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Meat Cute

by loveonthefarm

 

Detective Damian Jersey was on the move.

The Wednesday afternoon sun blared high overhead. Heat shimmered in the air. He’d left his partner behind, struck out on his own. The crush of bodies crowding the park was overwhelming, and voices—some chanting, some singing, some yelling—cluttered Jersey’s ears, but his goal, glimmering silver in the harsh light, was almost close enough to taste—and definitely close enough to smell.

The scent of cooked meat greeted Jersey as he joined the line for Meat Cute, one food truck out of the thirty or so that lined the borders of Crux Park, just a block away from the station, six days a week. Its logo, a pinkish-red and altogether too detailed depiction of a human heart pierced by both an arrow and a kitchen knife, winked charmingly in the sun. Months ago that logo had been so jarring that Jersey had almost walked away; now he studied it idly as the line moved. Macabre, sure, but that kind of thing was perfectly in keeping with the odd and casually gory aesthetics of New Revenon, and even more in keeping with the person Jersey was sure had designed it.

Right now that person looked less like a person and more like a whirlwind of sharp utensils and rich steam rattling around inside Meat Cute. Alarming, but proficient. Jersey tamped down a smile as he stepped up to the window.

“Hey, Dion,” Jersey said.

The whirlwind resolved itself into Dion del Monaco, who was tall, dark-eyed, and flashing Jersey a smile of the killer kind. Today he was dressed in a heather gray shirt with the phrase Meat Cute: Love at First Bite! spilling across the front in a font that was either very cute or sort of alarming. Sweat sparkled at his temples. His curling dark hair was held away from his face with bobby pins. The August heat was bad enough in open air; Jersey didn’t envy Dion being cooped up in a food truck like that, but he did admire how good Dion made the edge of heatstroke look.

“Jersey! I was wondering when you’d come through,” Dion said. He had a cleaver in his hand; it glimmered when he waved. The thought of how often Dion gestured like that in the truck’s close quarters with Marcus, Meat Cute’s co-owner, within arm’s reach made Jersey wince. “Lunch?”

“Always. You on your break yet?”

Dion snuck a look at Marcus, who gave Dion a disgruntled look and made a shooing motion at him. “That’s a yes. Let me take care of you first, though. What do you want?”

Jersey squinted up at the menu. He was a creature of habit, and Dion knew this; there were only ever three or four things Jersey chose, and given the weather, the look on Jersey’s face, and the time Jersey stopped by for lunch, Dion could generally guess what he wanted. “Uh,” Jersey said. “Brisket?”

“No,” Dion said brightly. He leaned out the window at such an alarming angle that Jersey reached out to steady him in reflex. In conspiratorial tones, Dion said, “You’re getting something off the new menu. Don’t say anything, and don’t tell Marcus.”

“Oh, wow. You really know how to make a guy feel special.”

Dion didn’t say anything, but he did wink, which was worse. “Give me five minutes,” he said, and ducked out of view.

Marcus, who was burly and rough-edged and had a stunningly delicate touch when it came to plating, gave Jersey a frowning nod. After seeing him at least three times a week since February, Jersey knew that was as smiling as Marcus would get. Jersey returned his nod and stepped out of line to wait.

Four minutes later the back door of the truck banged open, and out leapt Dion, bearing a hot dog in a paper basket. He handed it to Jersey.

“It’s called Best in Show,” Dion said proudly. “Caramelized onion, goat cheese… Don’t look at it like that! You’re gonna love it, I promise. Would I ever do you wrong?”

Jersey looked at Dion over the hot dog. “Would you?”

“Never.” Dion drew a solemn nondenominational three-finger gesture over his heart. “C’mon, let’s go sit. I think there’s some grass over there that hasn’t been cursed or covered in lettuce.”

They snagged a patch of soft ochre grass. Dion threw himself down on it, stretching underneath the summer sun. In the months they’d known each other Jersey had gotten used to how attracted to Dion he was, but sometimes it hit him like a sucker punch—like now, when Dion was all long legs and brassy smile and clever eyes, smacking Jersey’s leg, beckoning him down with slim olive fingers. Jersey sat too, and did his best to concentrate on his hot dog and not the lithe bend of Dion’s waist beneath sweat-sticky t-shirt. His best was pretty good, now, after all that practice.

Dion sat up to watch Jersey eat. He’d convinced Jersey to be test subject number one for the menu rehaul he was planning for the Full Moon Food Truck Festival, which was coming up next weekend. He didn’t ask—he never did—but Jersey swallowed and said, “You were right.”

“Didn’t do you wrong?”

“Not at all,” Jersey confirmed. “The, uh—what’s it called? Flavor—”

Delighted, Dion said, “Flavor profile?”

“Yeah, that. It’s good. Really interesting.”

Dion made a triumphant sound. He put his hand on Jersey’s knee. “You’ve come so far.”

Jersey laughed around a mouthful of hot dog. Dion was quiet beside him for a few moments. When Dion spoke, he said, “How long have we known each other?”

It had been a chill day in late February. The last snowfall of the winter season had been gray-brown and chunky and melting into gutters. Just after Valentine’s Day was early for food trucks to be out and about, which was what Jersey had been thinking when he’d given in to curiosity and detoured to the silver-and-red truck parked at the west end of the little park he walked through to get downtown for lunch during work. He’d gotten close enough that he had to crunch through the stubborn piles of ice and slush shuttled onto the curb where the truck was parked, and then Dion had bent a little to meet Jersey’s eyes through the open service window, smiled, and asked if he could talk to Jersey about whether it was illegal to charm ingredients in food. It had been, Jersey thought, a Thursday.

Jersey said, “I don’t know. Couple of months? Why?”

For a moment the look on Dion’s face was thoughtful and pointed—but it was washed out by playful irritation and a very convincing fake pout. “Jersey. Really? It’s August. Anyway, look. I was wondering if you’d do me a favor.”

Jersey liked Dion. Liked him a lot. That didn’t mean he wasn’t very much aware of the fact that Dion was a little odd. “Uh,” Jersey said, and turned to give Dion his full attention. “Hold on. What kind of favor?”

“Could you let me know if anyone’s seen anything strange happening around here recently? No big investigation, just shoot me a text if you come across anything weird.”

Jersey put down his hot dog. “What kind of weird? Like regular-street-chanting-weird or actual weird?”

Dion raised an eyebrow. “What do you consider ’actual weird’?”

The fact that werewolves and domestic dogs didn’t get along. The seeming lack of regulation on organs that ended up in apothecaries. Dion, and his knives, and the fact that he hung around Jersey so often, smiling the way he did. But this was New Revenon. After eleven years of living here the things that Jersey knew should be weird—the wealth of cults and the charmed drinks at creepy bars and the occasional wailing from beneath manhole covers—were no more than curiosities now.

“Never mind,” Jersey said. “What did you mean by weird?”

Dion shrugged. “I think someone was skulking around near the truck the other night as I was closing up. I’m sure it was just one of the vegans from the truck across the park trying to spook me again, but…I don’t know. I got a weird feeling about it. Not hex weird, but just…vaguely menacing weird.”

The vegan truck across the park was Selene’s Salads and Sundry, a compact and tidy little truck with a dizzying concentric spherical logo on the side. It reminded Jersey of an aphid: bright green and generally harmless. He’d never gone there—he wasn’t much for food that reminded him that he should really be exercising more while he ate it—but people generally gave it good reviews, aside from Dion. Part of Jersey thought Dion’s rivalry with the vegans had more to do with puns than with any genuine sort of vitriol: Dion prided himself on his cleverness, which extended to and was embodied by the wittiness of his menu items, but it was hard to deny that Peas Be Unto You was a great name for a salad. Jersey kept that part of him under wraps.

Dion’s lip was curling. Jersey bit back a laugh. “You’re serious?”

“Do I look like I’m serious?”

“Don’t ask me that,” Jersey told him. Dion shot him a withering look and knocked a bony knee against his leg. “Okay, I’m sorry. Look, I’m taking you seriously. See?” He made a passably straight face. “I’ll keep an eye out.”

Dion let Jersey dangle on that sharp look for a moment longer before turning away, sniffing, to put his nose in the air. “You’re gonna be sorry you laughed when I get in trouble.”

Someone creeping around a food truck was hardly a blip on Jersey’s adjusted strangeness radar. But Dion was right: Jersey would be sorry.

Jersey sobered. “Hey,” he said, and nudged Dion with his elbow. “I’m sorry. For real. Are you gonna be okay getting home tonight?”

“Oh, now you wanna be a gentleman,” Dion said loftily. Jersey frowned. Dion caught him at it out of the corner of his eye and softened. He turned a crooked sweet smile on Jersey and said, “Oh, you are being a gentleman. How sweet. Yes, I’ll be fine. I’ll even call you when I get home, if you like.”

“You don’t have to,” Jersey told him. “But you can if you want.”

“I will,” Dion decided. “Soothe your heart and all. Besides, I’m sure you’d just love to hear about my riveting meat truck escapades.”

This Jersey had gotten used to, too: The way Dion spoke, walking a flirty tightrope suspended above the murky waters of intent, always almost something but never really anything. It was a little comforting in that it never pushed Jersey to make a decision—but that meant he wondered, and wondered, and sometimes even hoped. It meant that things like the promise of a phone call made Jersey feel like he was reading Dion’s intent right and then made him all the more nervous for the possibility of it.

Jersey took a breath. “I would, actually,” he said, because it was true.

“I know you would,” Dion said, like he knew it was true, too. He gave Jersey a smile, nudged him, and said, “Now eat. It’s gonna get cold, and a cold hot dog is basically a crime. You’re committing a crime right now.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s true,” Jersey muttered, but picked his still-warm hot dog back up and began to eat. Satisfied, Dion leaned back on his elbows to complain how difficult it was to drag puns out of Marcus. They spent the rest of their joint breaks together, and when Jersey went back to the station, he did so with a smile.

It was dark when Jersey’s phone rang.

Weak light trickled in through the blinds of the window above Jersey’s headboard. His room was soft dark lavender with night and sleep. His laptop, which he’d settled down with to watch a movie in bed, was dead. For a moment he thought blearily that he’d just dozed off after an evening drink and that Dion was calling to tell Jersey he’d gotten home safe and sound, and his heart leapt—but when he squinted at his phone he found it was a few minutes shy of six a.m.

It was still Dion calling, though. Jersey frowned and took his phone with him as he rolled over to peek out the window into the deep blue of dusky predawn in the city. He couldn’t hear sirens or anything beyond the soft hush of cars starting up and whizzing by somewhere below him, but then again Dion lived somewhere in midtown in some chic apartment complex he’d name-dropped casually a few weeks ago. That didn’t mean anything, Jersey realized; Dion could be calling from anywhere. About anything. For any reason.

Jersey’s stomach went tight. Worry took him. He answered the call. “Dion?”

“Hey,” said Dion. He didn’t sound wounded, but there was a note of something thready and strained in his voice that Jersey had never heard from him before. “Hey. Did I wake you up?”

“It’s six in the morning. What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Dion laughed thinly. It was wrong—the sound, the tone, the breathiness, all of it. Dion always gave up laughter freely, but even if he didn’t Jersey would still remember what it sounded like: Joyful, raucous, surprisingly deep. Jersey sat upright, looking wide into the night.

“Dion—”

“I’m okay,” Dion interrupted. “I’m okay, but—something happened.”

Jersey found his shoes at the end of his bed. He jammed his feet bare into them and found a t-shirt. “Where are you? Are there cops there?”

“Yeah, they are. And, uh, you know that, uh, the butcher’s on Clockside?”

“You’re at a—do I wanna know?”

“You’ll find out where you get here?” Dion offered, sniffling.

Jersey snagged his badge and his keys from the kitchen counter. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said, and let himself out. “I’ll be there in ten, okay? Tell them you know me if anyone starts bugging you.”

“Okay,” Dion said. There was a pause where Jersey almost hung up—but just before he did, Dion murmured, “Thank you.”

His voice was soft. Jersey’s heart twisted. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”

Clockside Avenue was on the far west side of town, but Jersey knew which roads had speed traps and which ones had particularly tired cops, so he made it in just under nine minutes. When he pulled up at the address Dion had sent him he found a pack of squad cars gathered round Dinah’s Butchery and a roll’s worth of yellow caution tape stretched across the mouth of an alley lit up with pale angled flashlight teeth. The car lights were standard blue and red, but one car at the edge of the roundup threw sickly green shadows on the sidewalk.

Jersey flashed his badge at the cop at the tape and ducked under it. The first familiar face he found was homicide’s Lila Cuervo, who was standing near the tape, chewing on the plastic lid of a cup of coffee and eyeing the glistening mess at the end of the alley like she thought it was far too early to be dealing with something like this. Jersey couldn’t tell what had happened yet, but he wholeheartedly agreed.

He sidled up next to her, gave her a greeting, and tried not to look too shifty when he asked, “What’s occult crimes doing here?”

“Their job?” she replied, arching a brow. “What are you doing here?”

More officers were gathered further down the alley, organized into curious little clusters. Over the murmur of official voices and the hum of car engines, Jersey thought he could hear Dion’s voice. He rocked up on his toes, searching.

“Jersey.”

Jersey landed on his heels. “Uh. Detecting?”

Her expression was flat.

“Okay, fine. I’m not here officially. I just…I’m here for Dion. Del Monaco. He called me.” Jersey took a deep breath and asked, “He’s not your prime suspect, right?”

Cuervo hummed thoughtfully. “That your knife boy?”

Jersey shot her a look. “He’s not my ’knife boy.’ He’s not mine, either—who told you that?”

“I’ve gotten lunch with you there, remember? I got eyes. The knives…” Cuervo made a face. “Everyone knows about the knives. You should tell him to tone it down with the knives.”

“He works in a meat truck!” Jersey protested, but Cuervo waved him off and nodded down the alley.

“They’ve cleared him preliminarily, but they want him to stick around. Don’t go underground, don’t apply for cult refuge, et cetera. It would help if someone could vouch for him,” she added lightly, shrugging. “Don’t know who that would be, but…”

“I get it,” Jersey muttered. “Can I take him home?”

Cuervo gestured toward the back of the alley, and then stabbed her finger at Jersey. “Go, but keep your eyes to yourself. I don’t need you snatching up any of my cases this month.”

“I would never,” Jersey said, though they both knew it was an empty promise. He’d told Cuervo a hundred times that unraveling problems was just what his worrier brain did and that he couldn’t choose what he unpicked. Cuervo had told Jersey a hundred times to stop ruining her solve rate. They had a mutual understanding.

Jersey headed down the alley. A portable spotlight fixed its eyes on a twisted heap of skin and flesh and bone. It was a human heap, but beyond that there was nothing definitive. Usually occult crimes was called in at obvious signs of cult involvement: sigils, strange symbols, long rambling manifestos written in blood and finished in chalk when the blood ran out. This looked more like the gruesome overkill of werewolves.

When he was close enough to it to distinguish gut from bone, something caught Jersey’s eye. Seated neatly in rent red flesh was a knife with a series of circles swallowing each other on the handle, bloodspattered bone inlaid into gleaming silver hilt. It might have been a beautiful knife but for the blood and the eeriness and the fact that it did look like a knife Dion would own. Between that and the bad timing, it was no wonder Dion was being questioned. Jersey swore.

“Jersey?”

Jersey turned sharply. In the shadows outside the spotlight’s beam, half obscured by the broad shoulders of a detective, was Dion. His eyes were wide and tired; his face was pale; and though his arms were tucked around his middle, his left hand was going through motions Jersey recognized: the cavalier flip-and-flick of a butterfly knife in motion. Jersey knew Dion, and would say he knew Dion pretty damn well—but he’d never seen Dion look like this. It was unsettling.

The detective in front of Dion turned around. It was Cuervo’s partner, whose name Jersey could never quite remember. Matthew? Matthews? Something like that. Matthew saw Jersey, then saw Dion, then saw the space between them. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you’re poaching our case.”

Jersey held up his hands. “Nah, you can have this one.”

“Don’t tell me you’re poaching our witness.”

“That I am. Cuervo says he’s not a suspect. You need anything else from him or are we good?”

Matthew frowned. “Why are you taking him? We’ve got uniforms for that.”

“Because I’m taking him,” Jersey said. That was all Matthew needed to know—and, given the propensity of everyone around Jersey to gossip, more than Jersey probably should have said. “You gonna let him go or what?”

“Jesus,” Matthew muttered. He dragged a hand down his face, looked between Dion and the body, and then said, “Yeah, take him. You gave someone here your info, right?”

Dion nodded. Matthew blew out a put-upon breath and waved. “Okay, get outta here.”

Dion sagged gratefully. Jersey went to him, put a careful arm around his shoulders, and nudged him forward. “C’mon. You gonna be good to get to the car?”

“Will you carry me if I say no?” Dion asked. He gave Jersey a half-smile that made Jersey want to say yes.

“Fireman-style,” Jersey said instead. “It wouldn’t be fun.”

He earned himself a rasping sort-of laugh. “Sexy, in a very old-school kind of way. Easier than walking for sure.”

“You’re funny,” Jersey said. When they reached the mouth of the alley he fended off Cuervo’s interrogating look with a glare of his own, lifted the tape for Dion to duck under, and guided Dion to his car. Dion insisted on opening the door himself, but let Jersey shut it for him.

Jersey got in, too, and drove.

Jersey pulled up at Dion’s apartment at half past seven. He kept his foot on the brake and didn’t put the car in park. “Here you go,” he said, gesturing awkwardly at the building. “Home sweet home.”

Dion turned bright eyes on Jersey. Now that the sun was coming up Jersey could see that he was pale, his shoulders hunched in a way so foreign that for a moment Dion didn’t look like himself at all. Tenderness rang bell-clear in Jersey’s chest..

“Walk me up?” Dion asked.

Jersey walked Dion up.

On the eighth floor Dion fumbled his keys out of his pocket and got his door open. Jersey leaned against the doorframe and watched Dion turn on the living room light and step slowly out of his shoes. The place looked like Dion lived here—cluttered but homey, full of books with odd lettering and ornate dagger sheaths and a large plant that seemed like it would have teeth—but Dion moved through it tentatively, gingerly, like he was relearning the layout. He was probably still in shock, Jersey noted. Someone at the scene should have given Dion a blanket, should have made him answer honestly when they asked if he was okay. Jersey knew Dion could twist truth and had probably lied about how he was doing to go home, but Jersey could tell he was shaken.

Dion cracked open the freezer. He pulled out a bottle of something that he waved at Jsery. “I’m gonna make myself a drink,” he said, and took a glass out of a cabinet. He filled it, then took another out and filled that too. From across the apartment, Jersey met his eyes.

“Stay?” Dion asked.

Jersey stayed.

He toed his shoes off near the door and joined Dion in the kitchen. He watched Dion knock back a finger of what smelled like vodka, shook his head when Dion offered him some. Jersey wanted badly to hold Dion, soothe away the tired wildness that lurked at his edges. The softness of Dion barefoot and rumpled and the strangeness of the early hour weren’t helping; alcohol would only make the longing worse. Dion gave Jersey a long, searching look, but eventually drank the second glass, too.

“You should sleep,” Jersey murmured.

Diono grimaced. “Shower,” he said. “I keep smelling guts.”

“Gross,” Jersey said.

Dion wiggled his hand. He said, “I prefer my meat cooked, is all,” and headed into the bathroom. He paused, though, and stuck his head back out to tilt his head toward the door kitty-corner to the bathroom. “You can go to bed. I won’t be long.”

Jersey started toward the couch.

“Bed,” Dion repeated. He arched one dark brow, but his eyes were amused. “The soft rectangle with the pillows.”

Jersey’s stomach clenched so hard he thought he was going to be sick. He made himself take a deep breath. “You want me to sleep in your bed?”

“Jersey,” Dion said evenly, “I have just witnessed rather a lot of murder. Would you mind?”

God. “Sure,” Jersey said. “Okay, sure.”

He followed Dion’s firm gesture through the door and into Dion’s bedroom. It was cozy: square, walls a warm desert brown, full of floating shelving that held books and small plants and candles, dominated by a bed brimming with pillows and whose maroon covers were thoroughly rumpled.

Jersey sat down on the edge of the bed.

Dion’s bed.

Was this happening?

It couldn’t be, Jersey thought as he laid back. It couldn’t be, and yet he was scooting upward to fit himself into the corner of Dion’s bed and putting his head on Dion’s pillow.

This couldn’t be real, and yet.

Jersey closed his eyes. His traitor heart raced. He laid there smelling rosemary and sweet citrus hair product and made himself breathe evenly until he felt less desperately giddy. How many times had he imagined this, and just this, no more, no less: Lying in Dion’s bed and knowing what he looked like when he was dozing off?

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Hear the shower turn off. Breathe in, breathe out, in, out, oh, God, was this really happening?

“D—Jersey? Hey, are you asleep?”

Jersey cracked an eye. Silhouetted against the thin light flooding in from the bathroom was Dion, lean and glistening dark-and-gold. He was wearing boxers and scrunching at his hair with a towel. His legs were so long it was almost impractical.

Jersey swallowed hard. “No,” he said. “You feeling okay? Any better?”

Dion hummed and came over to the bed. “A little,” he said as he tossed the towel and laid down. Like this they were face to face, eye to eye. Jersey could see it when the smile on Dion’s cupid’s-bow mouth reached his dark eyes. “A little more.”

Jersey smiled, too. “Good. That’s good.”

“Mm.” Dion nodded. “Thanks for staying. And for taking me home. And for coming to get me. I’m sorry it was so early, I just…didn’t know who else to call.”

Dion tucked himself under the covers. He pulled them over Jersey, too, and as he did his feet slid against Jersey’s. It was a simple touch, but it lit a fire under Jersey’s skin, in his blood. For a moment Jersey wanted Dion so badly he almost couldn’t breathe—and then Dion smiled, all bright teeth, the front two a little bigger than the others, and said thank you again, and something purely tender, though no less warm, swept through Jersey like a tidal wave. Dion had thought of him, called him, invited him over to keep Dion company on what might have been—though Jersey couldn’t be sure—the worst morning of his life. He was looking for comfort; he didn’t need Jersey getting hot under the collar over something as simple as the soft pads of his feet sliding against Jersey’s.

Jersey took a deep breath. “You can always call me,” he said. It was stupid, and it was sappy, but when Dion’s smile went a little crooked Jersey knew it was true.

“I will,” Dion said. His eyelashes were fluttering; his voice dipped low, raspy with exhaustion. “Do you have work today?”

Jersey did. “I’ll call in sick for the morning,” he said. He had the hours; and if he felt like he was overstaying his welcome, he could grab a late breakfast and walk around. It would be a slow morning. Jersey didn’t mind those. “Go in in the afternoon. If you don’t mind having me.”

Dion laughed. It wasn’t quite his usual laugh, but it was close. Jersey would take it. “I asked you to stay, remember?”

He’d asked Jersey to stay after seeing the remnants of a particularly grisly murder up close and personal. Jersey couldn’t blame him. He couldn’t read into it, either: Dion didn’t need that kind of pressure.

As noncommittally as he could manage, Jersey said, “Yeah, I remember.”

“So stop asking,” Dion told him, and, like some string winding him tight had come undone, sank into his pillow. His hair fanned out around his head like a dark halo. Jersey curled his fingers into a fist to keep himself from brushing stray hair away from Dion’s forehead. “I’ll be fine in the morning,” he mumbled. “Just need sleep.”

“So sleep,” Jersey said. And, like it was simple as that, Dion did.

That night Jersey went to sleep with the soft lines of Dion’s slack mouth and graceful eyelashes and sharp nose burning into his memory, feeling not hot but rather sweet and warm, and he knew: He had it bad.

Jersey woke to an unfamiliar empty bed. For a bleary moment he thought he was dreaming, and for another he was only lost—but then memory of that morning surged up, blood and gore and Dion’s tired smiling face, and Jersey sat upright, heart pounding.

There was a Dion-shaped indentation in the sheets next to him. Jersey ran his fingers over it and found it warm; touched the pillow beside his and found it still damp. So that had happened, too. Not some yearning dream that Jersey had woken from bereft. A hundred butterflies broke chrysalis in his stomach.

Jersey hauled himself out of bed. The kitchen held the apartment’s only noise: shuffling sounds, quiet talking sounds, coffee sounds. Dion was braced against the counter, murmuring into his phone, stirring the dark contents of a French press with a knife. His long legs were bare beneath his blue striped boxers, but he’d put on a t-shirt. Jersey blamed his lingering disorientation for the guilty seconds he spent watching Dion, who was all long lines and broad shoulders and thoughtless grace, easy and handsome in the early morning.

“Sorry,” Dion said, a little louder, though he didn’t look sorry. “Yeah, I know. Don’t let them edge us out, alright? I’m never gonna live it down if we get run off by vegans—or that falafel place. I know they’re good, that’s the problem.” He went to a cabinet and took down two mugs. When he turned back he spotted Jersey, gave a slow curling smile, and held up a finger. “Yeah. I’ll come in tomorrow. Just slim down the menu for today. See you.”

He hung up and wiggled his phone at Jersey. “Sorry. I had to let Marcus know I wasn’t working today. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“You could have,” Jersey told him through a yawn. “I wouldn’t have minded. How are you feeling?”

Dion hummed. He took the knife out of the French press. It was a butterfly knife. Jersey was unsurprised. “I’m alright. Tired. Better, though, now. Coffee?”

Jersey went over to the kitchen counter and took the mug Dion pushed his way, murmuring his thanks. In return Dion gave him a smile that didn’t quite do what it was supposed to. His mouth had said ’alright,’ but this close Jersey could tell that his eyes did not.

Jersey frowned. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

“Talk about—”

“Don’t say ’talk about what.’”

Dion snorted. This time when he smiled it did touch his eyes, though it was wry. “Do we have to?”

Jersey wanted to say yes. Instead he said, “We don’t have to. I know you work with meat and New Revenon isn’t the most peaceful place, but…murder’s different.”

“Hardly,” Dion said, but deflated under Jersey’s look. He sighed. “I will. Just…it’s easier to act like it’s not a big deal, you know? I do see blood and meat all the time, I’ve been to farms, I know what happens, it’s just—you know. You saw it. Can we pretend we didn’t have this discussion? I’d love to just have coffee with you. We never do that.”

“Because I never see you this early,” Jersey said. He let the topic drop. Dion relaxed; Jersey let himself relax, too. “We also don’t usually do this.”

Dion raised an eyebrow. He didn’t say anything, which meant he was going to be difficult. Jersey scowled and gestured delicately with his mug. “This.”

Dion hid his mouth behind his mug, but his eyes were dancing. “Coffee…?”

Caught between affection and frustration, Jersey could only say, “This. I know you know what I mean. Quit playing.”

“We could have coffee more often, you know,” murmured Dion, who, it seemed, was committed to making Jersey’s life difficult both accidentally and by his own design.

His eyes were dark; his lashes had gone low. Did he mean coffee, or did he mean this morning, the sleeping together, the easy chatting as they stood barefoot in Dion’s kitchen? A look like that seemed like it should mean the latter, but Jersey thought Dion cuttingly beautiful even when he was sweaty and smelling heavily of fresh pork. He knew by now that his sense of what was seductive and what was not was, unfortunately, very much skewed.

Jersey erred on the side of caution. “We could if you ever woke up before ten.”

Dion gave Jersey three different looks at once. None of them were particularly sexy, but his voice was warm when he said, “We could. We could also keep having coffee now if you stay.”

Jersey’s head was still muddled from the hard knock of an extra three hours of sleep and a murder at daybreak. If he flirted back, he could blame it on that. He could blame confusion if he broke this beautiful tenuous thing between them.

He could. But he wouldn’t.

“I’ve got work.” Dion’s expression went put-out; wincing, Jersey added, “I wanna find out what happened this morning. Gotta go to work to do that.”

Dion gave him an absurd pout. “Fine. Get dinner with me, then? I’m still feeling traumatized.”

“You’re playing with a knife,” Jersey pointed out.

Dion was playing with a knife. He looked at his butterfly knife like he was surprised to see it, too. “I can’t be traumatized and play with knives?”

You can,” Jersey admitted, because if there was anyone who could pull off shaken and disaffected at the same time, it was Dion, “but most people don’t. Uh, actually, you might wanna lay off the knives for a while. Since you’re hanging out around cops and all.”

Dion made a dismayed face. “Am I?”

Jersey gestured wordlessly at himself. Dion heaved a dismissive breath and waved his knife. “You don’t count. You’re a detective.”

“Same thing.”

“You’re you,” Dion said breezily. “It’s different.”

A smile fought its way onto Jersey’s mouth. He did his best to bite it back. “Sure,” Jersey allowed. “And yes to dinner, if you were serious.”

“I’m always serious,” Dion said.

Jersey both believed that wholeheartedly and didn’t believe that at all. It was unbelievably charming. “Okay,” Jersey said. He chewed on his lip. If Dion caught him smiling he’d never take Jersey seriously again, and he barely did to begin with. That was what happened when your first impression of someone was watching them drool relish while trying to flirt with you, Jersey supposed. “Dinner. I’ll be free ’round five-thirty. What do you want?”

Dion tapped the flat of his blade against his jaw. “Whatever you’re making.”

Jersey blinked. “Me?”

“You,” Dion said. “You’re making dinner. We’ll have dinner at your house. That’s what I’m saying.”

Dion’s eyes were bright. So bright. If he kept smiling like that, clever and sly, Jersey’s heart was going to beat right out of his chest. “Okay,” Jersey said, “fine, invite yourself over, it’s cool. Whatever. I’ll swing by on my way home and get you, yeah?”

Dion lifted his mug to his mouth. Over the rim of it his eyes were dancing. “Sure thing.”

“Cool,” Jersey said. He let himself out—then stuck his head back in, pointed at Dion, who hadn’t moved, and said, “Hang out here today, alright? You’ve been in enough trouble for one day. The guys already think you’re kinda weird—the knives, you know? And I’m vouching for you. Don’t make me look bad.”

“Boring, but doable. I’ll be here until you come get me.” Dion kissed the knife in his hand and blew a kiss to Jersey off its edge. “I’ll see you tonight. It’s a date.”

“Wh—”

“Bye!” Dion chirped. He wiggled his fingers cheerily and dismissively. “Don’t be late.”

There was no arguing with him. Jersey knew that by now. Sometimes he didn’t appreciate it, but he did find it endearing. He left Dion with a smile and headed back down to his car, already sure he would be too busy thinking about tonight to do much else.

Jersey was right: He was too busy thinking about tonight to do much else. His partner Mina was more than happy to point that out.

“C’mon, Jers.” She leaned over his desk and gave him big pleading eyes. “Spill. We have a pact—and I haven’t dated anyone in weeks. I’m dying for drama.”

Jersey snapped himself out of it. “There’s no drama,” he said. “You know me. There’s never any drama.”

“Uh huh,” Mina said. “That’s why you showed up to a scene you weren’t called to, came in late this morning, and haven’t managed to drink any of your coffee at all even though you’re usually three cups deep within your first hour of work, right?”

Jersey shot her a look. Sipped his coffee, just to prove a point. It was cold. “Shit.”

“There’s a reason I made detective quicker than anyone else in here,” Mina said, grinning. “Like a dog with a bone.”

“It’s because you’re good. And because you make me poach my own cases. And you know that’s not supposed to be flattering, right?”

Mina waved him off. “Whatever. Just tell me. I’ll trade you.”

She was smirking. With Mina that was never a good expression. She really was like a dog with a bone: persistent, determined, and, somehow, all-too-clever.

“Trade me for what?”

“What you wanna know, obviously.” Mina wiggled her eyebrows. “I got Lila to give me a little somethin’-somethin’, and then I got her to tell me about her murder this morning.”

Jersey rolled his eyes. Mina rolled her eyes right back and added, “Just ’cause you wanna play the long romance game with your knife boy doesn’t mean we all have to do it.”

“Why do y’all keep calling him—”

“Anyway.”

“This is harassment,” Jersey muttered. “I hope you know that. I hope you get a seminar.”

Anyway,” Mina repeated. “Deal?”

Reluctantly, Jersey said, “Deal.”

“Ha!” Mina crowed. Jersey almost took it back, but Mina knew him better than to wait. “So word is that it was an occult-style killing. It was so messy they haven’t been able to figure out which sect’s behind it yet, but there were some pretty complex elements you probably wouldn’t be able to mimic if you weren’t in that sect—which knife boy isn’t. Is he?”

Cult membership was the thing du jour. Trendy, flashy, like social clubs that also dabbled in ritualistic magic practices. Dion was somehow both too strange and too normal to belong to a cult, though Jersey knew he’d been approached about it before. Jersey shook his head.

“Good. Kinda shapes up like a weird coincidence, which is why they let him go. That and they figured if he runs with you he probably isn’t brutally murdering people.”

Jersey gave Mina a flat look. “Because I’m boring?”

She laughed. “No. Well, yes, but no. It’s because you’re good people, Jersey. You don’t run with slashers.”

Good people. Was that sexy? Alluring? Was that the kind of thing Dion was into? After this morning—sleeping together, waking up together, the simple yet bewildering fact of their dinner date—Jersey wanted to think so, but.

But.

Mina waved a hand in front of his face. “Jers. You awake in there? Too much fun this morning?”

Jersey shook himself out of reverie. He snorted. “If by fun you mean seeing somebody’s insides on their outsides before dawn, then yeah, way too much fun. Can you let me know if you get anything else out of Lila?”

Mina’s eyebrows went up.

“You know good and well what I meant,” Jersey told her, pointing at her who-me expression. “You know.”

“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t,” Mina sing-songed. “You already owe me. Pay up first.”

Tit for tat. Mina had figured out that was the best way to get Jersey to open up back when they were first made partners. He was better for it, he knew; but boy did he regret it sometimes.

“His name,” Jersey sighed, “is not ’knife boy’. It’s Dion. I think you know that. Don’t say anything about this to anyone, but I slept over. In his bed. But we…we’re just friends. Is that drama?”

“It’s not drama, but y’all aren’t just friends.”

It would be so easy to agree, to say, you’re right, we’re not, and Jersey wanted to badly—but.

Again that but. There were so many of them. But Jersey was pushing thirty-five and Dion was only twenty-seven. But they’d only known each other for seven months. But Dion was sharp and vivacious, an experience in and of himself, unlike anyone or anything Jersey had ever known. But, but, but.

It was hard to fool himself, but harder to fool Mina. She’d met Dion, had seen them back when they first started hanging out in March and Jersey hadn’t yet learned how to keep himself from looking like an idiot whenever Dion winked at him. She’d heard more than she should have about how confusing Jersey found Dion, and had watched him stop being puzzled by Dion’s quirks and start to like them instead. She’d noticed how carefully Jersey handled the odd blossoming thing between him and Dion. She was a good detective and a good friend, and that had turned out to be an exasperating combination.

Jersey sighed. He went to say, I don’t know if that’s what he wants, but Mina cut him off with a raised finger and a sharp noise. She said, “I know what you’re gonna say. Ready? ’We’re just friends, and besides, I don’t know if he’d want anything like that with me, anyway’.”

Jersey shut his mouth. Grinning, Mina said, “Yeah, uh-huh. Usually I would let it go, but, like, look. I’ve seen you. I know you like him. And I know you don’t like a lot of things.”

“I think you think I’m boring,” Jersey told her.

“My opinion doesn’t matter,” Mina said, waving. “Yours matters. And knife boy’s matters. And I can’t speak for him, but I don’t think I’d call anyone I didn’t trust if I were being investigated for maybe slaughtering someone.”

“That just means we’re—”

“Friends, right. Friends who sleep in the same bed.”

“That’s not—”

Jersey,” Mina said. She said it in the tone she knew reminded Jersey of his sister, and which Jersey regretted ever pointing out to her, because she always used it to do things like this. “You know what? Fine. You can deny your feelings, and you can be alone forever, and you can make me lose the office betting pool, but—”

What?”

“—it won’t make you any happier just because it’s safe. Safe doesn’t mean happy.” She tapped his desk. Met his eyes. “You gotta risk it to get the biscuit.”

Jersey touched his temples. “Risk it to get the biscuit.”

“Yes!” Mina slammed her hand down on Jersey’s desk. A passing detective muttered, “Jesus, Morales,” and Mina turned on him. “Sandy! Is risk necessary to acquire the biscuit?”

Sanders gave her a look like she was growing a second head. To Jersey, he said, “Has she been spending too much time on that aleuromancy bullshit? That baking cult?”

Jersey gave Sanders that same look. “Baking cult?”

“Oh, yeah, they got cults for everything now. Bakers, pottery-makers—there’s even a cult made up of vegans now. Vegans. Would you believe it? I remember when cults used to make sense. Apocalyptic death god worship just isn’t in style anymore, I guess.”

Something scratched at the back of Jersey’s mind. “Wait, say that again?”

“No, answer my question first,” Mina insisted. She was a head shorter than Sanders, but he still shied away from her, wary in the eyes. “Biscuit. Risk.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Risk it to…oh. Risk it to get the biscuit?”

“Why do you all know what that means?” Jersey asked no one in particular.

“Don’t ask,” Sanders said sagely. “I gotta go do—stuff. Literally anything else. Can I go, Morales?”

Mina gave Sanders a regal wiggle of the fingers. “Get.”

Sanders got. Jersey sort of wished he could do the same. It was embarrassing to have his life aired out in front of his coworkers, but after two years of Mina’s open-air-laundry policy he was used to it—and he’d also come to accept that sometimes she knew what she was doing, even if she did it loudly. Now, he realized as he caught himself fraying at the tangled mess of thoughts dedicated to Dion, might be one of those sometimes. He wasn’t wrong—they were still just friends—but.

But things had changed, hadn’t they? Even if only a little.

“Lunch,” Jersey conceded.

Mina raised an eyebrow.

“Lunch,” he repeated, and did his best not to smile when she grinned. “I owe you.”

“Ha! I win.” She stuck her hand out for a high five. Grudgingly, Jersey obliged her. “That’s, what, twenty-three for me, two for you?”

“I’ve been right at least three times.”

“If you fudge your numbers.”

Jersey snorted. “Sure,” he said, and then, because his mama had taught him well, and because Mina was a good friend: “Thanks.”

“Aww, how sweet,” Mina said. “Now: Let’s go get lunch and figure out how to make sure knife boy isn’t a murderer.”

After a rousing lunch, which mostly involved Jersey trying not to choke on his food as Mina outlined increasingly improbable frame jobs, Jersey made himself stay at his desk until exactly five o’clock. He’d thought he would be able to stay longer, but Dion had texted him three times in the past hour—once to ask if Jersey wanted him to pick anything up from the store; once to let Jersey know that he’d determined that cabin fever was very much real; and once to ask if Jersey’s house had any sort of dress code, or if he could go for ’lounge chic’—and between worry that Dion would sneak out and get himself in trouble and genuine desire to see him again, Jersey couldn’t make himself clockwatch any longer. At three after he unfolded himself from his desk, fled Mina’s watchful eyes, and ducked out of the station.

Dion’s apartment was a twenty-minute drive from the station, but rush hour made it thirty. That was fine by Jersey; he needed the extra ten minutes to make himself relax, get his head somewhere close to level. He spent the first five glad to be out of work, the next fifteen working himself up until his chest was full of butterflies, and the last ten pretending nothing was happening at all. It was so effective that Jersey was a little surprised when he parked and found Dion’s building waiting for him instead of his own.

Jersey squinted up at Dion’s building. It glimmered brassily in the sunlight, almost intimidating. What did you do in situations like this? Call? Text? Go up and knock?

This, Jersey reflected, was why he hadn’t been on a decent date in ages. His nerves always got the better of him, and then he ended up sitting in his car, sweating in the air conditioning, wishing he’d never said yes or no or anything at all.

He wound up texting Dion in the end. I’m out front, he sent, and then, after a moment, added, come down whenever you’re ready.

Dion didn’t text back, but he did appear in Jersey’s side mirror after a minute or two, waving brightly. He slid easily into the passenger seat like he belonged there. He was wearing a flimsy white shirt and a pair of hunter green shorts that clung to his thighs in a way Jersey was sure he shouldn’t be noticing on a maybe-first-date.

“Hey,” Dion said. He was smiling so sweetly that for a moment Jersey wanted to lean over the sticky plastic divider between them and kiss him. He still wanted to in the moment after, too; he just wrangled it down until it didn’t ache so badly anymore. “How was work?”

“It was fine,” Jersey said, shrugging. “I did find out some stuff about—about this morning. If you’re okay talking about it. I know stuff like that can be really scary—”

“Oh, stop.” Dion waved him off. “Really. I got over it already. Yeah, it was a bad way to start my morning, but—”

“’A bad way to start your morning’? You saw a body before the damn sun came up, Dion. Worst than most I’ve seen!”

“I keep telling you I run a meat truck for a living. I work with raw meat, like, every day,” Dion pointed out, raising an eyebrow. Jersey still didn’t like the flimsiness of the logic, though it was inexplicably, insensibly sexy. “Blood and flesh don’t scare me.”

“There were insides,” Jersey insisted. “On the outside.”

Blasé, Dion said, “Some insides are meant to be outsides,” and laid slim fingers lightly against Jersey’s forearm. “You worry too much. Maybe I should make dinner.”

“You just saw a body. Like ten hours ago. I’m making dinner, and we’re not having meat.”

Dion gave up a disgruntled noise and slumped into his seat—gasped, twisting, and shoved his hand into his back pocket to pull out a switchblade that wasn’t fully closed. “Huh,” he said, looking at it; and then he looked at Jersey, who was looking back at him, and said, “Knives,” and that was it; and then Jersey was laughing, and Dion was laughing, too, and that sound crawled into Jersey’s chest and soothed his nerves and stayed there all the way home.

They had meat for dinner, which Jersey called self-flagellation and Dion called working through trauma. Dion worked as well in open air as he did in a food truck, though Jersey’s kitchen wasn’t too much bigger: It was like witnessing a magic trick to watch him procure spices and ingredients from various niches of Jersey’s kitchen and do things to them that Jersey, for all his mama’s teaching, never would have imagined. After a warm half-hour that Jersey spent nursing a drink and watching muscle shift in Dion’s arms and back, Dion presented Jersey with a plate of something that had a name Jersey couldn’t pronounce and smelled like heaven condensed down into an artfully plated jumble of noodles and sauce and the neatly sliced steak Jersey had bought on impulse on Wednesday.

The food was good, and so were the intimate little looks Dion gave Jersey as he ate, the way Dion got animated when Jersey asked him questions, the way Dion didn’t ask Jersey how the food tasted but went warmly pleased when Jersey told him, anyway.

They went for a walk afterward at Dion’s insistence. There was a park near Jersey’s apartment complex that bore the No Lunar Rituals in Non-Sanctioned Spaces without City Council Approval sign that always went up the week before the full moon. The moon was high, but years of nighttime work had trained Jersey to know its cycles, to know what was hanging on the cusp of magic and what was magic, and tonight was the former, heavy with potential crackling in the air, thick like water. There was magic everywhere—but there was a different kind of magic on earth, in Dion and the way he faked a howl to the moon when Jersey said something about werewolves and the way he cackled when a distant dog howled back. He was beautiful: smiling, light-footed, hair silver under the odd light of a heavy waxing moon. Deja vu glanced off Jersey’s brain.

He paused. Took in Dion, who was perched on the arm of a park bench, lined up like a gold-and-silver statue beneath the moon. Jersey couldn’t put a finger on what tickled him, but he knew it was the same thing that had been prickling at him at the station when Sanders had come through. It hit him hardest when he looked at the moondogs, their cool shimmer, the way they radiated out from the moon like huge thin halos.

“What are you looking at?” Dion asked.

What was he looking at? Realization scratched at the surface of Jersey’s conscious, on the point of breaking through—but he dropped his gaze from the moon to Dion, who was smiling at him, hair blowing in the soft August breeze, and that was it. That was everything. Jersey’s heart skipped a beat.

“You, now,” Jersey said, trying not to feel dumbstruck, failing miserably when Dion smiled.

Warmly, Dion murmured, “Good,” and hopped off the bench to join Jersey on the sidewalk. He nudged Jersey, said, “I hope you’re feeling the magic tonight,” and set them off down toward a fountain he swore would sing if you asked it nicely. Jersey went along with it, because he was definitely feeling some sort of magic, and let himself wonder how much money Mina was going to win in the office betting pool.

Mina asked Jersey how things were going the next day when he came back from lunch with Dion. He didn’t want to tell her he felt braver now, that things had changed, that he could flirt with Dion and not feel like he was holding some fragile glass sculpture with hands covered in butter. It was one of those things that seemed like it would curdle if Jersey said it out loud.

So he didn’t say it. He didn’t say it on Sunday, which was Dion’s off-day, when the two of them had dinner at a noisy dive bar and Dion leaned so close to talk that Jersey could feel the shape of every word Dion said. He didn’t say it on Monday, when Dion stretched out in an empty grassy spot in the park, barefoot and sweaty, and presented Jersey with a printout of Meat Cute’s new menu and a container of samples. He didn’t say it on Tuesday, when Jersey worked through lunch and spent the rest of the day texting Dion about how Dion had introduced Marcus to the new menu and promptly fled the truck for twenty minutes; or on Wednesday, when Dion was too busy to talk during lunch rush but wrote a note that Jersey spent two hours trying to decode on a napkin for him. He hadn’t said it yet Thursday, two days before the full moon, when Dion called him just after five and asked if Jersey had a minute to talk.

Jersey had just gotten home. He was sitting in front of the floor fan in the corner of his living room, letting the sweat that had soaked his shirt through cool, and scooted back to cut down on the noise. “Sure. What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing.” Dion’s voice had that distracted tone he got when he was playing—practicing he said, though for what Jersey didn’t want to know—with knives. “I’ll be busy Friday-Saturday with moonfest. And Sunday. Recovering. I wanted to see you before that.”

“What, like a memento? So I have something to remember you by?”

Dion laughed. “Something like that.”

“Come over,” Jersey said before he could think it through. “I…have wine?”

“All’s I need is you. The wine’s just a bonus. See you at six?”

Jersey made a sound that was meant to be a request for clarification but sounded more like the sound one made when choking on one’s own spit, which was because he was choking on his own spit.

“Six it is,” Dion said, and hung up.

Dion arrived on time and brought takeout to boot. “Thai,” he said, holding up a bag full of styrofoam boxes.

“Wine,” Jersey said, gesturing toward the double bottle on his kitchen counter.

Dion waltzed into Jersey’s apartment like he belonged there. “What kind?”

“Moscato?”

“Ooh,” Dion said ominously, shaking his head. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”

“You’re lucky I’m not making you drink beer,” Jersey told him, just to watch Dion make the most mortified face in his arsenal. Dion didn’t disappoint; he pantomimed a swoon, set down the takeout on Jersey’s coffee table, and went over to cradle the bottle of wine to his chest like a baby.

“You fiend,” Dion said. “Get me a plate before I leave with your wine.”

“You wouldn’t,” Jersey said, but found plates and silverware anyway. He took down actual wine glasses—two of the only four he owned, a housewarming gift from his sister—and brought those, too, to Dion’s purring delight.

They ate together. Jersey stole as many bits of food from Dion’s plate as he could without being jabbed with a fork, and Dion drank more than half of the wine, though he complained every time Jersey poured him more. By the time Jersey finished doing the dishes Dion was lounging on the couch, bare feet and bony ankles in the air, whining about the heat.

“It’s so hot,” Dion complained. He tugged at the collar of his t-shirt. It was a thin thing, the neckline already loose; his collarbones arched gracefully from beneath it. Sweat glimmered in the hollow of his throat. “Is your A/C not on?”

“I just turned it on,” Jersey said. The long line of Dion’s neck and sharpness of his jaw were so magnetic Jersey could feel it in his bones. He made himself turn away and go into the kitchen instead; shoved his head into the refrigerator, pressed his forehead to the dairy shelf, felt cold air chill the sweat forming on the back of his neck. It wasn’t just his apartment’s sluggish heat that had him running hot. Dion had something in his eyes and lips and hands that he wielded like a weapon. Having him in Jersey’s apartment felt like welcoming a blow to the head.

“I don’t think it’s working…”

“It’s just—shit.” Jersey’s voice was too-loud in the fridge; he grabbed two water bottles and went back into the living room. Dion was still lounging half over the arm of the sofa, precarious and delicate. If Jersey didn’t know better he’d say Dion was doing this—the dangling, the loveliness, the flush and the snatches of exposed skin and the way he looked at Jersey like he meant something—on purpose. “It’s just slow to get going. Here. This should help.”

Dion took a water bottle. He looked at it and said, elegantly, “Ugh.”

“Go sit in front of the fan, then! That couch is leather, anyway. It’ll stick to you.”

Dion looked at the box fan whirring gallantly in the corner of the living room. He looked at his water bottle. He looked at Jersey. “Nah,” he said, sitting up, “this’ll work better,” and pulled his shirt over his head.

“Oh,” said Jersey.

Part of Jersey’s brain that registered that Dion had raised an eyebrow at him, but the rest of his brain caught on skin and stalled. He knew he looked dumb, but Dion was looking at him, all dark eyes and piercing focus, sunlight filtering in and playing sweetly across his skin and all his vicious angles, and Jersey’s heart did something that felt painful and medically wrong but somehow made perfect sense.

I, Jersey thought, very slowly, am so fucked.

“Oh?” Dion repeated.

“Oh,” Jersey agreed. He cracked open his bottle of water and drank half of it. It didn’t help. “Uh, do you want something else? I have, like, juice, I think—”

“Jersey.” Dion unfurled himself from the couch like a leggy olive blossom. Jersey had to look up a little to meet Dion’s eyes; to watch his gaze go from unsettlingly intent to softer, more understanding; to watch the way his mouth moved when he said, “Damian.”

In the depths of Jersey’s chest hope blossomed so quick and so fervent that it hurt. It hurt to feel it. It hurt to tamp it down. It hurt to hear his given name held so tenderly in Dion’s mouth. It hurt all the way down to Jersey’s goddamn bones.

Jersey tried to swallow. Tried to speak. Couldn’t manage either. He made himself meet Dion’s eyes.

“Damian,” Dion said again. This time it was softer; this time he reached up between them, slow and testing—and, when Jersey didn’t move, laid his hand to Jersey’s cheek. His hand was soft; his palm was warm; his fingers were long and delicate and fit to the curve of Jersey’s cheek so perfectly that Jersey let himself lean into Dion’s touch, just this once.

A pause. Dion was worrying at his bottom lip, giving Jersey space to speak. Jersey knew he had to say something; and when he found his voice it was soft, raspy, but sure. “Why?”

Dion’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean ’why’? Why what?”

It was obvious. It had to be obvious. Even when he was confused Dion was beautiful, glorious and out of place in Jersey’s mess of an apartment like an orchid in a compost heap, and Jersey was—he was Jersey. That was it. That was all.

It was so obvious that Jersey couldn’t think of a good answer, and in his stunned silence and the tension of the moment Jersey realized Dion’s question had struck a long-since-frustrated nerve. Jersey jerked himself away.

“Why this? Why are you looking at me like that? Why are you—” he stalled, sputtered, cast about; landed on, “Why aren’t you wearing a damn shirt, Dion? I know you know good and well how air conditioning works! I put it on sixty-eight! This place is gonna be freezing in a minute!”

The part of Jersey that was still clinging to rationality knew that Dion should be frowning right about now. Scowling. Telling Jersey off for snapping at him over nothing. But Dion wasn’t frowning or scowling or telling Jersey off: He was smiling. It was slow, and it was crooked, but it was a smile nonetheless.

Jersey took a breath. Paused.

Dion was smiling. Why was he smiling?

“Okay,” Jersey said. Dion took a step forward; Jersey took one back, jabbing a finger at Dion, and said, “This? This smiling thing? Gotta stop. You—aren’t you pissed? Or something?”

Dion’s smile blossomed. He had great teeth. Jersey was seized briefly by the aching need to be bitten by them. God. “No.”

“Okay, so, so—so what? You think this is funny?”

“No.” But he was still smiling.

Jersey’s face went hot. It was like every word he said turned to gibberish as soon as it hit the air. He’d never felt so foolish in his life—and to feel so foolish now, with Dion in his face and shirtless and smiling, was a little like torture.

All he could say was, again: “Why?”

Dion took a step closer. Jersey made himself stay still. There was less than a foot between them, but Jersey still felt no closer to understanding than he had when they’d been across the room.

“Damian,” Dion said, and if any word had ever been a caress it was this, “I am in your house of my own free will. I’m half naked. I only brought my favorite knife. Do you need me to spell it out for you?”

Yes?”

Dion rolled his eyes like that was an unreasonable request. What the fuck, Jersey thought.

“I like you,” Dion said.

“What,” Jersey said.

“I like you,” Dion repeated. He made a soft-palmed gesture of goodwill. Jersey stared at his hands. “I can say it again if it helps. I like you, Damian. Romantically. You’re a detective; I know you’ve been picking up on this. And—I’m reading you right, right? You’re not” —he mimed a gesture like throwing a football— “…?”

“What?” Jersey said.

“Are you?”

“Am I what? Am I into—Jesus, Dion. No, I’m not whatever that is, probably.”

Dion’s expression relaxed. “Oh, great. I’d also like to fuck you, if you’re cool with that.”

Jersey’s head went blank.

Dion squinted at him. “Damian? If that’s too much I understand, but I thought I’d be ho—”

“No,” said Jersey, because if Dion kept talking his brain was going to explode; “no,” he said again, because Dion was rocking back like he was going to step away; “no,” because Dion’s brow furrowed hard when he did; then, “yes,” because, honestly, fuck it.

“Okay,” Dion said slowly, nodding. “I think. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jersey agreed.

“Okay,” Dion echoed. He stepped forward, and then stopped, cocking his head, to ask, “Can I kiss you? I just want to make sure. I don’t actually know what I just agreed to.”

“Neither do I,” Jersey said. He felt helpless under Dion’s gaze; the open affection in it made him weak and warm all over. “I—yeah. Yes. You can kiss me.”

Dion made a noise that was relief and clarity and want all at once. Jersey felt it in his belly, in the sudden hard throb of his pulse between his legs. He couldn’t make himself look away from Dion’s mouth or the way it curved beautifully when he smiled, said, “Thank God,” and closed the distance between them to kiss Jersey on the mouth.

As it turned out, Dion kissed the way he did most things: beautifully and overwhelmingly and with an intensity that was bewildering and charming all at once. There was a time that had existed before Dion had kissed Jersey, but now there was only this: the way Dion tasted and sounded and felt and smelled, which was all old cinnamon gum and soft kissing noises and smooth skin and sweat and was somehow the best thing that had happened to Jersey in years. There were Dion’s lips soft on Jersey’s, and there were Dion’s teeth testing and then bold on Jersey’s bottom lip, and there was Dion pressing his tongue into Jersey’s mouth to kiss him slow and hot and deep, and beyond that there was nothing. Jersey’s goddamn apartment could be burning down and it wouldn’t mean a thing.

A groan fought free of Jersey’s mouth and found its way into Dion’s. His nerves were alight everywhere they touched, and cried out everywhere they didn’t; he pressed himself against Dion, wound his arms around Dion’s neck. Without hesitation Dion’s hands settled firm on Jersey’s waist. He pulled Jersey closer until they were touching at chest and belly and knee; relief crested and broke over Jersey in huge heavy waves so heady Jersey had to pull back to breathe.

“God,” Dion said as soon as his mouth was free. He pressed his forehead against Jersey’s, nosed at his cheek, kissed hot at the corner of Jersey’s mouth and blazed a path to the crook of Jersey’s jaw. He nipped at Jersey’s ear, sighing lustily against the shell of it, and murmured, “I wanna suck you off. Can I?”

Jersey choked on air. “Jesus Christ.”

“Can I?”

There was no easy way to say that the idea of Dion’s mouth on him made Jersey so hot so quick it almost hurt. Instead, Jersey said, “Are you sure? Isn’t that kind of fast?”

Dion laughed. He kept laughing as he walked Jersey backward, still kissing at his jaw and ear and neck, and he was still laughing when he tipped Jersey backward onto his bed and nudged him up until there was room for Dion to get between his legs. Dion was very attractive, Jersey thought dumbly, but also kind of really fucking weird.

“Oh, Damian,” Dion said, like Jersey had just told some incredibly funny joke, “you’re funny,” undid Jersey’s zipper, pulled him out, and took him in his mouth. He fit his tongue to the underside of Jersey’s cock and hollowed his cheeks and sucked.

Pleasure struck Jersey like lightning: white-hot and fast and hard, overwhelming in its intensity. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be real. There was no way he was lying here, on his back, in his bed, with Dion’s pretty dark head between his legs.

“Dion,” Jersey said, “don’t you,” but cut himself off when Dion met his eyes, raised a brow, and swallowed until he was nosing at the dark curls at the base of Jersey’s cock. Jersey arched hard, pressing his hips back into the bed; Dion chased after him, humming low and amused, sending vibrations shivering sweetly up Jersey’s cock. Jersey tried again, because there was no way—no way—this could be real: “Dion, are you sure you wanna do this? With—me?”

Dion pulled off of him. There was a wet popping sound that Jersey had never before heard in real life but would probably stick in his memory forever after. A string of spit glistened between the head of Jersey’s cock and Dion’s mouth; it broke when Dion said, “I’ve been trying to tell you this for like, two weeks,” and punctuated it with a slow drag of his tongue up from the base of Jersey’s cock to the head.

“I,” Jersey began, but Dion interrupted, saying, “If you want me to stop so you don’t come, just tell me,” and all Jersey could think of was Dion’s clever devilish mouth and fierce teeth glossed sticky and gleaming with come and then he had to stick his hand in Dion’s face to keep Dion and his relentless tongue at bay while the singing wave of heat that had peaked in him ebbed.

“Jesus Christ,” Jersey said weakly. Dion looked up from under the heel of Jersey’s hand, which was slapped against his forehead. For a moment his mouth was slack; and then it curled into a dopey smile, which he leaned up to press against Jersey’s wrist. His lips were wet. Jersey’s heart rabbited.

“I can go slow. I don’t mind,” Dion told him, and kissed Jersey’s wrist twice again before moving back to Jersey’s cock. Jersey nodded; Dion sucked at him again, enthusiastic and wanting, tracing the delta of veins on the underside of Jersey’s cock with his tongue. He gripped the base of Jersey’s cock and worked him like that too, mouth and hand in perfect slow tandem. His eyelashes fell dark and thick against the crest of his cheekbones; his lips were full and lush and soft; when he tongued at the sweet spot under the head of Jersey’s cock pleasure snapped through Jersey so sickly sweet he almost couldn’t breathe.

A moan clawed its way out of Jersey’s mouth. It found its tenor twin in Dion’s throat; Dion pulled off—still stroking him, but breathing shallow, smiling—and rubbed his cheek against Jersey’s dick. It was a weird thing to make Jersey so hot his balls hurt, but it was happening anyway.

“I’ve been thinking about this for weeks,” Dion murmured, and that was it. Heat and pleasure chased each other up Jersey’s spine, devouring each other, devouring him, and just like that he came so hard that for a moment he almost couldn’t breathe.

Feeling ebbed slow. Sweet aftershocks rolled through him, made him tremble. When he felt steady enough to sit up Jersey blew out a long, slow breath and propped himself up on his elbows to see Dion with a stripe of come painted across his face.

“Oh, Jesus,” Jersey mumbled, mortified. “I’m sorry—”

Dion shook his head hard. “Don’t be,” he said, wiping his cheek clean. He did something that looked like he was wiping come on Jersey’s carpet. Jersey almost wanted to ask—but Dion was sitting between his legs, mouth pink and curved sweetly, and Jersey had his priorities.

“Come here,” Jersey urged, tugging at Dion. He came easy: long limbs, graceful movements, sitting astride Jersey’s hips like a champion jockey. His shorts rode up his thighs; there was a wet dark smear where his cock strained against the fabric. Olive-gold and flushed and lusty, Dion was so beautiful that for a moment Jersey didn’t know what to do with his hands. Here he was, ready and waiting for Jersey to touch him, a dream walking, and all Jersey could do was flutter his fingers along the curvature of Dion’s thighs and the lines of his belly and try to figure out where to start.

Dion made the decision for him: He came down to press himself flush against Jersey’s chest, nuzzling at Jersey’s neck. His cock was hard and hot against Jersey’s belly, and Jersey’s mouth went damn near dry with how badly he wanted Dion—all of him, everything, all at impossible once.

It was easier to be brave when Dion wasn’t staring at him. Jersey followed the muscle of Dion’s thigh up and up and up to the crook of his hip. Dion hummed when Jersey dipped his thumbs into it, but he groaned outright, hot and damp against Jersey’s neck, when Jersey reached back to palm his ass. Jersey pulled at him, rolled his hips up against Dion’s, found a rhythm that made Dion pant and stuck to it. It was just grinding, but it was perfect. So perfect that Jersey almost couldn’t believe it was happening. So perfect that against all instinct Jersey opened his mouth and said, “Dion.”

“Mm?” Dion said.

“I just—is this good for you?”

“Mhmm.”

Jersey blew out a curse. “I mean, like, with me? Specifically?”

“Mmn,” Dion said. It was a positive sort of sound, which gave Jersey some courage.

“I just—I never do this, you know? And I’m worried about fucking things up. With you.”

Dion lifted his face from where he’d been hiding it in the crook of Jersey’s neck. “Damian,” Dion breathed, “not to interrupt, I would love to talk about this with you, but could you touch me? Please?”

His voice was reedy. Patient, but wanting. He was ridiculous, and he was sweet, and Jersey rolled them over and tasted the delighted noise Dion made and found that sweet too. Jersey settled in between Dion’s legs to kiss him slow as he undid the zipper on Dion’s shorts.

“Wait,” Dion said, and wriggled out from under Jersey. He kicked off his shorts, and then it was just Dion, bare skin and sharp lines. For a brief jarring moment Jersey thought he was dreaming.

And then Dion pulled Jersey down and kissed him hard, and all Jersey could think about was Dion. Dion, guiding Jersey’s hand to his cock. Dion, arching under Jersey like a strung bow. Dion, breathing Jersey’s name as he came, shuddering, into Jersey’s hand.

Afterward, when they’d showered and when Dion had admitted to wiping Jersey’s come on his carpet but refused to apologize for it, Jersey let Dion pull him close and nose at his temple, which was not technically a kiss but which Jersey accepted as a kiss anyway.

“I’m glad you came over,” Jersey told him. A wellspring of emotion bubbled up in Jersey’s chest, tangled and mixed-up and sweet through and through. There were so many things that Jersey needed to say now and that he would need to say later, tomorrow, in the weeks ahead; but for now this would do.

“Oh?” Dion said in that tone of voice that meant he wasn’t searching for compliments but would gladly accept them. “Are you?”

Jersey rolled his eyes. Smiled, too. “Yes. I…I don’t know. I kind of never thought this would happen.”

“Oh, I did. I definitely did.”

Dion was grinning. Jersey didn’t have to see him to know that. He nipped at the hollow of Dion’s throat and felt Dion rumble at him for it.

“We’re gonna have to talk about this,” Jersey told him.

“I know,” Dion said. “Sleep, first.”

It was an easy enough request. Jersey closed his eyes and let the rhythm of Dion’s heartbeat pull him down— but not before in the dreamy space between wake and sleep he heard Dion say, “I’m glad, too.”

For the second time in nine days Jersey woke to a bed that smelled vaguely like Dion—but for the first time Dion was there, too, snoring quietly, drooling on Jersey’s hand. His long legs were sweat-sticky where they were tucked up against Jersey’s and his hair was feathering at improbable angles and he was much warmer than Jersey liked in bed, but Jersey couldn’t recall being more blindingly, achingly happy than he was at this exact moment.

Still, Jersey wiggled his arm around from under Dion’s head and flexed feeling back into his fingers. Dion made a scrunched-up face, yawned, and woke with a noise that was close enough to a snort that Jersey had to pretend to sneeze so Dion couldn’t see him laughing.

“Bless you,” Dion mumbled, blinking blearily. “What time is it?”

Jersey reached over him to poke at his phone on the dresser. “Just after seven,” he said. Dion groaned and shoved his face back into the pillow. “Yeah, I know, but if you want coffee—hot coffee—you gotta get up now.”

Dion rolled over enough to open one eye and look at Jersey. “Is that code for something?”

“It’s code for ’get up or you’re cabbing back home’,” Jersey said, and threw the covers off them both. “Get up, I’ll drop you off.”

“I changed my mind,” Dion muttered, curling up to hide his face. “You’re not as kind-hearted as I thought you were. Cruel, in fact.”

“I can be mean when I want to be,” Jersey said.

“Ha!” Dion said. “Ha. Oh, you’re cute.”

“’Ha’ yourself.”

“We could talk about it, but…” Dion shrugged. “We could also make out. I’m fine with that.”

They ended up making out. Jersey knew a diversion tactic when he saw one, but he liked this one, and was happy to let Dion press him into his bed and kiss him until his second alarm went off and he had to get up for real. This time Dion obliged, and as they collected their clothes and picked at leftover Thai Jersey thought that for once, maybe, something was normal in New Revenon.

Because it was Dion, and because lately nothing in life was turning out quite the way Jersey though it would, Jersey was only a little surprised when Dion came into the station just after four-thirty. What Jersey was surprised to see, though, was that he came in with a uniformed escort. It was an officer Jersey didn’t recognize, which applied to an unfortunate number of his coworkers. He called it focusing on the job, but Mina called it Jesus Jersey you’ve got a beautiful brain but use some of it for people skills would you?, which Jersey was finding he really should have taken to heart sooner.

Dion was leaning against the wall on the far side of the station between a grimy water cooler and the bathroom door, looking lanky and louche and altogether too lively to be here. As Jersey watched, Dion executed a perfectly insolent toss of his dark head, flashed his teeth at the officer he was talking to, and said something that seemed polite when it left Dion’s mouth but sour when it met the officer’s ears. Typical Dion, Jersey thought, fond and worried and annoyed all at once, and slid out of his desk to go meet him.

The officer who’d been talking to Dion intercepted Jersey on his way over.

“Hey,” said the officer, whose last name might have been Bradley. “Jersey, right? My partner called Cuervo after she took this guy’s info down. He just fought off a mugger, but Cuervo’s got his number as a murder witness from last week.”

Jersey’s heart twisted. “He got mugged?”

“Yeah,” maybe-Bradley said. He was watching Jersey hawkishly. “Paramedics checked him out at the scene and said he’s fine to go, and we got his account down, so he’s good to go on our end. He said it was more like the guy just wanted to cause trouble than rob him. Seems like he’s getting into a lot of trouble lately though, no?”

It took a moment for the angle of his tone to cut through Jersey’s instinctive rising panic. The analytic part of Jersey took it from there. It informed him that it was odd that Dion had gotten into bad situations twice within one week and odder still that he’d come out unscathed both times, and then did him the favor of pointing out that these coincidences tickled the same part of his brain that had been tickling on and off since Dion had called him that Thursday morning last week. It did not, however, put two and two together, which Jersey decided he would table until he could get Dion out of the station without souring interdepartmental relations.

Dion was getting into trouble. That Jersey couldn’t deny, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t take issue with maybe-Bradley’s tone. Coolly, Jersey said, “I’m assuming he’s not in trouble now, since you brought him here. Unless there’s something you wanna share?”

Maybe-Bradley held Jersey’s gaze for a moment longer before he gave in. “Cuervo told me to bring him back to the station. Said you’d take care of him from here. I gotta say I don’t envy you. He’s got a mouth on him.”

Dion was insufferable when he wanted to be. Jersey’d seen Dion pick fights with competing vendors; he knew Dion could bite. It was annoying, but he couldn’t fault maybe-Bradley when Dion, just a few feet away, was making such a sharp face.

“I got it,” Jersey said instead. “Thanks.”

“Don’t give me that look,” Dion said as soon as Jersey came over. This was his second brush with violence in two weeks, but he held none of the pale shakiness he had the first time around: This time he was just wild-eyed and sharp, gesturing in a way that looked like knife swipes but melted into nebulous soft movements when Jersey got close enough. “Like I just got mugged in an alleyway or something.”

Jersey wanted to shout. He wanted to scold. He wanted to stick Dion with a police escort for a month. But Dion caught Jersey up with one of those nebulous gestures, wrapped a long arm around his waist and tugged him close and nosed at Jersey’s temple, sighing, and then all Jersey wanted to do was be held, as infuriating as it was. For a moment—and only for a moment, because Dion would take miles—Jersey let himself lean into Dion’s touch, shuddering under the heat of Dion’s breath on his ear.

“That’s better,” Dion murmured warmly.

It was better, but it wasn’t helpful, not really. Jersey pushed at Dion’s chest and gained enough space that he could look Dion in the eye and say, “You did just get mugged in an alleyway. I am gonna look at you exactly like that, ’cause it just happened.”

Plaintively, Dion said, “Damian. Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously! You got mugged, Dion. A week after finding a dead body. Is that not serious?”

“It is serious.” Dion frowned. “If it weren’t serious I wouldn’t have taken a souvenir.”

“You—oh, god damn it, Dion, a souvenir?”

Dion blew out a breath and rolled his eyes skyward. “I mean, well, yeah. It was a cool knife. I had to. You know how it is.”

“I don’t,” Jersey told him. “I definitely don’t. You took a knife?”

“Is that—”

“Nope, that’s not surprising, before you ask. What did it look like?”

With what looked like some effort, Dion took back his hands. “There was something on it,” he said. He held up one big long-fingered hand, made a fist, and then drew a circle around it. He made a circle around that circle, and then another circle around that, and then wiggled his fingers in a circle around that. A series of rings, radiating outward. Something in Jersey’s head began to click like bones verging on popping. It tickled and it scratched and it pitched and it almost, almost made sense. Jersey stared at Dion’s fist.

Dion tried to put his hands around Jersey’s waist again, but Jersey shook his head, caught Dion by the wrist, and made him make a fist again. “Do that again.”

Sighing, Dion obliged. He obliged again, and again, and, the fourth time, said, “Come on, Damian. What’s this for?”

“I’ve seen this before,” Jersey said slowly. “That…that was on the knife that was at that murder last week. Engraved into the handle. Was it—who took that knife from you? Someone bagged it, right?”

Dion mumbled something.

Jersey looked at him.

Dion mumbled something else.

Jersey looked at him harder.

“Okay, okay, fine,” Dion said, and pulled the knife out of his pocket.

“Jesus Christ,” said Jersey. He wasn’t surprised, which he thought was probably worse than Dion still having the knife at all. “Give me that—wait, no, stop touching it. Don’t drop it, just—hold it. Like a normal person.” Dion changed his grip from careless to threatening. “No, not like that—just—palm up, Dion. Palm up.”

Dion balanced the knife in his palm. It gleamed grimily in the station’s overhead lights. On its hilt was the same series of circles around circles that Dion had just mimed out and that was on a knife that looked just like this one and was probably locked up somewhere in evidence. That scratched most of Jersey’s mental itch, but there was still something poking at him, insisting on being known. He could figure it out, he knew, if he got his head on straight and thought about it—but that wasn’t going to happen with Dion anywhere near him. Jersey found that both endearing and irritating in equal measure.

“I can’t—no, I can. Never mind. Hey, uh, Greenstreet?” Jersey flagged down a passing uniform. “Can you bring me one of the officers that responded to his mugging? I have something that needs to be bagged.”

The officer jogged off. Jersey turned back to Dion, leaning back enough to cross his arms over his chest. “You’re already too wound up in this to be playing games with evidence. You’re going to get in trouble. You know that, right?”

“Okay, I know you want to lecture me, but get this: What if we go home instead?”

“Oh my God,” Jersey said. “You are not taking this seriously at all.”

“Nope. Do I have to?” Dion asked the officer who approached him with a plastic baggie.

The officer gave Jersey a look. Jersey gave Dion a look. Dion rolled his eyes, said, “Fine,” and tipped the knife carelessly into the bag. The officer jumped, but caught it. This time the look he gave Dion was scathing.

Jersey could practically hear Mina saying knife boy in his head. “Sorry about that,” he said, “and thanks. Make sure Cuervo and Matthew see that, will you?”

“Gotcha,” the officer muttered, and hurried off, looking warily at the baggie and the knife inside.

“Now that you’ve ruined my fun,” Dion murmured, leaning down to nose at Jersey’s ear again, “can we go home? I gotta wake up at an unholy hour to go help set up for moonfest and Marcus is gonna flay and fillet me if I’m late.”

Home, he’d said. Easy, like it was natural. Like it already felt right to him to be going back to Jersey’s at the end of the night. Some part of Jersey thought he should balk; the rest of him found, curiously, that he couldn’t at all. Maybe that was what happened when you liked the people you dated. Maybe that was what happened when things were right.

Jersey shook himself out of reverie. “You’re getting up at four?”

“Five. An unholy hour, not the unholy hour,” Dion corrected. He hip-checked Jersey gently, nodding toward the door. “Which means we should really be making the most of our time right now.”

“You are unbelievable,” Jersey said, but let Dion sweep him out of the station anyway.

They got to Jersey’s place a little past six. Dion showered and changed into one of Jersey’s spare shirts, which, because he was tall and broad-shouldered and maddeningly, strangely perfect, did not fit him quite right, but clung to him as desperately as Jersey wanted to. Jersey didn’t have to wait long to do that: Dion tumbled him into bed shortly thereafter, pressing wet-mouthed kisses into Jersey’s neck.

This, somehow, was natural too: laying there with Dion pressed against his chest and kissing him slow and deep and lazy, fitting his hand to Dion’s jaw and letting Dion do the same in return. It was so easy that Jersey didn’t need to think about it—so of course he did.

“Dion,” Jersey mumbled, “hey, can we—can we talk?”

Dion blew out a hot breath against Jersey’s jaw. “With our hands?”

The easy answer was yes, but Jersey said, “No,” and wriggled away enough to lay on his side and see Dion’s face—flushed and smiling—in full. “With our faces. About us.”

“Are you breaking up with me?”

“God, no. I—wait. Wait, wait. Are we—?”

“If you say ’are we dating’ I am going to laugh at you. I’m just letting you know that now,” Dion told him. His mouth was already curling into that lovely crooked shape Jersey knew was the beginning of a laugh, though. There was no point in trying to avoid it.

“Are we dating,” Jersey muttered, looking up at the ceiling. As promised, Dion laughed. Jersey grumbled, “If you’re already laughing, I don’t know if I want to have the rest of this conversation.”

Not without effort, Dion made himself quiet. He made serious eyes at Jersey and flattened his smile into something less amused. “Whatever you can say can’t possibly be that embarrassing.”

Jersey was sure it could. He took a deep breath—and then another one for good measure—and made himself say, “I’ve, uh. Been interested in you for a while. A couple months, at least. I know that’s kind of weird, sorry.”

Dion kissed his teeth. “Oh, you were right, that is embarrassing.”

Jersey flushed. “Sorry—”

“It’s embarrassing,” Dion interrupted, “that you thought I didn’t know. Cute, but embarrassing.”

His eyes were bright. Jersey tried not to duck his head. “Thanks,” he said, “for that. Thanks.”

“Oh, come on, Damian. I don’t know how you could’ve thought I didn’t know. I just figured you were biding your time. It would have been very gentlemanly, which would have been very you.”

“I think that’s code for ’boring’,” Jersey said.

“It means you’re very sweet, and very kind, and very thoughtful, but if you’d thought a little less a few months ago we could have been doing this a lot longer.”

Jersey’s stomach did something complicated. “This?”

Dion gave him a long, obscure look. “You really don’t get it,” he said, shaking his head as best he could with it settled on a pillow. He reached out and laid his fingers against Jersey’s face, stroking the height of Jersey’s cheek. “But I like that about you. You make playing dumb kind of cute.”

“Hey—”

“This,” said Dion, and brought Jersey’s brown hand to his mouth and kissed the knuckles. It was a chaste thing, but it went hot and heady when Dion’s mouth turned wicked. “But also this.” He reached between them and stroked his long fingers up Jersey’s cock from base to tip. It was a breath of a touch, but Jersey pressed into it anyway, electric with want. “You get my drift?”

Dion cupped Jersey then, firm. His hands were soft and clever. Jersey rocked against him. It took almost nothing to get Jersey’s breath to shudder up out of his chest, to make Dion’s eyes go low and hot with intent.

“I think so,” Jersey breathed.

Dion squeezed. Jersey gave up a moan. “Do you know what I mean? Actually?”

“Does it mean you’re gonna jerk me off?”

“It means,” said Dion, slowing his hand, “that I’ve had my eye on you for a while, too. And that I’m serious about whatever this is. I showed you my new menu, remember?”

A smile spilled across Jersey’s lips. He felt like pure sunshine on the inside. What a simple thing to make him feel so bright. “You did,” he said.

“And I’ve cut down on the knives. I keep the butterfly on me because, like, you know, good common sense; but the other ones are at home.”

Dion looked a little sour about it, but brightened considerably when Jersey admitted, “That’s weirdly touching, actually.”

“Yeah,” Dion said. He’d stilled his hand, but he started stroking Jersey again, angling his wrist to grip Jersey properly. Jersey’s eyes fell shut; he wrapped himself up in the warmth of Dion’s soft hand and the sound of Dion’s voice and the pleasure zipping up his spine in hot sweet streaks. “You get these little wrinkles when the knives happen. Don’t get me wrong, you’d still be very handsome, but I think getting wrinkles early would give you a complex.”

He was laughing. Jersey opened his eyes and snapped Dion as hard a look as he could manage, which only made Dion laugh harder. “You’re a real piece of work, del Monaco,” said Jersey, who knew a losing battle when he saw one. And if ever there was one, it was trying to be mad at Dion when he was smiling.

“You like a challenge, though, right?” Dion teased. “You must, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“I like you,” Jersey said. To say it aloud and know it was true was an impossible lightness. Jersey could say it a hundred times and never tire of it. “That’s why I’m here.”

For a moment Dion was speechless—and then his expression went achingly soft and a little silly, warm-eyed and affectionate. “Oh, Damian,” Dion crooned, collecting Jersey into his arms, “how romantic.”

“Oh, God,” Jersey muttered. Dion had crushed Jersey’s head against his collarbone. Hopefully that would keep him from feeling the smile Jersey was leaving there.

“Don’t say it like that,” Dion told the top of Jersey’s head. “Now: Do you want me to jerk you off or what?”

There were a million different things Jersey wanted from Dion. He couldn’t list all of them, but he could definitely think of a place to start. “Or what,” he said, to Dion’s noisy delight, and then wriggled up to kiss him quiet.

That night, after Dion had fallen asleep, Jersey dimmed the brightness on his laptop and sat awake, reading. He meandered down the usual news site branch-offs—BuzzFeed, cooking websites, daily horoscopes—for a good hour or so, bored and aimlessly searching. Around one-thirty he started to think he was just having a hard time turning his brain off, but then something caught his eye. On the side of the newspaper’s jaunty advice column, which was run by either a staunch believer in karma or someone who just really liked getting people hexed by proxy, were a series of offsite links.

How to Make It Official. How to Get Your Man. Determine Your Best Sex Positions—And Sign Compatibility!—Using A Lunar Calendar. Jersey opened all three in different tabs.

How to Get Your Man was a Cosmo listicle that looked like it had been written by a particularly lovely siren who’d gotten their hands on a laptop. Play up your charm points, establish interest early on, be honest—Jersey closed out of it, snorting. If courtship were that easy he’d have been able to be honest with Dion months ago. How to Make It Official wasn’t much better, either: It wanted Jersey to do things like talking and being open and not fearing judgment, which seemed ridiculous and frightening. He didn’t doubt that he could have that conversation with Dion, but that didn’t mean he wanted to. And besides, they’d established earlier that they were together. Sort of. Hadn’t they?

Jersey looked at the top of Dion’s head, which was the only bit of him that was visible beneath the covers. He was snoring softly. He had to be up early, and would need all the energy he could get; Jersey could ask him in the morning.

The article about lunar calendars was so full of pictures it took the browser a minute to load them all. There were diagrams of abstract lewd illustrations and and a quick explanation of sign compatibility near the top. Below them was an illustrated lunar calendar from which the full moon gleamed at him in all its pixelated glory. While many cults plan their rituals around lunar cycles, we think we’ve got a sexier alternative to the blood and guts that usually mark the full moon (no offense to our vampy readers—whatever floats your boat is cool, too)., read the caption just below that moon.

The bubble of understanding that had been swelling in Jersey’s mind for a week popped. Clarity dawned like sunlight breaking through clouds. Wide awake and mind racing, Jersey adjusted his glasses and settled in to read.

Dion’s phone went off at five. The sheets stirred; Dion groaned, long and grudging, and kept groaning until Jersey took his phone and dropped it into the sheets near his head. Dion stuck his head out from under the covers and pawed for the phone. His hair was a glossy mess; his left cheek had pillow marks stamped into it. Jersey couldn’t help but smile.

After a long fumbling moment Dion managed to turn his alarm off. In the silence that followed, he rolled onto his side, blinking himself into something that looked like coherent consciousness, and squinted up at Jersey’s face. “Ooh. Glasses. Sexy,” Dion murmured. “What are you doing up this early? I thought you didn’t work today.”

Jersey sighed. “Not early. Late. I haven’t slept yet. I think I figured out that butcher shop murder.”

“That sounds like work.” Dion stole one of Jersey’s hands away from the keyboard and kissed his knuckles. His other hand danced featherlight circles on Jersey’s hip, fingers dipping every so often beneath the waistband of Jersey’s sweats to stroke the skin there. “Work is not sexy.”

Already Jersey was twitching. Dion’s gaze slid hot and heavy up Jersey’s body, so wanting it almost felt like touch. It took Jersey two tries to swallow, and still he tripped over his words when he said, “So what’s—what’s up with this, then?”

“You’re sexy. Big difference,” Dion said easily, and took Jersey’s finger in his mouth. His tongue was so soft Jersey could barely think. Dion must have been able to tell, because he let go, fit himself between Jersey’s legs, hooked his arms under Jersey’s knees, and pulled hard. Jersey slid down flat; his laptop pitched toward the floor. He scrambled for it, but Dion caught it and set it down on the ground.

“I was using that,” Jersey pointed out. He was too hard for that to be a real complaint. They both knew it, but some part of Jersey wanted to save face. “To solve a murder. Does that not matter?”

With Jersey’s legs snug around his waist, Dion looked like the cat who’d caught the canary. Every part of Jersey thrilled at the intent in Dion’s eyes. “Nope,” Dion said, and leaned down to kiss at Jersey’s throat. “Work isn’t sexy. Unless I’m literally being murdered right now, it doesn’t matter—and oh, look. I’m not being murdered. Huh.”

“Your blatant disregard for the justice system isn’t sexy either,” Jersey lied.

Dion laughed into the crook of his neck. “Give me twenty minutes and I’ll convince you to pursue a life of crime,” he said, and Jersey gladly obliged.

When they were done, Dion plucked Jersey’s laptop off the floor, gave it to him, and gathered Jersey into his arms. He was sweaty, but upright; Jersey leaned against his chest, let Dion kiss the bruising bite mark he’d left in the soft join of Jersey’s neck and shoulder.

“So,” Dion murmured, stroking idly at Jersey’s ribs, “murder.”

“Murder,” Jersey agreed. He unlocked his laptop. Cosmo’s article on lunar calendars and sex positions glowed cheerily at them. Dion made an amused noise into Jersey’s skin; Jersey tamped down the urge to slam his laptop shut and dismiss this theory entirely, gestured at the article, and said, “Lunar calendars.”

“I see,” Dion said. He put his chin on Jersey’s shoulders. “Mm. Are you a Capricorn? That looks kinky.”

“No—”

“Aries?”

Dion—I’m a Sagittarius. And I’m not doing that with you right now. I would have to stretch first.”

This time the noise Dion made was interested and rumbling. It was entirely too easy for Jersey to pique Dion’s interest—and entirely too easy for Dion to pique Jersey’s in turn. Jersey was going to have to grow some sort of steelier backbone if he was going to get anything done with Dion around.

Not without effort, Jersey said, “Later. Pay attention. The full moon is tomorrow night, right?”

“Moonfest is tomorrow night, so I’m assuming so. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“The city’s been tightening up on lunar ritual restrictions lately—bad for tourism, hard to keep tabs on, harder to patrol. A couple of them recently have gotten messy because of cult turf wars. I’m not occult crimes, but the gist of it is that the lunar acolytes are convinced they have a right to pretty much any ritual-conducive place in town on the full moon because, you know. Lunar acolytes. God—Goddess?—moon-given right, whatever.”

“Oh, I think I heard about that, actually. Something happened a couple months back with that werewolf pack, right?”

“Right!” Jersey switched tabs to the city council’s website. On their activities page was an all-too-cutesy calendar labeled with New Revenon’s official sanctioned events and holidays—and on the night of the full moon, for as many months as Jersey could possibly scroll forward, was the little brown pawprint that meant that all public spaces were to be cleared for werewolf use only. “So the city gave the go-ahead for the werewolves to use any available public space—that’s why all those fences were going up in May. Naturally, it’s hard for the lunar acolytes to compete.

“And if one of the festival’s best-selling trucks—”

“Aww—”

“—is in hot water, it’s gonna make the city look bad for endorsing the festival—especially in such a dangerous atmosphere. So they get you in trouble, they get the park closed down, they get to use it for lunar ritual as a run-off site.” Jersey snapped his laptop shut. “Bet money they’ve already called the city council to register their concerns and ask for the park to be shut down tomorrow night.”

“Okay,” Dion said. “I’m following. But why me?”

Jersey switched tabs again and pointed at the website’s header.

Behind him, Dion went stiff. Very slowly and very coolly he said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“You’re gonna be mad,” Jersey said.

“I’m already mad.” Arms crossed, Cuervo walked Jersey back into a particularly grungy corner of the station to glare at him. Already several pairs of eyes were on them. The air was thick with the particular kind of tension that Cuervo brewed like a storm cloud when she knew she was going to hear something she didn’t like. “I know that look, Damian Jersey. Don’t say what I think you’re going to say.”

Wincing, Jersey said, “I think I figured out your murder.”

Cuervo bit out a curse and threw her hands up. “Again?” she snapped.

“Sorry?”

“He did it again,” she called across the office. At least four different heads popped up to look at her. One of them was her partner Matthew, who slammed his hand down on his desk and said, “Damn it, Jersey!”

“Sorry,” Jersey said, though he felt distinctly unapologetic. It was only the third time he’d solved someone else’s case this month, and the first time he’d done it to Cuervo in a couple of weeks. “I’ll trade you one of my interesting ones or something. It’s not like I meant to.”

“You know, that is always the worst part,” Cuervo said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Okay, just rip off the band-aid. What’s your theory?”

Jersey told her. He told her about the lunar acolyte vegan cult. He told her about the vegan truck’s moon logo and the matching engraving on the knife at the butcher shop alley murder and Dion’s souvenir. He told her about the city council’s lunar ritual permits. He even told her, sort of, about the rivalry they held with Dion, hoping against hope that she would just raise her eyebrows and let that go.

She didn’t. “Morales! You win this one,” Cuervo hollered across the office. Several groans went up, all drowned out by Mina’s answering whoop. Cuervo turned back to Jersey, and, lower, said, “That’s what you get for stealing my cases. Come on, come with me. We got a little bit of legwork to do.”

Jersey stopped by Meat Cute at eleven-thirty that night, since Dion had told him that was the last time he was likely to get a break until one-thirty or two. There was already a line ribboning away from the truck; Jersey had to fend off four different dirty looks as he came up to the side of the window.

Marcus saw Jersey first. Marcus never looked particularly happy, but tonight he looked like he might take someone’s head off if they fumbled their order, which was an alarming expression for a detective to see on someone who was dual wielding knives. His heavy dark brows knitted harder when he spotted Jersey.

“Dion!” he called into the body of the truck. “Cops!”

Something clanged in the truck’s guts. “Fuck. What do they want?”

Marcus looked at Jersey. Jersey shrugged. Marcus said, “You, Dion. Get out here.”

There was more clanging, and then one particularly emphatic metal thump. “I swear no one besides me appreciates the attention that goes into a good sear,” said Dion over his own footsteps. “The audacity—” Dion stuck his head out of the window. Sweat glimmered at his temples; his hair was held back from his forehead with a headband and sticking out wildly. He scanned the line, scowling, but when he spotted Jersey his expression went sweet as sugar. “Oh! Damian! Hi! Marcus, can you—”

“Get out of my truck,” Marcus said, pointing a knife at Dion. Dion pointed a knife back, thumped it into something soft-sounding out of Jersey’s line of sight, and disappeared again. Jersey circled around to the back of the truck to meet Dion when he jumped out.

“Hey,” Jersey said.

“Hi,” Dion said back. He lifted his fading Meat Cute t-shirt to dab at his face. Once he was suitably unsweaty, he leaned in to give Jersey a quick kiss. “Wanna take a walk?”

People from the line were still eyeing Jersey like he was getting free samples from Dion on the sly. “Yeah, let’s,” Jersey said dryly, and nudged Dion out toward the crowded park.

“Midnight madness,” Dion said grandly, making a sweeping gesture out over the line as they passed. “I haven’t seen a line like this in ages. Marcus is having such a great time.”

“Is he? I couldn’t tell.”

“Oh, he is. Trust me. How’d your hunch pan out?”

Dion gestured toward the crepe cart occupying the vegan truck’s usual spot. When he dropped his hand again, his knuckles knocked against Jersey’s. He smelled faintly like the salt-and-butter sear of meat and the sharpness of freshly chopped vegetables. Something with lime, maybe. Jersey caught Dion’s forefinger with his and held on.

“The way I thought it would. The lunar acolytes were gonna curse your truck and shut down the festival early so that everyone would go home and they could use the park for rituals. They just picked you because y’all already had beef. How’s your new menu panning out?”

Dion blinked at him. It took a long, pensive moment for him to say anything. When he did, he said, heavily, “Vegans.”

“New menu,” Jersey prodded.

“Oh—uh, the menu is going over very well. We’ve been swamped since, like, nine. I can get away for maybe ten minutes before that line gets out of control. Marcus is gonna have my head regardless. Strip it down for brain meat.” Dion gave a clever little leer. Jersey tried not to grimace.

“Good,” Jersey said instead. “That’s good. Tell him to lay off you though, alright? You’ve had too many brushes with death to be joking about that.”

Dion cut Jersey a long, searching look—and then quick as lightning, grabbed Jersey’s hand and ground to a halt.

Jersey stopped too so his shoulder wouldn’t come out of its socket. He whirled on Dion, who was staring at him, owl-eyed, dipped in silver in the high moonlight. “Ow—what, Dion?”

“I,” Dion said; shook his head, said, “You,” shortly; laughed, finally, and fluttered his free hand around his temple. “I sound like you,” Dion said.

Jersey said, “I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.”

“It is,” Dion said. He sucked in a breath, blew it out, and then said, “Thank you. For everything. I know—knives—and I think you’ve gotten a new wrinkle, just saying, but thank you for doing it anyway. You—well, you know. You’re you. And I like that about you.”

Sweetness bubbled up and burst warm in Jersey’s chest. He was smiling so hard he could feel his cheeks protesting; Dion was smiling back, wide and charming and shot through with a fondness so potent it made Jersey almost dizzy. In the level middle of Crux Park with festivalgoers milling all around, Jersey was both acutely aware of and completely unconcerned with the fact that they were not alone.

Jersey shuffled forward until his shoes hit Dion’s. Would it look strange to press himself against Dion’s chest in public? Did Jersey care? He couldn’t find enough shame to stop himself from doing it. Dion, who had probably never known shame to begin with, wound his arms around Jersey’s waist and held him close.

“You’re gonna make me kiss you in public,” Jersey mumbled against Dion’s chest.

Sounding plainly delighted, Dion said, “Oh, no. Am I?”

It was probably not a good idea to kiss Dion in public. Jersey was going to do it anyway. He rocked up onto his toes, braced himself against Dion’s chest, and kissed Dion eyes closed.

Dion kissed him, and kissed him, and kissed him, and here, under the light of a full moon and in the circle of Dion’s arms, Jersey felt magic.

 

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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7 thoughts on “Meat Cute

  1. You’ve provided just enough detail about this city & the magical culture there to make me want to know SO MUCH MORE. It’s a delightful setting! Honestly I would happily watch many seasons of a procedural set in this police station, with a nice juicy romance b-plot in every episode.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Jersey is a fantastic POV character, New Revenon is intensely intriguing, and Dion…Dion is just irresistible. So many of the descriptions of him were sublime, like His legs were so long it was almost impractical.

    (I am deeply amused that we both used the meat-cute pun in stories for this issue. ♥ )

  3. You’ve created such an interesting world here, and I’m dying to read more about it. Dion is such a terrifying guy with his knives but also the kind of guy you want to get to know anyway. And Jersey is…extra relatable. Great stuff!

  4. I really had fun with the charming cast and setting was interesting to wrap my head around. The juxtaposition of the gruesome was a good touch too.

  5. I’ve been going through the stories I missed on release in ebooks and I read this one last night and

    I love it wow

    The worldbuilding is super interesting and the case part of it is well done, and I just love Dion so much aaaa

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