by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by melanofly
“Of course, you should never pop the cork. If you do it right, the sound should be” –and there it was, that gentle exhale– “as soft as a lover’s sigh.”
Two tables over, Avery was trying not to shred his cocktail napkin into too many small pieces. It wasn’t even the first time he’d heard Baldwin do this, or the tenth, or even likely the hundredth. It was his same song-and-dance every time patrons ordered a bottle of champagne: come over to the table, introduce himself as the proprietor of the establishment, chat with them about what special occasion had inspired such a purchase, and open it for them with gentle southern charm so thick it hung in the air long after he’d walked away again.
It was a quiet night at the Pearl Club, which was why Avery was still there. Well, that, and he was on a deadline. The cocktail bar rarely filled on Tuesday evenings, so Avery didn’t feel so bad about taking up a whole table by himself, which was what he was doing at the moment, covering the small surface with his laptop, two different stacks of handwritten notes, a half-empty bowl of spicy ginger peanuts, and a glass of black coffee.
Just two more pages to go, and then he could send off this chapter. It might not be good, but it would be done, and that was what mattered.
Half an hour later, he’d written exactly three more words before falling down the rabbit hole of his own notes, trying to figure out if the man he was talking about was named George Palmer or Palmer George. He was about to say to hell with it and delete the reference entirely when yet another object joined the cluttered surface of his table: a plate with six puffy little pastries. “How’s writing going?”
Avery could have picked that soft twang out of any lineup. “It’s not,” he said with a sigh, leaning back in his chair as Baldwin took the one opposite him, all long legs and impeccably tailored suit. This one was pearl grey, double-breasted, with pinstripes so slender they were almost invisible in the establishment’s low lighting. His dark hair was slicked back from his face in an artful wave, completing the mid-century gentleman look. Avery felt a perpetual slob by comparison. “Why did I think the history of the waffle iron was interesting enough to write an entire book about?”
“Because you’re a smart man who can make anything interesting.” From behind his gold-rimmed glasses, Baldwin gave him a wink that could have melted butter. “Hey, so, I have a favor to ask of you.”
Oh no, was Avery taking up too much space? There were still a few tables open, but maybe a large party was coming in soon. “Shit, sorry,” Avery said, gathering up his stacks of notes. “Give me a second, I’ll get out of your hair–“
“No, no!” Baldwin waved both his hands at Avery until Avery settled again. “No, you are good right where you are. This is a different favor. An outside-the-bar favor.”
“What?” Avery wasn’t sure what kind of outside-the-bar favors he could muster. The single room he sublet from a nice older couple had nowhere else for anyone to stay, which was why he did all his writing at the Pearl Club. He’d been on Colbert once, to promote his last book, but that hardly meant Avery had his personal number. He could autograph something, but that was about it.
Baldwin’s smile widened in a way that made Avery’s heart flutter. “I need you to be my date to a wedding.”
There were many people in the world Avery would have lied to, either by omission or outright deception. Yuri was never going to be one of those.
Avery wasn’t the only author whose professional life Yuri managed; somebody would need more than one runaway nonfiction bestseller to afford to monopolize Yuri’s time. But Avery was the only one of those authors who also lived three subway stops away from Yuri, and also, Avery was a millennial who hated the telephone. All of which was why Avery was suffering the full brunt of Yuri’s skepticism in person.
“His cousin’s getting married,” Avery said, trying to distill Baldwin’s enthusiastic and slightly lengthy explanation into something more bite-sized. “And she’s marrying a Muslim guy with an immigrant single mom, which his extended family is going to be weird about. So his idea is that we show up together to give them something to be even weirder about.”
As Avery talked, Yuri’s eyebrows crept tellingly closer and closer toward his hairline. “By being gay,” Yuri said, as though trying to clear up the matter.
Avery sighed and slumped in the chair. It sounded stupid when an actual married gay man said it like that.
Speaking of that marriage, there was a snort of laughter from the next room. Seconds later, the apartment’s other inhabitant appeared in the doorway, still dressed in his pajamas and nursing a cup of coffee about the size of his head. “Oh my god,” said Ethan, grinning from ear to ear. “Is that what he was being hyper about last night?”
Avery had no idea how to tell if Baldwin was being hyper-er about things than he usually was. Still, if anyone could, it was Ethan, the Pearl Club’s bartender and Yuri’s other half since about the time they’d both been in kindergarten. Not that either of them seemed much older now — though Avery supposed someone else’s early twenties looked a lot younger from the other side of thirty. “It’s just for a weekend.”
“A weekend of convincing an entire family of rich white Texans that you’ve somehow managed to date him for nearly a year and not murder him.” Ethan whistled through his teeth. “As plans to annoy somebody’s family go, this is objectively stupid and mildly offensive. However, it is also the funniest shit I’ve heard all month, so I have to approve. Think he can scare up two more invitations? I want to see this unfold.”
Avery emphatically did not want them to see it unfold. He was barely okay with having it all happen in front of a group of people he would likely never meet again; he didn’t need more familiar spectators. “He should have just asked one of you,” Avery grumbled.
Ethan snorted. “Hell no. Because he knows we would laugh in his face.” He did a version of that laugh that made even the perpetually serious Yuri crack a smile. “So, did you come here for gay lessons? Do you want us to put you through gay boot camp?”
Oh, no. Avery had been through gay boot camp. It had been called his own adolescence. It somewhat soothed him to think that he’d managed to closet himself so thoroughly as an adult that he’d flown beneath their collective gaydar. He’d have to do some math to figure how long it had been since he’d been on a date, and the last time he’d gotten laid was an equally dusty memory. Since the first hints that his writing career might be taking off, Avery had been in full bachelor mode, with no room for a relationship more important than his work. Honestly, it was a decision that would have come easy — except for Baldwin.
Yuri and Ethan were the whole reason Avery and Baldwin knew one another, after Ethan had suggested the Pearl Club to Yuri for Avery’s first book launch reception. Baldwin had been the gracious host all evening, and when Avery had made some half-joking comment about how hard it was to find space to write, Baldwin had offered to make Avery their writer-in-residence. When Avery had laughed, Baldwin had insisted that, no, he was not only serious, he would frankly be hurt if Avery didn’t at least give it a shot.
That had been three years ago. Since then, every word of the one-and-three-quarters books he’d written had been at that table in the Club’s corner, his laptop open in front of him, soft jazz wafting through the air, and the most handsome and charming man he’d ever met keeping watch over everything with a clever, genial eye.
Sometimes — often, actually — Avery got distracted from what he was supposed to be writing and found himself staring at Baldwin. As he managed the Club, Baldwin moved like a dancer in his smartly tailored suits, gliding between close tables and sidestepping patrons without spilling a single drink. His beautiful hands were constantly touching people, resting on their shoulders and backs and forearms. He greeted frequent patrons by name. He remembered people’s regular orders. He knew how to make cocktails Avery had never even heard of. He could play a game where patrons told him type of day they were having and he picked the drink he thought they needed. He was right every time.
So Avery knew he himself wasn’t anything special. Baldwin was just like that with everyone. Avery was way too old to get his hopes up about a straight boy, anyway.
And yet, Baldwin had never given Avery a second of grief about taking up that space, even when the hour grew late and open seats became fewer and further between. Baldwin had never been anything but openly thrilled to see Avery walk through the front door. Whenever things grew quiet, Baldwin was at Avery’s table, listening attentively as Avery talked about minutiae of his books that no one could possibly care about, except that Baldwin always looked like he did. The bill for all the free food and drinks Baldwin had just casually dropped on his table over the years would be staggering if totalled.
So yeah, who wouldn’t have a crush? But that was beside the point. Avery owed Baldwin a weekend of sucking up his own pride, being very normal about the actual boundaries of their friendship, and gay-panicking some people who deserved it. He could do that.
“I just need a plane reservation,” Avery said, trying to haul the conversation back to the logistics of the bad decision he was making, and not the bad decision itself. “And a hotel room. There’s apparently some kind of block reserved. Baldwin said he’d send you details.”
“He did,” said Yuri, turning his laptop so Avery could see the mail client on the screen. Even at a distance, Avery could see the truncated subject line of the email: HEY THANKS FOR THIS HERES THE INFORMATION FROM MY… The email body itself looked to contain only links. Classic Baldwin.
Ethan shook his head as he sipped at his coffee. “Just promise you’ll text us. If you need, you know. Advice.”
“Sure,” Avery said. He had no intention of doing any such thing.
The steamy heat radiating through the walls of the jet bridge as he stepped off the plane in Austin told Avery he was a long way from the snowy New York he’d left that morning. He wrinkled up his nose, and Baldwin laughed. “Now you see why I left.”
As they walked the short distance from their gate to the baggage area, Avery rattled off a last-minute memory check: “Your dad, Harold. Your stepmom, Joyce. Your brother Wilson and his wife Kaylee, and their son Royal. Your brother Travis and his wife Sasha, and their daughters Eloise, Sunday, and Marigold. Your sister Mackenzie and her husband John Robert, and their daughter Breland and son Everest. Your stepbrother Leon. Your stepsisters Anjulie and Meygan–“
Baldwin shook his head. “Meygan’s not coming.”
“Meygan’s not coming,” Avery repeated, trying to scratch at least one thing off his overloaded mental list. “The bride is Corinne, and she’s your dad’s brother’s daughter. Her mom and dad are Raymond and Brooke. The groom is Raza. His mom is … Ayesha, right?”
“You sound like there’s going to be a test,” Baldwin said with a laugh, and before Avery could note that there might well be, Baldwin slipped his hand into Avery’s and laced their fingers together. The gesture took Avery by such surprise that his brain lost track of the rest of Baldwin’s carefully memorized family tree. “You’re meeting everybody for the first time anyway. Nobody expects you to be the Calhoun Family Expert. You’ll be fine.”
Avery suspected that he might not be, but it was too late for that now. They were already walking past the security point of no return, directly toward a small clutch of people who could not have been more clearly related to Baldwin if they’d tried.
More than once over the course of their friendship, Avery had asked Baldwin — jokingly, but also with genuine curiosity — why are you like this? It would seem at least part of that answer was standing here. The half-dozen people had Baldwin’s same tightly controlled air. They had money — and not in a tacky, flashy way, but in an understated way that said they’d had it for generations. Avery’s roots were decidedly blue-collar, but he knew what it looked like when the price tag of a woman’s handbag was bigger than the advance he’d gotten on his current book. Blue jeans didn’t come that tailored off the rack, nor did shoes that expensive come from a regular store. They all looked sharp, but in a casual way, like they wanted everyone to believe they’d woken up like that.
And every once of their faces fell just a fraction as Baldwin strode merrily toward them, holding another man’s hand.
“Hi, everyone!” Baldwin gave a huge wave with his free hand as he hurried over like he was actually happy to see them. “Avery, this is the family: my dad, Joyce, that’s Kaylee and Royal, Mackenzie, and Leon; family, this is my boyfriend, Avery.”
“You’re Avery?” asked an older woman — the only blonde of the bunch, marking her as Baldwin’s stepmother. Avery was more than familiar with that particular tone, the expression of surprise at expecting a girl but meeting a boy with a girl’s name. Apparently Baldwin had warned them about bringing a plus-one, but had saved the gender reveal for this moment.
“Well!” Baldwin’s father laughed away the discomfort, and soon after they were all smiling again. “Glad you’re both here! Let’s go get your bags, shall we? We can do introductions in the car.”
“Sounds great,” Baldwin answered with a bright and only slightly gremlin-like grin.
As they all shuffled awkwardly down the stairs to the baggage claim, Avery began to ponder just what kind of reception they’d headed off at the pass. If anything, it had seemed almost like an ambush, with everyone ready to pounce on whatever girl Baldwin had brought home with him and commence the hazing. They’d had the whole gal-pal interrogation planned; you could see it in their disappointed and slightly baffled faces.
Avery was starting to see why this had been Baldwin’s strategy for this particular event. It was proving to be nothing if not effective.
What was also effective was having Baldwin’s hand tight around his, even in this warm climate. Baldwin’s hands had long been the subject of Avery’s hopefully-as-subtle-as-he-thought-they-were moments of staring at Baldwin as he worked, mixing drinks behind the bar, setting plates on patrons’ tables, doing whatever magic he did to get the champagne open with a whisper. And of course Baldwin was natural as anything about it, walking along and chatting with his family about the flight like this was something the two of them did all the time. Like they were real boyfriends or something.
There were further logistics at play here — someone’s flight had just arrived, and someone else’s was about to, and someone else’s had yesterday but their luggage hadn’t made it, and it was all a bit much, so Avery just clammed up and waited for his own forest-green suitcase to spin off the carousel. At least he wasn’t in charge of all the coordination. He was barely capable of coordinating his own life. That was why he had Yuri.
After what Avery felt was an unnecessarily long discussion about logistics, someone made the decision that Baldwin and Avery would ride with Joyce and Leon. This meant that Avery found himself sweating as he climbed into a pickup truck at least twice as tall as he was. Baldwin followed right after and snuggled up to him, looping his arm around Avery’s. “You okay?” Baldwin asked in a low mumble.
Avery gave a brief little nod. “It’s a lot.”
“You’re doing great,” Baldwin promised, and he reached over and gave Avery’s thigh a squeeze like that would make it any better. He kept it there as Joyce hopped into the driver’s seat and Leon took shotgun. “Thanks for coming to get us.”
“Well, of course!” answered Joyce, whose musical twang put Baldwin’s to shame by volume. She kept glancing back in the rearview mirror, such that Avery thought she was watching the traffic, until he realized she was really watching him. “How was you boys’ flight?”
Baldwin shrugged. “Uneventful. When’d you get in, man?”
“Oh, I’m living in Round Rock now,” said Leon. He, like Baldwin’s other stepsiblings, was well over a decade older than Baldwin himself, already in high school by the time Joyce married Baldwin’s dad. The age gap hadn’t exactly been a recipe for sibling closeness. “Got a transfer a couple months back. Figured it’d be nice to be back near Mom and Harold.”
“And it’s been lovely,” Joyce agreed. Even Avery could hear from her tone the implication that Baldwin would surely benefit from the same proximity. In fact, that had probably been why they’d been ready for girl-Avery to arrive, so they could smother her with familial affection and convince her to settle down closer to home. They didn’t know what to do with boy-Avery. “So tell us, honey, what is it that you do?”
“I’m, uh, a writer,” Avery said, suddenly self-conscious of what a silly little career choice it sounded like when it put it like that.
Baldwin clucked his tongue and nudged Avery playfully with his shoulder. “He’s a bestselling author. That’s how we met. He was having a book launch party in my club, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Huh,” said Leon. “Like, novels?”
A very large part of Avery wished he did write novels. It was easier to explain why someone would write a thrilling epic about adventures with dragons, than it was to explain why someone would spend the lsat five years of his life researching kitchen appliances. “Nonfiction. Popular history. Material history. History of objects, mostly.” Did that make sense? He hoped it did. It had been a while since he’d had to explain himself on this basic a level.
“Don’t be modest,” chided Baldwin, leaning into Avery and squeezing his hand. “Did you hear about Uncanned? The people’s history of the can opener? Well, this is A.J. White.”
Even from the back seat, Avery could see Joyce and Leon’s eyes widen a little. “That’s you?” asked Leon.
Avery nodded, then remembered he was behind them and couldn’t be seen. “Um, yeah. At least, professionally.” He didn’t really want to get into sexism in the publishing industry or how customer bias against girl names had nothing to do with the author’s actual gender.
Despite their being belted into their seats, Baldwin managed to snuggle even closer to Avery then, pressing their thighs together. Avery wondered if his heartbeat was audible. “Have you read it yet? It’s great. You’d like it especially, Leon; it’s got this whole digression about investor capital and the history of manufacturing in twentieth-century America that you’d get into. It’s one of my favorite books, and not just because it’s the reason we met! He had his book launch at my place, and I saw him, and I realized in that moment that I was way more bisexual than I thought.”
That hadn’t been how it had happened, not entirely. Avery was very certain he had caused no one’s bisexual awakening in his entire life. Baldwin probably had caused several, with his long legs and his dimpled grin. He wasn’t scrawny, awkward Avery, who never knew what to do with his hands or hair or any other part of himself. He wished they had some secret code there, some way for Avery to tell Baldwin not to oversell it, that his family would never believe it was a real relationship if Baldwin kept gushing like that over a spindly, mediocre nerd like Avery.
“So,” said Joyce after a moment’s uncomfortable pause, “how long have you two been together?”
“Since July,” said Avery, at the same moment he heard Baldwin say, “Since June.”
Shit, that was Avery’s mistake. They hadn’t created a terribly detailed backstory for their relationship, but they had sketched the outline of their made-up courtship and decided nine months seemed a good length for a bring-to-a-family-wedding relationship. Too bad Avery couldn’t count.
Baldwin barely faltered, though. Instead, he laughed and tightened his grip on Avery’s hand in a way so loving that it made Avery’s stomach flop a little. “Okay, see, he doesn’t count our actual first date, because it was such a mess that it took me a whole month to convince him to go out with me again.”
“What happened?” asked Leon.
The next twenty minutes were spent on Baldwin’s (presumably improvised) account of their disastrous first date, from the terrible weather to a lost restaurant reservation, to a tiny table by a noisy kitchen, to not realizing the subway line was shut down for the weekend, to dropping Avery’s phone while trying to hail a taxi. Baldwin told the comic tale with absolute conviction, seeming to relish the strange discomfort that it was causing his stepmother and stepbrother to hear about the goofy, rom-com-esque adventures of two men.
The biggest lie, though, was that Avery would have needed another month of convincing after that. He would have loved it. It would have been the best date he’d ever been on, no matter what disasters had befallen them, because it would have been with Baldwin.
Avery had been fully aware of his crush for years. It wasn’t Baldwin who’d fallen hard at that first book launch — that had been Avery, the writer who’d suddenly found himself without any words every time Baldwin turned that terrible, magical grin on him. He’d nursed it in complete silence, determined not to make it anyone else’s problem. That was much of how Avery went through his life, in fact, trying not to make himself anyone else’s problem (excepting, of course, Yuri, and that was fine; he paid Yuri). Letting everyone else know he was gay at all seemed like burdening everyone else too much with his personal life. Letting someone else know he had a crush on that particular straight man? He’d rather die, thank you.
But oh, it still stung to hear all about the horrible, wonderful date he’d never taken. Avery hadn’t been on anything resembling a date since college, and even those had barely counted, mostly because they’d never led to anything approaching an ongoing relationship. In a way, it was comforting to know that there was an imaginary universe out there where Baldwin would have put all that effort into making Avery his actual boyfriend. In another way, it hurt like hell.
So instead, Avery decided to pay attention to the scenery. Baldwin had warned Avery that the venue was “a little ways out of town,” verbatim, but Avery didn’t expect how quickly Austin the city would melt away, leaving little more than stretches of overgrown scrub grass and rocky hills. It was beautiful, in its own strange, severe fashion. Avery had been to Texas before, doing various book tour stops, but those had always been in the big cities. This was the connective tissue that held those big places together, the spaces between the notes. Even though the truck’s interior was cool, the little thermometer on the rearview mirror read 91. Avery could see the way the midday heat bore down on everything they passed.
And all the while, Baldwin held Avery’s hand, touching Avery with the same effortless ease he used to charm all his patrons, leaning close, bumping his shoulder, laughing as he told his family about what a great thing it was that they were together now and how he’d never been happier in his life.
Avery had no idea how he was going to survive the weekend.
It was clear they’d arrived when Joyce turned the truck off the main highway onto a road that ran under a high stucco arch. “Here’s the place!” Joyce announced merrily. A banner draped across that arch proclaimed Congratulations Corinne and Razza! Avery’d put even odds on whether that extra z was an honest mistake or passive-aggressive bullshit.
Avery was now starting to understand why discussions about accommodations had been a little weird. This wasn’t a hotel — this was an entire walkable compound, an array of little cabins arranged around a central cluster of buildings. And every inch of it seemed to belong this weekend to the Calhouns. Little white ribbons and silk flowers wrapped around all the tree branches and signposts. Outside of each cabin were hand-painted posterboards: Jackson and Holly. Paul, Neveah, and Lariat. Jim Jr. and Marylisa. No question who belonged where.
Joyce stopped in front of one with a Baldwin and Avery sign. Clearly, Baldwin had put Avery’s name on the RSVP and just neglected to elaborate. Clever. “Now here’s where you boys” –there was a sense of resignation to the word– “will be staying.”
“Thanks for the ride, Joyce!” Baldwin said as he hopped out of the truck — and then extended his hand to help Avery down. Avery took it, for all the good it did; he wobbled a little on the dismount, stumbling as his loafers hit the rocky ground. Baldwin was right there to catch him, though, slipping his arm around Avery’s waist. Even when it became clear Avery was steady again, Baldwin didn’t let go.
Their arrival had caught the eye of various family members, who hovered in the distance, looking over to see who’d just come in. Avery took a deep breath and tried to remain all smiles, like being seen in public with Baldwin’s hands on him was a regular thing he did. Leon got their bags for them, while Joyce handed Baldwin a key and a large white folder. “There’s the schedule for the weekend. There’s things to graze on up at the main house, but don’t fill up, because dinner’s at six. Why don’t you two go get freshened up?” She smiled at both of them, then made the effort to reach out and touch Avery’s bicep. “So glad you boys are here,” she said, and Avery believed she did mean the core of that statement, despite her reservations.
Baldwin had promised that his family would never be mean. That wasn’t their style. They thought of themselves as open-minded, welcoming people — and the truth was, by contrast to most people in their daily lives, they were! Even more, they wanted to be. They would, if asked, say it was great that a woman could be president and the gays could get married and the local schools had Spanish immersion programs. They would declare their acceptance of people from all races and walks of life. They just lived in such a homogenized setting that they never really had to test the courage of their convictions.
With one hand holding the folder and the other on the small of Avery’s back, Baldwin led them into the cabin that literally had their names on it.
The interior was about the size of a spacious hotel room, complete with a tiny kitchen area and large bathroom, all decorated in what Avery had heard people call “southwest modern.” What Avery’s mind hooked on, though, was the single California king bed in the middle of the room.
“I have to pee so bad,” Baldwin said, letting go of Avery and slipping into the restroom, leaving Avery alone to contemplate the matter of the accommodations. Surely that was some sort of mistake. Surely that needed to–
He dug out his phone and texted Yuri: There’s only one bed.
Yuri, who was never more than a few inches from his phone, responded with his usual terseness seconds later: Accommodations were limited.
Of course they were, and of course there was no changing it now. The place literally had their name on it! What were they going to do, suddenly declare that they didn’t believe in pre-gay-marital sex, so could they possibly switch with someone else? No, that was even more ridiculous, and absolutely not in the spirit of what they were trying to accomplish. Avery was just going to have to live with it. Dammit.
When Baldwin emerged, his eyes also fell on the bed — but he seemed to have no problem with its being a single, focusing instead on the two large gift baskets at the end of the bed. “Aw yeah, Beaver Nuggets,” he said, going for a bag of little beige puffs from the assorted bags of junk food filling the navy blue basket. The other, this one a creamy white color, was stuffed with boxes of teabags and bottles of water and Detox Snacks, whatever those were. A his-and-hers situation, it seemed. Baldwin extended the open bag toward Avery. “Want some?”
Avery didn’t know if his stomach was up to something called a Beaver Nugget. He opened his mouth to decline, and instead found himself articulating something that he’d realized in the car, but that had taken all the time in-between to surface to his conscious mind: “You read my book.”
Baldwin frowned. “Yeah?” he asked, his mouth full.
“No, I mean–” Avery found himself at a loss for what to do with his hands. “You actually read it.”
“Yeah, I read it! I love your books!” gushed Baldwin, like that should have been obvious. “I actually liked Grate Expectations more, honestly. Or maybe I just have fonder memories grating cheese for my mom than I do opening cans for her. Whoever wrote that review for the Times must’ve skinned their knuckles on a box grater when they were a kid. Or, I don’t know, maybe a long-standing feud with a microplane.”
Despite technically being a bestselling professional author, one who had been interviewed on actual broadcast television about his work, Avery tended to assume that no one actually read his books. They bought them, certainly, and put them on their shelves to look smart, and promptly forgot about them. He never even asked acquaintances what they’d thought, afraid of putting them in a position where they’d feel compelled to bluff based on what they’d read on the dust jacket and maybe what they’d heard someone say on NPR.
But here was Baldwin, independently bringing up a section that nobody ever mentioned in reviews or interviews. Avery had loved that digression and how it made clear that none of the modern history of objects could be understood outside the contexts of capitalism and nationalism. He’d had to fight with his publisher to keep it in.
“I just…” Avery swallowed, feeling the heat in his cheeks rise. He cleared his throat. “So, uh, what is a Beaver Nugget?”
“Try one.” Baldwin held out the bag.
Avery reached in and picked up one of the puffs. It was lighter than he’d expected, and a bit sticky besides. It smelled of slightly burnt caramel. The second it hit his tongue, he was overwhelmed by the artificial flavor. It tasted like sugar and crunched like styrofoam. It was terrible. It was compelling. He swallowed and immediately went for seconds.
Baldwin laughed and did the same, then rolled the top of the bag shut and put it back with the others. “Okay, now I’m good for like another three or four years. But feel free to bust into them again if you want more. My basket is your basket.”
The folder that Joyce had given Baldwin contained a schedule so detailed it might have given even Yuri pause, along with a map of the grounds, a larger map of the surrounding hiking trails, a page of QR codes to various wedding registry items, and a terrible poem about how everyone was gathered there to celebrate the young couple’s love (rhymed with “dove”) and happiness (rhymed with “wedded bliss”). Appearing on live television took less coordination than this. Avery’s stomach, still on New York time, growled audibly. “You want to go get lunch?” Avery asked, despite how holing up in the cabin and never emerging sounded like a safer plan.
Baldwin grinned and stood, taking Avery’s hand. “And show off my handsome boyfriend to everyone? Yes, I do.”
Before Avery could get cold feet and hide under the bed, Baldwin was leading him out the door into the dry midday heat. All Avery could do was to keep up with Baldwin and his long-legged stride as they walked toward the central pavilion. Were all the other people there looking at the two of them? Or were they minding their own business, and Avery had just gotten paranoid? He was too chicken to look more closely.
So instead he looked at Baldwin, and as he did, he was struck by the realization that he had never, to his recollection, seen Baldwin before in direct sunlight. On the rare occasions when Avery stayed at the Pearl Club until closing, they’d walk out together and chat on the way to the subway, and they’d both been invited to a number of Yuri and Ethan’s parties, so he did have proof Baldwin existed outside of the Club. But those were always nighttime events. All their substantive interactions during daytime had been inside, where window shades were always drawn, no matter the hour, to complete the sultry cocktail-bar atmosphere. That was the context in which he knew Baldwin, softened by the dim glow. Even that morning, when they’d met blearily at the airport, had been grey and overcast, and Avery was such an anxious traveler anyway that he’d been focused on other things.
Sunlight was another matter entirely. It caught the few silver strands hiding in Baldwin’s thick, dark hair and cast enough contrast on his face that Avery could see thin lines at the corners of Baldwin’s brown eyes, which turned almost amber as they caught the light. What nearly made Avery trip over his own feet, though, was the realization that Baldwin had freckles, a spray of them across his nose and cheeks, barely darker than the rest of his skin. Avery had to clench his hands tight to keep from reaching up and touching them, just to make sure that they — and Baldwin — were real.
Oh hell. This wasn’t a crush, was it? And maybe it hadn’t been for a long time.
Baldwin must have caught the change in Avery’s body language, because he laughed and squeezed Avery’s hand right back. “You’ll be great. They’re going to love you. And if they hate you, well, they’re still going to pretend like they love you, so it’s really the same thing on your end.” And he laughed like this was a normal thing, like it wasn’t putting Avery’s heart in a vise to be so close to him and yet so far away.
The bride was hard to miss. She was blonde, nearly six feet tall in chunky red heels, and wearing a t-shirt that said BRIDE in sparkly silver letters. Also, she had Avery gripped in a hug so fierce it threatened to break a few of his ribs. “It is so good to meet you,” Corinne said. “Baldwin’s told me all about you.”
And told her the truth, Avery knew. Baldwin had reassured Avery early on that the bride and groom would be informed of their shenanigans. To his surprise, she and her husband-to-be had given the crazy plan a thumbs-up. “I hope it’s working,” Avery said with a bashful shrug.
“Are you kidding?” Corinne laughed. “It’s working great. Everybody’s so wrapped up in trying not to be openly homophobic that they’ve forgotten to be casually racist.”
Avery wasn’t wholly sure of that; he’d already been introduced to someone’s great-uncle who, in an attempt to suss out Avery’s mother’s Korean ancestry, had both asked where Avery was from and been visibly disappointed by the answer “Connecticut.” Still, better him than the groom. “Everything looks lovely,” Avery said, hoping the compliment sounded more sincere than it actually was.
Corinne giggled and wrinkled her nose a little. “You think so?” She looked around the main hall, which was decorated with so much crepe paper that a single spark would have set the whole place alight. “I think it’s tacky.”
“It’s…” What was the polite way to put it? “It’s a lot.”
With a smile, Corinne squeezed his arm. “You’re sweet. This has all been my mom’s thing. Apparently she’s been dreaming about her only daughter’s big wedding day ever since I was conceived, and since she spent twenty hours in labor with me, this is what I owe her. So I said, okay, do what you want! And she and my aunts kind of wilded out.” Avery supposed that made a lot of the decor choices make sense. “Anyway, thanks for stealing attention from the bride! Which, according to all the Facebook groups she made me join, is not a sentence you’ll hear very often.”
Avery, who had been to maybe five weddings in his adult life, still didn’t doubt it. “Glad to help out.”
“So where’s your other half?”
Even though she was in on the joke, Avery’s stomach did a little flip at hearing someone refer to Baldwin like that. He glanced around the crowded room as he spoke: “He went off to — oh, there he is.”
From the other side of the room, Baldwin approached, carrying three different drinks in three different glasses like he wasn’t worried about spilling a single drop. He’d put on a sharp slate-grey double-breasted suit for dinner, with a pocket square that Avery was just now noticing was the colors of a bi pride flag. “Oh, good, you found him,” Baldwin said as he approached. “Here you go, tell me what you think.”
Corinne sipped each of the drinks one by one, considering their contents. “I like that one best,” she said at last, pointing to the tall champagne flute with pale lavender liquid inside.
“Then that” –Baldwin handed her the whole glass– “is yours, and if you ask the bar for an Empress Corinne, they’ll make you another one.”
“You made up a cocktail for me?” Corinne’s eyes sparkled.
“Technically I made up three cocktails for you.” Baldwin pointed out the other two glasses. “That is a Ginger Corinne, and that is a Corinne Fizz, all of which you can also ask for, if you want another.”
Corinne bent down and kissed Baldwin’s cheek. “You are my only good cousin.”
“Yes, I am,” Baldwin said proudly. He glanced over Corinne’s shoulder and sighed. “I think your mom’s looking for you.”
In response to this, Corinne promptly downed her drink in a few swallows and handed the glass back to Baldwin. “Wish me luck.” She gave both of them a little wave, then turned back to whatever bridal duties were pressing on her.
Baldwin handed over both unselected drinks to Avery, who suddenly found himself double-fisting. “Which one’s mine?” Avery asked.
“Both yours,” Baldwin said, his expression a little distant. “I try not to drink much in front of my family.”
Before Avery could ask why, a sharp note note of feedback cut the air. The room hushed as someone — it took Avery a minute to figure out it was the bride’s father — took the microphone and launched into a welcome speech, thanking everyone for coming. Avery wasn’t really listening, though, because Baldwin’s hand was resting possessively on the small of his back.
Avery had expected the constant touching would ease off as the day went on, but he couldn’t have been wronger. From the second they left their room, as long as they were near one another, Baldwin was physically in contact with Avery. If they were walking, Baldwin would take Avery’s hand; if they were standing, he’d have an arm around Avery; if they were sitting, he’d either stretch his arm across the back of Avery’s chair or rest his hand on Avery’s thigh. Baldwin was completely natural about it, as though they’d actually been doing this for the past several months. As though Avery were actually something so special that Baldwin couldn’t bear not to be touching him at every moment.
Avery found himself leaning into the touch and bit the inside of his cheek. He of all people knew better than to fall for his own illusion. This was just for show. At the end of the weekend, they’d go back to normal, and normal definitely didn’t include this. No point in getting used to it.
None of which made the warm, solid weight of Baldwin’s hand against his back any less appealing.
Is this what Baldwin was always like as a boyfriend? Avery really didn’t know. He’d met a few of Baldwin’s girlfriends over the years — no, more accurately, he’d been introduced to four or five, had seen them a couple times at the Pearl Club, and then hadn’t really registered when, not long after, they’d just not been there anymore. Avery never knew if that meant they’d stopped coming to the Club or stopped being Baldwin’s girlfriends. On one occasion, he’d asked Ethan about one of them, one whose clinginess had set Avery’s teeth on edge in a way that made him feel unpleasantly like a jealous middle-schooler. Ethan had just laughed: Her? She dumped him back in April. If Baldwin had been affected emotionally by that event, he hadn’t shown a hint of it.
Avery had not opined, at the time or since, that anyone stupid enough to break up with Baldwin didn’t deserve him anyway. But since there was no heterosexual way to voice that sentiment, he kept his gay mouth shut.
Avery wasn’t ashamed of being gay, not really. Mostly he was irritated by it. Growing up working-class in a rich suburb, the only half-Asian kid in his class, the quiet one with no athletic ability and the girl’s name — he could’ve used one thing to make him normal. But no, he had to want to kiss boys too. That indignation had led him to closet himself largely out of spite. Some things were plain on his face, but other things, he could make nobody’s business. His sexuality had been at the top of that second list.
The brutal irony here was that this was the first time he’d ever been openly gay in a public space, and it was all a big lie.
Dinner went well, at least as far as Avery could tell. The meal was served buffet-style, and once they had their plates, Baldwin led them over to the table where his brother Travis was wrangling their three kids. While Avery at first questioned this decision, it became quickly clear that this had been a smart strategic placement — three children, all younger than six, handily occupied all adult attention in the vicinity. Any attempts at interrogating Avery were short-lived, interrupted by youthful fussing and play. Avery had little experience being around children; he was an only child himself, and few of his friends had started families. Kids were fine, just … loud.
As Avery was finishing his meal, Eloise, the eldest of the bunch, turned to Avery. “Are you and Uncle Baldwin married?” she asked at a volume that carried over several tables’ worth of space.
Ah, that was another kids were: honest. “Eloise!” chided her mother, Sasha. “That’s not a polite thing to ask!”
Was it not? Avery couldn’t see how. “It’s okay,” he promised, looking down at Eloise’s sweet, inquisitive face. “No, um, we’re not.”
“Are you going to get married?” The child had a promising career a fire alarm, for how her voice carried.
“Eloise!” Sasha looked mortified. “Really, that’s–“
With a laugh, Baldwin reached across Avery and booped Eloise on her nose. “Maybe someday, huh? You want to come to our wedding?”
Eloise’s big brown eyes got even bigger. “Can I, Mommy?” Avery supposed he understood how she’d been caught up in wedding fever, given how the place looked not unlike a five-year-old had been in charge of decorations. Of course she’d jump at the chance to do this all again.
Sasha’s smile was plastered desperately on her face. Avery saw a literal drop of sweat trickle down from her temple. “We’ll see, okay, baby? Can you take three more bites of your peas for me?”
That at least redirected Eloise into a new battle over finishing her dinner, which Avery thankfully had no bearing on. He tried to take more bites of his own peas, but found his stomach was tied up in knots — not least by how quickly Baldwin had jumped to invite his niece to a hypothetical wedding for an imaginary relationship. He hadn’t even hesitated to affirm that of course he’d marry Avery, someday. To Avery’s best knowledge, no one else in the entire world had ever wanted to marry him, not even for a minute. Now here was Baldwin, talking like it was the most natural thing in the world.
According to the schedule, there were no activities planned after dinner that evening, so after dessert was done, families started to disperse. At some point, Marigold, Eloise’s six-month-old sister, had gotten handed to Baldwin and had promptly fallen asleep in his arms. Baldwin had offered to take her back to Travis and Sasha’s cabin, an offer they’d gratefully accepted. “I’ll be right back,” Baldwin promised, leaving Avery at the table.
Avery decided to tempt fate and get another cup of coffee. He was already so worn out from the stress of travel and family that he didn’t imagine a little caffeine would keep him from passing out as soon as he hit a flat surface. Just to be sure, though, he asked the bartender to toss a shot of whiskey in there for him. There, now he had balance.
As he lingered by the door and tried to become as invisible as possible, Avery heard a few women chatting just outside on the patio. “Whatever happened to Emily, do you know?”
“No idea,” answered a voice Avery recognized: Joyce’s. “She seemed like such a nice girl, too. Well, it’s not like Baldwin tells us anything anyway. I mean, we were pretty darn surprised when he showed up with…” She let the sentence trail off.
What had happened to Emily, anyway? She had been Baldwin’s girlfriend a year or so back, one serious enough that Avery had actually wound up learning her name. And then, like the others, she’d been gone. Or had she? A spike of paranoia shot through Avery’s brain. What if she was still his girlfriend, and she just didn’t come around to the Club anymore? Avery didn’t think it was likely, but it was possible, which meant he could officially worry about it.
“He had so many girlfriends in high school,” said a third woman. “Did you and Harold ever expect…?”
“No, no idea,” answered Joyce. “I mean, he doesn’t seem like a….” They all seemed to have an allergy to finishing sentences, or at least the ones that ended in something gay.
The first woman sighed. “He just hasn’t been the same since Suzanne passed.”
That was the part of the family briefing Avery hadn’t needed: Suzanne was Baldwin’s late mother. His parents had divorced when Baldwin was young, and then Suzanne had died of breast cancer around the time Baldwin graduated from high school. Avery hadn’t been told this information so much as he’d gleaned it from three years’ worth of conversations with Baldwin, who loved to talk, but rarely about himself.
Avery had also put together that Baldwin’s mother’s death had been the start of a bad patch for him. All that information had come out in half-jokes, quick lines about how a city health inspection was still better than getting beat up by a coke dealer, or how he could have gotten a gold medal in shitty-couch-surfing. Avery didn’t know the outlines of that period in Baldwin’s life, and he didn’t know how to begin to ask, or if he even should.
“Do you think it’s a phase?” one of them asked. “Something trendy they’re all doing at his bar?” She said the last word like she would’ve spat it if she could.
Joyce let out a weary sigh. “I don’t know. He has so much potential. He’s always been a bright boy. A few years ago, we offered to pay for him to go back to college, finish his degree. He turned us down!”
Whatever more there was to that story was lost as the trio saw Baldwin approaching the pavilion, his jacket folded over one arm. Instead of waiting for him to come in, Avery walked out to meet him. Baldwin extended his hand, and Avery grabbed it like a lifeline. Baldwin squeezed right back, waving to the women on the porch with his free hand. He smelled a little bit like a baby had barfed on him. “Ready to turn in for the night?” he asked Avery, who nodded.
As the door to their cabin shut behind them, Baldwin let go of Avery in the way an actor might drop character walking backstage. He made a little retching sound as he went for the buttons of his lavender dress shirt. Avery could see that the shoulder was stained vaguely yellow. “Did she get you?” he asked.
“She got me,” Baldwin said. “How do babies smell so good and then so bad?” He sighed as he yanked the whole thing off over his head, leaving him wearing nothing from the waist up but his undershirt.
Avery very barely managed not to fall off the bed. He’d mostly only ever seen Baldwin before in suits, at best in a vest with his shirtsleeves rolled up on warm nights. Now he could see the full broad shape of Baldwin’s bare shoulders, appropriately pale for a man who rarely saw the sun, but marked with constellations of the same freckles that had dotted his cheeks. He was lean but hardly scrawny, with the kind of muscles needed for ferrying trays of drinks effortlessly to tables.
Then, presumably for good measure, Baldwin stripped off his undershirt too, and Avery’s little gay heart nearly gave out. Up Baldwin’s side was the shape of a tree, its leafless branches reaching up toward his ribs. There were gaps in the black, and it took a moment of staring for Avery to realize that they weren’t gaps at all; they were a crescent moon and stars, as though the tree itself were the night sky. It was as elegant as Baldwin himself, a stark yet simple work of art. Avery wanted so badly to lick it.
Baldwin’s laugh made Avery realize he was staring. “Yeah, I forget that’s there,” Baldwin said, giving his inked side an undignified poke. “I mean, we all make dumb tattoo decisions in our twenties, right?”
Avery had not. “It looks nice,” he said, wondering if he would ever think about anything but that ever again. He tried to distract himself by running headlong into another awkward subject: “Hey, you’re not still with Emily, right?”
“Emily?” Baldwin chuckled. “No. That was over a while ago. She doesn’t even live in New York anymore. How come?”
Avery weighed his choices here and realized oh, no reason wouldn’t hold water. “I heard Joyce mention her.”
“Joyce did?” Cackling, Baldwin clapped his hands. “Oh, we’ve got them sweating.”
“What do you mean?”
“Emily was on one FaceTime call, in the background, and Dad and Joyce made such faces about her.” Shaking his head, Baldwin tossed his soiled clothes into the laundry bag. “If they’re nostalgic for her, it’s because you and me are making them climb the walls.”
Avery could tell that was good, at least by Baldwin’s estimation. He still wasn’t sure how he felt himself about antagonizing the Calhouns — but then again, if they had the support of the bride and a five-year-old, then they must have been doing something right. Maybe. It was hard to say.
“I’m going to go take a run,” said shirtless, tattooed, drop-dead gorgeous Baldwin, whom Avery was now going to have to picture also sweaty and panting. “Burn off some of this energy. Otherwise I’ll never get to sleep. You want to come?”
The idea of Avery trying to keep up with anyone on a run through an unfamiliar part of Texas at night bordered on comical. “Have fun. I’m going to take a shower and turn in.”
“I’ll try not to wake you when I get back,” Baldwin promised.
“Thanks.” Before Baldwin could start stripping any further, Avery grabbed his bag and hopped right into the small bathroom. He didn’t start getting undressed right away, though; instead, he leaned against the wall and shut his eyes, trying to see if the image of Baldwin’s bare, decorated side had burned onto the backs of his eyelids. Not quite, but it was close.
Avery had to get it together. He had to pull himself together, dammit. This would have been ridiculous behavior in his teens, and he was a grown-ass man now. If he couldn’t be normal about this, he needed to leave, and since he couldn’t leave (literally, he didn’t know if taxis even came out here), he had to be normal about it. Lots of hot shirtless guys had tattoos. Living in Park Slope, Avery saw a dozen of them every time he went outside. He was normal about them. Why couldn’t he be normal about this?
Maybe he needed to start dating again. But the idea of that made him so depressed that he took a shower instead. He turned up the water as hot as it would go, trying to drive out any thoughts at all.
According to the schedule, Friday breakfast started being served at 6:30. When Baldwin and Avery showed up around 7:45, the pavilion was bustling with life and activity. “Well, look who decided to join us!” laughed Harold as they approached. “Good morning, sleepyheads!”
Avery did his best to appear cheerful. He tried to console himself with the fact that it was technically 8:45 in his home time zone. He hated mornings.
He did not, however, hate them as much as Baldwin seemed to. Baldwin released Avery’s hand long enough to pour them both large black coffees. Avery had fallen asleep at his laptop while doing some editing the night before, and when he’d woken up around midnight and put himself into bed properly, Baldwin still hadn’t been back. Avery wondered when he’d actually gone to sleep.
Avery was sort of glad for his bleary not-quite-awake fog, because it kept him from losing his mind over the fact that Baldwin was wearing jeans.
In all the years of their acquaintance, Avery had never seen Baldwin in anything but a suit or suit-adjacent clothing. Even when they saw one another outside the Pearl Club — usually at Ethan and Yuri’s — the most dressed-down Baldwin got was slacks and a collared shirt like he’d worn on the plane yesterday. But now he was wearing actual dark denim jeans, ones that hugged his muscular thighs in ways that made Avery think bad thoughts.
It didn’t help that Baldwin had completed the look with a soft grey henley, one just long enough that it hid any further views of his tattoo that might peek out over his waistband. With his hair a little mussed and his glasses slightly askew, he made Avery come dangerously close to swooning. Avery tried to hide his expression, then remembered he was supposed to be making expressions like that about his purported boyfriend, then didn’t know what to do with his face.
A man who was maybe one of Baldwin’s uncles gave Baldwin a rough-side-of-playful punch in his arm, jostling the coffee. “That job of yours has turned you into a real night owl, huh?”
“Always been one,” Baldwin said, forcing a little smile.
So had Avery, which he hadn’t consciously known about himself until he’d suddenly found himself with a writing spot that didn’t open until three in the afternoon and stayed open into the wee hours of the morning. He’d stopped pulling himself out of bed at six a.m. because that was what his parents had always said was good and healthy, and had started letting himself discover rhythms that felt more natural to him. Some days he slept until noon. No one cared. He got his work done, and done even better for not trying to force while half-awake.
Baldwin had warned Avery that his family was morning people, but being warned about something and encountering it were two separate phenomena. “Rise and shine!” sing-songed an aunt; Avery couldn’t remember if she corresponded to the uncle or not. “You boys almost missed breakfast.”
In Avery’s world, breakfast deserved to be served until early afternoon. “Thanks, Aunt Jean.” Baldwin said. “We’re good with coffee for now.”
The schedule for leading up to the rehearsal dinner that evening was not too demanding, at least: more guests arriving throughout the day, putting up more decorations and signs, various family sessions with the photographer, with opportunities for some group hikes down nearby trails and a trip to something called a swimming hole (weather permitting). So really, there was no need for Baldwin to be up and about at that hour, except that his family clearly had a thing about it.
In fact, Avery was starting to understand more of why Baldwin had gone to the trouble of bringing along a whole fake boyfriend instead of just announcing his newfound bisexuality: Baldwin was a little cowed by his family. Avery had felt it when Baldwin’s dad had called them sleepyheads — that little flinch, followed by no smart remark in return. At the Club, anyone who gave Baldwin shit would get back as good as they got. But that was Baldwin’s territory, where he bled confidence. Surrounded by relatives, it was harder for him to keep his chin up. Having an actual human being accompany him meant Baldwin couldn’t back out or back down.
So Avery’s job was to be Baldwin’s courage when it failed. Meek by nature, Avery could never have done that for himself. But for someone else — for Baldwin, especially? He just might.
As Baldwin went to get more coffee, Avery’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and saw that he’d been added to a group text with Yuri and Ethan, the latter of whom had just asked, How’s it going?
What an excellent question. Avery considered this for a moment, then wrote back, Baldwin’s wearing jeans.
Showing off his flat ass? asked Ethan. I can say that. I’ve said it to his face. The man has no ass.
Avery wasn’t sure how much he was supposed to acknowledge that. How did last night go? he replied, sidestepping the question.
Tell him it was fine, Ethan replied. Nice and boring. Nothing burned down. He can take a break and it’s fine.
Baldwin wasn’t exactly the kind of man who took days off. The Club was closed Mondays, but otherwise, if its doors were opening, Baldwin was opening them. Avery had maybe twice shown up to find Baldwin missing, and even then he’d just stepped out for an errand. Having him take a whole weekend off was a big deal. Well, for him, at least. His employees seemed to have gotten on great.
I’ll vouch for that, Yuri added a moment later. It’s still standing.
I’ll tell him, said Avery. And he would, if Baldwin asked. For now, though, if Baldwin wasn’t actively worrying about it, Avery wasn’t going to bring the worry to his mind. Let Baldwin focus on one thing at a time.
The rest of the day was a blur of people and activity. If Avery stood still too long, someone would press him into service. He wound up rolling enough silverware to stock a small army, which seemed to indicate a very large guest list. He wasn’t even sure he knew that many people, period. His entire family could have taken up one of the tables at the venue and still had seats to spare.
Around noon, he finally got to meet Raza, the groom, a stocky, bearded man several inches shorter than Corinne herself even before she put on heels. “Thanks, man,” he said as he shook Avery’s hand warmly. “They’re a lot, huh?”
That seemed a polite understatement about the Calhouns. “They’re a lot,” Avery agreed. “Nice, but … a lot.”
“They try, though.” Raza chuckled as he looked around the crowded pavilion. “It’s like … they’re racist, but they don’t want to be, but it would take a lot of work to actually not be, so they decide that not wanting to be is enough.”
“Shit, that’s…” Avery chuckled. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Raza nodded, though still with a fond little smile on his face. He’d obviously spent much more time with these people than Avery had or ever would. “Really glad you’re here, though. Especially Baldwin. Corinne thinks he hung the moon, ever since we were little. Her rebel big cousin who showed her you don’t have to do what they expect you to do. Like have a day job. Or go to college.”
That was the second time he’d heard that mentioned, and it caught Avery’s ear. He came from a world where everyone went to college — it was just something you did. He had never thought to wonder if Baldwin hadn’t. It certainly hadn’t been a money issue. “He dropped out?”
Raza laughed as he nodded again. “I was about to be mad that he hadn’t told his boyfriend that, when I remembered, oh yeah. But yeah. His mom died and he kind of … well, he had a tough time. Failed out his first semester. Drinking problem, definitely some drugs. I don’t really know all the details; we were in elementary school at the time. We sort of lost track of him for a few years in there, and then the next thing you know, he’s showing up in a suit at Christmas, talking about his job bartending in New York City. I remember Corinne would not shut up about how cool she thought that was. She decided she wanted to become a mixologist, but of course her parents aren’t going to let her around alcohol, she’s fourteen. So instead she gets out all the liquids in the house and has all of us, her friends from school, come over while she tries to follow these online cocktail recipes, but with random substitutions where alcohol should have been.”
The fondness with which Raza spoke of his wife-to-be warmed Avery’s heart. Raza clearly thought this was a story to be told with pride, a tale of Corinne’s enthusiasm and creativity. Avery would have come to the wedding regardless of the couple, but he was pleased to know the love he was tacitly supporting was a good one. “How were they?” Avery asked.
“Terrible,” Raza said, wrinkling his nose at the memory. “The only one I remember was the White Russian, where it was milk, and then ground instant coffee, and of course she didn’t have vodka, so she decided that a good clear-liquid substitute was lemon juice.” Avery tried not to gag, while Raza nodded. “And that is why I cook and she cleans. Baldwin says if we come visit, though, he’ll give her lessons. We’d see you there, yeah?”
“I’d like to,” said Avery, who didn’t want to think too hard about how that wouldn’t be a question to ask someone’s real boyfriend. Someone’s real boyfriend would of course be there, probably living with him, or at least reliably around. But Avery had approximately forty-eight more hours of being a boyfriend, and when that time was up, he would be done.
There was a small lull in the proceedings in the early afternoon, so Avery went back to the cabin for a nap. Naps were how he’d survived most of his earlier life of feeling compelled to wake up early and then being unable to fall asleep until the wee hours of the morning. He’d only meant to lie down for a half hour or so, but he wound out sleeping for nearly three, cocooned in the cool dark of the room.
When he woke, he could see someone sitting on the other side of the bed. “Baldwin?” he asked, hoping he was right.
“Oh, hey.” Baldwin put his phone down on the bed and turned to Avery. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay, I–” Avery looked over at the clock and did the math. “I should be getting up anyway.”
Baldwin nodded. “Just checking in with Ethan.”
There was a little strain to his voice that didn’t escape Avery’s ears. “Everything okay?”
“Oh yeah,” Baldwin was quick to reply. “Doors opened an hour ago, service running smoothly, it’s like they don’t even miss me.”
That wasn’t what Avery had meant. “What about here?”
With a little sigh, Baldwin let his shoulders slump, then surprised Avery by flopping down on top of the covers, fully clothed down to his shoes. “It’s fine. It’s just a lot, you know. A lot of stuff.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his hand across his eyes. “Just stuff.”
Avery felt an overwhelming desire to reach out and just hold him — to wrap an arm across Baldwin’s chest and tuck his head against Avery’s shoulder, or vice versa if that suited them better. How long had it been since Avery had touched someone like that? Nearly a decade, he figured. He’d spent the time telling himself he didn’t need that kind of contact, he didn’t miss it. He didn’t expect the ache to hit him like a blow to the chest. He stayed right where he was. That kind of touch was for real boyfriends. Not for him.
Baldwin exhaled through pursed lips. “Anyway. It’s fine. Just, you know. Being home, brings back all the stuff.” Beside him, his phone buzzed, and he held it close to his nose so he could read it. “Ethan says you should get a medal for putting up with me,” Baldwin said, chuckling.
Avery didn’t want a medal. He wanted to be allowed to continue putting up with Baldwin in perpetuity. “Tell him I’m a hero like that,” Avery quipped, hoping the joke would cover whatever emotions he wasn’t supposed to be feeling about the situation.
That at least made Baldwin laugh properly, leaning his head back so Avery could see the lines of his exposed throat over the collar of his shirt. “You are definitely this weekend’s MVP. Even the bride agrees.” He rolled on his side then to look at Avery, propping his head up in exactly the way he might do with someone he actually shared a bed with, someone he usually expected to roll over and see. “This isn’t too awful for you, is it?”
Not in the way Baldwin meant, it wasn’t. “No,” Avery promised, answering only the question he’d been asked. “They’re nice. And it’s pretty here. And the food’s great.” That last part was absolutely sincere. The small plates menu at the Pearl Club was always outstanding. Baldwin came by that skill honestly.
“Oh yeah, good food. Calhouns go all out on the food.” Then, without warning, Baldwin reached across the distance between them and brushed a lock of Avery’s shaggy hair from his forehead. “You know, bedhead is a good look on you.”
Avery practically choked. He was certain his face turned purple. On panicky instinct, he raked his hands furiously back through his hair, trying to tame it. His hair was always a little on the unruly side at the best of times; if it looked bad enough for Baldwin to poke fun at him for it, it must’ve looked bad.
Baldwin laughed even harder. “Speaking of good food, it’s almost dinnertime!” He sat up and hopped out of bed as though all of those were normal things to say to one’s friend, as though there were any way he couldn’t hear Avery’s pulse pounding.
As they arrived at the main compound, Avery could see the wedding planner hustle the last members of the bridal party into their places for tomorrow. Oh, so that was why they called it a rehearsal dinner. He’d honestly never thought to wonder. In fact, he hadn’t thought much about weddings in general, given the smallness of his family and the singleness or already-marriedness of his friends. They were things that happened to other people, like winning a baseball game or getting a tongue piercing. Those were for people who led other lives — not better or worse, but so different as to be incomprehensible.
Baldwin was back in a suit tonight, a trim, dark blue three-piece number with a pale pink shirt and the same bi pride flag peeking out from his breast pocket. Avery felt downright clownish next to him, sporting a simple dress shirt and khakis, which suddenly felt too big in the shoulders and too baggy in the knees. The truth was that Avery fit in far more with the other male guests, who had on everything from polos to t-shirts for this warm-weather outdoor event. Baldwin was the outlier, the one fashionably overdressed for the occasion. He looked sharp, competent, and completely in control.
One of the small mercies of a rehearsal dinner seemed to be a great number of speeches, announcements, stories, and slide shows of photographs set to tacky pop songs — all of which Avery preferred to making conversation. This affair was a little more structured than the previous night’s had been, which meant Baldwin and Avery had found their namecards at a table with Baldwin’s parents, Leon, and four more people outside the family tree Avery had worked so hard to memorize: Joyce’s sister and brother-in-law, and a pair of longtime family friends, Ken and Maureen. Avery couldn’t even imagine going to the wedding of someone who could best be described as one’s wife’s sister’s second husband’s brother’s daughter. But here they were, and having a great time of it, it seemed.
When they weren’t eating or toasting or clapping or doing anything else that required hands, Baldwin’s arm was draped firmly across the back of Avery’s chair, his fingers sometimes even curling around Avery’s shoulder. Avery found himself leaning into the touch the way he might have leaned toward a fireplace on a cold morning. Along with heat, Baldwin was radiating pure Baldwin-ness, and Avery wanted to soak it up while he could, before it was gone.
There were, however, breaks in the proceedings that Avery could not escape. As the main course was served, Harold chuckled a little. “It’s kind of relaxing, not having to do father-of-the-bride-or-groom duties. I thought all I’d have to do was pay for it and show up, but no, mine had me running around a lot too.”
“Remember that girl you brought to Wilson’s wedding?” Baldwin’s step-uncle asked Baldwin. “What was her name? Diamond, Emerald?”
“Diamond,” Baldwin confirmed, surprising Avery, who’d assumed the step-uncle had been making fun of a more mundane gemstone name.
“Was that the girl you were going to take to prom?” asked Leon.
“No, that was Stephanie.” Baldwin’s fingers tightened around Avery’s shoulder. The were going to part of that sentence spoke volumes.
“Stephanie, right,” said Maureen. “You were just so popular, it was hard to keep track.”
“And what about you, Avery?” asked Baldwin’s step-aunt, smiling politely as she redirected the conversation to the family’s newest outsider. “You’re a handsome young man. Did you date a lot of girls in high school?”
Avery could not fathom the impulse that would make someone ask a near-stranger about their teenage dating habits. “Um, no,” he said, wishing that the venue’s cloth napkins would shred the way paper ones did. “No, I’m gay, so … no, not a lot of girls.”
Everyone else at the table laughed like Avery had said the funniest joke then. It wasn’t unkind or mocking laughter, just … well, it made Avery think of forced sitcom laugh tracks after mediocre jokes. Wasn’t it funny, what he’d said? Didn’t everyone agree? Avery forced a smile because he didn’t know what other expression to make.
Mercifully, music fired up right then over the sound system as another collection of images started to wheel and twirl across the screen, this one featuring photos from what looked like a recent trip Raza and Corinne had taken to his family’s hometown in Pakistan. They were wonderful pictures shot in front of gorgeous scenery, and Avery couldn’t focus because his ears were full of the sound of his own voice saying I’m gay.
Surely he’d said it before. He had to have said it before: those words, in that order, talking about himself. Except he was drawing an utter blank.
Even back when he’d actually been hooking up with men once in a blue moon, back in college, he’d never really said it aloud. Why would he? No one had ever asked. No one had ever needed to know, at least not in so many words. No one really cared about Avery’s sexuality enough to inquire, and he’d never really had enough of one to make a thing of it. He’d known it about himself, and that had been enough.
It had felt kind of good, though. I’m gay. Well, he was, wasn’t he? He was out here, being gay, and also he was gay. He was a real gay man in a fake gay relationship. But the real gay part would stay when everything else had gone away.
Shit, he’d just come out for the first time in his life, and it was to his fake in-laws. Not that it had been a surprise, exactly, but still.
He hadn’t realized he was spiraling a little until the pressure of Baldwin’s hand on his thigh made Avery nearly jump out of his skin. Baldwin leaned in close to Avery, enough so that even a softly spoken sentence could be heard over the ambient pop song: “You okay?”
Not really, no. Avery was having a small identity meltdown, made all the more acute by the knowledge Baldwin’s lips were less than an inch from his ear. He managed to nod. Sure. He was fine. He was better than fine. He was gay. “Just have to use the restroom,” he managed before excusing himself from the table.
Avery told himself firmly that he was not allowed to have a panic attack in the bathroom, then surprised himself even more by realizing that panic wasn’t the emotion he was feeling. What was it instead? He couldn’t tell. He pulled out his phone. I’m gay, he texted Yuri and Ethan. Did you know?
Oh honey, was Ethan’s near-immediate reply.
How are you holding up? asked Yuri a few seconds later.
What an exciting question. Avery had no idea how he was holding up. Was he that obvious? Or did they just know their own type? I’m okay, Avery typed. He considered the message a moment before sending it. If it was a lie, at least it was a reassuring one.
If he gets out of line, just pour a drink on him, Avery read, and it took him a moment to realize that message had come from Yuri, not Ethan. Avery chuckled at the thought of Yuri’s suggesting in his calm, professional manner that Avery dump a drink on Baldwin to make him shut up. At least Yuri had the dignity not to tell his client I told you so. In fact, Avery was certain that very restraint was what had made Yuri so successful at such a young age.
He’s fine too, Avery reassured them. At least, Baldwin was as fine as Avery was okay. Besides, their situation was temporary. It was Friday night now. By this time Sunday, they’d be home.
We’re here if you need us, said Ethan, followed by an indecipherable string of emoji that was probably meant to be comforting.
Thanks, Avery texted back.
The slideshow was over and dessert was underway by the time Avery made it back to the table. Baldwin stood to greet him, a gentlemanly gesture that Avery was helplessly charmed by. “Everything come out all right?” asked Leon.
Avery hoped that hadn’t been a poop joke and feared it had. “I just — phone call to my publisher,” Avery said, coming up with the first excuse that came to mind.
“On a Friday night?” asked Joyce.
Avery only wished that had been the unbelievable part of the story. “Publishing works all hours. And in a lot of different time zones. It’s a twenty-four-hour business, so when my editor calls, I pick up.”
“See? Publishing! Now that’s something you could do,” said Ken. “We were just saying to Baldwin, there are plenty of respectable jobs that keep odd hours.”
Oh no. Avery turned to Baldwin, embarrassed that he’d been so caught up in his own little crisis that he hadn’t noticed the look of quiet desperation that had overtaken Baldwin’s face. Maybe it was subtle, but Avery could see it clear as day. Without thinking, he reached out and rested his hand on Baldwin’s thigh, feeling shocked only afterward at how natural the intimacy felt.
“Have you thought about franchising?” asked Baldwin’s step-aunt. “There are lots of trendy places opening up in Austin these days.”
“You could even split your time,” Joyce suggested. “It’s so dark and cold up there in the winters.”
“You’d be great at management,” Leon added. “The guys I work with, you’re twice as smart as most of them.”
Avery waited for Baldwin to reply. He held his breath waiting to hear how cleverly Baldwin would dismiss their ridiculous opinions with his usual charm and wit. Any minute now, Baldwin would interrupt to tell them that all those suggestions were fine for other people, but he was doing what he loved and he was good at what they did, so they could save their breath.
Baldwin didn’t. He didn’t mount a single protest — and not because he was unmoved by what they said, either, but because he’d retreated behind the armor of his confident exterior, leaving nothing but its hollow for resistance.
“We’re always glad you’re doing what you love, honey,” said Maureen. “But you are, what, thirty-five now?”
Baldwin’s step-uncle nodded agreement. “You’ve always been a bright kid. You can do better than slinging beers all your life.”
“Actually,” Avery heard someone say, and then was shocked a second later to realize that the word had come out of his own mouth, “Baldwin’s work is complicated and he’s very good at it.”
Despite the noise and chatter throughout the rest of the grounds, a pin drop could have been heard at their table. The others turned to Avery with looks of mild surprise. Perhaps they’d thought he’d be on their side, happy to join the other grown-ups in urging Baldwin to keep more regular hours, to climb into more important positions, to become more like the respectable members of society they were. Maybe they’d even thought they were doing Avery a favor.
“The Brooklyn restaurant scene is one of the toughest markets in the world,” Avery found himself saying, suddenly glad for just how much kitchen history he knew. “The Pearl Club has been open for seven years. Around eighty percent of New York City restaurants fail in the first five. It’s got tremendous reviews, and they all mention Baldwin, usually by name, because he takes care of so much stuff himself. He’s there at the Club every day, open to close, working incredibly hard.”
“Is he, now?” asked Harold — either as a challenge or from honest ignorance, it was hard to tell.
Avery nodded. He squeezed Baldwin’s thigh reassuringly. “He manages most aspects of the business himself. He’ll cover everything from working the bar to balancing the books. Not everybody could pull this off and be successful. Usually to keep places like this going, you need investors and marketing teams. He’s done it without either. I think that’s a pretty respectable accomplishment.”
“It’s not that–” Baldwin began, but Avery cut him off. If he wasn’t going to hear that shit from Baldwin’s family, he certainly wasn’t going to hear it from Baldwin himself.
“Yes, it is,” Avery insisted. “You have done an incredible job and been successful under very difficult conditions, and you’ve got a staff that loves you and would do anything for you, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.” The Pearl Club employed a total of maybe a dozen people, and most of them had been working there since before Avery had shown up. “I think it says a lot about you and the kind of person you are. You work harder than anyone I know, and you play it off like its nothing. People notice. I notice. And I’m proud of you.”
The venue had little white lights strung up in all the trees, and Avery could see them reflected in the dark irises of Baldwin’s eyes. He was so handsome, with his soft hair and his full lips, and he deserved so much better than the shit his family was giving him for being himself. They genuinely loved him, that was clear, but more than that, they seemed to think they could somehow love him into a shape that they wanted to love even more. Avery liked his shape just the way it was now. As much as Baldwin heard from them that he was all wrong, he deserved to hear that he was all right too. A real boyfriend would do no less. Wouldn’t he?
Miraculously, the Best Man grabbed the mic just then and announced that it was time for another round of toasts, which necessitated more bottles and glasses. Avery was grateful for the combination of darkness and champagne, because he could play off the flush in his cheeks. It occurred to him that Baldwin probably thought Avery was just playing the good boyfriend again, hyping him up as appropriate. But Avery had meant it. Every word had been something he’d thought for a while now, but when did anyone ever have the chance to voice thoughts like that? Offering that opinion out of the blue would have been weird. But in the moment, it had felt right. Like saying that he was gay. Or agreeing to being a date to a family wedding. Little things like that.
After toasts and dessert were both through, the gathering began to disperse, with several comments about how tomorrow would be a long day and everyone should get to bed early. Baldwin turned to Avery with a look on his face Avery couldn’t read, but before he could say anything, his sister Mackenzie tapped him on his shoulder. “Hey, you sober?” she asked.
Whatever expression Baldwin had been wearing earlier, it was gone in a flash, replaced with a stiff smile. “Yeah.” He nodded.
“Awesome,” Mackenzie said, and from her tone, Avery couldn’t tell which way she’d been expecting the answer to go. “Because a whole lot of people staying in the hotel the next town over aren’t. Travis can get a bunch of them in his Highlander, but he wants to know if you, me, and John Robert can take at least a couple of their cars for them so they don’t have to mess with that tomorrow morning. Then he’ll bring us back.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Baldwin turned to Avery. “You okay if I run do that?”
Avery nodded. “Yeah, go ahead. I’d help, but–” A boy from the northeast who’d always lived in or near major cities, Avery had no idea how long it had been since the driver’s license he’d gotten as a teenager had expired.
“Nah, you don’t need to.” Baldwin took Avery’s hands and squeezed them — and then, without warning, leaned in and planted a kiss on Avery’s cheek, dangerously close to the corner of Avery’s mouth. “You hold down the fort while I’m gone, okay? Keep an eye on these people. They’re shady.”
“You’re shady,” said Mackenzie, giving her baby brother a playful poke in the side.
“Eh, she’s not wrong,” Baldwin said to Avery with a shrug and a wink. Then the siblings walked off together, chatting as they disappeared in the direction of what was apparently the parking lot for wedding guests who weren’t staying on-premises. And here Avery had thought that the venue alone housed enough people for a decent-sized wedding. He had no idea how many people were coming the next day.
Without Baldwin, Avery felt a bit at sea. He felt as though he should be doing something useful with himself, but he didn’t know what. The venue’s servers were clearing the tables, the parents were hustling their kids along to bed, the wedding planner was fussing around with the centerpieces, the less intoxicated guests were rounding up the more intoxicated ones — everyone seemed to have a purpose, except Avery himself.
He wandered over toward the pavilion, where someone had wisely set up a self-serve beverage station with jugs of water, lemonade, and sweet tea. Avery wasn’t even that thirsty, but the last thing he wanted was to be on a wedding morning was hung over. He poured himself a glass of water and willed himself to drink all of it. In the cool night breeze, he was almost chilly.
He stood there for a moment, watching all the commotion around him slowly fade as everyone turned in for the night. This was all such an unfamiliar world — not a bad one, but a strange one. Baldwin might as well have asked him to a wedding on the moon. Avery wondered if he might have more in common with actual aliens.
The sound of approaching footsteps told him someone else had come for a drink. Avery didn’t want to be in the way, so he tossed his cup in the trash and got ready to return to his cabin. What stopped him was the sound of an older man’s voice: “Avery.”
Avery felt all the water he’d just drunk ice over in his stomach. He turned to see Baldwin’s dad standing a few feet away. Harold was broader than his son, and taller besides; especially when next to his siblings for context, Baldwin clearly had taken after his mother’s side of the family. But his eyes were his father’s eyes, almost black in low light, intense enough to run someone through with their gaze. Avery swallowed.
Harold raked his hand back through his salt-and-pepper hair. “We didn’t … we didn’t quite get off on the right foot, did we?”
There was no way to respond to that. “Um.”
“That’s all right, it’s all right.” Chuckling, Harold waved the words away. He was clearly drunk, drunker even than he’d been at dinner. He must’ve taken those last few toasts seriously. “You just weren’t what I was expecting. But that’s on me, not on you. Not on you. And seeing you with Baldwin, I…” Harold drew in a big breath and let it out through pursed lips. “I worry about him, you know?”
Avery felt horrible. This was the kind of thing that should have been said to a real boyfriend, as part of a real father-in-law-to-son-in-law heart-to-heart conversation. Avery’s deception hadn’t just disrupted the wedding in general; it had fraudulently inserted him into what should have been a tender moment reserved for someone who actually deserved it.
“When his mom died, he took it hard. They were so much alike, the two of them. Wild hearts, she used to say. Without her … well, I was afraid we were going to lose him too. A few years in there, every time the phone rang, part of me just knew it was going to be the cops, telling me to come get baby boy out of jail, or worse. Even now, if ever the phone rings in the middle of the night, I wake up thinking, Jesus Christ, something’s happen to Baldwin.”
Avery’s hands clenched in his pockets. A lot of this was starting to make sense. When he looked at Baldwin, Avery saw the handsome, successful, debonair owner of the Pearl Club. When his family looked at him, they still saw the fuckup he’d been on into his twenties. This wasn’t just about the current Baldwin’s being the newly bisexual sheep of the Calhoun family. This went so much further back than that.
With a little laugh, Harold shrugged even as he leaned on the railing along the pavilion porch to keep from teetering over. “But you know, I see him with you, and it makes me worry a lot less. You’re clearly the best thing that’s ever happened him. The way he smiles when he’s with you, I haven’t seen that since he was a kid.”
“I…” How could Avery possibly tell Harold that, no, he was just imagining that? Baldwin smiled that way at everyone now. He looked happy because he was happy in his own skin. Avery had nothing to do with that. He was just Baldwin’s closest reminder of his New York life. That was all.
“I guess what I’m saying is…” Still using the left hand to hold on to the railing, Harold stepped forward and extended his right. He looked Avery square in the eye. “You make my son happy, and that’s what matters. I’m glad he has you.”
What was Avery supposed to do? He reached out his hand and put it in Harold’s. “Thank you, sir,” Avery managed, feeling very small.
From across the grounds, a voice called Harold’s name. Harold chuckled and gave Avery a firm squeeze before letting go of the handshake. “Okay, okay. Off to bed with this old man. See you both in the morning.”
Avery gave a little nod. He was trying not to puke.
He made it back to the cabin with his and Baldwin’s names on it. For a long moment, he stood there, staring at the sign. In that moment, it would have been so easy to believe. Yes, it was where they belonged. Yes, he made Baldwin happy. Yes, they held hands and slept in the same bed, not just here but all the time. Yes, there would one day be a wedding to which excited nieces could be invited, and supportive fathers, and happily married cousins, and anyone else who wanted to come. Yes, Baldwin felt the same way Avery did.
Avery exhaled through pursed lips and went inside. If they were on the moon, then their room was an airlock-protected capsule, the only bit of reality in a strange place. There was no more pretending once the door closed behind him.
He took a quick shower and got ready for bed. He’d meant to stay up and do some more editing, but the words were swimming meaninglessly in front of his eyes. Yet another exercise in frustration. He put down his laptop and curled into bed. He thought about texting Ethan and Yuri, but Ethan was probably busy running the bar, and odds were good that Yuri had gone to bed already. Avery didn’t want to bother either of them with something that didn’t matter.
Maybe going to sleep would help. He could get up early and do some work in the morning. Yes, that was a good plan.
Of course sleep didn’t come easy. Between the long nap he’d taken earlier and the thoughts cartwheeling through his head, Avery tossed and turned for over an hour before he finally drifted off into a shallow doze. His sleep was light enough that the sound of the cabin door’s opening woke him. He chose to lie still, keeping his breathing regular. Maybe if he did, he’d nod off again soon enough.
Avery could hear all the little sounds Baldwin made — the soft shuffle as he hung up his jacket and vest, the light taps as he placed his shoes by the door. Then everything was quiet for a moment, enough that Avery wondered if he’d missed the sound of Baldwin’s leaving, or taken the noise of the cabin’s door to be something else. He was about to open his eyes and check when he heard Baldwin whisper, “Aves? You still awake?”
For reasons he couldn’t fully explain, Avery played possum. He didn’t know what Baldwin wanted to talk about, and he didn’t really want to know. Whatever it was, he didn’t think he could handle talking about it. The last thing he needed was Baldwin reminding him about reality. Let Avery pretend a little longer.
When it became clear no response was forthcoming, Baldwin sighed. “That’s okay,” Baldwin said. Avery could hear the tired smile behind his words. “You’re a great boyfriend, you know? Best one ever.”
No, he wasn’t. Avery was a fraud. Maybe he was the best imitation boyfriend Baldwin had ever had, but only because he was the only imitation boyfriend Baldwin had ever had. If he’d ever had a real one, he’d know better. And of course he wouldn’t have a real one, because he was straight. Straight people believed wrong things all the time. It was their whole deal.
He lay there, his eyes shut, as Baldwin took a shower and climbed into bed. Avery wanted so badly to be able to believe that it meant something, having Baldwin so close to him, but he knew better. Inside the cabin, he had to breathe real air.
The wedding day itself was largely a blur. It didn’t help the strangeness that between how late Baldwin got back and how long it took Avery to fall asleep for real, it was approaching noon before they made it out of their cabin. Fortunately, everything was in such a bustling state that anyone who noticed was too busy to give them grief. The ceremony was set for four, giving them plenty of time to wake up, eat lunch, and get ready.
At least, Avery thought it would give them plenty of time. That was before the could-you-do-me-a-favor aunts descended, the Mother of the Bride chief among them. Instead of having a leisurely early afternoon, Avery and Baldwin found themselves pressed into last-minute decorating services, especially the ones that involved putting things up high. Though no one said it right to their faces, it was easy enough to put together from stray comments that the reason they were perfect for the job was that they were neither in the bridal party nor wrangling small children. Avery took back everything he’d thought the night before about being useful.
That was a lie. It wasn’t that bad, or even bad at all. The weather was gorgeous, and it was nice to move around a little, even if that moving did involve taping countless balloons to the backs of various folding chairs. Besides, he liked Corinne and Raza. He was doing this part to make their day a little nicer, and that was good.
As Avery tied the final garland down the aisle, he looked up to see Baldwin smiling at him. “What?” asked Avery. Was his hair funny again?
Baldwin just shook his head, still with that smile curling his pretty lips. “Nothing. Just you.”
“Me?” Maybe he’d gotten something on his clothes? Avery looked down and didn’t see any stains or foreign objects.
“Yeah, you.” Baldwin reached out his hand. “Come on, let’s go get ready for a wedding.”
For the ceremony itself, Avery had brought his nicest suit, which was one of the very few suits he owned. It was a simple, dark blue number that he’d worn to basically every publicity appearance he’d done. No one had ever called him on its being the same suit every time. It wasn’t much, but he looked presentable.
Baldwin, however, looked exceptional. He’d chosen a grey suit made of a raw silk that caught every color of the light, with a matching vest over a deep indigo shirt. He’d traded out the pride flag for a plain but brilliant gold pocket square, the same color as his tie. Mother-of-pearl cufflinks flashed at his wrists. He even had a gold pocketwatch chain dangling out, matching the thin gold rims of his glasses. While the sight of Baldwin in a suit was no novelty to Avery, there was something about the slim cut and tailored look of this one that made Avery sigh dreamily. “I like that suit,” Avery said, figuring that compliment would cover the and you in it part of the equation.
“Come here,” Baldwin said, beckoning him over with a single finger. As Avery approached, Baldwin pulled out a little brown box, only slightly wider than his palm. “For you.”
“For me?” With some skepticism, Avery lifted the lid. What he found inside, however, was no joke: a rolled-up tie, a folded pocket square, two cufflinks, and a tie bar — all the same as Baldwin’s. Oh, mother of pearl. He got it now. “Baldwin, I–“
“So we match, see?” Without asking, Baldwin took the box from Avery’s hands and pulled out the pocket square. “I thought we’d look good as a set.” He began working complicated folds into the fabric, making it look almost like a flower.
“Thank you,” Avery managed as Baldwin went for his breast pocket. He didn’t know if he’d ever worn a pocket square before.
Baldwin tucked the square right in over Avery’s heart, then placed his palm flat right over it. “I know I didn’t warn you that you might need a shirt with cufflink holes, so you can keep those for next time.”
Avery didn’t own a shirt with cufflink holes. “I will.”
With a flourish, Baldwin unrolled the tie and went for Avery’s throat. Avery stood there, barely breathing, as Baldwin draped the silk around Avery’s neck and tucked it beneath his collar. He hadn’t even asked; this was clearly just something Baldwin felt he was supposed to do. “Believe it or not,” Baldwin said as he started to loop one end around the other, “I’ve never gone in for fancy tie knots. It’s like cocktails: There’s only so far you can go before it stops being classy and just becomes a novelty.” His hands were warm enough that Avery could feel the heat radiating off them beneath his chin. “But a good Windsor knot — there! — will look sharp every time.”
Avery turned to see himself in the mirror. He didn’t know what magic Baldwin had worked, but Avery had never worn a tie that well before. He’d never worn anything that well before. Baldwin had worked wonders by styling them a pair, so that his being there elevated Avery’s look, rather than Avery’s dragging Baldwin down.
“One more bit!” Baldwin went for Avery’s middle, startling Avery before he realized there was still the matter of the tie bar. “All right. There we go. Handsomest man there.”
Avery’s cheeks pinkened. “That’s you,” he mumbled, dropping his gaze.
“Let’s let the people decide.” Baldwin slung one arm around Avery’s shoulders while pulling out his phone with the other. He spun them so they had the neutral background of the front door behind them, then turned the camera on them and snapped three quick selfies. Avery was surprised to find that his slightly startled expression didn’t look nearly as bad as he’d feared it would. “We need gay approval.” With a few quick taps, he sent the best of the three to Ethan.
Shortly came the response: You look fine, but who’s that hottie you picked up?
Avery blushed even more as Baldwin laughed. “The gays have spoken!” he declared, draping an arm over Avery’s shoulders. He seemed to hesitate there for a minute, then laughed and went for the door. “Come on, let’s show up the bride.”
There was zero chance of that. Corinne’s appearance at the back of the assembled seats was as fairy-tale magical as her mother no doubt had planned, in a cloud of white and ribbons and flowers in her braided hair. Avery had no real connection to the emotional beats of weddings, but even he couldn’t deny how moving it was to see someone so happy. She beamed as she all but floated down the aisle on her father’s arm, while Raza waited at the front, equally stunning in a red-and-gold sherwani, mopping at his eyes with a handkerchief as he saw his future wife approach. Okay, the straight people team got points for that one.
Baldwin held Avery’s hand throughout the ceremony — which, once it got going, was almost shockingly short, given the amount of work that had obviously gone into setting it up. The officiant had a few words to say on the subject of love, the maid of honor read a sweet but terrible poem, the groom’s sister said a prayer in Urdu and English, there were vows, there were rings, there was kissing, and then they were married. For all the to-do of the whole weekend, the core of it all was beautiful in its simplicity.
The ceremony’s end was like a fever’s breaking. All the tension that had held the weekend together evaporated in the late afternoon heat, replaced with a chaos that the wedding planner was wrangling masterfully, herding all the relevant family members over to one area for pictures while shuffling everyone else back to the pavilion for the reception. “Oh, they’re doing a whole Calhoun shot,” Baldwin said as Joyce waved him over. “Come on.”
“Oh, no no no.” Avery all but planted his heels in the dusty earth. “No, that’s all you.” Ruffling feathers at an event was one thing, but intruding on family photos was another.
For a moment, Avery could see the struggle on Baldwin’s face, but even he would have to concede that trying to put a partner of less than a year in a family photo was a fight he’d lose regardless of gender. At last, Baldwin sighed and let go of Avery’s hand. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
Avery did move, but merely a few feet to the side, into a nice shady spot. He pulled out his phone and saw two messages waiting in the group chat, first from Ethan — Seriously, you look sharp as hell. — and then from Yuri — How was the ceremony?
Thank you. It was nice. It was short, was Avery’s reply, figuring that covered most of the important bits.
Is he behaving? asked Yuri.
Yes, Avery answered, because he knew what Yuri meant. The two of them had earned a number of double-takes as they’d walked up together, presumably from friends of the family who hadn’t yet been warned there would be real-life homosexuals their midst. Instead of feeling as awkward about that as he might have in the past, Avery felt downright brave. There was something to be said for being a lightning rod. Maybe Avery could get used to this.
No, he couldn’t. He was at his core a mouse of a man. But he’d gotten to play a lion for a weekend, which was fun — a lion with a very handsome boyfriend, who gave him gifts and joked about being his husband someday in ways that didn’t sound like a joke, not entirely. It had been nice to pretend.
Besides, the pretending wasn’t even done, Avery was reminded as Baldwin came striding back toward him, almost bouncing as he came to Avery’s side. “Hi,” he said as he took Avery’s arm in his.
“Hi,” Avery said, leaning into the touch despite how much more that would make it hurt when he had to let it go. “Good photos?”
“Not bad, not bad.” Baldwin squeezed Avery’s arm. “We’ll get you in one next time.”
Before Avery could even think to wonder what he’d meant by that, they were off to the bar. There, Baldwin again immediately became the bartender’s best friend by asking what the bartender’s favorite was and responding with delight when she said she was actually just a beer drinker. So instead of cocktails, their night started with cold beers — Shiner, according to the yellow label. Baldwin clinked the neck of his against Avery’s. It felt like acknowledgment of a job well done.
Watching the way the other guests barely acknowledged there was a human person back there getting them their drinks, Avery supposed he understood more about why Baldwin’s family thought so little of Baldwin’s career path. “You know, I got my start in slinging beers in dive bars,” Baldwin said as he leaned against the high counter. “I have sold more Shiners than I could drink in a lifetime.”
Avery supposed that made sense; after all, one did not simply fall into owning a successful fancy cocktail joint. “Hard to picture you at a dive bar.”
“Oh, not looking like this.” Baldwin laughed as he tugged on his lapel. “No, you’d be stupid to wear anything there you couldn’t throw into the wash the second you got home. That was back when I still owned more than two pairs of jeans. Then a nice crisp button-down shirt over the top. Neat, but not fancy.”
“Do you miss it?” asked Avery.
“Yes and no,” said Baldwin with a shrug. “I like owning my own place. And I don’t miss how sticky those floors got. Or how many times I got my ass kicked.”
The thought of dapper, charming Baldwin in a bar brawl was something Avery couldn’t easily picture. “Did you give as good as you got?”
“Hell no! Those guys were all twice as big as I’ll ever be.” Chuckling at the memory, Baldwin drank down his beer. “But you know what I do miss? No matter how shitty those places were, they always had a jukebox and at least a little square of a dance floor. When things got quiet, made it easy for me to grab the nearest beauty and do a little two-step.”
Right, because Baldwin was straight and liked women. Avery didn’t need that reminder right now. He forced a smile and drank his beer.
The wedding planner took the mic then and announced the entrance of “Mr. and Mrs.Raza Alvi and Corinne Calhoun,” something Avery was sure went over great with the older generation. Everyone seemed too happy to care just then, though, laughing and clapping as the whole bridal party made their way to their table. That was the cue to start the dinner buffet. Calhoun catering again won the day — Avery didn’t even like barbecue, and he went back for seconds of the brisket. There was food, and then there were more speeches, and then there was cake, and the beers helped soften the whole evening into a pleasant sort of blur.
So much was happening around him, all of it loud and happy. It was easy to get comfortably lost in the fog of it. There were so many emotions to feel, even by proxy, like when the Mother of the Bride told the Mother of the Groom in a meticulously practiced Urdu sentence that she was now part of the family. That one had Avery drying his eyes while Baldwin slung an arm around his shoulders. Apparently he was a guy who cried at weddings now. Who knew?
Dancing followed, with so many first dances and special dances and parent-child dances and coordinated group dances that Avery had to excuse himself for a bathroom break that was mostly just a chance to grab some fresh air. He checked his phone then and found another message from Yuri: Is he still behaving?
He’s being a perfect gentleman, Avery promised them.
As Avery returned, Baldwin stood and held out his hand. Without thinking, Avery took it, expecting they’d sit down together again. What he didn’t expect was to be tugged toward the dance floor. A stab of panic made Avery flail. “What are you doing?” he asked.
Baldwin turned and gave him the most charming smile Avery had ever seen — and considering how long Avery had known Baldwin now, that was a hell of a high bar. “What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m grabbing the nearest beauty and doing a little two-step.” With a wink so sly it melted all of Avery’s defenses, Baldwin spun him out until they were chest-to-chest on the dance floor, swaying to a slow country song.
“I, I don’t know how,” Avery stammered, clinging to Baldwin less for dancing and more for dear life.
“Just follow me.” Baldwin’s voice was soft as he got his arm tight around Avery’s waist. He nudged his foot forward, guiding Avery to take a step back. Avery did, though with an awkward stumble. “See? You’re dancing now.”
Avery was very sure he was not, especially considering the couples around them doing actual spins and steps. Some were even wearing full cowboy hats with their suits, a look Avery had to respect even if he didn’t fully understand it. What he and Baldwin were doing was at best arrhythmic shuffling. And he was focusing on that to keep from focusing on how close Baldwin’s body was to his, close enough that Avery could smell the oil he’d run through his hair. Baldwin gripped Avery’s hand in his own in a way that had become so familiar, Avery didn’t know how he was going to live without it again.
Maybe Avery should make more friends so he’d get invited to more weddings, so he could ask Baldwin to come along as his fake date this time. Maybe Baldwin would think that was only fair. Maybe getting to pretend once a year would be enough. It would have to be enough.
Then Baldwin looked Avery in the eye and smiled. “So, I’m going to kiss you now, okay?”
Avery couldn’t breathe. The capsule had opened and all the air had been sucked out. He was in space now. He nodded.
Baldwin bent in and kissed Avery right on the lips. His mouth closed against Avery’s as they swayed softly together, chaste enough for a moment — and then Baldwin was pressing his tongue along Avery’s lips, and oh no, this was a kiss. In front of everyone, the whole wedding, his whole family, Baldwin was kissing Avery like he meant it, like he’d been thinking about it all evening, if not longer. Avery would have fallen over if Baldwin had not held him up, supporting him in the kiss until Avery felt himself starting to kiss right back. It was real. Whatever else they had been pretending or would still pretend to be after, that was real.
There was a sharp wolf whistle then that made Baldwin laugh too much to keep kissing. Avery glanced over to where it had come from, only to find Corinne and Raza giving them thumbs-up from the head table. He stumbled a little, kicking Baldwin’s foot in the process. Baldwin just laughed some more — not like he was making fun of Avery, but like he was truly, genuinely happy. He held tight to Avery’s hand and kept swaying gently. “Did I do it right?” he asked, his voice low.
Had he done it right? As part of fooling his family, right? Avery guessed that if had been enough to fool the bride, then yeah, it had them pretty fooled. Avery nodded again. Talking was difficult when his pulse rate was this high.
Baldwin’s grin was like sunshine. “Okay, good. Good.” Despite Baldwin’s confident appearance, Avery could feel him tremble slightly. Was he nervous? “I wanted the right moment to tell you you’ve been–“
Whatever Baldwin was going to finish the sentence with disappeared beneath the whine of stereo feedback. The best man had the mic: “Will all the unmarried women and men get out onto the dance floor now? It’s time for the bouquet toss!”
There was no way for Avery to escape, especially not after the intentionally gender-inclusive wording of the invitation. The space around them was flooded with women, mostly younger, as Baldwin turned their joined hands and kissed Avery’s knuckles romantically. “Good luck,” Baldwin said with a wink before he stepped off to the sidelines, leaving Avery in the crowd of excited giggles and high heels. He’d never been to a wedding before where he’d had anything tossed at him. He supposed he just had to follow everyone else’s lead. He barely even had time to wonder, hey, shouldn’t Baldwin be out there as well? before Corinne positioned herself on the far side of the dance floor, with several feet of space between her and the crowd. She turned her back to everyone before bending down and pitching her bundle of flowers blindly behind her.
Avery learned something about himself in that moment, and that was that if something was coming flying toward him at a harmless speed, his instinct was to catch it. Without thinking, he reached out his hands and let the bouquet fall softly into them.
There were squeals of delight and excitement as the younger women bustled around him, making exaggerated sounds of disappointment by way of congratulating him. Avery looked at the bundle of pretty flowers as the photographer’s flashbulb went off repeatedly. “What do I do now?” he asked one of the bridesmaids. She was part of the wedding party; he figured she’d know.
“Now you’re going to be the next one to get married!” she said. The others clapped and cheered at the news. They must have been Corinne’s friends.
Avery wanted to look over at Baldwin, to see his reaction, but the flash caught him right in the eye, rendering everything outside the lighted middle of the dance floor invisible. The best man then announced that it was time for all unmarried men — no girls allowed this time — to assemble for the garter toss, and Avery decided he was done catching things for today. He exited in what he hoped was the direction Baldwin had gone in, still clutching the bouquet in one hand.
Baldwin was by his side, laughing as he threw an arm around Avery’s shoulders. “Guess I have to make an honest man out of you, huh?”
The joke wasn’t cruel, because Baldwin obviously hadn’t meant to cut that deep. “I don’t think–“
That was as far as Avery’s protest got, though, because Baldwin was kissing him again. Right there, with the bouquet half-mashed between their chests, kissing Avery like he meant it. Avery felt foolish for letting himself believe it, but he wanted so badly for it to be true. He wanted to live in a world where Baldwin wanted this as much as Avery did.
It was at that moment Avery realized how much beer he, not a beer drinker, had consumed that evening, and how much the earlier bathroom run hadn’t helped enough. “I have to … use the…” Avery stammered, leaving the bouquet with Baldwin as he made a swift retreat to the end of the venue with the restrooms. On the way, out of sheer panic, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and texted Ethan and Yuri: He kissed me.
Kiss him back, came Yuri’s response.
I did! Avery replied.
Ethan sent a laughing emoji. Then why are you texting us instead of doing it again?
Because Avery knew how to text better than he knew how to kiss Baldwin, though he wasn’t going to type that. He stuck his phone in his pocket as he went to relieve himself. Well, that at least was one problem solved. If only all of them were so easy.
As Avery stepped out of the restroom, he saw Baldwin there, leaning against the back door of the venue with a wry little grin playing on his lips. Avery didn’t even have time to register his surprise before Baldwin was grabbing his hand, pulling him out into the night. “Come on,” Baldwin said as he led Avery away from the pavilion. “Let’s get out of here.”
Oh no, had someone been awful to Baldwin? In the time it had taken Avery to pee, had one of his relatives given him grief for kissing in public? At least he could give Baldwin cover for escaping, then. Avery tried not to linger on the disappointment, even if he did feel a little like Cinderella after midnight, running away from the ball as his dress faded into tattered rags. Oh well. It had been nice while it had lasted.
They should at least talk about what had happened between them, Avery reasoned, just to make sure Baldwin knew there were no hard feelings. He’d even started writing a whole little speech about it in his head. The most he got out of it, though, was an exhale on the first We, because as soon as the cabin door was shut behind them, Avery felt the wood of the wall up against his back. The air that had left his lips had been swallowed up by Baldwin’s, because Baldwin was kissing him again — not for show, not because his family was watching. He had one hand around the knot of Avery’s tie and the other on Avery’s hip, and he was kissing Avery like Avery had never been kissed before in his life.
Avery found that he was grabbing the lapels of Baldwin’s jacket like he might float away — and he well might, given that Baldwin had somehow brought outer space back with them, into where the dull disappointment of gravity should have been. Here, he wasn’t supposed to be someone Baldwin kissed. He was supposed to be the friend, the bar patron, the writer at the corner table. This kind of kiss belonged to someone else.
“Baldwin,” Avery murmured the kiss finally broke long enough to let him breathe. “Are you — I mean — how much did you have to drink?”
There was a small beat of confusion, and then Baldwin laughed outright at that, pressing their foreheads together. “Oh, sugar,” Baldwin said, his voice soft, “I am miles away from Bad Decisions Drunk.”
Avery’s rational explanations were fast running out. “Then…?”
“Are you asking why I’m kissing you?” Baldwin asked slyly. Avery gave a little nod. “It’s because I don’t think I ever want to be not kissing you ever again.”
“Nobody’s going to see,” Avery pointed out.
“I know,” said Baldwin with an absolute spotlight of a grin. “That means I can do this.” And he went back to kissing Avery again, only this time he let go of Avery’s hip and cupped his hand right over Avery’s cock, giving it a very purposeful squeeze.
Avery made an undignified little gasp as he felt Baldwin’s hands — his handsome, strong hands — work him hard. With a little whimper, he leaned his head back against the door for support. Baldwin took this moment to go for Avery’s bared throat, kissing him with just the barest edge of teeth. Avery could feel the grin on Baldwin’s lips as Baldwin worked his way up to the curve of Avery’s jaw, then to his earlobe. Avery realized that his hands were still clenching Baldwin’s suit, probably wrinkling the material in a way that Baldwin had every right to be mad about.
But Baldwin didn’t feel mad at all. He sucked on Avery’s ear for a moment, then pressed his lips right up against Avery’s skin. “I want to taste you,” Baldwin whispered, like this was something people said to Avery, ever.
Avery gave the slightest nod, which apparently was what he did when Baldwin asked anything of him now. Baldwin twirled them both few steps over to the bed, then sat Avery down hard against the edge. He kissed Avery again as he hooked his fingers in Avery’s tie and pulled the knot loose. How did Baldwin keep doing that, kissing Avery and doing other things? It was taking all of Avery’s concentration just to keep breathing. He ran his hands up Baldwin’s sides, feeling the soft fabric of his vest. He thought about the tattoo just beneath, the dark lines on Baldwin’s skin, and he made a soft whimpering sound against Baldwin’s mouth.
Baldwin drew back from the kiss and looked at Avery with a grin — not a smug one or a mischievous one, Avery had seen those before, but an actual grin like he couldn’t have stopped smiling if he’d wanted to. Little locks of his dark hair fell into his face, giving him a rakish look. He hovered there for a moment, like he was taking in the sight of Avery like that, rumpled and besuited on the bed. This was the light Avery knew him in best, the soft glow of low bulbs that only beat back so much of the night. They were in their element here, unfamiliar positions but familiar ground.
Then with a smooth slide of limbs Avery could never have managed, Baldwin sank to his knees on the floor in front of Avery. He went straight for the belt of Avery’s trousers, making eye contact with Avery the whole time. “If I’m not good at this, cut me some slack. It’s my first time.”
There were about a million and three follow-up questions Avery had to that, all of which were preempted by Baldwin’s reaching into Avery’s unfastened pants, pulling out his cock, regarding it for a moment with an appraising smile, and then opening his mouth. Baldwin’s pretty lips made a perfect little shape as they let the head of Avery’s cock slip between them. This must indeed have been on Baldwin’s mind, if he’d gone after his first blowjob with such gusto. The corners of his lips perked into a little smile as he ran his tongue along Avery’s erection, tasting him with a connoisseur’s deliberateness. Baldwin gave his own tie a tug and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt before leaning forward, letting his lips slip farther down Avery’s shaft.
Avery was barely holding it together. This was something he’d maybe allowed himself to fantasize about once in a great while, and every time he had, he’d felt so awful afterwards for jerking off about someone who surely would not have appreciated those thoughts. That surely wasn’t so sure now. In fact, Baldwin seemed to be preening under Avery’s gaze, enjoying the attention while he sucked Avery down like … well, not an expert, but definitely an enthusiastic amateur, which counted for a lot.
Baldwin was such a sight doing it, too, more beautiful than Avery had been able to imagine. He looked absolutely at home here, like being on his knees with Avery’s cock buried in his mouth was what he’d been born to do. He let the shaft slip from his mouth for a moment and gripped it in his hand, then flicked his tongue around the tip teasingly. Avery couldn’t help the choked noise he made then, which just seemed to make Baldwin’s day. Baldwin let the flat of his tongue slide obscenely up the underside of Avery’s dick before going back to sucking him deep.
Avery wanted this to last forever, or at least long enough that it could be a memory to last the rest of his life, in case this never happened again. His exhausted, stressed, and too-long celibate body had other plans, though. “I’m–” he gasped, trying to warn Baldwin even as his words didn’t work. “I’m going–“
Baldwin hesitated only a moment, then rocked forward on his knees, holding Avery’s spit-slick cock tightly into his mouth. A wicked little smile lifted the corners of his lips as he gripped Avery’s dick at the base and stroked hard and fast. Avery moaned and grunted as his hips lifted involuntarily from the bed and he came directly into Baldwin’s mouth. Not only did Baldwin not seem surprised by this, he looked downright smug as he closed his lips around Avery’s dick and swallowed.
Okay, so Baldwin wasn’t straight. Straight men didn’t like having their friends come in their mouths. At least, as far as Avery knew. Maybe this was a new kind? Sometimes it was hard to keep up.
But no, it was becoming increasingly clear to Avery that his justifications for Baldwin’s behavior were bullshit. It wasn’t the beer. It wasn’t for appearances. It was because Baldwin had wanted to that he’d dropped to his knees and sucked Avery’s dick. Because it was Avery. Because he wanted Avery.
With pure gentlemanly flourish, Baldwin pulled out his pocket square and wiped his mouth clean. He tossed the fabric and his glasses together on a nearby table. “So,” said Baldwin, squeezing Avery’s thighs, “have I been as good a boyfriend to you as you’ve been to me all weekend?”
Avery didn’t know if that was a fair comparison. “I think you’re winning,” he said breathly. He sounded like he’d just run a marathon.
“Then I guess I should give you a chance to catch up, huh?” Looking thoroughly pleased with himself, Baldwin stood and began undressing. “Get naked.”
That was a tall order, considering how hard it had become for Avery to move his limbs. Still, he managed to get himself stripped down, if only by focusing on the process so intently that he could almost forget that Baldwin was doing the same thing just a few feet away. Every time he remembered, he forgot how buttons worked. He was more than a little glad that he’d already gotten off once, because if he hadn’t, coordination would have been impossible.
As soon as Avery was as naked as he was going to get, he scurried into bed and drew under the covers nearly up to his nose. From that angle, he could better enjoy the view he had of Baldwin, who was undressing with less of an awkward scramble. Baldwin was taking the time to fold each of the pieces of his very fine suit over the back of an armchair. “Enjoying the show?” he asked with a wink.
Avery nodded, especially as Baldwin pushed his underwear down his hips. Okay, so maybe Ethan had been right about Baldwin’s ass, but there were many other things to appreciate about the experience. For instance, Baldwin’s cock, which was standing at attention, and it was Avery’s fault. Avery might have been able to convince himself that Baldwin was faking every other aspect of this encounter (the reason he might be doing this, Avery hadn’t thought through yet), but the physical reaction was undeniable. Finally naked, Baldwin sauntered back over to the bed and threw back the covers completely, leaving them both bare and exposed atop the sheets as he hopped right in.
Kissing Baldwin again was incredible, in no small part because Baldwin now tasted like Avery, like he’d been sucking Avery’s dick just a few minutes ago, which he had, and Avery didn’t know if he was ever going to get over that. He exhaled hard against Baldwin’s lips as Baldwin pressed up against him, twining their legs together and pushing his cock right up against Avery’s hip. Avery smirked a little to feel it. “Want me to do something about that?” he asked, half-trying to be suave and then feeling very silly when he heard himself.
Baldwin’s reaction, however, contradicted Avery’s self-conscious worry. He bit his lower lip and nodded a little, looking flustered in a way that made Avery’s cock throb despite recent events. Oh, that was a very good look on Baldwin. Avery would have to see about knocking him off his game more often.
Well, there was no time line the present. With one more kiss to fortify himself, Avery slid down toward the foot of the bed. There was that tattooed tree again, dark ink over pale skin, a beautiful study in contrasts. Avery opened his mouth and pressed his tongue to it, tasting the soft warmth of Baldwin’s skin in a way only hours ago he would never have dreamed he’d be allowed. Its black roots curled down around Baldwin’s hip, leading Avery’s eye — and other parts — directly to Baldwin’s dick. And oh, it was a very nice dick: long and thick without being too long or too thick, uncut and curved up just slightly, a cock so ideal that it could have been used to illustrate the concept in a (somewhat adult) picture dictionary. Avery extended his hand and ran his fingertips up the shaft from root to tip, smiling as it jerked at the touch.
Baldwin grabbed a pillow from Avery’s side of the bed and used it to prop up his head, taking in the whole show. “I’m, um,” Avery managed, “maybe a little out of practice.”
“Of course you’ll be good.” Baldwin reached down to tug at a lock of Avery’s hair. “You’re you.”
Avery wished he had one thousandth of the faith in himself that Baldwin did. If he could borrow even an ounce of Baldwin’s confidence, oh, the things he’d get done in a day! But he couldn’t, so he’d just have to be brave on his own. Avery took a deep breath and opened his lips, then took the head of Baldwin’s cock between them.
The reaction was electric. As bold about his arousal as he was about everything else, Baldwin moaned his approval loudly as he gripped at the sheets. “Fuck, that’s good.” He licked his lips. “Out of practice my ass.”
Avery wouldn’t lie, that kind of encouragement was effective. With a proud little smirk, he let his mouth sink down farther, taking more of Baldwin’s dick in. It had been far too long since Avery had sucked dick, long enough that he’d almost forgotten how much he just plain liked it. This was an incredible reminder of how good it felt to have another man like that, to be able to make him feel pleasure like that. The fact that it was Baldwin just made everything immeasurably better.
“I was thinking about this while you had that beer bottle tonight,” Baldwin said in a breathy rush. Oh, it seemed he was a talker. Avery supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. “Watching your lips on it, wondering if that’s how you’d look when you were sucking cock. Sucking my cock. You were making me hard, and you didn’t even notice.”
Had he? Avery tried to think back to the hours before, but found that his memories were too clouded by his own anxieties to be clear. He’d been so worried about making sure he’d behaved right that he hadn’t noticed the side effects of that behavior.
And if Baldwin had been having those thoughts about him at least since they’d started drinking those beers … then when had they actually started? How long had he been thinking about the possibility of Avery’s lips on his dick?
Baldwin’s hand came to rest on the back of Avery’s head, slightly carded through the scruffier strands back there. “And then you in that suit… You look good all the time, but that, that especially. And I got to see you in that tie and think, look, everybody, he’s mine. I’ve got my name on him. We’re a matched set. Everybody else better back off, because that one’s mine.”
Despite himself, Avery let out a little whimper as he slipped his lips up and down Baldwin’s shaft a little faster now. Yes, that was what he wanted. He wanted to be Baldwin’s, and for Baldwin to be his. Was this his chance to convince Baldwin that should be the case, or had it happened already, so long ago that neither of them had noticed when they’d each become the other’s other half? Avery let that be a question for another time. Right now, he was giving Baldwin head, and he was apparently doing a good job of it, so that was what was important. Everything else could wait.
Hoping that his muscle memory held up, Avery took a deep breath through his nose and began to take more of Baldwin’s cock into his mouth, until the head was pushing right back against the entrance to Avery’s throat. He’d had too much good food and beer tonight to chance much more safely, but he wanted to. He wanted to take Baldwin deep enough that his lips were pressed right up against the dark, soft curls at the base of Baldwin’s cock. And he would, if he got the chance to do this again.
No, when he got the chance to do this again, because Baldwin wasn’t looking at him like a one-night stand. He was staring at Avery with eyes half-lidded and lips parted, an expression of near-awe, like he’d never get enough of looking at this. “Yeah, you’re mine,” Baldwin sighed, groaning a little as Avery cupped his balls and squeezed lightly. “Anybody else, they’re going to have to fight me for you. And I’ll win. Because you’re the best boyfriend ever. And you’re worth it.”
Avery wasn’t in a position to challenge that assessment, not with his head bobbing up and down Baldwin’s perfect-sized dick. Baldwin said it like he meant it, though, and that was enough.
“God, I wish we had the stuff here for you to fuck me.” Baldwin sighed as he let his thighs part, while Avery did his best not to completely choke with surprise on Baldwin’s dick. “Unless you…?”
No, Avery had not been optimistic enough to bring condoms and lube on what had once promised to be a long-weekend-long exercise in sexual and romantic frustration. As much as he could while sucking Baldwin’s cock, Avery shook his head.
Baldwin just laughed breathily as he settled back against the pillows. “Yeah, me neither. You a top? You seem like you’d top.”
Avery hadn’t been with enough people to get a good grip on exactly what he was. He hoped his little shrug conveyed that.
“Yeah, you seem like you’d top,” Baldwin concluded, smirking. “That was always fun, fooling around with girls who weren’t weirded out by that enough to try it. But you make me want it so bad, on all fours with you behind me, grabbing the headboard as you fuck my ass like you mean it.”
Despite the incredible, almost wrecking-ball-like orgasm he’d had earlier, Avery felt his cock start to grow hard and heavy again as Baldwin talked. Honestly, Avery had never let his fantasies accumulate enough detail to wonder how that would play out. The fact that Baldwin had brought it up independently, though — that was promising.
As the pleasure built, Baldwin finally couldn’t keep his neck propped up. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the pillows, moaning and gasping in a way that probably would have disturbed their neighbors, if they’d had any. “Fuck, you’re going to make me come, your fucking mouth.” Baldwin was hardly prudish about four-letter words, but Avery didn’t think he’d ever heard Baldwin be this outright filthy before. That, too, was Avery’s doing. “God, you’re — I’m–“
If Baldwin had swallowed like a champ his first time out, then Avery owed him no less. He moved his lips and tongue as deliberately as he could, coaxing Baldwin right into his orgasm. Baldwin came in Avery’s mouth, and Avery swallowed happily, almost nostalgic for the taste. This was better than it had ever been before, though, because it was Baldwin. Baldwin made everything better.
His pocket square was nowhere in hand, so Avery just wiped his mouth on the sheets before scooting back up the bed to lie down beside Baldwin. He drew the covers up with him, tucking them both beneath as he lay his head on Baldwin’s shoulder. This was even better than staring at someone from the other side of the bed, because even though Avery was too close to see much, it was a wonderful trade. “Oh my god,” Baldwin mumbled, sounding deliciously wrecked as he pawed at Avery’s naked back. “Oh my god, I fucking love you, I love you so fucking much.”
Did Baldwin actually mean that, or was he just saying that because Avery had just sucked Baldwin’s soul out through his dick? Well, either way, Avery was going to choose to feel accomplished. He lay there for a moment with his eyes closed, taking in all the sensations of having Baldwin closer to him than he’d ever thought possible. Avery drew in a deep breath, taking in the scent of Baldwin’s skin, then let it out in a long, gentle, utterly contented sigh.
Baldwin chuckled and pressed a kiss into Avery’s hair. “There it is.”
“There what is?”
“The champagne sound.” Winking, Baldwin reached down between them and squeezed Avery’s still half-hard cock. “Guess I popped your cork real good.”
Had he ever. Avery might have been annoyed by Baldwin’s smug confidence if he weren’t also its beneficiary. He also noticed that Baldwin was touching his dick a lot for a guy who was new to gay things. “Is this really the first time you…?”
Baldwin nodded as he let his hand settle on Avery’s hip. “I think I’m getting the hang of it, though. Probably helps that I’ve thought about it a lot.”
At least Avery hadn’t been the only one. “Since when?”
“Since … a while,” Baldwin confessed with a chuckle. “But, like, actually thinking about it, and not just convincing myself I was thinking just the normal things that all straight guys think about their attractive male friends? Last night. In the car with my family, on the way back. Mackenzie asked if I was really serious about you, and I thought, no, I should tell them this is just for fun so they’re not surprised when I come home for Christmas by myself. And instead I just … I couldn’t stop talking about you — how great you are, and how much I like being around you, and how I think about you all the time when you’re not around, and I started listening to myself and realized, oh shit, this is for real. This is for real for real.”
Avery finally understood the tone in Baldwin’s voice the night before, that quiet longing. He’d just gotten what Avery had understood years ago. They’d both finally been standing on opposite sides of the precipice, barely daring to hope that someone else might be reaching back.
“Yeah,” Avery said as he wrapped his arm around Baldwin’s waist and held tight. “This is for real.”
What woke Avery the next morning was neither the clock nor the sunlight, but the feeling of Baldwin’s body pressed to his, his hand teasing lightly along the shaft of Avery’s dick. This handily preempted any thoughts Avery might have otherwise had about how Baldwin would surely be regretting the night before, or maybe Baldwin had actually been less sober than he’d thought, or maybe Baldwin had meant it at the time but surely he’d changed his mind in the interim, or maybe Avery had fallen and hit his head and dreamed the whole thing. No, he was awake now, and awake involved being the little spoon to Baldwin’s slightly larger frame, with Baldwin’s lips against the back of his neck.
“Good morning,” Baldwin purred in a sleep-soaked rumble that should have been illegal at that hour of the morning, given how it made Avery’s cock jerk. “How did the best boyfriend in the world sleep?”
Okay, so they were boyfriends. At least, Baldwin seemed pretty sure that Avery was his boyfriend, and Avery assumed that kind of thing was reciprocal. “Fine,” said Avery, sounding not sultry but scratchy. Then he nearly smacked himself in the forehead. “I mean, I don’t know, how did you sleep? Pretend I said that instead.”
Baldwin laughed as he kissed the curve of Avery’s ear. “I slept great. Better than I have in … well, a while. I guess my co-best boyfriend in the world wore me out.”
Judging by the way Baldwin’s own erection was snug up against Avery’s ass, it seemed Avery hadn’t worn him out too much. “What time’s brunch?” Avery asked.
“A marginally civilized 10:30, according to the schedule,” Baldwin said, glancing over to the clock on his side of the bed. “Which means I have forty-five minutes to suck your dick again and take a shower.”
“Well…” A little giggle bubbled up from Avery’s chest. He felt like a teenager. He’d never even felt like this when he’d been a teenager. He felt like he was making up for lost time. “What if we tried to multitask?”
Baldwin planted a loud smooch on Avery’s shoulder. “Oh my god, you are not only the best boyfriend in the world, you are the smartest boyfriend in the world. How did I ever manage without you?”
Avery had no idea how either of them had survived without the other, and he had even less idea while he was leaning back up against the wall of the shower, letting the warm spray fall down on them as Baldwin knelt and made an enthusiastic second go at sucking cock. Dark strands of damp hair curtained Baldwin’s eyes as he took Avery deep into his mouth, looking pleased as anything to get that kind of response out of Avery. He’d clearly found something he loved, which in Avery’s experience meant that Baldwin would never let this go. Avery supposed he could live with that.
Despite feeling the temptation to improvise with venue-provided bathroom essentials, Avery decided that Baldwin’s introduction to flesh-on-flesh penetrative anal sex should not be with two-in-one shampoo or lavender-scented moisturizing lotion. He did, however, decide that a little soap and a little exploration with fingers would be acceptable. He was rewarded with the sight of Baldwin pressed face-first against the tile wall of the shower, moaning and babbling encouraging obscenities as Avery stroked him with one hand and fingered him with the other. It tripled Avery’s earlier feeling of accomplishment. Maybe he was a top, if it could lead to destroying Baldwin so effectively. He was learning new things about himself all the time.
And the kissing. The sex was great, it was incredible, but the kissing was the best part. He loved being able to get it in his head to kiss Baldwin and then be able to follow through — more than that, to have Baldwin respond with enthusiasm. Getting dressed after the shower took three times as long as it should have, because they kept having to stop to kiss one another and laugh. Avery swiped Baldwin’s last clean undershirt, so Baldwin tackled him to the bed, and then they were kissing again, and it was the best feeling in the world.
Finally leaving the cabin for brunch this time felt strange, because it didn’t feel strange at all. There was no sharp transition, no reminder that they were in character now. There were no characters anymore. They had finally stopped lying. It was just that the last people they’d had to stop lying to were themselves.
As they walked, Baldwin brought their joined hands to his lips to kiss Avery’s knuckles. He may have been touchier now, but the touchiness also made Avery realize how sincere Baldwin’s affections had always been, even when he’d been pretending. No wonder Avery hadn’t been able to tell when the ruse had ended. It had never entirely begun.
Baldwin’s phone buzzed, so he fished it out and glanced at the screen, smiling. “And that is Ethan, acknowledging that I’m taking two more days off.”
“We’re not flying back today?” asked Avery. The prospect of staying here longer with Baldwin absolutely had its appeal, but also the amount of underwear he had packed had not taken into account the possibility of an extended stay.
“Oh, no, we are,” said Baldwin, squeezing Avery’s hand. “And as soon as we land, we’re going directly to my place, where I am not letting you out of my bed for at least forty-eight hours.”
Avery’s cheeks flushed pink, and he laughed. “And, um, did you tell him why you won’t be in until Wednesday?” he asked, alternating between bashful and proud about the idea that Ethan and Yuri might have sussed out what happened.
Baldwin turned the screen of his phone so Avery could see Ethan’s most recent text message bubble, which was just a wall of emoji: eggplants, splashing water, peaches, rainbow flags, and at least one of every heart. Oh, yeah, they definitely knew. And approved, which made Avery feel better. They weren’t just humoring him while telling Baldwin to drop it. The cutest gays he knew had cleared him to be one of them. Surely that counted for a lot.
Baldwin grunted and rolled his eyes. “He’s going to be insufferable. I’m going to have to give him a raise.”
“He’s worth it,” Avery said.
“Oh, he is not,” Baldwin countered with a laugh that acknowledged just how much he was lying. “But you are.”
Avery took the opportunity to repeat Baldwin’s earlier gesture, bringing their joined hands to his own lips to kiss Baldwin’s knuckles this time. The look of charmed surprise on Baldwin’s face was intoxicating. Avery could get used to this. He was already used to it. With every step forward he took with Baldwin’s hand clasped tightly in his own, the world they inhabited together got a little more real.
This was very sweet and warm and I had a delightful time reading it! Thank you for writing; your stories are always among my faves
OH! And I forgot to add that the art is so lovely and soft! It has such a wonderful mood.
Lovely! Stupendous! Charming! I love them so much, with my whole heart.
extremely “this is just for the bit and bears no further examination” energy from Richmond acquiring bi pride accessories for his fake bisexuality. sure, buddy.
a dingus, but a hot dingus, at least!
The art adds such a great touch to an already lovely story. I loved the portrayal of Baldwin as thsi confident guy and we can see and believe it but hten you see the cracks when he goes to visit his family. I love the way Avery has a quieter personality but is still seen by both Baldwin and his friends and is willing to speak up for Baldwin when he isn’t able to.
This was so cute waaaah. And you wrote around the usual denseness of POV characters in fake dating stores so well – Avery’s anxiety, and his awareness of it, made it believable that he could genuinely not realize Baldwin was head over heels for him, and he was very likeable. I enjoyed this very much!
Please excuse this rambling mess of a comment; I have a lot of Thoughts and putting them in words other humans can follow is tricky.
I’m very charmed by this story. I’m charmed by Avery I’m charmed by Baldwin, I’m charmed by the delightful absurdity of the Fake Dating trope, I’m even charmed by the extended Calhoun family, awkward and somewhat misguided though they are — “testing the courage of their convictions” is a lovely turn of phrase. As is “there were real-life homosexuals in their midst,” that made me laugh in delight.
The fact that Avery writes on the history of appliances is just??? I’d scoff if this were not a topic I could totally see myself devoting my life to, as well…
It’s always nice when an author whisks their audience along and trusts they can keep up, it is much more fun than having a thousand things explained that need no explanation.
I share Avery’s weakness for suave men in good suits. Why, I might even share his weakness for this particular suave man in a good suit…
Adorable and sweet and heartfelt! And beautiful art.
I can FEEL the Pinterest energy radiating off of this wedding from a hundred paces, and as someone with a very Southern family, I can definitely picture their brand of well-meaning-but-definitely-not-challenged-enough whiteness; I’m grateful that it seems like running queer interference (interqueerence?) helped both Raza and Avery not have to endure more than a minimum amount of Clueless during their stay. The practiced “welcome to the family” bit for Raza’s mother was genuinely sweet! I also enjoyed slowly learning about what a washed-out mess Baldwin had been, since it made who he’s made himself into all the more endearing. He reads Avery’s books! Wonderful!
The use of tones and depth of field in the art here really works for me, too, and such body language! Avery going from shrinking and curling in on himself to openly embracing Baldwin is some lovely visual storytelling. And y’all KNOW I’m a sucker for well-done monochrome. These pieces are no different. Well done.
Wow, wow, wow. I just reread it in the hopes of leaving an intelligent comment, but I’m still speechless at its awesomeness.