Moment of Truth: Intermission by alexmorgan [Reviews - 2]

Moment of Truth: Intermission

The First Christmas

Nick was looking forward to his first Christmas with Greg. They'd been together ever since that day six months ago on the desert road, when Nick had asked Greg to move in with him, and not a day had passed that Nick had not thanked whatever powers may be for allowing him the privilege of living with someone like Greg. Nick was still head over heels for him, and couldn't imagine a life without his friendship, and his love.

They kept their relationship on the down-low at work, although they couldn't really hide the fact that they were sharing an apartment - as far as their team knew, it was because Greg couldn't face going back to his place. Catherine knew, of course, but she was the soul of discretion. Whether anyone else had suspicions was a matter for conjecture, but no-one had ever made any comments. Nick and Greg were best buddies, and that was all anyone needed to know.

Nick stared at his closet. Greg had told him to "dress down" to go out this evening, and he wasn't really sure what that meant. It was Christmas Eve, after all - normally that called for dressing up? Nick scratched his head. Just then, a commotion at the front door announced that Greg was home.

"Hey man," said Greg breezily as he clattered into the front hall, dropping his keys, wallet, cellphone and ipod onto the ceramic tile. He lobbed his leather jacket backwards over his shoulder, and it landed with a satisfying whump over the back of the couch.

"Score!" Greg beamed at Nick, kicked off his shoes, left them spinning in the corner, and threw himself headlong onto the couch.

Greg had kept true to his promise (or was it a threat?) to "Gregify" Nick's condo. There were books everywhere, piles of Scientific American journals, Marilyn Manson cds, post-it notes on the fridge, and leftover pad thai takeout in the fridge. Nick's immaculate granite bathroom counter had vanished under a truckload of hair gel and something called 'hair candy' which smelled like grapefruit and bore the stern warning 'do not eat or smoke'. A 'My Chemical Romance' poster had suddenly appeared on the study wall. And let's not even talk about the bedroom. Yes, Greggo had arrived, and Nick's life would never be the same.

Nick grinned at him. "Could you make any more noise, possibly? I'm trying to figure out what to wear tonight."

"I told you, dress down."

"Yeah but what does that mean, exactly? It's Christmas Eve!"

Greg craned his neck to look at Nick. "It means jeans and a t-shirt, man. Look at me. I'm not changing."

Nick peered over to see what Greg was wearing. He was right - in fact he'd never seen Greg look less like he was going out for the evening. Normally he'd be dressed to kill in bondage pants, some kind of uber-shock shirt, wild hair and eyeliner. But tonight he was dressed very plainly, one might almost say 'ordinary' - if someone who looked the way Greg did could ever be described as ordinary - but regular jeans, no jewelry, workday hair and a khaki t-shirt with the word 'irresistible' on the front really was dressing down for Greg.

"Well, alright, I guess, if you insist. Navy tee and jeans okay then?" Nick asked. He was curious about where they were going, but Greg had said it was a surprise. He pulled on his clothes, conscious of the admiring glances coming from the direction of the couch.

"Come on, man, it starts at seven," Greg said, scrunching his feet into his sneakers without undoing the laces.

"You have to tell me where we're going, baby," Nick purred, sneaking up behind Greg and sliding his arms around his waist. He nibbled at his earlobe.

"Geez, Stokes, you're insatiable!" Greg wriggled out of his grasp. "You'll just have to trust me, okay?"

Nick made a face.

"Gonna have to work on this trust issue of yours, dude." Greg admonished, with mock annoyance.

Nick grinned. "Alright! God. Come on then - obviously you're driving."

Greg drove like a European. Or at least, that was his version; Nick would have said he drove like a maniac. The Jeep YJ careened around corners and belted down the straightaways like a formula 3 stockcar. Nick held on for dear life as they bounced across railway tracks and hurtled down sidestreets. They were off the Strip now, and heading into a neighbourhood that Nick would sooner have avoided.

"Uh, G, where are we going? This is not the best of areas ..." He looked at Greg, who was humming happily to the cheesy Christmas songs on the radio.

"Be cool, man," Greg smiled. "You'll see. This is the best part of Christmas."

Nick stared at him. "Greg - please tell me we're not going to church."

Greg snorted and started laughing. "Give me a little credit, Nick. I'm a humanist. No, that's not it. Good guess, though." He grinned to himself as he drove on.

He really is quite mad, Nick thought.

Finally, Greg pulled the Jeep over with a screech of tires and cranked on the handbrake. Nick lurched forward and his seatbelt locked up.

"Holy God, Sanders!" he exclaimed, but it was no use. Greg was still grinning from ear to ear.

"Here, make yourself useful. Grab this stuff for me while I feed the meter."

Greg gestured towards the back seat, which was stuffed full of shopping bags. Nick stared at him, but Greg had his back turned, and was cheerfully popping quarters into the parking meter.

Nick looked around. He couldn't see the neon signage of a club or bar, or even the bright lights of a hotel in this dark, gloomy neighbourhood. The buildings were shabby and rundown. He shivered and pulled up the collar of his jacket; even in the desert, the December nights were chilly.

"Come on then, here, let me get the door for you." Nick looked up, confused. There was a door? But there it was, right in front of him. An old stone building, with the words '5th Street Mission' inscribed in tall, bleak letters on the lintel.

"Greg ..." Nick began.

"You'll love it. I know I do. Go on, in you go." Greg gave Nick a playful boot through the door.

"Greggy!" A short, plump lady wearing a tartan tam-o-shanter and tweed skirt-suit ran at Greg, almost toppling him over with an enthusiastic hug.

"Hey, Mrs. Faldo," Greg laughed, hugging her back.

"Glad you could make it, love, and who's this?"

She eyed Nick up and down. His arms were full of bags and he didn't quite know what to do with himself, but he smiled and nodded.

"This is my friend Nick, he's great, you'll just adore him - well, I do anyway." Greg beamed at Nick, who responded with a daggers look.

"Well, don't stand on the doorstep, come in! You're just in time."

Mrs. Faldo took the bags from Nick, and beckoned for him to follow. "Come on now, don't be shy, they don't bite. Well ..." she flashed her dentures at Greg. "Some of 'em have been known ... but not on Christmas, eh Greggy?"

Greg ducked ahead and held the internal door open for Mrs. Faldo, and ushered Nick in as well, a wicked smirk on his face.

The door opened onto a large hall, filled with row upon row of long trestle tables and fold-up chairs. The back wall contained more tables, upon which rested steaming pans and covered chafing dishes, ladles, huge urns of tea and coffee, and piles of white cafeteria plates and bowls. The whole place was decorated with Christmas tinsel, a gaudy tree, what looked to be homemade streamers and popcorn garlands. Nick let out a breath and looked at Greg.
"It's a soup kitchen,” he said, rather stupidly.

“Yeah, Nick Stokes, the master of the obvious,” quipped Greg, grinning. “I help out every year, it’s amazing.” Greg strode over to the back wall, took an apron and a hat from the pile and handed another set to Nick. “Here, you’re gonna need these.”

Nick looked down at the white gabardine cook’s apron, and at the Santa Claus hat that Greg had handed him. He arched an eyebrow.

“What? You know you’re gonna look da bomb in that outfit.”

“Just for you, Greg ...” Nick shot him a look as he put on the apron and jammed the Santa hat on his head.

“Stokes, everything you do is just for me, and you know you love it. Come on, I’ll show you the ropes.”

Greg skipped across to the other side of the table and took the lid off the first chafing dish. “Mmmm, turkey and stuffing!” He sniffed the air in appreciation. Nick’s stomach started to growl.

“It sure does smell good ...”

“Yeah, it does, although personally I prefer a Smorgasbord. But it’s not for us, Nick. We get a good meal every day of the year.” said Greg, his voice suddenly serious. “It’s for them.”

Nick looked across at the far side of the mission hall. Mrs. Fargo was busily handing out tickets to the steady stream of shabby, worn-out looking homeless men, women and children who had been waiting patiently in a line at the door.

“One person, one ticket, one meal,” she was saying, kindly. The needy people stared at her meekly, took their ticket and filed in, each one taking a tray and starting to shuffle along the serving tables. Nick glanced sideways at Greg, who was chatting happily with the other volunteers, most of whom it seemed had also been coming here every Christmas Eve for several years. Nick couldn’t quite shift the lump in his throat that had lodged there since the people had started to stream in. He felt a sudden pricking at the back of his eyelids and fought it with all his might. Then, Greg was prodding him in the ribs.

“They get one slice of turkey and a spoonful of stuffing, one scoop of mashed potatoes, one spoon of peas and carrots, and a splash of gravy. And put one slice of apple pie in the dish, and a scoop of icecream. That’s one ticket: one person, one ticket, one meal. Got it? Just watch me, you’ll get the hang of it.”

Nick nodded. Then Greg poked him again. “And smile!

Nick’s first few smiles were a strain. He felt a little overwhelmed, and wished that Greg had warned him what he was in for. But would he have come, if he’d known? He suspected not. His work took him into enough crackjoints and skid row housing complexes, rundown motels and seedy halfway houses - he wouldn’t have relished the thought of this one bit - especially not on Christmas Eve. But as the line passed him, and he doled out the allotted portions, and the grateful, genuine smiles and arm-squeezes and hand-presses of the thin, drawn and tired people he served grew on him more and more, Nick found himself smiling with a warmth he’d never felt before. Greg stood beside him, merrily singing along to the bland, Johnny-Mathis-and-Bing-Crosby style Christmas music that was blaring from the tannoy system. Greg couldn’t sing worth shit, and neither could he. He caught Greg’s eye and grinned. Greg elbowed him. They both bellowed out in unison, “Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since there's no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”

After what seemed like hours of dishing out food, the last of the lineup were fed, and the doors were closed. Nick wiped his brow, and looked at Greg. “We don’t have to wash the dishes as well, do we?”

Greg raised his eyebrows. “Surely you don’t expect the Salvation Army to have a dishwasher installed, Nick?” Nick groaned, and Greg sniggered. “No, they have other helpers for that. You can relax, we’ve done our bit.”

Nick collapsed onto a folding chair, and was greeted by a beaming Mrs. Faldo, who handed him a huge plate of turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

“Now you didn’t think I’d make you do all that work and not get supper, did you Nick?” she smiled, and bustled away to the kitchen.

“Thank you,” Nick called after her. She waved a hand in deference.

“She’s amazing,” Greg mumbled between mouthfuls of food. “She’s like my second mom.”

You’re amazing,” said Nick, stuffing an entire slice of turkey into his mouth at once. “I had no idea you did this sort of thing. None. I figured you for a California kid who spent Christmas trying out the latest tech gadgets and bodysurfing at the Lido.”

Greg shot him a look. “I’m full of surprises. For instance,” he said, getting up and leaving his plate on the chair. “This nativity scene - did you know that the first Christmas wasn’t even Christmas at all?”

Nick followed Greg over to the beautifully handcarved nativity, with its delicate painted figures of Mary and Joseph, and the baby in the manger. He crouched down to examine it, next to Greg, who was turning the small figure of Mary over and over in his fingers. Nick looked at Greg with a baffled expression. “What on earth do you mean, G?”

“What I mean is, this celebration has been taking place for 50,000 years - ever since man stepped out of his cave and started noticing the patterns of this planet. This is the winter solstice - the longest night of the year - and in the western hemisphere, pre-Christian peoples everywhere celebrated the solstice with the return of the sun, represented as a newborn child. The child was born of a virgin goddess, under the evening star, in a barn surrounded by animals which represented the farming year. The Church simply took the ancient traditions and pasted their own over top.” Greg set Mary down, very carefully, in the straw next to the manger. Greg glanced sideways at Nick, who was gaping at him.

"But you know, that doesn't mean the Church is wrong," continued Greg. "Don't you see? All the traditions - Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim... they all celebrate the return of the sun at the solstice. The triumph of light over darkness." Greg looked at Nick. "You taught me that, remember?"

Nick swallowed hard. How could he ever forget.

“How in blue blazes do you know all this stuff, Sanders?” Nick said, scratching his head.

Greg shrugged. “I was bored at university, so I took a comparative religion and expansive philosophy elective. You have to take a bit of time off when you’re a science major.”

The strains of a violin broke into Nick's thoughts. "Oh, this is the best part," Greg said enthusiastically, straightening up and pulling Nick by the hand. "Come on. You have to listen to this."

They sat down on the broken-down old sofa in the corner, as one of the dirtiest, thinnest and oldest women he'd ever seen got up from her chair and began to sing. Her husband, equally grimy but with a huge smile on his face, accompanied her on the violin. The room fell silent as she sang "Oh Holy Night". She had the most beautiful voice Nick had ever heard.

Greg snuggled closer to Nick on the sofa. Nick tentatively put his arm around his shoulder, and glanced around the room. Everywhere he looked, there were couples holding hands or cuddling, mothers with children on their knee, and yes, same-sex couples of either gender with their arms around each other. No-one took a second look at Nick and Greg. Nick felt suddenly as though a huge weight had fallen from his shoulders.

It's okay to be this way. It's just love.

Nick smiled down at Greg and held him closer. Greg grinned and snuggled into his shoulder as they listened to Grace and Lenny sing and play. Nick leaned his head against Greg's hair and closed his eyes. He felt accepted, and at peace with himself for the first time in a long, long while.

This is what Christmas should be.

All too soon it was time to clean up and go. Nick had made friends with so many of the homeless people, he got more hugs at one time than he'd ever gotten in his life. Greg just looked on with a knowing smile.

"Now you boys take it easy on the drive home," Mrs. Faldo fussed, before pressing two gift bags into their hands. "It's my Christmas cake," she grinned. "Greggy is the only person who likes it." She winked at Greg, who winked back.

"Thanks Mrs. F.," he said.

"You'll be back next year, won't you dear?" she said, craning her neck to look up at Nick.

"You bet, ma'am," smiled Nick.

"Oooh, I do love his accent," Mrs. Faldo shivered a little and raised her eyebrows at Greg, who started to giggle. Nick could have sworn he was blushing.

"Yeah, me too. See ya next year, Merry Christmas!"

As they walked to the car, Greg stopped and pointed to the sky. "Look, Nick. See?"

In the clear, blue-black night sky, the thinnest slice of new crescent moon hung like a curve of silver, as if about to embrace the single star that shone brightly at its side.

"The evening star, Nick. The Christmas star." Greg took Nick's hand. In the distance, a church bell rang.

"It's midnight already?!" Nick looked at his watch.

"Yeah. It's Christmas." Greg smiled at Nick. Nick didn't need any encouragement. He pulled Greg into his arms and kissed him tenderly. He didn't care who saw. He was so beyond that now.

"Merry Christmas, baby, I love you," he murmured, stroking Greg's hair gently.

"Merry Christmas, min kjćre," said Greg, happily.

As Nick drove them home, he turned to Greg, who was half asleep in the passenger seat.



"What you said to me just now ... what does it mean?"

Greg stirred a little in his half-doze. He turned and looked at Nick, a contented smile on his face.

"It means I love you."

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