Christmas in Killarney

The holly green, the ivy green, the prettiest picture youíve ever seen
is Christmas in Killarney with all of the folks at home.
Itís nice, you know, to kiss your beau, while cuddling under the mistletoe,
and Santa Claus, you know, of course, is one of the boys from home.

-- "Christmas in Killarney," The Irish Rovers

Sean hated this part. Just having twenty-some people crammed into one house was enough to get on his nerves. The fact that six of them were shrieking children only made it feel more claustrophobic. As did the overstuffed, over-lit tree. And the candles. And the music. Christ, the music.

If he heard one more fluty version of "Greensleeves," he wasnít going to be held responsible for his actions.

He checked the clock for the seventeenth time in twenty minutes. Quarter to five.

"What time did you say?" His motherís expression was benign as she returned the cover to a simmering pot, but Sean could hear the curiosity in her voice.

Sean shrugged like it didnít matter. "I donít know. Five-thirty."

His mom smiled. "Donít worry. Heíll be here."

"Maybe," was all Sean could think to say over the ruckus coming from the living room. He pushed away from the counter with purpose, but only ended up across the kitchen, planting himself against a counter edge there.

Every Christmas was the same. If it were up to Sean, heíd spend the day with a beer and a book, but he recognized it made his mom happy to have everyone together. So, he always showed up Christmas day, and there was always the same circus of cousins with kids (hence the six shrieking children) and uncles with beer bellies and aunts with various accents.

This was the first year heíd changed the formula. This was the first year heíd invited Tony. Or anyone.

Of course, it had kind of been an accident. A few days ago, Tony told him Christmas was bookended with work and he wouldnít be able to get away to his parentís new place upstate, and without really thinking about it Sean had said, "Come to Brooklyn. Dinnerís at six."

In two years of what was probably a relationship, but was never referred to or discussed in those terms (or any others), Sean and Tony had never spent a holiday other than New Yearís together. And New Yearís didnít really count, because no one spends New Yearís with their family. A traditional New Yearís is about getting drunk and getting lucky Ė not about of getting drunk and getting presents you donít want and getting really annoyed with unanswerable questions about your job and your future and your love life over dinner, like Christmas is.

But Sean had accidentally invited Tony to his family Christmas, and since Tonyís response had been his typical quirked smile and a, "Yeah, sure. All right," Sean wasnít very clear as to whether he should really be expecting Tony or not.

So all day heíd been convincing himself not to expect Tony. He pointedly did not check out the windows when he heard a car door slam, and he kept his cell phone in his coat pocket in the hall closet and had only checked it once, maybe twice. Or three times. If Tony didnít show, that was fine by Sean. It wasnít a big deal, seeing as the invite had been an accident, anyway.

The problem was that heíd told his mom. It was only fair to warn her there was a possibility of another person for dinner, to which sheíd said, "Oh?" and Sean knew she was bursting to meet "the man in his life," which was a disgusting phrase sheíd used once before (and only once before) because heíd made her vow never to say it again. Ever. Especially in front of -- well, people.

Sean glanced at the clock again, and his mom gave him that you-poor-boy look. Because she was his mother, he tried not to sneer. "You should go spend time with your uncles and cousins," she jerked her head toward the living room and wiped her hands on the dishtowel slung over her shoulder.

"Theyíre getting along fine without me," he dodged.

"Thatís not the point, Sean. You only see them once a year, and youíre hovering in my kitchen while Iím trying to finish this meal. Now, shoo." She swatted his hip with the towel, and although he uncrossed his ankles, he didnít move. "Beat it, or Iím putting you to work."

Sean rolled his eyes and shoved off for the living room where the circus was well underway. The shrieking children (What were his cousinsí kids in relation to him? Second cousins? Third?) were variously glued to individual electronic devices they refused to share or robotic devices under remote control that they were attempting to hurt each other with. The adults were scattered throughout the room wearing holiday sweaters and smiles, drinks in hand -- they were Irish, after all.

Steeling himself for empty conversation and opinions he didnít agree with, Sean entered the fray.

"Seany!" his uncle Danny greeted broadly, blue eyes gleaming under a shock of white hair. "Still hiding at your motherís apron strings after all these years? Join the party, son. Sit down and tell us how you spend your time in that big city."

One uncle, two cousins, and three aunts immediately turned their attention to Sean, who kept his arms crossed at his chest but forced half a smile. Several inappropriate responses leapt to mind, including, "screwing the guy youíre about to meet -- if he decides to show." And in that split-second Sean realized that Tony actually showing up might be worse than Tony NOT showing up. He would be running serious interference all night.

His mouth began to form a response, but thankfully he was saved form answering at all as a handful of the children shrieked in unison, "Snow ball fight!" and a roar of approval and excitement rose from the adults. Another annoying Christmas tradition heíd forgotten about.

Four relatives worth of cajoling and just over twenty minutes later, Sean found himself in the midst of a snowball fight with somebodyís pre-teen son, his cousin-in-law, and Uncle Danny. Sean was using the yardís sole tree as cover, his eldest cousin Colm by his side and the street behind him. A chunk of white whizzed past the tree trunk, and Sean ducked out to return fire at his twelve-year-old assailant. The boy dodged, but the snowball dusted on impact with his leg.

Sean reached down to scoop more loose snow, aware of the commotion surrounding him as his grown family members trampled each other into the snow banks and the soft swat sounds of snow-hitting-jacket filled the darkening winter air. He was breathing heavily and smirking in victory as Colm nailed Danny full in the chest when he took a sharp, cold blow the back of his head.

Stifling a curse and pasting a hand to the point of impact, Sean wheeled to scan the yard for his sneak attacker. A short figure in a dark overcoat standing at the edge of the sidewalk snagged his gaze. Sean squinted into the hazy light of the street lamps, and his chest suddenly felt empty of air.

Below the brim of a wool driverís cap, Tony Higgins grinned back at him.

Sean hefted the well-formed ball of snow in his hand like a baseball then arched it through the air. Tony easily stepped aside, but was startled out of his smile when he was pelted in the shoulder anyway.

"Had you covered, Seany!" Colm called, just before getting nailed by the twelve-year-old who had snuck close, only to get clobbered for his effort.

Tony peered around Sean at the snow war scene, which was winding down with the arrival of the stranger in the street, then locked eyes with him. Without further greeting, the two men started toward each other, meeting half way on the shoveled path leading to the front door. Tony swiped the remains of the snowball off his open overcoat, his scarf loose over his shoulders, and Sean could see his crisp white shirt, slim red tie, and smooth-front black chinos. To Seanís mom, Tony would look every inch a dapper young businessman. To Sean, Tony looked like sex.

For the first time, it occurred to Sean that Christmas could also be about getting lucky. He smirked.

"Seany?" Tony pursed his lips in an attempt not to smile. Sean definitely knew that look and definitely wanted to smack it off his face -- or shove his tongue in Tonyís mouth. Given the audience of eyes he could feel forming behind him, he chose neither.

"You never heard that."

Tony smacked his lips as though considering the point. "Oh, I think I did."

Sean gritted his teeth, glowered at nothing in particular. "Trust me. You didnít." He forced his shoulders into a relaxed position and kept his voice even. "So. You came."

Catching the hint, Tony nodded. "Yeah. You invited."

Sean bobbed his head and stepped in the direction of the house, purposefully taking the lead to prevent a possible interception. His relatives had gathered in a loose mob near the front door, stomping boots and shaking snow out of hats and gloves. As they cruised past the group, Sean loped backward for a few steps long enough to say, "Guys, this is Tony. Tony, this is everybody," before swooping a hand under the door handle and ushering Tony inside.

"Whoíre all those people?" Tony yanked a thumb over his shoulder as Sean wrestled off his coat.

"Family."

"All of them?"

"Mom has four brothers. They all had kids. Now the kids have kids."

"Huh. You Irish are as bad as we Italians. Good Catholics." Tony watched Sean hurriedly hang their coats. "Am I going to learn any names?"

Sean shrugged. "As needed. Come on." He waved Tony away from the entry space and toward the kitchen seconds before the door opened and his family stampeded back into the house. He silently thanked the god he didnít quite believe in anymore.

The kitchen was extra warm and Seanís mouth immediately began to water. His mom had just pulled the ham from the oven and was tending a potato casserole with a spatula. When he cleared his throat, she turned, and delight visibly lit her face at the sight of Tony. She wiped her fingers on the towel at her shoulder before speechlessly reaching for Tonyís hand and to pat his cheek, her eyes shining.

Now that Tony was blushing (and it was definitely not from the heat) Sean knew he didnít have to worry about "Seany" being made public.

"Iím Anthony Higgins. Itís nice to meet you, Mrs. Conlon." Tony returned her handshake, also not letting go, and leaned in to lightly kiss her cheek.

Seanís mom beamed at him, then back at Tony, and possibly fluttered her eyelashes (Sean wasnít sure, but kind of hoped not). "Anthony," she almost sighed as she patted his cheek, "Now and forever, just call me Eileen."

Crap. Sean smacked a hand to his forehead and dragged it over his face. "Okay. Youíre done." He broke his momís clasp on Tony and pointedly ignored the knowing smile "Eileen" and "Anthony" shared. Great. Soul mates already. Sean ignored the low burn of panic in his stomach, and certainly didnít explore reasons it may have ignited.

An aunt and female cousin-in-law popped in to offer their help loading the table with the entrťe dishes, and Sean took the opportunity to drag Tony to a safe (i.e. family-less) position in a doorway across the living room. He slouched against the wall in relief.

They watched as various salads, vegetables, rolls, and the ham platter filled up the lengthy table.

"I count at least three different kinds of potato," Tony snarked.

Sean rolled his eyes. "What, you miss your mamaís Christmas spaghetti and meatballs?"

Tony grinned and continued watching as Seanís family boasted and laughed and began to circle into the dining room, choosing their seats.

"You never talk about your family," Tony stated. "I had no idea there were this many of them."

Sean just shrugged again. "Itís not like weíre close," he snapped, though he wasnít surprised when Tony forged on.

"I noticed. But you told me your dad died when you were little, so I thought . . ."

Sean lifted an eyebrow and slid a sideways glance at him. At that, Tonyís cool slipped. Sean promptly decided it was his own sex appeal, and not aggravation.

"Youíre so damn mysterious," Tony huffed. "I figured there was some deep, dark, secret. I almost didnít show tonight because I imagined some miserable bum of a step-dad or hours of nobody talkiní to anybody else. Some painful scene I couldnít back outta once I got here."

Sean felt a corner of his mouth rise. He liked it when he agitated Tony enough to bring out the accent he usually tried to suppress. Feeling more at ease for having put Tony on edge, Sean again surveyed the garlanded windows, his flush-cheeked uncles, his momís clutter of holiday knickknacks, and the crowded table -- all accompanied by Celtic Christmas music and six still-shrieking children. "This IS painful," he responded, quite truthfully.

Tony nodded like he understood, but didnít really care. He did his own visual sweep of the scene then reached out and planted a hand on the door frame just above where Seanís shoulder rested. Sean could feel Tonyís heat, smell his aftershave. Next thing he knew, his earlobe was in Tonyís mouth.

A moan of surprise shot out of his lungs as lust shot through his body, and right then Tony bit down. Seanís eyes flew wide and he turned his head sharply to meet Tonyís half-lidded gaze.

Maintaining his proximity, Tony licked his own bottom lip and smiled. "Deal with this pain now, get that pain later," he said simply.

In the few seconds it took for Sean to register his meaning, Tony had moved away and crossed the room. Heíd already extended a hand to Uncle Danny and was introducing himself as Seanís . . . what, exactly? Dannyís meaty palm was larger than Tonyís shoulder as he clapped him on the back and asked what he was drinking.

Although Tony had made him an offer he didnít plan to refuse, Sean hung back to consider it for a moment. Adding "getting lucky with Tony" to his list of traditional Christmas activities wasnít at all a bad idea. And, in the immediate, knowing what was awaiting him would definitely help him hate this part less.