Fancy Bali for Xmas? The text from James arrives just before lunchtime, followed by a string of palm tree emojis.
Henry looks up from his laptop. For the last hour, he's been attempting to wrestle a review of a new tapas-slash-burger-slash-sushi restaurant into some sort of coherence. Which is more than the restaurant itself possesses, but he has standards to uphold, and the words “ill-conceived” can only be used so many times in a seven hundred word review.
Bali sounds tempting. He and James have been before, years ago. Henry fondly remembers it as a beautiful island teeming with horny Australians. He wouldn't say no to a horny Australian or two at the moment. He didn't back then, either, as he recalls.
But. I've got to go see my dad. Le Vesconte Senior is over eighty. Every Christmas might be his last, as Henry's brother is very fond of reminding him. Papa's “Last Christmas” has become an annual event, now celebrating its fourth consecutive year, but at this point, Henry would truly feel bad if he gave it a miss and his father then died. It's not as though Henry visits his family much—or at all—during the rest of the year.
The reply arrives immediately. I'll come with you.
Henry hears footsteps. A moment later, the door to the closet he calls his “home office” slides open.
“What do you mean, why?” James looks at him, expression quizzical.
“I mean, why don't you go to Bali on your own?”
“Where's the fun in that?”
“It'll be a lot more fun than sitting about the house with my family.” Even though Henry's father loves James. They all do. “Even I wouldn't do that if I didn't have to. And you came last year.” Two years in a row of Le Vesconte family Christmases is not something Henry would wish on anyone not obligated by birth.
“And I had fun. Don't worry, I'll take some pictures of the village, sell them to stock photo site or an online magazine or something, call it a business trip. I don't want to spend Christmas without you, old love.” He smiles and, just like that, Henry can almost imagine they're a real couple.
Henry's relationship with James has always defied definition. They're friends and flatmates who fuck. They'll go on extravagant, adventurous trips together, and separately pick up men, and occasionally women. They'll go out to the club, and only have eyes for each other. They're brothers and lovers and everything in between, and they've never put a label on it. Which was always fine with Henry. For a long time, he was just as free-spirited as James, a firm believer in living in the moment and going where the wind took him. It's only since they've settled in London, and since Henry realized, to his shocked dismay, that he is much closer to his fiftieth birthday than he is his fortieth that he's started to think that maybe labels aren't entirely bad. Henry is a writer, after all. He has an affinity for words.
“So it's settled.” James stands behind Henry's ergonomic office chair—all the better for the back of a man in his late forties—and puts his arms around Henry's shoulders. “Christmas in the south of France. How romantic.” He kisses Henry's cheek. “Want to go for lunch to celebrate?”
Henry opens a file. Three new restaurants await the scathing, or, rarely, laudatory pen of Henry T.D. Le Vesconte.
“I've got a place offering vegan sandwiches, something calling itself 'authentic Yorkshire', and 'the spiciest Thai outside Bangkok.'” That last makes quite a promise. Henry remembers having some exceptionally spicy times in Bangkok. Apparently, so does James.
“Spicy, hm?” His mouth returns, this time sliding lower to kiss along Henry's jaw. Henry stays still, until James' tongue reaches that particular spot just behind his ear. Then, he swivels the chair and yanks James onto his lap.
Laughing, James leans in for another kiss, a real one this time, long and wet and everything that goes directly to Henry's cock. “Just a quickie, dear,” James murmurs against Henry's lips, when they pause for breath. “I've got a date later on.”
Henry stifles his sigh. “Quickie it is, then.” He stands, ignoring the twinge from his back, and leads James to his own bedroom.
The Le Vesconte ancestral village is just what one would expect from a tiny place in Provence. Cobblestone streets, breathtaking views, a medieval church that managed to survive the wars more or less intact. It's all as boring as hell. Henry doesn't blame his father for leaving as soon as he could, and moving to the UK to marry Henry's English mother. He does blame him for coming back after Henry's mother died.
Henry's father lives in the same cottage Henry's grandparents did. Just the sight of it, as the car crests the hill, brings back memories of dull school holidays, of reading volume after volume of Tintin and Astérix et Obélix, not by choice, of trying to play with standoffish village children, who called Henry l'anglais even though his father's family had lived in the village since approximately the time of Christ. Just as his schoolmates in England called him “Frog”, even though he was born in Bristol.
Perhaps, Henry thinks, that was why he was so eager to travel the world as soon as he was able. Why he spent so many years going from country to country, never spending too long in one place. Why he'd felt adrift, without anywhere to really call home, until he met James.
“Come on, Dundy.” James nudges him, as he pulls the car to a stop. “It'll be fine.”
It is, of course, for James. He's met with enthusiasm wherever he goes, and Henry's family home is no exception.
“James!” Henry's father calls, waving from his wheelchair as Henry's older brother Chris lets them in. Chris has gained a little weight and lost a little hair, Henry notices, but since he himself has been entirely grey for years, he's in no position to cast stones. “Come here, my boy.”
James rushes to Le Vesconte Senior's side. “Papa! Je suis heureux. Pour le Noël. Avec toi. Avec vous.”
James has no gift for languages, but he overflows with charm. Henry has watched the same scene unfold in a rice paddy in rural Vietnam, on the streets of Buenos Aires, in a rickety propeller plane over Nigeria. Even the frostiest Anglophobe cracks a smile at James' attempts to mangle their native languages and, within minutes, they're laughing like old friends as they work out a system of hand signals.
Now, James' fractured French spurs Papa to stand on wobbly legs and throw his arms around James, greeting him as a prodigal son. He kisses both of James' cheeks, a habit he is English enough to have never exhibited with anyone else.
“It's so good to see you, James. And Henry.” Belatedly, Henry's father smiles over James' shoulder.
“Merry Christmas, Papa.” Henry steps forward for an embrace of his own, one arm around his father and the other around James.
Chris and his family are just as eager to see James. Even the two children, world-weary teenagers, brighten when James shares the tale of his recent ill-fated attempt at parasailing in Costa Rica.
Nobody can tell a story like James. Henry often tells him he should have been a writer instead of, or maybe as well as, a photographer. He always demurs, usually with,“You're the writer in the family, Dundy.”
“A podcast, then,” Henry suggests. So far, James has resisted that idea, as well.
While James recounts, in vivid dramatic detail, the horrified looks on the faces of the sunbathing couple he nearly ran into the sand, Chris' wife Colleen appears with a tray of choux pastries. Henry takes three.
“We're so glad you brought James with you, Henry,” Colleen says. “The kids have been asking after him.” She lowers her voice, although everybody is too caught up in James' story to pay them any mind. “Papa's been asking, too.” Henry's gaze goes to his father, sitting beside James, listening with such rapt attention, James assumes he's even turned on his hearing aids. “I know it's a bit personal, but...” Colleen hesitates.
“Papa is old fashioned. You know that. He'd love to see the two of you married before he goes. You and James, I mean.”
“That's old fashioned?”
“He wants to see you settled. And he loves James. We all do.”
“It's not like that between us,” Henry says, at the risk of disappointing everyone, even himself.
“Of course,” James says, suddenly looking over at Henry, “that's nothing compared to the time your Uncle Dundy and I found an orphaned cheetah cub.”
“You've told them that story,” Henry reminds him.
“Tell it again,” the older of the kids, Josie, implores. James holds out a hand to Henry, eyebrows raised expectantly.
It's no use. Henry can't resist him. He crosses the tiny room, dominated by a too-big Christmas tree, and lets James catch his hand. James pulls Henry onto the floral sofa beside him. Throwing an easy arm around Henry's shoulders, James begins, “We were camping in Tanzania, just before the start of the rainy season. One night, I told Dundy I could swear I heard a sound outside our tent...”
Unsurprisingly for a man who loves food, Réveillon has always been Henry's favourite part of Christmas. All day on the twenty-fourth, he and Colleen and Chris are in the little kitchen, tripping over one another as they prepare the escargots and the oyster soup, the foie gras and la bûche de Noël and a side of boar that barely fits into the oven. Their English side demands Christmas pudding, as well, so Henry finds room to make the custard on a stovetop that is already full of pans.
James and the children are tasked with entertaining Papa, but James flits in and out, stealing bits of food and kissing Henry lightly on the cheek or on the lips each time he passes. It's more affectionate than he normally is at home, unless he's angling for sex. Henry certainly doesn't have time for that. At one point, Chris seems about to say something about it, but Colleen looks at him meaningfully, and he keeps his mouth shut. Henry is grateful for that. Chris has never had any problem with James, which makes it likely he was going to remind Henry of Papa's sudden intense desire to have a same-sex marriage in the family. Henry can't get into that now. Not when his custard is refusing to thicken.
Once the meal is on the table, and Henry is able to sit back with a glass of truly superb Sauvignon Blanc, he remembers why he does this at Christmas, rather than go to Bali or Tenerife or even stay at home with a pork vindaloo and Love Actually. There is no cuisine like French cuisine and, even when done by a trio of amateurs, there is no French cuisine like that of Réveillon.
Henry's two elderly aunts arrive, twins Nanette and Yvette who still dress identically in their late eighties. A cousin, the only one remaining in the area, comes with his most recent partner, and the partner's two young children. They all speak English, to some degree, and James is in his element. Henry watches, heart full of love and stomach rapidly filling with rich Christmas food, as his dear friend plays the perfect host in a house—in a country—that isn't even his own.
They prolong the meal as much as possible, laughing and talking over each course. When the kids go off to play video games, the adults sit back with another glass of wine and, in Henry's case, another helping of Christmas pudding.
“Do you want to go church tonight, Papa?” Colleen asks.
Henry's father, who looked like he was dozing off, jolts upright. “No, no. I can't be bothered to make the walk this year, love. And in any case, this is my religion.” He raises his wineglass. Laughter ensues, and Henry thinks, for the first time, that he might actually have something in common with his father.
Henry's mother always insisted on opening their presents the English way, on Christmas morning, rather than Christmas Eve as his father's family was accustomed to. They've kept her tradition. With a promise to be back bright and early, Henry and James eventually stumble off to their bed and breakfast, exchanging enthusiastic Joyeux Noëls with villagers pouring out of Midnight Mass.
When they get to their room, James pulls Henry into his arms. Henry goes, gladly, good wine buzzing pleasantly in his veins and good food filling his stomach.
“I have a present for you,” he says, once he's able to speak.
“Now?” James laughs. “I thought you were all very strict about waiting until Christmas morning.”
“This one is special.” Henry breaks free and goes over to his luggage.
He and James came of age long before words like “genderfluid” and “non-binary” were in common use. Henry once asked James about his occasional habit of wearing dresses at home, but as usual James was reluctant to label anything. “I'm happy with who I am,” was all he said, so Henry is happy, too. He would be happy, as well, to go out in public with James dressed in anything he likes, but James seems content for that to be fitted trousers and polo shirts and bespoke suits. At least for now.
Henry watches as James unwraps the gaudy festive paper, takes out the white box, carefully removes the sheets of light pink tissue. His eyes light up. Henry's heart soars.
“Dundy!” James holds up the negligee. It's sheer black with white lace edging, dotted with little white flowers. There are a pair of matching lace panties, as well, which James touches almost with reverence. “It's beautiful!”
“I thought you would like it.” The moment he saw it on the website, he knew it was for James. Henry has bought him feminine clothing before, as private birthday gifts or just because he thought James would like them, but this is his first try at lingerie. It's gratifying to know it's a success.
“I love it.” James leans over to kiss him, on the cheek and again on the lips. “Give me a minute to change.”
“I didn't get it for my benefit, James.” It seems important to make that clear. “You can wear it whenever you like.” Alone, or with other men, even if the thought of that makes Henry feel a little ill. This isn't about Henry.
“I'd like to wear it now.” James raises an eyebrow, even as he starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Of course, if you prefer not to look...”
Henry looks. He couldn't stop himself if he wanted to, which he decidedly does not.
James' body is always gorgeous, lean and strong. The delicate negligee adds an additional layer of beauty, a diaphanous softness Henry hadn't thought he found particularly alluring, until now. There's so much he didn't expect to like, both in and out of bed, until he did it with James.
The sensation of the silky fabric sliding beneath his hands, and over James' hard muscles, as Henry joyfully rides James' cock is transcendent. Henry comes quickly and breathlessly, feeling like a much younger man. James follows moments later, and, after he's tossed away his condom, he straightens his nightie and returns to lie at Henry's side.
“Happy Christmas, darling,” he murmurs.
“Yes,” Henry replies. It really is.
Christmas Day passes, as always, in a flurry of shortbread and mince pies and dismal attempts at acting out “Mary Poppins” and “Duran Duran” in charades. In the late afternoon, when the aunts and cousins have gone home and Papa is snoring in his chair, James looks over and says, “Fancy a walk?”
“Not really.” Henry fancies getting stuck into the tin of Quality Street chocolates, or maybe a Terry's Chocolate Orange.
“Oh, come on. It's beautiful out there. I want to get some photos.”
One of Henry's great faults in life, he long since discovered, is the inability to say no to James. So he follows along, trudging behind James' distinctly more sprightly step as they head out of the village and up into the coastal hills. It was here, Henry remembers, he spent hours looking out to sea as a child, dreaming of a life of adventure and possibly piracy. He never accomplished the piracy, unless you count his library of downloaded films, but the adventure he's had in spades.
James snaps a few pictures. Henry takes one of his own with his phone, of James in the shade of a tree.
“I've been thinking.” James puts his camera bag down. He sits beside it, on the grass, and Henry joins him.
“Is that a good thing?”
James nudges him with his shoulder. “I want to go back to Rio this year.”
“All right.” Henry is fine with that. He has very fond memories of their last trip, nearly a decade ago, and the little cheese treats, pao de queijo, found in every snack bar. “Do you want to try and find your mother again?” They'd come across a few promising leads last time, but, even with James' personality, it was hard going not speaking much Portuguese.
“Maybe. I want to learn more about where I come from. Being with your family has made me realize again just how much I've missed out on. My roots, I mean.” Henry puts an arm around his shoulder. He's trying to think of something comforting to say, when James goes on, “Makes me realize just how much I've got, too.” He pulls away a little, not to reject Henry's embrace but to look him in the eye. “We've done just about everything together, haven't we, Dundy?”
James looks away. He fidgets, running a hand through his hair. Henry knows James well enough to know just how nervous he is. That, in turn, makes Henry nervous, and he tries to stand up. James pushes him down, gently, and takes his hand. “We should try something new.”
“Oh, yes?” Whatever it is, Henry's happy to give it a go, provided James is there. He doesn't fool himself. He wouldn't have been half as many places or seen half as many sights, if he hadn't happened to stop at a hostel in Nanjing twenty-two years ago and come upon a lanky Brazilian-born Englishman drying his hiking socks on the radiator.
“We're getting older. I'd like to settle down. With you. Not slow down, I'm not that old for God's sake. But it would be nice to just...stick together. If you know what I mean.”
Henry isn't sure he does. He knows what he would like him to mean, but he also knows James. Intimately. “Please explain.”
James rolls his eyes, but he also pulls Henry closer. “Fidelity. I'd like to give it a go.” He looks over. “What do you say, old love?”
There's a great deal Dundy could say, but for once, he's speechless. Instead of answering with words, he answers with actions, embracing James right there on the same clifftop where he once despaired of ever finding anyone who truly understood him.
“Is that a yes?” James asks, cheekily.
“I suppose so,” Henry says, affectedly casual, and wishes he had a bottle of champagne, or maybe some of his Christmas sweets, on hand to celebrate.
No sooner does he think it than James is reaching into his camera bag. “I meant to give you this earlier,” he says, handing over a little yellow and turquoise box of Fortum and Mason truffles.
James may defy labels, Henry thinks fondly, as he moves aside the gold foil to get at the chocolate beneath, but there is one that fits him very well.
"Perfect," Henry says, taking a bite.
James knows what he means. Henry is certain of it but, to make absolutely sure, he allows James to take a prized chocolate from his box, then follows it up with a kiss like a covenant, sweet, slow and decadent in the best of ways.