by Iron Eater
illustrated by Someone Else and juou no zan (女王のザン)
“So why are you making such a big fuss about going to this thing, Pete? It’s just airy-fairy people bopping around in tights for a few hours with a piss break in the middle. You’d be better off just hitting the Redbox out front and using the money you didn’t spend on tickets to get a weekend’s worth of takeout.”
Pete pulled his hand down his face in frustration, his beard springing back out in a wild and unshorn tangle the moment it left his fingers. Eustace had a knack for reducing everything fine in life down to how much it was worth in shitty action movies and equally shitty food. He’d been that way as long as Pete had known him; as their respective moms had pictures of them in grade-school plays together, that was a pretty long time. All that familiarity did nothing for their tendency to engage in low-key bar squabbles like this one. “Look, you said you thought we could stand for some more variety in what we do for outings,” he said.
“And you decided to try and take me to the Nutcracker in March?” asked Eustace.
“I was trying to find us a buddy outing that doesn’t involve beer or hockey, but if you’re gonna be such a pencildick about it, maybe it’d be better off if I just went by myself.”
“Planning to flutter your eyelashes at all the ballerinos?” That ballerina was gendered was not something Pete had tweaked to before. Eustace was a font of interesting tidbits.
“A little bit,” said Pete, managing not to sound too sheepish. Just because Eustace had known Pete was gay since forever ago didn’t mean Pete didn’t get shy about mentioning this sort of thing in public. His hands unconsciously fiddled with the wrapper on the plastic bottle in his hand as his gaze drifted over to a neon Michelob sign on the wall. “My walk home from Growlers practice takes me by this dance studio, eh? I can see them doing their thing in there most days. Some of those fellas, you know, they’re pretty easy on the eyes.”
Easy on the eyes was one hell of an understatement, since there was a difference between a guy who was pretty well put together and a guy who was all that while being clad in a leotard. Dancers’ practice garb left very little to the imagination. Well, mostly so: Pete had read up on dance belts when he’d first started checking out the dancers on the regular, and while they sounded like a necessary evil he still couldn’t help but wonder what all that stretchy fabric could do for a man’s profile without one.
He took a pull from his bottle, letting the unbranded lemony sport drink join the beers and the handful of pretzels already sitting in his stomach, and wiped his mouth off on the back of his sleeve. “It’s how I found out about the thing in the first place, you know. There was a poster on the door.”
Eustace raised his eyebrows. “What kind of fancy ballet concert has to advertise with posters that have little pull-away tabs on the bottom?” he asked.
“Dunno, but they can’t be doing too much worse than a funsie hobby hockey team that can barely scrape together enough people to scrimmage itself.” It wasn’t like the Growlers were part of a league, so it technically didn’t matter whether they had the right numbers, but it just wasn’t as much fun playing on lopsided teams with guys who could barely remember how to keep their stick on the ice. At least practice got Pete out of the house for a bit. “So is that a yes or a no?”
“Eh,” said Eustace.
“It’s only a few hours. You don’t have to like it, you just have to show up.”
It was time to haul out the heavier weaponry. “You still owe me for going to that boat thing with you,” said Pete with as much gravitas as he could muster. “I got so sick with sunburn I had to miss work for two days, plus it was boring. And I still did my best to be a good wingman when you were chatting up that brunette on one of the regatta teams.”
Eustace sighed wistfully. “She never called back after the second date.”
“You still got a second date, Yoost, I don’t wanna hear it.”
Eustace, thwarted, grumbled to himself a bit before letting his expression uncrease a bit. “Okay, okay, so I owe you one. What’s the real reason you’re so bent on asking me to this thing, though? It’s because you don’t want to be the only mountain man there, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Pete, his fingers drifting back to the edges of the bottle wrapper of their own accord. “It didn’t say anything about a dress code on the website, but I figured a pressed shirt and good jeans and hair not sticking straight out would be proper. Maybe I’ll get a haircut a few days before. And no matter how nice my hair is, I don’t really look the part, eh? It’d be nice having someone familiar to sit next to in case things get weird.” Pete had the look of a man who ate logs and bled maple syrup, despite his family’s hailing from upstate Idaho, and he wore his knit winter hat with the little bobble on the top with utmost sincerity. In barroom situations such as this one he fit in. He wasn’t sure what the typical person who went to the ballet looked like, but if it was anything like what he’d seen on TV, they were smaller, more genteel, and a lot less hairy than the sight that greeted him in the bathroom mirror each morning.
“Can’t really fault you, I guess.” Eustace unlocked his phone and thumbed at the screen a bit. “Looks like I got a few free weekends coming up, not counting practice,” he said. His face contorted in concentration as he navigated another app that Pete couldn’t see, then he nodded. “A gentleman doesn’t discuss his finances in public, but a certain best friend’s payday was yesterday, so if you’ll write down how much you need from me on a napkin or something we can have us a little meet-up at the ATM by the door. And I’m only doing this because of that sunburn I made you get.”
“You’re a champ, Yoost.”
Pete’s bus ride home felt like it was over in no time at all, and even after he made the ticket arrangements the next day and held a printout of the receipt in his hands the world didn’t quite shed its dreamy quality. To think he’d have a chance of catching up on all those arty-farty things he’d passed on for most of his life! Granted, he was still expecting to be bored out of his mind some of the time, but there was a very good chance there’d be a handsome face or two to help make that pill easier to swallow. He couldn’t wait to finally get a little class in his system.
The seats in the little community theater were clearly designed by the Lollipop Guild because Pete couldn’t figure out any other reason anyone over four feet tall would make them so damn narrow. It was like he was trying to wriggle himself into a sausage casing made from underpadded wood. At least the pair he’d snagged were fairly close to the center, not so close he couldn’t see anything but not so far that he couldn’t focus on the dancers.
Oh, the dancers. Pete had seen them going through their drills and practicing parts of their routines during his walks, but how could that compare to seeing the finished product? It was like comparing a cake round to a tiered dessert with all the icing on it. The shitty seats couldn’t numb the sheer delight of watching a man in tights leap like a pronghorn, nor the athleticism inherent in every lift and pirouette. He couldn’t tell any given routine from another without the help of the program, but it didn’t matter, because they were all far more wonderful than expected; the segments focusing on the women in the troupe weren’t as personally arresting, of course, but he could still appreciate skill when he saw it.
When the lights came up it took every ounce of self-control for Pete not to rocket out of his seat. Instead he stood slowly, folded the horrible cushion up against the backing, and let the backs of his legs brace against the folded whole. He was relieved to find he could still feel his toes. His ass, on the other hand, was well and truly asleep, and he suspected it’d take a ways into the ride home before he’d shake it off entirely.
“So how’s your concert going?” asked Eustace, who had moved to take the same leg-stretching stance as Pete. From the occasional glance Pete had stolen at his friend during the first half of the performance Eustace had similar problems with the seating and a similar determination to try to pay attention to what was going on.
Pete grinned. “It’s great!” he said. “I can see pretty good from back here, and it’s a lot different from catching bits and pieces while tired from practice, eh?”
“Any of the dancers doing it for you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you could say that.” The troupe clearly only had so much money with which to outfit its members, but the olive-skinned young man who might’ve been a swan (or a wizard (or a swan wizard)) looked far better in his costume than he had when he’d simply been stretching one foot over his head back at the studio. Pete had a burning need to compliment him on whatever you called that thing with the high jumps, and an equally burning need to find out if he was single. Those were both going to take a little doing. “You gonna mind if try to talk to anybody after the show?”
Eustace glanced up at the curtained stage. “Pretty sure most of them are going to be exhausted, or heading to an afterparty, or both, but sure, I can wait.” He stretched and winced when some of his joints crackled. “Just text me if you think it’ll be more than half an hour. I don’t fit in these seats at all.”
“Me neither!” laughed Pete, and he spent the rest of the intermission being loud and happy and not feeling all that out of place at all.
Pete had cheered loudly—but not too loudly—as the dancers bowed for the final curtain call, and he’d been quick to shuffle into the part of the lobby that promised patrons that they could talk to “some of” the troupe, but the longer he waited with no sign of the swan guy the darker his spirits became. He tried not to let it show. He was able to compliment a woman who had portrayed a character the program told him was Persephone, which was not a name he was brave enough to try pronouncing, and one of the set crew had ended up in the mix so Pete picked their brains for a bit. He’d always wondered how much the more construction-minded side of theater work overlapped with his own trade; he didn’t see himself switching from the repair and renovation business, but somewhere around the third plumbing SNAFU of the day a man could get to thinking.
All too soon he felt his phone pulse in his pocket; the timer he’d set for himself had gone off. With a heavy heart he made his way back out to Eustace’s car.
“Get any autographs?” said Eustace, his fingers swiping furiously at a puzzle game. He was seated cross-legged on the trunk of his beat-up old Honda. He’d been doing that ever since he’d been old enough to drive a car by himself.
Pete scoffed. “I wish. I know you said there wouldn’t be many people out front, but there really weren’t many people out front.” He leaned against the side of the car. “I wasn’t expecting a phone number, but I kinda wanted to say hi face-to-face.”
“Which one was it?”
“Take yourself a guess, eh?”
The corner of Eustace’s mouth twitched as his phone played a slightly muffled combo fanfare. “The one with the feathers and the little crown?” he asked.
“You’re good,” said Pete.
“You know I like ’em tall and mysterious, I know you like ’em medium-sized and mysterious. Also you couldn’t stop staring any time he was on stage so I put two and two together. It’s not rocket surgery.” That was another benefit of having old friends, in that they knew each other’s tastes pretty well. It took some of the guesswork out of planning. “Didn’t know you liked birds that way, P.”
“By that logic you’ve got a thing for rabbits,” said Pete, who had years of exposure to Eustace’s assorted Playboy-knockoff calendars to work off of when it came time for zingers. Eustace always went for the ones where the women had proper bunny costumes instead of some variation on mostly tits-out nude. It hadn’t made that much sense to Pete until that very moment.
Eustace groaned in annoyance before coaxing another lengthy combo out of his game. “Touché. Shame you didn’t meet him, plumage or not, though.” Level complete! chirped his phone before he thumbed the sleep button and tucked it in his right front pocket. “You want to hit up Bullhead’s, maybe cry in your beer a little before you go home?”
From some people it might’ve sounded like a real asshole of a thing to say, but this was Eustace, so Pete had every reason to believe he meant it genuinely. “Just keep me away from those darts, eh?”
“No promises,” said Eustace.
In the end it was pinball, not darts, that Pete ended up terrorizing, and by the time the night was done he was feeling a lot better and a lot drunker than before, and that was a fine enough way to cap off a good-but-disappointing experience.
It had been a few weeks since the ballet and Pete had mostly forgotten how sour a note everything had ended on. He’d avoided the studio for a few days after, mostly for fear of making an ass of himself if anyone recognized him from the crowd (but also, he would later admit to himself, because he was in a bit of a four-alarm sulk), and it wasn’t until the spring thaw was well underway that he felt like taking his usual route home after practice again. Some days he saw the man with the olive skin and some days he didn’t. The performance was slowly fading into an interesting, if fruitless, little diversion in a schedule otherwise full of routine. Pete was okay with that.
One particular practice at the community center had gone less badly than usual and the Growlers had spent most of their time pretending to know what to do when everyone kept their stick on the ice. Pete had even scored a point that felt like a skill shot and not taking advantage of a really bad goalie. At the end of the scrimmage he’d leaned up against the wall, studied the old pennants left over from much better local teams, and for the first time in a while not felt like a total schmuck in their presence.
“‘ey, Pete, guess what,” said Eustace, gliding up as casually as could be from where he’d been rounding up some of the team’s spare gear so kids could use the ice again. He wore an expression so neutral that it was instantly suspicious.
Pete squinted at him. “What am I guessing?”
“You’re guessing that your swan man is here.” Eustace gestured with his thumb over his shoulder at the seating on the other side of the rink. “Second row by the penalty box. Saw ‘im slip in just a little after practice and he’s been watching us the whole time. Not creep-watching watching, more like he’s just here to have a good time watching bad hockey. Like that lady who brings her boy in ’cause it’s cheaper than tickets.” So long as nobody tried getting into the rink when they were practicing the Growlers weren’t too picky about who watched them screw around every week. It was also part of their agreement with the community center; you couldn’t demand an entire wing of the facility all to yourself without paying money they definitely didn’t have, so the team volunteered themselves to entertain whoever felt like coming in to watch men fall down a lot.
“You think he’s one of those double-dipper guys who skates to be more graceful on stage?”
“I think he’s here for something else.”
Pete raised his eyebrows. “Oh, so you talked to him already, eh?”
“No, like I said, he showed up after we got going. But he’s just hanging out. Sometimes he checks his phone.” A huge, shitty grin creased Eustace’s face as he added, “You should go talk to him, instead.”
Would a ballet dancer wither and die if exposed to a man wearing sweaty hockey gear? Then again, maybe the mystery man liked it better that way. Then again again, that was the kind of thinking that could lead to all manner of misunderstandings. Pete was torn between wanting to praise the man he was crushing on and the urge to shower off practice ASAP. “Ah, I don’t know. He probably doesn’t want some weird guy bumbling up and getting in his business.”
Eustace elbowed him. “Need I remind you how gloomy you were because you couldn’t tell him how well you thought he danced at the thing? You can just ask if he performed if you don’t want to gush at him out of nowhere. I can go with and compliment him on a big jump he did or something so you’re not the only one talking.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll go say hi. You’re gonna owe me if it gets weird, though.”
“It won’t get weird, you big manbaby. Let’s go.”
The mysterious stranger was right where Eustace had said he’d be, with a thermos of something hot held between his knees and a messenger bag full of indistinct whatsits resting off to the side. He was still looking down at his phone when Pete and Eustace wobbled their way up to him with their skates in hand. Any doubts Pete might have had about this being the same guy were dispelled when they got closer. It was hard to mistake the curve of his neck or, more importantly, the cut of his legs beneath the tight black stretch jeans he wore.
“Hiya,” said Pete, and the man looked up. He’d looked pretty good while up on stage but it couldn’t compare to being within handshake distance. Pete forced any thought of this rare and amazing creature being well out of his league and continued. “You’re with the Bell House Dance Company, right? I was at the thing at the Tannermill a few weeks ago. You were pretty good. I would’ve said so there but I didn’t see you at the meet-and-greet.”
There. The words had left his mouth and now everything else was in the loving hands of Jesus, though Pete wasn’t about to guess whether Jesus felt like dribbling that day.
The man looked pleasantly surprised. “I thought I recognized you!” he said. He made a V with his fingers to point at Pete and Eustace simultaneously. “You were both there, right?”
“Pete here dragged me out,” said Eustace. “I didn’t know it was his scene but he made a pretty good case for going.”
“Well, I’m very glad you brought your friend out to see us, Pete,” said the man with a genuine-looking smile. “We’re a small troupe so we treasure every patron we get. Did you enjoy the show?”
“I had myself a pretty good time,” said Pete, and everything fell into place from there.
For having convinced himself he was done with the ballet thing he had no trouble bringing up specific parts of the performance to talk about, and he got so into it that he didn’t even notice when Eustace casually excused himself from the conversation. The mystery man was cute and charming; more importantly, he seemed thrilled to death that a Pete-shaped man had so much to say about the show, even if Pete had no clue about the technical terms and still wasn’t sure what the whole deal with the swan-wizard-prince costume had been.
“So the bit with the, uh…the part where everyone went around in a circle, eh? Sorry, I don’t know this stuff so great. I’d have to look at a program to tell you what it was. You’re a champ for hearing me out anyway.”
“It’s fine. I’m just glad to talk to someone who wasn’t part of the performance. It’s easier to think about what went right that way instead of dwelling on mistakes.”
“Oh, I think plenty went right! So there was that bit with the circle.…”
They talked long enough that the junior skaters’ club that practiced after the Growlers did came and went, and by the time Pete thought that it might be a good idea to start walking home it was well into some kid’s birthday party. It had only felt like minutes. He steeled himself for the unwanted inevitability of parting ways and tried thinking of the nicest possible excuse to stop talking with such a fascinating person.
Actually pulling the plug on the conversation ended up being the still-unnamed man’s doing in the end, as a series of vibrations from his pocket revealed themselves to be texts of a potentially urgent nature. “It’s been great, Pete,” he said with another pleasant smile, “but I need to be going or my cousin’s going to kill me. Maybe I’ll see you around some time?”
“Yeah, see you around,” said Pete. He didn’t feel the need to add anything else, instead opting to make sure all of his own gear was still where it was supposed to be. When he next looked up the stranger was gone, taking his smiles and thermos with him.
Pete checked his watch and grimaced; while he wasn’t about to risk getting home dangerously late, and with it being Saturday there wasn’t work to worry about the next day even if he did, it would likely be sundown halfway before he got home. The bus lines around his place were a mess on weekends and a cab was out of the question until payday rolled around again, which meant he was looking at a combination of hustling with all his gear and handling the last leg of things in the dark. Wonderful. If he’d been more of a superstitious man he might’ve suspected the handsome dancer with the olive skin was cursed.
He showered as quickly as he could without sacrificing actually getting the stink off. Little Clarissa’s tenth birthday was still going on by the time he came back out, but with a heavy heart Pete could tell the sky was already ablaze with reds and oranges. The trip home was going to suck, he just knew it.
“Hey, Pete, over here,” said Eustace’s voice from the direction of the seats where Pete had recently spent untold eons. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Eustace had stuck behind, but then again it was usually Eustace’s duty to handle all the annoying little logistics parts of the Growlers using the facility, so maybe he was always around this late. Pete wasn’t really in the mood for whatever it was Eustace wanted and ignored him.
“Hey!” Another yell meant another thing to pretend not to hear. Whatever it was he wanted, it could wait. They’d see each other tomorrow. It would be fine.
“Hey, Peter Wallace Lansinger!”
Hearing his full name as an adult didn’t carry the weight it had as a child, but Pete was still caught off-guard by it. Eustace was not the sort to bust out something that long, being a man who’d rather call someone by their initials than spare the time for an extra syllable, and that alone was enough to tell Pete something weird was up. He looked over his shoulder in Eustace’s direction and called back, “Yeah?”
Eustace held up a familiar-looking black carryall. “After all that talking your swan man still went and left his bag behind. See if he’s got his contact info on it, you could be his shining knight and get him his shit back and all.”
“You sure? What if he thinks I stole it?”
“He’s the one who walked off without his bag like a jackass, P. It’s huge and you were making cow eyes at him since practice ended. Why would you steal it?” Eustace leaned in a bit. “You’re trying to do something nice for your fellow human being, Pete, don’t overthink it.”
“Okay, fine. But if he expects me to deliver it by hand I’m going to need a ride.”
“Deal,” said Eustace. He tossed the bag over to Pete, who caught it despite still being loaded down with protective gear and a hockey stick. “Now tell the nice man you found his shit.”
The word Ostravy was embroidered on the messenger bag’s top flap, though if that was a name or a brand or simply not yours in a language Pete didn’t know he couldn’t say. An airline tag fastened to the strap was more helpful; after finding somewhere in the main rink space that would let him access his carrier’s shitty cell reception, he found himself dialing what he was pretty sure was the number of one Videl Ostravy, bag-owner and presumed dancer.
“This is Vid speaking,” said a familiar, harried voice on the other end of the line. They hadn’t actually gotten around to exchanging names back at the rink, so it was nice to know what to properly call the swan man.
“Yeah, hi, this is Pete, from the community center. I’m calling about a lost bag, eh? It had this number on it.”
Vid paused before saying, “Would you describe it for me, please?”
“Uh, sure,” said Pete. Had Vid forgotten who he was already? He turned the bag this way and that. “It’s black, it’s got a name I think I’d mispronounce sewn on it in white thread, there’s some little cartoon character keychains clipped on it, and I jabbed myself with a knitting needle when I was looking to see if there was a tag on it. Does that sound right?”
Pete had assumed people only sighed with relief in movies, but Vid let out a long and theatrical breath that sounded like his entire body was relaxing at once. “Thank God,” said Vid, “I thought I’d left it on the bus.”
“Nah, we found it while cleaning up after practice.” Pete had no idea whether or not the bag’s contents were all accounted for, and he didn’t have a taste for telling comforting lies, so he opted to nudge the conversation in a different direction. “When’s a good day to get it back to you?”
“Is there any way you can get it to me tonight?” Vid asked, and Pete didn’t have to see his face to imagine the worried grimace that came with that tone of voice.
“Hold on, let me check.” Pete pulled the phone away from his face and covered the speaker with his hand. “He’d like it back ay-sap, Yoost. You’re still on for driving me, right? Like as soon as I hang up?”
Eustace looked smug. He flashed Pete a thumbs up and twirled his keys around the index finger of his opposite hand. Pete rolled his eyes and held his phone back in place.
“Yeah, I can do that. What address should we be looking for…?”
It turned out that Vid lived in what Pete always thought of as the fancy part of town, which was to say it was the sort of place you could get an artisan whatsit without having to beg Amazon to deliver it, and Vid’s apartment block had an actual lobby on the ground floor. It was a far cry from Pete’s little place; he suspected he was only moments away from gawking at just how maintained everything was. He was eternally grateful that Eustace was still waiting outside once he’d finished his delivery.
“So how did it go?” asked Eustace as they merged back into traffic.
Pete shrugged in his seat belt. “I gave him his bag back and he said thank you.”
“You were in there forever, my guy, and I know it’s not because you had to climb some stairs. You’re still fresh as a daisy.”
“Daisies shower at the gym?”
“I’m sure there’s a Dutch strain that does.” Eustace drummed his fingers on the wheel as he drove, another habit he’d had since he was old enough to be driving at all. “You’re avoiding the question, though.”
Once Eustace got an idea in his head it was hard to get him to let go of it. It was like trying to get a soup bone away from a mastiff. That he was willing to give Pete a ride when gas prices were as bad as they were had to be worth a little honesty, didn’t it? Pete let his eyes unfocus, his vision blurring with the taillights a little further down the street as he recounted the events of the evening.
“There’s not all that much to it. I went in and he was waiting in the lobby thing, eh, and I could tell he’d been a bit flustered about it all but was trying to keep it together around other people. I handed him the thing, he rummaged through it and seemed to think everything was in order, we talked a bit more about Growlers stuff, then we said our goodbyes and I left.” He paused. “He did give me a hug on the way out. I think he’s one of those hugger types, though, so I’m not gonna read into that too much.”
Eustace accelerated through a yellow light just soon enough to keep from being caught by the coming red. “And after all of that, did you get his number or what?”
Pete shrugged again. “I didn’t delete it from my phone, if that’s what you’re asking. He didn’t invite me to call him again. Would it be weird if I did? It’s not like we’re friends, I’m just somebody he talked to at the ice rink for a while and then returned his bag.” Granted, Vid’s face had lit up when he’d spotted Pete in the lobby, but Pete got the impression that whatever was in the bag proper was worth a lot more than just its monetary value. Anyone would’ve been happy to have a long-term knitting project returned after thinking they’d lost it to the black hole of the public transportation system.
That answer wasn’t good enough for Eustace. “So text him, then,” he said, slightly exasperated. “He gave you a hug! Usually you’re not such a weenus when it comes to setting up a date. This guy must be something special.”
“He looked really good in that swan costume.”
“And he’s probably going on a bear hunt, so at least let him know you’re open season sooner than later. If you let this one get away without a fight you don’t get to beef at me about how little luck you’re having on Grindr for, like, a month. An entire month. Hand to God I’ll do it, Pete.”
Pete laughed. “Anything but that!” He was only half joking; every time he tried getting into the local gay scene it was like oil and water. It took far too much effort just to find a hookup, much less someone to go places with who wasn’t an extremely straight childhood friend.
“So are you going to text him?” asked Eustace as he pulled up outside Pete’s place.
Pete stepped out of the car and wrangled his hockey gear out of the back seat with a great deal of double-checking. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and shut the door between them.
Pete did, in fact, think about it, but it ended up being Vid who moved things along first. Pete woke up to a pleasant text talking about the ballet troupe’s plans for their next performance, and over the next few hockey practices Vid kept popping up in the crowd like a particularly lovely dandelion. Much to Pete’s chagrin there weren’t any chances to easily repeat the nice conversation they’d shared that first day; Vid was gone more often than not by the time the Growlers were done mucking about on the ice, and even when he stuck around longer Pete kept having outside obligations pop up. He settled for a little polite texting (because it wasn’t like he wasn’t interested), and it really shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when he found a picture of Vid blowing him a kiss on his phone one day after a particularly bad practice.
Sorry about the scrimmage, said the text, so here’s some good luck for next time. He’d attached a little smoochy-face emoji to it, presumably in case Pete didn’t get it.
It was very easy to imagine that playful little air-kiss landing somewhere else. Here was a pretty hot guy with a pretty interesting profession being pretty cute, so why, Pete wondered to himself, was he not doing anything with that when he kept bemoaning how laid he wasn’t getting? He thumbed open the keyboard and composed a reply.
I could use all the luck you’ve got, he typed. You want to meet up and do something some time? There, that hadn’t been so hard. Pete was annoyed with himself for just how little effort it had taken once he finally got the momentum to get over the metaphorical hill.
Vid started typing back mere moments after Pete had sent off his reply. For as much of it as I watch I actually don’t know how to ice skate. If you show me how, I’ll treat you to dinner.
I’m free this weekend, texted Pete, and in no time at all he found himself with the first date he’d had in far too long.
The space between setting up the date and actually getting to it would have been a middling-to-good one any other week of the year, but because he was ultimately shackled by the temporal bonds inherent to mortality (to use a turn of phrase he’d heard Eustace use once and was pretty sure he understood) it was tortuous. Every slow lunch break felt like a personal offense. For the most part he could concentrate on making sure nobody was screwing up a load-bearing wall or installing a panel backwards, but if things kept up at this rate he worried it’d only be a matter of time before he had an incident with some copper wiring. Why couldn’t he have left the moody-teenager act back in high school where it belonged?
He couldn’t quite say what he expected, save that he’d be in the presence of someone who seemed to like him well enough; it was the same kind of uncertainly nervous energy he used to get as a kid whenever his birthday was coming up. Pete did what he could to not build up any unreasonable expectations. They’d get to know each other better, at least when it came to whether or not they had any chemistry, and the date would either go well or it wouldn’t, and the best thing he could do was let things happen at their own pace. He owed that much to himself.
Saturday had originally been scheduled as a Growlers game against another local team, the High Haulers, and then somewhere down the line enough people from each team had needed to cancel that everyone agreed it’d be best just to have a few days off from hockey. Pete felt weird making the trek out to the community center without his usual hermit crab shell of gear. What he didn’t feel weird about was how he’d dressed, since it was still the right kind of weather for him to wear a sweater wherever he pleased without anyone batting an eye. It helped that they’d agreed that for a first date they should keep it casual. Pete could do casual.
Vid was waiting just inside, occasionally pulling his phone out long enough to flip through something, scowl, and then tuck it back in the pocket of his very flattering black pants. He looked great even with the shitty expression. Pete was a little bit early so he knew it wasn’t his fault that Vid had brought a stormcloud indoors with him, and given the bits and pieces he’d gotten from Vid over the past few days it was probably troupe-drama-flavored. Maybe screwing around in a pair of ice skates would be just what he needed to get over whatever it was that was bothering him. Pete ran his fingers through his hair and ambled up next to Vid with a smile.
“Good to see you here early! I like punctuality in a man,” he said. Starting things off with a compliment had rarely steered him wrong.
Vid’s hand froze where he’d been reaching for his pocket again. He shot Pete a frazzled, but relieved, look. “Hi, stranger. I’m glad you’re here, these people are going to drive me to an early grave.” Vid pushed away from the wall and adjusted his clothes, the jacket he wore not quite concealing the maroon silk shirt he had on underneath. “Let’s go see how many times I can fall down in an hour.”
There wasn’t much of a wait at the skate rental counter, as even with the rink free of awkward hockey players not many people had bothered showing up at that hour. Pete helped Vid get the proper size and checked his laces to make sure they wouldn’t come undone at an inopportune time; Pete had brought his own skates—just the skates, which was what had felt so strange on the walk over—and was up and ready to hit the ice in no time. Vid was a different story.
“How are you supposed to stand up in these things?”
“If you keep the blade guards on until you get to the rink door it can help.”
“Good God, it’s like I’m wearing the world’s worst heels. My ankles aren’t supposed to bend this way.”
“Think of it like rollerblading, kinda.”
“I still have a scar from the last time I tried that. Let me lean on you on the way out and I’ll forgive you for reminding me, though.”
Where Pete was comfortable walking in blade guards or out, Vid had significantly more challenges when it came to putting one foot in front of the other. He wobbled like a drunken cowboy as Pete gently guided him towards the railing and helped him get his skates’ blades exposed. Pete glided out onto the ice, circled back, and waited just beyond the rink door with arms outstretched.
“Push yourself off the wall and keep your feet straight, Vid. I’ll catch you.”
Vid grimaced. “I can barely stand and you’re expecting me to move ten whole feet without falling on my ass?”
Pete beckoned, adopting what he felt was his most comforting smile. The first time he’d tried skating he’d been a nervous wreck, too. “It’s okay. I’ll help you. Don’t worry about knocking me over, either, I’ve had way worse during practice.”
His words didn’t look to have been as emboldening as he’d hoped, but even so Vid put a single hesitant foot on the ice as his gloved hands kept a death grip on the little railing by the door. Said foot almost immediately tried to zip out from under him. Pete kept his distance; newbies flailing around were something of an expected hazard, and with Vid still not knowing how to manipulate the giant razor blades strapped to his insteps it was best to let him work things out on his own at first. Thankfully there were few enough people at the community center that day that he wasn’t blocking other skaters from entering.
Slowly, awkwardly, Vid rose to his full and trembling height. He took a deep breath before pushing away from the railing towards Pete. The push had enough force to give him a bit of speed and would have been a fine attempt had his legs not started to drift apart. Vid was most of the way into doing the splits by the time he bumped against Pete’s knit-clad chest. Pete let him take as long as he needed to try and right himself again. It was like being clung to by the world’s largest spider monkey.
Vid struggled to align his feet. When Pete was little he’d always loved that scene from Bambi where the aforementioned fawn had trouble walking on the ice, and now here he was, watching the events unfold in real time. He offered an arm for Vid to hang from and Vid took it gladly.
Moving was a whole other set of baby steps. Pete had assumed that he’d make a good teacher because he skated all the time; in reality this meant he kept forgetting half a dozen little tricks he’d worked out before the age of ten. Vid was eventually able to manage a shuffle that at times threatened to approach a glide. He held fast to Pete the entire time.
“For as long as I’ve watched you play you’d think I’d be better at this,” he grumbled as they rounded another turn.
Pete frowned behind his beard. He was having trouble reconciling the thought that the captivating man in his crown of swan feathers could be the same as someone who was, well, actually kind of bad at things. “I thought ballet people do ice skating to be more graceful?”
“It’s usually the other way around—shit, that was close! Please don’t let go of my arm.”
Getting Vid to wobble along without Pete right next to him took some doing, and by the time he was able to push himself along by himself it was properly into the afternoon. Pete couldn’t have been prouder. He skated a little ways in front of Vid, facing backwards save for the occasional check to ensure he didn’t plow into somebody’s kid, and during Vid’s increasingly few falls was right there to help him back up again. This sort of scenario had been acted out hundreds of times over the course of Pete’s history with the rink. It was nice being part of the cute couple for a change.
After a final few laps in which Pete only showed off a little bit it was finally late enough to start considering either a delayed lunch or an extremely early dinner. He helped Vid stagger back to the benches by the rental counter and fetched their shoes from his usual locker. Pete barely noticed that they’d been skating for what had to have been over an hour or so. Vid, on the other hand, lay down on the bench and groaned, shoes still in hand.
“I think my thighs are going to fall off. How do you do that every week and not want to die?”
Pete patted him on the shoulder. “Same way you can go up en pointe and not fall over: practice.” He dug around in the emergency kit he’d brought with his skates and passed Vid a tube of Icy Hot. “Also lots of this stuff.”
“You offering to put it on for me?” asked Vid, the corner of his mouth quirked.
Pete put his hand to his cheek and gasped in feigned shock. “Pain cream on the first date? You’re moving so fast, Videl.”
They shared a laugh together before Vid excused himself to tend to his aching legs. Pete took the opportunity to use the restroom and check his phone, which unsurprisingly had a message from Eustace on it.
Hope you’re having a good time, let me know if I have to rescue you from an attack swan, it said.
We’re finishing up at the rink, texted Pete in return. It’s weird being more graceful out there than him.
How many times did he eat shit on the ice?
Pete honestly couldn’t remember. After a while everything hard started blurring together. I lost count, but he’s fine. I let him borrow my Icy Hot.
Ooo la la. Mr. Romance. I’m free-ish all night save for going to eat dinner with Nana around 7, so if you’re going to get into trouble make sure it’s not then. Eustace could be such a mother hen at times. It was annoying, but Pete still appreciated knowing he didn’t have to worry about being trapped somewhere without a ride in case the date went badly.
The sound of Vid’s boots on tile rounded the corner. He’s coming back, typed Pete, who punctuated the sentence with a happy-face emoji. Talk to you later.
Vid had fixed his hair and rebuttoned his shirt, both of which had been a little worse for wear when he’d originally gotten back onto less slippery ground. The faint medicinal smell of pain cream followed him. Pete briefly wondered just how much of the stuff Vid had used.
“I’m already feeling a little better,” said Vid, and Pete was willing to believe him. “That’s enough skating to last me a good long while. Think I’ll leave it to the professionals in the future.” He thumped Pete on the shoulder. Save for the satisfying boomf boomf of his had against Pete’s sweater it was like being clapped on the back by a butterfly. “I’ve still got plenty of time to myself if you’re up for something else.” His phone buzzed. Vid glanced at the screen, made a face like he’d just found a dead skunk, and pointedly shoved it back into his pocket without replying.
Pete’s light breakfast had long since run out and he fancied spending more time with Vid, outside trouble brewing or no. It was time to kill two birds with one stone. “I know we were talking about dinner plans before, but how do you feel about something to eat right now? I’m getting kind of hungry.”
“Sounds good to me. You mind if we keep it halal?”
“I’m okay with that. I’ll eat anything up to and including vegan.”
Vid gave him an appraising look as they pushed through the front doors of the community center. “Never would’ve taken you for a veggie type, Pete,” he said. “No offense!” he added, hurriedly. “That sounded better in my head, sorry. I’m just learning a lot about you today.”
“It’s fine,” said Pete with an unconscious stroke of his beard. He’d gotten far worse from people he knew far better. At least Vid had the good graces to apologize, and now Pete knew not to suggest hitting a bar later on. “I tried switching over completely in college to see how it’d work for me.”
“I’m assuming it didn’t take?”
“Yeah. Too expensive where I was, plus some other stuff. Found a lot of new food and recipes I still like, though, and it makes it easier to cook for people with specific diets.” Not that Pete had cooked more than a few game-day snacks for anyone recently, nor was he more than simply passable at it, but it was remarkable how much of “passable” people were willing to forgive if you at least gave it the old college try. “Just don’t believe anyone who says you should eat your tofu ‘pure and raw.’ You owe it to yourself to at least season it. Otherwise it’s like you’re eating chewy sadness.”
“You don’t say.”
“Do you eat it much? I like it in soup, myself….”
Their tofu conversation continued as they sidled into Vid’s car. Things segued into a fairly involved discussion about whether soy sauce or pepper oil made for a better topping, and Vid claiming the plain stuff was fine if you were making shakes out of it, and somewhere around the second revisit to whether or not it was worth it to try and make your own tofu at home (Pete still held that it was so long as you knew where to get soybeans on the cheap and had enough room in the kitchen to prep it), they arrived at their destination.
Licky’s Quicky Chicky had a gross name and its sign was one of the mass-produced type with a scrotum-chinned grinning chicken on it, which was unappealing in its own way, so it was with great trepidation that Pete followed Vid into its frying-oil-scented depths. Inside was clean but depressing, thanks to most of the interior paint being white or gray with only a band of red checkerboard tiling for color. Even the bench seating seemed colorless despite the brilliance of the red vinyl enrobing the cushions. Pete couldn’t shake the feeling that the walls looked like they were installed at subtly wrong angles. It was like someone had made a restaurant without ever actually seeing one themselves.
A brief wait in line rewarded them with a meal for two that looked a lot better than Pete had expected. One of the corner booths was free, which felt like the best place to have a quiet lunch date, so Pete fetched some napkins and plastic silverware while Vid sorted out their food. They served themselves each a spoonful of coleslaw and a fistful of disc-shaped fries and tucked in.
Pete had experience with fried chicken. He’d had it from major chains, he’d had it from supermarkets, he’d had it home-made by neighbors for the Fourth of July, he’d even had it cooked from frozen a few times in his life. The chicken on his plate was not the best he’d ever had by a long shot, but it was head and shoulders above most of it. It was probably going to be worth his time to come back on his own after practice some day; while Licky’s was slightly out of his way, it wasn’t all that much, and being able to cart home a hot dinner for himself after a long day of skating into other men to try and make them fall down sounded like a wise investment.
“So what made you try this place?” asked Pete as he worked on a drumstick. “It’s kind of…uh….”
That was one way to put it. “The food’s great, don’t get me wrong,” said Pete, honestly, “but it’s got such a weird vibe that I expect a TV host to bust out of the back telling us we’ve been gulping rat noses in the tea.” He shifted in his seat. “Thing is, I do a lot of reno work, eh? And if I hadn’t sat down to eat I would’ve thought this was one big ‘before’ picture.”
Vid scoffed in amusement. “No, no, I get it. I eat here because it’s cheap, it’s clean, and when we were younger my cousin dared me to go in and order something to see if Dracula would grab me when I was ordering a biscuit. You can see how that went over.”
“Yeah, Dracula missed out,” said Pete, and they shared a quiet laugh.
Their conversation meandered the way conversations did when the people involved were all trying to eat before things got too cold. Vid was a dainty eater in every way except when it came to the drumstick part of his meal, and even that was mostly due to him taking very large bites. Pete usually didn’t think about how he ate, but now he felt compelled to use a napkin more often. It seemed appropriate when dining with a genuine ballet dancer.
Somewhere around the middle of Pete’s thigh piece Vid’s phone buzzed, then buzzed again. He sighed. “I should probably get that,” he said, his voice reluctant, and the thing vibrated a third time before he’d so much as unlocked its screen. His presumed foul mood from before started seeping back into his face as he read.
“Trouble at home?” asked Pete. He braced himself to be graceful if the date had to end early. Getting pissy at someone because their dad was in the hospital or something was a bad look.
“Worse,” said Vid. “We’ve been gearing up to start working on a performance of Petipa’s Harlequinade for ages, and only now is someone deciding to get their fiction pulped over who got selected to be Columbine.” He began furiously composing a response to one of the many angry hornets now living in his phone. “Naturally everyone is expecting me to do something about it because I’m the understudy for Harlequin. Not Harlequin, the understudy for Harlequin. I’ve been texting people to take it up with the director all day and they keep texting me back to pass notes because she’s shut her phone off. It’s so stupid.”
Pete suspected this was how some of his friends felt when he started getting deep into hockey trivia. “Sounds rough,” he said.
“I wish I could say this was a one-time thing,” said Vid. “I swear, if it’s not one thing it’s another. Don’t get involved in the arts unless you’re ready for a non-stop parade of people getting pissy over nothing.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Pete. Hanging drywall was suddenly looking better than ever.
They sat for several long and awkward minutes as Vid’s mood darkened like a sky before a storm. He ultimately sent off a final text and made a great show of turning his phone off and letting it thunk against the beige tabletop. Pete chewed a fry very slowly to give himself an excuse to not say anything.
Vid thankfully broke the silence on his own. “I need to be away from those people for a while,” he said, staring into the middle distance in the same direction as the bland-colored wall above Pete’s head. If it hadn’t been for him sipping at the dregs of his sweet tea he could’ve passed as a statue.
“Should I excuse myself?” asked Pete. “It’s been great, and I can pay you back for the food some time.”
Vid shook his head. “This is helping me keep from losing it entirely. I told people I was on a date and that they could bother me with middle-school shit tomorrow.”
That sounded like an opening if Pete had ever heard one. “If you want a reason for them to leave you alone until Sunday night, I could probably think of something,” he said with a grin. “I’m told I make a pretty respectable breakfast.” Of this he was confident: pancakes from powdered mix and good-enough eggs were as respectable as Pete felt he needed to be. The one ex of his who’d insisted on prosciutto-wrapped melon in the mornings had been an important learning experience.
Actual opening or not, it certainly got Vid’s attention. “There’s this show I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix, and I guess I wouldn’t mind couch company so long as you don’t mind me being boring.”
Couch company sounded promising. Even if it was the most boring program in the world Pete could see himself having a very nice time of things so long as he had someone to cuddle. “Sure.”
“I don’t want you to think this is just a hook-up—”
“But you’d still be okay with hooking up if things shake out that way, right? Because I sure would be.” He hoped he wasn’t sweating. If Vid said no he’d get over it, of that much he was certain, but he’d been looking forward to at least a little bit of more intimate contact before the date was done. The feeling of Vid clinging to his sweater while trying to stand on the ice kept coming back in new and recontextualized ways. It would be fun to see how flexible a dancer could be in the privacy of someone’s quarters. And if things went in a different direction, well, platonic couch company sure beat spending a Saturday night swilling overpriced drinks and singing bad karaoke.
Vid laughed nervously. “I thought you’d be shyer about this,” he said.
“In my experience, the kind of guy I’m into is either a big, aggressive jerkoff or a dainty teddy bear, and so far you’ve been nothing but sweet, so….” Vid brushed a wisp of curly black hair behind one ear. “Maybe I need to get out more.”
“It’s fine. The dating scene in this burg sucks.” A tinny tune sounded from Pete’s phone, namely the one he’d set as Eustace’s own personal message alert. “Hold on, I need to get this real quick,” he said. His thumbs were already automatically tapping out a doing fine, privacy please reply.
The look on Vid’s face could have gone in a picture dictionary next to the entry for incredulous. “What is he, your mom? Your lawyer? A weird ex?”
“Childhood friend. Super straight, not my type even if he wasn’t. We look after each other since somebody’s got to.” Pete didn’t want to get into the details, since admitting that he used to be a scrawny kid at the bottom of the pecking order who needed a friend to help him get by until puberty kicked in was a bit too much to go into for a casual date in a depression-colored chicken restaurant. Eustace had never wholly shed his need to take care of other people, which was one reason Pete was so intent on finding him a steady partner. “He’s kind of overly protective at times. Nothing personal.”
“Bet you ten dollars he’s going to text again when we’re in the middle of something.”
It was a sucker bet and Pete knew it, but he’d never said he wasn’t a sucker. He also liked the way things implied they’d have something they’d be getting up to in the first place. “You’re on, Vid,” he said, and they shook on it like proper gentlemen. He couldn’t wait to see how this was going to blow up in his face.
The drive to Vid’s apartment took them through parts of town Pete usually never went to, save for when Eustace had driven him over to return Vid’s bag, and he was halfway regretful that he was too worked up over getting Vid to himself for a bit that he couldn’t appreciate the less-familiar signage and cityscaping under the light of day. He knew they talked about something in the car but as soon as he stepped out into the garage their entire conversation fell out of his head like water through the spout of a kettle. He wandered after Vid in a mild daze. It wasn’t a guarantee, he told himself, because one always needed to be prepared for plans to change, but the very strong likelihood he’d be getting laid in the near future made it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
Vid’s place was more or less what Pete had expected, being furnished nicely (if sparsely) with some art on the walls and some large photography books left on the coffee table. The latter were captioned in a language Pete didn’t know; based on the contents of the nearby bookshelves he guessed it was Czech. He couldn’t bring himself to be too curious when he kept being made aware of just how close Vid was standing and the way Vid’s pants were tailored in such a way as to be extremely form-fitting whenever he bent over to store something away.
Pete had just started to wonder how to best broach the subject of whether there would be more Netflix or more chill involved that evening when Vid sat down forcefully on the sofa, kicked off his shoes, and patted the cushion beside him.
“How about this,” said Vid. “We watch an episode of the thing with you next to me, see how we feel after that, and let stuff go where it will.”
That sounded fair enough. “You wanna get the awkward talk out of the way now in case things heat up later?” asked Pete. He was too old and too underinsured to be lax about this stuff anymore. “I picked up some dick ick during a more careless time of my life. I’m in remission, I take pills for it. My last test was before Thanksgiving, and I’ve had a date or two since then, so you probably want to wrap up if we plan on doing anything, you know, too fun.”
“I was at the clinic two weeks ago with nothing to report. I’ll keep your advice in mind about the fun,” said Vid, and his tone of voice implied that he wasn’t too repulsed. Pete relaxed a little more. Doing the responsible thing had brought more than one really good evening to a screeching halt.
He settled in next to Vid on the couch and promptly spaced out during whatever procedural it was that started playing. It was easier to think about how close he was to another person—and how good lunch had been, he’d have to remember to tell Eustace about that place, awful name and all—than keep track of who had killed whom with what. Halfway through Vid put his arm around Pete’s shoulder, and somewhere around what was probably the climax they found their legs entwined. Pete hadn’t realized how hungry he’d been for this kind of touch. It was relieving in the same way as scratching a really stubborn itch.
The credits rolled and the autoplay countdown started, prompting Vid to pause the show. “You look bored,” he said, his voice sheepish.
“Nah,” said Pete. “I’m just thinking of useful questions to ask for later.”
“Thought of any good ones yet?”
Pete regarded the pair of legs braided around his own. “I know you probably get this all the time with the dancing and everything, but how flexible are you?”
This got a chuckle out of Vid as he slicked back his hair. “Flexible enough,” he said. “I can get my foot up over my head no problem on a good day. My thighs are still sore from skating, though, so don’t expect anything fancy from me for a bit.”
“How about something plain but functional?”
“You asking if I want to fool around?”
“Then plain sounds pretty good,” said Vid with a smile.
Pete went straight for Vid’s shoulder. He was trying to be a gentleman, which meant not ripping out the buttons of Vid’s nice shirt no matter how much easier it would’ve made things. Each stubborn eyehole felt like a personal insult. Patience won out in the end, thankfully, and soon Pete’s mouth was able to make contact with the tan skin hidden underneath the bedeviling fabric. Judging by the sound Vid made this was a good way to start things off.
While Pete had expected to take his time to make sure they were both suitably interested, he hadn’t planned on Vid knocking his forearm out from where he’d been using it to brace himself; he managed not to squish anything (or anyone) important, but it also meant his thigh pressed hard against Vid’s crotch, and unless there were some serious body language confusion going on he was pretty sure Vid was into it. Pete gave things another tentative grind and Vid vocalized approvingly. This seemed like a good cue to get back to work on the shoulder thing again.
There was too much sweater between them for Pete’s comfort, but he wasn’t in the mood to take it off entirely if they were going to stay on the couch, so he compromised by pushing up his sleeves when he came up for air. Vid pulled him back down. Pete found one of his hands being pulled to rest at the clasp of Vid’s belt, which he undid equally one-handed between gyrations.
“You want me to jerk you off?” he murmured in Vid’s ear.
“Yes,” hissed Vid.
Vid’s cock was a good size and shape, the sort that fit the palm neatly and could probably fit a lot of other places, too; he was cut, like Pete was, and he made a quiet whining noise when Pete rubbed up right beneath his glans. It was darker than the rest of him. Pete hardly had to do any work once he actually had Vid in hand, as for each stroke of his own Vid added two more from sheer excitement. In no time at all he was left with a panting host and a few spots on the hem of his sweater.
Before Pete could get up to fetch a cloth he had Vid’s own hands upon him. He sat up, which Vid permitted, but at the first hint of shifting his weight he had Vid’s fingers in his belt loops pulling him back down again. Pete let himself be touched. Despite not being his favorite way to come (that honor belonged to getting fingered while someone was blowing him) he couldn’t find it in himself to mind. Even if everything went south after this he’d have some pretty good memories to jerk off to in the future, and when he came his thoughts had little room for anything other than dark-eyed swan dancers with terrible taste in television.
They cuddled until Pete insisted on foraging for a wet washcloth; he had only so many sweaters and laundry day was still a week away. Vid welcomed him back to the couch after they tidied themselves. The procedural ended up unpaused after a token amount of additional affection, which didn’t surprise Pete, who himself generally wasn’t in the mood to do much but watch something while blissed out from orgasm, and Vid had mentioned he’d wanted to see the whole thing. Pete still couldn’t follow the plot that well but he didn’t care. Vid was warm where the cool apartment was not and the afternoon sun cast cozy shadows across them where they sat.
During the break between the second and third episode Vid checked his phone. He didn’t bother unlocking it, as a single glance looked to be all he needed to know what tiresome messages awaited, date plans or no.
“These people are going to be the death of me,” he said, sourly.
Pete nodded. “It’s been a nice day without them, hasn’t it?”
“Thanks for spending it with me. I’m glad we could spend it bonding over fried chicken and ice skating and, uh….” He squinted at the faded pause border on the screen. “Episodes of Guillermo of Denver.”
Vid leaned against him. “Me too. I spend so much time thinking about ballet stuff I forget there’s nice things in the world that have nothing to do with arguing with other dancers.”
“The way you talk about those people you make it sound like the troupe’s one big shitty boyfriend.”
“You could say that,” said Vid. “I needed a good excuse to get away from them for a bit. You’re cute and you were talking to me at the right time.”
That didn’t line up with what Vid had said earlier, Pete was pretty sure. He straightened up, still seated but no longer actively cuddling. “Come on, man, you’re making it sound like I’m just an excuse for you.”
Vid cringed. “Sorry! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to sound that way, honest.”
“But it kinda did, eh?”
“Yeah. It kind of did.”
Pete weighed whether or not he wanted to leave the couch. Getting home wasn’t an issue: he could call Eustace, or take a bus, and if he really wanted to he could just walk back home from here, but that felt like giving up too easily. If the date was going bad he owed it to both of them to at least struggle towards a little bit of closure.
“When we first agreed to do this coming-back-to-your-place thing, you said you didn’t want me to think it was just a hook-up,” said Pete, choosing his words carefully. “I think maybe that’s where we’re not seeing eye to eye. The way I heard it, I assumed you didn’t want me thinking I was, like, disposable? Like this meant something a little more than a day to ourselves? I don’t know.”
“I was trying to say I didn’t want you thinking I was only buying you lunch in exchange for some easy ass.”
Pete scoffed. “Oh, well, that’s not really a problem for me, eh? I once went down on a guy ’cause he offered to split a can of Shasta on a hot day. I don’t mind bartering so long as I like someone well enough.”
The tips of Vid’s fingers drummed rhythmically against the cushions. “I don’t think you’re disposable, or interchangeable, or whatever other word that might come up. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say today was more about me getting away from it all, and you sure were convenient. I’d been thinking about asking for a little,” he added, and the back of Pete’s neck prickled happily to hear that, “but I guess I needed a disaster on the horizon to make me do anything more than sit around and text you and think about how nice it might be someday.”
“So was this a mistake?” asked Pete, gesturing to himself and Vid.
Vid sighed. “No, I don’t think so. I had a good time and I’d like to do this again. Any of it. All of it, even. The thing is that I don’t think I’m really suited to trying to make this an actual thing, at least not at the moment. I’ve got so much shit I have to deal with and I know I’d be so unavailable half the time that I’m not really in a good place to be anyone’s boyfriend right now.”
That wasn’t enough to completely smooth over Pete’s hurt feelings in the here and now, but it did explain a few more things. “If you’d rather be friends with benefits that’s fine by me,” he said. “You’ve got your troupe stuff, even when they’re being a bunch of cockbites, and I’ve got my job and my team and local friends. We don’t have to be joined at the hip. I don’t expect anything out of things beyond the kind of day we had today. Like, lunches are fine. I’d just like to see you more, and get laid some more, and show up to watch you dance whenever I can afford it.”
Vid leaned against the wall and studied Pete like he’d found an unexpected puzzle piece in the jigsaw box. “Can I think on it some?”
“Sure.” It seemed like a good time to change the subject, so Pete did. “Sun’s going down. Want to watch the stars come out together? This building’s view is incredible.”
Vid made an uncertain noise through his nose. “I don’t know, Pete. It’s going to be chilly this time of year, and….”
“I’d need to do the Maghrib thing first.”
Pete didn’t know that much about other people’s faiths beyond a cursory CliffsNotes level, but between the time of day and their choice of restaurant earlier he was able to piece things together on his own. “Like a sundown prayer? Sure.” He paused, frowning, as he reviewed the day’s schedule in his head. “Shit, I haven’t been keeping you from other religious-y things by hanging around, have I?”
Vid chuckled. Some of the tension in his face faded as he did so. “I’m kind of bad with keeping up on the whole schedule when I’m not visiting family. Sunrise and sunset I can manage regularly, everything else is eh-h-h.” He wavered his hand as he drew out the vowel sound. “I guess I’ll meet you on the roof in a few?”
If Vid had been a different man, Pete might have had second thoughts about getting escorted out of his apartment and encouraged to wait around where few people would see. Different men hadn’t talked and texted as much as they had, though, and different men hadn’t been as understanding about the STI thing, and to be perfectly honest different men hadn’t been as straightforward about their own failings as Vid had. He pulled down the sleeves of his sweater and took to the stairs, followed by the distant sound of prayer.
The sky was afire with pink and orange, and while Pete knew some of that was due to air pollution he couldn’t help but find it gorgeous. The utility towers scratched at the clouds like silhouetted fingers. Vid emerged from downstairs after his prayers, made a face at the weather, and quickly huddled next to Pete like a housecat.
“It’s freezing out here,” said Vid as he rubbed his arms for warmth. He sounded miserable.
Pete exhaled a long, billowy cloud of breath. “It is pretty cold, eh?” He put his arm around Vid’s shoulders. Vid was still for a moment before leaning into his touch. “Thanks for coming up here with me anyway,” said Pete.
“Any time,” said Vid. He still didn’t sound entirely thrilled, but he did sound a little more comfortable, and that meant a lot in Pete’s book.
They watched the sky change colors, shades of purple slowly overtaking the more fiery hues. The air got crisper—refreshingly so, in Pete’s opinion—and as a result Vid kept snuggling up closer to him. It had been a while since Pete had been physically intimate in a way that didn’t immediately segue into sex. He didn’t know if he’d actively missed it, since to be honest he was fine on his own so long as he still got out of the house and talked to people; what he did know was that if things worked out between them he could get used to this, whatever they ended up calling whatever it was they had.
Vid’s hand found his. “You still want to stick around for the night?”
“I’m up for it.”
“And you’re not going to get pissed if I wake you up with morning prayer?” The way he phrased that told a story of its own.
Pete shrugged around Vid’s shoulder. “I’m a morning person. I’m at my best when I get up early, anyway.”
“And you meant it when you said you make a pretty okay breakfast?”
“Only one way to find out,” said Pete with his best attempt at a wry smile.
Their lips touched as the world glowed like the sun was filtering through a gem. Vid’s mouth was as soft against Pete’s own as it had been when they’d been fooling around on the couch; he went about things with all the grace one would expect from a professional dancer, and even though Pete kissed with his mouth open and Vid did not, everything was more than fine. Having someone who’d be willing to be close like this would neatly fill in the few remaining gaps in Pete’s life that hockey left behind.
Pete’s phone buzzed mid-kiss. He groaned and palmed it from his pocket, trying to ignore Vid’s unsuccessful attempts to keep from grinning ear to ear.
Hey bro, you dead? said the newest text from Eustace.
I was having a moment up until just now, replied Pete. Also you just lost me a bet.
Haha sorry I’ll pay you back. If you say you’re good I believe you.
Great. Talk to you Sunday, Yoost.
Eustace replied with a thumbs-up emoji, which Pete responded to by turning his phone completely off. Doing so earlier would have just resulted in a string of increasingly anxious texts and possibly a missing persons report; it had only happened the once, but Pete was determined to both always let Eustace know when his phone was going to be off and to never let Eustace live that one down. Anxious childhood friends needed special handling at times.
“Looks like I owe you a fiver,” he said. “I got a promise he’ll leave us alone ’til tomorrow, though, so this should be the last time we have to do with the sitcom-timing thing until then.” Pete stroked his beard with mock gravity. “Got any ideas for what we should do with this newfound freedom before we go back to binge the rest of that show?”
“Want to try that kiss without your nosy friend butting in?” asked Vid.
“I can do that,” said Pete, even as they were already leaning back in towards one another.
It was even better the second time around.