~\31/~

~\Christmas Eve/~

The twilight cast a pink wisp across Ryan's bedroom and a cool, winter breeze breathed through the cracked window and through his hair. He laid back into the window seat in his casual clothing with his phone pressed to his ear. His new boy-something was on the other end with a grin plastered on his face just as big as Ryan's. Since their last adventure together, they'd spoken nearly everyday on the phone and saw each other as often as they could. Lilith thought they were really cute and voiced this opinion often; often loudly and often in public. Reader, keep in mind this is 2003, back when, to quote the lowest common denominator, 'the gays weren't all in your face about it'. There had been a silent agreement to keep it a secret between the three of them since they didn't know how anyone would react to it. Even Celia was supposedly out of the loop, but nobody believed that she actually didn't know.

"So, what're you doing for tomorrow?" Connor asked. He was sat cross-legged in the centre of his bed, too happy to lie down and relax.

"Uh, me and Lilith will probably just hang out with some popcorn and a bad movie. I'm feeling Diaz right now." Ryan passed off casually.

"No big plans?" The idea sounded ludicrous to Connor, to have no plans on Christmas Day.

"No. We don't really do Christmas Day." Ryan said. "We do the presents and everything, but the whole dinner we just don't really do. We haven't done for years."

"Why? Did something happen?" Connor asked, only to receive a thoughtful silence from the other end. "You still there?"

"Yeah, I'm still here, it's just…" He trailed off, leaving Connor to wait for the other half of his response. "It's just, it's not really my place to say. It's actually Lilith's…thing. If anyone tells you it should be her."

Connor said he understood that. He apologised for asking, but was immediately revoked of his right to apologise. Ryan was assured he had done nothing wrong and sought to make him see his way. Suddenly, unable to cope with the quiet, Connor found himself inviting Ryan, Lilith and their families to Christmas Dinner at his tomorrow.

"Wow, that sounds great." Ryan said, hearing the description of the succulent turkey, fluffy potatoes and mince pies that would make him think his tongue was in Heaven. "But it's such a big ask on such short notice."

"Every year we have just my family here and every year we buy and cook enough food for thirty people. You'd all be doing us a favour." Connor insisted, hoping he'd say yes. There was a short pause on the line, but he was pretty certain Ryan was smiling this time.

"I'll ask." He said.

~\Merry Christmas, Readers!/~

The doorbell chimed twice and Connor, who had sat himself on one of the foyer's benches when Ryan texted he would arrive soon, immediately stood up and walked to the door. He smoothed out the non-existent creases in his pristinely creased blazer and chinos. If guests were to be arriving, his mother insisted on everyone dressing smartly to impress and, if possible, to seem better, although she didn't say the last part. Connor's cheeks were already bursting at the seams because he was smiling so much. It almost hurt. He took a breath to calm himself down that did nothing and swung the door open.

He was greeted the delightful sight of Ryan dressed smartly in black jeans and blazer, as requested, and it felt like sunshine bursting through the scattered clouds. He welcomed all three of them in, but he couldn't seem to lift his eyes from Ryan for any longer than it required to say 'hello'. He'd met Celia and she clearly liked him, but he hadn't met Joseph. Still, he didn't notice until Ryan pointed it out.

"Pleasure to meet you, sir." Connor greeted, the line clearly practised. He gave a hand to Joseph who took it firmly.

"And you." Mr Graham said. "I'm told I should thank you for this kind invitation?" When Connor replied in the affirmative, Joseph dipped his head lightly and said "Well, thank you."

All the while, Celia simply stood where she was in a simple, black shirt and a blue maxi skirt with a bottle of white wine in her hands. She watched the interaction between the two boys and smiled to herself in knowing. You couldn't really keep Celia out of the loop. However, her husband, glancing around the foyer like a child in a big hotel, was entirely oblivious to the budding relationship and she almost wanted to tell him. She didn't, but she almost wanted to. Once Connor had remembered to greet Celia with a hug, he was free to split his attention between smiling at Ryan and slowing his heartbeat back down.

Then, just as Joseph was beginning to grow accustomed to the wonder of the Virtue's mansion, a woman dressed in a flowery, white blouse and black suit trousers appeared. Mrs Virtue stood tall and proud with her hands lightly clasped in front of herself and her hair caught up in a bun. Her lips seemed to naturally curl into a disapproving pout and her well-done makeup hid her real age, which only Celia was perceptive enough to sneak up on. Once her guests' eyes were upon her however, her pout split and she smiled kindly upon all of them. She extended a hand to Mr Graham and welcomed the whole family into their home. She graciously accepted Celia's bottle, but the tiniest twitch in her bright red lips told Celia that she would never open that bottle unless she found a stray mutt to feed it to. Ryan recognised her very differently. He saw the woman that had scored such deep, festering emotions inside of Connor that it had been the key to their nightmarish release. How was he supposed to approach her when that was his only impression of her? She slowly turned to him and regarded him as politely as one would regard what one considered a child and a distraction to her child's education. None of this was expressed, but Celia, with her intuition almost as fine-tuned as my omniscience, caught everything. Ryan, on the other hand, was merely shaken with a sense of foreboding from her. A sense of warning that he didn't know how to receive.

"And a pleasure to meet you." Ryan responded, trying to be as polite as possible, as if he was meeting the Queen in a business suit.

Mrs Virtue quickly led them all down the wall-to-wall white hallway until she turned left and opened the door into the tearoom. Amongst all the sofas and recliners sat one man with both of his feet planted firmly on the floor. He was dressed in a fine suit, as if ready for serious business as opposed to Christmas Dinner. It was only then that Ryan had realised that there were no Christmas decorations anywhere; no tinsel, no cards, no silly paraphernalia like reindeer antlers or Santa hats. Ryan just prayed that there was Christmas tree somewhere in the house. Or maybe they were just rich enough to have one room dedicated to Christmas all year, so they never had to take down decorations and all the presents and stuff were in there. That delusion was the only things that really kept Ryan settled enough to not ask about it. At the entrance of his guests, Mr Virtue rose from his seat and waited in place for them to reach him. He greeted them all very professional with a short, firm handshake and a look through their eyes. His eyes met nothing in the room, as if his mind was consistently focused on something not in the room.

"Take a seat." He said, gesturing to the array of sofas.

Joseph and Celia took one sofa parallel to Mr Virtue, shortly joined by his wife standing by the sofa's arm like she was expecting to go somewhere. Ryan and Connor sat down on a sofa to the side, trying desperately to sit as close as possible without looking at all…involved. Involved is the word I'm going with. There was a mere moment of silence before Mrs Virtue spoke up again.

"I'll just go and check on dinner." She announced. "I imagine it should be ready in the next ten minutes." She quickly left, walking through the door that connected through into the kitchen, leaving the room in continued silence. But once again, Mrs Virtue appeared from the kitchen. "Could I borrow someone to help me move the cake? It'll topple if I don't."

Joseph immediately raised his hand and his body soon followed. Mr Virtue, remaining in his seat, told him that he shouldn't; as a guest he should relax, but Joseph insisted as he moved to the kitchen, following Mrs Virtue past the door. However, this silence did not linger, Mr Virtue was eager to sate a curiosity of his and the company seemed satisfactory to quite simply ask.

"Ryan, is it?" Ryan nodded. "Do you have a girlfriend?"

If she'd had another child, Celia might've stepped in and pointed out how the question might be construed as inappropriate, but she saw what was going on. Mr Virtue didn't care about Ryan's relationship status. He wanted to know why his son, his clearly attractive son, went to a co-educational establishment and was not neck-deep in women fawning over him. She almost chuckled at the notion of his insecurity regarding his child, but of course she knew how misplaced it was.

But poor Ryan. He was sweating the second Mr Virtue had called his name; he'd been sharing another 'secretive' glance with Connor and his heart rate was already higher than it should be, but when his name was called, even in uncertainty, he felt it spike through his whole ribcage. Mr Virtue then asked if he had a girlfriend and it felt like he was being handed a loaded gun with which to shoot himself. How should answer? "No, I'm gay with your son." Seemed a bit much. Should he lie and say he's straight? No, that doesn't answer the question. No. That was the answer he needed. Just say 'no'. Just say 'no'. How hard could saying 'no' be? Just say 'no'.

"I'm not the girlfriend type." Ryan said, sounding like a slightly awkward confession. All he had to do was say 'no'. But Mr Virtue chuckled and pretended to smile, as if approving the answer.

"Ah. Playing the field? Good for a young lad." He interpreted. He nodded his head in positive acknowledgment, so Ryan felt he could do nothing but smile and nod back at him. "Though Connor tells me that there aren't many frivolities at this school. Of course, Education comes first and it is what I'm paying for, but there are certain social aspects that I expected."

"Uh, no, no." Oh, now he could say 'no'. "I mean, it's rare, yes. Um, yes, but it's not unheard of." He breathed a nervous laughter and shrugged. "Teenagers." Mr Virtue nodded again, clearly agreeing with whatever words came tumbling out of Ryan's mouth, most of which without his consent. In a state of concealed panic, Ryan turned to his mother for help, but she was just sitting there resisting the urge to piss herself laughing.

The doorbell quickly saved the day, ringing throughout the house with its classy tone. Connor immediately stood up and told his father he would answer the door and quietly asked Ryan if he would join him. Of course Ryan agreed and followed Connor out into the hallway.

Once the door closed behind them, Connor swooped around and dived into Ryan's face and crashed their lips together. Ryan took less than a second to turn shock into pleasure; he leaned in and kissed Connor with just as much passion. Lips lapped against one another and Ryan felt his face cupped in Connor's hands, as if he would float away if he weren't held down. Breath was pent up in their chests until it burned and they had to release each other to breathe. Connor pressed his hot forehead to Ryan's and beamed down at him. They stared at each other and laughed at nothing.

"I'll answer the door, shall I?"

Ryan and Connor burst apart to see Elaine standing with her hand on her hip and looking at them both with half-lidded eyes. Lilith was by her side, so clearly Elaine had been the one to answer the door. She too was stood with one hand on her hip. The two were dressed very differently; Elaine wore a black ballerina top and a stiff, dark purple skirt that pleated around her knees and simple flats. Lilith wore knee-high boots, denim shorts and a man's chequered shirt over a black vest and under a leather jacket. Lilith had her hair tied up in a bun, whilst Elaine let her hair curl around her shoulders. Still, perhaps the girls' attire wasn't the most pressing issue at hand?

"Elaine! Um, it's not what- we were- I mean, Lilith you know. Me and Ryan-" Connor babbled and stuttered. Meanwhile, Ryan just shrunk into himself and tried to be ignored.

"Relax, twerp." Elaine said, putting palm up to stop him talking. "This exact aspect of your personal life doesn't bother me one way or the other." She lowered her hand and Connor's face look stunned as he watched her return to her conversation. "So, like I was saying Oolong Tea; you shouldn't use water that's been boiled before and, if you can, keep it just below boiling point."

"Unlike Earl Grey, which turns grey unless you use boiling water." Lilith pointed out.

"Precisely." Elaine commended. The conversation continued as she led Lilith into the tearoom to meet her parents.

Left in the aftermath, Ryan and Connor can do nothing but look at each other in an absolutely stunned state. The fear of 'coming out' prematurely was not one to be taken lightly, so much so that in some cases it froze the person in place merely by its mentioning. But that went surprisingly well. They wanted to speak, but they had no words. They simply stared at each other amazed. Suddenly, the door opened and they both jumped, but it was Celia, so they both relaxed. She closed the door behind her.

"Dinner's ready, lovebirds." She sang. "Oh, don't look so shocked. It's not like you've ever kept a secret from me before. Come on, or you might not get a seat together."

~\*/~

The table was laid with a smorgasbord of Christmas delights that made one's mouth water. Potatoes roasted in goose fat, carrots glazed with Turkish honey, Italian sausages wrapped in British bacon, crisp parsnips cooked with truffle oil and brussel sprouts that actually smelt really good. And the turkey. The turkey. The turkey glistened in the light of the dining room chandelier as if it was a runway model; lights shimmering off in all the right places to make it fatter and thinner at just the right angles so everybody felt spiritually obliged to have some. But of course, everyone around this table was British so those desires were curbed and metred to the appropriate level of 'ooh' and 'it looks delicious'.

At the head of the table, Mr Virtue sat with the carving knife and fork an inch to his left, so that everybody knew who was in charge of this operation. To Mr Virtue's left sat Connor, Ryan and Lilith. At the other end of the table, between Lilith and Elaine, was Mrs Virtue who was elegantly pulling her origami, silk napkin into her lap. And to Mrs Virtue's left were Elaine, Celia and Joseph. As they all sat down, Mr Virtue rose again and began to carve the turkey, serving the ladies first, beginning with Celia. Connor looked around and frowned.

"Elaine, where's Jonny?" He asked.

Elaine opened her mouth to answer, but Mrs Virtue was quick to intervene. "Connor." The way she said his name set everyone rigid, as if she would suddenly lash out a viper's tongue and poison him. "Since we have guests, your father and I decided Jonathan should eat elsewhere." She turned to Celia and Joseph smiling falsely. "He's rather lively and would only perturb the ambience."

"Oh, you didn't need to do that for us." Celia said, taking back her plate from Mr Virtue and passing Elaine's. "We should call him in to sit with us."

"Rest assured." Mr Virtue said, returning Elaine's plate and taking Lilith's. "He's rather boisterous. His presence would only lower the tone."

Connor felt a stir in his stomach at the way they spoke, as if Jonny, their youngest child, was a dog they'd chosen to put outside because it scratched at the furniture. "He is twelve, I'm sure he could behave for one meal." Once he'd opened his mouth, Mr Virtue glared down at Connor until he was silent and submissive.

After Mr Virtue served everyone their turkey, they all silently filled their plates up with the delicious, steaming morsels in front of them. All the adults began, but Ryan stopped himself and waited for Lilith to whisper Grace to herself first. Elaine noticed Lilith whispering and paused out of respect and Connor did the same, but more for Ryan. The rest of the table, excluding Celia of course, didn't notice, or if they did they didn't make a point of it and continued to eat. The room was filled with cutlery lightly tacking plates and the pouring of both water and wine. Opting to break the silence, Celia spoke up.

"Everything is delicious." She proposed to both Mr Virtue and Mrs Virtue.

Mrs Virtue took it upon herself to respond. "Yes. Raymond makes a wonderful meal every year and only with the finest ingredients one can find in Europe. He was renowned as a genius before we hired him." She smiled, almost genuinely, as if satisfied by being able to talk about her hired help. "Who cooks in your home?"

What she meant was 'Does the peasant woman have someone help her dress in high-street dresses?', but she hid it well under her words. As a master of grace, Celia told them that she did most of the cooking, but Ryan was always on hand to help when asked. She smiled over to her son as she spoke who smiled back lovingly. Mrs Virtue had nothing to say to that, so she simply smiled and returned to her food. Elaine caught how Mrs Virtue's eyebrows leaned up as she lowered her head to eat. Elaine looked over to Connor and looked at him, as if to confirm that the danger had been confirmed by what she saw. Connor caught the look and exhaled heavily. That look, the lift of the eyebrows, meant Mrs Virtue had not liked something she heard and, whilst she was too elegant to say anything now, this story would be gracelessly recounted amongst other socialites.

The silence came again, but was short lived by a string beeps stemming from the head of the table. Mr Virtue set his knife and fork down immediately and dug into his blazer pocket. He took out his phone, a seemingly better version of what Connor had, and raised to his ear. He gruffly said hello. The voice on the other end said something. Mr Virtue simply listened and gave monosyllabic acknowledgments. He removed the phone from his ear and excused himself from both the table and the room swiftly. Taking advantage of the distraction, Connor discreetly reached over and clasped Ryan's resting hand. He took two fingers and wrapped them around Ryan's thumb and held them in a lightly clasped fist. Ryan almost looked over and revealed Connor, but stopped himself and happily relaxed. Connor quickly leaned over and whispered into Ryan's ear.

"It's OK. Relax. I know you're feeling nervous, but I'm right here." He assured, squeezing Ryan's thumb slightly. Ryan whispered in return.

"It's just nerve-wrecking to have dinner with your parents." He explained. "Especially when they don't know about…us. And nobody's talking."

"Ryan." Celia said suddenly, startling Ryan and Connor out of their private reverie. "You should know that whispering in public rude."

But Ryan was comfortable with Celia, as seen in his response. "If we don't whisper, how are we supposed to say things you're not meant to here?" His mother chuckled lightly at his cheek and returned to her food. But Mrs Virtue seemed far less amused, another eye movement that Elaine made note of. But before anyone could say anything else, Mr Virtue came back into the room and sat back down.

"My apologies, it was a client." He stated. "I'll need to head a meeting in an hour." Mrs Virtue immediately nodded at him, as if those were code words for something and now Mrs Virtue had her mission. Elaine merely rolled her eyes, unimpressed and unsurprised. But Connor froze in place; his mind flashed back to the dream he and Ryan had shared, he remembered all those dark, hateful emotions that had been bubbling under the surface for longer than he cared to remember. Maybe it was time to do something about it.

"Surely the meeting can be postponed?" Connor tried. "It is Christmas. Who would choose today to work?" Mr Virtue looked at Connor, as if he was surprised the boy had learnt to talk. But he firmly said 'no' anyway. Connor's eyes narrowed at his father, a thought passing through his head. "Have you seen Jonathan yet?"

Mr Virtue looked even more shocked than he had the first time. His eyes went wide and he set his cutlery down harder than he normally would. Mrs Virtue did the same before standing up and calmly walking over to her son's seat. She whispered in his ear to speak to him outside. The two journeyed out quietly, leaving the room in a silent state. Ryan watched Lilith out of the corner of his eye and waited for a signal that it had started. Suddenly, she began to wince, but brought herself together quickly enough that nobody who wasn't looking could see. Ryan saw the timing and took a breath. He felt the power leave his body a stretch outside of where he could see. He waited and searched until he found what he was looking for and when he did he reached out with two fingers and gripped onto his thumb. Mrs Virtue and Connor returned shortly after and sat back down. Mrs Virtue apologised to her guests and dinner continued as quietly as it had started.

~\*/~

Once dinner was finished, the maids came to collect all the crockery and cutlery to be washed in the kitchen. However, Jessie and Cassidy had not expected three of the guests to come into the kitchen to help clean up. They insisted that they could manage on their own, but their declinations were not heard. There were two sinks in this kitchen, so they split into two teams. In the red corner, Lilith would wash, Ryan would dry and Cassidy would put those dishes away. And in the blue corner, Celia would wash and dry whilst Jessie put things away, purely because the maids knew where everything went. The two teams quickly got into the flow of their responsibility and Celia even had the radio on, so whilst she worked she could also work it. Soon after the radio turned to some Britney Spears, Connor came in through the door. Jessie and Cassidy instantly stopped what they were doing and greeted 'Master Connor' as professionally as they could. But when Ryan saw him, he instantly jumped into Connor's line of sight and began to dance even weirder, with his hips swaying and a stupid, fat grin on his face. Connor burst into laughter as Ryan's lack of shame made itself known in his dancing.

"I actually came in to see if you wanted some help." Connor said, taking breaths and forcing out chuckles between each word.

Ryan toned down his dancing, but not his smiling. "Nah. We got it. Thanks though."

As Connor watched Ryan talk he couldn't seem to stop himself from staring. Ryan saw as Connor's look turned into a longing stare and his heartbeat rose accordingly. He couldn't bring himself to turn away first and neither could his smile. The room faded away and all the women, including Jessie and Cassidy who were slowly working out the situation, joined it. This attraction seemed far more than simple infatuation. What new 'couple' just said hello and then got caught up in a heart-stopping staring contest.

A door was heard opening and the two jumped apart and looked over to see Mr Virtue attired in a more expensive, pinstripe suit with a black suitcase in hand. He'd even gone through to change his tie from red to dark blue. He made a point of how he 'regretted' leaving on such short notice, but that he must.

"Well, it was a pleasure to meet you." Celia said, approaching him as she dried her hands on a cloth she'd found. She shook his hand firmly, to which he seemed somewhat surprised. He simply looked at her hand for a moment before realising that he was being rude and took it in his firm grip. "You must come to dinner at our house one day. Though I can't promise it'll be quite as delicious."

"Why? He never has dinner in this house." Connor muttered. But when both his father and Celia turned to look at him, one obviously more furious than the other, eh realised that he might have muttered that louder than he realised.

"Connor. A Word." Mr Virtue briskly walked out of the room. Connor was quickly on his tail and out of the door. His father didn't waste a second to whip around and stare down at his child with wide eyes and flaring nostrils. "I will not stand for the same insolence you have displayed today. These were your friends and their families and you've done nothing, but make us seem like fools."

Connor narrowed his eyes at his father's words. "You're not going to ask why?"

"Frankly, I don't care." He said quickly. "I have to go and work. Something you may learn about faster than you think."

Connor nodded, smirking angrily. "Follow me."

"Boy, I do not have time."

"You do for this." Connor assured loudly and definitely. At least he thought he sounded definite, he wasn't entirely certain. But, however he really sounded, it was enough for his father to follow him wherever he was going. He walked through the foyer and wanted to check that his father was actually still following him, but didn't for fear that it would undermine his previously attained power. He walked shortly down the hallway and waited by one of the doors on the right. He waited for his father to join him by the door before pushing it open.

The room was laid with a soft green carpet and white walls with paint handprints strewn across the room. Toys from years past were scattered across the room and beanbags collectively shoved together to represent a fort collapsed under the weight of Physical Law. In the far corner, facing the TV that blared with colour and burst with sound of driving cars and screeching tyres. Hearing the door open, Jonny turned around and looked over at his brother and Mr Virtue.

"Hey Connor." Jonny smiled. He then looked up and his smile was replaced with a look of confusion. "Who's that?"

Connor turned to look at his father, but he had already started moving down the hallway. He left the house quickly and without slamming the door.