Chapter Three

Mistletoe and Wine

Aedan made his way back to the tube station in a daze. He felt numb. Of course, there was a small, logical part of his brain that knew this wasn’t really the end of the world. But it really felt like it as he followed the other shoppers as they squashed into the train carriage.

He was going to be mortified when Matt opened just a few, lacklustre things tomorrow. He kept reminding himself that his original present wasn’t very expensive, so it didn’t matter that he hadn’t spent that much money today. But that gift had been so personal to Matt. Aedan had been so sure he’d allowed enough time for postage…

He gritted his teeth as the train doors closed and people pressed into him from all sides. As this was the start of the line, it was usually quite empty. But everyone had evidently left Westfield at the same time, so were all trying to board the tube at once.

It was fine. Matt would be back so late they probably wouldn’t eat or drink much anyway. They could decorate the tree next year and make the flat look pretty. He could hopefully get wrapping paper from the corner shop on the way home.

But that didn’t solve the problem that he hadn’t got people what he wanted. He stared miserably at his reflection in the window as the tube tore through the night. This section of the line was above ground, and he tried to focus on the building lights in the distance. But he kept coming back to his own face as he tried not to cry.

People were going to think he didn’t care about them when that couldn’t be further from the truth. He loved his inherited family more than anything and he’d let them down.

By the time he pushed his way off at Canning Town Station he felt thoroughly wretched. But there was nothing he could do, no solution that would fix this. He’d promised Matt he’d sort everything, and he’d simply run out of time.

Aedan rubbed the back of his neck, under his old faithful chunky knit scarf, and sighed. He’d just have to explain what had happened to Matt and offer to take him shopping in the sales. Matt wasn’t materialistic, he’d probably love what Aedan had bought for him. But that didn’t make Aedan feel any less like he’d spoiled everything.

It was only a five-minute walk from the station to Aedan and Matt’s apartment, but Aedan’s thoughts were churning so much it felt like longer. Especially with all the heavy bags he had in his hands.

The trouble was, as bizarre as it might sound, the nicer Matt’s family were in comparison to Aedan’s own, the harder he found it. It just reminded him of what he didn’t have. Especially around the holidays, but now this year was even worse than usual because he didn’t even have Aunt Eileen.

He was so grateful to have Matt’s family. Hopefully they would understand that this year he’d just dropped the ball a little. He tried to apply logic; of course they would get it. They had treated him as part of the family ever since Aedan had shown up at their doorstep seven years ago, back when Matt was just his best friend.

That was the best decision Aedan had ever made. Never in his wildest dreams would he have dared hope that one day Matt would reciprocate the love Aedan had carried around since they’d met on the first day of senior school. He needed to remember how lucky he was.

But his mind was filled with thoughts as dark as the sky above him. He was lucky, he just needed to show Matt he knew that. But instead Aedan had bought him and his family mediocre gifts. He’d not bothered to decorate the artificial tree that had been sitting in their living room the past week. He’d skipped out on several Christmas parties, unable to face smiling at so many people when he felt hollow inside.

He needed to keep sparkling for Eileen, to honour her memory. She hadn’t been restrained by their family’s expectations either and lived her life to its fullest. It sucked beyond compare that it had been cut far too short, but Aedan needed to find it within him to keep going.

The air inside the building’s lobby was blissfully warm as he pushed his way through the front doors with his bags. Matt would be home in a couple of hours and Aedan wanted to do his best to cheer up by then.

He loved Matt with all his heart and soul. No matter how disappointed Aedan was with his efforts today, he was going to find as many ways to show that as he could.

He waited for the lift to get him to the right floor and made his way down the hall to their door. He juggled his bags to get his keys out of his pocket to let himself into the flat. They were on the third floor of the new building and had a pretty decent view of east London from their balcony. There was an even better view from the large communal garden on the roof; you could see Canary Wharf and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic stadium and even the Shard in London Bridge from up there.

They had been very lucky to snag one of the apartments in the development when they did. Thanks to Eileen’s generous inheritance in her will, they had been able to afford the deposit and get themselves on the property ladder. That wasn’t something a lot of people in their twenties in London could boast, even with good jobs like Aedan and Matt had.

Over the years they had done numerous house shares with other students and professionals, but nothing could compare with the feeling of getting the keys to your own place at the end of the summer. To step through your own front door and know that no matter what, you were safe and content and with the person you loved was undoubtedly one of Aedan’s greatest joys in life. So despite his miserable shopping trip, he tried to let go of the tension in his shoulders and relax as he swung open the door.

Except…the hallway wasn’t dark like he expected. He blinked at the white fairy lights strung up at the top of the walls on both sides, leading to the bedroom and open kitchen/living room space. The air that wafted out from the flat was warmer than he would have expected, and – what was that incredible smell?

“Hello?” he called out uncertainly as he closed the front door behind him. It sounded like the TV was on, but Matt couldn’t be home, could he?

The noise from the TV suddenly stopped and within a second Matt slid out into the hall on his socks. He was in joggers rather than the jeans he wore to work and one of his signature hideous Christmas jumpers that Aedan adored. This one had a picture of Jesus on in a party hat, holding a balloon with a badge that read ‘Birthday Boy!’ on.

His face lit up at the sight of Aedan. “Babe!” he cried, dashing over to hug him. “I was starting to get worried, why didn’t you answer your phone?”

Aedan dropped his bags to the floor and threw his arms around his boyfriend’s neck, chocking back a sob. “It’s been in my pocket,” he confessed. He’d not even been listening to music like usual, such was his melancholy. Thinking about it, he hadn’t checked the damn thing for hours. “I’m so sorry. Were you very worried? What are you doing home?”

He leaned back and looked into Matt’s blueish-grey eyes. He was so gorgeous it made Aedan’s heart skip.

“They let us go home early,” Matt said in delight. “No filming over the Christmas break, so it makes sense.”

Having got a degree in history, Matt had done the sensible thing and also got his teaching qualifications. But after a year of working himself ragged, his fortune had taken an unexpected turn. Last year, he’d happened to bump into someone at a party who worked for the BBC as a writer on a historical drama, and they just so happened to be looking for a new historian as a fact checker to liaise with them on a regular basis. Now Matt worked on a couple of different productions and couldn’t be happier. He could always go back into teaching; he’d found it extremely rewarding after all, even though it was exhausting. But for now, Aedan was beyond proud that his fabulous man was getting to experience such an exciting career.

Matt always insisted that Aedan was the gorgeous and fabulous one. Aedan did his best to make sure Matt knew that wasn’t the case.

“I’m so happy you’re here,” Aedan said, horrified when his voice cracked. He hugged Matt again to try and disguise his upset, but of course Matt noticed.

“Hey,” he said gently as he rubbed Aedan’s back. “What’s the matter? Everything okay?”

Aedan whined. “Oh, babe!” he sobbed. “I’ve ruined Christmas!”

“Hey, hey,” said Matt urgently. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Aedan screwed up his eyes as the tears leaked out. He was probably getting his makeup everywhere. “All my presents are rubbish,” he stammered and clung harder to Matt. “I didn’t get any food, I forgot the wrapping paper.” He only just realised that in his dark mood he failed to pop into the corner shop on the way back to get some. “I never decorated the flat and…and…”

He hiccupped back his distress as best he could, but Matt was hugging him fiercely. “You are such a prat,” he said fondly and kissed his check. “You should have just checked your phone. Come here, let me show you my surprise.”

Gently, he eased Aedan out of his coat and waited while he kicked his shoes off. Then he took his hand, and together, they both padded into the main living space of the flat in their socks.

Aedan gasped.

The tree was covered in lights and tinsel and garlands and a whole hodgepodge of ornaments. Garlands were strung over the mirrors and framed movie posters they had around the room, and the cabinet surfaces had a number of tacky holiday figurines scattered all over. Where Aedan had envisaged a pristine, ice-blue winter wonderland, there was a mess of colour. Instead of the elegant crystal decorations Aedan had in one of his bags, there looked to be a whole nativity from the pound shop down the road as well as many other painfully cheap-looking ornaments. There were cross-eyed robins and uneven snowmen and the garlands were so poorly made they looked like genuine fire-hazards.

It was possibly the most beautiful thing Aedan had ever seen.

“Oh,” he said, touching his fingers to his mouth. “You’ve got absolutely no taste whatsoever, have you?”

Matt beamed at him. “Does that mean you like it?” he asked, rocking on the balls of his feet.

“I fucking love it,” Aedan cried, grabbing his boyfriend and pulling him into a fierce hug. This time he didn’t bother to try and stop the tears that soaked into the shoulder of the awful jumper.

He should have known he didn’t need it all matching and pristine for it to be perfect. He just needed Matt; and everything about this glorious, ghastly display screamed Matt Bartlett.

“I’m sorry,” said Matt.

Aedan hiccupped and blinked in surprise. “Why on earth would you be sorry?” He pulled back to stare at Matt in honest confusion.

Matt stroked his checks, wiping away the tears. “Because I know we’ve both been busy, but I let you think you had to do all this by yourself. I should have realised sooner how important it was, and helped.”

Aedan shook his head and buried his face against Matt’s neck again. “I wanted to do it all.”

“I know,” said Matt fondly. “But you shouldn’t have to.”

Aedan nodded. “This really is perfect though,” he insisted. “Thank you.”

Matt kissed his hair. “You don’t need to thank me, gorgeous. But I’m so happy you like it.”

“I love it,” Aedan mumbled into his neck. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” Matt said with a chuckle, swaying Aedan back and forth. “Now come here. Let’s cheer you up.”

Aedan allowed himself to be led over to the kitchen. There was mulled wine simmering gently in a pan on the hob, a baked camembert bubbling on a low heat in the oven, and an assortment of the very party foods that Aedan had hoped to get himself. Spring rolls and chicken goujons and breaded mushrooms had all been kept warm in preparation for Aedan’s return home.

“Oh, babe,” he said shakily. He wiped his eyes as Matt handed him a mug of mulled wine that warmed his insides from the first sip. “This is amazing.”

Matt brushed some of Aedan’s hair back where it had come loose from the wax. “Do you want to tell me what’s on your mind before we start eating?” he asked. “It will all keep, I promise. But if you’d rather not talk about it, I understand.”

Aedan sighed. He took Matt by the hand and led him to the sofa. “I don’t know,” he said to procrastinate a little longer. He sipped his wine and snuggled against Matt’s side. It looked like he’d been watching Die Hard from the image paused on the TV screen, and Aedan highly approved. “I fucked up all the presents,” he blurted out.

Matt leaned his head against Aedan’s. “I’m sure you didn’t,” he said kindly.

But Aedan shook his head. “I just feel like I got nothing special, and yours…” he sighed. “Yours didn’t come at all. It was only a silly little something. Your real gift is your anniversary present. But I wanted you to open this tomorrow and I’m so sorry and-”

“Babe,” interrupted Matt firmly. “Calm down. Not to be rude, but I don’t give a crap about presents. I care about you. If I just have you tomorrow morning, then that’s okay with me.”

Aedan managed a wet laugh and rubbed the tears from his face. His eyeliner was almost totally gone, he was sure. “Okay,” he said softly. That had been his thinking with the anniversary present, which was a cheeky long weekend in Paris he’d managed to get a sweet deal on. Spending time with Matt was always the best gift. “I didn’t get anything for your family,” he added weakly.

Matt kissed his temple. “What are you talking about? We got Mum and Tilly stuff together. What’s in those bags?”

He jutted his chin to the front door. Aedan shrugged. “Stuff for your nan, and your aunt, uncle and cousins. Oh, and Buster. But, I wanted to get other stuff for your mum and Tilly. It just seems all naff and no good.” He tucked his head further down Matt’s chest so he wouldn’t have to look at him.

Matt stroked his back. “But you made all those mix CDs a while ago, didn’t you?”

Aedan stilled. “Oh my god,” he said. “Oh my god, I forgot all about those.” He looked tearfully up at Matt. “Oh that’s perfect and amazing!”

“See,” Matt said with a grin. “Everyone will love those.”

“And they’re personal,” Aedan said in agreement.

Matt brushed his hair back again and smiled. “A little glitter on the garland.”

That made Aedan think of Eileen, but he tried to swallow it down. “I still have to wrap everything,” he said. That seemed like such a monumental task with him so low on energy, and he had to blink back more tears.

“I’ll help you,” said Matt cheerfully. “It’ll be even more fun when we’re good and smashed on mulled wine. Tilly will be very impressed with our combined skills.”

Aedan managed to give him a real laugh. Matt’s sister loved to tease him about his total ineptitude when it came to wrapping presents. They hadn’t seen her in so long. She had just started her doctorate and was immersed in her PhD research. It was going to be fantastic to spend the next few days with her.

“Okay,” whispered Aedan again.

They sat there for a while. Aedan suspected Matt was allowing him to think. He probably realised Aedan wasn’t done talking.

“It’s like,” he said eventually, after half his wine was gone and his head started buzzing pleasantly, “I want to remember Eileen by still dousing everything in glitter, like we always do. But…she’s not here anymore, and it feels like the more I try to be festive, the more disrespectful it feels.”

Matt sighed. “I wondered if that was it.”

In all honestly, it wasn’t like Aedan had seen his aunt all the time. Maybe a few times a year if they were lucky. But he always felt they were kindred spirits and he’d secretly hoped one day she might have found her true love too and built her life with someone.

But that wasn’t Eileen’s way. She travelled and wrote her blogs and articles and would rather have drifted through Asia doing odd jobs and partying rather than settle down. The whole world was her true love.

“Do you think she’d be disappointed we used her money to buy this place?” he asked, voicing his fear for the first time.

“No,” said Matt surprisingly quickly. He said it confidently, and kissed Aedan’s head again. “No, babe. I know she was into all that hippy stuff,” he said with a chuckle, “but she specifically wanted to help us out in this way. She knew how much it would mean to you.”

Aedan heard what Matt didn’t say. He knew it was important for Aedan to have a brick and mortar home after growing up in the instability of an Irish traveller camp. Caravans had been way of his people for generations. But Aedan had enough uncertainty to contend with being gay in such a hyper-masculine environment. With being poor and bullied at school. With being beaten at home and heckled on the street for being a fucking poof.

Matt had always been his stability, even when they were just friends. But becoming boyfriends had been one of the best things to happen in Aedan’s life. Eileen knew that. She knew how much this start meant to them. Even if it wasn’t the same sort of dream she had. They were both rebels and outcasts, just in different ways.

“She did know how much it would mean to me,” Aedan agreed. “To us.”

He sighed. He needed to let his guilt go. It was okay to keep on living without her. It was okay that it hurt. But…it was also okay that with each day, it hurt just that tiny bit less.

“I don’t want to spoil Christmas,” he said, taking a big, shaky breath in.

Matt squeezed his shoulder. “You’re not at all, I promise. Do you fancy eating now?”

“Oh my god, I’m starving,” Aedan groaned and laughed. “Thanks, gorgeous.”

“It was no trouble to cook,” said Matt.

But Aedan pulled him to his feet and cuddled him close. “I wasn’t talking about the food,” he said into the lovely, ugly jumper. 

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