Cosmic Jokes

Copyright © 2012 by Madeleine Ribbon

“Brody, you seriously need to get out of that dump for a few hours. I’ll make it fun, I promise.” Ekaterina’s honey-thick voice oozed through the tinny speakers of my cell phone. If I swung her way, I’d have been caught in her trap years ago, but all that sex just bounced right off me. Lucky for me, she hadn’t taken it personally. Instead she’d started trying to set me up with every gay guy she came across. Too bad I wasn’t thrilled at her taste in men.

“I can’t, Ekats. I’m working on a scene right now and I don’t know how long it’ll take me to finish. I’m kind of stuck.”

“Tell me about your problem. Maybe I can help.” She always sounded like she was giving orders, but I rarely heard her talk any other way. I was her frustrating pet project, to be yelled and cajoled and cornered into doing things I didn’t like for my own good. Like today. Mandatory socialization. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out of whatever she had planned for the evening, no matter how much I tried.

“Well, it all takes place on an undiscovered planet millions of light-years away where most intelligent creatures live in the tree canopy because all sorts of funky shit goes on down on the planet’s surface, but something is killing everyone. So my main character is a member of this human-like species, and he’s investigating new places to live, right?”

I choked back a snort as she muttered a choice string of swear words.

“Stop right fucking there. I no longer care. I thought you were writing a contemporary book this time, not another cheesy sci-fi.”

“Sorry, but no. This storyline has been speaking to me for a while now. Maybe next time I’ll try horror or something.” Horror was her second most reviled genre.

“Can’t you try writing a damned romance novel sometime? I’d at least be able to follow that. You can make it star that mystery man you’ve been dreaming about for years.”

“Ekats, I’m not about to write a romance, especially not about a reoccurring dream. The man just stands there. That’s totally not plot-worthy.” Even if that man was the sexiest piece of flesh I’d ever seen in my life. The description of the main character in my latest novel was slowly becoming more and more like my dream man.

“Then come up with something cookie-cutter for the Harlequin crowd. It’d sell. You’ve got the skills.”

Ugh. The girl sure knew how to push my buttons.

“I don’t want to go into detail about something I can barely imagine without wanting to puke. Especially not hetero sex. Fuck no.”

“It doesn’t have to be hetero—”

“Besides, when I write a book, I want to write something with realistic interactions, not the same damned novel as everyone else, with a simpering virgin and an alpha male. And the format! I hate the fucking format. They always have the first sex scene exactly half way through and the second around the eighty-percent mark. You know how many problems I have with the damned things. I don’t like my plot to be variations on a theme–“

“Jesus, Joseph and Mary, Brody. Just shut up already. You don’t have to be such an ass. Some of the romances are good. Just because you’ve always been so fucking jaded about human interaction…”

And it was yet another day when we’d managed to completely insult each other’s reading preferences in a matter of minutes. Time to placate the rabid Ekats.

“Fine, fine, I’ll believe it when I read it.” I grimaced. “And that won’t be any time soon. As a make-up present, I’ll suck it up and let you drag me out wherever you want to tonight. I should probably get a little people-watching done. I’ve got a couple of characters with really obnoxious personalities that aren’t meshing the way I want them to. I’d imagine a night at whatever bar you’ve decided upon will give me plenty of fodder for awkward conversations.”

“Excellent!” She’d gone from angry to chirpy so quickly I felt obligated to massage my own neck. The girl could give anyone whiplash with her moods. “I’ll pick you up at nine. Some of my friends are celebrating the end of the semester at Mulligan’s. We’ll head there, so try not to look like a slob.”

“You can’t seriously expect me to hang out at the straightest Irish bar in the city with the college crowd, Ekats. There is ‘out of my comfort zone’ and there’s ‘hell,’ and your suggestion has me leaning a little more toward the fiery pits.”

“Oh, relax. It’s Wednesday, it won’t be busy. The undergrads have already left for the summer and everyone in the group we’re meeting are law students. Most of them are somewhere around your age. You aren’t going to be the big bad twenty-eight-year-old, looking to cradle-rob the sweet, innocent, barely-legal freshmen. Not like you’d ever look like it. You’ll get carded until you’re forty.”

I wanted to complain about her assessment of me, but it was probably true. I was 5’8″ and had pretty impressive Romanesque bone structure, but even with all the angles and planes that gave me, I had the most ridiculous lips that made the entire face look soft. I’d never look like a girl, but I’d forever look like I’d just finished with pimples. I crossed my fingers every time my birthday came around, hoping the wrinkles started early just so I wouldn’t get the third degree every time I tried to buy alcohol.

“Still.”

“Another heads up, Brody. All of them are girls, and I know that’s a problem for you, but! I made sure to ask around. Not a single one in the bunch is homophobic. Figured you ought to know.”

Shit. She hadn’t forgiven me, and this was my penance. I really didn’t want to hang out with a bunch of girls. I always felt like I had to watch my back around most of them. Literally. Ekats was the single exception.

“You know how I feel about girls.”

“I’ll protect you, nerd. Don’t you dare back out now. You already promised.”

“Fine. But if I somehow end up in the hospital, you’re paying the bill.” I sighed heavily and hung up before she could poke and prod at me more.

I took a nap after pounding out another thousand words. Not that the words were good, not by any stretch of the imagination—I still hadn’t solved my plot problem—but at least I’d managed to spit out something before I decided to catch up on sleep. I rarely slept well at night. I had a bad habit of trying for bed, letting my mind wander just enough to come up with a new idea, and then I’d have to drag myself to my desk and write for another few hours. Stop. Repeat.

Then, once I finally fell asleep, the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen would appear. He usually invaded my dreams between two and four in the morning. I only knew this because I’d be so keyed up I’d wake when the dream ended. He would show up, a little fuzzy around the edges, and we’d just look at each other from across whatever dream-scape my brain had created.

Sometimes we were in my apartment. Sometimes we were surrounded by lumber and I wondered if my psyche needed a good shakedown. Sometimes we were in one of my alien worlds, where the vines were alive and everyone lived above the tree canopy. Sometimes I’d be in a flannel button-up, with sleeves rolled to my elbows—an ensemble I’d never wear without the threat of death looming over me. Sometimes he’d be in jeans and a brightly colored t-shirt. Sometimes we’d both be in clothes from my novels, but this usually happened when I’d been doing heavy research into futuristic fashion. Most often, we’d both be naked, and I’d wake up with a painfully hard cock, pulsing and jerking and aching for him.

And it’s not like we ever did anything other than stand there.

I’d kept to myself for so long, I started wondering if my dream man was my mind’s way of informing me that I was bat-shit crazy.

This afternoon there was no mystery man to wake me up all hot and bothered. I managed a full hour of sleep before beautiful, blonde Ekats showed up, letting herself into my cozy little apartment and wandering up to my bedroom without any sort of audible knock. Lucky for me, I’d gone to sleep wearing the nice jeans she’d made me buy months ago. Since I typically went naked for any long-term sleep, I was pretty thankful I’d been contemplating clothing for the evening when I crashed.

“Up and at ’em, cutie.” A sharp slap on the ass brought me back to the land of the living. “I was hoping to catch you nude completely nude, but I’ll live. It’s time to get ready.”

“God, I hate you. I’m fucking exhausted, woman.”

She sat down next to me and frowned.

“Christ, Brody. You really aren’t getting enough sleep lately. It’s your stupid dream again, right? You should go to the doctor, get them to give you a good prescription.” She felt my forehead and cheek and inspected my dark eyes intently.

“I’m fine, Ekats. It’s the novel, not the dream. I keep on changing major plot points and having to re-write enormous sections, and now I’m well and truly stuck.”

She sighed and backed away.

“You need to take care of yourself.”

“I am,” I said, hoping to reassure her. She gave me an entirely unconvinced look. She took no pity on me as she pulled me up from that comfortable haven and pushing me toward the open closet filled with t-shirts in every color under the sun. I loved t-shirts. I wore nothing else.

“Oh, honey, you need to walk around shirtless more often,” she said with a happy little sigh. “I need to do another nude painting of you. You have just enough muscle definition to make the beer-soaked frat boys cry, and that scar just makes you hotter.”

I covered the raised line of skin on my side and jumped out of the way before she took another swat at my ass. Typical Ekats.

“I want to be compared to frat boys about as much as you want to be compared to your ex-coworkers.”

That comment got me a proper smack. Lucky for my smarting ass, Ekats aimed for the shoulder this time. She had been an exotic dancer during our college years, since she’d gotten no financial help from her parents. She had the sexiest all-natural body around, and she had a passion for dance of all types. She always complained that most of the other girls at work considered shifting from leg to leg with an exaggerated hip swing to be dancing.

When not removing articles of clothing for money, she was a fine arts student that had no shame. Freshman year, she’d practically tackled me in an attempt to get my attention. She asked me out, and when I turned her down, she demanded to draw me nude. She wanted to do it there and then, and she’d started pulling out her sketchbook, so I believed she’d strip me and force me to sit still if I stayed around. Since there and then was in the middle of the campus commons at nine in the morning and I was petrified of anyone with two X chromosomes, I’d run. She didn’t know the meaning of no, so she chased me around from class to class all day until I gave in.

I’d lasted exactly eleven hours before I finally broke and let her sketch me, and Ekats said it was a record holdout for her. We’d been best friends ever since.

I still claimed Stockholm syndrome.

“Okay,” she said, settling down in the center of my still-warm bed. “You really don’t own anything but t-shirts, do you?”

“Sweetie, you should know that by now.”

“So what feature do you want to highlight?” She asked, giving me an assessing glance. “Eyes. Definitely your eyes. Do we want to go with dark and soulless, or do we want to emphasize that they really are brown?”

The girl was obsessed with my eyes, fuck if I knew why. She did a new sketch of them every month and was never happy about the result. I kept my mouth shut as she rifled through the colorful cotton forest and picked out a few colors, holding them up to my chest and radiating disapproval at each one.

“Just give me the plain gray jersey,” I said after she’d picked my closet apart. She obviously wasn’t making a decision any faster than I was.

“Why the gray jersey? It’s not going to do anything for your eyes,” she said, startled out of her little dress-the-boy fantasy with a forest-green shirt in one hand and a maroon shirt in the other. Just the thought of her considering a maroon shirt made me want to shiver a little.  It had to have been an old college freebie. I was cheap enough to keep everything I was given until it had holes, no matter how ugly.

“The gray jersey is comfortable,” I said, and I plucked it from the pile. I threw it on and pulled my sandy brown hair from the collar. As an afterthought, I grabbed a hair tie from my dresser and shoved it all back from my face.

“We need to get you a hair cut,” she said as she picked at my ponytail. “Do you actually have any scissors around your apartment this time? I can do it.”

“You know I never have scissors. And leave the hair. One of these days, I’ll just shave it off again.”

She gave a cry of alarm until she saw my grin. I really was tempted to take it all off, but Ekats had threatened me with a torturous death the last time I’d taken a razor to it.

“I don’t know why you don’t own your own pair of scissors,” she grumbled. “I even bought you a pack for Christmas last year, remember? Where did they all go?”

Straight into the trash can just like every other pair of scissors that found its way into my apartment, but she didn’t need to know that. I didn’t want them. I didn’t need them.

“We can worry about my beauty later,” I evaded, pushing her out of the bedroom door. “Now, you have a bar to enrapture with your dance moves and I have people to document. Let me find my notebook and I’ll be ready.”

++++++

The first thing I noticed when we got into the bar was the crowd of a dozen or so ladies already well on their way to drunk. Ekats led us straight through them, throwing me introductions here and there for the ones she knew. They were so loud I couldn’t hear the names she shouted, but that didn’t bother me at all. I was too busy trying to look invisible. She led me straight to a series of little round tables covered in drinks, dropped me off at a right next to the wall, and with a kiss on the cheek she abandoned me for the bar.

I scanned the crowd, wondering if I’d actually get the interactions I was hoping for. I needed a man and a woman to have some sort of awkward social confrontation, and I needed to see the facial expressions and emotions involved. I also wanted to hear the actual words, but that meant getting close to confrontation, and I really didn’t like that. The serious lack of men in this joint was going to be detrimental to my research. It was also a bit detrimental to my desire to be here at all. Women were scary, scary beasts.

Ekats set a drink down on the table in front of me and wiggled the straw at my face.

“It’s called an Angry Hornet,” she giggled. “Bar specialty. Six kinds of alcohol and a shot of lemonade, and you’ll never even taste the liquor.”

I bent forward, peeling my back from the cool wall, and captured the straw in my mouth. It was good. I was going to have to watch it if Ekats kept ordering them for me.

“All right, all right,” I said as she glanced toward the dance floor. “I have my wall, I have my drink. Go. Do your thing. Show them what your education got you,” I said with a grin.

She blew me a raspberry before disappearing into the middle of the moving, shaking cloud of estrogen.

I pulled out my notebook and began to describe everything I saw in the bar. The people, the decor, the drinks, the barman, the music, the lighting—I took in every detail I could, just in case I needed to use a place like this in a future story. Ekats thought my habit to document every new place in writing was beyond nerdy. I considered it good preparation.

After half an hour of bad hip-hop, two Angry Hornets, and a frighteningly strong desire to run to the cowboy bar across the street for a little testosterone break, the man of my dreams deemed Mulligans worthy of a visit.

Literally, the man of my dreams.

He looked identical to the man I’d been seeing every night for two years. I knew it had to be him, here in crystal clear high definition instead of the fuzzy, warped images my brain conjured when I tried to picture him once I woke up.

He was taller than me by almost half a foot, had the type of body that needed to be preserved forever in sculpture, and wore a serious scowl on his face as soon as he spotted the mass of wiggling, shrieking, screaming girls. He ran his large hand ran through short black hair more in frustration than in primping, and I watched avidly as the movement created more artistic chaos than most of the frat boys could get with a full can of hair gel and two hours in front of a mirror.

“Levi!” one of the shorter girls squealed, and I watched as the little wisp of a woman bolted from the crowd and threw herself at the big man. His scowl turned into an indulgent smile, and I couldn’t help but groan out loud.

“Relax, he’s her brother,” Ekats whispered in my ear. I hadn’t realized how close she was. Granted, my observation skills were becoming a bit more limited as the alcohol seeped into my system. “Bethany must have come a few minutes ago. I didn’t get to introduce you two. She’s a sweetheart.” We both watched as Levi picked up Bethany and twirled her around before setting her carefully on the nearest bar stool.

“So, have you met Levi before?” I looked back toward Ekats.

“Nope, though in Bethany’s eyes, he’s the sun and moon. I’ve heard far too many good things about him to believe a single one.” She chuckled. “No, I don’t know if he likes men. No, I don’t know if he’s single.”

“For future reference, you should probably turn those two statements around. Either way, I don’t need a one-night stand. Don’t go working on anything for my benefit. He just looks… like my dream.” I’d gone serious too quickly, and my gaze skated over over in his direction too often for Ekats not to notice.

“Really?” She looked at me in a mixture of dismay and fascination. She patted my hand and took my empty glass from where I’d pushed it. “Then I guess I will work on things for your benefit.”

“Ekats, no—”

She disappeared back toward the bar before I could tell her exactly how un-appreciative I was in her meddling. Ekats was Ekats. She’d do whatever she damned well pleased, and I knew it.

Levi stood, shook hands with a few of the other girls, and immediately found a seat at the bar as Bethany went back to dancing. Ekats appeared next to him to place her order and began to chat him up.

Go figure. I turned my attention back to the little notebook and began to make notes.

I looked up after a few minutes. Ekats came straight toward me with our next round of drinks, and I caught a glimpse of Levi staring at me in what I could only guess was confusion. I glanced back at Ekats, but my gaze couldn’t stay on her for long. My eyes, those traitorous bastards, were drawn right back to the man of my dreams.

Levi’s expression changed from confused to thoughtful. He was checking me over pretty thoroughly from his seat at the bar. It was an all-encompassing look, a down-and-up, the kind that could be sizing me up for a fight or as a potential fuck buddy. He had intense eyes in some pale color, though in the dimness of the bar I wasn’t able to decipher that detail. He held his pint in the air in front of him, and when his gaze trailed back up my body and met my own, he paled and moved the glass up between us. The next time I looked at him, he was looking very pointedly in the other direction.

“So, he’s here at the request of his darling sister and hasn’t seen her very often lately since she was so intensely busy this semester,” Ekats said as she placed my third drink in front of me. It was a snakebite this time. “He’s a local, but he didn’t do the college scene.”

“I figured they’d hang out more than that. I thought he was her fucking hero or something,” I said before I sipped the drink appreciatively. This sucker had to last me the rest of the night. The alcohol from my first few drinks had already hit me pretty hard.

“He was Bethany’s guardian for the last few years of high school, and she got a scholarship to a west-coast school for undergrad. She decided to go to law school back here instead of out on the west coast to be closer to him, though she regrets not getting to spend more time with him. The girl knows how to spill her life’s story over a few shots of tequila. She also loses articles of clothing at the same time. I learned that last week. It was gorgeous to see.” Ekats grinned at the memory as I twirled my pen between fingers in impatience. I might not have wanted her to interfere, but now that she’d done so, I wanted to hear everything she knew. “Anyway, Levi said he agreed to come to the party because she begged. He seems very put out by all the crazy going on.”

At the moment, the girls were all singing at the top of their lungs to some top-twenty pop hit. Crazy was definitely the right word.

“And what is your final evaluation?” I glanced back at Levi. He’d started talking to one of the other girls in the bar.

“Straight, from what I can tell, but you know exactly how broken my gaydar can be. I didn’t notice if he checked me out while reaching over for the drinks, but I wouldn’t hold your breath if you wanted to get plowed in the ass tonight.”

“Can I have a last name to go with the first?”

“Davidson. Don’t ask me about the middle name, you’ll have to go hunting for that yourself. Even if he’s straight, you should go talk to the dream man. Show a little male moral support in this place.”

“Thanks for the report,” I said, nudging her back and nodding toward the noise. “I know you want to be in the middle of the crazy. I would, if I were bi.” I gave her an overly exaggerated wink and she threw me the dirtiest look she could conjure. The girl liked girls, but she had such high standards for her own gender that she almost always ended up with guys. At least she took my opinion seriously on the men she dated, even if I hated most of them.

I was making a personality sketch of the bartender and catching quick peeks at my dream man when his sister, the waif with the black pixie cut, broke from the madhouse and wandered over to the tables. Bethany wore the quintessential little black dress, but she’d paired it with colorful sneakers instead of heels. It was a strange combination of cute and sexy, and I could kind of see what Ekats had been saying earlier. They’d make a fun pair.

Bethany was drunk enough to be completely fearless, and in this case, fearless meant making friends with antisocial me. She made a flying leap for the barstool next to me and settled down to scan me, top to bottom.

Just like her brother.

“You’re Brody, right?” she asked, leaning over so she could be heard. Not like it was difficult. Her voice was as sharp as they come.

“Yeah,” I answered. “And you’re Bethany. Ekats pointed you out earlier.”

She smiled at me with hazy eyes, and I knew that whatever was happening wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Brody. You should come dance with me.” She scooted closer and laid her hand on my knee. “You’re the cutest guy here.”

I tensed up at her touch. I didn’t do well with casual touches. Ekats was the only girl that could hug me without a resulting panic attack. Not even my own mother got a reprieve.

“I’m one of two men here that aren’t working, and I’m the only one you aren’t related to, so your observations don’t exactly strike me as a moving endorsement. Unfortunately, I’m not interested in getting involved with that.” I swung my drink in the general direction of the squealing females before taking a gulp.

“Dance with me.” Bethany giggled and pulled at my knee.

“Bethany, I don’t want to dance,” I said as politely as I could.

She ignored me, and her hand crept up my leg a little higher. I gave her the look of death.

“Seriously, I’m not interested,” I said, a little more forcefully this time.

“Ekaterina said you were single,” Bethany said, eyes narrowed. “Am I just not good enough for you or something? All you have to do is get off your damned stool for a few minutes and dance. No harm done. It doesn’t mean you’re going to leave with me or anything.” I could see Ekats attempting to disengage herself from the dancers with worry smeared across her face, but another girl swung her around and pulled her into a bump-and-grind.

I wanted to groan. Leave it to Ekats to get me in trouble by leaving out the most important part of my dating status when dragging me out to party with a ton of girls. I was going to have to handle this alone, and I figured a direct approach would be the best approach.

“Bethany, you’re cute. You’ve got a personality. You know it, too. What you don’t have that I’m interested in is a Y chromosome.”

She stared, open-mouthed, before slowly getting off the barstool.

“I see,” she said too quietly to properly hear. I had to lip read that one. She took two steps from the table before coming to a complete halt.

“What did you just say to upset my sister?” The bass voice growled from across the table. Levi stood there, arms crossed, ready to pick a fight. His eyes, shadowed by thick black brows, were pale blue and as cold as ice, just as I knew they would be. I had my details for the night.

“I turned her down for a dance,” I answered, raising an eyebrow. The entire situation struck me as positively absurd. I managed not to giggle, but the disgusted look Levi gave me made me pretty sure I was smiling.

“What’s wrong with dancing with my sister?” he growled again, and I couldn’t hold in my laughter. If I’d been less drunk, he would have been intimidating. As it was, the conversation was making me want to bust a rib. I was proud to keep myself at a regular laugh.

“Levi, leave it alone, it’s not what you think,” Bethany warned, walking to her brother and jerking on his arm. Ekats had worked her way closer to the table, but I shook my head at her. She’d just insult the hell out of him and I’d probably end up punched in the gut.

“Don’t you laugh,” he threatened me, completely ignoring his sister.

“I’m allowed to turn down whomever I damned well please,” I said, channeling Ekats and her best bitchy mood. “I’m not obligated to say yes to a dance simply because it’s your sister asking. I need more estrogen in my life about as much as I need a hysterectomy. Now if you had a brother,” I said, giving him a long, lust-filled moment of eye contact, “then I might consider dancing.”

With that, I tossed back the rest of my drink, threw the glass down, and charted my way through the ocean of bodies on the dance floor. Ekats could dust up whatever mess I’d left. I shouldn’t have let her take me out tonight.

I realized I’d left my notebook inside about as soon as I got into a cab, but I absolutely refused to go back into the bar. I texted Ekats and told her to grab it before she left.

I’d had my awkward confrontation. I’d had two, in fact, and it was enough to get me writing and revising late into the night, until my eyes finally shut of their own accord.

++++++

I lay naked in my bed. This would normally be completely fine, since I far preferred sleeping with nothing on, but I distinctly remembered being too tired to remove my jeans when I crashed around four in the morning.

 My comforter had been kicked to the floor and my little elephant-shaped bedside lamp was the only light in the room. I definitely hadn’t turned that sucker on. I never turned it on. I didn’t even know if it still worked.

The bleak, blank expanse of my bedroom’s far wall caught my attention as the shadows moved, shifted, drew together.

They convalesced into perfection. I stared openly at Levi’s naked body, one any Greek god would envy, as he crept over to the foot of my bed.

This was new. He’d never moved, before, nor had he appeared in my bedroom. We’d always just stood and stared.

Levi’s pale blue eyes gave me the same intense look I’d gotten from him at the bar, though this time I was positive it came from lust instead of anger. I crooked a finger invitingly, hoping the dream would let us go in the most delicious of directions.

He crawled onto the mattress like a tiger on the prowl. He straddled my legs and leaned down until his nose was inches from the base of my hardening cock. He breathed out, and the hot and heavy air danced over my shaft and swirled around my balls. He crept farther forward on thickly roped arms, bending enough to shoot a blast of hot air directly over my cockhead. I arched, thrusting my hips at the temperature change.

I licked my lips and looked down my body, watching as Levi hovered over my erect cock. He inspected it from all sides, drinking in the sight of it, memorizing every detail, every bump, every vein. I wanted to thread my fingers through his hair and pull him down until he couldn’t do anything but touch me. He stared at my cock for what felt like hours, and my whole body throbbed with anticipation.

He hovered closer and closer before his nose nearly made contact with the bobbing pole, and finally, finally, he snaked his tongue out to trace the pronounced vein on the underside of my shaft. That contact, the barest touch of hot, slick muscle, combined with the look of pure desire as he licked my length, made me lose it.

I woke halfway through my orgasm and opened my eyes in time to see the last few spurts of cum drip down my cock. The thick white liquid pooled on my belly, and I watched in lazy detachment as it leaked down onto the mussed sheets.

Holy freaking shit. That was a little more than the typical stand-and-stare routine. Perhaps Ekats was right and I did need to get laid, but I still had a pretty solid suspicion that all the sex in the world wasn’t going to drive my dream-man from my head. Especially not now that I had a name to go with his handsome face.

++++++

I got up late the next morning, just plain pissed off at the world as I peeled the sheets from my body. Haunting blue eyes or no haunting blue eyes, I didn’t need Levi the growling grouch to interfere with my life any more than he already had.

It didn’t matter that I’d shot off like a teenaged virgin to the thought of his tongue anywhere near a particularly favored appendage. I had to get him out of my brain. He had to go. Especially now that I realized he was a real person. Otherwise he’d morph into an obsession that filled my waking days as well as my nights.

I downed three cups of coffee before walking out to the old used bookstore down the street. It was a tiny century-old structure that at one time had served as a church. The congregation must have been tiny. I thought the steeple added a fantastic level of character to the place, even if the floors inside were sloping a bit more than was legally safe.

Mr. Edison needed someone to watch the shop while he went through some new potential acquisitions, his pet term for giant cardboard boxes filled with dog-eared, torn, unwanted and abused books. I needed the rent money, since the freelance writing gigs I was actually getting paid for made me pretty close to jack squat each month and my book payments only came in quarterly.

The bookstore job was a cozy little arrangement. I sat at his desk, working on my writing in a different environment and ringing up purchases on the slim occasion a patron actually entered the store.

On my way over, I texted Ekats to see if she’d actually found my notebook. I wanted that sucker back. I’d only been using it for two weeks so I wouldn’t lose too much of my writing, but it was handmade, hand-bound, and the cover was leather with some intricate spiral pattern worked into it. I didn’t want to lose such a pretty chunk of paper so quickly. Especially not when I’d scrawled seven or eight decent character sketches and a few nicely detailed locales inside.

Ekats replied immediately, saying she’d swing by the bookshop later. Vague, as always.

I stopped in the back room and said hello to Mr. Edison before heading to the register, pulling out my laptop, and settling into the chair behind the counter. I was ready to coerce, wrangle, and threaten my characters into submission. For space aliens, they kept making some pretty terrible life choices that all seemed to involve scissors.

I briefly contemplated an alien therapist to try and whip the little suckers into shape, but after a few minutes of character creation, I decided to pitch the idea. Nobody needed an alien therapist in the midst of a planet-wide crisis, not even my two lovable fuckups.

I was in the middle of yet another drama-filled confrontational scene–I was trying my hardest to keep the shears out of it–when the door chime rang. I glanced up just enough to see Ekats duck into the cramped little store.

I tried as hard as I could to ignore the man standing behind her, even though the hair on my arms had decided to go all static.

Levi. Awesome. Just what I needed.

“Hey hon. I hope you have my notebook,” I said as I finished one character’s line, though catching sight of Levi had turned whatever I’d been thinking of writing into a bunch of gibberish as I typed. “I had some stuff in there I wanted to use for a setting I plan to get to tonight.”

“I didn’t pick it up,” Ekats said, tapping the back of my laptop enough to make the screen bend forward. I pulled my hands out just before she snapped it shut.

“What the hell?” I said, looking up. “I was in the middle of a conversation.”

“You can chat them back later,” Ekats said, motioning to her guest. “I’ve brought the savior of your journal.”

“Not that kind of a conversation,” I said with a whine, doing my best to ignore the tall, black-haired man hovering behind her. “My characters, Ekats. I was on a roll. Witty banter, snide remarks, everything you don’t have.”

“You’re a novelist?” Levi’s face stayed in scowl mode, and I wondered if he ever smiled, or at least looked like he wasn’t getting ready to murder someone. I had a vague recollection of Levi looked perfectly pleasant when he’d first greeted Bethany last night, but that very well could have been my imagination running wild. I’d seen no sign of humor since.

And now he’d spoken to me. I had to pay attention to him. Damn it.

“I try to be a novelist, though at the moment I’m more of a starving artist.”

“That’s what you get for writing science fiction,” Ekats sang from her perch on the desk. “Is Mr. Edison around? I need some recommendations.”

“He’s in the back room, but be careful. He’s going through boxes that must have gotten drenched at some point, because some of the books are so moldy they’re health hazards.”

Not even the mention of mold could keep Ekats around. She skipped down the cramped aisle without another word, and I plotted how to kill her slowly as her perky ass swung out of view. I was stuck with the man who had thrown the last eighteen hours of my life for a loop, and I was secretly thrilled to see him again. I was also expecting another rant about how I treated his sister.

We might as well get it over with, I decided.

“Did you really rescue my notebook?”

He nodded and withdrew my leather-bound journal from his jeans pocket. His hands caught my attention, and I studied them appreciatively as he leaned forward to set the notebook down on the desk.

I liked those hands. I liked them a lot. They were strong hands, tan hands, tipped with short, serviceable nails. My main character would end up with those hands before my daily writing ended, I just knew it.

Levi was dressed for manual labor. He wore a snug t-shirt under an open plaid button-down with rolled up sleeves. His jeans were obviously made for taking a beating, not the kind that showed off his nicely sculpted assets, and I thought I could catch a glimpse of scuffed steel-toed boots from under the desk. He looked very, very straight.

Fuck.

“Bethany explained what happened last night. I’ve come to apologize for yelling.” He shifted from one foot to the other. I looked up from his shoes very warily. His face had gone from grouchy to grim. “I’m sorry I jumped on your case so quickly. I hadn’t seen Bethany for months, and I tend to get a little overprotective…” he drifted off, scratching at a nose that looked like it had been broken at least once. It was an endearingly cute gesture, one I planned to replay in my memory when I got home. While masturbating.

No. Bad Brody. Thoughts like that weren’t going to help me rid my brain of this stupid, frustrating hunk of a man.

“I was under the impression that most brothers don’t encourage their sisters to… dance.” I threw a wealth of meaning into the last word.

“We’re a little unusual, the pair of us.” He shrugged. “I want Bethany to be happy, no matter what—or who—It takes. She’s the same with me. All I saw were her facial expressions, and she looked pretty insulted. Ekaterina explained your sexuality and your dislike of touching after you’d left.”

“Girls are kind of a phobia, yeah. All I did was say no a few times and then let her know why. I guess nobody expects a gay man in the middle of Mulligan’s.” I pushed the hair out of my face and gave him a faint smile.

“I know, right?” he rolled his eyes. “And last night they had two. I was surprised nothing exploded.” Then he looked at me, and I decided that he very well could ignite small fires with that gaze. It went from ice to fire in a heartbeat.

Then I processed his words.

Two. Two gay men.

I could feel my cock twitching to life as I contemplated his statement. Aside from the bartender and the bouncer, the only men around last night were located in this bookstore, and Mr. Edison most definitely hadn’t been hidden amongst the fleshy bits of female. That left Levi. Sneaky, sneaky Ekats. She had to have known before she brought him here.

“I wouldn’t have guessed,” I said, aiming for innocent surprise. He snorted.

“Not that much of a secret, really.” He blushed a little. “Will you forgive me my bullheadedness and come over to my place for dinner tomorrow evening? I’m grilling, Bethany is cooking, and Ekaterina has already agreed to come.” He said it in a rush, as though I needed to be very aware of Bethany and Ekats’s invitations. It was like spelling out THIS-IS-NOT-A-DATE in neon lights.

Perhaps I was convoluting this whole encounter. Too bad I wasn’t drunk. I wanted to laugh at him again, and I really wanted to laugh at myself.

“You’re coming, Brody. You need to get out some, honey, it’ll help you sleep better. Speaking of getting out, guess what?” Ekats was picking her way between stacks of books, followed by a cheerful Mr. Edison. Granted, I’d never seen him show any emotion but a nice, contagious cheerfulness.

“Brody Byrne!” he grinned, holding up a ratty paperback in a wrinkled hand. He hid his bulk under a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. He’d always be the stereotype of an old British professor, especially when he took his smoke breaks. The man had a gorgeously carved ivory pipe I was pretty sure needed to be in a museum somewhere and an accent that made the women think of him as cultured. I knew better. “Guess what we found?”

I looked harder at the book cover and immediately debated cowering under the table. I really didn’t need Levi to see that.

“You should toss that immediately. You won’t be finding a buyer for that piece of crap.”

“It’s your first one. I’ve only seen your fourth novel in here before.” Mr. Edison plopped the bright red and orange book down in front of me, still positively beaming.

“Failing Universe is my redheaded stepchild, Mr. Edison. I don’t claim it if I don’t have to. I can’t believe I thought it was good enough to send in. I still can’t believe they thought it was good enough to publish. They should have at least convinced me to change the title.” I picked up the book and inspected the tacky space scene that had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

“You were only twenty, Brody. When they write the story of your life in thirty or forty years, it’ll be seen as your gateway into the wide world of sci-fi. Either way, it’s going on my table of goodies.” Mr. Edison snatched it from my hands and placed it on yet another leaning tower of paper.

I looked toward Ekats with unspoken pleas.

“Don’t look at me, kiddo.” She chuckled. “You were so excited, you gave me a copy when it first came out, and I still have it wrapped in the plastic it came in. It’s on my living room bookshelf next to the one I actually tried to read. I plan to get rich selling it on e-bay once you finally make it big.”

“Four novels?” Levi asked, squinting at me in disbelief. “Isn’t that already big?”

“It might be if I made more than a thousand dollars a year on each one,” I grumbled. I could feel the blush rise. “I tend to write pulp.”

“Pulp, my wrinkly old arse,” Mr. Edwards said, still smiling. Ekats burst into laughter. Levi looked a little stunned. I was used to the arses. It was his favorite word. “You aren’t pulp just because you write soft science fiction or space operas.”

“Mr. Edwards, you read Star Trek novels in your spare time and you wrote my Wikipedia entry yourself. Your arguments won’t sway me.” I slid my laptop into its leather case and tucked the notebook in the front pocket. “Need I remind you that you’re closing in ten minutes?”

He just shook his bald head at me and grabbed for his pipe case and tobacco.

“And by in ten minutes, you really mean now, correct?” He shooed me from the desk with a grin. “I won’t expect you to work too late tomorrow, either. Enjoy your dinner.”

I guess another decision had been made for me. Since my options were ramen noodles or awkward conversation, I figured I’d better not make a scene. Just let them have their way, I thought as we exited the little shop, and things would work themselves out. It wasn’t a date, just dinner with… one obnoxious best friend, a girl who hit on me, and her overbearing dream-brother who looked superbly sexy, especially when he scowled.

Perhaps I could get more novel material out of it. And maybe some material of another kind. Even if he never again showed up in my sleep, I’d still think about him every night for decades.

++++++

Levi showed up again that night, just like every night. We stood naked in the middle of a forest—a very Earth forest, not one of my sci-fi worlds—with trees towering over us and underbrush reaching up to our knees. A mild breeze tugged at my hair. Light filtered in through the overhead canopy, creating swirls of yellow and bright green above the dark shadows of the trunks. This time, Levi had almost as much detail and definition as he did in reality. The dream-fog had disappeared, and those ice-blue eyes were burning me alive as he stalked toward me.

I didn’t run, didn’t hide, didn’t try to escape at all. I had the briefest thought of how awkward I’d feel at the cookout tomorrow if I let this continue, but my body was already thrumming in anticipation of his touch. The bottoms of my feet burned from stepping on the underbrush as he slowly backed me up to a giant tree trunk. Several feet of the tree’s roots were exposed, creating a snakelike tangle that was nearly impossible to navigate backwards. I all but fell against the smooth bark of a beech tree, feet scrambling for purchase on the twining snarl below.

A hand landed on either side of my shoulders, close enough for me to feel the heat radiating from his skin. Levi leaned in, bending over me like a great beast aiming for the kill.

Temptation was just a few inches away.

I reached out to trace the definition on his chest. He froze over me as I made contact, questing fingertips against hard, hot muscle. I traced his arms, his shoulders, even ran the pad of a finger across his lips. He closed his eyes and held perfectly still, though he was panting hard enough to make me think we were in the middle of great sex, not just starting a show-and-tell. His skin was smooth, and a dusting of black hair in the center of his chest trailed down to his navel. When I finished exploring the top of him, I followed that path downward, circling the belly button with the lightest brush, and resuming my path when I found the thicker trail of hair leading me ever closer to what I’d been daydreaming about for the last twenty-four hours.

I dropped to my knees and kept my hands on his hips, inspecting him as closely as he’d inspected me the night before. He was several inches longer than I was, but not quite as thick. He was cut, too. I could see the circumcision scar, an angry red line against the softer pinks of his shaft. His plump, inviting mushroom head just begged to be tasted.

I couldn’t help myself. It was like passing the event horizon of a black hole. I had to move forward. I had to make contact. My tongue flicked out to trace the corona, and I swept a thin, wet line around the velvety skin.

He moaned. Good. He hadn’t quite exploded on touch like I had, but he definitely felt this.

I covered the head of his cock in tiny licks. I circled around the slit a few times before pulling back and staring up into Levi’s shell-shocked face.

“Do you want me?” I asked, a little smile pulling at the corners of my thick, defined lips. I knew how sensual they could be. “Do you want me to tease and torture you until you feel like you’ll explode? Or do you want me to suck you down until you can’t stand it?”

His eyes widened a fraction with every word I spoke. I leaned over him and blew hot air across the wetness I’d left behind. He pulled one hand down from the tree and grabbed onto my hair, fingers tangling in his effort to pull me closer.

I took that as a go-ahead.

I slipped his cock between my lips, and I kept just the tip of him in my mouth as I explored the taste and texture with my tongue. His grip on my hair tightened, and eventually I took the hint. I leaned into him, swallowing as much as I could. His head hit the back of my throat, making me gag around him, and I pulled back.

It had been a long time since I’d done this to anyone, and I wanted the experience to be damned good for him, even if he was the product of my twisted imagination.

I flicked my tongue over the head of him and pulled off to nibble up and down the shaft. So far, dream Levi had far more endurance than I did. More tugs in my hair let me know exactly how successfully my teasing campaign was going.

I dropped lower, pulling against his grip. I could almost hear my hair follicles popping as he tried to keep me where he wanted me. Good thing I wasn’t going bald. I could miss a few of the long brown strands.

I touched my tongue to one testicle, probing the salty skin and relishing the texture before sucking the whole thing into my mouth. His noises increased in volume, and I had to smile around my mouthful. At least my dream man was responsive. I let it slip from my mouth and went after the other testicle. I teased his balls until I drew small mewling noises from him, and then I decided that it was time.

I pulled away long enough for the breeze to cool him off. The chill would remind him of exactly where my mouth had been, how much of his beautiful cock I’d already explored.

I grinned as he stared me down, that baleful glare as close to begging as we could get in this dream world. Then he closed his eyes and let his head fall back.

That was my cue. I leaned forward and swallowed him whole. My gag reflex was a little kinder to me this time, and I worked until I could get my nose into the trimmed black patch of hair at his base. I held myself there until my lungs began to burn, and then I pulled off just long enough to fill them again.

It didn’t take long. His hand tightened painfully in my hair and he began to move me back and forth, wresting the power and control from me, turning me from aggressor to defender in seconds. Not that I minded much. I was enjoying myself far too thoroughly, and he was controlled enough not to try and slam himself all the way down my throat.

He came with a powerful grunt, holding me to him until I’d swallowed it all. It was salty and bitter, but it tasted just right on my tongue. I reached up and wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him down for a hard kiss. The taste of his seed passed between us like a piece of candy. I kissed him as though I wanted to gag myself on his tongue, battling and sucking and biting and pulling hard enough to cause pain when I wanted it, needed it.

He was pushing me against the bark of the beech tree in another onslaught of kisses when the dream dissolved.

I woke with the taste of him still in my mouth, a candy coating for my tongue. My lips felt bruised, my teeth ached from the clash, and my cock was still hard enough to drive railway spikes into rock. The back of my head ached from where dream hands had yanked at my hair. My tongue felt like it’d had more exercise in the last few minutes than it’d ever had in the history of its existence.

I ached, and I enjoyed it. That was yet another thing to worry about. I’d never included pain in my fantasies before. It was a foreign concept, something I’d never thought to try. Violence found its way into my mind in other ways, but never in a sexual setting. Perhaps my psyche had slipped a few inches. A few delicious inches.

I pushed that out of my mind as I got up and skipped the coffee. I wanted to keep the taste of my dream-Levi with me as long as possible.

++++++

Levi lived quite a ways out of town. I wasn’t a city boy by any stretch of the imagination, but ten minutes of flat farmland made me want to convince Ekats to turn around and take me back to civilization. I needed a grocery store or gas station within walking distance, or I’d never feed myself properly.

We turned down a gravel lane and passed a tiny six-headstone cemetery and a pond before turning down an equally rocky driveway. To the right sat an ancient barn with no paint left on the wood. It was the kind of structure that inspired images of good old-fashioned barn-raisings, where neighbors in suspenders and ankle-length cotton dresses got together and watched each other work. It was also the kind of barn that inspired nightmares of the whole thing falling on my head as soon as I went inside. Next to the barn was a long white corrugated-metal building, and beyond that, down the driveway just a bit farther, was the house.

The house was a two-story square coated in brick. The windows were tall and narrow in the original turn-of-the-century sort of way. Rippled glass in the first-floor frames indicated that the panes probably hadn’t been replaced since the place was built. It had to cost a fortune to heat.

From a distance, it looked a bit bulgy, as though the walls had been pushed out an inch or two in the middle. Everything about the house screamed with character, and I pulled my little notebook from my laptop bag and began to document the location. I could definitely use this, if I ever got around to writing that contemporary novel. It was on my to-do list, but it wasn’t at the top.

Ekats cursed every little ding against the car’s undercarriage courtesy of the white limestone gravel as she pulled her little hybrid next to the giant pickup. The truck was of an indeterminate color, so muddy it looked gray, or maybe brown. I dutifully stopped documentation as she got out of the car, but I couldn’t help myself as we walked by the truck. I touched the tailgate, just to find out what color was buried under the layers and layers of dirt. Surprises, surprises. It was actually red.

I caught the faintest whiff of charcoal and hamburger in the air and my stomach nearly doubled me over in happiness. I’d forgotten lunch, I’d been so annoyed with my dreams. Oops.

“Hey! Find the place okay?” Bethany asked from the front door, beckoning us inside. She had another spectacular pair of brightly colored sneakers on, this time with a black skirt and solid tank. “Levi lives out in the boonies, but since I live in a tiny apartment, we thought this would be the better location.”

“My car is still crying over the gravel, but I think Brody’s in love,” Ekats winked at Bethany as we got closer. “He started writing about the house as soon as we saw it.”

Bethany gave me a hesitant smile.

“Sorry about the other night. No hard feelings?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, shaking my head. “Ekats didn’t do her duty to send out the gay alert.”

“If you needed to send out the warning so badly, you should have worn the t-shirt that had ‘gay as fuck’ sprawled across the front. I had that on the maybe pile.” She turned to Bethany. “The man needs me to dress him. Lord knows why.”

“We didn’t even get to the maybe pile, sweetie. You had that maroon shirt down as a real possibility, and I decided to take matters into my own hands.” I turned to Bethany, who was watching us with increasingly large eyes. “The man dresses himself just fine, especially when confronted with maroon.”

The poor girl couldn’t stand it any more. She laughed, so we laughed, and it was as though the awkwardness of two nights before had never happened.

Sometimes maroon had its uses after all.

We entered the front door, walked down a narrow hall with a stairwell running up one side, and stepped into the kitchen. It was large and had a beautiful old sink along one wall. The cabinets were extraordinary and served to hide the very nice, very modern appliances to the casual observer. A century-old nickel-plated stove sat next to the sink, and I couldn’t help the look of appreciation I gave the ancient contraption.

“Levi’s in the back tending to the grill, if you want to go out there,” Bethany said, throwing open the back door. “The food ought to be finished shortly. Want anything to drink?”

The fridge was hidden behind another gorgeous wooden panel, and she pulled out a few choices for beer.

“The cheapest kind you’ve got, please,” Ekats said, snatching a bottle from Bethany’s hand. “Brody loves the stuff that actually has taste, though he’ll never admit it to himself.”

I took the proffered beer and took a sip. Hoppy. Good.

“Could you take this out to the master griller?” Bethany asked, handing me a second bottle. “We’ll be out shortly with the rest of the food.”

I nearly ran straight through the screen door before I figured out how to unlatch the damned thing. Bethany had to show me, apologizing all the while for not thinking about showing me how to do something as simple as open the door. Of course, she was a bit more polite about it, but my brain was laughing hysterically at my pathetic attempt at portal navigation as Bethany did a little magical jingle with the handle and voila! I had access to the great outdoors.

Of course the little metal lever didn’t want to unstick for me. That was my life in a nutshell.

I was backing down cement stairs when I caught sight of Levi. He was wearing low-slung jeans and a plaid button-up with the sleeves pushed to his elbows. I hadn’t seen his backside properly before now, which was probably a good thing for all involved. I had time to stand and stare far longer than was strictly necessary. The pants fit him perfectly, and all I wanted to do was drool and possibly grab. Especially after this morning’s dream.

Bad idea. I made myself move downhill toward the god of the grill while giving myself a lecture on proper guest manners—manners that included completing the appropriated task at hand and actually giving him the beer while it was still cold.

I knew the moment he saw me. He fumbled with a veggie-kabob and dropped it with the tongs as I entered his line of sight. Was he having second thoughts on the dinner invitation? No, no he wasn’t. He was blushing and staring at my lips.

“Bethany asked me to bring you this,” I said, by way of introduction. I held out the beer and waited a full five seconds for the man in front of me to put himself back together.

“Sometimes the girl knows exactly what to do,” he said, grinning as though the awkward staring never happened.

That grin stopped me in my tracks. He went from the scowliest man in the universe to Mr. Universe faster than Ekats changed moods. His eyes scrunched up at the corners, his eyebrows stopped acting like low-hanging thunderclouds, and his nose wrinkled a little. His teeth were almost straight in that I-never-needed-braces sort of way.

I’d never been a nose person before Levi. There was something about his nose that made me start having fantasies about intimate nuzzling.

Intimate nuzzling. Yum. Perhaps that could feature in my next dream. It was not the right thing to think about at that moment. I had the sudden need to adjust myself for decency’s sake.

Right. Time for conversation.

“So I might steal your house in the middle of the night,” I said. “If you ever wake up to find it missing, you know where to look.”

He gave me one of those looks, the kind that questions whether you’re actually crazy, if you really just said whatever you just said. Then he laughed.

“I’ll keep that in mind if I end up in the dirt. It’d be a bitch to move, though. I’ll give you fair warning, with all that brick it weighs more than the moon.”

“I’ll be sure to bring a back brace.” I eyed the house appreciatively. So did he. “Is it just me, or does it have a bit of a belly?”

He snorted.

“A belly, sure. It was used for grain storage back in the fifties. The whole thing burnt out way back in the day, though the brick stayed solid. They dumped a ton of grain in it instead of building another silo, and the walls were pushed out a little bit. It’s still structurally sound, but farmers can be cheap sons of bitches.”

I nodded as if I knew first-hand.

“I bought it five years ago, when it was still a shell, and I’ve been renovating ever since. I’ve only had to replace a couple windows so far, though the rest need to be done soon. The bathroom fixtures were stored in the old barn so I have the original claw-foot tub and everything, but almost everything else is new to the house. I have one of the upstairs bedrooms to fix up yet, and then I’ll move on to the basement. I give you fair warning for your visit and subsequent house-theft, though. If you don’t like mice or bugs, don’t go down to the basement. It’s filled with both, no matter what I’ve tried. I wanted a new foundation, but with the portly brick anvil on top, it’s pretty much a no-go.”

“Duly noted,” I said, taking another swig. His tongue flicked out and wet his lips. I nearly had a heart attack. He went back to the meat, and I went back to house-worshiping.

“So you write novels,” he began. Boy, this sounded familiar. The man didn’t know his small talk. Granted, I stayed as far away from small talk as I could, so I couldn’t throw proverbial stones at his lack of talent.

“I try. I’m a freelance writer—I’ll do posts for blogs and articles-for-sale as well as books—but the pay is terrible and it just doesn’t do it for me. When I want actual money, I sit in for Mr. Edison and help him with basic shop work, though he typically lets me sit and write at the front desk during slow days. My favorite thing to do is write novels, even if I’m not the best at it. I prefer to spend my days hidden away from reality, creating my own little words and inventing my own little people. I throw them all together, shake them up a bit, and watch what happens.”

“Ekaterina says you’re good.” He blushed again. “Bethany does, too. She read whatever one just got published. My sister is big into sci-fi.”

“I know for a fact Ekats is lying, since she hates all things science fiction. That girl doesn’t have a fantastical bone in her body. I don’t know what your sister’s excuse is.” I glanced back toward the house. “Perhaps Ekats is rubbing off on her. Or vice-versa.”

Levi choked a little. “That is a mental image I could have done without.”

“You’re welcome.” I grinned. “So what do you do, when you aren’t grilling like a madman or telling rascally boys off for turning down your sister?”

“I have a feeling I’m never going to live that down.” He rolled his eyes and began piling the brats and burgers in a large pan. “As for the job, I’m a carpenter. I’ll build just about anything, and I’ll do it far better than anyone else in town.” He nodded toward what little of the white shed that could be seen around the house. “That’s the shop. I do a little metalwork, but I prefer wood. I sell through a couple places in town, though I work mostly on commission.”

“What was the most fulfilling thing to build?”

The veggies and the rest of the meat came off the grill as he contemplated this question with a lot more seriousness than I’d expected.

“If you had asked me my favorite, it’d be an easy question,” he said as he closed the empty grill and picked up the food. “I love stairs. They stay in a house for ages, so if I put in a set of stairs in a new house, I’ll know that every family that buys that house will be using my creations.”

I waited for him to continue, to answer the most interesting building project, but instead, he started toward the picnic tables.

“Here, try this. It’s got pineapple on it.” He offered me a veggie-kabob as though it was manna from heaven and I accepted with good grace. When I’d bit off a chunk of red pepper, he started to talk again. “I suppose I have a long list of fulfilling projects. I made matching cradles for a set of twins when I first started out, about ten years ago. I was nineteen, and they weren’t my best handiwork since I was still learning, but the woman who purchased them still tells me how much they mean to her. The governor has my cabinets in his office. I’ve made rocking horses, rocking chairs, bed frames, you name it. Some of my commissions are pretty emotional. A friend requested me to build his coffin a few years ago. That was hard.” He trailed off before glancing up at me in alarm. “And I don’t know why I keep talking. I know you probably weren’t expecting such a lengthy answer.”

“Lengthy, yes, but it showed off your passion for what you do. I never really thought it could be such an emotional profession. He-mannish, sure, but not as sentimental as you’ve made it sound.”

The girls chose that moment to come banging through the screen door. Ekats held two large bowls filled with pasta salad and cheesy chips. Poor Bethany looked lost behind a giant crock-pot.

“Give me a hand, Levi?” Bethany called, and Levi was off fetching the white appliance filled with baked beans. He snagged the cord before he could trip on it and proceeded to follow Ekats to the table as Bethany went back for the condiments.

“Behold,” he said as he dropped the pot of beans on the picnic table in front of me. “The he-man provides sustenance.” He waggled those thick black eyebrows enough to make me nearly choke in laughter. Ekats pounded my back for a few seconds, casting glances between the two of us and trying to hide that little I-knew-it smile.

++++++

After dinner and a conversation dominated entirely by the girls, Bethany and Ekats took over the cleaning duties. I offered to help, as did a far more reluctant Levi, but Bethany practically barred us from the kitchen with a gleam in her eye. It was the very same gleam that Ekats had when she started talking about a specific boy she’d met who swung in my direction. It was that damned matchmaking gleam.

At least I knew I had Bethany’s permission, though I had my doubts that I’d need it for anything.

“Show him the shop, Levi,” she said as she took the dirty bowls from my hands. “He’ll appreciate it more than I do, and Ekats will only sneeze at all the wood dust.”

So off we went. Levi and I moved across the yard as twilight crept over us. I hadn’t realized it was so late, but then again, I had little perception of time when staring at Levi, and I’d gotten to do that quite a bit this evening.

The white siding of the shed glowed in the glare of the security light. Levi hesitated and looked back toward the house every few steps. He kept getting a faint frightened look in his eyes, and I wanted to reach over and grab his hand to comfort him. It was just a tour of the shed. It wasn’t like he’d been sentenced to death or anything.

He finally committed to the tour as soon as we got to the building. He threw open the doors and turned on a bank of lights. The smell of freshly-cut wood had soaked into every surface, and I smelled my way along the aisle between piles of lumber. Cherry, oak, mahogany, cedar. I’d never been a nature boy, but the wood spoke to me in the high olfactory language. Levi relaxed as he watched me take in the scents, and by the time we made it to the other side of the room, he’d actually started smiling.

After the lumber storage area came the workshop proper. There were several long workbenches with half-finished pieces of furniture, chunks of wood clamped together, and an array of hand tools scattered across the surfaces. Farther along were bits and pieces of metal thrown together in incoherent patterns. There were saws, lathes, drill presses, and a bunch of other machines I couldn’t name even if I’d studied.

“Look around, but don’t touch anything,” Levi said, scratching his nose and scowling about the place.

“I don’t relish the thought of learning how to type with nine fingers, so you have no worries there.” I wiggled the appendages at him before turning back to the projects in-progress. “Besides, I’d never be able to do simple math if I lost a digit.”

It took me less time to make it through this room. The smells just weren’t as nice, and the machinery didn’t capture my attention for long.

“So where are your completed pieces?”

“I’ve got a finishing room. One half is for staining and varnishing, the other is for carving.” He ushered me to a manual garage door along the back wall and grabbed the handle near the floor. His body moved, stretching and lifting and reaching as he lifted the series of white-painted panels.

I wanted to see him do that nude. The thought speared through my mind and nearly knocked me flat. I had to covertly adjust myself while he fiddled with the light switches in the next room.

Once he stepped out of the way and let me through, I found myself in a world of intricately carved fantasy in various shades of brown. A desk along one wall had beautiful trees carved along the side. A headboard along another wall looked like a mass of wriggling vines. Chairs, spindles and treads, cabinet doors, a crib—Levi had all kinds of things in here. I wandered around, staring at the craftsmanship and carving in a state of awe. I might be able to produce a whole world with words, but I certainly couldn’t make beauty like this. Not if I’d practiced for the rest of my life.

I moved over to the carving half of the room and picked through the furniture. Levi watched me from the doorway, looking more and more uncomfortable with every step I took.

A bookcase in the corner nearly made my heart freeze. Along one side was the most incredibly lifelike depiction of my favorite alien world. The panel, filled with twisting, gnarled tree trunks and overarching canopies with tree houses scattered throughout, had come straight from my imagination. It was a location I’d been working on—changing, evolving, perfecting—for years. It was also the setting for my current novel.

I touched. I couldn’t help it. I ran my fingers along the surface, memorizing the dips and creases, in absolute awe. I walked around to the other side. The bas relief of a very familiar naked man, standing front and center amidst the foliage, made me whirl around to Levi with all the questions of the universe plastered on my face.

If he’d had the same dreams I’d had, he’d have seen me from this angle.

If we’d had the same dreams.

“Um,” he said, looking incredibly uncomfortable. “I’m not a stalker or anything, I swear. I dream about you—oh god, that sounds bad.”

“So do I,” I interrupted before he could continue his awkward explanations. “I dream about you too. Mostly standing and staring, just like that.” I nodded at the carving. I leaned forward, inspecting it from a few inches away.

The wooden face looked lost and scared—pretty much my natural state when people were around. The faint musculature I’d always worked to keep up looked accurate. I blushed as I dropped my gaze lower. My wooden counterpart had been carved semi-erect, which was almost a relief—not soft enough to be embarrassing, not large enough to be overtly sexual. He even had my scar exactly right, just peeking around the side of my hip, and I traced the mark with a hesitant brush of fingers.

“So it really is you?” he asked, stepping up beside the bookcase and turning my face up toward his own.

I pulled my t-shirt up just high enough for the scar to show.

“Holy fuck.”

“I think we ought to sit down before we continue this discussion,” I said, still blushing. “It’s probably going to be a long one.”

“Will you stay over tonight?” He turned about as red as I was. “I didn’t mean for sex, I swear. I want to be able to talk without the girls getting involved, and if the conversation will take a while… I’ll take you home when we’re done.”

“And you might want a real performance of this morning’s dream,” I sang under my breath.

I didn’t know a man could turn that shade of scarlet. I was just about to worry that I’d gone too far when he laughed.

“Maybe I would. But we’ll just talk,” he said with emphasis. “For now,” he amended at my half-smile.

“You know this is going to get the girls squawking like mother hens, right?”

Levi’s smile dropped away instantly.

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Shit.”

++++++

The girls chatted away in the living room when we went back to the house. Ekats had managed to talk her way onto the same love seat as Bethany and had turned on the Ekaterina flavor, touching as often as she could get away with it. I was very glad it was Bethany on that love seat and not me. Ekats could get a little overwhelmingly touchy-feely, even when she wasn’t trying to seduce someone.

“Are you ready to go?” Ekats looked disappointed as we came back to the house.

“I think I’m… staying here. Levi can take me back.”

Bethany looked up with an enormous grin. I could hear Levi groan from behind me.

“It’s not like that. We just have a lot to discuss,” I said, trying to salvage what I could of my dignity.

“So that’s what they call it these days,” Ekats said, smiling proudly.

“No, really, Ekats. The dreams? They’re mutual. It isn’t just some guy who looks like Levi, it is him.”

Her smile faltered a little and glanced between the two of us.

“I guess you really might talk, then, huh? Don’t worry, Levi, I’ll be pulling for you.” She sighed heavily and stood up. “Either way, I know when I’m in the way.”

“It’s early, come to my place. I just got the new season of this cute British science fiction show.” Bethany threw an overly exaggerated wink at her brother and began to pack herself up.

“That sounds… fun.” I was impressed at the lack of loathing in her tone of voice, but I could see Ekats shudder when Bethany wasn’t looking.

They disappeared, the sounds of their goodbyes drifting through the brick house like ghosts. Levi handed me another beer and we sat down in matching recliners and just looked at each other for a while. He took a deep, fortifying gulp before opening his mouth again.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw you at Mulligan’s. I thought I saw a ghost, and then sort of figured it had to be a coincidence.”

“It was kind of a freak-out moment for me, too,” I said. “I just kind of figured the universe was fucking with me again. It tends to do that a lot.”

“When did you start having the dreams?” he asked me, gaze dropping down to the brown shag rug.

“Two years ago, just after my grandmother died. At first I thought you were some sort of guardian angel, because she told me she’d do what she could to make me happy when she got to heaven.”

“She sounds like a sweet woman,” he said quietly.

“All in all, not really. When she said happy, she really meant laid. She was loud, brazen, rude, you name it. But she loved me despite my little preference problem, whereas my father did what he could to reprogram me as long as he lived, and my mother still bemoans her lack of grandbabies every time I go home. Grandma was the only one who wished for my happiness in the same way I would. She cried every time I got a novel published and bought half her local bookstore’s stock just so she could bully relatives into owning copies. She’s the one who set me up with Mr. Edison so I could do my writing without having to worry about a full-time job to pay the bills. Secretly, I think she slept with him to make him agree in the beginning. Above all, she wanted me to find a good man with whom to settle down.”

I could almost hear her infamous you-need-a-man lectures that usually featured a diatribe on the benefits of constant sex. I couldn’t help but smile. I’d stayed countless nights in her little two-bed ranch the year I came out to the world, and she’d been the only support system I’d had after the stabbing. Mom and Dad had still been too angry at me for being gay to understand how a cut that only needed six stitches and had been caused by a supposed accident could nearly paralyze me to the rest of society. Nobody wanted to believe how un-accidental the whole incident really was for me. Nobody except for Grandma.

“I have a similar beginning, I guess.” Levi said when I finally came back to reality. “Davy was my first lover, back in our sophomore year of high school. We decided after a few months that we were better as friends, but we stayed so close over the years, nobody believed we weren’t screwing. He got HIV just after college and it progressed fast. He knew he was dying a lot sooner than I did, and the severity of the illness shocked me when he finally said something. That coffin I talked about earlier was for him; he asked me to have it finished so he could see it before he died. It was the hardest thing I’d ever built. I brought it to him so he could see it, showed him the carving, and hoped desperately he didn’t like it so I had to make another. If I had to make another, he’d have to live until I was finished with that one, too. Unlucky for me, he thought it was beautiful. He died a few days later, and I sat by him the whole time.”

Levi hunched over, practically folding himself in half as he talked. I wanted to hug him so badly it hurt, but I didn’t. The concept of wanting to touch him was so foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how he’d react. I had yet to determine whether he was the type to accept comfort or reject it with hostility, and until then, I’d keep my hands to myself. The only thing I could do was listen.

“Davy started talking after the coffin was done, which was unusual for him. He was a pretty quiet guy, a schemer that never let anyone in on his plans until they came to fruition. He let his actions do the talking most of the time. I was always a hanging end socially, always moving around in the dating circle with no intention of ever settling down. He had always teased me about finding someone good enough to keep around forever. When he started talking in the hospital, it was to apologize that he wasn’t going to be there for me for the rest of my life. He was my rock, and I knew that without him, I was going to be lost.”

He shifted around, and I could hear the tears he was fighting to hold back.

“Bethany was still a thousand miles away and wouldn’t get done with the semester for another six months or so. The only other family we’d had was a great-aunt that had taken us in for about three weeks when my parents died. Then she found out I was gay, and I was automatically booted out. I was nineteen, so it wasn’t so bad, but then Bethany went and spouted exactly how much of a biased bitch the woman was to my dear great-aunt’s face, and viola. I had a sixteen-year-old to care for. Davy was the only one I’d ever really let myself go around, and he knew it. He told me that when he kicked the bucket he was going to petition whatever deity happened to claim him to give me someone to love me properly. He died, we buried him in that damned casket, and then you came to me. The night of the funeral.”

We sat in silence for a while, digesting each other’s stories.

“They’re both schemers,” I muttered. To my surprise, Levi chuckled.

“I’d wager everything that they met while petitioning the same deity and decided to take matters into their own hands.”

“I could believe that.” It sounded exactly like something Grandma would’ve done.

Levi turned to me and smiled, though his eyes were still a little watery.

“So, man of my dreams, what the hell has been going on with the last few nights? This morning I woke up completely spent, and had the most awkward taste in my mouth.”

Well, that was one way to broach the issue. I was hardening at an uncomfortable rate at the memory of his cock in my mouth.

“I woke up very un-spent with a fairly pleasant taste in my mouth. At least you held off longer than I did.”

“That was amazing, though I still feel a little gypped you got to have more fun. All I did was lick you and off you went.”

“Don’t remind me,” I groaned, trying to look anywhere but at him. I focused on the blank TV screen and willed the blood from my face. I couldn’t spare it. So much had already drained to my cock.

“So are we agreed that the dream thing, though a little weird and creepy, is our dearly departed’s cosmic way to get us together?”

“After two years of visions, I guess I can accept that.” I leaned back and marveled at exactly how accepting of the entire situation I really was. Normally, I got so paranoid when talking about a possible relationship.

“So should we date?”

I contemplated Levi’s question for a few minutes.

“Yeah. We can try to date. And talk. We have a lot to learn about each other. I ought to warn you that I’m a complete nutcase. Will it bother you when I get into writing so thoroughly that I block out the rest of the world? I can be out for weeks at a time when I start a project I like. Ekats has learned not to take it personally, but it could become an issue for a boyfriend.”

“Make sure you let me know,” he said. “Weeks? Bethany used to complain when I’d work on a project overnight. I couldn’t imagine throwing myself into carving for weeks.”

He grinned, though, and I hoped that meant it wouldn’t become a huge problem.

“I live and breathe fiction. My entire lifestyle is escapist. I’m never not writing, or thinking about writing, or gathering research for writing. So getting lost for weeks isn’t terribly surprising, since I’m always working anyway.”

“Do you have any other hobbies?” Levi asked, eyebrow rising.

“Reading, and the occasional video game. Granted, I consider reading and book discussion to be research. It makes me sound far more productive than I actually am.”

“I read a lot, and I like gaming. That’s some common ground we can start with.”

“I’m also not very practiced at anything but one-night stands.” I hadn’t had a solid relationship since the one in high school that got me stabbed in the side with a pair of scissors.

“I’ve never dated longer than two weeks at a time,” Levi said and took another sip of his beer. “We’ll be on a similar learning curve.”

I leaned back and tucked my legs up in the recliner.

“Want to finish what we started this morning?” I asked, a lazy smile spreading across my face.

“Oh, definitely.” Levi said in the most solemn voice possible. “I need to know if my carving is accurate. I already had to alter it a little after yesterday morning’s dream.”

He grabbed my hand and pulled me up out of the chair. We hit the stairs running, made it up in record time, and he steered me through the door on the left before spinning me around and pinning me to the wall. It was a familiar position, and I couldn’t help but groan at the memory. At least this time I didn’t have tree bark digging into my back.

“Strip,” Levi said. The word rumbled between us, and I rushed to obey as best I could in the limited space.

 I was suddenly very happy I’d worn sandals. They got kicked to the corner as he helped me lift my shirt over my head. The t-shirt fell to the floor in a flutter of green, the signal for the first real kiss to begin. He pressed me into the wall, lips and tongue coercing an active response from me. The kiss turned into another battle, with all sorts of sucking and biting I’d never attempted before. Levi had just a touch of an S&M streak to him, and I was responding more than I ever thought I could. He’d managed to unbutton my jeans during our dance for dominance, and he pulled back to watch as he carefully lowered the zip. My cock made an almost immediate appearance, popping out and bouncing against my stomach.

He held me against the wall for a moment before dropping down to unwrap what he’d discovered. The jeans slid off with a little help, and I was left completely nude. He inspected me, just like he did a few nights before. Hot air blew across the tip, and I moaned.

“Commando?” he chuckled, looking me up and down appreciatively. “I didn’t expect that.”

“I have less laundry this way,” I said, shrugging. “Now I think you’re overdressed.”

He pushed me against the wall and held me there for a moment, making it clear that I wasn’t allowed to move. Then he took a step back and licked his lips. He unbuttoned his shirt slowly and let it drop to the floor while twisting this way and that, showing off the most beautifully sculpted abs. I could feel my heart rate skyrocket as he undid his jeans and eased them over his hips. His boxers didn’t have a button, and I could see the tip of his cock peeking through the colorful woven cotton.

The man sure had a thing for plaid.

He hooked his thumbs into the waistband and eased his boxers down, too, and then we both stood and stared at each other.

We’d done it so often in our dreams that it didn’t even feel awkward. After a full appreciation of his statuesque form, I took a step from the wall.

It was enough to break whatever spell held him perfectly still. A very naked Levi growled in my ear and pushed himself against me until my back hit the wall again. His hands moved all along my body, and I was starting to suspect I’d get sufficiently ravaged by the end of the night.

He ground our hips together, mashing his long cock against my own in shameless thrusts. I shuddered in near euphoria with every sweep of his body.

“Levi,” I gasped. “Stop, please.”

He pulled away immediately, concerned.

“You okay?” he asked, tilting my chin to face him.

“Very, very okay. Too okay. Nearly not okay any longer.” I held onto his arms as I caught my breath, and the thunderous bangs coming from my heart resonated all the way through my ribcage.

“Exactly how far are we taking it tonight?” he asked, gathering me in strong arms and hoisting me up in the air. I clutched at his neck for support.

“However far you want to go,” I whispered back. “Top or bottom?”

Silly question. I knew what I wanted, and I’d get it even if I had to trick him into plowing me into the mattress. He dropped to the bed, taking me with him and nearly drowning me in brown and green pillows before taking his weight on his elbows.

“I’m a top by nature,” he said, leaning down over me like a dark wraith. “I guess I’m a bit of a control freak. But if you want me to bottom, I’m game.”

“No, it’s okay. I prefer to bottom,” I said with a reluctant smile.

“Why?” It was a simple question, one I didn’t want to answer. I thought briefly about ignoring him, or lying like I did to Ekats, but we’d agreed to try dating. He was a potential relationship. If I was going to stay with this man for the rest of my life, he was going to find out the truth sooner or later. Especially if he ever met my mother.

“The last time I topped, I got stabbed by an angry girl holding a blunt pair of scissors. It kind of ruined the whole act for me.”

“Stabbed?” He was wary, and I could tell he was trying as hard as he could not to pry.

“Mood-killer, to say the least. I’ll tell you the story later. When we’re done.” I gave him my most lustful face. “Right now, I want to feel you inside me.”

Yeah, that worked.

“Promise?” He bent down to steal a kiss.

I just nodded and let myself sink into the pillows as he eased back the pace and nibbled at the edges of my lips, sweeping across them with tongue and torturing the corners with sweet little kisses that made my insides melt. I liked the rough Levi more than was good for me; the gentle Levi was a danger to my heart. His hands fluttered along my ribs, thumbs brushing across my nipples, before he moved down to my cock.

“You have the most edible lips,” he whispered. I moaned and tilted my head to give him better access.

His tongue did wicked things to the shell of my ear, and I thrust against him in frustration. His gentleness was wonderful, but I wanted to speed up. I wanted him. I could almost convince myself to admit I needed him.

He dropped to my neck, sucking great swaths of skin hard enough to leave marks before moving down to my chest. He laved one nipple, sucking and tugging gently with his teeth to elicit more helpless noises from my throat before he licked over to the other.

My hips bucked, trying to make contact with something, anything, for a little relief. The lower half of his body collapsed on top of me, and I writhed at the feeling of his chest against my cock. My eyes slammed closed as his touch sent sparks racing to my brain.

Thrust. Thrust. Oh, god, please, just a little more. I was nearly soaring when he pulled off of me again, ceasing all contact. Oh, please, please, don’t stop. Don’t stop, my mind screamed. I need you inside me. Fuck. I want it.

I proved quite noisily that I wasn’t above begging, since about half of my inner monologue ended up finding its way out of my mouth.

He pushed my legs up and out, and I could feel hot breath across my pucker. Then his tongue danced out and took a swipe, then a swirl, then a thrust. I panted and moaned in a constant litany of need as he prepared me, ever so gently, for what was to come. I heard the snap of a cap and felt his slick finger ease into me, stretching me just a little. In and out, in and out, and then I wanted more. More was better.

“Another,” I finally croaked. It was the first truly comprehensible word I’d said in what felt like hours.

Levi gave me more. Two fingers, then three, stretched me and flicked over my prostate with talented rhythm. When he pulled out of me entirely, I nearly sobbed with need.

The tear of the condom wrapper sent a delicious thrill of anticipation through me.

His cock hit my pucker like a jolt of electricity. I pushed up onto my elbows and kept my eyes open, watching as he thrust the head in and out in tiny increments, waiting for me to beg for it again. Once I figured out what he wanted, I pleaded. I bargained. I offered to sell him my nonexistent firstborn if he’d just get around to fucking me.

He flashed teeth in a momentary grin before his face went back to that contorted, concentrated look one gets when trying very hard not to do something they really want to.

“Just fuck me, damn it!” I’d lost what little eloquence I’d started with.

He pulled me to the edge of the bed, repositioned, and finally began to move. I groaned and writhed as he slid into me, a little bit at a time. It burned, but I kept begging for more. He seated himself fully inside me and we both went still.

“Oh, god.” I was full. I was more full than I’d ever been in my life, and it felt absolutely perfect.

Then he started to move again, and I knew what heaven felt like.

Faster and faster he went, like a train picking up speed, until he finally found a grunting rhythm I could punctuate regularly with my own cries. He reached between us to play with my leaking cock, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. We were both near the end of the line.

He lost rhythm first, thrusting with all his might and holding me still beneath him. I could feel him pulsing his completion as he jacked me like his life was on the line.

I wasn’t far behind him, and I painted our bodies white as I came. He collapsed over me until we could catch our breaths. Then he flopped over on one side and grinned.

“I’m wiped, but I need a rinse.” He held up his lube-slicked fingers and wiggled them at me in a tickling threat. “Bath or shower?”

“Bath sounds good,” I said, squeaking a little as I flinched away from the hazard. My nervous system was still trying to recover.

“Stay here.” He nudged me further onto the bed and bent down to kiss me gently. “I’ll get it ready.”

++++++

I woke up to the shock of wet warmth. Levi had stepped into the giant claw-foot tub with me in his arms, and my aching ass got the first taste of the steaming water.

“Oh, this is nice,” I mumbled as he settled me against his chest. He held me to him and we basked in the wet heat and skin contact.

His fingers found my scar and traced it gently.

“Tell me,” he said in soft, coaxing tones.

I opened my eyes and looked up before I started talking. I found enough comfort and reassurance in those ice blue eyes.

“My senior year of high school I came out as gay. It was… an unexpected announcement. I lifted weights all four years, so I wasn’t exactly a pushover. Even so, we lived in a small town filled with fundamentalists and right wing extremists, and things got a little uncomfortable.”

Levi tried to hold back a laugh, but it came out anyway. I smiled for a moment, looking down at the bubbles that coated the surface of the water. Bubble bath. Go figure.

“There was a boy in my grade who was questioning and wanted to talk to me about sexuality in general. We hit it off, he decided that boys really were his thing and came out, and we started dating. Adam was a sweet kid, played basketball and lifted weights with me, top grades, the kind of handsome young man every girl wants to take home to mama. One girl in particular had her mind set on him. Apparently, she’d planned out the perfect ultra-conservative life and had decided to make him straight again. I, naturally, was seen as a demon from the fiery pits of hell. I’d turned him gay. I was to blame. She found us in the weightlifting storage room after the coach had gone home one evening. I was fucking his brains out. She was so upset,” I air-quoted vigorously and my voice dropped into my emotional scratchiness as I continued, “that she took the scissors from Coach’s desk and began to threaten us both. When I moved to pull out of Adam, she stabbed me in the side—she played volleyball and had a damned good spike—and managed to unload more bullshit about fags than I’d ever seen at a Westboro Baptist picket. Adam, good kid that he was, managed to subdue her, stop me from bleeding to death, and call the ambulance. That was a fun situation to try and explain to the paramedics. And the principal. And my mother.”

I felt his thumb trace against the scar again, brushing back and forth as though he were trying to erase it.

“It fucked me up a lot more than it should have,” I admitted. “I wouldn’t see Adam again after that. I barely passed my classes and dropped my sports. I’d still rather not be around girls, I can’t stand uninvited contact, and I don’t like anyone at my back if I don’t trust them. I stay way from people in general, mostly because it’s easier than having to trust. I know it was a one-time thing, a cosmic joke at my expense, but…” I shrugged, and the water sloshed around us in frothy waves.

“Well, I can promise I won’t stab you with scissors,” Levi whispered into the half-wet clumps of my hair, “and I can promise to try to kill anybody who does from here on out.”

His promise, while absurd, was strangely reassuring. I sighed contentedly and wiggled my back against his front, trying to get even more comfortable.

He stayed quiet as he cleaned me off, rubbing me down with his crisp-smelling soap and making sure my hair was nice and wet.

“You don’t happen to know how to cut hair, do you?” I asked as he rubbed the shampoo into my scalp.

“You’re out of luck there,” he said. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t cut yours. It’s gorgeous.”

“You’re gorgeous,” I mumbled as he began to rinse the suds from my hair. “A god among men. Can you scrub a little to the right? Yeah. There. Perfect.”

I didn’t even feel him towel me off and settle us both down in his giant, pillow-filled bed.

I woke up satisfied. It was a nice feeling.

It was the first night I’d fallen asleep and stayed that way until the alarm the next morning, the first night I didn’t wake up to swirling ideas and a desperate need to get them on paper, the first night I didn’t dream up an unearthly visit from Levi. I hadn’t had peace in a long time. It was something I savored as I yawned and tried to stretch. The alarm shrieked in my ear for a few minutes, and then Levi’s great hand slammed down on the snooze button.

Two great arms wrapped around me, pulling my back to a muscled chest. I could feel Levi’s morning wood against my bottom, and I wiggled just a little to see if I could make a difference.

I did.

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