“…Holy shit…”, Nick cursed softly, jumping out of his bed. Opening the curtains to his bedroom, he noticed that it was already day – the sun was rising over the horizon, its golden light brilliantly reflected off the snow that had fallen overnight. A quick look at his alarm clock revealed that it was nine in the morning, and Nick blanched, running into the bathroom. As he was there, brushing his teeth with one hand and trying to get himself decently lathered up with shaving cream with the other, he heard a door slam downstairs and he halted, toothbrush clattering into the sink in front of him.
Ellis… He had to set things right, he had to… he couldn’t let Ellis leave him. He couldn’t let Ellis go, he couldn’t let his mistake ruin everything.
And that’s when a plan started to dawn in his mind. Nick smiled and returned to his daily hygiene tasks with renewed vigor, plotting out every step of his plan in his mind, thinking through each detail focused solely on that one goal of setting things right with Ellis. And, along the way, making up for a few other mistakes as well…
December 25th was just as busy as the day before it had been – still some people hurried across the streets, but most of the shops were closed. Instead, it seemed like small foodstalls and last-minute florist stalls had cropped up on every available spot, and several people were busy frequenting them.
Nick passed them by without a glance, focused on his plan for the day.
He walked down the street, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his light grey overcoat, face nearly completely covered by a dark green scarf, his pace brisk but his eyes distant and his expression one of focus, not anger. People still took a step back or paused in their daily routine as he passed and Nick had to keep himself from sighing. He hadn’t ever been bothered by the way people treated him before, thinking it was a waste of time and a potential risk to himself to treat people to anything but cold indifference, but now he knew how much that wounded and he resolved to change the hearts and minds of the people that had gotten to know him as a surly old grump. One step at a time.
He turned a corner and bumped into a young girl carrying a wreath. She looked up at him, eyes large and fearful, expecting a reprimand from him – and suddenly it was as if the people around him held their breath, one or two already taking a step closer to the girl to comfort her.
Nick suddenly felt faintly nauseous with himself.
“…Sorry… did the wreath get damaged? No? Then off you go. Merry Christmas.” He walked on, oblivious to the incredulous stares of the people he walked away from, but not at all deaf to the vague reply the young girl shouted. He smiled as he walked on.
Step one of a very long and winding road, he mused, walking the rest of the distance to his office without interruptions.
“M-mister Masters!” Of course, as soon as he arrived at his office building, his tenant came running up to him – Bob Tanner looked pale, and Nick knew that he wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. But suddenly he could care less about the money. All he wanted to get out of the day was to get Ellis back with him, where he belonged.
“Look, Ta- Bob, why don’t you come up with me to my office, I’m not having this conversation out here in the cold.”, he said, motioning for the elevator – and the mechanic followed him, looking a bit apprehensive because Nick hadn’t ever invited him up into his office before, let alone called him by his first name. However, the business man smiled. Once he’d opened the door to his office, he beckoned for the mechanic to sit down at his desk while he unwrapped his scarf and took off his coat, hanging both of them over his desk chair – he didn’t plan on staying long, anyway.
“Mister Masters, I… I’m begging you, please, just… I need more time, I can’t go ‘round chasing my customers for payment on Christmas… I can’t… J-just three more days, then I’ll be able to pay, I swear!”, the mechanic stammered, his voice panicky and soft, and Nick nodded.
“Bob… listen. December 28th is perfectly fine with me, but I’ll want your written guarantee that that money’s going to be on my account or in my hand that day at the latest, okay?” When Bob blinked, suddenly speechless, fear still clearly present from his wide-eyed stare, Nick sighed and added: “…I promise you I won’t turn you out or charge you late fees. And I swear I’m not kidding.”
“M-mi-mister Ma-masters?” The mechanic stared at him – it was bordering on rude, so Nick rolled his eyes and grinned, his voice only the least bit annoyed.
“Jeez, do a man a favor… First, you’ll sign a document saying you’ll pay on December 28th at the latest, and then you are going to go down there, wash up, and go to your family.”, he said with authority, and slowly his tenant’s face split into a wide smile, and he stammered something that was meant to be ‘thank you’, causing Nick to chuckle. “Oh yeah, and Bob? Call me Nick.” He was glad the man didn’t actually hug him – the prospect of grease-stains on his white suit didn’t please him at all, to be honest, and five minutes later the mechanic was signing a document stating he’d pay his overdue rent by December 28th at the latest.
“…T-thanks, mister Masters… uh, I mean Nick… thank you… thanks so much!”
“Just remember to be in time next month, okay?”, Nick said as he put the paper safely away in one of his drawers. “I’m just doing this because… because I don’t wanna turn you out over the holidays, but I’m still a businessman. I need that rent on time, just like you need your customers to pay you on time. You can ask for a delay in payment, but… ask, okay? I’m not… well, I used to be unreasonable, maybe, but I’m not going to stay an asshat for the rest of my life. Still doesn’t mean I can give you free use of my property…”
“N-no, of course not, I understand…”, Bob said with a soft smile before reiterating his words of thanks, this time sounding less relieved and more profoundly grateful.
“Good, because if you don’t, we’ll be butting heads again someday and both getting a headache over it… now go, man, I’m sure you’ve got a family waiting for you.” Bob nodded and walked outside, turning around as he closed the door again and adding a soft wish to his words of goodbye.
“…Have a merry Christmas, okay, Nick?”
“Yeah, I think I will.”, Nick said, smiling when the man closed the door. He spent the rest of his two hours in the office calling up each and every customer he had promised to deliver goods to that day to say he’d be closed for two days due to the holidays after all and offering them a full refund if they wanted to cancel their order, and a 10 dollar gift certificate for their next purchase to make up for the delay if they didn’t. Most customers gladly accepted the gift certificate, and in the end Nick closed his office door behind him with a smile. Time for part two of his plan.
He’d looked up three addresses before closing his computer again, and the first of those was just a ten minute walk from his office, it turned out. Cole’s Fine Meats and Delicatessen was an older-looking store in a modern-looking building, and the scent inside the shop reminded Nick of his mother’s kitchen somewhat, all spices and fragrant stock and a slight hint of wine.
“Good afternoon, sir, can I help you?”, the girl behind the counter said, and Nick nodded.
“I believe you’ve got an order waiting for a mrs. Tanner, right?”, she said, and the girl nodded.
“Yeah, mrs. Tanner called just five minutes ago to say she’d send someone to pick it up...”, she said, and Nick smiled.
“It’s, uh, a large ham to roast with some little appetizers, right?”, he said, and she nodded, causing Nick to smile at her. “Yeah, I’m here to pick it up – but mrs. Tanner also said she’d like for me to also pick up some of your renowned venison stew… uh, if you still have some, that is…”, he added, and the girl smiled a bit more uncertainly.
“I’ll, uh, have to check that with mister Cole, sir… Wait here five minutes?” She disappeared to the actual butchery, where a young boy wearing an all-white outfit was just cutting up pork chops – and after five minutes, the girl came back to him.
“Sir? There’s still stew – enough to serve four… but I believe mrs. Tanner said her company would be five?” Nick mentally commended her for her mental acuity, but outwardly he nodded slowly.
“Yeah, that’s true… however, it’s kind of a surprise for her son, so if it’s enough to serve four, that’ll do just fine… I don’t believe mrs. Tanner paid for her order yet, did she?”, Nick said, and the girl shook her head.
“N-no, sir, she paid for the ham and the appetizers already…”
“Well, then I’ll just pay her back for them, I guess. How much will the stew be?”
“The stew’ll be forty dollars, sir…”, she said, and Nick paid her, walking outside carrying the grocery bags with the meat in it and heading back to his home. He just had one more stop to make and then he’d get changed, jump into his car and drive downtown…
As he entered his home, Nick found the door to Ellis’ apartments to be standing open and he walked inside – the rooms were eerily empty, and Nick’s heart ached at the sight. His anger of the night before returned to the forefront of his mind, and Ellis’ hurt, sad expression seemed to be etched into his retinas permanently as he walked through every room, still faintly smelling the hick’s deodorant in one of them, and finding a stray bottle of beer in the mini-fridge that still stood in his home. With a sigh, he moved to his kitchen to keep the meat cooled until he’d leave again, and he then walked up the stairs to his own rooms.
“H-huh, what the…?”, Nick said as he found a neatly folded paper laying underneath the door leading to his room – and inside he found a messily scrawled note from his former employee.
“’Dear Nick, you oughta be happy to hear I moved all of my stuff out already so you can start looking for a new handy man soon. I’ll get my post forwarded next Monday – until then, please don’t rip up or burn any letters to me. I hope you’ll have a good life. Sincerely, Ellis Mason.’ …God, Ellis… Like hell I’m happy and like hell I’ll look for anyone else…”, he said sadly, deciding to speed up his plan just a notch…
“What d’yew mean, ‘th’order’s already been picked up’?”, Keith asked the young girl in the butcher’s shop, and she looked as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cash register.
“B-but the other guy, he knew everything in the order and all! I… I’ll ask mister Cole t-to replace your order… a-and if that’s not possible, you’ll get a full refund, of course…”, she said, and Keith nodded, allowing her to dash to the back to confer with her boss while taking out his cellphone and calling Ellis’ mother.
“Misses Tanner, ‘s me… ah went tuh pick up yer order an’ there was some guy tha’ picked up yers… they’re checkin’ tuh see if’n they can gimme another ham or somethin’-“
“What? How'd that happen? Tha' was a very specific order, an' ah told mister Cole tuh confirm with me before it got picked up!”, the woman on the other side commented, and Keith rolled his eyes.
“’s Emily… girl’s hot, sure, but she ain’t gotten tha’ note ‘bout not givin’ yer order from misteh Cole…” Keith then noticed the butcher opening the door and added a quick: “Misteh Cole’s here, talk t’yew later…”
“Hello… Keith, right? Emily just told me what happened and I’m really sorry to say that that was my last prepared ham. I could give you another one, but it’ll be plain, and misses Tanner gave specific instructions that it had to be prepared. So I have no choice but to just give you the money she’d paid already back and… and apologise for the mix-up.” Keith sighed and nodded, accepting the money from the man and speaking up.
“’s awrigh’, misteh Cole, yew c’n do nothin’ ‘bout that, an’ neither can Emily. Like she said, tha’ other guy knew what was in th’order… a-an’ yew didn’t get an address or somethin’?”, he said, and the girl shook her head.
“No… I’m sorry, uh, Keith…”, she said, and the mechanic turned to the door and walked away, still shaking his head softly, wondering who could do something like take someone else’s order.
“…Ellis, dahlin’, ‘s this the last’a yer stuff then?”, Ellen Tanner asked as she heard her son come in and close the door behind him, and Ellis gave her a weak smile that showed her how sad he really felt more clearly than if he’d been crying his eyes out.
“Yeah, momma. ‘S the last. …Ah can’’ b’lieve Nick ac’shully threw me outta mah ‘partment. Ah can’t believe Nick fired me… all over somethin’ so stupid…”
“…Ah’m jus’ gon’ have tuh take over the role’a yer uncle ‘ere an’ say ‘Son, tha’s Nick Masters we’re talkin’ about’…”, his mother said with a pretty spot-on impression of her brother, and Ellis chuckled, his worries and grief forgotten for a second. But then he realized that there were a few people missing and he frowned.
“…Wait, where is uncle Bob an’ Keith? Ah wanted tuh ask ‘em how things went at th’garage tuhday!”
“Keith an’ yer uncle are lookin’ ‘round for a butcher tha’ still has meat-“, she said, and Ellis blanched.
“Aw crap, ah was s’posed tuh bring the meat with me! Aw, momma, ah fergot… w-with Nick an’ all…”, Ellis said, looking ashamed, and his mother patted him on the shoulder gently, smiling at him to make him stop feeling responsible.
“Naw, Ellis, yew had other things on yer mind, ah knew tha’! So ah sent Keith tuh pick it up… but ‘parently someone already picked up mah order from Cole’s…” When Ellis blinked, she meant to explain further, but then both the doorbell and the telephone started ringing. “Aw hell, the phone’ll be Bob or Keith… Ellis, dahlin’, yew mind seein’ who’s at the door?”, Ellen said as she walked inside again, and Ellis sighed and moved to open the front door.
When he noticed who stood there, he nearly fell backwards in shock.
“…Hey, Ellis...” Nick stood on the doorstep, dressed in his best suit and – Ellis could see as much even despite the heavy scarf the businessman wore – even a tie for the occasion. In one hand, he had a plain white grocery bag, and in the other he had a large green bag with a florist’s logo on it. “I, uh… I came to apologise for yesterday.”
“Nick?” Ellis’ voice was barely more than a whisper, incredulous and low, and Nick nodded, smiling.
“Yeah, it’s me, I’m here… look, Ellis, I’m sorry I shouted at you, I’m sorry I said all that. I… overnight I realized that I’ve come to depend on you to take care of me. So… I take back everything I said.”
“W-whah? Y-yeh mean tha’?”, Ellis said, his voice still soft and incredulous, but now a light shone in those bright blue eyes, and Nick’s smile instinctively broadened.
“I mean each and every word I said now. When I wake up tomorrow morning, I expect you there for breakfast, and when I go to sleep I expect you to wish me a good night, like you always did and like you’ll keep on doing.” He then smiled and handed Ellis the plain white grocery bag, which weighed surprisingly heavy, and winked at his former employee. “…Now, go on inside and give this to your mom.” Ellis nodded, still having an expression appropriate to being hit over the head sharply, and moved inside. A muffled conversation ensued and then Ellen Tanner’s voice rang out clearly:
“How in the hell did Nick Masters git mah order from Cole’s?”
“…I, uh, took the liberty of getting it for you, since Ellis tends to be forgetful and since I wanted to do something nice for you. Oh, and if you tell me how much that order came to, I’ll pay it back to you – consider it repayment for treating Ellis like shit more often than I can even think of right now. …Oh, and, uh…”, Nick said as the woman of the house appeared in the hallway, looking just about as skeptic as he imagined she could, and he grabbed something from his other bag, which turned out to be a bouquet of fake flowers, and presented it to her, making her freeze, large-eyed and completely stunned. “…uh, it’s not very Christmas-like, I know, but… merry Christmas. I had to give you something, right? I mean, I’m a guest tonight – if I didn’t lose my invitation yet, I mean…”, he added somewhat more meekly, and the woman stammered something, torn between refusing him based on two solid years of slowly grown distrust of the man that had housed her son and inviting the apparently changed man that stood on her doorstep inside. In the end, Ellis chuckled and patted his mother on the shoulder softly.
“Aw, momma, ‘s okay if’n Nick joins us fer dinner, righ’? He’s ‘pologised fer shoutin’ tuh me las’ night an’ he said he don’t want me tuh leave. He took back firin’ me.” The woman nodded, still not inviting Nick in, and Ellis spoke up again, grinning apologetically at his boss. “…Uh, momma, why don’t yew start makin’ dinner already? Ah jus’… ah jus’ wan’ talk tuh Nick, got a few things ah need tuh tell ‘im…” She nodded and walked back inside, absent-mindedly stroking one of the fake flowerpetals, and as soon as she’d gone into the kitchen Ellis turned to Nick again. “…look, Nick, ‘s somethin’ yew need tuh know… if’n ah’m comin’ back tuh work fer yew… Ah, uh… w-well, ah maybe kinda am gon’ be a bit… diff’rent… ‘round yew… “
“Heh, well, that’s allright, Ellis, I don’t want things to be the same anymore, either.”, Nick said, and Ellis rolled his eyes.
“Heh, if’n yew knew wha’ ah mean, then yew wouldn’t be sayin’ tha’, Nick… really, yeh wouldn’t…”
“Try me.”, Nick said, his grin challenging and his eyes soft, and Ellis took a deep breath and, true to his nature, blurted out what was on his mind.
“Well, it’s jus’ kinda tha’ ah made mahself this promise tuh be honest with yew… Nick, ah kind’f… l-luv yew… ah mean, ah love yew. Ah’ve loved yew, prob’ly since ah very firs’ saw yew… a-an’ ah’m not gon’ hide it, not anymore.” He looked at Nick, and through the hesitance and the slight shyness, Nick could see resolve and the love he intended to stop hiding, and it only strengthened his own resolve.
“…I… Well… Uhm, maybe now would be a good time to give you this, then…”, Nick said, fishing something else from the bag and giving it to Ellis. The hick’s eyes instantly turned large and his slightly hesitant expression turned to one of utmost wonder and happiness. “It’s kind of awkward to give a guy flowers, but I figured you’d love a Christmas wreath like this. Holly’s your favorite, right?”, he said, and Ellis turned to him, dumbfounded.
“Y-yeah… how’d yew… ah mean, ah never even…” When Ellis just stared at the wreath, Nick spoke on softly.
“There’s gonna have to be a few changes around the house, Ellis. For one, you’re going to have to do a lot more around the house… but if you want to go for a full-time job as a mechanic, you can. And another thing is, you can’t use those downstairs rooms anymore-“ Now Ellis looked at him again, his eyes still displaying wonder but also slight shock.
“B-but Nick, ah… ah don’’ understand, didn’t yew say yeh took ev’rythin’ back? S-so why’d ah…” He then grew quiet and swallowed, shifting a bit and keeping his eyes on his hands. “…B-but ‘s yer house, so… j-jus’… how c’n ah live with yew if’n ah can’t live in mah old ‘partment? An’ how can ah work as yer handyman if’n yew tell me ah c’n take a full-time job in mah uncle’s garage?”
“…Heh, yeah, well, the position I had in mind for you isn’t exactly the same as the one you had. Like you said, you’ll be different around me… But I think we can both benefit from what I have in mind.”
“Nick, yeh’re makin’ no sense…”, Ellis whined, intending to look at the man in front of him again, but Nick cut off anything else he meant to say by slowly pulling him closer, the Christmas wreath Ellis still held onto prickling his chest even through five layers of clothing – or, he mused as they slowly neared each other even more, their breaths warm on each other’s face, that could be just his imagination.
When they kissed, it was like the world around them ceased, and Ellis’ lips slowly pressed against his own more insistently, expressing the same need that Nick felt, the same longing that Nick felt.
The same love that Nick felt, so overwhelmingly clear now.
It took less than ten seconds for Nick and Ellis to both take a slight step back from the kiss again, but it seemed like much, much longer to them, and they both grinned happily.
“…Yeah, changes…”, Nick said, and Ellis rolled his eyes.
“Okay, ah c’n live with tha’. ‘s Jus’ one thing left that ain’t righ’.” He walked inside just a few steps, leaving Nick to be the one that was confused as to what he meant, and placed the wreath on top of one of the cardboard boxes standing in the hallway before walking back to Nick, wrapping his arms around him again and pulling him close once more, this time without the wreath in between them. It allowed them both to be just that little bit closer together. “…Ah believe ah didn’t really git tha’ kiss there right from the start…”, Ellis breathed out right before he kissed Nick again, and this time it was so different, so much more, and Nick lost himself in the embrace and the kiss, which was fiery and passionate and which seemed to make him itch with anticipation even more than he’d been when driving up to the hick’s house.
“…Ahem…” Behind them, a dry cough sounded, and Nick and Ellis pulled apart again, turning to the source of the disturbance with their arms still thrown around each other – and next to a thoroughly bemused Bob Tanner, who was holding a grocery bag filled with deep-frozen pizza boxes, an utterly shocked Keith stood, pale and wide-eyed, staring from his friend to Nick and back. “…N-not that I’m commenting on the fact you two are probably the last two people I expected to catch kissing… but, uh, mind movin’ aside? We’ve got yer dinner-”
“Oh, uh, mah momma didn’t tell yew? Nick brought us our dinner… he got it from Cole’s in the firs’ place, too, so…” Keith groaned emphatically and cast Nick a look of loathing, as if he was blaming the man for his running all around town frantically searching for food, but Bob just nodded and winked at his nephew.
“Heh, well, deep-freeze pizza doesn’t spoil, and we still get your mom’s renowned Christmas ham… Okay, just let me an’ Keith here inside and we’ll not bother you anymore…” Ellis blushed softly as he and Nick stepped aside to allow the two others inside, Keith being pulled along by Bob, and as they disappeared into the kitchen as well, probably informing Ellis’ mother just what they’d walked into, Ellis spoke up again.
“…So, uhm… yew mean yew, uhm…”
“Ellis, I mean I want you to stop being my handyman and start being my lover… my partner. I realized last night that I can’t live without you in my life, and… and I knew somehow that you felt that same way about me. So why deny it? …Come back tonight. My house is yours, my heart is yours… and, uhm… I guess my bed’s yours too…”, he admitted, and Ellis nodded, his blush deepening just a bit.
“Ah’ll tell mah momma tha’… well, uhm, ah’ll leave out tha’ last part, she ain’t gon’ wanna know tha’, but… C’mon, we headin’ inside again, ah’m kinda gettin’ cold…” He reached for Nick’s hand at the same time Nick reached for his, and they met halfway. And as they walked into the cosy, warm home of Ellen Tanner, the smell of roasting ham wafting toward them from the kitchen, Nick mused how he’d never had a happier Christmas in his whole life.