by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by mcruthless


“Chef Kassa, you have been sliced.”

illustrated by mcruthless

Edward wouldn’t lie; there was some part of him that thrilled whenever he got to say those words. He had no influence on the decision-making process, but he got the glory of delivering the sentence, making and breaking dreams in one reality show producer-honed phrase. Sometimes, like when the chef getting the axe was a complete asshole (which happened with some regularity; the producers really knew how to pick them), he took a special pleasure in it, but most of the time those little shreds of evil twelve-year-old boy glee dissolved as soon as he saw the realization hit the newly-dubbed loser, as soon as he saw the light in their eyes go dull.

And sometimes they cried. Oh, it was just terrible when they cried.

Chef Kassa didn’t seem like a crier, but Edward did see a tell-tale rapid flutter of eyelashes when he saw his dessert, his poor downfall of a dessert, revealed when he lifted the cloche. Edward knew the cameras were sucking up every little ounce of emotion on his face. The poor kid got himself together quickly enough with a thick breath that made his nostrils flare, and he shook the hand of Chef Patrice, the winner.

“Thank you, this was an honor,” he said, only a little flutter in his voice, and shook the hands of each of the judges. He took Edward’s last; his hand was warm and a little damp with nerves, and Edward gave his long fingers a solid squeeze. He managed to smile at him before walking off set, the poor kid, the poor cute kid. Sometimes it felt good to deliver the news, but damn if this time he didn’t feel personally guilty. He’d been rooting for him.

Still, they had to finish filming, all of Patrice’s triumph and excited fist-pumping. The producers would likely be happy; he had a pretty good story, what with how he was going to use the prize money to fulfill his mother’s dream of finally seeing Paris. They loved the stories that involved parents — those often got those delicious tears that reality television fed on. Patrice was no crier, though. Edward wondered how Kassa was doing backstage; he hoped his post-mortem interview wouldn’t be a damp one.

When all was said and done with filming he went back to see if he could find the kid before he escaped off into the cold cruel world again, empty-handed. He found him just ready to leave the dressing room, out of his Sliced-provided chef jacket and back in street clothes, but still with his black bandana covering his dreads. “Oh, Kassa, hey,” Edward said, catching him before he headed out of the studio.

“Oh, hello,” he said, and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Did you need something?”

“No, I just…” Edward felt a little odd, now. He’d never done anything like this, talking to one of the contestants after filming. He usually kept himself hands-off. “I just wanted to say you did a really good job today. You should be proud of what you did out there.”

“Don’t worry, I am.” His smile went a little crooked, a little more real. “Do they let you have a taste after all?”

“Oh, not a bite,” Edward said. “I just have to smell it and look at it and listen to everyone talk about it while I writhe in torment.” Kassa laughed at that, so Edward kept going. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been deeply tempted to go nibbling cold tidbits off of the plate they photograph.”

“Not this time, though?” he said.

“It was close. It was very close. Everyone was going on so much about how you used those vienna sausages as bacon in your greens. It was the first time I’ve ever had my stomach growl for canned meat.”

Kassa rolled his eyes up to the heavens and held up a palm. “I opened that box up and saw those and I just didn’t know whether to faint or go blind.” Edward smiled. He really was a sweet kid; usually that phrase involved more profanity.

“Still, you did a great job.”

Kassa shrugged a little. “Just a couple of mistakes here and there.” He’d been doing really well until the dessert round, where his admirably risky move of trying to bake little cakes had backfired on him entirely when they turned out drastically underdone and almost liquid in the middle, and not in a fun, intentional way. “But don’t you worry, I’m not letting it get me down. Oh, but they just got about twenty minutes of this kind of talk from me on tape back there, you’ll hear it plenty.” He gestured back to where he’d just been wrung out with final interviews, long fingers dangling in the air. Edward wouldn’t have called him flaming, not by any stripe, but he, as a former Professional Homosexual, could sense queer in the most slightly loosened of wrists, like a shark scenting blood. Kassa was cute. If Edward weren’t dating someone — and if he weren’t twice Kassa’s age — he might suggest dinner to help lessen the sting of his loss. As it was, though, he just put a hand on his bicep and gave it a little squeeze.

“No, I know it,” he said, smiling. “I haven’t seen the last of you, I know it.”

Kassa grinned at him then, a real smile, bright and beautiful. “I’ll come back next time and win.”

“Or I’ll come eat at your restaurant?”

“You can be at the chef’s table on opening night,” Kassa said, resting his hand on top of Edward’s for a moment. Oh, to be twenty years younger and single! “Right with my nanas.”

“Oh, such an honor!” Kassa’d spent the filming bringing up his grandmothers a lot, both from producer nudges to keep the thread of his story strong for them to edit to pieces later, and from a genuine love. It always warmed Edward’s heart to see someone with a love of food that came from family; it sure as hell wasn’t where his had started. “You can put me in the seat that gets hit by the bathroom door, as long as I get your cooking.”

“You will,” he said. “One way or another.”

“I have no doubt,” he said, and Edward went home that day thinking of how Kassa walked out of the studio with his head high. Edward hadn’t had an ounce of that kind of confidence when he was that age, and especially not the good attitude to go with it. Hell, he was forty-one now, and he still didn’t have those things on his brightest days. Kids these days, he thought, in the fondest way possible.

Luis was late coming home, but that just gave Edward more time to fuss over dinner. And to spoil his dinner, as it had been many hours since lunch, and most of those hours had been filled with standing around smelling food cooking; he couldn’t help but nibble on a spear or three of roasted asparagus, testing them for appropriate levels of seasoning before they found their final homes on plates next to roasted potatoes and steak au poivre. It wasn’t the most fantastically creative or mind-blowing of dinners, but Edward wasn’t a chef like the ones on his show. He leaned more to classic things, done simply and done well.

Edward poured himself another glass of wine to settle his nerves and stepped away from the oven to keep from nibbling. He could have gone wild with tonight’s dinner — watching the chefs at work was always inspiring — but he’d picked this menu specifically. It was the same as the first dinner he’d cooked for Luis five years ago, on their third date. Luis had swooned over his steak and ended up with beautifully red wine-stained lips. Edward had found a bottle of the same vintage. It was all part of the plan.

Edward had worked halfway through his bottle of ‘chef’s helper’ wine when he heard Luis’ key at the door. It was ridiculous that he was nervous about this. They’d been through their ups and downs, but after five years, you had to see some things as inevitable, didn’t you? No, no, it wasn’t romantic to think of it like that. He loved Luis. They fit well together. It would be fine.

Luis came into the kitchen, shrugging his coat off and coming in to give Edward a kiss. “Sorry I’m late; work was idiotic,” he said, and took in a breath. “Smells fantastic. I hope I haven’t caused it to be cold or burnt.”

“You forget that I’m an expert,” Edward said, as he started arranging plates. Luis gave his shoulders a little rub as he spooned sauce over the steaks and he smiled. His shoulders had to be rocks, but the press of Luis’ thumbs made him relax a little. Everything would be fine. “Sit down, let a man work.”

Luis laughed and took a seat at the table. “Yes, chef,” he said, and took out his phone. He didn’t look up from fiddling with it as he reached for the special bottle of wine that Edward had opened to let breathe, pouring himself a glass without looking at the label. He set the phone down on the edge of the table when Edward put food in front of him. Hell, he’d meant to light candles. He was a disappointment to Professional Homosexuals everywhere.

“Mm, it’s good,” Luis said as he tucked in. Edward ate in small bites himself, earlier appetite quenched by nerves and a belly sloshing with syrah. Timing was everything.

“Do you remember the first time I made this?” Edward asked, and cringed a little inwardly. It was such a cheesy romance movie way to start. He should have gone scripted with this one.

Luis looked up, halfway through a bite of asparagus. “Hmm… did you make it for my birthday last year?”

“No, no.” He’d made salmon for Luis’ last birthday. “It was the first time you came here. First time I cooked for you.”

Luis pondered the steak on the end of his fork and smiled. “Oh, wow, it was, wasn’t it? That was a long time ago. Sorry I forgot.”

Edward shook his head. “Five years,” he said. He took a breath. Time to jump. “And I think after five years… well, it’s time to start thinking about the next five years. And the next after that, and the next after that.” Luis set his fork down and stared at him. “I want to be cooking like this for you for a long time to come.”

Edward couldn’t quite focus on the line of worry forming between Luis’s eyebrows. He had to keep moving. Getting down on one knee seemed ridiculously heteronormative, so he reached across the table to take his hand, held just over his sleeping iPhone.

“Will you marry me?”

The echo of the words turned to sand in his mouth as Luis frowned and looked down at his partially eaten dinner, and then pulled his hand away from Edward’s. “Edward… look, I…”

Edward couldn’t quite hear the rest of the sentence. Really, he heard it, but the problem was that all of the words sounded like ‘no.’

Edward was wondering why life was so endlessly cruel to him as to have made him put the bottle of wine where he couldn’t reach it from where he was lying in a snot-encrusted pile on the couch when he heard the key in the front door. He had just a few seconds of hope that it was Luis, coming back after a few days thought with a changed mind and an open heart, but then he heard Carter’s sing-songy call of, “Hello? Edward? If you’re a corpse in the bathtub, say nothing at all!”

Oh, the bathtub. He hadn’t considered that as an appropriate place to die. He might have to change his plans. Still, he moaned something incoherent and Carter came into the living room. He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the scene in front of him. “Oh my god, this is just America’s greatest tragedy.” He’d texted Carter when Luis had first left, but the bastard who alleged to be his best friend had been in L.A. shooting something. It was his fault things had gotten to this state. “Are you in sweatpants?” He pointed over to the iPod dock. “Is that Adele?”

“Leave me to die,” Edward said into his couch cushion.

“I think you already did,” Carter said. “The only way this scene could get sadder would be if you were covered in Cheeto dust.”

“I ate a pint of Chubby Hubby,” Edward said, muffled. “And then I cried into the remnants because I’ll never have a hubby of any girth.”

Carter sighed and came over to sit on the edge of the couch. “You know, if I’d wanted to have conversations with sixteen-year-old girls, I’d’ve pretended to be straight in high school.” He rubbed Edward’s back soothingly. After years of working on Gay Plan for the Straight Man together, they’d become the closest of friends. If Edward was a Professional Homosexual, Carter had a Grand Master’s certification in the art. His cattiness was just his way of showing he cared.

“You aren’t helping,” Edward said, even though he really sort of was. “Or leaving me to die.”

Carter pet the back of his head (and Edward could hear the face he made, since he hadn’t exactly showered in a while) and got up from the couch. “And I’m not going to. First step, enough with the weepy soundtrack, it’s time to get a little empowerment going in here.” Carter went over to mess with the iPod, and after a few seconds of silence, a breathy voice came out of the speakers, singing At first I was afraid, I was petrified…

Edward groaned and put a pillow from the couch over his face. Damn the predictability of his playlist. “I will not survive,” he said, and Carter came over to grab his hands and make them limply wiggle in the air in tune to the music.

“Yes, you will! Hey, hey!”

“I’m already dead,” Edward said into the pillow as he allowed himself to be manipulated.

“You are not,” Carter said, and let his hands drop as Ms. Gaynor continued to sing. He pulled the pillow off of Edward’s face. “You are simply on the road to drunken fattydom, and friends don’t let friends become drunken fatties without a very good reason.”

“I have a good reason,” Edward said, looking up at Carter through smudged glasses. “I will be drunk and fat and you can just cut my cock off, as it’s never getting used again.”

Carter pet his hair again. “You know, I’m sure there are some people in the world with that kink, but I’m not one of them.”

“I’ll find a German.”

Carter put his hands under Edward’s shoulders and pushed him upwards. “No, you won’t. Or if you do he’ll be twenty-four and named Günther and will have the ability to suck a soccer ball through a garden hose.” He forced Edward into a sitting position. “Up, up. We’re going to get you cleaned up and get you out.”


Carter put an arm around his shoulders and slid onto the couch next to him. For half a second, Edward, his brain dehydrated by tears and wine, wondered if perhaps Carter would love him, if no one else would. Half a bottle of wine more and he might try it. “Outside!” Carter declared. “If you’re going to be a drunken fatty, you’re going to at least have the decency to do it in public instead of just drowning here in Boone’s Farm and fudgecicles.”

He hadn’t gotten that bad. Yet. “I can’t go out. I’m a public figure! I’ll be on those snarky food blogs! I’ll get snarked!”

“You got your heart broken and the first thing you did was tell me. You are clearly asking to be snarked one way or the other.” Edward gave him a look that had to have been pathetic, with the little cooing sound Carter made and the way he poked out his lower lip. “Oh, you poor thing. If you’re that worried, we’ll put a hat and sunglasses on you.”

“If you put a baseball cap on me, I’m throwing up pinot noir onto your cashmere,” Edward said, and meant every word. Carter patted him on the cheek.

“That’s the fighting spirit!” He stood up and held on to Edward’s hand, trying to pull him up. “Come on, you big sally, don’t think you can out-stubborn me. If I can make rednecks wax their backs, I can get you out for a grown-up drink.”

It was an excellent point. Edward didn’t even have the strength to keep fighting. What did it matter if he went somewhere and cried in public? He was never going to love again, after all. He stood up. “I’m not going to a club, though. I’m too old for anything resembling a club.”

“No clubs,” Carter said, as he pushed him towards the bathroom. “Now lets get you in the shower and into something that doesn’t possibly have urine stains near the crotch, I’m not looking too closely.”

“No, no, it’s chardonnay.”

Chardonnay?” Carter said, voice pitching high. “Sweet Mary, you do need help.” He gave him a hug around his shoulders, warm and close despite Edward’s general level of disgustingness. “Papa Carter will take care of you.”

A shower, some fresh clothes, and a cab to Manhattan later saw them seated at a little nook of a table at some very quiet beer bar covered in monk-related murals.

“This place is not like you,” Edward said.

“Sometimes you have to strike where they least expect you,” Carter said, and put a beer that tasted like raspberries into Edward’s hand. That was true; the bar was sparsely populated to start with, and the patrons there didn’t seem to recognize or remotely care that two stars of basic cable were there. Safety from snark, at least. Edward drank his beer.

Two of those later and he’d advanced from generic cries for death to the more specific. “I asked him to marry me, and he breaks up with me. What am I supposed to even do after that?”

Carter put his hand on top of his. “Sweetheart, I want you to answer me really honestly here.” He put his other hand on top of that. This was real. “Did you really, actually want to marry him?”

“Of course!” Edward said. “Yes, I did. I mean, we’d been together for five years…”

“My parents were together for twenty and they didn’t want to be married for at least ten of those,” Carter said. “Were you two really, actually happy together?”

“Yes,” Edward said, and then bit his lip and looked down into the pink foam of his beer. “I mean, you know, happy in that way you are in a long-term relationship. It’s not like everything is going to be romantic comedy giddy fireworks forever; we’re two middle-aged homos, for pete’s sake!” Carter just kept looking at him, a piercing stare that kept him talking. “I wanted to ask him the minute it became legal. But I didn’t want it to be just a, ‘oh, now gays can get married, so we have to.’ But I still wanted to. I wanted to… you know, seal it up. Lock it down. Have a nice sense of security as I trudge ever onward into old age.” He put a hand over his face and sighed. Carter pet his hand a little. “You know what he said when I asked him?”


“That he wanted to see other people.” Carter sucked in a little breath through his teeth, and Edward laughed bitterly. “And isn’t that just perfect! I’m all dying to become Miss Model Homosexual, all family-friendly and legally wed so my favorite political candidates can point at me and smile, and he wants an open relationship!”

“Was that something he’d wanted for a while?” Carter asked. “Did you have any idea?”

“Well…” Edward cringed as he thought of it. “You remember the Argentina incident.” Luis traveled a lot for business. His trip to South America two years ago had involved him finding companionship.

“Yes,” Carter said. “And now that you’re broken up I can tell you that he is a worthless shithead for doing that do you and you should have never given him another chance. If he wants to go back to that tramp, let him. You can do better than that.”

Edward took his glasses off and set them on the table, rubbing his eyes and letting the world go soft. “I could do it, though? I could try an open relationship? Isn’t that what all the enlightened faggots do?”

Carter squeezed his hand. “Oh, honey, no. You are the Harriet Homemaker of homosexuals. You’d just cry quietly into your pillow every night.” Edward sighed and nodded. It was entirely true. “And if you were going to be in an open relationship, you deserve to be in it with someone you know you can trust, not someone who’s already run around behind your back with some slutty south-of-the-border ass.”

Edward put his glasses back on and managed a little smile. “Well, not that it matters, as I will now be alone forever.”

Carter reached out and gave his cheek a little fingertip-slap. “That is not true.”

“Entirely true,” Edward said as he turned his face away from it. “I’m going to become a gay Miss Havisham.”

“You look terrible in white, so absolutely not.”

Edward leaned his head back against the wall behind him and closed his eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe part of me knew he wasn’t satisfied. Maybe I was trying to fix it by getting married.”

“Darling, heterosexuals have been trying that one for years and it hasn’t worked for them.” Carter gave his hand a little squeeze. “But you don’t have to give up hope now.”

“I know,” Edward admitted, letting some actual sense break through his need for melodramatics. “But, god, being single in my forties? Just take me out back and shoot me.”

Carter reached across the little table and poked Edward on the nose, getting him to open his eyes. “Now, none of that. You’re handsome and talented and famous. Boys will be knocking down your door as soon as you throw all of Luis’ things out on the lawn and put out the welcome mat.”

“Whatever you say,” Edward said, and smiled. “And if no one shows up, we could always date!”

One of Carter’s eyebrows went up almost the entire way to his hairline while the other dove down to obscure his eye. “That’s a very sweet thought, but I also know you’re a bottom. I don’t think it’s going to work out.”

Edward sighed, this time with deliberately put-on drama, instead of his soul-deep pain. “And despite the fact that you are, too, you’re still an incredible pain in my ass.” Carter laughed, and he managed a smile, too. “But just watch out, when we hit fifty and are still alone, I’m showing up at your door with roses.”

“I’m sorry, someone has misinformed you that I’m ever turning fifty,” Carter said. “But I’ll take the roses.” Edward laughed as Carter finished the last drops of his beer. “I know you’re all sore and hurting now, but you won’t be alone forever. There’s someone out there for you. Some good man who wants to be a little his-and-his cake topper with you.”

“I know. There is,” Edward admitted. “But I don’t think I’m ready to go looking just yet.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for you,” Carter said. “And until then, I’ll keep you drunk.”

“You are a saint,” he said, and pushed his empty glass towards Carter for him to go back to the bar and get refilled. He looked around the bar, at the tables of couples and friends, at Carter teasing the bartender as he got more drinks. He closed his eyes, and hummed a little Gloria Gaynor.

Dealing with the apartment after Luis moved out was the strangest part. He’d had the place before they were together, so it was something of just restoring it to its previous form, but now there were odd holes and gaps, weird blank spaces even if he’d moved all the bookshelves to interior designer-approved locations. This was just what life was like now, he figured. Finding ways to fill all the spaces.

Life, of course, went on. He filmed the show, wrote some magazine articles, and remembered how to cook dinner for just one person. That was really the worst part of all of it, actually, the single portions and the leftovers and the unshared bottles of wine. It drove him to indulge much, much more in eating out, always a terrible hardship in a city like New York.

No dates, though. If he wanted a dinner companion, he always had Carter to make him laugh and make inappropriate comments about the cuter waiters. A while after the breakup he brought Carter with him to Aubergine, one of those nouveau French-American places that was so popular in the city these days. It’d been open for a while, but had changed chefs recently and gotten good buzz over it, and nothing soothed a broken heart like possibly getting to eat bone marrow. Something about the name of the place seemed familiar, too, although that was possibly from the fact that he had, at points in his life, eaten eggplants before.

When he and Carter had been seated, Edward went straight for the menu, planning his method of attack, while Carter just traced his fingers around the edges and surveyed the room. “What do you think of the whole open kitchen thing?” he said. “It always seems a little chain restaurant-y to me, like they want you to make sure you can see no one’s spitting in your food.”

Aubergine’s kitchen was exposed, the hustle of the line in plain sight for anyone to view. Their table had a particularly good sight line on it. “Please, like those places would want to let you see them defrosting bags of frozen ground beef?” Carter laughed as Edward watched the chefs move; it was a Tuesday night and the place wasn’t crowded, but they still had a balletic stir of activity. “I like it, really. Keeps things from being too stuffy and old-world. Lets you see a bit of the fire.”

“And maybe hear someone call someone else a puta?”

Edward laughed. “I think we’d need a bit of a closer table for that…” His eyes focused on someone in the kitchen and he pushed his glasses up his nose, leaning in the direction of the kitchen. “Wait, someone in there looks familiar.”

“Oh, an old flame tending the flames?”

That was where he’d heard of Aubergine before. He got up from the table. “I’ll be right back. Under no circumstances select a wine until I return.” He headed for the kitchen. He knew it was such a frowned-upon, shit thing to do to go raiding into the back of the house without permission, but what was the point of being a food celebrity if you couldn’t occasionally take advantage of it?

“Chef Kassa!” he called out once he got to the edge of the kitchen, past the glare of the expediter. Kassa looked up from where he was in mid-chop of some shallots, and then blinked rapidly as he recognized Edward’s face and connected it to reality. “Got a second?”

Kassa looked at his station, clearly mentally pondering how long he could be gone before people started wanting to kick his ass, and then set his knife down and came over to where Edward stood. “Hey!” he said, sounding a little out of breath from surprise. “Didn’t expect to see you again so soon!”

“I just couldn’t wait until you had a place of your own,” he said, and, well, that might have been more forward than he intended. “No, it’s actually completely a coincidence, I didn’t know you were still here. How are you doing?”

“Holding up,” he said. “I’m staging, so…”

Edward’s eyebrows went up. A stage in a restaurant like this was good training, but it meant a lot of hours with no pay. Edward was surprised he hadn’t yet been offered a paying position on the line. “Still?”

Kassa shrugged and smiled. “You gotta work hard to work hard.” He gestured over his shoulder to where he no doubt had things to peel and chop. “Speaking of, I’d better get back to it. I’ll let the chef know you’re here, though. He likes making a fuss over special guests.”

“I’d love it if you could make me something,” Edward said. Was he flirting? He surely wasn’t flirting; Kassa was half his age.

Kassa laughed, giving him a wide and beautiful smile. “You’re overestimating what they let me do back here. I can maybe put a special garnish on it.”

“I’ll know it was from you.” He gave Kassa’s arm a squeeze. “Good to see you, Kassa. Best of luck.”

“Thank you,” he said, and went back to his station as Edward returned to his seat and to Carter’s eyes shooting searing laser beams at him.

“And what was that?”

“Oh, he’s just someone who was on the show once,” Edward said as he picked the menu up again. “Very nice young man. Glad he’s still working.”

“So, were you asking him out?”

Edward glared over the menu at Carter. “No! Of course not.”

“And why not?” Carter turned his head to openly ogle in the direction of the kitchen. “I mean, look at him!”

Edward had looked at him, all six feet of him, with his pretty dark eyes and ridiculous cheekbones. “You’re still being ridiculous. I’ve got to be twenty years older than him.”

“So?” Carter tapped his finger on Edward’s menu to make him drop it down. “You’re at the perfect stage in your life for it! Just got broken up with, been off the market for a while… you deserve the chance to be a sugar daddy!”

Edward covered his eyes with his hand. “Please don’t make me lose my appetite. I really want to eat here.”

“I’m serious, though.” Carter pulled his hand away from his face. “I’m not talking about asking him to settle down and buy a house upstate or anything. Just a nice little bit of rebound fun to help you get your feet back under you.” He gestured over to the kitchen. “I could read the body language from here, by the way. He’s into you.”

“You’re absurd. He was being polite.” Edward sighed. “He was being polite and I was being inappropriate and creepy.”

“Please,” Carter said. “You’re not creepy. I’m creepy. I’m a pencil-thin moustache away from the full John Waters. You’re elegant and charming and a young man like that would love to be taken out on a date by you.”

Edward opened his mouth to retort, but the waiter arrived just in time to interrupt him. At least ordering could put Carter off his mission for a while. He specifically stretched out the conversation about wine to get him bored enough to be distracted onto something else. At least Edward would be getting his bone marrow, now.

He couldn’t distract himself, though, not with a clear view of Kassa, hard at work in the kitchen, endlessly toiling with his knives. “I haven’t even been on a date in years,” he said. “Especially not with someone his age. They’ve probably completely changed it by now.”

I’ve been on a date with someone his age, and no, they have not,” Carter said. “You take him out to dinner, someplace where you know the chef and can impress his little shorts off, talk about the food, talk about the wine… oh, dear, is he old enough to drink?”

Edward cringed. “Maybe?”

Carter waved a hand in the air. “Well, it’s not like you’re going to take him to T.G.I.Friday’s; they’re not going to card.” He spent a while with his head tilted, looking at Kassa. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“He could say no,” Edward said. “Pardon me if I’m a little delicate about the subject of rejection at the moment.”

Carter lifted his napkin off his lap. “Simple solution: I’ll ask him for you!” Edward grabbed him before he could stand up.

“Do I look like a fourteen-year-old girl? Are we in study hall?”

“I’ll invite him to dinner with the both of us,” Carter said. “A perfectly safe grown-up activity with no obligations, just two figures from ‘I Love the 2000s’ having a meal with a promising young chef.”

“And that’s not somehow creepy?” Edward asked.

“It’s only as creepy as you make it, darling,” Carter said, and Edward wrestled him back into his chair in time for their appetizers to arrive. “And what is that?” Carter asked, pointing at Edward’s plate.

There, next to the long split bone with beautifully roasted marrow, next to the delicate parsley salad, was a little cherry tomato, carved into a rose that would do any 1980s wedding caterer proud. Edward picked it up and smiled. “A present from the chef.”

“That chef?” Carter said, pointing at Kassa. Edward nodded, and Carter stood up. “I’m going. If he doesn’t want to go out with you, I’m taking him.”

There was no stopping him now. “At least eat your food first!” Edward called after him, but he was already marching proudly into the kitchen — directly in to the kitchen, good lord, right on the line, Edward just couldn’t watch anymore. He just had to sit back and let whatever was going to happen happen. Edward squeezed the little tomato a bit, making its petals fan out, and then popped it into his mouth.

Edward was a few minutes early himself, but Kassa was already waiting there in front of Lardo. It was something else to see him outside of anything like a kitchen. He was dressed in black, making him look all the more slender and tall, and for the first time Edward was seeing him without a cooking-sweat-soaked bandana on, his thin dreads tied half-back at the nape of his neck. He gave him the brightest smile when he noticed him coming. God, he was crazy for doing this.

“Hey, hope you weren’t waiting long,” he said as he got close, putting a hand out to touch Kassa’s elbow. Kassa shook his head. “Carter will probably be a while. He’s always dramatically late.”

Kassa frowned a little. “Didn’t you get his message?”

Oh, of course. “No?”

“He said he couldn’t make it. Said he got hit by food poisoning, the poor thing.”

Edward sighed. “Yes, that poor man.” Really, it was stupid of him to not have expected something like this. “Well, I hope you don’t mind if it’s just the two of us.”

“No, I don’t mind at all,” Kassa said, looking right into his eyes as he said it. Madness, utter madness.

Edward opened the door for him and they quickly found themselves seated. “I’ve heard a lot about this place,” Kassa said as he looked around and picked up the menu. “I’ve always wanted to try it.”

“Oh, it’s great,” Edward said. “I’ve known Jamie, the executive chef, for years. We go way back.” Ah, good, he was already bragging. That was very attractive in a bloated old man like himself.

Kassa’s eyes got wide, though. “Oh, really? Do you think you could introduce me?” He quickly closed his eyes and snapped his jaw shut, shaking his head. “No, no, I don’t mean to be some little twerp who begs you to get connections.”

“No! Oh, no, I’d love for you to meet her,” Edward said. “I don’t think that about you at all, don’t worry. I mean I asked you here… well, okay, technically Carter asked you, but my point stands.”

Kassa dipped his head a little and smiled. He had really lovely eyelashes. “You know, just to be honest with you, I was a little terrified when he asked me.”

Edward laughed. “I can’t blame you. He’s a ridiculous goblin. One I love, but nonetheless. I promise I wouldn’t have abandoned you to him.”

“I think he might have eaten me alive,” Kassa said.

“Raw,” Edward said, and felt a thrill at Kassa’s smile.

“Kassa tartar,” he said. “If those are his habits, no wonder he’s sick.”

Edward waved a hand in the air. “Oh, he’s not sick.” Edward had no stake in defending Carter’s honor.

“He’s not?”

“He’s a liar and a bastard and a wannabe yenta.”

Kassa laughed. “Okay, I have to confess, I’ve heard that word a couple of times since I moved up here and I have no idea what it means.”

“He’s trying to set us up,” Edward said. He waited for Kassa’s laugh, and then they could have a grand old chuckle about what a ridiculous thought that even was, and have a nice dinner as colleagues that would leave Kassa with a full belly and some networking contacts.

“Oh,” Kassa said, soft and gentle. “So, is this a date?”

He had a look in his eyes, those dark lovely eyes, that said that somehow, amazingly, hearing an answer of ‘yes’ would not be horrific. Edward still had to play it safe. “What answer would make you the least uncomfortable?”

He felt Kassa’s foot brush his under the table. “I wouldn’t object to it being a date.”

It became quickly difficult to think of anything clever. Or, for that matter, to swallow or remember to breathe. Edward managed to laugh out a breath before he turned red, and said, “Well, if you don’t mind an aging pasty white homosexual on the other side of the table, then yes, it’s a date.”

“You forgot handsome,” Kassa said. Perhaps Carter had bribed him.

“Deliberately omitted, actually.” If this was now officially a date, though, he had to do his best no to completely blow it. “Especially when compared to present company.”

Kassa laughed, soft and breathy. “Well, I’d say I’m nothing special, but I’m feeling pretty special right now.”

“Stop, you’ll make this old queen blush,” Edward said, and then the waitress arrived, stalling any further attempts at flirting as the two of them dissected the menu, and Edward encouraged Kassa to order whatever he wanted, to his heart’s content. Perhaps there was something to the sugar daddy thing, after all.

The waitress went on her merry way, the two of them were left with no menus to fidget over, smiling just a little awkwardly at each other across the table. It’d been so long since Edward had been on a first date; he’d forgotten what this even felt like. It actually wasn’t bad at all.

Kassa broke the silence. “I don’t really get a lot of chances to date, actually,” he said. “I’m always really busy, and no one really… knows about me.” He made an extravagant little finger gesture that perfectly conveyed the abstract concept of homosexuality. “I guess you got a good read on me, though.”

“Oh!” Edward lived his life so dramatically out of the closet that sometimes he forgot about the poor people still behind its door. “I have gotten a bit of practice in my life, it’s true. But there was also a good amount of wishful thinking involved.” He held up an enthused little fist in front of him and shook it. “Lucky me, I was right!” Oh, lord, he was a helpless dork. At least Kassa laughed.

“I thought you were going to ask me out that first time after the show,” Kassa said. “So you’re not the only one with wishes.”

“I thought about it,” Edward said. “But I was dating someone at the time.”

Kassa raised his eyebrows. It really hadn’t been that long since the taping. The episode hadn’t even aired yet. “But not anymore?”

“Not anymore.”

Kassa smiled. “Lucky me,” he said, and the wine arrived. Edward made an extra show of sniffing and swirling and approving of it, because he had both a reputation and an audience, and then they both had full glasses and were alone again.

Edward lifted his glass to clink against Kassa’s, but paused. “Do tell me first… are you old enough to drink?”

Kassa tipped his glass the extra inch and made it go ting against Edward’s. “Turned twenty-one last month.”

Edward let out a slight groan as he drank his first sip of wine. “I am twenty years older than you. I just want you to be fully aware and warned of that.”

Kassa smiled over the rim of his glass. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Are you sure?”

Kassa laughed and put his glass down. “Listen to you! I’m supposed to be the nervous one here, not you.”

“Sorry,” Edward said, letting out a breath and drinking more of his wine. “I’m out of practice. Why should you be nervous?”

Kassa held the stem of his glass between two of his long fingers and circled it on the table cloth, making the wine swirl. “Well, here I am on my first real, grown-up New York City date with a handsome TV star. Of course I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be,” Edward said. “I’m a ridiculous man, and harmless as a declawed kitten.” Kassa laughed at that, and Edward knew it was time to steer things another way before he just tumbled down a path of babbling about all his failings. “How long have you been in the city?”

“About nine months,” Kassa said. “I was working in kitchens down in Charleston before, but I wanted to come up to where the real action was at. And my sister lives here, so…” He let out a little laugh. “I’ve been sleeping on her couch the whole time. That’s one of the reasons I was hoping to win on Sliced, so I could get my own place before she tosses me out back down south.”

“Is that a risk?”

“Well, she’s not going to put up with me forever,” Kassa said. “I’ve got another few months to get a paying gig before my time is up.”

“You should come stay with me,” Edward said, and the words came out of his mouth and landed on the table like a lump of uncooked dough, awkward and slowly expanding. “I mean, I have a big apartment, and an extra room, and just… lots of empty space.”

“Well, I…” Kassa’s eyes were wide like dollar coins. “I couldn’t pay rent. I’m not getting paid.”

“That’s fine!” Edward said. “I own!”

Kassa laughed and looked away, and god, what was wrong with Edward? There was being a bit of a charming sugar daddy, and then there was being a total creep. He apparently couldn’t even make it to an entree course without essentially proposing marriage. “My deadline’s not for a while. I’ll think about it.”

Edward put a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, that came out totally weird, didn’t it? I swear it’d be no strings attached, no creepy sex thing…”

Kassa let out a relieved sounding laugh. “It did kind of sound that way, I’m sorry,” he said. “And I was going to say, now, I know this is kind of an expensive dinner, but that doesn’t make it a guarantee!”

“Forget I ever said anything,” Edward said. “I am old and weird and creepy and have forgotten how to date.”

Kassa reached across the table and took his hand, his fingers warm as they pressed into his skin. “We’ll set it aside. Maybe not forget it, because honestly I might need to take you up on it. But for now we’ll just…” He lifted up his glass. “Talk about the wine?”

Edward had to marvel. Here was someone beautiful, and talented, and determined, and young, and somehow remarkably much more mature than he had managed to be lately. Was this what a mid-life crisis felt like? “Right,” he said, and straightened himself up, turning his hand to briefly squeeze Kassa’s. “I can talk about wine until I’ve bored you to death. Do you know anything about terroir?”

Kassa leaned back in his chair and brought his glass up to his lips, smiling at him. “Please, Edward, tell me all about terroir.”

Edward gave him an exciting lecture about wine geography, and they’d explored all the hills and valleys of the bottle by the time they’d finished their entrees. With a little liquid relaxation, they could talk about the food, about how Kassa’s experiences in the south differed from cooking in the big city, and Edward could make him laugh telling him dirt about behind the scenes at Sliced. Before dessert he snuck him back into the kitchen to meet Jamie, and she made them something special for dessert before getting Kassa’s contact information.

They stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, standing close as people drifted by them. “Okay,” Edward said, “I had a really nice time tonight, and if you did too, I’d like to see you again.” He held up a hand to preempt Kassa’s reply. “And not with a moving van or anything. Just another date.”

“I’d like that a lot,” Kassa said. “I still have to cook for you, remember?”

“My kitchen is yours,” Edward said, then laughed. “Temporarily! For an evening!”

Kassa laughed and put his fingers over Edward’s mouth. “You need to do like we do where I’m from and just slow it down.”

“I’m trying,” Edward said, past his fingers. Kassa took them away and bent in to kiss him, soft, sweet, and innocent. Kassa may have told him to slow down, but his kiss made Edward want to drop to one knee right there. He restrained himself, somehow.

“I’ll call you,” he said, as Kassa pulled away. He squeezed his fingers in his, and watched him as he walked away.

In the cab home he checked his phone and saw that he had eight text messages from Carter. He would just deal with those later. Right then he was busy brushing his fingers across his lips and thinking about what would come next.

Busy schedules for the both of them meant they couldn’t have the promised date where Kassa could cook for Edward immediately, but Edward found time to take him to lunch, a nice, safe, broad daylight sort of thing where he managed not to be too alienatingly weird. It perhaps was a little strange when he started showing pictures on his phone of his kitchen, but Kassa gratifyingly gasped and sighed in jealousy. He still felt a little like he was baiting some sort of trap, but the kiss Kassa gave him at the end of lunch calmed his worries some.

They found a free evening eventually, though, and Edward demanded a shopping list for whatever menu Kassa wanted to prepare. He felt like he was contributing something if he could blow money buying the most grass-fed of beef and the most organic of vegetables. He loaded the fridge with groceries and waited for Kassa, fussing over his iPod’s playlist and refilling one of his larger wine glasses.

Kassa arrived and kissed him hello for a good long while before pulling back and grinning at him. “Lead me to your kitchen.”

“Tonight it’s your kitchen,” Edward said. “I’m just your bumbling sous chef.” He took Kassa’s hand and led him back to the kitchen. “Or, more realistically, I’ll just be like I am on the show: standing out of the way and trying to make witty commentary. Just with more wine.”

“And this time, you’ll actually get to taste things.” Kassa stopped dead when they stepped inside the kitchen. “Oh my lord, it’s even bigger than in the pictures.”

Edward shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you have to understand I’m contractually obligated to respond to that with a ‘That’s what he said.'”

Kassa laughed and swatted him on the arm. “Naughty man,” he said, and put the bundle he had in his arms down on the kitchen island, taking a moment to brush his fingers out over the marble and go ‘mm.’ He unfolded the cloth to reveal a set of knives and a black chef’s apron.

“Oh, you came prepared,” Edward said.

“Now, I’m sure you have very excellent knives yourself, but… a man’s got to have his knives.”

“Oh, I understand completely,” he said. Kassa set the knives on the counter and shook out the apron, hooking it over his neck. Edward came in close to tie the strings around his waist, and Kassa smiled at him over his shoulder.

“Whenever I take them on the subway I’m worried they’re going to do a random search and throw me in jail,” he said. He held up one of his hands. “And I’ll say, wait! I’m a chef! Just look at all the cuts and burns!”

Edward took his hand and inspected it. Chef’s hands, no doubt, marked with little lines of old nicks and calluses. They were beautiful. “Hmm, we’ll let you go this time.”

“Thank you, officer,” Kassa said, then grinned and tapped Edward on the nose. “Okay, unless you have any objections, I’m taking over your kitchen.”

“Wait, one thing!” Edward said, and retrieved the bottle of wine he’d opened. “I always think cooking with wine is an important skill. Even if it’s not in the recipe, it should go into the chef.” Kassa laughed at his fairly dumb joke, and clinked glasses with him before drinking. His pink tongue darted across his lips after he finished his sip, and from the look on his face Edward knew he needed to make note of this wine for the future, even if it was patently ridiculous that he was planning for what to do on unseen anniversaries on the third date. He had problems.

He helped Kassa find what he needed in his kitchen, bowls and pans and utensils of all sorts. Kassa gave him a look when Edward was able to supply a well-seasoned cast iron pan, the kind of heavy-eyed glance and a grin that usually came right before a man went for his belt buckle. Edward wanted to bring out every last gadget and tool in his kitchen to see if he could inspire more of that.

“So, what’s on the menu for tonight?” he asked as Kassa started to pull his requested ingredients out of the fridge and pantry. He moved quickly and smoothly, not with the frantic energy that he’d been forced to on the show or at work; Edward hoped the undemanding pace of a home kitchen was an enjoyable change for him.

“Something that I’m going to serve at my restaurant,” Kassa said as he prepared a dish of beaten eggs. He looked up at Edward and smiled. “You know, someday.”

“Definitely someday,” Edward said, as Kassa filled another dish with flour. “Oh, and you’re going to win my heart with something fried, aren’t you?”

“A special little combination I came up with.” He pulled a jar out of his pocket full of reddish powder. “See, when I was growing up, my parents were always working, so my nanas did most of the raising me. And they know how to cook, let me tell you, and they taught me everything I know.” He laughed and smiled at Edward as he shook the powder into the flour. “Of course, I only said that about a dozen times on the show.”

“I like hearing it again,” Edward said, leaning on the counter to watch. “Now you’re saying it to me.”

“Well, Nana Lanelle is Ethiopian, so she taught me all about her kind of food,” he said. “And Nana Jean is from South Carolina, so she taught me about hers. So I want to make a restaurant that’s a little bit of both.” He gave Edward a big smile. “I figure no one’s ever tried to make an Ethiopian soul food restaurant before. I’m gonna call it LanelleJean, after them.” He gestured down at the food he was preparing. “So you’re going to be a taste tester tonight of some berebere chicken-fried steak.”

“I’m sold. I’m booked for the first reservation. For the whole week.”

Kassa laughed. “You’ve got it right now! I haven’t tried any of this on anyone but my family.”

“It’s a great idea. I…” He caught the words before they came out this time, before he offered to give Kassa seed money to start a restaurant. It was the third date, he reminded himself, and more importantly, from all he knew about Kassa so far, this was a dream he wanted to fulfill with his own hard work, not with some old man shaking his wallet out over the top of his head. Slow, he reminded himself. “I really think it’s going to be fantastic. I know you’ll get there.”

He let Kassa work, just sitting back to watch and providing items or an extra pair of hands when needed. When he revealed that he just happened to keep a jar of bacon grease in his fridge, Kassa gave him a kiss that pushed him back against the fridge, leaving his heart pounding as Kassa took it from his hands and went to apply it to one of the many pans he had going on Edward’s stove.

Before long Kassa could remove his apron and wipe the sweat from his brow, and Edward could carry wine glasses behind him as Kassa transported two beautifully-constructed plates of food to his table. The steaks were crisp-edged and fragrant, settled next to the bacony greens and spiced fried lentils Kassa had also prepared. Edward sat across from Kassa and lifted his wine glass towards him. “To Lanelle and Jean,” he said.

Kassa smiled and clinked his glass. “To my nanas.”

Kassa was watching him as he took his first bite, but Edward didn’t have to play up his reaction at all. The meat was perfectly done, the coating crisp and light, and the seasoning exciting without being overpowering. Edward closed his eyes and let out a little moan while he chewed. “Kassa, this is fantastic,” he said as he went for another bite.

“The judge approves?”

“Absolutely. You win the prize.”

“What exactly was that again?” Kassa asked, smiling at him as he managed to make holding a forkful of fried steak look coy and inviting. Young men were dangerous.

“We’ll discuss it later,” Edward said, and from the way Kassa smiled after it, it sounded like a promise.

Edward made some vague threat of dessert partway through the meal, but with dinner and the rest of the bottle of wine finished, Kassa apparently was uninterested in it. Or at least, had a very different interpretation of it, as Edward found himself on his couch, with Kassa, making out like a pair of teenagers. It was so different from anything he had in such a long time that he laughed a little against Kassa’s mouth.

“Mm?” Kassa said, still breathing against his lips. “Something funny?”

Edward brushed his fingers along Kassa’s side, tracing the slim line of his waist. “It’s been such a long time since I necked on a couch like this. I just had this little moment of worrying that my dad might come in and catch us.”

Kassa laughed and moved in closer, pushing Edward a little more back against the couch’s arm, a little more horizontal. “See, I’m happy because I know no one in my family’s going to interrupt.” He brushed the curve of his lips over Edward’s cheek. “In the past I’ve always had to be a lot more sneaky.”

Edward’s mind erupted in thoughts of Kassa’s not-so-far-distant past of clandestine teenage couplings in sultry southern summers, and he was such a dirty old man for the way the thought hit him right and low in the gut. He went with it, though, putting a hand behind Kassa’s neck and kissing him thoroughly. “No sneaking necessary,” he said quietly, and Kassa grinned and pushed him further down on the couch, until he was completely lain out flat, Kassa stretched on top of him.

He brushed his hands over Kassa’s back and found himself giddy at the novelty of it, spending such a long while kissing someone while everyone remained fully clothed. Sex with Luis had never gotten bad, per se, but it had become a bit rote. They never spent time doing anything like this, not for a long while before the end.

Kassa’s long legs tangled up with Edward’s and his hair brushed his face. He tasted like wine and all the spices of dinner, and when he sucked on Edward’s lower lip it made him make a little shaky noise he’d forgotten he was the sort of person to make. He slid his hands down Kassa’s body to grab his ass, bringing them together so he could feel Kassa’s cock press into his hip.

Kassa let out a small moan into his mouth, and then pulled away with a little breathy laugh, drawing back enough to look Edward in the eyes. He was smiling, but Edward could see a little nervousness in it. “Just so you know, I’m not going to sleep with you tonight.”

Edward blinked and wondered if he should remove his hands from Kassa’s rump, but not quite enough to actually do it. “Oh, yes. Of course, that’s fine. Whatever you want.” He took a little breath. “Only what you want to do.”

Kassa let out a little relieved breath and gave Edward a light kiss. “But we can fool around.”

“Oh. Okay?” Edward said. God help him, he was apparently so old that he didn’t know that those two courses of action were no longer the same thing anymore. He would just lie back and let Kassa steer the ship.

Kassa returned to kissing him and started moving against him, a slow writhe of his hips to grind them together. Edward truly couldn’t remember the last time he’d come in his pants, but if that was how this evening was to end, he couldn’t actually complain. He got a better hold on Kassa’s ass and pulled him closer.

“You feel good,” Kassa whispered into his mouth before he came away to kiss at Edward’s neck. Edward thought to respond with his mutual appreciation, but Kassa slipped a hand between them to rest at his belt, and all that came out of him was a little gasp. “Can I?”

“Good god,” Edward managed. “Of course.”

Kassa sat up, biting his lip a little as he smiled. Edward could feel a little tremor in his fingers as he brushed his hand down Edward’s stomach. He wanted to tell him there was nothing to be nervous about, but he bit his own lip instead. It was a long time ago, but he could remember the nerves of being with someone the first time, when your list of people you’d been with at all wasn’t very long. It felt a little bit like the sort of nervous he himself was at that very moment. “I love your hands,” he said, instead.

Kassa looked a little surprised, but it still made him grin. “Well, good.” He unfastened Edward’s belt and undid his trousers. “Because, well…” Actions spoke louder as he pulled Edward’s cock free from his boxers and curled those long fingers around it. If this was included in the definition of ‘fooling around,’ Edward was just fine with it.

Edward closed his eyes and leaned his head back, just feeling Kassa’s fingers as they squeezed and stroked, reveling in the difference from everything he’d known in the past five years. He could feel those little cuts and rough spots as they tugged at his cock, good chef’s fingers making him forget about every stupid thing he’d worried about up until that point. He could come just like this, if Kassa kept up at it. It was fine, he was an expert at getting protein stains out of clothes.

Kassa shifted, though, and Edward opened his eyes to see him bending down with lips parted, his goal unmistakable. He saw that pretty pink tongue dart over his lips again before he bent down completely. He wrapped his lips around the tip of Edward’s cock and Edward reached down, brushing his hair from his face and touching his cheek with his fingertips. Kassa looked up, and Edward could see the nervous, giddy smile in his eyes. Edward could do nothing but smile back.

Edward’s eyes fought to close as Kassa sucked him, but he would be damned if he missed out on a sight like the one before him. Kassa was slow and deliberate as his mouth slid over Edward’s cock; there was nothing rote or routine about this for him, not at all. He probably still had specific memories of every blowjob he’d ever given in his life, still was learning new things to try. Edward could only try his best to encourage him.

His tongue was thick and clever as it circled around Edward’s cock, and the noises his mouth made were shameless and wet. Edward had always loved having sex with chefs, because they had no care or embarrassment for the ridiculous sensual realities of sex. Edward grabbed at the back of the couch and gasped as Kassa’s mouth got wetter around his cock and he nudged him deeper with each bob of his head.

Kassa!” he said roughly, and god, new partner, new younger partner, he was really supposed to give a proper warning before he came, but that was really all he could manage. What was he supposed to do, given a mouth like that, given those beautiful fingers looped around the base of his cock. He came into Kassa’s mouth gasping and hissing, and afterwards, as he went soft between Kassa’s lips and the last twitches of orgasm worked through his body, he felt simultaneously ten years younger and ready to sleep for three days straight.

Kassa straightened up, putting his knuckles to the back of his lips for a moment before he smiled. Well, at least that went over okay. He put a hand under the tails of Edward’s shirt and rubbed his stomach, making him twitch with the ticklish sensation. “That good?”

Edward took in a deep breath so he could speak. “You… really have no idea how much I needed that.” All worries about age and the future seemed completely greyed out after properly getting off for the first time in god-knew-how long. He awkwardly pulled himself halfway sitting. “Now if you’d please sit back, I’d really enjoy returning the favor.”

Kassa laughed, breathless and eager, and settled back on the opposite corner of the couch. “Please,” he said, and Edward ever so gracefully tumbled off the couch onto the floor, settling on his knees between Kassa’s legs. He was never at his most elegant immediately after he’d come his brains out.

He undid Kassa’s pants and pulled his cock out, and oh, that was just beautiful. Long and thin and uncut — Edward could only think of how much he would enjoy getting fucked by it. But, again, he was thinking too much of the future before it was there. It was time to take things slow. He took Kassa’s hand for a moment, just long enough to kiss his fingertips, and then let it go to take him into his mouth.

Oh, he’d missed this. Kassa’s hands went into his hair and his fingers met at the back of his neck as Edward sucked him, learning the map of his cock with his tongue. Edward had been comfortably in the habit of being able to take all of Luis’ cock into his mouth without any problem, but Kassa was longer; he wrapped fingers around the base of him as the tip of his cock nudged the back of his throat.

Kassa gasped and whimpered, making shivering little noises as Edward teased under his foreskin with his tongue. He could get to like this, being the older one, being the man with experience. It could keep him sharp, keep him from being old and dull if he had this wonderful young man to keep happy. He made his own happy sound as he sucked the tip of his cock, licking the taste of him from the tip.

“Don’t stop,” Kassa gasped, and pushed Edward’s head down a little. Oh, he liked it even more if Kassa was the assertive type. He sucked him hard and fast, grabbing on to his thighs as he tried to give him all he could. Slowly learning all of his favorite spots could come later; now he just wanted to make Kassa come.

When he did it was with a lovely sound, a soft, sweet cry as his fingers clenched at the back of Edward’s neck as he came into his mouth. He swallowed him readily, marveling at how different he tasted from what he’d gotten so used to over the past five years. He liked the taste.

When Kassa was spent and softening, Edward staggered his way back up to the couch and tugged him close. Kassa laughed a little into his neck before turning his head up to kiss him; neither of them tasted anything like wine now.

“About dessert…” Edward said, and Kassa laughed.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I’d say I’m full.” He rest his head against Edward’s shoulder for a while, his breathing settling towards calm as he idly traced a finger up and down Edward’s chest. “I like you, you know.”

“Yeah,” Edward said as he brushed his hand along Kassa’s back. “I like you, too.”

They stayed like that for a while, and kissed for a while more, but then the realities of the progression of time became what they were, and they both had to put their clothes in order, stand up like reasonable gentlemen, and say goodnight. They kissed at Edward’s door for a long while, and made vague plans to see each other again that Edward knew would become reality. And then Kassa was gone.

Edward checked his phone for the first time that night to see a series of texts from Carter, the last of which read, ‘but in a worst case scenario you can always butch up! :)’ He shook his head and wrote back a simple ‘I had a very lovely night’ and set his phone aside.

None of his offer to let Kassa cook in his kitchen involved cleaning up anything, so he put himself to the task, rinsing plates and pans and glasses and putting them in the dishwasher. As he was heating the oil to season his cast iron pan, he took a breath and looked up, looked around his apartment. Kassa had been gone for a while, but it didn’t feel like he’d fully left. At the same time, Edward could still see the gaps and blank spots that Luis’ absence had left. The presence of one didn’t quite overlap or fill the other. Tonight was just a third date, not the beginning of a new stage in his life.

As he rubbed oil into iron with a folded paper towel, he surprised himself to realize that this was completely okay.

Special thanks to ladysisyphus, mcruthless, and the Food Network.

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