It’s Christmas break and classes at SyndAcad are finally out for the year. As the students pass by, chattering about their plans for the holidays, Chad is over at his locker unpacking his things. He finds a cute Christmas card from Aaron, asking him out on another date. Chad smiles at it. Just then, football captain Cameron Levine snatches it away from him and says, “What’s this?”

     Chad frowns and reaches for it in a panic before he says, “Hey! It’s none of your business!”

     Cameron Levine sneers, “Well you sure didn’t mind sticking your nose into my business before!”

     With that, the team captain is about to open the Christmas card. Chad quickly flings his hand so that a gust of wind suddenly blows the card out of his hands and Chad then moves to catch it. Cameron Levine looms forward, but Chad steps back.

     Chad puts away the Christmas card and tells him, “What I did was make sure Ray and half of the football team still had the chance you tried to take from them when you drugged their fruit! It’s not hard to see that you think Ray is stealing your spotlight as captain. I’m pretty sure you were trying to remodel the team to assemble all your pals on reserves, who want Ray gone half as much as you do!”

     Cameron Levine pulls Chad to the side and warns, “Keep your voice down and you better keep what happened to yourself … or else!”

     About that time, Vitani and Josh show up. Josh pulls Cameron Levine off of Chad and turns to him.

     Josh then firmly states, “You’ll keep your hands off Chad or I will tell the coach what you did, Levine.”

     Vitani says, “While it could cause problems for Ray Torres to bring that up without concrete proof, we’re free to stir the suspicions about what you did into a storm you can’t shelter yourself from.”

     Josh adds, “So you better enjoy the calm while it’s here!” and then shoves the football captain back.

     Cameron Levine glares at Chad before he sneers and storms off. Chad sighs to himself in relief.

     Vitani and Josh turn to see if Chad is okay. Chad looks at his Christmas card, saying, “Thanks. I’m fine.”

     Vitani sees the card and muses, “You seem to have a lot of other things to smile about this season.”

     Chad smiles and says, “I’ve already got two great cards – one from my class that tells me I’ve got the best grades in science class and the other from Aaron that asks me on a date.”

     Vitani grins, “Ah. So it’s official for you and Aaron now.”

     Josh smirks, “No more dates in the library with that little Chem book, now it’s the real thing.”

     Chad chuckles lightly before he muses, “Well, after almost being killed by your first boyfriend, I guess it can take a while to get back in the game.”

     Josh shakes his head, “You know I didn’t mean –”

     Chad cuts in, “What I mean is that I’m proud of myself and I hope that all of this means I can get over that … and maybe some other things.”

     Vitani looks at him knowingly and says, “Like your feelings for Ray Torres.”

     Chad shrugs, “I mean Ray’s been dating Rita Allen for almost two months now. And when I really thought there was something there between and Ray and me, I saw … I saw that I had to move on. Now I’m with Aaron. So let’s just see how things go from here.”

     With that, Chad, Vitani and Josh walk off together from the lockers to head to the downtown mall.

     Meanwhile, Cameron Levine watches them out of earshot from around the corner of the hallway and remarks, “Dammit! Who would have thought that geek would be friends with the basketball captain and his friends too? Our little Chad has managed to neutralize himself as a target for now. But there is still someone else I can use to get to Torres.”

     He muses this to himself as he looks at the school newspaper office. He walks away when someone with a winter parka shows up at the door.

= = =

     Inside the school newspaper office, Rita Allen goes to answer the door and screams before she hugs her brother Dustin, who sheds the hood of his parka from over his head. He takes a box from her to help her with packing up some stuff from her office as they both walk into the hallway. She locks the office doors behind her.

     Rita Allen is excited as she says, “And now that I don’t have to follow up on stories for the newspaper for a while, I can follow up with what’s been going on with my family.”

     Dustin asks, “Like what? Dad probably won’t show up this Christmas, given he hasn’t since he left Mom when we were five, and we’re gonna video-call Mom and the rest of the family tomorrow for Christmas.”

     Rita Allen smirks and nudges him with her elbow, “I know all of that, silly! I want to know what’s been going on with my brother. You know, like anything special or anyone special.”

     Dustin blushes when Chad comes to his mind. Rita Allen gasps and says, “So there is someone special!”

     Just then, Ray Torres walks up to them with a Santa Claus hat on his head. Ray and Rita Allen lean in and kiss before smiling at each other. Dustin rolls his eyes at the show of affection as he thinks to himself that Chad and Aaron may probably be doing the same right now.

     Rita Allen smiles and says, “Hey Ray! You look almost as festive as I feel, now that my awesome brother here is staying with me for the holidays.”

     Ray smirks to himself in amusement and muses, “Oh really? I wonder if Dustin has any other special plans with anyone, like the last time he stayed at my place.”

     Dustin’s eyes bulge and he panics at what Ray is going to tell his sister. She looks up at him excitedly.

     Rita Allen asks, “Why do you say that, Ray? Do you know about this crush that Dustin has?”

     She looks at her boyfriend expectantly. Ray simply looks over at Dustin. Dustin pauses nervously.

= = =

     On their way to the mall to buy Christmas presents, Chad, Vitani and Josh are chitchatting about the holidays as they trek over the thin layer of snow covering the sidewalks.

     Chad smiles, “You know I feel like I may actually be feeling this Christmas spirit thing this year!”

     With that, he runs ahead of them in excitement. Vitani and Josh look at each other and smile.

     Josh says, “You know, I’m glad we’re all kind of happy this Christmas, despite being on the hit list of the Triad of Doom and all. Chad’s got Aaron and Eliza and I are working things out. Maybe you know someone-”

     “Hey, I don’t need fancy plans with a guy to have a Merry Christmas. I’ll have you know, Josh, that I was in the Christmas spirit from the time I volunteered to read Christmas stories for the kids here at the mall this week,” Vitani cuts in. “There is not much else that can damper my spirits – maybe other than the Milano sisters, and they aren’t here.”

     Just then, Amber and Christy, along with their cheerleader friends, drive by in a red Camaro and splash Vitani and Josh with slush from the street. Chad comes back over and asks if they’re okay. Vitani and Josh start to flick the mess off of themselves when the Milano sisters reverse their car.

     “Hi, we’re fine. Thanks Chad,” Amber says and flicks her hair, “Hey, Josh. We were, like, just on our way to a Christmas party over at our house.”

     “You’re welcome to join us,” Christy smiles, “And maybe, like, heat things up a bit more this season.”

     Josh rolls his eyes as he continues to flick the slush remnants off, “Why? Because you two are full of hot air? No thanks!”

     Vitani smirks and teasingly waves at them, “Enjoy the heat back in your hellhole, girls.”

     Amber and Christy scoff and tell Josh to suit himself. Vitani sneezes. After the Milano sisters scorn at her sneezing, they are about to drive away when something crashes on top of the car hood, surprising them all. Everyone looks over to see a dead man in a Santa Claus costume lying there. There is also a little toy on top of him that repeats ‘Merry Christmas’.

     Chad, Vitani and Josh look on in disbelief. The Milano sisters and the other cheerleaders scream.

List

     In the mall, Chad brings Vitani and Josh some hot chocolate to drink on a bench not far away. Vitani and Josh then watch as the Milano sisters take another turn at explaining to the mall security and some policemen, with a lot of shaky ‘likes’ in their sentences, about how the dead Santa Claus dropped onto their car.

     Other policemen discuss that Santa was shot on the roof of the mall with something with the power of a sniper rifle that went straight through his back. They didn’t find any bullets on the roof or the area or surrounding buildings. They do not think this amount of snow would have covered them up so quickly. They joke that maybe the bullets were made out of ice.

     Back over at their bench, Vitani’s eyes bulge before she whispers something in disbelief to herself.

     Vitani panics and then softly says, “Omigod! What if I’m the one who may have killed that man?”

     Josh turns to her and frowns, “What are you talking about? How on earth could you have done that?”

     Vitani tells them as she recalls, “I kinda sneezed just before it happened and maybe my powers-”

     Josh stops her, “The condo would be an igloo by now if something froze whenever you sneezed.”

     Vitani shakes her head, “I know. But maybe I have a new power to, like, shoot ice bullets or something.”

     Chad says, “Even if you did have new powers, you didn’t sneeze into the sky, which is where the old man in the Santa Claus outfit fell from. But something mysterious is definitely going on with the missing bullets fired from a sniper rifle. The killer had to be a pretty good distance away, so he couldn’t have taken them.”

     Vitani asks, “Maybe the ice bullets melted and so didn’t leave a trace. But do ice bullets even exist?”

     Chad shakes his head, “I don’t think so. I mean maybe in certain types of guns and even then only short distances. But I’m thinking with the latent heat of water, the ice would have probably vaporized from the friction, or even shattered from the shock inside of a sniper’s firearm.”

     “So now you know it wasn’t you who killed that guy,” Josh nods and says, before he puts a comforting arm around her and adds, “Look, after fighting off so much evil this year, I think we all deserve nothing but a Merry Christmas.”

     Vitani looks at him before she nods to herself.

= = =

     Back at school, Rita Allen looks at Ray for an answer. Dustin shakes his head in hopes he wouldn’t talk.

     Ray simply muses, “Dustin has a crush? Is that was that was? Then I have to say it was really intense.”

     Rita Allen freaks out in excitement and turns to Dustin, “You’ve been keeping something this big from your own sister? C’mon Dustin. Who is this person?”

     Dustin glares at Ray before he says, “Look, sis, it didn’t really work out so I don’t want to talk about that stuff and, you know, spoil all the Christmas cheer or whatever.”

     Ray raises an eyebrow. Rita Allen shrugs, “Fine. ‘Tis the season to be jolly anyway, so we could all focus on happy stuff … for now anyway. Maybe we can talk about how Ray took the SyndAcad football team through the semi-finals last week.”

     Dustin nods, “Oh hey. Congrats. I didn’t know Ray was captain of the team though.”

     Ray scratches his head and replies, “I’m not.”

     Rita Allen cuts in, “But after getting a Best New Player award at the first game and scoring three touchdowns out of the four games, I think he definitely deserves to be captain, unlike –”

     Ray suggests, “Maybe we shouldn’t talk like that out here to avoid any more trouble.”

     Rita Allen says, “You’re right. That Cameron Levine is definitely nothing but trouble.”

     Around the corner unbeknownst to the three, Cameron Levine lurks by the lockers and says to himself with a devious smile, “Your boyfriend Ray will get exactly what he deserves – and with your help.

= = =

     Back at the mall downtown, a bunch of little kids are running around the large Christmas tree in the center of the mall and are and chattering in excitement for the annual Christmas story at the mall – which Vitani has volunteered to read this year on the behalf on her book club. She and Josh are in the sponsoring book store searching for a book from the Christmas selection.

     Vitani takes up the Christmas story book before she looks around and sighs deeply. Josh sees her.

     Josh folds his arms and leans beside her, “Hey, you. I just mean as happy as I am with Ellie, I feel weird that you’re –”

     Vitani says, “I’m just more nervous than I expected to be about this. I mean I read at the book club all the time. I don’t know why I’m so nervous about reading for a bunch of kids. Sure, the book club isn’t as big as the city mall but -”

     Josh shrugs, “Maybe it’s because we know kids can be hard to please. I don’t even think I can do much else to please your friend Evan other than stay away from Eliza, or maybe even both of you.”

     Vitani replies, “You and Eliza can make your own decisions, and speaking of that, what did she decide?”

     Josh explains, “She’s one of a kind. You know what she said? She said that my past is my right but what I do now decides if she’s in my future, that she will never forgive me if I treat her like the other girls.”

     Vitani pinches him on the arm and says, “Neither will I.”

     Josh nods, “I won’t. I wouldn’t. Trust me; I know just how special she is.”

     Eliza shows up and smiles, “Well I’m glad to hear that, Josh.”

     Evan watches from the door nearby. Josh and Eliza hug each and kiss before Eliza then hugs Vitani and wishes her good luck with the Christmas story. The couple walks off to get their seats. Evan sighs before he then walks in just as Vitani is turning to leave the bookstore.

     “So Liza tells me you’re reading the mall’s annual Christmas story,” Evan smirks.

     Vitani nods and says, “Yeah. I like when stories can have a happy ending eventually.”

     Evan replies, “And I guess I don’t get your whole story with Josh or whatever. But if you trust him when it comes to Eliza, then I trust him. Because you’re one of my best friends and I trust you.”

     Vitani smiles, “Thanks Ev. Look, I more than understand you’re being protective of Eliza, I do. I mean she’s your cousin and especially after everything she’s been through. But two people we care about just want to show how much they care about each other now. And giving something a chance, especially something that seems unconventional, means there’s a chance to be surprised at how beautiful it might become.”

     Evan nods and asks, “And are you willing to take a chance on something like that yourself, Vitani?”

     Vitani shrugs, “After what happened with Brett, I thought taking chances might always end badly for me. But now it’s Christmas, maybe I’ll get something this year to give me hope for better to come.”

     “Everyone’s waiting for you!” A little kid suddenly runs in with a book and then points out, “Hey look, you two are under the mistletoe! You have to kiss!”

     Vitani and Evan blush awkwardly. Josh and Eliza show up behind the kid to tell Vitani it’s time for the story. When Evan sees them, he takes Vitani’s face in his hands and places a kiss on her lips. Josh and Eliza look up in surprise. Josh raises his eyebrows. After Vitani and Evan break the kiss, Evan smiles and wishes her good luck with the story. Vitani nods, giggles to herself , and walks out smiling. Eliza laughs happily at them until she notices a brief but odd look on Josh’s face.

= = =

     Back at SyndAcad, Dustin puts the box on the floor in Rita Allen’s dorm. He then pats both Ray and Rita Allen on their shoulders as he heads for the door. He is hoping to run into Chad, but without his sister around to make things complicated, as she probably thinks he is staying away from Chad.

     Dustin says, “There. So you two lovebirds can stay and spend some time together and I’m gonna help myself to some Christmas cookies I heard were on special here.”

     Ray looks up when he says this and asks, “You mean over at the Libretta café?”

     Dustin nods, “Uh, yeah. Why?”

     Ray ponders before he nods, “I think I’ll go see what’s going on over there too.”

     Rita Allen frowns to herself, as she knows that by ‘what’s going on’, Ray means none other than Chad, as he always hangs out at the Libretta with his friends. She thinks to herself, ‘If Dustin finds out my own boyfriend and Chad are still good friends, despite asking him to stay away from him and I can’t explain why, then my wanting him away from Chad will look questionable.’

     Rita Allen cuts in and says, “Hey, guys, I have an even better idea – we can bake Christmas cookies!”

     Ray and Dustin both state, “Say what?”

     Rita Allen laughs awkwardly and says, “Yeah. I have all the ingredients we need, Google for the recipe, and a kitchen for the baking. We can bake those bad boys ourselves right here and right now. It will have much more meaning behind it.”

     Ray frowns before he laughs and asks, “And since when can you bake?”

     Dustin adds, “Last time I checked, my sis here only had an interest in getting a good story.”

     Rita Allen shakes her head, “Well you’re not the only ones who can have secret passions around here.”

     Ray and Dustin exchange looks.

= = =

     Meanwhile, over at the military school, Chad shows up at Aaron and Dustin’s dorm room and knocks.

     Aaron opens the door, wearing a black and white wool sweater, “Hey Chad, come on in.”

     Chad steps in and turns around as he closes the door, “Hey what’s up? You wanted to see me?”

     Aaron comes behind him and helps him take off his jacket, “Can I not just want to see you? Hehe. I just wanted us to spend a little extra time together before the school’s Christmas dinner tonight and before you leave for your aunt’s tomorrow.”

     Chad smiles before he asks, “So you’re still helping to set up for your school’s Christmas dinner?”

     “The way you’re always there to help people inspires me,” Aaron says as he hangs up the jacket. “But just remember how many of us at the school have parents who’ve died in the military, who’re living overseas or those who just sent us here as punishment for throwing a wicked house party. It’s so kids like us still feel like we have a family.”

     Chad leans his head to one side, “Aw. That’s really sweet.”

     Aaron adds, “And I’m hoping that helping out will let me take some extra food back here to my room later.”

     Chad rolls his eyes and laughs. Aaron smiles before he walks up to him and caresses his hands.

     Aaron then continues, “But for now, I have a Christmas movie marathon set up for us to watch. Just let me go get us my favorite blanket. It’s one my grandmother knit for me as a souvenir from home before my parents shipped me off here. Now I’m a total snuggle bunny!”

     Chad raises an eyebrow, “Don’t let your tough macho military brat friends hear you say that.”

     Chad smiles as Aaron goes into his room to get a thick blanket. Just as he leaves the room, Chad gets two wrapped Christmas presents from the pockets of his jacket that he bought at the mall. He slips them under the small Christmas tree in the room and moves away just as Aaron returns with the blanket.

     “Well, as heroic as you are, you know you wanna snuggle with me.”

     Chad looks around and asks, “Hehe. But, um, we wouldn’t be bothering Dustin, would we?”

     Aaron shakes his head and tells him, “Nah, my good ol’ roommate Dustin is spending the holidays with his sister, that reporter girl you were so upset about. But there’s a chance he’ll stop by the school dinner, if that’s alright.”

     Chad thinks about it and shakes his head, “No, that’s fine.”

     Aaron furrows his eyebrows, “So I take it that everything worked out between you two?”

     Chad nods and says, “Yeah. Things may be looking up. I mean, I have that smile I was hoping to have.”

     “And Dustin still seemed weird before he left for his sister’s. Must be something else,” Aaron muses before he shrugs it off and continues, “Well I’m happy that you’re happy.”

     Chad nods and smiles as he walks up to him, “I think I’m merry.”

     Aaron steps closer and softly says, “Hehe. Well then, Merry Christmas.”

     They lean in and share an affectionate kiss. Chad and Aaron look at each other fondly and smile.

= = =

     After reading the Christmas story at the mall, Vitani and Josh arrive back at the condo. They smile when they hear their next door neighbors playing loud Christmas music.

     Josh takes out the keys to the front door as he says, “So I see somebody’s all smiles now.”

     Vitani plays with the ends of her long wooly shirt sleeves as she says, “What? Well I had fun today.”

     Josh opens the door to the condo and raises an eyebrow as he asks, “Is that because of the kids or because of Evan? Because I’m sure I saw Evan smiling the same way.”

     “Maybe we’re all smiling because ‘tis the season to be jolly’!” Vitani says as she twirls around in the middle of the room. “Just look at all the decorations I put up this morning. The lights, the tinsel -”

     Josh looks around the room before he notes, “The Christmas tree still isn’t decorated. Or do you just mean that I had to do some sort of decking the halls too?”

     Vitani explains, “I just figured it would be something fun that you, Chad and I could all do together before he leaves to spend the holidays with his aunt tomorrow. It’s Chad’s first Christmas as an auranade.”

     “Aw, that’s really thoughtful. It’s a great idea,” Josh nods and says, “I think that has more meaning that the Christmas gifts my dear old father had delivered here by mail because he was “away on business”. But I just hope that with Deacon and Lyla back in hiding, this season can go off without a bang.”

     Bang! Bang!

     Josh’s eyes bulge as he barely hears shots fired over the neighbor’s Christmas music. He looks around to see Vitani hold her stomach and collapse to the floor unconscious. Josh yells out her name in a panic before he tries to drag her behind the couch for safety, while more shots are fired. He peeks out at the front door and gasps in surprise.

     It’s a man dressed as Santa Claus with a high tech sniper rifle in hand, who says, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”

     As Josh ducks back behind the couch, the Santa Claus looks around before he warily steps inside to check to see if they are still alive. Josh sneaks around the side of the living room furniture. When the Santa Claus finds Vitani and raises his gun again to shoot, Josh tackles him and the gun drops.

     The man escapes Josh’s clutch and bolts for the door. Josh runs after him, but as he reaches the door, he is hit with Santa’s sack, knocking him down. The Santa Claus then throws the sack over his shoulder before jumping down in the middle of the staircase. Josh rushes to the stairs, but the assailant runs out at the bottom floor.

     Josh then runs back only to notice some of the Santa Claus’ things fell out on the floor. He picks up a small black book before he runs back to Vitani who lay on the floor. He takes out his cell phone to dial 9-1-1 when he looks into the book and sees a whole list of names. However, the last names send a chill down his spine: Vitani Layne and Josh Trent written in red.

     Josh looks at the names in disbelief. Was this just some kind of contract hit on the two of them?

= = =

     Back at Rita Allen’s dorm, the school reporter grabs her handbag telling her brother and her boyfriend both that she is just going to get the extra ingredients from the campus mart and be right back.     She asks for them not to go anywhere until she gets back. She leaves. Dustin sighs in exasperation.

     Ray turns to him and says, “Keeping secrets from your dear sister, are we? I can only wonder what other secrets you’re hiding from us with your record for getting into trouble. I heard you barely got out of that mess with the military, but there’s still what you did with that girl.”

     Dustin looks up in frustration, “C’mon Ray. Is it even really your business to tell?”

     Ray frowns and retorts, “When it happened in my dorm room, it became my business!”

     Dustin sighs and replies, “Okay. I get it. And I’m really sorry about sleeping with that girl in your room during the blackout, Ray. But I’ve more than realized what a big mistake it was in every way and I’m trying to move past it. It would really help if you didn’t tell my sister about it.”

     Ray folds his arms, “When exactly did you realize it was a mistake, Dustin? When the power went out, when you opted to have sex with her in someone else’s room or –”

     Dustin blurts out, “She came over before the power went out. She just wanted to talk and I just wanted to comfort her when I invited her over. It was never, ever meant to happen, especially the way it did!”

     Ray asks, “Is that why you bragged to me how much of great time you had when I caught you two?”

     Dustin says, “I was just … I was just trying to play it off tough in front of you, but I was actually really ashamed of what I did when it sank in. Both me and the girl were … and still are. Now I just want to let it go. So I need to know something right now. Can you?”

     Ray pauses in contemplation. Dustin looks at him pleadingly.

= = =

     Josh is trying to talk to talk to the 9-1-1 Operator, but the neighbor’s Christmas music prevents him from hearing them. He gives up in frustration and hangs up the phone and opts to take her for medical help himself. However, he is surprised to see her trying to stand up. Josh races over to her.

     Vitani coughs a bit before she nods and says, “Don’t worry Josh. I’m fine.”

     Josh helps her stand and asks, “But what about the bullets?”

     Vitani opens her hands that are covering her stomach and says, “They’re ice bullets. Apparently I can’t really be harmed by ice myself. I just got knocked out from the force of their impact.”

     Josh frowns, “Ice bullets? But if what Chad said is true, how is this possible with a sniper rifle like his?”

     “Then this can’t be regular ice. In fact, going by their weight alone, I’d say they’re of unusually high density,” Vitani says, before they see the ice bullets sublime and disappear from her hands, “Okay. I know from my own days in science class that ice only does that at low pressures. So this ice must be of the supernatural kind. Is it someone supernatural who wants to kill us? That Santa Claus guy must be some kind of oscinade.”

     Josh gulps and shows her the black book, “Then he apparently was a hit man that the Triad of Doom must have sent after the two of us. They’d have both our names and descriptions from the events that went down at the auction gala.”

     Vitani nods, “Deacon and Lyla must have set this one up as backup while they helped Marisol engineer the doppelgangers of doubt scheme at that greenhouse.”

     Josh says, “I guess they had some of that doubt themselves that Marisol’s pollen puppets would defeat us. After all, Chad managed to take out Professor Hayes using his own powers against him and we managed to take out Rick Hayes as one of their members before.”

     Vitani looks around and rubs her arms as she muses, “Now they almost took out one of us.”

     Josh heads to the door and states, “Hey. Well that won’t happen because we are going to stop them like we always do. The hit man also dropped a key to a complex across the street. He’s probably been watching us from over there this past week. I’m gonna go over there and –”

     Vitani grabs his hand, “Wait Josh! He might be waiting for us to go over there so he can finish the job!”

     Josh turns and tells her, “I think he’s gonna be busy making his getaway instead. I bet he thinks we’re on our way right now with our third auranade to banish him. And according to the list of names in this black book, he’s got some other jobs to go deal with. We’ve got to stop him now.”

     “Well I’m going too. We’re not sure what his ice can do to your steel, but I can’t really be hurt by his bullets, especially now that I know what to expect. And just like him, I can use my ice powers to stop him in his tracks until Chad gets here,” Vitani grabs her coat and says, “I’ll text Chad to meet up with us. This may be the key to more answers.”

= = =

     Back at military school at Dustin and Aaron’s dorm room, Aaron takes Chad by the hand to his big couch.

     Aaron jumps onto the couch before he pats the space beside him, “So get comfortable, Chad, because you’re gonna be spending all day with – what’s the matter? Don’t tell me you have to go off somewhere and save the day.”

     Chad sighs from looking at the text on his phone with a guilty shrug, “Aaron, I’m sorry but I have to-”

     Aaron pouts in frustration, “Now? But it’s, like, Christmas. Who makes trouble on Christmas?”

     “I guess that’s what I have to go find out,” Chad tells him before he adds, “Look, Aaron, I’m really sorry, especially if it feels like I’m not playing my part. But I have to tell you that stuff like this happens to me a lot and it’s also been a while for me as far as this whole dating thing is concerned and –”

     Aaron hops over the couch and stops him from rambling, “Hey. It’s okay. First of all, there’s no playing because I don’t see any of this this as a game, but this –” he leans forward and plants a gentle kiss on Chad’s lips before he adds, “it’s parts like that and being with you that I look forward to, Chad.”

     Chad looks at him and smiles, “Me too, Aaron. You’re amazing for just trying to understand all this.”

     Aaron adds, “I always remember one of the most fascinating things about you is how you always help people. But just make sure you save me from having a sad face at the Christmas dinner tonight by showing up, alright?”

     Chad nods and promises he will be there for the dinner tonight. He gives Aaron a quick peck on the lips before he grabs his coat to leave. Aaron watches him leave before he turns around and sighs.

= = =

     Over at the apartment complex, Vitani and Josh arrive and cautiously walk down the corridor before they approach the door. Since no one is around, Josh takes off one of his gloves and turns that hand to steel to feel for vibrations through the door. Vitani watches intently. Josh picks up something.

     “I felt the drag of an opening window! He’s getting away!” Josh announces.

     With that, Josh uses his steel-enhanced arm to bust open the door with his super strength. They run inside in time to see the Santa Claus jump through the open window with his sack of things. Vitani and Josh run over to the window see him fleeing across rooftops, too fast and far for them to catch up.

     Josh moves away from the window and looks around the room. “Looks like he was in the middle of packing.”

     Vitani goes to into the hit man’s apartment bedroom, with Josh following, before she looks at the window at says, “He didn’t get everything. Like this telescope he used to spy on us at the condo.”

     Josh looks on in concern before he goes to check inside the wardrobe and says, “Or all of these.”

     Vitani joins Josh to see a wardrobe of various clothing disguises, all with a crisscross symbol printed either on the shoulder or the end of the sleeves. Some wigs, moustaches and face masks were packed on the shelves. They deduce he goes undercover for a living and the crisscross is his symbol.

     Suddenly, they hear a noise from the front door. Vitani goes to hide in the adjoining bathroom while Josh ducks into the closet. It isn’t long before the bedroom door opens. Josh watches from a crack in the wardrobe doors while Vitani listens behind the bathroom door. Some thuggish looking men walk in. The two shady men call out for a ‘Chris Claus’ as they wander around. Vitani and Josh figure that Chris Claus must be the name of the hit man. The men start to head for the bathroom door first to Josh’s panic. Vitani hears the footsteps getting closer to the door and stands up ready to freeze them.

     Josh suddenly bursts out as a distraction and the two thugs swing around defensively. They find Josh in a red and white Santa Claus disguise, complete with a white beard and hat. Vitani peeks out from in the bathroom.

     “Our boss wants to see you, Chris,” one thug states with a suspicious hand in his pocket.

     “Yeah, you haven’t been listening to the rules,” the other thug adds as they approach.

     In his best disguised voice, Josh says, “Tell him I’m busy. Got some more presents to deliver.”

     Josh walks out but the thugs quickly take after him and stop him in the living room.

     “Hey! The boss will give you a present if you don’t come with us!” one thug sneers.

     “And your gift sure won’t be pretty!” the other thug warns and reveals a knife in his hand.

     The men grab Josh’s arm to take him away. Josh uses one thug’s grip and his super strength to throw him off into the other one. The thugs crash into the wall. Josh goes to kick away the dropped knives on the floor when one thug pulls Josh’s foot, causing him to fall backwards. The other thug grabs a knife and is about to stab him. However, the thugs are suddenly hit with blue spheres and are knocked unconscious. Josh looks around to see Vitani nearby, with a blue glowing hand.

     “Omigosh!” Vitani muses as she looks at her hand in wonder, “I think I do have a new power.”

     “And those powers just saved my life,” Josh smiles as she helps him get up.

     “Now let’s get out of here,” Vitani says as she pulls him along.

     “Wait,” Josh says when they reach the door, “I have to go with those thugs!”

     “What?” Vitani frowns in disbelief. “Josh, what are you talking about?”

     “Look, I have to go with them to find out who their boss is. If it’s Deacon and Lyla, then I can find out where they’re hiding out and we have a chance to banish him,” Josh tells her.

     Vitani says, “Not if these thugs – or the Triad of Doom – kill you first. Now c’mon.”

     Josh resists. “I know it’s all a risk anyway. But I have the power to put up a good fight and I’m doing this so that we can enjoy Christmas with the ones we love without looking over our shoulders. When we last looked over our shoulders, we almost lost you to that hit man calling himself Chris Claus.”

     Vitani replies, “Well I’m not about to lose you either! I’m not just gonna sit back and let you -”

     Josh asks her, “Do we want to lose this chance to defeat the Triad of Doom once and for all?”

     The thugs start to wake up. Josh pushes Vitani to leave now and closes the door.

     As the thugs get back up, Josh gives them a menacing look, “That was just a reminder that I’ve got more than Christmas cheer up my sleeves. Now let’s go see what your boss really wants.”

     Vitani hides outside in the hallway. The thugs come out of Chris Claus’ room and take Josh away.

= = =

     Back at her dorm, Rita Allen is trying to bake some Christmas cookies in the kitchen. Dustin peeks in and asks her, “Hey, sis. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

     Rita Allen puts on a smile and says, “Of course I do. Why do you ask?”

     Dustin says, “Mainly because I’m sure the oven isn’t supposed to do that.”

     Rita Allen frowns in confusion before she turns around and looks at the stove. The dough has somehow blown up all over the oven. She freaks out and turns off the oven to look at the mess. Dustin shakes his head just as Ray comes in and sees what’s going on.

     “It’s nice that you were trying to be sentimental and all, but maybe the Christmas cookies from our own school will do the trick,” Ray tells her before he adds, “So Dustin and I are gonna head out.”

     Dustin adds “But we’ll definitely bring you back some Christmas cookies. How’s that for sentimentality? Hehe.”

     Ray and Dustin get their coats to leave. Rita Allen panics that they are going to run into Chad.

     She tells them with a fake smile, “Hehe, okay. Go ahead, I’ll clean up and meet you guys there.”

     The boys nod and leave. Rita Allen waits a few minutes before she grabs her coat and handbag.

     Rita Allen tells herself, ‘I have to stop my brother from finding out that Chad and Ray are still friends or he might question my motives for warning him to stay away from Chad. Especially when my own boyfriend can’t seem to. And if Ray finds out that Chad was the one who helped Dustin when he was framed for military code theft, he will think of Chad even more as this hero they both already think he is. But not if I can help it.’

     She locks up and plans to take a shortcut to the Libretta herself.

= = =

     Over at the Libretta, Chad shows up and sees Vitani at their table, so he heads over.

     “Hey Vitani,” Chad says as he sits down, “You said meet you guys over at the condo before. Why do you guys wanna meet at the Libretta now? This has something to do with an oscinade, doesn’t it? And where’s Josh?”

     “He’s pretending to be a hit man Santa Claus in order to follow a trail back to whoever is trying to kill us,” Vitani explains, pausing when she sees Chad’s confused face, before she continues, “Yeah. Long story, but the short version is that a hit man oscinade in a Santa Claus getup and calling himself Chris Claus tried to kill us at the condo. So Josh is pretending to be him so he can find out where his boss is.     He thinks that it’s our chance to defeat the Triad of Doom once and for all.”

     “What? So he went by himself?” Chad asks, “What are we really up against here?”

     “Ice bullets,” Vitani tells him, “They seemed to be high density, but they also vaporized in my hand.”

     “The high density would explain why they’d make good bullets. But then they’d never sublime from solid to a gas when it’s this cold out and we’d also have to be really high up to get a pressure low enough for that to happen,” Chad reasons, “But it explains why the police never found bullets on that guy from the mall – if the ice had unusual physical properties, if it were ice of a paranormal kind. And where is the real oscinade hit man anyway?”

     “I dunno. And I’ve been trying to call Josh, but his cell phone is turned off. He could have done that to stop Eliza from maybe calling in the middle of things, but I’m afraid the thugs that took him took it away,” Vitani replies before laying some papers on the table. “We have to find out where he might be. I searched the names of other people before ours on the hit list in a black book we found. Their names tied to some newspaper articles I could track down in the library and voila.”

     “What did you find?” Chad asks intrigued.

     “First, it turns out they are all like the dead man from the mall, board members of a Christmas toy company called Elfin Electronics. They recently bought it from a business tycoon named Nicholas Torino. The thing is, Nicholas has had rumors with his name surrounding criminal activity.”

     Chad muses, “So you think Nicholas hired Chris Claus and is targeting board members with high stakes in an attempt to buy the company back. Even if police ever suspect him, the sublimation of the ice bullets makes it impossible to pin it on him.”

     Vitani nods and says, “And I think Chris Claus took a detour in the contract by trying to kill us first for the Triad of Doom. So I bet this Nicholas Torino guy is worried that outside missions will draw unnecessary attention. He might do something to Chris Claus to discourage him from for being reckless.”

     Chad says, “And if Josh is posing as Chris Claus – we need to find him and fast!”

     Vitani says, “Our best bet is a warehouse I found in an article where the criminal activity was rumored to go on – whether Nicholas Torino himself is an oscinade or not, we have to go save Josh. I have his car keys so we can take Josh’s Jeep there. I’ll go bring it around.”

     Vitani grabs her things and runs out to go get Josh’s Jeep from the condo just outside of campus. Chad, meanwhile, picks up his coat and is about to leave when he sees none other than Rita Allen rushing into the café. When she sees him, she stops and glares at him.

     Chad sighs and tells her, “Look, I’m just trying to have a good Christmas and I won’t have you make it any worse, especially right now!”

     Rita Allen folds her arms and sneers, “I could say the same about you, Chad.”

     Chad rolls his eyes and walks right past her and he leaves the café. Rita Allen sighs in relief that she didn’t have to do too much to make him leave. She tells herself now she has to get out before Ray and Dustin show up and ask why she is there before them.

     She goes to sneak out when the football captain, Cameron Levine, shows up, “Not so fast there.”

     Rita Allen pauses when he blocks her from leaving. Cameron Levine smiles deviously.

= = =

     At the warehouse, the thugs take Josh, still in Santa Claus disguise, at knifepoint to Nicholas Torino, who is standing in the middle of the room waiting for him.

     The business tycoon states, “Why Chris, I’m glad you took my invitation just as fast as you take my money. Hope you didn’t give my boys here as much trouble as you’ve been causing me lately. My mole in the PD had to smooth over a call from one of your neighbors at the apartment I fixed you up in. They claimed you dropped what they thought looked like ice bullets once when they bumped into you. Do I need to remind you that the whole point of hiring you was for discretion, as your special ice bullets will sublime and leave no trace? You were to discretely take out the three members of the board, like I told you to, and nothing else!”

     The thugs then report, “He had a telescope spying on someone in a condo across from the apartment.”

     Nicholas Torino frowns, “None of the board members live in that cheap little condo, and you are supposed to stay focused on what I want for Christmas while you’re on my payroll. And I want the other two board members dead! Got that?”

Just then, someone yells, “Sorry! I think it’s time for a new mission with better rewards!”

     Josh and the thugs look around. They hear a rifle fire and gasp when Nicholas Torino goes silent before he falls to the floor. They see another Santa Claus aiming at them with a high tech sniper rifle!

     Josh knows that it’s the real Chris Claus. The two thugs meanwhile think they’ve been double-crossed by Chris Claus with the fake one they have. Josh tosses them off of him with his super strength before he snatches his cell phone and runs away. The two thugs get up and try to shoot Chris Claus, but he quickly and easily takes them out with ice bullets.

     The hit man calls out, “Oh, don’t worry. The bullets I used only stunned these foolish humans. But that’s only because I’m saving the lethal ones for the auranades! The Triad of Doom has offered me a reward far greater than the money Torino could offer. So this time I shall finish you off!”

     As he hears the sound of a cartridge being reloaded, Josh hides behind a box of toys and panics.

= = =

     Just outside of the Libretta, Ray and Dustin are heading inside when Dustin looks at him expectantly.

     Dustin says, “You didn’t answer my question, Ray. Can you please not tell anyone, especially my sister, about what happened between me and that girl at your dorm? Trust me when I say it will do nothing but cause more trouble.”

     Ray is about to reply when he spots Rita Allen inside and Cameron Levine grabbing her hand.

     Ray barges in and demands, “Hey you! Levine! Take your hands off of her!”

     Cameron Levine turns and says, “Relax, Torres. I just wanted to talk to her.”

     Dustin frowns and asks, “Sis, who is this guy?”

     Rita Allen replies, “He’s the football captain and the last person I’d ever want to talk to.”

     “Hey. I just wanted to wish you all a Merry Christmas,” Cameron Levine raises his hands in mock defeat before he adds with a grin, “You just really enjoy the season while it lasts.”

     Ray narrows his eyes and retorts, “Is that some kind of threat?”

     The football captain shrugs, “I’m just saying you never know when things could turn upside down.”

     With that, Cameron Levine turns and leaves the café. Ray and Rita Allen glare at him. Dustin frowns.

     Rita Allen shakes her head, “Gosh, I don’t want to spend Christmas anywhere near that creep!”

     Ray apologizes, “I’m sorry about that. Dustin and I had gotten carried away talking about … stuff.”

     Rita Allen raises an eyebrow, “What stuff?”

     Dustin cuts in, “I was just suggesting that we all go to a Christmas dinner my school is hosting.”

     Rita Allen says, “Hey! That’s a great idea. It will make up for leaving your exoneration party early. And that way I don’t have to bake anything. Hehe. What do you say Ray?”

     Ray looks over at Dustin before he shrugs, “Yeah. I’m sure it will be interesting.”

     With that, Ray looks around the café and wonders what Chad’s been up to for Christmas break.

= = =

     Meanwhile, Josh hides behind a shelf of toys as Chris Claus passes by on the opposite side.

     In his Santa Claus suit, Chris Claus chants teasingly, “Come out, come out wherever you are! You can’t escape the death that runs through my veins. I bleed the blue liquid which compresses and freezes into these bullets I wield. Hence, you will stand witness to why they call me the oscinade of the cold-blooded!”

     Josh gulps as he feels him getting closer and tries to step away. However, Josh steps on a toy on the floor that squeaks loudly. The hit man immediately shoots in that direction. Josh has shielded himself with steel arms, but he is still shot in the shoulder with an ice bullet. His steel arms flicker on and off. He gets up to escape and the killer is ready to shoot him.

     A toy airplane sails by, and Chris Claus shoots up at it in reflex. Josh uses the distraction and tackles him, causing the sniper rifle to drop. Chad and Vitani show up holding the remote control to the toy airplane when they see two Santa Clauses fighting over yonder. They can’t tell which is which.

     Vitani gets the high tech rifle from the floor and yells, “Stop right now!”

     The Santa Clauses do not stop and both yell, “Shoot him!” during their struggle.

     Vitani frowns and says, “Josh, just use your super strength to throw him off. I’ll take him down.”

     They hear Josh say that he can’t because he got hit in the arm with the ice bullets. But Chris Claus also repeats what he says in a similar voice to throw her off from shooting before spinning them around more in the fight. Chad looks on worriedly. Vitani decides to take aim anyway.

     She fires a shot with the sniper rifle and manages to shoot Chris Claus’ Santa Claus. Josh steps away and goes next to Chad and Vitani. The hit man covers his chest from the gunshot wound. They watch as icy blue blood drips from between his hands and onto the floor. However, the small pool of blood suddenly contracts inward until it forms a small sphere.

     The evil hit man picks up the pellet in his hand before he holds out his other hand as the sniper yanks out of Vitani hand by some force and back into his. He gets ready to shoot them by taking aim.

     Chris Claus brags, “Fools! I can’t be hurt by the very blood that runs throughout my body! And I heard the auranades of Westpoint City were so strong. Is this all you’ve got?”

     Vitani raises her hand, which glows blue, “Nope! We’ve got this!”

     With that, two blue sphere of ice are hurled at him from her hand, knocking the hit man off his feet. He crashes into the wall; the sniper rifle drops beside him.

     “And we’ve got this!” Chad says and swipes his hands to the left.

     He makes a gust of wind blow a nearby shelf on top of the oscinade. Chad, Vitani and Josh then stand next to each other.

     “And we’ve got this,” Josh states with a smile.

     Chad, Vitani and Josh look over at the hit man and repeat the banishment verse together:

“Evil spawned from darkness core,

Walk this land you shall no more,

Wickedness be rectified,

Let your face be now denied!”

     An intense light emerges from the high tech sniper rifle, where blasts of energy cause it to shatter and shards of ice swirl up into the air from the opening vortex. The three auranades watch as Chris Claus nears the portal. The cold-blooded oscinade finally yells in despair as his body is sucked inside.

     There is an echo of his voice in the warehouse before it seals shut and fades away.

     “He sure got what he deserves for Christmas,” Josh muses, before he feels pain in his shoulder.

     “Well Nicholas Torino was up to even more than we thought. When Vitani and I were looking around for you, we found drugs inside his toys,” Chad tells him, “So he was using his toys to smuggle drugs through the port. He probably needs power at the company to keep the shipments running.”

     Vitani nods, “So while Torino and his men are out of it, let’s get out of here so that the police can give Nicholas Torino what he deserves this Christmas.”

     Chad and Vitani throw each of Josh’s arms over their shoulders and help him out of the warehouse.

Epilog

     That night, at the military school Christmas dinner, as the other kids are chatting at their tables, Aaron is at his own dinner table in semi-formal attire. He looks at his watch as he is still waiting for Chad. He looks back to see Dustin and Rita Allen walk into the dinner. He sees Ray with them.

     “That’s that Ray guy Chad was with at the pre-game lunch,” Aaron muses to himself as he hides his face with a menu, “I wonder if he has anything to do with what made things awkward between Chad, Dustin and his reporter sister. Because I want it all happy tonight – if Chad does show up.”

     After the three have sat, Aaron gets up and quickly heads over to the serving counter and requests two dinner plates to take away. They gave them to him as a favor for helping set up earlier. He takes them outside and opts to wait for Chad there to stop him from going inside and seeing them.

     It’s about then that he sees Chad running up to the mess hall while trying to fix his shirt under his coat.

     Aaron smiles, “Hey, Chad. You came!”

     Chad nods and looks around, “Yeah. I hope I’m not too late. Is that why we are outside?”

     Aaron smirks and replies, “We can head inside, or go back to my place if you want.”

     Chad pauses in thought before he simply nods and says yes. Aaron smiles and they go.

= = =

     Inside the school Christmas dinner, Dustin snaps a few photos of Ray and Rita Allen sitting at the table together. He hands his sister’s cell phone back to her and sits back down. Rita Allen looks at the photos on her phone and smiles. They had just finished eating their food.

     “Thanks, Dustin,” Rita Allen muses as she slips her cell phone into her pocket. The school reporter tells herself she’ll have to add this to her ‘Ray and I’ photo album folder on her computer later, still unaware of the fact that her code breaker had managed to download one photo from Rick’s flash drive into that same folder.

     “No problem, sis,” Dustin replies, “So, how was the dinner, guys?”

     “Even though our parents couldn’t here and stuff,” Ray admits with a nod, “it was still pretty great.”

     “You know what would be even greater?” Rita Allen adds with a smirk, “A romantic walk outside to see all the other lights and decorations and activities going on before we head back to SyndAcad. What do you say Ray?”

     “Sounds good,” Ray replies as he looks around.

     “Good. You guys have fun,” Dustin says, “I’ll go wish some of my friends from school Merry Christmas and meet back up with you later tonight.”

     He kisses his sister on the cheek and pats Ray’s shoulder before walking away. After Dustin leaves, Ray escorts his girlfriend outside, hand in hand, to walk around the snow covered grounds. They follow a path of hedges decorated with white lights.

     They stroll past the stairs to the dorm rooms just as Chad and Aaron are on their way up. Ray looks across and swears he just saw Chad going up the stairs. But he tells himself that can’t be as he can’t think of any reason why Chad would be at the military school. So why is Chad always on his mind?

     Ray then muses, “You know I feel as though Chad and I have been drifting apart for a while now. Like he’s been avoiding me or something. Maybe I should -”

     Rita Allen smiles to herself before she says, “Maybe Chad just has other things to do now … or maybe your friendship wasn’t all that you thought it was.”

     Just then, Ray’s cell phone beeps. He looks at it and sees he has gotten a video message from Chad.

     Chad is wearing a Santa Claus hat as he says, “Even though we barely get to run into each other these days, you sorta run across my mind every time something special happens, because that’s what I consider our friendship … Special … so I’m wishing you a very special Merry Christmas, Ray Torres.”

     Ray smiles and says fondly, “That’s my C.K. And this is just one of those things that I know is something special.”

     He starts to text Chad back. Rita Allen tells herself that she has to find a way to stop all of this … soon.

= = =

     In Dustin and Aaron’s dorm, Aaron takes out his keys and unlocks and opens the door to the dark room before he flicks on the light. All the white Christmas lights strung about the room come on, giving the room a mystical glow. Chad also lays eyes on a table-for-two placed in the middle of the room.

     Chad looks at it in awe as Aaron takes the food from him and sets it on the table. Chad takes off his coat.

     Aaron says, “Yeah. I had the table set up, as I was hoping I could get us back up here after we had dinner and I’d charmed you into wanting to spend a teeny bit more time with me. You know, before you leave tomorrow. So we could be alone – to talk, of course. Or whatever you wanna do.”

     “Well, you know I’m not out yet,” Chad says nervously, “so as much as I can hang out with you in public and stuff, if I have an impulse to kiss you for being so sweet, then at least I’m free to do it here in the ‘teeny bit more time’ I have with you. Hehe.”

     Aaron says, “I’d definitely enjoy that present. Speaking of which, I see some presents under my tree.”

     Chad smiles as Aaron goes to pick up the gift Chad put under the Christmas tree earlier. Aaron opens it and sees a watch with a smiley face print on the inside. Aaron looks at it and chuckles a bit.

     Chad blushes, “Okay. I know it’s totally cheesy. But I just wanted you to remember all the times you’ve ever put a smile on my face since we met. That’s one gift you’ve given me when I felt like I really needed it, especially recently.”

     “It’s perfect,” Aaron nods and puts it on, “Thanks. I hope I can put a smile on your face with this too.” And Aaron hands him a Christmas gift as well.

     Chad gasps in surprise before he takes it and opens it. Chad sees a cadet medal with his name on it. Chad gawks at it and rushes over to hug Aaron around the neck.

     Chad says, “Omigosh! You remembered from the fair! I love it. Thanks!”

     Aaron leans his head to one side, “Are you sure you like it? I mean, it’s not my actual medal that you wanted.”

     Chad nods his head and says, “It gave me the kind of Christmas I wanted. Merry Christmas, Aaron.”

     With that, Chad leans towards Aaron and closes his eyes. Aaron leans forward and their lips connect. Both of them breathe in deeply. It lasts a little longer than their first few kisses and they start to smile before they giggle and break the kiss. Chad sighs. Aaron strokes his hair affectionately.

     Aaron says, “Oh, I forgot to bring up some cider I bargained for as well. Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

     Aaron gives him a quick kiss on the cheek before he dashes out of the room. Chad turns around and smiles to himself that he may finally be able to sort out all of the emotions he’s been feeling recently. It’s then that someone begins to turn the doorknob.

     Chad turns and is somewhat surprised to see Dustin entering.

     Dustin is also surprised, “Hey, Chad. I just saw Aaron leave and thought I’d surprise him and drop off his Christmas present while he was out. I thought you said you were gonna visit your aunt for Christmas.”

     Chad nods, “Hey, Dustin. And I am. I’m leaving first thing tomorrow. Aaron and I were just -”

     Dustin steps inside, “Well at least I got to see you tonight and say Merry Christmas to your face before you left. I hate having to sneak around to see you at your school, but it’s to stop my sister from asking questions I can’t answer for her.”

     Chad nods, “Yeah. I understand. And I’m actually glad you’re here. Some people left presents for you.”

     Dustin smiles before he heads to check out under the Christmas tree. He puts down his present for Aaron before he checks for his own. When he finds the one from Chad, he picks it up and smirks.

     “For moi?” Dustin asks as he opens it. He looks inside and sees a shamballa bracelet. He takes it out and looks over it, “What’s this?”

     Chad says, “It’s a friendship bracelet. In the few weeks we’ve known each other, our friendship has evolved so much. You trusted me to come through for you when you were in trouble and I trusted you with the truth about Rick, which is something I’ve never told anyone else on my own. We were even honest with each other about our sexuality and I just feel like we’re tied together now. So I have one myself to show how, um, connected I feel to you.”

     Dustin looks him in the eye with deep affection and says, “Oh Chad, you have no idea how much I –”

     He suddenly looks up. Chad looks up to see what the matter is. They are standing under the mistletoe.

     Chad is about to say something about Aaron probably hanging that there for him when Dustin can’t help but to grab the sides of Chad’s face and plant a kiss on him. Chad is surprised by it and his hands splay outward at his sides before he slowly finds them going to rest on Dustin’s waist. He feels himself start to kiss back.

     Just then, Aaron shows up and closes the door as he asks, ‘Hey! What’s going on here?”

     Chad and Dustin break the kiss and step away from each other before they look at Aaron awkwardly.

     Chad says, “Dustin came by and we were talking … and we saw the mistletoe and …”

     Dustin smiles proudly, “I just got the best Christmas present ever! Thanks, Chad.”

     He wishes Merry Christmas to both Chad and Aaron making his way to the door. He winks at Chad before he leaves. Chad blushes and looks away as he wonders why he felt something in that kiss. It was something more than he felt when he was kissing Aaron just a few minutes ago.

     Aaron, meanwhile, glares at the door before he turns with a smile and says, “So Chad, where were we?”

     Chad snaps out of it and says, “We were about to have a glass of cider with our dinner.”

     Aaron nods and opens the cider before he says, “Hey. What’s that on your wrist?”

     Chad awkwardly says, “Oh um … just a friendship bracelet with, um … Dustin.”

     As they sit down at the table to eat, Aaron ponders to himself, ”What’s Dustin up to now?”

     Aaron looks over at Chad in thought. Chad gives him a smile before they begin to eat their dinner.

= = =

An hour or so later, dinner is long over and Aaron and Chad have been cuddling on the couch.

“Aaron, I have to get going if I’m going to get to Josh and Vitani’s place for their tree-lighting,” Chad tells him.

     Aaron sighs and says, “I’d rather you stayed here a little longer, but I understand.” Then he helps Chad on with his coat and wraps a scarf around his neck.

“Oops! This isn’t my scarf,” Chad says.

“I know,” Chad replies. “I just want you to have a good reason to return. Hehe.”

     With a final hug and kiss for the evening, Chad leaves.

= = =

     A little while later that night, Josh answers a knock at his door.

     “Well it’s about time you got here, squirt!” Josh says, “We saved the last ornament for you.”

     “I’m sorry, guys, but I was having a great time where I was and I had to force myself to leave,” Chad replies.

     Vitani gives Josh a disapproving look and says, “Ignore him, Chad. We’re happy that you could make it.”

     Then Vitani reads a Christmas story to play along with how she read for the kids at the mall. Evan plays a guitar instrumental to set the mood for the story. Afterwards, Josh and Eliza clap in sport before they all begin to sing ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’.

     Josh has his arm around Eliza, as it had healed soon after ice bullets sublimed. Vitani walks Evan to her bedroom and lifts the lid of her jewelry box. She finds what she’s looking for and asks Evan to help her. She takes Evan’s hand and places the item in it. As she pulls her hand away, Evan smiles broadly as he takes the Italian pendant and fastens it around Vitani’s slender neck. Once the Italian pendant is in place, they turn and look in the mirror. They catch each other’s eyes in the reflection and they smile. Evan takes Vitani’s face in his hands and gently kisses her. “Merry Christmas.”

     “We better get back with the group before we raise some suspicions,” Vitani tells him and they return to the living room.

     Soon the Christmas carols resume and Vitani leans her head on Evan’s shoulder as they sing along. Josh looks at them curiously. Eliza notices and ponders to herself.

     As they all sing, Chad stands on a wooden stepstool to place the star at the top of the Christmas tree.

     Everyone cheers as the star lights up, along with the rest of the lights on the Christmas tree. This begins another round of Christmas carols.

     At around half past midnight, Chad’s phone starts to beep.     He looks at it and says, “That was my alarm. I have to go home now so I can pack for my visit to my aunt’s house in the morning.     Merry Christmas, everyone!”

     As Chad is putting on his coat and scarf, Vitani and Eliza come up and kiss him on his cheek, followed by Josh and Evan, who shake his hand. They all wish him a Merry Christmas, and walk him to the door.

= = =

     Just after he leaves, his cell phone beeps. It’s a text from Ray saying ‘Merry Christmas, C.K!‘ He smiles brightly.

     However, another part of the text follows which says ‘From me and my girlfriend’. Chad looks at it and sighs.

     Chad rubs the moisture from his eyes and sighs again as snowflakes begin to fall. He softly says, “Merry Christmas.”

To be continued…


© 2014 Chad Blackman

Chad.blackman@ymail.com

Published June 16, 2018