Disclaimer: If I'm naughty, will Santa bring me these characters as Christmas presents?
Summary: Christmas is coming.
Warnings: Sugar, sweetness, sap, and no sex.
Gratitude: To my Pixie, for support and understanding and a swift "post it!" kick.
Ray rolled over and made a protesting noise as Benton, shivering a little, climbed out from under the warm covers. He pressed his lips to the sharp line of Ray's shoulder and hurried into his running clothes, once again glad that he'd taken the time last night to lay them out for himself. Even in the Vecchio house, which was kept at a much higher temperature than his apartment, early mornings were very cold.
He bent down and tugged gently on Diefenbaker's ears. "Time to get up," he whispered once Dief's eyes were open. Dief grumbled and tucked his face under a forepaw. Benton shook Dief's muzzle. "Rise and shine," he whispered.
"Mmm. Benny?" Ray said sleepily. He blinked in Benton's general direction. "What're you doing?"
Benton stood up. "I'm trying to take Diefenbaker for a run," he said softly.
"What time is it?" Ray yawned and rubbed at his stubble-darkened cheeks.
"It's after six," Benton said. Ray's neighborhood was quieter than his own, especially early in the morning, and he could get away with a later run than usual.
Ray groaned. "Aw, Benny, come back to bed, will you?" He curled on his side and held the covers up invitingly.
Benton sighed, sorely tempted, and sat down on the edge of the bed. "He needs exercise, Ray," he said, but he gave in far enough to bend down and press his mouth against Ray's in a slow, lazy kiss. Ray smelled like sleep and love and flannel sheets, and the hand which stroked the back of his neck was warm.
"You did this yesterday," Ray complained. "Are you going to get up at this ungodly hour every morning?"
"Pretty much, yes," Benton said. He bent down for another kiss and slipped his tongue between Ray's lips, sliding it into Ray's mouth slowly to savor the warmth and the soft moan in the back of Ray's throat. Ray sighed when Benton released his mouth. "I do occasionally take a morning off for bad behavior," he admitted in a whisper.
Ray chuckled and traced his jawline with the tip of one finger. "Now I remember why I love you."
Benton bit playfully at Ray's finger. "Well, thank you kindly," he said.
"Go on, get," Ray said, pushing at his shoulder. "Drag the poor wolf around the block a few times and think of me all curled up in bed, warm and toasty under the blankets."
"Oh, that's exactly what will be on my mind, Ray," Benton said, hardly surprised to find that his voice register dropped nearly an octave as he spoke. It was true; sleeping all night with Ray's lean body tucked up against him left a morning ache in his skin where he could no longer feel his lover held close. He pulled Ray's hand toward him and pressed his lips to Ray's palm. "I'll be back soon."
Ray stretched and groaned. "Yeah, okay. I'll have some breakfast ready." He pushed the blankets down and sat up; the silk of his night clothes clung revealingly to his body and the collar was open partway down his chest, which allowed curls of hair to escape. Ray knuckled at his eyes and Benton beat a hasty retreat. With a grumbling wolf at his heels, he slunk out of Ray's bedroom and down the stairs, grateful for the blast of cold air as he opened the door.
Belatedly it occurred to him to tell Ray to stay in bed. If he went back upstairs now, Ray would probably be naked. He stopped dead in his tracks, and only a whine from Diefenbaker, who was now wide awake and bouncing with eagerness, made him remember to keep walking toward the sidewalk. No, he was going for a run. He paused at the bottom of the Vecchio's driveway, did a few preliminary stretches, and set off at a jog.
Maybe tomorrow he and Ray could sleep in, since it was, after all, almost Christmas.
2- Red and Green Socks
Benton looked up from a serious discussion with young Peter Vecchio, a cousin of Ray's, on the subject of electronics and robot-building, to see Francesca Vecchio advancing upon Ray with a limp green and red sock clenched tightly in her fist. He looked across the room at Diefenbaker, who saw Francesca, saw the sock, and instantly tucked himself low to the floor and hurried out of the room. Benton frowned.
"Do you see this?" Francesca demanded of Ray. She shook the sock in his face. "Do you see it?"
"Yeah, I see it," Ray said, hardly glancing up from the newspaper. "Colors like that it's hard to miss, you know?"
"Oh yeah?" Francesca demanded. "Well then, mister, how come you didn't see that dog sneaking off to chew it up, huh?"
"Your sock's fine, Frannie," Ray said. "And maybe this will finally teach you not to leave your clothes all over the floor."
Francesca shook her sock at him. "Don't you blame me for this!" she said. "You invited that animal into our house and I expect you to take responsibility!"
"Francesca, if I could --" Benton tried, but was roundly ignored.
"You've got a hundred pairs of socks, for God's sake," Ray said.
"These are my Christmas socks!" Francesca said. "Or they were."
Benton essayed another interruption. "Please, Francesca, might I --"
"They're hideous," Ray said. "I don't blame Dief for wanting to shred them."
"I believe this is my fault," Benton said.
"What? What? Did you give my socks to the dog?" Francesca cried. "Are you encouraging this sock-thievery?"
"You could try closing the door to that pigsty you call a room," Ray said.
"I wouldn't bother, dear," said Ray's Aunt Sonia in Benton's ear. "They've been doing this for years. Don't mind it."
Benton turned toward her. "I have no wish to be the cause of any domestic quarrels," he said.
"Posh," she said, which made Benton smile: he could just imagine Ray's incredulous reaction if he were to use a word such as 'posh' to express himself. "If they were really mad they'd bring you and everyone else into it. This is Ray's family," she said, and patted his arm kindly. "If you want to keep him happy, let him be as crazy as the rest when all the family's here."
"I do want him to be happy," Benton said, and Aunt Sonia patted his arm again. He looked at Ray, who was bellowing at his sister -- something about cats, so perhaps the subject had changed while he was distracted -- and, underneath, grinning. Francesca was yelling right back at him, eyes sparkling, cheeks red, waving her hands and bouncing on her toes in excitement. Clearly this was an old game. He smiled at Aunt Sonia. "Thank you," he said.
"Oh, think nothing of it, dear," she said. "I married into this family too, you know, nineteen years ago. I'd like to think I've learned a trick or two."
Peter set a robot construction kit on Benton's lap with a rattle and a rather weighty thump. "Show me now, Uncle Benny," he demanded with an eight-year-old's imperial tones.
Benton gave in to the temptation to ruffle Peter's hair. "All right," he said. "Let's do it."
Benton set the wire teddy bear carefully on the dining room table and unrolled the rest of the old newspaper, checking it for more ornaments. It was empty, so he dropped it onto the pile with the rest of the discarded newspaper and reached for the next bundle. His knuckles brushed the sides of the cardboard box, still cold from their off-season sojourn in the attic, and then bumped into Ray's wrist as Ray also selected another newspaper-wrapped ornament. Ray's hand was warm.
His newspaper jingled dully as he unrolled it, then gave a surprisingly sweet ring as a small bell with a braided golden cord slipped through a tear in the paper and fell to the table. "Cool!" cried nine-year-old Sarah, grabbing it and shaking it for another bright ring. "I got the first bell!" She skipped into the living room to hang it on the tree as Ray laughed. Ray's newspaper held a tiny cardinal with real feathers and a small white star.
Benton set the other ornament in his paper, an abstract sort of giraffe, onto the table and picked up the star. It was ceramic, fired but unglazed, with bright yellow paint slopped on one side and the initials "R. V." carved into the other. An uneven hole in the top point allowed a loop of bright yellow yarn. Ray grabbed it out of his hands.
Francesca leaned over his shoulder. "Ooh, you found Ray's star!" she crowed.
Ray closed his hand to hide the ornament. "Shut up," he growled.
Benton raised his eyebrows. "I assume this star is a handmade ornament of some sentimental value," he said.
Francesca laughed and dodged the elbow that her brother aimed at her stomach. "Ray made it in kindergarten," she said. "Ma won't let him throw it out."
Ray was blushing. "I'll hang it," he said, and stood up. Curious, Benton followed him over to the tree and watched as Ray knelt down on the small rug underneath the tree, stuck his arm into the branches up to the elbow, and apparently hung the star ornament in a completely invisible location. The bell ornament tinkled cheerfully as Ray worked. The Vecchios all laughed; this was obviously an old tradition. Ray held out a hand streaked with newsprint and pine sap, and Benton pulled him to his feet. Grinning, Ray brushed the pine needles off of his pants and returned to the dining room, where the table was nearly hidden by unwrapped ornaments that the children had not yet hung.
Benton stepped awkwardly over the discards pile of last January's newspapers to reach his chair. It was a clever method of packing, but now his and Ray's hands were streaked with ink and red with cold. It wasn't an unusual state for their hands while working outside on police business, but it was a surprising contrast with the clean household and the warmth all around: a fire crackling in the fireplace, carols on the stereo, splendid scents from kitchen, children laughing as they trimmed the tree.
"I love this one," Ray said, holding up two faceted crystals strung together with a small twist of wire. He handed it carefully to young Sarah.
"If you hang it in front of one of the electric lights, it'll reflect the colors," Benton said, and received in return a look that said, quite loudly and with a touch of disrespectful sarcasm, that nine years old was certainly old enough to have learned that already. Benton raised his hands in surrender.
Ray tipped the box over. "That's the last of it," he said. "Whew. We just keep collecting the stuff, don't we?"
Benton surveyed the table. It was an eclectic assortment of glass ornaments, ceramic figurines, brightly colored animals, and the sort of objets d'art that children in all countries, apparently, constructed in school classes. "Is there a theme?" he asked, trying and failing to find a pattern.
"Nah," Ray said. "We just pick up a few new ones every year."
"Well," Benton said, "if you constantly accumulate and never discard, won't you eventually run out of room on the tree?"
"We lose a few here and there," Ray said. He narrowed his eyes at his sisters. "Someone always looks after that star, though." Francesca laughed and swept out of the room carrying a magenta-and-gold angel and a rather homely yellow goose dangling from their hooks. "Come on, let's get cleaned up," Ray said.
Benton followed him upstairs and into the bathroom. Ray bent over the sink and turned the water on; Benton stuck his hands under the faucet and hissed as the hot water poured over his cold fingers. They scrubbed diligently, passing the bar of soap back and forth, and finally Ray rinsed his fingers and held them up for inspection.
"Think that's clean enough for kitchen duty?" he asked.
Benton washed the last of the soap off his skin and took Ray's left hand between his own. "I believe so," he said, and took an experimental lick along Ray's little finger.
"Benny," Ray said, half amused and half warning.
"I don't taste any newsprint here," Benton said. He ran his tongue down the creases across Ray's palm. "Nor here," he said. He licked Ray's hand again, slowly, to doublecheck. Ray's fingers twitched.
"Benny," Ray said breathlessly, "we have to go back downstairs. They're going to finish the tree soon."
"Right you are," Benton said, but he turned Ray's hand and sucked the first knuckle of Ray's thumb into his mouth anyway. He explored the texture of the skin with the tip of his tongue while his lips wrapped leisurely around Ray's thumb until the whole of it was inside his mouth.
Ray pulled his hand away. "Don't do that," he said, and he put both of his clean hands around Benton's face to pull him in for a kiss. Ray's lips were warm and soft, and he smelled like peppermint and gingerbread over his aftershave. He lingered over the kiss and patted Benton's cheeks gently when he finally moved back.
"I believe I like Christmas this year," Benton said. It was something of a surprise.
"There's still a week to go," Ray warned. "My family could still drive you to homicide." There was, on cue, a crash and a shriek from below. "See?" Ray said.
Benton smiled. "I'm not afraid of getting my hands dirty for a good cause," he said.
4- Creamed Onions
"Here you are, Peter," Benton said, handing the serving spoon to Ray's young cousin. He shuffled a step further down the table and began scooping peas onto his plate.
Peter stood on tiptoe to see over the sideboard. "Ick, onions," he said, and put the spoon back.
Benton cleared his throat. "Don't you want to have a little?" he asked.
Peter's nose wrinkled. He looked at Benton's plate, which held a generous serving of creamed onions, and gave Benton a disgusted look. "They're awful," he said with childish finality.
Benton sighed. "You may think so now, but one day you'll wish you'd eaten them when you had the chance," he told Peter.
Peter looked unimpressed. "Yeah, when I'm starving the streets someday, right?"
Benton, taken aback, could only say, "Well, I certainly hope that never happens."
"You never know, son," said a familiar voice. Benton looked up to see his father standing at the back of the line, plate in hand. "You never know. There was one time I was patrolling along the Fraser River, yes, someone thought that was funny. But there I was, all alone in the dead of winter, nothing but beef jerky and the occasional careless squirrel to sustain me...."
Peter poked Benton in the side. "Hey, move along. I want some potatoes."
Benton shook his head sharply and continued loading his plate. The ghost or hallucination of his father was still talking: "...And all I could think of was your grandmother's butternut squash casserole. It was all I wanted!"
Benton moved around to the other side of the table and took two slices of ham. "Go away, Dad," he hissed under his breath.
"A fine attitude!" his father huffed. "On Christmas, no less!"
"It's not Christmas yet," Benton pointed out.
Peter looked up at him. "Okay, okay, I'll have some onions on Christmas. Happy?" He sighed, obviously considering it a great burden to eat the fine food spread out before him.
Benton smiled. "Why yes," he said, "I believe I am." Peter rolled his eyes and carried his plate over to a smaller table set up for the younger children.
Ray leaned toward him as Benton sat down at the central table. "It's a losing battle, trying to make that gang eat their veggies," he warned.
Benton smiled amiably at the Vecchios around the table and ignored the fact that he could see, out of the corner of his eye, his father trying vainly to stab a slice of ham with his fork. "Nutrition should never be neglected, Ray," he said, and made polite conversation with Aunt Sonia, who gardened, about the varieties of onion that would grow in Illinois.
After dinner, he excused himself from the crowd in the parlor -- he had already learned that clearing the table was the children's job and he would not be allowed to assist -- and took Diefenbaker out into the backyard. The wolf romped happily through the snow.
"I hope you enjoyed your meal," Benton's father said from behind him.
"I did," Benton said. He had come outside without his hat; he turned up his collar to protect the back of his neck and hunched his shoulders inside his jacket.
His father walked up to stand with him, looking out into the small fenced yard. His boots crunched the snow underfoot as if he were really there, and his breath steamed in the air. "Well, I'm glad someone did. You could have saved me a plate, you know."
"Dad, you're dead," Benton said.
"I would've liked some onions, at least," his father said. "It's not like you didn't have enough to share. There were plenty left." Benton sighed. "Come on, son, you should be more cheerful than that! Where's the Christmas spirit? I hope you're not still sulking about that Christmas when you were ten."
"Nine," Benton said. His father hadn't come home, sent a gift, or even called, although he had made it into a stationhouse the day before. He'd spent his holiday in town, leaving Benton, once again, with his grandparents. "I was nine."
"Nine, ten," his father waved a hand, "you were much too young to remember it all that clearly. I had my reasons."
Benton rubbed his face with one cold hand. "Was a family Christmas too much to ask of you, Dad? Just one day a year, to spend it with your parents and your son?"
"There were things I had to do," his father began in an aggravated tone, and then he sighed. "I am sorry," he said. "I just -- well, no. You're right, Benton. I should've been there." He shuffled his feet, packing the snow up in ridges. "I always missed your mother at this time of year. I still do."
"'It's better to have loved and lost...'" Benton quoted softly.
His father laughed. "Oh, whoever wrote that was a damn fool, son, a damn fool. What's better is to love without losing." He made an impatient noise. "So what are you doing out here in the cold? Go inside! Spend your Christmastime with your young man! Don't stand out here nattering with dead people." He swept his hands in a shooing gesture. Diefenbaker ran up, his tongue hanging from his mouth as he panted happily, then trotted off toward the kitchen door.
Benton smiled wryly. "Thanks, Dad," he said, wondering what Ray would say if he knew he'd just been called Benton's young man.
"Your mother made wonderful creamed onions," his father said, just as Benton was starting to open the door to let Diefenbaker in.
"I remember," Benton said, turning back. "I never wanted to eat them, but they were good."
His father was still standing there in the snow, smiling. "Merry Christmas, Benton," he said.
Benton smiled. "Merry Christmas, Dad."
In the kitchen, the dishwasher churned and gurgled. The fire in the living room fireplace had died almost to ashes; it was a handful of dim red embers below the grate, and it had ceased to spark and pop several hours ago. There was a light on in the upstairs hallway, but down here the only illumination was the changing twinkle of the Christmas tree's strands of colored lights, and those marched haphazardly up and down the tree according to their individual settings for blinking. Apparently five strands of "blinkers", as they were called, were enough to effectively create a chaos system, as Benton had been watching the patterns of color and shadow change on the ceiling for quite some time now and not yet found repetition.
Granted, he hadn't been paying much attention to the lights. The children were all, finally, asleep. The grownups had put down their wineglasses, wrapped up the cheeses and dips and candies, turned off the music, and found their own sleeping arrangements, which would become even more crowded over the next few days as more relatives arrived. At last only Ray and Benton were left downstairs, sitting peacefully on the living room sofa that would, Ray informed him, fold out into a bed for Uncle Mark and his new wife when they arrived from Cleveland tomorrow. For tonight they had the room to themselves, though, and they sat and enjoyed it in the semidarkness.
Benton combed his fingers through Ray's hair, idly contrasting the longer strands on the sides with the short bristles in the back and the smooth skin on top where the hair was thinned to almost nothing. Ray's eyes had drooped closed when Benton began petting him; Ray had spent the entire day, it seemed, chasing young nieces and nephews around the house and yard. He leaned heavily on Benton's shoulder now.
The blinking of the Christmas tree lights was hypnotic. The longer Benton watched them, the stronger the scent of pine grew, until only the incongruity of the calla lilies, which gave off their own sweet, rich aroma from their pot on the sideboard, kept him from believing that he was sitting in the midst of a stand of balsam firs growing wild on the side of a mountain. The dishwasher clunked and began a new cycle.
No, this was Chicago. The Vecchio household had become his home away from home on this foreign posting, full of strange Americans with loud voices and warm manners, and even in the twinkling semidarkness it couldn't pass for Canada. That was all right; Benton was learning to appreciate living abroad. He was broadening his mind. He was experiencing new cultures. He was falling in love for the first time in a very long time.
Benton knew that he should probably shake Ray awake, or close enough to awake for him to walk up the stairs and into the bedroom before he fell completely asleep on the couch. It was so peaceful down here, though, that Benton closed his own eyes and took just a few more minutes to appreciate Christmas.
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