Despite having once been a professional chef, Special Agent Keith Curry didn’t know a lot about cookie cutters. He understood that they were used to cut sturdy dough into decoratable shapes—generally circles, unless it was a holiday—and that was all.
But Gunther knew all about them.
“These are the collectables.” Gunther waved his hand over a box of tin shapes as if he were a presenter on some home shopping network. Granted, with his dark hair and long, toned body he was handsome enough to be on TV. But the gleam in Gunther’s blue eyes as he displayed his precious beauties held a hint of mania. “Sometimes I think they’re my only addiction—apart from kerosene and cigarettes.”
Really, Keith wasn’t sure which was worse. As a transmogrified goblin, neither the kerosene nor the cigarettes could do him much damage.
Collecting cookie cutters, on the other hand, represented a foray into dorkville that somewhat detracted from Gunther’s mighty sex appeal. Insofar as Keith now considered Gunther long-term relationship material, he had to weigh things like cookie cutter collections against his own ideas of what should be in a home kitchen. Not that Gunther and he were swirling around the vortex of inevitable co-habitation. Far from it. Like most trans-goblin children Gunther still lived with his parents.
Keith’s reluctance to have sex in the garden-level bedroom of a ranch house in Marin County while his boyfriend’s parents slept overhead had been the source of many tense conversations and one genuine argument. Gunther didn’t understand why Keith didn’t want to transfer from DC headquarters to the west coast. Keith couldn’t explain how uncomfortable Gunther’s extra-human family made him without sounding like a racist.
So they’d argued and made up and gotten a little stronger every time—understood each other better as the days went on. Keith was pretty sure he was in love with Gunther. He’d have to be to willingly attend this awkward Christmas party after having gone so far as volunteering to work for the winter holidays just to avoid having to celebrate so many other holiday gatherings.
Gunther delved into the box and pulled out a tiny tin rocket and held it up. “I really love this one. You can make it look dirty really easily.”
“Are you sure we want to bust all these out?” Keith rustled through the box. “It’s supposed to be a Christmas cookie party. Don’t we just need a star and a gingerbread man?”
“A lot of the returnees don’t have a very fixed idea of Christmas and I like to give them a lot of options.” Gunther continued setting the cutters out in lines. “Who says Christmas can’t be celebrated with rockets?”
“Or muscle cars, apparently.” Keith nudged a vehicle shaped cutter back into line. “I always thought modern Santa would drive a red cadillac.”
“I don’t really know what car Santa drives these days,” Gunther replied. “Probably something Swedish.”
That’s the trouble with working for NIAD, Keith thought. You mention some guy you think is fake and he turns out to be real. Never fails…
“Does your family make a big deal of Christmas?” Gunther asked.
“Sure, I guess.” Keith finally found the gingerbread man. It was a good-sized cookie cutter. Eight inches high.
“Are we going to go over there?” Gunther kept his eye on the cookie cutters. “Or do you think it’s too early for me to meet them?”
In the six months that he and Gunther had been seriously dating, Gunther had never once inquired about Keith’s family, which had been odd, given the close connections in the trans-goblin community, but also relieving, since Keith hadn’t wanted to talk about it.
“We don’t really communicate,” Keith said. “They weren’t stoked about me turning queer on them.”
“I see... Gunther flashed him a smile. “I guess it’s good I spent their present money on you then.”
“You bought me a Vita-Mix 5200?”
“How much do you think I was planning to spend on them?” Guther asked, with a laugh. “I’m just a civil servant, after all.”
With four hours till the party started, they still had a lot of work to do so Keith put on some tunes and fell into the rhythm of rolling dough and cutting out shapes. They used every single cutter, no matter how odd or seasonally-inappropriate. The only criteria that needed to be satisfied was that he had four hundred cookies at the end of it and that twenty-six of them were gingerbread men. Keith had no idea why they needed such a specific number of those, but complied.
As the cookies were cooling and Keith was mixing food coloring into icing, other agents from the San Francisco office began to arrive. It was still early—an hour before the weirdoes would show up to try and become more human-socialized via application of frosting, silver dragées and red and green sprinkles.
Not to mention the assortment of edible glitters.
He didn’t remember so many agents being there the previous year, but then he figured maybe he hadn’t been as able to distinguish the guards from the inmates then—so to speak.
Even Gunther’s retired ex-partner, Rake showed up. A hulking, dark-haired man, he looked like he should be clumsy, but moved with the grace of water. He wore a sticker that read, “VISITOR” in large letters and had a devious expression on his face.
But he was an actual demon, so Keith supposed he would. Still, Keith was about to go over and see what he might be up to when he caught Rake sneaking a handful of chocolate jimmies.
Keith went back to baking while Gunther greeted the arrivals with volleys of enthusiastic hugs, handshakes and high-fives.
As Keith transferred the final sheet of gingerbread men into the oven, he noticed Guther’s godfather, Henry, lingering near the tall cooling rack. How any man who looked and acted so much like a dirty old hobo could have snagged such a hot boyfriend as Jason Shamir, Keith would never know. To Keith, Henry looked like a grizzled blond scarecrow who had hopped a train in 1933 and somehow ridden it all the way to the twenty-first century. The last time he’d had Henry over for dinner, the guy had pronounced the appetizer, Gunther’s favorite salmon tartare dressed with lemon confit, to be “the best cat food I ever ate.”
Unaware of Keith’s watchful eye, Henry reached into the pocket of his stained and battered trenchcoat and removed a handful of white iridescent powder, which he started to sprinkle over the freshly baked cookies.
Keith felt certain that nothing pulled out of that guy’s pocket should be applied to food. He started forward, but was stopped by a hand on his arm.
“Don’t worry. It’s part of the plan,” a male voice whispered in his ear. From the lingering scent of chocolate jimmies, he guessed it was Rake before he turned around. “He has to get this done while they’re still hot and pliable.”
“What crazy shit did you put on those?” Keith glared at Henry, who just grinned.
“Don’t worry it’s edible… I think.” Henry licked his finger, then after a moment of contemplation said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
The powder he’d sprinkled on the gingerbread men shimmered and twinkled like starlight glinting off newly fallen snow. Then one of the cookies began to twitch. At first Keith thought it was a trick of the light and shifting parchment paper then the little guy sat up. It twisted from side to side as if cracking its back.
Keith’s reaction was immediate. He brought the spatula down hard. The gingerbread man caught it struggling against him with strength and will that should have been impossible in a cookie.
“Ease up, kiddo, you’ll squish him,” Henry chided.
Keith relaxed his grip on the utensil and the gingerbread man shoved the spatula away. It stood up, teetering on its rounded legs. He hopped from the cooling rack to the table, gave Keith the bras d’honneur, then gave Rake a more military salute.
Rake handed the gingerbread man a small roll of paper. The cookie accepted the banner before marching, drill-sergeant style toward the end of the table.
As he strutted, others began to rise as well, moving clumsily, like baby cartoon pandas awakening from naptime. The scent of hot ginger and molasses saturated the air.
One by one the guests started to notice. They pointed and smiled, but were much less surprised than he would have expected even NIAD agents to be.
Gunther broke out into a wide smile as he watched the gingerbread men line up on the counter. Then they unfurled the paper Rake had given them. In large, block letters it read: Good Luck, Gunther!
“You guys!” Gunther looked around, grinning.
Keith looked around too, but he was more baffled.
“We just thought you should have a good send off,” a dark-haired agent said.
Keith leaned toward Rake, who had left the jimmies behind and was applying himself to a saucer of heart-shaped candy confetti.
“What is going on?” Keith whispered.
“Gunther’s transfer came through. He’s headed for DC.” The big man’s voice rumbled beneath the congratulatory noises made by the agents who surged around Gunther.
Rake daubed a finger into a nearby bowl of pink icing. “Maybe it’s supposed to be your Christmas present.” He licked the icing from his finger with a tongue that was too long too agile and too red. Forget tying a knot in a cherry stem—this guy could make a whole macramé owl wall hanging with his lingual appendage.
Keith snatched up the icing before Rake could double dip. Rather than being deterred, Rake simply grabbed a gingerbread man and bit its head off. The cookie’s arms and legs flapped and flailed but nothing could stop the progress of Rake’s teeth through its torso.
As Rake gnoshed, a strange, blissful expression lit his face. Catching Keith watching him, he shoved the gingerbread man’s kicking feet into his mouth, swallowed, and then murmured, “Just like the good old days.”
Rake sauntered toward the group of agents who surrounded Gunther, shouldering through them easily.
The rest of the gingerbread men were slowing down now, gradually hardening as they cooled.
“Are they alive?”
“Nah, they’re just animated. Like puppets. See, the pixie dust is already wearing off. Wouldn’t want to scare the new returnees.” Henry took a swig of something from a flask and then stuck his hands deep in the pockets of his coat. “So I guess you’re getting a new roommate.”
“If you mean Gunther, he hasn’t said anything.”
“Seems like the classy thing to do would be to invite him then. Meantime I’ve gotta run. Gunther asked me to break the news to his parents for him.”
“You aren’t going to stay to decorate cookies?”
“Not this year. I think I made enough of a mess of it last year.” Henry looked chagrined. “In hindsight I can now say spiking the punch was a bad idea. Look at that--Carerra is already giving me the evil eye.” He saluted the San Francisco Bureau chief. She neither smiled nor waved back. Behind her stood a few of the guests—all humans, all with the fashion sense of recently released mental patients. One young girl wore what looked like a live lobster on her head as if it were a tiara. Another, a middle-aged man, wore candy cane pajama bottoms, a sweater with Santa’s face knitted into it, and a tangle of battery-operated LED lights around his neck. The festive, flashing necklace failed to hide a Frankenstein-like scar.
Time to get this party started.
Keith went to greet them, meeting up with Gunther along the way. All in all thirteen returnees attended. Though their number swelled to fifty once all the agent-volunteers, handlers and integration liaisons had been accounted for—fifty-one if he counted the girl’s symbiant crustacean, which Gunther said they should not, since it would be surgically removed the following week.
After two hours of unparalleled weirdness with frosting, the guests retreated to the NIAD residence facility, the room emptied and only Keith and Gunther remained to do the last of the sweeping up.
“I think it went pretty well,” Keith said, just to break the silence. Gunther seemed unnaturally preoccupied with getting every last rainbow jimmie into the dustpan, so Keith continued, “What are you going to be doing in DC?”
“Same as here. Assault team. Volunteer goblin community liaison.” Gunther still hadn’t looked up at him. “I thought it would be nice to be in the same city as you.”
Diplomatic as always, Gunther left it open for him to decide whether or not they’d live together. Keith could almost feel Henry’s breath on the back of his neck whispering, “Now’s the time, kid. Don’t blow it.”
He knew it wasn’t true. Or at least it probably wasn’t really the old bum’s voice—just the sound of his own conscience. He felt his face reddening. How was it possible that he could be nervous? Gunter had made it just about as easy as it could be. Still, he’d never lived with any boyfriend before and he knew that to Gunther’s family this step was the first on an inevitable road toward marriage. Goblins were just conservative that way.
“I guess I always figured that you’d live with me. If you ever did come back east,” Keith said.
“Yeah?” Gunther finally lifted his face so that Keith could see the blue of his eyes.
“I mean, I thought I’d have more time to plan than this, but—“
“It’s not till after New Year’s,” Gunther put in.
“Then I guess I better start looking for a bigger place.”
“There’s a two bedroom condo for sale in Dupont Circle that has a beautiful kitchen with an induction range.” Gunther fished his phone out of his pocket and started swiping through screens of DC area realty ads. “Hardwood floors too.”
“Why would we need two bedrooms?” He didn’t immediately address the rest of what was wrong with Gunther’s plans, including actually buying a pricey condo.
“For when mom and dad come to visit.” Gunther glanced over shyly.
Keith felt objection after objection rising up with in him, then realized that none of those issues needed to be addressed right this second. He took the broom and dustpan out of Gunther’s hands, leaned in and pressed his mouth to Gunther’s. He tasted like caramelized sugar and butane--like the top of a crème brulee.
“Baby, I know it’s your first place away from Mom and Dad and you’re excited. But you’ve never even paid an electrical bill.”
Gunther smiled, leaned in close and whispered. “Maybe I’ve been living with my parents for thirty-seven years but that just means I’ve got a million bucks in the bank and nobody to spend it on but you.”
“Well then,” Keith slid his hand down Gunther’s back. “I got a hotel with room service. Why don’t I give a brief overview of my long-standing grudge against the Potomac Electric Power Company over breakfast in bed?”
“Then can we look for a place?”
“As long as the PEPCO bill is in your name,” Keith said, “we can live anywhere you want.”