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(For the Holidays You Can’t Beat) Home Sweet Home

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It was 9:23am when Carlos heard the knock on his apartment door. He had been cleaning and gathering ingredients since 7:15 in preparation for that knock, and although two hours and fifteen minutes had certainly seemed like plenty of time at the start of it, the truth was that he was still trying to get everything organized.

With an unopened bag of flour still tucked beneath his left arm, Carlos tugged open the door to reveal Junpei and Akane, both of their faces flushed adorably from the cold. He smiled.

“Hey, guys.”

“Hi Carlos!” Akane chirped.

“Hey,” greeted Junpei with a crooked grin.

“You know, my place is pretty far for you two,” Carlos pointed out, quirking a brow as he leaned against the doorjamb. “Why did we do this here and not at one of your apartments, again?”

“Think of it like… A test run!” Akane said pleasantly, her arms piled high with bags of Hershey kisses.

Carlos laughed.

“What, so if you guys like my kitchen enough you’ll finally move in with me?” he joked as he held the door open for her.

“Pretty much,” agreed Junpei, sweeping past with a massive bowl of chilled cookie dough cradled to his chest.

A glance out at the street revealed that Junpei’s junky red car was still stuffed to bursting with baking supplies. And so, after dropping his sack of flour onto the kitchen table and dropping a kiss on each of his partners’ foreheads, Carlos headed down to the car to help transfer things to his kitchen. Even with all three of them, it took two round trips to get everything. The kitchen was overtaken, and the less messy ingredients like bagged candy, pretzels, and nuts were tossed onto Carlos’s bed to make room. Then the three of them washed their hands carefully.

“You couldn’t convince Maria to join us?” Akane asked as she cleared a space on the table to roll out cookie dough.

Carlos shook his head.

“No. Apparently the Klim family is doing a little holiday baking today too, and Phi invited her over. Can’t compete with that,” he explained with a wink.

“Are they actually dating yet, or are they still fucking around ‘not labeling things’?” wondered Junpei.

“Between you and me, I think Phi might ask her out today,” Carlos said. “With any luck. I’m sure we can trust Sigma to be pushy and embarrassing in our place.”

Then he picked up his bag of flour from before and opened it and began ladling flour onto the table with a measuring cup. Junpei pulled the cookie dough out of Carlos’s fridge and began peeling off the Saran wrap covering it. Meanwhile, Akane dug through one of the boxes and produced a plastic bag of metal cookie cutters.

She unsealed the bag and dumped them on a corner of the table that wasn’t covered in flour.

“That’s quite the collection,” Carlos noted, sifting through the pile. “Bells, wreaths, snowflakes… Are these gingerbread people?”

Side-by -side sat two vaguely humanoid cookie cutters, one of which seemed to be wearing a dress.

“It’ll be great!” Akane enthused. “We can make little cookie people that look like us!”
“I dunno,” said Junpei, studying the cookie cutter critically. “Don’t you think it’s a little disingenuous to make gingerbread people out of sugar cookie dough?”

“What I think is that you two are putting way too much thought into this,” Carlos said with a laugh.

That seemed to end the discussion. With the cookie dough unwrapped, Junpei went to lift it out and onto the table, but when he tried to release it globs stuck stubbornly to his palms.

“Ah, jeez, just—!”

Junpei flailed his hands, trying to shake the dough off.

“And that’s why we use flour, Jumpy,” Akane said primly, her palms already caked in a layer of it.

She carefully took the majority of the dough out of his hands. Though the dough didn’t come off onto her palms in big chunks like it had for Junpei, it still seemed to want to stick to her. Carlos dipped up another half-cup of flour and sprinkled it over the dough. Akane shot him a grateful smile. After coating the rolling pin in flour too, Akane began rolling out the cookie dough.

“Why don’t you two work on the cookies while I start some of the other things?” Carlos suggested.

Then he detoured into his rooms to grab two bags of pretzel rings and two bags of Hershey kisses. While Akane and Junpei cut out sugar cookies and placed them on baking sheets, Carlos set to work filling another with pretzel rings in careful rows. Then he unwrapped the Hershey kisses and set each one in the center of a pretzel. Almost the moment he had filled the tray, the oven dinged to alert him it was preheated.

Popping on a pair of oven mitts, Carlos slid his tray and one of the trays of cookies into the oven. When he turned back to start filling another tray with chocolate and pretzels, he caught sight of a head of brown hair coated liberally in white.

“Junpei,” Carlos said with a fond sigh, “you’ve got flour in your hair.”

“Ughhhh! It’s not my fault it gets everywhere!” complained Junpei, trying and failing to brush it out with his equally floury hand.

After a few seconds of his flailing, Carlos finally took pity on his boyfriend and, from his higher vantage point, ruffled Junpei’s hair until all the flour was out – or at least, as much as would be dislodged without a shower. There was still a faint stain of whiteness in his hair that reminded Carlos of snowflakes.

Smiling softly, Carlos set the microwave timer for two minutes and an egg timer for twenty, and set back to work filling a baking sheet. Two minutes later, the microwave beeped at him insistently and he turned it off, slipping on his oven mitts again.

“Could someone get the M&Ms?” he asked, pulling open the oven door.

“Got it!” cried Akane, wiping her floury hands on her jeans and leaving stark white handprints behind.

She hurried into the bedroom and returned, ripping off a corner of the M&M bag in her hands. Carlos slid the tray from the oven and held it out for Akane, who carefully pressed one M&M into the center of each melted Hershey’s kiss, squishing them flat and filling the small pretzel rings. After the final one was finished, before Carlos could turn away to set the pan on a cooling rack, Akane stretched up and pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose.

Despite himself, Carlos could feel his ears burn with heat at the unexpected kiss. He was comfortable with them, certainly, but having spent so much of his life single and not interested in more, he was still sometimes startled by such displays. While he was distracted, Akane drew a little heart on his cheek with the flour coating her finger. Then she danced away to do the same to Junpei, though he protested halfheartedly while cutting out a sleigh-shaped cookie.

Their morning continued in such a manner, filled with flour and silly kisses and the ding of timers, until at last the dough had all been used up. The chocolate pretzel rings were cooling on the counters, and Carlos was cooking a pot of caramel to coat their homemade Chex mix. Akane had rolled their dough for thumbprint cookies into evenly sized little balls.

It was only then, as Junpei went to gather supplies to mix up frosting for the cookies, that they realized something was missing.

“We forgot the powdered sugar?” groaned Junpei. “No way, I double-checked everything!”

“I don’t have any in the house either,” Carlos added sheepishly from the stove. “And with this much cooking at once I don’t know if we can afford to send someone out to buy more without burning something.”

The three of them fell silent.

“Two choices lie before us,” Akane said solemnly, her eyes closed, though neither of her boyfriends knew if she was truly consulting the morphogenetic field or not. “We could call Aoi for help and potentially invite disaster, or we could not call for help, in which case we will definitely invite disaster.”

Junpei and Carlos glanced at each other, and then back at Akane.

“Uh… I’m going to go with my gut and pick potential disaster over certain disaster,” Carlos replied.

“Ditto,” agreed Junpei.

Akane’s shoulders slumped.

Ten minutes and one embarrassing phone call later, there was a knock on Carlos’s front door.

But when Junpei opened it, instead of Aoi Kurashiki, in through the door stepped Santa Claus with a gray Wal-Mart sack slung over his shoulder.

“Uhhhhhhh…”

Junpei glanced from the Santa Claus in the doorway back to Akane and Carlos to see if they were seeing what he was. By their expressions, they were.

“I heard there was a good little girl around here who needed some baking supplies?” the red-clad stranger asked in a false-deep voice, and Junpei realized that they weren’t dealing with Santa Claus at all, but another Santa entirely.

There was a smack, and Junpei’s eyes darted to Akane again to find her hand pressed to her forehead.

“Ugh, please tell me you didn’t go to the grocery store dressed like that,” she muttered.

Aoi smirked back, though his sister wasn’t even looking at him.

“How else would I go?”

“It’s December fifth, Aoi!”

“I think you mean Christmas fifth,” he retorted, handing off his shopping bag to Carlos.

The bag was rifled through quickly to make sure it contained what they needed, and then set in the kitchen. Instead of rejoining the group, though, Carlos moved past them into his bedroom.

“I do not mean Christmas fifth,” Akane complained, making her way back into the kitchen with Aoi and Junpei on her heels. “Why do you have to be so embarrassing? I’m grown up now, you don’t have to pretend to be Santa anymore, you weirdo.”

“You know, Akane,” said Aoi, “insulting Santa Claus is a good way to get coal in your stocking. You might have to shift to a different timeline to get any presents.”

“How about I shift to a timeline where you’re not so annoying?” Akane huffed.

“Good luck finding one.”

Aoi and Junpei startled at having spoken in unison, then shared a quick fistbump. Akane groaned piteously.

“Please just take the beard off,” she said to Aoi. “I’m begging you. God is begging you. The entire morphogenetic field is begging you.”

“It’s not in the spirit of Christmas to ask Santa to take off his beard.”

Aoi…!”

“No, no,” he protested. “Call me Santa!”

“You are the worst!”

Aoi planted his hands on his hips.

“If I was the worst, would I have brought you that powdered sugar you needed?” he asked, taunting his sister by shaking his head to wave his fake beard at her.

Akane puffed her cheeks out angrily. And then she shoved him.

“Whoa—!”

Aoi toppled backwards with a yelp.

Luckily for him, Carlos stepped back into the kitchen just in time to catch him under the arms.

“Hi Carlos,” Aoi said, looking up at Carlos with a grin that even the floofy fake beard couldn’t hide.

“Hey!” Akane protested. “No flirting with my boyfriends! I never flirt with your dates!”

Aoi didn’t deign to give that claim a verbal response. Instead, he leveled Akane with the flattest stare he could manage while wearing a Santa costume and still half-draped against Carlos. Akane glanced away, and had the decency to look a bit ashamed of herself.

A loud beep filled the kitchen.

“That was one time,” she muttered, turning back to get the paper bag of caramel Chex mix out of the microwave. “And she was really cute.”

Akane shook the bag violently, pretending it was her brother. Setting Aoi upright, Carlos cleared his throat and placed the bag of pecans he’d gone to get on the counter. As he did, his eyes glanced over the microwave’s digital clock, and he did a double-take. It read 1:03pm.

“It’s that late already?” he murmured.

Then Junpei was at his shoulder looking too.

“No wonder I’m starving. We should break for lunch.”

On cue, Akane and Aoi’s stomachs growled loudly. Junpei laughed.

“Want to join us for lunch, Aoi?” offered Carlos.

He shrugged in response.

“What’re you guys having?” he asked.

A glance around the kitchen told them all that, whatever it was, it wouldn’t be homemade.

“We can just order something from that burger place downtown,” suggested Junpei. “Cheap, quick, convenient. I don’t really care as long as I get food.”

“Oh, I want their crispy chicken sandwich!” Akane said. “But no tomato. And a small order of French fries?”

“They got wraps there, right? I’ll just take one of those with chicken in it, I guess,” Aoi added.

“Double cheeseburger and fries,” said Junpei.

Carlos nodded, rubbing his chin.

“They still have that burger with the swiss cheese and the mushrooms, don’t they? That sounds good to me, so I guess we’re all in agreement. But who should go order?”

“I’ll go get it, you lovebirds keep cooking,” Aoi insisted.

No!” Akane raced past him and blocked the door, her arms spread wide. “No way! You’re not going out there dressed like that again!”

“And are you going to stop me, little sister?”

“Yes!”

The argument only devolved from there, into childish insults and mocking nicknames. Junpei watched with interest, nibbling on a leftover pretzel stick that hadn’t made it into the Chex mix. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to intervene. Which, Carlos realized, meant it was up to him.

“I’ll go,” he said, then louder when the bickering siblings didn’t hear him. “Hey! I’ll go.”

“I will take the ring to Mordor,” Junpei stage-whispered in falsetto.

Carlos bit his lip to cover up a smile.

“Seriously. I’ll get the food, you two,” he said, placing a hand on each of the Kurashikis’ shoulders. “Just keep going with the thumbprint cookies for me, alright?”

Twenty minutes of work later, the caramel Chex mix was drying on wax paper, the small batch of thumbprint cookies had all been baked and thumbprinted, and the chocolate pretzel rings were boxed up in the fridge. Aoi had just finished pulling a tray of sugar cookies out of the oven when Carlos returned with a huge paper bag in his arms.

“Sorry I took so long,” he apologized. “The line was huge.”

“Just gimme the food,” Junpei replied, making grabby hands.

Aoi stripped off the Santa Claus beard at last, so he didn’t end up getting food in it.

“Let’s see…” said Carlos, digging through the massive paper sack and pulling out meals. “A crispy chicken sandwich for Akane, hold the tomato. A double cheeseburger for Junpei. A chicken salad wrap for Aoi… And a mushroom swiss burger for me.”

Akane went up on her tiptoes, peering into the bag.

“And one, two, three orders of fries,” she counted, pulling out her own little box of French fries. “That’s everything.”

Satisfied that everything was as it should be, they settled in to eat.

“Trade you a bite of my sandwich for a bite of yours,” Akane bartered five minutes into lunch, holding out her half-eaten chicken sandwich.

“Tempting,” Junpei replied sarcastically. “Unfortunately, I am already too… Chicken.”

The pun, paired with Junpei’s deadpan expression, caught Carlos so off guard that he snorted soda up his nose and started coughing.

Thankfully that was the only mishap, and once they had all finished eating and thrown their trash in the garbage can, Akane lugged Carlos’s mixer onto the table and started mixing up the frosting. It took several adjustments to get the balance of powdered sugar and milk right for the perfect frosting consistency, but in the end everyone was satisfied with it.

“And now,” declared Akane as she lifted the spatula in the air, “we frost!”

“What colors should we do?” Carlos asked.

“We have to have red and green!”

“Blue,” suggested Junpei, digging through the tiny box of food coloring for Akane’s picks and his own. “And yellow.”

“White,” Aoi said. “You should just leave some plain.”

Carlos nodded, accepting the little bottles from Junpei.

“And what about brown?” he asked.

The other three paused, and then looked at him with equally skeptical expressions.

“Who wants to eat brown frosting?” Junpei demanded, sticking out his tongue.

“But, you know it… I mean… For reindeer and tree trunks and stuff…?” fumbled Carlos.

Akane squinted at him. There was definitely something weird… Carlos could be a hell of an actor, but he also wasn’t good at keeping secrets from the people closest to him. What kind of secret he could have involving the color of frosting was beyond her, but something told her it would be a good surprise so she didn’t ruin it by trying to take a glance downstream in the timeline.

“That makes sense!” she chirped instead.

There was no brown food coloring, of course, so in the end they mixed a few different colors to get it. Carlos was oddly specific about the shade he wanted, and Akane reminded herself very firmly not to cheat with her ESPer powers.

Once five bowls of frosting had been mixed with color and the sixth left plain, Carlos rummaged around in his lower cupboards and pulled out a box filled with white piping bags, plastic rings, and metal tips. Quickly and efficiently, Carlos fitted six bags with the icing tips and secured them with the plastic couplers.

“Wait, you actually have piping bags?” Junpei asked. “What are you, a cooking channel chef?”

“How do you think I frosted Maria’s birthday cake?” retorted Carlos, spooning a glop of red frosting into the bag.

“Uh, I thought you bought it, like a normal person.”

Nonetheless, Junpei pitched in by filling another bag with green frosting. Akane grabbed a spoon and helped out with blue, while Aoi, predictably, filled another piping bag with white frosting. With all four of them working, all six colors were soon bagged and ready to frost with.

“Gonna help us frost cookies, Santa?” Junpei asked with a smirk.

Aoi snorted.

“No way in hell, I’m out. Santa eats cookies, he doesn’t make ‘em. I did my part and now I’m gonna go home and hibernate.”

With a quick half-hug around Akane’s shoulders and a wave for her boyfriends, Aoi was out the door with his Santa Claus beard in hand.

“I’d file that under not-disaster, I think,” Carlos said optimistically.

Akane gave an irritated huff, but made no verbal protest. Then she, Junpei, and Carlos sat down to begin frosting the sugar cookies.

Only a few minutes in, it was clear that the task would not be as easy as it sounded.

“Will it just…! Oh, come on!” Akane muttered, swiping another glob of yellow frosting off the tip of the icing bag with a finger after it refused to stick to the cookie.

Moodily, she stuck the finger in her mouth and ate the frosting off so it didn’t go to waste or make a mess. Junpei, sitting across from her, wasn’t doing much better. But instead of trying to get his designs as pretty as possible like Akane, he had embraced his lack of icing skill and just scribbled lines of blue across several of the cookies nearest him. Carlos, of course, was completely in his element, which Akane found particularly unfair. Still, even he had to occasionally scrape clumping frosting off the tip of his piping bag.

“We definitely made too many cookies,” Junpei groaned after a full hour, massaging his cramping hand. “We’ll never finish frosting them all.”

“If you need a break, you could take the red and start filling the thumbprints,” suggested Carlos. “The red frosting is kind of thin,” he gestured at the cookies with red frosting oozing off them and onto the plastic tablecloth, “so it should be the easiest to use.”

With a worn-out sigh, Junpei got to his feet and picked up the piping bag with the red frosting. But he didn’t complain as he started to fill the divots in the pecan-speckled cookies – Carlos had been right, it was easier. His fingers were still sore from trying to squeeze the blue frosting onto the sugar cookies earlier, but the ache started to ebb. And standing at the counter with the cooling rack full of thumbprint cookies gave him the perfect vantage for looking at his boyfriend and girlfriend. Akane, who faced him straight on, had a cute and familiar concentrated look on her face, the tip of her tongue peeking out of the corner of her mouth. And from the side he got a view of Carlos’s forearms, bared by his rolled-up sleeves and flexing as he worked. Junpei grinned.

Ok, he thought, maybe this was worth a little ache in his hands.

It didn’t take long to finish up with the thumbprint cookies, and Junpei settled back down between Carlos and Akane and dutifully continued frosting sugar cookies.

The next time any of them looked at a clock, it was after 7:00pm.

Carlos sighed, leaning back from the table.

“We should eat supper,” he murmured.

“Ehh, I’m not really hungry,” Junpei admitted.

“Me either,” said Akane. “I guess we’ve been snacking all evening, so…”

In truth, they all just wanted to be done. Seeming to realize this, everyone returned to frosting – this time with a little less creativity and finesse. Carlos even ate a few unfrosted cookies as he worked just to trim down the number they had to finish.

When the final cookie, a bell, was frosted, all three let out a sigh of relief and stood to stretch.

“That… Was a lot of cookies,” Junpei sighed.

Carlos nodded in agreement.

“Maybe next year we only need a half batch of dough.”

“But we did such a good job!” offered Akane. “We should at least take some time to admire them and show each other our favorites.”

Junpei smiled indulgently, leaning back into Carlos’s chest as the blond slung an arm around his shoulders.

“Why don’t you go first then, Kanny? Since it’s your idea.”

Akane gestured to a small forest of green tree cookies in one corner of the table, covered in red and blue garlands and yellow stars.

“Look how good they got!” she said proudly.

“That’s really something,” agreed Junpei, looking impressed.

“Yeah, they’re great!” Carlos said with a smile. “You picked up icing pretty quick, Akane.”

She beamed at them both.

“How about you, Jumpy?”

In reply, he leaned forward and pulled out a cookie from the lineup with a flourish. It was splattered with blue and white frosting in a seemingly random pattern.

“Uh… What is that?” Akane wondered.

“It’s a Funyarinpa, Kanny,” Junpei explained impatiently.

Akane squinted and tilted her head, trying to find any familiarity in the scribbles of icing.

“If you say so Jumpy,” she said at last.

“I think I can see it,” Carlos told them. “It looks good, Junpei. The frosting is really even.”

They all stared down at the Funyarinpa cookie for a few more seconds, thoughtfully.

“And which ones are your favorites, Carlos?” asked Akane.

At that, he moved closer to the table, blocking the cookies from view. After a little bit of shuffling, Carlos stepped out of the way to show the other two.

“Taadaa?” he said with a shrug, splaying his hands.

“Ohhhh, Carlos, they’re so cute!” exclaimed Akane, clapping and bouncing on her toes.

There, in a line, sat three gingerbread-person sugar cookies, carefully frosted. The first had several streaks of brown hair and a grumpy face; it wore a red shirt with a blue vest and blue pants. The second cookie-person was the kind wearing a dress. It also had brown hair, though it fell over the front of its little cookie shoulder in a ponytail, and its face was neutral, almost thoughtful. It wore a white dress with a brown belt, and blue pants underneath. The last cookie had yellow hair, a smiling face, and a simple green shirt with blue pants.

“Of course you blew the rest of us out of the water,” Junpei scoffed, but he was smiling too.

Together they packed up all the cookies into Tupperware and put them into the fridge so they wouldn’t get stale, then bagged the Chex mix. Though there were still plenty of baking supplies and tools scattered around, the kitchen looked kind of empty without the results of their work laid out everywhere.

The glowing numbers on the microwave clock told them it was 9:35pm.

“You can go, if you want to,” Carlos said, suddenly a little hesitant. “I’ll clean this up in the morning, it shouldn’t take too long, so you don’t have to stay if—”

“There’s no way in hell I’m driving home tonight,” Junpei declared.

And so, with floury stains all over their clothes and hands tinted by smears of colorful frosting, the three of them piled into Carlos’s bed for a good night’s sleep.

“… Love you,” Carlos said quietly, in lieu of a goodnight.

A soft yawn filled the air.

“We’re gonna move in,” Akane answered.

“Mmm,” agreed Junpei. “Yeah. But you have to cook breakfast. That’s what firefighters do.”

Too tired to laugh fully, Carlos just let out an amused whuff of air, smiling.

“It’s a deal.”