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The Conquered - Chapter 20: Family Dynamics II
***** Taylor *****
The least he could have done was shake Andrew's hand. God damn it. It wasn't like our gayness would rub off. The least Dad could do was be civil. I squared my shoulders and stepped in. "Merry Christmas, Dad."
Dad blinked at me, his eyes flicking from me to Andrew and back. "Merry Christmas, Taylor," he replied in a strained, flat tone.
"I'm here because Claire insisted. All I'm asking is that you be civil and polite. Manage that, and I'll make sure we keep our distance." I wasn't going to let him know how much this hurt. I was his son, damn it. The least he could do is give Andrew and me the same courtesy he would give strangers. Strangers, I thought for a moment. "We have a friend with us, Dad. His name is Sean, and he has no family left other than his friends. Stay way from him. If you say one damaging word to him, I'll personally run you over with your own motor home."
"Excuse me?" I'd never threatened or disrespected my father in my life. He looked something between indignant and shell-shocked.
Mom's eyes watered, but I refused to pull punches. I'd come ready to bare an olive branch, but I had some emotional boxing gloves with me too. Andrew and I could fend for ourselves. Sean was too injured to face hate again so soon. "I'm just making you aware of the rules. Andrew and I will keep out of your way, but I don't want anyone's Christmas ruined because 'we' have a problem."
"What problem," Claire asked as she stepped into the room. Katie watched from a bit further away. She must have thought the confrontation would get out of hand, and brought in reinforcements.
"No problems, Aunt C," I replied, stepping away from Mom and Dad. "Just making sure we had an understanding."
Claire kissed my cheek and nodded toward the family room. "Your cousins Jeff and Holly just arrived. They're looking for you." She squared her gaze with my father's. "Merry Christmas, Martin."
"Merry Christmas, Claire." Though Dad didn't sound happy, at least his voice didn't carry the harshness with Claire as it had with me.
"I'm glad the boys could come up. Everyone missed them at Thanksgiving." I left before the verbal fencing match got into full swing. Claire was notorious for shaming, embarrassing and humiliating people to make a point. She never did it with vulgarities or bad manners, but you always knew what she meant no matter what words she used.
Andrew frowned as we left the room. "She's going to eat him alive."
I shook my head. "They've been sparring for years. Believe it or not, Dad can hold his own against Claire. He's probably the only husband, other than Uncle Peter, who can do it."
"And you," Andrew added, smiling.
I shook my head. "We're here aren't we? If I could hold out against Claire, we wouldn't be here." I sighed, looking at the relatives talking and smiling. "We'd be safely and quietly at home for our first Christmas together."
Andrew looked at me with a funny expression on his face, and then pulled me though the living room to the alcove for the side door. He stood there, looking at me expectantly. Finally, he realized I couldn't figure out why we were there. "Look up." I did, and saw the mistletoe above our heads. "Merry Christmas, Taylor." He bent down and briefly pressed against my lips.
I melted. I was such a nervous wreck that I just grabbed onto his head and tried to chew his lips off. I needed the reassurance so bad. We kissed until we were interrupted by a polite cough. I pulled away, my cheeks as red as the holly berries in the garlands, and turned to see Cousin Jeff standing there. Jeff was about ten years younger than I was, and I'd baby sat him and his sister Holly more times than I could count before I graduated high school.
"I didn't mean to interrupt..."
I smiled. "Hey small guy," I laughed, stepping in. Jeff stood a willowy six feet tall and had been the shyest of all the cousins. He smiled and hugged me tighter than usual.
When he let go, I noticed a darker skinned man hovering near us. Jeff put out his hand. "Taylor, I'd like you to meet Stephen." He blushed as Stephen stepped in. "My boyfriend."
I blinked. Boyfriend? I looked at Andrew, whose smile just got broader with each passing moment. I put out my hand. "Hi, Stephen." I raised my eyebrows. "Welcome to the family?"
Stephen laughed and took my hand. His accent was something like British but not quite, possible Jamaican. "It is a pleasure to meet you." Leaning in, he said, "Thank you."
I raised an eyebrow. "For what?"
Stephen took Jeff's hand as Jeff shrugged. "For opening the closet door I guess." He took a deep breath. "Aunt C's militant rallying of the family after Thanksgiving made me realize I could tell my parents the truth."
I smiled. "Oh?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Mom came up to do some shopping in San Francisco, and while she was there, she said: I want you to be kind to Taylor." He smiled, but there were tears in his eyes. "I asked her why and she told me what happened, and how horrible she thought it was, and how you deserved everyone in the family's love and support." He shrugged wiping his eyes. "We'd been hiding our relationship since college. When she said it, I just couldn't keep hiding. Every time she'd come up we'd have to act like the second bedroom was mine and I'd sleep on the couch. I asked if she'd still love me if I was gay..." Jeff couldn't finish. He cried and Stephen hugged him, kissing the side of his head.
"It's okay, love," Stephen cooed, rubbing Jeff's back. "It's okay."
Andrew draped an arm over my shoulders as I wiped away a tear of my own. I could imagine that life so easily. I could imagine keeping my condo, alternating where we slept so that it would look lived in, and living away from Andrew when my mother visited. If Becca and Larry hadn't caught us, I might not have been willing to come out.
Stephen continued Jeff's story for him while Jeff wiped his eyes. "The boy was mortified by the idea of his parents knowing. You would have thought he was raised by ogres." Stephen smiled lovingly at Jeff. "I was in the kitchen, making some tea for us all, and had to stop and watch. Margaret just took Jeff's face in her hands and told him that she loved him just the way he was."
The Swenson sisters were amazing women. You could never under estimate any of them. Mom had surprised me, Claire was Claire, and the others were just as solid cored. I smiled. "I'd say you're welcome, but I didn't do anything."
Jeff smiled. "You set an example for the rest of us, Taylor. Just like you always do."
I blinked. "Huh?"
Stephen laughed. "I wanted to come just to meet the mythical 'Cousin Taylor'. You should hear the stories they tell about you."
Damn. My cheeks were burning. "I never did anything."
I'd seen Holly close in quietly, but I'd kept my mouth shut. She rolled her eyes. "You're as bad as Jeff," she accused as she dug her fingers into Jeff's ribs, making him whoop in surprise. Holly laughed at him before looking back at me. "You got the best grades, were the perfect Boy Scout, became a psychiatrist, and you're still prettier than the rest of us."
I looked at Andrew. "Holly begged me to see a photo shoot when she was twelve. I managed to get her to one and she fell in love with fashion photography on the spot." I smiled at my younger cousin. "You promised me an autographed copy of your first photo compilation... How long do you plan to take?"
Holly laughed. "For your information, Mr. Perfect, I am doing my first show next year and I wanted to ask for a favor."
Oh God. Holly's favors were always a trial. "And what would that be?"
"Could I get photos of you and your husband? I'm doing a show on 'couples' and I've been trying to cover the whole diversity of couples out there. I already know you look great on film, and I think the two of you would be a great addition to the show."
Model? Me? After nearly a decade away from the camera? Andrew hugged me from behind and answered for me. "We'd love to."
I grumbled, but shrugged instead of arguing. "Okay. But don't ask me to do something like nudes in a snow covered corn field or anything."
Holly laughed. "Nah. I'm not going for homo-erotic." She winked at Jeff. "Though some people have commented that I do have a knack for it."
"Jeffrey?" We looked up to see Aunt Margaret stepping out of the kitchen. "I want to introduce Stephen to your grandmother. She will adore his accent."
I laughed. "We'll talk to you later."
Stephen shook my hand again, smiling. "Thank you again. We will talk with you later."
Stephen and Jeff left Holly with us. She smiled. "He does have a killer accent." She let out a little sigh. "Why are all the best ones gay?"
"You sound wistful."
Holly looked back at me. "My first true love turned out to be gay." She smiled. "He's my best friend, Jimmy, but I don't think you ever quite get over your first love."
"Little Jimmy McKee?" I'd babysat him too.
She nodded, blushing. "Yeah. We were fourteen, and I was so in love. I kissed him on the Fourth of July, and there were more than fireworks in the air for me." She looked away, as if following the memory with her gaze. "He wouldn't talk to me for weeks after that. I cried and cried. Finally he met me out near Gold Tooth Creek; said he had something really important to tell me." She shrugged. "I thought he was going to tell me he was in love with Jenny Brown, or Kathy Lowenstein. Instead, he told me he was gay."
She smiled. "Actually, it was a relief. I realized I'd never have to see him kiss Jenny or Kathy. I hated those bitches."
I laughed. Holly had always spoken her mind. She took after Claire, though she had her mother's disposition. "What's he doing these days? He's what, twenty-six now?"
She nodded. "He's a programmer up in Silicon Valley. Still can't find his true love, but he's trying. He keeps falling for guys who use him and cheat on him."
I smiled. "I was lucky. Found Mister Right on the first try."
She grinned. "Yeah, like I said: why are all the good ones gay?"
Andrew laughed, kissing me on the side of my head. "She's as silver tongued as you are."
"Asshole," I mumbled.
"Pretty boy," he teased back.
"Don't go there with me, Muscle Head."
"Bacon," he quipped, before kissing my hair.
I didn't answer, which made it all the worse. Holly looked at me. "Bacon?"
"Oh, but I do, I do."
Damn him. Andrew was going to hear about it when we got behind closed doors. "No."
"Oh..." She pouted at me, but I wouldn't relent. Finally she smiled. "Okay. I'll get it out of one of you eventually." She nodded at Sean, who was enjoying corralling the kids. "Who's he?"
"Sean Monroe. A friend of ours who's staying with us until he goes away to school."
"What's he taking?"
"He plans on becoming a Doctor of Oriental Medicine."
She smiled, watching as Sean managed to keep control of three rambunctious four year olds and an attention demanding seven year old. "Damn, he's gay too."
I blinked. "Why do you say that?"
She laughed, but there wasn't much humor in it. She sounded tired. "I'm like a gay compass. Gay men have nothing on me when it comes to Gaydar. If I look at a guy and get that twinge, that most women have for men they're attracted to, nine out of ten times the guy will be gay. My non-gay male friends live in fear of the day I find one of them attractive. It is the stamp of heterosexual doom."
I laughed. "Well, you obviously missed your mark with me."
Holly gave me Claire's evil eye. "Oh no I didn't. I had such a crush on you when I was twelve. It just took fourteen years for me to confirm that you were the first victim of Holly's Mark of Doom."
I rolled my eyes and looked at Andrew. "It's all her fault. I wouldn't have to wake up with chest hair tickling my nose if it weren't for her."
Andrew put out his hand. "Thanks. I'd hate to think what my life would be like if you hadn't doomed Taylor at an early age."
Holly shook his hand and smiled. "Good. I can get Taylor to do the shoot because we're blood... and now I have a debt to call in if I want to do other projects."
"Andrew," I chastised as I pulled out of his arms, "you are restricted to two topics until the end of the night: your health, and the weather." I shook my head. "If he keeps opening his mouth around the women of this family, we'll owe more than we could ever repay in special requests and services by the end of the night."
Holly laughed. "He isn't lying, big guy. All the Swenson girls are evil at heart."
Andrew looked at the ceiling. "Lovely, crisp weather we've been having."
I laughed. "He's very good at following orders."
Holly shook her head. "I'm going to hunt down relatives." She smiled before heading off. "Want to see if the cousins can claim an area for dinner? Leave the old folks to their tales and we can catch up?"
I nodded. "That'd be great."
We watched as Holly wove her way around the room to greet Linda and her husband Tim. Andrew leaned close. "We'll see who's good at following orders, Bacon. You just wait until we get home."
"I love you," I whispered, not looking back at him.
"I love you too."
***** Sean *****
I looked around at the laughing, happy people, and wished my family was like that. Even when my mother was alive, we'd never had big family gatherings. Christmas had been a big thing for Mom, but after she died it never really felt right. Dad tried the first couple years, when we was sober, to make Christmas be like Mom had made it, but he couldn't. No one could. The last few years had been minimalist Christmases, and after he 'found god', he spoke of the evils of excess and of the commercialization of a sacred holiday. For a while, Christmas felt like Christmas again. I helped keep the kids under control while the adults tried to enjoy themselves.
"How are you holding up, kiddo?" Taylor slid his arm around my waist and hugged me. The guys always hugged me. I'd been hugged more in the last couple months than I'd been hugged since I was a kid.
"Not bad. Little Dennis is a hand full, but I think I wore him out." I nodded at the sleeping little hellion curled up with his new stuffed bear near the fire place.
"You're eating with us, right?"
I shook my head. "One of the older kids, Jeanne, is home sick. I told Claire I'd help keep the kid's table under control."
He frowned. "You don't have to, Sean. You're a guest."
I flinched, but tried to sound funny. "I thought I was 'family'."
Taylor squeezed me. "You are, Sean." He pulled down my head and kissed the side of it. "Never forget it."
"I've got a runaway," I pointed out as I pulled out of Taylor's hug. He'd been Mr. Madison this time last year. I couldn't believe how cool he was or that he and Andrew really cared. "I better get Jessica roped in before she finds something to break."
I hunted the little redhead, chasing her out of the designated "child free zone" while she giggled. I loved kids. I loved teaching the afternoon kid's class at The Dojo. I knew Jackson didn't need another teacher, but I really needed the money and I just couldn't take money from Taylor and Andrew. Dinner was a balancing act of controlled chaos, discipline, and patience. I had help from another cousin, Juliana, to keep the feeding frenzy of little sharks to a minor blood bath.
Juliana sat with me against the chairs near the stairs leading up from the recreation room. We were entertainers, guards and disciplinarians when necessary. Two of us, twelve of them. Talk about losing odds.
"Are you like Taylor and Andrew?"
I blinked. "Uhm... you mean am I gay?"
She nodded, taking a bite of mashed potatoes. We ate as we could, between catastrophes.
Juliana was a pretty, strawberry blonde, seventeen year old. If I'd been interested in girls, she'd have been one I'd have liked. "You ever kiss a girl?"
I nodded. "Yeah, a few times. I tried to fake being straight for a while, but it was too hard."
"I'm going to give up on guys."
I blinked. "huh?"
"All the nice ones are gay, and all the straight ones are jerks."
"That's not true. There are plenty of nice, straight guys."
Juliana shrugged. "Not around here. All they want is to get into a girl's pants."
I laughed, which attracted too much attention for us to continue the conversation. After two spilled milks, a plate of food on the floor, and one 'almost' food fight, we got back to our food. I thought about what she said. "Gay guys only want that too... but boy's pants."
"Okay," she giggled, trying to keep her voice down, "then all guys are jerks."
"Thanks," I replied dryly.
Juliana shrugged. "Sorry. I didn't get a very good Christmas present from my boyfriend. I guess I'm bitter."
"What'd he do?"
"He told me he wanted to start seeing other people on the last day of school before the holiday break. A couple nights ago, I saw him down at the theater with a girl I know gives it out to any guy who'd date her."
"Yeah. Made me wonder if I was being a prude."
I shrugged. "I've never done anything either, other than kiss girls which doesn't count for me."
She smiled. "That's cool. Are you going to wait for love?"
I shook my head. "No. I want to know what I'm doing before I find Mr. Right. I don't want to sleep around a lot, but I'd like to know what it's about before falling head over heels."
Juliana thought about that as she chewed on her turkey. After a while, she smiled. "That makes sense. Less embarrassing that way."
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Is it true gay guys can just pick out other gay guys?"
I laughed. "If they can, then I got gypped in the gay-abilities line. I can't ever tell unless the guy is flaming."
"Flaming?" How could anyone these days not know what flaming meant?
I snickered. "You know: act's all Queer Eye and stuff."
She smiled. "Those guys are so cute."
I sighed. I'd only managed to see a few shows, but I agreed. "Yeah."
Food induced lethargy, the price of twelve hours of excited playing, and the soft Christmas music from the entertainment center slowly pulled our charges into glaze eyed television comas or sleep. Juliana smiled. "Why don't you go up and visit? I think I can handle these guys."
"Yeah. I see my relatives almost all year." She picked up her book, which she'd managed to read a good third of through all the chaos. Juliana was one of those girls who looked like a cheerleader but acted like a book worm from the gifted and talented program.
"I'll come back down in a little while and give you a break."
Juliana smiled, holding up her book. "I've got my break right here."
I grinned, looking over her shoulder, and tried to read. It was the wierdest English I'd ever seen. "What is that?"
"The Cantebury Tales, in middle-english." She grinned. "I love old language. I want to study literature and language when I go to college." She flipped back to a story when she saw my frown. "Hey, this is better sex writing than you get today."
I leaned over, not convinced. "Oh?"
She nodded. "This story," she said in a lower tone, "Is about a foolish man who thinks the flood will come again, so he has a boat up near the rafters to save himself and his wife. Well, the wife and the man's assistant are going at it constantly, and the dummy hasn't a clue. They practically fuck with him right there with them and he's oblivious."
"The premise of the tales is that all these different people are traveling together on a long journey. The travelers begin to tell tales along the way, each one trying to out do the previous tale from another companion. The tales get more ridiculous and racier as you read. Anyone who thinks our ancestors weren't into bawdy sex is deluded." She grinned. "One of my friends says there's an actual porn video based on the tales."
"That's just wrong."
She shook her head. "No it isn't. The Tales were the porn of their time. I doubt the video is any good, since porn industry is usually low budget, bad acting, and concerned with showing money shots instead of telling a story." She cringed. "It's all geared for guys."
I was intrigued. "Oh, and how would you know that?"
Juliana rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Some of the funniest times I've had were sleepovers where one of the girls snagged a video from an older brother's stash or parent's stash." She blushed. "We even found out one of my friends older brothers was gay by accident."
I blinked, leaning closer. "How?"
"He was home over summer break, and Kim thought it'd be cool to watch one of his porn DVDs." She leaned in closer. "She just snuck out any one she could find, and we popped it into her laptop." Juliana's cheeks were bright red. "Kim was so embarrassed, but it was like a train wreck... once the video started, we couldn't stop watching."
I grinned. "Bet that was a big eye opener."
"Kim felt so guilty. Her parents were away for the weekend, so we waited up for her brother and she told him what she did." Juliana shuddered. "He was so mad. He yelled at her for like ten minutes until Kim ran back to her room crying. He tried to yell at me, but I just yelled right back. He wasn't my brother so I wasn't going to take it."
I shrugged. "She shouldn't have gone into his stuff."
Juliana shrugged. "I know, but it was supposed to be just fun. "So what happened?"
"After he calmed down, Ken went up and apologized for freaking out." Juliana smiled; her eyes glistened as she talked. "Kim promised not to tell their parents, and she said she loved him no matter what." Juliana wiped away a tear. "When it finally got down to being too weepy, I said: at least the men are better looking than in straight porn."
I tried to swallow down my laugh. Juliana was so cool. "You didn't."
She grinned. "Yeah. It got everyone laughing, and broke the tension. Ken was a lot more attentive after that. It was like he and Kim had a secret they could share. They talk a lot over AIM now. She wants him to come out, but he won't. He thinks their parents will freak."
Juliana shrugged. "I don't know. Kim and I have been trying to find out what their opinions are. From what we can tell, they aren't hostile to gay people, but they don't think that gays should have the same rights to marriage and such. I just don't know."
I snorted. "Sort of like: there's nothing wrong with a colored person, but don't date one."
Juliana nodded. "Yeah. Also, it is a perception that gay people are 'them'. Kim's parents say that they've never met any gay people."
I rolled my eyes. "Isn't that always the way? At least a tenth of the population is gay, more if you count bisexuals who just live as straight people, and everyone thinks they've 'never met a gay person'."
She nodded. "Yeah. And everyone thinks gay men are swishy and girly." She looked at me, and smiled. "You aren't. Cousin Jeff isn't, though he's always been a bit of a ninny, but in a good way." She giggled. "Cousin Taylor's husband, Andrew? He definitely isn't."
I chuckled. "Taylor isn't either."
Juliana nodded. "Yeah, but Cousin Taylor is just so pretty. I know it's a stereotype, but he is." She blushed. "I really like the longer hair."
"So does Andrew," I commented absently, to which Juliana giggled louder. I blushed.
"Can I ask you a question?"
She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Do all gay guys... uhm... bottom?"
I think I turned scarlet. "Uhm... well... I wouldn't know. Taylor told me that some men will only top, or only bottom."
Juliana nodded. "Probably identity or ego issues."
I shrugged, trying to swallow down my blush. "I don't know. Some just don't like to bottom. Maybe it hurts them."
"Do Taylor and Andrew.... uhm, swap?"
Okay, I wasn't going there. The image of Taylor being fucked breathless in the hot tub wouldn't leave me alone. I couldn't make up my mind if I wished I'd been Andrew or Taylor. Not that I wanted to have sex with either of them. Well, okay, I wouldn't have said no to them either. I just couldn't decide what I'd want more, to fuck or be fucked. I hadn't had my toys long enough to figure out what I liked. All I knew was I wasn't going to try to use pens or shit again. That hurt. "I think I should take my break."
Juliana pouted. "Oh, come on."
I was trying not to throw a bone something fierce. It'd only been a couple weeks, since I caught the guys at it, and last night I'd gotten to see them naked again. I blushed. "I'm pretty sure they swap."
Could you die from blushing? "I don't watch, Juliana. Do you know what your parents do in bed?"
Juliana made an icky face. "Eeewww. That's gross."
Salvation! "Well, Taylor was my counselor in school. He's kind of like a father figure. And Andrew's just like an over-protective big brother. You don't spy on people like that." Well, I did, but not intentionally.
Juliana nodded. "Okay, I get it." She blushed. "I guess, after seeing the DVD and taking peeks on the internet, I thought free love and such were just part of being gay. Orgies. Partner swapping. Sex. Sex. Sex."
I shook my head. "Sure, some gay guys are like that. Taylor says it's one of the most damaging gay myths that if the sex is good enough, love will follow."
Juliana shook her head. "I think that's not only a gay myth. Girls have sex hoping to find love too."
"Taylor said he and Andrew were in love long before they had sex."
"That's the way I think it should be," Juliana affirmed. "Not that I think sex is bad," she patted her book, "obviously, but I think love is something that has nothing to do with sex. Sex just makes it better."
I smiled. "You and I think alike."
Juliana put out her hand. "Nice to meet a fellow freak."
I shook it. "Hi, freak."
We laughed, and I stood up. "I'm going to go upstairs." I got as many plates and cups stacked as I could carry safely. "Want anything from the kitchen?"
"A hot cider if they still have any." She opened her book.
Dinner was over, and the adults had broken into small groups sitting and standing about with their coffees and deserts. Taylor and Andrew sat on the couch, Taylor on the arm with Andrew's arm around his waist. They talked and laughed with Jeff, his boyfriend Stephen, Holly and a couple other of Taylor's cousins. As I walked into the kitchen I caught the part of a conversation I probably shouldn't have heard.
"I just don't know what to do, Claire. They're both so stubborn." Taylor's mom stood near the back door, holding her coffee cup close, talking in a hushed tone. "I know it's hurting both of them."
Claire huffed, sipping from her cup. "Martin is being a jackass, Kathy. You know it as well as I do. No one can ignore how in love the boys are."
Taylor's mom had tears in her eyes, but she was trying not to cry. "It's killing me. All I want is for Taylor to be happy, and it kills me to think that his happiness is tearing our family apart."
"His happiness is doing no such thing," Claire insisted, setting down her cup and taking Taylor's mom's hands. "Your boy is in love, happy, and living a good life. I went and saw it for myself. The only thing tearing your family apart is the same thing that has always kept Taylor at arms length. He isn't the man Martin tried to raise. End of story." She squeezed her sister's hands before picking up her cup and taking another sip. "If you ask me, Taylor is a better man for it."
Claire shrugged. "He was forced to know his mind and his heart from an early age. He's had to believe in his convictions and has learned to stand by them without wavering." She sipped again. "Yes, I think, as horrible as it sounds, Martin made a better man out of Taylor than he planned. Not the man he'd intended, but one I am proud to have as my nephew. I'm happy to call Andrew my nephew too, even if he is a bit rough around the edges and determined to break decorum."
Taylor's mom smiled. "I adore Andrew. Taylor was always so controlled, even if he did think outside of the box. I think Andrew has been good for him."
"Do you think Martin will come to terms?"
Taylor's mom shook her head. "I just don't know. No time soon. At least, not unless there is a miraculous change overnight. I've gotten the books from PFLAG, and am trying to understand. Martin refuses to go to the meetings with me. He won't look at the books. It's like he simply won't 'see' Taylor the way he is." She sighed. "I wish he would. I'm still trying to believe I didn't cause this. I know," she tapped her head, "that you don't make a child gay, but there's still a part of me," she tapped her chest, "that worries that I failed as a mother."
Claire sighed. "Kathy..."
"I know, I know." Taylor's mom sipped her coffee again. "Most of the time I'm fine, but I worry, Claire. He's going to face so much hostility. I just don't want him to be hurt."
"Honey, Taylor has done so much to shake loose some of the shackles on this family just by being honest and open. Look at Jeffery. I haven't seen him smile so freely at a family gather in years." Claire paused, and shrugged. "I had a long talk with Kimberly on the phone the other night."
Taylor's mom nodded. "How's she doing?"
"Going crazy. She is looking forward to getting away from New York in January." Claire sipped again. "The holidays are hell for her. Retail."
"At least she can get away after the new year."
Claire nodded. "Kimberly says she will be bringing someone she wants me to meet."
"Kimberly?" Taylor's mom set down her cup. "I never thought she'd meet a man. She was always so independent and career oriented."
Claire rolled her eyes. "I never said she was bringing home a man."
Taylor's mom just fell silent for a moment, and then she picked up her cup again. "Oh."
Claire shrugged. "I've talked with Claudia several times on the phone. I knew New York rents were outrageous, so I just assumed they were roommates."
"How are you with this?"
"With what, having a lesbian for a daughter?" Claire shrugged. "I have four daughters, Kathy. I know it sounds ungenerous, but if only one of them is gay I'll consider myself fortunate. I can't very well support Taylor and condemn Kimberly."
Taylor's mom sipped her coffee. "You didn't answer my question."
Claire sighed. "I'm coping. I'm glad Harold, God bless him, didn't have to face this. He was closest to Kimberly. She was his girl. I think he'd worry he tried to make her too much like a boy." She shrugged. "Third child, no boys. Kimberly became his son in so many ways."
Taylor's mom smiled. "I remember seeing her frequently, in overalls, covered in grease and oil from helping Harold with that old corvette he loved."
Claire smiled. "Kimberly and Claudia will be driving it back to New York instead of flying back."
Claire nodded. "They are buying a house outside of the city, so Kimberly will finally have a garage to put her father's car into. He left it to her, but I kept it here until she had a place to put it." She shook her head. "I have this image of Kimberly and Claudia driving like bats out of hell in that 'muscle car' across the central plains like Thelma and Louise."
Taylor's mom laughed. "Just as long as they stay on the roads. No cliffs."
Claire smiled. "Kimberly is too practical to do that. If they were to drive off a cliff, she'd sell the corvette to a collector and then buy a car with a very large gas tank, to make certain the explosion would be sufficient to finish the job."
"Well, she would!" Claire looked up and saw me standing just outside the door. "Just come in, Sean. No reason to skulk in the shadows."
I swallowed, stepping into the kitchen with the plates. I hadn't realized how heavy they'd become.
"Oh, you poor dear," Taylor's mom consoled, setting down her cup and walking over to take a few of the dishes. "Have you been waiting to put these down until we were done?"
"I'm sorry... I didn't mean to listen..."
Claire snuffed, putting down her cup and taking the rest of the dishes. "You don't need to apologize, Sean. Everyone has been put in the uncomfortable position of listening or walking away. Frankly, most of us listen." They put the dishes near the sink before turning to look at me. "If anything, you have gotten to hear a bit of the other side of this."
I nodded, looking at the floor. "I'm sorry we aren't what you wanted in children."
Taylor's mom lifted my chin, not far because she was shorter than Taylor, and looked at me. "Is that all you got from our conversation?"
I shrugged. "It'd be easier on everyone if we weren't gay."
"No one promised life would be easy," Claire insisted, refilling her cup. "Imagine how boring life would be if it were." She turned back and rested her hip on the counter. "Kathy and I only want what is best for our children, Sean. Most parents do, even misguided ones. We worry, even more with today's political climate, that our children won't be able to live full, happy lives. I consider us blessed that our children have managed to find love and happiness in spite of the struggles and challenges."
Taylor's mom nodded. "I don't want Taylor to be anything but who he is, Sean. God presents us challenges to strengthen our souls. The true challenge isn't in accepting our children as they are. Gay or straight, all parents must face that. No, the challenge is to make the world a place were our children can be whomever they are without prejudice and hate."
I frowned. "The world won't ever be like that."
Claire put her hand on my arm. "Probably not, but striving for it can only make the world a better place. The only perfect person was crucified for it. If we can simply live by his example, in love and understanding, God will take care of the rest."
"Taylor's so lucky," I sniffed, wiping my nose.
Taylor's mom gave me a hug. "Everything will work out, Sean. No family, or life, is perfect, but we can make the most of what we have."
I held on until a voice interrupted us.
"Katherine, it is getting late. We should say our good-byes." Taylor's dad looked at me for a moment. I wasn't sure what he was thinking, but he set his jaw and turned back to the dining room. "I'll get our coats."
Taylor's mom sighed, looked at Claire for a moment, and then shrugged. "I suppose I've tortured him long enough." She patted my cheek. "Chin up, Sean." She laughed as she headed for the hall. "It will take an hour to say goodbye to everyone anyway."
Claire shook her head. "She really should take a rolling pin to that man's head."
"He didn't seem all that bad. Better than my father."
Claire brushed my cheek. "No parent should do what your father did, Sean. As angry as I am with Martin, I can still say he is a good man. Misguided, stubborn, and a true pain in my back side, but a good man. He doesn't mean to hurt Taylor, or Kathy, or even Andrew. Regardless, he is hurting them. He will have to live with that."
"Do you really think he won't forgive Taylor?"
Claire shrugged. "We can pray he will be able to get past his prejudices. Until then, we will simply have to give Taylor and Andrew all the support the family can. At least he knows he isn't alone."
Yeah. Alone. I'd been alone since Mom died. I pushed away that thought and looked at the cider pot on the stove. "Any left? Juliana wanted some."
"I think we can ladle out a few more servings," Claire replied, pulling off the lid and stirring the mulled cider. "I hope you weren't too terribly bored with the kids, Sean. Thank you so much for helping."
I smiled. "Nah. It's easier to be a stranger with little kids than adults. The kids, once you're introduced, accept you outright. Adults are always cautious. I had a lot of fun."
She handed me two mugs. "I'll go down with you and relieve Juliana. We will need to bundle up the hellions in a little while anyway."
"Okay, Aunt C."
"Sean," she warned, putting the lid back on the pot. "Don't learn any of Taylor's bad habits."
I grinned, but kept my mouth shut as we descended the stairs. All in all, it'd been a great Christmas.
***** Andrew *****
We sat with Holly, Jeff and Stephen as we ate more food than should have ever been cooked. Claire could put out a spread.
"Andrew, what is it you do," Stephen asked between bites of goose and potatoes.
"I'm a personal trainer." I'd never been fond of roasted goose, Stephen could have it, but Claire's ham melted in your mouth.
"He and a friend of ours, Lee, opened their own private training studio this summer." Taylor's smile was strained. His eyes darted to the right, catching Katherine's glance our way, before he continued. "They're really doing well for a first year startup."
"We're doing okay," I agreed, looking down toward the other end of the table. Claire's dining room table was something out of another era. Dark Cherry, at least three leafs, and sat eighteen people. Katherine sat across from Taylor's father at the end, with Claire at the head of the table between them. I met Martin's eyes as he glanced our way. At that moment, I realized acceptance was something we'd probably never get from him. His eyes pushed at me, unwelcoming, before he turned his attention back to his meal.
"Handsome, built, modest," Holly teased Taylor as she sipped her wine, "you know how to pick them, Taylor."
Taylor smiled. "Yeah, I know."
I grinned, chewing on another bite of ham as I looked back down the table. I caught a longing look from Katherine that nearly melted my heart. I wanted so much to make it right. The distance was killing her, and Taylor. As I sat and contemplated between bites, I knew that it wasn't me specifically, but any man sitting by Taylor would have resulted in the same strain on his family..
"Holly says that you two are going to model for her Couples Compilation?" Jeff raised his eyebrows in that way that only gay men could. His mind had already wallowed in the gutter.
Though Taylor would meet his mother's eyes, he was careful not to look at his father. He seemed to be able to look around him, or passed his father without seeing him. He snapped his attention back to the conversation. "Oh, yeah we are. She probably finds it hilarious to have such divergent partners."
Holly grinned. "Nah. Just an excuse to get some blackmail photos of my cousin. I want to see if it's possible for you to take a bad photo."
"Not possible," I insisted around my mouth full of yams. I loved yams and these yams were sweet, but not cloyingly so. "My mother takes the worst pictures of all time. I don't think there is a picture in her album that doesn't have a thumb or something in it. Yet Taylor comes out like a magazine model in every damn one."
"Like you don't?"
I grunted. "That photo of us at the pool made me look like a pot-belly pig."
"As if that were possible." He shook his head, his eyes flicking passed me to the far end of the table. "Don't let Mister Modest fool you, he's a complete ham when a camera comes out." He managed to avoid his father's gaze again. You'd have thought Taylor was the Taurus instead of me; bullheaded little bastard.
"Speaking of pigs and ham," Holly commented, looking at me as she grabbed her water glass. "Why do you call him bacon?"
Taylor looked at his cousin. "That's something you'll never know."
Stephen sat at my other side, and he leaned towards me. "Where did you come up with that one," he asked, his accent rolling down my back in a most provocative way.
I leaned towards him and whispered, "I'll tell you later."
When the dishes were cleared away and the coffees were poured, Claire unveiled an assortment of desserts that would have made Martha Stewart green with envy. I started counting the calories. I sampled some of each, and didn't give a shit about the extra workouts and the three days of morning jogs with Taylor I had to do to make up for it. After one bite of the eggnog cheesecake, I added another morning jog; I had seconds. The joy of Claire's confections didn't keep my thoughts from returning to Taylor and his father. I chewed on more than desert, lost in my thoughts.
"When you come to do the photo shoot, would you not shave for a couple of days ahead?" Holly's question threw me off guard, and drew me out of my introspection.
"Excuse me?" I quickly washed down the cheesecake. "I'm sure I could, but why?"
She grinned at me, staring at my hands around my cup. "You're a hairy guy, and some growth on your face would add to the dark, mysterious look."
I glanced at my hands and spoke without thinking. "Taylor calls me a gorilla, so yeah, I'm pretty hairy. What of it?"
Taylor looked at me, but I ignored him as Holly went on. "I think we could dress you in pirate clothes. You have that dark, swashbuckling look down pat, especially when you're brooding."
I snickered at her. "I never brood."
"You just did."
Not wanting to argue with Taylor's family, any of Taylor's family, I shrugged it off. "I agreed to a photo shoot, dress me how you like."
Okay, that was probably the wrong thing to say, especially with how Taylor grabbed my knee. He rolled his eyes and gave me an intense glare before turning back to Holly. Maybe giving her free rein would not be a good idea.
Holly simply kept on talking as if nothing were out of the ordinary. "Great. Dark pants. White, button down shirt with the top two buttons undone. Perfect."
Thankfully, Holly became distracted by a little red head that chose that moment to run through the dining room. Sean followed quickly on her heals and caught her, which caused her to giggle and him to laugh as he tickled her. The smile on his face was so damn happy that I knew I would always be indebted to these people for putting it there. "Come here you little munchkin."
I turned back to the crowd at the table as Margaret came up and hugged both Stephen and Jeff to her. "Merry Christmas boys."
Jeff blushed and kissed her cheek. "Merry Christmas, Mom."
Stephen patted her hand. "Thank you, Mrs.—"
She shushed him. "Come now, Stephen. What did I say?"
Stephen rolled his eyes as he kissed her cheek. "Mum."
I saw Katherine watch the exchange, brushing her cheek briefly to catch a tear. I held up my water glass and saluted her. She smiled. Martin saw the gesture, but his only reaction was to turn his attention back to his plate.
Jeff and Stephen talked and laughed with their relatives. Jeff's mom checked in every so often, almost like she was making sure everything was okay. Jeff's insecurity was painfully cute. He would try not to be overt with his affection, but sat beside Stephen with their fingers interlaced beneath the table. Stephen simply smiled, laughed, and acted as if they'd been attending family gatherings for years. The sideways glances, eyebrow lifts at private jokes, and small smiles only enhanced the love you felt from them. Best of all, the family accepted them.
I seemed to be the only pariah, at least in Martin's oppinion. But then again, everyone else had warmly welcomed me. I sighed as I stood up, kissing Taylor's head, not thinking about it at all. "I'm going to go check on Sean." I leaned in to whisper in his ear. "Talk to him."
As I left the table, I spied Sean taking a stack of dishes from downstairs where the hellions were cordoned off. I decided to go down and spend some time with him. I hoped Taylor would speak with his father if I wasn't in the room. I descended the stairs and came face to face with little Katie, my girl with the brand new dollhouse. "Will you read me a story, Unka Andrew?" Before I knew it, I was sitting against the wall with her cuddled in my lap as I read to the only three children left awake.
After only two pages, Katie was conked on my lap. Sean came back downstairs carrying two mugs of cider and handed one to Juliana. Sean whispered with Juliana as I continued to read to the last bleary-eyed kid. The boy had eyes that challenged everything, as if he couldn't believe anymore but wanted to. Before I knew it, I was embellishing the story, adding all the things I loved, like flying dragons, sword toting he-men, and magic. Soon Sean and Juliana joined in, helping me out when I'd spoken myself into a corner.
"The princess was trapped atop all the mattresses, the smoking, fire-belching dragon kept watch, blasting warning jets of fire at anyone who approached. But lo and behold, here comes our hero, dashing in his shining armor, sword bright and gleaming. He leapt across the chasm, dispatching the dragon..."
Finally, the little Thomas couldn't keep his eyes open any longer and drifted to sleep. That's when the soft applause started. I looked up to find Holly, Taylor, and Claire standing at the foot of the stairs.
"Andrew, that was the most exciting version of..." I held up the book so Claire could see the title. "The Princess and the Pea I've ever heard."
I shrugged. "I like to keep my audience entertained." Then I looked at the kids asleep around me. "Okay, I like to send them to dreamland with happy thoughts."
She nodded. "As it should be." She came forward with a warm smile. "We came down to get Katie. Her parents are leaving."
I looked down at the little angel in my lap and kissed her forehead before Claire picked her up. Taylor strode forward and took her from Claire. "Let me."
Claire stooped down to get Katie's shoes before they went upstairs. Holly came to sit beside me. "Taylor told me why you call him bacon. I can't believe that's how it came about."
I rolled my eyes. Juliana turned to Sean and mouthed, `bacon?' and Sean rolled his eyes as if saying, `it's a gay thing.' I turned to Holly and chucked her under the chin. "Nice try, Holly."
"Damn. It usually works with Jeff."
"I'm not Jeff."
"No, you're not."
I looked at her. "Why does it matter so much?"
She rolled her eyes. "Every time I hear a new endearment, other than love, honey, or sweetheart, I just have to know where it came from."
I pulled back in mockery. "Okay, that's scary."
She swatted my arm as Sean and Juliana sat down with us.
Juliana piped up, "Not really. Most endearments have some basis in something." She held up her book, The Canterbury Tales. "Dearling, sweeting, dear heart, it all has a basis in something, from somewhere."
I groaned and looked to Sean for help. "Why did I get myself into this?"
Sean chuckled and looked at Juliana and Holly. "I'm curious too. You've used it often enough, but never explained it."
"And I'm not going to. Some things are private."
Holly laughed and grabbed Juliana's hand as she stood. "Come on, let's see who's leaving next and we'll round up the hellions."
When we were alone I looked at Sean. "Have you had a good time, kiddo?"
Sean smiled. "Actually, yeah, I have."
The next hour was mostly saying goodbye to people I'd still never remember their names, rounding up children, and wishing Claire a good night. Sean went upstairs as I took Taylor's hand and grabbed his coat. "Let's go for a walk."
As we walked around and saw houses sparkling with Christmas lights that would put Chevy Chase to shame, I kept quiet, waiting for Taylor to talk to me. After two blocks, I couldn't wait anymore. "Was it as bad as you feared?"
We walked for two more blocks in silence. "When did your parents leave?"
"Before I came downstairs to see you butchering a fairy tale."
I chuckled, but Taylor didn't continue with the conversation. We walked along in silence. After a few failed attempts at conversation, I pulled us to a stop at a little playground. Taylor looked at me oddly as I sat us down on a very cold bench. "Talk to me, Taylor."
"Don't be obtuse. You've had a lot hit you today. Tell me!"
Taylor looked at his hands before nuzzling into my shoulder. "It was tough. I knew it would be, but I'd hoped for polite civility." His voice only broke once. He snuggled closer as I wrapped my arm around him and nuzzled his hair. "Stubborn bastard."
I chuckled. "You're more like him than you know."
Taylor sat back and stared at me. "I'm not closed minded or opinionated. I'd never be rude to someone because I didn't approve."
I put my hands up, not wanting to argue. "No, you wouldn't. But you're both stubborn and when you make up your minds, it's like trying to turn the Titanic on a dime. It doesn't happen easily if at all."
Taylor opened his mouth as if to say something then shut it. Opened it again. Shut it again. Opened it again, and then shrugged his shoulders. "You're right."
Well duh! I didn't say it. "I wish I could fix this, but I can't. The only way I can think of is to leave you." I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. "I'd give anything to fix this, but I wouldn't give you up. Not for anything."
"Your leaving wouldn't change anything, Andrew. Except that I'd hurt like hell."
I pulled him to me and brought our lips together, tasting him slowly, deeply, and thoroughly. He sighed as my hands wanderedhis strong back. Melted and tired, I stood, pulling him with me. We walked back to Claire's house, holding hands, not saying anything but no words were necessary. We loved each other, that's all that mattered.
We crawled into bed, listening to Sean's light snore. I kept my boxer briefs on. I wasn't about to chance getting carried away. Not that underwear had ever stopped me, but hopefully the cotton barrier would keep me sane. Taylor nuzzled against me and I held him, watching the play of light on the ceiling as I drifted to sleep. I was content with my first Christmas in a long, long time.