Tinsel, ribbons, carelessly open boxes and strewn papers – needles crunching underfoot, fresh snow on the sidewalks.

Noise. Words. Warmth.

The sharp scent of pine, the warm spice of gingerbread. Stockings hung by the chimney with care.

All across Connecticut and New York, parties will be starting in a few hours, gingerbread and eggnog affairs hapless children everywhere would be dragged along to, even those in college – he's an old family friend, Al, how you possibly say no? – but for now, a silence. A lull.

And in it, across two separate states and in two separate homes –

Matt finds his phone, shifts through his contacts –

In his room, Gil sighs as he turns his phone on, scrolls down to Williams

Two fingers hit call at the same moment, and for a moment, in the December-chilled air, two boys in separate states wait for the other to pick up.

"Gil –"

"Mattie –"

Words desperate, running, then suddenly stopping as they stumble into each other. A pause.

"Um. How was your Christmas?"

"Pretty good, pretty good," Gilbert says, kicking his feet as he stares at the ceiling from his bed. "How was yours?"

"Pretty good, too."

"That's good."

"Yeah."

Another pause.

Matthew bites his lip.

A hundred miles away, Gilbert leans his head back, stares at the ceiling for long, long moments.

"So anyways –"

"About that whole roommate transfer deal –"

"What you said last time –"

Another pause.

"R-ight," Gilbert says finally. "Okay, I think we can get the hang of this whole telephone deal down – you talk, then I go. Right?"

"Um, well, actually," Matthew says, shyness manifesting despite the miles between them, "it's okay with me, actually, if you go first, too. If you want to, that is," he adds, staring at his feet. "Um."

Pause.

"Uh, sure – no problem. That's fine with me. If it's fine with you?"

"Yeah."

"Oh. Okay." Lips licked, feet tapped against wood floor: tun, tun, tunk. "Yeah, so about that roommate transfer deal – well, I mean, I wasn't serious about it actually – unless you wanted to moveoutthatis," the words added hastily, coming out in one burst of breath, "but if you didn't want to go through all that, not like I'm trying to push you either way, but if you wanted to stay –"

"Wanted to stay?"

"Yeah, if you wanted, then it'd be fine with me – I mean, of course only if you wanted it, no hurt feelings or anything if you didn't –"

"Wanted to stay? Of course I do!"

"– like, it'd be understand and I wouldn't mind, it's not like we couldn't still be friends – oh. Oh."

Beat.

"Of course I'd want to stay," Matthew says, the words quiet but slow, with emphasis on each one, "of course I would."

"Oh. Um. That's well...that's good to know."

"Yeah."

Another silence, but this one suddenly somehow cozier, somehow comforting.

"So," Gil says, breaking the silence, "get anything nice for Christmas?"

"Some books. A couple of movies. Lots of clothes, most from my aunts in Canada – I think I could probably free a colony of house elves with the socks I've gotten over the years. What about you?"

"Oh, man, nothing too impressive, either – Vati's not exactly the best at Christmas, all about practical gifts and shit, and ever since he decided I spent too much time in front of the Xbox, it's been all self-help books and screwdrivers. Got the last season of Game of Thrones from Luddy though, so that was pretty awesome – do you watch it?"

"I saw an episode, I think, when we were at a hotel. Is that the one with, um, a lot of incest in it?"

"Oh yeah," Gilbert says, and Matthew doesn't think he's ever heard someone sound so enthusiastic about incest before, "and blood and gore and betrayal and lots and lots of other kinds of sex – but I mean, what do you expect? It's basically War of the Roses with dragons and zombies, of course it isn't going to be fucking Mister Rogers – but fuck, it's great. The characters, you know? – it's the characters that do it, get you hooked. It's on Netflix – we could marathon the first season sometime when you get back."

"Sure thing," Matthew says, a slight smile creeping on his face, "we could do that."


And after that, it seems better; after that, it gets better.

Spring semester is a month away, and they call each other during it, late-night calls fueled by mutual boredom and the exhaustion of dealing with parents and younger siblings. It's not a planned thing; Matthew, sitting inside his room to avoid yet another of Al's impromptu parties, will – after a few moments of unsuccessfully trying to drown out the noise with a pillow over his head – reach for his phone, text "what's up?" And Gilbert, on the other side of the line and equally suffocating at a Kleindeutschland black-tie affair, will respond almost instantaneous, fucking German party, want to blow my brains out – you? And Matthew, though he will bite his lip at the joke – not funny, and he doesn't think it will be ever again – will ignore it, reply equally quickly, Al's friends are over – same deal.

And so it went.

They talk about many things: favorite books, favorite shows on TV, which professors to take and which to avoid; when winter break lasts a month and the cold means the only other option is cabin fever, it was only natural. But one thing they never talk about, never discuss or bring up is that night – that last, drunken, disastrous night, and what had happened at the end of it.


"Mattie!" a familiar voice calls as Matthew opens the door, and before he can react, Antonio has already reached him, wrapping his arms around Matthew in a warm, bone-crushing hug.

"Yeah, okay, I think you can let go now," a voice comes from behind Antonio, and poking his head out from Antonio's arms, Matthew blinks at it, "Jesus, no need to fucking suffocate him –"

"Lovino?"

"Yo," Lovino says, tone slightly less irascible than usual as he raises a hand. "Good break?"

"Y-yes," Matthew says slowly, still blinking as he extricates himself from Antonio's grip. "What are you guys – what are you –"

"To welcome you back, por supuesto!" Antonio cries, clapping his hands on Mattie's shoulders. "Lovi and me, pues, we got back yesterday, and it's been so quiet everywhere – no hay nadie, it's been so lonely with no one here – y bien," he says, smiling, "since you were coming back first, pues, we thought it'd be nice to welcome you back!"

"He thought that," Lovino corrects, jerking a thumb at Antonio, "I didn't say jack. Actually," he adds, rolling his eyes, "he's been doing this all day, acting like some TSA agent and welcoming people back since this morning – pretty fucking ridiculous, actually –"

"Oh dale, Lovi," Antonio protests, turning around, "don't be like that – you're here también, no?"

"Because you fucking dragged me along, asshole," Lovino says, glaring at Antonio. "Practically abducted me, actually – and I told you, don't fucking call me that –"

"Oh, but it fits you sooo much better, es muuuucho más adorable – y además, we're friiiends, aren't we, Lovi –"

"When are the others coming back?" Matthew asks, quickly changing the subject before Lovino – looking like he could deck someone – can respond.

"Tonight!" Antonio says, turning to Matthew without missing a beat. "There's a barbecue at Washington Square, at six, lots of people will be there, casi todos the frats and the sororities, y Michelle and Francis will be coming by later – Francis nearly had a heart attack when he heard about it, but Michelle was better about it – y pues, we'll be meeting them there. It'll be fun, no?" Antonio says, beam practically demanding confetti.

Behind him, Lovino rolls his eyes, mouths "cuckoo" as he twirls a finger by his head – and Matthew can't help but laugh at that, Antonio's cheer infectious.

"And what about Gil?" Matthew asks, grinning. "He lives closest, doesn't he – shouldn't he be here by now? Or is he late again?"

There is a moment of silence, a small, silent break, during which Antonio's smile flickers and Matthew's good mood plummets swiftly into worry.

"Ah, bien, Gil," Antonio says, putting on his biggest, brightest smile, "he just texted me this morning, en realidad – something came up, family, creo que fue, so he'll be there for a while. Can't make it, tengo miedo – but he'll be back tonight!" he adds. "Which is good, I think – you can unpack without worrying about someone else getting in the way, toma tu tiempo, relax a little – oh no," he says, smile suddenly vanishing, "we're not keeping you from that, are we?"

"The fuck do you think we've been doing, Sherlock?"

"No," Matthew says, smiling briefly to alleviate the worry in Antonio's eyes, "it's fine, I slept most of the trip. It was, um, nice of you guys to welcome me back."

"Yes, bien," Antonio says, smiling in relief, "if you need any help unpacking – or you need to get anything from the library – or help with anything else, anything at all –"

"It's fine," Matthew says. "Thanks, but I don't need any help."

"Are you sure? We could keep you company –"

"No," Matthew says, shaking his head; company was the last thing he needed now, when the knots were already starting to form in his stomach and the sick sharpness rising in his throat, "um, the mixer's at six, right? I'll see you then."

"Ah," Antonio says quietly, smile briefly drooping before he recovers. "Don't forget to dress warmly!"

And that makes Matthew smile, almost lifts his mood – "I will," he calls, raising a hand; really, Gilbert had been right when he called Antonio a mother hen – but the brief moment of gaiety quickly disappears as he reaches his room.

It is dark when he opens the door, and no one is inside – of course no one is, Antonio had just told him as much two minutes ago, what had he expected – but Matthew does not move to turn the light on.

"I'm back," he says quietly, closing the door behind him.

There is, of course, no response.

Matthew stands there for a few seconds more, then – closing his eyes briefly, taking a deep breath – turns on the light, and begins unpacking.


When Matthew arrives at Washington Square Park, the first thing he notices is how crowded it is. Antonio had told him all the Greek houses would be present, but somehow, Matthew hadn't truly believed that, had dismissed it as one of those things manufactured by the heat of the moment and Antonio's eternal cheer –

This time, however, it didn't seem like he'd been exaggerating. Matthew arrives a few minutes early, but the crowds are already crushing, no college student apparently willing to turn down the prospect of free food. There is a small team of RAs by the grills, floppy chef's hats and cheerfully lettered "WELCOME BACK!" aprons barely belying their growing apprehension. Matthew pities them already.

Wading through the gathering crowds of people, he nonetheless finds Antonio and Lovino easily enough. Which is not surprisingly, really; other students might be shouting and waving at classmates over the crowds, but there was only one person who would be actively screaming.

"I swear to fucking God, if you dragged me out in this goddamn cold just to fucking wait –"

Around him, the other students had given Lovino a wide berth – which, frankly, works as well for Matthew, who squeezes easily towards the familiar figures.

"But I told you, Lovi, Francis just texted me they were getting off the plane, so they should be here soon – we just have to be patient, bien, Lovi? – Mattie!" Antonio cries when he sees him, seemingly oblivious to the way Lovino's face reddens in anger behind him. "Oh, magnífico, at least you're here, then –"

"Is something wrong?" Matthew asks.

"Oh nothing," Antonio says, smile slightly worried in spite of himself, "Francis and Michelle are just a little late, that's all –"

"Fashionably late, je voudrais croire," Francis says, smiling as he walks up behind Antonio from seemingly nowhere. "Bonjour, mes amis – I hope we weren't keeping anyone?"

"Yeah, super sorry about all this," Michelle sighs, wrapping her jacket around her as she steps forward, "there was a delay at the transfer, and then the cab took forever to get here – but we're here now, right? So that's what matters!" Michelle says, smiling. She is wearing lipstick, redder and more formal than anything Matthew had seen on her before, and beneath her fur-lined jacket, her dress is a flowing, shimmery white.

" Honnêtement, Antonio," Francis sighs, similarly dressed in a crisp suit and silk tie that draw appreciative glances as they walk over to the food table, "I do appreciate the sentiment, mais anyplace else –"

"Hey, hush," Michelle says, swatting at Francis as she piles her plate with coleslaw and spare ribs, "this was my idea, remember? I told you, frère," she says, waving a fork in front of Francis's face, "normal people are perfectly fine not always eating haute cuisine –"

"Et I told you, Michelin," Francis says, patting his sister on the head, "that I couldn't do that to Maman – que dirait-elle, honnêtement, seeing me feed ma chère petite sœur such scraps–"

"Tu es impossible," Michelle says, rolling her eyes, but her face brightens instantly as she sees Lovino and Matthew.

"Hey!" she says, placing her plate down and wrapping the both of them in a perfume-heavy embrace. "Sorry for tuning you guys out for a bit there," she says, "Francis was being himself –"

"La meilleure chose to be, bien sûr –"

"– by which I mean an ass," Michelle says, sticking her tongue out at her brother; he gasps, placing a hand over his heart, "but oh my God," smiling as she turns back again, "it feels like it's been forever – how've you guys been?"

"Pretty good."

"That's great!" she says, beaming at Matthew. "And what about you?" she asks, turning to Lovino –

Lovino, who is normally short of no words, who now says nothing. Can seem to do nothing but stand there, eyes wide as if seeing Michelle for the first time –

"What?" Michelle asks, blinking as she tilts her head to one side, earrings jangling as she stares at Lovino. "Something in my teeth?"

"N-no," Lovino says, blinking rapidly as he shakes his head. "No," he says, eyes slowly making their way back up to Michelle's face, "you're – you look perfectly – perfectly fine." A brief glance once more at those teeth – then darting up to her eyes, then down to neck, chest, legs –

Oh dear, Matthew thinks, watching Michelle's expression become increasing confused as Lovino continues staring at her. This could become complicated.

There is worry, for a brief moment, then Matthew sighs, decides it isn't his problem, and walks back for more food.

"Matthieu!" Francis cries, waving when he sees Matthew walk over. "Mon ami, je suis vraiment désolé – the planes, you know, and the cold –"

"It's fine," Matthew says, smiling as he picks up a cupcake, and it was – good to see Francis again, good to be back, all those trite placates. But it was, it was nice to see them here, again, the same faces, the same easy words, everything seemingly still unchanged, still the same –

If Francis's thoughts linger at all on that night (and God knows how much Gilbert had told him, Matthew had walked in on them both grim-faced and hungover and hadn't dared to ask), he shows no indication of it.

"So you went to the Alps?" Matthew asks, politely accepting the glass of champagne Francis hands him ("fresh from Champagne,mon cheri, not the best vintage, mais certainement mieux que any of the watery stuff here –") "That sounds fun."

"Bien, oui," Francis says, waving a hand, "we always go, chaque année – quite boring, en fait, mais est tradition, as Maman does so remind us – bien que personnellement, Nice is much more pleasant –"

"Oh, silencio," Antonio says, sliding back with a smile on his face and a beer in his hand, "don't ruin all Mattie's fun – I've always wanted to go too, you know. You could take us on a trip, tal vez –"

"And thoroughly dissuade you of the notion, j'espère – crois-moi, mon ami, when it's twenty degrees below zero, you won't be nearly so excited –"

"Is that so?" Antonio asks. "I don't think it would be so bad – I'm sure I could find a pretty Alps girl to help with that –"

"Bien, oui, yes," Francis says, grinning as he glances out at the crowd, "and New York is quite cold aussi, n–"

Something catches in Francis's breath then, and he suddenly stops. Instead, stands there, unblinking deer before headlights, staring at something (someone?) at the edges of the crowd –

"Francis?" Matthew asks quietly. "Is something wrong?"

"No – non, no," Francis says, smiling as he turns to Matthew. "I just thought I saw someone I knew, c'est tout."

"Did you?" Antonio asks, tilting his head as he leans forward on Francis's shoulder. "Old ex, mm?"

"Something like that," Francis says quietly.

Antonio blinks, glances at him; Francis meets his eyes for a brief second, line of his shoulders tense, and Antonio takes a soft breath, seems to understand (what?)

"Pues, come on," he says, smiling as he claps his hands on Francis's shoulder, "no need to think on unpleasant things now – vamos, let's get some more food, bien?"

"Are you trying to poison me?" Francis asks, recovering enough to look scandalized as he follows after Antonio. "Mon Dieu Antonio, we've had our disagreements, je sais, mais je croyais que we were friends –"

"Nope," Antonio says, cheerfully grabbing another beer and handful of chips, "I was only doing it for the wine and the good food, por supuesto. Hotdog?"


And perhaps it is, as per Francis's suspicions, indeed the food, or maybe it's something else, the champagne he had politely finished or simply the people, too many and too much, words and noise and secrets he was not privy to– but within an hour, Matthew is forced to excuse himself, courtesy of the headache pounding in his temples.

Really, he thinks as he walks back, it wasn't as though he shouldn't have expected this – he'd always been bad with crowds, claustrophobic around too many people, it wasn't that surprising –

(still, still, that hadn't just been it, had it? Still, and if he was being honest, it had more to do with that look in Francis's eyes, that meaningful glance between him and Antonio, that familiar, oh so familiar mix of worry and confusion that had shot through Matthew at it - and Gilbert still not here yet, another edge of wrongness to twist in his stomach -)

Another twinge of pain shoots through his head, and Matthew shakes his head, forces himself to think on something else.

Everyone had the right to secrets. Hadn't Francis told him that, once before?


As he nears his door, Matthew relaxes, sighing in the anticipation of waiting relief inside – a cup of warm tea and a Tylenol, perhaps some hot chocolate and a good book in bed –

Mind thus preoccupied, Matthew opens his door without seeing it, and nearly jumps when he sees someone already inside.

Bent over his suitcase, Gilbert looks up, and seems equally startled to see Matthew there.

For a moment, they stare at each other, both blinking as neither say anything –

"Hey," Gilbert says, standing up, "um, hi there. Mattie."

"Gil." Pause. "Uh, hi too."

In the silence, Matthew notices a number of things – that in the past few weeks since Matthew had seen his roommate, he had gotten a haircut, ends shakily uneven in a way no professional barber would have ever tolerated; that the shadows under Gilbert's eyes, so bruise-like against pale skin the last time he had seen them, had lightened; that, in the gentle lamplight, Gilbert's eyes are not so much red as reddish-purple, violet coloring softening the startling hue they had appeared under fluorescent hospital lights. And that, in the bright morning light, his lips (the same lips that had been against his barely four weeks ago) were pale, faintly chapped.

(and did he mean he was attracted, because he noticed these things? But they'd always been there, he just hadn't been paying attention – did that mean attraction, being observant? It couldn't, could it, otherwise that would have meant he was attracted to every portrait he'd analyzed in Art History, and obviously that couldn't be true –)

Gilbert licks his lips quickly, and Matthew notices that, the redness of his tongue against pale skin.

"Good to see you, too," Matthew ventures.

"Yeah," Gilbert says, nodding quickly as he stands up. "You too."

Neither of them looking at each other.

"So," Matthew says, feeling strange to be the one leading the conversation, "Game of Thrones, right? Do you have, um, a time in mind for that – I mean," he adds hastily, "if you're still up for it, that is –"

"Still up for it?" Gilbert asks, staring at Matthew. "Roomie, of course I'm up – I've been meaning to rewatch season one ever since I started the first book, see how close it really sticks to the series – I mean," he says, suddenly catching himself, "if you've got time that is, second semester's a bitch and it's fine if you don't want to anymore –"

"Of course I do."

"Well," Gilbert says hesitantly, glancing up at Matthew, "we could watch the first couple of episodes today, if you want. Since we're free."

"Sure," Matthew says, smiling as he steps forward. And it is so easy then, the way Gilbert hooks his computer up to the TV and goes on Netflix – and it is so east, so simple, it was like nothing had ever happened, like nothing had happened changed –

(because it hadn't, had it? Lots of things happened in college – lots of people tried new things, lots of people got drunk, did stupid things, experimented – it didn't have to mean anything, not necessarily –)

But when they sit down on the floor of their crowded room, Matthew is acutely aware of the space between them, a deliberate patch of carpet that had not been there before -

(and if he just reached his hand over, just a few inches over -)


Notes:

Special thanks to Kira for catching some of my grammar mistakes - much love for preventing me from embarrassing myself :)

One of the parts of the immigrant experience is throwing parties where the guests are predominately from your ethnicity – if you've ever heard of "Asian parties," that's essentially the type of party the "Kleindeutschland party" refers to, except with Germanic guests. Kleindeutschland itself refers to the Little Germany which was once an part of Manhattan; it officially doesn't exist anymore, but I don't think that means no Germanic community exists at all.

I've been lax on saying this lately, but thank you all for reading (aka putting up with my unedited writing and terrible language skills) and generally being awesome! Happy 2014 to you all - I hope it treats you well :)

Translations:

Spanish

dale - come on

también – also

es muuuucho más adorable - it's so much cuter

casi todos - almost all

en realidad – actually

creo que fue - I think it was

tengo miedo - I'm afraid

toma tu tiempo - take your tiempo

French

Je voudrais croire - I would like to believe

que dirait-elle, honnêtement – what would she say, honestly

ma chère petite sœur – my dear little sister

La meilleure chose – the best thing

suis vraiment désolé – I am very sorry

chaque année – every year

mais certainement mieux que - but certainly better than

en fait, mais est tradition - actually, but it's tradition

j'espère – I hope

crois-moi, mon ami - believe me, my friend

c'est tout - that's all

je sais, mais je croyais que – I know, but I thought that