When Gloria showed me the apartment, she said, “Eddie, sweetie, we’re redoing the whole
kitchen. Don’t even sweat it, okay?”
And I said, “The whole kitchen? Oh no. No, no, no, you have got
to let me keep that old stove. It’s adorable
.” Lots of italics, just like that, because Gloria’s just one of those people who inspires others to talk in random italics.
So maybe I’ll just blame the fire on italics. Because that stove, oh my God, I don’t know what even happened, but it set some shit on fire about six months later. And there I was, sleeping like a cliché-baby on my futon, dreaming about that guy who plays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
. About him crawling up that giant ice wall with my thighs wrapped around his waist, saving me from the attacking Wildlings. Me shifting my hips (gotta keep warm on the Wall somehow) and whispering into his ear, “Faster, baby. Winter is coming
I have weird dreams sometimes.
The point is that I probably would’ve died if someone hadn’t hauled me to my feet. Which I also thought was a dream, but no. The first thing I noticed was that the hands pulling me around were large and gloved--and freezing cold even through the leather. Or maybe I was just hot, because I was sweating and having trouble breathing. But then I shivered violently.
“You’re okay. Just come with me,” said the voice attached to the hands.
My feet slipped on inexplicable ice. The strong, gloved hands steadied me, and the voice said, “Shit, sorry.” Then my feet were wet, but it wasn’t so slippery, and I could walk.
And some guy in a black hoodie and leather gloves led me out of my smoke-filled apartment in the middle of the night. As we turned in to the hallway, flame flared up at the end. He held out a gloved hand. By the firelight, I saw
frost spread in a flash over the wall and floor, snuffing out the flames.
I shivered again and decided I was still dreaming. And if I took this guy’s hood off, it was clearly going to be Jon Snow. Maybe I should jump on his back?
He tugged me out onto the rattly wrought-iron porch and started down the equally rattly stairs. He was tall, taller than me--which isn’t saying much, but still--with broad shoulders and slim hips. It was a perfect swimmer’s build, but he moved like he didn’t realize it, with an almost adolescent awkwardness. “Don’t you have a fire alarm?”
“It needs a battery,” I said, dazed. There was a small streetlight in the parking lot below, and the moon was out, and all I could smell was melting plastic. Now my brain was finally waking up. Oh God, this is real. My apartment was on fire--is on fire--was on fire, and this guy put it out with... What the hell did he just do? Who the hell is he? Oh my God, this is not Jon Snow!
“Well, consider getting one.” The voice was mild and somehow equally awkward but far from adolescent. “I’ll call you an ambulance. I have to get out of--”
But I wasn’t having that crap, by then. Adrenaline had belatedly kicked in, and I grabbed for his arm and spun him.
He was pale, possibly with a sprinkling of freckles, but I couldn’t see his hair under the hood. I could
see his lips, palest pink and plump, especially the bottom one, which looked like someone had bitten it hard and the swelling had never gone down. Nice bone structure too--nothing supermodel or delicate, but hard, straight lines and angles. For some reason it made me think: Football hooligan?
He was pretty, but the kind of pretty that’d still be scary in a fight.
And he’d probably just saved my life. I had a million questions (chiefly: Why the hell were you in my apartment--when it was
on fire?), but my heart was racing with the sudden acknowledgement of my own ridiculous mortality. I had somehow forgotten the words thank you
. So I grabbed the front of his hoodie, went up on my toes, and kissed him.
Because that’s what the damsel in distress does when he gets rescued from the tower, right?
I did mention I’d just been torn out of sleep and bed by an apartment fire and a stranger in my room, right? I was a little confused, so I was just going with the subconscious here. I still say I was not wrong.
He froze. It’s a funny turn of phrase because those beautiful lips felt like he’d been sucking on an ice cube all night. But they gave quickly enough, and he reached out and grabbed my T-shirt just above the waist of my boxers, like he was trying to steady himself. I tilted my head and pressed in and up, parting my lips and his with them.
Half of me was waiting for him to punch me. Maybe it was the football-hooligan-pretty thing.
He went with it, tilting to match, chest suddenly rising as if he’d been holding his breath, then falling as it pressed into mine.
And God, he was really, really
cold, even through his clothes. Another question--How the hell did you do the frost thing?
--gnawed at me as the sensations of him real and alive and frigid against me let me know he was absolutely not a figment of my imagination. But when he opened his mouth a little more, let my tongue in, sucked gently at the tip of it in a way that sent electricity leaping through my veins, suddenly all I could think was how warm
he was inside.
I couldn’t help it; I let out a little hum and put an arm around his neck.
He pulled back suddenly, eyes wide. In the bad light, they seemed like a kind of midnight blue. I’d accidentally moved his hood enough to tell.
Oh, slap my ass and call me Sally, he’s a redhead
. I’d been lazily getting there, but wow. Insta-boner.
He let me go and yanked the hood back up, then lowered his head. “I’ll call 911 for you. Please, don’t tell them I was here.” He lifted his gaze, met mine.
I nodded. I wasn’t sure why. He just looked scared, so I did. Still, I had just enough presence of mind to say, “But you were in my--”
“I wasn’t; I swear. I mean, I was, but not until I smelled the smoke--and the doorknob was hot, so--” He dropped his gaze again and stepped backward into the shadow of the building. “Please, please, do not
mention me. Especially not the frost. Please
“Oooo...kay.” I stood there, way too baffled to even go after him when he took off down the street.
And then I guess the smoke inhalation caught up with the adrenaline, because I sat down on the steps and started coughing like a lung was trying to come up.
* * * *
“It smells like smoke in here. Like burned coffee, actually.” Kavita threw her three-foot-long braid over her shoulder and settled a slim hand on her hip. If her eyebrows got any higher, they were going to disappear.
“Well, we can’t close it down,” I pointed out. “Yesterday’s sandwich board promised that if people come in today and do the thing, they get free coffee. I can’t just bail on them.”
In fact, the sandwich board had promised:
Morning Gloria’s Offer of the Week:
Masters of haiku
Bring your best game tomorrow
Get a free house blend
Accompanied by a picture of a cherry blossom branch that had taken me twenty minutes to perfect, much to Kavita’s annoyance. Girl had no appreciation for art sometimes.
“The apartment upstairs was on fire. With you in it. Not only can
you bail on them, you’re fucking insane not to.”
“So I’m fucking insane,” I said, all cheerful. It was fake, for once, though; I’d spent a few hours in the hospital with a mask on. Now I was just annoyed I hadn’t asked them to take a DNA sample from my lips or something. I was starting to think my ginger mystery savior had
been a dream.
Except...that kiss. I could still feel it. Not just in my lips (oh God, his lips
), but my fingers all tingly with his cold and my dick coming to attention.
“You’re falling asleep,” Kavita said with a sigh, taking the steaming pitcher out of my hand. “You’ll get milk everywhere. Why don’t you just let me handle things today?”
“You don’t even know what a haiku is,” I said.
“I’m an engineering student; I think I can handle a haiku.”
“That’s exactly why you can’t.” Oh yeah, all the fake cheerfulness that morning.
“Oh, whatever. Next up you’ll say it’s because I’m Indian.”
“Wait, wait, no, you don’t have to be Japanese! I am not
Japanese--my father is rolling over in his grave. Oh my God, I just think haikus are cute, okay?”
“That’s offensive; don’t give me your kawaii
Japanese stereotypes. That shit is beautiful
.” She started up the steamer and smirked over her shoulder at me. “But seriously, Ed, we’ll delay the game tonight so you won’t miss anything. Just stay home.”
“My home is kinda charred.” I watched forlornly as she did my job for me. I really did have that feeling where even just walking or talking was like trying to function underwater. Tired and kind of sore, like just the adrenaline rush of last night had caused me to pull all the muscles ever.
Okay, I’ve never been much of an athlete, but still. I imagined
that was what it felt like.
It was weak, but I protested, “No, come on. It’ll be distracting. I wanna play.”
She shot me a glare.
“Go charm a few customers into leaving something in our lonely tip jar,” she suggested. “Nice flower in the hair, by the way.”
I adjusted the red silk rose tucked behind my ear and sighed a little more, but went out front to join Becky at the register.
* * * *
Stacy was a beautiful cowboy. He even drove an ancient Chevy pickup and wore decorative belt buckles, so part of me always expected him to say things like “Texas forever!” and pass out surrounded by beer bottles and strippers, à la Tim Riggins.
Except with Stacy it was more Mountain Dew bottles and custom RPG miniatures. Also, he was actually from somewhere in New Mexico, apparently, but whatever. Same thing, kinda?
On game nights, he was the wood elf rogue to my high elf paladin, and they totally had an opposites-attract situation. Stacy was straight as a line, but his rogue flirted like hell with anything that moved, and my stuck-up pally flirted back, and it was a thing we’d been building through the course of a few campaigns the characters had survived--in some cases barely, because Kavita was a mean
dungeon master. But she also gave extra experience points at the end of a night for role-playing action, and the ongoing saga of Aearonlinn and Faendrohir’s snarky love affair was a group favorite.
That night, though, I was distracted. Our party (played by Stacy, me, and two of our friends, Lisa and Jeremy) had a run-in with a booby-trapped room his character--Aearonlinn--had to single-handedly disarm. I usually enjoyed the smart-mouthed way he roleplayed the character, but tonight I was just sitting there wondering if redheaded savior boy played D&D and, if so, what class, race, and alignment he preferred. Or, for that matter, what class and alignment he
was. Sorcerer? Definitely Good alignment, since he’d saved my life. God, I hoped he was Lawful Good, but I still wasn’t sure he hadn’t been breaking and entering. Maybe Neutral Good? I could handle that, just to shake things up--a knight in shining armor should be more than just a straitlaced boy scout like Faendrohir (my strapping paladin). Please not Chaotic, please, please, please. I have enough chaos.
I assume Aearonlinn passed all his Dex checks with flying colors, because once he’d finished the trap disarming, Stacy had him trot over to Faendrohir and say, “Did you see that? Who’s the best?”
I’d only vaguely registered what was happening; I just blinked at him. Then at everyone else at the table, who were all staring at me expectantly. This was the part where I was supposed to make Faen say something stiff, embarrassed, but affectionate.
I couldn’t think of a damn thing.
Stacy’s face fell comically. “Aaaaand Aearon sulks off into a corner. Faendrohir ain’t getting laid for a week, at least. Hope your godly powers keep you warm at night, Dudley Do-Right.” He patted me on the back and laughed.
The whole table chuckled with him.
Except Kavita, who arched an eyebrow at me.
The game carried on, ending for the evening after a particularly bad DM mindfuck from her. She liked to do terrible things to us like have us walk into a dark, empty room, roll the dice behind her little DM guard, then say things like, “Never mind.”
Cruel, cruel woman.
In the car on the way home, she said, “Are you traumatized, Eddie? I’m being serious--I know you’re tired, but you’re worrying the hell out of me today. You could’ve died last night.”
“I’m fine.” I was. I mean, yes, I was horrified about the whole mortality thing still. Maybe a little traumatized? But I’ve never really had it in me to linger on that kind of stuff; I start to feel all black inside, and I just move on to something lighter usually. Maybe that was why I was fixating on my hero?
No. No, someone had literally saved my life, and I had no idea why or how. That was worth fixating on, totally. And freaking out over, probably. I should really be freaking out over that. Like, really.
“Have you talked to your mom?” she asked.
I nodded. “At lunch. She was a little appalled, but I played it down.”
“Like you’re playing it down right now?”
“Kinda?” I sighed. “I was just... I was thinking about this guy.”
Kavita rolled her eyes. “Seriously? We’re talking about almost dying, here.”
“I can’t help it. He’s just, like, stuck in my head right now.”