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Felix should have known better sooner.

He should have known better last week, when Annette sat with her fuzzy-socked feet up in his lap on the sofa and told him that she couldn’t go home with him for Christmas to be a buffer for his family after all, because she had to stay on campus to monitor the last part of her thesis project.

He should have known better last night, when they were saying goodbye at the crosswalk that marked the halfway point between the off-campus apartment he shares with Ashe and her dormitory building, and she’d tilted her head to one side, cheeks red in the cold December air, to ask, “Isn’t there anyone else you would want to take home?” with an oddly unreadable expression which had turned very readable indeed when he gave her a blank look and said, “No one here.”

He definitely should have known better this morning, when she texted him horribly early to say only got you a backup date for xmas AND a ride home, be ready at cafe outside stacks @ 8 am :)

And yet he had dismissed the warning bells and red flags because he trusts Annette, more than anyone.

Or else he did trust her before today, right now. Before he was standing rooted to the spot on the sidewalk outside the campus library café and staring at Sylvain Gautier, all six foot whatever of him, in dark sunglasses and an expensive parka, sprawled in a metal café chair so close to Felix he could reach out and slap his hood off.

Felix hasn’t seen Sylvain in eleven months, not that he’s counting, but he’d still recognize him anywhere. He always did take up all the air in any room. Now he’s doing it even outdoors. Felix can’t breathe.

He counts to five. He remembers how to inhale and exhale. He abandons his bags and stalks over so that his shadow falls over Sylvain, folding his arms over his chest.

“You don’t go to this school,” Felix says accusingly, by way of hello.

Sylvain, who had been looking down at his phone very much as if he hadn’t realized Felix was even there, the asshole, tips his head back, way back, to look up at him.

A slow, easy smile curls his mouth. “Gracious me, really?” He licks a finger and puts it up to test the wind, glancing around. “Why, my heavens, this isn’t Las Vegas! I must’ve taken a wrong turn on the interstate.”

“What are you doing here?” Felix asks Sylvain, who doesn’t go to this school, who’s supposed to be about thirty states away, whom he hasn’t seen in eleven fucking months.

He looks more tan than last time Felix had seen him, eleven months ago, and there’s gold threaded through his russet hair.

According to Ashe, who had heard it from Mercedes, who had heard it from Dimitri, who Felix isn’t speaking to, he’s been skipping all of his classes at UCLA—where he’d mostly only gone to spite his parents in the first place—to go down to Cabo and fly out to Hawaii and get photographed with models on vacation and party away whatever’s left in his bank account.

Felix knows he was cut off. He’d heard that from Sylvain himself, actually. Sylvain had called late at night, very drunk from the sound of it, ten of those eleven months ago, to say Felix’s name in a low, slow voice and tell him he missed him.

Felix hadn’t told him he missed him back. He had barely said anything, because it was four in the morning in Syracuse and Felix’s then-roommate was sound asleep across the room.

They’d stayed on the line for almost ten minutes, breathing quietly, while Felix waited for Sylvain to say something else and Sylvain waited for God knew what, before Felix made himself hang up.

“Annette informed me,” Sylvain says now, “That you needed a date for Christmas.” He pushes his sunglasses up off his face and squints against the pale morning sun behind Felix’s head. His eyes are vaguely bloodshot. Figures.

“I do not need a date for Christmas,” Felix says loudly. His hands ball into fists involuntarily. A girl at the table next to them looks up, startled. “Annette was going to go home with me because she didn’t have anything better to do, and then she found something. It’s not a big deal.” He sniffs. “You’re definitely not coming with me.”

“Aw, after I drove all night to get here?” Sylvain says, looking forlorn the way only he can. He’s got the café chair tipped back so far only two legs remain on the ground. Felix barely resists the temptation to kick the chair out from under him and watch him flail.

“You did not,” Felix says, short. He hates when Sylvain uses his stupid charming act on him. It’s both boring and annoying. “You had to come this way to get back home. Where were you when Annette called?”

“Columbus,” Sylvain admits. “But,” he adds with heavy emphasis, in response to whatever he sees on Felix’s face, “I was hardly going to go home by myself. I just promised Ingrid a ride if she needed it ages ago and she called in the favor. Wouldn’t let me out of it.”

“Ingrid’s flying home,” Felix says, triumphant now. He’d seen her buy the airline ticket, sitting cross-legged on his bed last month. He’d talked to her two days ago and she hadn’t even mentioned Sylvain, which he’d noticed only because it was a blessed change.

“Change of plans,” Sylvain says. He makes a noncommittal gesture with his hand. “Too snowy, flights are all getting cancelled. She’s coming with me. And Annette paid me a thousand dollars to take you too.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Felix says sourly.

Sylvain grins. He folds his arms behind his head. “I’m really not joking. I told you I drove all night, didn’t I? She said you were leaving early. I don’t put in that kind of effort for free.”

“Annette doesn’t have a thousand dollars.” This, Felix is sure of.

“I think she got it from Mercie,” Sylvain says, yawning, and shrugs as if the origin of money he receives couldn’t matter less to him. He lets the chair drop back onto all four legs and runs a hand through his hair, making it even more unruly.

And that, well. That’s not that unlikely. Mercedes’ father had died last summer. She’d never forgiven him for how he’d treated her and her brother, and had spent the entire time since then quietly and calmly spending the fortune he’d left her in ways she’d known he would hate.

“I don’t believe you,” Felix says anyway. “What did she say?”

Sylvain tips his head back again, gazing skyward, and recites, “‘Drive Felix home and I’ll give you one thousand dollars.’”

Felix snorts. “That worked?”

Sylvain shrugs again, languid and easy. One corner of his mouth ticks up. “I could use a thousand dollars. I’m broke, I don’t know if anyone told you.”

It feels like glass splinters are being pressed into Felix’s skin, slow and inexorable. “You told me.”

Sylvain blinks. He looks genuinely bemused. “Did I?”

It just fucking figures, that he wouldn’t even remember the phone call. Felix refuses to let Sylvain see how much that bothers him. He can’t have him thinking it matters either way.

“I’m not driving home with you,” he says instead, abrupt. “You can give Mercedes her money back.”

“Oh? How are you getting home, then?” Sylvain asks, sounding much too amused because he knows Felix doesn’t drive. He’d only ever gotten his license under duress, and even then just barely managed it.

Annette had been planning to drive them both in her ancient rattly Honda, but obviously that’s out now.

“I’ll go with Ingrid,” Felix says automatically, without thinking, and then winces. Sylvain only smiles more broadly at Felix’s obvious mistake. “Like I said, I’m driving Ingrid,” he says smugly, “so if you’re going with her you’re going with me.”

Felix stays stubbornly put where he is as Sylvain unfolds himself from the cafe chair and stands up. He hasn’t gotten any taller since they were both teenagers, but Felix had forgotten just how tall that was. It’s annoying, as always.

“Oh look,” Sylvain says cheerfully. “Speak of the devil.”

Ingrid bustles up to them in a huge red sweatshirt and ancient looking black leggings, hair scraped up into a bun and hockey team bag slung over one shoulder.

“No one talk to me until at least nine a.m., or until we stop for coffee,” she says in a dire tone of voice, before either of them can greet her. “Sylvain, where’s your horrible car?”

He points to the curb, where the flashy silver Jeep he’d gotten for his sixteenth birthday is parked in a loading zone. Felix doesn’t know how she missed it, except now that he looks at her he’s not sure her eyes are even open. Ingrid holds out a hand and Sylvain gives her the keys, wordlessly.

They watch her unlock the car and throw her bag unceremoniously into the backseat before heaving herself up over the wide gulf between the sidewalk and the car and slamming the door behind her.

It’s later than she would normally get up for practice, most days, but Felix guesses she would’ve been up late with Dorothea the night before. They have to spend almost a full month apart for the first time in their semester-long relationship, and neither of them has been handling it that well.

Felix is coming back before New Year’s, but Ingrid’s staying home the whole break. It’s been a point of conflict, lately, that Dorothea can’t come home with her because Ingrid still hasn’t told her dad she has a girlfriend, or even that she likes girls in the first place.

Felix thinks her eyes looked red.

“I guess that’s our cue,” Sylvain says. He looks back at Felix, hands in his pockets. “So, are you going to wait here to see if someone else very handsome shows up and volunteers to drive you across the border, or are you coming with me?”

 

****************************

 

“Turn on the heat, your car is freezing,” Felix grumbles, jabbing at the controls while Sylvain fastens his seatbelt. With Ingrid stretched out in the backseat and therefore unfairly laying claim to the entirety of it, he has no choice but to sit up front with Sylvain.

“The car’s fine, you’re just always cold,” Sylvain says. Even so, he pushes the necessary buttons to make warm air start flowing and angles the vent towards Felix.

“I’m not always cold, I’m cold because it’s cold out,” Felix retorts.

“You’d like LA,” Sylvain says, and then laughs uproariously at the look on Felix’s face. “Okay, maybe not. Too far away for you, anyway.”

Felix bristles. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means California is on the opposite coast,” Sylvain says, in a deliberately patient tone that makes Felix want to dig an elbow into his kidney. “Not everything means something, Felix, I was just saying. You always wanted to be close to home.”

“I did not,” Felix mutters, slouching in the seat. Sylvain makes a humming sound that isn’t an argument but certainly isn’t assent. He puts the car into drive and pulls away from the curb.

Felix hadn’t always wanted to be close to Kingston, it had just worked out that way. Ingrid was coming here, and Dimitri, which had mattered at the time, and Felix had gotten in, so there had been no real reason not to.

Sylvain had gotten in too, of course. He’d gotten in everywhere he applied. He’d just decided not to come with them.

“Ingrid, love of my life, are you asleep?” Sylvain asks, looking in the rearview. “Do you want to stop for doughnuts?”

“Mmm,” Ingrid’s groggy voice comes from the backseat.

“That’s a yes, right?” Sylvain asks Felix, as if suddenly after over fifteen years he needs interpretation.

“It’s a yes,” Felix says, reluctant, because this is already going to be a three hour car trip and he doesn’t want to drag it out any longer. But hopefully if Ingrid gets some food she’ll wake up and occupy Sylvain so that he’ll stop talking to Felix.

Fortunately, and to Felix’s surprise, talking to Felix does not seem high on Sylvain’s list of priorities. He just turns on the radio and hums along to something loud and synth-y, tapping the steering wheel as they move further from campus and out onto the freeway.

There’s already traffic, even this early. Felix guesses that’s what they get for traveling two days before Christmas, but he wasn’t willing to go home any earlier than he had to. He would’ve pushed it even later if Glenn hadn’t whined so much about Christmas Eve that Felix had said yes just to make him stop.

“Are you staying at home?” Felix asks finally, because he can’t stand the quiet. He stretches his legs out, putting one foot up on the dash.

Sylvain glances over pointedly at the foot but doesn’t comment. Instead he makes a loud, derisive sound. “Are you kidding? I think the hounds are on permanent standby. Ingrid said I could crash at hers.”

“Right,” Felix says, feeling stupid. It was a dumb thing to ask. Of course Sylvain wouldn’t be staying at home, not after he was cut off. Not after Miklan.

“I’m surprised you’re staying at all,” he says.

“Only for the night,” Sylvain answers. “I’m out of there as soon as possible, trust me. You crazy kids are on your own for the trip back.” He changes lanes, glancing over one shoulder. “Ingrid said she’s home for the long haul. What about you?”

“I think I’d kill my whole family,” Felix says, grim. That gets a huffed laugh, even though he’s not kidding. “I’ll fly back before New Year’s. Campus is nice when no one’s there. I can hang out with Annette and her mice.”

“Her mice?”

“For her thesis,” Felix says. He watches the freeway signs pass by. “Next exit.”

“Nice,” Sylvain says, whistling a bit as he sees the orange and brown Dunkin Donuts logo. He switches lanes again to take the offramp. “Her thesis is mice?”

“Mmm.” Felix rests his chin on one hand, still looking out the window because he doesn’t want to look at Sylvain. “Animal behavior. They’re her subjects. She wasn’t supposed to name them, but obviously she did. Ashe loves them, but I think it’s mostly just because we can’t have pets.”

“You two still living together?” Sylvain asks, and Felix nods.

“Maybe I’ll stop by and see him on my way back through,” Sylvain says. His tone turns fond. “I miss that kid, it’s been ages.”

He sounds like he means it.

He’d sounded like he meant it when he’d said he missed Felix, too, when he’d said Felix’s name, slow and quiet in the dark. He just hadn’t done anything about it.

“Left here,” Felix says abruptly, and doesn’t say anything else until they pull into the parking lot in front of the Dunkin Donuts and he twists to shake Ingrid awake.

 

****************************

 

Inside, sitting across from Felix in the sticky plastic booth, Ingrid opens her eyes long enough to shovel two sprinkled doughnuts into her mouth and then slumps on Sylvain’s shoulder and lets him play with her hair while she stares morosely down at her phone.

Felix had wanted to get the food to go, but Sylvain had said he would sooner just set the car on fire than let Felix and Ingrid anywhere near it with powdered sugar, which was typically dramatic of him.

“Stop doing that, it’s annoying,” Felix says when Ingrid sighs and turns her phone over again to look hopefully at the screen. “She’s going to call you. She’s on a plane.”

Ingrid nods, but she doesn’t say anything, and Sylvain puts an arm around her. He pulls her into his side and squeezes her shoulder. It makes anger settle hot and glowing in Felix’s chest, watching Sylvain swoop in to act like he’s here to protect her, even though he hasn’t been all this time.

“Glad to see you’re still a ray of sunshine, Felix,” he says in a tone Felix can’t read, pressing a finger into the sugar granules scattered across his tray.

“You’ve been gone for a year, not ten,” Felix says shortly. “How much did you possibly think would change?”

“I don’t know,” Sylvain says, and there it is again, that odd slant to his voice. This time it makes Felix look up at him across the booth. Sylvain’s watching him, brown eyes opaque. “I think a lot has.”

He’s gotten freckles, in the California sun. They were always there, probably. Felix just hadn’t noticed. He looks warmer than ever, in the bleak winter sunlight filtering in through the windows. Like he’s been cut out of a different picture and pasted imperfectly into this one.

Felix is grateful his phone buzzes against his thigh, then, because he has an excuse to drop his gaze.

And then, he has to read the text from his brother three times and it still doesn’t make any sense.

[Glenn A. Fraldarius]: Hey kiddo, can’t believe you didn’t tell me about you and Gautier Jr! You should see dads face

Felix frowns down at his phone.

It’s true he hadn’t thought to tell Glenn that Sylvain was bringing him home now, instead of Annette, but it had hardly seemed relevant. It’s not like Sylvain is staying. And there’s no reason their dad would care who was driving, as long as it isn’t Dimitri, who was diagnosed as legally night-blind when he was eighteen and totaled three cars in under a year.

[Félix]: What?

[Glenn A. Fraldarius]: You’re such a shitty liar! Annie told us anyway so don’t bother

Felix tries working with the information he has. [Félix]: She told you Sylvain was driving us?

[Glenn A. Fraldarius]: Yes because that’s fucking fascinating information Felix I cant think of anything mjore interesting than whos driving a car at any given time

[Glenn A. Fraldarius]: you know the thrill I get from rideshare services

Felix considers snapping his phone in half. [Félix]: Then what the fuck are you talking about?

[Glenn A. Fraldarius]: Oh really this is how you’re playing it

[Glenn A. Fraldarius]: Listen you can play dumb if you want i’m just saying bringing your best friend home for the holidays when he lives down the block and pretending he’s not your boyfriend isn’t a smooth con

The obvious thought Sylvain isn’t my boyfriend is immediately shunted aside by the far more painful, jagged-edged, Sylvain’s not my best friend, and neither of those matters at all in the face of the fact that his brother has obviously lost his mind.

Jesus christ, Felix types, with enough force to risk cracking the screen, WHAT did Annette say?

His phone rings.

She said you were bringing your fucking boyfriend home for Christmas,” Glenn shouts down the line when Felix answers, without saying hello, and then makes a tsking noise. “I can’t believe how rude you’re being, I’m at the grocery store.”

There’s a rustling sound and Glenn’s voice grows more distant. “No sir, please, you go right ahead. Yes, my brother! Felix, Mr. Peterson from eighth grade math says hello.”

Felix grinds his teeth together so hard his molars squeak in protest. “Glenn, I swear to—”

“He says hello,” Glenn says, distant again, in the indulgent, parent-pleasing voice he’s far too good at for someone who is the worst. “He’s bringing a boy home to meet the family. I know. How is Daphne? Still at Centennial?”

“I hate you,” Felix says, and hangs up the phone.

He pulls up his messages, scrolling to the last text Annette had sent him. He reads it again, carefully, to make sure he didn’t miss any helpful explanatory statements such as ‘I’ve told lies to your family’ or ‘I have decided to betray you for fun.’ None are forthcoming.

Ingrid and Sylvain are both staring at him when he looks up. Ingrid finishes chewing the second half of Sylvain’s doughnut and swallows, licking chocolate icing off her fingers. “What happened? Why was Glenn yelling?”

“Nice of you to join the conversation,” he says, and she makes a face at him.

“Annette told my family Sylvain was coming home with me,” Felix says, stabbing at his phone viciously. He presses the call contact button and holds the phone to his ear, listening to it ring. “The things she finds funny.”

“Sylvain is coming home with you,” Ingrid says. She points. “You know this is Sylvain, right?”

As if he could forget. “No, like, with me,” Felix says darkly. “As my, you know,” he gestures vaguely. They both continue to stare blankly at him and he huffs impatiently, cheeks hot, and snaps, “As my boyfriend!”

The ringing cuts off, giving way to Annette’s cheery sing-song voicemail message that does not make Felix feel fond because he hates her.

Sylvain laughs uproariously as Felix smacks his phone back down on the table, even though it isn’t funny. “She did what?”

“So you didn’t know?” Felix asks, suspicious. It would be just exactly like something Sylvain would think was hilarious to go along with at Felix’s expense, but his startled mirth seems genuine.

“Obviously not. God, can you imagine?” Sylvain leans back in the booth, still chuckling. “Your dad would probably lose his shit, I’m pretty sure I’ve been on his bad list ever since he found out I was the one who gave Dima Schnapps at Easter that one time.”

Felix stops typing. You should see dads face, Glenn had said. It makes sense now.

“You think?” he asks slowly.

Sylvain scoffs. “Oh, yeah. I mean, as far as boys not allowed near his precious sons go I’m not my brother—”

Ingrid and Felix both freeze in the second after the word, and then both try to pretend they didn’t. Sylvain gives them a wry, knowing look. “But,” he says generously, freeing them, “I think I would still break the top ten on a good day. Do you not remember how mad at me he was when you broke your arm, Felix?”

Felix doesn’t, really. He was only seven. He remembers Sylvain’s upset much more than he remembers anyone else’s.

“You were nine,” he says, distracted. Would anyone even buy that they were together? Apparently, Glenn already has, and their dad, if Glenn is to be believed. It seems so obviously ridiculous, but maybe everyone he knows is just gullible enough.

Ingrid narrows her eyes at him and, as she does so often, reads his mind. “Felix,” she says, half a warning and half a plea. “It’s Christmas. Whatever you’re thinking, could you not, just this once?”

“No,” Felix says, making his mind up. Annette is a traitor, but she may also be a genius. “Okay. Okay.”

Felix,” Ingrid says.

“May I ask what is happening?” Sylvain asks carefully. He looks from one of them to another.

“Sylvain,” Felix says.

“That’s me,” Sylvain says.

“Shut up. You’re going to pretend to be my boyfriend.”

“Am I?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. “Because, hear me out: why?”

Felix steels himself to the only thing that could possibly make him touch the trust fund he’s been steadfastly ignoring even harder each year since he turned eighteen. “If you do it I’ll give you another thousand dollars,” he says with difficulty, around a sudden onset of lockjaw.

“I’m your boyfriend,” Sylvain says at once. “We’re very in love. Do what you want with me.”

Ingrid slugs him in the arm. “Sylvain!” she says, sounding outraged. Felix isn’t sure on whose behalf.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Sylvain says, and takes her hand tenderly between his. “But darling. I am so poor.”

 

****************************

 

The remainder of the drive from Syracuse to Kingston passes to the soundtrack of Ingrid trying to talk them out of the plan, interrupted only by brief, merciful bouts of silence while she checks the same unchanged flight schedule on Southwest over and over again to see if Dorothea’s plane has landed back in Portland.

They spend more time stopped at the border than they would have had Sylvain not decided to piss off the border agent by flirting with her. Felix had tried to stretch over to kick him for it, possibly to death, but Sylvain shot a hand out lightning-fast and yanked hard on Felix’s seatbelt to lock it, trapping him back against his seat as the agent came back to the car with their passports.

The sun is fully overhead by the time they get to Pittsburgh, out to the easternmost side of Kingston. Their neighborhood is ten minutes past the old military base and a left turn at the snowed-over golf course.

They drop Ingrid off at her house first, and before getting out she leans forward, one elbow resting on each of their seat backs.

“I still don’t think you should do this, but you know it’ll never work if you don’t figure out what you’re going to do, first, right?” she asks them, looking and sounding very weary.

“I think we’re all aware it won’t work regardless,” Sylvain says kindly. He shifts in the driver’s seat, twisting to face them both. “Felix is so bad at lying.”

“Fuck you, I am not!” Felix snaps. “Besides, how hard is it to act like someone’s boyfriend?”

“My cue!” Ingrid says, and leans over to open the door.

Sylvain, though, seems to think Felix was sincerely asking and needs an answer.

“For me? Not hard at all, making people think I’m in love is one of my areas of expertise. But for you?” He pulls a dubious face, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “I’m just saying, it’s not like you’ve, you know. Been someone’s boyfriend.”

“How would you know?” Felix asks, bristling.

Sylvain raises both eyebrows.

Felix hates him, and how sure he is. He hates even more that he’s right.

Felix has had no desire to date anyone, ever, except for the one he doesn’t talk about or acknowledge, but now he wishes he had just so he could wipe that smug, knowing look off Sylvain’s face. So he could punish him for thinking it’s so impossible.

“I’m getting out of the car,” Ingrid calls. “I love you both, unfortunately! You’re the fucking worst! See you on Friday for breakfast!”

The door slams, and they can both hear her boots crunching away through the new snow towards her wreath-laden front door.

There are cheery red and green string lights wound around the stair rails and following the line of the roof down the porch, over to the end of the garage. It makes the house look a lot warmer than Felix knows it is inside.

“We don’t need my family to think we’re getting married, or whatever,” he says, abrupt, after a brief silence where they both watch Ingrid unlock the door and disappear into the house. He tugs at a loose thread on the cuff of his sweater. “Just that we like each other.”

Sylvain makes a choking sound like he’s laughing, but when Felix glares over at him, his face is composed and all he says is, “If this is your impression of someone who likes me, I hate to tell you, but it could use some work.”

Felix, who is feeling increasingly like he doesn’t like Sylvain at all, doesn’t dignify that with a response.

Ingrid’s house is only five blocks over from Felix’s, so far too soon Sylvain is turning the car up the long sloped driveway to the Fraldarius family home.

A reasonable blue sedan is already parked neatly next to the forest-green Subaru up near the top, and Felix’s heart sinks a little bit more.

He’d hoped Glenn might still be out grocery shopping, so that he could take this in stages and avoid having to face everything all at once. As usual, he’s not that lucky.

Sylvain maneuvers the Jeep in behind Felix’s dad’s Subaru and turns off the engine. “All right, then.” He glances over at Felix. “You’re sure about this?”

Felix steels himself. He unbuckles his seatbelt with numb fingers. “I’m sure.”

“Any ground rules I should know about?” Sylvain asks, fiddling with the door handle.

Felix frowns over at him. The heat is already fading now that the car’s off, and he just wants to be inside. “Have you never been in a house before? Take off your shoes. Don’t break anything.”

Sylvain laughs. “I mean in terms of our, ah, arrangement. Anything you’re not comfortable with. Anything I shouldn’t do,” he clarifies, when Felix continues staring at him, uncomprehending.

He’s looking up at the house now, not at Felix, but his mouth ticks up at the edges like he knows he’s being watched. “You know, fake boyfriend-wise.”

“Oh,” Felix says, feeling his cheeks heat up without his consent, because for all that this was his idea, he hadn’t actually thought of Sylvain doing anything at all, fake boyfriend-wise.

Felix can’t very well tell him he isn’t comfortable with anything. That the very thought of Sylvain holding his hand or putting his arm around him or any of the million things Felix saw him do with girls in high school makes panicky static rise up in Felix’s brain. He doesn’t do things like that.

Anything that Felix is comfortable with would be a much, much shorter list. But it’s too late to think about it now, and if it’s for the sake of making his family crazy, he guesses he can deal.

“Just don’t kiss me, or whatever,” he says, trying to sound cutting and mostly just mumbling.

Sylvain laughs for no reason. “That, I can do,” he says, and opens the door. “Come on then, off we go.”

He insists on hoisting Felix’s duffel bag out of the trunk as well as his own and shoos Felix away when he tries to grab it back. “Now, now, what kind of boyfriend would I be if I let you carry your own things?” he asks, slinging it over one shoulder. “As you know, I am a gentleman.”

Felix is already feeling immense regret about this, which only deepens as they climb the porch steps and approach the blue door. Someone has shoveled a pathway up from the cars, all the way down to the asphalt and stone steps, with nice neat edges. Felix would bet money it’s not anyone in his gene pool. He feels the twinge of an old ache in his chest.

He’s reaching out to knock when Sylvain takes hold of his other hand, casually lacing their fingers together. Felix doesn’t jerk away, but a tremor goes through him with the effort not to.

Sylvain must feel it. “Easy, jumpy,” he murmurs, winking. He brushes his thumb over Felix’s knuckles. “Just playing the part.”

Felix only barely restrains himself from saying something rude. As if some hand holding is going to sell them as a couple.

He presses the doorbell. The chime is still sounding when he hears running footsteps, and dread settles solid and leaden in his stomach.

Something makes a thudding impact with the other side of the door, very much as if someone has slid directly into it. Felix has only a second to brace himself before Glenn flings it open, wearing felt antlers, a hideous Christmas sweater, and a very broad grin. “Well,” he says gleefully, looking from Felix to Sylvain, to their joined hands, and back to Felix. “We do have some explaining to do.”

“Shut up,” Felix says.

Glenn seizes him and drags him into a tight hug with his good arm. He kisses him loudly on the top of the head. The movement makes his antlers jingle. “Hey, I missed you, could you not be a brat for five minutes? Hi, Sylvain,” he says over Felix’s shoulder, with heavy, obnoxious emphasis.

“Hiya,” Sylvain says, beaming. “Merry Christmas.”

A black and white blur darts around Glenn’s feet, sensing his distraction. “HOHO, NO,” Glenn shouts, and Sylvain makes a startled sound.

Felix squirms out of Glenn’s hold in time to dive down and scoop up the escaping cat as he races over the threshold. He yowls once, wriggling to get free, and sinks warning claws into Felix’s arm and shoulder, right through his sweater. Felix winces but doesn’t let go of him.

“Dumb cat never recognizes me when I’ve been gone,” he mutters, sliding in past Glenn and jerking his head to motion Sylvain in, since his arms are full of vehemently protesting feline. “Come on, shut the door already before he scratches the shit out of me.”

Sylvain steps in and Glenn shuts the door, and Felix dumps Hoho down without ceremony. He trots away, looking as grievously offended as only a very fluffy cat can, and sits down near the shoe rack at the base of the stairs to lick his paws and glare balefully.

It’s warm inside, and it smells of pine. The cause is immediately evident: a large, bushy fir is set up in the living room, near the fireplace. Glenn had sent Felix a shaky, crooked video of them dragging the tree back to the car from the annual lot last week, Glenn grinning upside down into the camera and their dad’s wry voice in the background asking him to help them tie the tree onto the roof, if he wasn’t too busy.

It would be late in the month for getting a tree by anyone else’s standards, but had been right on schedule for Felix’s family. They’ve never been great at holidays.

“Hello,” Sylvain says, sounding delighted, staring at the cat who’d just tried a jailbreak.

Hoho gives him a considering look, then leaves off washing himself and saunters back over to sniff at his sneakers. “Aren’t you handsome?” Sylvain coos, bending down to extend a hand. Hoho headbutts his hand and audibly starts purring, the fucking traitor.

“Oh, right, you wouldn’t have met him, huh?” Glenn says to Sylvain, grinning and leaning against the doorway which leads through to the kitchen at the base of the stairs. “He’s only two. Dad picked him out from Cornelia’s latest litter because he thought Jeremy needed a friend, but in typical fashion she hates his guts. He loves people, though.”

“Aren’t you allergic to cats?” Felix asks, extremely annoyed for no reason he can name as he watches Sylvain gently scratch a rumbling Hoho behind the ears.

“So allergic,” Sylvain says, continuing to pet the cat with a besotted expression on his face. “So, so allergic.”

A fat calico pads in from the kitchen and makes a beeline for Felix. “Hi, Jeremy,” he murmurs, bending down to pick her up. Unlike Hoho, she goes immediately boneless in his arms and starts purring, rubbing her face against his cheek.

As his father and brother love to tell people at every possible occasion, Felix had named Jeremy when he was six, before it had been explained to him that she was a female cat.

Evidently, this explanation had not been good enough because when they’d tried to get him to name her something else, he had cried (“So much,” Glenn says with great joy whenever anyone asks about the name in Felix’s presence, “You cried so much,”), so his father had taken the path of least resistance, as he usually did, and Jeremy it was.

“Good to see she’s still around,” Sylvain says, straightening up from petting Hoho. He looks fondly at Jeremy, who had once bitten him so hard on the eyebrow he still has a faint scar if you look closely. “Still viciously hating everyone but you?”

Jeremy meows as if in answer, the sound trailing off into a warning note when Sylvain takes a step closer, and Felix feels a little bit smug. “Age has only made her meaner,” he says.

“She tolerates me, but I think it’s only because her sight is going and I look vaguely like Felix,” Glenn says, and then, to Felix, “She hisses at Dad all the time now, very ungrateful, you’d be proud. Oh, there you are,” he adds, in a different tone of voice. “I was wondering if you got lost on the way from the kitchen.”

“Hi Sylvain,” Dimitri says, from behind him. “Hello, Felix.”

Just hearing his voice—the pity in it, the way he’s deliberately coached it to be quiet and nonthreatening, just like you’d speak to a wounded animal—makes Felix’s cheeks burn and his stomach turn over.

He turns around with Jeremy still in his arms. She’s perfect protection against a hug, or any other type of physical contact that may be offered. “Hi,” he says stiffly.

Small mercies, Dimitri seems to know better, for once—he doesn’t even make an aborted gesture in the direction of trying to touch Felix. He just smiles, uncertain and too soft, and keeps his hands at his sides.

He’s wearing antlers too. They’re wired to light up alternately red and green. Felix bets it’s just because Glenn asked him to, and Dimitri doesn’t know how to say no. He looks like an idiot.

He’d been in the Christmas tree video too, of course. Just for about a half a second, a flash of blond under a knit cap and a hesitant smile before the camera spun away again. It had still been enough to make Felix feel like he’d been punched square in the gut, hundreds of miles away in his bed in Syracuse.

It’s horribly awkward for the space of about two seconds, and then Felix looks down at his feet and Dimitri turns to say hello to Sylvain, who hugs him right away, saying cheerfully how he hadn’t known he would get to see him over the holiday, too, and what a nice surprise it is.

Felix hadn’t thought that having Sylvain come with him might be helpful in more ways than one.

Of course, he also hadn’t considered that Sylvain, who doesn’t talk to anyone from back home anymore, would obviously need an explanation for something the entire former-and-current Pittsburgh township already knows.

He can feel Sylvain’s gaze boring into him over Dimitri’s shoulder, but fortunately his father, showing a wholly uncharacteristic display of not-abysmal timing, chooses that moment to appear in the kitchen doorway in an apron. He smiles at the sight of them. “Felix,” he says. “Welcome home. We missed you.”

“Yeah, ok,” Felix mutters. He sets a now-rhythmically purring Jeremy down and submits to a brief one-armed hug. He eyes the apron suspiciously. “You’re not trying to cook, are you?”

“He was just putting the frozen pizza in the oven,” Glenn says, jingling. “With supervision.”

Their dad ignores both his sons and asks Felix, “You all right?” quietly, squeezing his shoulder. Felix just nods without saying anything and stays stiff-limbed until his dad lets go.

“Hello, Sylvain,” his dad says, in a tone that is not unhappy but could also not fairly be called overjoyed. Still, he doesn’t hesitate before holding a hand out for Sylvain to shake. “We’re glad to have you. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

He would know exactly when the last time they saw Sylvain was, at Miklan’s funeral last January. He’s just being polite by pretending. As if Sylvain might have forgotten, somehow.

“Hi,” Sylvain says, smiling big again. It’s harder to pinpoint as disingenuine than usual. He accepts the hand. “It has. Thank you for having me, sir.”

“I’m going to go put my stuff upstairs,” Felix announces, because Glenn is watching him like he’s going to make a horrible inappropriate comment any minute and Dimitri is watching him like he’s afraid Felix might fall apart, and he doesn’t know which is worse but he does know he needs to get away from both of them, immediately.

He pries off his snowy boots and then wiggles his fingers at Sylvain so he’ll give him his bag back. Sylvain ceremoniously shrugs it off and drapes the strap over Felix’s neck as if he’s bestowing a medal. Felix rolls his eyes at him and slings the bag off and over his shoulder instead, stomping upstairs.

“Does anyone have a Benadryl?” he hears Sylvain ask politely.

Felix’s room is the first one at the top of the stairs. It hasn’t changed much since he was seventeen and last living here; the sticky glow-in-the-dark stars he and Ingrid had put up are still on the ceiling, and his dad had never bothered to spackle over the pushpin holes from the posters that are now rolled away in the closet.

There’s a healthy coating of dust on the bureau and bookshelves. The drawers are still full of socks and folded clothes Felix hasn’t worn for years.

His dad periodically emails him to ask if he can take things to the thrift store and Felix usually says yes, because he’s not particularly nostalgic, but there’s not as much of a visible difference as he’d expect. If it wasn’t so neat, you might think he still lived here.

Standing in the middle of the room, his neck prickles with the feeling of being watched.

“Are you going to say anything?” he says, throwing his duffel bag onto the bed. His chest tightens. “Or are you just going to stand there staring at me like a serial killer?”

“I’m sorry,” Dimitri says from the doorway. He sounds like he means it, which is so like him. The next thing he asks is, “How are you?” which is also just so like him.

“I’m fine,” Felix says. He turns around, and regrets it. Stupid antlers or not, Dimitri’s blue sweater matches his eyes. And unlike Sylvain, Felix never forgets how tall he is.

“The drive was good?”

Dimitri doesn’t seem to know where to put his hands. He puts them into his jeans pockets, then immediately changes his mind and clasps them behind his back instead.

“It was terrible,” Felix says flatly. He folds his arms over his chest. “Sylvain and Ingrid wouldn’t shut up the entire time. Did you need something?”

“I just wanted to see how you are,” Dimitri says. “I was worried.” He chews on his lower lip. “You never answered my calls.”

“Okay,” Felix says, because that’s rich, Dimitri being worried about Felix, as if Felix is the one who exhibited worrying behavior for the better part of a year and didn’t let anyone help him. As if Felix is the one who isn’t fine.

He won’t be for long, though. The longer Dimitri stands in front of him, the longer he makes Felix participate in this horrible, unnecessary conversation, the more Felix feels like steel bent past its snapping point.

“Please, Felix,” Dimitri says. He looks so upset, suddenly, like he actually cares that Felix didn’t answer his stupid messages because he couldn’t stand to. “I’m trying. I don’t know—I don’t know what happened.”

I don’t care if you don’t know. I don’t care if you’re trying, Felix almost tells him. It’s not true. It’s just that it’s not enough.

He’s saved from having to say or be asked anything else by footsteps on the stairs, and Sylvain calling, “Felix?”

He ducks his head into the room a moment later. “Found you,” he says, and beams like he’d missed Felix even though it’s been less than five minutes. Felix has to admit, if nothing else, he commits to a role.

“Great news, your dad had allergy meds, I can almost say my ‘n’s again and everything, see?”

“What a relief,” Felix says, sarcastic. It’s not entirely untrue, though. He wonders at Sylvain’s timing.

“Alright?” Sylvain asks, looking between the two of them with unconvincing nonchalance and his most clueless smile. Now Felix is sure he’d interrupted on purpose.

Dimitri excuses himself, leaving Felix where he’s standing and Sylvain in the doorway. Felix feels the iron grip on his throat loosen. He can breathe again.

The air in the room is still and heavy.

“So,” Sylvain says, in a very different, knowing tone of voice, and Felix turns around and closes his eyes where Sylvain can’t see. “So?” he repeats roughly. He pushes his bag aside so he can sit down on the bed, avoiding Sylvain’s gaze.

“So, you definitely didn’t tell me the whole story of what I was walking into here.” Sylvain folds his arms over his chest. Felix can see the motion of it in his periphery. “Dimitri and your brother?”

He sounds curious, but not shocked.

It’s not shocking. No one had thought it was but Felix.

“Dimitri took a semester off last year,” Felix says, staring determinedly at a spot on the rug. “He stayed here, and Glenn was here, obviously, and.” His throat closes up a little talking about it, even after months and months. “You know. They helped each other through stuff. They got closer.”

“Makes sense,” Sylvain says, mild. “And you and Dima?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Okay,” Sylvain says, easy, and pushes off from the doorway, coming into the room.

It’s weird having him in this space, now, even though he’s been in it so many times before, years ago. Whining about the homework he wasn’t going to do anyway while stretched out on the floor. Lying on Felix’s bed going on about girls until Felix threw things at him. Sitting between Felix and Ingrid to keep them from slapping each other when they had a disagreement.

Felix chances a look at him. He’s making a show of examining the old calendar on the wall, the one still pinned up to the generic floral field marked JUNE 2017. Their high school graduation date is circled in faded yellow highlighter.

“Ingrid told me you were having a rough time, last summer,” Sylvain says now.

“Ingrid should shut up about other people’s business,” Felix says, knife-sharp. He doesn’t like that they were discussing him. Especially not if it was to pity him.

Last summer wasn’t a rough time. That summer—the whole last year in fact—was one of the worst of Felix’s life.

Not the worst, that was in a class of its own: the year of the car accident where Glenn was badly hurt and Dimitri’s family died. It was five years ago now, when Dimitri, Ingrid and Felix were fourteen, Sylvain was fifteen, and Glenn was sixteen.

Dimitri’s parents had been driving them both home from practice in October. It was unseasonably snowy that year, and the car had slid on a turn: into a guardrail and then off the bridge, into the frozen river below.

Glenn’s shoulder had been dislocated by the impact, and further so by the strain he’d put on it getting free, but he’d still managed to get an unconscious Dimitri out of the backseat and up onto the frozen bank.

The EMTs told Rodrigue and Felix at the hospital that they’d arrived when he was trying to get back into the sunken car to get to the Blaiddyds. It had taken two grown adults to haul him out of the water, he was fighting so hard.

Glenn’s right arm had significant nerve damage, and even after undergoing a lot of physical therapy for the rest of high school, he hadn’t regained the full use of it.

Dimitri had been physically unhurt, but mentally was a different matter.

Everyone kept saying how well he was bearing it: he hadn’t cried at the funeral, and he’d insisted on going back to school only a week later and carrying on with the year as normal, keeping up his grades and staying a star player on more than one sports team. He’d more or less acted like it was all fine for the remainder of that year, and the next three.

Felix hadn’t believed it for a second, any of it, but he couldn’t seem to make anyone else—including Dimitri—see that it was a lie.

It took until midway through the first semester of college, when something happened, or something finally sunk in, and without warning Dimitri had stopped going to class, or eating, or doing much of anything. Felix and Ingrid could barely make him come out of his dorm room.

He was failing all his classes and he was in danger of losing his athletic scholarship, which Felix knew only because he and Ingrid had gone through the unopened mail piling up in his dorm mailbox, and finally Felix had called his brother out of desperation because he didn’t know what to do and Glenn always did.

“Let me talk to him,” Glenn had said, sounding instantly wide awake even though it was past midnight in New York and just as late in Kingston, and Felix had carried the phone three buildings over from his dorm to Dimitri’s and hammered on Dimitri’s door relentlessly until it finally swung open.

He’d passed his phone over into the dark room and then he and Ingrid had gone out to the couch in the suite’s common room and fallen asleep there, leaning on each other, instead of walking back to their own dorms.

He still doesn’t know what Glenn had said, but it had worked.

Dimitri went home over Christmas break and stayed at Felix’s house. He’d spent most of it bundled into various blankets and staring at the fire, or staring at one of the cats, and wordlessly accepting things he was handed.

He stayed there into the start of spring semester, too, had come out to say a hesitant goodbye when Ingrid and Felix were packing up his dad’s Subaru to drive back and told them haltingly that he hoped he would be re-enrolled before the end of the school year.

But he’d still been there in the summer, when Felix came home—without Ingrid, this time, because she was doing extra summer classes like the overachiever she was. He’d been there for midsummer, when the Gautiers-minus-Sylvain had thrown their annual lavish block party and Felix had gotten wasted off fancy hard cider and champagne.

He’d been there when Felix had sat next to him at the outdoor fire pit sometime after dark and before morning and drunkenly, stupidly told him that he’d loved him since he was thirteen.

Felix, horribly hungover, woke up on the Gautiers’ living room couch at seven the next morning with a pounding headache, someone’s jacket draped over him, and Ashe asleep propped up against the ottoman nearby.

Felix shook him awake and demanded that he drive them back to school before anyone else got up. Ashe was a good friend, and he had done it without question, even though it meant cutting his own break short.

Dimitri had called around nine a.m., and then again at ten, and then again sometime that evening, once Felix was back in the dorms unpacking his bags. Felix had ignored every call. It hadn’t taken long before Dimitri had stopped trying.

He’d heard from Glenn a month later over the phone that he and Dimitri had started seeing each other. It was the second week of second year’s first semester, right after dinner, and Felix had congratulated him and asked him sarcastically if he didn’t know how to send that information in a text message.

Then he’d excused himself from the dining hall and gone upstairs to his dormitory suite to lock himself in the communal bathroom and throw up everything in his stomach.

“Does Glenn know how you feel?” Sylvain asks now.

Not for the first time, Felix hates him for seeing everything so easily. It occurs to him to deny it, on impulse, out of self-preservation, but there’s not much point. Not with Sylvain.

“Felt,” he says, and the word feels jagged, painful. Too much of an admission even in the past tense. “And no, he doesn’t, because it’s not his problem. Don’t you dare say a word to him, I mean it.”

Sylvain must hear the panicked edge to his voice because he holds up a hand. “He won’t hear it from me, I promise.” There’s a pause, and then, “So you knew he would be here. That they both would?”

Felix bristles, ready for pity, but it doesn’t come. “Oh, Felix,” Sylvain says quietly instead. “You could have told me.”

“Since when do we talk anymore?”

Sylvain laughs. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck, making a half-turn from the calendar so he’s facing Felix. “You don’t talk to me,” he points out. Not angry, just like it’s fact. Felix supposes it is.

“And you’ve tried so hard to change that.” The accusation comes out sharper than he means it to. Felix hadn’t realized he still cared so much what Sylvain did or didn’t do, especially when all he was doing was what Felix had asked.

Sylvain leaves the calendar and comes to sit down next to him. His weight dips the old twin bed inward. Felix feels himself leaning in towards him and digs his fingers into the quilt to stay where he is.

“I assumed from carefully derived context you didn’t want to hear from me, after the funeral,” Sylvain says. “I did try, though. I called you.”

Felix looks at him, sharp. “You remember that?”

Sylvain quirks an eyebrow. “The funeral, or the call?”

Felix huffs impatiently. “The call.”

“Of course I do,” Sylvain says. His gaze is steady. His hand is resting on the bed next to Felix’s, so close Felix thinks he can feel the warmth of it against his fingertips. He twitches his own away.

“You pretended you didn’t, earlier,” Felix says. “Why?”

Sylvain shrugs. “I didn’t think you’d care.”

“I don’t,” Felix says at once, and regrets it because Sylvain smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners. He’s backlit, again, and his eyelashes are tinged golden. “Sorry about that, anyway,” he says. “I normally listen when people tell me they never want to talk to me again, but I’d had a lot to drink.”

Felix doesn’t quite know what to say to that. They haven’t talked about this, not once since it happened. But to his relief—is it relief?—Sylvain doesn’t seem to need a response. He looks around, humming, and changes the subject. “Your room looks the same.”

“Obviously,” Felix says. Even on safer ground he feels like the room is tipping. Like gravity’s changed, and no matter what he does he can’t stop from being pulled further in towards Sylvain.

His dad appears in the doorway. The room rights itself around him.

“Sylvain, you can feel free to leave your things in here,” he says. “Pizza will be ready soon, make yourself at home in the meantime. I’ll make up the couch for you after dinner.”

Dad,” Glenn says loudly, squashing himself into the door frame like a horrible apparition who won’t be banished, “Felix is nearly twenty years old. Are you seriously not going to let his boyfriend stay in his room with him? Is this a monastery? Are we in the year 1500?”

“It’s fine,” Felix says quickly, but Glenn talks over him, brandishing an accusing finger. “Don’t be such a pushover, Felix, we are all grown adults.”

“Yes, and I just want to make sure all of you grown adults are comfortable,” their dad says, in the patient, do-not-test-me tone he reserves for his older son. “Felix has a twin bed. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not sure Sylvain will fit in it.”

Glenn looks at Sylvain. Against his will, Felix does too. It’s obvious to both of them their dad has a point.

“Air mattress,” Glenn says decisively, and jingles off before Felix can get a single word of protest in.

“Sorry, boys,” their dad says to Felix and Sylvain. “We’ll work it out. I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready.” He raps knuckles idly against the doorframe. “Sylvain, try and talk him into staying for New Year’s, will you?”

“Do I have to sleep on the ground?” Sylvain asks Felix as soon as the doorway is empty and footsteps have receded down the stairs. He sounds mournful. “You’re going to make me sleep on the ground, aren’t you.”

“Ugh, you’re so dramatic,” Felix says, and goes to help Glenn find the air mattress.

 

****************************

 

“Wake up,” someone stage-whispers directly into Felix’s ear the next morning, if it can be called morning, which, upon snapping his eyes open to a dark room, it can not.

He flails an arm and slaps something warm and soft, and his brother’s voice says, “Ow, son of a bitch,” and Felix jerks up with much undignified squeaking of the air mattress and tries to slap him again.

“What are you doing?” he demands, bleary-eyed and feeling murderous. He fumbles for his phone to check the time. It’s not even seven.

Glenn leans back on his haunches, rubbing one cheek and looking baleful. Their dad is in the doorway behind him, faintly lit by the hall light. They’re both fully dressed in scarves and parkas. There’s barely any light coming in through the curtained window. “It’s time for our morning run!” Glenn whispers. His expression turns put-upon. “Did you forget?”

Felix had forgotten, and more importantly Felix also hadn’t said he would go on their stupid daily run with them, but he can tell that arguing is going to be more exhausting than going so he just hisses, “Get out of my room. I’ll be downstairs in five,” and tries to kick Glenn as he skips out.

“Oh, my god,” Sylvain says into his pillow on Felix’s other side. “This is why you’re like this.”

He’d slept without a shirt, mostly because Felix couldn’t think of a compelling reason to stop him. There are freckles all over his back, visible even in the dim light. They move with his shoulder blades, shifting over the smooth tanned skin as he pushes himself up onto his elbows, blinking around at Felix.

Probably because he’s just been woken up by a lunatic, Felix doesn’t register what he’d said for a minute. “What?” he asks, staring. Sylvain’s bedhead is horrible, an orange wreck.

“Nothing,” Sylvain says, burying his face back in the pillow. Muffled, but still audible, come the weary words, “So much makes sense.”

“Stop whining and go back to sleep,” Felix says, throwing the covers off. It’s freezing in the room, and Sylvain makes a mournful sound and scrabbles to pull the comforter back around himself.

Felix hadn’t made him sleep on the floor, mainly because despite growing up here Sylvain had barely brought anything warmer than a cotton hoodie and the house doesn’t have central heating, and Felix was concerned about him literally dying.

He shouldn’t have worried; Sylvain seems to retain heat. It’s like sleeping next to a furnace. Felix had spent the night as close to the edge of the mattress as he could get without falling off.

“Am I not invited on the run?” Sylvain asks, propping his head up on one bent elbow to watch Felix wriggle into a second pair of long underwear and pull on his woolly socks.

“Come if you want, I don’t care,” Felix says over one shoulder. “God, no, I’d rather die,” Sylvain says, and drags the remaining covers entirely off of Felix to bundle himself in them, like an asshole. He yawns, eyes already shut again and hair feathered out against the guest pillow. “Have fun.”

Felix has the strangest urge to lie back down with him, because of how warm he is and how cold it is outside the covers. He doesn’t surrender to the impulse, though, only rolls his eyes, pushes to his feet, and stomps downstairs to his waiting family.

When they get back an hour later, Dimitri is down in the living room in jeans and a sweater, sitting on the floor by the sofa painstakingly wrapping presents in cheap red Santa paper. A lot of it is discarded on either side of him, crumpled. Hoho is lying on the rug next to him, gleefully chewing on the end of a spool of silver ribbon.

It’s early, but early by anyone else’s reckoning generally means sleeping in for Dimitri.

“You survived,” he says, smiling softly at the sight of them. He turns his face up automatically so Glenn can press a kiss to his cheek on his way past.

“Despite Felix’s best efforts,” Glenn says. He drops onto the sofa, massaging his right elbow with a grimace. It always acts up worse when it’s really cold out. He notices Felix watching, and his expression shifts into an easy grin.

Felix looks away. “Where’s Sylvain?”

“In the shower, I think,” Dimitri says, head bent over his lumpy package in concentration.

Now that he listens for it, Felix can hear the water running in the upstairs bathroom. Unlike Dimitri, it’s definitely early for Sylvain to be up; maybe he hadn’t been able to go back to sleep after they’d left.

“Oh, you’re so bad at this,” Glenn says fondly, peering over Dimitri’s shoulder. He waggles his fingers. “Here, love, give it to me, I’ll fix it.”

Felix mutters an excuse and bolts for the stairs.

He’s halfway up when he hears the water shut off, hears Sylvain humming through the closed bathroom door across the hall from his bedroom.

The air mattress is taking up most of the floor space in his room, so he has to edge around it to get to the bed, where he tosses his parka without looking. His heart is pounding in his ears.

It’s not that he wants...anything, with Dimitri, anymore, not really. Not like that. He’d burned that bridge pretty well, on both sides, just to be really thorough about it.

But seeing the easy way Dimitri interacts with Glenn, unthinking—the way he used to be with Felix before the accident; the way they haven’t been ever since—makes Felix’s chest constrict uncomfortably. It hurts. He doesn’t want to be around it.

It’s so warm indoors, compared to the below-freezing temperature outside, and suddenly he feels like he’s suffocating. He pulls his sweater off over his head, too viciously, and gets tangled up in it. He forgot to take off his scarf first and now they’re bundled up together. A sound of annoyance pulls its way free of his throat as he tries to extricate himself from the mess.

He hears footsteps on the hardwood, close, and a huffed laugh, closer, and then with no warning there’s a second pair of hands warm at his waist, then his arms, helping to tug the sweater patiently off over his head. In a matter of seconds, he’s free.

He’s free, and Sylvain is standing directly in front of him, holding his sweater in both hands and looking amused. “Close call,” he says. “Almost lost you in there.”

“I didn’t hear you come out of the shower,” Felix says stupidly to Sylvain, who is obviously out of the shower.

All of him is out, arms and torso and damp tousled hair, Felix’s brain registers slowly and in order, because the only thing he’s wearing is a towel knotted low on his hips.

There are just as many freckles on the front of him as on the back, Felix learns under duress; scattered across his chest and dipping down over the curves of his hipbones to vanish among the faint trail of copper hairs disappearing beneath the rolled edge of the towel.

He realizes he’s staring for no reason. He snaps his gaze back up, immediately, to Sylvain’s face, blinking at him in the sudden brightness after the confines of the sweater.

Sylvain smiles at him, looking—fond?—and reaches out to smooth down Felix’s hair, staticky from the wool. It’s a gesture he’s probably made before, with any number of people; he probably doesn’t even think about it.

But it’s new to Felix: the sensation of Sylvain’s palm curving down around the back of his head to his neck, his knuckles grazing the shell of Felix’s ear before he pulls his hand back. He does it familiarly, casually. It doesn’t feel casual.

“There you go,” Sylvain says, and Felix tries to say something but it gets caught on his tongue, tangled up like the scarf.

“Felix, come help me,” Glenn shouts up from downstairs, and the moment—whatever it is —breaks.

“No,” Felix yells back automatically. Sylvain starts laughing, shoulders shaking. Felix wants to know how hard it is to put on a shirt and not lounge around other people’s homes barely dressed, actually.

Glenn sounds indignant when he shouts back, voice closer, “You don’t even know with what!”

“I don’t care, it’s still a no!”

Sylvain turns away, setting Felix’s discarded scarf and sweater onto the bed and going over to rummage through his own luggage, still chuckling.

The window to thank him for helping with the sweater without it being awkward slams shut, and Felix is left standing there, feeling more confused than he can remember being in a long time.

 

****************************

 

Ingrid flings her arms around both of them on the icy sidewalk outside their favorite neighborhood cafe the next morning, before they can even get inside. The embrace is forceful enough to knock them both back a step.

“Things going that well, huh?” Sylvain asks, sympathetic, as he pats her on the back.

“They’re going to give our table away,” Felix says, doing his best to extricate himself from her grip.

It’s snowing out, softly, not sticking on the roads yet but getting there. Flakes are melting in both his friends’ hair, auburn and blonde, by the time they get inside. It’s starred in Ingrid’s eyelashes like she’s made of frost. She looks beautiful and exhausted. There are dark circles like bruises under her eyes.

“I didn’t tell my dad,” she says, sounding miserable. She stuffs her hands in the pockets of her puffy coat while the waitress goes to check on their table. “I almost did it like three times, but I chickened out.”

She’d messaged them both yesterday, using the group chat that had gone untouched for almost a year, to tell them she was trying to get up the nerve to talk to her dad about Dorothea. Evidently, the endeavor hadn’t been successful.

Felix doesn’t know what to tell her.

Having any kind of talk about sexuality with his own dad hadn’t proved all that necessary after Glenn kicked off his senior year of high school by openly dating both boys and girls. Felix had never even bothered to bring his own stuff up with him; he thinks his dad had probably figured it out anyway. Or if not, he had now.

Ingrid’s dad is different. They all know it. There’s not going to be a good or easy way of telling him. He thinks Ingrid knows that too.

“You still have plenty of time,” Sylvain tells her, soothingly. He rubs small circles on her lower back and she leans into him. The waitress comes back and leads them to their booth, and Felix and Ingrid slide into opposite sides out of habit.

Sylvain takes the spot next to Felix. Felix can’t tell if he’s sitting too close or if it just feels like he is.

“Do you want me to be there?” Sylvain asks Ingrid, sliding menus to the two of them. It’s not really necessary; they used to come here almost every weekend during high school, and they all know the huge stacks of pancakes and plate-sized omelette options by heart.

Felix takes the menu and opens it anyway.

“Since when has your presence ever helped anything?” he mutters. Sylvain props one elbow on his shoulder obnoxiously, under the pretense of reading his menu, and Felix grimaces and shrugs him off.

“Things going that well, huh?” Ingrid says, deadpan.

After breakfast they linger at the table, and then again outside in the parking lot, in the falling snow between their cars. Ingrid has to get home to help cook for Christmas Eve, which she tells them in the tones of someone facing an execution.

“You can ditch and come to my place,” Felix says, pulling his gloves on. “God knows we’re not cooking.”

It’s a sincere offer; his brother and dad love Ingrid and always have, ever since the catastrophic two weeks she and Glenn tried going out back in high school before mutually calling it on account of unmitigated disaster.

She shakes her head. She’s biting her lip, hands in her pockets. “I don’t think I can tell him,” she says, and from the way she says it it’s clear she doesn’t mean just tonight, at Christmas Eve dinner.

“You shouldn’t if you don’t want to,” Felix says, unable to keep a lid on his frustration. “It’s not his business. You only come home like, two times a year anyway, and the rest of the time it won’t matter.”

It’s not that he doesn’t think it’s important. He just wants her to stop looking so miserable. He hates that she is, and hates that he can’t change it.

“Felix,” Sylvain says, in that quelling way that people say Felix’s name so often. Felix ignores him, eyes on Ingrid.

“I don’t want to do it for me,” Ingrid says. Then she sighs, tugging on the end of her braid. “Well, I do, but I could deal with it. It’s for Dorothea. She’s been really understanding, but I can tell it hurts her feelings, having to pretend to be just my friend. Not getting to do stuff like this together, important stuff. And we were thinking about moving in together this summer—”

“Well, that’s too soon,” Felix says at once, alarmed, and Sylvain says, again, audibly exasperated, “Felix.”

But Ingrid’s laughing now, shaky but genuine, and she comes forward and hugs Felix tightly, of all things. “Thanks for being you,” she tells him, making an alarming sniffling sound. She rests her chin on his shoulder. They’re almost exactly the same height, which she hasn’t let Felix live down once since they were twelve. “You suck, you know that?”

“So people tell me,” he mutters. He hugs her back, because he can’t not hug Ingrid back. And he doesn’t pull away for a while, because she seems to need it.

“Are you still leaving the day after tomorrow?” she asks, wiping her eyes on her mitten after she lets go of him. He realizes she’s asking both of them, because obviously Sylvain has to stay as long as he does.

“Yeah,” Felix says. He probably won’t be able to get them out of breakfast on Boxing Day, but the second that’s done they’re on the road, and he’s free of his family for another six months at least, depending on summer classes.

“No chance you’ll stay for New Year’s?” Ingrid asks, sounding a little wistful.

“Did my dad put you up to this?” Felix asks suspiciously. But she looks so sad, and so tired, he finds himself saying, like an idiot, “I guess we can. If, you know. If you want.”

“Really?” she asks, tone so hopeful, and he’s horrified to see that her eyes are filling with tears. The screaming his brain’s doing telling him to take it back fades into dull noise.

“It’s not a big deal, or whatever,” he mutters, uncomfortable. “It’s like, two more days.”

“Seven,” Sylvain mouths helpfully. He holds up fingers. Felix regrets his entire life.

“So I guess we’re staying for New Year’s,” Sylvain says, once Ingrid has hugged them both stranglingly tight again and waved goodbye, trudging back to her dad’s old Hyundai. Her shoulders are hunched in her big puffy coat.

“Unless you have to go,” Felix says, looking uncertainly back at him. He realizes belatedly that he should have asked. “I’m sure you’ve got things you need to uh, get back to. In California.”

“Nothing in particular,” Sylvain says with an easy shrug.

Felix doesn’t know how that can be true—Sylvain’s life has always been so full of people, and things, and more people—but he guesses Sylvain’s an adult and if he says he can stay, he can stay. It’s not Felix’s business.

“I have to get gas,” Sylvain says, once they’re in the car, frowning at the gauge. “I can drop you at home first, it’s not much out of the way.”

Felix shrugs, buckling his seatbelt. “I’ll go with you, I don’t care.”

“Really?” Sylvain asks, and Felix looks over at him, uncomprehending. “Yeah? Why?”

“I just assumed you’d jump at the chance to get away from me for a while, that’s all,” Sylvain says. He’s trying to hide a too-pleased smile, and doing it poorly.

He’s also made a very good point, which Felix doesn’t know why he didn’t think of, and now he’s annoyed that he didn’t. “Fine, you can drop me off.”

“Too late,” Sylvain says, pulling out of the parking lot. “I’ve put the child locks on. Here we go.”

Felix just slumps in his seat and rolls his eyes at him.

He goes inside at the gas station to poke at the selection of candy bars and unnaturally preserved pastries while Sylvain fills the car up outside.

“I’m going to ask for directions,” he hears someone say down the aisle. They’re shushed by somebody else almost at once. The second person says, severely, “If GPS won’t give us accurate directions, I hardly see how any of these people are going to.”

“Excuse me!” the first voice says, more loudly, and Felix looks up from his phone to see a man in a plaid overcoat waving at him enthusiastically. His hair’s orange, but lighter than Sylvain’s. He’s talking to Felix, evidently, because there’s no one else around, and he’s looking right at him with big, earnest eyes.

Felix blinks at him. “Me?”

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” the man says, evidently taking this as permission enough to carry on, “but do you know how far we are from Montreal?”

He wrings his gloved hands, and looks around the small store as if it’s a treacherous swamp. “We’re trying to visit a friend. We’re not from around here, as you may have guessed, and we’ve had a good deal of trouble with the roads, and I’m afraid we’ve gotten terribly lost.”

“We are not lost,” the dark-haired man with him says, tonelessly. Not quite to Felix as much as in his general direction.

“GPS is acting up now that we’re out of the country and of course, the car phone charger isn’t working, even though I purchased it only yesterday, and now we cannot even find a map, would you believe it!” the orange-haired man says to Felix, ignoring his companion entirely.

“You’re trying to get to Montreal?” Felix asks, separating out the gist of what he’s saying from all the rest of it with difficulty, and the man nods vigorously. Felix points out the window. “Three hours that way.”

The look on the man’s face turns mournful. The man with him, who looks like a vampire, turns even more sinister, as if it’s Felix’s fault they don’t know where Montreal is.

“Three hours?” demands a third person, appearing terrifyingly from behind a chip rack. Her snow-white hair is escaping from under an aggressively furry hat. Her tone also suggests Felix is to blame for this, and so he’s very relieved when Sylvain chooses that moment to join him, nudging Felix’s shoulder with his own and sliding an arm around his waist.

“Alright?” Sylvain asks, eyeing the other three. “Making friends?”

Felix doesn’t know what Sylvain is asking. Why is Sylvain touching him? “They’re lost,” he says, remembering. He tears his eyes away from the strange, paralyzing sight of Sylvain’s fingers curled around his hip.

“Sorry to hear it,” Sylvain says, looking at the others with some interest. Felix wouldn’t be surprised if he’s sizing up which of the three he’ll be most successful at hitting on, and the relief changes again, turns sour. “Can we help?”

The white-haired woman looks vaguely disgusted at the suggestion. “Thank you,” she says stiffly, “I’m sure we’ll figure it out.” She tugs on the coat sleeve of the redhead, but he dawdles. The tall, vampiric man, on the other hand, sweeps after her without needing a summons.

“Take the 401 East,” Sylvain whispers to the redhead, winking. “Straight shot.”

“Thank you!” the redhead says fervently as he’s dragged out by the wrist, with as much feeling as if Sylvain has offered to help birth his firstborn child. Felix thinks his hair is too long, and why is he smiling at Sylvain, anyway? Why is Sylvain smiling at him? Surely that’s not his type.

“I can’t leave you alone for a second, can I?” Sylvain asks, sighing. Felix was thinking the same thing, only opposite.

Something occurs to Felix as Sylvain looks down at him. “You don’t have to do that,” he says. Sylvain gives him a questioning look, the smile on his face fading. His fingertips are grazing the skin of Felix’s hip, underneath his jacket, warm in the incidental gap between the waist of his jeans and the hem of his shirt.

“Pretend to be my boyfriend,” Felix elaborates. He edges away, all the way to the point where Sylvain will have to either move to follow him or stop touching him. “Right now, I mean. There’s no one we know around.”

“Sorry about that,” Sylvain says easily, laughing. “Habit.” He withdraws his arm, letting Felix go free. “You want anything?”

Felix shakes his head. He only feels more unsettled and doesn’t know why, when Sylvain had only done what he’d wanted.

“Two days and it’s a habit?” he can’t help but ask Sylvain’s back as he pays for a pack of gum, and Sylvain says, solemnly, glancing back over one shoulder, “I have a very addictive personality.”

“You have a terrible personality,” Felix says. He folds his arms. “Can we go?”

“Whatever you want,” Sylvain says, popping a stick of gum into his mouth. He holds the door open for Felix on their way out.

There’s something Felix wants to say to him. It takes him until they’ve pulled back into the driveway to his house and Sylvain is turning the car off for him to realize it.

“Are you okay?” Sylvain asks. Felix startles. He’d been staring out at the snowy back of his dad’s car without really seeing it, so hard his vision had gone a little blurred.

“What?” he asks, snapping out of it and staring around at Sylvain. “No. I mean, I’m fine.”

“Okay,” Sylvain says, the way he keeps doing, like whatever rude shit Felix says to him really is okay. It makes something uncomfortably adjacent to guilt settle in the pit of Felix’s stomach. “So then should we—?”

“Thank you,” Felix interrupts.

The words stick in his throat on their way out. When Sylvain looks over at him, eyebrows raised, he feels his cheeks warm and he looks determinedly at the steering wheel, not at Sylvain’s face. Sylvain’s still got one hand resting on it, broad and freckled. “For doing this, I mean. I don’t think I ever said.”

Sylvain’s lips quirk up. “Oh? You don’t think so?”

“You make it so hard to be nice to you,” Felix accuses.

“So I’ve been told,” Sylvain says, “But you don’t have to thank me, anyway.” He rubs a thumb over the ring of his car keys, turning them over in his palm. “I’m getting money out of it, remember? This is a fair transactional agreement. All it means is I have to experience real weather for another week, it won’t kill me.”

“Right,” Felix says, after a moment. He feels inexplicably stupid. Of course, Sylvain is being paid. He’s only staying because of that. Felix knows that. He finds that the reminder stings for some reason, anyway.

He can feel Sylvain’s eyes on him. “Felix?” he asks, and it’s too soft for the setting, for the situation. The two syllables hold too much weight. It seems impossible that Sylvain can’t hear it.

Felix feels too warm again, even in the absence of the heater in the rapidly cooling car, and he fumbles his seatbelt off and gets out without answering. He slams the door and leans against it, sucking in the cold air, trying to coax it back down into his lungs.

He wonders if he’s coming down with something. It would explain the off-kilter feeling he’s had all day—ever since they got here, really.

It would be just like Sylvain to bring some weird disease back from California and get everyone sick and ruin Christmas.

Sylvain gets out too; Felix hears his door shut, and then the crunching of snow as he circles around to Felix’s side of the car. No one’s had a chance to shovel again in the time they’ve been gone; Glenn must have forced Dimitri to sleep in.

“Hey,” Sylvain says, from much closer, still in that particular tone that seems pitched to activate Felix’s fight or flight response for no good reason. Warm fingers wrap around Felix’s wrist, gentle, and he’s so busy coping with the resulting flip his stomach does that it takes him a moment to realize the world is actually tilting under his feet.

The next thing Felix knows, he’s on the ground, Sylvain flat on his back underneath him.

The shock of the fall leaves Felix’s ears ringing in the silence. He looks down at Sylvain, fighting back panic, eyes roving over his face to make sure he’s conscious.

Sylvain had slipped, he’d slipped because he’s wearing expensive tennis shoes no one in their right mind who knows better would ever wear in the snow, and he’d brought Felix down with him.

Sylvain,” Felix says, louder than he means to. He fights to get a stranglehold on the strain in his voice.

“Ow,” Sylvain groans, eyes closed.

Felix is horribly relieved to hear him speak. “I can’t believe you’re wearing those shoes, you are so fucking stupid,” he snaps, the words bursting out of him. He shoves at Sylvain’s chest with the hand not trapped underneath him. “Acting like some dumb goddamn tourist, the entire time we’ve been here, I swear—”

Sylvain starts laughing so hard he can’t seem to talk. He rests a hand on Felix’s hip, hooking fingers into one of his belt loops, steadying, and covers his eyes with the other.

Felix struggles up to a seated position and sits back on his heels. He thwacks him on the shoulder. “It isn’t funny!” he says, outraged.

He drags one glove off with his teeth and prods at Sylvain’s head, pushing his hat off and combing through his sweat-damp hair, tipping his head to one side and then the other as he feels around for any bleeding or horrible gaping head wounds. His hands come away clean. “You could have died! We both could have died!”

“Stop hitting me, I’m in so much pain,” Sylvain says, and groans when Felix smacks him again. His eyes are still shut. “Oh, you’re so mean to me.”

He catches Felix’s hand on the third attempt, restraining him, lacing his fingers through Felix’s so he can’t move them and pressing both their hands to his own chest, over his heart. His voice turns wheedling. “Sweetheart, please.”

Felix’s mouth goes dry. He forgets about trying to slap sense into Sylvain. The fall didn’t knock the wind out of him. This does.

What did you just call me?” he forces out.

“Hm?” Sylvain asks, blinking his eyes open at last. He genuinely doesn’t look like he knows what Felix is talking about. He probably doesn’t even notice saying things like that anymore. No matter who he’s with.

Felix realizes that he’s still sitting with one leg on either side of Sylvain, straddling his hips. He jerks his hand free and scrambles up and off of him, cheeks burning. His jeans are soaked through the knees and one of his wrists aches where he’d clumsily tried to brace the fall.

“Help me up,” Sylvain says, turning pleading brown eyes on Felix. Felix tsks without looking at him—he can’t look at him—and holds out a hand, bracing himself on the stair rail so they don’t both go toppling again.

“You’re my hero,” Sylvain says solemnly, once he’s upright.

Felix chances a glance in his direction. There’s snow in his hair, and his cheeks and mouth are red from cold.

“You should change your fucking shoes,” Felix tells him, shoving his hat into his chest, and stomps ahead of him up the icy stairs.

 

****************************

 

Felix wakes up sometime after midnight, and Sylvain isn’t next to him.

He wouldn’t have noticed, probably, except that it’s not nearly as warm as it should be, even under the extra comforter and wool blanket Glenn had fussily piled on them before bed.

Sleeping next to the living space heater that is Sylvain the past couple nights has completely messed up his temperature regulation. How annoying.

He sits up and blinks around, thinking maybe Sylvain had gotten uncomfortable and sprawled across the twin bed instead, but it’s just as neatly made as it has been since they got here, Felix’s duffel still open across it.

Felix flops back down and is about to go back to sleep when he hears a laugh from downstairs. He snaps his eyes open again. He knows that laugh.

On the landing, he sees light spilling out through the open entryway that leads through to the kitchen. He’s rubbing sleep out of his eyes on the way downstairs when he hears his name and freezes on the bottom step, just out of view in the shadows of the dark living room.

“Felix seems happy,” his dad’s voice comes from the kitchen, voice pitched low with how late it is. “Much happier than the last time I saw him. I could be wrong, but I think you’re at least partly to thank for that.”

He seems to be mid-conversation. Felix can’t see him, but he can hear the refrigerator close and the faint sound of something or other being set down on the counter. Why is his dad awake? Why is he talking to Sylvain?

More importantly, why is he lying to Sylvain?

Sylvain laughs again, more quietly. “Really?”

Felix can see a glimpse of his hair gleaming under the kitchen lamps as he sits back on one of the counter stools. He’d at least bothered to put a shirt on to come downstairs, which renders the mostly-blocked-from-Felix’s-view tableau at least thirty percent less horrifying than it could be. “Between you and me, I was getting the sense he regrets bringing me.”

“You know Felix,” his dad says, and sighs. Felix doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

“I do,” Sylvain agrees. Felix does not know what that is supposed to mean.

“Then trust me, he’s happier,” his dad’s voice goes on.

It’s distinctly odd to hear him talking to Sylvain so warmly, when there was never any love lost between him and Sylvain’s father and brother when they were growing up. Maybe Felix and Sylvain were both wrong. Maybe his issues with the Gautiers weren’t about Sylvain at all.

“I just wanted you to know that I noticed, and I’m glad,” his dad says. “It’s nice to know someone is looking out for him.”

It’s almost worth giving up eavesdropping to stomp the rest of the way downstairs and demand what exactly his dad means by that, because Felix is turning twenty in two months and he does not need anyone to look out for him, as if he’s in some kind of constant danger on his boring school campus. As if he can’t take care of himself.

“From what I hear, a lot of people are,” Sylvain says. “And doing a much better job than I am.”

“I find that a little hard to believe.”

Sylvain laughs. “As far as I know, Felix has never come home from college in a cast.”

“Sylvain,” his dad says, sounding surprised and oddly pitying. Like he’s not fooled by the easy, empty laugh one bit. “Do you think I hold that against you? You were a child, and Felix was fine. He got into just as many scrape-ups playing with his brother, if not more so. You’re always so hard on yourself.”

“I was supposed to be watching him,” Sylvain says, still light, like it doesn’t matter.

“You were playing with him,” Felix’s dad corrects mildly. “You decided you were supposed to be watching him.”

Felix doesn’t remember the last time he witnessed Sylvain brought up short. From the following silence, though, that seems to do it.

“What I’m trying to say is thank you,” his dad says, before Sylvain can recover. There’s a pause, and then, more quietly, “I worry about him, ever since the accident. All the time.”

Felix blinks. Now he thinks he must have misheard. The accident only ever means one thing: Glenn, and Dimitri, and Mr. and Mrs. Blaiddyd. But Felix wasn’t in the accident. He’s not the one his dad has to worry about. He’s the only one who’s fine, who’s been fine this whole time.

“After everything with Glenn, and Dimitri’s family, and then your brother, too, Sylvain, it’s seemed like we’ve all had such a run of bad luck. And Felix never really reaches out to me, anymore. Even if he needed my help I don’t think he’d tell me.”

Felix is floored to hear his father talk like this. He’s caught between outright indignance—why does he think Felix needs help? What does he have to worry about, when Felix has never once given him any reason to do so?—and something else, something that makes a lump form uncomfortably in his throat and refuse to dislodge.

“Well, I’m there for him, as long as he wants me,” Sylvain is saying when Felix tunes back in. “I’ll keep an eye on him. I promise.”

Sylvain shouldn’t lie to Felix’s dad. He shouldn’t make promises he’s not going to keep. It makes something unpleasant twist in his stomach.

It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t need him, but Felix doesn’t have him, not really. It’s all an act, and Sylvain will go back to California after this and things will go back to the way they were, and who even knows when they’ll next see each other.

He hadn’t thought he would mind that so much, so he’s surprised at the leaden feeling settling in his stomach. It’s been a year without Sylvain and only a handful of days with him; those shouldn’t add up to the same.

Felix realizes the conversation’s come to a close and since he doesn’t want to have to explain to either his dad or Sylvain why he’s crouched awkwardly on the stairs, he pivots on one heel and scrambles back up two at a time, ducking into his own room and pulling the door back to as silently as possible.

He’s buried himself under the covers and is trying to do a convincing impression of someone sleeping, heart pounding in his chest, when the door creaks open and edges shut again. A few seconds later, Sylvain’s weight depresses the air mattress.

“You awake?” he whispers. Felix makes a noncommittal sound.

His bare feet brush against Felix’s leg as he gets situated, and Felix startles and squirms away. “Cold,” he mumbles. Sylvain laughs.

“Sorry about that,” he murmurs. “Go back to sleep.”

“You let all the warm air out,” Felix complains. Unlike sleep, the shivering isn’t something he has to feign. It was cold on the stairs and it’s only barely warmer up here, outside the covers.

The mattress shakes as Sylvain huffs another laugh, and then he’s pushed himself up on one elbow, reaching the other arm around Felix’s middle to drag him back towards Sylvain. “Here,” he says, generously, settling in again behind him.

Felix feels like every muscle in his body has seized up. He can’t even form words, so complete is his shock. “What are you doing?” he demands, after several seconds drag past. His voice comes out high and squeaky to his own ears.

The comforter is bunched up between them, no skin on skin contact whatsoever, but Felix is acutely aware of everywhere Sylvain’s body is lined up with his.

“Making you warmer,” Sylvain says, as if it’s the most reasonable thing on earth, and yawns. “Go back to sleep.”

“Like I could with you smothering me,” Felix snaps, elbowing back at him. It doesn’t do anything; he’s too swaddled in comforters to connect with any part of Sylvain.

“I’ll move in five minutes,” Sylvain says, voice muffled by the covers.

“You will not,” Felix accuses. He can’t kick him effectively in this position either. Maybe if he can roll them over, he’ll have a chance at smothering Sylvain to death with a pillow?

“Okay,” Sylvain agrees drowsily. He’s so heavy, and annoyingly immovable in their current position, that Felix abandons wistful thoughts of jamming the comforter down his throat and decides the best thing to do is to wait for him to fall asleep and then wriggle free. And then kill him.

“I’m going to make you pay for this,” he tells Sylvain in as dire a tone as he can manage. Sylvain seems not to notice because he just says, “Mmhmm,” and pulls him closer, like some kind of stupid dog with a toy.

Felix doesn’t know how he’s supposed to sleep like this, but he does begrudgingly have to admit that Sylvain was right; it’s much warmer.

He stops trying to free himself and lies still, glaring at the wall because he can’t glare at Sylvain from this vantage point.

He doesn’t know how to be around him when he’s doing weird things like this, like helping Felix off with his sweater or putting his arm around him when no one’s around to see it. It makes Felix feel funny, and he doesn’t like it.

This wasn’t what Sylvain was like with him before the past year, and it’s definitely not like he was during the past year, because that was, well, nothing. Radio silence. Who even knew what he’d been like, or if he’d thought about Felix at all.

The only word Felix has to go on is Sylvain’s, and that’s hardly trustworthy.

He closes his eyes with a sigh, shifting around minutely to get comfortable again.

He can’t turn around to check, but it almost feels like Sylvain buries his face in the blankets where the back of Felix’s neck would be.

 

****************************

 

Someone’s hammering on the door to Felix’s room, and he’s going to murder them.

He’s so comfortable, and it feels too early for this. He doesn’t know what time it is but he can sense it in the air, that it’s definitely too early. He squeezes his eyes shut tighter in hopes that that will make the pounding stop and allow him to go back to sleep.

“Feeeelix,” Glenn’s voice comes, muffled, from out in the hallway. There’s a renewal of loud knocking, like he’s trying to beat down the door. “It’s Christmas, we can’t open presents without you!”

Felix does not move and embraces the dismal truth: nothing will make this stop.

When he opens his eyes, everything is orange.

He inhales, startled, and then there’s orange in his mouth.

He spits hair out, coughing, and embarks on the slow, horrible realization that the reason Sylvain’s unruly bedhead is occupying his mouth-space is that Sylvain’s head is resting heavy on Felix’s chest, his arms wrapped around Felix’s waist.

They’re both under the covers that had previously separated them, and the combination of the pile of down comforters and Sylvain’s proximity means that it’s almost oppressively warm; there’s sweat collecting behind Felix’s knees, in the bend of his elbows, damp at the back of his neck, where his hair slipped out of its ponytail at some point during the night.

In sleep, Sylvain has wrestled Felix’s shirt halfway up off his torso. His hands are gripping fingerprints into Felix’s back, probably, with how tight he’s holding onto him, palms pressed hot to Felix’s bare skin. Their legs are tangled together, knees interlocked and ankles brushing over each other.

In short, Felix is being snuggled.

By Sylvain. Who is half naked.

The impossibility of the situation—the absolute unfamiliarity of it—means that for the first several seconds of awareness, Felix can’t react at all. It’s like the connection between his brain and his sleep-heavy limbs has been severed.

He just stares down at Sylvain, at the wreck of his hair and his too-long eyelashes glowing gold in the morning light, the faint scrunch between his eyebrows as if he’s dreaming of something.

The way Sylvain is holding him is like—it’s like they’re—

He cuts the thought off there, an unfinished threat.

Even aborted, it has the effect of grasping a live wire with his bare hands: alertness slams its way back through his entire body, all at once.

“Ugh, get off,” he hisses, and shoves at Sylvain, hard, until he loosens his grip enough that Felix can squirm his way free. Sylvain makes a plaintive mmming sound and rolls over, away from him, to hug his pillow instead. Despite all the pushing, he doesn’t seem to be fully awake.

Felix hopes desperately that means he won’t remember anything about their sleeping arrangements, or the nocturnal shifting thereof. He feels flushed from head to toe. He adjusts his shirt, jerkily, thanking God that Sylvain’s hands hadn’t wandered any lower and made this whole thing so much more embarrassing.

His hands, which were warm enough in sleep that Felix can still feel them on him.

“Felix,” Glenn moans outside, rattling the doorknob. “Think of the children.

“Get up,” Felix says, jabbing toes unkindly into one of Sylvain’s calves. His face is burning. “My brother’s going to knock down the door otherwise.”

“Cranky,” Sylvain says, voice rough from sleep. He rolls over, blinking up at Felix and rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

Felix, who is unwilling to think any more about where he woke up or in what circumstances, just throws his pillow at Sylvain’s face, says sharply, “Come on,” and gets up without looking back to see if Sylvain follows.

 

****************************

 

Despite the inauspicious start, Christmas Day isn’t as horrible as Felix had expected it to be.

Once Glenn has corralled everyone downstairs like an overeager sheepdog and bullied them all into seated positions around the tree to his satisfaction, they open presents.

Dimitri, Glenn, and even their dad have somehow all managed to get presents for Sylvain on such short notice, and so Felix ends up as the only one without something to give him. He’s a little bit embarrassed about it but obviously Sylvain doesn’t have anything for him, either, so it’s not like it matters.

Glenn gives Felix a new jacket; black, with bright turquoise seams and an overly fluffy hood. It’s unfortunately very comfortable. Dimitri gives him a small, smoothly carved folding knife, which he hands over shyly and without making eye contact. His dad gives him cash and three Visa gift cards.

After presents they go out to the busy diner down the block, the only place open for miles, for the subpar scrambled eggs and greasy hash browns which are a Christmas tradition.

Once home, their dad and Sylvain beg off to go back to sleep for a while. Even though he’s exhausted too, Felix sinks onto the sofa and pulls his knees up to his chest, determinedly avoiding eye contact when Sylvain heads back up to their room, yawning.

The nervous energy is too much. He ends up dragging Glenn out for a run. Dimitri comes this time, which is uncomfortable but not catastrophic, since the freezing air and the punishing pace Glenn sets mean there’s no breath left for conversation.

Their dad’s awake when they get back, and has coffee ready. They hang out with the cats until Sylvain gets up again, apologetic and tousle-haired, around three, and then it’s off to the Galateas’ for early dinner and drinks. This is also tradition.

If it’s possible, Ingrid acts even gladder to see them than she had been the day before. She looks beautiful; her green sweater brings out her eyes and her hair is braided up in a crown off her face. She’s even put on lipstick, probably at her mom’s behest, though it looks like she’s wiped most of it off already.

They do the requisite few minutes of mingling downstairs before absconding to the roof (accessible only by climbing up onto the pink four poster princess bed Ingrid’s had since she was ten, and out through her ruffle-curtained bedroom window) as quickly as possible.

Sylvain tries to take his shoes off first but she just says, wild-eyed, “Whatever! I don’t care! It doesn’t matter!” and shows signs of trying to stuff him bodily through the window until he obeys.

“Your dad’s being a dick to us,” Felix observes, once they’re all out and situated carefully in a crooked row on the driest parts of the snow-patched roof.

It’s freezing outside, but it’s probably warmer than the reception they’d received downstairs, after Ingrid’s dad greeted Felix’s by saying how happy they all must be to have Felix home and Rodrigue had responded pleasantly saying oh yes, it’s been wonderful to have him, and of course you remember his boyfriend, Sylvain?

Ingrid bursts out laughing. She puts her face in her gloved hands. “God, he is, isn’t he. I’m so sorry, it’s not funny, but his face when you made the innuendo about the mistletoe, Sylvain.”

Felix, who had not found that particularly funny, makes a face of his own at the memory.

Sylvain takes a swig of the bottle of red wine he’d smuggled off the hors d’oeuvres table. He’s wearing the soft-looking burgundy sweater Felix’s dad had given him under his parka. “I couldn’t resist. Do you think he’ll let me back in the house?”

“Doubtful,” Ingrid says. She waggles her fingers and he passes the bottle back, fumbling it slightly in his bemittened hands.

“Nah, he wouldn’t dare say anything in front of my family,” Felix says with vague disgust as he tunes back into the conversation. Ingrid’s dad’s always been weird about money, and weirder around those of his friends who have it. It would be fine if he was nicer to his daughter. Or just, better, in general.

“Your mom’s being nice, anyway,” Sylvain points out.

“She’s overcompensating for him because she’s embarrassed,” Ingrid says, and rolls her eyes. She hands the bottle off to Felix. “The whole thing’s ridiculous. God forbid my parents ever act like real people.”

“Sorry,” Sylvain says, and leans against her. She leans back into him and rests her head on his shoulder. “Can we take you back with us after dinner? Just tuck you in the trunk?”

“I wish. Ice skating tomorrow?”

“It’s a plan,” Sylvain says.

“Early?” Ingrid asks, with a clear note of urgency. “I may leave my house early?”

“Early as you like,” Sylvain responds, magnanimous.

“Seven?”

He winces visibly. “Oh God, Jesus, not that early.”

By the time they come down off the roof, it’s growing dark and Felix is a little unsteady on his feet.

He blames the fact that they hadn’t actually eaten any of the food laid out before drinking, but Ingrid had been full-on dragging him out of the kitchen by the wrist at that point so he hadn’t had much choice.

He’s the last one back in and he wobbles midway, misjudges the distance on the step-down between Ingrid’s bed and the floor and almost topples over. Sylvain catches him, hands warm and sturdy on his waist. “Easy there,” he says, looking highly amused.

“I’m fine,” Felix says, annoyed. He’s inadvertently reminded of Sylvain’s arms around him that morning and feels heat burn anew in his cheeks. Why is he thinking about that?

Did Sylvain always touch him this much?

“Coming?” Ingrid asks, leaning back into the doorway. She exhales and blows wisps of golden hair that have escaped from her braids out of her face. “Seriously, hurry up, you can’t leave me alone down there.”

Felix pushes Sylvain’s hands away without saying anything else and follows her.

The rest of the evening is more or less a blur of forced small talk with the adults and getting progressively drunker with Ingrid and Sylvain. Glenn and Dimitri seem to have fallen on the Adult Table side of things by default, and the Galateas have a lot of friends, so Felix doesn’t see much of the two of them until they’re all bundled back into the car headed home.

“Love some casual homophobia on my major holidays,” Glenn says cheerfully, securing his seatbelt. The three of them are in the back, with Dimitri in the front passenger seat since he takes up the most room. “What about you, Felix?”

“My favorite hobby,” Felix says, leaning against the window and closing his eyes. Just for a minute. The car is so nice and dark, and would be nice and dark and quiet if Glenn would shut up. The glass is cool against his forehead.

“Oh, you are wasted,” he hears Glenn say fondly. “Sylvain, please make sure my brother doesn’t asphyxiate.”

“On it,” Sylvain says. Far too close to Felix’s ear, he murmurs, “You okay?”

Felix’s eyes snap open. “I’m fine,” he says, squirming away. Sylvain’s hair is tickling his neck. Because they’re all three stuffed into the backseat, and Sylvain is taking up more than his share of it like always, he has no space left to put between them. “Stop that.”

“What am I doing?” Sylvain asks, eyebrows disappearing up beneath his hairline. He’s obviously fighting back a laugh.

He’s just so...near. Felix can’t look at him directly.

“Just don’t,” Felix says crossly, body jammed painfully up against the door handle.

When they get back home, he has an extremely minor amount of trouble getting back out of the car, which everyone completely overreacts to.

The next thing he knows Sylvain is saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got him,” outside the open car door and Felix has only a moment to wonder what that means before he’s scooped up and hoisted wholesale out of the backseat. He lets out a startled, involuntary yelp.

“Don’t let him carry me!” he says loudly, kicking out wildly. And then he stops kicking, because the last thing he needs is to upset Sylvain’s demonstrably terrible balance. He grips hold of Sylvain’s jacket at the nape of his neck instead. Sylvain pulls him up close to his chest, one arm under his knees and the other wrapped around his lower back.

“Hold on, sweetheart,” he says, in a soothing tone that’s clearly pitched to be as annoying as possible. He smiles down at Felix, hair spilling into his eyes. He says again, “I’ve got you.”

Felix has never hated anyone more in his life.

He presses a hand against Sylvain’s face to make him stop smiling but Sylvain only twists his head away and laughs, the sound running over Felix’s fingertips where they’re trying to cover his mouth and rumbling low in his chest. Felix can feel it in his own.

“Are any of you listening?” Felix yells, tipping his head back to try and glare at his so-called family. “Make him put me down! He will fall and he will drop me!”

No one else seems to understand that this is extremely dire or care about Felix’s looming untimely death, at all, because his father just laughs and Glenn makes an awwing sound as Sylvain carries Felix up the steps, across the porch, and to the door. He acts like it’s not even hard, which makes it considerably worse.

“I hate you,” Felix announces, pressing his forehead to Sylvain’s chest as emphatically as he can, because his hands are busy holding on for dear life and he needs to drive this message home in some physical way.

“I know,” Sylvain says, voice warm. As if he does not think Felix is serious.

He doesn’t drop Felix, miraculously. Unfortunately, nor does he put Felix down while his dad takes an unreasonable amount of time getting out his keys and unlocking the door.

It’s not until they’re all inside—Sylvain carefully maneuvers them both in without knocking Felix’s head or limbs against the doorframe, very much like he’s done this before—and into the living room that he deposits Felix back on his feet.

Felix immediately tries to kick him, wobbles, and sinks down onto the couch instead, which he decides was what he had meant to do anyway.

Sylvain says something too soft for Felix to catch and then goes to join the others in the kitchen, probably to prevent them from ruining the leftovers Ingrid’s mom had pressed on them because he’s the only one that can be trusted with food.

Felix watches the ceiling spin lazily for a while and then remembers he meant to do something. He digs in his jacket pockets for his phone.

He’s so used to trying to call Annette and getting no response over the past week that he fumbles the phone, startled, when she picks up on the second ring.

“Hi!” she says, bright and clear and familiar, and he just gapes for a moment before echoing, outraged, “Hi?”

“Yes, hi,” she says more loudly. “Is the connection bad?”

“You’re just—are you—Annette!

“I missed the sound of you screaming,” she says. It sounds like she’s chewing on something crunchy. There’s Christmas music playing in the background. “Merry Christmas! How are things going?”

How are things going, she dares to ask, to his face, as if she didn’t throw him to the wolves with her own small hands.

“Merry Christmas,” Felix says. It takes a few tries to get all the syllables out. “Catastrophically.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, I did you a favor,” she says, and tsks. “Aren’t you having a nice time?”

“No,” Felix says sourly.

“Liar. You are obviously very drunk. Anyway, Sylvain’s been posting you all over Instagram. It would be disgustingly romantic if you were actually dating.”

Felix struggles to sit up. This is new information. “What has he been posting?”

“Mm, you with your brother and hanging out with the cat and stuff. You in the snow. I don’t remember all of them. Go on and see.”

“No,” Felix says resentfully, sinking back into the cushions. “I don’t care.”

“Forgot your password?”

Felix does not dignify this with a response. “Why did you do this to me?” he asks the ceiling.

He can hear her talking to someone else, and then she says, “Mercie says hi, and also Merry Christmas. What?”

“Merry Christmas,” Felix says again, automatically, and then, with as much emphasis as he can muster, “Why did you do this.”

“Oh,” she says, sounding like she can’t believe he would ask something so stupid and obvious. “Because you were sad, and I thought he might cheer you up.”

“Why would you think that?” Felix demands, and then stops, frowning. “I wasn’t sad.”

“You’ve been sad for a long time, Felix, don’t be annoying,” Annette says with an audible sigh. “And I was really looking forward to seeing your cats and your brother and I bravely sacrificed my own interests so you could have a nice Christmas, wasn’t that nice of me?”

Felix has never been so indignant in his life. He actually manages to sit upright. “How could you possibly think I would have a better time at Christmas with Sylvain than with you?” he asks loudly.

“Hi to Annette,” says Sylvain, who’s chosen to come into the room right at that minute. “Also, very hurtful.”

“Is that Sylvain?” Annette asks at once, sounding intent. “Give him the phone.”

“It’s rude to ask to talk to someone else when I called you,” Felix complains, and Annette sighs and says, “Please?” and he mutters “Fine,” and hands the phone over. “Annette wants to talk to you, I guess.”

“Hi, honey,” Sylvain says into the phone, and grins at whatever the response to that is. “Hm? Yeah, I am.” He glances over at Felix, eyes dancing. “Oh, he’s very mad at me right now. But it’s been good. And you?”

He shifts the phone to his other ear, pacing across the room to look out the window. “Not sure. What?” A pause. “Ha. Thank you, I’ll need it.” Another pause, and then a faint laugh. “Miss you too. Kiss Mercie for me.”

When Sylvain hands the phone back, Felix seizes it and asks suspiciously, “What did you say to him? What does he need?”

“Professional psychiatric help, as he has for years,” Annette says. There’s a rustling sound, and then a murmured conversation Felix can’t hear. “Oh, I have to go so we can FaceTime Mercie’s brother, but I love you.”

He doesn’t answer right away, because he’s thinking vindictively about how much Sylvain does need professional help, and so he’s not sure how long they’re both quiet before she says, hesitantly, “Jokes aside, are you really having a bad time? If you’re really having a bad time, I’m sorry. I thought it was a good plan, but I’ve been wrong before. Semi-regularly, even. I’ll come get you myself tomorrow if it sucks. Just say the word.”

Felix is very ready to say yes out of stubbornness alone, to punish her for all of this, but his attention is caught by Sylvain, backlit by the firelight flickering low in the grate behind him as he leans against the hearth. He’s scrolling through something on his own phone, gaze turned downward. The faint glow of the screen throws the planes of his face into sharper relief.

“Felix?” Annette asks in his ear, sounding even more worried. “Do you want me to come and get you?”

Sylvain glances up from his phone and notices Felix looking at his direction. His mouth curves up, dark eyes warm. “Everything okay?” he mouths, tipping his head to one side.

Felix blinks. “Love you, Annie,” he says, and hangs up the phone.

 

****************************

 

“You didn’t get me a Christmas present,” Sylvain says to him around midnight when they’re both lying down on the air mattress, safely on separate sides as if last night’s insanity had never happened.

He says it conversationally, but quietly enough that it wouldn’t have woken Felix up, if he’d been asleep.

Felix isn’t, so he opens his eyes.

The dark room is only vaguely spinning, which is an improvement. He adjusts his head on the pillow with effort, turning so he’s looking over at Sylvain, who is lying on his back with his arms folded behind his head. He’s staring up at the ceiling.

“So?” Felix says back. “You didn’t get me one either.”

“Of course I did,” Sylvain says. He tips his head to one side, grinning over at Felix. “Me.”

Something warm sparks low in Felix’s stomach. He ignores it. “You’re the worst person I know,” he says, as dismissively as he can. “I’m not getting you a present. Go to sleep.”

“Sweet dreams, Felix,” he hears Sylvain say behind him, soft, as he rolls back over and closes his eyes tight.

 

****************************

 

They go ice skating with Ingrid, Glenn and Dimitri the next day, as promised. It’s not at seven, but it’s still early.

Felix spends a lot of the time sitting on the benches with everyone else’s stuff and focusing on staring at a fixed point on the rubber mats and not throwing up.

He’s not overly inclined towards ice skating in general, and even less so when he still has a splitting headache from the amount of alcohol he’d drunk the night before, which according to his hazy memory was a lot but according to a cheerful Ingrid when they met up was “truly not that much at all, it was so embarrassing for you,” because she is a horrible person.

At least he’d woken up alone that morning—Sylvain had already been up, showering.

Felix had blinked his eyes open to the empty other side of the bed and felt an odd lurch in his stomach, which was confusing. It was quickly explained by the vicious hangover nausea that set in as soon as he sat up.

Ingrid coaxes him onto the ice for no more than fifteen minutes near the end of their rink time, and he skates stiff-legged with her for two laps and then clomps off carefully to sit down again, ignoring her heartfelt pleading with him to come back.

He doesn’t understand why they couldn’t just go running.

Ingrid comes over to their house afterwards and Dimitri drags the cover off the hot tub on the back porch. They get in and stay there until it’s late afternoon, and the light is going.

The five of them all fit in the tub together, but barely, and due to the seating order it means Felix has to choose between sitting much closer than he’d like to Sylvain or much closer than he’d like to Dimitri.

Unfortunately, that’s not much of a choice.

“Look at you being so cuddly today,” Sylvain says to Felix, in a low, amused voice that is nevertheless extremely audible to everyone. “Missed me earlier, huh?”

He drops an arm around Felix’s shoulders, and Felix lets him because he doesn’t have a good excuse to stop him in front of everyone. Ingrid’s expression does something interesting and she looks away quickly, mouth working, clearly trying to fight down a laugh.

“Ugh,” Felix says, wrinkling his nose. His face feels hot, again. Glenn had turned the tub up as high as it could go against the freezing air outside. “No, I didn’t. You’re so annoying.”

“How did you two get together, anyway?” Glenn interrupts. He’s sitting half on Dimitri’s lap, which is disturbing enough that Felix hasn’t been able to make eye contact with him for ten whole minutes. “I’ve been meaning to ask. I can’t believe you kept it so quiet when you’re spending the holidays together, you little liar.”

“Oh,” Felix says. “Uh—” He glances over at Sylvain like a deer frozen in headlights.

He probably should have thought of an answer to this. Days ago. Before they got here. He somehow hadn’t anticipated being asked any of the hundreds of questions which would make it immediately, painfully obvious that this whole thing is a lie.

Sylvain, though, clearly had.

“We’ve been mostly long distance for a while, obviously,” he answers without hesitating, pushing sweat-dark hair off his face. “I wanted to tell everyone right away, but Felix is more private than me, and I’ve been told I could possibly stand to air my business less in public forums.”

“Possibly,” Felix mutters with as much sarcasm as possible.

Sylvain glances down at him, a smile playing about his mouth. “Anyway, I had a thing for him since high school, but he never noticed, which he knows I’m never letting him live down.”

Felix stares back up at him, speechless now. He should never have trusted Sylvain to talk. This isn’t a believable story. Surely Sylvain realizes this isn’t a believable story? Isn’t he supposed to be a good liar?

“I realized when I saw him at the funeral last winter that things were different,” Sylvain goes on. “Or that they might be. They could be.” He toys with Felix’s ponytail, twisting the damp ends around his fingers. Felix works to keep his shoulders from hunching up, turtle-like, to stop him.

He looks at Ingrid, wanting to commiserate nonverbally about how absurd this is, but she’s not looking at Felix. She’s looking at Sylvain, expression oddly unreadable.

“But it was such a messed up time, you know?” Sylvain says. He brushes one thumb down the back of Felix’s neck, idly, carelessly, and Felix has to suppress a shiver. “I didn’t really know what to do about it, then. So I tried not to think about it. But I couldn’t stop, so I flew out to see him last spring and we talked things through. We kind of went from there.”

“He came to see you? Across the country? You didn’t tell me that!” Glenn says indignantly, flicking water at Felix.

“I didn’t know if it was, you know. Anything,” Felix tries out. He chances a glance at Sylvain, whose expression is encouraging. “I didn’t want to get anyone else involved until I knew it was serious.” The words feel like clumsy building blocks as he tries to fit them together. “Besides,” he adds, and kicks water back at his brother, “It was none of your fucking business, was it?”

The conversation moves on from there and the subject turns away from Sylvain and Felix, and Felix feels almost weak with relief.

Dimitri, who hasn’t been overly comfortable in even small amounts of water for a long time, begs off about half an hour later, and Glenn clings to his neck as he tries to get out, insisting on receiving a piggyback ride back into the house. Dimitri blushes horribly, but he still does it. Felix looks determinedly down at the water until they’re inside.

“Can you stay here tonight?” Sylvain asks Ingrid hopefully as the sliding door closes behind them. She nods, looking more relaxed than Felix has seen her in days. Her hair is down, drifting behind her in the water like cornsilk.

“I brought my toothbrush,” she says, and grins. “Can Hoho sleep with me?”

“You’ll have to fight Glenn for him,” Felix says.

“That’s no problem,” Ingrid says, dismissive.

Her phone buzzes down on the wood of the deck and she stretches herself half-out of the tub to squint down at it, then gasps faintly and hoists her entire body out, dripping water, to snatch it up. “I’ll be back,” she yells over one shoulder, already wrapping her towel around her sports bra and shorts and lunging to open the door. “Oh God, oh fuck me it’s cold!”

“Wonder who that could be,” Felix says, rolling his eyes as she manages to get inside. She slides the door shut behind her so hard the glass rattles in the frame.

“Shh, it’s cute,” Sylvain says, nudging him. Since it’s just the two of them now, Felix pulls away. His knee has been pressed up against Sylvain’s the whole time, their arms touching. He’s forgetting what it’s like to have his own personal space.

Felix makes a face. “Like your story?”

Sylvain stretches out into the space Felix has left him, hooking his arms over the back of the hot tub. “You didn’t like it?” He sighs and tips his head back. “So harsh. I spent at least five minutes coming up with that. Everyone’s a critic.”

“We fell in love at your brother’s funeral?”

Sylvain shrugs, but he cracks a smile. He looks away, down at the steam rising off the water. “I was thinking on my feet,” he says. “It was the last time I saw you. Seemed like the only plausible opportunity for you to fall in love with me.”

Given what had happened at the funeral, that’s hilarious. Or it would be, if it wasn’t so unfunny.

Maybe it’s because it’s getting dark out, and the porch lights aren’t on, and he can’t see Sylvain that clearly anymore. Maybe it’s because it feels a little like that night Sylvain had called, months ago, and if Sylvain could do that then maybe Felix can do this.

Whatever the reason, Felix finds himself opening his mouth and saying, “I’m sorry about the funeral.”

Sylvain raises his eyebrows. “It wasn’t your fault,” he says, with the uncaring laugh Felix hates most. “I’m told by several medical professionals that was down to the copious amount of drugs and alcohol in my brother’s system.”

“Shut up, you know I don’t mean that.”

“No?”

“I mean,” Felix starts, and then stops. He wrestles with his words for a long moment. “I mean, for after. When I told you to stay away from me.” He lifts his gaze back to Sylvain’s with effort. “I didn’t expect you to, you know. Listen.”

Even in the dying light, he can tell Sylvain looks surprised. It’s an unusual expression on his face. He always seems to know what Felix is about to say. It’s one of his most annoying qualities.

“You sounded like you meant it,” Sylvain says finally, shrugging one shoulder, careless, every bit as if it’s nothing to him if Felix hates him or not. Maybe it isn’t. “It’s okay if you did. You had every right to.”

Felix had thought that was true for a long time. He isn’t as sure anymore.

“I did mean it,” he says. He’d been positive, for a lot of months, that he was never going to speak to Sylvain again. “At the time.”

Either Sylvain fails to keep the thread of hope out of his voice, or he’s just not trying to, when he asks, “And now?”

Felix doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Miklan’s funeral, anymore, but it was all he’d thought about for weeks after it happened. He remembers it much more clearly than Dimitri’s parents’, but he guesses that’s a given. It was only last year, after all.

He ended up wearing the same stiff black suit he’d worn the first time around. It had been a few sizes too big when he was fourteen, and loath though he was to admit it he hadn’t grown much in the intervening years, but even so it was on the verge of being too small—just this side of too short in the wrists, and getting overly tight in the chest.

His dad had wanted to get him a new one, but Felix didn’t see any point in buying another expensive, uncomfortable garment just to go see someone buried in.

He hadn’t liked Miklan, because no one really liked Miklan, but he was still Sylvain’s brother. He was still dead. Felix had thought about it like that, in those terms, because it was the only way he could. How upset he would be if he lost Glenn. How unthinkable it would be.

He and Ingrid had taken the first flight they could get from Syracuse, mid-morning, sitting at opposite ends of the plane because it was last minute and there weren’t two seats together. They hadn’t even unpacked from winter break yet. It was the third week of classes. They were already going to be behind.

Felix’s dad had picked them up on the other end. He’d looked so tired, Felix remembered. Dimitri was living with him then, and his dad had been making sure he was eating and driving him to his counseling sessions when Glenn was working or at physical therapy.

Dimitri wasn’t in the car. He still hadn’t been up to leaving the house much then. Felix wouldn’t have been surprised if he didn’t even realize Miklan had died.

“Can we go over to see Sylvain?” Felix had leaned forward from the backseat to ask, jittery with nervous energy, almost the second they got into the car. Ingrid had nodded emphatically from the passenger seat, knuckles white where her hands were fisted in her lap.

“Already headed there,” his dad said. Felix could feel his eyes on him in the rearview mirror, could feel the weight of his worry like a tangible thing, but he refused to look up.

They didn’t talk much on the drive home. Ingrid was quiet, and Felix was too busy wondering how Sylvain would be when they saw him to try and carry on a conversation.

But when they got to the Gautiers’ house and rang the bell and spoke to Sylvain’s parents on the doorstep, after they finally came to answer the door, they said Sylvain wasn’t home.

They didn’t say it like they were particularly concerned about him. More like he was a lost trinket they were vaguely fond of that would probably turn up again soon.

They didn’t seem like two people who had just lost their oldest son. But then again, Miklan hadn’t legally been their son for over three years. They’d disowned him publicly. The Gautiers were nothing if not people of their word.

Felix hadn’t been able to sleep that night, the night before the funeral, because he was so angry at Sylvain for disappearing. He lay awake for hours thinking it would just serve him right if he was off doing something stupid and irresponsible and got hurt or even died and missed the funeral.

Sylvain didn’t miss the funeral. He was very nearly late, but he didn’t miss it.

Felix had been expecting him to be...well, he didn’t know how he expected Sylvain to be, but it wasn’t like this: all smiles and charming laughter, tie loosened and with lipstick on his collar, likely from some tryst or another in his parents’ poolhouse before the ceremony.

He’d been sitting too far away at the frozen graveyard, and had made no attempt at all to come over to Felix or Ingrid beforehand, so Felix hadn’t been able to seek him out until after the funeral.

Close friends had been invited to the Gautier mansion for post-funeral cocktails via a fancy black and silver RSVP note on heavy cardstock that his dad had received with the funeral announcement last week.

Felix had been planning to enlist Ingrid’s help with finding Sylvain but she was lagging behind talking to Glenn in the driveway, looking teary-eyed, and so Felix thought he should leave them alone.

He went by himself instead to search the snow-dusted grounds, and then the house, and finally located Sylvain upstairs, on the balcony leading off from the second-floor library.

“Felix!” Sylvain had said loudly and jovially when he’d turned and seen him, drawing Felix’s name out in a honey-sweet voice. He’d pulled Felix into a clumsy hug once he was closer. He smelled like aftershave and alcohol.

It was the first time they’d been in the same place in months. Sylvain had stayed in LA for Christmas.

“Welcome to the party!” he’d said, dragging Felix out onto the balcony and clapping him just this side of too-hard on the back. “Quite the who’s who of the neighborhood, isn’t it?” He sighed fondly. “Did you see what’s her name, from high school, the little brunette? Cute little freckles, button nose, huge—

He cut himself off, laughing. He squeezed Felix’s shoulder. “Oh, I missed that expression you make when you’re disgusted with me.”

Felix didn’t know what to say. “Are you...okay?” he asked, uncomfortable, blunt because it was the only way he knew how to be. He couldn’t stop shivering on the open balcony. He wished he’d gotten his gloves from the car.

He and Sylvain hadn’t spoken as much in the months leading up to Miklan’s death. Not deliberately, but because neither of them was very good at staying in touch and they went to school on opposite coasts, now. It was easier than ever not to talk.

“Me?” Sylvain asked, letting his hand fall from Felix’s shoulder. “Absolutely. Just dandy, why wouldn’t I be?”

He leaned back against the balcony railing and tipped his head back so that the winter sun hit his face, eyes drifting shut. He’d undone his top few shirt buttons along with the tie, which had vanished somewhere in between the funeral home and the house. It was bitterly cold out, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Why wouldn’t—?” Felix broke off and just stared at him, incredulous. “We just came from your brother’s funeral.”

Sylvain straightened up again. He made a dismissive gesture. “Ugh, enough about me. Man, it’s been a while, huh?” He grinned, bright and white and absolutely devoid of warmth. “How are you? How’s school?”

“How’s school?” Felix repeated, feeling anger rise up from his gut, expanding out through his ribcage like a balloon. He was in an uncomfortable black suit, and Sylvain’s brother was dead, and his room was right down the hall, untouched, still full of the old things from high school his parents hadn’t yet gotten rid of.

“Yes, school,” Sylvain said, repeating the word like Felix might be slow. “UCLA is pretty boring so far, I’m actually thinking of dropping out. I have a perfect excuse now, right?”

Felix recoiled. “This is—what’s wrong with you?”

“So many things, I’m told,” Sylvain said thoughtfully. “I’m sure my father could get you a list, if you’re interested.” He shrugged. “He’s probably very busy right now adjusting his will, though, so I’d give him a few hours.”

“I can’t believe you,” Felix said, once he was able to speak. He felt vaguely sick.

“Of course you can’t,” Sylvain said. His expression had changed, then, turned sharp and cold and unfamiliar. “Aw, Felix. Did I disappoint you?”

“You’re acting like an asshole,” Felix said, bristling at the condescending tone. Sylvain didn’t talk to him like this. This was the way he talked to other people, not Felix. Never Felix.

“And you don’t know the first thing about my brother,” Sylvain said. Something flickered across his expression and was gone again, too quickly for Felix to read. “Never did, did you?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Sylvain said, laughing. It sounded bitter. “It’s not supposed to mean anything at all.”

Felix balled his hands into fists. “He’s dead, and you’re acting like...like you don’t even—”

He couldn’t say it, in the end, but he didn’t have to.

“Like I don’t care?” Sylvain filled in, eyes intent. He pushed off from the railing. “What if I don’t? Why should I? He wasn’t my brother anymore, was he?” He gave an airy wave. “Besides, he was an addict, and it’s not like this was the first overdose, or the second, or the eighth. We all knew this was coming.”

Felix flinched. Just a little, but he did. And Sylvain noticed, because he always noticed weakness.

“Come on,” he said, smooth as silk. “Don’t play so innocent. Like you never wished Glenn had just died and had done with it? You would have gotten all your dad’s attention, no competition, no more hospital bills or dealing with all that pesky physical th—”

Felix punched him.

He did it before he knew he wanted to, and it hurt more than he thought it would. His hands were still trembling when he backed up, knuckles stinging and hand throbbing from the impact.

Sylvain’s hand went to his mouth, but he didn’t say anything. There was blood on his lip. He wasn’t smiling now.

“Never talk about my brother again,” Felix said, so angry he was quiet. So angry he was shaking with it. “In fact, never talk to me about anything, ever again. Stay away from me. I’m fucking done with you.”

He hadn’t waited for Sylvain to say anything else before he turned and stomped away, out through the library, to go back down to the main house and find Ingrid and tell her with his eyes prickling hot that he was flying home tonight because there was no reason for him to stay.

He hadn’t waited, but Sylvain had had time, if he’d wanted to. To call out. To go after him. He just hadn’t.

When Felix glanced back on the threshold, because he couldn’t help it, he saw Sylvain still leaned up against the railing where Felix had left him, fingertips touching his lips, staring straight ahead into nothingness.

“I shouldn’t have said what I did,” Sylvain says now, in the present. He shifts slightly, and water laps up against the inside of the hot tub with the movement. “But you know that already.”

He’s quiet for a moment, and then says, “You should also know I was sorry the minute the words were out of my mouth. I didn’t mean it. God, I didn’t. I would never—”

“It was your brother’s funeral,” Felix says, avoiding his gaze. “I know you didn’t.”

“Oh,” Sylvain says, quiet. “Okay.” Felix can feel the weight of his gaze without looking up. If he didn’t know better, he’d say he’s managed to surprise Sylvain again. Twice in under an hour. That must be some kind of record.

“I wanted to call you, so many times, to tell you how sorry I was,” Sylvain says, into the silence, and there’s an odd, rough quality to his voice now. He clears his throat. “But I figured, I was the one who fucked up, so that wasn’t fair to do to you. Not when you didn’t want to talk to me.”

I did, Felix thinks, and his chest aches. He had wanted to talk to him. He’d missed all the stupid updates he sent by text and the annoying Instagram tags, even though he’d always snapped at Sylvain to stop sending them. He’d missed talking to him on his birthday like they always did, and so many times before and after that. So much more often than he had anticipated.

He doesn’t know how to tell him any of that. He doesn’t know how to acknowledge the unexpected idea that he hadn’t been the only one walking around incomplete, the last year apart.

He doesn’t know how to tell him, but from the way Sylvain’s looking at him, maybe he doesn’t have to.

“I never thought you would give up that easy,” he says finally, with a sniff.

Someone inside the house turns the porch lights on, and Felix blinks against the sudden brightness, holding a hand up automatically. When he lowers it and looks back at Sylvain, the shadows on his face are gone. In the wash of yellow light, his hair’s turned into bright copper.

His smile is slow and soft, and just for Felix.

“I won’t next time,” Sylvain says, bright against the darkness of the lawn behind him, like a star. “I promise.”

 

****************************

 

Despite Felix dreading the extra days added to their original schedule, the remaining time at home passes so quickly, somehow, that he feels like he blinks and it’s New Year’s Eve.

Ingrid comes over around six the day of, pacing his room in her pressed white shirt and simple cotton underwear while she makes Sylvain give opinions on which pair of nearly identical checked trousers she should wear. Sylvain, in turn, puts on and takes off several sweaters for her approval.

Felix, who got dressed in five minutes, an hour ago, lies on his bed with the growing pile of their discarded clothes and the folded up deflated air mattress and tries without any luck to brute force his Instagram password while he waits for them to be done.

This party is at the Gautiers’, as it has been since Felix can remember, because their house is the biggest and they love going all out for a gathering, regardless of the occasion.

“Are you going to be okay going back there?” Felix had asked the night before, sitting cross-legged in bed tying up his hair while Sylvain finished his skincare routine.

He had surprised even himself by how used to sleeping next to Sylvain he’d gotten. Talking to him before going to bed even felt normal, now. Frequently annoying beyond belief, but normal.

He wondered if it would feel weird sleeping alone again after this.

“I’ll be fine,” Sylvain had said, wry, angling his face to one side and then the other to inspect himself in the mirror. His hair was held back by an elastic headband, which looked very stupid and which in turn Felix found very satisfying. “I think they might not be, but that’s just a fun bonus.”

It’s nine o’clock by the time they pile into Sylvain’s Jeep to leave for the Gautiers’; it’s about the same distance as Ingrid’s house from Felix’s, in the opposite direction.

Felix’s dad isn’t coming because, as he explains, this way they can all fit in one car. In the spirit of the new year, Felix doesn’t call him on this extremely lame excuse for avoiding seeing Sylvain’s parents.

The Gautier mansion is decked out in its typical holiday splendor: there are white lights wound around all the trees, and special silver lamps lining the stone pathway up to the door. Glittering stars are hanging from the branches, and from the eaves of the house.

It’s beautiful. It doesn’t make Felix dislike the place any less.

There are already cars parked up and down the street on both sides so Sylvain wedges the Jeep diagonally into a not-really-parking-space that’s half on the curb. “Everyone out,” he says cheerfully. “Don’t forget your crosses and holy water.”

The entryway is just as grand as Felix remembers, from high school all the way back to childhood; the ornate floral wallpaper unchanged, the mahogany furniture just as sleek and spotless as ever. They hang their coats up on separate already-stuffed racks, except for Sylvain, who keeps his jacket on in what Felix suspects is some odd show of defiance.

Felix had figured that Sylvain’s parents would just ignore them, or if they were feeling more dramatic be publicly scathing; he had not expected for them to zero in like overly coiffed homing beacons the second he and Sylvain stepped over the threshold, press champagne on them, and effusively congratulate them both on their “new relationship.”

“Oh, they’re so proud of me for bagging a Fraldarius,” Sylvain groans half an hour later, once they’ve finally extricated themselves from a horrifying discussion about which of the Greek Isles would make the best honeymoon destination, theoretically of course, no pressure intended boys, although it never hurts to start planning early!

Sylvain drags his hands down his face. “God. I should have seen this coming.”

He’s sprawled on one of the velvet couches in the library, Felix next to him and Ingrid sitting cross-legged on the floor nearby acting wholly unsympathetic and eating off all three of their catering plates.

Felix is too traumatized by the memory of Mrs. Gautier taking him by the elbow and asking him in a confidential whisper about the possibility of children to respond.

“Who knew Felix was the catch of the town?” Ingrid asks seriously, crunching into a ceviche chip. “It seemed so unlikely, based on, you know. Felix.”

Felix tries to fling a fancy olive at her but she leans to one side and it bounces off onto the rug instead.

The library is upstairs and not part of the designated mingling space, so they’re the only ones in here. They’ve all lived through enough parties in the neighborhood to know each of the best escape routes and hiding places inside everyone’s house. Sylvain’s house has more than most.

“I can’t believe they’re acting like nothing happened,” Felix says, after looking around warily to make sure neither senior Gautier has manifested nearby without warning. He feels shell-shocked.

“I can,” Sylvain says. He makes a derisive sound low in his throat. “It’s what they were born to do.” He tips his head back to look at Felix. “Hey, I bet if we tell them we’re engaged they’ll reinstate my trust fund. Whaddya say?”

Felix makes the worst face he can. “No thanks.”

“You see how mean to me he is? This is a terrible environment to raise a fam—ow,” Sylvain whines, when Felix thumps him in the face with a decorative pillow.

“Oh, my God,” Ingrid says.

“I know,” Sylvain says, wrestling the pillow away from Felix and giving him a baleful look. “Absolutely shocking behavior. See if I take your last name after this.”

“Oh, my God,” she says again, sounding breathless, and something in her tone makes Felix look over at her, confused.

“Ingrid, what—?” he starts, but she’s already on her feet, knocking her plate over, heedless of the gourmet finger food she’s just scattered over what is probably a thousand-dollar rug at the very least.

“Oh, that’s from Monaco,” Sylvain says, sounding pained as he dives to start picking up bacon wrapped dates. The rug’s value apparently outweighs Sylvain’s general disdain for his family’s possessions.

Felix, meanwhile, looks towards the door.

There’s a woman standing in the doorway, gold sequins shimmering beneath a dark overcoat and a cap pulled on over tumbling brown hair. Her expression breaks into a broad smile at the sight of who’s running towards her.

“Dorothea?” Felix says aloud, stunned, just as Ingrid reaches her. She doesn’t even hesitate; just takes hold of Dorothea’s face in both hands and kisses her, crashing into her so hard she bows them both back.

“Well I’ll be,” Sylvain says, grinning from the floor. “A New Year’s miracle.”

 

****************************

 

Ingrid insists on introducing Dorothea to everyone, so Sylvain and Felix follow them back downstairs.

Dimitri politely offers to take Dorothea’s coat and hat when he’s introduced, like he’s a concierge rather than a guest. This clearly brings her up a little short, but she’s heard all about Dimitri from Ingrid so her recovery is quick. He looks deeply relieved, and takes the garments she hands over with visible care.

“I hope it’s okay I’m here,” Felix hears Dorothea murmur to Ingrid as Dimitri disappears to put her coat somewhere or other. She doesn’t seem to care if she ever sees either coat or hat again. “I should have called, I know. But I wanted to surprise you.”

They’re holding hands, tight, and Ingrid’s cheeks are flushed, and neither of them can stop smiling.

Sylvain had deftly helped Ingrid get most of Dorothea’s dark lipstick off her mouth with a napkin before they came downstairs, but it’s still fairly obvious just from the way they’re looking at each other that something’s going on. They might as well be making out on top of one of the ice sculptures.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Ingrid says, awkward and shy. She tucks a stray curl behind Dorothea’s ear. Her voice is raw, open, when she adds, “It’s all I wanted.”

Felix is startled by how obvious it is that she means it, and how much she does. She wants Dorothea: at New Year’s, tonight, in general, forever. They all sound like one thing. She’s saying all of them.

“I’ll just be here as your friend,” Dorothea says in an undertone. “It doesn’t have to be—I know we talked about it, and I didn’t want to put you in that position. It’s okay, really. I mean it.” She curls a pinkie finger around Ingrid’s, reassuring. “I just wanted to start the new year with you. The rest of it doesn’t matter.”

Ingrid bites her lip. “I don’t…” she starts, and Dorothea says, gently, “I get it, I promise, you don’t have to explain,” and squeezes her hand.

Ingrid shakes her head, once. “No,” she says forcefully, “ I didn’t mean…” She stops, and takes a deep breath. “I’m trying to say, I don’t want you to be here as just my friend.”

Felix and Sylvain exchange a look, and decide by mutual unspoken agreement to leave them alone to have this conversation somewhat more privately. They don’t bother to come up with an excuse; neither Dorothea nor Ingrid even notices them leave.

They’re going to go into the living room but then Sylvain’s mother turns around from a conversation and spots them and waves urgently, trilling Sylvain’s name, and Sylvain mutters, “Fuck’s sake,” and takes Felix’s hand, tugging him back in the opposite direction.

They slip through the kitchen, which is huge and shining, all chrome and dark marble and full of caterers and chattering guests, and out to the balcony that opens off the cavernous breakfast nook.

Felix can’t help but remember last time he was on a balcony in the Gautier mansion. But this is different. It’s nighttime, and there’s laughter coming from inside the house, and Christmas lights still wound around the metal railings. They’re on the other side of a new year.

It’s not just that, either, Felix thinks, looking back at Sylvain. Sylvain is different. Maybe Felix is too.

Sylvain is still holding his hand, and it takes Felix longer than it should to realize and tug his free. Their breath is coming out in gusts, and he hugs his arms around himself. Here, at least, is one thing that’s the same as last time. “Jesus, this was a mistake,” he says, shivering. “Let’s go back inside.”

“Sure, if you’d rather discuss the merits of private schooling versus boarding school for our future children with my mother for an hour,” Sylvain says, tone dire. He shrugs off his jacket. “Here,” he adds, draping it around Felix’s shoulders. “You’re always so cold.”

“Fuck you,” Felix snaps. “It is below freezing.”

But annoyed as he is, he’s still cold enough that he lets Sylvain put the jacket on him. It’s warm from his body heat, and smells faintly of his cologne. Sylvain adjusts the collar for him. His thumb brushes over Felix’s collarbone as he does, a momentary blaze of warmth. “There,” he says, and pulls back, giving Felix a studying look. “Better?”

“You can’t not be cold,” Felix accuses, pulling the jacket closer around himself.

“I’ll be fine,” Sylvain says, shrugging. He puts his hands in his jean pockets and leans back against the rail. “I like the cold, remember?”

Felix rolls his eyes. “Right, because it’s so cold in LA?”

“Well, you can’t have everything,” Sylvain says with a sigh. “Sometimes you have to choose between being as far as you can get from your family and undergoing eternal suffering beneath the heat of a cruel sun.”

Felix snorts. That’s the closest to making sense Sylvain’s come all trip. “The first part sounds appealing, at least.”

“In that case, you could always come visit.”

Felix looks up at him, startled. “Visit?” he repeats dumbly.

“Me,” Sylvain fills in, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. He smiles at the look on Felix’s face. “You could come visit me. In California. After midterms, or something. Or next summer. I have a guest room in my apartment. Well, I have a couch.” He holds his hands up as if in surrender. “Okay, it’s an armchair. No cat, I’m afraid, but the one from downstairs likes to come up the fire escape to say hi when her owner’s at work.”

Felix is barely listening.

He’s stuck on, you could come visit me.

He doesn’t know why the suggestion leaves him speechless. It’s not as if it’s especially odd, in and of itself. Ingrid and Felix had talked about visiting Sylvain before, back before things fell apart for a while. There’s no reason Felix shouldn’t take a trip to LA to visit him, now that they’re talking again. There’s no reason it should make him feel like this.

It’s just something about the thought of seeing Sylvain on his own—without his family around, without Ingrid—and waking up in his apartment, and being in his space. Going to do things in LA with him, just the two of them. It’s somehow too much for Felix to even picture. It’s too confusing. It makes something ache in his chest.

“Hey, no pressure,” Sylvain says, and laughs, and Felix realizes he hadn’t said anything for long enough that Sylvain had drawn his own conclusions about the answer. But they’re the wrong ones. Were they wrong?

He still hasn’t said anything and Sylvain is turning away now, bracing hands against the balcony railing. “Anyway, it’s for the best,” he says, casual, careless. “I don’t think I’ll be there much longer.”

That makes Felix remember his voice. “What?” he demands, straightening up. “Where are you going to go?”

“I don’t know,” Sylvain says, with a shrug. He turns his gaze out towards the rooftops of the neighborhood. “South America? Europe? I’ll find somewhere.”

“You don’t have money,” Felix says.

“I’ll have two thousand dollars soon enough,” Sylvain says, and winks. “That’s enough for a plane ticket or two. I’ll figure everything else out once I get there.” “But that’s so far,” Felix says before he can stop himself, and then, at the amused expression Sylvain turns on him, adds sharply, “Not that I care or anything. Just, you know. It’s far. Mathematically.”

“Mathematically,” Sylvain repeats, still with a smile curving his lips, like he knows something Felix doesn’t. It’s infuriating. He’s going to open his mouth to tell him so when the glass door slides open behind them and Ingrid leans out.

“What are you idiots doing out here? You’re going to die. It’s karaoke time, come on.”

“So?” Felix asks her blankly. Ingrid, who has known him since before he could walk, can’t possibly think karaoke holds any allure for him. He likes music, but karaoke doesn’t generally fall into that category.

“So, you’re going to come listen to my girlfriend sing a song,” Ingrid says, beaming. Then her smile changes, turns more sinister. “And also, Sylvain promised he’d sing Total Eclipse of the Heart when you were drunk at my house.”

“That does sound like me,” Sylvain says, with grim stoicism.

 

****************************

 

The promise of karaoke has for some reason filled the den up with people, and they have to elbow their way through to get closer to the front. Dorothea’s already up there with the karaoke machine and Sylvain’s mother, who is fussing with the karaoke machine. She doesn’t seem to know how to use it, but that’s not stopping her from insisting on helping.

After a few minutes of fiddling and a squeal of painful feedback as the mic kicks in, everything is deemed ready and Mrs. Gautier joins the rest of the crowd, flapping one gloved hand in a go-ahead signal to Dorothea.

The song Dorothea sings is from a musical that Felix doesn’t recognize, but it’s a big hit with the assembled audience. Of course, Dorothea could probably sing anything she wanted and people would toss literal roses to her. She’s got a beautiful voice. It’s kind of mesmerizing.

While all the Gautiers’ friends are still clapping enthusiastically and she’s graciously trying and failing to decline an encore, Sylvain leans in to say in Felix’s ear, “What about you? Are you looking forward to going back to New York?”

“What? Why?” Felix asks, turning sharply to look at him. He feels caught off guard by the question. Why is Sylvain bringing it up now? Is he that eager to drop Felix off and go home? It takes him a minute to realize Sylvain is continuing their conversation from the balcony.

“Because it’s all you’ve talked about since we got here,” Sylvain says. He raises one eyebrow. “Going back to Syracuse? Getting away from your family?”

Dorothea starts singing again. This one sounds older, a folk song maybe. It’s not from the karaoke deck; she’s singing it without music or accompaniment.

“It isn’t all I’ve talked about,” Felix mutters.

“No?” Sylvain bumps Felix’s shoulder with his own, gently. It’s something he’s done since they were kids. I’m here, it says. “I thought you were going to climb out the window and take off in the middle of the night at least five times.”

No wonder you were holding onto me so tight, then, Felix almost answers but doesn’t.

It’s on the tip of his tongue, but he has a feeling that it won’t come off as scathing out loud as he means it. The faint heat he feels rise up in his face at the unbidden memory of Sylvain’s hands on his skin supports his decision.

Sylvain is still watching him, waiting for an answer. It takes Felix a moment to remember the question.

Is he excited to leave? A few days ago he would have answered, obviously. Obviously he’s looking forward to going back to New York, and Annette, and Ashe, and school. Being in his hometown feels like carrying an extra hundred pounds around with him, everywhere he goes. Like wearing a lead diving suit on dry land.

But he’s startled to find, in thinking about leaving Kingston tomorrow, that the urgency behind it has changed. He doesn’t know how or when, but it has.

Glenn and Dimitri are across the room, his brother sitting on the couch while Dimitri leans against the arm, looking somewhat awkward, like he always does. Glenn’s arm is wrapped around Dimitri’s waist like the anchor he always is and always has been.

Glenn is toying with their fingers, absently, lacing them together and then untangling them again while they listen to Dorothea sing. For some reason, watching them doesn’t make Felix feel as sick as it normally does.

Ingrid is only a few feet away, laughing and looking the happiest he’s seen her in a long time as Dorothea finishes her second song and does a sweeping curtsy. As he watches, Ingrid whistles, raising her hands above her head to clap even louder.

“It hasn’t been as bad as I thought,” Felix says finally.

“Oh no?”

Felix makes a face over at him. “Don’t look so smug, it has nothing to do with you.”

Before Sylvain can say anything in return, Dorothea and Ingrid have popped up on either side of him like grinning Jack-in-the-boxes and start dragging him up to the front amidst renewed cheering.

Once up there, Sylvain holds up his hands until the noise dies down and then leans into the microphone to announce that he’ll be happy to do the song, of course, but he believes it would be much better served as a duet, if Ms. Arnault would be so kind.

She bats her eyelashes and tells him she normally wouldn’t, but she can’t bear to leave someone so handsome alone to embarrass himself onstage.

Despite having just met, they have the air of a comedy act who have practiced this routine many, many times. If Felix had thought about it, he might have guessed they’d get along. They probably have more in common, in some ways, than either of them does with Felix or Ingrid.

Ingrid comes back to stand next to him as the opening bars sound, and leans her head on his shoulder, tucking her arm into his. “Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” he says back, watching Sylvain. He’s wearing a deep green sweater tonight, which combined with his hair makes him look like a walking holiday catalog advertisement.

He’s not bad at singing, which is vaguely infuriating. He’s no Dorothea, but he’s not terrible.

“You seem like you’re having a nice time,” Ingrid says. He’s reminded of his conversation with Annette, and huffs, dragging his gaze back to focus on her. “Why do people keep saying that to me?”

“Only you would take that as an insult,” she sighs, and pokes him in the side. “Why won’t you admit it’s true? You’re happy to have Sylvain back. There’s nothing wrong with that. He sucks, but life sucks way worse without him. We’ve known that since we were like, ten.”

Felix opens his mouth to refute this, and then closes it again. Ingrid doesn’t seem to notice. “I’m so glad you guys finally made up,” she goes on, watching them sing now. There’s glitter on her cheeks from Dorothea’s gold eyeshadow. “I don’t really know what happened—and you don’t have to tell me, so stop making that face—but he was so upset when he came out in March. He didn’t say anything, but—”

“What?” Felix asks, turning so sharply he almost knocks her over. “What about March?”

Ingrid seems to recognize she’s made a mistake. She winces. A section of her hair is coming unbraided, loosening at the end. “Fuck. Champagne.” Her expression turns pleading. “Look, it’s not a big deal at all, I just promised I wouldn’t tell you, so don’t mention to Sylvain that I did, okay? Please?”

Felix is growing more impatient by the second. He’s dangerously close to stomping his foot. “Promised you wouldn’t tell me what?”

“Sylvain came out to New York last March,” Ingrid says, with a defeated sigh. “He was only there for like, twenty-four hours. He stayed with Mercie in the city, and then he rented a car and drove upstate the next day and we had lunch.”

“No he didn’t,” Felix says, blinking. “He would have told me.”

She gives him an incredulous look. “Do you not remember how mad at him you were last March? Don’t get me wrong, I wanted you to come to lunch too, but you were still in a don’t-mention-his-name-to-me sort of mood so I didn’t know how to bring it up. And while I was trying to come up with something, he called and asked me not to tell you he was there.” She looks apologetic. “It seemed like it might be for the best.”

I flew out to see him last spring, Sylvain had told Glenn a few days ago, at dusk. But that was a lie, it had to be. He had made it up, one of a whole series of things that hadn’t happened. It was part of a story that wasn’t even true.

“Anyway, he was pretty fucked up about it,” Ingrid goes on, seeming not to notice Felix’s distraction. She toys with the unraveling end of her braid. “About you and him not talking. Like I said, we didn’t go into it, but it was obvious he missed you a lot. I don’t think he came out to see me.”

The emphasis she puts on the last word makes no sense. I don’t think he came out to see me.

“You just said he told you not to tell me he was even there,” Felix says.

“Yeah, well, you know,” Ingrid says, gesturing vaguely and looking tired. “Sylvain.”

“I didn’t know,” Felix says, numb. He looks back at the stage. Sylvain is down on one knee now, hand on his heart, singing up to Dorothea, who’s laughing.

He hadn’t known Sylvain had come all the way to New York. Why hadn’t Sylvain said anything? Not then, not over the next several months apart, and not anytime during this whole trip, when he’d had every opportunity to mention it?

Was he coming to apologize? Why had he changed his mind?

Sylvain had told Felix so many things, over the past week. It was odd to realize there might still be things he hadn’t.

Karaoke goes on for a while longer and then fizzles out as everyone gets drunker and less able to enunciate, and Felix, Sylvain, Dorothea, and Ingrid relocate to one of the couches in the corner of the den and set up camp.

Ingrid and Dorothea are hiding from Ingrid’s parents. Sylvain and Felix are still trying to hide, with statistically much less luck, from Sylvain’s.

“Did everyone make their New Year’s wishes?” Dorothea asks somewhat-drunkenly sometime close to midnight, head in Ingrid’s lap while Ingrid toys with her hair.

“I don’t think that’s a thing,” Ingrid says, and Dorothea looks up at her, indignant. “Of course it’s a thing. You get to make wishes for what you want for the new year, everyone knows that.”

“That isn’t a thing,” Ingrid insists, but rolls her eyes. “Fine, I wish—”

But Dorothea reaches up and presses a manicured hand to her mouth, looking scandalized. “You can’t say it!”

“You asked!” Ingrid takes her hand and looks down at her with a frankly awful amount of adoration that she probably isn’t even aware of. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter.” She blushes to the tips of her ears. “There’s nothing else I want.”

“Disgusting,” Felix says, making a face. “You’re both disgusting.”

Sylvain climbs over the back of the couch balancing champagne glasses. “I return victorious,” he announces, and passes them around, dropping down next to Felix and settling in. He’s too close, again. He’s always too close. He smells like the campfire in the backyard.

“Your very rude brother took mine on my way back, so we’ll have to share,” he says to Felix. He leans in and tips the champagne flute towards Felix invitingly, so that it’s almost touching his lips. “Here we go,” he coaxes. “Open your mouth.”

The worst part is, insanely, Felix almost does.

“I need air,” he says abruptly. He struggles to dislodge himself from where he’s sunk deep into the overly soft couch. He’s barely drunk anything tonight because he’s determined not to give Ingrid the chance to laugh at him again, so he’s not sure why, once he manages to stand up, he feels so unsteady on his feet.

“I wasn’t going to spill it on you,” Sylvain says, looking put out. He catches Felix’s sleeve. “Come on, Felix, I was kidding! This one is yours, I’m driving, remember?”

“I just need to go outside,” Felix says, shaking him off. “It’s too warm in here, I have to—”

“Oh, good, you’re already coming,” says Glenn, appearing from absolutely nowhere and seizing Felix’s arm. He makes an impatient tsking sound and beckons grandly to the three on the couches as he drags Felix along with him like he’s herding cattle. “It’s almost time for the countdown, come on you youths, we’re all going out back to see the fireworks!”

“Get off!” Felix protests, shoving at his brother, but it’s too late; they’re caught up in the steady stream of people exiting the mansion to spread themselves across the backyard.

Sylvain, Ingrid, and Dorothea catch up, and Felix pries Glenn’s fingers off his arm. It’s too late; Sylvain’s already here again. Felix’s attempt to get away from him, and the confusing way he’s making Felix’s insides feel, is ruined.

“Well, you did say you needed air,” Sylvain says, tone light, but his eyes are worried. “Felix…”

“I’m fine,” Felix says, before he can ask. It’s definitely not true, but he at least feels less lightheaded than he had inside. The cold is helping.

“Everyone remember, start the year as you mean to go on with it!” Mrs. Gautier calls from the porch. She giggles. Her black beaded dress is glittering in the dark. Her hair is as bright as Sylvain’s, Felix had noticed earlier, without a trace of gray; she must color it. “Be sure to find someone special to kiss at midnight!”

Then, horribly, she looks directly over at Felix and Sylvain and beams knowingly.

Felix forgets how to get air in and out of his lungs. He’d forgotten this part of New Year’s.

He’d forgotten because he’d barely ever thought about it, because it had never mattered.

It still doesn’t matter, not really, not like that, but now everyone’s around them and it’s too late to sneak back inside because it must be almost midnight, and they’re all growing loud and excited in the final minutes of the year.

“Don’t worry,” Sylvain says in his ear, breath warm. A shiver goes down Felix’s spine, even though he’s still wearing Sylvain’s jacket. “I’m not going to kiss you.”

It’s meant to be reassuring. Felix knows it is. He can hear it all through Sylvain’s tone, how much he wants to comfort Felix.

He doesn’t know why it isn’t what he wants to hear.

“One minute out!” someone yells. A few people cheer in response.

“We can tell them you’re shy,” Sylvain goes on, still so close. His mouth is almost touching Felix’s skin. His hand is resting at the small of Felix’s back. Felix is acutely aware of it. “Or you don’t like PDA. I’ll make up something. You don’t have to do anything, I promise.”

It’s a reasonable excuse, Felix thinks. They would definitely buy it. Odds are no one will even be paying them enough attention, as the year turns over, to notice if they kiss or not.

So he’s not sure why when he opens his mouth what comes out is, “No.” His throat is so dry it clicks when he tries to swallow. “No, it’s fine.”

He turns to face Sylvain, and catches the end of an expression Felix doesn’t recognize as it slides off his face. “Everyone’s here,” he adds, brusk, with an impatient gesture around them. He doesn’t know why it feels like he’s trying to convince himself as much as Sylvain. “It’ll be too obvious we’re lying if we don’t. We leave tomorrow, no point ruining everything now.”

“I promised I wouldn’t kiss you when we first got here,” Sylvain says. His eyes are reflecting the string lights crisscrossing the backyard above them. “I take contracts very seriously.”

The countdown is less than thirty seconds now. Some people around them are starting to track the remaining time aloud. Their energy is palpable, buzzing.

“I said it’s fine,” Felix says. He feels strangely breathless. “It’s just a kiss.”

Just a kiss, he says, like he kisses people all the time. Like the sum total of his kissing experience isn’t just Ingrid when they were much younger, and Ashe that one time they were both very drunk.

Like it’s ever been something that meant anything, the way he’s pretty sure kissing Sylvain now would mean something.

“Guess we’ve got to, then,” Sylvain says, low. One hand settles warm on his waist. The other comes up to cradle Felix’s face, and his eyes don’t move from Felix’s. Felix isn’t sure he could look away if he wanted to. “For the greater good.”

It sounds like he’s asking a question. Felix doesn’t know what it is. Or maybe he does, maybe he’s finally starting to, and he isn’t sure what his answer is yet.

Everyone around them is counting down from ten, growing in volume and enthusiasm. Sparklers are being passed around, freezing hands and faces in too-bright light before fading out again. The sparks drift up and vanish against the starry sky.

Eight….seven…...six…..

“Guess so,” Felix says. It feels like his tongue is made of lead. Why does he feel like this? Is it too late to take it back?

Does he want to?

Sylvain is so close now. Felix can see each of his eyelashes, the freckles across his nose, the thin scar through his right eyebrow, even in the dark. He closes his eyes.

Three…...two…...

“Happy New Year’s, Felix,” Felix hears, murmured so, so quietly, and so, so close, and then Sylvain’s pressing his lips to Felix’s, soft and chaste and warm.

It’s just a New Year’s kiss, Felix reminds himself in the seconds before their lips touch. Tradition. Perfunctory.

So he’s not expecting this: the want that burns through him as soon as Sylvain’s mouth is on his. He’s never felt anything like it before in his life. It’s as if a switch has been thrown. A circuit breaker with every fuse flipped at once. It leaves him wobbly.

When Felix’s lips part it’s out of surprise, an automatic reaction, a reflex, but his mouth is still touching Sylvain’s, and he can taste the way Sylvain gasps in response, lips bumping back against Felix’s on accident.

He can feel Sylvain’s nails scrape the back of his neck as his fingers curl there. Not grasping, barely even holding. Like that’s a reflex too.

Felix isn’t used to being kissed. Even dazed as he is, he’s aware that it’s odd, and a little awkward, and that his teeth and Sylvain’s are both definitely in the way. But then Sylvain moves just so, tilts his head to one side and guides Felix’s chin up with the hand still resting on his cheek, and everything fits together right, and—there.

Kissing is good, actually. Kissing is perfect.

Everyone around them fades out and the noise all blurs together and he’s just aware of Sylvain, and the heat of his mouth, and that his hand has left Felix’s waist and come up to cup Felix’s other cheek. He’s aware of the slide of Sylvain’s tongue over his bottom lip, the delicious scrape of his teeth as he gently nips the top one, and then his own mouth opens on another involuntary startled sound and the kiss changes again, turns hungrier.

It turns out that kissing Sylvain is so much better than not kissing Sylvain. Felix thinks someone should have told him. How was he supposed to know that on his own?

Absently, he can’t believe even Sylvain would have the audacity to keep kissing him like this—to pull him up onto his toes and push his mouth open with his tongue until Felix is making noises he’ll deny later, and kiss him, and kiss him, and kiss him—in front of his brother, and Ingrid, and Sylvain’s parents and all their friends.

Then Sylvain makes a tormented, rough-edged sound and says, “Felix,” desperately against his mouth, and his eyes flutter open and he realizes it’s not Sylvain doing it at all.

He’s the one dragging Sylvain down to meet him, the one whose hands have come up without his permission to make two tight, proprietary fists—one in the neck of Sylvain’s sweater, pulling it crooked, and one in his infuriatingly soft hair.

He’s the one chasing Sylvain’s mouth even as he pulls away.

They break apart. Sylvain looks shocked, more than shocked, like he’s been hit with something heavy. He stares at Felix, eyes wide, and then—damn him—he’s looking at Felix’s mouth again, and Felix feels himself leaning back in inexorably.

Sylvain catches his shoulders. “Whoa, there,” he says, glancing around. He looks less composed than Felix has ever seen him. His voice is hoarse. “Parents. So many parents. And other, uh, witnesses, generally.”

There are fireworks happening, Felix notices idly. They’re drenching Sylvain’s hair different colors as they burst and fade. Everyone around them is watching the sky. No one is paying the two of them any attention.

“Witnesses?” he repeats, trying to parse the word, and Sylvain makes an odd, despairing sound and closes his eyes. “Jesus, look at you.”

Felix doesn’t know what he means by that but separated from Sylvain’s mouth some bit of awareness of the situation has returned and a chill is creeping in. Sylvain had stopped the kiss. Sylvain hadn’t wanted to kiss him anymore. “Did you not—you don’t want to—?”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Sylvain says, and takes hold of Felix’s face again, cradling it in his hands and turning it up to his before he can flinch away. “That is not the problem,” he murmurs. He’s looking down at Felix so intently he might be trying to memorize him. “I can’t even name all the things I want to do to you.”

Heat pools low in Felix’s abdomen at the way Sylvain says it. “But we’re in a very public place,” he goes on, before Felix can weigh in in enthusiastic favor of this plan, “And more importantly, I think you may have had too much to drink.”

“I haven’t had anything to drink except one glass of champagne,” Felix says crossly, as Sylvain’s words slowly filter in. Then he blinks. “Wait, do you think I’m drunk?”

“I can’t think of another explanation,” Sylvain says, with a lopsided smile. He lets go of Felix’s face, drops his hands back to his sides. “Can you?”

“You’re so stupid,” Felix says, incredulous. It’s true, and he hates Sylvain more than ever, but at the same time he’s just wishing he was kissing him again and here Sylvain is wasting perfectly good time looking sad for no good reason. “I’m not drunk.”

Felix doesn’t know how this longing was in him for as long as it feels like it must have been, or where it could have been hiding that he didn’t notice it. He wants to touch Sylvain more. He wants Sylvain to touch him. He can’t stop looking at Sylvain’s hands, which are inexplicably not touching him.

“You also said you weren’t drunk when I had to carry you into your house the other night because you couldn’t stand on your own,” Sylvain says in a tone which suggests he thinks he’s being very mature and reasonable.

His mouth is red from Felix’s, and he’s going to stand there looking so awfully like that and refuse to kiss Felix anymore? Felix can’t believe it. It’s the meanest thing anyone’s ever done.

“You’re so stupid,” Felix says again, with feeling. He feels like frustrated tears aren’t far off. He’s about to haul Sylvain back down by the collar and kiss him again, and probably bite him, when Sylvain’s father, of all the awful possibilities, appears beside them.

His arrival startles Felix half out of his skin.

“So glad to have you, Felix,” he says, holding out a hand until Felix remembers common courtesy and takes it to shake, woodenly. “Please come visit anytime, we would love to have you both. And do call that number I gave you, they’ll get you the best deal on the east coast!”

Sylvain doesn’t answer. Felix mumbles something that might pass for conversation, or at least English, and continues to do so until Mr. Gautier leaves. Sylvain is still standing there, watching Felix as if he hadn’t even noticed his father’s presence.

Unfortunately, Felix has barely opened his mouth to ask Sylvain if his childhood bedroom is still available or if it’s been turned into a yoga studio when Glenn finds them.

“It’s as good a time as any to get out before all the drunk New Year’s drivers hit the road,” he says, looking from Felix to Sylvain. Dimitri is half-asleep on his shoulder. “If you’re ready to leave?”

Felix struggles for several seconds, but ultimately can’t think of a way to tell him to go away so he can make out with Sylvain some more. “Yes,” he says, finally, glaring at Sylvain as if it’s his fault, because it is. His hair is all mussed up from Felix’s hands. It’s horrible. “Let’s go home.”

They don’t touch at all on the ride back to the house. Even if they wanted to, it’s logistically impossible; Dimitri’s in the front seat and Dorothea, Ingrid, Glenn, and Felix are all crammed into the back. Dorothea is on Ingrid’s lap, and they’re sharing a seatbelt.

Felix’s eyes keep meeting Sylvain’s in the rearview mirror by accident, crashing into each other like heavy magnets, and the look Felix sees there makes heat creep up his throat.

They spill Dorothea and Ingrid out onto the curb in front of her house; the lights are on, so her parents must have bailed on the Gautiers before midnight. Everyone choruses good luck wishes, and Ingrid takes a visible deep breath and then firmly takes Dorothea’s hand to lead her up the walkway.

The remainder of the short drive seems to take an eternity. And then, once they get home, Felix’s dad decides to come downstairs, yawning, and ask a series of questions about the party, which Felix frankly doesn’t even hear. Sylvain answers, smiling easily as if nothing at all is the matter. Felix can’t stop staring at the line of his throat when he laughs.

To his horror, Glenn then tries to drum up interest in a post-midnight game of cribbage. Sylvain politely begs off, saying that he’s tired from seeing his parents and needs to sleep.

His gaze collides with Felix’s before he turns to go upstairs, just for a second. The open longing on his face turns Felix’s legs to jelly. He grips the banister so tight he can feel the carvings dig into his skin.

Felix says goodnight to his dad and brother and Dimitri, somehow, and gets upstairs and into his room, somehow. He shuts the door behind him.

Sylvain is sitting on the bed, leaning back on his hands. He looks up as soon as Felix steps into the room.

“So,” Sylvain says, and tips his head to the side. Just ‘so,’ like he’s leaving it up to Felix to decide what the end of that sentence is. He’s fully dressed, still, but even his jeans and sweater now seem indecent. Felix knows how soft that sweater is underneath his hands.

“So?” Felix repeats. He shuts the door and folds his arms over his chest, reflexive, then unfolds them again. Sylvain is still watching him, waiting. Felix bursts out, impatient, “Are you just going to sit there?”

“You sure you’re not drunk?” Sylvain asks, and Felix announces, “Right, I’m going to kill you.”

At this point it’s been too long since Sylvain’s hands were on him and he’s feeling significantly less turned on and significantly more angry that he continues to be asked this same question, and so the only solution available to him seems to be to strangle Sylvain to death so that he can never say anything annoying again.

He leaves the door and stalks over to follow through on the threat. Sylvain gets to his feet and intercepts him. He interrupts what Felix was going to say by pulling him up by Sylvain’s own jacket collar, which he hasn’t taken off yet, and kissing him soundly.

Felix clings to him, stunned into complacence for the length of several slow, lazy kisses, and then he regains some basic motor function and shoves his hands under the hem of Sylvain’s sweater, rucking it up to try and drag it off over his head.

“Easy, you know I’m still in there, right?” Sylvain says. “You’re going to decapitate me. You like my head, remember? My mouth is attached to it.”

Felix only mutters, “Shut up,” face hot, and redoubles his efforts.

It’s so hot in the room. He feels like he’s burning up.

He’s always been annoyed that Sylvain is taller than him, and this is no exception. If anything, it’s more aggravating than ever. He needs them to be on the same level, so that he can continue kissing him and also remove his clothing, and Sylvain’s stupid unreasonable height is getting in the way of that.

Sylvain seems to agree, because he groans low in his throat and then the next thing Felix is aware of he’s being bodily hoisted up and set down among the blankets and discarded clothes littering his childhood bed. Being so easily manhandled makes him incandescently angry, and isn’t hot, at all, even a little bit.

Then he’s staring up at the ceiling, and at Sylvain kneeling above him, and he’s forgotten how to breathe.

“Hey,” Sylvain says, voice soft again. He brushes hair out of Felix’s eyes. “Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Felix says, recovering. He starts to pull at Sylvain’s sweater again, but he gets too distracted by the feel of his shoulder muscles halfway through taking it off. Sylvain finally just sits back on his heels—thighs straddling Felix’s hips, fitted jeans straining over them, which makes Felix feel a little lightheaded—and tugs it off over his own head, tossing it away somewhere in the dark room.

He doesn’t come back down right away, and Felix makes a restless sound that is not a whine. Sylvain looks down at him, his eyes so dark but his smile warmer than ever, and slides his palms up Felix’s sides, slow and hot.

“Do you want me to touch you?” he asks, low.

Yes,” Felix answers again, demands, pressing up into his hands.

Distantly, he feels like maybe they should talk about this. Like, probably this is something that someone would want to talk about first. But he doesn’t want to. He thinks anything he would say, Sylvain already knows.

Felix goes up on one elbow and then the other to shrug Sylvain’s jacket off of him, impatient.

Sylvain pushes Felix’s sweater up over his stomach and follows it with his hands, mapping the skin beneath, exploratory. Felix’s breath hitches in his throat at the feel of Sylvain touching him, finally. At the way Sylvain is staring down at him.

Then Sylvain hooks a finger in the collar of the sweater and pulls it aside, bends his head and scrapes his teeth over Felix’s exposed collarbone, slow. “Oh, you taste so good,” he murmurs against his shoulder. His breath is hot over the wet skin. “Want to taste you all over.”

Felix doesn’t do physical stuff, ever. He’s not prepared for how overwhelming it is. How much he wants. He feels like he’s shaking out of his skin. He can’t stop shivering, even though Sylvain is so warm.

He lets Sylvain tip his head to one side, drag his mouth over the side of his neck. He rests his thumb in the hollow of Felix’s throat and strokes a circle there. Felix’s breath is coming in pants, and he knows that’s embarrassing, knows he shouldn’t be this worked up from how little they’ve done.

But he thinks Sylvain looks worked up too, Sylvain who has done far, far more than this.

He keeps stopping just to look at Felix, and Felix feels his face burning under the scrutiny, shifting uncomfortably on the sheets. Why is Sylvain just staring when there are so many more interesting things he could be doing?

“Ugh, come on,” he says finally, pushing himself up on one elbow, flushed and impatient. “Or are you just all fucking talk?”

That wins him a laugh, and then Sylvain’s body is covering his again, heavy and warm, and he laces their fingers together and whispers in his ear, “Oh, baby, just wait.”

Felix has to suppress a new shiver, but he pays him back for wasting time by biting him hard on the jaw, and Sylvain laughs again and tilts his head back to capture his mouth again.

Felix’s dropped phone starts buzzing loudly on the floor. “Ignore it,” he says, breathless, when Sylvain pauses with fingers curled in the waistband of Felix’s jeans and glances over at it. Felix arches up into his hands. He’s going to lose his mind. “I don’t fucking—I don’t care, it’s probably Annette drunk dialing me, it can wait.”

The phone rings out and then falls silent again.

Then it starts buzzing again, dull and urgent, and Sylvain stills and drops his forehead to Felix’s and says, “Felix,” and Felix snaps, “I know, I know, I’ll check.”

Sylvain sits back and off of him and Felix gets up to swipe the phone up. He glances at the screen. A pang of worry cuts through the haze of lust. “Ingrid?” he answers. “What is it?”

“We’re downstairs,” Ingrid says. Her voice trembles on downstairs. “I didn’t want to wake your family up.”

“I’m so sorry,” she says, once Felix has gotten his sweater adjusted and his jeans re-buttoned and gets downstairs to unlock the door. The others must have gone to bed sometime in the intervening time—how long had Sylvain been kissing Felix? Ten minutes? An hour? A year?—because the lights are all off.

Ingrid’s face is streaked with tears, and her stuffed hockey bag is slung over one shoulder. Dorothea is right behind her, still in her sequins. Her eyes are dry, but she looks miserable.

“What happened?” Felix asks in a low voice, beckoning them in.

Ingrid sniffs and scrubs at her eyes. Her grip on the strap of her bag tightens. She shakes her head once, fiercely, and Felix understands. She doesn’t want to talk about it tonight. She takes a deep breath, and asks, “Can we stay with you?”

Sylvain is fully dressed again by the time they all tiptoe upstairs and into Felix’s room. He expediently re-inflates the air mattress so Dorothea and Ingrid can have somewhere to sleep, and then he drags one of the extra blankets off the bed and tucks a pillow under his arm.

He’s sleeping downstairs on the couch, and Felix is taking his own old bed. The one Sylvain was just pressing him down into. The one that now smells faintly, damn him to hell, of Sylvain’s cologne.

“See you all in the morning,” Sylvain murmurs, and pulls Ingrid into a one-armed hug, resting his chin briefly on the top of her head. “Get some sleep, okay? Things won’t seem so terrible tomorrow. I promise.”

“You can’t promise that,” she says quietly. She’s sitting on the air mattress in her old CLASS OF ‘17 sleep t-shirt, hugging a pillow to her chest. Dorothea is brushing her teeth.

“Probably,” Sylvain agrees. “I do anyway.”

He pauses next to Felix on his way out the door, but there’s not really room for either of them to say anything.

Just looking at Sylvain makes Felix feel hot all over, so he keeps his gaze directed firmly down at the floor to avoid doing or saying anything stupid. In the end, Sylvain just murmurs, “Good night, Felix,” and leaves.

Felix barely sleeps.

It’s not that his old bed is uncomfortable; it’s just that his skin is itching and he can’t seem to slow down his heartbeat to the pace it was beating at before Sylvain kissed him.

It’s just that he was right, and it takes him forever to get to sleep without Sylvain there.

 

****************************

 

In the morning Felix comes downstairs early to try and talk to Sylvain. Fortunately, he’s awake early too.

Unfortunately, so are his dad and Dimitri.

The blankets and pillow Sylvain slept with are folded up and neatly stacked on one end of the couch in the living room, and Sylvain is in the kitchen, doing something at the stove. Felix is surprised to learn they have pans.

His dad and Dimitri are sitting at the table in companionable silence, reading separate sections of the newspaper. Felix goes over to join Sylvain.

“Good morning,” Sylvain says when he sees him, and smiles. His eyes crinkle up at the edges, and Felix feels sort of like someone’s punched him in the abdomen. “Good morning,” he manages.

Sylvain is just wearing sweatpants and a UCLA sweatshirt, but Felix still can’t stop staring at him.

He strongly suspects there’s no shirt under the zip-up hoodie. He can see plenty of freckled skin in the vee of the zip as evidence. How is he supposed to be normal about this when Sylvain won’t put on a shirt to make breakfast? How is he supposed to be normal about this when Sylvain is making breakfast in his house?

There’s a growing stack of pancakes already on the table, and more on the stovetop, and something which smells suspiciously like sausage sizzling in a pan. There are eggs, too. Who even knew where those had come from.

“Sleep okay?” Sylvain asks, tone innocent, and Felix narrows his eyes at him, feeling his cheeks burn. “Fine,” he says. “You?”

“Could have been better,” Sylvain says with a careless shrug. His gaze drops to Felix’s mouth and lingers. Felix vividly considers strangling him with a tea towel.

Instead, he goes to get pancakes from the stack and sits down at the counter to stab viciously at them. He’s not at the table with his dad and Dimitri, but he chooses the closest stool to them. A compromise.

Dorothea and Ingrid come down about half an hour later. Ingrid’s hair is damp from the shower. Dorothea’s eye makeup is smudged from sleep, like she hadn’t bothered to properly remove it.

They both sit at the table. Rodrigue, to whom everything must have been explained by Sylvain when he first came down, gives them a sympathetic look and wordlessly passes over the carton of orange juice.

Glenn clatters down last, around nine, yawning and pulling an elastic out of his hair. It spills down his back, far longer than Felix’s. “I didn’t know we had company,” he says, cheerful, when he spots Dorothea and Ingrid.

He comes around the table to kiss Dimitri on the cheek. Dimitri murmurs something in his ear, and Glenn’s smile fades as his gaze flicks from Dorothea to Ingrid, then hitches determinedly back into place.

“Good morning beautiful,” he says, kissing Ingrid on the top of her head. He leans over to extend a hand to Dorothea. “And you must be Dorothea! We didn’t get a chance to meet last night. Welcome to the Rodrigue Fraldarius sanctuary for wayward gays.”

Their dad chokes on his coffee.

“Glenn,” he says quellingly, setting his cup down.

“What!” Glenn claps him on the shoulder as he drops into the chair between him and Dimitri. “You’re officially the coolest dad any of us know! You’re hip and with it!”

Felix snorts into his pancakes.

“I don’t think this is the time for jokes,” their father says, in an exceedingly not hip and with it tone. “Be considerate.”

“I am being—” Glenn starts, and then breaks off to gape at the plate of pancakes. “Is this breakfast?”

“It is breakfast time,” their dad says dryly. He turns the page of his newspaper.

“Yeah, but no one here can coo—oh, man,” Glenn says, turning wide eyes to Sylvain and then swiveling in his chair to stare at Felix. “You have to marry him. He made us eggs.”

Felix inhales pancake into his lungs. Sylvain chokes a laugh without turning around. “My pleasure,” he says over one shoulder, pushing the eggs around the sizzling pan with a spatula. “I love meeting low standards.”

Eggs,” Glenn whispers stage-loud to Dimitri, jabbing a fork emphatically towards his plate. His expression is rapturous.

“What do you do for breakfast when I’m not here?” Sylvain asks. He sounds vaguely concerned now.

“Eat out,” Glenn says, at the same time that Dimitri says, thoughtful, “Cereal?”

Felix doesn’t offer his own answer. He’s too busy watching Sylvain’s shoulder blades move through the thin fabric of his sweatshirt while he works at the stove. The soft material is straining at the biceps.

He misses his pancake and scrapes his fork and knife over the porcelain of his plate with a horrible sound that makes everyone wince and turn to stare at him. Sylvain looks back at him, eyebrows raised.

“What time are you boys getting on the road today?” their dad asks, mercifully, sipping his coffee.

Sylvain finishes at the stove and scoops the last of the eggs and sausages onto a new plate, depositing it onto the table so everyone can pass it around. “Felix has to get back to do some work, so we’ll head out after breakfast, I think,” he says, looking to Felix for confirmation. Felix nods vigorously, chewing.

“Felix,” Dimitri says, hesitant. Felix freezes. Half the room freezes. “Can I talk to you before you go?”

It’s unbelievably awkward for him to do this in front of everyone, but Dimitri’s complete obliviousness to how awkward it is almost negates the awkwardness. Almost.

There’s a short list of things he can think of that Dimitri would want to talk to him about, and none of them is something he wants to discuss, now or ever. He feels he’s made that vividly clear.

No, Felix would have said two weeks ago. No, I don’t want to talk.

He swallows his overlarge bite with difficulty. “Fine,” he says stiffly. He slides off his stool. Dimitri indicates the living room, and Felix follows him. He doesn’t look back at Sylvain, but he can feel his eyes on him.

He allows Dimitri to stand there by the sofa in the other room for almost a full minute, looking at the unlit Christmas tree and fidgeting, before he huffs an exhale and says, too sharp, “Well?”

“Are things going to be like this forever?” Dimitri asks quietly, without looking at him.

Of all the things Felix had thought he might say, all the ways Dimitri might start a conversation, this wasn’t one of them. He’d expected more apologies, if anything. More polite skirting around the issue. It takes him a while to reorient, and longer to come up with an answer.

“I don’t know,” Felix says, but then he does. “No,” he says, surprised to recognize it as true. “Not forever.”

Dimitri nods, once. His hands are curled into loose fists at his sides. He still doesn’t look at Felix. “Is there anything I can do?” he asks. It sounds so sad, and for once that sadness doesn’t fill Felix with answering anger.

“No,” Felix says again. There it is again, that old ache. Phantom pain. “I don’t think there is.” It takes some effort, but he manages the next words: “It’s not your fault, so there’s nothing you can do to fix it.”

“I’m sorry,” Dimitri says anyway. It figures; he’s never in his life believed something isn’t his fault.

He does look back at Felix now, and he looks younger again, like he used to, before everything. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t—that I don’t—”

“Don’t fucking apologize for that,” Felix says, almost snaps it. “Just—don’t.” It feels like opening an old wound all over again, like Dimitri’s going to tear out stitches that have only just healed.

He doesn’t want Dimitri to apologize for not loving him. That’s not ever what he wanted. It’s too embarrassing, too pathetic. It’s worse than rejection ever was.

Dimitri falls silent, obeying. “I miss you,” he says instead. For someone who’s grown into such a large man, his voice is still so soft when he wants it to be.

Felix has to swallow hard around the lump in his throat. “I miss you too,” he says. That’s true too.

They just stay there, on opposite sides of the room, for what feels like a long time, until Sylvain calls Felix’s name from the kitchen and he turns and leaves without looking back.

 

****************************

 

“You know, you can always come back with us,” Felix says to Ingrid in the ice-slick driveway, while Sylvain finishes getting their bags back into the car. “You don’t have to stay here the entire time, now that Dorothea’s here.”

“I want to stay, Felix,” Ingrid says, rolling her eyes at him. She’s smiling, though, even if it has a somewhat watery quality. “I want to show Dorothea the town, and your dad said we could stay with him for as long as we need. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I actually like it here.”

“If you’re sure,” Felix says, and then threatens, “I’m not coming back to get you.”

“I know that,” Ingrid says. She pats his arm. “You can’t drive.”

His noise of indignation is cut off by Sylvain, coming over to say his own goodbyes. He kisses Dorothea on the cheek and then hugs Ingrid for a long time. She wraps her arms tight around him and they just sway together for five, ten, almost thirty seconds.

“I’m glad you came,” his dad says to Felix, arms crossed over his chest against the cold, and Felix hesitates and then says, muttering it, “Me too.”

“I love you,” he says, just like Glenn always does, like Felix is the one Fraldarius who missed out on the saying-things-easily gene.

Felix clears his throat. “Me too,” he says again, with effort, and then submits to a hug which in the spirit of the holidays he waits a few seconds longer than normal to wriggle out of.

“I also love you,” Glenn announces, much more loudly, and tackles Felix into a fresh hug. He starts planting kisses all over Felix’s head.

“You’re so gross,” Felix complains, squirming. He tries to headbutt him, but Glenn is too quick, and dodges. “Get off.”

Glenn and Ingrid stay outside in the driveway, waving, even as the Jeep pulls away and off down the street. Sylvain rolls down the window to wave back as long as they’re visible. Felix watches them get smaller and smaller in the side mirror until they’re out of sight.

“So what happens now?” he demands into the quiet of the car. He’s been holding it in all through breakfast, and packing, and goodbyes. He can’t stand it any longer.

“Well, now I get on the freeway and head south for about three hours,” Sylvain says, seeming unfazed by Felix’s urgency. He rolls to a slow stop at the intersection and signals right. “It’s likely that use of the brake and gas pedals will be heavily involved. Might get some windshield wiper action if we’re really lucky.”

Felix tries to remember why he had ever found Sylvain attractive for even one second. “You know that’s not what I mean,” he says, gritting his teeth. He kicks the dash, just to be irritating. Sylvain gives him a look.

“I don’t know what happens now, Felix,” Sylvain says. He turns his attention back to the road. The car pulls away from the stop sign, stuttering slightly on the ice before carrying on smoothly. “That’s kind of up to you, I guess.” This strikes Felix as wildly unfair. “Why is it up to just me?” he demands, sitting upright.

“Because I’ll be doing the same thing regardless of what you decide,” Sylvain says, shrugging.

“Oh yeah?” Felix rolls his eyes. Typical. Of course Sylvain’s not going to take responsibility, even in this. “What’s that?”

“Continuing to love you with everything I am,” Sylvain says. “Do you want to try and stop for coffee?”

Felix can hear nothing but a dull buzzing sound, growing in volume and intensity. “What?” he asks, or thinks he does.

“Coffee,” Sylvain says again. He drums his fingers against the steering wheel. “Or tea, if you’re not feeling coffee. Maybe a scone for the road? I know we’re full from breakfast now, but I don’t want you to get crabby halfway to New York.”

Sylvain!”

A smile flickers across Sylvain’s face. “Your voice gets so high sometimes. It’s very cute.”

Felix can’t seem to join his words together properly. He grips the chest strap of his seatbelt so hard the stiff fabric digs painfully into his palm. He barely notices. “You said—do you really—?”

“Of course I really,” Sylvain says. He looks over at Felix, the corner of his mouth ticking up. “Always have. Why do you think I drove all this way?”

“I thought you just wanted a thousand dollars,” Felix says stupidly. At a loss for words doesn’t begin to cover how he’s feeling. It’s like he forgot language itself, and has to relearn it.

“Oh, you’re so gullible,” Sylvain sighs. He puts on the turn signal and glances over his shoulder to change lanes, waving to the chained up Prius that slows down to let him in. “Annette never paid me a thousand dollars.”

If Felix hadn’t already been staring at him like he’d never seen him before, he would’ve gotten whiplash. “What?”

“I told you I drove all night to get to you, didn’t I?” Sylvain asks, still in that completely reasonable voice, as if this is all very normal. As if nothing lifechanging is being said.

“You were coming to get Ingrid.” This, Felix knows. This, he was told.

Sylvain laughs. “Felix, I was coming to get you. I called Ingrid the night before I showed up to beg her to cancel her flight and let me drive her home so you didn’t think I was a lunatic.”

Despite himself, Felix demands again, “What?”

Sylvain just hums. “She already thought I had lost it, obviously, especially after what happened in March. But she agreed. I think she just assumed I wanted a chance to talk to you about the funeral. I guess she wasn’t totally wrong.”

“You didn’t even tell me you came to New York,” Felix says, torn between focusing on the main thing and getting sidetracked by this important point, because he still doesn’t understand it at all and wants to force Sylvain to explain it to him.

“Yeah, well. It was stupid of me to come out in the first place.” Sylvain makes a face. “I realized it was a horrible plan when I was halfway there, but it turns out you can’t just have them turn the plane around when it’s not a private jet. I was this close to trying to buy United Airlines outright.”

Felix ignores this, all of it. “Why did you come out?”

“To tell you I loved you,” Sylvain says. “As you can see from how well it’s going now, I was right to change my mind.”

“Pull over the car,” Felix says.

“Are you okay?” Sylvain sounds concerned. “There’s a rest stop a bit ahead, if—”

“Sylvain,” Felix says sharply. “Pull over the car.”

Sylvain must hear something in his voice. He pulls the car over onto the shoulder, curving fresh tracks into the unplowed snow.

He’s barely put the Jeep in park before Felix is tearing off his seatbelt. He lurches over and Sylvain meets him, hands cupping his face and sliding around to the back of his neck. Their mouths come together so hard Felix thinks they might be at risk for losing teeth. He’s gasping, but at the same time it’s like he can breathe again.

He thought he’d felt desperate before. It turns out he hadn’t.

“We had a bed,” Sylvain laments, in between frantic kisses. “We had a hot tub.”

Felix jerks his head back by the hair to bite savagely at his throat and Sylvain groans and says, “Hot tubs are overrated,” and gets his hands on Felix’s waist, drags Felix into his lap full on.

It should be maddening that Sylvain can just throw him around like that, and it is, in the back of his mind, it is. But everywhere else it’s so hot that Felix has to break off the latest kiss, rest his forehead against Sylvain’s, and gasp for a second.

“Too much?” Sylvain asks, and Felix says, “Fuck you,” and Sylvain breathes a laugh and says, “I don’t have a lot of room here, baby, but I love a challenge.”

“You’re so annoying,” Felix says, and bites down hard on his lip to keep from making an embarrassing sound when Sylvain presses a languid kiss to his throat. He curls fingers in Sylvain’s hair. “Stop—stop calling me things like that.”

“Like what?” Sylvain asks. He brushes his nose over Felix’s jaw. “Baby?” he asks, the words murmured against Felix’s skin. “Sweetheart? But you blush so pretty when I do.”

“I don’t,” Felix says, unconvincingly. What is he arguing about? He feels dazed from lack of air. He tries to focus. “I don’t,” his breath hitches, “like it.”

“Mm, I can feel how much you don’t like it,” Sylvain says, lips curving up. Felix can feel his smile more than see it.

“I can’t believe what an idiot you are,” Felix says, closing his eyes. He can barely remember what they were talking about before Sylvain pulled the car over, but he does remember this, and that it’s very important that he let Sylvain know it. “You were scared to tell me that you—you came all the way to New York, and you didn’t tell me? And all this trip, you didn’t tell me either.”

“Come on, Felix,” Sylvain says, low and soft. He pushes hair out of Felix’s face, tucking it back behind his ear. His bun was done for as soon as Sylvain got his hands in it. “You’ve never been someone who could stand to hear ‘I love you.’ I didn’t want to scare you off for good.”

Felix pulls back to glare at him. Is that what Sylvain thinks? How is it possible that he had Felix half undressed underneath him last night and he still doesn’t get it?

“I don’t do this with anyone,” he says, accusing, and Sylvain looks like he has the fucking audacity to be about to say I know so Felix hurries to add, “And you’re acting like it doesn’t mean—like you don’t know what it means!”

“What does it mean?” Sylvain asks, quiet, and Felix answers the question with another biting kiss, muttering, “Stupid,” against Sylvain’s mouth, “stupid,” gripping his hair tighter, trying to climb even closer to him.

Felix’s knee knocks painfully against the emergency brake, but he doesn’t pay it any attention. Sylvain laughs into the kisses. It sounds surprised, and awed, and something else.

After a few minutes, things escalate to a point where they’re both breathing heavily and Felix is grinding down against Sylvain and Sylvain is gripping fingerprints into his ass, and it’s generally great, but then Sylvain is curling fingers around Felix’s wrist to stop him from unbuttoning his jeans and saying, low and hoarse and somehow still fucking amused, “We’re not having sex in my car.”

“Why not?” Felix asks, breathless. It seems like a very good idea.

Sylvain tips his head back against the headrest. His hair is disheveled from Felix’s hands. “For one thing, when I pictured this happening it wasn’t on the side of a public highway during rush hour.”

Felix makes an unimpressed face, or as unimpressed as he can manage when Sylvain’s hands are resting on his thighs and he can feel Sylvain’s hardness through his jeans. “Aren’t you supposed to be a slut?”

“Yes, darling,” Sylvain says, chuckling, kissing his jaw. “Which means that I’m the one of us who has had sex in my car before, and while I appreciate your enthusiasm for the idea, I promise it isn’t all it’s hyped up to be.”

“But I want to,” Felix says, stubborn, and then narrows his eyes. “Who did you have sex with in this car?”

“No one, who told you that? Okay, come on, you have to—and I truly can’t believe I’m saying this—you have to get off my lap.”

Felix scowls. “Make me.”

Sylvain closes his eyes. “Oh, you’re killing me,” he says, sounding pained. Then, without warning, he digs his hands into the backs of Felix’s thighs, lifting Felix up and over the middle console and dumping him sideways back into the passenger seat.

“You’re an asshole,” Felix says, kicking at him. Sylvain catches his leg.

“And you’re insatiable,” Sylvain says, pressing lips to his clothed knee. “Look at you, a few kisses and you’re ready to take advantage of me in the backseat of my Jeep.”

Felix blushes furiously. “Are you really just going to drive me home after that?” he asks, incredulous. Sylvain can’t mean it. It’ll be hours before they get back to New York.

“I am,” Sylvain says. He pats Felix’s leg, and then pushes it back over to Felix’s side of the car. “And you’re not going to talk me out of it, you wanton slut, so stop glaring at me like that. If you want to be ravished, it will be in a bed. Or the floor near a bed. Or really just somewhere with a door.”

“I live in a studio, and my roommate didn’t travel for winter break,” Felix says, slumping back into his seat with his arms folded. His pulse is still running wild, and he’s achingly hard in his jeans. Sylvain is the worst person he’s ever met in his entire life. “Don’t ever say ‘ravished’ to me again.”

“I can find a hotel and stay in Syracuse,” Sylvain says, looking over at him as he does up his shirt buttons. “Just for the night.” Felix makes an indignant sound, and Sylvain cracks a smile. “Or for a few days, if you want. The better to properly ravish you.”

Felix does want that. But also, he doesn’t. Or he doesn’t just want that. “Stay in New York,” he says, blurting it out before he can think better of it. His cheeks heat up, and he looks away, down at his hands.

He can feel Sylvain’s eyes on him, curious. “That’s pretty much what I’m offering.”

“No,” Felix says firmly. He steels himself. “Not—I mean, for good. Stay. Stay with Mercie, or me and Ashe, even. Don’t go back to LA.”

Sylvain doesn’t say anything for long enough that Felix starts to get anxious, and then he says, “You probably shouldn’t volunteer me to live with people you haven’t asked yet.”

“They’ll say it’s fine,” Felix says, dismissive. This, he’s sure of. “They like you for some reason.”

Sylvain taps his fingers on the steering wheel and asks, tone deceptively light, “And you sure you want me around?”

Now Felix looks back at him. “Yes,” he says, annoyed. Like he would say it if he didn’t. Doesn’t Sylvain know him better than that, after all this time?

He remembers to add, belatedly, “But if you’re wondering, I’m definitely not paying you after this.”

Sylvain reaches over and brushes his fingertips up over his jaw, cupping a palm over his cheek. There’s something wondering on his face and laughter in his voice when he says, “I’ll live.”

Felix snorts, but he doesn’t pull away. The sun is climbing overhead, and the ice on the road is melting wet and black. Sylvain checks that Felix has his seatbelt on, and then signals left, pulling out slowly onto the highway.

“You’re awfully cheerful for someone going home with nothing,” Felix mutters, sniffing, and settles begrudgingly back into his seat as they merge back into traffic, resigning himself to a long, frustrated ride home.

“Now who’s acting stupid?” Sylvain says. “I’m not going home with nothing.” He looks over at Felix again, bright in the sun and kiss-bruised from Felix’s mouth. His eyes are dancing.

“I’m going home with everything I ever wanted.”