Stockwell might not have called on Christmas, but he did call the next evening. By the time Face and Frankie got out to the Eastern Shore, the feast of the Kings had come and gone, but parking the old pickup on the gravel outside the little house in the darkness of a mid-January evening Face felt his spirits rising nonetheless. That pickup was more than just a way to keep the Abels off their trail (even if the general had agreed they could go, neither one of them trusted him an inch and both figured he'd at least want to know where they going) and a camouflage (the Corvette would have been very noticeable out here), it was almost the final stage in the transition between there and here. The truck, the Bay Bridge, the gravel road: Face had never been through decompression, but this had to be what it felt like.
Frankie hopped out of the cab and got the box out of the back. Face unlocked the door and waited for him, then held the door for him. Frankie moved past him into the house, carrying the box of stuff and groceries, and pushed the light-switch with his elbow as he went past. Face pulled the door to and walked into Frankie, who'd stopped dead. "What?" he asked.
"Oh, my God," Frankie said.
"What?" Face asked again. This house in the middle of nowhere...
"Those kids," Frankie said, his voice a blend of fondness, amusement, and wonder. "Those kids. Look what they did to our house."
Face relaxed at the tone, but walked around Frankie to do just that: look. And what he saw stopped him in his tracks, too. There was a tree in the corner by the big window that looked out onto the bay. It was a little bit brown, but only a little, and was strung with popcorn and cranberries and some old-fashioned tinsel. The table in the dining room had a cloth embroidered with holly boughs, and cards were on the mantel. "Don't they have a calendar?" he said.
"I think they have the best kind of calendar," Frankie said. "Christmas isn't over after all. I'm putting out my créche."
Face grinned at him. "Give me the groceries," he said, reaching for the bag. "I'll be out to help you finish." He carried the bag into the kitchen and put it on the counter. There was a card there, a cardinal in a snowy evergreen. As he picked it up, Bing Crosby began crooning; Frankie had dug out the recorder. Face joined in softly: "The orange and palm trees sway. There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, LA." He shook his head when der Bingle began dreaming of a white Christmas and flipped open the card; on the blank page opposite the 'May the joys of the season find you and stay with you through the year' was a hand-written note in festive red ink:
Mr Howard, Mr Rivera: You said you wanted to have Christmas here when you could make it, so we kept the tree and all for you.That was in Anne's neat writing; Cal had added, in different ink, "Happy 1989!"
There's some eggnog in the refrigerator, and some ham, and I put a couple of slices of Mom's pie in, too. It's real good, we think you'll like it. Merry Christmas - Anne and Cal
Face smiled at the note. They were good kids, those two. Sure, jobs weren't exactly thick on the ground out here for teenagers, especially girls, or boys who didn't want to crab or fish. But he and Frankie hadn't taken long to realize that there was more to the Willis twins to than that. He remembered the day the two of them had realized that Anne inside the house meant that she'd - they'd - noticed that only one bedroom was being used. But neither of the kids had ever said a word - and they hadn't said a word in the best way possible, as if there just wasn't any need to say one. In only three months they'd made themselves a lot more important than just a way to leave the house empty for weeks at a time. Face was used to one phone call meaning they could come to a house that was ready for them. But this? Face put the bread in the box, and the box of Roy's chicken and the beer in the fridge next to the eggs. Then he poured a couple of glasses of the eggnog, thick and creamy and, still smiling, picked up the note and walked into the front room.
Frankie was setting up the manger figures on the mantel with no particular skill - the same standard shepherds-on-the-right, wise-men-on-the-left, animals-scattered-in-the-back layout every church Face had ever seen used. Of course, there wasn't anything wrong with that. Murdock had once said you couldn't get a Christmas tree wrong. Face wasn't sure he agreed with that, especially those that confused religion with patriotism, but créches were pretty foolproof. Just one thing. "You've got the kings there already?"
Frankie grinned. "I don't think we'll be back soon enough."
"You have a point," Face conceded. "We could put them there in the morning."
"We could." Frankie shifted the wise men to the coffee table and then noticed the eggnog. "Where did that come from?"
Face handed him the note along with the glass. "The Willis kids," he said. "They're taking good care of us." He picked up the camel and moved it from the mantel.
"They are," Frankie gestured at the tree. There were three boxes under it, not two. Face leaned over and read the tag.
"Didn't we tell them not to?"
"Yes, we did." Frankie shrugged with that Hispanic grace Face envied him. He picked up the big package and shook it. It rattled. Frankie raised an eyebrow and said, "Let's open it."
"Why not?" He settled down on the couch. "It's Christmas, after all."
Frankie put the packages on the coffee table next to the kings and sat down next to Face. One of the things Face liked about this pocket-sized house was the short sofa; it made two people sit close together whether they wanted to or not. Since he wanted to, he edged a little closer, until their legs were touching. Frankie looked at him sideways with laughing eyes and dumped the Willises' package in his lap. "First things first."
Face laughed and put down his eggnog. He untied the actual bow in the white ribbon and laid it aside. Then, because he wasn't making a game out of it, he took out his Swiss Army knife and used the longer blade to carefully slit the tape along the edges of the Santa-teddy-bear paper. Removing that carefully, he folded it up and laid it on the table and regarded the Sears box quasi-seriously. "You don't suppose they got us power tools, do you?"
"And lose Anne her chance to work around the house?" Frankie said. "No. Besides, they've retaped that box - and the fact that you didn't notice that proves you never actually do reuse wrapping supplies. Open it already."
Face slit this tape, too, to avoid stripping a layer of cardboard off the box and keep it useable. Inside was a large plastic jar. "Not power tools," he observed and pulled out the jar. He laughed. "Pretzels."
"Cool," Frankie took the jar from him. "With Old Bay seasoning. Not exactly extravagant."
"No. Entirely appropriate," Face nodded. "Though probably inedible."
"If they are, we can take them with us. If the guys don't like them, we can dump them and no one the wiser."
He nodded and then picked up Frankie's box and handed it to him. "You next."
He'd made a point of reusing paper from last year - there were creases across the package to prove it - but although Frankie ran a long brown finger along one of them, he didn't remark on it, just looked up and smiled slightly before he rendered the paper unusable by ripping it off. He pulled the lid off the box and stared at the stack of books inside. "I can't believe it. My lost books! Where did you find this? George Turner's King Kong - it's a classic, Temple, I love it." He lifted the book and looked at the next one. "What the - Bernard Wilkie! Bernie, you saved our butts in Spain last year. And my God, Temple. Raymond Fielding!" He pulled the final book out of the box and ran his hand over the worn dust jacket. "Raymond Fielding..." He looked up, his eyes more luminous than usual. "Where... how ...?" he shook his head.
Face smiled in relief but kept his voice light. "Where? Used book store sellers. How? Same thing, unless you mean how I knew which ones, and that's because you've mentioned them often enough."
"I have not - well, depending on how often 'enough' is." He put his hand on Face's knee and squeezed lightly. "You actually listened."
Face covered Frankie's hand with his. "I always listen - seriously, I always listen. I don't always care, that's true too, but I care what you say."
Frankie's hand clenched on Face's knee and he spilled the books leaning over to kiss him. Face slid his hand up Frankie's arm to pull him closer and kiss him back. Frankie tuned towards him, letting himself be pulled onto Face's lap and settling in for a bit of necking. Face nuzzled Frankie's neck, nibbled his ear, and relaxed as Frankie returned the favor, sighing into the other man's cinnamon-colored throat. As far as he could tell, there wasn't anything in the world quite like sitting on your own sofa and making out with your lover, even if you hadn't lit the fireplace yet. He hadn't even dreamed about that sort of thing for a long time now; if Frankie never came up with an idea again, renting this place firmly established him as the winner. Not that it was a competition, he thought, searching for Frankie's mouth with his. "Mmmmmm," he said intelligently.
Frankie laughed softly, tickling Face's throat. He rubbed his hand in small circles on Face's back as he raised his chin and opened his mouth for another long kiss. "Yes," he agreed finally.
Face sighed. Another thing that was new was the realization that you didn't have to grab sex the minute it was available. You could wait ... and sometimes, pretty often it seemed, it was maybe even better for the waiting. Another quick kiss and he pulled away to say, "Nice as this is, I think there's still a box on the table. With my name on it."
Frankie laughed. "So mercenary," he said, his breath warm on Face's cheek.
"Not so," he answered. "Just sort of... Just enough."
Frankie untangled himself and picked up two of his books from the floor. "Good thing these are used," he said. "At least I didn't mangle the Fielding." He put the books on the table and picked up the small box in the snowflake-covered paper. He held it out and then pulled it back. "So, I need to warn you, this isn't paid for. Not fully. You'll have to dip into one of those secret accounts of yours."
"Paying for my own present?" Face teased as he took the box from him.
"If you don't like it, I've got a backup in mind," Frankie assured him.
Face kissed his cheek and then slid the ribbon off the flat box. There wasn't any tape on the paper, which made him chuckle. He was insanely curious - what the hell had Frankie found, a house in LA or something? - but again he took his time with the wrapping. A smallish white box was inside, about big enough for a slim paperback book but not nearly heavy enough for one. Tickets to somewhere, like Rome or Rio? No, Frankie wouldn't take that risk. He took off the lid and found himself looking at a photo of a white sailboat in sunlit waters, sails taut.
"A Pearson," Frankie filled the silence. "Fiberglass, 28 feet, 10-foot draft at the keel, 9-foot beam. You can see she has a Genoa jib. They want ten thousand. I've paid two down."
"A boat?" Face said. "Why..." he wasn't sure how to finish that and, realizing that he had taken the photo out of the box and was touching it gently, thought maybe he didn't need to.
But Frankie answered him anyway, reaching out to touch Face's arm. "You can't have real freedom, but on a boat you can be like ... Well, this would be a reasonable facsimile, wouldn't it?" After a moment he added, "You like sailing. And Cal said he doesn't mind boats, they'd take care of it."
"Where is this boat?" Face cut him off.
"Crisfield," Frankie said.
"I want it. Eight thousand? I can get that in a few days. When can we get the boat?" Face heard himself and couldn't believe how eager he sounded. And he wouldn't have believed it just an hour ago. Just ten minutes ago. Sure, they'd talked about boats, even rented one a couple of times, but ... Crazy, but until he'd seen that photograph, realized that nothing stood between him and it but some cash. "Listen to me," he tried to make light of the hunger. "I sound four. 'Gimme. Gimme now.'"
"They'll take a check," Frankie said. "You can move the money - no?"
"No. That's not safe. I'll give them a cashier's check." He made an effort, put down the photograph, and laughed a little. "Did you say 'reasonable facsimile'? I don't sound all that reasonable, do I?"
"You sound fine. You sound like you really like the idea."
"I do." He reached out and took hold of Frankie's shoulders, looking deep into those dark eyes. Frankie leaned forward a little, and he met him, touching their foreheads together. After a long moment he asked, "When, Franklin? When did you get to know me better than I know myself?"
"I don't know. A long time ago, I guess... "
Yes, Face thought. Somehow Frankie had made a habit of giving him what he wanted before he knew he wanted it. As far back as Monte Carlo. Maybe farther.
Frankie was still talking. "You don't mind paying for it? I'll -"
Face cut him off before he could finish the promise. For one thing, Frankie didn't begin to have that kind of money available, and for another, this was a good place to start getting him to think of Face's money as their money. Just in case they ever needed to take off, and Frankie's father needed it. Besides, "This is going to be our boat, not mine. Our boat, our cash."
"Your Christmas present, though."
"And your idea." Face moved his hands away from Frankie's shoulders, up to his face, and then through his hair, pulling it out of the loose tie. This time when they kissed, he knew he'd waited long enough.
Light streaming through the window woke Face. It had to be well after seven if the sun was up, maybe after eight. He closed his eyes and burrowed into his pillow, but it was no use; he was awake. After a moment he rolled over and reached out and found nothing there. Almost every morning of his life he'd woken up alone, but now he noticed it with a momentary alarm: here, in this room, in this bed, he wasn't supposed to wake up alone. Still, he had to admit that while his conscious mind could get alarmed - did get alarmed, if only briefly - his subconscious hadn't even bothered with one of those dreams of being left all alone. Which was fine with him - if he never had one again... Well, he thought, just maybe that had been arranged. How long had it been now? Six months? Seven? Just one more of those things Frankie did to make it worth his while to do what he'd made up his mind to do... And now that he was really awake, he knew he wasn't alone; it was just too late for Frankie to still be in bed, though he might come back if Face lay there long enough.
He stretched and gave that some serious consideration, but he had plans that required him to be out of bed for at least part of the morning. He let the cold floor under his bare feet clear all the remaining cobwebs out of his brain and jolt him all the way awake and headed for the bathroom.
"Yes," he called back.
Under the hot water he considered those plans and found them good. He didn't linger in the shower, but dressed in old cords and a favorite, faded blue polo shirt and then went into the kitchen.
Frankie had breakfast on the table, very all-American: eggs and bacon, toast and orange juice, butter and orange marmalade, and, naturally, coffee. There was no paper, of course, and Face, the self-confessed information junkie, found that refreshing, though he knew he'd pick one up when he could. He laughed as he sat down.
"What's so funny?" Frankie was wearing a deep green Baltimore Aquarium tee-shirt that brought out his vivid coloring.
Face shook his head and downed his orange juice. "Just thinking how some things - some people - never change."
"People can change," Frankie said unaggressively.
"Sure," Face was agreeable. "Just slowly, I guess."
"Not everything has to be overnight," Frankie said.
"Not everything," he nodded, forking up a mouthful of succulent, moist scrambled eggs. "I'm going to Annapolis after I finish," he added, "get the money started. You want to come, call them and say we're taking the boat?"
Frankie nodded, crumbling bacon onto his own eggs. "And we'll need a trailer, get a hitch on the truck. I can do that while you're working your fiscal magic."
Face nodded while he chewed on toast. "Good idea. Maybe we could get some lunch while we're there."
"I don't know. The town will be filled with cadets."
"Midshipmen," Face corrected automatically. "Yes, it will. Don't you love a man in uniform?"
"Mostly out of one," Frankie admitted and Face smiled as he finished his eggs.
So they drove the old truck to Annapolis and did all that. While Face spent time with an efficient and professionally incurious officer at BB&T, opening an account for Peter Paul Howard and arranging for a transfer from his most expendable Swiss account sizable enough to keep the officer incurious and solicitous despite the old clothes - they were clean and expensive enough not to alarm anyone - Frankie went off to get the truck ready to haul a boat. It was a good thing they'd bought a Silverado, Face reflected. Some baby truck from Japan wouldn't have been up to the task. This one only needed a trailer hitch put on it. Waiting in the lobby Face contemplated the wisdom of opening a checking account, putting José Maria Rivera on it; checks might be better for the real estate manager too... He'd think about that some more, but not today. Today he had other plans.
They ate lunch at a waterside cafe. Indoors. Sure, it had warmed up from the cold snap over Christmas week, though the locals claimed that winter didn't really start until February, but it was only 41 degrees, and that was winter enough for two California boys. Gray sky and gray water with little whitecaps were pretty enough as long as there was a pane of glass (or two) between you and them, Face thought. It would be a couple of months before they'd want to take the boat out... though the season probably had helped knock a grand off the price. He looked away from the view across the Bay to the one across the table; Frankie was leaning back, one hand on his coffee cup, lost in thought. What would it be like, he wondered, to live in a world where he could reach out and put his hand on Frankie's in a public restaurant? Oh, well, if wishes were horses and all that. Instead he stretched out his leg and nudged Frankie's foot.
"The boat will be nice. We're staying out here until we get it," he added.
"Will the general be happy?"
"Will I care?"
Frankie laughed. "You won't. Johnny might."
"I don't care about that, either." After all, Hannibal was enjoying this, in a perverse and admittedly limited way, but still. Sure, he'd rather be a free man, but he liked a lot of things about the current situation. The rest of them had to keep him mindful of the minuses. "It'll only be a few days. We deserve the time off."
"I'm not arguing. Believe me, I'm not arguing."
Face nodded and signaled for the check. Time to go. Time to put the plan into action.
After parking the truck, Face let Frankie go into the house first while he retrieved his surprise from where he'd stashed it under the seat. Frankie was washing the breakfast dishes he'd left, with a pro forma protest, that morning. Face went past him into their bedroom, where he took off his shoes and socks and put on the Christmas socks - man, they felt funny and he wouldn't have wanted to put on shoes over them, so he was glad he wasn't. He looked down at his feet, each toe in individual, garish tubes of wool, and shook his head. The things we do, he thought, for the people who love us.
Shaking his head again he padded softly out to the front room and made sure the front door was locked - it was, it usually was since they tended to come and go through the kitchen. Then he quietly stacked some wood in the fireplace, added some tinder, and pulled his new old lighter out to start the fire burning. Rubbing his hand over the worn engraving he contemplated the contradictions in his life while waiting for the flames to take hold. All in all, they were good, he decided. Taken all in all.
The fire was burning steadily. He sat down in front of it and stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankle."Frankie," he called.
"Come here a minute, would you?"
"Just a minute," Frankie answered.
"C'mon. Quit messing around in the kitchen and come out here. I've got something to show you."
"Okay, okay. I'm coming." Frankie appeared in the doorway, a towel in his hand. Whatever he'd been about to say he didn't, staring at Face. At his feet, to be precise.
Face raised an eyebrow and tilted his head. "What?"
"You hated those socks."
"I don't love them," Face admitted. "But it's not about the socks."
"No?" Frankie sounded puzzled, and probably no wonder.
"No. The thing is," Face said quietly, "I won't be that guy."
"That guy, the one who wears whimsical socks and a cartoon character tie with his suits. That guy."
"No one's asking you to wear cartoon ties. Are they?"
"No one who - No." Face shook his head. "Which is good, because I won't."
"But you're wearing the socks?"
Frankie probably hadn't meant that to slide upwards into a question, Face thought. He shrugged, making it lighter than it probably was. "The way I see it, even if you can do hearts or eggs or fireworks - I will not wear flags - there's only seven days in the year you can ask ... Seven days. Probably literally the least I can do not to become that other guy..." He looked into Frankie's eyes, willing him to see below the lightness.
"What other guy? I'm not, I don't mean to ask you to become somebody you're not -"
"You probably should," Face said involuntarily, but immediately ran away from that truth. "But I said 'not become' that guy - the one who depresses his lover all the time, the one who sneers and -"
"You don't," Frankie protested. "You don't like funny socks. It's not personal. You could pitch them in the trash and it wouldn't mean anything. I don't think the socks are a metaphor."
Face shrugged. "Maybe not. But they're a wake-up call. For me, I mean." He was abruptly tired of it: the analysis, the self-analysis, and the talking. Above all, he was tired of the talking. Both of them talked too much, using words to to hide behind, and yet the first thing that had really attracted him to Frankie was the way he could share a silence when it was called for. "Look, it's simple. You gave me a present that meant you're comfortable enough to joke with me. I love that, Franklin." No lies. "I ... love that." Frankie's eyes began to kindle. Face smiled and leaned back on his elbow. He raised one leg and wiggled his toes in those ridiculous socks. "So why don't you just forget about the dishes or whatever - and come over here and share this fire?"
"No reason," Frankie said. He dropped the towel on the floor. "No reason at all."
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