Flash fiction time!
Alex refilled my glass for the toast and shushed his mother when she raised an eyebrow at it only being half-full. “She doesn’t have tomorrow off work like the rest of us, so we’re not sending her home drunk, okay, Mama?”
I tried not to blush when Mrs. Kadnikova–Irina, she told me call her Irina–gave me a piercing look. I was also fighting a blush already just from the inflection Alex gave mama.
After years of listening to him slip into Russian while on the phone with his family, it shouldn’t still hit me like that, right? It just sounded so . . . affectionate. His older brothers lived all over the world and never seemed to remember the time differences when they called to pester him about one thing or another. Pavel in particular always managed to call during game nights, so our D&D games took unplanned breaks while Alex put out some kind of family fire, or whatever it was his oldest brother needed. I’d never met him–he wasn’t at the family gathering tonight, too far away, though Alex had gone to see him a few weeks ago–but I’d gotten the impression that he was high-strung.
Carrie and Bill and Wes always used those interruptions as time to get more snacks or use the bathroom, but I buried my nose in a rule book and pretended to look something up while listening to Alex. It’s not eavesdropping if he doesn’t bother to leave the room, and I can’t understand what he’s saying anyway, right?
Alex’s father Mikhail raised his glass to me. He also insisted I use his given name, but there was no way I would ever do that because he’s six-five and built like he wrestles polar bears for fun. So far, I’d managed to avoid any conversational pitfall where I had to address him directly. “We’re so pleased you could come, Madeline.” His accent was faint, after so long living in the States, but it still drew me in like a verbal hug, and I liked the way my full name sounded colored by it. “When Sashka said he had a friend who was alone on Christmas, we couldn’t let that happen.”
“Thank you for inviting me, I’m honored to join you.” Alex had given me the run-down on the etiquette, so I knew what to say. Though he’d insisted they wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t know, I wanted to get it right, because it really was an honor to be invited to a family Christmas like this.
Especially for a meal as extravagant as this one. If the table wasn’t groaning under the weight of the food, it was certainly straining. There wasn’t a square inch of free space anywhere on the table, and in some places serving dishes were getting stacked atop each other, one balanced on the edges of two below it, so more courses could be laid out. I knew the names of some of the dishes, but not even close to all of them. After I mangled the pronunciation of the first few, leading to gentle laughter around the table, Alex took over the care and feeding of my plate. I’d whisper to him a description of what it was I wanted from another part of the table, and he’d get it for me, or ask someone to pass it without the same embarrassment I was suffering.
We all drank the toast, though Alex got another look from his mother at the water in his glass. They’d already tussled once over him not partaking, but he’d driven me here, and he was taking me home, too, so I appreciated his restraint. He’d capitulated to her demand of a single shot of vodka with everyone else at the beginning of the meal, though he’d skipped all the ones since, in between courses.
His brothers hadn’t, though, and it was starting to show. Ilya and Dmitri were practically giggling over something Ilya’s wife had said–I know I’d been introduced to her when I got here but keeping everyone’s names straight when they all called each other diminutives wasn’t easy. I only knew Alex was Sashka because he’d warned me ahead of time.
Whatever her name was, what she’d said made them laugh, but Alex tensed. I suspected he, baby of the family as he was, was getting teased. I had the irrational urge to leap to his defense, but I couldn’t, because of the language barrier. The feelings I’d had of inclusiveness, kindness, and family began to evaporate as their laughter went on.
Then Ilya said something that set off fresh fits of giggles. Alex slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the dishes, and Irina snapped out something sharp. The tone of a mother scolding came through, even if I couldn’t understand the words.
Silence fell over the table. Whatever had happened, it must have been bad, but I was completely adrift.
Dmitri muttered something that might have been an apology.
“Not good enough,” Alex said, low and menacing. I’d never heard him sound like that before. He stood up suddenly, and I turned to look at him. Fury was written all over his face. “I can’t believe someone from my family, someone I love, could be so rude. Maddie, I’m sorry, but we have to go. I can’t sit at this table anymore.”
He offered his hand, and I took it in a daze and let him help me up. He strode toward the door, and I followed, ending up in the narrow entryway with him as he yanked our coats out of the closet. After he shrugged his on, he held mine up for me, and I wondered at his almost thoughtless politeness, that he could be so angry and still a gentleman.
Or maybe it wasn’t thoughtless. When I turned, Mikhail was standing in the doorway, looking at the two of us with an expression of regret. When he saw he had my attention, he spoke. “On behalf of my sons, I must apologize, Madeline. I did not raise them to treat a guest so.”
My knees went weak, but before I could do more than sway in place, Alex’s hands gripped my shoulders, keeping me upright.
They weren’t teasing him, they were insulting me. Alex is walking away from his family on Christmas Eve for me.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Kadnikov,” I managed. Alex’s fingers tightened, like he didn’t even want me to be that gracious, but whatever had been said, it wasn’t his father’s fault. “Merry Christmas.”
Before I could say anything else, Alex whisked me out the front door and down the walk. The pavement was icy, and I almost slipped, but Alex took my arm and steadied me, slowing down from his rage-fueled rush.
Once we were in the car, I took a deep breath. “What just happened?” Alex didn’t answer, and I watched his hands clench on the steering wheel. “What did they say?”
“I’m not telling you, Maddie. I’m sorry, but it’s bad enough I heard it. I know my brothers can be assholes when they’ve had too much to drink, but this…” He turned to me, and I thought he might be about to cry. “Don’t make me repeat it, please.”
“Okay, okay,” I assured him. I still wanted to know what on earth could be so bad Alex would rather leave the celebration than accept an apology for it. But the pained look on his face told me not to press him.
The forty-five minute drive back to town passed in silence. I still felt adrift, like I should be angry but I couldn’t be, because Alex was hoarding all that to himself.
When he pulled up in front of my building, I made no move to get out. I didn’t want to go home yet, to a set of empty rooms and confusion. I wanted Alex to say something, to explain, or even just to laugh it off. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep like this, wound up without knowing why.
“I’m sorry, Maddie,” he said again, differently this time, quieter. “If I’d’ve known I’d spoil Christmas for you again–I know you hated not being able to go see your sister this year and meet your new niece. Once you told me you were going to be alone, I should’ve canceled my plans with Pavel, he would’ve understood. So I thought–I thought bringing you to our Christmas might make up for it. Since the Orthodox holiday is later, you could have another chance.”
“Why?” I asked, reaching for the root of the problem. It was kind, well-meaning, of him to invite me, but I’d thought that was all it was. Now, it seemed like more. “Why does it bother you so much that I was alone on Christmas?”
He answered me by leaning over the gearshift and kissing me.
It was short, close-lipped and practically chaste, but it was definitely a kiss.
“That’s why,” he whispered when he broke away.
Once was not enough. I grabbed the collar of his coat and pulled him back to me. He fumbled at the release on his seat belt until it clicked, leaving him free to climb halfway onto my side of the car. I probed at his mouth with my tongue until he let me inside, and he wound his fingers in my hair, making me glad I’d left it down.
All these years I’d known him, and it took a disastrous dinner party to push him over the edge. I giggled at the thought as he slid his lips back to my ear, down my neck.
But he pulled away. “Did that tickle?” he breathed.
“No, no, it’s not that.” He took my face in his hands and smiled, but I slapped at his chest. “Don’t stop.”
The smile faded. “I should stop. I didn’t mean to tell you this way, and you’ve been drinking–”
“Stop,” I said, covering his mouth with one hand. “First of all, you were pouring me half-glasses of wine, and I quit doing shots with your family after the second one. I. Am. Not. Drunk.” I said each word slowly, clearly. “Tipsy, okay, maybe a little, but not drunk. Second, how were you planning on telling me?”
He laughed behind my fingers, and I pulled my hand back so he could answer. “Hadn’t quite figured that part out yet. Mistletoe would have been a good excuse, but there wasn’t any handy.”
I was so happy to hear him laugh, to see all that fury gone, that it made me momentarily brave. “Would you like to come in?”
Shock washed over his strong features. “Maddie–” He stopped and swallowed hard, but I didn’t soften the invitation or hedge around it by explaining. I knew what I was offering, and I hoped he could see that I meant it.
“You have to work tomorrow,” he said.
“If that’s your best objection…”
He tilted his head and looked helpless to say anything else.
“You did say you should have spent Christmas with me,” I whispered. “You still have another chance.”
He reached for me, but I opened the door and got out of the car. If he wanted to touch me again, he’d have to follow.
I was halfway up the first flight of stairs when I heard the building door open behind me. I didn’t turn, I didn’t wait. But when I stood in front of my apartment on the third floor, my hands were shaking as I flipped through my keys to find the right one.
Alex’s shadow fell over me, and I felt his solid presence at my back. “Maddie…” he whispered.
I turned to him, letting him press me against the door with another kiss.
“Are you sure?” he asked, raising his head.
“Would it help if I told you whenever you’re on the phone with one of your brothers speaking Russian, I’m imagining you’re murmuring it in my ear instead? You could be talking about car parts or cookie recipes or aliens, but it all sounds incredibly sexy to me.” I ran my fingertips along his cheekbone, across his lips. “We’ve been friends forever, Alex, but if I’d had any idea you wanted more, I’d have been yours a long time ago. It’s just so hard to reach across that last little distance when you’re not sure what will happen.”
“I know,” he breathed. “Believe me, I know.” Then he leaned in and whispered something in my ear. I had no idea what it was, but the tone, soft and deep, made my knees tremble again. I was glad the door was holding me up.
“What did you say?”
He nipped my earlobe. “Oh, no, I’m not telling you yet. Where’s the fun in that?”
I shivered. “Only say sweet things.”
He nodded, his cheek ruffling my hair. “No teasing, no insults, no lies. Your education in the Russian language is only going to be good for one thing, Maddie, and that’s whispering in the dark.” Then he snorted. “So don’t try to say any of it to my parents, okay?”
I laughed, and finally unlocked the door.