Special thanks to Rowan for the beta reading and support! And to JL for the feedback, encouragement, and inspiration!
The house opened into a wide hallway with doors on either side of a central staircase. The wall behind the stairs was formed from a mosaic of river rocks in dusky blues and greys. After staring at it for a moment Oren could make out a tree and smaller creatures in the shadows. It wasn’t the kind of thing he would want to see entering his own house at night, but it had clearly taken skill to create it.
“I thought you said he was a painter?” Oren said.
Rezo frowned as if the distinction hadn’t occurred to him. “That’s what he was known for, but—”
“I’m not complaining.”
“I haven’t been here before, but there are supposed to be murals in some of the rooms.” Rezo gestured toward the doors on either side of the hall.
There were signs hanging in the doorways and on the stairs, but instead of the obligatory declaration of “tour starts here” and some facts about the painter’s life, he saw only the words “left,” “right,” and “up.”
Oren was intrigued, but he didn’t voice it. “Not exactly informative are they?”
“It just means we have choices. Where do you want to go first? Left or right?”
“Of course you do.” Rezo shook his head but he was grinning. “After you.”
At the branch in the stairs, Oren took the path to the left. It opened into a long hall with rows of doors. A look over his shoulder showed an identical hall on the other side of the stairs. It seemed sparsely decorated for the home of an alleged eccentric, but maybe it would be different inside the rooms. Oren opened the first door and Rezo followed close behind him.
One wall had been painted so that a single flower spanned the distance from floor to ceiling. It was a common one that Oren had seen along the roadsides many times but had never bothered to learn the name of. Every detail of the downturned flower had been painted so meticulously—the long stamens, the speckled petals, and even some type of parasitic insect—that they had taken on an unreal, almost alien quality. At some point Idwal’s flower had stopped being pretty and become more…eerie. Oren loved it.
“This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting,” Rezo said, and Oren caught his slightly uneasy frown before he masked it.
“I think it’s great.” Oren smiled at Rezo’s look of relief. “I might even call his style inspiring, except…” Oren’s grin turned sly. “Weren’t you the one who criticized me for having art all over my room? At least I didn’t paint on the walls.”
Rezo seemed to relax a little at the teasing. “It was your subject matter.”
“You don’t seem to have a problem with that now.”
“You know what the difference is.” Rezo had gone stiff again. It was bizarre that when they finally went on a real date, Oren was the one who was more at ease. He’d expected the opposite to be true. Maybe it was just because Rezo had picked the place and he felt responsible for the outcome.
Well, if Rezo needed to be provoked back onto comfortable ground, then it was entirely his own fault when Oren proceeded to do it.
“You mean the difference between his technique and mine?” Oren said. “Maybe if I magnified every little detail into massive proportions, then my work would stop being inappropriate and start being art.”
“I never said your work wasn’t art.”
Oren pretended to think for a moment. “I’d need more detailed reference material.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I know…” Oren brightened. “You could model for me.”
Rezo’s eyes widened.
“Don’t you want to see your”—Oren watched Rezo’s jaw tighten—“anatomy enlarged until it’s big enough to cover an entire wall?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time you modeled for me.”
Rezo leaned toward him and Oren’s breath caught.
“I don’t remember that ending well for you,” Rezo said, his voice low.
Actually, Rezo had been the subject of his drawings many times without anything bad happening at all, but this probably wasn’t the best time to make him aware of that.
“But this time I’m asking permission.” Oren did his best to look innocent, although it was hard when his thoughts were anything but. Not with Rezo looking at him like that. “And it’s not like you’d have to hold still for a long time—I could just take pictures.”
Rezo just shook his head.
“Well, if I can’t use you…” Oren sighed as dramatically as he could. “I guess I can settle for self-portraits—”
Oren yelped as Rezo’s fingers closed around his wrist. “Wait, wait, wait!” He threw out an arm to block any incoming swats, but Rezo only pulled him close.
“Maybe I want that to be for my eyes only,” Rezo said, the heat of his breath warm against Oren’s ear.
Rezo had never said anything so possessive before, and it was—hotter than it probably should have been. Which probably wasn’t the healthiest response, but at this point he was just going to have to add that to his list of quirks.
“Ok.” At that moment he would have agreed to just about anything. He turned so his lips were nearly in contact with Rezo’s. “How about if everything is for your eyes right now?”
Rezo’s amused snort wasn’t nearly enough warning for the sharp swat that landed on Oren’s backside.
“Ow! What was that for? I was agreeing with you,” Oren said, jumping away to a safer distance.
Rezo made no move to follow him. “Let’s get back to the tour.”
Oren rubbed at his bottom, but it was mostly for show. He scowled at the grin Rezo gave him.
Undaunted, Rezo held out his hand.
“It’s not fair to be a tease if you’re going to make me wait,” Oren said as he took Rezo’s fingers into his own.
“I am not the tease here.”
That was probably true, but it didn’t stop Oren from rolling his eyes.
Rezo kissed him once on the side of his head as they continued on to the next room.
The rest of the tour was interesting, although with less touching and banter and more focus on the actual art. A group of preteens and a frazzled looking adult arrived and both Oren and Rezo had automatically toned down their contact. Oren wasn’t certain what Rezo’s motivation was, but for him affection seemed somehow better when it was private, without the resulting worry over what others thought to distract him.
Even though he’d still enjoyed himself, Oren was glad when they completed the tour inside and went out to the gardens where there was enough space to make it easy to be alone.
There were picnic tables scattered throughout the gardens, and they chose one beside a koi pond. The area was Japanese themed but didn’t seem to be exceptionally accurate. The mishmash of vaguely Asian things appeared to fascinate Rezo however, and Oren suspected that if he didn’t manage the conversation carefully he was going to spend the date being lectured on cultural exchange, or globalization, or appropriation, or something else he wasn’t going to quite understand.
Oren dropped down onto one of the benches, trying to think of a new topic of conversation, when he remembered that he was supposed to be keeping track of the time.
“What time is it?” Rezo asked when he saw Oren checking his phone.
“Seven minutes until noon.” And time to disarm the alarm, although he’d rather not do it in front of Rezo.
Rezo nodded and his expression went far away. “If you’re ready for lunch, we could do that now. I just need to get something from the car.”
His timing could not have been more perfect. Clearly they were made for each other.
“Alright.” Oren glanced around the empty grounds. “I can stay here and make sure no one gets our table.”
“Great,” Rezo said, entirely oblivious of Oren’s joke. He unslung the insulated bag from his shoulder and set it on the table. “I’ll be right back.”
As soon as Rezo was out of sight around the building, Oren keyed the information into the app. He watched as it began the “sending” process. It was incredibly slow. But that made sense, the location was remote and everything here was probably accomplished with the same grueling, country speed. He had a few minutes before the caterers were due to arrive so he wasn’t worried.
He had typed up a message for them with instructions to contact him by email if anything went wrong, and he pressed send on that as well. He wasn’t surprised when that connection was just as slow as the first.
He stuffed the device back into his pocket and waited for Rezo’s return. He considered unpacking the insulated bag—Rezo would be so impressed with how helpful he was—but then decided against it. Rezo seemed to be trying to make this special, and he might mess something up. Especially if it required whatever it was Rezo had forgotten in the car.
Oren wondered if he were responsible for that—that Rezo was so caught up in thoughts of him that for once he was the one who wasn’t prepared. It was a nice fantasy, and Oren let himself indulge in it.
When Rezo returned he was carrying a wide flat box. It didn’t look like it had anything to do with food.
He handed it to Oren.
Oren took in the textured lid with its green and black patterns in confusion. “What’s this?”
“It’s not much,” Rezo said, looking anywhere but at Oren.
Oren removed the lid. Inside was a sketchbook. The cover had the same design as the box and beside it was a set of six micron pens.
“Is that the right kind?” Rezo said. “I asked my aunt what to get. I don’t know if you remember, but she’s the one with the art studio—”
“Is this a gift?” Oren tore his eyes away from the items to focus on Rezo.
Rezo gave him a stiff shrug. “It’s traditional.”
Oren frowned. “But I didn’t get you anything.”
“You’re not supposed to, only the—” Rezo stopped, his expression growing sheepish. “I guess that’s the problem with traditions, they don’t take social change into account. And even in heterosexual relationships it should be acceptable for either partner to give something, regardless of gender—”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was taught to always bring a gift on a date.”
“Doesn’t that get expensive, I mean, if you keep seeing someone?” Oren shook his head and continued before Rezo could answer. “Nevermind. But if you'd told me, I’d have brought you one too.”
“Next time.” Rezo looked away, which wasn’t what Oren wanted at all.
Oren moved to the other side of the table. “Thank you.” He kissed the edge of Rezo’s mouth.
Strong fingers caught Oren’s jaw and pulled him into a deeper kiss.
It took Oren a while before he was willing to break away. “You know, you’re a lot more romantic than I would have expected.”
“I’m not the only one.”
Oren pulled back. “I’m not romantic.”
Rezo smiled at that but let it drop.
“So is our entire relationship going to be traditional?” Oren said, changing the subject. “Are there other things I should know about?”
Rezo snorted. “Nothing with you is traditional.”
“So what would a traditional relationship be like?”
“I’m not an expert on that.”
“As a sociology major, shouldn’t you be?” Oren grinned at the look Rezo gave him. “Well, what was your parents’ relationship like? Pre-marriage?”
Rezo looked at him strangely and for a moment Oren worried he’d said the wrong thing, but then Rezo spoke.
“If our relationship was like my parents’, we would have started with a long period of courtship where one of us would pretend to be disinterested. We would tease each other, and then after a while there would be gifts, and finally we’d meet each other’s parents.”
Oren looked at him for a moment. “How is that not what we’ve been doing?”
“That’s not—” Rezo stopped. He looked at Oren and a slow smile spread over his features. “You might have a point.”
“It makes sense that the one time I do something the right way it’s entirely accidental.” Oren shrugged. “At least now I can say I’ve tried it.”
Oren found the eye roll he received to be particularly affectionate.
Rezo said nothing else, but began to unpack the cooler.
Lunch turned out to be peanut butter and jelly. While not as extravagant as Oren was expecting, not with how nice everything else on the date had been, it wasn’t bad. Watching Rezo lick the occasional drip off his fingers was even less bad.
Afterward they walked the gardens. The grounds were attractive and interesting, but most of his attention was on the way Rezo would touch him. A hand stroking his back, fingers twined in his, and the occasional brush of his lips.
Oren was happy. Not just entertained or distracted, but truly deeply happy. He’d been feeling this way more and more recently. Part of it was because of Rezo, of course—having someone he cared about and could trust. But it was also a sense that he was becoming better. That he was less of the inevitably defective person he had always suspected himself to be, and actually capable of doing good things and being basically functional. Productive even.
But maybe all that was from Rezo too.
“It’s hard to remember that I don’t have school on Monday,” Rezo said, interrupting Oren’s thoughts. “Since I don’t have anywhere to be for once, do you want to do something else after this?”
“We could go see a movie.”
After their conversation last time, Oren wasn’t sure what that meant. If Rezo wanted to make progress in the dark, he was willing. But if Rezo just wanted to spend time with him and watch the show—he was also willing. Well, at least the answer was the same either way.
“Sure,” Oren said, and the warmth in Rezo’s gaze seemed to transfer directly into his chest.
“I don’t know what’s playing,” Rezo said, “but—”
“I can look it up,” Oren offered.
Rezo’s eyes shifted to Oren’s phone as it was slipped from his pocket. “Is that new?” Rezo started to reach for it but stopped, keeping his hand at a polite distance. “Mind if I look at it?”
“Go ahead.” Oren handed it to him with a shrug, secretly pleased that he was interested. It was as if with every second he was becoming more useful.
Rezo made a few taps and sliding motions on the screen and frowned. “It’s not connecting.”
“Yeah, the reception isn’t great here. It worked better at home.”
“That’s not it.” Rezo made a few more motions. “You have it set to Wi-Fi only.”
Oren wasn’t quite sure what the implications of that statement were, but that didn’t prevent his stomach from sinking.
“I turned it back on now,” Rezo said. “And it looks like you’ve got some kind of alert.” He passed it back to him.
Oren looked down at the screen and saw the alarm company’s logo with the words: failed to send.
He took a breath. This didn’t necessarily have to be a cause for panic. Error messages could happen for all sorts of reasons. He took a slow breath as he began navigating the menus to look for the alarm status. It wasn’t difficult, the blood-red lettering made it hard to miss: armed.
Oren refreshed the page but the status didn’t change. “This can’t be happening.” It didn’t make sense. He’d given the caterers his email address. They should have contacted him.
“What’s wrong?” Rezo asked.
Before Oren could answer he was interrupted by the beep of an email notification—followed shortly by three more.
How long had the caterers tried to get into his house before they gave up? Did they give up? Was his mother at home now, furious that she had to return? Or was she still in blissful ignorance and wouldn’t know anything had gone wrong until tomorrow at the failed party?
Oren looked up and was surprised to see concern in Rezo’s eyes. He wasn’t entirely certain why it was there, but it was nice. Really, Rezo looking at him with kindness and compassion was something he could never get enough of.
Rezo’s placed a hand on Oren’s arm in a comforting gesture. “What happened?”
“I need to go home,” Oren said, hating the words even as he spoke them. “I’m sorry. I was having a good time. A really good time, but—”
“Is everyone alright?”
“I…” Oren’s eyes dropped to Rezo’s hand. The moment he told him the truth he was going to get a very different reaction.
He didn’t have to tell him. Rezo had given him the perfect out. All he had to do was make something up about someone being sick. Or having a minor injury even.
Except that wouldn’t be true and Rezo expected better from him. Rezo deserved better from him.
“Did someone get hurt?”
“I was supposed to disable the alarm so some caterers could get into the house, but the request didn’t go through. I thought I was connected.” Oren held up the phone as if he could transfer some of the blame to it. “I didn’t know.”
“They probably just called your parents and—” Rezo frowned. “Why did you wince?”
“I didn’t.” Oren watched Rezo’s eyes narrow. “I mean, it’s complicated.”
Rezo folded his arms over his chest.
“Come on, it’s not fair to look at me like that. I’m already going to be in trouble with enough people.”
“Why are you going to be in trouble?”
Oren hesitated. “I wasn’t supposed to leave the house today.”
Rezo blinked at him.
“It was really unnecessary for me to stay with the caterers,” Oren continued. “We’ve used the same company forever and they’ve always been trustworthy.”
“If your parents were comfortable letting the caterers in unsupervised they’d have done so. They could have new employees. You’re lucky they couldn’t get in—who knows what could have happened to your home?”
“I am not lucky.” Oren ignored the slight narrowing of Rezo’s eyes. “It was terrible luck that Norman had to pick up his aunt at the airport, and neither of my parents would be home, of course, they’re never home, but still. And getting a new phone so I wouldn’t know about the Wi-Fi stuff wasn’t lucky either. I did everything I could to handle this responsibly. I even gave them my email address in case there were any problems. It should have been fine.”
“Why didn’t you leave them your phone number?”
Oren felt some of his righteousness fade away. “I didn’t want them to interrupt our date.”
Rezo exhaled and slowly let his head drop into his hands. “I should have known,” he said, rubbing his temples.
Oren didn’t ask what.
But Rezo told him anyway. “I should have known you would manage to get in trouble on our first date. You’ll probably get in trouble on all our dates.”
“That’s not true. I’m not always going to—”
“As much as I’d like to deal with this now…” Rezo looked pointedly at the picnic benches and a lump formed in Oren’s throat. “We should figure out how bad this is first.”
“Let’s get you home.”