"Should I dress up?" Junior called from her room.

Liz crossed the hall to stand in her doorway. "Well, Jack said he was going to wear a jacket. I didn't know he owned one."

"I guess I better wear something nice." Junior pulled a dress out of her closet, looked at it, then made a face and tossed it aside. Liz watched with amusement as this procedure was repeated on dress after dress. "I hate all my clothes!" Junior finally exclaimed.

"Why are you so concerned? It's not an audition. You'll know almost everyone there."

"I know, it's just…" Junior sighed. "It's my first real grown-up party, you know? Where there wasn't a kids' table? I wanna look like a grown-up." She blew air through her teeth. "What are you wearing?"

"My black skirt and my red sweater with the sparkles. Seemed holiday-ish."

Junior shook her head. "I don't have anything holiday-ish."

"Well, that isn't a requirement."

"This one's too girly, this one's too plain, this one fits me weird, this one's too long…"

"You can borrow something of mine if you want."

Junior considered this. "How about that white angora sweater with the cowl neck? I could wear my tan suede skirt with it."

"Sure." Liz ducked into her room and pulled the requested sweater out of her closet. Junior had the skirt out when she returned; Liz held the sweater up to it. "Oh, that looks nice."

Junior sighed. "What a relief. And I can wear my brown knee boots, too! I never get to wear those."

Liz went back to her room, chuckling, wondering which shoes she ought to wear. She'd been planning to wear her own black knee boots, but if she did, she and Junior would be wearing almost the same exact outfit, except in different colors. She stared at her shoe rack. Pumps or flats?

"So, you guys go to this party every year?" Junior said.

"Uh…this is my first Christmas here, same as you," Liz said.

"Damn. I keep forgetting you haven't lived here much longer'n me," Junior said. "Seems like you've been here forever."

"Your dad says the same thing. But to answer your question, I know they've gone most every year since they moved here."

"Will Peter be there?"

"He said he would be."

Junior appeared in her doorway and struck a pose. "How's that?"

Liz grinned. "That looks great, Junior. Very…grown-up."

She nodded. "Thank God. I didn't want to have to show up at the Linebecks' in my sailor dress from sophomore year. I'm going up to the house, are you coming?"

"I'm going to take a quick shower."

"You took one before we left for Fred and Arlene's!"

"I want to get my hair wet. I'll be up soon."

"Okay. But you know Daddy don't like to be kept waiting."

"Huh. No wonder women aren't to his taste."

Jack was sitting at the kitchen counter drinking a cup of coffee when Junior came in the backdoor, her overcoat over her arm. "Well now, don't you look pretty?" he said, grinning. "Where's Lizzie?"

"She'll be up in a bit. Doing her hair, I think. Where's Daddy?"

"Where ya think? He's sittin' out in the car with the engine runnin'. Y'know. Warmin' it up for the girls," Jack said, delivering this last in an eerily accurate imitation of Ennis' low-pitched rumble.

Junior chuckled. "He could just start the car and then come back in the house."

"Yeah, but that would take away his ability to be all irritable that he sat in the car waitin' on us." Jack shook his head. "Like as not drop dead a carbon monoxide poisoning."

"You look nice," Junior said. He was wearing jeans, a blue denim shirt and a camel-colored corduroy sportcoat.

He glanced down at himself. "Thanks. I never know what to put with what."

"Just wear blue all the time. Makes your eyes stand out."

Jack looked at her, a slow smile sneaking onto his face. "Does it, now?"

"Not that I've been lookin' at…or that I've…oh hell," she said, flushing.

"I'm just teasin' you, darlin'," he said, nudging her with his elbow. "Lizzie says the same thing."

They sat in silence for a few beats. "Jack?"


"I, uh…never really asked you how things went with you and Mamma."

He hesitated. "Better'n I expected."

"When I was drivin' her to the airport, I asked her the same thing, and you know what she said?"

"What?" Jack asked, a furrow appearing between his eyebrows.

"She said 'I guess it could be worse.'"

Jack laughed out loud. "Is that so?"

"Comin' from her, I think we can call that high praise."

"No shit." He sighed. "We got some stuff out. Stuff she needed t'say, and I deserved t'hear, and vice versa."

"I don't like it that she's so harsh on you, but at the same time…I understand. Was a time I felt that way myself."

"I know. Neither you nor your mamma gotta apologize t'me for anything."

She reached out and patted his hand. "Maybe if we give her a few years she'll come round."

He smiled. "That'll be a cold day in hell, darlin'. But I thank you for the sentiment." He was looking at her with the oddest expression on his face.

She shifted, feeling her cheeks warming. "What?"

"I guess I ain't never said this, but havin' you here's been a help ta me. Y'know…with Bobby'n all." He seemed embarrassed and cut his eyes away. "Let me feel like maybe I'm still a dad, a little bit." He met her eyes again. "You're a real blessin' ta me, y'know?"

Junior squeezed his hand. "I know it's been hard for you these past few days."

He nodded. "Got a lot harder all of a sudden. Cain't say why."

"Well…I don't know how I'm helping, but if I am, I'm glad."

The front door opened and they both heard Ennis's stomping footsteps. He appeared in the kitchen, glowering. "Are we ever leavin', or you reckon we're just gonna wait for next year's party?"

"We're waitin' on Lizzie. Calm down, take a seat," Jack said.

Ennis ignored him and instead strode to the window and looked out towards the bungalow, grumbling. "Fuckin' hate bein' late."

"It's a party, it ain't like we gotta be there right on the dot. Folks always drift in and out, you know that."

Ennis turned around and seemed to see Junior for the first time. His expression softened a little. "You're lookin' awful pretty, darlin'," he said.

"Thanks, sugarbear," Jack said, winking sidelong at Junior.

She giggled while Ennis cocked an eyebrow at him. "Was talkin' ta my daughter there, numbnuts," he said, though his eyes were twinkling.

"Aw, you sayin' you don't think I look pretty?"

Ennis shook his head. "Aw, no. I ain't inflatin' your ego any more'n it already is."

The back door opened and Liz entered, looking a little rushed. "Sorry," she gasped out. "I didn't mean to hold everyone up."

"Well, let's go, if we're all gussied up sufficient," Ennis said, herding everyone towards the living room. Junior, bringing up the rear, saw him lean in towards Jack, one hand on his back. "Y'know y'always look pretty ta me," she heard him murmur in Jack's ear.

Ennis had, by necessity, become somewhat accustomed to attending parties. He didn't think he'd ever feel truly at ease at one, especially one where there were folks he didn't know, but at least he didn't hide in a corner with a beer anymore.

The Linebecks' Christmas Night party, as always, was a hubbub of activity and merriment that swirled around him like chaff in the stables during a good sweeping. The house was stuffed with at least fifty people, milling about in the kitchen, the living room, the downstairs rec room and anywhere else they'd fit. Jack, always ready with a glad-hand, was busily chatting people up. Liz was leading Junior around, making sure she'd met everyone.

Ennis was standing near the drinks table with Rory and Gus Flaubert, not saying much and trying to keep a wall at his back. Martha had beer in some ice-filled tubs, egg nog, and some kind of fruity punch that smelled like a lollipop to Ennis. He took another sip of his beer, wishing for something stronger. His eyes were drawn to Jack, across the room talking with Pastor Greenfield and someone Ennis didn't know. It gave him a quick proprietary shiver to remember that even though he was way over there, Jack was his, and everybody here knew it. As if he could sense the eyes on him, Jack glanced over and winked when he saw Ennis looking. Ennis felt his lip curl in a half-smile in spite of himself.

"Hey Roger, it's your turn!" somebody yelled. Catcalls and cheers pursued poor Roger McPherson, a teacher at the high school whom Ennis knew vaguely, as he was browbeaten over to the mistletoe with his wife. Ennis's smile faded as they exchanged a quick kiss, blushing and fending off the cheerful jibes. It wasn't a fitting spectacle for people purporting to be grownups, to his way of thinking. What was next, a game of spin-the-bottle? His irritation, he knew, was due in no small part to the fact that eventually some smart-ass would be calling his name, just to get his goat. Everybody present knew damned well he wouldn't be caught dead kissing Jack under that mistletoe.

Why not? a voice asked in his head, an insistent little voice that had begun to speak to him round about the time of Jack's encounter with a two-by-four. Everyone here knows. What're you afraid of? Somebody takin' offense? If they're gonna, they're gonna, and it ain't your problem.

Grant came up to the table for a refill on egg now. "What're you doing, Ennis? Guarding the beer? Mingle a little!"

Ennis snorted. "You got anything stronger?" he said, wiggling his beer bottle.

"Sure. Got some whiskey in the bar downstairs. Pretty decent stuff. Help yourself."

"Thanks." Ennis drained the bottle and headed for the stairs, tossing his empty into the trashcan as he passed. There weren't as many people down here in the rec room; Ennis made a beeline for the wet bar in the corner. He went around to the back and knelt down, opening the cabinets under the sink in search of something stronger than Rolling Rock.

He had his head half inside the cabinet when he heard voices above him, at the bar. Two men's voices that he didn't recognize.

"You got here late," one of them said.

"Dinner at my mother-in-law's house. Was kind of hoping we'd skip this altogether," said the second one.

"Thought you liked Grant."

"Sure, he's all right. It's just…" The second man dropped his voice a little. "Every time I come to one of their parties, I know I'm gonna have to make nice with the town fags."

Ennis froze, staying where he was, whiskey forgotten.

The first man grunted sympathetically. "I know what you mean. You know they go to the same bank we do? Half the time I have to see one or the other of 'em when I go in to make a withdrawal."

"I can't believe they let those FFA kids work out at that ranch."

"I know. What if one of them…did something to one a them high school boys?"

"The one's daughter lives out there now, you know."

"No shit."

"Yeah. She goes to CCV up Burlington. What kinda mother lets her daughter live with fags?"

"Frank says he seen them holding hands in church."

The second man clucked in disgust. "I don't know how they fuckin' dare. In church?"

There was a pause. "Did you hear that the one got beat last summer? Was in the hospital a couple of days."

The second man grunted. "Well…that's unfortunate. Still, can't help but feel they're asking for it. I just don't want to know anything about it, or have to see it. Knew I'd have to if Sheila made me come to this party."

Ennis had heard enough. He grabbed the first bottle of whiskey his fingers touched, and stood up.

It was almost worth having overheard this unsuspected casual bigotry to see the horrified looks on the pasty faces of the men who'd just been insulting him. The color fell out of their ruddy cheeks and their eyes widened.

Ennis said nothing, he just stood there for a moment, aiming his best icy stare at them. He slowly walked out from behind the bar and faced them. "Either a you fellas got somethin' t'say ta me?" he growled, snipping off his words like bites of a carrot.

The first man, a tall one with a pale insurance-salesman sort of face, shook his head. "No," he squeaked.

"'Cause it sure sounded like you had plenty ta say behind my back." The men just stared off into space silently, their jaws clenching. Ennis shook his head. "We're done," he said, then turned and went up the stairs.

He just wanted to get out. Get as far from this house as possible. He'd always felt safe here, or relatively so. Grant and Martha were their friends, and it had seemed reasonable to think that anyone in their house was friendly, too. He looked around, every face suddenly a strange one, every voice unfamiliar. How did he know what feelings these people were keeping locked up behind those holiday jolly-time expressions?

"Hey, Ennis!" Fuckin' Fred, I mighta known, Ennis thought. Fred Trimble, his face flushed from however many beers he'd had, was pushing his way through the crowd towards him. "It's your turn in the hot seat!" he laughed, pointing to the mistletoe. A few other voices joined in. Ennis caught a glimpse of Jack, over by the fireplace, rolling his eyes with tension set in his jaw. He knew Ennis hated this.

In years past, Ennis had just grumbled and glowered and ignored them, and after a few minutes of teasing, it was always dropped.

A lot had happened since last Christmas.

Ennis took a swig of whiskey, feeling closed in. Was there a fucking bullseye on his forehead? He slammed the bottle down on the drinks table and stomped towards the front door, thinking about getting some air. He could sense the laughter and cheers dying out in his wake, replaced by shocked mutterings. Grant stopped him, frowning. "Ennis, what's wrong? We're just teasing you. We do it every year!"

Ennis whirled to face the group. "You all think it's so damned funny, don't you?" he bit out. "Mistletoe-kissin' like we're all in junior high!"

"We make everybody do it," Grant said, slapping him on the back, still trying to salvage the usual jocularity.

Ennis shook his head, seeing out of the corner of his eye that Jack was gaping at him, open-mouthed. "You wouldn't try'n make me do it if you thought I actually would. You only get after me 'cause you know it's…safe." Righteous anger was rising in his chest. "Well, ta hell with that," he growled. He crossed the living room in two steps, reached out and seized Jack by the hand.

"Ennis, what the hell…" Jack managed.

Ennis pulled him to the doorway where the mistletoe was hanging. Everyone was staring. How many of them were cringing? How many would avert their eyes? He wanted to rub it in all of their faces, he wanted to stand on the coffee table and shout This is my man and if that's disgustin' ta anyone here then I don't give a good goddamn.

He didn't, of course. What he did do was pull Jack into his arms and kiss him. Not a chaste little peck, but a kiss with some purpose behind it. Jack was too surprised to do more than stand there and take it, and Ennis released him before he could react.

Ennis looked around at the partygoers. He could see a few wide, shocked eyes. There were a few disgusted faces. A few people were looking away and whispering urgently to each other. Most of the faces he saw just looked surprised…except Marty, who was beaming a triumphant smile and tilting her chin around at everyone as if to say "Take that, suckers."

He nodded, stepping away from Jack, who was still standing there open-mouthed like he was trying to catch flies. "Okay," he said, the anger rapidly leaking out of him. He glanced around. "So…there ya go." He sagged a little, wondering who, exactly, he was mad at. "Sorry if I sounded sharp before," he said.

Grant took a step forward. "Ennis…I'm sorry if we made you uncomfortable. We just didn't want you to feel left out, or like you were different, so we teased you like we do everybody."

Ennis looked at Jack, feeling helpless and tongue-tied. Jack sighed, and seemed to have regained his composure. "We are different, Grant," he said, quietly. "And if anyone's uncomfortable, we know it's probably us what makes 'em so." A ripple of dissenting murmurs ran over the party. "No, it's all right. I think what gets to Ennis and me is always wonderin' if folks are just pretending to be okay, when inside they're judgin' us. We'd just as soon know the truth. Leastways then we'd know who we could feel free around." Jack reached out and took Ennis's hand. "Didn't mean ta bring everyone down," he said. "We'll go, then."

A number of people spoke out at once then, urging them not to go. Ennis held up a hand. "S'alright," he said. "I ain't exactly in the partyin' mood no more. But…thank you for askin'. We'll be seein' ya."

Jack pulled Ennis towards the door. He caught Lizzie's eye as she stood near the kitchen; she made a few quick gestures indicating that she and Junior would catch a ride home. He nodded gratefully.

They left on a tide of good-byes and see-you-laters. They didn't speak until they got into the car. Jack, in the driver's seat, turned and faced Ennis. "Okay, what the hell was all that?"

Ennis had his arms crossed over his chest. "I heard a couple a guys downstairs sayin' how they cain't stand seein' us, and how they think we're perverts." He lifted his chin and set his jaw. "I'm so fuckin' sick of it, Jack. I ain't stand around and take it quiet no more."

"So you think laying a big wet one on me in Grant and Marty's living room is the way to go about fixin' it?"

He turned his head and met Jack's eyes. "I didn't know what else ta do."

Jack chuckled. "Well, whatever else, it sure gave me a thrill."

The corner of Ennis's mouth twitched. "Yeah?"

"Ennis, you just did what I been wishin' for a long time. You just kissed me in front a fifty God-fearin' people, you realize that?" He grinned at the look of mild horror that came into Ennis's eyes. "Relax, cowboy. Even if a few a them folks think it's disgustin', I doubt any a them got tire irons warmin' up at home."

Ennis sobered. "Don't even joke about that. That ain't nice."

Jack nodded. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't." He started up the car and pulled out onto Country Trunk H, headed towards home.

Ennis rubbed a hand over his face. "Christ, what if I pissed someone off in there? What if somebody was just gonna let it lie and now I done riled 'em up, and they decide they gotta do somethin'?"

"Now you're just bein' paranoid."

He shook his head. "Don't talk ta me like I'm a child," he said, an edge coming into his voice. "Y'know how it scares me ta think a somethin' happening ta you."

"Ain't you scared for yourself?"

Ennis didn't seem to have heard him. "I guess it's too late now."

"That's for fuckin' sure."

Nothing was said for a few moments. "Sorry I just grabbed you like that," Ennis finally muttered. "You ain't my personal property."

"Did you hear me complainin'?" Jack replayed the incident in his head, seeing all those faces turned towards them again. He chuckled. "Well, I think you mighta taken a few years offa old Mrs. Henry's life."

Ennis tried and failed to keep from smirking. "Bout damned time. I guess that means she's only the same age as God now."

"Marty looked mighty pleased."

"I bet. You know she's got some kinda big swoony romantic idea 'bout us in her head. She'd'a ate it right up."

"Look on the bright side."

"What's that?"

"At least everyone'll have another story ta tell besides that damned Labor Day punch-out story."

Jack followed Ennis into the house, but didn't let him get far. As soon as Ennis had his coat off, Jack grabbed his arm and spun him back against the living-room wall. "My turn ta grab," he murmured, sliding his hands down Ennis's back to seize a couple of handfuls of his ass. "You got a problem with that?"

Ennis shook his head, his eyes clouding over with desire. "Not s'long as I get ta grab back."

They pushed and pulled all the way to the bedroom, shedding clothes as they went, until Jack shoved Ennis backwards onto the bed. "Sure hope no one noticed me fillin' out my jeans when you kissed me under that mistletoe," he said, crawling over him.

Ennis grasped Jack's erection. "Want me some a this tonight," he said, eyes dark and cheeks flushed.

Jack drew back slightly. "Yeah?"

Ennis nodded. "C'mere," he said, pulling Jack down to him. Jack sealed his mouth over Ennis's, feeling his hands all over his back as they slipped and slid against each other, pulling and shifting themselves on the bed so they were lying on it properly. Jack moved down to Ennis's neck, where he'd long ago mapped out all the sensitive spots. "Gonna gimme a hickey," Ennis grumbled.

"Good," Jack said. "And if I do, you gonna show it ta everybody so they all know you're mine."

He felt Ennis shiver, then slip his hands under Jack's arms and haul him back up to kiss him again. "You drive me fuckin' crazy," he said, the words half-lost in Jack's mouth. He flung a hand to the nightstand and fumbled in the top drawer, handing the tube to Jack.

"You're sure in a hurry tonight," Jack said, rearing back onto his knees between Ennis's thighs.

Ennis just nodded, his hands roaming all over Jack's chest and stomach. "Just want ya," he said, half under his breath as if he didn't want to be overheard.

Jack leaned down and kissed him, teasing his mouth open with his tongue and keeping after him until he had to let him go to breathe. "Say it like ya mean it, lover."

Ennis smirked, emboldened. "I want ya, Jack. Always have, 'n always will."

Jack pushed Ennis's knees back and slid into him. Ennis's neck arched and a groan tore from his throat, his hands flying out to either side to grab at the sheets. Jack leaned forward over his chest, planting his own knees outside Ennis's hips. His body wanted to thrust, but he held back. "Even when I'm old 'n gray and my ass starts ta sag?" he whispered.

Ennis choked out a few short barks of laughter. "Yer ass'll be saggin' now if you don't get to it," he said, his voice sounding a little strangled.

Jack braced himself on his hands and let himself go, putting his head down and doing his best to give Ennis what he'd asked for. He felt Ennis wrap his long legs around his chest and pushed deeper, trying to find that place he was always looking for and hadn't found yet, that place where they wouldn't be two people anymore but one body and one person, him and Ennis, melted together so they couldn't be separated. He lifted his head and looked into Ennis's eyes, half-closed and fixed on his face, sweat rising on his forehead and darkening his blond hair.

"Jack…" Ennis groaned, lifting one hand to the back of Jack's head and grabbing a handful of hair. Jack couldn't take his eyes off Ennis's face. He looked…surrendered. It was a face Jack knew that only he saw. Ennis made himself vulnerable to no one else, and if he'd never been able to see his way clear to saying those three words to Jack, he'd have known Ennis loved him anyway because of it.

Jack raised himself up again and took Ennis's cock in his hand, pumping it and trying to time it so they could come together, a feat they'd never found easy to achieve. Ennis held on to his forearms for leverage as he pushed back at him, biting his lip and holding Jack's gaze. "Y'almost there, baby?" Jack murmured. Ennis could only nod. Jack did his best, but Ennis still beat him to it. He cried out Jack's name, swore a couple of times, and shot all over his own stomach. Jack sighed inwardly…better luck next time…and thrust hard a few more times until he was there himself, holding tight against Ennis and grunting while it took him over, tightening every muscle and whitening his vision. He collapsed into Ennis's arms, their sweat and semen mingling in that familiar post-coital warm dampness. "Damn," he said into Ennis's neck.

"Damn is right," Ennis said, his chest still heaving with quickened breath. They laid there holding each other until their pulses had returned to normal. Jack hitched himself up and slid half off Ennis, one leg and one arm still thrown across his man's body. "Shit," Ennis said, arming sweat off his forehead. "Wonder what them guys at the party'd be thinkin' if they saw that?"

Jack chuckled. "They'd be thinkin, 'Damn, it ain't like that with the wife, maybe I oughta try it out and see what a man's like in bed.'"

Ennis rumbled quiet laughter deep in his chest. "If they did, they'd never go back. Cain't start having everyone turnin' queer, can we?"

Jack snuggled a little closer. "Well, my man's fine enough to turn anyone queer. They cain't have ya, though. I got dibs."

Ennis shook his head. "I'm fine enough? Darlin', you could turn the Pope queer."