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many times, many ways

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An unmarked package. An envelope, more accurately, hand-folded out of plain brown paper and left right in front of Alex’s front door. Buffy is sniffing at it before Alex can stop her; he snags her by the collar, heart in his throat, but she’s close enough to nudge it with her nose. Alex holds his breath, but she just lets out a soft boof, then loses interest and heads back inside. Alex, however, can’t be quite so cavalier. It may not have exploded when Buffy moved it, but there are ways other than explosives that a strange package can fuck you up. He fetches a pair of gloves and a particle mask before he even touches it. A small gesture toward security, maybe, but it makes him feel safe enough to work a pocketknife under the tape and slowly pull the paper apart.

Alex blinks twice at what’s inside. Pulls his mask off so it falls around his neck and blinks again. Reaches out to touch it.

It’s…a Christmas ornament. But not any, it’s—it’s light in his palm, a tiny thing, a miniature of a poster he had as a kid, the one Maria smuggled into his car after school and he hung up in the toolshed where no one would see it. Alex holds it up. Dangling from a scrap of black ribbon, the little orange rectangle catches the light, gleaming off the black enamel picking out the singer’s little face and the Danger! At the Picture Show lettering. It’s cold when he clenches it in his fist, heart pumping a hundred miles an hour.

For a second, he’s seventeen again, and he has to laugh at the memory of that kid he used to be, earbuds stuffed in his ears, knees jammed up against the desk waiting for the first period bell to ring. He grins despite himself, turning over the paper again, searching for any kind of note or indication who it’s from. Rosa, maybe? Secret presents are definitely her thing, and she was the one who gave him his first DatPS CD when he was fourteen. Maria is the other person who comes to mind, but Alex hopes she would just give it to him in person—he doesn’t like to think of her being too anxious to give him something like this face to face, what with all the mending fences going on.

He smooths his thumb over the ornament’s glossy surface one more time, then puts it on a shelf for safekeeping for lack of anywhere more festive to put it. He doesn’t really decorate for Christmas; the holidays were only ever more of the same when he was a kid, with a thin, grotesque veneer of family over the top of it.

Things get even more festive the next day, though, when he gets home from work and finds another package, in the same brown paper, sitting on the porch steps. It’s bigger this time, three dimensional, and after a moment of deliberation, Alex picks up the phone. Guerin might laugh at him, but that’s a price he has to be willing to pay.

He doesn’t laugh, though. He rolls up in his truck, that, despite the circumstances and the vaguely tipsy feeling of fear lurking in his blood, Alex has to laugh at—there’s a sprig of mistletoe wrapped in bright red ribbon hanging from the rearview mirror.

Michael bounds over to him and says, slightly breathless, “What did you need me to check out?”

Alex waves his hand in the direction of the stairs. “It’s probably nothing. I got something similar yesterday, and it was fine, I just—”

“Oh. Oh, yeah, I get it. Here, let me.” Michael squeezes Alex’s shoulder, a quick, warm, reassuring touch, then takes a step back. Focusing, he narrows his eyes at the little package, then wings it in an arc off into the empty desert.

A second passes. Nothing blows up. Michael pulls the package back in.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he says, “Sorry if whatever’s in there broke. But whoever sent it to you should have known better. Fucking idiot.”

Alex lets out a long breath, forcing his shoulders to drop and his brow to smooth. “No, it’s okay. ‘Tis the season, right? It could be from anyone.”

“Still.” Michael’s mouth curls downward, like he tastes something foul, like he tends to look whenever he tries to make nice with Kyle. It’s exasperating. It’s also a little sweet, in a twisted way.

The box has the same wrapping, same tape job as yesterday’s envelope. It comes apart easily, and inside is—Alex pulls it out, holds it up.

It’s. It’s an alien, full-on little green man alien, holding up its noodly little hands in two peace signs. Wearing a Santa hat. Covered in gaudy glitter. And still intact—only one piece has snapped off, a little piece of red molding clay that someone clearly fashioned so an ornament hook could go through it.

After a shocked second, Alex lets out a very uncharacteristic giggle; then, face burning, he drops the little alien back into the box and glances up at Michael, who’s watching him with his head tilted and a shy smile of his own on his pink mouth.

Their eyes meet for a long, breath-catching moment, a spark jumping through the cold, dry air from one body to the next. Then they both look away, clearing throats, shoving hands in pockets, and looking up at the sky instead of back at each other, each of them so large in the other’s sight to block out the sun.

“Secret Santa?” Michael says, voice cheerfully flippant. He’s still grinning somehow. Alex wants to wipe that look off his face. With his own face.

“Something like that.”

“Next time try to get someone who knows you better than to get that touristy shit.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Michael leaves after that, making it both easier and harder to breathe. Touristy shit aside, Alex puts the Santa alien on the shelf beside the first ornament, and later that night, after tossing and turning for a little while, he grabs his crutches, goes to the shelf, gropes in Jim’s old toolbox for a tube of superglue, and hunches over the coffee table to fix the clay part, making it an ornament once again.

One is an event. Two is a coincidence. Three ornaments in three days, and it’s a pattern.

No brown paper package shows up the third day; rather, he finds the ornament when he checks his mailbox in town. It’s a little laptop this time, nothing special, but it still brings a smile to his face when he holds it in his palm.

Who could the mystery sender be? It turns into something of an obsession over the next few days, which see him receiving a log cabin, a beagle, and a beautiful handmade silver and turquoise songbird. It’s clearly someone who knows him now, and someone who knows him well enough to know his home, his pet, what he does for a living…it’s a narrow field, to be sure—basically just Maria, Liz, Kyle, or Rosa. He rubs his thumb over the beagle’s little painted nose while Buffy shoots it a suspicious look from the couch as he considers his options.

Whoever it is, Guerin must know, because since the second day, the ornaments have arrived in his mailbox or on his porch unwrapped or in clear plastic wrap if it’s raining out.

Of course, all the evidence could point toward it being Guerin himself. But…somehow, Alex can’t bring himself to believe it, if only because the thought of Michael thinking of him like this, over time, with dedication, makes Alex’s chest ache with longing to see him, to hear him, to feel him. Better it be some scheme of Rosa’s. It’s just…better that way.

The gifts keep coming. Day seven, it’s the Air Force crest; on the eighth and ninth days, he finds a sunbathing alien and a bowl of ramen on his front step. They both go on the increasingly-crowded shelf, though he shoots the ramen a nasty look when he puts it in place. Another point in the Maria column, considering last time he went to one of her movie nights, he was asked to put pizza rolls in the oven and managed to burn them despite absolutely following the instructions on the package.

The tenth day’s ornament arrives in a blue Tupperware container, just translucent enough to see the ornament inside, but not so much he can tell what it is.

He opens it and finds a ball ornament wrapped in strips of paper cut from dictionaries in ten languages he can identify, including all six he speaks. It’s sturdy papier-mâché, but Alex still holds it like it might shatter if he breathes on it too hard. Every line defines things like family, like love, like forever. He returns it to its box and puts it on the shelf with the others, but his fingers linger over the lid, because there are lines he hasn’t traced with his fingertips yet, and he can hardly tear himself away.

He goes into town later that day on a grocery run with words still swimming in his mind and his mouth fixed shut because he’s not sure what might come out. But no level of distraction or concentration could keep him from being blindsided when he runs into Guerin outside the Crashdown, their bodies catching shoulder to shoulder, Guerin’s hand on his arm to steady him—their collision almost knocked a big box out of Guerin’s hands, but he steadies it with a little help from his powers until Alex has his balance back and he can take it in both hands again.

“Alex,” he breathes, then clears his throat. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“I could say the same to you,” Alex manages.

Guerin shakes the box lightly. “Liz wants to surprise Arturo with the decorations this year, so I figured I’d offer my services. I’m the only one who can get tinsel into all the hard-to-reach places, after all.”

“Oh, that’s—that’s really nice.”

“Nah, I’m getting paid. Mostly in milkshakes and fries, but who’s complaining?”

They stare across the box. It’s been like this, lately, a small talk stiffness to their interactions, and Alex doesn’t know how to make it stop. But at the same time, he isn’t sure he wants to. It’s almost…nice. A couple weeks ago Alex drove by the junkyard just because he could, and Michael smelled like snow and pine and commented on the weather, and that brief exchange left the both of them grinning like idiots by the time Alex drove away. They aren’t lovers again, not yet. But they’re something. They’re getting there.

“Want some help? I’m free tonight,” Alex says, and Michael smiles at him, and that’s that. Alex comes back late, once the Crashdown is closed and Arturo is in bed. Liz and Rosa come downstairs to work on the decorations too, and more hands makes for light work, though Michael does most of the work without using his hands at all. They’re finished in no time. Alex plugs the lights in, flips the switch, and Rosa laughs, real and unrestrained and tugging Liz into the middle of the floor, dotted with multicolored puddles of light, twirling her in a circle. Sometime during the decorating, Rosa managed to stick Michael with a present ribbon, and it bobbles on top of his curls as he slinks over to Michael’s side to knock their shoulders together. Alex lets him, in the spirit of the season, and because every time Michael touches him his body goes weightless.

Now is as good a time to ask as any.

“So, Guerin,” he says, “I’m still getting ornaments every day. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that you haven’t told me, would you?”

Michael shrugs and grins that cowboy grin. “Looks to me like you’ve got yourself a secret admirer.”

“Secret, huh?”

“Looks that way.”

And before Alex can say another word, Michael is walking away to join Liz and Rosa dancing, whistling Let It Snow. He gets away from Alex that time, but before their little impromptu party is over, Alex manages to steal the bow from his hair, just glancing his fingers off those curls, so lightly Guerin doesn’t even seem to notice.

Whether he’s the ornament giver or not, Alex puts the bow on the shelf with the others. Just in case.

The next day, there’s no ornament when he leaves in the morning, and nothing in his mailbox when he checks it that evening, either. He’s—frustrated, okay, rather than sad, because what was the point? Stopping ten days in, what was even the point? It leaves him feeling untethered, without that tiny little thing to look forward to each and every day. Somehow, without even really noticing, he’d kind of gotten into the Christmas spirit. He even, feeling ridiculous the entire time, went to the pet store and bought a couple gifts for his dog, because he’s in a gift-giving mood even if he’s not sure he’s exchanging gifts with anyone else this year.

He shoulders his way out of the office, avoiding eye contact with the clerk, who’s surely noticed him coming in every single day, when he used to only check his mail once a week at best. Whatever. Now he has no reason to come back so often, and they’ve got plenty of time to forget him, like the way things should be.

He’s so caught up in his thoughts that he almost smacks Maria right in the face with the door as he leaves. She yelps, and he catches it at just the last second, tripping over apologies while she flaps her hand at him dismissively.

“It’s fine, it’s fine, Alex, really,” she laughs. Alex steadies her with his hands on her shoulders, and she tugs him to the side, out of the way of the sidewalk traffic. “I was hoping to run into you anyway. I have something for you.”

Oh shit. Anxiety spikes, and Alex blabbers, “Oh, shit, Maria, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know we were doing gifts this year—”

Great. Their friendship is finally finding even footing again, and Alex immediately puts himself in the red again by hitting her with a door and tells her straight up that he didn’t get her anything for Christmas. Batting a fuckin’ thousand, isn’t he. No wonder his secret admirer or whatever got bored of him.

“Alex, seriously, chill.” She tweaks his chin. “No presents is one hundred percent fine. You think I’m all about worshipping at the capitalist altar that is Christmas? Hell no. Buuut someone asked me for a favor, and it just so happened that I had something for you anyway, so here you go.”

She grabs his hand and presses into it a beautifully beaded eight-pointed star, red and white and gold. Alex gasps, and says, “This is—”

“One of Mom’s, yeah.” That wry, sad smile Maria gets when she talks about her mother curls up on her face. “She makes a lot of them on her good days, and her nurse says it’s good that she’s working with her hands. And Mom specifically said this one was for you.”

“God.” Alex swallows and grips the star as tightly as he can without crushing it. “Let me know next time you’re going to visit her, okay? So I can thank her in person?”

“Sure thing.”

Maria blinks rapidly for a moment, and Alex, understanding, doesn’t mention it. She composes herself quickly, and then Alex just has to ask:

“So it hasn’t been you the whole time, has it?”

“What, leaving you the ornaments? I am not that sappy.”

“Come on, there’s nothing wrong with being a little sentimental,” he teases.

“Uh huh. Sure. I forgot I was talking to the master of fuzzy feelings himself.”

“Do as I say, not as I do.”

Maria laughs at that and, hooking her arm through his, starts off down the street. “Now, we may not be exchanging presents this year, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make you help me with the rest of my shopping.”

The next day’s ornament is a classic Han Solo one, and if Alex lets out an undignified gasp when he sees it, Buffy is the only creature around to witness it. If he spends the rest of the day finding and watching the Star Wars Christmas Special, well, the same goes for that too, and his dignity is firmly intact.

The day after that, Liz texts him to come to the Crashdown, and since it’s a weekend he makes it there to meet her on her lunch break. The decorations look just as good in the daylight, if an inch or two less magical, and Alex has to duck his head to hide his grin when he remembers Michael very seriously placing a Santa hat on each individual alien in the place.

Liz beckons him over to a booth, two shakes and a plate of fries already in front of her. “Figured since I called you out, I could at least treat you,” she says. “On top of what I called you here for, which is….” She does a little drumroll on the table, then plonks an ornament box down on the table.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Alex bursts out.

“I know, right? I couldn’t believe it when I found it.”

Laughing and shaking his head, Alex picks it up. It’s a cat wearing an antenna headband so, so similar to the one perched on Liz’s head—the wrong shade of green, but still.

“I don’t suppose this is your way of telling me you’ve been leaving me ornaments all month, is it.”

“Pfft, no way.” Liz steals a fry from his tray and crunches it smugly. “Secret admirer, Manes. It’s supposed to be secret.”

Day fourteen is something delicate, so much so he’s a little scared to touch it. It’s thin glass, deep blue, and when it catches a light source it sends shimmering blue all around the room. It’s the day Alex stops trying to guess who his mystery gift-giver is, because now he’s been given light to hold in his hands, and it makes him feel—makes him—

Someone thought he was worthy of this. Someone wanted him to have it. Whether or not they ever tell him who they are, that means something.

His fifteenth ornament is the third one to come wrapped in a package, but this time it’s in an actual USPS shipping box, and it comes with a letter inside, in handwriting he recognizes.

Captain, it says, we got pressed into service again, and I was the unlucky bastard who drew the short straw, so I’m sending this to you, along with a warning that you fucking owe me…

The ornament is basic, a decently pretty white and silver snowflake. He puts the letter on the shelf with it. If the season is forcing everyone else into a sentimental mood, he might as well succumb to it too.

He wakes up on the sixteenth day with a bit of a sentiment hangover and lets himself lie in bed for a little while longer than usual, fondling Buffy’s soft ears and cradling this lovely, bittersweet feeling inside himself. If Christmas is the deadline for this whole ornament thing, he’s over halfway to the end. He takes the morning slowly, lingering over his coffee and over the view of the desert through his kitchen window, the high def white-gray limning of the world you get with a serious cold.

That day’s ornament doesn’t match Alex’s mood at all, but he still chuckles and shakes his head when he sees it. It’s another patch job like the Santa alien, but this time some sort of Valentines leftover—a traditional Roswell Gray holding a big red heart that says you’re out of this world!, with a handmade place for ornament hooks to go. It looks absurdly out of place next to everything else he’s accumulated, but he gives it its place of honor anyway.

He doesn’t expect his seventeenth ornament to arrive on the doorstep or in the mail, and sure enough, the pattern holds and it’s hand delivered at like ten o’clock that night. He almost doesn’t answer the door, but to be honest he’d left his leg on after work expecting just this.

“Ho ho ho,” an exhausted-looking Kyle says, shoving a box into Alex’s hands.

“Dude, did you drive all the way out here after your shift? It could have waited.”

“Nah, this is my one good deed for the year.”

“You’re literally a surgeon. Your job is good deeds.”

“Fine—my one act of charity.”

Alex bristles at that. “I don’t need—”

“Not for you.” Kyle punches him lightly on the shoulder.

Cryptic bastard.

“Go ahead and open it,” Kyle says, “My blood is eighty percent coffee right now, and I want to get home before I crash”

“You know you can stay if you need to.”

“Yeah, yeah. Open it.”

Alex’s eyebrows go straight up when he does and pulls out a shimmery white ball with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer logo on it. “You didn’t pick this out yourself. You asked me why I gave my dog a porn name the first time you met her.”

“Hey! I listened when you explained—” When Alex fixes him with a glare, Kyle gives in with a laugh. “Okay, okay, Rosa helped. Oh ye of little faith.”

Kyle leaves after that, with a quick hug and a Merry Christmas, and Alex goes to his shelf to put the ornament away. He hasn’t been keeping them in chronological order, more a sort of a…thematic grouping. The Buffy ball goes with Maria’s star, Liz’s alien cat, and the snowflake from his unit.

He looks up and turns away, casting his eyes all around the room to hide from no one the fact that he’s getting a little bit choked up.

Maybe he’ll buy some lights tomorrow. Or tinsel or something. No reason he can’t go in on the decorating, right? Why is he still holding himself back?

He doesn’t make it to the store the next day, or the two after that, three days that see him receiving a coffee mug, a UFO that’s supposed to light up when it’s plugged in, and a little truck hauling a Christmas tree.

He wonders if maybe that last one is a promise.

The pattern of hand deliveries every other day has been broken. But, in the spirit of the season—Alex doesn’t dwell on the fact that he never got one hand-delivered by Michael and instead chooses to think about the other thing that could mean.

On day twenty-one, he gets a glass teardrop that shimmers purple and golden, and on day twenty-two he gets a golden disc engraved with a tiny, perfect star chart.

The day before Christmas Eve, he opens the door to find an acoustic guitar.

As if he didn’t already know.

Christmas Eve dawns gray and dismal with the smell of snow in the air. Buffy trots around the yard in circles, lifting her nose every couple minutes to sniff the cold, and Alex cradles his coffee in both hands to keep them warm while he watches her, content. Part of him regrets that he never went and got more decorations, but it’s okay. This whole month—it’s been such an unexpected thing to be able to accept a simple joy into his life, to let himself expect a little, uncalled-for gift every day, that all he can feel at this point is just…peace. He couldn’t have asked for anything else. He didn’t.

Buffy barks, and Alex looks up just in time to see a familiar truck coming down the road, the bed covered with a tarp. Alex puts his mug down on the railing and regrets it instantly for want of something to do with his hands as Michael parks, opens the door, and jumps out of the car.

“Hey,” Alex says.

“Hey. Merry Christmas,” Michael says in return.

They just stare at each other for a moment, something that happens a lot when it’s just the two of them. Like they have to steel themselves to speak. Like they have to make sure that no, it’s not, it’s not the time to take that step forward and drown themselves in each other. It’s okay, yeah, it’s okay to just be here. Like this.

“Want some help with that?” Alex tilts his chin in the direction of the tarp.

“Y-yeah. Sure.” He stumbles over the word and ducks his head, rounding the truck to reveal what’s underneath.

It’s exactly what Alex expected, and everything he never did. His heart in his throat, he touches one of the branches on the tree, needles pricking his skin, sap sticky on his fingertips when he pulls them away.

“You get the other end,” Michael says, and they carry it inside together, a crate full of other decorations floating along behind them, Buffy pulling up the rear, eyeing it suspiciously. She settles in the corner to watch as Michael sets the tree up, hammers it into the stand, and positions it in the corner where it’ll be out of Alex’s way.

Alex hovers in the kitchen, making them both more coffee, hands shaking a little bit on the grounds, on the filter, on the carafe. The tree still takes up too much room. Michael takes up too much room. He always has. In this tiny house. In Alex’s heart and in his head and between his ribs. Michael pulls things out of the crate one by one and hangs them in the air around himself—bundles of lights, a skirt for the tree, multicolored balls and delicate paper snowflakes to fill all the spots left between the ornaments in Alex’s new collection.

Their fingers brush when Alex hands him a mug, and Alex lets the moment hang there. Skin on skin in the most casual, innocent way, but with Michael’s golden eyes so close it still manages to heat his blood, dry his mouth, cover him in yearning.

“Thanks,” Michael says hoarsely. He drags his index finger along Alex’s as he pulls his hand away, sending a shiver through the both of them.

Decorating for Christmas shouldn’t feel forbidden, but it does. It does, as they circle around each other, spiraling lights around the tree, eyes catching on every pass, Alex’s face so warm every time he sees Michael’s answering blush, on his cheeks, on his lips. Once the lights are on, they start in on the ornaments. Alex picks them off the shelf in chronological order, passing half of them to Michael, keeping half of them—like Mimi’s star, Han Solo, and the guitar—for himself.

How did you manage it?” He asks eventually, fixing the teardrop to a high branch so Buffy doesn’t get any ideas.

“A friend who knows how to navigate Etsy, a sister with Amazon Prime, and a little bit of old-fashioned gumption.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Sure am.” Michael grins with satisfaction at the Valentines alien. Then he sobers a bit and says, “Hey, look, I’m sorry about the packaging the first couple days. I wanted to surprise you—I wasn’t thinking, and I should have.”

“It’s okay. You changed it up, and…yeah. It’s fine.”


A couple minutes pass in silence as Alex searches for what else to say. To ask. Why did he do it? When did he get the idea?

He asks, “What about the others? The ones you had Maria, Liz, Kyle, and the guys pick out? Red herrings, or did you just run out of ideas?”

“Oh, I had lots of ideas.” Michael presses his shoulder to Alex’s, coming in close to hang the star chart right beside the silver bird. Nudging him shyly, Michael says, “But my favorite one was the one where you got reminded how many people care about you.”

Alex almost drops the UFO at that, at Michael’s absurd honesty. He has nothing else to say, and they finish decorating the tree in peaceful silence. When they finish, Alex turns the lights off, and Michael plugs the tree in, and the gray day is dark enough that everything lights up bright like it would in the evening, all the colors of the rainbow.

“Fuck,” Alex breathes. It’s like a punch to the gut, happiness and disbelief and the unavoidable need to hoard this feeling, this moment, that comes on the heels of those feelings.

“So you like it?”

“Fuck,” Alex repeats, “Michael. I love it. It’s…I just…”


Michael, hesitating all the way, reaches out and takes Alex’s hand, sliding their fingers home together.

“I have one more ornament for you.” And he reaches into his pocket.

Alex makes a strangled noise when he sees it. Instinct tells him to rip his hand out of Michael’s and flee to the other side of the room to regroup, but he stays rooted in place, struggling, grasping for anything to say.

The console shard—because that’s what it has to be, just with gauzy ribbon looped and knotted carefully around one end so it dangles neatly from Michael’s fingers—shimmers in the soft rainbow light. Michael’s eyes shimmer along with it, equally as alien.

“I can’t,” Alex blurts. “I can’t take it. Michael. No. It’s—”

“No, no, listen, please.” Michael tugs on his hand like he wants to pull him closer, but Alex can’t—he just can’t—

He can’t be what ties Michael to Earth. He can’t be the sole tether that keeps him here, to the world that hurt him again and again, even if it’s the thing he wants most in the world, to protect, to hoard him like he hoards every sliver of a happy memory, where no one can take it away from him. That’s why he—months ago, when he most thought Michael was slipping through his hands, he gave him the console piece he found so he could go if he needed to. And now Michael tries to hand another piece back to him again?

“I can’t,” Alex says again, stuck on repeat.

“Hey, hey,” Michael fumbles for Alex’s other hand, and Alex lets him catch it, because with Michael holding him in place he doesn’t feel as cold. “It’s not what you think. I’m not asking you to keep me here, or anywhere, just.”

He swallows. He’s beautiful, in this light most of all. The most beautiful thing Alex has ever seen. Shining in every way, from the golden brushstrokes of his hair to the heart of him, who knew that Alex must never have had much of a holiday and decided to give him one.

Alex wants to kiss him. Wants to swallow whatever words Michael is going to say next and end the conversation there.

“Look.” Michael squeezes his hands. “When my mom—when she died. And after. Everything I worked for, everything I built the console for and devoted my life to, I thought it was over. Useless. But…you told me you were my family. And I know it took me too long to believe it, but I do now.

“I built the console because I was searching for my family. And now that it’s right in front of me, I want you to have a piece of it. Want us to have a piece of it.”

Alex searches Michael’s face, every earnest, open inch, until he can’t stand it anymore, until he drops Michael’s hands in favor of cradling his face, pulling him in, and taking his mouth in a slow, deep, careful kiss, tasting coffee on his tongue, drowning in the coming home of him, of his mouth on Alex’s, the rightness of having him in his arms. Michael responds with enthusiasm, stroking his back with his broad hands, making eager little noises into the kiss, going along with it until Alex pulls away to look at him again.

“You’re unbelievable,” Alex breathes.

“Thought it was the season for believing,” Michael replies, a little smile returning to his face.

“That’s what they tell me,” Alex says, and kisses him again.

Michael stays the night, wrapped up in Alex’s blankets, wrapped up in every inch of space Alex has ever thought was empty or cold. He doesn’t even need to set the heater that night, kept plenty warm by Michael’s body all along his back, holding him so close.

They wake up slow in the morning, but Alex earliest, because…

Well, even after everything Michael has done this month and everything he said the previous day, Alex is nervous about Michael’s Christmas present. He needs those extra minutes, watching him sleep peacefully, to steel himself.

But when he watches Michael wake up, sees how the first thing he does is look for Alex so he can smile at him, he isn’t so worried anymore.

They bring the blankets out into the sitting room, bundling up under the tree. Buffy leaves her bed to lie beside them instead, on top of the blankets, effectively pinning them in place, so Michael has to use his powers to get the wood and kindling set and strike a match and get a fire going in the fireplace.

The light flickers like something living off the console shard hanging from one of the uppermost branches. Heart in his throat, Alex pulls the envelope—the same one that held the ornament he got on December 1st—out of his pocket.

“I have something for you, too.”

Michael takes the envelope, eyes locked on Alex’s like he’s waiting for permission to open it. When Alex nods, he slips the tape open carefully, almost reverently. Like Alex, he’s never really gotten a gift before. Not one he thought meant anything. Not one he thought could stay.

He shakes the envelope, and a key falls into his hand.

“It’s to the front door,” Alex says to fill the silence.

Michael’s fist clamps around it with a familiar desperation, like someone might come out of nowhere to snatch it away. He blinks glossy eyes, wet lashes up at Alex, his mouth open, closed, throat bobbing as he swallows. Alex reaches out to stroke his closed fist.

“You’re my family. You’re my home. I don’t ever want to shut you out; I want you to be here. With me. Together. And I think you want that too.”

“Alex,” Michael chokes, and then he’s in Alex’s arms, wrapped around him in a hug.

He stays like that for most of the day, handsy and gentle, reaching out to touch him whenever they’re separated even for a moment. The next day passes much the same—then the next they both have to go back to work, live lives outside of their little holiday bubble.

Alex gets home first. He takes the dog out, gets dinner out of the freezer. Then about an hour later, he hears a car outside, footsteps on the stairs, then, after a minute’s pause, a key slots into the lock.

And Alex knows.