Sentimental Journey: The Holly and the Ivy: A Christmas and New Years Special
by Ian McDuff
Cheers and jeers - and suggestions I may or may not take - gladly accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org. A kudos apiece to all who have written already, and the chatroom crew. Warm fuzzy feelings and all that. Seriously, thanks for the egoboo, guys.
Standard Disclaimer: If descriptions of same-sex acts, feelings, &c are held to be - by any governmental entity asserting jurisdiction over you, or by your religion or moral framework - illegal, immoral, unethical, or fattening, read no further. If you are underage according to your local laws, read no further. If you have somehow managed not to notice until now that this is a gay site, read no further (and look into either corrective lenses or remedial English classes, because you've managed to miss about a dozen different warnings to get here at all). I need hardly say that the events and personalities depicted in this story are wholly figments of the author's rabid imagination, and in no wise should be taken to imply that any actual member of any boyband, or any celebrity known to mankind, or any real person, is or conceivably could be gay - least of all the members of 'N Sync and of the Backstreet Boys, all of whom are of course straight, well-dressed, intelligent, articulate, cultured, sweet-natured, and kind to their mommies. No celebrity so much as mentioned here should be construed as having these assigned fictional habits, preferences, personality, or taste in bamboo fly-rods.
Equally, it should be evident that I have no contact with or knowledge of any of such musicians, pop stars, their agents, associates, staff, or families. It should also be relatively clear that this is hardly my first time writing fiction, though it is assuredly the first time I've written in this genre or for this nifty little site. Oh - a word about that. Obviously, intellectual property rights are held by me, and no cross-posting to any site that charges any fee for entrance or activity is allowed without prior written consent from the author. And two quick words about the story: first, of all the subgenres out here, Celeb/BoyBands was the least likely for my gay fiction debut. Some readers - who refuse to read it - seem to think that it's all wannabe fantasy, and that using characters made to order is all we can manage as writers.... But there are a number of superb and highly original stories in this genre, and I too wanted to tackle the challenge of breathing originality and freshness into what could so easily be formulaic. After all, the challenges are there: believability, the heightened pressure of closeted relationships for young men whose growing up has been anything but normal, often the collision of worlds and backgrounds.... The other warning is that this series is not going to move urgently into hot monkey sex - though, yes, we're getting there: patience; it will build, and it will I hope be something more than quick stroke-lit. Now enough prologue: let's get to the tale....
We are pleased to offer a SPECIAL HOLIDAY PRESENTATION prior to the next, soon-to-come installment of our serial, 'Sentimental Journey' - a CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEARS STORY starring our own beloved Lance and JC, and D and Nicky, too. Unlike the comedy, 'Mister Stealth,' that preceded Chapter 13 of 'Sentimental Journey,' in this HOLIDAY SPECIAL our boys are seen in their usual roles, as a couple.
Please enjoy this SPECIAL HOLIDAY PRESENTATION, as our gift to you. We'll return to the usual light angst and melodrama in due course....
Well, as 'N Sync sang, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays - and here (before we get back to standard Sentimental Journey fare - is a short to do just that. (Warning: it does give away a few secrets for upcoming SJ episodes. Deal with it.)
Like all my stuff, it's pathologically Lance-N-JC-centric; but does, as usual, include another couple as well (Howie D and Nicky, the former of whom I personally quite like and the latter of whom I really, truly don't care about one way or 't'other, but whom I can readily slash).
Christmassy stuff, set this year. Follows on the 1999 setting of the series here at Nifty, Sentimental Journey (specifically, SJ is last year, this is contemporary, 2001 will see the follow-up series, Copper Canyon). If you're an SJ virgin, all you need know for now is that Major Lee is a military historian and a mentor to the boys, and Sergeant Johnston is his old Gulf War noncom, who is on the security detail for Our Boys. (As he explains in SJ, 'When your own bodyguards become celebrities in their own right, the way Tiger's caddy has fans of his own, they become decoys at best, and a less noticeable detail shadows them and you.')
The Holly and the Ivy
'This is insane, man.'
D was looking at the schedule. Between the public, semi-public, band, and family obligations he and Nick had, there was simply no room for them.
He passed the schedule to his lover - he still marveled to so much as think the words. His lover. The tall, blond, blue-eyed ideal of the boy next door, with the voice of a naughty cherub, who could do no wrong - not pouting, not the occasional whine (less frequent now that they fulfilled each other so), not the slight over-ripeness of being spoilt by stardom (again, a dissipating problem, soluble by love) - his adored one who (let the rest of the band laugh! Who cared?) could do no wrong on D's eyes. His lover, by God, at last. That, at least, nothing could take from them now. But their first real Christmas together - together as lovers - a special time that he had planned for, intending it to crown and seal the year and a bit (last Christmas having been nice, but seriously screwed by travel) that had changed their lives ... well, it looked as if it wasn't going to happen after all.
Nick looked down at the papers, then back up at his, his (finally!) Sweet Howie D. 'Shit. We have, like, no time over the holidays.' His lower lip trembled, wanting nothing more than to spend the whole time holding that sinewy, firm smaller body, gazing into those warm, deep eyes, toying with (at long last) that long, loose hair, no longer wrecked by stylists ... and kissing again and again those inviting lips.... The fact that those lips were moving, that his lover was speaking, only slowly penetrated his consciousness.
Howie stopped pacing, plopped onto the loveseat next to Nick, and let the taller lad enfold him. He sighed, contented yet exasperated with their lives. 'Man, this sucks. I can't figure a way to work the schedule in our favor. Times like this I'd trade you for Lance Bass.'
'Only for his scheduling ability, baby.'
'Yeah, and then we'd have to trade someone else to make room for Chasez, 'cause Poofu ain't goin' nowhere without him and vice versa.'
D grinned. 'Oooh. Boyband roulette. I say we trade Kev and Bri for the Bass-Chasezes, then we got all straights in one band and all of the gays in the other....'
'Yeah right. Like Justy-boy doesn't waver any.'
'You two an' your rivalry ... man, give it a rest.' D got up and headed for the 'phone.
'Heyyyyy! Why are you desertin' me,' Nicky pouted.
'Callin' Bass,' Howie grinned.
'What!?! You better not be tradin' me in -'
'Not even for an outfielder to be named later,' D said, and blew him a kiss.
'Don't get that,' Josh muttered sleepily, tightening his arms around his lover.
'Oh hush now, C,' James Lance Bass replied, grabbed the phone in a fluid motion. ' 'Lo? Oh, hey, man. Naw, we were just - well, you didn't wake us, 't any rate.... Mmmhm.... Hmmm. Ah.... Mmmhm ... un-unh ... nossirreebob, he's ... no. Justy, well, he's decided he's straight after all, got his curly haid buried so far up Brit's - well never mind, anyway, f' once the damn press's 'bout half right ... no, it didn't last for shit ... they didn't work out some at all, and all that happened is Justy made a U-turn into the closet an' is so far back he's behind the leisure suits, and the Major just ended up gettin' hurt to no purpose ... we surely do ... well, we ain't hardly sure ... yeah, Major's back from Europe, we talked just t' other day - he inv- ... whoa, that could work, hold on, I got an idea here. Let me call the Major and ask him somethin' and we'll call you back. Sure.... Damn straight - hey, that ain't funny - I know. Later, pal.'
'Hell was that?' Joshua Scott Chasez asked, argent-and-azure eyes quizzical in his chiseled face.
'Howie. Listen, he and Nicky -'
JC sat up, his taut body coiling, alert with concern. 'They're not havin' probs, I hope? I like Howie.' Nick, as James well knew, he could take or leave.
'Only with the sked, babe. Jive really went and fucked Christmas up for 'em.'
'So they called the Master of All Schedules? Even Kevy couldn't fix it?'
'Dunno 'bout that, but they did call.' James paused. 'Josh ... about our Christmas?'
Josh stretched, cat-like, lean, defined muscles rippling. He wrapped himself again around the round-muscled, humpier, cobbled frame of his beloved, and held him tenderly, one hand playing in James's tousled dirty-blond hair. Looking deeply into the jade eyes set in James's boyish, alabaster face, he spoke from the heart. 'Hon, I told you, Mississippi, DC, here, Vienna, Paris, I don't care as long as it's with you. You know that - you better know it by now. The 'rents can just fight and fidget over our choice, and they can just damn well get over it, too.'
The next day, at WEG, a meeting was interrupted by the one man who could plow through any obstacle.
'Mr Wright? Conference call for you on three.'
'I'm in a meeting, Carola, you know that -'
'It's Jive ... and Major Lee.'
The next evening, Josh grudgingly gave up exclusive possession of his lover's time long enough for him and James to have Nick and Howie over to dinner. James had, typically, solved their problem, with a little help from the Major; and, as typically, hadn't yet told them just how, or why precisely he'd invited them to share some home-cookin'.
'You Southerners really eat like that all the time?'
'Surely do, Nick. Why?'
'No wonder you guys los' the Civil War: you were too full and sleepy to fight. That was some bitchin' grub.'
'Um, thanks - I think. How 'bout we go sit and veg in front of the TV?'
' 'Bout all I can do,' said D. 'I'm stuffed too.'
'Full as a tick, as we say down home?'
'Lansten, that is just gross.' At least Josh said it with a grin.
'You help with the cooking any, JC?' asked D as they sat down.
Before he could answer, James snickered. 'Didn't see any fire trucks when y'all drove up, now did you?'
Josh threw an air-punch at James, who caught his wrist and drew him down into a kiss.
'Awwwwww,' Howie and Nick cried in unison. Josh blushed furiously.
'Hey, you best get used to it,' he said.
'Well, you're the ones called on Scoop to help with your Christmas crunch. Looks like you're gonna be spending it with us.'
'Dudes, you can't, I mean, we don't wanna get in on your time or anything -'
'You're not, exactly,' James grinned. 'Josh, how 'bout you turn on MTV?'
Josh did, and just in time, as they'd expected, for the news to be repeated: '... other news, it seems that for Christmas even feuding boybands can put aside their differences. 'N Sync's JC Chasez and Lance Bass are sacrificing part of their holiday to join Backstreet Boys Howie Dorough and Nick The Heartthrob Carter in spreading holiday cheer at Army and Navy hospitals in Virginia, Chasez's home area of DC and Maryland, and North Carolina - especially the wards for sick kids who are military dependents. In a press release this afternoon, their label said....'
D just looked at James. 'The Major, right?'
It hadn't been two minutes after that that the phone had started ringing. First it was the Basses and the Chasezes on a conference call, then Howie's and Nick's families: and it was the couples's turn to be ambushed, because all of the parents and siblings were gushing with excitement over the fashion in which dear Major Lee had thrown his home open to them all. (Josh rolled his eyes, and even James looked a little put out; and it was all Nick and D could do not to choke as their families nattered on about how convenient it was that Virginia was halfway between Florida and New York...)
But it was Kevin's call that really rocked them back on their heels.
'Guys? You sneaky, sneaky sonsabitches!'
'Train! Look -' D dreaded one of Kevin's rare but impressive outbursts.
'Kris wants to hug ever' dang one of y'all, and so do I.'
'Chingar,' D muttered, whilst Nick overrode him.
'Wha'? Um, Boo, why -'
'Damn, Nick,' Kev laughed, 'lemme talk to Scoop, man, you aren't figurin' this out at all.'
'You're on speaker, Kev, go a-haid on.'
'In case you didn't count on it - as if: I know you did, Scoop - this opens up a lot of extra downtime for the other six of us and our families, too. We're going to spend some of that time doin' some other charity gigs like y'all, but it also gives us extra family time, and I want you to know we appreciate that. What Johnny couldn't swing for us outta the Clive-and-Jive Show, y'all four did.'
'Well, tell the truth, it was mainly -'
'I know, Bassman, it was the Major. Because we are family, I'll tell you what I'm not s'posed to, but you don't "know" it, a'ight? We'll all be there for like forty-eight hours tops, last week of December, so we can all be together, but just like your blood kin, we'll be shuffled out quick. Major's making sure that you four mainly have the time to your selves: he's scheduled this like a damn troop exercise.'
'That's no shock,' Josh grinned. 'But - God, I feel guilty even thinking this, but -'
'I know,' Kev said seriously. 'Major knows too - I mean, about the guilty relief y'all feel at being able to not have to deal with kinfolks and us for once, being able to just spend time this way. Kris wishes to heck I'd thought of it for us, and I bet Bri and LA do, too: we're goin' to be up to our asses in Littrells and Richardsons and half Kentucky. Anyway, though, I think it's great, and we'll see you four there, 'kay?'
The rest of the calls from bandmates were in a similar vein.
After D and Nicky had left, Josh hugged James fiercely. 'My God, lover, my God. You are a genius. And -'
'You doubted me?' James grinned.
Josh shook his head, then kissed James. 'Never. But.... We both doubted the Major after those first few calls,' he said guiltily.
'I know,' James grimaced. 'We should have known he'd work it out for us.' He stroked his lover's arm. 'Since he gave us an early present of time, how 'bout we go upstairs and unwrap it and start enjoying it now, hmmm?'
'That will always make me feel better,' Josh grinned.
The holidays came quickly, with the blur of the last flurries of the Black & Blue promotional storm for D and Nick and their bandmates, and studio work and television appearances for Josh, James, and their fellow 'N Syncers. The holidays came swiftly in a blizzard of last minute plans, and gifts to be hidden, and sweet little secrets to be kept. The holidays came at last with gusts and snows and clearing spells, and the long slant of winter light upon the sere and stubbled fields of Southside Virginia.
In the last week of Advent, James and his Josh and Nick and his Sweet D arrived in Richmond and were met by Jake Johnston, massive, grinning, and jovial; and they were whisked with military precision away south and east of Richmond and Petersburg, through a purpling twilight between red dirt fields rimed with frost, to the lazy, generous heart of Tidewater. They turned off the last and most rural of roads, between massy gates set in an age-mellowed dry-stone fence, and drove up a sweeping, tree-lined drive towards a trim, elegantly shabby and old-monied, Georgian-Federal house, glowing with warm light, its patinate bricks roseate and glowing like embers. As the elderly sedan glided to a halt before the doors of the hall, the door was thrown open, spilling light and welcome upon the iron air. Major Custis Lee - neat, trim, tweedy; gymnast-built, with short, side-parted hair of reddish-gold, but aggressive eyebrows and trim military mustache of burnished yellow: looking as always a decade younger than his thirty-five years, save for the wisdom in his kindly, blue-grey eyes - Custis, their mentor and friend, strode briskly out, his breath gusting frostily in the cold, Jake's stunning wife Latonya a pace behind. The Major had on one broad shoulder a swathed bundle of shyness that was Jake Johnston, Jr, and his right hand clasped the left hand of a wide-eyed eight-year-old, little miss Toi Johnston, Jake's and Latonya's daughter.
'Welcome "home," sons,' the Major grinned. 'Come on into the Big House and let's get warm and make our manners.'
Before the door even shut behind them all, the Major was making introductions in that basso profundo of his that made James Lance Bass sound like a countertenor by contrast. 'Latonya, allow me to present Howard Dorough, James Bass, Josh Chasez, and Nick Carter; gentlemen, Latonya Johnston, who has the misfortune of bein' Jake's wife, poor thing. And this lovely little lady is Toi Johnston, and this chap here is Jake, Junior - who, Sergeant Johnston, may be springin' a leak.' The Major swiftly handed the tot to his old troop sarn't for handling. 'Now let me show y'all around.'
The boys trailed after him, wide-eyed in their turn. They'd learnt, when that fateful train journey of the previous year had thrown them together (and renewed them all, and revealed to Howie and Nick their own suppressed desires), that as far as the Major was concerned, he was the least member of the obscurest, Southside branch of the Northern Neck's Lees, and Carters, and Randolphs, and Parkes and Taliaferros and all: an inconsiderable and remote twig on the mighty tree of the First Families of Virginia. As they looked at the accrued, part-worn but still treasured accumulations of centuries, they wondered how the Major had managed to achieve that humility. It was clear they were in an older and more gracious world: one just comprehensible to Maryland-born Josh, alien but absorbing to D and Nicky, and deeply moving to James's Southern soul.
'... guesthouses,' the Major was saying. 'But there's a reason not to put y'all in the Big House itself. A little surprise I know y'all won't mind. Now don't feel obligated to join us here all the time -' they were passing through the dining room - 'but God knows you're ever welcome.' They turned into a half-paneled back hall and came to a massive oaken door. 'In the days before the War, in fact in colony days, the kitchen was always a separate buildin', due to fire risks, connected to the Big House by a walkway.' They passed through the doorway and entered an enclosed, roofed brick passageway.
Enclosed ... oh. Kitchen to dining room - of course: Josh thought back to something the Major had said back when they first got tossed into his life during their tour, on a day when one of the Low Prots said a longer Grace, over breakfast, than suited the Major's Anglican soul: 'Son, the Good Lord don't right approve of cold biscuits.'
'Now, though, this takes us to the two guest houses, both self-contained every which way, where y'all will have absolute privacy. I'll allow as how that's 'bout right likely the best gift y'all could have, this Christmas.'
It was like a dollhouse, Josh reflected. A perfect two-story playhouse, perhaps, for a wealthy child. The guesthouse to the south of the Hall, on the west side, a hundred quiet yards or more from the matching box of bricks on the east, and fifty from the pavilion in which the brick colonnade - passageway ended, was cozy as Christmas, comfortable as an old sweater, a perfect miniature of the Hall itself, with two inviting bedrooms, a cheery parlor-drawing room with a blazing fire on the hearth, an old-fashioned bathroom with a tub - not the clawfoot he might have expected from boyhood visits to grandmother, but porcelain over zinc, set and sunk in a rosewood surround, big enough for two at least (and he already had some ideas for it).... There was a well-appointed kitchen he had no intention of setting foot in for fear of dragging the volunteer fire department into things, and a dining room that managed to be familiar and formal at once, with a prime selection of bottles on a vast sideboard.
James was calling down from the landing.
'If you're done gapin' at everything that's at eye-level, how 'bout you look above your thick haid? Notice anything?'
Josh looked up, smiled, poked his head into the next room, and positively grinned: 'like a possum in a 'simmon tree,' James called that grin.
Every damn room.
'James - is this really in every room?'
'Even the bath, sugar.'
Mistletoe in every room. Josh was glad he'd looked up - and things were definitely looking up.
Across the way, in the matching, mirror-image guest house, D and Nick had made the same discovery. Their first bout of tonsil-hockey behind them, they had stretched out in front of the hearth on the ground floor, and were cuddling in the firelight. The cheery, leaping glow touched the Christmas tree that occupied a corner of the room.
'I like the ornaments,' Nick murmured against his lover's throat. Howie looked lazily over at them: old-fashioned glass ornaments that repeated the color scheme of their guesthouse, which consisted of bronze, copper, and old gold, accented with bright red-gold and peacock blue. Houses and art interested Howie - he was closer in spirit to Chris, James, Joe, and Josh insofar as he had (carefully hidden) intellectual interests, shared in his own band only by AJ - and he had been thinking, since he and Nick settled in, how this place was a Southside version of the Petit Trianon or of Chiswick House: the sort of thing Jefferson might have drawn up for fun. (As he would later learn, Jefferson had in fact designed the guesthouses for his distant Lee cousins of that day, FFVs tending to do each other these sort of favors.)
'I like them too,' D said, kissing Nick tenderly. 'The whole scheme here - bet you the Major redid it just for us. I mean, these are really our colors, when you think about it. Brown and all for me, and then blue-and-gold for your eyes and hair.'
Nick sat up, excited. 'You think he really did? That is so cool! But brown sounds so blah for you - I like to say, bronze and copper and that stuff, like gleaming metal -'
'Oh, so I'm gleaming metal now, huh? Not human enough for you?'
Nick trailed a hand downwards. 'Feels like metal down here, Latin lover - steel-hard....'
D rolled over on top of Nick, eyes dancing. 'You're such a romantic, Nick-eeeee.'
'Don't call me that,' Nick grinned. 'You want romance, go borrow from 'N-Stink. While you were sitting there thinking about how pretty the colors were -' Nick began to writhe seductively under his lover - 'you know why I liked the ornaments?'
'Why?' D's breath was becoming shallow and ragged.
'Because I was thinking if you didn't hurry up and fuck me 'til my teeth rattle I could fuckin' use 'em as anal beads,' Nick said, with a snarl of pure animal lust in his voice.
'Madre de Dios,' Howie gasped, as Nick started tearing at his clothes. 'You're insatiable ... shameless ... sinverguenza ... mmmmmm.....'
'And you love it,' came the muffled reply.
The Major gave them forty-eight hours, during which they saw him, if at all, only at mealtimes, if they chose to have those at the Big House. At one such evening meal (the usual tussle between Yankees and Southerners having been fought to a draw over whether to call it 'supper' or 'dinner' - an issue made more complex by the Major's Old Dominion habit of calling the afternoon 'evening'), with the Johnstons having taken the children away, Josh referred to their absences.
'James and I have sure enjoyed being allowed to relax, Custis, but I feel guilty we've been pretty poor guests....'
'Rubbish,' said the Major, roundly. 'Downtime is precisely what I intended y'all two couples to have.'
'Still,' D said quietly, with a faint blush, 'Nick and I been treating the place like a hotel, keeping to ourselves -'
'Rattling the windows,' the Major teased. Nick turned red as the fire's embers, and D's sallow blush deepened.
'It's expected - hell, it's what I hoped to give y'all, this being y'all's first real Christmas as a couple. James and Josh will recall what that's like.'
'I remember,' James chuckled.
'Remember?' grinned Josh. 'More like recapture. Though I guess we're pretty dull these days....'
James looked at him with some concern.
'I don't think C's complaining,' the Major soothed him. 'Not if he's smart. You are settled lovers, now, a couple of long standing: which is the whole objective and goal. What you may think you're missing isn't excitement - I look at the two of you and see just as much passion as I did on that first day -'
'Verdad,' Howie nodded.
'What's gone, as it must naturally go, is the fizz of uncertainty and sheer nerves that go with "firsts." And that's as well: the human stomach's a right poor habitat for butterflies. In its place, though, you have security and comfort and mutual support, a familiarity that must never breed contempt, but rather daily awe at a grace daily renewed.... That fire, there, on the hearth, doesn't roar and spit and flare as it did when lit; but it warms better, now, and lasts. You two have - thank God - never yet taken each other for granted, and so long as y'all don't, that glow and blaze will never be extinguished.'
Nick sighed, and gently took Howie's hand in his own, as James and Josh, eyes bright with tears and love, exchanged a tender and withal a passionate kiss.
Beginning the next morning and running through until dusk on a snow-flurried Christmas Eve, the young men and the Major and Jake fell into a crisp routine, driving to the local Guard armory at dawn (Josh yawning and Nick tousled, James and D alert and inquisitive), and driving back in the gloaming each night, having in the interim been choppered to every ACH and NCH they could manage. At each Army and Navy CommHosp, they handed out presents, comforted wounded, ill, and dying soldiers, sailors, Marines, veterans, and dependents; and especially did they pour themselves into making Christmas bright for the dependent children. It made SGT Johnston and MAJ Lee choke down the occasional lump in the throat to see Nick, with awe and a sense of holding some fragile treasure too delicate for mortal hands, rock a sleepy six-year-old, or Howie, tall only in comparison to the Major, give piggyback rides to a lame child almost as tall as himself; to watch Josh slowly win the confidence - and a sudden smile - from a shy child battling leukemia, to listen as James read, in his velvet voice, to hushed and adoring heart and pediatric AIDS patients. And always, always, from hospitals to bases to reserve component armories, they sang: not the songs that had made them rich and famous, but carols of the season: and with a counter-tenor, two tenors, and but one bass-baritone, Jake and the Major found themselves called in to balance things with Jake's soulful, dark bass and the Major's rich, operatic basso profundo. From Bragg to Norfolk to Meade, the four boyband members, Major Lee, and Sergeant Johnston sang: Once In Royal David's City, Adeste Fideles, In the Bleak Midwinter, I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, O Little Town of Bethlehem....
At last it was Christmas Eve.
Home, at last, to the Major's. Home, to the small, gem-like 'chapel of ease' that had stood since colony days, when it was far too far to ride to Suffolk or Isle of Wight for Morning Prayer 'according to the rites and formularies of the Church of England.' At 1900 hours - James, fascinated as most Southerners always are by the Blackhawk rides and the whole structure of Army life, had begun to wonder if someday he and Josh might not be able to serve, freely, and had taken to using the Major's own tricks of speech - at 1900, the neighbors from miles around had arrived, and the Major and his great-uncle, old Canon Byrd, and a small choir of friends and neighbors who did this each year under Jake's direction - eked out, at their own insistence, by a bass, two tenors, and a counter-tenor who were all better known for singing pop - celebrated the community's Service of Lessons and Carols, a capella save for handbells, the great pipe-organ in the tiny chapel silent for now.
After a buffet at the Big House, where the local folks treated the boys as neither more nor less than gentlemen who were the Major's honored guests, talking horses with James, matters maritime with the diving Nick, and (thank God, there was something, and the Major could always be relied on to steer a conversation in the way it should go) Orioles baseball with Josh and pro sports generally with Howie, the community Christmas Tree was lighted outside, and Nick, D, James, and Josh helped the Major play Saint Nicholas for all the local children.
Afterwards, those with sleepy children departed for their homes, and the remainder drifted over to the Johnston's trim, pillared house, the Steward's House, for whisky punch and mince pies. The Major and his guests went their several ways, he advising them they might want a nap or some rest. The Major himself had some things to see to.
At 2300 hours on Christmas Eve, refreshed and relaxed (and all four of the boys glowing from more than the iron air and occasional flurries), they all assembled once more in the chapel. Latonya Johnston - the boys had been abashed, earlier, to hear the neighbors calling her 'Doctor,' which she was, and which they'd not known (at her own insistence, they'd called her simply Latonya since they were first introduced) - Jake's wife revealed yet another hidden talent as the last notes of the chapel bell died away and Jake came in from the belfry, as she seated herself at the organ and its pipes and trumpets began to sound Bach joyously out upon the stilly night.
The Major, thoroughly and unabashedly conservative in every respect save his being discreetly gay, never permitted anything newer than the 1928 Prayer Book services, and Midnight Mass proceed in strict accordance with High Anglican tradition. One tradition took the Catholic Josh and Howie aback: a tradition the Church itself was dubious of, but which went back to the days of Charlemagne: the Major, as the closest thing anyone there had to an emperor, on this one occasion each year read the Gospel himself, layman though he was, an unsheathed sword in his right hand as he stood at attention at the great, brass-eagle lectern, his superb voice a roll of thunder that filled every cranny of the ancient church.
The service ended at precisely 2355. Everyone streamed outside, and stood quietly, exchanging Christmas greetings whilst Major Lee and Sergeant Johnston slipped away. At 2359, Jake rang a one minute peal upon the chapel bell; and at the stroke of midnight, from the frosty small hill that sheltered the Big House, Steward's House, and the chapel from the winter winds, the Major's traditional surprise blazed up: fireworks soaring into the black-velvet sky, a brief flourish of star-shells and rockets that culminated in a long-burning star-burst that recalled to all who saw it a certain star over a Bethlehem stable, long ago.
Afterwards, with the neighbors departed, Canon Byrd and all gone to their homes, and the Johnstons home with their children, the Major and his guests stood by the family Christmas tree in the drawing room, the fire banked for the night.
'Well, gentlemen. When you go to the guesthouses, I think you'll find that Father Christmas has been by. Now, come morning, y'all feel free to sleep in - or stay in - as long as you like. I'll be breakfasting with the Johnstons about 0900, and we'll open our presents then, but y'all are free - though I do have some folks coming in the evenin' y'all may want to see -'
'We'll join the family at 9:00 if we're welcome,' James smiled.
'Of course you are,' the Major said. 'Good night, then, and Happy Christmas to all of you.' He turned to usher them to the door, but was ambushed and dragged down by a group hug before he could take a step.
The next morning, a little before nine, Josh and James met Howie and Nick at the colonnade and headed for the Big House. D and James drew ahead, partly because both were more morning people than Josh and Nick would ever be - but only partly. Josh looked over at Nick and grinned.
'You sore too, huh?' They were both walking a bit gingerly.
'Yeah,' Nick grinned, blushing. 'And I see you got a little saddle-stiffness yourself?'
Josh ducked his head, eyes twinkling. 'Let's just say it's been a good Christmas - and we had fun unwrapping gifts already.'
They snickered, and stiff-legged it forward to catch up.
James, being from the Deepest South, and Josh as a Marylander who'd seen Virginians in action, weren't as stunned as were Nick and D: the newer couple had assumed they'd spend perhaps thirty minutes on breakfast, then adjourn to the tree and start ripping open wrapping paper, gleefully.
As always with the Major, breakfast started precisely on time, at 0900. It was 1019 hours before they dragged themselves from the table to stare, in a stupor, at the tree and the piled presents. The intervening hour and a quarter had been filled with grapefruit, Smithfield ham, Smithfield bacon, Smithfield ham sausage (bulk and link), eggs from the Major's Buff Orpington hens, eggs from his ducks (Khaki Campbells), coffee and tea, rich milk from his own Jerseys, honey from the Major's bees, creamed salsify (oyster plant), baked squash filled with butter, mace, cinnamon, and sugar, sherry, port, and madeira jellies - 'or damson preserves or apple butter, if you'd rather' - on unsalted-butter-dripping biscuits (rolled, 'beat,' and 'drop'), sherry, port, and madeira for those who disdained milk, cold smoked salmon, stewed apples, Virginia spoonbread, whisky punch for those so inclined, locally milled oatmeal porridge swimming in butter, brown sugar, and nutmeg.... The Major called it 'an elegant sufficiency,' and the Johnstons appeared to think nothing of it either. James groaned something about being 'full as ary tick' as the boys waddled into the drawing room.
'Major, whatever you got me, unless it's a gym membership, exchange it now for the next size up,' Nick moaned.
The Major laughed. 'Son, we'll have you an appetite worked up in good time for dinner. Now, who wants to pass out presents? Toi, honey, would you do us the honors?'
Still shyly, Sergeant Jake's daughter began the time-honored tradition of passing out the packages in strict order, and gravely accepting a kiss, a hug, and a 'thank you' each time in return.
Jake Junior was of course made much of, and Toi did quite well for herself (not least in getting a complete autographed discography of every CD and single of both bands). Jake Senior got books and sweaters and new boots and a .20-gauge Lancaster shotgun from the Major that must have cost the earth, and Latonya exulted in a considerable accession to her wardrobe and - what she infinitely preferred - a score of new books. The Major had worked closely with the boys to help them repay some of Jake's and his family's loyalty.
Then it came time for the Major, though he tried to defer to his guests, who would have none of it. Jake had worked as closely with them in their shopping. Gifts that included a case of the 1945 Dow port; two cases of '71 Petrus Pomerol; a new Cortland fly-rod; a first edition of Jefferson's Notes on Virginia: the Major, as he happily put it, made out like a bandit.
And now it was the Johnstons's and the Major's turn to shine. With sweet gravity, demure and solemn, Toi presented the boys with small boxes and packages. They had gotten the usual sweaters and socks in the first round, with everyone else.
'Nick, you're the youngest. You start,' the Major smiled.
Nick regressed immediately to his childhood and tore into his packages in a rush, only to fall silent and stunned. 'M- Major -'
'Shush now. And don't forget to include the Johnstons, D, and the Bass-Chasezes in your thanks. They're all from all of us.'
'Oh my God.... A Caribbean charter, though!?! And a month with the Institut Cousteau in the Mediterranean? Will I have time -' Nick certainly had gotten the equipage to go with it: he sat surrounded by confirmation slips for new items of diving gear, all waiting for him back in Orlando.
'All time-sensitive gifts for each of you have been cleared with management.'
'- But Jesus - and what's the key to?'
'Ah,' the Major smiled. 'That will have to wait. D, you and James both will have sealed envelopes, and Josh also a key, all of which we'll deal with last.'
'Contributions, some anonymous - AmFAR, f'r instance - and some not, such as the one to Justy's Foundation - in your name.'
'Oh man. That may be the best feeling of all....'
'No one under this roof gets to forget the meaning of Christmas,' Jake said quietly. 'Believe James is next, Major?'
'So he is. James?'
James was rendered successively incoherent, speechless, teary-eyed, and - luckily for Josh - gratefully amorous by his haul, which he went through with almost soldierly precision. ('Never saw anyone do less damage to wrapping paper,' the Major chuckled. 'Damn, son, 't'ain't as if we intended to reuse it.') A letter of intent from Tracy Byrd to throw some work FreeLance's way (how the Major had swung that, he would not tell). A contract to work with the Virginia Bluegrass and Country Festival at the Commonwealth's state fair in the spring, as host and promoter. Three new songs co-written by Josh, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, and Ricky Skaggs, for FreeLance's acts. That sealed envelope the Major had mentioned. Autographed first editions of Shelby Foote's Shiloh and Winston Groom's Shrouds of Glory. Similar contributions to charities he cared about. An acceptance letter for correspondence courses in management from the American Military University. And a rope bridle, to all questions regarding which the Major merely smiled.
Howie was almost nervous as he unwrapped his gifts. There was, again, a mysterious legal-sized envelope. There was a set of keys that struck him wholly speechless, being unmistakably to a Jaguar Vanden Plas. A new racquetball racquet (and a threat from the Major to convert him to playing squash someday). Confirmation slips, mysteriously, for furniture and for books on art and art history that he had long wanted, showing them to be at an unknown address on the Sea Isles of Georgia. And shares of stock in IBM, Oracle, and - to his shock and delight - Jive. He spent a good fifteen minutes thanking everyone - and gigging Nick for telling the others about his stock-market interests.
Finally it was down to Josh, when the secrets would be revealed.
'Major? I - I don't believe this -'
'Lifetime. Enough seats for your family and so on, but I've blocked out dates your sked allows you to make.'
'But two rows back from the visiting dugout, looking straight down the first-base line from the third-base side? Custis, man -'
'Suck it up, babe,' James laughed. 'You are now a lifelong season ticket holder for ten seats at Camden Yards.'
It only got better. Tickets to Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Original manuscript sheet music by Duke Ellington. And - 'dear God, dear God,' Josh kept repeating - production contracts for charts by the Marsalis family, Kirk Whalum, and their summer 'mom' (thanks to the Major), Rosie Clooney.
'Now,' said the Major decisively. 'Two things. We'll talk about the mysterious keys and envelopes shortly. But first, bundle up. We have a walk to take.'
Ten minutes later, in the cold still air, warmed faintly by the great, muscled beasts, redolent of hay and oats and tack, Josh held James as James sobbed happily. They were in the Major's barn, all grinning, even James, as the Major made the introductions.
'James, I'll take care of the transport and it's all worked out with Ford and Jim. After the New Year, we'll be moving Colonel here to Mississippi, where your folks have bought a brood mare to keep him company. Son, you're going into the horse business - and in the meantime, you have one of the best saddle horses I ever bred, for your very own. Now I know you want to saddle up and put Colonel through his paces. I'll ride with you - anyone else, other'n Jake? Didn't think so - bunch of damn city boys. But I know we need to talk about those documents and keys.
'Men, it's real simple. Y'all between y'all now own the whole of a smallish Sea Island on the Georgia Coast, with a house at each end, one for you two, Josh and James, and one for y'all, Nick, D.'
'Oh my God.'
'D, I hope you approve of the furnishings - y'all are the newer couple, so we figured you'd need more of a head start. It's utterly private, wholly discreet, and easily accessible from Orlando (and Mississippi, for James here). The -'
'Major, I don't know what to say.' D was stunned; well, all four were. 'But I'm sure it will be perfect - don't think I didn't notice the color scheme in our guesthouse.'
'You too?' Josh grinned. 'We got green-and-gold and blue-and-silver.'
Nick laughed. 'Copper and bronze and gold and blue for us.' He looked around, reassuring himself that Latonya, Toi, and Jake Junior were still back up at the Big House. 'Every now and then, Major, you dart out of that closet and do something gay.'
To the boys's surprise, they did manage to work off breakfast. Whilst Custis and Lansten went riding, Jake took the other three to the cold, quiet woods to cut fresh evergreen boughs for the house. Afterwards, they barely had time all to get cleaned up before they had to leave the guesthouses and return to be with the Major at 1500.
By 1502, predictably, the Major was struggling to maintain his placid facade and gentlemanly aplomb. He detested tardiness as only a Virginian of the officer class could.
At 1519, finally, they heard cars coming up the drive: Big John Sullivan, the Irish ex-cop and former Marine from New York who was Jake's counterpart in Security, and the bands' regular bodyguards, convoyed in (Big John fuming over the delays as much as had the Major), and families began to spill out of vehicles: Ford and Stacy and Jim and Diane, Roy and Karen with Tyler and Heather, a clowning of Kirkpatricks, Chris, Dani, and his mom and sisters, a demi-division of Doroughs, a flurry of Fatones (even Steve, whom the Major could take or leave with equal ease, though he quite liked Janine), a richness of Richardsons led by Kev and Kris, a luxury of Littrells - LA shooing a laughing Bri as if he were a goose; a mass of McLeans, AJ flanked by Denise and by Howie's sisters, who'd ridden with them to make things a bit easier at a time of year Alexander dreaded; a cadre of Carters trying to get Aaron to act angelic - and failing miserably, a tumult of Timberlakes (Just had brought Brit) and a havoc of Harlesses....
There were the usual initial flusters and flurries, as there always are at the holidays: Mama Fatone insisting on everyone, however stuffed and unwilling to spoil dinner, having a small snack from the steaming baskets of rich Italian foods she seemed never to be without, Aaron being an appalling, stage-spoilt brat to Justin's half-siblings (Nick wincing in embarrassment, his mother coddling it, and Justin and Randall and Paul and Lynn trying to get Nick to stop apologizing), Steve raiding the Major's private stock of singlemalt Scotch, and Brit, Dani, Leighanne, Kristin, and Janine getting underfoot in the kitchen until Dr Johnston shooed them out so Norah, the cook, could work in peace.... But everyone soon settled in, and within the hour, the mothers were being polite to one another (most of them meaning it, though Mrs Carter was always a bit much for the others to take: as Lynn Harless had once roundly told Diane, 'land's sakes, if I ever wrote something that gooey an' money-grubbin' about Justin, the only thing that would keep him from shootin' me is that Paul - or I myself - would do shoot me first;' to which Diane Bass had replied, 'Oh, sugar, Jim would throttle me before I so much as finished any such of a manuscript, let alone sent it off. That was just tacky - even for a, well, Yankee woman...'); Jake and Latonya were riding herd on the younger children (Aaron poutingly included) and keeping them occupied with video games and board games and toy trucks and such; the older young ladies were touring the house, oooing and ahing, and listening raptly to Brit, Dani, Heather, Kris, and LA gush about the Major (they didn't yet realize they'd be roped in to hanging evergreens); Paul Harless, Jake and the bodyguards (Lonnie being notoriously dangerous), Nick, Tyler, D, Steve, Joey, Joe Senior, Hoke and John, Chris, and AJ were in the billiard room (Lonnie was up $150 already) ... and the Southern menfolk, Josh gingerly included, and Roy, were thundering along in the burning-cold air, the horses gusting and steaming beneath them.
They reined up at the Major's command and looked around them. 'Roy, JC, Randall ... damned if this ain't going to sound chickenshit however diplomatically I put it. But it's no insult to y'all to say that the going's about to get fast and furious, and y'all might best head on up to the Big House. Roy, you were never a cavalryman; Randall, Memphis done done a number on you no matter what your pappy'd have taught you - and Joshua, you're a fine young man, but son, you were born to concrete.' He grinned, and the three laughed. They knew what the Major meant, and they couldn't get mad at him. They headed for the stables, and the Major watched them to see that all was well. Duly assured, he turned to Kevin and Bri, Harold Sr and Harold Jr, young Jerald, Tim, Ford, Jim Bass, and Lance.
'Gentlemen of the South,' he intoned with a twinkle, 'let's ride.' He clapped spurs to the flank of his award-winning hunter Stonewall, and surged forward, calling over his shoulder, 'And we shall see if Kentucky and Mississippi can keep up with the Old Dominion!'
From the stables where Roy and Josh Chasez and Randall Timberlake were rubbing down their mounts, from within the Big House, they all heard it, in response. Some grinned; some looked alarmed. Hoke Dorough turned to Jake and got a grin; Denise McLean asked the question of Diane Bass, and Diane smiled. 'That, my dear, is the sound of the Rebel Yell.'
The morning seemed to repeat itself. Once again, the Major's guests, even Joey, went from the dining table to the Christmas tree in a stupor. Smithfield ham, peanut soup, corn pudding, oyster stew from the Chesapeake Bay, venison and such wild duck and goose and turkey as had fallen to the Major's shotgun, Haut Brion and Hermitage and old brandy....
Once again, presents were exchanged in love and warmth and gratitude, ranging from stuff for AJ's dog to a Kentucky ham (talk about coals to Newcastle) for the Major. And those staying in the Big House, and the couples in the guesthouses, trundled off towards bed happy, at peace, and full.
Roy and Karen Chasez, Jim and Diane Bass, Hoke and Paula Dorough, and Jane and Bob Carter lingered. Paula and Jane had asked Karen and Diane to stay with them for this.
'They're - dating, aren't they. Nick and Howie.'
'That, ma'am, would be a question y'all would need to ask them.'
'Would it bother you, dear?' asked Diane Bass.
'Well of course it would,' Jane snapped. 'I would think it would bother any mother, and Heaven knows I'd think it wouldn't go down well with a Southern Baptist.'
'You know James and Josh are together, don't you,' said Jim Bass, quietly.
'I'd gotten that idea,' Hoke cut in. 'You seem to be handling it damn well, Jim. You as well, Roy.'
'We didn't for starters,' Roy said. His smile was weary, but it was there. 'Fortunately, the Major was there to talk us through it.'
'I'm surprised at that.'
'Um, maybe because of the whole "Major" bit - and the "Lee" bit - and the Southern gentleman bit, and ... hell, you do the math.'
'I was married, you know,' said the Major. 'Mims and I were going to have our first son.'
The Basses and the Chasezes winced. They knew this story. Karen Chasez put her hand gently on the Major's arm.
'We can put the proverbial man on the moon ... but even in the developed world with the best of care, there are such things as eclampsia.'
'Oh my God,' Paula breathed.
'I lost them both.' The Major looked at them dry-eyed and resolute. 'I'd take them back on any terms. Assume I had but the one son - living. Assume he were gay. I know what it is to lose a child: could I deliberately cast a child away?'
The Carters looked at the Doroughs and the Doroughs looked at the Major.
'I see you take the point. In your shoes, I'd not pester. But I'd make damn sure my boy knew my door - and heart, and mind - were open. And if my boy told me that, well ... in your shoes, I'd love him unconditionally. And rely on such support as the good Lord gave me, such as friends like Karen and Diane and Jim and Roy. Do you read me?'
Hoke Dorough nodded.
'One final point,' the Major went on. Imperceptibly, the Basses and Chasezes lined up beside him. 'I loved Mims with all my heart and would have been faithful to her for life. Some few years ago, what time I resigned my commission as the only honorable course, I learnt something about myself I had not known. And that is that love knows no gender. If you need to label me, these days, for what it's worth - and no, there's no one in my life nor likely to be - least of all, I might add, teen idols who sing tenor -' the Major grinned, and no one in the room could help grin back, even if they saw what was coming - 'but if you wanted to label me, these days, hypothetically, feel free to call me a mincing faggot.'
'Jesus Christ,' Bob snorted.
Hoke nodded, slowly. 'We'd learned back during that train deal one thing: that you're all man, all guts, and balls to the wall. That don't change. So if your point is that loving a man - as I suspect Howard does - doesn't make you less of one, then I have to accept that.' He took a ragged breath. 'Damn if I know how I'll work that one out, but you're proof enough for me. And Jane, Bob - if Howard had to, well ...'
'I'd be happy that it was Nick, at least,' Paula said firmly. 'Major, we've kept you too late. If you don't mind, and you, Karen, Roy, Diane, Jim, I think H and I would like to talk to you four a while. We'll shut off the lights, Major. And thank you, as always, for all you do for our boys, and for giving them and us a Christmas to treasure, whatever comes of this.'
'We're staying too, if you guys don't mind,' Bob said, cutting Jane off with a look. 'There's a lot I'd like to talk about - and listen to and try an' learn from. Paula, I'm with you on one thing: if it has to be a guy for Nick, thank God it's D. You stayin', Janie?' The question was a trifle curt.
She hesitated for a minute, then nodded. The Major looked about him, nodded in his turn, snapped the ladies a little jackknife bow, shook hands with the gentlemen, and withdrew.
Twenty-four hours later, the families were gone. D and Nick had had a long talk with the Doroughs and the Carters: rocky in spots, but it had cleared a lot of ground. And James and Josh had made it a Christmas to remember.
'Momma, Daddy, Roy, Karen, Stace, Ford, Heather, Tyler, and all y'all.' Those over the age of discretion had finished their brunch together, the last meal there before they went their separate ways. 'Josh and I have something to say to y'all.'
'Um ... all our family and friends here, you guys, you mean the world to us. Well, sorta - because last night, well, as far as meaning the world to me ... gee. Um. Last night I asked James a question I'd asked before, and thank God he hasn't changed his mind any. The difference was just that this time we were talking about the near future, as in next year sometime. Anyway, most of you, certainly in the bands and our immediate families, have known a while, but ...'
'Josh,' the Major cut in. 'Breathe, cease babbling, and spit it out. I'd like to mark my calendar before the actual date passes while you hem and haw.'
Josh blushed and grinned, while James giggled. 'Okay. Right. Yeah. Um, anyway, before James gets his senses back I figure we should go through with this, so. We're getting married -'
The rest was lost in the tumult of cheers and congratulations. When peace was restored, Josh repeated himself: 'So if the Major will allow, this summer we're borrowing his chapel here. July good for everyone - and say yes, 'cause my Scoop here's checked the sked already.'
July it would be. Now the two couples were preparing for a final night of the Major's hospitality, before leaving in the morning. Josh had spent part of the afternoon badgering management into a first step in eighty-sixing the Bobbie Thomas myth, whilst James struggled with a New Year's Eve commitment he'd have given anything to get out of.
'One last fucking masquerade,' he said as they prepared to leave the Big House for the night.
'But the last,' the Major said. 'Look at JuJu while he was here. Boy's wearing so many masks - much as I like Brit, who's still a nice little gal from the bayous under it all - but he's wearing so many masks he's forgotten what his real face is. You, on t'other hand, are peeling away layer after layer until we can see you as you are. It's time.'
'I read a book once that's stayed with me,' Josh mused. 'By C. S. Lewis. It's called 'Til We Have Faces - and what it meant was, how can we see God face to face until we have a face of our own? James, hon, I know we still have to wear a few public masks, everyone does, no matter who they are and what they do. And I know this New Year thing bothers you, too. But sweetness, yours is always the face I see, and I've loved it for years and I will until we die, and after. That's all that matters. Even if we can't kiss at midnight on New Year's on national TV, I have only to close my eyes to see your smiling face, full of love -.' Josh choked up and James held him tight.
'Oh, enough of this angst,' said the Major. 'Here's the last present for this year, from me and D and Nicky.' And he handed them plane tickets.
'James, the minute you go off-air, Big John'll whisk you to the airport. Headed westwards. Y'all can't ring in the New Year with a kiss in New York, maybe, but you sure as shit can at Kev's and Kris's summer place in Western Kentucky, unless there's a headwind.' They looked at him, mouths open. 'Oh for the love of God, boys. Haven't you ever heard of time zones?'
Join us next time for another thrilling installment of Sentimental Journey. Will more dire secrets emerge? Will we be back to angst? Who knows what evil lurks - um, never mind. This exciting series is brought to you courtesy of the good folks at the Penn Central Railway. We now return you to our studios for Lowell Thomas with the news.
And that does it. Happy New Year.