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by loveonthefarm

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/316602.html)

“I thought we weren’t supposed to use work to take care of personal business.”

Nate stops shuffling through a week’s worth of unread mail to give Sasha a flatly unamused look. “Okay, two things. One: it is a Thursday night, and 90% of our traffic—college kids—is otherwise occupied. I haven’t seen anyone in half an hour. Two: you were the one who told me to do this, so it’s kind of your fault, really.”

My fault?” Sasha’s eyebrows rise to greet her hairline. Her roots are showing light brown beneath November auburn. Nate pulls a mild grimace; the last time she’d conned him into helping dye her hair, the off-white plastic of his shitty undersized bathtub had been stained for weeks, and so had his forearms.

“—care of yourself. Nate. Nate, are you listening to me?”

Maroon nails; Sasha snaps her fingers in his face. When Nate focuses beyond her hand, he can see the downward slant of her dark brows, the equally exasperated look in her dark eyes. “Yes,” he lies.

“No you weren’t,” says Sasha. “I said—are you listening?—I said, you need to check your mail because you were almost late with your utility bill last month, and I’m not letting you sleep on my couch again if your heating goes out because you can’t keep up with your shit.”

Nate clicks his tongue. “Yes you would. And that’s what I meant. So: I’m only doing this because you told me to. Now—” he slips on a sharp little smile, raises his eyebrows “—shouldn’t you be working or something?”

Sasha’s eyebrows go high again—and then she barks out a laugh, reaching across the checkout desk to smack Nate’s shoulder before he can hide behind the computer. “Asshole,” she says, affectionate, and shoves her hand into the fairly sizable stack of mail still sitting on the counter. Envelopes go flying; Nate swears so loudly that he’s mildly worried his manager, back in her office, might’ve heard him, and Sasha laughs. “That’s what you get, loser. I’ll see you on break.”

With that, she flounces off, a hurricane in impractical combat boots, gone just as suddenly as she’d come. Nate smiles after her in a brief and disgusting bout of fondness that lasts about as long as it takes him to remember that his mail is still scattered all over the floor.

“Ugh,” Nate says, purely for his own benefit, and crouches behind the counter to sweep the letters back into a pile. Halfway under the counter is a letter from a credit card company; to his left is a letter from his building’s super, probably about maintenance work in the basement again; and under his heel, now smudged with a dirty footprint, is an orange-gold envelope the size of a magazine, bearing his name on the front in official-looking type. It’s soft and heavy in Nate’s hands, and when he shakes it experimentally, whatever’s inside makes a quiet tapping sound against the bottom of the packaging, like it’s full of something substantial.

This can’t be good, Nate thinks, grim, and tears the top of it open.

The contents, when he shakes them free of the big envelope, include: another smaller envelope, several loose pieces of paper, and what looks like a handbook of sorts. The feeling of impending stress swells; Nate designates the envelope as the least ominous of the things this hellish postal matryoshka has spawned and tears that open too.

Inside is a single piece of paper that reads:

Congratulations! You have been selected to participate in the Intrasystem Housing Abroad Program.

“Oh, no,” Nate breathes, and sits down hard enough that the shock of contact makes his teeth click together. His stomach twists uncomfortably, as if in protest of the sudden too-fast beat of his heart. “No, no, no. No.”

This cannot be happening, Nate decides. They must’ve gotten the wrong person—okay, no they didn’t, because his name is right there on the paper, Nathaniel J. Grey, but maybe it’s just a very stately looking forgery…

The seal of the Department of Intrasystem Relations is stamped, neat and terrifyingly formal, in the corner of the letter. So it’s not fake. And it’s definitely for him. And that means…

“Jesus fucking shit,” Nate groans, and puts his head in his hands. He’s going to kill Sasha. He’s going to move away, effective immediately, and sue the government for undue stress—or, better yet, he’s going to curl up in a ball and lie on the library floor until this all somehow goes away. Great plan.

Fuck.

Somewhere overhead, far away, someone says, “Hello?”

The voice is inquisitive and slightly concerned, and the tentativeness of it jerks Nate back to reality: the hard library floor with its shitty rough carpet, the mail and papers still scattered around him, the fact that he’s supposed to be standing up and functioning like a normal human being because he’s in the middle of his fucking shift. Wincing, he lifts his head—slow, like if he pretends no one’s there that’ll make it come true—and forces a smile for the middle-aged woman peering at him, cautious, from over the edge of the counter.

Well, Nate thinks, as artificially cheerily as he can manage, things can only go uphill from here.

“Hi,” he says. “Can I help you?”

Raising a skeptical eyebrow, the lady says, “You look like you need the help more than I do.”

Nate snorts. “Oh, believe me,” he says, thinking of the DIR seal on that goddamn letter. “I do.”

“Okay,” Sasha says, “this is not my fault.”

Nate stops pacing, turns on his heel, and points an accusing finger in Sasha’s direction. She’s seated, cross-legged and barefoot, on Nate’s well-used living room couch, a chipped mug balanced on one knee, looking like she belongs exactly there. Nate’s chest swells with another inconvenient wave of fondness, the second one today; he tamps it down, focuses, and says, “Yes it is, actually. And not even like usual where it’s just your fault by proxy; this is one hundred percent your fault.”

Caught out, Sasha sighs. “Look, I didn’t think either of us would actually get picked to host, alright? I figured they’d pick somewhere nice, like a high-rise or some fancy-ass mansion, not….”

Acidic, Nate says, “Thanks.”

“You know what I mean,” Sasha says, though she grimaces in apology. “If I’d thought either one of us would’ve been picked…well, I would’ve done it still, but I wouldn’t have made you sign up for it too.”

“You seriously want an alien living in your house? As in, an extraterrestrial being crashing on your couch? You’re okay with that?”

Sasha gives him a flat look. “Yes. And I’m not going to make them sleep on my couch.”

Nate drags his hand down his face. He’d known he’d regret applying to the Intrasystem Housing Abroad Program as soon as Sasha had shown him the form for it last year, but he’d never imagined it would come back to bite him so spectacularly in the ass. In fact, he’d sort of forgotten all about it right after he’d submitted it–and here it is again, in impersonal and unforgiving print, to ruin his life.

Fuck.

“I can’t do it,” he says helplessly. “I’m not ready, my apartment looks like–well, it looks like my apartment, which is bad enough, and I’m gonna have work too, and–what do aliens even eat?”

“Whatever you eat.” Sasha’s voice, mild and amused, is soothing in a way that makes Nate want to bristle against it even as he settles himself. “They’re just like us, for the most part. Or at least they will be when they’re here. I think keeping a recognizable human form is one of the conditions for staying here, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t read up on human-Visitor relations policies since–”

“Since you were nine and your mom convinced you she was going to ship you off to Serena for tracking mud into the house,” Sasha recounts, over-delighted. Nate makes a rude gesture. “I remember that story, believe me. Didn’t you say you puked from nerves? Are you gonna do that–”

“Shut the fuck up,” Nate snaps. Heat blooms in his cheeks. He’d been an excitable kid, sure, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. It was lucky, Nate reflects wryly, that he hadn’t met Sasha until high school: she’d have spent all of their adolescence fraying his nerves. “And don’t change the subject. This is still your fault.”

Still smiling, Sasha shrugs. “You’re gonna thank me for this one day.” And then, before Nate can put voice to what would’ve been a vehement protest, she goes on: “Look, I’ll help you clean up and everything. We can get a potted plant, some candles, a blanket, y’know, make it look more homey around here. I need to go shopping too, since.”

She waves her own letter, twin to the one Nate had gotten. She’s significantly more excited about this than Nate is, and for good reason: Sasha has been fascinated by Visitors ever since high school, ninth grade, when they’d first learned that the government had negotiated treaties with the aliens–Visitors, she’d insisted after that first lesson, don’t be rude— from what had, some years back, been declared a sister planet: Serena. Photos from satellites and from the Visitors themselves aligned to reveal the clear-skied planet beneath a strange layer of some shimmering, blurring gas that rendered the planet’s body near indistinguishable from the surrounding black velvet of space and star-studs from a certain distance. Flora, fauna, the whole nine yards; analogous enough to Earth’s own until you got a glimpse of the mad riot of color native to species born and bred on Serena. Just under a decade ago, the pictures of Serena had looked like pictures of any old place if you looked beyond the odd wavering sheen that distorted the images, and they’d made Nate, fourteen and unimpressed with most things, roll his eyes; but technology has progressed strikingly within the last decade, and those same photos today make screens strain to channel even a fraction of the vivid glow of their color. Thinking back on it, the memory of that poorly contained burst of pigment, he wonders if the Visitors themselves would carry that same glow, too, if adopting a human form would diminish the cardinal brightness of their colors, if maybe it wouldn’t and he’d end up blinded by his temporary houseguest.

Huh. He hadn’t considered that.

Sasha’s voice cuts through his stress-induced reverie. “Stop freaking out,” she commands, and chucks a lumpy pillow at his head. Nate manages to catch it and glares at her over the frayed fringe.

“I’m not freaking out,” he grumbles, “I’m just thinking about perfectly reasonable things, like the fact that you’ve screwed me over and I now have someone–a Visitor, Christ–coming to stay with me in–” he snatches up his letter from the clutter of the coffee table, squints at it “–in four days. Fuck. Fuck.

Sasha gives the empty cushion beside her an imperious slap. When Nate comes close enough, she grabs him by the wrist and yanks him down onto it, laying her legs across his lap like a warm, heavy anchor. Then she says, “Look. This is going to work out just fine, okay? I think it’ll be good for you. And if it’s not, I’ll have your Visitor come stay at my place, and we’ll work it out. All right?”

Stress is still wearing at Nate’s nerves, working until the first thin strains of anxiety make themselves heard; but Sasha has always had a certain way of calming Nate down even when he doesn’t want to let himself be calmed, and besides, his own levelheaded focus is beginning to sharpen again, reminding Nate that sure, having a Visitor would be daunting, but it’s not like things could get much worse from there–right?

Nate pinches the bridge of his nose. “Right,” he says, more to himself than to Sasha. “Sure. Fine.”

That’s as positive as he’s going to manage. Sasha seems to pick up on that, and leans forward to ruffle his hair and say, “C’mon, Nate. Let’s go get coffee or something and I’ll try to find new sheets to match whatever color scheme you got going on here.”

Nate’s apartment is small, a cozyish bedroom-living room-bathroom-half-kitchen combo mostly decorated with posters and paraphernalia left over from his college apartment, throw pillows his mother had insisted on him taking when he moved out–probably because they’re sort of hideous–and knickknacks in Sasha’s favorite color of eleven months ago, which had been: orange.

“There is no color scheme,” Nate laments, and slumps sideways onto Sasha’s legs. “Fuck.”

“Oh, honey,” Sasha says, laughing, “We’ll figure something out.”

Come Saturday, Nate has a new set of silverware, a freshly cleaned apartment, and, among other things, a vibrantly green potted plant.

It’s a flower of some kind–Nate hadn’t really been paying attention when Sasha picked it out–and it bobs cheerfully in its sleek black little pot, waxy green pods waving as Nate passes by as if to say: Hello! We are here to help you look presentable and welcoming.

Good luck with that. “Sorry in advance if I kill you,” Nate mutters, flicking one of the pods. “Or if you get eaten. I still don’t know what Visitors eat.”

The flower’s leaves shimmy in response, as if to say it doesn’t make much difference to them whether they end up eaten or not as long as they have a chance to bloom first. Nate, wilting emotionally, feels rather the same.

Out of nowhere, unprompted, a knot of adrenaline pulls tight in Nate’s stomach, jerking his attention toward the clock on the wall of his kitchen. He read the letter so many times last night that it had begun to go soft and crumpled under the pressure of his fingers; he knows exactly when that knock on his door should sound.

Four minutes.

Nate sits down at the kitchen table, testing the balance of the recently fixed chair. When it doesn’t wobble, which would’ve been a good distraction, he gets back up. Walks the distance from the kitchen to the sofa. Adjusts a freshly Febreezed throw pillow. Walks back to the kitchen.

This is fucking ridiculous, Nate thinks, layering irritation over anxiety in an attempt to drown it out. There was no need for him to have gotten his apartment all prettied up just to impress a Visitor. He should have just sent a reply to the government and made himself seem as uncooperative as possible, gotten himself out of babysitting duty–no, actually, he never should have signed himself up in the first place. What had he been thinking? Fuck.

Nate breathes out a garbled curse and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. Tiny white spots burst across the red-black inside of his eyelids. They remind him of galaxies, of little stars tripping careless and quick across light-years of not-so-empty space, of supernovas and deafening quiet and Visitors.

His train of thought pulls right back into the same damn station it had departed from, this time with an extra car full of nerves. A twitchy, tight-strung feeling settles into his chest and drags on his breastbone until the pressure feels uncomfortably real: suffocating and heavy. Nate swears aloud again, if only to remind himself that he can breathe properly.

When that knock sounds at his door, though, sharp and confident, Nate swears for real. His heart jumps out of the starting gate–sudden, emphatic, a sick thump that leaves him more breathless than he’d been a second before–and then his pulse is off and racing, ticking under his skin, metronome keeping a stumbling time.

He measures out the steps to the door–makes himself do it slow, so he doesn’t seem like he’d been just sitting around waiting for someone to knock–but even so, Nate still finds himself standing in front of his door much sooner than he’d have liked. His hands itch to flex, and he’s pretty sure his palms might be sweating, and–aw, hell–and he yanks the door open before he can give himself a chance to do anything else.

Sunburst, supernova, sunset, gold like the veins that twist and twine through the body of the Earth; pink softer than flower petals, soft as a sigh; blue-green so deep and true that for a moment Nate thinks he can smell salt on the wind. It’s a burst of color equivalent to a shout right into your ear, and Nate feels blindsided by it, like his brain has been overloaded and needs a hard reset or two. He blinks, shakes his head, does it again, and then squints, hoping that’ll help him focus enough to realize what, exactly, he’s looking at.

The first thing Nate’s eye catches on is a mouth, dusky-sweet and full, a cupid’s bow cocked; and then, with that identified, everything else falls into place. Eyes like the first golden strain of summer, cheekbones high and clean as the outline of mountain ranges against the sky, and hair that impossible shade of deep ocean blue, seeming to shift color the way the sea does with the light and the wind, curling gently at the temples: a boy, yes, but worlds apart from any kind of boy Nate had ever seen before.

…Which is because he isn’t really a typical human boy, Nate reminds himself, feeling ridiculous for being so stunned. Even so, that realization is grounding, framing. Now that Nate’s brain isn’t pinwheeling in a desperate attempt to process anything other than color, he can look at the boy on his doorstep the same way he would look at another person, can take in the breadth of his shoulders beneath the somehow flattering lines of a plain navy t-shirt, the slim length of his legs in dark jeans, the delicately crafted shape of his face. He can put more mundane words to that face, now, too, like pleasant, or impressively symmetrical, or unreasonably attractive.

Goddamnit, Nate thinks.

“Goddamnit,” Nate says, without thinking, and immediately snaps his mouth shut.

The Visitor blinks. His lashes fall against his cheekbones as delicately as ash, and then flick up toward his eyebrows, butterfly-quick. “Hello,” he says. His tone is on the awkward side of formal, and it would’ve been funnier were his voice anything other than smooth and lovely. Nate bites back another curse. “You are Nathaniel Grey.”

A statement, factual and unquestioning. Because there isn’t much more to do but agree, Nate says, “Yes.”

The Visitor smiles then, sun breaking through clouds, and hitches the bag on his shoulder up a little higher so he can extend his hand. Nate goes back to squinting. “I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Ceres.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nate says, and shakes. The Visitor’s skin is warm and oddly smooth. It’s probably the most textbook handshake he’s ever had. “I’m–call me Nate. D’you want to come in?”

“Oh, yes,” Ceres says, beaming, like there’s nowhere he’d rather be than Nate’s massively underwhelming apartment. The enthusiasm written plain on his face touches on Nate’s already frayed nerves, but Nate swallows it down, schools his face into something close to neutral, and beckons Ceres in.

He follows Nate obediently, though there isn’t much deviation to be had. Nate’s apartment is a small space, bedroom-bathroom-kitchen-and-living-room, but it’s always had a certain closeness to it, a lived-in feeling that made the occasional bout of panicky claustrophobia bearable. He’s never had a problem with any of it–Nate prides himself on being low maintenance in that sense–but when he turns around, pausing by the kitchen table to work himself up into an impromptu welcome speech, and looks at his apartment in the context of Ceres’ presence, everything seems to pale. Ceres is beautiful, in an unintentional and overwhelming way, and at once Nate is struck with a sideline feeling like being a sprig of baby’s breath tucked next to some bright-and-gleaming morning glory in a centerpiece. It’s a shitty feeling, and on its heels follows a wave of irritation that Nate pushes down by force. He knows better, most times, than to be an asshole to people who’ve done nothing to merit it, and all Ceres has done is be preternaturally pretty and smile a lot.

So Nate takes a breath, leans against the fridge in hopes that it makes him look more emotionally sound than he feels, and says, “You want the grand tour or what?”

Ceres smiles at him. It feels a little like a sucker punch. It’s decidedly unfair. “That would be wonderful,” he says, oblivious to the sarcasm in Nate’s tone.

Well. “This is it,” Nate says, gesturing to the small, sparse living room, to the undersupplied kitchen with its cheap laminate wood cabinets, to the hall where his bedroom–quiet, cold, dark–lies. It’s mundane, Nate realizes for the umpteenth time. Everything about his apartment is mundane, and made even more painfully so because of the single exception: Ceres, standing in the middle of it all, turning in a small, slow circle, as though he couldn’t bear to miss a single uncoordinated detail of Nate’s home. He seems like something out of a dream: too strange to be real, too bright and too vivid and too almost-ideal–but too convincing not to be.

Something deep in Nate’s chest gives up an achy, creaking sigh. Nate himself echoes it, then takes a bracing breath, shoves a smile on his face, and says, “Living room, kitchen. Not much to see. I’ll be sleeping on the couch, and you’re going to take my bed, so I can show you the room if you want to put your stuff down.”

Ceres perks up more, somehow. Nate wouldn’t have thought it possible–but his eyes gleam a little brighter, and his smile widens, and all in all he looks inappropriately excited to be led to Nate’s bedroom, which–

No, Nate snaps at himself, smothering that thought under a layer of irritation. His self-control is better than that; he refuses to have inappropriate thoughts about a Visitor he’d just met–about his roommate, for Christ’s sake.

“Yes, please,” Ceres says, and follows close on Nate’s heels as Nate leads him down the hallway just off the kitchen.

Largely due to Sasha, who’d refused to let him out until he’d tidied it, Nate’s room is clean: the windows on the far side of the room are open, sunlight streaming through to play across the freshly vacuumed cream-colored carpet, and his bed is a neat conformation of new navy comforter (the old one had had stains that neither Sasha nor Nate wanted to examine too closely) and gunmetal gray sheets. Between the furnishings and the nondescript tan wood of the dresser on the side of the room opposite his bed, Nate’s room is incredibly standard; so of course Ceres, even with just his bright blue head through the door, sticks out like a sore thumb.

“There you go,” Nate says. A flash of sunlight bobs past his eyes as Ceres, who’s about Nate’s height, if not a little taller, slips past him and into his bedroom. The slight breeze in his wake is fresh; petrichor, perhaps, or the breeze just off the sea when the air is heavy with humidity and undercut with a cool current, just after sundown on a cloudy day, gulls crying, feet shuffling on carpet–

Nate snaps back into awareness with a jolt, banging his elbow on the doorframe in shock. His room is dimmer and cooler than that place in his head had been–with the exception of Ceres, of course. Nate hovers in the doorway, feeling like a spectator as Ceres gives his room a thorough once-over that Nate guesses means he’s going to spend hours documenting the state and arrangement of it later, sets his bag down, and then sits on the bed–although Nate wouldn’t call it sitting, though, not really. It’s more like Ceres dropping his full weight onto the mattress, bouncing twice–and looking plainly delighted by it–before settling down, as comfortable as though he belonged there, splayed out in an unselfconscious sprawl. His hair is tousled now, curling sea-green against his forehead, long enough in some places to catch in his eyelashes and to touch the height of his cheek, where sweet sun-touched brown goes faintly pink with excitement. Like that, a little disheveled and laid out on Nate’s bed, smiling, Ceres looks–

“Good talk,” Nate blurts out, overloud in the quiet of his room. His neck is burning, and sweat is prickling at his skin, and–Christ. “I’m gonna go–uh–I’m just gonna go.”

There’s a flurry of beautifully coordinated movement from the bed, but Nate only sees it out of the corner of his eye as he pushes away from the doorframe, trips over his own foot, and half-stomps down the hallway to the kitchen, where he pours himself a glass of cold water and contemplates dumping it over his head. That would only make him puff up like a pissed-off cat, and that wouldn’t help at all, so he doesn’t; instead he downs it in one go and presses his damp hands to his neck to try and cool himself down.

“Nate,” comes Ceres’ voice from behind him, lilting and sweet. He’s standing at the edge of the kitchen, all straight shoulders and perfect balance, looking not at all uncomfortable. “Are you all right?”

“Sure,” Nate calls back, falsely cheerful.

This is going to suck.

Breakfast the next morning starts out as a hugely awkward affair. Nate shuffles into the kitchen at half past seven to find Ceres already dressed for the day in a t-shirt and expensive-looking jeans, sitting at the kitchen table with a book. He hadn’t been reading, though, when Nate walked in; he’d been sitting there, eyes closed, elbows on the table and chin perched delicately on the bridge of his linked fingers, the picture of contentment. Confused, Nate pauses, and makes a quick assessment of his apartment.

In the quiet, the faint background hum of the air conditioning comes to the forefront of Nate’s attention, then, layered under the chirping of birds just outside his window, the creak of floorboards, the early-morning slow shuffle of feet, all blending together to form a quiet, domestic symphony. Soothing, but strange: Nate had never stopped to listen to his home before.

“Good morning,” Ceres says, with his back still facing Nate. Nate raises an eyebrow at that, but figures that the ideal human form probably had better hearing than his, considering the years he spent blowing out his eardrums with overeager garage band music. “How was your sleep?”

Nate, who’d never been anything close to an early riser, only grunted as he took his seat at the kitchen table. Last night had been rough–he’d been up half the night stressing about Ceres–and he won’t lie about it, so he mumbles, “Fine.”

“Hmm,” Ceres murmurs, more an acknowledgment than anything. Then, after a moment of Nate swaying in place, he adds, “It is a beautiful morning, is it not?”

It is–sunlight is filtering in through the blinds, gilding Nate’s kitchen, and outside the faint song of birds winds through the air like shimmering silver strands–but its glory is somewhat dimmed by the fact that Ceres is soft-edged and lovely in the morning light, sharp high cheekbones delineated in gold, his hair gleaming blue-green and beautiful, even as ruffled as it is. Somehow he’s snatched a portion of the expansive, untamable aura of wonder from the world around them and made it his own. Nate’s stomach goes tight with it.

He makes another noncommittal noise, resolutely ignoring any feeling other than the customary early-morning irritation that always burns in him before 10AM, and shuffles over to the steel-and-glass box of wonder that is his coffeemaker. After a slow moment of hesitation, he pulls down a second mug when he grabs his own and turns to wave it over his shoulder. When Ceres doesn’t catch the movement, Nate sighs, clears his throat, and says, raspy, “Ceres.”

That earns him a small jump and a startled look. “Yes?” Ceres says; and then, when he sees the mug and the question Nate is doing his best to project, he says, “Oh! Yes, please.”

He seems awake enough without the caffeine already, but Nate pours him a cup anyway and brings the milk and sugar to the table in lieu of actually asking what Ceres would like. Ceres thanks him, smile as bright as the light playing across the kitchen table, and Nate has to look away.

They sit like this for a while, since Nate doesn’t have to be at work for another hour, and it isn’t as uncomfortable as Nate had expected. Ceres spends most of the time looking around Nate’s kitchen with the beginnings of a smile on his face, and Nate spends most of the time darting glances at Ceres and trying to figure out what, exactly, is so great about his apartment. It’s a standard model, minimalist in a way that comes less from the design and more from the fact that Nate doesn’t care enough to give the place a real theme or anything, and besides that it’s a bit of a mess. Milk spots the kitchen table from where Nate had spilled it; faint outlines of soap splotches grace the countertop near the sink; one of the tiles is still cracked from the time Nate and Sasha had gotten spectacularly drunk and had some less-than-spectacular ideas. It’s home, yeah; but it’s nothing so special as Ceres seems to think it is.

Two cups of coffee later, Nate finally works up the coherency to ask, “What’re you smiling about?”

Startled, Ceres has to blink a few times, like he’s powering up, before he catches Nate’s meaning. Then he says: “I like it here. It is nice, especially at this hour.”

Nate snorts. “What about this place is nice?”

“Many things,” Ceres says, shooting him an odd sideways look. “Would you like me to list them?”

If Nate didn’t know any better, he’d say that was sarcasm. He wonders if Ceres, with his open face and so-far-so-sweet nature, is capable of such a thing. “No,” he says, breathing out a laugh into his mug, “It’s too early for that.”

Too early for lists, Nate thinks, self-reassuring; but also much too early to be looking around his own home and wondering what he’s missing.

If you were to ask anyone who knew him, they would say one of Nate’s worst qualities is his lack of rational foresight. Rational, Sasha would emphasize, is the key word, because Nate’s ability to catastrophize is unrivalled, but it seems that the tradeoff was the capability to make sensible inferences about ninety percent of future situations. Nate figures that’s probably why he never quite anticipated that living with Ceres would be quite like this.

‘This’ being…not bad, actually. Because Nate is a creature of habit, and a mostly solitary one at that, it’s strange to realize that he might not actually mind having company all the time. Ceres is tidy and low-maintenance and helps around the apartment of his own free will, which are the only things Nate really requires for someone to qualify as ‘not a complete nuisance’, but then he goes beyond that: he’s kind and lovely and even amusing in his own odd way. It’s only been a week, but Nate is already feeling the pull of whatever inherent charm Ceres has been gifted with; he answers myriad questions about the most mundane things, and spends twenty minutes on his morning off explaining the workings of the coffeemaker–he even smiles back when Ceres smiles, but only a little. Hell, he’s even stopped writing pissed-off internal monologues when he sees Ceres’ things mixed up with his own, books on the kitchen table and jeans in the laundry and stray blue hair on the bathroom counter (though Nate writes that off mostly to a do-or-suffer adaptation instinct). It’s weird to find himself so amenable to Ceres’ innate sweetness, considering that Nate himself is made up mostly of salt and spice, but he blames that mostly on Ceres’ frankly disarming smile and the way he glows a little when he’s happy.

Weird, but not terrible. It’s a combination Nate thinks he could get used to.

“Her name is Kalli. It’s short for Kallichore, and she’s–God, I don’t know, she’s like what modern Renaissance painters would come up with if they were actually inspired, like, for real.” Sasha sighs into her phone. It comes up as a burst of loud white noise over the speaker; Nate, who’s lounging on the living room floor while Ceres reads on the couch, rolls away from his phone until she stops. “You have to meet her sometime. Her sense of humor is like yours, actually. I think you two would get along.”

“Would we really,” Nate replies, mild, raising his eyebrows at Ceres. “I’ll ask Ceres about that.”

Ceres makes an approving face from over the top of his book, and then nods. “I believe the word for her would be ‘cynical’,” Ceres stage-whispers when Nate puts his hand over the phone. “But she is very kind, in her own way. She is one of my favored companions from home.”

“‘Favored companion’?” Nate snorts. “Did you learn how to talk from a nineteenth-century romance novel?”

A single blue eyebrow goes upwards. Sarcasm wasted, Nate rolls his eyes at Ceres and turns his attention back to his phone just in time to hear Sasha say, “Speaking of Ceres: how is that going?”

Ceres looks up from his book again, both eyebrows raised this time, and Nate flushes hot all down his neck before turning the speaker function off and picking himself up off the floor to go into the other room.

“Thanks for the warning, asshole,” he gripes, once he’s gotten the bathroom door shut behind him. “He was sitting with me.”

“Of course he was,” Sasha says blithely. “You two are hardly ever apart, nowadays. Having fun replacing me?”

Nate laughs. “I couldn’t replace you if I tried. You wouldn’t let me.”

“Very true! Now, quit fronting and tell me: how are you two getting along?”

To Nate’s surprise, horribly is not his instinctive response. Things are a little awkward, still, because Nate hasn’t had to learn how to share such close quarters with anyone in a long time, but they’re getting better: Nate has managed to stop comparing himself to Ceres in the bathroom mirror in the mornings and has restricted himself to minimal admiration instead, and he’s finally learned to just set out the sugar and milk and let Ceres go wild with his coffee, and somehow–though this is most definitely a surprise–he’s gotten used to the sound of Ceres’ voice in the morning, flitting through his ears like birdsong. It’s nice to hear him talk about whatever comes to mind; the way Ceres talks, you’d think Earth was some deep and unending well of wonders, both mundane and spectacular, instead of the sprawling steely mess most of the major cities had become around the end of the twenty-first century. Soothing, almost.

Nate won’t say any of that, though, not when he can predict almost to a T what Sasha will say about it. Instead he looks out the frosted glass window, absently watching the play of sunlight across the glass, and says, “Fine.”

A pause. Then: “‘Fine’? That’s it?”

“Yeah,” Nate says, shrugging. “Fine. He’s…nice.”

“‘Fine’. ‘Nice’. Are you hearing yourself right now?”

Nate takes a deep breath to stop himself from groaning in exasperation. “Yes, I am, and it sounds a lot like I’m saying there isn’t anything to talk about.”

“Oh no it doesn’t,” Sasha says, voice sharpening to a point. Shit. “Coming from you, that’s practically a glowing recommendation. He should get a medal or something; this has gotta be a world record.”

“What?”

“Fastest Thawing Time,” Sasha answers, laughing, and Nate stabs at his phone with an angry finger until he finally hits the end button. Thawing, Nate thinks, as derisive as he can manage, is a ridiculous concept; he’s the same as he’s always been, same as he’d been two weeks ago when Ceres first got here. Just because he stops to smell the roses every once in a while doesn’t mean he’s–

“Nate!” Ceres’ voice carries bell-clear through the apartment. “This channel has a program about foreign foods. Do you know of anywhere we could get this?”

Ceres’ interests vary about once every three days, but some things remain consistent: one of those things in particular is food. Nate laughs to himself, pocketing his phone, and calls out: “Pause it, I’m coming.”

“I still do not know how to pause the program,” Ceres calls back, part amused and part frustrated. “Could you show me how?”

Nate laughs for real this time. “Yeah, I’m coming, hold on.”

Loud enough for him to hear, Ceres makes a displeased noise. It’s one of Nate’s favorites, so far; it reminds him that Ceres isn’t some idol-like being of pure light, and that, in turn, makes Ceres more relatable. Over the past weeks, Ceres has gradually begun to seem more human and less like a visitor in his own body; though whether that bodes well–and Nate’s sure, in some part of his head, that it doesn’t–remains to be seen. Regardless, though: when Nate comes back into the living room and sees Ceres hanging upside down over the arm of the couch, all broad smile and hair falling like thin upside-down waves of blue-green seagrass, he doesn’t think about what the emotion surging in his chest might bring in the future. He just smiles, and he is, and for now, that’s enough.

Nate likes routine. He likes predictable things, likes knowing what will happen next, likes–to a certain degree–having control. So, since Ceres is an established part of his routine now, it’s only rational that Nate likes him.

One evening in late September, two and a half weeks into Ceres’ liaison, Nate comes home from work a little earlier than usual to find Ceres curled up on the couch with the television on at half volume. There’s a greeting on the tip of his tongue, and he’s about to deliver it when he realizes Ceres is not actually awake.

Even when his mouth is slack and half his face is squished into a pillow, Ceres still manages to be pretty. It could be that his hair looks like curling ocean waves, or that his cheeks are a sweet faint shade of pink; but Nate rather thinks it’s the way Ceres is drooling just a little bit, or how he’s got what looks like two pairs of Nate’s socks on his feet, or the faint furrow between his brows. Maybe all of the above.

Something warm tugs at Nate’s heart.

Shit, Nate thinks, and drops his messenger bag on the floor.

It had been mostly out of reflexive panic, but also served a very good purpose, which was to wake Ceres up. For a moment Nate hopes that Ceres’ being awake will make that awful feeling of fondness dissipate–but Ceres has got pillow lines on the side of his face, and his just-woke-up smile is small and sleepy and genuine, and oh, God, that didn’t help at all.

“You are home early,” Ceres says, and stretches. Long arms, all muscle, straighten up over his head, slim fingers locking together as he arches his back. His shirt rides up a bit, and he’s all smooth skin and perfect muscle, marked only by blue-green hair low on his belly. Nate had never really considered whether the carpet matched the drapes, so to speak, and he probably shouldn’t be so attracted to it regardless–but here he is, tearing his gaze away from Ceres, clearing his throat, and saying, “Uh, yeah. Sorry I woke you up.”

“It’s alright.” Ceres smiles, brilliant. He’s glowing, just a little, all his colors jewellike and vibrant like someone had turned up his brightness setting. “I was waiting for you to get home.”

These past few weeks, Nate has been tamping down on the various and sundry feelings that arise whenever he spends time with Ceres. Sometimes it’s exasperation or amusement, or even irritation–but mostly these feelings have been sweet and frightening, fondness and happiness and contentment so easy it feels like there’s no way it can be real, even though it’s been growing stronger each day. These things have been building up in Nate’s chest for a while; and now affection crushes Nate like a tsunami making land, dragging him under, flooding him full.

“Oh,” Nate says faintly. His brain is stalling out, pitting panic signals against tenderness, but neither of them are loud enough to drown out the tiny voice in the back of his head, saying: you should have seen this coming. “Were you?”

“Yes. Sasha and Kalli were here an hour ago, and Sasha suggested we go out to eat. I told them I would wait for you to come home first.”

Ceres says it simply, nothing groundbreaking to it, and yet at all once it hits Nate: Ceres being here, waiting for him to come home, acting as an ambassador for Nate’s houseplants and smiling at him all the time and making Nate feel small restless stirrings of affection–this is normal, now. This is what Nate expects when he comes home from work and when he wakes up.

“Oh,” Nate repeats. “Okay.”

“Wonderful,” Ceres says, bright, and rolls off the couch to go find his shoes. Nate stares after him, at his graceful lines and easy self-confidence, and feels, deep in his chest, the blooming feeling of change.

Though Ceres himself is plainly extraordinary, he and Nate exist, for the most part, in a weird state of suspended normalcy. They eat mostly the same things, operate on similar hygiene schedules (though how Ceres manages to brush his hair less and still look better is a mystery), and do the same things in their spare time: going out to eat with Sasha and Kalli, watching movies, spending ridiculous amounts of money on coffee. For all intents and purposes, Ceres exists nowadays as a human; it’s mostly just the fairly frequent glowing and the unnatural beauty that reminds Nate that he isn’t.

Sometimes, though, Ceres’ otherness becomes apparent.

One of these times is an early Wednesday morning, when Nate wakes up to Ceres perched on the edge of the couch, thigh pressed against Nate’s own, looking unnaturally bright-eyed for five AM.

“What the hell,” Nate croaks, squinting at Ceres with one sleep-blurred eye. “Why are you awake. What do you want.”

“I was thinking about you,” Ceres says, bright and cheery and unruffled, as though that’s a completely normal thing to tell someone else.

Now, that gets Nate’s attention. He rolls over to give Ceres the full benefit of his ‘what the fuck are you talking about’ face, and, like it’s natural, Ceres shifts obligingly into the space Nate makes when he presses his back against the sofa. Ceres is warm and solid against Nate’s thigh, fitted there cozily, and some foggy corner of Nate’s mind conjures up the image of him glowing like a miniature sun, radiating heat and light in tandem. It’s an amusing thought, and Nate indulges himself in it for a moment or so before realizing he’s never actually said anything back.

“Mhmm,” he tells Ceres, who looks expectant and a little excited, not unlike a puppy waiting for its head to be patted. On anyone else it would be a ridiculous expression, but on Ceres it only presses on Nate’s heart until fondness aches there like a new bruise. How’s that for ridiculous, Nate thinks, feeling a little rueful, a little foolish, a little giddy. “Why?”

“I have read that humans often share beds when they cohabitate. We are currently cohabitating; should we share a bed also?”

“Jesus Christ,” Nate breathes, and pulls the pillow out from under his head to put it over his face.

He ignores the distressed sound Ceres makes and closes his eyes against the press of fabric. Breathes in a thin, hot mouthful of dusty and faintly lavender-scented air. Wonders why the idea of sharing a bed with Ceres seems like it might be worth the stress it would undoubtedly cause.

Ridiculous seems to be the word of the day already, and it’s only five o’clock. Nate groans.

“–Nate. Nate! Should I call Sasha?”

“Oh my God.” Nate pulls the pillow away from his face, opening his mouth to tell him no, she’d just come over and make everything worse, somehow–and stops short.

Ceres’ face is only a few inches from his own, wide-eyed and plainly concerned. His mouth is open, just a little, just enough that Nate can see the pearl gleam of his teeth, the indent where they’d sunk into his bottom lip.

Nate’s pulse startles itself out of lethargy; something hot and covetous gathers in his stomach. He shifts his hips back against the couch, hoping Ceres hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, and clears his throat. “We aren’t really cohabitating like…like that.”

Like people–or a person and a Visitor–who could touch each other freely. Like lovers. Nate’s stomach begins tying itself up in self-betraying knots.

“I see,” Ceres says. He sounds a little disappointed–and he looks it, too, sunny eyes downcast and lashes outlined dark against his cheeks. “What is the distinction?”

The distinction is both scant and massive; the distinction is distance between them, words left unspoken, glances unmet; the distinction is the fact that Nate, hiding behind the guise of sleepiness, wants badly to take Ceres’ hand into his own and run his thumb across his knuckles, but doesn’t. Putting a flimsy dictionary definition to the yawning chasm between this and that, between what they have and what Nate might want, seems…laughable. Difficult. Pointless.

Nate doesn’t try. “Just–stuff,” he says, half-assing a horizontal shrug. “It’s too complicated for five in the morning. Go back to sleep.”

“I have slept enough, I think. Must I?”

Too sincere, too sweet, too much; Ceres looks at Nate with those sunflower-golden eyes and something in Nate’s chest clenches. The ache of it hits like a sucker punch and lingers like a bruise, settling in behind his sternum, bone-deep.

Fuck, Nate thinks, all trembling heart and building panic, you’ve got to be kidding me.

“Nate–”

Yes,” Nate snaps, hoping the shakiness in his chest doesn’t make its way into his voice. “Most humans sleep, like, eight hours a day. Try it.”

If Ceres is offended by Nate’s tone, he doesn’t show it; he simply touches his fingers to his chin–a gesture he must’ve picked up from television or something–thinks for a moment, and then–slowly, slowly, it’s a little like watching a car crash–pulls his feet up onto the couch, and wriggles down a little, and lies down on the couch.

Ceres is even prettier up close, somehow, if only because his face reads like an open book and right now he’s laid open to a chapter that seems to be mostly about curiosity and trust and some weird affection Nate doesn’t think he’s yet earned. Nate looks at Ceres’ chin, at the plush curve of his bottom lip, at the slow arc of his eyelashes as he lets his lids fall half-mast, and wants–

Something. Anything. Nate doesn’t know what he wants–only that he does, that he wants, that desire blows through him like a warm breeze on a hot day and makes his skin feel a size too tight, like he’s going out of his mind over something he can’t explain. And he must really be going out of his mind in every sense, because when Ceres shifts to get comfortable on his side, Nate only wriggles backwards to give him more room. Unconscious self-betrayal; some rational part of Nate knows this is probably not a good idea, but the rest of his brain has taken up residence in Camp Devil-May-Care and is much more focused on the places where they touch, on the even, steady puff of Ceres’ breath against his chin, on the smile that blooms shy and private on Ceres’ mouth when Nate holds his tongue.

“Ceres,” Nate begins, fully intending to say something about them still not cohabitating in that way, despite the proximity–and trips over his next sentence before it even comes out of his mouth, because Ceres’ reaction to hearing his name is just to smile, unbridled and full, and look at Nate like he’d hung the moon or performed some other impossible and unlikely feat. And what is Nate supposed to say to an expression like that? What could he possibly do to feel like he deserves it?

He doesn’t want to rub the fact that Ceres is as out of his reach as the moon in his own face. Instead, he regroups, falls back on tetchiness, and grumbles, “Did you ever learn anything about personal space before you came here?”

“Yes,” Ceres says, because of course he did, “some. You share it with others when you are comfortable, yes?”

Comfortable. It’s part of what Nate wants, but not all of it, not even close–and that’s why he’s surprised to find the beginnings of a smile, small and subconscious, touching his mouth.

It’s not everything, but–it’s enough. It’s good.

“Yeah,” Nate says, and closes his eyes so that all he knows is the rhythm of Ceres’ breathing and the glow of him through his eyelids and the peculiar warmth that blossoms from the places where their knees bump. “Something like that.”

Comfortable is enough, in its own way, but it isn’t enough to keep Nate from losing his shit, just a little.

The week after that had been good; Nate had let himself warm up to Ceres and Ceres had been warm as ever, matching him, exceeding him. It’s a lot to keep up with, that constant excitement and wonder and enthralled curiosity, but it’s not as tiring as it used to be–mostly because Nate has developed an unfortunate and disgusting tendency to think that everything Ceres does, down to the most mundane of things, like being massively amused by the washing machine or briefly terrified by the noise of the garbage disposal in the sink, is endearing. That means Nate spends most of his time in the mornings before work, on those days when Ceres accompanies him to work thereafter, and when he comes home in the evenings from work and finds Ceres waiting–or, sometimes, gone, having left notes in loose looping half-cursive about where he’d gone and when he’d be back and that Nate should come with him next–caught up in throes of affection, the kind that make him smile to himself even when there’s nothing around to prompt it.

He wouldn’t mind that part so much if it didn’t put him in such an odd and self-contrarian good mood. His boss keeps commenting on his ‘natural glow’, and the customers at the library keep smiling at him when before they’d just given him flimsy half-smiles and then glanced away, and Sasha keeps fucking looking at him with that expression on her face that says, Nathaniel Grey, you are so fucking screwed. It’s all very troublesome, but this new good mood of his keeps him from being too upset about it. An odd cycle, to be sure.

So: this week has been good, yes, but it hasn’t been easy. Just like any other week since Ceres has been here, it’s had its trials; it’s just that for some reason, as of late, Nate has been struggling a little more with weathering them than usual.

At first it had been manageable, sort of. As of late Ceres has taken to air drying post-shower after having read about it in some pop culture health and fitness magazine, which means that he spends the first twenty minutes out of the shower in nothing but a towel. Now, Ceres is no bodybuilder by anyone’s standards, but he’s nicely built, all lean muscle and perfect contours and sharp hips just above the top of the towel. There’s something sturdy about the breadth of his shoulders and the line of his back, something that makes Nate think, in distracting and vivid flashes, about sinking his nails into the muscle of Ceres’ shoulders, of skin under his fingertips, of wrapping his arms around Ceres and–well.

And if it were just attraction, hot and hard and pure and simple, it would’ve been easier for Nate to deal with. But it isn’t just that: it’s the descent into cooler months, too, and how when the chill seeps into Nate’s apartment Ceres always manages to find a way to press close to him, cold feet and cold hands against here-and-there bare patches of Nate’s skin. Nate wonders, sometimes, how Ceres could have learned so much about humans and their behavior, and yet had never pieced together that personal space was a thing that would apply to him, too.

Nate isn’t really complaining, though. He isn’t expecting anything to come of it–tries not to, anyway, because high hopes usually don’t work out well for him–but when he isn’t so focused on wanting Ceres, he can enjoy what they have now. The easy closeness, the routine, the small tenuous moments they share more and more often as of late: these things have become important to Nate, somehow, and withstanding the occasional desperate and wild thrill of desire is worth being able to have them. Although once Nate had wrapped Ceres’ wandering hands around a fresh mug of coffee for warmth, and his fingers had gotten tangled up in Ceres’, and for a moment, just a moment, Nate had brimmed with a fondness so poignant that he’d thought he might actually say something–

But he hadn’t, because Ceres is beautiful and incredible and his friend, at the very least, and Nate, who tends to be fond of very few people, holds those he values dear. It’s worth it to stand next to Ceres in the bathroom in the morning and do nothing but hip-bump him in greeting, to–God, how it pains him to say it–pine, as Sasha would say, from afar, to keep himself neutral (though lately that has been increasingly difficult) for the sake of preserving what they have now.

That doesn’t mean Nate won’t complain about it, though. It’s not fair, Nate thinks, that Ceres can do almost anything and still make Nate smile, or at least want to. It’s unfair, and it’s frustrating, so it’s no wonder that he ends up on Sasha’s couch after work one Thursday evening, wearing Sasha’s favorite pair of fuzzy socks and coasting on a jittery caffeine high.

“He’s just so…..I don’t know, Sash. He’s like, my least favorite kind of person–”

“But,” Sasha says, smiling.

“But–whatever, stop smiling like that.” Nate waves her interjection away. He’s on a roll here, and he fully intends to talk until he either hits a wall or a corner. “He’s always so smiley, and I’m pretty sure he can talk to that plant in the kitchen, and just…”

Pointedly mild, Sasha says, “He seems sweet.”

“He is, but that’s not the problem! The problem is that….fuck.” Nate presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. Starbursts. They make him think of Ceres. “Fuck. I don’t know. It’s just a problem.”

Sasha reaches for him. She lays a hand on Nate’s knee, reassuring, and rubs at the curve of his kneecap with her thumb. Her voice is just on the unassuming side of soft when she says, “You don’t know how to handle that, do you.”

“Don’t psychoanalyze me,” Nate grumbles, but it’s a flimsy defense; Sasha’s voice is echoing around the inside of his skull, stabbing at soft spots, making Nate feel exposed. He wants to be contrary and confident, wants to say that he can handle anything, thank you very much, but he knows it’s not true. Things like that–like the way Ceres can defuse Nate’s temper like a deft-handed bomb expert, the way things seem to slow down when Ceres is around, the way he makes Nate’s heart tremble–they rock Nate like a dinghy caught in a maelstrom, battering him up against rocks made up of things he hasn’t faced in a long while: easy intimacy, trust, the odd light feeling of being liked without having done anything to earn it. They scare him, these things do; and in a way, Ceres does too. It’s the fright of being pushed out of his comfort zone, of being made aware of things he’d never considered before, of knowing that if he took a moment to reassess, he would probably come up a whole different person than he’d been last month. It’s all that–but most of all, it’s the slow creeping realization that despite the fear and the strangeness and the deviation from the ordinary, Nate doesn’t really mind.

Nate doesn’t know how to handle that at all.

“He’s a morning person,” Nate says instead, because he has no words to convey that soft part of his heart that’s gone light and prickling with what might be anxiety, or excitement, or maybe both. “Can you fucking believe that?”

Sasha leans into him and laughs. “Yeah, actually. You would pick an early bird, you masochist.”

Nate’s breath catches. “I didn’t pick him,” he says, but his heart beats a traitorous tattoo against his ribs, saying, you didn’t; I did.

It’s strange and incredible, Nate thinks, how something extraordinary can blossom so easily from something totally ordinary.

Case in point: this brisk October evening, midway through the month. It’s just past 7:30 when Nate clomps into his apartment with two orders of takeout (his usual, and whatever the owner of the restaurant said was their favorite for Ceres), shrugs his scarf down past his mouth, and calls out, “I’m home, and I brought dinner, so I hope Sasha hasn’t been feeding you.”

Ceres, sprawled on the sofa, raises his head and makes a gesture that’s half wave, half beckon. “I had been wondering why you were gone so long. Sasha has not fed me, but she did come to make tea. What did you bring?”

“Surprise,” Nate tells him, setting the bags down on the low living room table. He tugs off his scarf as Ceres sits up, expectant, and scoots over so that Nate can sit down once he’s stripped his coat off, too. “I got forks. Can you grab the napkins?”

A noise of agreement, and then Ceres is up off the couch in a flash, long legs working with beautiful efficiency to carry him to the kitchen and back. He’s wearing a pair of Nate’s shorts, and even though they’re a little short and a little tight on him, he still manages to look like some sort of otherworldly model. A few weeks ago that would’ve touched on Nate’s nerves; but now, when Ceres plops back down beside him, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder, those graceful legs stretched out unassumingly before him, Nate only feels a stirring of admiration, and then a breath of want sighing through him, heavy like a damp summer breeze.

“I like surprises,” Ceres says, beaming, as he showers Nate with napkins.

Nate doesn’t. He never has. Surprises are a break in routine, an unpredictability, an opportunity for something to go wrong–which, in Nate’s head, things always do. He’s always thought it best to avoid surprises as much as he can, purely for the sake of his own stress levels.

But Ceres–who seems to enjoy more about life in five mundane minutes than Nate usually does in days–likes surprises. So, logically, Nate supposes, surprises can’t be all that bad.

“Good for you,” Nate replies, cracking a smile when Ceres makes a face at him. “Quit messing around and eat, all right? I think you’re gonna like this one.”

If Ceres had been beaming before, he’s sparkling now; for some reason, despite Nate’s poor success rate with decision-making in general, dinner choices for Ceres are always a hit. Nate thinks that might be because Ceres will eat almost anything, but it’s a good ego boost, anyway, so he doesn’t mind.

They fall into a comfortable silence as they eat; their legs are pressed together from ankle to knee to hip, and at one point they devolve into a shoving contest for elbow room (one that Nate wins, much to his smug delight), but otherwise it’s…peaceful. Domestic. Nice.

Briefly, Nate allows himself to imagine what it would be like to be able to lean over and give Ceres a sticky-mouthed kiss on the cheek. He’s only mildly surprised to find that even in his imagination it feels a lot like this–just with more kissing.

Once they’re done and Nate’s cleaned up, they settle back onto the couch again; only this time, when Nate turns the channel to some old gritty-film romcom, Ceres leans into Nate’s side, warm and comfortable, the faint glow of him meeting that of the television somewhere in the middle of the room. Of this, as with most other things involving Ceres, Nate is painfully aware; the places where they touch light up like sparklers, and heat seeps into Nate like it would at midday under the summer sun.

Though it can’t be comfortable, Ceres’ head is pillowed on Nate’s shoulder, and it gives Nate a perfect vantage point to sneak glances at him without being too obvious. From here he can see the quick flutter of Ceres’ eyelashes, long and inky-dark, silhouetted against sky-high cheekbones. The light from the television screen plays over his hair, washes out the deep-trench-dark of it and makes it go faded blue; it looks soft as water, and Nate wants to run his fingers through it, to press his nose into it and inhale the sea-salt tang Ceres inexplicably carries.

He’s thought he was being discreet, but nothing Nate plans out every truly goes as it should; so of course–of course–Ceres looks up at him, eyes wide, with Nate’s name poised on his lips.

This, now, is the extraordinary part: when Nate forces himself to stay still, relying on stubbornness in place of courage, Ceres doesn’t move away; instead (and this, Nate thinks, is impossible, cannot really be happening), he meets Nate’s eyes, all lingering heat, and then looks down, lower, to the tensed-tight line of Nate’s mouth.

Nate recognizes that expression–the intent in it, the way Ceres’ eyes have gone a shade darker somehow, clouds over sun–but that it could be directed at him, by Ceres, seems nothing short of unbelievable.

“Hey,” Nate says, because he can’t say anything intelligent when his brain is stalling out like this. His mouth is dry, suddenly, and his pulse pounds insistently under his skin, demanding more.

“Hello,” Ceres returns, voice breathy and content. After a moment, he smiles, slow and dawning, but it’s somehow different from the smile Nate usually gets in the morning or when he comes home from work; it’s a hot, toothy thing, a healthy dose of want condensed down into one small curve of lips, and it damn near makes Nate squirm.

Nate clears his throat–draws Ceres’ attention to his neck, which sends a hot thrill up his spine–and says, awkward, “You doing okay?”

A moment of consideration; then, Ceres murmurs, “Yes. I am.”

Heat makes Nate’s skin prickle all over. He fidgets, wanting to clear his throat again, but resists the urge; when he says, “Cool,” though he isn’t cool at all, his voice is husky and thick.

Another moment catches between them, wound up in the tense lines of whatever force is keeping them wrapped up in each other like this. Ceres is close, so close, a lovely moon streaking through Nate’s orbit. It would only take a fraction of a movement for Nate to–

Nate startles himself out of stillness, jerking his head straight again. His heart is working like a racehorse, desperate and pounding, and it takes him several forced deep breaths to get himself anything close to calm.

Ceres, looking mildly disappointed, goes back to watching the movie, then. Nate does too, but concentration is a lost cause when all he can think of is possibilities and maybes and Ceres.

“How do I check out a book?”

Nate, busy scrolling through his third social media feed of the afternoon on his phone, snorts. “You come to work with me all the time. You seriously don’t know how to check out a book?”

Without looking up, he knows Ceres is frowning. Nate bites back a smile and keeps his head down as Ceres says, “I never learned. It was not part of the pre-Visit curriculum. Do all humans know how to check out books?”

That makes Nate laugh. “If they did, I probably wouldn’t have a job. What d’you wanna check out, anyway?”

“Well,” Ceres says, shifting to the side in Nate’s periphery, “I thought I would do some research.”

Something in his tone triggers that part of Nate’s brain attuned to incoming stress. “On what?” Nate asks, suspicious, still looking down at his phone.

“Sex.”

He says it in the same tone one would say ‘airplanes’ or ‘twenty-first-century American history’, so for a moment, it doesn’t register that he’d said something completely inappropriate. When it does, though:

What?” Nate squawks, wide-eyed and shocked. “What–what do you mean, sex? Why?”

Ceres raises an eyebrow. Sure, Nate might be overreacting a little bit, but he can’t help getting keyed up when sex and Ceres are in close conceptual proximity. “I wanted to know more about it; the progression, the chemical interactions. I thought it would be a good idea, since I believe I experienced it–arousal, rather–a few days ago.”

A knot tightens in Nate’s stomach. They’ve been together nearly nonstop for the past month or so–though, his practical and pessimistic side reminds him, that doesn’t mean Ceres had felt anything for him, specifically. “What, uh–when was that?”

“Late last week,” Ceres says, meeting Nate’s eyes without any hint of reservation. “You and I were sitting on the couch. Before that, too, when I spent the morning with you on the sofa, and in various other instances. I have only done preliminary research, but I believe you may have experienced it too. There are references to dilated pupils in this textbook–” a tome on human anatomy that Ceres waves all too casually “–and erections, but I–”

Nate claps his hand over Ceres’ mouth. “Oh my God,” he hisses, fighting down a near-hysterical tickling urge to laugh at the shock in Ceres’ eyes, “you can’t just say shit like that out loud! I’m at work! Someone’s going to think I’m corrupting you!”

Ceres mumbles something that seems wordlike against Nate’s palm. Sighing, Nate pulls his hand away so Ceres can say, “Is ‘corruption’ another term for ‘interc–‘”

Ceres!” Nate snaps, and slaps his hand right back where it had been. The only way he’s going to get through this conversation is by not actually processing it at all, and he can only do that if Ceres shuts up. “Can we talk about this later? Somewhere I won’t get fired?”

The curve of Ceres’ frown is evident against Nate’s palm, but he nods.

“Don’t say anything stupid,” Nate cautions, and moves his hand away slowly again.

Ceres executes a textbook perfect roll of the eyes and says, “I usually do not, by my own standards.”

“I doubt you do,” Nate says, distracted. Knowing Ceres is attracted to him that way is a little overwhelming; it’s…unrealistic, almost, like someone has taken Nate out of his actual life, where things like this and people like Ceres are as far out of Nate’s reach as they should be, and dropped him into a movie written by someone with a very strange sense of humor. Nate is–well, he likes it, sure, likes knowing that Ceres wants him, likes the thrill that ratchets up his spine every time he so much as thinks about it. But it’s scary, too, because although Ceres has become so familiar that Nate doesn’t care too think too closely about it, this development is different; a blank spot in an otherwise mostly charted map.

“You look….” Ceres tilts his head. Squints. Shakes his head, then, and goes on: “What is the matter? I have read sexuality is an uncomfortable topic in some societies…”

This time, Nate covers his own face. “It’s not that,” he mumbles. “It’s just…are you serious? Me?”

“Of course,” Ceres says, furrowing his brows. There’s a soft thump as he sets the textbook down on the counter, and a shuffle of feet as he comes around the end of it; then he’s curling his fingers around Nate’s wrists and tugging gently, trying to pry Nate’s hands away from his face. “You are unique to any other human I have met in my time here so far. ‘Atypical’ is likely not an acceptable word for it, but it is somewhat accurate. I find you…attractive.”

Nate’s pulse rabbits; giddiness and warmth descend on him like a swarm of butterflies. “Shut up,” he mutters, fighting against the gentle pull of Ceres’ hands. “You can’t just say shit like that, y’know? It’s not….I’m not….”

Breathe, Nate thinks, and stop embarrassing yourself. He takes a deep breath, lets the steady stroke of Ceres’ thumb against the back of his hand soothe him; and then, when he’s ready, he says, “Are you serious?”

“You have already asked me that question.” Ceres’ voice is a low rumble, soft and amused. He’s close; Nate can feel Ceres’ warmth on his skin. “I do not lie; it seems largely pointless. And even if I did, I would not lie to you.”

“Stop saying things like that,” Nate says, wrinkling his nose. “You’re ridiculous. Are you aware of that?”

Ceres laughs. “So you have told me.”

“I’m gonna keep telling you until you believe me,” Nate grumbles.

He lets Ceres pull his hands from his face, then, and catches his fingers up in Ceres’ shirt instead. Ceres leans in close–and then closer still, pressing his forehead to Nate’s. He’s warm, very much so, and glowing a little now, the aura of it fighting against the afternoon light; looking the way he does, soft and open and sweet, it’s no wonder Nate leans into him, pressing his forehead to the rise of Ceres’ shoulder. There, he can hide–from this confession, from the sensation of being exposed and then known, from the depth of his own feeling–even if just for a little while.

The thing about hiding is that Nate can’t do it forever.

The thing about Ceres is that he makes not hiding difficult.

It’s not that he’s pushy or confrontational, because he isn’t; it’s that he’s open about wanting Nate, the way he’s open about everything, and that means that Nate is constantly aware of it. Now that he knows that Ceres wants him–knows for a fact, has heard it from Ceres’ own mouth–he can’t get it off his mind. He thinks about it when Ceres greets him at breakfast, or when Ceres accompanies him to work, or when he catches Ceres reading pamphlets about safe sex at the kitchen table–which is to say, Nate thinks about it all the time.

Now that he’s got it on the brain almost all the time, it’s incredible how infrequently Nate has really thought about sex (with Ceres, specifically) before. Sure, he’s entertained the thought of it in a self-deprecating sort of way, and he’s spent and embarrassing sum total of time in the shower thinking of Ceres and his perfectly sculpted hands and his lovely mouth and–oh, Christ–but it has never been so much of a problem before. He’s been able to go entire hours without getting stuck on the way Ceres’ touch lingers on his skin like a warm afterthought, gonedays without looking at Ceres and wanting so badly to be touched that it feels like he might crawl out of his own skin.

And yet.

This morning, it’s a brush of knuckles as Nate and Ceres reach for the sugar at the same time. It’s a quick and glancing thing, nothing more than bone under skin against bone under skin, but Nate lights up from the inside out anyway. When he sneaks a glance at Ceres, he finds Ceres looking right back, all small smile and summer-heat eyes. With a pounding in his heart, Nate wonders if this–the mutual attraction, the ever-present want, all of it–will ever leave him feeling any less thoroughly blindsided.

Ceres runs his fingertips over the ridge of Nate’s white knuckles, then, and Nate shivers all the way down to his bones; because he knows, somewhere deep, that the answer to that question is no.

(In retrospect, Nate figures, this was a long time coming.)

“Have you ever kissed anyone, Nate?”

Nate looks up from his newspaper. Since his arrival, Ceres has learned to excel at many things—such as crossword puzzles, video games, and guessing the ends of movies, much to Nate’s frustration—but being casual is, apparently, not one of those things. His voice is heavy, each word pronounced carefully and deliberately, like he’d meant for it to come out uninterested and had instead achieved the exact opposite effect.

“Yes,” Nate answers. “Why do you ask?”

“I was thinking about kissing.” Color blooms rose-delicate on his cheeks. Nate stares. “It is not focused on in much of the literature I have, but it was in three of the movies I watched yesterday.”

Distracted, Nate says, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Do what?”

“Blush,” Nate says, and gestures at Ceres’s face.

“I can perform any function within the limits of this—my—body, Nate. Also, I have been experiencing more authentic and immersive physical reactions as of late. So.” As if to prove his point, Ceres’s blush deepens.

The hand Nate had lifted to point hovers in the air, curious and cautious. It’s lovely, that blush, vibrant and lively in a way that makes Ceres’ face seem like a riot of color: lashes dark as space, eyes bright as the sun, pink flooding his cheeks like a small-scale sunset. Like this—embarrassed, frowning, dressed in one of Nate’s washed-out pseudo-vintage band t-shirts—Ceres seems close, attainable, like he had never been anything other than an exceptional and incredible creature of this earth.

He doesn’t realize he’s been moving until his fingers brush the skin of Ceres’ cheek.

In quick succession, Nate feels two jolts. The first is surprise, startling his fingers off of Ceres’ cheek for a split second; and the second is purely electric, a flashbolt feeling that steals up his arm and gives his heart a one-two shock that makes his breath catch.

“Shit.” Ceres’ skin is warm. Petal-soft. God. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking—is this….” Breathe. “Is this okay?”

Slowly, slowly, flower turning toward the sun: Ceres leans into Nate’s touch. “Yes.”

A choked little laugh startles its way out of Nate’s throat. The picturesqueness of it all is almost ridiculous: Ceres is beautiful, only a scant few degrees from ethereality, and—out of all possible places he could be—he’s here, in Nate’s kitchen, smiling at him across the rickety little table, Jesus Christ, is this really happening.

“Sorry,” he says when Ceres looks at him again, wondering if he’ll be able to shut his mouth before he says something stupid, “it’s just that if this were one of those movies from yesterday, this is when the big kiss would happen. What, uh…what were you watching?”

Enchanted. Titanic. The Notebook.”

Christ.” Nate snorts. “Okay, it wouldn’t be that impressive—it’s me we’re talking about, here—but, y’know. It’s kinda funny.”

“Funny?” Ceres echoes. The hint of a frown weighs on his mouth, mirrored in the angle of his brows. “That is not what I would call it.”

Nate skims his thumb over the height of Ceres’ cheekbone. What he wouldn’t give for a picture of Ceres like this: pliant and sweet, so lovely it makes Nate’s chest hurt to look at him—even more so for the look on his face, the one he always gets when he’s attempting to figure something out. God, Nate thinks, with a shaky sighing flutter of his heart, I am so fucked.

He takes a deep breath–comes up short–tries it again. Says, when he can speak properly again: “What would you call it, then?”

Ceres bites his bottom lip. He’s picked up the habit from Nate himself, but it looks much better on him. “I’m not sure. I feel it here.” He touches his lips. “And here.” The base of his throat. “Through here—” down breastbone and stomach, where his fingers splay for a moment “—and…elsewhere.”

His hand is below the table. Nate is breathless, dizzy with want.

Eyes up: the gold of them is molten, liquid and magnetic. Ceres’ expression is questioning, tentative. “This is…desire, yes?”

Oh, God. “I think so.”

“Oh,” Ceres says. The quirk of his brow says he’s thinking; the faint indent in his now-parted lips says he’s feeling. “It seems different from the usual definition of arousal. It is…difficult to focus. I want to touch. To be touched. How do you get anything done like this?”

Nate laughs. “I usually don’t, if I’m honest. Do you, uh….do you like it?”

A pause; Ceres considers the question for a moment, eyes shut, breath held. Then he exhales, the warm line of his breath tickling at Nate’s wrist, and says, “Yes, I think. I might like it better if I could…channel it. Put it to use, somehow.”

Nate’s breath catches again. “Huh,” he says weakly. “How would you do that?”

“Well,” Ceres says, blushed but still bold, “the kissing I mentioned. I thought we could…try, if you were willing.”

Nate blinks. “You—with me? That’s what you were getting at earlier?”

“Yes.” Ceres blinks right back, though much more gracefully than Nate had done. “Do you consent?”

“What?”

A tilt of his head. Nate is cupping Ceres’ cheek now, acutely aware of the way his mouth shapes itself around each word, lost in the little smile that presents itself in the upward curve at the corners of his lips. “Enthusiastic consent is mandatory; it is mentioned in all of the literature you gave me.”

“Oh,” Nate says, awkward. How to say this so he doesn’t sound overeager? “Sure, I guess—I mean, yeah. Yes. Definitely.”

“Really? You don’t seem particularly enthusiastic, though.”

Ceres is squinting at him, near comical in his scrutiny, and Nate flushes hot before the lilting tone of the question sinks in. “…Was that a joke?”

After a moment of impressive poker facing, Ceres smiles, clever and sweet, faintly glowing, and Nate stands up out of his seat to kiss him.

By the time their mouths meet, Nate is smiling too, because he just can’t help it; the nervous tightness in his stomach is still there, but it’s buried under a deluge of giddiness and excitement and the soaring Everest feeling of finally.

“Stop smiling,” Nate says, feeling his voice rumble up happy out of his chest, too-soft and too-fond, as he tilts his head to press his nose against Ceres’ cheek.

“I can’t help it,” Ceres protests, mostly-laughing, and Nate’s laughing too as he takes Ceres’ bottom lip into his mouth.

Then Ceres isn’t laughing anymore; then Ceres is making a small and sweetly startled noise and leaning into Nate’s touch, curling his hand over Nate’s, breathing out hard and fast through his nose as Nate runs his tongue over the soft skin of his lip. He tries to memorize it–tries to memorize Ceres, the taste and feel of him, the way he sucks in a breath when Nate sinks his teeth in and tugs, just a little–and slows down, gives Ceres one close-mouthed kiss and then another, and another, slower still, and–

“You are worrying.” Ceres is smiling as he nudges Nate’s nose with his–and there it is again, affection like a solar flare bursting in Nate’s chest. “I am enjoying myself, but–teach me how to do this correctly, please? Movies are not particularly instructional.”

Heat settles low and heavy in Nate’s belly, and he pulls back for a moment to clear his head. When he does, though, Ceres is looking up at him, pink-cheeked, mouth shiny, eager and happy and willing, and that doesn’t do much to help Nate clear his head at all. It does the opposite, in fact: his stomach tightens, and his pulse throbs lower, insistent and desirous. Nate gives up on clearing his head completely and turns around instead, staring at the ceiling as he sucks in a deep, clean breath and then lets it out slow, uses it to draw out a reverent curse. Things like Ceres wanting to kiss him–hell, people–entities–like Ceres in general–those are not the kinds of things that happen to Nate. Ever.

Pessimism reaches for him. Grounds him. “Hold on,” Nate says, and turns on his heel to look Ceres in the eye. “Why me?”

Ceres cocks his head in unspoken question. Nate rolls his eyes and rephrases: “Why do you want me, specifically, to teach you to kiss? Why do you want to kiss me at all?”

Now Ceres just looks confused. “Is that not what you do when you have feelings for someone?”

Nate’s heart goes rogue. He tries his hardest to breathe evenly–fails–says, instead, “Yes–well, it doesn’t have to be, but–which feelings, exactly?”

Ceres hums, pensive. Nate’s pulse spikes. “Human emotions are harder to categorize than I had originally thought,” he says. “This one is…difficult.”

“Can you try?” Nervousness makes his voice sharp-edged; Nate rocks forward on his toes, bounces, comes back down. “It’s kinda important, y’know, so.”

“I am trying,” Ceres tells him, flashing the briefest of frowns before slipping back into pensiveness. He’s tapping his bottom lip now, taking the corner of it between his teeth, and–God, does Nate want to kiss him. “It is a positive emotion, but…”

“Can we hurry it up a little?” Ceres shoots him a sharp look, and Nate rocks forward onto his toes again, too eager to be kissing Ceres again to care about being rude. He says, unabashed, “I wanna get this straight before I show you anything.”

“Oh,” says Ceres, eyes gone wider; he sits forward in his chair, the arch of his back tense and perfectly curved. “Well, then: I would say it feels like extreme preference, like when humans pick favorite songs or animals. Similar to affection, but more specific.”

Nate raises an eyebrow. “I’m like your pet?”

“No!” Flustered twice in one day; Nate resolves to make this a more frequent recurrence. “There is an element of knowledgeable consent involved with humans that does not exist with animals, so you could not be my pet, and I do want to interact with you at a more advanced level than what is possible with a typical animal, but there is the same sense of preferential affection.”

There goes Nate’s heart again. “So you like me?”

Ceres squirms in his chair. “If you were to pare down what I just said to the barest and most colloquial essentials, I suppose that would be correct. Could we kiss now?”

Yes,” Nate breathes, laughing, and knocks into the edge of the table in his haste to get around it. Ceres stands to meet him, eyes intent as Nate’s ever seen, and comes easily when Nate puts Ceres’ hands on his waist, tugs him down that one inch by the collar of his shirt, and kisses him again.

It’s not a hard kiss, though the hard knot of desire tightening in Nate’s belly would appreciate it; it’s a slow kiss instead, all lips and gentle teeth and achingly soft noises that Nate would be embarrassed to admit are his own. He can’t bring himself to mind, though, not when Ceres is beginning to tentatively replicate some of the things Nate had done: taking Nate’s bottom lip between his teeth careful and sweet, sweeping his tongue across it in one long, slow motion that leaves Nate shuddering and pressing closer, breathless. Ceres does that again, and–</i>God</i>, his mouth is so soft and so gentle, and Nate can’t help but touch his tongue to Ceres’.

Full-body thrill like an electric shock; Ceres startles, knocking their foreheads together, and Nate’s attempt at a curse turns into a laugh halfway through.

“What,” Ceres asks, voice husky, eyes a little glazed, “was that? Why are you laughing?”

All Nate can really do is shake his head, because Ceres is glowing–really glowing, brine-blue halo shimmering around his head and eyes like stars and all his colors lit up vivid and brilliant, and it’s so very Ceres that Nate can’t even bring himself to be surprised when he smells salt on the air as Ceres breathes. Total immersion, Nate thinks: The Ceres Experience.

“You,” Nate begins; and he means to say more, but really, that’s all the explanation he can manage, all he needs. Ceres is inexplicable in the simplest of ways: he just is, and that manages to be both more and less complicated than anyone or anything Nate has ever known.

“Me.” Ceres is torn between unamused and preening. It’s an odd and lovely expression. “Is that good?”

Nate laughs. “Yeah,” he says, and rocks up on his toes a little ways to kiss Ceres again. He’s still smiling; he can’t help it anymore. Against Ceres’ mouth, he says, “It’s called–well, Sasha calls it French kissing, but nobody says that.” He pauses to kiss Ceres again–is thrilled when Ceres sinks into it, slow gloss of lips over lips before pulling back just enough–and continues, “Making out. It involves tongue.”

A hum swells up out of Ceres’ throat and tickles at Nate’s lips. Ceres kisses the corner of Nate’s mouth; and then, like it had never occurred to him before, he brushes his mouth against Nate’s cheek, tentative and testing. Nate lets his head tilt, giving Ceres the side of his face, and Ceres takes him up on that like an instinct: he kisses Nate’s jaw, butterfly-gentle; cheekbone, sweet; pulse-point, open-mouthed and exploratory. Shudders tremble all the way down Nate’s spine.

“Come here,” he breathes, thin with want. Nate takes Ceres by the chin to turn his face back up, closes his eyes against the glow of him. “Like this.”

Like a flower blooming in spring, Ceres opens his mouth obligingly when Nate thumbs at his bottom lip. Nate kisses at his bottom lip, once, and then kisses him again in earnest, pressing his tongue to lips and teeth and then Ceres’ own, soft and slick and pliant.

“‘Making out’,” Ceres repeats when Nate draws away to breathe for a second. His voice is a gentle rumble, curling around Nate’s spine and settling there like a shield, like a cocoon. “I think I like this.”

“Good,” Nate murmurs, pressing his nose into Ceres’ cheek. “Me too.”

Ceres leans in again, then, soft laugh rolling up his throat; and then they’re kissing, and Nate forgets about everything else for a long, long while.

Wonder of all wonders: Nate’s inability to correctly foresee things has, once again, come back to bite him in the ass.

Actually it’s bitten him nearly everywhere but in the ass, if he’s being honest. When he taught Ceres the basics and the perks of making out–impromptu sessions on necking included in the package, hosted on Nate’s couch–he hadn’t, for some reason, thought that it would mean Ceres would want to kiss all the time. Nate understands the urge, to be sure (he has, after all, spent the better part of almost two months thinking about what it would be like to kiss Ceres freely), and he isn’t exactly complaining; it’s just that every time Ceres can get Nate alone, he pins him to the couch or boxes him in against the counter or catches him by the waist and kisses him until Nate thinks he might be losing brain cells from oxygen deprivation, and then that’s it. Just kissing until they’re both straining like horses at the bit, hard and aching, and nothing more.

And that’s okay, too, it really is–except that Ceres seems to have twice the stamina of anyone Nate’s ever hooked up with, and that he has a lot of free time, and that means he and Nate are making out almost all the time. Sore mouth and aching lungs and tender bitemarks, Nate welcomes them all; it’s only that he’s beginning to wish they actually finished what they started. But they don’t, because Nate is both too stubborn and too worried about upsetting this new balance to bring it up, and Ceres is probably too fascinated with the new advent of kissing to think any further.

For someone who had been–and still is–so worried about change, Nate thinks wryly, he sure is eager for this one.

Eager, yes; but when Ceres approaches the kitchen table in late October, sets down a pamphlet, a condom, and a small clear bottle of lube, in that order, and asks, “How do you feel about having sex?”, Nate is definitely not prepared.

“Oh my God,” Nate says, blank and wide-eyed. His heart beats once, hard, like a gunshot, and then his pulse is off and sprinting. Ceres looks completely calm. “What–wait, what? Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Ceres says, patiently, the way he always does when he thinks Nate is asking pointless questions. “Would you like to engage in–”

“Not if you say it like that,” Nate interrupts. He can feel himself going hot from neck to ears in quick succession–and it must be visible, too, because Ceres tracks the spread of his blush as it goes, smiling slightly. “If you call it ‘intercourse’ one more time, I will make you sleep on the couch. Don’t test me.”

Ceres laughs, then, sweet and low. “That would not be ideal,” he says, drawing closer. He puts his hands where Nate has shown him he likes it: right on the curve of Nate’s waist, thumbs gentle on the lines of Nate’s stomach, and dips his head the slightest bit it takes to meet Nate’s eyes. “What would you rather I call it, then?”

His eyes are bright and dark at the same time, somehow, and Nate feels the weight of his gaze like a drop of gold in his palm. God, Nate thinks, fighting back the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, is this what luck feels like?

“Don’t be so formal about it,” Nate tells him, cocking his head so his nose brushes against Ceres’, teasing and slight. “Say what everyone else says.”

Ceres presses his forehead to Nate’s, lets his lashes slide low. “Which would be?”

Daring, Nate looks up at Ceres through his own lashes. He bites his lip, going for, at the very least, coy, and says, “Fuck.”

“Such a versatile word,” Ceres comments, voice gone low, rough. Nate thrills all over, all the way down to his toes. “If you would like it better, then. Would you like to fuck?”

The word sounds so alien coming from Ceres’ mouth that Nate can’t help the laugh that startles out of him. “Christ,” he says, shaking his head the best he can, “Never mind, actually. Just don’t call it anything at all.”

“You are confusing.” The exasperation in his tone is something he’d picked up from Nate, but the fondness is all his own. “Still, though: would you enjoy doing–that–with me?”

Nate can’t say he’s ever been propositioned so politely or so boldly. It’s strange being confronted with desire this way, brazen and blatant; but in a way, it’s refreshing. It makes Nate shiver from head to toe, makes him step out of his comfort zone and say, “Yeah, I would.”

Ceres beams, his glow ramping up another few watts or so; and then he leans in, angling his face so he can press a kiss to Nate’s mouth.

Nate can’t glow. He doesn’t have the capacity for it, nor the disposition, but when Ceres kisses him like this he thinks he knows how it might feel to glow. It’s an uncontainable feeling that swells in his chest, light as a hot air balloon and just as desperate to escape and float away, rising into his throat and making him feel lightheaded and excited and giddy with happiness. Feelings like this are as alien as Ceres is familiar, now, but Nate thinks that with time–with Ceres–he could get used to them.

He chases that feeling now as he kisses Ceres back, pressing close and closer still. Feeling bold and a little reckless, Nate lets his hands wander, sliding up the planes of Ceres’ chest and across the swell of his shoulders and then up, into the soft short hair at the back of his head, tugging gently. Ceres makes a deep, happy noise–one that resonates in perfect sync with the feeling in Nate’s chest–and bites at Nate’s bottom lip; careful at first, because that’s his nature, and then harder, because that’s the way he knows Nate likes it. The realization of just how well Ceres knows him now sinks in again, deep and instinctive and wordless, and Nate comes alive with the thrill of it.

“This sort of thing,” Ceres says, between soft lingering kisses, “is usually conducted in a bed, yes?”

Nate would let Ceres have him anywhere–but that’s a private realization, embarrassing and thrilling all at once, so he simply says, “Let’s go, then.”

If Nate hadn’t established himself as someone who does not like to be bodily hauled around, Ceres likely would’ve swept him up into his arms and whisked Nate off to his own bedroom; but because Nate is Nate and therefore not amenable to being treated like a ragdoll, Ceres just laughs, gives Nate a single deep kiss, and leads him down the back hallway by the wrist.

Nate’s bedroom is lit up in thin shades of gray evening light, diluted by the filter of the blinds. Ceres is the brightest thing in the room by far, a vivid splash of color standing out starkly against the dishwater walls, and Nate loves that about him: how happiness radiates off of him like there’s no way for him to keep it in, how his smile manages to be brighter still.

As if to remind him–unnecessarily, really–that he’s inordinately fond of Ceres, Nate’s heart does an odd little skip-beat and sends adrenaline flooding through his system. He can feel his pulse-rhythm in his chest, in his fingertips, between his legs–everywhere, really, and watching Ceres sprawl himself out on the bed and look up expectantly only makes it tick faster.

“Come here,” Ceres says, beckoning; and easy as that, Nate goes.

Knees first, then hands; Nate gets his legs on either side of Ceres’ slim hips and looks down at him from above. This is what Nate had imagined, all those weeks ago, when he’d first seen Ceres fling himself into this bed–and yet it’s so much better, so much more vibrant and sweet and genuine than anything Nate could’ve come up with. Ceres is smiling that familiar smile now, the one he always favors Nate with even when Nate doesn’t particularly deserve it, and Nate, full to the brim of affection, can’t help but kiss him.

Ceres’ hands come up to settle on Nate’s waist, and they weigh like anchors, and though Nate isn’t sure which one of them Ceres is trying to ground, he’s glad for it; between the slick heady press of Ceres’ tongue against his and the want curling heavy and lusty in his belly, Nate needs all the focus he can get.

Focus is difficult, though, when Ceres is groaning against Nate’s mouth and pressing his hips upwards in an instinctive attempt at friction. It’s wicked to know that he’s the one causing this, that Ceres flushed and wanting beneath him is all because of Nate’s mouth and hands and touch, and that knowledge makes Nate daring: after a hasty moment of consideration and quick vague prayer that this doesn’t somehow go wrong, he seats himself neatly in Ceres’ lap.

Ceres is hard.

Nate should have known that already–had known that, in some abstract way, since Ceres usually was whenever they made out. But this is different: Nate can feel the line of Ceres’ cock pressed up against him, hard and hot even through two layers of clothing, and the sensation of it makes Nate’s head spin with desire. Without thinking, Nate grinds down on him, angling his hips so he can press himself against Ceres properly, and there it is, that beautiful rough streak of friction making fireworks pop off behind his eyelids. Nate groans, and Ceres does, too, loud and low and rumbling through his chest as he tightens his grip on Nate’s waist.

This is better than what Nate had expected from their first time. This is good; better than good, if Nate’s honest, if he judges by the way he can’t make himself stop chasing after the pleasure streaking comet-quick up his spine every time he lines his cock up against Ceres’ just right and grinds, heavy and dirty and slow. Ceres’ breath is hot and damp against Nate’s jaw–now his neck, now replaced by teeth and lips and the sparkling sting of a new bruise–and Nate’s temperature is sky-high; he’s all heat and sweat and sensation zipping through his system like lightning, making his skin tingle, channeling shudders down his spine every time Ceres presses his mouth to some new place on Nate’s throat. He feels weightless, light, like if Ceres doesn’t slow down their rhythm he might–

“Stop,” Nate gasps, curling his fingers into the hair just behind Ceres’ ear and tugging. To his credit, Ceres only hisses for a split second before going dead still, eyes hazy and low, and asking, “Is something wrong?”

The idea of something being wrong right now is so absurd that Nate just has to laugh. “No,” he breathes, pressing his forehead to Ceres’. “No, I just didn’t want to be done before we even did anything different.”

“Oh,” Ceres says, nodding–and then, when Nate rolls his hips once, slow and sinuous, he says: “Oh.”

“Yeah. Are you–can I touch you? Like, for real?”

Nate’s fingers hover just over the waistband of Ceres’ shorts. There’s a wet spot on the red fabric, standing out like a dark beacon, and Nate swallows down the urge to scoot down the bed until he can press his tongue against it.

“Yes,” Ceres says, nodding more emphatically this time. “Please, Nate.”

A laugh catches in Nate’s throat. “So polite,” he murmurs, unable to summon the presence of mind it would take to sound snarky, and tugs the waistband of Ceres’ shorts down.

That’s one question answered, Nate thinks, inappropriately amused, because the carpet does indeed match the metaphorical drapes. Ceres’ cock curves up, thick and eager, head glossy with precome, and then Nate stops thinking in favor of trying to remember how to speak.

“Um,” he says, “I,” and presses the tip of his finger just under the head of Ceres’ cock. He draws it downward, following veins under smooth skin, and then, rather unceremoniously, wraps his fingers around the base.

Ceres makes a sound that rings in Nate’s ears like the crashing of waves against rock faces and arches off the bed. He’s beautiful, a natural wonder here in Nate’s bed, and Nate strokes him slow just to make him do that again.

“Nate,” Ceres breathes, when he can, and gives Nate a look that’s mostly raw-bones lust with a touch of a suggestion to it. Nate, lost in the motion of Ceres’ body, blinks stupidly at him until Ceres says, “Can I touch you, too?”

It takes another moment for Nate to comprehend what Ceres is asking, but it only takes about half a second for Nate to sit up, unzip his own jeans, and–with only a single tight breath of hesitation–pull himself out. He feels exposed, yes, but the self-consciousness he’d sort of expected to feel isn’t really there; Ceres is looking at him with blatant appreciation, lashes low and lip caught between his teeth, and Nate doesn’t think he could feel less than lovely if he tried.

Managing a touch of attitude this time, Nate says, “I can do you one better, actually,” and takes them both in hand at once.

Nate’s no stranger to sex, but hell if this is like anything he’s ever done before. Ceres’ cock is silk-smooth and hot against Nate’s own, heavy and already slick, and all it takes is one up-and-down turn of his wrist to make Ceres hiss out a wind-in-grass breath and bare his teeth. Nate presses his forehead against Ceres’ again, feeling his pulse trip over itself and his breath come high and fast. He drags his thumb across the heads of their cocks, smearing precome down the length of his thumb, and pleasure rockets up his spine, fizzling out all the way to his fingertips. It’s so good–no, it’s too good, sensation building like a hurricane over the sea, and Nate doesn’t think he’s going to last much longer at all.

“I have no standard against which to measure this,” Ceres says when Nate tells him so, voice husky and staggered, “But I think I would agree with you.”

“Let’s see about that, then,” Nate says, and tightens the circle of his hand. He strokes them both once, quick and slick and so fucking good, and then twice and three times and once more and then he’s coming, his heartbeat a storm crashing in his ears, nerves alight like stars in a clear night sky.

For a few moments Nate is floating, spinning through space with his eyes closed, unsure if he’s upright or sideways or upside-down at all; and then exhaustion creeps up on him, slow and pleasant, sinking into his bones and making itself a home there. Nate slumps, boneless, unaware of just how much pent-up energy he put into that, and buries his head in the crook of Ceres’ shoulder.

“I can’t believe,” he mumbles, tasting sweat on his tongue, “that you did that to me with just a handjob. What the fuck.”

Beneath him, Ceres’ chest rises and falls like ocean tides. A laugh rumbles against the damp fabric of Nate’s t-shirt; and then, after a pause, Ceres asks: “What is a handjob?”

“Oh my God,” Nate swears, laughing. “You are the most ridiculous being I have ever met.”

“I believe you find it endearing,” Ceres tells him, matter-of-fact, as he wraps his arms around Nate’s waist and holds him close.

Nate snorts. “Don’t I know it,” he says, wry, and presses into Ceres’ neck the most genuine smile he’s ever felt.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang Wiki

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