T-shirts & Tinsel

Updated: Dec 19, 2018

I'm so happy to be participating in the Rainbow Advent Calendar, organized by the lovely Alex Jane. During this event, a boatload of authors come together and share free, festive LGBTQ fics in the days leading up to December 25th.

You can join the Facebook group to follow along, or follow along via the masterlist.

Without further ado, I bring you a coffee barista, his long-time customer, mutual attraction, and a bunch of syrupy sweetness. T-shirts & Tinsel is 5k words. Enjoy!

December 12 “What’s he wearing today?”

“Black, but I can’t tell what it says, yet.”

Keenan shoves in next to me at the counter, jostling my elbow, his shoes scraping against mine and bending the rubber siding down. I need a new pair badly. I glance at the dismal amount of wadded bills and coins in the tip jar before turning my attention back to the matter at hand across the street. The shoes can wait another few weeks.

We both squint out the coffee shop’s big picture window, through the fake frosting spray and imitation chalk script flowing across the pane, to the man crossing the street in all his eye-candy glory. He wears a denim jacket, both hands in his jeans pockets, his chin angled down against the wind as he lopes between traffic when the cars stop for a light.

“You know he’s got a Christmas one in his closet somewhere. No way he doesn’t.” Keenan taps a finger thoughtfully against his lips.

“He” is Dex Fairborne. Dex being the name I write on the side of his to-go cup every morning at almost exactly 8:35. Fairborne being the last name on the credit slip I pass back over the counter to him—along with a pen from my apron, which I do only for him. Not that he knows that. Because he’s gorgeous, and up to this point, I’ve been too chickenshit to even attempt casual conversation with him, much less flirting.

“Elf,” Keenan suggests, because we both know Dex loves movie tees.

“Nah. He’s a Christmas Vacation guy, definitely.” Keenan and I are both obsessed with him. Obsessed in that casual, half-serious, mostly non-creepy way that makes the slow moments in the coffee shop pass faster. Keenan has about ten different guys he drools over, but for me it’s just Dex, with his crooked, boy-next-door smile and his habit of tugging this specific lock of hair that falls over his left ear when he’s waiting for his coffee. “Oh, fuck me. It’s Labyrinth. This guy can’t be real.” I sigh as Dex’s foot hits the curb and he hops onto the sidewalk, his jacket blowing open to reveal a screen-printed graphic of the original movie poster. He strolls toward the front door peppy as ever. Honestly, he’s never seemed like a guy in need of coffee like most of the morning customers who shuffle in.

Keenan wrinkles up his nose. “I’m downgrading him by a point today. Star Wars would’ve been much cooler. Bonus if it was just R2-D2.”

“He did a Princess Leia one sometime around Thanksgiving. You weren’t here that day, though.”

“Hmm.” Keenan considers. “We’ll call it a wash.”

These are the debates that happen at 8:30 in the morning at Caffeine & Croissants. Fortunately, neither of us are studying to be rocket scientists or brain surgeons. Actually, neither of us are studying at all. Keenan plays in a band on the side, and I have no secret aspirations of my own at the moment because, well, I really like working here. It’s on my resolutions list for the new year. Number one: get a goal.

The bell chimes as the door opens and Dex steps inside, shimmying his shoulders like he’s shaking off the chill. He pushes his hand through his honey-colored hair and smiles at us, and there’s that little wobble at the end I love, as if he’s suddenly self-conscious about the magnitude of it at the last second. His smile twinkles all the way to his big brown eyes. Warm, that’s how he looks.

Keenan bumps into a tray of pastries, and my hand shoots out automatically to steady it as Dex comes to the counter.

“Wednesday’s usual?” I ask today. Usually I just ask, “What’ll it be,” and try not to stumble over my words, because that close up the guy has a destructive effect on my vocabulary.

Dex chuckles and it’s a quiet, throaty sound. Appealing and sexy. “I’m predictable, aren’t I?”

“Only Monday through Thursday. Friday’s your wildcard day.”

He catches the corner of his lower lip between his teeth, tilting his head a degree to the side as he looks me over like he’s just now seeing me. It feels better than I expect it to, that scrutiny, that sudden visibility. My cheeks heat, a sign that maybe I’ve let my time-passing crush build into the real thing more so than I’d thought. “I was going to say yes, the usual, but now I’m thinking maybe I need to throw you off a little. Let me have a caramel machiatto, instead, pump of peppermint.”

I blink, taken aback by the request. “You sure about that peppermint?”

He lifts a brow and a humored grin spreads over his face. “Damn, you’re pretty good. No peppermint. Never peppermint.”

I know this because I once accidentally handed him someone else’s peppermint mocha and he returned to the counter with both it and an apologetic expression as he told me he couldn’t stand peppermint in his coffee.

I set about making his beverage while Keenan leans back against the counter, studiously ignoring Dex because that’s always his gameplan. He calls it the anti-game game, and I’d point out that it doesn’t seem very effective, except I have no room to talk.

As I work on Dex’s drink, I glance over my shoulder to find him drumming lightly on the pastry case with one hand, tugging that lock of hair with the other. He’s looking out the front window and not at my ass, unfortunately—which is a shame since it looks really good in these jeans.

When I finish, he meets me at the end of the counter, and I’m en route to sliding the coffee toward him when I pull it back at the last second on a whim. I’ve never, ever done this before and I don’t know what’s possessed me to tease him today. “Ludo or Sir Didymus?” I ask with a tic of my chin toward his T-shirt.

His brows knit when he presses his lips together briefly in thought, and I love that he’s actually taking this seriously. “Wow, that’s a tough call. Didymus has all the really good lines, but Ludo has that whole cute, simple beast thing going on.” He rubs a hand along his jaw pensively, then mutters, “Damn,” so sincerely that I break into laughter.

Leaning into the counter, I drop my voice to a confidential whisper, “Spoiler alert, I’ll be giving you the coffee either way.”

He squints one eye disbelievingly at me, then comes out with it. “I’m going with Ludo, then. Big, lovable lunk for the win.”

“Good choice.” I extend the coffee, his fingers brushing the tips of mine. The contact is momentary and haphazard, yet manages to fluster me enough that my grip slips on the insulation sleeve the second before Dex takes possession of it.

“Thanks,” he says, and starts to turn around, shifting midway through to take a couple of backward steps, instead. “Who would you pick, though?”

“Didymus. Easily.”

He grins, index finger extending from the side of his to-go cup to point at me. “I knew it.”

And wow does that feel good. It’ll probably be the highlight of my day. Pickings are pretty slim anyway, but still.

He pushes through the door and Keenan sways into my side, giving me a big stupid smile that I cover with my hand. “Don’t say a word. You stood back there the entire time like a piece lawn art.”

December 13 The following day, Dex is easy to spot because he’s blinking. Or rather, his T-shirt is. On it, a cartoon Rudolph is pictured mid-leap chest bumping Santa. Arced over the top are the words, “Get Bright.”

Keenan folds his arms over the pastry display case. “What do you think he does that he can get away with all the tees?”

“Bookstore owner. Musician. Advertising.” I’ve never asked, though I’ve considered it. I throw out those options as I get a to-go cup down and ready the coffee. It’s Thursday, so Dex will want a latte. He likes variety and I can’t help but wonder if that goes beyond coffee choices. Months back, he came in with another guy, and clearly they were something the way the one guy kept his arm casually around Dex and pulled him in to steal a kiss as I started to turn away to make their coffees. After several weeks of seeing them in each other’s company, though, he vanished. Of course I wasn’t gonna ask.

“T-shirt company rep. Graphic designer. Porn shop owner. Bounce house designer.”

I laugh as Keenan’s ideas get more ridiculous, but we both shut up as Dex strides in without his usual smile.

He seems distracted as he wanders up to the counter, typing into his phone with a frown. When he looks up, I catch a split second of naked irritation on his face before he masks it with a tight smile.

“Skinny latte?”

“Yeah.” And then, seeming to remember himself, he tacks on, “Thanks.”

Keenan grabs the to-go cup from my hand as I ring up his coffee. Dex notices me looking at his shirt again, at Rudolph’s blinking nose, and his smile is more genuine this time. “It has a booster feature, hang on.” He presses a tiny button disguised in the bell of Rudolph’s halter and Rudolph’s nose erupts in bright, strobing LEDs that make me blink rapidly and take a step backward.

“Jesus, that’s almost as good as mace,” I blurt.

“I save it for people I want to go away,” he drawls absently. My heart flip-flops in my chest, and Dex shakes his head, quick to backpedal, “I didn’t mean that… I wasn’t… that wasn’t directed at you.” He visibly cringes as a blush creeps over his neck. “Wow, I’m off today. Maybe I should have done a double-shot of espresso.”

“We can always add that.” Ugh. Boring. I’m being totally boring. And my smile is too polite and try-hard, like a door-to-door salesman’s or something. I scramble for another way to keep him engaged. “What do you do?” My question appears to disorient him and I cut my eyes down, hastening to shove his sales slip and pen across the counter. We’re both off today. “Sorry, that was rude to ask. You don’t have to answer, obviously.”

He picks up the pen and rolls it between his palms. “No, no. It’s not rude. It just hit me that I’ve been coming in here almost daily for eight months and you have no idea what I do. I see you almost every day—like, how is that possible? It’s weird.”

“Nature of the service industry, I guess.” I laugh. “You don’t have to feel bad about that, though. You’re not required to be friends with the guy who fixes you coffee.”

“Well, maybe I…” He rolls his eyes at himself. “I’m an A&R rep for a small label. Really, I’m mostly a runner.” He sets the pen back down and sticks his hand out. “I’m Dex, and I hope you don’t think it’s creepy that I know your name is Ethan. I’ve heard your coworkers call it.”

“It’s also on my nametag.” I tap the piece plastic pinned to my apron with a smile.

“You don’t always wear it,” he counters.

“True. But it’s no creepier than me looking at the sales slip to figure out your last name.” I make a face as I take his hand, which is…well, his hand is nice and warm despite the cold outside, his grip secure and well-practiced, and he gives mine single squeeze that somehow manages to turn me on, which is a new one for me. “Actually, I may win the creepy award in this case. Don’t worry, that light show is a really effective deterrent to any dastardly intentions on my part,” I tease.

He laughs and his hand lingers an extra beat before falling back to his side.

Keenan reaches over my shoulder and plunks Dex’s coffee cup on the counter, jolting us out of our… whatever that moment was.

“Thanks, man.” Dex flashes Keenan a smile, picks up his coffee, and takes a step back from the counter before rocking forward again. “So listen,” he starts, then pauses, lifting one finger from his cup as his brows pull together in a scowl. “Hang on.” He digs his phone from his pocket again, looks at the screen and mutters a quiet “fuck.” Then, with a rueful grimace, he tucks the phone away. “Nevermind. Gotta run.”

Just like that, he’s out the door again, leaving me in a state of confusion while his touch echoes through my fingertips.

Keenan nudges me as I shake my head to clear my thoughts and shove the sales slip inside the register. “He was about to ask you out.”

And I think he’s right. That knowledge spreads through me, cozies up to my heart, and sends a little shock of joy through me that’s been absent this entire season. Usually, I love Christmas, but my mom passed away around this time last year, and I’ve just been out of it, lately. I also made the decision not to fly across the country home to see my dad and sister for the holidays because money’s tight enough as is. It feels kind of strange not to be going home, but I remind myself that’s part of being an adult; I should be able to handle a Christmas on my own.

December 14

I find myself on pins and needles the next morning, anticipating Dex’s arrival, and apparently being so obvious about it that Keenan forbids me from drinking any more coffee, then tries to distract me by demanding I help him arrange the pastries in the display case. I keep glancing toward the front window, though, and finally Keenan cracks up.

“You really need to get laid or something.”

“I do all right, thank you very much,” I tell him, even though he’s kinda right. It’s been a couple of months since I even opened an app or went out to a club or bar with the intention of trying to find someone. I work constantly, and I would never ask out a customer. So maybe I’m champing at the bit a little too much, but it’s nice to feel excited about something.

“Yeah? When’s the last time you went out with someone?”

I lift my eyes to the ceiling in thought, sawing my teeth against my lower lip. “October, I think. It was eh.” Eh meaning I met up with the guy, hung out for a while, hooked up, then he left the next morning and neither of us ever bothered to contact each other again. That’s how it sometimes went; the chemistry burned off with the alcohol.

So yeah, I might be getting a little overly hopeful about this whole Dex situation, but as it turns out he doesn’t come in that day. Or the next. Or the day following that, and each morning at 8:35 I get a little shot of disappointment along with my espresso. But you know, sometimes that’s the way things go, too.

December 18

I stand on a ladder hanging the string of fake mistletoe over the bar that Brynn arrived with earlier in the morning, all excited because she got it on discount. She’s got some for over the tables, too. To encourage the “holiday spirit,” even though I told her I thought mistletoe only encouraged pervs. She laughed and called me a Grinch.

I’m pinning the string that runs between the little clusters to a wooden support beam with a push pin when a rush of cool air sneaks under my t-shirt and alerts me to a new guest. “Be right down,” I call out, and since Keenan’s in the back doing inventory, I cast a quick glance over my shoulder, then wobble dangerously when I see that it’s Dex. I manage to catch myself on the wood beam at the same time Dex calls out a “careful!” and rushes toward the ladder to steady it as I regain my balance.

“Mistletoe’s trying to kill me,” I mutter as I ease down the ladder.

“I thought that was supposed to only be if you ate it.”

“This mistletoe is ambitious.”

Dex chuckles and holds the ladder still as I move, which means I brush against his chest at the bottom. A tiny frisson of electricity runs through me feeling him at my back, and when he takes a quick step to the side, I turn to face him and there’s this moment between us that I can tell both of us are trying to figure out how to approach. Despite my earlier comment about mistletoe, I decide I’m a hypocrite because as I stand there, I find myself wishing he’d just point cutely at the mistletoe, then lean in to kiss me. But he’s not a lech, and neither am I, so instead we get the dreaded awkward pregnant pause.

I glance down at his T-shirt that has a rainbow-overlaid Uncle Sam pointing toward me and reads, “All I want for Christmas is YOU!” I’m about to comment on it when he blurts out, “Since it would be incredibly weird of me to try to kiss you right now— and yet we’re standing under mistletoe and it seems kind of perfect since I’ve had a crush on you for months, but this isn’t fucking hallmark—can I take you out?”

“Eh?” Is my smart, surprised response to that rushed whoosh of words. I need a couple of seconds to sort through the jumble.

“Lemme try that again with more grammar and actual breathing involved: Could I take you out?”

My smile feels like it could power the solar panels on the rooftop across the street, and I give him an emphatic “Yes,” followed by a more muted, “Except I’m working doubles all this week.” And what comes after that is a flood of warmth through my body that I’m sure rises to my cheeks, because he’s just standing there in front of me, so damn good-looking and… then I double take. “Wait, you’ve had a crush on me for months?”

He gives me a sheepish grin. “I figured it was obvious. There’s a Starbucks across the street”—he thumbs toward the window where the Starbuck’s medallion glows tauntingly over the tops of cars stuck in morning traffic—“but I cross every day to come here. I stuttered all through the conversation the other day once I realized you’d been paying attention to my drink orders.”

I hadn’t even noticed. “Wow. I’m kinds curious what you would consider not obvious, in that case.” The brightness is his eyes begins to dim, so I’m quick to add, “I mean all of that to say I’d love to go out with you if you could, um, wait until after Christmas, I guess?”

He bites his lip. “I wish I’d asked you out the other day when I meant to. Then I got a STAT call from the label and they sent me out on a couple of overnights with this band whose tour manager had just quit.”

“I wondered what happened to you, thought maybe my confession that I read your sales slips was too much.” I give him a tentative smile.

Dex laughs, and god I love how it fills the air around us. “If you consider that too much, I probably shouldn’t tell you I look forward every morning to seeing how you’ll react to my T-shirts. I can always tell which ones you like and which ones are meh. And if they make you smile, it’s like… well, it’s better than that first sip of coffee.”

We both flash a look down at his T-shirt. He pulls a dramatic face as I look back up at him. “Yeahhhh, this one was maybe overboard.”

I stand there in stunned silence, because shit like this doesn’t happen to me, and now it is and it’s kind of overwhelmingly kooky and perfect and makes me shivery with anticipation. “Not overboard,” I say softly. “Really not overboard and very fucking adorable.”

The sound of a glass clattering on the counter snares our attention. Keenan makes the A-Ok sign as he rights the glass. “Sorry ‘bout that. I totally wasn’t eavesdropping on this incredible display of awkward. I give it a twelve out of ten. Six weird thumbs up. Wooooo.” He spangles his fingers through the air. “Also, I need your help with the croissants, E. Sorry to break up the party.”

Dex straightens his posture and clears his throat. “I need to get going anyway.” He turns toward the door, then turns right back around again. “Except I don’t have my coffee.” And then, lower, just for me. “And I’d also like your number, if that’s okay.”

It’s very okay, and I’m sure the smile I try and fail miserably to suppress shows that as I hand over my phone, then turn away to make his coffee.

“He should have gone for the kiss,” Keenan says after Dex leaves. I’m still floating on the wisps of cloud nine in disbelief. “Good to know I’m not stuck in a movie montage, though. For a second there, when you guys were standing under the mistletoe, I thought I was. It was freaky, too. I had a serious existential crisis.”

“Damn. How long were you watching us?”

Keenan sniffs. “I mean, I can see the front of the shop from the kitchen. He’s clearly not right in the head, though; I’m the real catch, here.”

I make a show of dusting off my shoulders. “Stop getting your jealousy all over my apron.”

December 19

I stand in my closet way too long the following morning trying to decide what to wear—none of which matters because my overwhelming accessory piece at the shop is a wraparound black apron. I dig through my drawers trying to find a pithy graphic tee, but finally give up and pull on my standard black shirt.

Dex arrives on time, and immediately brightens when he spots me with a cup already out on the counter and his name written on it. I feel my resulting smile tug way too hard at the corners of my mouth, like it’s trying to climb up my cheeks and make friends with my eyeballs. I have to fight to tone it down.

“You’re holding out on me,” I say, ticking my chin toward Dex’s zipped-up jacket. He laughs before pulling on the zipper and revealing a… I don’t know what it is. It’s like Ed Hardy swallowed a Lisa Frank unicorn, threw up the glittery entrails, then swallowed it back down and regurgitated a Bedazzler fail. “Wow. I am… I’m…blind and deaf. All senses are melting down.”

“Yeah? Do you need me to close caption this finger I’m giving you or can you see it through the glitter?”

I hear Keenan muttering in the background, though, which reminds me that I do in fact have a duty to provide coffee to the line of people straggling through the door. I clear my throat and ring up his order, catching the wink he flashes me when I glance up as I slide over the sales slip. I flash one right back at him.

Keenan passes me Dex’s coffee and takes over at the register while I walk down to the end of the counter where Dex is waiting.

Dex tucks his phone away when I get close and leans his forearms on the counter, that godawful t-shirt teasing another smile from my lips. “Top three all-time favorite movies?”

I’m taken aback for a second, so he explains, “I figure this could be like a mini date.”

“Flash date,” I say, cracking up at the idea.

He grins. “Yep. So hit me. My top three are Labyrinth, Pulp Fiction, and Deadpool.”

I squint one eye at him. “I thought Deadpool wasn’t so great, but you’re spot on with Labyrinth.”

Dex strokes his jawline. “Okay, this is good. We don’t like the same things, which means we can have a future discussion about how you’re wrong.”

“I will win.” I give him my best arch look. “I was on the debate team in high school.”

“Ah. So you’re a master debater?” He gives me a convincingly smarmy smile.

“Whoooooaaa. That T-shirt is rubbing off on you.”

He wrinkles up his nose. “Yeah, I guess that was pretty bad.”

I hear a huff from Keenan, and glance down at the line forming at the counter again, then back to Dex with regret I see matched in his gaze. Leaning in as I slide his coffee to him, I pitch my voice low, “I am in fact a master debater, but I usually keep that under wraps until the third date.” It makes no sense, but it doesn’t have to; all I’m looking for is that slow-spreading smile he gives me, the heat that rises in his eyes, and the way his fingers linger when they brush against mine as he takes the cup from my hands. For a flash date—which I have absolutely zero experience with unless you count the two- second convos that have transpired in the past before I hooked up with a guy—this seems to be going pretty well. And unlike those other hook-ups, I’m getting a completely different vibe from Dex. One I like.


Dex: I’m at a really boring Christmas party for work. Was wondering if you even like coffee since you’re around it all day?

Ethan: I love coffee. Have to stop drinking it at noon tho or I won’t sleep

Ethan: What have you been listening to lately that you love?

Dex: Furnace just signed this awesome ambient jazz duo. Usually I’m not into jazz, but I like these guys. U?

Ethan: I love classic rock, The Beatles. Newer stuff would be Imagine Dragons. Porter & Graves. Still not sure why their third album bombed. I thought it was pretty decent.

Dex: But not as good as the new one. I love all those others, too. If I could get tix to P&G, would u come with me?

Ethan: 100%

Ethan: Last T-shirt you bought?

Dex: You’ll have to wait and see, b/c I’ll be wearing it tomorrow.

Ethan: Is there glitter? Will I need sunglasses?

Dex: None at all.

Dex: Okay, maybe a tiny bit of glitter.