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Make Pretend that You and Me Lived Ever After Happily

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Michael does this thing where, every Christmas, he bakes—okay, buys—everybody a cupcake and sticks a candle on top of it. He gathers them all together on Christmas Eve at his tiny shared apartment with Luke. He sits them all down on the worn-out old couch, Luke then Calum then Ashton, with a cupcake each in their hands. He sits on the old armchair across from them, and, together, on Michael’s count, they blow of the candle and make a Christmas wish—because, apparently, birthday wishes aren’t the only ones to come true.

This tradition began years and years ago when Calum and Michael were teenagers skipping school and spending all of their time together like the lonely outcasts they were. They didn’t care too much that it was just them. They had each other, and that has always been enough for the both of them.

Calum doesn’t really remember the first time Michael shoved a cupcake—one he had probably bought from the grocery store around the corner from his childhood home—at him and told him to make a wish. It might have been the year Calum tore his ACL and kissed his sports career goodbye. It might have been the one after that when Michael finally accepted reality as it was dealt to him and realized that he would never, ever achieve his dreams of making his living playing the guitar. All Calum really remembers is that on that fated day in mid-December, a week before Christmas, he had wished to keep Michael by his side forever.

So far, that wish had come true.

Here, nearly ten years later, Calum walks into Michael’s apartment without so much of a knock. Michael has had an open-door policy for Calum since they day they met, and he always leaves his door unlocked anyway, so Calum doesn’t bother with playing through formalities Michael doesn’t give a damn about. There, setting innocuously on the hand-me-down table from one of Luke’s older brother, is a package of cupcakes decorated with horrendous green and red icing.

Calum grins over his shoulder at Ashton.

“How mad d’you think Michael would be if I switched out his candles for trick ones?”

Ashton rolls his eyes. He shoulders past Calum so that he can enter the apartment enough to shut the door behind them. He takes off his winter hat in the next movement, his blond curls sticking up in the back. He hangs his hat on the back of one of the kitchen chairs then works on removing his jacket. It joins his hat a few seconds later. 

“You wished for a promotion last year,” says Ashton. “Don’t even pretend like you don’t take Michael’s Christmas wishes seriously.”

“You’re not supposed to know what I wish for,” says Calum. He wrinkles his nose as he, too, strips out of his outerwear. “Doesn’t that defeat the power of the wish?”

Ashton shrugs.

“Wish quieter next time.”

And what great advice that is, thinks Calum. He bites back a verbal response as he follows Ashton into the living room, which is only around the thin wall separating it from the kitchen. Luke is stretched out across the couch, his head propped up against one of the couch arms at an odd angle that makes his chin rest on his chest. It can’t be comfortable. It does, however, provide Luke an unobstructed view of How I Met Your Mother playing on the television screen. Calum bodily picks Luke up so that he can fit on the couch then rearranges Luke so that his head is pillowed in Calum’s lap in what is, hopefully, a more comfortable position.

Ashton takes the arm chair rather than fight Luke for the other third of the couch. Michael is suspiciously missing from the living room. He is hardly ever not piled on top of Luke trying to be as annoying as possible as they watch television together. Sometimes, Calum doesn’t understand how Luke so easily agreed to move in with Michael when they were all fresh out of college. Perhaps it is because Luke knows that Ashton would watch his every move like a hawk.

Or maybe it is because, out of the four of them, Michael ended up being the most financially stable of them, having worked his way up through the local radio station until he became a full-time presenter in his last semester of their senior year. He was guaranteed an above-entry-level job when he graduated with his degree, which was better than the other three could say. Luke went straight from college to law school. Still in the middle of his third year, he was living off student loans. Calum and Ashton had both juggled part time jobs for months after graduation until Calum finally landed a teaching job at the private high school near downtown, and Ashton managed to nail an internship with a prestigious photography studio.

Whatever it is that made Luke open to the idea of living with Michael, Calum quite frankly doesn’t know. Neither does he care to ask. It would be like tempting fate—and he likes living with Ashton, because Ashton doesn’t work odd hours of the day or disappear for large chunks of time to the library and forget to eat on a regular basis. There is no such stress in Calum’s home, and Calum can’t handle stress. Plus, Ashton is nice to look at, much nicer than Luke or Michael in Calum’s opinion.

“Where’s Mike?” asks Ashton.

At first, Luke doesn’t answer. His eyes are glued to the television screen, and he is watching the scene play out so intensely that Calum doubts Luke even heard Ashton. After the punch line of the running joke is delivered, Luke proves Calum wrong and spares Ashton a glance.

“Out buying candles. Couldn’t find any here and couldn’t fathom skipping tradition over something as silly as candles—or something like that. I dunno what his real reasoning was, but he should be back any time now.”

Luke has virtually perfected the art of going along with whatever Michael says. He has never been uptight like Ashton or hesitant like Calum. Luke likes life. He likes the spontaneity that comes along with being Michael’s friend. To him, if Michael says he will be back soon, Michael will be.

Ashton, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to console. Luke doesn’t notice as he returns his attention to the television, or maybe Luke is so used to Ashton’s protective streak that he is immune to Ashton’s worrywart personality. Ashton glances at the time on his watch, chewing on his bottom lip. He looks every bit like he is going to give Michael five minutes before he calls Michael and demands to know where Michael is.

Admittedly, Calum understands Ashton’s concern, because it is nearly dinnertime, and Michael always hosts his Christmas tradition right after dinner. Michael is a stickler for doing things just right when it comes to his treasured ritual. It isn’t like him to forget the very important candles. Usually, he buys them weeks beforehand.

But Ashton’s concern is moot. Michael whirls into the apartment not even three minutes later, his hands bogged down with white plastic bags that are stuffed too full to merely contain a pack of candles. He pokes his head into the living room and calls out a general greeting before he disappears into his bedroom. Luke doesn’t pay him any attention beyond returning his greeting, Luke’s eyes glued to the television where, on screen, the greatest proposal in the history of proposals plays out on a wintery rooftop. Luke has seen this particular episode dozens of times already, but he tears up like it is the first time all over again.

Calum, unlike Luke, can’t help but to be curious about Michael’s mysterious entrance. He turns to Ashton to see if Ashton, too, is intrigued by Michael, but Ashton’s phone rings in his pocket. It is the specific tone set for his mother, so Calum leaves Ashton to his phone call and Luke to his television show and wanders through the tiny apartment to Michael’s bedroom. He pushes the door open much in the same manner he had entered the apartment a little while ago—without announcing himself.

“I could have been naked,” says Michael, glancing over his shoulder at Calum from his spot in front of his closet. He sets the last of the plastic bags in the back of his closet and shuts the door. “Had to pick up a few things for Luke for Christmas. He’s all weird about presents, since he can’t really afford to get us anything, and, well, he’s not going home to visit his family this year, so I thought I’d spoil him with a nice Christmas here.”

“But if he knew, he’d flip out,” says Calum, nodding his head sympathetically. “You know, in like a year, he’s going to be a real lawyer making bank, and he’ll probably, like, insist he take care of you for three years, since you’re taking care of him now.”

Michael shrugs.

“I don’t know if what I’m doing would qualify as taking care of him. I’m just making sure that he eats regularly and that he doesn’t spend so much time at the law library that he has to start paying rent there and not here.”

Calum laughs, because he knows that is the response Michael is looking for. Michael doesn’t like talking about how much he does for Luke, because he doesn’t want Luke to feel like he is a burden. Michael is just one friend helping out another. Calum supposes, though, that it isn’t always fun to be the friend who needs the help.

“Let’s just go in there and have a cupcake, shall we?” suggests Calum. He wisely steers the conversation away from Luke before Michael clams up. “Grab those candles.”

“I didn’t know you were so excited for our Christmas tradition,” says Michael, grinning. He grabs the pack of candles off his dresser like requested before he follows Calum out of the bedroom. “It only took you like nearly ten years.”

Calum rolls his eyes. When Michael steps around him to retrieve the cupcakes off the table, he throws an elbow into Michael’s side for good measure. Michael grunts like the jab actually hurt. He shoots Calum a wounded frown. Calum appreciates Michael’s theatrics, especially since his elbow had barely graced Michael’s sweatshirt.

Leaving Michael to tend to the cupcakes, Calum heads back into the living room. Luke is still stretched out across the couch, but there is a different episode of How I Met Your Mother playing across the television screen. It is an older one, as all of the familiar characters look ages younger, and Calum vaguely remembers making a drinking game out of this very episode the first night at university in an effort to get to know Luke and Ashton, his and Michael’s new roommates in the two room suite, better.

Calum sits down on the arm of Ashton’s chair and does his best not to eavesdrop on the phone conversation. Ashton smiles over at Calum then offers his mother a hasty goodbye that sounds anything except, well, good. He ends the call barely a second later and lets his phone fall unceremoniously to his lap. He leans his head back, face pointed toward the ceiling and eyes closed, and lets out a soft groan. Calum lays a sympathetic hand on Ashton’s shoulder. Phone calls home are never pleasant. This one, it seems, is even more horrendous than usual.

“Everything okay?” murmurs Calum.

He knows the answer is no just by the way Ashton had reacted to the phone call, but he doesn’t really know how to ask exactly how mean was your mother this time? without sounding like he is judging Ashton for having a shitty family. He isn’t. Most of the time, he wants to shout at all of them who made Ashton feel like he was dirt for who he is. Calum doesn’t. He is nice and cordial, because Ashton’s family doesn’t need another reason to hate Ashton.

“I’m not going home for Christmas,” says Ashton.

A lump forms in the back of Calum’s throat. He nearly chokes as he swallows around it. He tightens his grip on Ashton’s shoulder, hoping that, maybe, if he holds Ashton tight enough, Ashton will think about how much Calum cares about him and will forget all about how much his own family doesn’t. The world probably doesn’t work that way. Ashton had been looking forward to going home to see his family for Christmas for the first time since he moved out to go to college.

“Apparently, there isn’t any need for me to waste a trip—nobody else is going home, either.”

“I’m sorry,” says Calum for lack of anything else to say. The words don’t come anywhere close to what he would like to say to Ashton, but, for the life of him, he can’t quite think of what the right words might instead be.

Ashton shrugs like it doesn’t bother him. Calum knows it does by the way that Ashton’s bottom lip trembles. Ashton is brave, though. More than that, maybe, he is all too used to being disappointed by his family.

“Guess I’m stuck here with Luke and Mike,” says Ashton. “It’s probably all the same, you know. You all are more my family than anybody in the whole entire world.”

“I’m staying here for Christmas this year, too,” says Calum. He is lying, of course. He had plans to visit his sister, but he is sure she won’t mind him skipping out on Christmas to spend it with Ashton instead. She knows all about Ashton’s shitty family. “I think it’ll be nice with just the four of us.”

“I thought you were visiting your sister,” says Ashton.

Oh, that. Calum forgot he had told Ashton about his plans to catch a plane to his sister’s place. If he is ever going to tell Ashton a convincing lie, he needs to stop telling Ashton every single detail of his life as it unfolds in real time.

“She texted me this morning,” fibs Calum. “Said she had other plans and wondered if we could just get together for my birthday next month instead.”

Ashton eyes Calum suspiciously. Part of Calum is terrified that Ashton is going to whip out his phone right here and now and text Mali and confirm her “other” plans. He has her number. He talks to her almost as much as Calum himself does. It isn’t outside of Ashton’s powers to determine whether Calum is indeed lying to him in this moment in time.

But Ashton lets it slide.

“Thank the heavens for changed plans,” murmurs Ashton, smiling softly to himself like he is looking forward to Christmas again now that he can spend it with Calum and with Michael and Luke.

Yeah, thinks Calum, thank goodness for changed plans. He makes a mental note to call Mali tonight when Ashton is taking his shower so that Ashton won’t overhear Calum beg his sister to change their Christmas plans. He doesn’t have a clue how he would talk his way out of that one if Ashton were to overhear.

Michael barges in with the cupcakes not even a minute later. They all have a candle on top, a single yellow flame dancing at the top of each of them. He hands Luke his first then ushers Ashton and Calum over to the couch. Once they’re seated, Michael bestows a cupcake upon each of them. He takes the last to the armchair he had usurped from Ashton.

“Christmastime is a time of magic,” says Michael, paraphrasing the original speech he had made the very first time he and Calum had took part in this tradition. He smiles at each of them, his gaze resting on Luke the longest. “May last year’s wish have come true, and may this year’s wish, too.”

It certainly lacks the longevity of Michael’s original speech, but it has gotten shorter and shorter every year to the point that Calum thinks in half a decade or so—if they’re still doing this—Michael will just hand them a cupcake and be done with it. Still, as much as Calum thinks Michael’s tradition is a little ridiculous, Calum has to give Michael props for believing in it so much that he has kept it alive for nearly ten years now.

“On the count of three,” says Michael. “One.”

Calum’s cupcake is chocolate with red icing. It has a blue candle stuck in the top, and hot wax is dripping down the stick. Luke’s is almost identical, except his candle is yellow.

“Two.”

Next to Calum, Ashton’s cupcake is white with green frosting and a purple candle. Ashton always gets the purple candle. Sometimes, Michael goes out of his way to buy a box of candles that has the choice of purple in it just for this occasion. It is an old joke, a throwback to the very first day Michael and Calum met Ashton, and Ashton wore an atrocious purple shirt. Michael had ribbed him about it all day. Now, over five years later, he still hasn’t let Ashton live it down.

“Three.”

Together, the four of them suck air into their lungs then blow it out in a synchronized manner perfected over the last five years of doing this together. Calum closes his eyes as he makes his wish. He almost mutters it to himself again, but he remembers Ashton’s advice earlier about wishing quieter. Seated between Ashton and Luke, Calum decides to keep his mouth shut this year.

There are a thousand things he could wish for—another promotion, his landlord to change their policy on animals and let Calum get a dog, world peace, even—but none of those come close to what he wants most in the entire world.

I wish Ashton’s wish would come true.

The thing is, out of all of them, Ashton probably deserves his wish the most.

 

When Calum wakes the next morning, the first thing he notices is that there is a large warm body pressed up against him. The second thing is the crying that comes from the next room. He jumps up out of bed on pure instinct and hurries to the bedroom next door where, in one of the two cribs, a tiny blue-eyed toddler is peering at him through the bars, tears streaming down his face as his cries quiet to whimpers.

“Oh, Lukey,” murmurs Calum, almost to himself. He crosses the bedroom in three large strides, throwing a quick glance at the other crib on his way to make sure the toddler inside is still sleeping. Unsurprisingly, he is. “We weren’t going to forget about you.”

He reaches into the crib and picks up the whimpering toddler and holds him close to his chest. It isn’t until he has straightened completely up that he freezes. His brain finally catches up to everything that is going on.

“What the hell?” he says then immediately winces. He probably shouldn’t curse around a toddler—especially around two toddlers, even though one of them is sleeping and even though this whole thing right now doesn’t make sense.

He looks down at the toddler in his arms. His brain supplies the name Luke, and the toddler looks enough like Calum’s adult friend that it can’t be a coincidence. The toddler has the same blue eyes and blond hair and nose. It has to be Luke. As impossible as it is, it just has to be.

Even worse, when Calum dares to take a closer look at the toddler sleeping in the other crib, his mind thinks Michael, and Calum knows without a shadow of a doubt that Michael could sleep through anything—including, apparently, a distressed toddler’s cries.

Calum pinches himself. He has to be dreaming, but the sharp twinge of pain in his skin proves that to not be the case. Luke is heavy enough in his arms to reaffirm how real this reality is, even if it doesn’t comport with anything Calum knows to be true. His heart lurches to his throat and stays there.

Somehow, even though Calum’s experience with babies is passing at best, Calum knows Luke needs be changed, so he carries Luke over to the changing table to take care of the problem. Calum doesn’t know if he has ever changed a baby, yet he changes Luke on the first try. He even manages to button up the dinosaur pajamas without any hassle. Luke is calm underneath Calum’s instinctive care. When Calum picks him up again, something in the back of Calum’s mind tells him to tend to Michael, too.

Calum glances over at the other crib where, now, Michael is awake and rubbing at his eyes, his blond hair a mess on top of his head. Calum sets Luke back in his crib for now. He placates Luke with a stuffed penguin toy when Luke starts to fuss about being put down then Calum turns to tend to Michael next.

Michael fights Calum more than Luke did. He doesn’t like being stripped of his onesie pajamas to be changed. He doesn’t like the way Calum won’t let him move as he pleases, either. He fusses and cries, and Calum starts singing a long-forgotten children’s nursery rhyme. It soothes Michael almost immediately. It doesn’t completely calm him—Michael still fights Calum when Calum tries to button back up Michael’s rocket ship pajamas—but it does distract Michael long enough for Calum to finish redressing him.

Calum picks Michael up, who clings to him, one fist in Calum’s t-shirt and his head tucked underneath Calum’s chin. He points at his crib. Calum spies a tiny gray cat stuffed animal. He picks it up, and Michael hugs it to his chest. Calum turns back to Luke and, with Michael in one arm, scoops Luke and the penguin stuffed animal up with his free arm. He carries them all back to the bedroom he had woken up in.

This feels like this is something he does every single day of the year. It feels normal. It feels natural. When Calum spies a head full of blond  curls on one of the pillows, his heart skips a beat. Butterflies flutter in his stomach. The rational part of his mind—the part that still hasn’t quite understood exactly how his mid-twenty year old friends are currently toddlers in his care—connects the missing piece of the puzzle before the tiny voice in the back of his brain does.

It is Ashton, of course. When Calum sits down on the edge of the bed, Michael squirms in his arms and demands to be let go. Calum obliges, being careful to keep Michael away from the danger of falling off the bed. Michael’s destination is the middle of the bed, right up against Ashton’s side. He curls up there, wiggling his way underneath Ashton’s arm until he is almost completely enclosed by Ashton.

Calum throws his legs onto the bed. He shifts Luke around to where Luke is lying more on the bed than on Calum himself. He drags the covers back up over him. He doesn’t understand what has happened in the world—if maybe he has stepped into an alternate reality or if maybe there was something potent in that cupcake last night—but Calum has to admit to himself how nice it feels to curl up in bed with toddler Luke in his arms and Ashton and Michael on the other side of the mattress.

His last thought before the oblivion of sleep overtakes him is what the hell Ashton is going to think when he wakes up to an armful of toddler Michael.

 

Waking up a second time, Calum is no less confused. He still has an armful of Luke, who is sleeping fitfully, and Ashton and Michael are on the other side of the bed. Michael is almost hidden underneath Ashton’s arm and the covers, but the top of his head is visible beneath Ashton’s chin and so is the stuffed gray cat.

When Calum raises his gaze to admire Ashton, he discovers Ashton isn’t asleep. He doesn’t look like he has been asleep for a while, either, if the brightness in his eyes is anything to go by. Ashton offers Calum a warm smile, like the concept of waking up in bed with Calum and toddler versions of their two friends is nothing out of the ordinary—like this is what Ashton wakes up to every single morning without fail. Calum realizes, after a few belatedly seconds, that it probably is normal for this Ashton.

“Did Luke have another nightmare?” murmurs Ashton, gentle like he doesn’t want to wake the toddlers in bed with them. He reaches over and lays a hand on Luke’s back, nearly covering it up with his palm. His fingers brush against Calum’s arm. They feel like a burst of fire dancing along Calum’s skin. “Maybe we should put him and Michael back in the same bed. It might comfort him if he has Michael.”

“And then we’ll have two screaming toddlers on our hands,” says Calum, his tongue falling into the seemingly-familiar pattern of communication before his brain can supply him with the necessary information that confirms how clingy Luke is when he is scared. “Michael is especially grumpy when he doesn’t get his sleep out.”

Ashton sighs. He lifts his hand from Luke’s back. Calum expects him to hug Michael up against him. Ashton doesn’t. He trails his fingers down the side of Calum’s face instead like he has all of the permission in the world to do so and like this is something he does as often as he can.

Calum instinctively leans into Ashton’s touch. It feels right to. More than that, it feels natural. Well-practiced. Just like tending to Michael and Luke earlier had been. Calum still doesn’t understand this bizarre world he has woken up in, but if he has Ashton in it like this, then it can’t be too bad.

“I think he just needs more time to adjust. The agency said all babies are different.”

“But they specifically sent Luke here with Michael, because Luke doesn’t do well without Michael,” says Calum. The memories of the adoption process are fuzzy in his mind, like they don’t really belong there—or maybe more like he doesn’t belong here to experience them. Still, they’re clear enough to convey exactly how long he and Ashton had waited for their miracle baby—only to be blessed with two. “I don’t want Luke to not adjust to us. I don’t want to lose both of them—or worse, I don’t  want to separate Luke from Michael.”

“They’re ours, Cal,” says Ashton, but even Calum can hear the twinge of fear in Ashton’s voice that supports the own terror gripping at Calum’s heart. “We will make a home here for Luke and for Michael, and nobody will ever take them away from us. I promise.”

When Ashton says it, with so much conviction in his voice, Calum has to believe him. He does. The alternative is to doubt Ashton, and every fiber of Calum’s being cringes at the idea of ever being any less than one hundred percent certain of Ashton.

“Maybe we should have them sleep in here for a little while, just until Luke stops having nightmares, and then we can move them back in their room,” suggests Calum.

Luke feels awfully tiny in his arms, and Michael looks no less big in Ashton’s, and Calum can’t handle the idea that Luke and Michael might not be his and Ashton’s after all—that he and Ashton might not be the best parents in the entire world to Luke and Michael.

Ashton considers Calum’s proposition. His lowers his gaze to glance at Luke then flickers his attention to Michael. Finally, he meets Calum’s eyes once more. The small smile on his lips is still there.

“The bed is certainly big enough for all of us,” says Ashton. “It’s getting colder, too. Winter is here, like it or not. We can keep them warmer in here.”

Calum smiles. He lets out a breath of relief. It calms him, knowing that Ashton is on his team. Of course, Ashton has always had Calum’s back, but parenthood is a whole new ball game. There are new rules that Calum and Ashton both have to play by, and Calum has seen countless couples go from starry-eyed lovers to bitter divorcees under the pressures of parenthood. He doesn’t want to wake up one day and not love Ashton anymore. Worse, he doesn’t want Ashton to wake up and not love him anymore, either.

Ashton cups Calum’s cheek, a brief press of his palm against Calum’s skin, before he retracts his arm and hugs Michael back up instead. They are all laying so close to one another that Ashton’s hand finds Calum’s between Michael and Luke, and Ashton threads his fingers through those of Calum. It feels complete, Ashton fingers tangled with Calum’s own, in all the ways that Calum wishes he felt in his original life.

Calum thinks about asking Ashton then, in the lull of early morning, whether he believes in alternate realities. More than that, Calum thinks about coming clean to Ashton. It feels only fair that Ashton should know the Calum in bed with him isn’t the Calum he shares a life with. But the words feel too heavy on Calum’s tongue to let fall so carelessly into the serenity between them, and Calum likes the composition of this world too much to admit out loud that he doesn’t belong in it, so Calum keeps his mouth shut.

He fades off to sleep instead and dreams about his own Ashton, the one who he shares a rent with but nothing else, and he wonders how things are back in his actual life—if time is static or maybe if time is moving forward and if Calum’s counterpart has stepped into Calum’s shoes. He hopes not.

Calum’s own life is an empty abyss compared to this one.

 

The second nap of the morning isn’t nearly as long as the one before it. Calum and Ashton both wake to full-on cries from Michael and then from Luke. They both need to be changed again. They’re also due their breakfasts. Calum and Ashton work like a well-oiled machine, carrying on their normal morning routine like the professionals they are—or that Ashton is. Calum is running completely off instinct and fuzzy memories.

They all eat breakfast around the kitchen table. Ashton fries up a nice egg and sausage dish that, when cut up into tiny pieces, Michael and Luke can feed to themselves. Still, Calum keeps a close eye on both of them to make sure they’re properly eating and not putting too much into their mouths at once. They do fine.

Michael eats more than Luke does, but Luke is messier, like his hands don’t quite do what his brain tells them to. Calum thinks of the dozens of meetings and all of the paperwork and everything in between back when he and Ashton were trying their damnest to adopt Michael and Luke, and he tries not to dwell on the special section in Luke’s file that was obviously absent in Michael’s. It is nothing. Even if it isn’t, Calum loves Luke anyway and will do whatever it takes to make sure the difference means nothing.

After breakfast, Calum does the clean up while Ashton tends to Michael and Luke, washing their faces and then corralling them into the living room to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and play with their toys. Calum appreciates the brief time alone to catch his thoughts. He didn’t realize how quiet his actual life was until he stepped into this bizarre universe and learned exactly how loud two toddlers can be.

It is all a bit overwhelming, the idea that he is responsible for two tiny human beings and also the fact that he doesn’t belong here, but Calum washes away his worries with every dish. A golden ring rests around the third finger of his right hand. It feels both foreign and familiar at the same time, but Calum likes the look of it around his finger. He keeps staring at it as he does up the dishes. When he is finished, he leaves everything to dry in the drainer. He wipes his hand on the dish towel hanging across the bar at the end of the counter then goes to join his family in the living room.

 

It is Christmas day, so they open the presents underneath the tree. There aren’t many, just a handful for Luke and Michael each and a couple for Calum and Ashton. Even on a teacher’s salary and a photographer’s paycheck, Calum sometimes worries their finances might not be enough to keep their tiny, perfect family afloat. Luke’s medical expenses are piling up, despite the large chunk paid by the insurance.

There is no price too high for Luke’s proper development. If that means Calum and Ashton celebrate a small, muted Christmas, then so be it. Luke and Michael are too small to understand what Christmas is or to care about how few presents there are underneath the tree. Besides, Calum’s and Ashton’s families adore spoiling the children entirely too much. Michael and Luke won’t go without toys or clothes or, most importantly, love this Christmas.

As for Calum, he doesn’t care if there isn’t a single present underneath the tree that has his name on it. He is almost certain Ashton feels the exact same way. Their Christmas presents arrived much earlier this year—around April when the adoption process was completed and Michael and Luke became Calum’s and Ashton’s forever.

Still, though, it is nice to have a few presents underneath the tree to have a Christmas like Calum remembers from his childhood. Ashton had stayed up late last night finishing up the wrapping while Calum had rocked Luke to sleep. It had proved to be a late night, but, now, the effort is all worth it.

When Calum walks into the living room Ashton is already seated in the floor with Luke and Michael crawling all over him. They have made a game out of tickling, though neither Luke nor Michael understand what Ashton is doing. They laugh their hearts out, giggling and all but verbally demanding Ashton to continue tickling them. It is a heartwarming sight. Calum stands in the doorway to the living room and watches them for a few minutes. He almost wishes he could freeze time right now, so that he could live in this moment forever.

Luke tires out before Michael does. When he grows tired of the game, he spots Calum and crawls out of Ashton’s reach. Once there, he climbs to his feet and toddles all the way to Calum. He is unsteady on his feet on the last couple of steps. He stumbles forward, nearly falling, but Calum reaches out to catch him at the last possible second. Hands underneath Luke’s armpits, Calum hauls Luke up into his arms. Luke cuddles close to Calum’s chest and grabs a fistful of Calum’s shirt to hang on.

Calum glances over at Ashton and Michael on the floor and finds Ashton is already staring at him, gaze soft and full of so much unadulterated love that Calum immediately feels hot all over. Calum knows, through fuzzy, secondhand memories, that Ashton looks at him like this all of the time in this reality, but the Ashton that Calum knows—the one he shares a rent with and nothing else—hasn’t ever regarded him in such a manner. Friends don’t look at one another the way that this Ashton is currently looking at Calum.

Michael spots Luke in Calum’s arms, so he crawls into Ashton’s lap and sits there, done with playing now that Luke is. Toddlers Michael’s age are supposed to be self-centered, off in their own worlds as they learn about the one around them. Michael’s own world has always included Luke, ever since the pair of them came to Calum and Ashton as scared, unloved, and underweight toddlers. When Luke is done playing and curls up in somebody’s arms, Michael is also done and ready to climb into the free pair of arms.

“Are you boys ready to see what Santa brought you?” asks Ashton, even though neither Luke nor Michael understand what Santa represents. It is in the spirit of the season. Next year, they will both understand. This year, the festivities serve as a foundation for all of the rest to follow.

Calum takes the cue and carries Luke over to Ashton. He sets Luke down in Ashton’s arms. It is a tight fit with both Michael and Luke there, but Ashton’s arms will always be big enough for both boys—or at least his ambition will be. Calum makes haste to distribute all of the presents underneath the tree to everybody. He leaves his own and Michael’s in two piles on the floor next to Ashton and puts Luke’s and Ashton’s in separate piles on the other side.

When he is finished, he sits down in the spot he had left cleared. Ashton passes Michael over to him. Calum reaches for the nearest package. It is covered in red and green reindeer. He tears off a tiny strip of the paper, guiding Michael through opening it the rest of the way. Michael does. He rips the paper apart to his own content until the gift wrapping is nothing more than shreds of paper confetti in Calum’s lap.

Unlike the wrapping paper, Michael has little interest in the gift, which is a new winter jacket to replace the thinner one Calum had picked up for a secondhand store for a couple of dollars. The new one had cost nearly the entire budget Ashton and Calum had set aside for Michael’s Christmas presents, but it will be worth it over the next few months. The black material is soft and warm, and neither Calum nor Ashton will have to worry about Michael being cold in the harsh winter ahead of them.

It is okay, Calum figures, for Michael to be more amused with tearing the paper into smaller and smaller pieces. Ashton had spent long enough wrestling the paper around the gift to warrant it being used as something other than decoration. Calum grabs a handful of the confetti and lets it fall back to his lap. Michael giggles at the show, demanding Calum to do it again, so Calum does.

Next to them, Ashton is helping Luke open his own present. It is an identical jacket, though it is blue instead of black, and it is wrapped in red paper with cartoon penguins all over it. Luke isn’t nearly as enthused with the paper as Michael is, but he does a quicker job of opening the present. For as much trouble as Luke has with his coordination, he learns new things much quicker than Michael does.

Luke hugs his brand new jacket to his chest, burying his face in the soft material. When Michael sees Luke do this, he copies it. He grabs his own jacket and displaces a flurry of confetti.

Calum meets Ashton eyes. The pair of them share a warm, amused smile. Pride wells up in Calum’s chest that is very quickly followed by jealousy. It is so easy to forget, in moments like this, that Calum has stepped into this strange, wonderful life—that this isn’t actually his, and he doesn’t really belong.

But Calum doesn’t tarry on it long. Luke reaches for the next present in his pile. Michael, who has picked up on the point of opening presents, does the exact same thing. The next half hour is a blur of gift wrap and squeals and Michael making more confetti. The toddlers both get a handful of toys.

Michael in particular gets a toy guitar that lights up and plays music. Calum feels a spike of homesickness at the sight of it. He had gotten his Michael—his adult best friend—a real guitar for Christmas. Now, he doesn’t know if he will ever get back to give it to him. The thing is, as much as Calum loves this little family—as much as he loves Ashton and toddler Michael and toddler Luke—he misses marathoning Christmas movies on Michael’s couch with Ashton on one side and Luke and Michael fighting over the other side.

When toddler Michael and toddler Luke are finished opening their gifts and are instead amused with tearing up the rest of the wrapping paper into tiny confetti pieces, Calum and Ashton take their turns opening the presents. As it turns out, both Calum and Ashton had the same idea for gifts, giving each other well-needed dress shirts and socks. Calum laughs at the coincidence. Ashton joins in.

The final unopened gift is addressed to both Calum and Ashton. The tag says that it is from Michael and Luke, but Calum knows, through a hazy recollection, that his sister picked up the gift and dropped it off when she stopped by last weekend. Together, Ashton and Calum rip the paper off. Michael snatches Calum’s half of the paper and gleefully tears it into smaller pieces in Calum’s lap.

Calum lets Michael entertain himself as Calum’s own eyes are glued to the newly opened gift. It is a black framed photograph. The picture displayed behind the glass makes Calum’s heart skip a beat in his chest. It is a picture of Calum and Ashton seated side-by-side on the couch with toddler Luke and toddler Michael in their laps. The four of them look like a proper family, and they should. The picture was taken the day the adoption was finalized. Now, it will hang on their wall forever to commemorate the day they all became one.

Jealousy churns in Calum’s stomach. It isn’t him in this picture. Not really. It is his counterpart, the man who actually owns this life he has stepped into. He would give almost anything for this to be his reality—for him to be able to love Ashton forever and to raise Michael and Luke into the successful adults that Calum knows they will be. The truth is that he would give anything to wake up tomorrow morning and still be here and know that he was never, ever going back.

Except Calum kind of wishes he was back where he belongs with his own Ashton and with adult Luke and adult Michael, even if that means that Ashton wouldn’t be his, because then Calum would have his best friends back, and he could do everything in his power to make Ashton his there, too.

 

They have a lazy afternoon. Ashton heats a frozen pizza in the oven. He and Calum feed Michael and Luke a cup of yogurt a piece. When the pizza is done, Ashton and Calum tear off tiny, chewable pieces for Luke and Michael to eat as well. Luke makes a mess of his food. Streaks of pizza sauce paint his face. His hands are sticky with melted cheese. Michael is only a little cleaner.

Calum cleans them both up when they’re finished eating. He and Ashton have their own lunch of cold pizza in the living room while Luke and Michael play in the floor with their brand new toys. Michael likes pressing the buttons on his toy guitar. He squeals whenever the yellow button plays a jolly tune. Luke abandons his own toy piano to press the buttons on Michael’s guitar.

Frosty the Snowman plays on the television, but no one pays it any attention. Michael and Luke are too wrapped up in the joys of the light-up guitar. Calum can hardly tear his eyes away from the happy toddlers in the floor, but when Calum glances over at Ashton, who is seated next to him on the old couch, he finds Ashton is already staring at him.

Ashton’s cheeks darken to a pretty shade of pink like there is something forbidden about endlessly gazing at Calum. They are married. The shiny golden ring on both of their third fingers of their right hands is permission enough for Ashton to stare at Calum all he wants.

“It’s hard to believe this actually exists, isn’t it?” asks Ashton, quietly. He averts his gaze to Luke and Michael for a brief second but returns it to Calum almost immediately. He runs his tongue along his bottom lip before he speaks again to clarify what he means. “Like, you and me together? And this family we have? It’s—it’s everything I could ever wish for.”

Calum thinks about the purple candle atop his Ashton’s cupcake, and he thinks about his own wish, and he wonders what it is that Ashton wished for this year. He considers asking this Ashton seated next to him on the couch if Ashton believes in alternate realities or universes or realms or whatever-the-hell this is that Calum woke up in this morning. He wonders what Ashton’s answer might be, but, in the end, he isn’t brave enough to ask.

“You don’t even need to wish for it,” is what Calum says instead. “Everything we could ever wish for is right here, and it’s not going anywhere.”

It is the truth, for this Ashton at least. It isn’t so much for Calum, or at least Calum mostly hopes it isn’t. As much as Calum loves this beautiful life his counterpart has managed to build, he kind of misses his own life where he doesn’t have to worry about keeping two tiny people alive or about the therapy sessions both of those children are going to face or what he is going to tell Luke one day in the far-off future when Luke asks why he can’t do up his buttons like the other kids or why he can’t do something as simple as handle a pencil efficiently.

Calum loves Luke in this world—Calum is pretty sure he would love Luke in every single incarnation—but the road ahead of Calum as Luke’s parent is not going to be an easy one. As much of a fairytale as today has been, Calum knows it isn’t always this easy. The fuzzy memories in Calum’s mind are enough of a testament to the hardships that exist here. Calum isn’t sure that he, himself, is the best person to be trusted with Luke’s future. That is a job better left to the counterpart of Calum who fought tooth-and-nail to adopt Luke in the first place. Besides, that particular version of Calum is the one who most deserves to live the life he built here with Ashton and Luke and Michael.

“Yeah, well, hypothetically, if I had to wish for something in the whole wide world, I’d wish for you every single time,” says Ashton. “You and Michael and Luke—I’d wish for the three of you, and I’d be satisfied with however I got to have you.”

Calum smiles. He feels warm all over, as if the love Ashton has for him is settling across his body like a warm blanket. He reaches for Ashton’s hand. Finding it, he threads their fingers together. Ashton’s clasps his hand around Calum’s own.

“I’d wish for you, too,” admits Calum. “For you and Michael and Luke, I’d wish for all of you, too.”

 

The afternoon blends into the evening, which gives away to nighttime. Calum and Ashton take turns giving Michael and Luke, respectively, baths. When Calum returns from the bathroom carrying Luke, who is freshly bathed and dressed in a clean pair of footie pajamas, he finds Ashton laying on his back in the floor of the living room. Michael is crawling all over him, squealing in delight as the pair of them play.

Luke squirms in Calum’s arms, so Calum lets him down. Luke toddles on unsteady feet to Ashton and throws himself across Ashton’s belly. Ashton grunts but catches Luke before he can topple to the floor. Luke joins in on the fun.

Calum watches the three of them play for a long moment. He doesn’t want to lose the precious sight before him. It is something that he wants to carry with him for the rest of his days in this universe and in his own.

There are a few things that need to be done up before bedtime, so, unfortunately, this means Calum has to leave behind the precious scene. He heads into the bedroom instead to fix up the bed for Luke and Michael tonight. He goes about rearranging the pillows on the bed so that Luke or Michael can’t fall off the foot of the bed or won’t hurt themselves on the headboard. Since they will be sleeping between Calum and Ashton, Calum doesn’t have to worry about reinforcing the sides. It is going to be a snug fit with all four of them laying side-by-side, but Calum looks forward to it, especially if sleeping together means that Luke won’t wake up with a nightmare tonight.

When he is finished in the bedroom, he goes to the kitchen to fix milk for Luke and Michael. He merely pours milk straight from the jug into two sippy cups and leaves them in the fridge. Michael and Luke have been off formula for a while now, but they still get a sippy cup of regular milk to help soothe them back to sleep in the middle of the night. Sometimes, they get a sippy cup of milk right before bed if they are extremely fussy when Ashton and Calum are trying to put them down. Now, both Michael and Luke eat enough food and drink enough juice or milk or water in their sippy cups throughout the day that they usually won’t take a sippy cup before bedtime. Calum has sippy cups ready just in case.

Once everything is done up, Calum returns to the living room. Luke is curled up in a ball on the floor next to Ashton instead of wallowing all over Ashton like he was earlier. Luke always tires faster than Michael, and when he is done playing, he curls up somewhere to observe Michael’s fun instead.

Michael, on the other hand, hasn’t yet got his play out. Calum walks over to Luke and scoops him up, fearful that Michael might accidentally fall on Luke while trying to maneuver over Ashton. Calum carries Luke over to the rocking chair and sits down. Luke rests his head against Calum’s chest, quiet and content with his stuffed penguin tucked underneath his arm, and he continues to watch Michael play in the floor with Ashton.

Calum locks his hands behind Luke’s back and rocks back and forth, soothing Luke. He isn’t actively trying to get Luke down for the night yet, but he doesn’t want Luke to feel any less loved just because he doesn’t have the stamina or coordination that Michael has. Still, though, Calum knows that, with enough rocking, Luke will be out like a light soon.

The process is only sped up by Michael tiring himself out. Michael collapses across Ashton’s chest with his tiny hand wrapped around the tail of his stuffed cat toy. It is the sign that Michael is done with playing and is ready to be wrestled to sleep. Ashton carries Michael over to the other rocking chair. He sits down and immediately starts to rock Michael to sleep. He hums a soft lullaby underneath his breath. Michael lays his head on Ashton’s chest, letting himself be soothed to sleep.

It takes nearly half of an hour for both Luke and Michael to fall asleep in their parents’ arms. Once they are both down, Calum and Ashton carry them to bed. Ashton lays Michael on his side of the bed. Calum lays Luke down on the other side. He sets up a makeshift barricade of pillows on either side of them that will help to keep them from falling off the bed while Calum and Ashton hurry to get ready to turn in for the night themselves.

Calum and Ashton take turns using the sink to brush their teeth. Ashton has to remove his contacts, so he does that while Calum gargles mouthwash until his mouth feels fresh and minty clean. When they are both finished, they go back to the bedroom. Calum waits until Ashton turns on the lamp next to the bed before he shuts off the bedroom light.

He undoes the pillow barricade on his side then lays down in the bed. Michael and Luke are still sleeping soundly in the middle. Calum leans over to press a soft goodnight kiss to each of their foreheads. His heart is so full of  love it threatens to beat right out of his chest. He doesn’t know how his counterpart got so damn lucky as to have this life with this family, but he is so glad that he did.

Ashton gives Luke and Michael goodnight kisses of his own. He is so gentle with the boys, his lips brushing against their foreheads like a butterfly’s touch. He kisses Luke last, because Luke is on Calum’s side of the bed. Then he smiles up at Calum. The soft glow from the bedside lamp casts shadows over Ashton’s youthful face, but they do nothing to dim the pure adoration shining in Ashton’s eyes.

Calum wants to kiss him. He has never admitted to wanting to kiss Ashton before. Not really. Not sober and awake, at least. He has had a few drunken fantasies of what it would be like to kiss Ashton. He has also had his fair share of wet dreams with Ashton as the star of them. But the Ashton that Calum knows is Calum’s best friend, and Calum has always prized Ashton’s friendship above everything else. He has never, ever considered that he and Ashton could be anything more than best friends.

Fantasies don’t become real life.

Except, apparently, they do, because, here, Calum can kiss Ashton. In fact, he can kiss Ashton anytime he wants, because they are married, and they have a beautiful family together, and that is everything of Calum’s deepest harbored fantasies.

“Never knew wishes could actually come true,” says Ashton, quietly, before Calum has a chance to follow through and actually kiss him. “I wished to spend Christmas with my family, and I did.”

Ashton leans closer to Calum, like he wants to kiss Calum, and Calum sucks in a breath. His heart skips a terrifying beat in his chest, both at the idea of Ashton wanting to kiss him and at the realization that dawns upon him. It can’t be true. It just can’t be. But he has to ask just to make sure.

“Michael’s cupcake—you wished to spend Christmas with your family?”

Ashton freezes mere centimeters from Calum’s lips. His eyes go wide. His mouth drops open, agape in surprise. His entire body goes visibly rigid before Calum.

“How’d you—”

“I might have wished for your wish to come true,” admits Calum with a nervous shrug.

The moment feels heavy around them. Important. Calum stares at Ashton, and Ashton stares at him right back. There isn’t a sound in the room beyond Michael’s and Luke’s soft snores.

“That means that…” begins Ashton, and he trails off, like he doesn’t quite know how to articulate what this day means. He runs his tongue along his bottom lip, a nervous habit that Calum should have picked up on earlier this afternoon. “You and me, we’ve been playing house together?”

“Pretty damn well, I’d reckon,” agrees Calum.

“Well, d’you think that, maybe, this is all make-believe? Like it’s only the product of the wish, and none of this exists?”

Calum considers this for a moment, even though he already knows the answer.

“It feels too real to be fake, doesn’t it? I mean, the love that lives in this place and the way that both of us already knew what to do with Michael and Luke, it’s like we’ve stepped into another universe that is just as real as ours.”

“Yeah,” agrees Ashton, letting out a breath. He pauses for a second. Calum is all too aware of how Ashton has yet to pull away from him, of how Ashton’s mouth is still centimeters away from Calum’s own lips. “D’you think I could still kiss you?”

Yes, thinks Calum but doesn’t say. He bridges the distance between them, instead, and presses his lips against Ashton’s. His eyes flutter closed. Behind them are fireworks produced by the deluge of love coursing through Calum’s body at the feel of Ashton’s chapped lips pressed against his own. Calum kisses Ashton like his life depends on it, and Ashton kisses back every bit as hard. Calum’s toes curl underneath the covers.

They break apart to draw air into their protesting lungs. Calum pants, out of breath. Ashton grins sloppily at him, like every single one of Ashton’s greatest wishes have been granted all at one. It is infectious. Calum grins back at him.

“Think I’ve been in love with you since the first day we met,” admits Ashton. His cheeks are pink, but Calum isn’t sure if that is because of the admission or because of their kiss. He laughs, softly so as to not wake up Michael and Luke. “Can’t believe it took a cupcake for me to get to kiss you.”

“Michael’s Christmas cupcakes are magical,” says Calum. He can’t stop grinning, not after their kiss and certainly not after Ashton’s admission. “I would’ve kissed you without them, though.”

“Good to know,” says Ashton. “I wanted to kiss you again anyway.”

And he does.

 

Calum falls asleep with numb lips, an overflowing heart, and a full bed. He lays on his side, cuddled up against Luke’s back. Ashton does the same with Michael on the other side of the bed, and Ashton’s hand finds Calum’s in the space between them. Calum almost doesn’t want to fall asleep. He is certain nothing could ever be any better than this.

 

When Calum wakes up the next morning, the first thing he notices is the painful crick in his neck. The opening credits of How I Met Your Mother play across the television. Calum stares up at the ceiling of Michael and Luke’s living room, his eyes heavy with sleep.

“You know, the next time you and Ashton want to spend the night here, you can share have my bed, and I’ll sleep with Luke. You don’t have to sleep on our couch.”

Calum turns his head, feeling groggy, and adult Michael is seated on the armchair. Calum blinks his eyes. It takes him a solid minute to realize why seeing an adult version of his best friend is odd. Once everything catches up to him, he sits straight up in his seat and glances wildly around.

“He’s using the toilet,” says Michael. “Woke up a couple of minutes ago and elbowed Luke out of the way to get to the bathroom first.”

Calum glances in the direction of the bathroom, though he can’t see it from the couch. He thinks about how sweetly Ashton had kissed him last night before they went to sleep. He wonders if Ashton still wants to kiss him here in this universe. He sure hopes so, because he really wants to kiss Ashton right now.

“What time is it?” asks Calum, turning back to Michael.

“Little after eight in the morning,” answers Michael. “Merry Christmas.”

“Huh?” asks Calum, because yesterday was Christmas—or at least it had been Christmas before he had gone to sleep living his counterpart’s life.

“Merry Christmas,” repeats Michael. “’Cause, you know, that’s what usually follows Christmas Eve.”

Calum tries for a laugh, but his mind is whirling too much for him to put any effort into it. Time must run differently in the other universe or something, because Calum spent a full day living a beautiful life with Ashton and the toddler versions of Michael and Luke, yet only a little over twelve hours have passed since they all made their Christmas wishes on Michael’s cupcakes.

“Yeah, sure,” says Calum, distractedly, because Michael expects some kind of response. “I think I’m still half-asleep. Merry Christmas to you, too.”

“Oh, did Michael wake you up, too?” asks Luke, walking into the living room with a cup of coffee clutched in his fist. He is still dressed in his pajamas, a pair of gray lounge pants and one of Michael’s old band t-shirts. He sits down on the opposite end of the couch. “’Cause I told him we weren’t opening presents until everybody was up.”

Michael huffs. He sounds genuinely offended, though Calum knows it is ninety percent for show. Michael is always eager to open presents, namely so that he can give Luke all of the gifts that Luke is in desperate need of, such as the new winter jacket to replace the old, holey one Luke bundles up in now.

“Calum woke up of his own accord, thank you very much,” says Michael.

Luke raises his eyebrows, impressed. He glances at Calum, as if waiting for him to confirm or deny Michael’s claim. Calum shrugs. He would offer Luke an actual answer, but Ashton walks in then, still dressed in the same red sweater he had worn when they made their wishes with the cupcakes. He strolls over to the couch, sitting down right next to Calum so close that their thighs touch.

“Why is there mistletoe in your hair?” asks Ashton, looking at Luke.

He reaches over and picks out a twig of mistletoe to emphasize his question. Luke glances at it then glares at Michael. His cheeks turn a light shade of pink.

“Because that was Michael’s excuse to wake me up—he hung it above my bed and then kissed me awake.”

“But it’s a Christmas tradition!” insists Michael, grinning so much that he almost can’t contain himself. He is brimming with pride at his ingenuity, either at the idea of using the mistletoe as an excuse to kiss Luke or at the idea of kissing Luke awake. “You’ve got to kiss somebody underneath the mistletoe.”

“I’m not sure it works if you’re the one holding the mistletoe above my head,” says Luke.

Michael rolls his eyes.

“You kissed me back, so I’d say it works.”

Luke opens his mouth, like he has a retort ready, but he closes it in the next second. His cheeks flush a darker shade of pink. He glances at Calum and Ashton but, ultimately, rests his gaze on Michael. 

“Well,” says Luke, with a mysterious smile, “you didn’t exactly need to use the mistletoe as an excuse to kiss me—we’ve been dating since Halloween.”

“You’ve been what?” demands Calum and Ashton at the same time.

Calum whips around to face Michael, because Michael is his best friend in the entire world, and they tell each other everything—except, apparently, this.

“Did we not mention that?” asks Michael, faux-innocently.

“No,” said Ashton, flatly, “and in the spirit of secrets we haven’t shared with everybody in the room, I’m in love with Calum.”

Ashton’s hand slips into Calum’s, and Calum tightens his grip automatically, like this is something that happens all of the time—like Calum’s hand belongs in Ashton’s and always has. Calum’s heart skips a beat in his chest. Butterflies wage a war in his stomach. A tiny part of him was afraid that the beautiful life he had experienced yesterday was only a dream. With Ashton’s hand clasped in Calum’s own and Ashton’s confession hanging in the air around them, Calum’s fears are put to rest.

“Well, yeah,” says Michael, like this isn’t news to him. “You’ve been drooling after Calum for years.”

“I have not been dr—”

“You have been,” interrupts Luke, shaking his head in amusement. “Seriously, Mike and I have been waiting for you to jump Calum since, like, the second week we all met.”

Ashton turns to Calum. Uncertainty shines in his eyes. He licks across his bottom lip.

“Was I that obvious?” he asks.

Across the room, Michael snorts.

“Like Calum was any better. I swear, he talks in his sleep, and your name is like eight-five percent of what he says.”

Calum shoots Michael a glare, but it has no effect on him. Michael is shameless, like he always is whenever he embarrasses the hell out of Calum. After a decade plus of friendship, Calum should be immune to Michael’s teasing. He isn’t, because his cheeks still heat up. He looks back at Ashton.

“According to Michael, I was just as obvious.”

“You were,” interjects Luke, smugly.

Calum pointedly ignores him. He rubs his thumb in circles on the back of Ashton’s hand and offers Ashton a quick smile. He thinks about how much he wants to kiss Ashton right now. He doesn’t. Not yet. Ashton has made his confession. It is Calum’s turn now.

“I told you last night I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time, but the truth is that I’ve been in love with you for a long time, too. I want yesterday with you. Dammit, I want that family with you. I want that life with you. I want you, Ashton.”

“What family?” asks Luke, but nobody answers him.

One day, Calum and Ashton will tell Luke and Michael all about the real magic of Michael’s Christmas wishes. Not today, though.

“I want that, too,” admits Ashton. “I want you and all of that, too—though, I’m pretty sure we’ll have to settle for different kids.”

Calum laughs. Yeah, they will have to settle for different kids. He thinks fondly of toddler Michael and toddler Luke, and his misses them greatly. The truth is, however, that he prefers his adult best friends, the people who have stuck with him through all of the ups and downs, because Calum knows that his Michael and Luke are going to build a great life together, and Calum wants to witness it all.

“So, kiss me now,” says Calum to Ashton. Excitement builds up in his chest. He leans closer to Ashton in anticipation. “Kiss me now, and we’ll make of that happen.”

So Ashton does.