He’s nineteen. Smoke in the air. Music thudding in his ears, but still barely a whipser compared to his own thundering blood. Silk around his hips, long yellow scarves wrapped around his pale arms. The man before him. Only a bit older. Twenty-two. New to the city. Elven like his grandmother. Short and stout like the grim statues outside the city gates from a time long gone. Square-jawed and handsome in a studious sort of way. He licks his lips, rubbing sweaty palms together as he watches Basil dance. He leans back on the bed. A room rented for a single night. He leaves in the morning. Back to where he belongs.
“I’ve never done this before.”
Basil’s hands, the way the mattress dips around him as he crawls towards Gill. His finger’s just barely grazing his groin as his legs spread, as he tilts back. “Never? Not at all?”
He shakes his head. Those unruly curls catching the light, looking more red than brown. “I want you to be my first.”
He’s twenty-three. Fired. Again. Sleeping on Pinkie’s couch. Again. Listening to his friend have wild sex with a stranger or two. Again. In the morning he’ll write a poem about it. Talk about how freeing it is to live for art and pleasure. But Basil is starting to doubt his freedom. All he sees is bankruptcy. And curly hair. And a man who tugs him down by the sleeve to kiss his cheek. A man who only comes to see him a few months out of the year before he runs off back to his home. A group of people. Not a place.
“Join them,” Grandma Imra said. “Live as I did.” The stories she used to tell. The sort of closeness her people had that couldn’t be recreated in their setting. But a life so unfit for Basil he could only snort at the idea. Although, he did think about it. Being with him. Without the arguments that came with his departure, the bitter questioning if he would ever come back. He should beg him to stay. He should wrap his legs around his waist and hold him to his chest every morning until Basil’s heartbeat became the only thing capable of soothing him. He should get down on his knees and plead both with words and his mouth. He never will. He never will.
He’s twenty-seven. He wakes before the man beside him, holds his hand up to the early light, and squints at the golden band around his finger as if still unsure that it’s real. It is. He hears Gill snoring in his ear, feels his thick arm around his waist, hair tickling back of his neck, a slow drip of drool from his parted mouth to his exposed skin. Their apartment creaks around them. The city slowly starts to wake up. Gill stayed for him. Gill left his whole world behind for him. Would Basil have done the same? If he’d asked? If he’d been nearly as selfish?
“Happy Birthday, Mr. Duran.”
A gurgling groan is the only response Basil can muster. His body feels sunken into the mattress. It takes him a moment to ground himself. The windows must be open. A soft chill creeps into the room, or maybe their old apartment is finally falling apart around them. Already there were cracks in the walls. It’s morning, at least. The sunlight scratches at his closed eyes.
“How does it feel to be thirty?”
“Why don’t you tell me?” He wants to sound playfully bitter. But when his eyes open all he sees is Gill kneeling beside him in their bed. A cake in his hands. The scent of strawberries hit his nose. Slices of fruit decorate the top of the cake, cut just right and curled together so they look like flowers. Of course. Gill makes good use of the portion of the neighborhood greenhouse he rents.
The corners of his lips twitch. All he can see is Gill slipping out of bed slowly so he doesn’t wake him. Tip-toeing into the kitchen over their creaking floorboards, baking for him and carefully cutting fruit with a pleased expression on his face. His apron is stained with flour and frosting. Even his hair is littered with streaks of white. Another sniff. Tea must be brewing in the other room. Did Gill set the table? Hide a present for him somewhere?
“I’m still twenty-nine until this day is over.”
“That’s not how birthdays work.”
“You dare correct the king on his birthday? The gods will smite you.”
Gill shakes his head. Carefully, he edges himself off the bed and comes to a stand. He cradles to the cake to his chest, as if it’s his child. “Get dressed. I have an appointment so–”
“On my birthday?” Basil sits up. The blanket falls away from his bare chest and he just barely holds back a gasp as the cold air hits him.
“I know.” A deep frown etches itself across Gill’s face. It makes him feel a pang in his chest. He doesn’t want to spend the day alone in the apartment any more than Gill wishes to leave him. “I’ll be back by the afternoon. I’ll take you to dinner.”
Nothing in the world Gill hated more than going out to dinner. He seemed content to cook all their meals, almost predatory about it as if it was his pride as a husband. Besides, it was needlessly public. For someone raised around so many people with little chances of privacy, he hated eating out.
“We can go dancing.”
Alright. Perhaps he hated dancing more. At least the kind of dances they had in Foundum.
Basil reached out with a shaking hand. “Who are you and what have you done with my precious husband?”
Impossibly, his frown deepened. “I need help finding my cap. I’ll see you in the kitchen.”
Gill was halfway out the bedroom before he looked over his shoulder to add, “maybe spend time with Pinkie until I come back?”
Basil narrowed his eyes as he rolled out of bed. Gill? Suggesting he spend time with Pinkie? On his birthday? Undoubtedly Pinkie would drag him to some underground club to watch experimental theater or some place to watch young couples fuck on a stage while a pretentious crowd called it high art.
Something must be wrong.
Worse than their impending debt?
He wrapped himself in one of Gill’s sweaters, old enough to be bitten up my moths and smelling so strongly of Gill it made his head spin. Still, it was large and thick, cozy enough to walk around in while being naked underneath. It just barely hung beneath his thighs.
“What’s this appointment for?” Basil followed Gill into the kitchen.
Gill hummed to himself. The cake was in the middle of their slightly crooked table. He’d sliced it, two plates already set out for them. A single candle was stabbed through Basil’s slice. Gill poured steaming tea into cups, sprinkling in herbs.
Gill stood on the tips of his toes to reach the shelf over the over. He wrapped his fingers around a glass jar of honey. Gill always liked to boast about how he harvested it himself. From an acquaintance of his.
“Sure it won’t be too sweet?”
Basil snorted. “No, darling, I’m talking about you. I asked you a question.
Gill hummed again, nodding as he set the jar back in place. He slipped off his apron, leaning close to the recently polished metal of the pipes above their heads and brushing the flour off his face and clothes. He spun, opening drawers until he found forks and made his way make to the table. He handed Basil his before sitting down across from him.
“Happy Birthday, baby.”
He watched him. Intently. Basil sliced his fork through the cake and took his first bite. Multi-layered, creamy frosting between decadently soft layers of cake. The cake itself had a slight hint of lemon and the frosting tasted strongly of strawberries. Not overly sweet, but just enough where his eyes nearly rolled back. Only then did he lean down and blow out the candle.
Gill settled back into his chair. Clearly pleased. “Did you make a wish?”
Basil pressed a finger to his lips. “You know I won’t tell you.”
“I hope it comes true.”
“You’re no fun. You won’t even try to find out? Not even a guess?”
A ghost of a smile tickled Gill’s lips. He lifted his teacup to his mouth, holding it so close to his face as if he intended to tell it a secret.
“I’m meeting with my sister.”
Basil’s spoon clattered against the edge of his plate. “She’s here?” Gill’s family was as big as his if not bigger. Most of who he used to travel with was extended family. Gill had five sisters. The younger ones were hardly any trouble, and Basil only knew them in passing.
But, the older one?
“Venali’s just visiting–”
“–that bitch she knows today is my birthday, doesn’t she? Always trying to drag you away from me.”
“Hm.” Gill frowned again. It was unfair, he knew. Gill didn’t like how much he and Venali hated it each other.
It wasn’t his fault.
Always her who couldn’t stand him. Always her who sneered and said he wasn’t good enough for her brother.
“She needs my help, Basil. And you know she doesn’t use our calendar.” The way he hesitated to say ‘our’, almost as if it pained him. The elves did use the queen’s system. They told time differently. Different days to mark seasons, different months, different years. A system Gill had to let go of to adjust to life in Foundum.
“The last time she was here she introduced you to another man.” Or tried to. And Basil couldn’t help but notice he was aggressively elven. Full-blooded. Knowing all the intricacies of their shared culture and history. It came as easily as breathing. A clear insult. As if Venali was turning up her nose at him and grumbling under her breath.
You’re not enough of us.
“There’s no man this time.” Gill took a sip of his tea. “She truly needs my help. And I need hers.” He whispered the last part, speaking the words into the curling steam.
“I hate her.” He hated himself for pouting like a child, for crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair. “If you meet her I won’t forgive you.”
Basil didn’t mean it. Not truly. He didn’t want them to fight, not when Gill was already so stressed. He almost wanted them to play. Him, the unhappy and grumpy husband. Gill, the husband eager to see him smile. He would round the table to him, force him to his lap, tickle his waist until a laugh broke through before latching his lips onto his neck.
But, Gill simply stood instead. He reached for his coat, hanging off the back of a chair. “I don’t break promises. Not to family.”
Was Basil not family too?
Arms still crossed, Basil followed him to the door. His cap hung off the rack as it always did. Somehow Gill didn’t see it. He walked right by and put his hand on the door handle.
“Your hat, dear.”
“Thank you.” Gill bowed his head and Basil slipped it over his curls. As he always did. He carefully tucked the stray hair behind his ears, caressing gently.
The word lingered on the tip of his tongue. If he asked, if he really demanded, Gill would listen. He always had. How else had they ended up here? A lump rose in his throat. A swell of shame sank to his stomach along with the cake.
When was the last time Gill saw his family?
“A few people might stop by for some orders while I’m gone. I left a list of instructions on the counter. Keep shop for a bit? I have a surprise for you when I get back.”
Basil hugged himself more tightly as Gill opened the front door. The shop below them seemed an icebox in comparison to their tiny apartment. The winter pressing up against the large glass windows certainly did them no favors. He leaned against the doorway as Gill stopped over the threshold, rubbing his thighs together for friction and warmth.
Did Gill not drink him in? Even with his hair a mess from sleep, his eyes still dry and groggy, his body wrapped up in his scent, could he not tempt him to stay a bit longer?
Basil nodded. “Have fun with your sister, dear.” He tried to mean it. Gill would tell Venali what day it was. And it would only boost her ego. The next time he saw her, she’d smile until the points of her teeth were exposed and she’d let loose some snide remark.
Gill tugged on his sleeve until Basil bent his knees. He pressed a kiss to his cheek, lips still warm from the tea. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
He’s thirty. He won’t tell his husband. The moment the door closes, he cries.