AN: No, you're not dreaming. They gang is back, and so am I. Like I said in my profile update, I'm not making any promises with this story yet. I don't know when updates will come, etc. Probably not every day, that's for sure. But I hope that doesn't turn anyone away. I know many of you have waited a long time for this. I hope I don't disappoint. Enjoy.
Chocolate brown in color, a pair of eyes were fixed so intently on their prize that it almost hurt. Her chest was pressed to the floor; her paws aligned neatly beneath her chin, a low rumble forming in the back of her throat. Her tail was still, falling slightly to the side as she forgot to move it. Across the room, from the depths of a new hiding place, came another low moan. This was the sound that caught Alex's attention, causing him to turn around with a gasp.
The dog leapt from her spot on the floor, charging for the tree in the corner. The cat hissed as Cricket wedged herself into the space much too small for her, and Alex felt his stomach fall as he watched the furball shoot out from underneath the tree, Cricket scrambling backwards to continue her chase. This was the least of his worries though, and Alex got off of the chair he had been standing on as quickly as he could without falling, focusing all of his attention on the swaying motion the artificial, heavily decorated tree was making.
He grabbed the tree in an awkward, prickly hug, and held his breath, closing his eyes tight and letting out a stifled whimper, hoping that he'd manage to save everything this time. A sigh of relief washed over him when he realized that the tree was still mostly standing up, and nothing had hit the floor. He rocked it back onto its base, and let go of it slowly, taking a step back. His eyes scanned the branches, then the floor. Everything had stayed put. With a small, content smile, he turned to go back to the chair he had been standing on before, brushing at his chest and arms at the few stray needles that decided to stick to his sweater.
But not a second later, the sound of claws scraping on wood came closer and closer, and he looked back just in time to see Cricket whack the tree with her feathery tail, sending things flying towards the ground. The sound of shattering glass made his stomach twist. Alex sighed and shook his head, a hand coming up to press against his forehead in exasperation. He walked carefully back over to the new disaster area, trying to avoid the shards of ornament with his sock feet. He leaned down, picking up the two largest pieces that were closest to him.
One piece was where a ribbon had been attached, the glass domed to form a lop-sided bowl shape. The other piece he turned around in his hand, a frown forming on his lips. He ran his finger across Ryan's name engraved in the smooth surface, and then the 'A' of his own name, the rest of it somewhere on the ground. He remembered the night they had it made. Some holiday fair thing, their first Christmas together.
A bark pulled him from his thoughts, and Alex turned, glancing at the glass on the floor as he made his way carefully to the kitchen.
"Okay, that's enough. You two seriously need to cut the crap. After this long, you still can't be friends? Even just for the holidays?" Alex grabbed Cricket's collar, breaking her focus for only a second. The cat hissed, and she wriggled in his grip. Alex flicked his hand at the grumbling ball of fur, sending him scuttling down the short hallway into the spare bedroom. Cricket pulled after him, and Alex closed the door, letting her go. She looked up at him, her tail wagging.
"Oh yeah, be all cute now. Let's see how well that works." Cricket opened her mouth to pant, smiling up at him as her whole rear end began to follow her tail as she thumped it against his leg. Alex slumped his shoulders in defeat, reaching out to pat her on the head. He passed through the kitchen, and he grabbed the broom and dustpan from the garage, making his way back to the mess in the living room. He set the dustpan on the floor, moving Cricket away with his foot, and then started sweeping under the tree first.
A song came on the radio, and he started to hum along as he worked. He never could remember the name to any of the songs that came on around this time of year, mostly because all the names were so similar. But he figured that as long as he knew the words, he was okay.
He reached over to turn it up, and began swaying back and forth as he gathered up the glass, trying to avoid sliding around in his socks, staying clear of the smaller shards that could do some serious damage. Just like paper cuts. The smaller they are, the worse they hurt. By the time he had all of the glass in a fairly neat pile, he was paying no attention to Cricket as she ran into the kitchen. As he swept his neat pile into the dustpan, he kept dancing, right up to the point where he turned around and realized that he wasn't alone. He reached over quickly to turn the music down, his cheeks flushing slightly as he laughed at himself.
"Oh, don't let me stop you. I had a wonderful view." Ryan smirked, and Alex reached over to smack him playfully in the arm, a smile forming on his lips. The two stepped closer to each other and leaned in for a quick kiss. "What did she break this time?" They both looked down at the dustpan in Alex's hand, and Alex grabbed the piece he had been holding earlier, with their names on it. Well.. one of their names.
"My favorite one." Ryan took it from his hand, turning it to look at the engraving.
"I thought she broke your favorite one the other day? And last year?"
"I have more than one." Alex pulled the glass from his hand with a huff, dropping it into the dustpan.
"We could always just get another one?" Ryan turned to follow Alex as he walked back to the kitchen. After leaning the broom against the fridge, he emptied the dustpan into the garbage. Ryan grabbed both of them, and Alex leaned against the counter, watching as he returned them to their place in the garage.
"It wouldn't be the same. Don't you remember the night we got that?" Their eyes met as Ryan came back, moving over to rest his hands on Alex's hips as he thought.
"I remember having it. But I don't remember where we got it." Alex sighed at his reply, but Ryan leaned in quickly to press their lips together before he could go anywhere. "You know my memory sucks, Alex. When did we get it?"
"We were at that little Christmas fair thingy. I don't know why we stopped going. It was always so much fun."
"Oh, you mean the one where they always have the poor cows dressed up as reindeer? And they always have the best apple cider. Boiled peanuts.. pretzels." Alex laughed, shaking his head, watching Ryan's eyes practically glaze over.
"You would remember the food."
Ryan grinned, watching Alex as he moved over to the other side of the kitchen, opening the cabinet that held Cricket's treats and other things. He pulled the lid off of her food container, scooping out a cup of it. She danced happily around his feet, knocking into his legs and almost tripping him.
"What can I say? Food just has a special place in my mind." Alex poured the food into Cricket's bowl, and she wagged her tail as she took her first bite. He reached over and patted Ryan's stomach as he put the cup away.
"Yeah. And lucky for you, it doesn't show. I have to work so hard just to look half as good as you do. On a bad day. Which you rarely have." Ryan laughed, reaching over to pat Alex back.
"You liar. You always look great. Even when you wake up in the morning and your hair is all crazy, and you put on my shirt that's two times too big for you, and only sometimes it hides the fact that you have nothing else on.." The two had come closer, and Ryan found himself whispering by the time he was done. Alex smirked, pushing Ryan out of his way as he went back into the living room.
"You can try all you want, but you're not getting any of this," he grinned over his shoulder, sliding a hand up the back of his leg and drumming his fingers lightly against his butt as he walked, "unless you help me finish the decorations." Ryan brought his hand quickly against his chest, covering his heart with a groan as he collapsed against the door frame.
"God, you really know how to get me." Cricket's paws clicked along the wood floor as she passed Ryan, sending him a sideways glance as she did, her tail held high and wagging like always. He grinned and followed her into the room, walking over to where Alex was already back in his chair by the front door. "What are we doing with this?" He held up the strand of garland in one hand, studying the multi-colored lights twisted around it.
"I just figured we could use what we have leftover from outside to fix up the inside more." Alex shrugged, pointing over to the corner of the window that framed the door closest to Ryan. "Just stretch it out over there, like this side. Can you reach it alright?" Ryan raised an eyebrow, and he laughed a little. "Yeah. Of course you can. Stupid question." Alex handed him the staple gun, and Ryan held it up over the window, stepping back slightly to make sure it was in the same position as the other side, and stapled it into place.
The two continued to work on the decorations until Alex decided that they were finally done. The door, the front window, the mantle over the fireplace, the kitchen, and despite a small argument, the bedroom. And still there were two overflowing boxes of decorations left over. Alex's first Christmas in Texas, he realized that the single tiny box of decorations packed away in the attic from their move, combined with another box that had come with his Grandmother's things weren't even enough to decorate a tree. A tree they didn't have. So Alex had begged Ryan to go with him to buy some, and that had been the start of a collection that was now big enough to cover the entire house three times over. He loved it.
Alex sat on the floor of the living room now, poking through the leftover ornaments in the boxes. Ryan was sitting across from him on the other side of the boxes, untangling a strand of lights that he wasn't sure even worked any more. He looked up as Alex laughed at something, and he saw that there was a picture in his hand. Their eyes met, and Ryan leaned over to look at it. A grin spread across his face, and he shook his head at the good memories and went back to his work on the lights. Alex grinned down at the picture, tilting it towards the lamp on the table not too far from where they were on the floor so he could get a better look at it.
It was a picture from a few years back, around this time of year. The original plan had been for everyone to get together and head down to a local photo studio in their holiday garb and smile for the camera. But when the day turned out to be less than organized, the plans had quickly changed. Ryan and his parents were probably the only ones that didn't have an issue. Alex had been all ready to go, dressed in his favorite black jeans and a new festive red shirt, hair done and everything when his mother called. She had taken Emily to the doctor, and her car was dead. So Alex had gone to get them and got lost on the way. But when the three of them got home, they were still earlier than Kelsey.
Alex glanced up at the clock. No surprise there. She was always running behind. He looked back down at the picture, studying her small family. When Kelsey had finally arrived, they had missed their appointment by half an hour. He could remember the sigh from his mother, who had rushed around the house like a mad woman trying to get ready in time, to hear it was "all for nothing". But like always, Anne had a plan. Disappearing into the house for a minute, she came back with the family camera in hand. She looked around for a minute, and then a lightbulb went off.
She ushered everyone down to the barn. Once inside, the horses greeted them with soft whinnies and head tosses, and Anne decided that they should be included, too. So Ryan and Alex got to work taking a few of the horses out of their stalls to join the picture. Anne knew exactly where she wanted everyone to stand. Mike and Ryan were in the back, each holding a lead rope. Alex stood beside Ryan, and Brian was next to Mike. Of the four, Alex was by far the shortest. Especially standing next to Ryan.
He grinned and shifted his gaze from the picture up to Ryan, who was focused on a knot in the string of lights. His brows were furrowed, and he pulled gently at the tangle from different directions. He didn't really mind being shorter. Not much, anyway. Once Anne had formed the back row, everyone else filled in in front of their respective men. Elizabeth and Emily had settled in front of Alex, Emily resting on a bale of hay pulled over to 'add dimension', as Anne had put it. Brian had rubbed Kelsey's shoulders in front of him, who was trying and failing to get Cassidy to sit down on the hay bale and to stay still. She had bent her knees slightly to lean down and look her daughter in the eyes, which meant she was serious. But Cassidy just giggled and ignored her. Alex remembered that the two finally settled on her sitting down, at least, but swinging her legs.
Anne had found one of the staff at the barn to take the picture, and she squeezed herself in the middle of the group, fixing Mike's shirt as she did, reminding everyone to smile pretty. Even with the reminder though, the impromptu photographer did the typical, "Say cheese!" in his thick southern accent, the flash going off somewhere between two and three.
Alex studied everyone's face, starting with his own. It was definitely not the best picture of him. But he couldn't say it was the worst, either. Ryan, who had a perfect smile like always, had his arm around Alex, his hand resting on his hip, which was hidden behind Elizabeth. She had her simple, calm smile on her made-up red lips. Her hair was tucked behind one ear, and her hands were collected neatly in front of her. He grinned at the familiarity of how she looked. And then he looked at his Grandmother. His grin faded slightly. Now that he thought about it, this was probably one of the last pictures taken of her, if not the very last.
Everyone was expecting it, but it didn't make it any easier. Alex had received the call while he was at the store with Ryan. He had kept it together until they made it back to his truck, where he broke down. Ryan held him for a long time, but they still made it home in enough time to not spoil the milk they had gone for. When Anne heard the news, she quickly made all the arrangements, helping out even more than anyone ever expected.
A few days after the funeral, they were all hit with big news. Elizabeth announced that she had been called back about a nursing job she applied for. In Ohio. She accepted the job. Alex had immediately told Ryan, who told his parents. After a family meeting, they all agreed that Alex couldn't leave. So it was decided that Alex and Ryan, the engaged couple to everyone's knowledge at the time but Mike, would stay together. Just barely out of their teenage years, the two struggled to find their own space in Ryan's parent's house. So after a year, the two moved their things to the rental house that had remained vacant since Elizabeth had moved back home.
And so here they were. The house had slowly become their own, small touches added over the last couple of years. Alex talked to Elizabeth on a regular basis, when she wasn't busy with her work at the hospital. She had recently revealed to him that she was dating, but it wasn't serious. He was happy for her, but he couldn't help the twinge he felt in his chest when he thought about it too much.
With his attention back on the picture, he moved to the other side of the group. Anne and Mike's relationship had improved as of late. Alex noticed how Ryan would watch them, and how he would smile at how they flirted like they used to. Like they did when Alex first met them. They enjoyed being grandparents more than anything, especially Anne. Not that is was a surprise to anyone. Alex grinned down at Cassidy in the picture, her wide smile lighting up her face. She was still very young in the picture, about two he guessed, but already her bright personality was there. He studied Kelsey's smile, and then looked at the way her hand rested on her swollen belly, just the way she had done when she was pregnant with Cassidy. Caroline had been born just a few weeks after Alex lost his grandmother.
Cricket's barking pulled him from his thoughts, and his eyes met Ryan's briefly as they both looked up at the same time, before they looked over at the door. Headlights flashed in the windows. When had it gotten so dark? Ryan set the lights, which were now untangled and looped up neatly, into one of the boxes and picked it up, setting it against the wall and out of the way. Alex took one last glance at the picture, almost placing it in the other box, but instead stood up and walked over to one of the end tables and set it down there gently. He grinned to himself, and then turned around to grab the other box, but Ryan had beat him to it. He took one last glance around the room, making sure everything was in its place, and then joined Ryan as he opened the front door, pulling at the wrinkles in his shirt and running a hand through his hair.
Cricket didn't waste any time squeezing herself between their legs and out onto the front porch, barking and flailing her tail in circles of excitement as she ran towards the car that had just pulled up. Ryan grinned and leaned down to kiss the top of Alex's head, pulling him into a short but comfortable, one-armed hug before making his way down the front steps behind the overzealous Retriever. Alex grinned, crossing his arms across his chest as he did the same. He could hear the girls laughing and squealing, and the low light didn't keep him from picturing Cricket's tongue leaving trails of wet love across their hands and faces, which they would wipe off only to get a second and third coating, at the very least. He didn't worry about it, though. The girls loved Cricket, and Cricket loved everyone. Except for that stupid cat.
Without getting a chance to offer his help in unloading the car, he heard his name being called, and he braced himself for impact as Cassidy ran towards his legs. She wrapped her arms tightly around them and he laughed, waiting for her to let go so he could sink down to her level for another tight hug around his neck. He hugged her back, and studied her face quickly as she pulled away from him. She had grown so much since the last time they were here. That was all the time he had though, because Ryan was ready for his hugs now, crouched down low with his arms open wide. Cassidy squealed, racing towards him. And with no warning, Caroline appeared out of nowhere, running clumsily on her chubby legs towards the hug with her arms stretched out in front of her. Ryan laughed, holding them close as he fell backwards, faking anguish as he groaned, which only made the girls laugh more.
"You two better not be getting those dresses dirty. I didn't pack enough for you to change outfits six times a day!"
Alex grinned, looking in the direction of the car. Kelsey handed a bag to her husband, who set it next to the growing pile on the ground, and closed her door. She put the strap of her purse over her head, and met Alex's gaze. Her face lit up, and they met each other in the middle in a warm hug. "That's actually a lie," she said quietly, looking at the mountain of bags over her shoulder, "I probably packed enough for all of us to change ten times a day. But hey, I've learned you never can be too careful."
Kelsey took a step back, her hands resting on Alex's arms, and she smiled up at him. She looked like a mom. Her tight ponytails had been traded in, and she wore her hair down, tucked behind her ears. Alex couldn't help but let his gaze wander, and Kelsey laughed, rolling her eyes as she pulled a hand from his arm and draped it across her stomach.
"You too, huh?" Alex quickly glanced back up at her, a sheepish grin and a shrug being his only reply. She nodded. "Yeah. You, too. I'm not even here. Just my big ole' belly." His eyes shifted back to the baby bump she was scratching gently with her fingertips, and he felt something flutter in his chest. He almost couldn't remember a time when Kelsey hadn't been expecting or taking care of a newborn for the holidays. But she pulled it off flawlessly.
Ryan had finally made his way back to his feet; Caroline was perched on one hip, and Cassidy had wrapped herself tightly around his leg. He laughed and took a few steps, dragging her along. Kelsey sighed, shaking her head at the sight with a tired smile. But Alex knew Ryan loved it. He was never happier than when he was with his nieces. He was just like his sister in that way, completely natural with kids. Alex wasn't sure the same was true for himself, but he liked to think that he wasn't terrible with them, at least. He was getting better.
Brian had loaded his arms up with bags, and Kelsey called her children off so that Ryan could do the same. Alex grabbed a stack of pillows and one bag, and whistled for Cricket as they all climbed up the front steps and made their way into the decorated house. They squeezed through the kitchen and tiny hallway, splitting up between the two bedrooms. Kelsey opened the door that was closed, and a ball of hissing fur rocketed out of the room past their feet, which sent Cricket into a quick frenzy as she twisted around to continue the game of chase from earlier. Alex held his breath as he listened to her claws scratch the floor all the way through the living room, but thankfully it sounded like the tree was safe. For now.
Kelsey held her back with one hand as she lowered herself down onto the bed with a small groan, drawing a concerned look from all three men around her. She noticed this and laughed shortly, holding up her free hand and arching one eyebrow.
"Don't even start that on me now. I'm fine." The three went back to setting everything down, and Alex listened to the springs on the mattress on the bed next door squeaking and squealing under the weight of the two young girls as they jumped up and down on it, giggles escaping both of them. But suddenly there was silence, the bouncing coming to a speedy end, and Cassidy let out a wail of pain.
"Mooommy! Caroline hit me in the eyeee!" She whimpered, crying pitifully. Kelsey and Brian shared a look, and Brian slid the last bag off of his shoulder before making his way over to the next room to soothe his injured daughter. Both Ryan and Alex had seen the look between them, and in turn they gave each other a look, both clearly impressed at the wordless communication.
"Well, I guess that's everything." Ryan looked around the room, then at his sister. "It's getting late, so we'll let you guys get settled in. If you need anything, just holler." He stepped over one of the suitcases on the floor and leaned down to give Kelsey a warm hug, and then turned around, resting his hand on Alex's hip gently and kissing his hair as he left the bedroom. Alex watched him go, and then looked back down at Kelsey, who was smiling up at him.
"I see you two are doing well, just like we left you at Thanksgiving." Alex grinned, nodding as he crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at his sock foot scuffing at the carpet. He met Kelsey's eyes again, and this time she simply stretched out her arms. He moved in for his hug, and then stepped back just as Brian came back into the room.
"Goodnight." Alex got a simple nod from Brian, and Kelsey offered a small wave in reply.
He turned and left them to finish getting ready for bed, listening as Kelsey helped Brian find the bag with the girls' pajamas as he walked silently through the kitchen, turning out all the lights except for the one above the stove. Ryan had turned out the lights in the living room, and Alex squinted over at the tree in the corner of the room by the fireplace, not yet lit. He couldn't wait until it was.
In their bedroom, Ryan's shirt was tossed lazily on the edge of the bed like always. Alex picked it up, folding it twice before he set it down on their dresser. Cricket was curled up on her bed, watching Alex with tired eyes. Her tail flopped once, which he took as both a greeting and a goodnight. He heard the water from the sink turn off, and Ryan emerged from the bathroom, unzipping his jeans as he made his way to the other side of the bed. He grinned at Alex casually, and watched as he started to remove his own clothes, picking up his favorite pair of green flannel pajama pants and stepping into them. Ryan laughed lightly, tossing his jeans onto the chair near the window.
"So that's how it's going to be, huh?"
Alex glanced up at him, a look of question on his face as he pulled back their sheets and climbed into bed.
"What do you mean?"
Ryan pulled his side of the covers down as well, sliding under them and turning on his side to face Alex.
"You said before that if I helped you with decorations.." he trailed off, wrapping an arm around Alex's waist and pulling him close, burying his face into his stomach, making Alex laugh and push at one of his shoulders playfully.
"Ryan, we have company. Plus it's cold." Alex thought his reasons were fair, and with that pulled his covers up over himself, Ryan included, and snuggled down into his pillow, a grin on his face. Ryan was still for a moment, and then slowly moved one leg over Alex, climbing on top of him under the blankets. Alex tried his best to not smile, but he found that he couldn't help himself, laughing as he held the covers up, peeking at Ryan as he crept closer. Just as quickly though, he pulled the covers back down, trapping Ryan under them. But that didn't stop him, and Alex squealed quietly as Ryan started to tickle him.
"Okay, okay! I give. Come here." Alex tossed the covers back, and Ryan grinned at him in the dim light, leaning down to steal a kiss. Alex wrapped his arms around his neck, pulling him closer. But as soon as they started, Ryan ended it, rolling back over to his own side of the bed.
"You're right. It's weird with people in the house. Goodnight."
Alex looked at his back in shock, kicking him gently under their covers.
"You suck." He rolled over too, pulling the covers up to his neck and flopping back onto his pillow, faking a pout with a little 'hmph' sound. He knew it wouldn't take long. And he was right. He listened as Ryan turned over, readjusting under the blankets as he reached out for Alex, wrapping an arm around his waist and pulling him close. Alex grinned, tucking himself into Ryan's embrace. He felt Ryan's kiss on his neck.
"I love you." Alex was so used to the whispered words, but he never got tired of them.
"I love you, too."