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“Good God, it’s a yeti. Carrying a shopping bag.” Harry opened the front door to his flat and let the bulbous figure shuffle in past him. “Welcome, mythical creature. You are far from home and from your mystical masters in the high mountains of the Himalayas, but I hope that the big, bad metropolis will treat you well this Christmas Eve—”
“Shunh unh, Huuree,” came from the moving mound of thick, red, hooded coat, plus assorted scarves and shawls. It waddled into the lounge and a giant, gloved hand dropped the bag it had been carrying onto the sofa.
Harry followed, grinning. “Are you delivering for Santa? You’re a day early, you know. Not that you’re not welcome, you always are. Especially if that’s a Christmas gift for me.”
The visitor shook the upper part of its body. It was difficult to identify it as a head, because it was wrapped in several scarves that hid where its neck met its body. “Cahhnh fiynn anyhnging guuhd.”
Harry sighed and tugged at the end of one of the scarves. “Matt—because I assume it is you underneath all this clothing—please understand that I can only understand what you’re saying because I am supersensitive, am attuned to your chi, and we’ve been best friends for ages.”
“Muthh be a yuhhhr.”
“Yes. Must be well over a year. Whatever. And of course I talk that same language when I’ve had too many beers and my tongue gets itself tied. But no-one else will work out what you’re saying. Can I remove some layers?”
Two bright blue-grey eyes peered over the top of thick cloth, darting from left to right in the room.
“Yeah,” Harry said, answering the question that hadn’t even been voiced. “The heating’s on at last. The landlord fixed the boiler this morning. I had to offer him a box of mince pies and several sherries, and then when he got too fresh, I had to threaten him with an imaginative and painful use of holly.”
The eyes watching him flashed suddenly angrily, fiercely.
“It was worth it,” Harry continued firmly, “so the repair could be done in time for Christmas Day, right? And my honour is still intact—well, with the creepy landlord, at least. Here, let me.” He started to unwind one of the scarves around Matt’s neck, freeing the forehead as well as the eyes. “This scarf is mine, isn’t it? Thought I’d lost it last year.”
“… duhn the baahk of the suufa…” Matt muttered, his mouth full of woolly ends.
“Yeah.” Harry smiled. “That was a laugh, last Christmas Eve, wasn’t it? I’ve never known Scrabble to be played quite that way, I mean, actually scrabbling for the tiles down the back of the cushions like that. But it was fun, though you were pretty clumsy, hands all over me.”
Matt made a soft coughing noise.
Harry concentrated on a thick, striped shawl that was tangled over Matt’s left ear and nose. “We got this one in the local charity shop, remember? Good thing, too, because the boiler packed up last Christmas Eve, too. You rescued me from hypothermia by lurking with me around the shops, the cinema, the supermarket, anywhere that had decent heating. Then when they all closed, we came here to play games, and huddled up together on the couch, this shawl over our shoulders, sitting in front of that one-bar portable heater for the evening.”
“It was great.” Matt’s voice was clear at last, though his murmur was almost too quiet to be heard. “You were great.”
“Huh?” Harry peeked over the pile of striped fabric, clutched in both his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“Nothing.” Matt shook his head and stood still while the rummaging around his coat collar continued. Harry tugged out a length of a particularly expensive-looking green scarf, finally opening up his best friend’s face from its swaddling, and releasing a bunch of Matt’s tousled dark hair. “And, of course, this one’s Bernard’s. He called this afternoon to confirm he and his latest squeeze won’t make my usual Boxing Day drinks because they’ve taken an earlier flight. He asked if you’d be round here as usual, said he didn’t reckon we’d notice if anyone else was there or not, and gave an obscene snigger. Not entirely sure what that meant.”
“Unh,” Matt said, or that’s what his awkward swallow sounded like. “He’s always been a bizarre little bugger.”
Harry paused a moment before continuing, “You remember why he left this scarf? He thought he was interrupting something when he came over on Christmas Eve last year. He dropped in earlier than expected, delivering some of his special, excessively alcoholic Christmas cake and I’d left the front door ajar. So when he found us on the couch, all bundled up—”
“—lying down—” Matt said softly.
“Yeah.” Harry nodded, “—yes, sort of lying down, too, well, he got all flustered, dropped the cake on the table and dashed back out. Left his scarf behind, and he never dared ask for it back.” He smiled more broadly at the memory. “Do you remember the shocked look on his face?”
“I wouldn’t actually have called it shock.” Matt’s eyes were brighter than could be accounted for by the table lamp’s reflection. “Besides, I wasn’t looking at his face.”
There was a small, strained moment of silence.
Harry decided to concentrate extra hard on the immensely difficult task of tugging the defenceless scarf completely free. “You think he thought we were making out, or something?”
Matt’s eyebrows lifted. “It must have looked like it.”
“Yes. Um. Well, we… we…”
Matt touched him then, just a gentle press on his arm. “Were, weren’t we? He wasn’t wrong. Maybe not right at that moment, because I was, according to you, pretty clumsy, but over the course of that evening, after I got up the bloody courage, and you’d had too much eggnog.”
Harry’s whole body shuddered for some reason. “That’s when it started, right?”
“Us. We. When we started having…”
“Friendly benefits?” Matt finished for him.
There was no edge to his soft voice, but Harry felt he was missing something in just the words. “Yes, a lot of benefits. That’s fun, isn’t it? You spend so much time here, and we get on so well, laugh and cook and watch TV together, so it sort of just happened that when you started staying over, you know, sleeping over, we made the most of—”
“Yes,” Matt interrupted, a bit tightly. “That’s fun indeed.”
Harry blinked. “And I seem to remember I was pretty clumsy too, that first night.”
“You fell off the sofa.”
“Well, I think you’ll find that was a strategic move to get more eggnog—”
Harry chuckled. He found his hand lingering over Matt’s, wanting to link their fingers. The feeling wasn’t exactly a shiver down his spine, more like an ache in his throat. It had been around for a while now. “I’m glad. Glad things have continued to be as much fun.” He glanced up at Matt’s face. “They have, haven’t they?”
Matt’s hand twisted, palm upward, catching Harry’s in its grip. “Of course.” He nodded slowly, his pupils dilated. “Though I’m glad to say we’ve grown in… um… experience. And enthusiasm. Yes, definitely enthusiasm. Last Christmas Eve was definitely the start of it. But what we’ve been doing more recently is… Is…”
“Is. Yes. Like you say. Much more enthusiastic.” Harry gave a short, soft laugh at more recent memories. Last night, as an example, when Matt had dropped in on his way home, tipsy after his work’s Christmas party, and adorably stupid with corny snowman jokes, the smell of brandy butter on his breath, the hastily shed clothes on the hallway floor, and warm, uninhibited kisses all the way to Harry’s bed…
“Harry? You okay?”
“Yeah. Fine.” Harry dropped the green scarf on the sofa. That same sofa. “A year ago, eh?”
“Uh-huh. You might even say we’re coming up for an anniversary.”
“Yes, I might.” Harry’s stomach roiled. Funny how it was difficult to meet Matt’s eyes tonight. They’d always been so relaxed together, so easy, as happy with their passion as their banter. Things felt very… different… tonight.
He cleared his throat. “So. Now you mention it, perhaps that’s a good opportunity for me to discuss… whether you… right. Whatever. Let’s talk.” Embarrassingly, his stomach growled. “After supper, anyway. I mean, you’re staying for supper, I hope?”
“Love to. But who has the dense language now?”
Harry chuckled, but Matt went very, very still as Harry’s fingers slid inside his coat collar, releasing the last scarf. He may even have been holding his breath.
“This is a new one, isn’t it?” Harry was puzzled. “It’s gorgeous. Golden, orange, flecks of brown and red, I don’t know what else. Like… the best kind of glow in the sky at night. The maple tree on the street corner in autumn. Your mother’s dear old dog. The best toffee.” He felt warmed from the inside out. “The colour brings out the hazel in your eyes. And it’s very soft, much better quality than Bernard’s—how can you afford cashmere wool, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Harry, I don’t mind you asking anything.”
Dear Matt. He was Harry’s confessor, his supporter, his partner in crime, his better half. His friend-with-benefits. That set-up didn’t seem to sit so easy now, as Harry struggled to get his thoughts straight. “Well. Yes. That’s what I mean. I think I need to talk to you about… things like that.”
Harry cleared his throat. Again. “The anniversary thing. All last year. Having fun. Making the most of… Well. Actually, not just that. The laughing and the playing football and the grocery shopping stuff. Coming around when I lost that job. When I crashed the car.”
“It was only a small dent. That dog should have been on a lead.”
“No.” Harry knew what he meant, the problem was just explaining it to Matt. He didn’t usually have this problem when they swapped daily news. “It’s more than that. You’re always there. We always share. Thoughts, feelings. Things.”
“Things like the washing up?”
Harry frowned but felt a smile teasing the corner of his mouth. “Stop taking the piss.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so irritating. It’s just, that sounds like me. I mean, I feel the same.” Matt moved closer to Harry, his still-frosty breath on Harry’s cheek.
Harry didn’t think he’d ever get his throat clear enough. “Remember we said we’d have a quiet Christmas here, not spending too much on food or presents, just making our own entertainment—?”
“—like last year?” Matt’s voice rose. “But yes! That’s exactly what the label said!”
Matt’s voice tumbled out like a snowball rolling down a hill. “It was on the mat this morning when I got up early—this scarf I mean, elegantly Christmas-wrapped, labelled for me from Secret Santa, with the message that it might bring me a Christmas like last year. And…” He also cleared his throat. Must have been contagious. “And a new year to treasure.”
“Well, it wasn’t from me.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “I know that. You can’t wrap a present for shit.”
They both grimaced at each other, then laughed.
“But where did it come from, then? Where’s the label?”
Matt shrugged. “I left it on my kitchen counter, then it went missing. Not sure how or where. At first, I thought it must be from Bernard—”
“—or that joker Frankie he’s been dating—?”
“—but they’re both in Paris. Bernard’s sister’s getting married there. You said they took an earlier flight.”
“Hm. Yeah. What about that kid in flat 27, below you?”
“Not his MO. He only leaves half-dried dog turds, and his dad stopped that anti-social little hobby when the postman slipped on one last week.”
Matt scowled. “Stupid arse has already sent me my gift. A crochet toilet roll holder.” It was a long-running joke in Matt’s family, the contest for the most useless Christmas gift.
“I found you something to send back to him this year,” Harry said gleefully. “Diet cutlery! There’s a hole in the middle of the spoon.”
More laughter between them, comfortable, conspiratorial. Harry began to relax.
“Anyway,” Matt continued. “Whoever sent it, I decided to wear it—plus a couple of others, of course, because I knew the weather was on its way toward freezing tonight—when I went shopping for your present.”
“Look, didn’t I just say—?”
But Matt wasn’t stopping any time soon. His expression was excited, his face flushed now, his words tumbling even faster. “I just couldn’t find anything suitable. I wanted to get you something special this year—something to tell you how much I appreciate your friendship, how it’s been great sharing life with you here in London, how well you looked after me as a newbie from the country all that time ago, how I really like staying over here, I mean, really like… how I’d like more of… more of… you.” His words ran out. He smiled a little ruefully; he blushed more deeply. Then he picked the shopping bag up and held it out to Harry. “Anyway, I failed. This was all I came around with.”
Harry glanced in the bag, barely seeing the contents, his attention fixed on far more important things. Imagine that! Matt thinking all that. Matt wanting more. Of me. Things were suddenly, splendidly easy after all.
“This is all special, Matt.”
Matt also glanced into the bag and frowned. “A new set of Scrabble?”
Harry laughed aloud, the sound warm and happy. “No. I mean having you here with me. That Secret Santa message was pretty spooky—because I’d like a Christmas like last year, too.”
Matt still frowned, but his eyes shone with their own heat and light. “Like—watching A Christmas Carol for the fourth time? Like eating cold pizza because we messed up cooking the turkey? Like wrestling me for the last inch of eggnog in the bottle, and stealing the last slice of Bernard’s boozy Christmas cake?”
“Yeah. Just like last year.” Harry reached out and determinedly popped open the top button of Matt’s coat. Then the next. “I’m really pleased you mentioned our anniversary. You see, the boiler only broke this year because I kicked it. I was trying to set the scene so you’d remember what we got up to last year.”
Matt swallowed heavily, as if some of the fluff from the scarves had got stuck in his throat. “How the hell could I forget?”
“Because I’ve been blundering around, going from one day to the next, without actually stopping to look at what’s happened. To us. About us. How it all started. How we’ve been together, this year. How it should be in the future. The label was right about what I’m seeking for the new year too. I should have found the balls to discuss it with you long before now.”
“You’re not…?” Matt looked quite pale now. “You want to stop the benefits thing?”
“God, no!” Harry could’ve kicked himself, why would he ever shock Matt like that? “I haven’t regretted any of it. Not for a second. I’m so bloody glad it started… you know. Us.”
“Truthfully.” Harry had moved as close as he dared, his hands slipping inside Matt’s coat as he undid the final button. Matt’s shirt front was warm under Harry’s fingertips, Matt’s breath cozy on his neck.
“Be brave,” Matt whispered, and he sounded very serious now. “Be honest. I need that from you.”
Harry had no idea why he’d been so slow on the uptake, but he was catching up now. “I’ve just had this idea, but maybe I should wait until I’ve fed you your favourite pasta—”
“No.” Matt almost growled.
Harry smiled to himself. “Well, when you stumbled through the door, all cold and huddled, I thought—why shouldn’t Matt live here with me anyway? It’s a bigger flat, we can pool our money and have more left over to spend on fun. Then he won’t have to trudge across town in all weathers—”
“I don’t mind. Honest.” Though that didn’t sound completely sincere.
“—and we can spend all our time together without worrying about goodbye’s, and see you hopefully on Tuesday’s, and call me tomorrow about watching the game down the pub’s, sorta things.”
Matt’s voice was shaky. “Just for convenience?”
Harry wondered when his best mate had got so nervous. He was never like that in bed. “Of course not. To make it something more for us, you know. Something permanent.”
“I’d be a permanent… what? Washer up? Picker up of your lost socks? Negotiator of the hallway with that manic cat in number 12?”
“Stupid git.” Harry looked at him fondly. “Poor, dim soul that you are. The cold has frozen your receptors. You want me to spell it out?”
“Bloody hell, yes,” Matt hissed.
“A permanent lover. Boyfriend. Best friend. Partner.” How odd it sounded, to articulate the words he’d never said before to anyone. But what an adventure! “I love you, Matt. Will you move in with me?”
Matt blinked hard. He was grinning now. Really broadly. His jaw must have ached from it. “So, now you find the words? You’ve never said anything about us being official. I was never sure if you just saw us as—”
“Those friends with benefits?”
“No. It was always more. Like I said, I just didn’t listen to how I really felt. But… now I do tonight, for some reason. Must be Santa’s magic.” Harry rubbed his fingers along the edge of the mysterious scarf. “If I believed in that crap.”
Matt slid his arm around Harry’s waist, still padded inside his coat and gloves. “I love you too.”
“Yeah, like I didn’t already know that. Who else would pick up my socks?” Harry scoffed but he felt ridiculously, head-swimmingly, hugely happy. “But have you been waiting for me to admit it, all this time?”
Matt shrugged. “Like you said, it was always more than just fun. But—it is fun, isn’t it?”
“All year long,” Harry agreed, giving Matt his best sexy leer.
“So. Not such a torturous wait for me, I’d say.” And Matt gave him his best lascivious waggly-eyebrows look in return.
Harry burst out laughing. “Can we start celebrating the anniversary soon?”
Matt gave a long, happy sigh. “Yeah. I can always shop for your present in the January sales.”
Harry shook his head. “No. I don’t want you to. You don’t need to. All I want for Christmas is you, Matt.”
Matt blinked hard. “And that you’ve got.”
Harry nodded, letting out a breath of relief, and pushing Matt’s coat impatiently off his shoulders. “So that’s my present to you. And, apparently, you to me. Unwrapped. Or you will be, soon.” He nudged his knee against Matt’s, guiding him back toward the sofa.
“As long as the boiler keeps going, of course. Don’t want my receptors frozen up again, do I?” Matt let himself be guided without any protest at all. His eyes glinted pretty wickedly and with a huge amount of promise. “And do I get to unwrap you, too?”
“You better.” Harry barely recognised the strange growling noise in the back of his throat. “Just take those damn yeti gloves off and get started.”