- Author: Kate Lowell
- Genre:LGBTTQ, Holidays, Contemporary
- Cover Artist: Valerie Tibbs
When Rob's dad was injured by an uninsured driver, it spelled the end of Rob's carefree childhood and, more important to Rob, the idyllic Christmases they used to have. Hard work and sacrifice nets him a degree in computer programming and then a contract at a rapidly-growing video game company. Things are looking up, especially when he meets his new System Administrator, Shawn. But the closer it gets to Christmas, the more bugs there are in the system.
Shawn's found him. The Guy. But Rob's had it rough and it's been years since he's been anything but responsible. It all comes boiling to the surface when a family financial crisis is followed by a work emergency that ruin Rob's plans to bring Shawn home to meet the family over Christmas holidays.
With Rob's mood growing darker the closer it gets to Christmas, Shawn needs to find some way to give Rob the Christmas he's so desperate for. And he just might have the plan…
“I’ll toss you for it.” The voice came from behind him.
Shawn smiled a good morning at Tony, who got out of his chair and started poking through the coffee mugs, apparently looking for the cleanest one.
“Toss me for what?”
Tony picked a mug and grimaced at the inside, but he didn’t put it back down. “One of the new code monkeys is having problems with his workstation.”
“They’ve all got degrees, just like us. What does that make us, then—code gorillas?”
“Top of the food chain, Shawny-boy.”
Shawn snorted. “Tell that to management.”
“Ha. They’d be nothing without us.” Tony headed for the door and the bathroom across the hall. Shawn followed. “Which one?”
“Which one what?” Tony said over the splashing of water in the sink.
Shawn rinsed the carafe in one of the other sinks and refilled it. “The guy with the station problem.”
“I forget. It’s up on my screen, though.”
They walked back into their workroom, where Tony plopped down in his seat again and checked his screen. “Robert Forbes.”
Shawn peered over his shoulder and noted the new guy’s assignment and the description of the issue. “That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll do that if you’ll patch the ticket for the error when the Forest crew tries to compile that secondary quest.”
“Easy. Even the bean counters could fix that.” Tony stretched with a luxurious groan and looked up at Shawn, suddenly serious. “You still thinking about leaving?”
With a shrug, Shawn walked over to the coffeemaker and poured the water in. “Yeah, I think so.” He added a new filter and dumped in a bag of grounds, then hit the button to start the machine before turning back to Tony. “It’s not like I don’t like it here. Everyone’s great. But I think they’re trying to get too big too fast, and it’s going to come back to bite us.” He went in search of a coffee mug that didn’t look too hard to clean up. “And after two years and three major projects, I can go somewhere else and make more money. Someplace more established.” Shawn paused and glanced over his shoulder at Tony. “Don’t say anything, but I’ve had a bit of interest from out west.” Someplace that hires staff when they need them, not months later. Or never. But he didn’t say it out loud—Tony knew why he was getting itchy feet.
Tony didn’t look in the least surprised. “We’ll miss ya.”
“You mean, you’ll miss me. I do all my work and half of yours.”
“I only let you think that so you’ll feel better about yourself.”
Shawn made gagging noises, to which Tony replied with a casually raised third finger that Shawn ignored, as usual. After carefully comparing the relative filthiness of two different coffee cups, Shawn picked up the one that read No, I won’t fix your computer and slipped across the hall to wash it as the coffeemaker began gurgling out its first drops.
As he scrubbed at the hardened brown rings lining the cup’s interior, he thought about what he’d just said. It had begun as curiosity, talking to a former classmate who worked at a larger company based out of Dallas. It was only idle talk on Shawn’s part, but when the guy had called back a week later to see if he was really interested in moving, Shawn had started thinking a little harder about the idea. He wouldn’t be terribly hard to replace—there were tons of new grads every year, and PlayDigital wasn’t such a big company that it would turn its nose up at a diploma with the ink barely dry on it.
When he’d scrubbed out as much of the old coffee as he could with hand soap and elbow grease, he went back to their room. The coffeemaker was mostly done, so he grabbed the carafe, blithely ignored the hiss of hot coffee hitting the hot plate, and filled his mug. Caffeine levels now assured, he slumped into his chair and checked the ticket they’d been sent about the new guy’s computer access.
“Tony, did you set up this account?”
Tony leaned back, tipping his head until he could look at Shawn upside down. “Do you need to ask that question?”
“Damn it. The boss.” There was this one manager who used to code, back in the Stone Age, but hadn’t touched anything more complicated than a spreadsheet since before Shawn joined the team here three years ago. Shawn gritted his teeth. The guy might have been able to program back when he and three of his buddies had started the company, but he’d lost most of those skills. Shawn wished they could do something like that gag in The IT Crowd, with the cardboard computer.
Too bad that stuff only existed in cartoons and sitcoms.
Ugh, he didn’t need to spoil his day thinking about it. Combing through the account and fixing whatever Mr. “I know IT” had broken was a better use of his time.
Tony waved absently at him and went back to trying to replicate the error he was supposed to be fixing.
Shawn changed a few settings, then hacked into personnel so he could check out this Forbes guy’s job description. He added a couple of permissions that weren’t generally in the new-hire package, but from what he’d heard about where things were in the process, the new guy was going to need those permissions soon. It would save Shawn some work later on, especially with the pile of VPN accounts waiting to be set up.
The nice thing—for the company, at least—about having people on salary was that you could set a deadline and not have to worry about how many hours it would take to make it. Having everyone on a virtual private network meant you could send them home at five, and they could still work and meet that deadline while saving those pennies that would otherwise have been spent on electricity to run the workstations and the lights.
This was why the boss was always mucking around with stuff too—the company didn’t want to lay out money on someone to take some of the load off Shawn and Tony. It didn’t even have to be someone with a degree; a technical diploma in computer systems maintenance would have saved all the time they spent on replacing faulty connections and bad memory modules.
Shawn fixed the account and saved the changes, firing it off to the group manager before opening the next ticket in his queue.
Just before ten, he got another ticket, marked urgent. VPN access for the new guy. He set up the account and e-mailed the info off to Forbes.
A half hour after that, the phone rang.
Tony looked across the room at him. “Toss you for it.” The phone was never a good sign.
It kept ringing.
“Shit.” Shawn lunged across the room and grabbed the handset. “Tomson.”
“I need you to look into Robert Forbes’s account. His VPN needs to be set up.”
“I sent the details off to him a half hour ago. Has he used VPN before?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. He says he never got an e-mail.”
Shawn took a sip of coffee and set the mug down. “I’ll resend.”
“Good. He’s the last of the group.” The phone clicked as the boss signed off.
With a grunt of annoyance, Shawn re-sent the info and got back to the ever-lengthening list of emergencies, real and false. His coffee grew cold as he worked, lost in his favorite part of the job—problem solving. It was why he’d gone into sysadmin, aside from his love of playing with hardware. He liked making systems mesh, even when they were determined not to.
In the middle of a delicate bit of coding necessary to keep part of the project-tracking software from crashing when producing a completion report, his cell phone rang.
He glanced at the call display; it was Ruairi, a guy who’d graduated from the Game Design and Development program the same year Shawn finished his degree in computer science. He accepted the call. “Hey, I’m at work.”
“Shawn, buddy, did I hear right—you’re thinking about jumping ship there?”
“Say it a bit louder, okay? They couldn’t hear you out in the parking lot.” He reached unthinkingly for his coffee and grimaced as the cold bitterness coated his tongue. “I don’t know. I was just thinking.” He put the cup down at the edge of his desk so he wouldn’t forget and try to drink it again.
“It’s gone past thinking if you’re putting out feelers in the community. Well, are you? ’Cause you’re wasted there, you know.”
“I dunno. I’ve gotten to play with a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have gotten close to in a big place. I wouldn’t say it was a waste.”
“But are you?”
“Why? Do you have a job coming up there?” That might be tempting. Ruairi worked at a company probably five times bigger than PlayDigital.
“There’s a rumor going around that we’re starting up a mobile-games department. You interested?”
Shawn sat up straight. “How many in the group?”
“’Bout thirty, to start. More, if it goes well. You in? You want me to check into it, make sure they don’t already have someone in mind?”
Shawn had opened his mouth to say he really didn’t want to move halfway across the country and pay Los Angeles rents, when he thought to check his queue.
And his queue was fucking unbelievable. Of course, adding in a bunch of new people always caused problems. It was just exacerbated by the fact that management had refused to purchase all the new equipment Shawn and Tony had requested and, instead, expected them to cobble together a dozen workstations out of the odds and ends floating around the workroom. It was one of the reasons they never threw anything out until it was well and truly broken—they never knew when the bean counters would come up with some harebrained idea that saved dollars and cost time.
“Yeah, find out what you can, and let me know,” Shawn said through gritted teeth. “But hook me up with a couple of your sysadmins, okay? I don’t want to go from the frying pan into the fire.”
“You got it. I’ll tell you, Shawn, you won’t regret it if you come out here. Would you believe I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones the other day? Even without makeup, she gave me a boner. I’d take her any day.”
Shawn snorted a laugh and picked up his coffee, then remembered and put it down again. “I’m sure she’d have you too. Look, I gotta go. Work calls.”
“Screw work. Spruce up your résumé. You’ll want it.”
“We’ll see. ’Bye, Ru.”
“I’ll call you.”
“Good-bye, Ru,” Shawn repeated, extra emphasis on each word.
“Talk to ya soon, bud.”
The call ended, Shawn turned back to his computer screen and the long list of tasks waiting for him.
Not long before lunch, a flash of movement in the door caught Shawn’s eye—and his irritation. Like any other sysadmin, he hated it when people came looking for him instead of sending a ticket. First, it usually screwed up the documentation, so he ended up doing it all at the end. Second, it meant they thought they were going to butt in line ahead of everyone else. He spun in his chair to give the interloper a good lesson in “don’t bother the dudes with the system access” but froze instead. A tall, dark-haired guy with a slightly self-conscious smile and eyes full of laughter stood in the open doorway.
“Hi. Sorry. I tried to make a ticket, but the system wouldn’t let me. I’m Rob.”
Rob? Oh, Robert Forbes. “Come on in,” Shawn heard himself say. It was like his whole body was on fire, or he’d stuck his finger in a socket. He wondered if he was having a stroke; his brain seemed to be caught in an infinite loop.
Blue screen of death. Wonder if he’d give me mouth-to-mouth? He shook himself mentally and made his lips form the words, “What can I do for you?”
Rob took a couple of uncertain steps into the room. “I don’t want to push—I know there’s a protocol in place—but my access keeps going in and out. Sometimes I can get in; sometimes I can’t. And there doesn’t seem to be any kind of triggering event. It’s just random.”
The part of Shawn’s brain that wasn’t completely occupied in wishful thinking poked at that and came up with several possible solutions.
Easiest first. “Let’s check your cables.” He got up and slipped past Rob, catching the other man’s scent as he moved by. Damn, he even smells good. What are the chances?
Rob followed him, his expression baffled. “But I can get on sometimes.”
Shawn dug through the box of spare cables and pulled out a couple of Cat 5e’s and an IDE cable, just in case, though he doubted the problem was inside the box. Unless there was a corrupted file in the operating system, but that wouldn’t cause the intermittent connection issues Rob was experiencing. “Occam’s razor,” Shawn told him. “We’ll try the cables, then have a go at other things if the cables don’t work.”
Rob held out his hand. “I’m sure you have more important work to do. I’ll take them up and try them out.”
Not likely. “That’s okay. I need a break, and it’s a good excuse to stretch my legs. Besides, getting you online is pretty important.” Lucky his name wasn’t Pinocchio, or his nose would be six feet long after that lie. He gestured at the door and smiled. “Let’s go get you set up.”
It only took a minute to swap out the Cat 5e cable. But it was definitely worth the effort, because when Shawn crawled back out from underneath the desk, Rob turned quickly away and blushed.
Yes! Nothing says gay better than checking out your coworker’s assets. And that blush…
Shawn didn’t make his move right away. He hung around for another twenty minutes, watching Rob repeat all the actions that had caused him problems.
In triumph, Shawn twisted the old cable into a knot, then pulled a set of wire cutters out of his pocket and snipped it in two with a dramatic flourish. Rob’s mouth fell open, and Shawn grinned. “That way it won’t end up back in the box.” He sent a silent prayer of thanks to whatever cupid was in charge of gay men’s love lives, the one who’d handed him such an easy fix and made him look good in front of this new guy.
This new, cute guy.
He glanced at the clock. “You wanna get some lunch?”
For the first time, Rob seemed uncomfortable. “I, uh, brought my lunch.”
“My treat. In honor of your first day. We owe you something for this.” Shawn waggled the broken cable.
Rob still looked unsure, and Shawn was suddenly hit by the unwelcome idea that maybe Rob already had a boyfriend. Damn, he hoped not. He did his best to appear unthreatening and friendly, with—and here he crossed his fingers behind his back in a sudden return to childhood superstition—a little sexy in the mix.
After a few more moments’ thought, Rob appeared to come to a decision, and a broad smile spread across his face, as if he’d read Shawn’s mind. “Okay. Let me get my jacket.”
Shawn took him to a small pub a few streets away. Over the course of lunch—a burger for Rob, chicken in Thai peanut sauce for Shawn—he learned a lot about the new hire. Rob had graduated only last week, and this was his first time living away from home. He had a sister, a nephew, and a niece, who all lived with his mother. His father was disabled and lived in a private nursing home, which Rob helped pay for. He loved movies—science fiction and superheroes, mostly, but a good action film with lots of explosions could tempt him as well.
And he was single.
By the time they’d gotten back to work, Shawn had talked Rob into a date on Friday night, gotten his phone number and his personal e-mail from him, and had extracted a promise to eat lunch together the next day. That afternoon, for the first time in months, Shawn took his break, so he could spend some more time with Rob. They walked back from the break room together, and Shawn was pleased to note that Rob seemed reluctant to leave, lingering in the doorway until Shawn had to shoo him off so they could both get their work done.
When Shawn left work that evening—late, as usual—he was actually looking forward to going back the next day, which was something else he hadn’t done in a while. Not for the job—for Rob.
So when Ruairi called back that night to ask, “Are you interested in that job?” Shawn knew what his answer would be.
* * * *
Shawn leaned his shoulder against the door to Rob’s apartment building, the keys Rob had given him on the two-month anniversary of their first date jingling loudly as he twisted them back and forth, trying to hit the sweet spot of the worn lock. A scratchy click heralded success, and the bottom of the door made a harsh scraping sound as he yanked it open.
Once again he wondered if he shouldn’t invite Rob to live with him. Shawn’s place was ten times nicer than Rob’s, and everything worked in it, which was more than could be said for Rob’s. It was still early days, only six months along, but they hardly spent any time apart anyway. They might as well be sharing an apartment. And there was so much to love about Rob: his sensitivity, his sweetness, how his geekiness fit so perfectly with Shawn’s. How surprisingly hot he was in bed and how the cuddle afterward was sometimes the best part. It wasn’t hard to make the mental leap from frequent sleepovers to waking up to Rob’s brown eyes every morning. Shawn should ask him.
But not today. It was too soon. And when he did it, he wanted it to be something special, a magical evening—or day or night—to sweep Rob off his feet.
Rob deserved that.
The scents of all the different breakfasts being cooked in the building’s apartments mingled in the stairwell as Shawn climbed up to the third floor. He sniffed. Bacon, for sure. Sausages? Maybe. Eggs. Waffles. Toast. It was always an adventure coming over to Rob’s—he never knew what the place would smell like or whom he might meet in the hallway.
Like the guy in the dirty wifebeater dragging a bag of garbage into the stairwell as Shawn reached Rob’s floor. The stench of rotten food preceded the guy by a good two yards or so, which gave Shawn enough warning to take a quick breath and hold it when the man went by, the bag bumping softly on the stairs as he passed. They nodded to each other, and Shawn hoped his face wasn’t turning red as his lungs immediately demanded to know why he’d stopped supplying their preferred foodstuff. He took a brief, unwary breath and immediately regretted it.
Gross. Zombies would smell better.
He bolted into the corridor and down to Rob’s apartment door. This lock was newer, having been replaced after the previous tenant’s boyfriend, drunkenly confused about who actually lived there now, had broken the door when Rob wouldn’t let him in.
Shawn twisted the key and practically fell through the door, slammed it behind him, and leaned against it. He took a deep breath, then another, the blessed smells of pancakes and maple syrup doing their best to erase the memory of the garbage bag and its odor.
“Morning,” came Rob’s voice from around the corner in the kitchenette. “You in a hurry or something?” Flashes of movement showed that he was doing something at the stove. “You eat yet? There’s still a few pancakes, if you get over here before Brandon gets out of the bathroom.”
Shawn dropped his keys into his pocket and shrugged off his jacket, then tossed it over the back of a kitchen chair. “Have you ever known me to resist your pancakes?” His breath caught as he turned and got his first good look of the day at Rob, who was shirtless in pajama pants, his dark hair still rumpled from sleep. Damn, you’re beautiful. “Though I could be tempted to give them a pass.” He reached past Rob to turn off the stove and move the frying pan off the hot burner. Safety issues taken care of, he pushed Rob gently up against the countertop and pulled his head down for a good-morning kiss.
“Ugh. PDAs first thing in the morning.” Rob’s roommate wandered into the kitchen, already dressed for work at the Tire and Lube Express. “Hey, there’s still pancakes. Yum.” Brandon scooped the last two out of the frying pan and stacked them on top of each other before taking a huge bite. “Damn, Rob, if I were gay, I’d so marry you, just for these.”
Rob chuckled and broke off the kiss. “Thanks, but what makes you think I’d have you?”
Brandon stopped in the middle of shoving his foot into a battered running shoe. “With all this on offer?” He waved the hand still holding the pancakes at his narrow, bony torso in its loose T-shirt. “Like you could resist.”
Shawn buried his face in the side of Rob’s neck and laughed as Rob replied, “Dream on, straight boy.” Rob glanced up at the clock. “You’re gonna miss the bus.”
“Shit!” Cramming the last of the pancakes into his mouth, Brandon grabbed his wallet off the kitchen table and ran for the door. “Have fun shopping! Bring me back something good!”
“More dreams!” Rob shouted as the door clicked closed, and then they listened as the thunder of Brandon racing down the stairs slowly faded.
Rob turned back to Shawn, who nestled closer, sliding one leg in between Rob’s. With a contented sigh, Rob shifted to make space for Shawn’s thigh and bent his head down for another kiss. Shawn lifted up on his toes—Rob’s extra three inches of height were all in his legs, Shawn was sure—and ground against Rob’s hip as he kissed and teased at the other man’s mouth.
When Shawn finally let him up for air, Rob’s voice was hoarse and low. “Are you in a rush to go shopping?”
Shawn brought his lips to Rob’s throat. He stopped just before they touched it, though. “Stores are open till midnight,” he said, letting his words brush ghostly fingers over the pulse hammering away in Rob’s neck. Color bloomed behind them, as if his words had called it into being.
“I suppose we might get there before then.” Rob let his head fall back and groaned as Shawn flicked the tip of his tongue over the glowing skin.
“The sooner we get to your bedroom, the sooner we get out to get Halloween costumes,” Shawn whispered, his lips grazing the corner of Rob’s jaw.
“Who cares about costumes?” Rob hooked a knee behind Shawn’s leg and rubbed his own up and down against it. “For that matter, who cares about the bedroom?”
Shawn laughed and stepped back. “You will, if you get bruises from the edge of the counter again. Follow me, Software, and let me parse your code in comfort.”
“I love it when you talk dirty. Lead on, Hardware.”
Copyright © Kate Lowell
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