Better Than Christmas

"Buy my pape, Miss?" Mush called to a woman wrapped in more shawls then he could count.

"Not today," she said coolly, walking past without sparing him a glance.

Mush's stomach growled and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He was standing near a chestnut stand which gave off a fair amount of heat. Unfortunately, it also gave off an appetizing aroma. Mush sucked on his lower lip. He only had four papers left. When he finished selling them he could get something to eat. But not the chestnuts, he reminded himself. They were three cents a bag. He stared longingly at them, then shook his head, and turned way.

He rubbed his hands together and blew on them, wondering why the papers weren’t printing stories about how unnaturally cold the winter was instead of the pap about heating oil and tainted butter. Just this morning he had seen a rat frozen stiff outside of the lodging house and if the rats weren’t managing to stay warm, a body didn’t have a chance.

Mush clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering and inched closer to the stand. The grizzled old man running it had already chased him off once already, but the heat was too tantalizing a lure to resist. Just that small movement was enough to bring Mush close enough to warm his side and he smiled despite himself.

Mush hunched his shoulders, wondering where Blink had wandered off to and how the other boy was managing to keep from freezing. He sniffed and swiped at his nose, giving the crowd a quick once over. Blink’s blond hair was no where to be seen. Mush frowned to himself, wishing the headline was good enough for the pair of them to sell together. What was the point of working the same area if they had to be so far apart that they couldn’t even see each other?

He glanced around again, hoping vainly to catch a glimpse of Blink. If he did, then they would smile at each other and hold up their few remaining papers and things wouldn’t seem quite so miserable. But Mush didn’t have any better luck this time and he had to force himself not to scowl.

Nobody wants to buy a paper off a kid who’s got a sour look, Mush told himself, faking a smile. He nodded politely at a young man and woman, clearly courting, and didn’t bother to try and interest them as they had eyes only for each other. It must be nice, he thought, having someone look at you like you was their world.

Feeling slightly discontent, Mush scanned the crowd again, this time looking for a likely customer. He saw a sharply dressed man in a dark coat heading his way and fixed his friendliest smile on his face.

"Heating oil on the rise," he called to the man.

"What's that you say?" the man asked in a deep voice, stepping towards Mush.

"Price of heating oil up five cents from last year," Mush said, walking away from the heat and closer to the man, holding out a folded paper.

The man glanced at the paper and then at the stand before slipping his gloved fingers inside of his pocket and pulling out a small bag. He hunted around and took out a coin. He put it in Mush's palm and took the paper.

Mush looked down at it with a frown. "I'm sorry, Mister. I ain't got change for that." He attempted to hand it back.

The man made an irritated sound and then opened the bag again. He stirred the contents with one figure and then let out a long breath. "Keep it," he said after a moment.

"Sir," Mush began, but the man cut him off.

"I said keep it. It nearly Christmas and it's my Christian duty to do right by the poor."

Mush closed his fist around the coin, marveling at his good fortune. He glanced around, wanting to tell Blink. He frowned, remembering too late that Blink wasn’t nearby. But then there was a break in the crowd and Mush could just barely make out a familiar figure standing by the edge of the frozen pond. A smile broke out across Mush’s face as he eagerly started forward.

He let his eyes roam freely over his friend, taking advantage of the fact that Blink was engrossed by the scene in front of him. Blink's papers were held loosely in one hand as he watched the people gliding across the ice; his hair was falling into his face, masking his expression. Mush watched the way the sunlight moved across that hair captivated by the way it turned some strands into white gold while casting others into shadow.

Blink ran a hand through his hair and Mush’s attention was captured by the sight of his long fingers. He bit his lip, eyes widening at the way Blink’s hand moved down the back of his head and then rubbed his neck. Mush watched as those fingers flexed and released massaging away the stress of the day.

Mush felt vaguely unsettled by the strength of his reaction to the sight of Blink’s fingers and shook his head to clear it. He slowed his walk and cleared his throat before calling out, "Blink."

Blink looked around and then waved. "Taking a break?"

Mush grinned at him. “Had a windfall,” he said, coming to stand beside Blink. He held the coin between two fingers in front of Blink’s face. “Take a look at that,” he crowed.

Blink reached out, his fingers brushing against Mush’s and he took the coin. He held it up so that it shown in the light the way his hair had moments before. "A whole quarter," Blink said with a low whistle. "Don't see that often, do we?"

"Fella gave it to me expecting me to make change and when I said I couldn't he just let me keep it. Like it was nothing." Mush shook his head. "Can you imagine having so much money that a quarter ain't nothing?"

Blink shook his head. “Like it was nothing,” he repeated with amazement.

Mush nodded. A whole quarter. Well, twenty-four cents if you take away the cost of the paper. Still, twenty-four cents was a whole heap more then Mush could spare. He touched the pocket of his coat reflexively and was reassured by the lumpy weight of it.

Blink bit the coin and then nodded and Mush laughed. “You think it wasn’t good?” he asked.

“A man gives you a quarter and don’t ask for the change, you’d be a fool not to check.”

Blink handed the coin back over and grinned. "You know what this means?"

"What?"

"Lunch at Tibby's and you’re buying."

Mush laughed. "Let me finish up with my papes."

Blink gave him an exasperated look. "Only you, Mush, would get a lucky break like that and still want to sell the rest of your papes."

Mush sucked on his teeth. Most days he would be more then willing to finish up early after receiving an unexpected bonus, but he had just spent over half of his savings on something that, while making a very nice gift for a very special friend, wasn’t exactly of any benefit to him and even with the added twenty-four cents he wouldn’t be back to what he considered comfortable.

"I've only got three left," he hedged, wanting to sell his papers but not wanting Blink to think him a penny pincher. “And besides, if I don’t sell them I’ll have lowered my tip.”

"Well, I guess so,” Blink sighed, his gaze returning to the people on the ice.

"How many you got?” Mush asked, not wanting to leave Blink so soon.

“Five,” Blink said offhandedly, his attention never shifting. "Sure would be nice to go skating, wouldn’t it?"

Mush had never seen the appeal of skating. Not since he had heard about Duffer falling through thin ice and never coming up again. But Blink clearly thought it a fine thing, so Mush said, "Sure would.”

Blink bent down and scooped up a handful of snow, shaping it into a snowball with one hand. He tossed it up and caught it once before chucking it at a tree. “I’ve always wanted a pair of skates. The fancy kind with leather straps and everything,” he mused.

Mush did a quick calculation in his head and then cleared his throat. "You know Blink,” he said slowly staring at the coin in his palm, “You can get a pair of wooden ones for a quarter."

“Where would I get a quarter? We ain’t all as lucky as you,” Blink laughed, gaze once again trained on the skaters. "Besides, if I'm dreaming then I'm dreaming big. I want the expensive ones. All metal."

Mush chewed on his lower lip. "You need more than a dollar for those, Blink."

"Yeah, I know," Blink said dejectedly.

Mush pushed the quarter in to his pocket, looked at the papers in his hand and took a deep breath. He let them fall, thinking about the way the ink would run when the snow got to it and the fact that three pennies wasn't at all a small amount of money. They hit the ground and he tugged his eyes away from the sight.

He pulled at the papers out of Blink's lax grip, fingers rubbing against each other, and dropped them on top of his. Then Mush took hold of Blink's shoulder and started walking purposely towards the frozen pond.

"What are you doing?" Blink demanded.

"You'll see."

"You ruined my papes."

"You didn't want to sell them anyway."

"I needed to sell them, Mush."

"I got a quarter, I can pay you for the five cents you lost."

"You've lost your mind," Blink said, laughing again. "All that money’s gone to your head.”

“Maybe it has at that.” Mush stopped at the edge of the ice and then grinned broadly at Blink. “We ain’t got no skates but we can still slide on the ice.” And with that he pushed Blink out onto the pond.

He watched as Blink slid, hands flailing wildly, and then launched himself after his friend. His legs wobbled as he moved across the small lake, and Mush wasn’t surprised when he lost his balance and fell over. He landed in a heap, his legs out in front of him, his hands splayed out, his pressing palms down against the ice. Mush pulled his hands up into his lap and pressed them against his thighs, trying to bring some warmth back into them.

“You gonna sit there all day or what?” Blink asked as he slid towards Mush. His feet slipped on the slick surface so that his knees were bent at an odd angle as he attempted to stand over Mush.

Mush smiled up at him. “Maybe I will.”

Blink held out his hand, “Come on, I’ll give you a push.”

Mush took the proffered hand and scrambled to his feet, nearly upsetting Blink in the process. A small girl with her hands shoved inside a fur lined muff giggled at them as she sped past, her shiny skates glinting in the sun. Mush winked at her, his arm around Blink’s waist to keep him from falling over.

“She’s too young for you,” Blink teased.

Mush turned his head towards Blink and was surprised to find their faces within inches of each other. He looked away quickly, feeling his face flush. Blink chuckled, which let Mush know that he had seen.

“You said you’d give me a push,” Mush mumbled.

Blink pulled free of Mush’s arm and moved behind him. His hands came to rest on Mush’s hips and Mush felt something inside of him hitch at the innocent touch. “You ready?” Blink asked, his voice a low whisper.

Mush nodded, catching his lip between his teeth, and bent his knees. Blink tightened his grip, tugging Mush’s hips back slightly before propelling him forward. Mush laughed as his skimmed across the ice, his hands held out at his sides for balance. He felt the air sting his face and managed to do a crude turn so that he was facing back towards Blink when he came to a halt.

Blink was smiling, his cheeks red from the cold and his good eye dancing. He gave Mush a cheery wave and then began to push himself across the pond, looking for all the world like a duck out of water. Mush laughed and started towards him, wondering if he looked as funny to Blink as Blink did to him.

Mush was short of breath by the time he reached Blink. His hands were like blocks of ice, his teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, and he had never been happier in his life. Blink’s hair was trailing across his face, covering the patch that covered his eye. Mush had an inexplicable urge to brush it back. His fingers curled in on themselves and he pressed his lips together.

“You cold?” Blink asked.

Mush shook his head. “Not any more then normal.”

Blink nodded, shifting so that they were standing with their shoulders touching ever so slightly. They stayed like that, barely in contact, in the center of the pond, watching the people skating. Blink’s expression was soft and Mush wondered what he was thinking.

Mush swiped at his nose with the back of his hand and sniffed. “Hot cup of coffee would be good right about now,” he said, his eyes drawn back to the chestnut stand.

Blink followed his gaze. “Looks like you’re hankering for something other than coffee.”

Mush lifted one shoulder. “Three cents a bag,” he said morosely.

“And you can’t afford it,” Blink finished.

Mush grinned at that. “I reckon you know me better then I know myself.”

Blink gave him a wide smile, moving minutely so that his body pressed flush against Mush’s. “You could say that.”

Mush’s stomach chose that moment to growl and he stepped away, embarrassed. He licked his lips and stuck his hands in his armpits. He glanced at Blink, who was still smiling, and then looked away trying to convince himself that it was only hunger that was causing the roiling in his gut.

“Ah, a little stomach rumblings nothing to go red in the face over,” Blink said affectionately, slinging his arm across Mush’s shoulders. The movement startled Mush, who jerked slightly. This put both him and Blink off balance and within moments they were sprawled across the ice, laughing.

Mush pushed himself up, disentangling himself from Blink, his lips spread in a wide smile.

“Come on,” Blink said breathlessly. “Let’s get off of the ice and find you something to eat.”

*~*~*

Mush’s britches were soaked to the knees and he couldn’t feel his toes. He had his head bent as he moved through the snow, hating the drag of it against his legs and the soft crunching it made with each step. He heard a soft curse and glanced to the side. Blink had stopped walking. He was standing a short way off with his hands cupped in front of his mouth.

“You all right?”

Blink cursed again. “I can’t feel my fingers.”

Mush turned and started trudging back up the hill towards him. “Have they gone all funny colored?”

“No. But they’re burning like you wouldn’t believe.” Blink started rubbing his hands together, his lips pressed into a firm line.

Mush stopped in front of him and glanced around. They were completely alone. They had decided to take a shortcut through a less-used part of the park, thinking that the difficultly of breaking a path through the snow would be made up for by the time they saved. Mush took a breath and then reached out.

“Let me do that,” he said, taking Blink’s hands between his own. He brought them up to his mouth and blew on them as he chaffed them, his eyes rolled up to watch Blink’s expression.

Blink’s lips lifted at the corners. “That’s nice, Mush,” he said and he turned his hands so that his palms were brushing against Mush’s.

“Can you feel them yet?”

The hint of a smile faded from Blink’s face. “Naw. And they’ve started to tingle. Hurts like the dickens.”

Mush frowned. He studied the hands he was rubbing and thought about how he would feel if Blink lost one or more of his fingers. “You shouldn’t have been sticking your bare hands in all that snow,” he chided.

“I don’t have no gloves,” Blink said reasonably, “And it’s too tempting not to touch.”

Mush glanced up briefly. He gave a little half smile as he thought of Blink’s hands and all that he wanted them to touch. With a frown, Mush returned his attention back to the task at hand. He bit the inside of his cheek and stopped trying to warm some life into Blink’s hands.

Mush put one hand into his coat pocket and fingered the packet stuffed in it. He had been planning on giving it to Blink for Christmas, but Blink had need of it now. Still, if he gave it now then there wouldn’t be anything for Blink come Christmas morning. Mush sighed and shook his head. Blink’s hands were more important than any half-formed plans Mush had harbored for Christmas. His mind made up, Mush fished the packet out and put it in Blink’s hands.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, slightly embarrassed, and dropped his other hand.

“What’s this?” Blink picked at the string tied around the brown paper package.

“Open it and find out.” Mush shoved his hands in his pockets and fixed his gaze on Blink’s face.

Blink pulled at the string, slipping it into his pants pocket when he worked it free. His fingers clumsily pushed aside the wrappings to reveal a pair of fine black gloves. They weren’t the top end leather ones lined with fur that Mush had desperately wanted to get, those had been priced at a dollar forty-five a pair, but they weren’t the cheap machine knit ones, either.

Mush grinned as he watched Blink trace a finger along the back of one. The gloves were soft and well made, sure to last through the winter and maybe, if Blink was careful with them, even do for next winter as well. Mush had saved all summer, hoarding his pennies carefully so that he would be able to afford such an extravagant present. He had gone to bed hungry more times then he liked to remember, but the look on Blink’s face was well worth it.

“Mush.” Blink’s voice held the edge of a question.

“Put them on,” Mush said, glancing down. He pulled them from Blink’s unresisting hands and stuck one under his arm. The other he opened and held out. “Come on, I want to see how they fit.”

Blink slid his hand in and flexed his fingers. “You shouldn’t have.”

“What’s it feel like?” Mush asked, holding out the other glove.

“Mush, you really shouldn’t have.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Like hell.” Blink held his hands up in front of his face. “These are quality, real quality, Mush.”

Mush ducked his head. “Not as fancy as the ones I wanted to buy you,” he admitted.

“Better then anything I’ve ever had before.”

“You like them then?” Mush asked, still not looking up.

Blink stepped closer, his gloved hand cupping Mush’s chin and forcing Mush to meet his eye. “It’s the best present I ever got,” Blink said with gravity that Mush had never heard before.

He smiled. “I’m glad you like them.”

Blink took another step forward so that his chest was nearly touching Mush’s. He licked his lips and wrapped his free arm around Mush’s back, moving so that their bodies were flush against each other. “You’re too good to me, Mush,” he said huskily and bent slightly so that his chapped lips were pressed firmly against Mush’s.

Mush stiffened, surprise shooting through him. Then his body relaxed as he remembered that no one was around to see. His hands moved up, tangling in that fly-away hair, as he angled his head and opened his mouth. Blink’s lips parted and his tongue darted in, rubbing against Mush’s in a way that caused him to shiver with something other than cold.

Mush closed his eyes and let his fingers trace down Blink’s neck, thinking that this was better than anything he had hoped to have happen on Christmas morning.