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A Christmas Rat

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"What is that?"

Matt wasn't nosey. He didn't care what anyone did with themselves, not even Jake.

It was just in a rat's nature to be curious. And Jake had some bits of brightly colored plastic behind his couch that Matt caught a glimpse of when Jake shifted his phone while they FaceTimed, and no rat worth his weight in lint wouldn't be interested in jewel-toned plastic. The brighter the colors, the more fun it was. That was like, a rule.

Not that Matt really cared what colored plastic Jake had.

He just might have to steal it at Christmas, was all.

Jake would understand. What's-mine-is-yours and all that, right?

His eyes narrowed as Jake flashed him a too-bright smile. "Oh, that?"

He moved his phone camera so that Matt could see what was behind the couch.

Matt's eyes went wide.

It was a plastic tube system. Twists and turns, each segment a different color, it spiraled from the floor into little lookouts and alcoves with so much room for activities. It spread nearly the width of the room.

And it was the perfect size for a rat.

Matt didn't give a shit, but his chest was maybe getting a little tight. Maybe he'd always wanted a tube system, ever since he was a kid and saw them at the pet store. Maybe his dad had laughed at him and told him that was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard.

Wild rats, real dumpster-diving gritty street rats, didn't have any of that fancy rat shit. And what the hell kind of rat was Matt for wanting that?

He'd never told anybody. He'd never told Jake that he sometimes thought of trying to build his own mazes because he loved the climbing and navigating and having little hidey holes to make nests.

Nobody knew, and yet Jake had come up with it on his own.

"Do you like it?" Jake asked, and the camera was still on the tubes but Matt could hear Jake's smile. "It's taken me like, two days to get that set up the way I wanted it. I had to buy so many extra sets to make it that big."

One end of the tube rested on the back of the couch. Matt could just climb right out and hop onto Jake's shoulder.

Matt swallowed the lump in his throat.

"Yeah. I like it."

Jake moved his phone so that Matt could see him again. He looked so pleased, and he was so fucking pretty, and Matt wanted to kiss him and groom his hair and eat a thousand cakes off the floor with him.

"Great! I'm gonna pick up my new rat after our next roadie."

...Maybe Matt was going to crawl in the dumpster behind his building and just die there.

"Your what?"

Jake kept smiling like he hadn't stepped on Matt's heart and crushed it beneath his dumb designer sneaker.

"Well like, I've been learning so much about rats, and people have kind of noticed and think it's weird, so I was like, maybe I'll just get a pet rat, y'know? Everyone says they're really fun and social, so it seemed like-"

"A pet rat?" Matt wasn't sure how he got the words out because he was choking and having a fucking heart attack at the same time. "A – a fucking fancy rat? What the fuck?"

Jake frowned. "I thought you'd be a bit more excited because I'm like, embracing your culture and shit."

If they weren't talking over videochat Matt probably would have had to pace away because he couldn't stand to look at such absolute lunacy.

"My culture? What part of my culture – real rat culture – has to do with fucking pet store fancy rats? Everyone thinks they're such hot shit because they're all cute and soft – they live like two fucking years, they're weak! They've never been in garbage in their lives! And you want to bring that into your home?"

He didn't like the way that Jake was looking at him. His mouth was set in a thin line, and his eyes weren't bright and happy anymore.

But that still didn't do anything to settle the anxiety and betrayal making itself at home in Matt's stomach.

"Am I not enough rat for you? You need a replacement rat, a better rat? A cuter rat? I'm not good enough anymore, is that it? My trash is never good enough, you don't want to sleep in my nests-"

"I told you I'd try sleeping in it if it didn't have actual rotting things in it," Jake interrupted, but Matt ignored him.

"-and now you're getting a new rat and you're building it a fucking tunnel system? What, does it get to ride on your shoulder too? On your head?"

The thought of another rat getting to sit in Jake's hair and carefully groom and organize each blonde strand made Matt feel physically ill.

Jake was quiet, face unreadable. He wasn't moving at all, but Matt was moving enough for the both of them, chest heaving, fingers clenching and unclenching. He wanted to hit something, and bite something, and chew the fuck out of something.

"What, you have nothing to say for yourself?" Matt snapped.

For a few more moments Jake remained silent, and then he said, very quietly, very flatly, "I thought you'd be happier."

"Happier about that? Do you even fucking know me?"

Jake just kept staring at him, and the longer he stared the more miserable and pissed off Matt felt.

"Maybe not," Jake finally said. "I have to go."

And then he ended the call without a goodbye, without a goodnight, without an I love you that Matt would pretend to be grumpy about but secretly relish.

Matt chewed the fuck out of the comforter on his bed that night, tunneled a nest straight through the middle of it, and maybe it was the one Jake had picked out, the one he'd said he liked that he always wrapped himself up in when he visited, and maybe Matt didn't give a fuck.

If Jake wanted a new rat, he wouldn't care about a blanket he shared with his old rat.

Christmas was only two weeks away, and Matt was supposed to spend the holiday with Jake and have dinner with his family. He thought of cancelling, of telling his mom he'd be home for Christmas. But that would entail telling his dad that things weren't working out with his human boyfriend, and his dad would get to crow about Matt's horrible romantic tastes and how he'd been right all along that this was a stupid idea just like all of Matt's other ideas.

It would also mean saying that things weren't working out with Jake, and the thought of saying that out loud like it was actually true made Matt's lungs constrict and his eyes burn in a way he'd rather die than admit to.

He considered if he should just cancel plans with Jake and stay home and mope in a nice pile of lint and newspaper and stale bread.

But cancelling Christmas with Jake would really only serve as a way of making sure Jake broke up with him like, immediately, and Matt's heart started racing just thinking about it.

So he kept his plans with Jake, even though they'd only exchanged a few frosty texts since their fight, when they'd usually call nearly every day.

Are you still coming for Christmas, Jake texted a few days prior to the holiday break.

Yes, Matt said, and that was the end of it.

Matt got an Uber from the airport, because he didn't like imagining the cold silence of their texts being transposed onto an uncomfortable car ride to Jake's apartment.

The door was unlocked when he arrived, though Matt had a key if he'd needed it. He was taking off his shoes and coat when Jake spotted him.

"Oh, hey, I didn't hear you come in."

He didn't smile. He wasn't mad, but he didn't smile, or come over to kiss Matt the way he normally would. Jake's hands were in his pockets and he had a baseball cap shadowing his eyes. He didn't look happy, or merry, or full of Christmas cheer at all, and Matt should have chirped him for it but he felt the same way.

Things had never been so uncomfortable between them, not even when Jake didn't know they were dating.

Matt didn't do uncomfortable silences. He either yelled and said something that made it worse, that turned it into a fight but got rid of the awful fucking silence, or he left.

And he couldn't walk right back out the door without completely destroying his relationship with Jake.

So Matt did the only thing he could do.

"Where's your fucking weak excuse for a rat, then?"

Jake clenched his jaw tight, the way he did when he was gearing up for a fight, but then he crossed his arms tightly over his chest, hands cupping his elbows so that he looked like he was trying to give himself a hug. And he only did that when he was hurt.

Not that Matt cared or anything, but rats were naturally observant. He couldn't help but notice it.

"I didn't get a rat," Jake said quietly.

Matt snorted in disbelief and craned his neck, looking behind Jake into the living room. The tube system was gone.

He didn't know how he felt about that.

False bravado and bitchiness was always a good cure for not knowing how he felt.

"What, so you came to your senses and realized how stupid and useless fancy rats are?"

He didn't like Jake staring at him like that, like he was the mentally deficient rat here.

In that same quiet, even voice, Jake said, "I wasn't going to get a rat, jackass."

Matt made a face. "Uh, I'm pretty sure that's what you fucking said you were doing. Seeing as you bought it a tunnel and shit."

He definitely didn't sound like he was seething in jealousy over that, but maybe like he was percolating in it. A gentle bath of envy.

Jake huffed and rolled his eyes, shaking his head as he looked away, and this at least was something Matt was familiar with.

Until Jake had to fuck it all up by saying, "I was never getting a rat, you idiot. The tunnels were for you, as a surprise for Christmas, and I wanted to see if you liked the setup before I told you it was your gift and then you went off the fucking deep end on me at the suggestion that I might get a pet rat. So no, I'm not getting a rat, I was never getting a rat, and I'm really fucking pissed off at the rat that I have now."

Matt wasn't a dumbo rat but Jake would be right to call him one, seeing as it took Matt more than a few seconds to realize that he was Jake's current rat.

And, because he was an idiot, that still made butterflies flutter happily in his stomach.

Rats were social animals, but all other rats could fuck off if they thought they were getting a single paw on Matt's man.

"You got me tunnels?" he asked in a softer voice than he'd have liked.

Jake was wearing his bitchy princess face, the one that Matt loved to tease him for because he knew it pissed Jake off and it was too fucking cute when Jake was being bitchy. But he couldn't enjoy the expression this time, because the fire wasn't in Jake's eyes. He just looked hurt.

"Yeah, I got you rat tunnels to climb around in, because you always like climbing all over me and all my fucking furniture. But you made it clear how you felt about that."

It was like Matt could feel his heart sinking from his chest to his feet. "You – you got rid of them?"

He felt bad enough for the fight, but he wasn't sure he could handle the idea of Jake getting rid of the tunnels he'd apparently bought for Matt – well, throwing them away in a place Matt couldn't go to retrieve them.

His boyfriend, without being told, had gotten Matt the one thing he'd always wanted since he was a little kid, because he knew it was something Matt would like. And Matt had fucked it up.

He didn't deserve any tunnels.

Jake rolled his eyes again, and his voice pitched up into the familiar rude tones. "Don't be stupid, I'm not nearly as dramatic as you. I took the tubes down because you didn't want them, I didn't throw them out or something."

Matt couldn't even argue that Jake was wrong, seeing as he was guilty of destroying a comforter that he would have to try and replace before Jake came to Calgary again.

"I do want them," Matt said instead, because it felt important, not just to get Matt the tunnel system of his dreams but to show Jake that his intuition hadn't been wrong. And then, because Jake wasn't going to forgive him without a little show of emotion, Matt forced himself to add, "I've always wanted them. They look really fun, but my dad said it was dumb and wouldn't let me have them as a kid."

Swallowing, he added quietly, "It's like, the best gift. And I'm sorry I freaked out at you."

He still hated uncomfortable silences, and that made it even worse when he just had to stand there and take it, waiting for Jake to make up his mind on if he was willing to continue putting up with Matt's bullshit.

"It's a good thing you like them, because I didn't get you another gift."

Matt's head snapped up, and those butterflies in his stomach got so excited he thought he might puke just a little bit, but like, in the best way.

"Yeah?" he breathed.

Jake made a dismissive noise, like Matt was an idiot, but he stepped closer and uncrossed his arms.

"Well I wasn't going to run out and buy you a new gift when you were being a little bitch," Jake said. "And you're not getting away with it without explaining what the fuck that was about."

Matt grimaced and took a moment to look at literally anything else other than Jake. But when the ceiling didn't save him, he still had to look back at Jake, meet his eyes again.

"I want to be your only rat," he mumbled, feeling like a chastised school child. "I want to be rat enough for you, I don't want you getting other rats. Nicer rats."

He didn't startle when Jake's hand touched his cheek, but he pressed into it like he'd been starving for it.

"You're so stupid," Jake said, but it sounded fond, and Matt was entirely willing to agree because Jake was sliding his fingers into Matt's curls and Matt would do anything to keep them there.

"You really thought I'd get a new rat? What the hell would I want with another rat? I've already got my hands full with you."

He brought his other hand up so that he was cupping both sides of Matt's curls, fingers brushing through his hair, and rats didn't purr, but Matt could still press his cheek against Jake's wrist and grind his teeth together with the best of them.

"Stop that." Jake tapped the corner of his jaw gently with one hand. "Don't do that as a human, you'll fuck up your teeth."

Matt nearly melted on the spot. "You know what bruxing is?"

"Yeah, and you can't do it when you have teeth that don't keep growing when you grind them, so cut it out."

Jake had done research. He did research about rats, not to get a pet rat, but to know more about Matt.

God, Matt's dad was so wrong: he'd picked the best fucking mate.

"I'm sorry I was a little bitch," Matt said, eyes wide and as sincere as he was able to be.

Jake snorted and smiled. "I'm sorry I made you feel like you weren't enough. You're always going to be enough. I have, like, literally zero interest in rats outside of you."

Matt knew that Jake meant that in one way, but he was definitely going to interpret it a different way instead.

"I've ruined you for other rats," he agreed.

He leaned into it when Jake tugged on his curls. He also ignored any sign of sarcasm in Jake's voice when he said, "Sure did, bud. The only rat for me."

Matt felt like he might puke again, in the good way.

"A Christmas rat."

Jake raised an eyebrow like he was going to ask a question and then shook his head as if he'd thought better of it. "Sure. A Christmas rat."

That settled, Matt decided to take a moment to get the kiss he'd missed coming in the door. Jake's lips were soft and warm against his, opening after only a brief moment because Matt's boy liked to be slipped some tongue.

"Mmm, baby, I know what you like," Matt whispered against Jake's lips.

"You're disgusting," Jake whispered back.

Matt took it as the compliment it was.

They spent Christmas Eve setting up the tube system again, all bright colors twisting and weaving through the room, a fast track to anywhere Matt could ever want to go.

And when Jake sat down on the couch on Christmas morning, a rat crawled out of the tube just over his shoulder and climbed on top of his head, the better to groom him.

Oh yeah. Jake was definitely a one-rat kind of guy.