Without a doubt Christmas had always been Luke's favourite time of year. For the Snyder's Christmas wasn't so much about the tinsel and presents; eggnog, lights and reindeer, as it was about family. And Luke loved nothing more than to be surrounded by the craziness of all his siblings, his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents and of course his mother and father; gathered together.
But for some reason, this year, Christmas had lost its mojo.
How did that happen?
This year didn't feel like Christmas at all and Luke couldn't put his finger on the reason why. He thought that maybe it was because he was no longer a kid, gullible enough to believe in Santa. Maybe now that he was a freshman in Oakdale University and working nights and weekends in the local Read-it Bookstore, it was time for him to grow up and accept the harsh adult realities of life.
Really, attending college and getting a job were the only things that had changed in his life since the previous Christmas.
Well, no, not entirely, there was one other drastic change. Noah was gone.
Noah had been Luke's best friend ever since they were six years old and Noah shared his Hershey Bar after Milly Watson stole Luke's peanut butter cup. Since then they had been inseparable, except for a minor split in high school when Noah started dating Maddie Coleman and Luke became, in Noah's words, 'unreasonably jealous'.
Anyway, Noah's relationship with Maddie fizzled out and both boys realised what incredible 'dorkheads' they were being and became friends once more. After all, eventually the both of them would marry and have kids and their kids would play together and eventually marry and have kids. That was their plan for life. Luke and Noah, best friends forever.
But for the past year it had been best pen-pals forever. Because, while Luke was content to attend writing classes in Oakdale; it had always been Noah's dream to study film at the University of North Western. And Luke missed Noah terribly.
Noah's e-mails were pretty frequent in the beginning but by June seemed to fizzle out for no apparent reason. Then in mid-August Noah sent a message to say he'd be home for a week in September and that he hoped to see Luke.
But Luke never did see him, although he sent Noah numerous messages that week.
It felt like his best friend was deliberately avoiding him for some reason. Luke hated to think that Noah would ignore him on purpose, but there didn't seem to be any other reason for it. Noah was only there to see his family and Luke was working at the bookstore, so Noah could easily have dropped by.
"Luke, hand me that star over there please."
Luke shook the thoughts from his head and searched the rug for a star, grabbing the first one he found.
"No, no." His mother Lily said, shaking her head, "Not that one sweetheart, the red one over there."
Luke leaned forward to grab the one he thought she meant.
"Yes!" She replied with a smile, "That's the one!"
Lily and his sisters, Natalie and Faith, were cheerfully decorating the farmhouse Christmas tree. Luke was sort of watching them, but his mind was so focused on his friendship with Noah that he mostly just sat amongst the tinsel, staring into space.
"You know, Luke!" Faith complained, "You could try getting up off your lazy butt and helping us out over here!"
"Nah!" Luke smiled sarcastically from his comfortable spot on the floor, "You seem to be doing an okay job without me!"
Faith stuck her tongue out at him and continued hanging the ornaments.
"By the way Luke," Lily said conversationally as she tied a bow to one branch, "I ran into Charlene this morning. She says Noah will be home tomorrow. He's home over New Year too apparently."
"Oh." Luke replied like he didn't have a care in the world, but unbeknownst to his mother, her words were the beginnings of a typhoon in his gut.
"I can't believe the two of you have already completed your first year of college! You were both such adorable little mischief makers! Charlene says he misses you."
Luke resisted the urge to snort and point out that Noah missed him so much he failed to make the effort to see him back in September. Luke said nothing.
The girls finished the tree and stood back, hands on hips, to admire their work.
"So?" His mother prompted, "What do you think, son?"
Luke pushed himself up to standing and critically eyed the tree. "Hmm, I don't know Mom. There is an uneven distribution of ornaments, the angel is crooked, the lights aren't scattered correctly and-"
Natalie gigged and playfully pushed Luke so he stumbled, "Shut up, you!"
Luke grinned at his little sister, "It's wonderful, as usual you guys have done us proud!"
They all glowed at the compliment.
"I told you, you didn't need my help! So, can I go now?" He asked hopefully.
His mother stared thoughtfully up at the ceiling and Luke already knew what was coming. This had been a game between them ever since he was ten.
"Actually," she said finally, "I almost forgot!"
He watched with a corner smile as she dug around in the box of decorations.
As per tradition, Luke pretended not to know what she was doing.
"Oh, don't worry about it Mom! Let's go for a walk instead!"
To the delight of his sisters, both well versed in this exchange, Luke exaggerated his walk for the door.
"AHA! Here it is!"
Before he could escape, his mother's hand came into view holding the infamous mistletoe.
Luke rolled his eyes and audibly groaned. "Not again! Like we want to catch you and Dad at it on Christmas day! GROSS!"
"GROSS!" Both his sisters agreed.
"Actually," his mother replied, "This year I'm hoping I'll be the one catching you under it with somebody special!"
Luke paused. This was not their usual game and his mother had a glint in her eyes that made him nervous; like she knew something he didn't.
He glared at her, "Just what have you done?"
He couldn't think what his mother was on about. The first and last girl he kissed was in eighth grade: Jennifer Slope. It was wet and sloppy and disgusting and really not something he wanted to do again; with Jennifer, or with any other girl. For the life of him, he didn't understand what the big deal was and had largely shied about from the whole romance scene. Even though he always found a stack of Valentine cards in his locker each February.
He told himself that the whole business of finding love was time consuming and he was perfectly resigned to the fact that he would send his life as a singleton.
Just as he finished securing the mistletoe to the kitchen rafters, its usual position, his father walked through the door, brushing snow from his shoulders.
"Hey guys!" he smiled, "place looks amazing!"
"Doesn't it just!" Lily replied, "And look what your son has put up!"
She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and Luke shook his head, hiding a smile as he left them alone, carrying the ladder away with him.
The following day he was hard at work behind the counter at Read-it. Since it was Christmas the store was pretty busy with people buying books, stationery, CD's and cards.
By lunchtime his feet ached and he was lucky enough to find one of those big comfy sofa's in the neglected Science section at the back of the store. He fell into it with his sandwich and coffee, closing his eyes, enjoying the lack of pressure on the pads of his feet.
He remained that way for quite some time, until a familiar voice said, "I think Dad will like this one, Mom."
It was deep, masculine and could only have been Noah's.
Luke's eyes shot open and he scanned the room.
"Yes, that's a good one!" Charlene, Noah's mother replied.
Luke stood quickly, searching out the voices until he found them a few yards away, looking through the Military section, since Noah's father had once been a noted Colonel in the arm. At least until Noah was born and it was decided the nomadic life of the military was not the kind of upbringing they wanted for their son.
They didn't notice Luke as he approached, "Noah? Mrs. Mayer?"
They looked up but it was Charlene who responded first, "Luke, darling! How are you?" She kissed both of Luke's cheeks and hugged him warmly. "How many times must I tell you it's Charlene? Mrs. Mayer makes me feel so old!"
Luke laughed, "I'm doing great, Mrs… um… Charlene. How are you?"
"Just fine thank you. Finishing up some Christmas shopping. Do you still work here?"
Luke nodded with a grimace, "Unfortunately yes! And it's crazy busy this time of year! Personally I don't think I'm cut out for customer service!"
"Oh I'm sure! We just came from the mall and the place is like an ant hill there are so many shoppers." She glanced over at her son who was working hard to look engrossed in the book he held. "I need a nice holiday romance to read! I think I'll go and check out that section and give you guys some time to catch up." She smiled and hugged Luke once more, before disappearing into the crowd.
To say the situation became awkward was an understatement. Noah was silent and seemed completely drawn into a copy of Military Leadership: In Pursuit of Excellence.
Luke examined him with a slight frown. He didn't appear to have changed much since the last time they saw each other. Although, he did look slightly more muscular; a fact which didn't surprise Luke much. Whenever Noah was stressed or had a lot on his mind he turned to exercise.
His dark hair was ever so slightly longer, just curling around the back of his ears and Luke was suddenly struck by how much he wanted Noah to look up at him with those amazing blue eyes. He wanted Noah to smile at him and tell him that nothing had changed between them.
But Noah didn't look at Luke, instead the silence continued.
"So… how's school, Noah?" Luke thought he'd approach this in the most unthreatening manor he could think of. This was an easy enough question to answer.
"Do you miss Oakdale at all?"
"What's it like in Evanston?"
"Nice. I see." Luke bit his bottom lip, not knowing what to say. Noah had barely looked at him since his approach. Luke took a deep breath, "Are you training for the circus?"
That question made Noah look up. Granted it was a funny look but it was better than nothing.
"What do you mean by that?" Noah asked.
Luke shrugged, "It's just the one-worded answers you're giving me. I thought maybe you're in training to become a mime or something!"
Luke sighed. His break was over and he had to get back to his station.
"I have to go back to work Noah. I guess I'll see you around?" Maybe he said this too briskly but Noah was really starting to annoy him.
"Yeah, I'll see you."
Fifteen minutes later Luke was back at his station feeling slightly sick. Charlene arrived to pay for her purchases.
"I see you decided to get Military Leadership: In Pursuit of Excellence." He rang the book through the till.
"Yes." She replied, unpacking her shopping basket one item at a time, "Noah likes it."
"Where did he go?" Luke asked, stretching his neck to look over the queues of people waiting to pay.
"He went to start the car."
Luke nodded but didn't say anything else as he scanned her other items and removed the security tags. He packed her bag neatly and handed it over, wishing her a merry Christmas.
"You too." She said, "I don't know if your mother told you, but we'll be over for Christmas Eve dinner."
Luke's heart came alive, pounding hard in his chest. That meant Noah would have to talk to him and maybe Luke could find out what the problem was.
"That's wonderful!" he told Charlene, and he meant it, "I can't wait!"
Christmas Eve was a big occasion in the Snyder household. More so than Christmas day which was largely reserved for the more religious aspect of attending church and visiting graveyards with flowers for those departed.
Luke's Grandma Emma had been up since before the rooster crowed cooking prime rib, sweet potatoes, turkey, cakes, pies, cookies (her speciality) and other things for her gigantic brood. Which this year, much to Luke's delight, would include Noah and his parents.
They arrived around 10am. Charlene hugged Luke hello and Mr. Mayer shook Luke's hand grunting merry Christmas. The man had always seemed rather aloof to Luke, although Noah adored his father.
Luke noted how Noah immediately sidestepped the greetings to place presents under the tree. Luke walked over and playfully kicked him in the stomach.
"Hey!" Noah complained, but he didn't look annoyed, "What was that for?"
"Figured I needed to do something drastic to get your attention. Do you think we can talk?"
"About what?" he asked nonchalantly as he stood. But he ran his fingers through his hair, a sign Luke knew meant he was nervous about something.
"How about the way you've been with me lately? You pretty much ignored me in the bookstore the other day. I didn't see you in September? I know you got my messages! What's up with you?"
Noah stared at the floor, "I'm not sure what you mean."
Luke wanted to punch him. Aggravated he shrugged, "Fine! Forget it!"
Noah didn't stop him from storming off so during his march between the parlour and the kitchen Luke decided that he didn't give a shit anymore. He would avoid Noah all night and then just forget about him.
As he reached the kitchen he was greeted by the sight of his parents kissing under the mistletoe.
"Gross!" he moaned as he stomped past.
He heard his mother laughing as she called after him, "Oh grow up Luke!"
Luke rolled his eyes and fell back onto the porch swing, arms crossed. He just wanted dinner over with and Noah gone.
"So, Noah, how's school?" Luke's dad asked over dinner, grabbing the bread basket as Lily offered it to him.
"It's good thank you, sir."
"Noah, I think we've known each other long enough to drop this sir business. Please call me Holden."
Noah nodded shyly, staring at his plate and pushing a carrot around with his fork.
"How were your grades this year?"
"Okay. I managed a 3.4 GPA."
"And the most important question," Holden continued, "Meet any nice girls on campus? Must be loads of them!"
Luke choked on a bean and Lily thumped his back like he was three.
Everyone, including Noah, looked at him expectantly and he felt his cheeks burn.
"Mom!" he moaned, "Geez!"
The table laughed and Noah said, "I've met quite a few guys and girls this year. I haven't found anybody there that I really like."
When Luke looked up Noah was staring right at him and then quickly looked back down to his food.
They enjoyed an amicable dinner and then all gathered around the tree in the parlour to exchange gifts. Most of Luke's family gave him clothing; which was the norm since he never went shopping himself. Even Noah's mother presented him with a beautiful light green sweater and for Faith and Natalie a sweet jean jacket each. They whooped with excitement and gratefully hugged Charlene and a rather surprised Winston Mayer. Noah's dad patted both girls awkwardly on their backs and managed a smile.
Luke gave Noah a plaid button up. The kind Noah loved to wear over old t-shirts and a deluxe special addition of Casablanca that he knew Noah wanted.
Noah handed him a small box and smiled shyly at him. It was the first smile Luke had received in months. He opened the gift slowly, feeling those piercing blue eyes watching him with anticipation. It was a watch with a brown leather strap."
Noah cleared his throat, "I saw it at a store near the University and I thought you would like it."
Luke was amazed. Usually at Christmas Charlene picked Noah's gift for him. So he would always get a striped t-shirt or sweater; a DVD or a book from Noah. He wondered what the watch could mean. It seemed odd and he didn't know what to say.
As Luke thanked Noah he could feel the eyes in the room on them. Both Charlene and Lily wore strange and soft all-knowing smiles and it made Luke blush and shift uncomfortably in his chair.
Lily interrupted the silence with an offer of desert, while Holden turned up the volume on the Christmas music and stuck another couple of logs in the fireplace.
Noah excused himself and left the room toward the kitchen and Luke followed, taking the watch with him.
"Noah, wait!" He called after him.
Noah stopped in the middle of the kitchen and turned, eyebrows raised in a question.
Lily passed them, holding a tub of ice-cream in one hand and an apple pie in the other, and gave them a mischievous smile as she disappeared through the door. They heard the group cheer at the arrival of desert.
"I just wanted to say thank you again. The watch is really great. I was just caught off guard because… well… with the way you've been ignoring me and then you give me this and…"
Again with the nervous habit, Noah's hands racked through his hair, "I just saw it and thought of you."
"Yeah, I get that." Luke replied, breath shaking, "But what I don't get is… you buy me a present but you don't talk to me? You've been so off lately and I thought we were friends."
Luke realised then how much Noah was shaking.
"Yeah… we are… Luke…" he bit his lower lip and Luke shocked himself by thinking how cute it was.
"Come on Luke!" Noah shook his head, a crease forming between his brow. "You can't be this stupid! Don't make me have to say it!"
"How can you not know?" Noah asked with exasperation, "Isn't it obvious?"
Totally perplexed Luke shook his head, "Isn't what obvious?"
"I love you."
"I love you too."
"Oh my God!" Noah exclaimed, "Fuck it! I'm in love with you, Luke!"
Luke took a step back in shock, mouth gapping like a fish.
Noah tilted his head, lifted his eyebrows and nodded, like Luke was the slowest person alive.
"Oh." Luke whispered, realisation dawning, starting to nod himself, "I'm in love with you too."
"Damn straight!" Noah announced with relief.
Luke stared at him for a moment before giggling like a schoolgirl, "Or maybe not so straight."
Noah's eyes widened before he too burst out laughing. He pulled Luke suddenly into a close hug that felt like coming home.
"I realised it pretty soon after I left." Noah explained into Luke's hair. "I tried to hook up with other people but all I could do was think about you. It was hell. I missed you so much. And I was so scared of what you would think… what you would say… so I just…"
"Yeah. I'm sorry Luke. I didn't mean to hurt you. When Mom told me we'd be here for Christmas I couldn't believe it. I thought I'd just avoid you over Christmas, go back to school and try to get over you… so we could be friends again."
"That was a terrible plan." Luke mumbled into Noah's warm chest.
"And this isn't exactly how I imagined telling you." Noah said, pulling back, "I feel like a complete idiot!"
"You are a dork!"
Noah looked worried at that but Luke laughed and ran a hand through Noah's hair and Noah smiled crookedly, "The watch is inscribed."
"What?" Luke asked.
Noah took the watch from Luke's fingers and turned it over.
"Worth the wait." Luke read off the silver back.
Noah nodded, cupping Luke's cheek in one hand and lifting his gaze, "Never a truer three words."
He took hold of Luke's arm, twisted it wrist up, and secured the watch, bending over to kiss Luke's palm.
The shiver that ran through Luke's body caused his eyes to flutter skyward and, as they did, he noticed that darn mistletoe! He stared back at the door through which his mother had vanished, realising suddenly why it was she was grinning the way she was.
Luke burst out laughing.
"What's so funny?"
"Look where we're standing."
Noah followed Luke's gaze and nervous fear crossed his face. He was at a loss what to do next, but as his eyes connected once more with Luke's he smiled.
"Well," Luke said, "it is tradition after all."
Noah shook his head, "It's okay, Luke. After the way I treated you I'd understand if you-"
Luke smiled, suddenly feeling all Christmassy once more. He knew he was blushing but he didn't care. He pulled Noah toward him.
They still had a lot to talk about; a lot to figure out. But that could wait. All that mattered in that moment was Noah and him and the cheeky sprig of mistletoe teasing them from the rafters.
Their kiss was at first sweet and hesitant; Noah's lips were warm and firm, the feel of his body infinitely exciting and full of promise.
They lost themselves in the sensation; blissfully unaware of the flash from the camera as Lily immortalised the moment from the kitchen door.
Thanks for reading! Happy Holidays!