* * *
He and Freya lived off of the same subway line, and she'd asked him to stop with her again for a cup of coffee at her favorite shop, right on the way. And that was nice, really, and Brendan had learned to give in when Freya wanted to do 'friend' things. It had taken a while before he'd learned to relax, though, because in his experience women just didn't do the 'friend' thing with guys, or not with him, anyway. Inevitably the 'friend' thing led to other things that he just couldn't give, and it was just less painful all the way around to keep it all nipped in the bud.
Until Freya. Because she knew him, knew what he could give and what he couldn't. And he was growing to know her almost as well, which was warm and comfortable and scary sometimes and something he was never, ever going to give up.
So he'd stop and have a warm drink with her and maybe hash over the day, a last hour of companionship before heading home to his surgically neat apartment, as Freya called it. His chilly, too quiet apartment.
His 'never known a lover's touch' apartment.
Brendan heaved a short sigh as he stepped out onto the street just behind Freya, his breath smoking in the winter wind. A lover's touch. Which I haven't had since I transferred to New York and this year's no different, right? he asked the sky. Yeah, well, maybe if I hadn't been running away from -- He shook his head hard. God, he hated it when he got maudlin like this, and the holidays just –
He blinked, refocused on his partner's face, warm dark eyes below the eye-popping red knit cap. "Yeah." He summoned up a grin for her. "Let's get that coffee."
* * *
December was never, ever going to be the best time to be in New York City, so why was he here?
Money, of course. Emmett snorted and took another sip of coffee, the pottery blissfully warm against his fingers. Where chasing the ever-elusive government grant didn't pan out, consulting had to fill in the gaps. Money to keep his research going. Money to keep the center going. Money to keep Betty housed and fed, although those last items wouldn't be a problem for a little while yet, anyway.
He brushed a few muffin crumbs off of his notes for the North American Reptile Center and gazed out the shop's front window, absently noting the selection of New Yorkers who passed by, bundled against the winter snap and blow.
The door squeaked open yet again and a man and woman blew in this time, vaguely familiar in that way complete strangers in this city sometimes were. Both were dark-haired, a matched couple. Or maybe brother and sister, Emmett thought, as they stood at the counter, bodies close but not lover-close. Not that he himself would know a lot about that sort of thing, sadly. He snorted again and looked down, gaze getting lost in the steam drifting off his coffee. He'd been lacking in the lover department for forever now, it seemed, his brief thing with Monica aside. That had been more friends with benefits, really, and fortunately he'd been able to hang on to the 'friends' part after the 'benefits' had ceased, which made a nice change. She'd invited him down for a few days around the holidays, in fact, and he was considering it; his parents were out of the country again and it would be different from Christmas alone with his slithery friends --
He looked back up, startled into a smile. "Freya, hey." Okay, a little more than vaguely familiar, and he really needed to snap out of his funk and pay some attention to the world. He spread a hand out in the universal sign for 'have a seat, take a load off,' but his dark-haired acquaintance hesitated.
"There's, I've got someone with me…."
Emmett blinked. "And there's two empty chairs here, so…."
Freya grinned, and Emmett's own smile widened because hers was infectious. "Great." She slung her purse over the back of a chair and then looked over her shoulder. "Brendan!"
Her companion turned to walk toward them, two cups in his hands, and Emmett's breath jammed in his throat. Oh. Oh, wow.
Emmett had figured himself long ago for a two on the Kinsey scale, maybe a touch higher; but whatever, because here was his incident in the flesh. Tall and lean, shock of black hair over a narrow, handsome face, a full mouth that just screamed 'carnal knowledge.' Or might if it weren't being held tightly, jaw tense. Oh, great. First guy to up my pulse rate in forever and he's a tight-ass, oh, god, bad word choice there, E. Still, Emmett found himself rising as the man – Brendan – reached the table. Hazel eyes swept him up and down, sharp, and Emmett lifted his chin.
Freya wore an odd little smirk as she took both mugs and set them on the table. "Emmett, my partner, Brendan Dean. Emmett – " She turned to him, eyebrows raised.
Brendan Dean. Partner? That's right, she said she worked for the NSA. Crap, he'd have to be government, wouldn't he? Emmett sighed internally. "Just Emmett is fine, my last name's a bit of a mouthful," he said, holding out his hand. Brendan shook it, but his eyes narrowed, and okay, that was just no, dammit. Whatever shitty thing you're suspecting, it's no. "Fine. Dr. Emmett. G. Emmett-Haythornewaite. No matter where you are, I'm the only one in the phone book."
"Oh," Freya said.
But Emmett was focused on Brendan. Hazel – no, much more green, actually – eyes widened. "Wow. I'm sorry," Brendan said. And then blinked and winced ever so slightly, like his brain had just caught up with his mouth, and the stiff façade cracked a little.
Emmett laughed, somehow charmed where he was usually only ever irritated. "You get why I just go with Emmett, yes?"
"Yeah," Brendan said. His mouth tweaked up in a sideways grin, and another piece of façade chipped off. "So, since I've already put my foot in my mouth, why did your folks…?"
If that lush mouth had been attractive in a set line, it was downright devastating in a smile. Emmett swallowed. "Family names, family traditions. Along with the fact that my folks are a little – " He went to wave his hand and only then realized that it was still clasped with Brendan's. He let go abruptly.
"Eccentric?" Freya offered in a bright tone.
"I usually go with nuts, but eccentric works."
That surprised a laugh out of Brendan, a deep, graceless, filthy sort of sound that landed right between Emmett's thighs and he was so, so screwed. His fingers were tingling; he ran his thumb over the tips.
"Okay, I'm sitting down," Freya announced. Her chair squeaked as she dragged it out, and Emmett winced. And alright, people weren't really his forte – hello, he worked with snakes – but even he could tell that she was trying for something here, at the very least she wanted them to like each other. Setting me up? he thought, and then laughed at himself as he and Brendan both followed her lead and took their seats. As if. But I'd date him, hell, I'd do him in a heartbeat. If guys even dated? It wasn't like he knew anything about the male on male scene, other than the occasional troll for Internet porn. He'd fallen into his previous relationships with guys pretty much by accident rather than design.
"So, Doctor?" Brendan said after taking a swallow of his drink, his tone making the title into a question. His voice was nice, if guarded; Emmett couldn't place the accent.
"Herpetology, but I specialize in ophiology, the -- "
" – study of snakes," Brendan finished, and Emmett's eyebrows rose. "Cool. And no, Freya didn't tell me."
"Hmm. Gold star, then. Most people have no clue."
The corner of Brendan's mouth quirked again. "I'm not most people. So, you and Freya met here?" The green gaze was intent.
Wow, protective much? Emmett thought. Freya must have caught her partner's tone, because she rolled her eyes before burying her nose in her coffee cup. Emmett took a slow sip of his own brew. "About two, three weeks ago, yes?" He looked at Freya, who nodded. "I’m in New York on a consulting job, probably through the end of January. The apartment they set me up with is basically down the street from here, and I'm all for letting somebody else make the coffee and muffins so I can work. Plus the apartment's a little – smaller than what I'm used to." Hell, for someone used to the West Virginia wilds, it was downright claustrophobic. And while it was nicely furnished and all, the view of the airshaft was less than inspirational.
"Going home for the holidays?"
Home. Where was that, really, anymore? "Probably not. Travel this time of year is a giant pain."
Brendan grunted and looked down at his mug.
"So you're by yourself? That sucks," Freya said. "You should come and spend Christmas with us, then."
Brendan froze with the mug halfway to his mouth, eyes suddenly wide in an expression that Emmett, if he'd known the man long enough to judge, might have called panic. "It's just my sister and Brendan and me, nothing fancy," Freya continued, either oblivious to her partner's sudden stillness or ignoring it. "Just Christmas Eve with munchies and eggnog and possibly sappy holiday movies. Oh, and no presents, unless you want to contribute to the munchies. So you'll join us, right?"
Emmett blinked, and blinked again, and shut his mouth when he realized that it was open. "Uhm…."
"Come on, it'll be fun. Holidays are for sharing with friends, right?" Freya's eyes, like her smile, were bright and mischievous and possibly a little evil and okay, she couldn't really mean…?
Her gaze cut a quick sideways motion toward Brendan and abruptly Emmett knew, in that way he sometimes did when a scientific problem gave up its secrets to him, that yes she could mean it like that. She was setting them up; he was being set up with the hottest thing he'd seen in practically forever. Good God, it really was Christmas. "Yes," he heard himself say. "Yes, I think I will. Thank you."
"Great!" Freya practically beamed at him, then the smile slipped a little and she cut another sideways glance at Brendan, whose jaw had gone stiff again, eyes still looking a little wild. "He's a good guy, Brendan," she said, as if she were replying to something Brendan had said and whoa, that was a little eerie. He'd heard that law enforcement partners developed a bond that was nearly telepathic, but it was spooky to see it in action. "Remember, Emmett, food is good, but no bringing presents," she finished, the smile returning full force.
Emmett grinned back, something warm and brilliant blooming in his chest, making him feel so good. Good enough to take a chance. "Deal. If I were home, I might even bring you actual fresh-baked stuff, even."
"You cook?" Freya's eyebrows went up, and Emmett had to laugh.
"Not really, no, but I had a lover once who did and I learned a few things from him. He made a mean Christmas cookie, and made me help enough times that I can still make them. And make them edible, even."
Freya laughed and said something but Emmett didn't catch it, his entire focus on Brendan, because something in the other man's face had shifted fractionally, subtly, the green eyes easier, the jaw softer. He looked more – open, maybe? He looked like – possibility. And God, Emmett wanted that, wanted it, wanted Brendan with a jolt that left his breath jamming in his throat again. Okay, first thing on the to-do list? Call Monica and tell her thanks but no thanks, he'd just maybe gotten the best Christmas present of his life and he was going to try like hell to open it right here in New York.
* * *
They had walked almost back to the subway entrance when Brendan broke his silence with a deep, sudden breath. "Okay, Freya. What the hell?"
She wouldn't apologize for this, by God. She wouldn't. "Uhm."
Why did you do this?
She looked up at him, seeing things he couldn't, wouldn't say written in the subtle line of his jaw, hearing their edges in his thoughts. Everything she wanted to tell him flashed through her mind: Because I like him and he really likes you and I'm totally sure now that he's your type; because you're too alone, lonely, even if you're way too stubborn to admit it; because I want you to be happy, because you deserve to be happy, because loving isn't a crime – she took a breath, smiled a little. "Merry Christmas."
Brendan stared at her, lips parted; then he swept her into a rare, one-armed hug. "My life's fine, you know, I don't need a yenta," he grumbled into her hair.
"Liar," she shot back in a whisper.
I can't believe you …nobody's ever… okay. Uhm, thank you.
Freya squeezed him quickly around the waist and let go again as they started down the steps to the subway.
So, I wonder if, he, I mean….
She grinned at him. "Thinks you are totally hot." Brendan ducked his head, and she'd bet a weeks' pay that the cold wasn't the only reason the tips of his ear were red. She couldn't wait for Christmas Eve.