This is not Kevin’s day. If it were Kevin’s day, there would be hot cocoa in his hands. His hands would also have mittens on them. And would not be wet and freezing and he would not be lost and everything would not be totally horrible forever.
“What are you doing?”
Kevin does not make a hideously feminine “eep” noise and jump about a foot in the air. That does not happen even a little bit at all. “I’m, uh,” he says to the menacing-looking dude wearing nothing but a very very small swimsuit and a towel, “I’m lost?”
The dude’s brow furrows. “You’re— you realize that this locker room is for the team only, right? Because you’re not wearing— do you even go here?”
“No,” Kevin says miserably. That’s kind of the problem. Joe goes here. Joe also thinks it’s hilarious to give Kevin fake addresses for his GPS so that when Kevin arrives and tries to find Joe, he ends up in the swim team’s locker room and stumbles under one of the automatic shower heads and ends up soaked and then the doors must have auto-locked or you need a key card to get out or something, but he’s been stuck in here for like an hour and a half and it’s not his fault. And this guy looks sort of like he maybe eats small children for brunch. Or even avoids brunch all together. He’s way too manly to be the sort of person who enjoys a good brunch, which, really, is a tragedy, because as far as Kevin’s concerned, brunch is the finest thing life has to offer.
“You’re wet,” the dude says now, jerking Kevin out of his mental ramble. “Did you— I’ve been in the pool, you didn’t fall in the pool— how the fuck are you wet?” He’s shifting a little now, like he’s uncomfortable or irritated or, like— like he’s not really sure what to do. Which is vaguely reassuring, because Kevin realizes that he maybe seems a little weird to the casual observer right now, standing all wet and awkward in the men’s locker room at a college he doesn’t attend, and uncertainty means that this guy has not definitively decided to beat Kevin up or call the cops or kill him or something. He’ll take what he can get.
“I am super coordinated,” Kevin admits, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to— I’m not just being a creeper, hanging around in your locker room.” This is important. This is fundamental. Almost as important as the thing where Kevin is going to kick Joe’s butt later.
The guy’s mouth quirks a little, like he’s trying not to smile, and oh, that is a good sign and also sort of startlingly attractive, and no, no, Kevin is not looking at the mostly-naked stranger’s tiny, tiny swimsuit. No. “I’m Mike,” he says, holding out a damp hand for Kevin to shake. “Carden. And you need a keycard to get out of here. And also to get in here. How did you even—” he cuts himself off and Kevin takes the hand and squeezes briefly. “Never mind. You need a change of clothes or something?”
“I’ll be fine,” Kevin lies, smiling a little, because his parents raised him to be polite and not annoy strangers any more than he has to. Mike must be cold, too, and the walk back to the B lot where Kevin parked isn’t too far, and it’s not as cold as it was yesterday. Although it is night now. And that may or may not be snow coming down outside. “And some guy let me in. My brother said he’d be here, I was just— I was looking for him, but I think he was messing with me, so if you could just, like, let me out? Then I could just let you take a shower in peace and go kill Joe.”
Mike’s mouth twitches again. “I don’t know. I feel like letting you loose to commit murder would be irresponsible of me. Instead, you should let me rinse off and find some pants, and then I’ll steal some of the Butcher’s clothes so you can stop looking like you’re about to die.”
“Oh, no,” Kevin says hurriedly, “I couldn’t impose.”
“Awesome,” Mike says, cracking a full grin for the first time, and hey, wow. “It would be super inconvenient if you made me go find my keycard before I take a shower and put on clothes, and it would be even more inconvenient if you make me do that and then make me watch you freeze to death in the snow.”
“Oh,” Kevin says, shifting his weight from foot to foot because he is really cold and blushing is almost painful. “Well. I mean, in that case.”
Kevin means to walk back to his car, dig through his suitcase, find a change of his own clothes, change in the back of his car, give Mike back the clothes he’d loaned him, and then leave to find and kill Joe.
Instead, Mike slides into the passenger seat of Kevin’s car when Kevin unlocks it, and says, “There’s a good coffee place like ten minutes from here,” and when Kevin just stands there, totally baffled and unsure about what to even do with that, says, slightly impatient, “Hurry up, Bambi, it’s fucking freezing and my hair is wet.”
Kevin’s hair is wet, too, so he folds himself into the driver’s seat and follows Mike’s haphazard directions and steadfastly does not think about how weird this day is.
Sweatpants are not Kevin’s best look, but Mike is kind of staring at him anyways. Admittedly, Mike is also wearing sweatpants, so maybe it makes the weirdness of wearing them out in public a little less weird.
“So,” Mike says, flopping down into the squashy armchair in front of the tiny fireplace and inhaling the steam from his coffee like it’s something sacred, “you’re here visiting your brother?”
Kevin nods. “I’ve never been here before. My other brothers and I all went to the same school, but Joe—” Joe had been different. When the sparks had started coming out of his fingertips, Kevin’s parents hadn’t been thrilled, and Joe had left before they could tell him to. “Joe went his own way.”
Mike cocks his head a little, chewing his lower lip like he’s thinking of something. “And he likes to send you to men’s locker rooms at night instead of his apartment?”
Kevin rolls his eyes. “He’s my kid brother. Nick—one of our other brothers, he’s a psych major— says he’s trying to assert dominance or something, but I think he just has a weird sense of humor.” Or something. Joe once covered Nick’s hand in peanut butter while he was asleep and then bit him on the nose. No one really gets Joe.
Kevin isn’t really sure how they end up at Mike’s place watching claymation Christmas movies, or how he ends up wedged onto a loveseat between Mike and an enormous dude named Travie, but they’re all under an avalanche of blankets, and he’s pretty sure that Mike’s feet are what’s tucked under his butt. They keep wiggling.
“You should probably tell your brother you’re alive,” Mike says absently. He’s curled over himself, head wedged onto Kevin’s shoulder. His breath is really warm. It’s nice.
“Probably,” Kevin agrees. He doesn’t even try to get his phone out of his pocket. It would be fruitless— Travie is on that side, and he has his insanely long legs flung over Kevin’s lap and tucked into the curve of Mike’s stomach. “He’ll call eventually.”
“It’s like two am,” Travie points out, raising an eyebrow without looking away from the TV where the elf is complaining about his desire to be a dentist. Kevin is pretty sure this whole thing is a metaphor about how to come out to your family. Kevin should be paying closer attention. Maybe he could learn something.
“Yeah.” Joe is a night owl. “Seriously, he’ll call eventually.”
Joe doesn’t call. He does, however, send a text message that says, “got wasted crashing with demi key under turtle,” which Kevin finds at about eight am after waking up with his head in Mike’s lap.
“Good morning,” Mike says, jaw cracking on a yawn. “I think I kidnapped you.”
“Really successfully,” Kevin agrees, rubbing at his eyes. “Are you going to hold me for ransom, or am I free to go?” There’s another question in that, a ‘do you want me to leave and stop invading your life now, super attractive stranger?’ and, thankfully, Mike seems to get it.
“Ransom, totally,” he says, grinning. “Or you can earn your own freedom.”
Kevin squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to think about all the ways that would work. “Oh?” he squeaks, feeling his cheeks go hot.
“Yes,” Mike says solemnly. “You’ll have to make me brunch.”
Kevin opens one eye. “You don’t eat brunch,” he says accusingly. “You’re too manly for brunch.”
“Well,” Mike says, shrugging, “I guess you’re stuck here, then.”
Kevin smiles so hard that his cheeks start to hurt.
Travie makes lunch. He’s apparently a chef at a vegan restaurant somewhere nearby, and he makes this awesome curry that makes Kevin’s tongue burn in the best way.
“I think I love you,” he tells Travie, completely solemn. “I will trade you my firstborn child if you will cook for me forever.”
“Naw, man,” Travie says, shaking his head and making his massive fro sway, “Mike is way better.”
Kevin turns to peer at Mike. Mike ducks his head and says nothing, cheeks burning, as he shovels spoonfuls of curry into his mouth.
“No way,” Kevin says, squinting. He tries to picture it. “You don’t cook.”
Travie bursts out laughing as Mike’s ears go red. “Oh my god, Travis, shut the fuck up,” he grumbles, still not looking up.
Kevin cocks his head. “Wait, seriously? What do you even—”
“He’s a pastry chef for a Hungarian place over on Smithsfield,” Travie says smugly, waving a spoon at Mike. “He makes this crazy chestnut shit that tastes like sex.”
Kevin’s cheeks heat. “Um,” he says, and, “Really?”
“No,” Mike says, finally looking up, rolling his eyes, “it tastes like rum and vanilla. Sex is way saltier.”
Kevin dies. Right there, quietly.
There’s a smile hovering around the corners of Mike’s mouth.
“Um,” Kevin says, trying not to choke on his tongue, “are you Hungarian, then?”
“No,” Mike says, smile settling into one corner and staying there.
“Oh,” Kevin says, and finishes his curry without asking anything else.
Travie sniggers into his own bowl until they’re done.
“So,” Kevin says, barefoot and awkward on Mike’s living room carpet. “I should probably—”
“Yeah,” Mike says, scrubbing a hand through his hair and pushing it back from his it back off his face. “But, um—”
“It’d be nice,” Kevin says, still not looking at Mike and Mike’s sort of startlingly fantastic everything, “if I got to see you again, you know, before I go? Just, you’re really—”
“Yeah,” Mike says, and it’s warm and sort of bashful at the same time. “Yeah, I’d like— yeah.”
Joe is at his apartment when Kevin finally gets there. So is a girl with dark hair and a wide mouth.
“Hi,” she says, beaming at him. She’s sitting on the kitchen table, wearing one of Joe’s ugly plaid button downs and a pair of Superman underwear. “I’m Demi. You must be Joe’s brother.”
Kevin shakes her hand, trying not to seem horrifically awkward about her lack of pants, and says, “Kevin, yeah. Nice to, um, meet you.”
“Dude,” Joe says, trudging up the steps, carrying Kevin’s other bag, “you pack like a girl.”
Kevin likes variety. Kevin likes choices. If he packed nine scarves, well, fine. Let him be a girl, then. Kevin has standards. He likes to look nice. Which, speaking of—“At least I don’t look like one,” he says breezily, sticking his tongue out for good measure. Some things don’t change, no matter how old you het.
Demi giggles so hard that Joe glares at her instead of Kevin. There’s something vindicating in that.
Kevin wakes up on his second morning in Connecticut to find Joe gone. There’s a note on the table, written in cute bubble letters—definitely from Demi—that says, “Have stolen Joe for a makeover. Trying to fix his eyebrows. Also dinner with my parents. I promise to bring him back! XOXO”
So Kevin has nothing to do. Joe’s apartment is barren of anything conceivably interesting other than his guitars, and Kevin has learned from experience that Joe, like Nick, can tell if you touch his instruments. They speak to him. Unlike with Nick, Kevin thinks that it might be literal for Joe—he’s not really sure what Joe’s whole magic thing is about, it doesn’t get discussed by the family, but Kevin has more than once seen him hold a conversation with his Gibson. Then again, Kevin talks to his coffee in the morning, so it could just be Joe being weird.
The town is small—Joe’s apartment is far enough from the town square that it would be a long walk, but close enough that it seems kind of silly to drive. It’s cold, but Kevin has nothing going on, and the snow is really pretty. It would be almost criminal not to walk around in it. Besides, he can’t stop and eat snow off the tops of people’s fences when nobody’s looking if he drives.
He wraps up in his red scarf with the fringe and puts on a sweater with a reindeer head on it—people call them ugly Christmas sweaters, but he likesthem, there’s something sweet and authentic to the way they’re put together—and shrugs into his pea coat for good measure. There are wooly little mittens in the pocket, and he spares a second to think of being cold and wet and wishing for mittens.
He decides to look for Smithsfield.
Smithsfield is a small street that shoots off from the south side of the square. There’s a little wooden sign, a couple of blocks down, that says, in faded reddish letters, Paprika. It’s the only thing on the street that doesn’t look like it sells pottery or beauty supplies or quilts, so Kevin tries it.
The windows are painted with faded gold lettering in a language Kevin can’t read, but there are little tables inside, and there’s a counter with a baked goods display case at the back. He can’t see anyone behind it, but the view of the register is partially blocked by a potted plant in the window, so Kevin steels himself and opens the door.
There’s a quiet little chime, delicate and brassy, and the girl behind the counter looks up. When she sees him, she smiles, eyes crinkling up, and says, “You’re Joe’s brother!”
“Uh,” Kevin says, taken aback, “yeah, no, I’m—how did you know?”
The girl’s nametag says Greta in little gold letters, all upper case. “I’m in a class with him. He said you were coming into town.” She leans her elbows on the counter, beaming at him. “Is that what his hair looks like when he doesn’t flatiron it?”
Kevin reaches up to try to flatten his curls automatically. He doesn’t really like them, but he doesn’t want to keep his hair as short as Nick does, and the idea of having to straighten it every day sounds kind of horrible, so it’s been growing unmolested for a while now. “Kinda,” he admits, shifting awkwardly. “Um. Should I know who you are?”
She laughs, and there’s something soothing in it, something that reaches into Kevin’s chest and makes him relax, just a little. “No,” she says, all reassurance. “I’m just Greta. Everyone here kind of knows each other, you know? Small towns and all that.” There’s a little slant of something crooking her smile, like there’s a joke that Kevin’s just not getting, but it’s sweet and open nonetheless, so he shuffles the rest of the way up to the counter and peers into the glass case.
“Oh, wow.” There are a half dozen big cakes with wedges cut out of them to display stacks of paper thin layers, trays of stacked cookies with jam and powdered sugar, little cups of dark strings of something covered with whipped cream and topped with berries, cones of soft white cheese with swirled lines of honey and sprigs of mint. There’s something foreign about them, something almost unreal—they’re food, but they look just different enough from all the food Kevin has ever eaten that he can’t quite imagine what they’d taste like. “These look—wow. Completely amazing. Like—just, no, wow.”
Greta laughs again, quietly pleased, like she’s proud of his reaction. “I’ll tell our pastry chef you said so,” she says, scrunching up her nose adorably. Kevin kind of thinks she looks like a fairytale princess, actually—there’s something there, between the long gold curls and the ways she holds herself, like she’s more comfortable in her skin than real girls ever are. “Not that Mike’ll thank you, or anything, he’s kind of a grouch, but he’ll be secretly pleased. He’s a nice guy under the whole curmudgeon thing.”
“Oh,” Kevin says, ducking his head so she won’t see him blush, “you don’t need to do that. Actually, um, no, really, no need to tell him I was here, actually, like, at all—“ He doesn’t want Mike to think he’s stalking him in his workplace or something. Just—he doesn’t know anyone here. It was somewhere to go, a purpose. He doesn’t want Mike to think he means anything by it.
When he looks up, Greta is giving him a calculating look, one eyebrow arched delicately. “Oh, honey,” she says, not unkindly, “you have got it so bad.”
Kevin buries his face in his hands. “I know.”
Greta is really nice. She gets Kevin some hot chocolate in a tiny, cream and gold teacup, and it’s actual hot chocolate, like, the kind that separates into chocolate and cream and gets really gross if you don’t drink it while it’s hot. There’s pepper in it, just enough to make it bite at the edges of Kevin’s tongue, and a marshmallow shaped like a heart is cut down the middle and wedged over the edge of the teacup like a lime in a soda. She helps him pick out something to eat, too—Kevin mentions the “chestnut stuff that tastes like—“ and she bursts out laughing and pulls a little cup of the stringy stuff with the whipped cream and berries out from the case and sets it on the counter.
“Gesztenyepüré,” she says, tapping the little white card propped up by the row of the cups in the case. “It’s chestnuts pureed with rum and vanilla, it’s really good.” She slants him a look that says it’s more than good, and adds, “Mike makes it better than anybody, I don’t know what he puts in it.”
Kevin bites his lip and refrains from mentioning Travie’s commentary on it, just pays her with a ten for both things and puts all his change in the lidless teapot that’s marked TIPS! “Um,” he says, then hesitates, but, “do you maybe want to sit with me? Just until other people come in, like—I mean, are you even allowed?” He mentally kicks himself. He is twenty two, there is absolutely no reason for him to be this ridiculous. He’s fine at home. He talks to people! People sometimes talk back! Okay, yes, he only really hangs out with Selena, and yes, they’ve known each other since they were four, and now that she’s dating Biscuit, she’s not really around very much, but still. Kevin is social. He blames Mike, and Mike’s really distracting arms, which are steadfastly refusing to leave his brain, and keep making him forget how words work.
Greta doesn’t even bother answering, just snickers and comes out from behind the counter. “Pick a table, Jonas.”
Kevin grabs his hot chocolate and his chestnut…stuff, heading for a table by the window. He likes to be able to see the street—he likes getting a feel for places by looking at them before he actually interacts with them, and this way, if Greta doesn’t actually want to talk to him, or somebody comes in, she can go back to the register, and Kevin won’t be sitting at a table, staring at his hands. He takes a seat, then a sip of his chocolate—he knows how icky it’ll get if it gets cold and separates.
“So,” Greta says, sliding into her seat, and giving Kevin a knowing look. “You know Mike? And you like Mike.” The second part definitely isn’t a question, and Kevin cringes internally. “Details, come on!”
And just like that, Kevin is telling Greta his entire life’s story, because ending up sleeping on Mike’s couch doesn’t make any sense if she doesn’t know that he’s out here visiting Joe—secretly, right, because his parents aren’t okay with anyone talking to or about Joe, and she just nods and doesn’t ask for him to explain why—and that Joe is kind of a dick—which she snorts at and really doesn’t question, but it seems like a fond enough snort that Kevin doesn’t feel defensive on behalf of his brother.
And he only notices, like two hours later, when a little old lady comes in and Greta stands up to meet her at the counter, that he hasn’t finished his hot chocolate, but it hasn’t separated, and it’s still warm.
He figures that Hungarians must just make really well-insulated teacups.
Greta gets off work at three, and she offers to show him around the town. Kevin hasn’t gotten any texts from Joe, so he gladly takes her up on it. Her fairytale princess look comes out even more when she puts on her coat—vivid red, with little gold embroidery strips at the cuffs and collar—and her gloves—white leather—and leads him out into the snow. The smell of the pastry shop clings to her, mixing with the crispness of the air, and Kevin feels a little apart from the world, like he’s asleep. It’s a nice sort of feeling.
The town is sweet and quaint, like something out of a storybook or a movie. The shops all have little window displays with snowflakes clustering around the edges of the pane, and there are smiling people bustling around the streets. Very few cars drive through, and there’s a comfortable sort of quiet to everything.
They go in and out of a few little shops, and Kevin sees a few things he might have to come back and buy before he goes home—this town is chock full of adorable scarves and mittens, and anyone who’s ever met Kevin knows about his weakness for mittens. Mittens! They give you cute little pinchy crab hands! They’re wooly! Sometimes they have bobbles! Bobbles!
Kevin just really likes mittens, okay?
By five, they’ve seen most of the town, and Greta leads Kevin down a little side street. Three storefronts down, there’s a bright window display of guitars clustered around a cherry red drum set, and Kevin’s hands itch.
“Where are we?” he asks, pressing his nose to the glass like a dog. The window fogs up around his mouth, and Greta huffs a laugh.
“Last stop,” she says, leaning around him to push the door open. Warm air rushes out, and Kevin can hear someone playing what may or may not be Killer Queen on guitar. Greta holds the door for him and pushes him in with a little shove to the small of his back.
The guitar stops abruptly when Greta comes in, and Kevin is almost bowled over by the force of the tall, broad-shouldered, kind of tragically beautiful man that picks her up and spins her around. The man sets her back on her feet, shaking his massive pile of curls out of his face and pecking her on the mouth.
“Missus Toro,” he says, all calm and composed now, and wait, Greta’s married? Kevin looks at her hand, but her fingers are covered by the white gloves. Not that Kevin had, like, designs on her, or something, she has a chest, and chests are kind of— they freak Kevin out. Or, okay, they freak him out a little when they have boobs attached to them. He’s really okay as long as he doesn’t have to touch them.
“Mister Toro,” Greta says, equally dignified, but there’s a sweet little sparkle in her eyes, and Kevin kind of can’t even breathe for a minute because hey, wow, they’re in love. Like, not in the way that old married people are in love, the way Kevin’s parent’s are in love, but like. Like Greta really is a princess, and her fairytale happened, and Kevin is just walking in for the happily-ever-after part, and there’s something really, strikingly beautiful about that, and Kevin has to just. Take a minute.
“Who’s this?” Greta’s husband asks, turning to Kevin and smiling warmly, holding out a huge hand for Kevin to shake.
Kevin takes it and says, “Kevin Jonas, uh— sir?” He has no idea what to call him; married people are always old, and Kevin always calls them sir. This guy looks barely older than Kevin.
“Joe’s brother,” the man says, nodding, like he knows all about Kevin and Kevin’s everything ever, just like Greta had. “And please, call me Ray.”
“Kevin is bored,” Greta supplies helpfully, nudging Ray a little and moving her eyebrows around like he’s supposed to be keeping up with her about something. Maybe he is. Kevin isn’t, but Greta seems like she probably gets way ahead of other people a lot. “I thought, maybe—”
“You play?” Ray asks Kevin, jerking his chin towards the wall of guitars.
Kevin’s guitar calluses have all but faded— he hasn’t played properly since Joe left, since he and Nick stopped playing together because it was too depressing. Nick is doing a solo thing now, but their band never even really got a chance to be— the point is, Kevin sort of plays. But it’s been a long time. “Kind of?” he says, shrugging and looking at the floor. It still kind of hurts to think about.
Ray doesn’t ask anything else, just squeezes Kevin’s shoulder and asks if anybody wants dinner.
Kevin’s stomach makes a loud, embarrassing gurgling noise that pretty much answers for him.
They end up at Travie’s vegan place, Veg Out, and when Travie hears that they’re there— Kevin has no idea how he hears, but he does— he comes out of the back to chest-bump with Ray and kiss Greta’s hand. He claps Kevin on the back like he’s known him forever, like Kevin is somehow part of this group, like he’s not just intruding on Greta and Ray’s couple-y dinner, and Kevin— Kevin likes it, likes the idea of being one of these people. They look at him like his family hasn’t looked at him since he tried to stick up for Joe when everything happened, like they haven’t looked at him since they caught him holding hands with David in the park two years ago. He isn’t sure how anyone can like him enough to be this nice to him, actually. Maybe they just really like Joe, and they’re being nice for his sake.
Kevin gets a mushroom stir fry thing and eats it with chopsticks, laughing along with Greta and Ray when the slippery little shitake caps pop out from between the bamboo sticks and skid across his plate. It’s delicious.
When dinner is over, Kevin fiddles with the fringe on his scarf and wishes he had any idea what to do next. Joe might be back in the apartment by now, but if Kevin goes back, it most likely means a night of sitting around with Joe and Demi giggling and poking each other and Demi not wearing pants. Again. Kevin isn’t even actually sure they’re dating each other. They kind of act like bros who can’t be bothered to put on pants. It’s kind of horrifying and endearing at the same time, and that thought alone makes Kevin worry that he’s slowly turning into Nick.
“So,” Ray says, clearing his throat when Greta elbows him and gives him a pointed look. “A bunch of us usually head to Smith’s after this for a pint and a jam. Want to join?”
Kevin looks from Ray, who has no trace of reluctance on his face, to Greta, who looks all hopeful and earnest, and says, “Totally.”
Which is how he ends up slightly drunk, standing on a table, having a sloppy guitar battle with some guy whose name may or may not be Tomrad while a bunch of strangers cheer.
Kevin has no idea which of them wins, but Tomrad cuffs him companionably on the shoulder— hard enough that Kevin wobbles off the table and lands on some guy with fire engine red hair— and offers him another beer, so Kevin thinks he probably held his own either way. He’s sweaty, though, and the beer— although it’s delicious and never seems to get warm or flat— probably isn’t doing much for his rusty guitar skills or his hydration, so he weaves his way over to the bar to ask Smith— “Call me Spencer, Smith is my dad and it’s weird,”— for a glass of water.
“Nice,” someone says, right next to his ear, and Kevin jumps and spills half his water onto Mike, who just arches an eyebrow and snickers. “Really?” he says, swiping at the water and flicking some of it off his fingers at Kevin.
“You startled me!” Kevin protests, tongue heavy and face way too hot to be just from the beer. “You’re a sneaky sneaking— thing. You’re like a prowly— prowly— you prowl,” he finishes lamely, frowning. “Also I am deaf because of guitar things. Shhhh.”
Mike’s mouth curls up at just one corner, and god, that is just so unfair in so many ways, there is something deeply wrong with the world that one person gets to be so stupidly beautiful. “Pretty brave, kid, challenging Tomrad. His boyfriend’s a werewolf, you know.”
Kevin squints at where Mike is gesturing— Tomrad (which is still a stupid name, whatever) is curled into the arm of some beardy, fierce-looking dude and they’re swaying back and forth, warbling some song that sounds like it’s about unicorns. “Right,” he says, nodding, because that totally makes sense. “Werewolf. Everybody has those.”
“Just here,” Mike says, and hey, hey, his hand. His hand is definitely wound through the crook of Kevin’s elbow, and hey, he’s moving them. Sneaky.
“Where are we going?” Kevin asks, not even trying to keep Mike from leading him wherever. If Mike wants to mug him or something, that’s, yknow, fine, as long as he doesn’t stop touching Kevin’s elbow. Kevin never knew his elbow liked Mike so much. “This is outside,” Kevin says accusingly as Mike pushes open the bar’s door and leads them out into the snow.
“It is,” Mike confirms, and then his hands are fisted into the front of Kevin’s sweater, pulling him in, and Kevin can’t catch his breath. Mike’s mouth is right over his own, breath warm, and Kevin can feel his lips move when he says, “How drunk are you, exactly?”
“Two beers,” Kevin says, hushed and a little distant. It’s kind of hard to think when he can feel Mike breathing. “Just— you can— um.”
Mike’s nose brushes his, and he presses a half-kiss to the corner of Kevin’s mouth. “Come on,” he says, a little ruefully, pulling away. He takes Kevin’s hand, though, so Kevin doesn’t actually pout, just twists their fingers together and lets Mike lead him out into the snow.
“I ate your food today,” Kevin says, when they’re halfway across the square. There are tiny fairy lights everywhere, wound through the leafless trees and twinkling from the gazebo.
“Yeah?” Mike asks, ducking his head like he’s embarrassed. “Did you—”
“It was awesome,” Kevin says, bobbing his head. He’s completely unsure of what sex tastes like, but Travie probably knows, and it was delicious, so Kevin is going to let him keep the comparison. “I’m still pretty sure I can’t pronounce it, though.”
Mike snorts, but his cheeks go pink, like he’s pleased. “I’m, uh—” he clears he throat, and oh, Kevin likes that, likes feeling like they’re on level with each other for a minute, with Mike a little awkward and embarrassed. “I’m glad.”
Kevin beams. “You’re sweet,” he tells Mike, pushing a little closer— not to try anything, just. Mike is warm, and he really is sweet, and Kevin wants to be able to smell his leather jacket and the smoky smell that’s all wound into Mike’s scarf from the cigarettes he smokes.
“I’m pretty sure I’m a grouchy hermit, actually,” Mike says, but it doesn’t sound like he’s arguing.
“Greta likes you,” Kevin says. Greta is clearly the most wonderful girl ever, and, as a fairy princess, she definitely has discerning taste when it comes to people. And she likes Kevin, which means she gets bonus points in his book, because people kind of usually…don’t. Kevin is kind of a dork. Actually— “Why do you like me?”
“Who says I like you?” Mike teases, and Kevin is pretty sure he really is teasing, because there’s a big smile playing around his mouth, and the hand that isn’t holding Kevin’s is pressed to the small of Kevin’s back, warm and possessive, and even Kevin can tell that that means something.
“Travie,” he answers, instead of trying to explain all that. It’s true, too— at the restaurant, Travie said that Mike hasn’t brought anybody home in years, let alone let them fall asleep on him, and then he’d waggled his eyebrows and offered to clear out of the apartment. Okay, yes, Kevin had turned neon red and pointedly eaten his stir fry and not looked at anyone, but the point still stands.
“Travie has a big mouth,” Mike grumbles, but his hands don’t move, and Kevin shuffles a little closer.
“You have a nice mouth,” Kevin says, because he does, and it’s actually really distracting.
Mike jerks his head up, startled, and then he’s just staring. He licks his lips a little, and Kevin stares back, because wow, and Kevin has no idea how this has become his life in just three days. “You, uh— beer,” Mike says, a little jerky and stilted. His mouth is really close again.
Kevin grins, hard, because Mike is a grouchy hermit gentleman, and it’s kind of like magic. “It’s okay, Mike Carden,” he says solemnly. “If you sit on this bench and talk to me for half an hour, I will be so sober. And then you can eat my face. So sober.”
Mike squints at him for a minute, like he can’t quite tell if Kevin is serious, but then he’s sitting sideways on the bench in front of the gazebo and tugging Kevin down, half on his lap, pulling Kevin close, back to front, and hooking his chin over Kevin’s shoulder. “Good plan,” he says, all warm air right in Kevin’s ear.
They don’t talk. They just stay there, tucked together, watching flakes of snow spin in the light from the twinklers, until the sun starts to come up and Kevin can’t feel his nose.
Kevin’s pretty sure it’s the best night of his life.
Kevin goes back to Joe’s an hour or so after dawn, but Joe and Demi are curled up on the couch, and Kevin feels— he feels out of place.
There’s still some kind of quiet magic leftover from the night, and he’s pretty sure that’s all that makes him brave enough to text Mike at the number he’d given Kevin before they’d parted ways less than a half an hour ago.
i feel like your couch and i got along pretty well, he sends.
It’s less than a minute before Mike texts back, you and my bed would get along better— ill be a gentleman
look ma no hands, is all Kevin sends back, and ten minutes later, Mike is pulling up in front of Joe’s apartment in a boxy Oldsmobile.
They end up in Mike’s bed, Mike’s chin tucked over Kevin’s curls, the smell of leather and smoke lulling Kevin to sleep.
The dreams Kevin has aren’t his. He’s pretty sure they’re Mike’s, because they involve a teenage Travie and Tomrad and a lot of beer and bowling and they make way more sense than Kevin’s ever do. They slip away as soon as he drifts to consciousness, like dreams do, and a minute after he his eyes open, he can’t remember what they were, other than that they were weird for some reason.
He wakes up disoriented and a little drunk-feeling, but that could just be because it’s mid-afternoon and asleep in an unfamiliar bed.
“Hey,” Mike murmurs in his ear, pulling Kevin closer, his back flush to Mike’s front, and—oh.
“Um,” Kevin says, blinking awake way faster than usually. “Hey?”
Mike shorts and buries his face in Kevin’s shoulder. “Want breakfast?”
“Is that a euphemism?” Kevin asks, half caution, half joke. “Because—”
“I thought I’d order pizza,” Mike says dryly. “Unless you were hoping I’d make a tasteless joke instead. I can probably muster that if you’re desperate for one, but I think it’ll just feel a little forced at this point.”
“True,” Kevin admits, and, “Pizza sounds good,” and, “I’m actually pretty sure it’s like…lunch at this point, it’s like two in the afternoon.”
Mike bites his ear. It’s a tiny thing, a graze of teeth, but Kevin’s skin spangles, and suddenly Mike being pressed up against his back has a heavy sort of intent to it, and Kevin is torn between want and not knowing what to do.
“Go on,” Mike says, nose nudging Kevin’s temple. “Get up, go take a shower or something. I’m— it’s all good.”
Kevin thinks about it, thinks about turning over and staying, letting things just…happen.
Instead, he limits himself to a tiny wriggle in Mike’s arms, just enough to really get an idea of what he’s missing out on for the moment, just enough to make Mike swear and cover his own face with an exasperate palm, and gets out of bed to find his way to Mike’s bathroom.
Kevin ends up in a pair of Mike’s sweatpants and a faded Mickey Mouse tee that’s so stretched out that it slips off one of his shoulders. They eat pizza on the couch while watching Say Yes to the Dress because it’s the only thing on.
“No way,” Mike says, gesturing at the screen and pulling a pained face. “Why would anyone even make that, let alone wear it?”
Kevin squints at him. “I think I’ll be playing into gay stereotypes really badly if I answer that, so instead, I’m just going to…chew my pizza. Yes. Om nom, I’m chewing.”
Mike elbows him and rolls his eyes, but they end up both groaning over the hideous dress the girl ends up with, and when the episode is over, Mike shuts the TV.
“I can’t take anymore,” he says, shaking his head. “Also, I missed my first class, but I do actually have swim practice in like an hour.”
“Oh,” Kevin says, because, hey, yeah, of course Mike has places to be. Mike has a life. Here. He has a whole life here, and Kevin isn’t actually— Kevin doesn’t actually belong here. He’s here to visit Joe. Who he’s seen all of one and a half times since he arrived, and he should really fix that, shouldn’t he? “Right, sorry, I didn’t mean to assume—”
“Want to get dinner after?” he asks, cutting Kevin off. Kevin is kind of hilariously grateful for that. Mike is sort of startlingly good at knowing all the weird, neurotic places that Kevin is going in his head.
“Yes,” Kevin says, and then, “should I have deliberated on that more? Like, I feel like I’m supposed to make you work for it or something,” and he can’t even keep a straight face all the way through the sentence, because Mike is glowering in a really put out sort of way, and he’s just so pretty that it hurts, and Kevin can’t not reel him in by the front of his raggedy Joy Division shirt.
“Uh,” Mike says, when their eyes are about an inch apart and Kevin is frozen with total, sudden, crippling uncertainty.
“Um,” Kevin agrees, nodding a little. “I had a thought, but I don’t really remember where I got the ridiculous idea to act on it, so the ball is kind of in your court from here.”
Mike huffs a quiet laugh, and then his mouth is on Kevin’s, just a brush of lips. There’s the grease from the pizza still on them, slippery and spicy, and they’re kind of chapped underneath, and it’s— it’s so nice that Kevin’s chest aches with it.
“Uh,” he says, when Mike sits back, grinning at him, and, “hi.”
“Hi,” Mike agrees, and then gets up to get changed for practice.
Kevin resists the urge to follow him.
Kevin goes to Ray’s store after Mike drops him off in the square. After last night’s impromptu musical shenanigans, his hands are itching to pick up a guitar again, and okay, maybe he’s not Joe, with Joe’s sparkly-handed guitar magic, but he’s— he’s pretty good, and it would be nice to be able to play again.
He finds Ray in the back of the store, giving lessons to an adorable little girl holding a guitar as big as she is.
“Hi,” she says when she finishes plucking out the notes in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star along with Ray. “You’re Mister Carden’s boyfriend,” she adds, blinking at him with huge eyes. She gives him a smile with missing front teeth. “Aw, you’re so cuuuute.”
“Uh,” Kevin says, looking at Ray for help.
“Bandit,” Ray admonishes, ruffling her hair up. “You know that’s not nice to do.”
“What—” Kevin clears his throat, crouching down so he’s on eye level with Bandit. “How did you know I was— he’s not actually my boyfriend, but—”
She hands Ray her guitar and makes a face at Kevin. “He thinks you are,” she says, almost scolding. “If you’re not, you should really tell him, that’s mean.”
“Uh,” Kevin says, and he’s really just not good with words today. “Yeah, but—”
“She’s like Mike,” Ray says, which clarifies exactly nothing at all. Ray must see that on Kevin’s face, because he clarifies, “If you’re thinking really loud, she can tell, you know?”
Oh. “Oh,” Kevin says. But— “Like Mike? Mike can—”
Ray’s brow furrows. “You didn’t know? Your brother— everyone here is kind of—uh. Like that. Not just that, but everyone can do small things.” He studies Kevin’s face, looking distressed, which, okay, is fair, considering what Kevin’s face probably looks like right now. “You really didn’t know?”
Kevin swallows, clears his throat, swallows again. “Um. And— you? What do you—”
Ray is shaking his head. “Not me. Just about everyone else, though.” He looks at Bandit. “You can go home,” he tells her, smiling and ruffling her hair again. “I need to talk to Mister Jonas alone for a minute, okay? Tell your dad that Greta and me’ll be by for dinner?”
Bandit hops off her stool and pulls on a bright green dinosaur jacket, standing on tiptoe to kiss Ray’s cheek. “Okay,” she says, beaming at him and then Kevin. Kevin still feels kind of numb. “Be nice to Mister Carden,” she admonishes him as she heads for the door. “He makes the best cake.”
“So,” Kevin says, once they’re settled in at a table at the Butcher’s, which is apparently not a butcher shop, but a cafe. “That’s how the hot chocolate stayed hot?”
Ray ducks his head, smiling into his coffee. “That’s Greta. She’s— she’s gifted in the kitchen.” He says it just like a proud husband, too, like he loves every single thing about her and is pleased when other people notice how great she is. Kevin thinks it would be pretty hard not to notice Greta’s awesomeness, but that really isn’t the point right now. “She makes magic waffles.”
Kevin bites his lip and nods. “And Mike?” he presses, trying not to think too hard about it before Ray explains things.
Ray shrugs. “Carden is just… good at feeling people out. He’s not a full telepath or anything, not like in the X-Men or something. He’s just good at knowing what people have going on, you know?”
Kevin does know. He’s not really sure how he feels about it, exactly— he feels like he should probably feel a little violated, somehow, knowing that Mike has an advantage he didn’t tell Kevin about, but at the same time— “He probably assumed I knew, didn’t he? He can’t read actual thoughts.”
Ray is nodding. “We all assumed, I think. Did your brother not tell you why he came here?”
“He told us why he was leaving,” Kevin says, feeling kind of hilariously stupid. “He didn’t— I should have realized.” The perpetually fizzy beer makes more sense now.
“Well,” Ray says, as relaxed as he is about everything, “you know now.”
“You’re very well-adjusted for someone who has no magic powers in a land of people with magic powers,” Kevin says. He doesn’t mean it to sound as accusatory as it does; he’s just kind of unsettled, still.
Ray shrugs. “I met Greta because I was playing a gig at Smith’s. I didn’t live here, I was doing this half-assed tour,” he splays his hands expressively on the table. “She came up to me during the break between sets and proposed.”
Kevin wrinkles his nose. “Wait, what?”
Ray grins. “She walked up to me, sat in the chair across from me, kicked her feet up into my lap, and said, ‘I’m thinking a June wedding, what about you?’ and that was that.”
“Seriously?” Kevin is a firm believer in, like, destiny and true love, but that’s— it’s a little weird.
Ray shrugs again. “Things work differently here. People can do different things, know different things, and know the same things differently. I think the trick is not to make life any more complicated than it has to be, you know?”
Kevin thinks about it. “Yeah,” he says, gnawing his lip, “yeah, no, maybe you’re right.”
“Hi,” Kevin says when Mike walks in.
Mike startles a little, but to his credit, the surprise pretty immediately shifts to pleasure. “Hey,” he says, chucking his bag by the door and coming to collapse on the couch next to Kevin. “Travie let you in?”
Kevin nods, shifting around so he can stick his socked feet under Mike’s thighs. “He left for work, but he said to tell you there’s a rice thing in the fridge.”
Mike bobs his head, then kind of freezes with his head down and looks up at Kevin through his hair, all wary animal. “You’re—is everything okay?”
Kevin takes a minute before he says anything, makes sure all the words are in the right order and that he’s saying what he means to. “You tell me,” he says, and it’s not mean, or at least he doesn’t mean it to be— it’s gentle, it’s an offer, for Mike to show him, to tell him without Kevin pushing him.
Mike looks at him for a long, long moment, all sideways and hesitant, and Kevin meets his eyes, waits him out.
“You—” Mike clears his throat, looks away. “You didn’t know about us. Here.”
Kevin shakes his head. “Nope.”
Mike cringes. “Joe didn’t—” He looks genuinely pained.
Kevin shakes his head again. “Joe talks a lot while managing to say basically nothing, you know? It’s kind of—” he rubs the back of his neck awkwardly, “—it’s kind of a thing you learn to do, in my family. Survival mechanism, you know?”
Mike nods. “I wouldn’t have hidden it from you,” he says, sort of painfully earnest. It looks really out of place on his face, and it makes Kevin’s stomach twist. He takes Kevin’s hand, squeezes it hard. “I wouldn’t—”
Kevin squeezes back. “I know.” And he means it.
Kevin wins the next guitar battle, hands down, and then is absolutely slaughtered by Ray, who is apparently a secret guitar god who owns really, really tight pants that he breaks out on Saturday nights.
When Kevin stumbles off the table, only one beer to the wind and a lot high on adrenaline and laughter and applause, Mike catches him with both hands and drags him out into the snow again.
“This is getting to be a habit,” Kevin accuses, bundling his jacket around him against the cold. “You’re trying to get me to ask for your coat so you can feel like a high school jock.”
“I am a jock,” Mike says, sticking his tongue out. “I’m on the swim team.”
“You’re in college,” Kevin protests, rolling his eyes as Mike drags him along down the sidewalk. “It’s not the same.”
“So you don’t want my class ring, then?” Mike teases, stopping under a streetlamp to grin at him.
Kevin is trying to figure out a witty response for that when Mike is crowding him in against the light post, and Kevin means to say something, he really does, but whatever it is gets lost in the warmth of Mike’s mouth as it slants over his own. Kevin’s eyes flutter shut as butterflies start up a ridiculous flurry in his chest. He’s pretty sure that, Joe or not, he’s going to stay.
“Oh,” he says, swallowing hard when Mike pulls back a little. “Hi,” he says, and god, he really needs to learn how to talk better in this sort of situation.
“Hi,” Mike says, grinning, and then manages to read Kevin’s mind in a very basic sort of way, and leans back in to lick into Kevin’s mouth.
Kevin thinks he can probably live with this whole “magic town” thing if it means he doesn’t have to ask for that sort of thing.