The Kindness of Strangers
Even the small antique store a long ways outside London was crowded the day before Christmas Eve and Eddie was desperate to find something, anything, for Nathanial. He wasn't the only one trying to find a gift, not from the way he had to keep saying, "`Scuse me," to make his way down the narrow aisles. There were too many choices, was the problem, and it was the eleventh damn antique store he'd been in, in the last month. Talk about someone who was impossible to shop for.
It was the third Christmas he'd been in England, but the first since he and Nathanial had gotten together. There hadn't even been a trial run of a birthday present, since the other man's birthday was in February. No, he had to be stuck getting something meaningful for Mr. Don't Make A Fuss Over Me Nathanial. Damn it.
Ending up at a jewelry counter, Eddie looked down with a growing sense of despair. He was going to fail. It wouldn't be the first time, not by a long shot, but he hated failing with something so important.
"You look as horrified as I feel," a woman said.
Eddie looked over and found himself looking into brown eyes almost right at eye level. She was tall with short dark hair and a resigned expression in place on a pretty face. Nodding, he said, "Yeah, this isn't how it was supposed to go down."
Holding out a hand, she introduced, "Nikki Wade."
"Good to meetcha," he replied, taking the hand. "Eddie Arlette. And thanks for not saying, `American,' in that English way you people have."
She chuckled. "Well, I live with a Scotswoman, so I better not. What are you looking for, any idea?"
"Why, you work here?" he asked hopefully.
Shaking her head, Nikki answered, "No, but I'm here a lot. I know the place really well."
"And you still can't find a gift?"
"I'm that pathetic, yes."
They shared a chuckle and he looked back at the jewelry case. "What do you get the man who's literally got pretty much everything and claims to want nothing? Work is his life, so he's got no hobbies. No interests except politics and climbing the professional ladder, and I don't think that helps."
"Likely not," Nikki agreed, wry.
Eddie asked, "What about you? Why's it so hard to shop for your Scotswoman?"
"Helen? Oh, she's…she's rather too genuine in claiming to just want me for Christmas," the woman said, and then admitted hesitantly, "I've been outside for, well, years now, but she's still shockingly grateful, especially this time of year. I have problems getting her gifts every year."
Eddie knew instantly what she was talking about, but didn't judge. She didn't have a `hardened criminal' air that pinged his cop senses. It had either been something minor or she'd actually been wrongly convicted and somehow maintained her humanity during her stretch. He told her sincerely, "Good for you. Okay. So you're stuck with someone who really doesn't want anything and I'm stuck with someone who claims to not want anything. We're screwed."
She laughed and confirmed, "We are."
They wandered through the store together, bonded by necessity, and pointing out various potential gifts to each other only to get nixed. He stopped to look at some costume jewelry, wondering if a woman would actually wear something so gaudy when Nikki asked, "Hey, is your man a big reader?"
Eddie shrugged as he turned to look at her and answered, "He likes books, but I'm not sure if it's for reading or decoration. Appearances are pretty important to Nat."
"Well, either way you can't go wrong with A Christmas Carol," she observed, holding out an old book. "Always suits the English sensibility."
Eddie wasn't as sanguine about the idea, but then, he'd run out of options. He'd never actually read it and that sparked a thought in his head as he opened the book to its first yellowed page. Nodding rapidly, he exclaimed, "Yeah! Yeah, okay, this is it! Hey thanks, Nikki! Now you."
Sighing, Nikki observed morosely, "I think I've struck out."
"No, c'mon now buddy, don't think that! What's she like to do?" Eddie prompted.
Offering a faint smile, Nikki answered, "Work, but she was sacked from the job that she truly loved."
"Oh yeah? What'd she do?"
"She was ah, in charge of the prison where I was, you know."
Eddie's eyebrows rose and he observed, "That's kinda against the law there, Nikki."
"Which is why we didn't get together until I was outside," Nikki said firmly.
Eddie knew it was a lie, both from her slightly defensive and simultaneously protective tone, but just said easily, "Sure thing. So hmm…she's a corrections type, huh? Bleeding heart, I'm guessin,' and not a hardass, not if she fell for you. Okay, with that in mind…"
They walked slowly back to the front of the store and Eddie kept his eye out, but ultimately came up with squat. "I guess you can't go wrong with jewelry, right? I mean, she's a woman."
Nikki snorted and asked, "You've a lot of experience with women then?"
Eddie grinned at that. "Point taken, but am I wrong?"
"No," Nikki replied, half-smiling, "but what kind of jewelry is the question?"
They drifted in separate directions and Eddie was idly tossing scarves over when he spotted a golden pin with some kind of abstract pattern stuck in one of them. It was a darker gold and held tiny colored stones at junctures. It looked like something you'd see on the scarf or coat of a woman whose true vocation was helping people. Definitely not something he'd get for Nathanial, who'd prefer something much more practical, like cufflinks.
He glanced around and found Nikki a couple aisles over and called out, "Hey! What about this?"
Nikki walked over and took the pin, exclaiming, "It's perfect! Oh Eddie, thanks, mate!"
Eddie shrugged, but couldn't help a pleased grin. "No problem. I owed ya anyhow."
They brought their prizes to the register and exchanged contact info outside in the damp, cold air. A dusting of snow had fallen and flakes still fell lazily, causing Eddie to button his top button. "All right, you take care. Let me know how it goes."
"You, too," Nikki replied, shaking his hand.
Eddie whistled cheerfully on his way back to the apartment he shared with Nathanial. He had some research to do and it wasn't for Nathanial.
* * * *
Nathanial opened the small box and found an old, dusty and, from the smell, mildewed, copy of A Christmas Carol. He paused, unsure if it was what Americans termed a `gag gift,' and then was glad he had upon seeing Eddie's hopefully expectant expression. If he'd reacted scornfully, Eddie would have been crushed. The man was startlingly thin-skinned when it came to things of a personal nature. He smiled and said, "Thank you, Eddie. It's very thoughtful."
"You hate it," Eddie sighed.
Nathanial denied hastily, "No! Of course not. It's perfect."
The corner of Eddie's mouth lifted and he observed, "You're a great liar about not-personal stuff, Nat. But that's okay. It's not your only present."
Nathanial's eyebrows lifted in surprise and he commented, "It's the only one under the tree."
Eddie's live tree. The one he'd insisted on getting two weeks ago. The live tree that kept dropping dead needles on his perfect floor and smelling up the otherwise pristine apartment with nature. A real gift would be no tree the following year, but Nathanial wouldn't hold his breath.
Shifting to straddle Nathanial's lap, Eddie put his hands on Nathanial's shoulders and informed him, "I'm going to read to you. A chapter a night. So my accent can do all kinds of naughty things to ya and then you can do all kinds of naughty things to me. Now how's that for a present?"
Nathanial chuckled and relaxed. "Now that is perfect."
While he hated to admit that the American accent was anything but dreadful in public, it did do delightful things to his body. Or at least Eddie's particular accent did.
Eddie leaned forward and nuzzled at his throat as he said, "I really loved the soccer tickets, but can you do one more thing for me?"
Nathanial shivered lightly at the barely-there caress and agreed, somewhat breathless, "Of course, Eddie. Anything for you, you know that. What is it?"
* * * *
Nikki jerked awake at the ringing of the phone, her heart hammering and adrenaline racing through her. She sagged back against the pillow with an aggravated noise and then picked up the phone with a sharp, "Who is it?"
A man's voice replied authoritatively, "This is Superintendant Nathanial Johnson. Is Ms. Stewart available?"
Alarmed, Nikki managed not to sound it as she said, "Just a moment," while kneeing Helen in the back to wake her up. She'd discovered over the years that woman could sleep through a bomb.
Helen flailed a moment and then pushed onto an elbow and demanded, "What? What's wrong?"
"Phone! A superintendant!" Nikki hissed, handing over the receiver.
Rubbing at her eyes, awake in an instant as she could annoyingly be, Helen took the phone and said briskly, "This is Helen Stewart. How may I help you, Superintendant?"
Nikki's hands gripped tight together as she listened to the unhelpful `yes' and `of course' and other words that didn't explain a thing.
When Helen finally disconnected, setting the phone down, she wore a stunned expression and said, "I've been asked to chair a committee on prison reform in London. To run the program. I start just after New Year's."
Nikki let out a shout of excitement and grabbed her lover's shoulders, hauling her in for a sound kiss. "Helen! That's incredible!"
"It is," Helen said, still sounding dazed. "Who's Eddie?"
Nikki blinked in surprise. "Beg you pardon?"
"The superintendant said to give his regards to you and he'll call you later in the week for a pint," Helen told her.
Stunned that the man she'd helped to pick out a Christmas gift would do something so momentous for a virtual stranger, Nikki answered, "An American I met while shopping for you. I had no idea that he was anything to do with law enforcement. Maybe he doesn't, maybe he's just that superintendant's lover."
"Whoever he is, I'm glad you met. This is an incredible opportunity! I've so much to do to get ready! I've got to call my boss, need to make arrangements for my replacement. Oh, and I really have to umph!"
Nikki kissed her to stop the flood of words with a strong, hungry kiss. Even after so long, just seeing that excited, passionate gleam in her lover's eyes was enough to get her going. She tugged Helen back down under the covers, tossing the phone on the nightstand table. It was still early in the morning the day after Christmas and they'd planned to spend it in bed, something she still intended on doing. "Later. No one wants to talk to you today except me."
Helen snuggled in close, wrapping an arm over her waist and saying, "You're probably right, luv."
Sliding a hand down, Nikki said, "Of course I'm right. Now then. Let's see about your other present."
Helen laughed when Nikki goosed her, a carefree, happy sound, one Nikki was determined to hear more of in the future.