It’s impossible to cook an omelette quietly using a good pan and a gas stove, especially with a marble countertop. The pan scrapes and clanks, the gas ticks and whooshes, and even the eggs make noise, not to mention the sucking slap of the refrigerator door, the clatter of finding the damn pan in the first place, and the sharp grating noise of trying to get the big plate out from under the little plate where they’re stacked in the cabinet. Leo Bellows counted himself lucky that morning to get the pan on the first try; anything else would be, well, gravy.
Not, Leo reflected, that either of his roommates was likely to make an appearance at this hour. Calliope had been up all night, or at least there had been a light under her door when his bladder woke him at four and it was out now. Leo gave even odds whether she’d been distracted by a gadget or just up waiting for the latest round of painkillers to kick in. Calliope had moved into the safehouse for good only last week, claiming that now was as good a time as any to finish disappearing. The scar on her arm where Carter had dug her tracker out was healing faster than the stun wand burns on her back, and the drugs that Leo’s father had stored in the safehouse weren’t all that effective anymore. Privately, Leo and Carter had discussed the possibility of Leo “spraining his ankle” badly enough to get some stronger painkillers.
As for Carter himself, the man wasn’t difficult to wake, but he was also pretty good at staying asleep until his alarm went off if he felt safe, and nowhere Leo had ever been was safer than this invisible house with its carefully crafted dingy façade. Even so, Carter had been the first one up every morning for weeks after they’d found him, months after Reggie disappeared. If Carter was finally sleeping in, let him.
Which meant Leo had the kitchen to himself, just the way he liked it.
It was a fine kitchen, looking out over the open plan great room, the stovetop centered on a marble island so the cook could converse with friends or guests. The heavy stainless pots and pans were easy to use and easy to clean, even if the cleaning supplies they’d found looked a little dated. The plates, cups, bowls, and even the napkins were the same: heavy, plain, serviceable but not unstylish. He wondered who had picked them out- Mom or Dad? Agent Bellows or Agent Carstairs, Leo Carstairs, the real Leo. He was just a shitty imitation Leo.
Which, after all, was why he had run away to Dubrovnik. Immersed himself in the restaurant. Pretended to be so busy that his own family could only see him with a reservation.
Well, the joke’s on you, Leo, he thought bitterly, now you can’t see them at all, ever. Reggie won’t be back until next year, maybe, if, and if your plan works, if she doesn’t freak out and run, if if if. If, maybe then you’ll see your big sister again. But Mom? Calliope’s only alive because she genuinely has no idea where Mom is, and nobody else does, either.
Food wasn’t like his independent, mercurial genius family. Food was always there for you, and if you treated it kindly it would treat you kindly. Leo rummaged in the refrigerator, as usual making mental notes about what to stock up on, what staples needed replenishing, what they might find in season. That little farmer’s market might be open even this late in the year, he could make apple sausage, tarte aux pommes, slice up some pears and fennel and blue cheese for omelette filling or panini. For now, he found a half-full plastic bucket of button mushrooms, two lonely slices of prosciutto stuck to butcher’s paper in the meat drawer, and a jar of brined artichoke hearts.
He flicked the stove on. The popping noise of the gas reassured him; the solid thunk as he set the pan on the burner was as familiar as the sizzle of butter. While the butter melted he sliced mushrooms, then added a double handful to the butter and tossed them gently, leaving them to sweat. When he’d started cooking, he’d always underestimated how many mushrooms he’d need. Now he knew how they’d cook down, and if he made too many, well, he could always eat a few. Mushroom attrition. Worked just like bacon and shredded cheese. He could never grate cheese without Reggie walking into the kitchen to steal an oversized pinch of the shreds. For months after he’d left home he’d looked over his shoulder every time he started grating. He did it now, just in case.
Regina Bellows, of course, wasn’t in the kitchen. But her erstwhile partner, Carter Hughes, was three feet away, shirtless in his pyjama pants with a hand towel draped around his neck.
“Jesus, Carter. Warn a guy.” Leo clenched and unclenched his hands, willing the surge of adrenaline to go the hell away. And while it was going, could it just please take Carter with it? Not that he had a problem with the guy his sister was maybe-dating, but he wanted to be alone this morning.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Carter shrugged. “Sorry. I thought you heard me. I wasn’t trying to be quiet. You seemed preoccupied.”
“I was cooking,” Leo evaded. I was thinking about Regina. My sister. Your partner. Aren’t you?
“Smells great.” Carter leaned to one side, peering around Leo at the pan. The overhead lighting emphasized the shadows on his dark torso, the cut of his muscles. “Whatcha making?”
The one-word answers weren’t deterring Carter.
“I see mushrooms, artichokes, and what’s that?” He pointed to the paper.
“Prosciutto. From the chicken cordon bleu rolls the other night. I had a couple slices left. It’s not enough to use for anything else, so I thought I’d slice it in ribbons and put it in the omelette,” Leo said grudgingly. Couldn’t Carter see that he didn’t want company? Weren’t Bureau agents supposed to be trained to recognize social cues like fuck off, Carter, I’m trying to cook and not think about my sister, or my mom, or the fact that the only friend that you and I have in the world right now is upstairs trying to sleep off a beating that, if they wanted to show it in a movie, they’d have to raise the rating?
“I cook, a little. Not like you,” Carter admitted. “Reggie used to brag about your cooking all the time. Swore to me that I should give up my Embed, come home, go to, where was it, Serbia?”
"Croatia. Dubrovnik.” Reggie talked about him? To her partner?
"Shit. Sorry. Here I am trying to cheer you up and I fuck up the entire country. I guess as long as I fucked up the Bureau and the good ol’ U. S. of A. I might as well keep going, though, right?” Carter’s grin was bitter.
“It’s cool, everybody messes it up. Heck, even the famous Katie Bellows-“ Leo choked to a stop. Shouldn’t have tried to say Mom’s name.
“Hey,” Carter said softly. “Hey. Leo. They’re okay. You know that, right? They’re okay.”
“I don’t know that,” Leo snapped. “All I know is these fucking mushrooms are burning. Pass the santoku. No, that’s a chef’s knife, give me the shorter one, with the divots on the edge. Yeah, that one.” The mushrooms weren’t burning, not really, but he didn’t want to talk to Carter anymore. Didn’t want to think. He didn’t have to think about this. Didn’t have to think at all while his hands did their tricks, like trained dogs, really, now that he thought about it, rolling the prosciutto into a log and slicing across it to make ribbons that he tossed into the pan with the mushrooms.
“Stir that. Use the wooden spoon, just move it around,” he directed, pulling two artichoke hearts out of the jar and dicing them roughly before tossing them into the pan with the bacon and prosciutto. Carter, chastened, tried to keep the spoon out of his way but only succeeded in blocking his arm, knocking artichoke bits onto the counter, the floor, a few into the burner pan where they immediately started to char and smolder.
“Shit. Sorry,” Carter said again, scrubbing his fingers through the short curls of his hair. The first thing he’d done when he moved into the safehouse was clip off most of his Afro, claiming that even in 2113 it was easier for a black man to be invisible in Virginia. Since then he’d insisted on doing most of the shopping, running the errands that needed to be run, everything but maintaining Leo’s car, since that was the one big prop in the plan to rescue Reggie. For the first time, Leo wondered if Carter, too, felt helpless. After all, as boring as Leo’s part of the plan was, at least he had something to do every day. All Carter had to do was sit around, watch the news, and wait.
“No big deal. I’ll get it. Don’t let my mushrooms burn.” Leo took three strides to the pantry for the broom. By the time he got back Carter had scooted the artichoke bits into a rough pile with his bare feet. As Leo got busy with the broom Carter picked an artichoke bit out from between his toes, flicking it into the garbage disposal as he washed his hands again.
“I, uh, think these are done?”
Leo peered into the pan. The prosciutto ribbons had rippled and browned at the edges and the mushrooms had sweat their liquor into the pan, soaking the meat and artichokes and marrying the flavors of the filling.
“Yeah, that looks good. Grab a prep bowl, would you? We can put the filling in that while the omelettes cook.”
Carter opened the cabinet and took out a small bowl, then a larger one as he re-assessed the volume of filling in the pan. “It’s not like you to forget a step,” he commented as he transferred the contents of the pan to the bowl.
“How would you know what’s like me,” Leo snapped, yanking the refrigerator open as he realized that not only had he forgotten the prep bowl, but the eggs, the milk, hell, practically the whole damn omelette base. Which wasn’t like him, true, but what did this arrogant asshole in his kitchen know? “You don’t know anything about me.” He shoved the eggs and milk out of his hands and onto the counter viciously, hearing an egg crack in the carton. Well, he’d just use that one if he could get it out of the container. Who cared. Who cared about anything, anyway?
“I know you look like you could use a hug.”
Leo spun around and pushed off the counter, the denial ready on his lips. No, he didn’t need a hug, or a friendly damn voice, or anything at all really, except this omelette that Carter was preventing him from making.
Instead, his nose bumped into Carter’s bare shoulder. When had the man gotten so close? He moved like a damn cat, probably years of ninja training to sneak around the White House or something. And as Carter’s arms came up to enfold him, Leo realized he didn’t want to deny it anymore. He really did need a hug.
More than a hug, and as Carter held on tight the first wracking sobs started to twist their way out of Leo’s chest. Damn it, not here. Not now and not with this, this ambiguous stranger who had wormed his way into Leo’s life by way of his sister, good job, Reggie, bulling on ahead without asking anybody, worrying Mom sick again. But it was happening here and now whether he liked it or not, and he barely heard the click as Carter reached past him to shut the burner off.
“Hey. Hey, it’s okay. I got you, man.” Carter soothed, petting Leo’s back as Leo buried his face in the towel and started to cry in earnest, the force of his sobs pulling them both to their knees on the kitchen floor. He cried for his mom, and for Reggie, and for being scared all these years that one day he’d get the call that they weren’t coming home, like the dad he’d never met, and for the day he really did get the call. But mostly he cried because he could, because the safehouse actually did feel safe, like a place Leo Carstairs had made for them all, knowing they’d need it. And because for the first time since he was little he felt taken care of again.
Little by little he started noticing things again: the cold floor, Carter’s warm arms. The loops in the terry of the towel between his face and the other man’s bare torso; the texture of Carter’s skin under his hands, spotted here and there with sparse curls of coarse hair. Little by little he got himself under some kind of control and sat back, wiping at his face with the damp towel.
“Did you – did you shave, already?” It was stupid, inane, but it was all that would come out, and he followed it up with a palm on Carter’s jaw, testing the shadow he could feel but not see.
“Yeah, first thing. Force of habit.” Carter’s voice made the bones of his jaw, the skin of his throat rumble against Leo’s fingers. “I had to learn, when I joined the Bureau, to shave with every kind of razor I might have to use in the field. Straight razors, early safety razors, electric, everything. So I just started doing it right when I woke up, to get the muscle memory right.” He shivered. “The straight razor, that one was scary. At least I’m not a girl, though. You should see some of the sanitary – or should I say unsanitary – contraptions they have to use.”
Thirty seconds ago Leo had been sure he’d never smile again; now he couldn’t stop laughing. Carter brought a hand up to brace his shoulder and keep them from bumping heads, but soon he was laughing almost as hard as Leo was.
“Sh. We’re gonna wake Kali. You gotta be quiet.”
“Wait. Who?” Leo tried to whisper but only really got it down to a stage whisper.
“Kali. You know. The goddess of destruction. You’ve met Calliope before coffee, right?” Carter was better at whispering, but he still had to speak up make himself heard over the resurgence of Leo’s helpless, chuffing laughter.
“God, that’s perfect. Never tell her. Ever. Although she’s probably recording everything we say already.” Leo faked paranoia, peering around the kitchen.
“Well, I’m not wearing a wire. You can check,” the other man laughed, leaning back and spreading his arms to display his bare, muscular chest.
“Maybe I’d better,” Leo chuckled, flattening his palm against Carter’s well-defined pectoral muscle. Carter’s hand came up to cover his, a sharp intake of breath expanding the man’s ribcage.
“Jesus. Uh. Leo. I, uh, I better go.” He started to rock back onto his heels, and Leo slid his other hand around behind Carter’s neck to prevent him. Whatever was happening here, he wasn’t ready to end it yet.
“But I still need my hug, Agent Hughes,” his voice said, sounding strange and thick in his own ears.
"Ah. God. Leo, this is,” Carter licked his lips. “This is unprofessional as hell. I work with your sister, I-”
“Can we, for five fucking minutes, pretend I have a life outside of being Regina Bellows’ brother?” Leo asked, watching Carter’s eyes widen in the seconds before he leaned in, hoping.
Carter met him halfway, smooth skin against Leo’s scruffy morning stubble, bare chest to Leo’s pyjama top. He could feel Carter’s whole body tense under his hands as he ran them down from shoulders to waist and lower, cupping the man’s ass to pull him closer.
“Definitely not wearing a wire,” Leo said huskily after a long moment.
“I guess I should check you too,” Carter pointed out, beginning to unbutton Leo’s top. “National security, man. You can never be too careful.” Leo leaned back and let him work, gasping when Carter’s lips followed the path of his hands down the younger man’s torso, nipping and suckling bare skin.
“We’re on the kitchen floor,” Leo murmured, his hands exploring the heavy muscle of Carter’s shoulders, the texture of the short curls at the nape of his neck.
Carter picked his head up, looking along Leo’s torso at him. Leo felt briefly self-conscious about the soft rise of his belly, years of cooking and eating contrasting sharply with Carter’s Bureau training. Did the man do five hundred pushups and situps every morning as well as shaving?
“Should we move to the living room floor?” Carter asked. “Cause, baby, I don’t think I’m gonna make it much farther than that.” He dropped his face again to bite at Leo’s hip, not bothered in the slightest by Leo’s jump and stifled yelp.
“No, no, kitchen’s fine, best stuff in my life always happened in the kitchen,” Leo babbled as Carter tugged the drawstring on his pants loose, shucking them off Leo’s hips to lie in a crumpled heap next to his top. His half-hard erection sprang free, quickly rising to full salute as Carter stared at it, rubbing his palm lightly over the head.
“Damn. You strip better than we – than I guessed,” Carter grinned.
“We? Is Calliope in on this too?” Leo started to scoot backwards, away from Carter, but the other man’s hand closed around his cock, stopping him like a leash.
“Unh-uh, I thought we agreed, no Agents in this kitchen but me,” Carter growled softly, starting to move his hand.
“Just you,” Leo agreed, and let his eyes roll back in his head as he lay down again and surrendered himself to what Carter was doing with his hands and mouth. Somewhere, he heard a drawer open and close, but it wasn’t important enough to notice until the squeak of latex brought him back to reality.
“What are you doing?” Leo twisted up onto one elbow. Carter’s pants were off, shoved into the awkward space between cabinet and floor, and Carter himself was up on one knee, toned buttocks flexing as he scrabbled around on the countertop for something.
“Olive oil,” he replied, as though that should mean something to Leo.
“Other side of the stove,” Leo suggested, chuckling as Carter knee-walked his way up Leo’s leg to reach. The other man’s erection was suddenly close, and Leo couldn’t restrain himself; he reached out a hand to stroke in one long motion, raking his fingers lightly over Carter’s balls and dragging his fingertips up the shaft to wrap around the head, then glide back down, squeezing and pressing as Carter grunted.
“God, you have about a hundred years to quit doing that,” he said, bracing himself on the kitchen island. Leo heard the olive oil bottle click against the marble countertop and then Carter was back, leaning over him to kiss him thoroughly.
The mystery of the olive oil was quickly solved as Carter sat back, displaying a slick-gloved hand. “Damn dish gloves have always fit a little tight; I thought we might as well take advantage of it.”
“Bureau must give you high marks for – unh – improvisation,” Leo gasped, as Carter’s hand slid down, oiled fingers spreading him open and preparing him. Was there no end to Carter’s talent, or to his tenderness? The caress felt more like a completion than an invasion. Leo’s one foray into gay sex in college, a drunken experiment after a porn marathon with some buddies, had never been like this. Carter whispered endearments, murmured encouragements as he worked his fingers deeper into Leo’s slick ass, stroking until he found the spot inside that made the blond man grunt and moan.
“You ready for me?” Carter asked roughly, and it was all Leo could do to nod, his voice gone, before the Agent was inside him, moving slowly at first and then speeding up, his free hand cupping Leo’s balls, his cock, jacking and stroking and tugging until Leo couldn’t hold back anymore, yelling into Carter’s shoulder as quietly as he could while the other man, with typical Bureau preparedness, wrapped the hand towel around his dick to collect Leo’s cum as he gave in to his own orgasm and filled the other man’s ass.
“We better wash our hands,” Carter murmured into Leo’s ear a long, sweaty minute later. “Food safety, you know. I’m kind of scared to eat at your restaurant, now.”
Leo grinned as he tugged his pyjamas back on. “Hey, this wasn’t my idea.”
Carter bit his lip and nodded. “Yeah. I just, I mean, you looked like you could stand to relax a little.”
“It wasn’t my idea, but it was a good idea,” Leo finished. “Wash up. I’ll show you how to do the eggs.”
Carter was a natural in the kitchen, Leo reflected. Well. And at cooking, too. He was as carefully attentive to the eggs as he had been to Leo’s body, with an easy knack for getting them out of the pan and onto the plate, folded perfectly around the filling. Thank God the filling hadn’t cooled too much while they were rolling around on the floor.
The two men were just sitting down to eat when Calliope staggered down the stairs, her hair a tangled mess as she tried to figure out the second sleeve of her robe and then gave up, coming to the table Tarzan-style.
“Smell. Smell good. Coffee?” Calliope grunted, and Leo and Carter gasped.
“Shit, we forgot the coffee.”
“How do you forget the coffee,” Calliope wanted to know, glaring blearily at her roommates of necessity.
“I was having a crap morning,” Leo admitted. “But it’s better now. We made omelettes. I always feel better after I make omelettes.”
“Me too,” Carter agreed, and went into the kitchen to start the coffee.