maybe I had made some snap assumptions about him without even being conscious of it. To be fair, he didn't exactly look like the classic movies and bookworm type. An inch or so taller than me, and a few pounds heavier with what I suspected was solid muscle, he looked like the kind of guy who rode a Harley and hung out at pool halls and lived down at the trailer park with a woman named Bobbie Sue. I ought to know better than to judge a book by its cover, though, and felt pretty certain Atticus would have been disappointed in me. "I apologize."

Giving me a curious look, he said, "For...?"

"Jumping to erroneous conclusions."

He tried to wave it off, saying, "Not like it's the first time anybody did that, you don't have to apologize," but I had this feeling he really was caught off guard this time. Like ... maybe someone acknowledging they had read him wrong was a new experience?

"Maybe not -- but it would be the Atticus thing to do," I said and got a smile from him this time that wasn't teasing or provocative, just warm and appreciative.

"Guess it would be," he said as we left the dvd section and headed towards the cds. "Apology accepted. Wanna make erroneous assumptions about my musical tastes now?"

I did laugh this time. He made that very easy. "Well, now you mention it," face scrunched up as if thinking hard, I said, "you do look like the opera and Broadway showtunes type."

"Damn, got it in one. What gave me away? It's the Doc Martens, isn't it?"

"Oh yeah," I was still laughing, "they're a dead giveaway."

"Yeah," he heaved a mournful sigh, "always figured they would." More seriously, he added, "And you ought to laugh more, Tobias, it suits you."

"Yes, well," I sighed, the laughter ebbing but a smile hanging around, "it's been a while since there was a lot to laugh about." Maybe that would be changing soon. I'd like that for a present this year. "And it's Toby."

"Yeah?" He nodded, like he approved. "That suits you too."

So did his company, and if it meant enjoying a little more of it I was fully prepared to brave his comments as I reached for a Barry Manilow cd.


We ducked into a little coffeehouse to get out of the snow and settled at a table near a window, shopping bags piled at our feet. I noticed Chris checking out the other patrons pretty intently and had to ask, "What are you doing?"

"Looking for pickpockets," he said, just like that was a perfectly natural thing to say.

I skewed around in my chair to look behind me, seeing nothing but the most ordinary and innocent assembly of holiday shoppers. "I don't see a lot of criminal potential there."

"That's the idea, Toby, you're not supposed to."

"So, what? You have some special insight into the criminal mind?" I asked him as a harried looking waitress came over to us.

One corner of his mouth lifted with a secretive smile. "Kind of, yeah. I think we're safe here."

"Well that's a relief."

The waitress took our orders for hot chocolate and today's special, apple-cinnamon muffins, and feeling safe from any sudden ambushes, I slumped down in my chair, glad to be off my feet for a few minutes. I didn't envy the waitress or any other workers being run ragged by the likes of me this time of year.

"Why do I have this feeling you don't spend a lot of time at the Hallmark store?" That wasn't the main thing I wanted to ask him, but it was a place to start.

"Can't say it's one of my usual stops, no," he admitted, looking like going in there with me still surprised him.

The feeling was mutual, accompanied by a warm buzz of contentment that I hadn't felt in a really long time. Funny to get that from something as ordinary as two guys out shopping, so comfortably that it felt like we had been doing it for ages. I wondered if he felt that too, and I wondered what that meant. It's pretty rare for me to hit it off with someone like this, right out of the blue. Actually, about the only other time that's ever happened was ... with Genevieve---

That door slamming shut was so automatic by now that I hardly noticed. The waitress provided the perfect distraction right on time as well, and I found a smile for her and thanked her as she set down our order. The servings were generous, a pot of hot chocolate to share between us and two muffins roughly the size of softballs, still warm from the oven, the aroma of apple and cinnamon waking up my taste buds. This was an important part of the ritual, registering all those tiny details, my mind so preoccupied that everything else would ebb away with no one the wiser. The warmth from the blue enamel pot, and how my hand curved so easily around it as I lifted it to pour, the steam from the chocolate making my lenses opaque for a moment, the melt in my mouth goodness of the muffins -- all of that helped me elude those memories so I could focus on here and now.

And then I raised my head and looked across the table and realized I hadn't fooled a soul.

"What?" I almost snapped the word, suddenly uncomfortable with how closely Chris was watching me, as if he could read all my secrets in my face. For an instant I felt incredibly naked, vulnerable and bracing for some unfathomable attack. No judgment crept into that steady blue gaze, though, no knowing look of pity.

"You okay there, Toby?" he asked me, like he really wanted to know, like he'd be okay if I answered no. And ... everybody asks, everybody makes the proper polite noises; most of them only want a quick confirmation that yes, all is well and they needn't concern themselves or get involved.

I looked at my chocolate, the tiny bubbles around the rim of the cup. "Most of the time, yes," I told him and waited to find out if that was all he wanted to hear.

Apparently not. "Yeah," his voice was warm and soft, underscored with a small and weary sigh, "the hoildays can be kinda rough." The understanding in his quiet words, in his eyes, told me he really did get it and I could feel that warm buzz notch up some more.

"Yes, they can," I nodded, my hands cradling the cup and soaking up the warmth. "It's better this year, but..." I sighed and looked past him, out the window at the shoppers hurrying past in the snow, Christmas lights blinking on as afternoon eased into evening. "It's the little things that do it. You know?"

It looked like he did. "I do know. That why you zoned out looking at those ornaments? One of those little things?"

"Christ..." I let out a deep breath, looking at him illuminated by the colored lights strung overhead. "You don't miss much, do you?"

"Nope."

And I had to smile at that. "It was the angel ornament. My little girl, Holly, made one at school for us to put on the tree this year, and she ... " My throat clogged up and I had to pause to clear it. "She named it Genevieve. That ... was my wife. This is the second Christmas since she died. I thought..." I shook my head, not sure what I thought.

Chris nodded, though, like he knew. "Some things take a lot of time, Toby," he said, and made me wonder what old hurts he kept hidden behind that easy smile. "You want to talk about it? Or you want me to shut up and leave you alone?"

"No, I ... I don't want to be left alone, Chris." I'd been left so alone for such a long time. And that was crazy, feeling like that when I had my work, my family, the kids, but ... but when work is over and the kids are all tucked in bed there's only me and a million thoughts banging around my head. "We were coming home from a party, Gen was driving because," I had to stop and clear my throat again, not trusting myself to look anywhere but down at the table, "because I'd had a snootful as usual. We were almost home, just a couple of blocks away, when this car came out of nowhere and slammed into us. I didn't get a scratch, but Gen..."

Lost in that memory, drowning in it, I felt the bone-jarring impact of the crash all over again, Genevieve's screams echoing in my head; the blood on her face was fresh and wet and her eyes were open, forever frozen in fear and shock as flashing red-and-blue lights glimmered on the rain-slicked pavement... And I stumbled back out and away at the touch of his hand, long fingers strong and warm and real as they lay against my wrist.

"Hey."

That was all he said; it was enough,anchoring me with that touch, with his eyes. I let the wave wash over me and then recede and found my way back to the surface. "Hey," I returned, finding a smile somewhere. "More than you wanted to hear, huh?" I had to ask it, hoping he'd be okay with that too.

He didn't disappoint. "Nope." The teasing sparkle back in his eyes, he winked and said, "Bring it on, Beecher, I can take it."

That should have been harder to accept and believe but Chris made it easy. Later, when I was alone with my thoughts tonight, I would probably be mortified at how pathetically eager I was to find someone to listen, to make a connection with another human being if only for a brief moment in time. But not right now.

"Maybe so, but ... why do you want to?"

He shrugged. "Could be it's my good deed for the year."

"You only do one a year?"

Chris sat back then and reached for his mug, cradling it in both hands; I immediately missed the warmth of his touch. He was still smiling but I couldn't help noticing it didn't reach his eyes now. "Yeah, well, don't they say start small and build?" It was only the weary look in his eyes, like he'd given up on any expectations a long time ago, that invested the words with any cryptic meaning.

"I guess they do," I said, moved to unravel the riddle sitting across from me, sipping cocoa. "Can't say I've done many of them lately."

"Bet your kids'd say different."

"I don't know. Maybe." His vote of confidence felt good anyway. I ate some more muffin, washed it down with hot chocolate, crept a teensy bit further out on the limb. "The guy in the other car, he wasn't some dangerous maniac out on a rampage. He was just a guy like me, a guy who'd had a few martinis but figured he could still make it home safe and sound since he'd done exactly that a dozen times before." Would Chris guess at the autobiographical details woven in there? "That shook me up."

The way he looked at me, it was like he could read between every line. Funny how that didn't feel intrusive now. "A wake up call's good now and then."

"I tried to look at it that way," I nodded, "tell myself that was a way something could be salvaged from such a goddamn senseless act." Even now, try as I might, there was no way to entirely conceal the bitterness that laced my words. No vibes of censure came off Chris, though, and I really appreciated that. The only thing worse than having feelings like that is someone telling you it was time to be over it and move on. "I could do that much for Gen, for our kids."

"Hope some of it was for yourself, Toby."

"Yes. A little. Eventually."

He replied with a soft laugh. "Guess that's a start all right," he said, his expression nakedly itimate for an instant, an aching wistfulness clouding his eyes.

"What was your wake up call?" I asked, certain in my bones there had been one.

He didn't answer right away. He looked at me as if storing up every detail, that sense of resignation palpable now, and I could feel him pulling away -- like he was bracing himself for an inevitable wound. Another moment and he shrugged, voice so quiet I almost didn't hear him over the Christmas carols in the background. "My last stint in prison."

I hadn't expected that. I couldn't stop my surprise from showing.

His mouth quirked with a smile more sad than bitter. "Yeah," he let out a deep breath, "and the conversation crashed to a halt." Like he'd known it would, like he'd been down this road a thousand times before. He sighed again and stood up, taking out his wallet. "Guess that'd be my cue to mosey on along, huh?"

"No, Chris, wait," I touched his arm, feeling the muscles tight with a tension that barely flickered on his face. "Don't go."

"Beecher--"

"Chris, please? I'm sorry. That... " I shook my head, not letting go. "I just wasn't ready for that."

"Yeah, well..." He stood there, looking out at the street where the snow was letting up at last, all the lights bright and shiny. "I should go," he said at last, not looking at me.

"No, you should stay."

"Why?" The baffled pain in that one syllable hit me right in the gut, as if this was completely unfamiliar territory to him.

"Because I want you to."

He met my eyes then and I hoped he saw what he needed to.

Another long moment and he gave a minute nod before sitting down again. "Don't you want to know what I was in for?"

I shrugged, hedged. "Maybe."

He smiled and shook his head. Head tilted, studying me, he said, "You're a piece of work, Beecher."

"In a good way or bad?"

He shook his head again. "Can't tell yet."

Well, the playing field was level anyway. "Soooo...?"

"Sooooo ... I did a lot of dumbass stuff. Robbery, confidence games, blackmarket shit."

"Yeah? You're the guy trying to sell me a Rolex for fifty bucks on the street?"

"Yep, done that."

I didn't detect a huge amount of contrition in his manner. The only troubling thing, however, was realizing how much that didn't bother me. "What kind of con games?"

He leaned back in his chair. "The usual. Three-card Monte, pigeon drops, Ponzis."

I knew all those. "Charles Ponzi, father of the pyramid scheme."

"Hey, somebody had to think it up."

I should have been appalled, outraged, all that. Instead I sat there smiling at his lack of remorse. Whatever was hurting him, it didn't look like it was a guilty conscience. "Why'd you do it?"

He shrugged. "'Cause I could. 'Cause I never stopped to think it was hurting anybody." A flicker of regret showed in his eyes then. "Might be I didn't care if it did," he admitted.

"I have to say, Chris, you don't look like my idea of a con man. I always pictured them as little weasels with slicked back hair and flashy clothes."

He grinned. "Yeah, only in the movies, Toby. The real McCoy, we keep it inconspicuous and ordinary, some little old lady who reminds you of your grandma."

"I don't get inconspicuous and ordinary from you."

"You'd be surprised."

And not that I really was suspicious or anything, but, "So how do I know you're not setting me up as your mark right now?"

He grinned again and winked, enjoying it. "Well, I guess you don't, Beecher."

I laughed and batted it back to him. "Hey, you can bamboozle me anytime, Keller." And, Christ, where had that come from?

"Yeah? I'll keep that in mind."

"So, umm," I took another sip of cocoa, scrambling after my composure as discretely as possible, "you never whacked anyone?"

Looking like that tickled him too, Chris shook his head. "Not on the outside, no." His smile dimmed and a look of caution flashed in his eyes, like it just hit that he might have said too much.

My interest was certainly piqued that little squidge more. "What about on the inside?" Like he was really going to tell me.

Guarded now, he shrugged, broke off a piece of muffin and popped it in his mouth. "You do what you gotta do to survive, Toby."

"I understand." Sure I did.

His smile was tolerant and kind. "No you don't, and I'm glad about that."

"Soooo ... you're out on parole or something?"

"Yep. Just in time for Christmas." His smile still clung to his lips, but this was another one that never reached his eyes. Did he know that, that he masked his bitterness and disappointment with a dazzling smile? He had to, the mask was almost flawless; you had to look really close to notice any of the fine cracks. How many people ever took the time? Probably that was another question I didn't want answered.

"So what are you doing?"

"Not a lot." Arms crossed on the table, he shook his head like he was conceding some hopeless outcome. "You know I actually sat down and worked on getting my GED this last time around, suckered into believing that would really make a difference when I got out." His mouth skewed with another wry smile. "Guess that's justice, though, me getting conned for a change."

"That's a huge accomplishment, Chris. That has to make an impression on people."

"Yeah? Tell it to the people who won't hire me 'cause the only piece of paper that does make an impression is the one that says I'm an ex-con. Ah, fuck," he pushed back from the table, looking annoyed, "listen to me go on, will ya? Ain't like any of it's a newsflash for me, Toby."

"Maybe not, but I think you're allowed to be pissed off about it even so." Did he always do this? Dismiss his own feelings and needs as unimportant? I didn't like thinking about that either. "I could put in a word for you somewhere."

He gave me a skeptical look. "And then you get to wondering if that's what this was all about, me hitting you up for help, Toby?" He shook his head. "No. But... " He looked incongruously shy for a moment, at a loss for words. "But I appreciate the offer. I had a good time today, and I thank you for that."

It was my turn to be speechless. Spending an afternoon with me shouldn't be the highlight of anyone's day. "I did too, Chris." There ought to be more to say, I wanted there to be more. He did too, I think, looking at me for a long time again, memorizing me. "I'll ... see you around."

"Maybe." He smiled, taking his wallet out again to drop some bills on the table before gathering up his bags. "Might be on the evening news, though."

Confused for a moment, it dawned on me what he meant as he was walking out the door. I watched him through the window, walking away in the light snow, and thought I'd never seen anyone lonelier.

Well ... except every time I looked in a mirror.

He turned a corner and was lost to sight and I sighed, my breath fogging the glass. I put some money beside his, grabbed my own bags and left, regretting that I hadn't wished him a merry Christmas.


Chris let himself into the room he was renting, three floors up in a converted Victorian, catching sight of himself in the cracked mirror over the dresser. The glass had been broken when he moved in but it wasn't hard to believe some residue of bad luck lingered in the air. Yeah, because the reason his life sucked couldn't have anything to do with all the fucked up choices he'd made along the way.

Christ, what a chump.

Annoyed at himself, Chris dumped the shopping bags on the bed and sat down on the edge to look through his mail. There wasn't much, and only one item he was eager to open -- a Christmas card from Bonnie. He hadn't expected that; he was embarrassed to admit how much it meant that she'd thought about him this time of year. Tearing it open, he took out a pretty, festive card of a Christmas tree with presents piled underneath, and quickly flipped the cover back to see what she'd written. He frowned and turned it over, guessing she must have written something on the back. She hadn't. That's all there was, a mass produced and generic wish for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and nothing more personal than her signature at the bottom.

Yeah, well... He let out a deep sigh and traced his fingers over her name and guessed this was about all he deserved. Fuck, more than he deserved probably.

Shedding his jacket and scarf, Chris propped the card on the dresser, hiding a scar in the wood. It looked kinda lonely there but that seemed apt. Wasn't like that was a special news bulletin either, he'd figured out a long time ago that merry Christmases were for other people.

There'd been this one year when he'd almost believed in Santa Claus for a little while. Instead of all the usual yelling and crying, his folks had actually been getting along and had got it in their heads to go all out, even putting up decorations outside the house. And just like on that card, there had been a ton of presents wrapped up and sitting under the tree. One afternoon when everybody else was out he'd had to try and peek, see which ones were for him. He'd found presents to and from his folks, his brothers and sisters, cousins -- but not one tiny little package marked for Chris. He'd tried to believe that was because they'd known he'd snoop first chance he got and so had hidden his away somewhere, and come Christmas morning he had made his way downstairs really thinking there would be something for him. And there had, he hadn't been completely forgotten after all. While everybody else got to tear away all the bright and shiny wrapping paper and bows to get at their toys and stuff, he got to open a card that had been stuck on the tree, with ten dollars tucked inside.

He stood at one of the windows, looking over at the park nearby, letting those memories ebb away. Lights were strung up everywhere, glittering like jewels in the chilly night. A big pine tree that overlooked a frozen over pond was decked out as well, covered with all manner of ornaments. Earlier in the day he had been informed it was tradition for anyone passing by to hang up something personal. All he'd had on him was an old St. Dismas medal, so he'd left that dangling from a branch; maybe some other poor bastard would benefit from it more than he'd ever done.

Right now there were a half dozen people trying out their ice skates, looking like they were having a fine old time too, while a couple others stopped to rest on the bench for a minute, tired out after a long days' shopping. He could picture Toby over there, maybe watching his kids take a turn around the ice -- and he physically stepped back from the window, away from that idea and how much he liked the picture it made.

Stupid, stupid, stupid because no way was he ever seeing Toby again. You only got one chance like that in the deck.

Even so... He reached out to trace his fingers around the ice crystals forming on the glass, guessing there was no harm in hoping Toby had a great holiday. It sounded like he could really use one. Unbelievable, though, him listening to that whole sob story and never once thinking about how to turn it all to his own advantage. Not even when when Toby practically offered him a chance on a silver platter. Nope, instead of nimbly finding an angle and playing it to the hilt, he'd sat there enjoying the company and wanting to help.

Maybe that could be forgiven this one time? It wasn't such a bad thing, right, if he got a craving for some company every now and then. Usually he did a good job of not minding how he was always alone, but every once in a while it would rear up and get to him. This time of year was really hard that way, the warmth of family and friends pushed in your face everywhere you turned. Even knowing most of that was a scam didn't always help -- that in reality Charlie Brown'd just get his ass kicked by the other kids and Santa Claus wasn't ever coming to town -- 'cause somewhere deep down there was a half-assed part of him that wanted to buy right into it.

One way to shake it all loose would be his old standby: go out and pick somebody up, fuck it all out of his system. Even that had lost its edge for him. Wasn't any kind of challenge in it, for one thing, and it didn't last much past the fucking for another. Spending a couple of hours with Toby, two guys out Christmas shopping, had given him a better buzz than he'd had in a long time. Chris couldn't remember ever feeling so good, just hanging out with somebody, and already itched for more of that, more of Toby.

Yeah -- he sighed, fogging up the window pane -- nothing like wishing for impossible things.

Toby made that real easy, though, inviting him to jump on in, the water was warm. He couldn't believe he'd just up and told him about his time in prison, how Toby'd been so cool about it too, accepting it without any kind of judgement. If anything, Toby had acted like he got a kick out of it, and that was damned intriguing. Tobias Beecher looked every inch the buttoned down, strait-laced type, but Chris had the idea there were some exciting hidden depths just under that surface. Depths he would love a chance to explore.

No way in hell that was going to happen, but it could be his little secret. No harm, right?

And this was all really great and stuff, but standing there mooning over a guy he barely he knew wasn't getting a lot accomplished. Christ knew his schedule was fucking crammed too.

He cast one more look over at the park, a fierce envy burning in him. Idiotic too, because for all he knew all those people was as much a miserable fuck up as him. They had somebody, though, every one of them had somebody to lean on, and that had to make any disappointments easier to bear. He wanted that, he'd wanted that all his life, but there wasn't a confidence game in the books that had taught him how to get it.

Crossing over to the window seat in the corner, needing to get his mind otherwise occupied, Chris plugged in the little tree he'd put up there, the kind that came with the lights already attached. There wasn't a lot on it, only a half dozen of those plain glass balls in red and blue and green. He hadn't planned on bothering with anything more, but now he dragged the Hallmark bag off the bed and took out the ornaments he'd bought on a whim -- and at Toby's prodding. The star was easy, just stick it up top, and the silver cross could go right ... there. The Snoopy and Woodstock one, though, both of them dressed up to go ice skating, was trickier. Finally he found a good spot where a couple of lights hit it just right, and stood back to view the results.

Good as it was gonna be, he guessed, and started emptying out the rest of the bags, setting aside some wrapping paper and Scotch tape. He'd need to get some boxes or something to mail stuff off to Kitty, Bonnie, and Angelique. This late, the Post Office might not get it there in time either, but maybe he could try UPS or FedEx. A few doodads probably didn't go far in making up for his shortcomings as a husband, but maybe it made them happy for a couple minutes when they opened up the boxes. He'd tried to love them, make the marriages work -- just not that hard. Didn't exactly help that his preferences for a bedmate tilted the other direction.

He started making some piles: the sexy lingerie for Bonnie, plus a bottle of her favorite perfume; candles and chocolate for Angie; and -- he reached for the bookstore bag to empty it out -- Gone With the Wind and Billie Holiday for Kitty --

"What the fuck?" He frowned at the items spread out across the patchwork quilt that covered the bed, none of which he'd bought. There was the Gone With the Wind dvd all right, but everything else was different. Sitting down, he sorted through the items -- a book about Egypt, one about dragons, and an insectopedia of bugs, all aimed at kids, a couple of Audrey Hepburn flicks, a Barry Manilow cd -- *"It's for my mother, I swear."* Toby'd said that when he'd teased him about his taste in music. He remembered the books too, how the Egypt one was for his daughter and the dragons and bugs were for the boys.

Fuck.

They must have each grabbed the wrong bag down at the coffee house.

So now what? he wondered, sitting down and tapping his fingers against the cd. Toby'd never be able to track him down so they could make an exchange, but how the hell was he going to any better? Wait a minute, wait a minute. Hadn't Toby said he was a lawyer? Yeah, that was right, a member of a really prestigious law firm. So he had to be in the phone book.

Chris let himself out of his room and went down the two flights of stairs to where the telephone sat on an old little table, a notepad and pen kept handy, and a phone book on a shelf underneath.

He leaned against the faded wallpaper -- vertical stripes that might have been fashionable about a hundred years ago -- and tried to be patient as Mr. Friedman from the second floor talked to his daughter out in California. Apparently Aunt Renee needed to have her gallbladder out so that was throwing a kink in the holiday plans, and little Mikey and Sami might have the whooping cough. Mr. Friedman had some tried-and-true remedies handed down for generations that all seemed to involve chicken fat. Chris rolled his eyes and shifted position as Mr. Friedman segued into a litany of his own ailments -- hip ached, knee hurt, and he was going to start a lawsuit against the community center because he's slipped on some ice and fell on their sidewalk, and damn right that hadn't done his hip and knee any good. He was pretty sure he'd got some of that whiplash or something too. No way Chris could even pass the time leafing through the phone book since Mr. Friedman had his mitts on that all the while.

About a half century later, Mr. Friedman finally hung up and headed back for the cozy front room that was available to all residents, nodding at Chris in passing. "Merry Christmas."

"Yeah, merry Christmas." Didn't look to him like the old coot was even limping, and he couldn't decide if it was sad or inspiring that Mr. Friedman might have a scam going when the geezer had to be pushing a thousand. Chris had the telephone and phone book now, though, and that was all he really cared about.

He checked the white pages first, finding some Beechers listed, including two T. Beechers. No answer at the first one, and the second one, the T stood for Tawanda, so scratch that. He hit the jackpot right off soon as he flipped to Attorneys in the Yellow Pages: first page had a discreet ad featuring a scales of justice and the name Beecher, Beecher, Norton, and Gerrold - Attorneys at Law. Had to be the one, right?

"Hey!" he called out to Mr. Friedman, headed for the kitchen now. "What the's time?"

Mr. Friedman raised his right arm, squinting at his watch so that his thick eyebrows about met up. "A quarter to six."

"Thanks." He already knew Toby wouldn't be there, but there was a chance he could get hold of somebody who hadn't gone home yet. He punched up the number, listened to it ringing, ran through what he'd say, and was about to give up on the tenth ring when the receiver was finally snatched up.

"Beecher, Beecher, Norton, and Gerrold," a woman's nasal voice said in his ear. "How may I help you?" Her tone implied the only reasonable answer to that would be to fuck the hell off and leave her alone.

Chris was sorry her life sucked but that wasn't his problem. "I need to talk to Tobias Beecher pronto," he told her.

"In reference to what?"

"It's a confidential matter, ma'am."

"Mr. Beecher's gone home for the day. If you'll leave your name and number and the nature of your business with him--"

"Listen, lady," this was kinda fun, "Mr. Beecher hired me to do some background checks on a client of his and he needs my info right now. All you gotta do is give me an address where I can find him."

"Sir, I can't possibly give you Mr. Beecher's home address without his prior permission," she said, starting to sound pissy. "If you will just tell me the nature of your business with him, I will see he gets the message."

"Babe, it ain't no skin off my nose, but if Mr. Beecher don't get this report because of you stonewallin' me guess whose ass is gonna be a sling?"

"Well," hesitation and doubt crept into her voice now, when every instinct should have been telling her this was anything but kosher, "what exactly is the nature of this report?"

"Sweetheart, what part of confidential don't you understand?"

She wanted to hem and haw some more, but finally gave in and forked over a home address, warning him, "You can be sure I'll speak to Mr. Beecher about this in the morning."

"Yeah, knock yourself out, babe," Chris said and hung up. Unbelievable how gullibe people could be.

And maybe he didn't exactly have any call to go throwing stones, because the dumbest idea in the world was sneaking into his brain now. If he had any sense, he would confine himself to driving by that law office and dropping off the shopping bag, or if he absolutely had to find this house he could leave the bag on the doorstep and be away and gone before Toby got to the door. Only the biggest idiot in the world would be thinking about handing it over face to face. Because what the hell'd he think would happen? Toby wasn't gonna be overjoyed to see him again, wasn't going to want them to be best friends let alone anything else. It was just asking for a big old kick in the gut.

He knew that, he really did. That didn't keep him from running back upstairs to grab his coat and keys, throw everything back in the shopping bag, and head out to his car.

Christ -- when'd he get to be such an asshole?


Wow. He'd known to expect something snazzy and upscale, but somehow Chris hadn't expected a setting that looked like it could go on the front of a Christmas card. Even the snow in the front yards looked perfectly groomed, although maybe that was a trick of the night time and all the twinkling lights strung up.

He pulled his beat up jalopy up to the curb and shut off the engine, just sitting there for a couple of minutes, casing the joint. At least if he thought of it that way the butterflies charging around in his stomach might knock it the fuck off. Didn't seem to be helping much. So he sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and cracked open the door, shivering as the cold air hit him. He headed up the walkway to the front steps, past the snowman in the yard, still tempted to drop the bag, ring the bell and run for it, just let well enough alone.

All right, he could do this, no reason it had to be any big production, he decided as he made it to the porch and could hear a TV on inside. He pushed the doorbell, fighting that impulse to run, and still wasn't ready when the door opened a couple of inches and a little blonde girl looked up at him with a dubious expression on her face.

"Who are you?" she asked him right off.

O-kay, he hadn't stopped to consider he might come across the kids, but how tough could it be? "A friend of your dad's."

The little golden head tilted more skeptically as she sized him up. "I've never seen you."

Geez... "Yeah, well," he squatted down to get on her eye level, "do you know everybody your dad does?"

She thought about that, reluctant to concede the point. "Well... What's your name?"

"Chris."

"Do you have identification?"

He grinned and fished out his wallet, opening it to his driver's license and handing it over to her. "How's that?"

She looked it over, sneaking glances at him to compare against his DMV photo. "Welllll..."

"Holly!" Toby's voice called out behind her. "Sweetheart, who's at the door?"

She looked over her shoulder. "He says he's your friend Chris."

"Chris?" Toby sounded surprised but didn't look displeased as he opened the door wider to let him inside. "Hey," he said, smiling like him turning up on the doorstep was a really cool deal.

"Hey." It was way too easy to smile back and soak up the warmth that hit him as Toby shut the door. "This a bad time?"

"Not at all," Toby said, and looked like he really meant it. He gave his head a shake and rolled his eyes as he looked at his daughter, though, and retrieved Chris' wallet from her. "Sorry about that."

"Nah," Chris tucked it away again, "it's okay. Shows she's a smart cookie."

"What's a smart cookie?" Holly asked.

He glanced down at her and smiled, amazed at how much she took after her dad. "Somebody who'll never get scammed by a grifter."

She thought that over as they reached the big living room, two boys plunked down on a couch and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, the part where Linus explained the true meaning of the holiday. "And what's a grifter?"

He looked at Toby for help.

"Nope, you started it."

He sighed and looked at her expectant face. "It's ..." he looked over at the TV, "somebody like Lucy there, who's only out for themself."

Expression thoughtful now, she considered that as she settled down on the couch and picked up a Christmas cookie with a bite already missing. "I never liked Lucy," she pronounced with confidence.

"Me neither."

"Do you like Snoopy?"

"Everybody likes Snoopy."

She nodded, satisfied with his answer; her brothers appeared to be in agreement, giving him a curious look but more interested in the Peanuts gang just now.

"That one's Gary," Toby pointed at the bigger of the two boys, also a dead ringer for dad, "and that's Harry," the smaller of the three and not quite as blond. "I guess you noticed the mix-up, huh?" he jerked his chin at the shopping bag.

"Yeah, kinda hard to miss it. Figured you'd want to sort it out."

He didn't appear to be in any big hurry about that, however, asking him, "Can I get you a cup of coffee?"

"Ahh," say no, say no, say no, "sure, that'd be great, thanks." Nope, chump didn't even start to cover it.

"Great." Toby was smiling like he didn't see anything out of whack with this picture. "Take off your coat and grab a seat then."

This was not looking good for him making a quick getaway. He let Toby take his coat and hook it over the back of a rocker set by the fireplace, and then watched him head off after that coffee. Left on his own with the kids, Chris checked they were keeping occupied with the cartoon before he plunked the bag down on the rocker as well. He was checking out the family photos set out on the mantel, stockings tacked up there too, when Holly piped up again.

"What's in the bag?"

"Stuff." He picked up a photo of a pretty brunette, surrounded by her kids and smiling at the camera. Had to be Genevieve. Wasn't hard to see why Toby missed her so much.

"What kind of stuff?"

Chris looked over at the kid, seeing no trace of the mother in the girl's stubborn expression. He bet that's exactly how Toby looked when he was being obstinate about something, though. "None of your business stuff, that's what."

She gave him a huffy look then, clearly unaccustomed to having an adversary.

Looking full of mischief, Gary asked, "Is it presents for pretty girls?" -- and became the next recipient of the glare. Harry just had a big, gap-toothed smile on his face, trying to keep one eye on Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the other on his brother and sister.

Before Chris had to worry about them really acting up, their dad returned, saying, "What's going on here?" as he came back with a tray of coffee mugs, milk and sugar.

Three pairs of big blue, innocent eyes turned to him, assuring him they had been perfect angels, and Chris had to smile at Toby greeting that with a dubious look of his own. "Over here?" he said, moving to the cozy seating area by the fire place, an easy chair and loveseat angled so you could enjoy the fire and still keep an eye on the kids.

"Sure," Chris followed, sitting down in the chair.

"Milk, sugar...?"

He smiled. "No milk, little sugar," he answer and accepted the steaming mug of coffee Toby handed him, the aroma rich and delicious. "Thanks." He sat back, deciding he could let himself relax for five minutes.

"You're welcome." Toby loaded his cup with milk and sugar, and held out a plate of more Christmas cookies. "Want one?"

"Okay." He picked a bell dusted with red sugar. "Bake 'em yourself?"

Toby smiled, shook his head. "My mother did, with help from the kids of course."

"Of course." Chris smiled and took a bite of the sugar cookie. "They're good."

"Yep, my mother's not exactly known for her cooking but she makes a mean cookie."

Chris looked at him sitting there, creamy skin warmed by the fire, eyes sparkling, and knew he wanted to see him smiling like that all the time. It really did suit him. "Mine could burn water."

Toby laughed, spitting a few cookie crumbs.

Behind them, the kids joined the Peanuts gang in shouting, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" as the cartoon got to the end.

"Know what I miss?" Toby asked him.

Chris glanced at the TV, shook his head. "What?"

"Those Dolly Madison commericals they used to show with that."

"Yeah, I remember those. Guess they gotta sell the kids more'n cupcakes these days."

"Tell me about it." Toby got comfortable on the loveseat and drank some coffee. "You have children with any of your wives?"

He shook his head, finished the cookie and washed it down with coffee that tasted as good as it smelled. "Never got around to that. Probably just as well."

Serious now, Toby asked, "Why do you say that?"

He shrugged, frowned into his mug. "Not exactly dad of the year material, for one thing."

"You never know, Chris, you might surprise yourself."

He looked over at him then. "Oh, I doubt that. Kids need somebody they can depend on, and that ain't never been me."

"People change."

"Yeah, sometimes." He shrugged and watched the fire, not so sure about that. "You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks."

"I think it depends on how smart the old dog is, Chris."

He could only reply with another shrug. It was good of Toby to think he had some potential that way but ... well, he knew better. "Nice tree," he said, wanting to get on another subject, any subject besides the dark clouds of inevitability he kept seeing on his horizon.

"Thanks. Someone might have gotten a little carried away with the tinsel."

"Nah, it looks good." And it did, set in a niche by the staircase, some presents underneath, dozens of Christmas cards strung along the banister. "Nothing wrong with get carried away now and then."

"I guess that's true." Toby looked over at the kids, watching Rudolph now. "Can I ask you a question?"

Chris gave him a curious look, wondering what was on his mind now. "Okay, what?"

"Well, how did you find me?"

He smiled, guessing that was to be expected. "I called your office and got your receptionist to give me your address."

Toby frowned, lips pooched out. "She's not supposed to give out information like that."

"Yeah, well," Chris scratched his neck, "I got this way of getting people to overcome their common sense."

"Wow," Toby's expression and tone of voice were loaded with snark, "must be quite a responsibility, walking around with that much power."

Chris had to laugh, drawing the attention of the kids -- it was clear Holly was dying to know what was going on. "Hey, I only use it an emergency."

"Oh yes, I'm sure you do," Toby returned, letting him know he recognized bullshit when he heard it -- and also that it didn't really bother him. "And however you managed it, I'm glad you found me. I couldn't even find a Chris Keller in the phone book."

"No, you wouldn't. I have to share phone privileges down at the place I'm staying. Thought about picking up a cell phone but little as I'd use it, it's hard to justify the expense."

"You know what? Sometimes I really miss the world before cell phones."

"Yeah, those were the good old days."

Toby smiled, shot him another look loaded with curiosity. "Can I ask if you're staying at a halfway house?"

"Sure -- and no, it's more like a boarding house." Chris finished his coffee and set the cup down. "About seven other residents and most them seniors who've been there for years."

Going by his expression, that wasn't where Toby had pictured him. "That ... strikes me as incongruous."

"Yeah?" Chris flashed him a grin. "You see me in more of a swingin' bachelor pad?"

"Well, yes, something like that."

"That'd be cool, yeah, but it takes more money than I want to put out right now." When all the signs looked good for him winding up back behind bars. As it was, he was dipping into his emergency stash a little too freely these days -- but he could dwell on that later. "This place," he stretched out his legs towards the fire and didn't say no when Toby refilled his cup, "a guy on my cellblock gave me a reference, landlady's his aunt. It's quiet, and Mrs. Foster knocks twenty bucks off the rent for me doing some chores around the place."

Toby smiled and offered the cookie plate again. "Did that require you to use your superpowers?"

Chris smiled again, enjoying this, and selected a gingerbread man this time, sweet and spicy in his mouth. "Maybe a little. Let's me tell my P.O. I'm gainfully employed anyway." Shoveling a sidewalk or fixing a leaky faucet was a small enough price to pay for that.

"So you're pretty handy around the house?"

It was his turn to shoot Toby a curious look. "Can be, yeah. Why? Ya got a squeaky door hinge that needs oiling?"

"No, thank you," Toby replied with a fastidious sniff, "despite what you might hear I am fully capable of oiling by own hinges. No, I was just thinking those can be pretty useful and lucrative skills."

"Yeah, if you can find somebody willing to take you on."

"You're sure you won't let me put in a good word for you somewhere?"

"Toby ... " He shook his head, feeling uncomfortable now. "I can't."

Looking like he really needed to understand this, Toby leaned in closer, watching his face. "Tell me why. Is it because you'd feel obliged to me?"

"Yeah, kinda." He wanted to duck away from that searching gaze; it made him feel too vulnerable, like he might do or say something stupid any second now. "Although being obliged to you might not be so bad." Yes, see, just like that. Christ "I should ... probably be going."

"You just got here."

Geez, just like that, like he was welcome company. "You don't make things easy, do you?"

"Enlighten me about what I'm making hard. You need help, I'm in a position to assist you -- where's the problem?"

"That how you argue your legal cases, all matter of fact?"

"I try to. Soooo...?"

He pulled down a deep breath. "Toby, the side of the tracks I come from, nobody does anything out of altruism."

"The side of the tracks I'm from, it happens all the time."

"Yeah, well." He finished with a shrug, not having much of a reply to that except to repeat that Toby didn't understand his world, and he got the feeling that wasn't going to get him anywhere. "Look, you don't even know me. Why the fu --" He caught himself, glanced over at the kids still absorbed in the adventures of Rudolph, and tried again. "Why do you want to help me out?"

"My good deed for the year?" Toby returned. "As for not knowing you," he shrugged, lips pooched out again, "seems to me we've spent a good chunk of the day finding out things about each other." He leaned in close again, even more intent this time. "Besides, it doesn't feel like we've ever been strangers, Chris."

That hit him too fast to hide his reaction. "I thought..."

"What?"

He looked down at his feet, feeling the warmth of the fire through the soles of his boot, and mumbled his reply, "Thought that was just me." Fuck, he wanted to bullshit his way out of this, run for the hills and never look back. Why did he keep saying all the wrong things? That was his gift, knowing exactly the right words to say, how to play someone so he got what he wanted from them. Maybe that was the problem. He didn't want anything from Toby except ... except more of this, sitting here talking to him, feeling those good vibes. It was exciting and scary and wonderful and miserable and a dozen other contradictions, all tangled up into one big knot and sitting in the pit of his stomach. Did Toby feel all that too?

He snuck a look at him, but couldn't really tell, didn't really know what he was looking for. Blue eyes smiled back at him, though, warm and understanding and inviting himself to pull up even closer to the fire.

"I really oughta hit the road, though," he made himself say the words, tried to lace some sincerity in there, when all he wanted to do was stay here and bask. "It's getting late."

Smiling and shaking his head, like he was exasperated but sort of amused about it too, Toby said, "Okay, far be from me to hold you here against your will. Can I least walk you out to your car?"

"Sure, you can do that."

Toby just smiled and shook his head again as they headed for the hallway, swapping bags there -- he'd stuck Chris' bag in the coat closet. The kids had to come over and check out what was happening and say goodbye to Chris, Holly giving him a look that promised she'd have some comebacks ready the next time they met.

"Are you going to sit up reading about Tuscany tonight?" Toby asked as he slipped a coat on and shooed the kids off before that started a new line of questioning.

"Maybe." And maybe dreaming later on about going there with him, 'cause some really fucked up stuff went on in his dreams sometimes.

The mercury had dropped some more, the nightsky clear and cold and their breath coming out in smoky clouds as they walked out to the car.

"Guess you pictured me drving something snazzier too," Chris remarked as Toby stood with his hands in his pockets and looked at the old junker.

"Well, yes. Or a Harley."

Chris shivered and pulled on his gloves. "Wrong time of year for a bike. And," his shoulders lifted with his usual attempt to dismiss everything, "can't see any point in shellin' out major cash for something I won't be using long."

Toby's huff was actually visible and irritation was clear in the deep grooves between his eyebrows. "I wish you wouldn't say things like that."

His own expression sheepish, Chris admitted, "Me too."

He opened the passenger door to put the bag inside and Toby reached to shut it, but his foot must have hit a patch of ice because all of a sudden he was skidding, falling, and would have gone right under the car if Chris hadn't caught him and pulled him up, arms wrapped tight around him and holding him close. He could feel Toby breathing hard against his neck, strong arms holding onto him just as snug. They stayed locked together like that for long moments, gradually finding their footing. One hand slid up Toby's back and curved around the nape of his neck. It was just to reassure him, let him know Chris had a good hold on him. Same with Toby's hand slipping under Chris' coat and kneading the small of his back; only an accident, only meant to calm and anchor. Eyes closed, Chris exhaled a shuddery breath as Toby's face burrowed against his neck, a puff of warm air caressing his skin. His hand moved again, stroking the curls clustered at the nape of Toby's neck, and he could have sworn the other man pressed even closer against him.

Simply holding someone, hardly touching them at all -- that shouldn't be setting off such a tremendous charge in him, atomic bomb-sized. All the people he'd fucked, and nothing had even come close to feeling like this.

"You," he had to stop, clear his throat, "you okay?" Christ, but he didn't want to let him go.

"Uh-huh." Toby's voice was muffled against his throat.

"Gotta watch your step." He turned his head a fraction, dared to rub his cheek against Toby's hair.

"Depends." Making no move whatever to get away from him except to lift his head so they could see each other, Toby smiled and said, "A guy never knows when he might have a happy accident, after all."

Chris frowned, pretty sure Toby hadn't banged his head at any point along the way, but... "Happy accident?"

"Umm hmm." Toby had both hands on his shoulders now. "Also known as serendipity."

"That's a good word." And it tickled him that Toby didn't question that he'd know what it meant.

"One my favorites."

Might turn into one of his too. "Sure you're okay?"

Toby nodded. "Can't remember when I felt better, Chris," he answered, eyes sparkling with it.

He smiled, unable to resist getting swept up in his bubbling excitement. "You don't want to catch cold, though."

Some of the enthusiam dimmed a bit, but didn't dissipate entirely. "No, guess I wouldn't. I'll see you again?"

He couldn't help it, he shrugged, automatically dialing down his response to that. "Maybe."

But Toby was having none of that, apparently. Both hands curved around Chris' neck, he pulled him closer and repeated the words, leaving out the question mark this time. "I'll see you again."

Man... "Okay."

"When?"

"I ... don't know."

Huffing his impatience but looking like he would have to accept that uncertainty -- grudgingly -- he nodded. "All right, but I want your phone number and address. That's only fair, right?"

Chris guessed it was, but, "Right now?"

"Yes right now."

"I don't got anything --" He frowned at the pencil and business card Toby held out to him, but accepted them and laid the card against the roof of the car to scribble everything out. Later on Toby would probably think of a thousand reasons why the best thing would be to rip up this card and throw it away, but ... Chris looked at his face as he handed it back, and had to admit this might be one time when he read somebody all wrong.

"Anybody ever tell you you're a persistent sonofabitch?"

Taking that for a compliment, Toby nodded. "It's been mentioned a time or two. Pain in the ass has come up too."

"I'll bet."

Toby gave him a grumpy look that he didn't buy for a second. Just as quickly, however, his expression turned serious and he moved close again, catching his gaze. "And, Chris, will you do something for me?"

Wary but willing, he nodded. "What?"

"Have a merry Christmas."

A corner of his mouth quirked. "Hard to promise that, Toby."

"I know, but," he ran his hands along the front of Chris' coat, "you could give it a shot, see what happens. You never know, Santa might have a surprise in his bag."

More like a lifetime's supply of coal, but Chris kept that to himself. "I can give it a try."

Nodding, looking like he didn't quite believe him and might be able to read his mind, Toby added, "And this is something you can promise me: don't do anything stupid."

"Wasn't planning to."

"Umm hmm, call on your superpowers and sell me some swamp land in Florida now."

Jesus. "Fine, I won't do anything stupid."

"I have your word on that?"

His laugh was short and bittersweet. "Ain't worth much,but ... yeah."

Blue eyes wistful now, Toby laid a hand against his neck. "I think that's worth a lot, Chris."

"You'd be the only one who did."

Toby shrugged, squeezed. "Who the fuck else matters?"

Chris grinned. "Yeah, well, put it that way ... nobody." Oh man, if he tilted his head forward just the tiniest little bit more he could kiss him -- and risk ruining everything. Checking himself and pulling back and way from him felt like the hardest thing he'd ever done.

If this was anything, he could wait. If Toby wanting him was at the end of the road, he could walk a million miles to get there, so holding his horses a little while wasn't any kind of hardship.

Hope was an unfamiliar concept to him and he wasn't really sure what to do with it, now the tiniest seed of it was taking root. Probably he was only going to wind up feeling like an idiot, but -- he opened the driver's side door and looked across the hood at Toby's smiling face --but it felt good to entertain some better possibilities for once.

At the corner, he looked in the rearview mirror and saw Toby still standing at the curb, watching after him, and that felt good right down to his bones too. Whatever else happened, or didn't, he'd have memories of today to look back on and get him through some cold, dark times.


Naps are one of life's underrated pleasures. A guy could be feeling all frazzled out by the apocalyptic carnage of ripped paper and bows otherwise known as Christmas morning, but let him stretch out on a big couch, snug and comfortable under a warm and fleecey blanket for a little bit and all the stress melts swoosh away. The absence of the primary perpetrators of all the chaos is, of course, a key element, facilitated in this instance by their grandparents spiriting them away to a holiday on ice extravanganza downtown.

Oh, yes, and one other way this method beats my previous preferred way to relieve stress is that, afterwards, I can still use words like facilitate. That's the sort of thing that gets tricky after three or four martinis.

I stretched comfortably, in no huge rush to budge from my comfy spot. My parents wouldn't be back with the kids for hours yet and it felt good to rest there and enjoy the quiet. It was completely dark now, the only light coming from the tree and the television. When I'd dozed off, Maureen O'Hara had just hired Edmund Gywnn as the new Santa down at Macy's; now the judge was ruling in favor of him truly being the real deal. I always liked that part.

And maybe that first part of the movie explained the dream I'd had, where Chris and I were on a float rolling down the street in some parade. It had looked like a bachelor pad straight out of a Hugh Hefner or Austin Powers fantasy, except that faucets kept leaking or spewing water into the air and everything else was falling apart. I was running around with an old-fashioned oil can, like something out of a Looney Toons cartoon, trying to catch up with Chris but he kept slipping away from me at the last second. If there were Freudian undertones going on there, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to know about it.

That being on the trail of the elusive Keller part made sense to me, however.

It had been three days since I'd seen him, and out of sight definitely had not equated to out of mind in this instance. Any spare moment when I wasn't wrapping presents, racing off to mail packages, or keeping the kids occupied, my thoughts kept drifting off to Chris, wondering how he was doing and where he was doing it, and how come he wouldn't return my phone calls.

I could cut him some slack on that, actually. He really could have been out each time I called, and the codger who'd answered the phone every time might have simply forgotten to pass on the message. It bothered me, though, and worried me and had worked its way under my skin like a prickly burr. What made it worse was that I couldn't even mention it to anyone. My parents are good people, absolutely convinced they are completely open-minded about every issue under the sun, but I think they might like some time to get used to my sudden obsession over a guy I just met.

Come to think of it, they probably weren't the only ones. At least, I kept thinking that I ought to feel thoroughly knocked for a loop. Even kept waiting for that other shoe to drop. If it was going to fall, though, it was taking its own sweet time about it.

What I needed was to see him again. Talking on the phone would have been good, but to see if the other day had been some crazy fluke or not required his physical presence. Like -- right now.

I sat up and turned on a lamp, feeling that out some more. If he wouldn't come to me, I could sure as hell go to him, and if that made nervous excitement coil up tight in my belly well, it was also the first time I'd felt this charged up about anything in a long time. It was scary, yes, but in a really cool and gratifying way.

And if I sat there thinking about it for too long I knew I'd talk myself out of going, and that could be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life.

I took a couple of minutes to run upstairs and change into a sweatshirt that wasn't stained with grape juice, and run a comb through my hair. Then it was just grab my coat and my keys -- and go. I would have crossed my fingers for luck, but it's hard to drive that way.

Traffic was light this evening thanks to the holiday and a light snow, and I made it across town in record time, turning off Main Street and slowly cruising along the street he'd written down, looking for the right address and finally pulling up across from the house. I knew the place, at least I'd gone past it a thousand times before on my way to the library two blocks down. It was a good house, a fixer-upper for sure, but if a person has the time and patience those can hold a certain charm. Before we got married, Gen and I had looked at a couple of places like it, learning about the different styles of Victorian architecture along the way. So I could look across the street at this one and know it was in the Second Empire style, primiarly noted for its mansard roof and dormer windows. And I could study the lighted windows and wonder which one belonged to Chris ... but none of that was moving me across the street to knock on the door and say hello.

All right, I'd come this far. I could make it the rest of the way.

Still, I don't think anyone could have been more surprised than me when I did actually walk up on the porch and smack my fist against the solid wood door. Even more astonishing was how I didn't give into the sudden wave of panic that urged me to run, quick, back to the car.

Nope, I damn well stood my ground and even knocked again, finally hearing someone approaching. The door swung open and an older woman stood there, white haired and maybe around seventy, but pulled together in a way my mother might approve.

"Mrs. Foster?"

"Yes?" She was as tall as me in her heels and looked me right in the eye, making me suddenly doubt that Chris had worked any of his charm on her.

"I'm looking for Chris Keller. Is he in?"

Cool suspicion in her gaze, she said, "Tell me your business with him first."

"I'm a friend, Tobias Beecher. I've called here a couple of times, but haven't heard back from Chris and wondered how he was."

"Well," she looked me over again and I tried to look as harmless as possible, "you just missed him, he went out a little while ago. I'll tell him you called."

Disappointed, I nodded, said, "Thanks," and wondered what to do now as she shut the door on me.

Well... I blew out a deep sigh and shivered a little, looking for a positive spin. Mrs. Foster hadn't given the impression Chris had flown the coop entirely, that was something. There was no reason to think he'd hopped on a plane headed for Katmandu or Tierra del Fuego. I'd just gotten myself really jazzed up to see him tonight and the letdown was hitting me hard.

Hands in my pockets and my shoulders hunched up against the cold, I started back across the street but didn't get back in my car. Instead, I strolled along to the park, drawn partly by the voices caroling away over there -- *"God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay...* -- and partly out of a wacky fear that the instant I drove off would be precisely when Chris turned up again. Besides, it wasn't like I had anything else to do tonight, and the singers were good. The skaters weren't bad, either, matching their moves to the rhythm of the carols.

The park was beautiful tonight, blanketed with fresh snow and all lit up for Christmas. That wasn't the best sight to my eyes, however, not by a long shot.

"This seat taken?" I asked, standing by the bench and smiling as he looked around and up at me, startled and disbelieving for an instant before his eyes warmed with a smile.

"No," Chris said, scooting over a bit, "there's plenty of room."

I sat down beside him, close; he didn't scoot any further away. "You didn't return my phone calls."

He replied with a familiar shrug and I decided not to push that, not right now. I was dying to know what had made him such a gunshy pessimist but didn't want to spook him off by demanding too much, too soon. I couldn't explain my conviction that there was going to be plenty of time to delve into every one of his nooks and crannies, but I liked how that certainty felt.

For now I just asked, "How was your Christmas?"

The shrug again but then he shot me a sideways glance, a warm smile on his face as he admitted, "It's better now. How about you?"

No way to resist that smile and I didn't even try. "Hectic, but good. And getting better."

If he wasn't sure he believed that I got the impression he was strongly tempted by the idea. "Where are the kids?"

"My parents took them to the ice show, I passed."

"Yeah? You're not into skating?"

"Well," I stretched my legs out, watching the skaters on the pond, far less polished than the pros but somehow a better entertainment for that, "I'm not much into Brian Boitano anyway." That got a blank look so I tried again. "Kurt Browning?" Zip. "Wayne Gretzky?" Bingo.

"Yeah, I know him." Dark brows drew together in a frown. "Kinda hard to picture him ice dancing to Celine Dion's greatest hits, though."

I nodded, snickering at the picture in my head. "That might actually be worth seeing, though." I nodded at the pond, the skaters trying to synchronize their moves to Jingle Bell Rock now, and said, "You'd like that."

"Skating?" He gave me a skeptical look. "Yeah, can't think of anything more fun than falling on my ass."

I shook my head. "Except you wouldn't fall, Chris, not with me to catch you."

Dubious regard gave way to a pleased look that gave me cause to keep up my positive thinking. "That could take some getting used to, believing someone had my back."

"It's new territory for me too."

He nodded, looking really, really tempted to believe. "I might fall anyway, can't be helped sometimes."

"That's true, but," I nudged him with my shoulder, "it's easier to get back on your feet if somebody lends you a hand. Or doesn't that kind of thing happen on your side of the tracks?"

"It's pretty rare, yeah."

I nudged him again. "Well, new year coming up, seems like a good time to try out some new ideas." Usually I keep my New Years' resolutions for, maybe a couple of weeks, but once in a while there's been some incentive to try a little bit harder and this had all the earmarks of being one of those rare times.

"Guess I could do that," Chris said, in what I took as a ringing endorsement of the proposal.

"So," I stayed close to him, "have you done anything stupid?"

"Not so far."

"Have you thought about it?"

"Maybe, once or twice." He stretched his legs out alongside mine, his thigh pressed against mine.

"Tell me why?"

A sigh gusted out of him and he shrugged against me. "'Cause I know what to expect in prison. Fucked up as it is, least I know how everything works and where I fit in."

"Chris," I scootched around on the bench to face him, indulging the comfortable familiarity I kept feeling towards him by hooking a hand around the back of his neck and tugging at his hair, "that is the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"Tob--"

I shook him a little, making him look at me. "I will grant you, I don't have any personal experience with which to make a definitive evaluation, but simply by inference I can conclude that not being incarcerated in some godforsaken hellhole is a vastly preferable way to go."

The wheels in his head were whirling like crazy as he tried to come up with something to refute that. I could see it, but far more satisfying was the flicker of hope in his eyes, a willingness to inch out along the bridge and try and meet me halfway. "Well, yeah, if you put it that way," he finally said, a rueful smile playing over his lips. "Gotta say, this is weird feeling."

"Having someone pull for you?"

"Yeah."

I tugged his hair again. "Think you could get to like it?" I asked, searching his eyes.

Shy and scared but pushing that all aside, he nodded. "I don't know, but I'd sure to find out."

"Me too." And he was right, this was a very weird feeling, hitting right out of the blue, but I could really get used to it. The way he couldn't take his eyes off of me -- that gave me a lot of reason to believe I wasn't all alone in that either.

Chris rested his arm along the back of the bench, still facing me, head cocked a bit as he watched me. "You really came out here looking for me?"

I stretched my arm out too, covering his hand with mine -- and it wasn't the cold that made me shiver as he turned his palm up to clasp mine. "Yes I did."

"Why?"

"Because I can't get you out of my head, Chris, and I don't want to. Because you're even haunting my dreams."

If he hadn't expected that, he also didn't try to reject it. "Yeah," he nodded, "me too. Good dreams?"

"Wellll... There was this one where I was chasing you around with an oil-can."

"Do I wanna know the rest of it?"

I smiled back at him, squeezed his hand. "Hmm, maybe not," I told him with a mysterious air to keep him guessing. "Mostly I had to make sure you hadn't run off to Katamandu or Tierra del Fuego."

"What the fuck's Tierra del Fuego?"

"An archipelago at the southernmost tip of South America, discovered by Magellan when he was circumnavigating the globe."

"Wow."

"Umm hmm." I nodded in agreement. "When I was a kid and thinking about running away, I'd look up places like that and plot how to get there."

"Did you ever run away?"

I had to shake my head. "No. Usually my dad would find me with a bunch of maps and National Geographics spread out and he'd sit down and help me figure out my best route. That sort of put the fire out."

He smiled, dimples digging deep. "I'll bet. Usually if I'm running away, I just hop a bus to Vegas."

"Also an exotic and mysterious realm much prized by explorers."

He laughed now, sliding his hand up to stroke the inside of my wrist; that made me shudder in a really enjoyable way too. "And, Toby, I didn't run away."

"I can see that. Did you think about it?"

Gaze lowered for a moment, he shrugged, admitted, "Yeah, coupla times."

"Why?"

He looked up again. "'Cause I'm scared."

"Of me?" I laid my hand against his neck. "How could you be scared of me?"

Smile amused and tolerant, he reached to brush snow out of my hair and let his fingers linger along my cheek. "'Cause I never felt like this with anybody else, and I don't even know what the fuck this is."

"Maybe we could figure it out together?"

"Yeah? How would we do that?"

"Well," I didn't know if the singers and skaters had packed it in and shoved off, but more importantly I really didn't care, "someone once told me it's usually best to start slow and build from there," I said, needing him to meet me halfway again.

He didn't let me down, moving to intersect with me at the precise right moment, our lips brushing ... once, twice ... both hands cradled the back of his head, my fingers digging into his hair as I tried to pull myself closer to him. Chris was holding me, one hand rubbing my back and the other cupped around my nape as we kissed some more, one of us moaning as I pushed my tongue into his mouth because I still couldn't get close enough.

"Oh Christ..." He gasped the words, breathless, rubbing his cheek against mine. "That's what you call starting slow?"

I stroked his hair, our foreheads pressed together now. "Uh-huh."

"Then fast is gonna kill me."

I grinned. "Want to risk it?"

He kissed my cheek, my mouth. "Oh, fuck yeah I do. Only..."

"What?"

"Pinch me? 'Cause I want to be be sure I'm not dreamin'."

I obliged.

"Oww."

I kissed his lips to make it better. "Real enough for you?"

"Oh yeah," he said with feeling, fingers tangled in my hair as he drew me in for another kiss, burying his face against my neck with a very satisfied sigh.

Arms tight around him, I was feeling pretty good myself. "Chris?"

"Yeah?"

I kissed his hair. "What are you doing New Years' eve?"

He laughed, a warm puff of air against my skin. "I don't know. Got some ideas?"

Oh, yes, maybe one or two.

This wasn't a bad start, sitting there, watching the snow fall and making the world look magical and full of brand new possibilities.

~end~


<i>I found you a thousand times;
I guess you done the same;
But then we lose each other;
It's like a children's game;

As I find you here again;
A thought runs through my mind;
Our love is like a circle;
Let's go 'round one more time.</i>

--Harry Chapin