Christmas Countdown: December 18
"When you invited me to a Christmas dinner, this is not what I had in mind."
Miles looked up from the pot he was scrubbing and grinned at him. "Well, I know this isn't Tavern on the Green or anything, but at least you have to admit that the company's good."
Stephen laughed. "Okay, you've got me there."
He'd expected Miles to go back to California for Christmas, to visit his family. Miles had surprised him, though, by saying it wasn't really an option. Stephen had been aware that Miles' relationship with his family, particularly his father, was strained, but he hadn't known it was that bad. Since Miles normally had an easy-going nature, his terseness about the situation had been out of character. Stephen had been concerned about his young lover, but hadn't wanted to press him.
Besides, Stephen had enough to worry about.
It was his first Christmas since the divorce and, even with Miles in his life, Stephen found himself flailing a bit. His normal way of dealing with the pain was to throw himself into work, but that wasn't fair to his team, especially not on the holiday. Jack had been with Stephen on Christmas Eve and Miles had gone out with friends, giving the two some privacy. Stephen had been dreading an empty Christmas Day, but Miles had invited him to dinner and he'd agreed. To Stephen's surprise, however, they didn't go to a restaurant. Instead, they'd spent the afternoon serving meals at a homeless shelter.
Miles had grinned at Stephen's reaction, but hadn't given the older man time to back out. He'd handed Stephen an apron and hairnet before showing him where he'd be dishing out baked beans for the people coming through the line. Stephen Connor, one of NIH's premiere physicians and a gifted diagnostician, found himself serving as a glorified lunch lady.
A steady stream of people had come through Stephen's line. Physically, they were a diverse group; young and old, with different races and ethnicities being represented. All of them, though, had hungry looks on their faces. Sometimes it was accompanied by a sense of dampened pride or even shame. Stephen had done his best to look each one in the eye and see them as a person, since food for the soul was every bit as important as feeding the body. The afternoon had gone much more quickly than he anticipated.
"Did it get your mind off of Jack?" Miles asked quietly. He'd finished with the pan and was drying his hands on a towel.
Stephen shook his head as he picked up the last dish and started wiping it off to dry. "I thought of him all day."
Miles' face fell. "I'm sorry, I was hoping if you had a task to take your mind off-. . . "
"That's not what I meant," Stephen interrupted gently. He put the pot and dishcloth aside. "I'll always feel sad that Jack's from a broken home, even though I know now that Lisa and I were totally wrong for each other. What this afternoon put into perspective is that Jack still has two parents that love him and can provide for him. Jack may not have the traditional family, but he'll never have to worry about a roof over his head or where his next meal is coming from. I took that for granted, but not anymore. A divorce is painful and messy, but it's not the worst thing that can happen to a kid."
"So, this wasn't a disaster?" Miles asked.
Stephen reached out and pulled him close enough for a kiss. "Far from it." Miles relaxed against him in relief and Stephen couldn't resist teasing him. "The headgear, on the other hand, is a different matter."
Miles was also wearing the hairnet that was mandatory for working around food. Stephen took one hand and slipped a finger under the elastic edge and pulled, grinning when it snapped back into place. Luckily for Miles, it wasn't particularly strong elastic and didn't sting.
"They're not as manly as a surgical mask," Miles said loftily, "but every bit as necessary for protection."
"Well, they're a damn sight more uncomfortable than our medical gear," Stephen complained. "Can I take it off now?"
"Yeah, we're done," Miles assured him. He was quick to take off his own hairnet. Unlike Stephen, who's short hair took no damage from being confined under a net, Miles' hair was a little flat. The young doctor shook his head, like a dog shaking off water, and it bounced back a little. "Kristy said that when we were done with this sink full of pans that we could take off."
"Good." Stephen was relieved. "I wasn't sure how much more of the net that my manliness could take."
Arm in arm, the lovers walked out of the building. Stephen was tired, but it was a good tired.
"I did promise you dinner," Miles stated as they headed for their car. "I know a Chinese place we could go to." He flashed his dimples at Stephen. "Unless you'd like to go back in and see if there's any leftovers."
Stephen shuddered. "No thank you, if I never see another turkey roll again, I'll be a happy man."
The shelter served good, if basic, food. After being around it for hours, though, smelling it while helping to dish it out, the last thing in the world that Stephen wanted to contemplate was eating it.
Miles laughed at his reaction. "I know what you mean. At least Kristy knows I'm a vegetarian and never asks me to work the meat station." He stopped when they reached the car. "I'm glad you came with me today, Stephen."
Stephen contemplated his lover. He could tell from Miles' voice that the volunteer work was important to him, but the younger man had never mentioned it before. "So, how did you hook up with this group anyway?"
Miles smiled at him sadly. "In a way, because of my dad."
That was a surprising statement, since Miles had often complained to Stephen about how materialistic his father was. "Okay, you can't say something like that without explaining it."
"You know that he wanted me to be a lawyer instead of a doctor, right?" Miles asked. When Stephen nodded, Miles continued. "Well, he told me that if I wanted to choose a profession that had a decreased rate of investment, that I could do it on my own. I went to college without my parents' help and, well, scholarships don't pay for everything."
Stephen was a smart man and could connect the dots. "You had to use services like these."
Miles shrugged. "I was a kid and I was on my own for the first time. Managing money was not my forte. I got my scholarship money once a semester and it didn't always last. After I paid for classes, my dorm and books, there wasn't always enough left over to eat on."
"And books were more important than eating," Stephen guessed. He knew Miles well enough not to be surprised when his lover nodded his head.
"I swore that when I was in a position to, that I'd give back," Miles explained. "Sometimes I just send a check, but that doesn't feel like enough. Working for the NIH, though, I don't always have the time to physically help out."
"Miles, you do not have to make up for the things your father does," Stephen stated quietly. "You're your own man and you have your own ethics. You work yourself hard to heal people. I know, I'm your boss and I see how driven you are."
"I know that, Stephen," Miles looked to the side while he struggled for words. Finally, he turned his head so that he looked at Stephen again. "I just. . . I just want to help."
"And you do," Stephen reassured him. "You save people with our NIH work, you helped feed people tonight and you made me feel a lot better about my own circumstances. "
"Good." It was hard to tell in the uncertain light of the parking lot, but Stephen thought Miles was blushing.
"Just don't injure yourself in your drive to be of service," Stephen commented. "That's not healthy and I won't have it."
At first Miles looked offended, but then his face softened. Stephen hoped it was because the younger man knew how much Stephen cared. "Okay."
"Okay," Stephen repeated, accepting the promise. He'd see to it personally that it was a vow that Miles would keep. "Now, I think you said something about Chinese?"
"Yeah, my treat," Miles kissed Stephen quickly before heading to the passenger side of the car.
Stephen got in, thinking hard, but not about dinner. He'd been contemplating earlier that food for the soul was important. Being married to Lisa had ultimately left Stephen's soul hungry, but being with Miles was, Stephen was finding, very satisfying. Miles, in fact, was his personal soul food.
"What are you smiling at?" Miles asked. Stephen realized he was grinning like a fool.
"Nothing," Stephen deflected the question. "I was just thinking that this will be a nice tradition to introduce Jack to next year. Lisa and I alternate Christmas Days, you know."
Miles looked mildly stunned at first and then smiled joyfully. "I'll look forward to that."
Stephen reached over and took Miles' hand, content to drive one- handed for the time being. "Me too."
And he meant it, hairnet and all.
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