27th November: 28 Days Until Christmas.
Pear Tree Group Chat (Minus Ben):
Aaron Who else agrees Ben needs a fucking boyfriend? Or at least a fuck buddy? The man is far too grumpy
JOSH Are we really going to start this again?
ROBIN I’m going with Chef on this one. #GetBenLovedAndLaid
Cold November drizzle pattered on the car windscreen as I pulled into the rugby club car park and glanced up at the grey sky that was thick with clouds. I normally didn’t mind a little rain, but the fact it had been raining steadily for a week meant the pitch was going to be a mixture of mud bath and slip and slide. I was going to need a long, hot shower before I could even think about heading into the pub at lunchtime.
I sighed and flicked off the radio before the hosts could start talking about the station’s plans for December and their annual Advent calendar. It was four days until the first, and I was counting down every one of them like a general waiting to go into battle. December was my least favourite month of the year, and if I had my way, I’d snap my fingers and skip it completely.
But I ran a restaurant, which meant December was fucking impossible to ignore. All I could do was be a grumpy, cantankerous bastard and wait for it to all be over.
There was a tapping on the window, and I looked out to see the gorgeous, grinning face of Ianto Williams peering through the gloom. He had a hood pulled up over his dark hair, but it was already plastered to his skin. In fact, he looked soaked through already.
“You look like a drowned rat,” I said as I opened the car door and climbed out. The drizzle was barely heavy enough to be noticeable now that I stood out in it, but I still wasn’t convinced I wasn’t going to end up covered head to toe in mud in about two minutes. I walked around to the boot to pull out my kit bag, glad I’d packed several towels.
“I went for a run this morning,” Ianto said in his soft, Welsh lilt, one I’d always found more attractive than I should. He was still grinning and hefted his own bag in his hand. “Got a little rained on and figured it wasn’t worth getting dried off if I was coming out again.”
“You just like making me look bad.” I shook my head, closing the car and locking it. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling in return as I followed Ianto towards the rugby club’s tiny changing rooms and clubhouse. His smile was almost infectious. “I feel guilty for sleeping until seven now.”
Ianto rolled his eyes and nudged me with his elbow. “Stop that. You work hard enough as it is.”
I grunted, which was my way of giving the vaguest answer I could. Ianto wasn’t the first person to tell me I worked too much, and he wouldn’t be the last. I’d only started playing rugby after an intervention from my best friend, Aaron, who’d insisted I needed to get out more.
Aaron was the head chef and co-owner of our pub, The Pear Tree, and could generally be described as a hot-headed asshole with a heart of gold. He was also a workaholic, so I didn’t think he had any business telling me what to do with my time, but since he’d gotten into a steady, long-term relationship with our sous-chef, Josh, he’d become vaguely insufferable about life. Or at least about my life. Apparently spending all my time at work wasn’t good for me, despite the fact that Aaron had spent the past six years doing exactly the same. And it wasn’t as if he worked any less now.
But every time I mentioned that he casually dismissed it and went back to annoying me. After a lot of nagging, I’d finally, begrudgingly, agreed to find a hobby. Mostly just to get Aaron to shut up.
The rugby had been my brother Levi’s idea. He owned a dance studio, and one of his students had started playing at the club. One thing had led to another, and suddenly I’d found myself a member of the Nottingham Harts—an amateur, gay rugby team.
I’d played rugby for years growing up, and it had always been my outlet for stress. I’d given it up as an adult, for various reasons, but I’d enjoyed coming back to it. Especially now I didn’t have to hide the fact I was gay.
“Are you back at the pub later?” Ianto asked as we made our way inside and into the old changing room, which could really do with both some fresh tiles and a new coat of paint. It was already half full, the other guys chatting away as they finished lacing boots and pulling on the training tops we’d recently acquired.
“Yeah,” I said. “Need to finish the rotas for the next few weeks and get the Christmas and New Year’s ones finished and out.” I usually tried to get the December rotas out as early as possible, and I always asked people their preference for working Christmas or New Year’s since we were open for both. I tried to accommodate everyone as much as I could. And even though I hated Christmas, I tried to make it as nice as possible for the staff. They didn’t need to suffer because I was miserable; that would just make me look like an arse.
I dumped my bag onto a nearby bench and shrugged off my joggers. I had my shorts on underneath, so all I needed to do was put my boots on. “You back at the gym?”
Ianto nodded. “Got some clients this afternoon, and then I get to teach two back-to-back spin classes.”
“You’re going to be fucking knackered.”
“Tell me about it. But at least I’m off tomorrow. I wasn’t planning on leaving my sofa.” He pulled his hoodie off, and I watched as a band of skin appeared around his waist as his t-shirt tried to go with it. I blinked, pretending I wasn’t looking at the two swallows Ianto had tattooed on his hips or the dark trail of hair that disappeared into his waistband.
I looked down and finished lacing my boots, then scrubbed my fingers through my stubble where I’d started growing my customary December beard. Ianto might have been hot, but he wasn’t there to get hit on. This might have been a club full of queer players, but I didn’t want to be that guy. Besides, Ianto was my friend, and I wasn’t going to ruin that for one night.
It wasn’t like I’d ever be able to give him anything more.
“You know,” he said, sitting down next to me to pull on his own boots and tighten the rainbow laces. “I’d recommend you take a sofa day too, but I don’t think you’d listen to me.”
“You’d be right.” I gave him a half smile, trying not to be a completely grumpy bastard. “Maybe next year. We’re closed for a week in January.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
I chuckled, part of me hoping he would.
I’d been surprised when I’d first met Ianto because he’d been nothing like I’d expected based on my preconceived notions of the sort of guys that took classes at Levi’s studio. In all honesty, I wasn’t even sure what I’d been picturing, but a tattooed, Welsh personal trainer with an abundance of piercings and the desire to try every sport under the sun at least once, wasn’t it. We’d been friends for about six months now, and everything about our friendship seemed so… easy.
Or maybe that was because my friendship with Aaron had always been full of complications. I loved him, but I couldn’t say our lifelong friendship had been simple. We’d had more ups and downs than all the roller coasters at Alton Towers, and sometimes I wished things hadn’t been as hard as they had been. But that was life, and I couldn’t change the past.
It did make things with Ianto feel different though, and it had me worried I was doing something wrong. I’d never met anyone I’d clicked with so quickly—at least not as an adult. It was confusing and freeing all at the same time, and I tried very hard not to dwell on it. There was nothing but trouble down that road, and I didn’t have time for things to get complicated.
We finished getting ready and chatted to a few of the others, catching up on people’s weeks and weekend plans. People at the club came from all walks of life, and it was refreshing to play with a bunch of guys who weren’t your traditional rugby lads. I’d loved the guys I’d grown up playing with, but some of them could be real fucking wankers at times.
One of our coaches and team organiser, Nathan, appeared through the outside door, and we all trooped out onto the small, muddy pitch we practised on, bringing the equipment bags that had been stacked in the corner with us. Nathan couldn’t have been more than forty, but a bad car accident had fucked up his left shoulder and elbow, which meant he struggled to play. He’d started the club with his husband, Tim, who coached alongside him, and their drive to get more queer guys into rugby was phenomenal. Nathan also had a wicked sense of humour that regularly elicited pained sighs from his other half.
The rain had turned a little heavier now, but it wasn’t torrential. My skin numbed under the freezing droplets as Ianto led the warm-up—it helped having a fitness instructor and personal trainer on the team—and soon I was sweaty and panting. I really needed to get more exercise that wasn’t just walking around the pub. I kept telling myself I was going to start going to the gym, but it kept getting pushed back to next month as I found new excuses to put off getting up an hour earlier or giving up my rare evenings off.
Maybe in January. New year and all that. It wasn’t like I needed to be at the pub at eight every morning.
I could say that, but I knew I would be. Nothing ever changed about that.
Nathan opened a bag of rugby balls and started handing them out. “Thought we’d start with some passing drills,” he said, rain dripping off the edge of his dark green beanie. “It’s one thing that’s been letting us down lately.”
I nodded as I took a ball. We’d fumbled a few passes in our last few matches, and it had cost us. We had a small league tournament coming up in January, and it would be good to do well. Although we played for fun, we still took it seriously.
We split into smaller groups and began passing the ball back and forth while jogging up and down the pitch. The turf squelched beneath our feet, and we were already starting to leave marks deep in the grass. Mud splattered my legs, and I knew my predictions about being covered from head to foot were close to becoming reality, but the longer we were outside the less I began to care. The ball slipped from my grip a few times, but I did my best to grab it tightly or turn the fumble into some sort of throw.
When we paused to catch our breaths, I saw Ianto grinning at me from his group in the middle of the pitch. His dark hair was stuck to his skin, and droplets of water slid down the ink on his neck. His shorts had ridden up slightly, highlighting the muscles in his thighs. Where I was broad, Ianto was slim, but he was very well muscled, and as he crouched to retie his boots, his shorts strained against his thighs.
“Ben? You still with us?” asked Parker, one of the guys in my group who was a lecturer at one of the local universities.
“Yeah, sorry. Thinking about work.” The lie rolled effortlessly off my tongue. Parker nodded.
“Hospitality at Christmas,” he said sympathetically. “Been there. My parents own a pub in the Peak District. Been booked up for months.”
“We’re the same.” We’d only started opening for Christmas a couple of years ago after so many of our regulars had asked about it. I’d been hesitant at first, but the money had been too good to turn down. The first year had been a roaring success, and this year—our third—had sold out by the end of October. If I could have squeezed more tables in without Aaron throwing a fit, I would have.
Parker smiled at me and clapped me on the shoulder. “Come on. This’ll take your mind off it.”
We did a few more passing drills, then Nathan brought out some tackle bags so we could practice on them. I volunteered to hold first while a couple of the other guys tackled. I was pretty much a brick wall once I planted myself, so I was a good one to practice on. My feet slid a bit on the churned-up turf, water sliding down into my socks and making my feet slip in my boots.
Ianto joined the line in front of me, bouncing up and down on the spot. When it was his turn, he ran towards me and drove his shoulder into the bag. I moved back half a step, forcing myself to concentrate instead of staring at the curve of his ass. I needed to fucking focus.
“You okay?” Ianto asked, standing up and looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
“I moved you.”
“It’s been raining,” I said, gesturing at the turf with a wry smile and trying to pretend it was the only reason I’d shifted. “You try not fucking moving in this.”
“Okay, I will.” He held out his hand. “Give me the bag and join the queue.”
I chuckled and handed it over. “You realise I’m twice your size.”
“I know.” There was a glint in his eye that made something twist in my stomach. “Now go over there and tackle me.”
“Famous last words,” I called out before jogging over and joining the short line of guys that were waiting in front of Ianto. When my turn came, Ianto patted the bag and squared his stance, giving me a challenging grin.
The gap between us was small. I didn’t have far to run. I charged at him, lowering my body to meet the bag with my shoulder.
But as I hit the bag, my feet slid on the wet grass. The bag moved. And my collarbone connected with Ianto’s knee with a sickening crunch.