by Dannye Chase
Nathaniel Collins was saying goodbye to a date.
This had become a common thing for him, the awkward parting tinged with disappointment, trying to make it clear that he did not wish for an extension of the evening at his home, nor a second date, but kindly. Nathaniel was a kind person. He was gentle, usually pleasant, no doubt quite stuffy, and terribly, terribly starved for romance, which was why he kept going on first dates. But unfortunately, he could never make it to a second date with any of the nice, normal men that he went out with, and that was because Nathaniel was already quite hopelessly in love with someone else, who could not really be described as either normal or nice.
It wasn’t the best of solutions, the constant dating. But Nathaniel held out hope that someday, one of his dates might turn out to be half as devilishly handsome as the man Nathaniel loved, maybe nearly as witty, almost as smooth and suave— but of course, none of them could ever hope to be as devastatingly sexy or as all-around wonderful as John Finn, Nathaniel’s best friend, secret crush, and true love.
Nathaniel was a librarian. The town he lived in was small, but the library was lovely, and there were enough books of love poetry and raunchy romance novels in the collection for Nathaniel to understand what love felt like. He’d never been in love before, but it hadn’t taken long after John Finn had started visiting their little coastal village for Nathaniel to fall for him.
So Nathaniel smiled now at Jeff (was it Jeff? probably, a blond man in a blue jumper) and then he walked back to his little white car alone. The air was cold— it was November, and the wind off of the sea was biting. And it always felt colder when there was no one else with you, no one to turn up your collar or hurry your steps or join you in cursing the weather. Nathaniel pulled on the pair of gloves he kept in his car before starting home.
If it had just been Nathaniel’s loneliness, a physical itch to scratch, he could have taken men home with him. But Nathaniel just couldn’t quite imagine himself with anyone but Finn. (And thus that was how these evenings usually ended, with Nathaniel alone, seeing to himself while imagining something that was never going to happen.)
When he turned onto his street a few moments later, Nathaniel was surprised to see a large, very elegant black car parked outside his house. It glowed darkly in the street light, and spotlighted leaning against the boot was the car’s match in every way— the tall, dark, and dashing figure of John Finn.
Nathaniel’s heart began to race, as it always did, as he watched Finn saunter over. (The man could not simply walk, he had to swing his hips about with every step.)
“Evening, angel,” Finn said with a grin, resting his thigh against Nathaniel’s door. “Late night at the library?” His figure was shadowed here away from the light, but Nathaniel could make out the slender silhouette of him, in a tightly fitted black coat with the collar turned up against the wind, and a few strands of flame-red hair dancing around it.
Nathaniel was actually dressed up at the moment, because of the date. He wore nice khaki trousers, a white button-up, and a bowtie of a blue that matched his eyes, although it was all hidden now beneath his coat. But of course, that didn’t matter. Nathaniel had no illusions about Finn finding him attractive no matter what he wore. He gave Finn what he hoped was a brave smile as he climbed out. “Oh, no, I was just, um, out.”
But Finn was far too clever to miss what Nathaniel wasn’t saying. “You went on another date?” he asked, and there was just the hint of an edge to his voice. “Did it not go well?”
Nathaniel busied himself with locking his car. “It was fine. Just— needed to end.”
Beside him, Finn suddenly stood up straight, which was something he did not do often, and it made him loom over Nathaniel rather dramatically. “Did he do something?” Finn demanded. “Did he hurt you?”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “No, of course not. We just didn’t hit it off.” As always.
Finn seemed mostly satisfied with that, and he went back to slouching (elegantly).
“What are you doing here?” Nathaniel asked. “I didn’t think you’d be in town today.”
Finn shrugged. “Had a free evening. Thought I’d drop in, see if you wanted to get dessert at the cafe. Lemon pie tonight, right? Friday?”
“Oh.” Nathaniel felt himself melt a little. “Yes, lemon today. That sounds wonderful, my dear.”
Finn smiled— just a quirk up of one side of his mouth— but it made him look both kind and rakish rolled together. “All right, then,” he said, waving a hand toward the Bentley. “We can make an evening of it.”
Finn was from London, and honestly, he did not fit in terribly well in this small town in his flashy black clothes and expensive car. But people were mostly used to him by now. Finn was often pleasant to the residents of Nathaniel’s town, and it was only sometimes that Nathaniel could see the little spark of fear in their eyes when they looked at him.
It wasn’t that Finn was a violent man, not at all. Finn would slow or even stop the Bentley if necessary to avoid hitting a squirrel in the street. He liked to chat with children, and dogs uniformly loved him. Finn never even complained about getting light-colored fur clinging to his dark clothes.
But Finn went back and forth from London to the coastal towns for one specific reason, and it was not a terribly nice one. Finn made it sound nice, and quite vague— Oh, I just have to drop in on an old friend, talk business— but Finn didn’t have old friends in the area. What he had were associates and accomplices. Finn worked for the London Mob.
Nathaniel had figured this out rather quickly. It had taken a little longer to discern what kind of mob activity Finn got up to. Nathaniel had ruled out murder right off the bat, as well as guns and drugs. The most likely answer was that Finn moved stolen goods in and out of London and had fences in small towns along the coast. But it wasn’t that activity exactly that frightened people. It was the Mob association itself, and Finn absolutely wanted everyone to notice it. That was the reason that he dressed the way he did and drove the fancy car. It was a sign to his associates and the residents of the town that Finn was not someone to mess with.
But Nathaniel knew that there was more to Finn than all of that. Tasked with visiting the coast, Finn did not simply conduct business and then hurry back to London. Instead, he sampled the small town cafes. He took walks by the ocean. And he wandered into the library.
Nathaniel had just about tripped over his feet the first time Finn had come in, sauntering through the stacks in skin-tight black jeans, sunglasses pushed up to tangle in fire-red hair. Nathaniel had found himself looking into eyes that were an almost otherworldly golden color, and despite having a university degree in English, Nathaniel had completely forgotten how to speak.
An hour later, Finn had somehow charmed the librarian into giving him a library card when he was not a resident— Nathaniel still wasn’t sure how he’d managed that— and he asked for book recommendations. Nathaniel started with spy novels, just based on the clothing the man wore. Finn had looked amused but had taken a few. He stopped by again the week after (once more completely flustering Nathaniel), and this time Nathaniel recommended historical fiction. After that it was biographies, then fantasy, and so on.
If you looked at it from the outside, it was an unlikely friendship. Even Finn thought so. He’d taken to calling Nathaniel “angel,” because Nathaniel was pleasant to everyone and as the town librarian, he was involved in many community outreach programs— and because they both knew that Finn was rather more demonic than the average person. But friends they were. They had started meeting outside of the library within a month of knowing each other, and now they shared meals at cafes, walks on the beach, and television at Nathaniel’s cottage.
But after it had been long enough that Nathaniel had fallen completely and hopelessly in love with the casually dangerous man in black, he suggested that Finn move on to sampling the library’s collection of romantic poetry. And Finn, for the first time, refused. Love, he’d said simply, was not worth the trouble.
Nathaniel had stared at Finn over a glass of red wine and had managed to ask, “You don’t want to ever fall in love?”
Finn shook his head, looking darkly into his own glass. “Love only makes you want things you can’t have. There’s no use in it.”
Nathaniel looked at the man who made his living by helping himself to things he was not supposed to have, and asked, “Why can’t you have them?”
“Because that’s what love is,” Finn said softly. “Wanting some ideal that will never happen. People get stuck dreaming of a perfect life with a perfect person, but reality can never measure up. Easier to trash the whole thing.”
Nathaniel should have seen this disappointment coming, of course. Even if Finn wished for love, there was no way a London man like him was going to fall for a boring small-town librarian, never mind a member of the Mob loving an angel. (It should probably also have been the case that an angel could not have fallen in love with a criminal, but clearly Nathaniel’s heart had refused that message on arrival.) Nathaniel had tried to argue, but the words had fallen flat. Finn had changed the subject, and they’d never spoken of love again.
The following month, Nathaniel had started on his long string of first dates. When Finn had caught onto this, he’d not seemed pleased. But Nathaniel was determined. Even if Finn disapproved, no doubt thinking Nathaniel was a fool for trying it, Nathaniel believed in love, in the fact that love could overcome reality, that love didn’t have to be perfect to feel perfect. But so far, it seemed that Finn had been right. Nathaniel had found only disappointment.
Three years had now gone by since they’d met. They were best friends, and Nathaniel treasured that. Finn enjoyed his company, that was clear, and was always very solicitous about it, ever mindful of Nathaniel’s comfort and happiness. Any malevolence that might lurk in Finn’s character was never turned inward at Nathaniel, but always outward, tending to manifest as a strong protective instinct. Nathaniel was not sure what it was that Finn felt he needed to protect Nathaniel from, but Finn assumed this attitude with everyone from Nathaniel’s ill-fated dates to the checker at the grocery store. It was amusing, and it was lovely, but Nathaniel did have to always remind himself that it was not a romantic gesture.
There was one thing, though, that was absolutely not nice about Finn, one thing that Nathaniel would very much change if he could. In order to make the 75 mile trip from London to this little town less unpleasant, Finn drove his fancy car very quickly when out in the country. (Before Nathaniel had realized exactly what kind of connections Finn had, he had wondered aloud about the number of traffic tickets Finn must have racked up. Finn had made some sort of awkward noise and changed the subject.) The problem was, Finn also thought that kind of driving was suited to in-town roads. Nathaniel had never quite gotten used to Finn’s behavior behind the wheel, so tonight, as usual, he simply closed his eyes after he climbed into the Bentley, and opened them again when they got to the cafe.
The place was fairly crowded, as it was a Friday night, but Nathaniel and Finn found an empty spot. Finn stuck out as much as ever, sitting in a blue plastic booth with his dark, fashionable clothes reflected in a scrubbed-clean white formica table. But oh, Nathaniel loved him like this. John Finn was like a hothouse flower in January or a ring studded with stones all down the band— pure extravagance. Far too grand for this little town. And yet here he was, once more, in Nathaniel’s company.
Finn ordered coffee, and Nathaniel the pie, which was normal for them. Finn never ate much himself, but he had the oddest way of watching Nathaniel eat, tracking every little movement with those golden eyes. Nathaniel had refrained from ever asking about it, because sometimes a little smile would steal onto Finn’s face, especially if Nathaniel was enjoying a dessert, and that smile was a rare enough thing that Nathaniel didn’t want to risk scaring it away.
“So what’s new?” Finn asked, stirring sugar into his coffee. The spoon made a little clinking noise that was nearly lost in the hum of chatter around them.
“I have a bit of traveling to do next month,” Nathaniel said. “There’s a conference in Aberdeen and of course, no money in the budget for a flight or train.”
Finn sat up straighter, which was a tell that he was concerned. “Angel, you can’t take coaches all the way to Aberdeen.” He frowned. “I haven’t been to Scotland in a while. I can get us a flight.”
Nathaniel barely avoided accidentally inhaling his next bite of pie. “Us? Finn— it’s a whole week of library meetings. You’ll be bored out of your mind.”
Finn rolled his eyes. “There’s other things to do.”
Nathaniel continued to stare at him. “But— you can’t just take a week off from work with so little notice. Can you?”
Nathaniel and Finn had a little game that they played when the subject of Finn’s work came up. They said one thing, but communicated another through nonverbal means. The look Finn gave Nathaniel was rather haughty, by which Finn probably meant to convey that he was highly placed enough in his organization to take off whenever he damn well pleased. Nathaniel raised his eyebrows— Are you sure, dear? Your employers don’t seem the forgiving type. To this Finn folded his arms and scowled, doubling down on his assertion.
What he said was: “Got some vacation saved up.”
“Ah.” Nathaniel looked down at his pie. There was of course another, rather larger problem with this plan: spending an entire week with the object of his unrequited love sounded equally marvelous and torturous.
Finn apparently took his silence for agreement. “I’ll make a reservation in the hotel,” he announced. “Grab a room near yours.”
If Nathaniel felt disappointed by the knowledge that there would be no sharing of a hotel room, as painful as that would no doubt be, he tried not to show it. Of course, the hotel where the conference was being held was not likely to have any free rooms so close to the event, but the look Finn gave him now was clearly meant to assure Nathaniel that Finn had means of making a reservation whenever and wherever he liked.
“All right,” Nathaniel found himself saying, with a smile. “That’s very kind of you.”
Finn, as expected, ignored that sentiment entirely, and focused back on Nathaniel and his pie.
Finn showed up outside Nathaniel’s cottage on the appointed morning, just as snow began to fall.
He was dressed in his customary black and looked cold. Nathaniel couldn’t help beaming at him, and then brought something out from behind his back.
Finn looked at him in surprise. “You got me a scarf?”
“I made you a scarf.” Nathaniel reached up to wind the long, soft length of it several times around Finn’s neck.
Finn’s voice was slightly muffled. “It’s white.”
“You needed something lighter, dear. It is cashmere, though, so I trust it still goes with your aesthetic.” Nathaniel adjusted the ostentatiously tasseled ends of the scarf and then looked up at Finn. Finn’s eyebrows were high on his forehead, almost up to his red hair. Lacy snow flakes were landing on his dark shoulders, but were lost immediately against the white scarf. “Happy almost Christmas,” Nathaniel said softly. “And thank you for coming with me.”
“No— no trouble,” Finn said, and thrust forward what he was holding— a travel mug full of tea and a boxed cinnamon roll, still warm.
“Oh,” Nathaniel said in a delighted voice.
Finn hefted Nathaniel’s suitcase into the back of the Bentley. As he climbed into the car, he loosened the scarf a bit, but didn’t remove it. “It’s warm,” he said, almost too softly for Nathaniel to hear him. Nathaniel smiled into his cup of tea.
It was lightly snowing at the airport on the south coast of England. But, as they learned mid-flight, it was quite a different story farther north. The conditions in Aberdeen were apparently so bad that the plane was diverted to Edinburgh.
Finn took the news in stride, with a typical shrug of his shoulders, and they rented a car to make the end of the trip. At first, the weather wasn’t overly concerning. The snow was fairly light, more of something pleasant to look at than anything that would affect the roads. The sky was clouded, but bright, and the pavement collected just a dusting of snow, like powdered sugar on a holiday biscuit.
But as the time passed, conditions reversed: the sky grew darker and the road lighter. By the time the pavement was completely covered with snow, Nathaniel could read Finn’s anxiety with ease— because he slowed down the car. The wind picked up as well, rocking the car out of rhythm with the music Finn had playing in the background.
Nathaniel and Finn kept talking as if nothing was wrong, though. Nathaniel was expounding on research he’d read on Bram Stoker’s Dracula— Finn did like horror novels— the first time the car started to skid. Finn handled it well, not fighting the wheels too hard in their skating. But when the car twisted even more violently sideways just a few minutes later, Nathaniel found himself holding his breath until Finn got it back under control.
Finn shot him a glance. “You all right?”
“Yes, of course. But perhaps—”
Finn nodded. “Perhaps we ought to finish the drive in the morning. There’s a little town coming up. We can stop there. I’m sorry, angel.”
“It’s hardly your fault, my dear. Thank you for getting us this far.”
Finn didn’t say anything to that. He took the next off ramp— carefully— and they found themselves in the tiny business area of a cozy little town. There looked to be one pub that held a few rooms. Finn pulled slowly into the carpark, which was nearly full, probably with other people making the same decision they had. The pavement was covered in snowy tire tracks, and the rented car took a more meandering route than it was meant to, as its wheels passed through snow that pointed in different directions.
When they’d finally parked, Finn said, “Be careful getting out. I’ll get the suitcases—”
“I can handle my own suitcase,” Nathaniel objected, opening the door, and that was the last thing he remembered before he found himself lying on the ground looking up at a very worried Finn.
It was cold, Nathaniel realized. Even here on the pavement between all the cars, the wind was terrible, and the wet snow was already soaking into his clothes from underneath.
“Are you hurt?” Finn asked. He didn’t help Nathaniel up, instead running his hands over Nathaniel’s body— shoulders, arms, and legs. When he got to Nathaniel’s left knee, Nathaniel let out a hiss.
“Banged it on the car, I think,” Nathaniel said. “Or maybe the ground.”
“All right. We’re getting you inside.” Finn put an arm behind Nathaniel’s shoulders and helped him to stand, and then supported him as he limped awkwardly into the pub.
Inside, Nathaniel sat in a chair, still feeling a little dazed, as Finn worked out the rooms with the woman at the bar. Finn went back for the suitcases, and then they made it to the lift. Nathaniel was more himself by then, enough to feel like a complete idiot, but that awkwardness was nothing compared to the moment he realized that Finn was holding only one key.
“They’ve only got the one room left,” Finn said, sounding apologetic.
Nathaniel said, “Oh,” but the faint way he said it must have worried Finn because Finn stopped looking ill at ease and looked determined again.
He helped Nathaniel down the hall to the room, managing both him and two suitcases. Nathaniel was sitting on the bed almost before he realized it, and Finn immediately opened Nathaniel’s case and started rifling through it. “Need to get you out of those wet clothes,” he said. “Get you warmed up.”
But Nathaniel was having another rather desperate realization. “Finn— this is a single room.” It was, in fact, perhaps the smallest bedroom Nathaniel had ever been in. There was a bed, a side table, and a little floor space for suitcases. The bathroom looked hardly large enough for a shower.
Finn did not look up from his pawing through Nathaniel’s jumpers. “All they had,” he reminded him.
Finn handed Nathaniel some clothes and pointed him toward the bathroom. “And I want to take a look at that knee once you’ve changed.”
It almost— almost looked like Finn was blushing at this point, but it was hard to tell in the dim room light.
The bathroom was cramped, and Nathaniel’s shoes tracked in muddy water, which he cleaned up with a cloth. He could hear Finn moving about outside the door, but Nathaniel took a moment to try to gather his wits, looking at himself in the small round mirror. His hair was a mess of curls and his cheeks quite red, partly with cold, partly with emotion.
The excitement of spending a day traveling with Finn had turned to deep embarrassment. Rather than a flight followed by a late dinner somewhere and then a night apart, Nathaniel was cold, wet, hungry, and injured, in the wrong city, and facing a night sharing a room with his secret crush in which there was only one bed. And— Nathaniel looked down at what he was holding. Flannel pajamas, tartan ones. He was going to have to go back out there and face the ever-elegant Finn in his night clothes.
What did Finn wear to bed? Nathaniel suddenly wondered, and had to put a stop to that thought as quickly as he could. Except— in an hour or so, he was probably going to find out.
“Oh, good lord,” he whispered.
When Nathaniel was halfway through changing, he heard a knock on the room door and then Finn speaking to someone. As soon as Nathaniel emerged from the bathroom, he could smell food, and his stomach growled.
“They brought up some dinner,” Finn said, speaking not to Nathaniel, but to the tray of food. He paused for a moment, almost like he was gathering himself, before looking up.
Nathaniel felt even more ashamed for having worried Finn to the point where he was so concerned about his injury that he couldn’t even bring himself to look at it. “My knee is fine,” he assured him. “Just bruised.”
Finn’s eyes were moving slowly over Nathaniel in his tartan flannel, starting at his socked feet and climbing up his body. That apparent flush to his cheeks was still there. “Knee, yeah,” Finn said softly. Then he blinked. “Right, your knee. Sit down, angel, let me see.”
“You don’t need to make a fuss,” Nathaniel instructed, but it was no use. He sat on the bed, and Finn crouched before him, in the little bit of space there was. Finn’s fingers were cold against Nathaniel’s ankle, and the chill of them climbed slowly up Nathaniel’s calf as Finn raised the loose leg of the pajamas. Nathaniel was breathing quite quickly by the time his knee was revealed, and he was glad Finn was focused there and not on his face. Or, to be perfectly frank, his lap. Finn kneeling in front of him, not to mention touching him, was a bit too close to a few of those imaginings that Nathaniel indulged in after his failed dates.
Nathaniel winced as Finn pressed gently on his knee, but Finn seemed relieved. “Just bruised, yeah,” he said. “But you’ve got to be freezing. Under the covers with you.”
Nathaniel protested, but Finn paid him no mind, moving away to prop pillows up for Nathaniel to lean on. When he’d gotten Nathaniel settled, Finn perched on the other side of the bed, above the covers.
Dinner was pies and a little plate of shortbread for Nathaniel. It was all as pleasant as might be expected under the circumstances, except that Nathaniel did not seem to feel much warmer. And then he noticed Finn was shivering.
“Is the heater not working?” Nathaniel asked.
Finn shook his head, looking apologetic, as if all of this were somehow his fault. “It can’t keep up, not with this wind and the place so full. They told me when I checked in. It’s okay, angel, I’ll just get my coat.” He gave Nathaniel a smile. “I’ve got a scarf now, too, you know, even if it does clash with my clothes.”
Nathaniel frowned at him. “Well, why don’t you just climb into the bed—”
When that sentence ran aground, they were stuck just looking at each other. They did have some experience talking without talking, and Nathaniel could read the hesitation on Finn’s face. He had no idea what Finn was seeing from him, though. How bare were Nathaniel’s emotions at the moment? Could Finn see past the embarrassment and worry to the heavy weight of desire? Could he sense Nathaniel’s nearly overpowering need to clutch Finn close, pull the covers over both of them, and make their own warmth?
Or maybe, just the desire to care for Finn like Finn always did for him?
“We can share,” Nathaniel said, softly. Finn’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead again, but he didn’t move, either toward Nathaniel or away. Nathaniel sighed. “What else were you going to do, Finn, sleep on the floor?”
“I can,” Finn said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. The bed is big enough for two.”
But still, Finn hesitated. Nathaniel started to get a sort of prickling feeling at the base of his neck. There didn’t seem to be any disgust on Finn’s face, but Nathaniel began to wonder if maybe there was another reason Finn didn’t want to share the bed. Nathaniel knew the tartan pajamas weren’t his best look, but could it really be so bad that—
Outside, the wind howled and slammed into the window, making it rattle. Nathaniel shivered, and either that or the noise seemed to break Finn’s trance. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Don’t want you getting cold, angel.”
Nathaniel nodded gratefully. “Right.”
Finn dug through his suitcase a moment and then headed toward the bathroom. Nathaniel started to get up so that he could tidy the dinner trash, but Finn fixed him with a look. “Stay in bed. I’ll sort it.”
So while he was gone, Nathaniel was left with nothing else to do but to think about what Finn would be wearing when he came out of the bathroom. He found himself both relieved and disappointed that Finn apparently did not sleep in the nude.
At least, in winter. But might he sleep in the nude in sum—
That dangerous line of thinking was interrupted by Finn returning, dressed in— of course— black silk pajamas. They hung elegantly on his thin frame, covering his long lines in a rich darkness. Where the collar gaped open, there was a pale triangle of Finn’s skin visible. And his feet were bare. Nathaniel suddenly wasn’t sure why he had been expecting that he would get any sleep tonight, tucked into bed with the most tempting man he’d ever seen.
Finn said nothing, he just started cleaning up the mess they’d made. Nathaniel had been to Finn’s flat in London, and knew that Finn liked things neat. Nathaniel’s cottage was not anything like that— it was clean enough, but cluttered with books and mugs and photographs, and somewhere in there Nathaniel knew he had to have an epic collection of pens because he kept buying new ones and immediately losing them— and now, oh god, John Finn was climbing into bed with him.
Finn did it quickly, looking down as he slipped himself beneath the covers. Nathaniel was not a small person, but Finn really was quite thin, and there was just enough room that they didn’t have to touch. Nathaniel reached over and flicked off the light switch.
The dark was total for a moment before Nathaniel’s eyes adjusted, so he was left to his other senses. The wind still howled and shook the window frame, but beneath that now was the soft sound of Finn breathing right beside him. And there was just a touch of warmth stealing across the space between them. To Nathaniel that heat seemed like the glow of a lantern in the dark of night, promising a place of safety and comfort— promising home.
Nathaniel turned away from Finn and tried to go to sleep.
When Nathaniel woke, he’d forgotten it all. The storm, the injury, the pub. Forgotten the entire trip. There was nothing on his mind but Finn, the knowledge that he was near, that he was warm, that his body was exactly the mix of soft and strong that Nathaniel had expected him to be. Finn’s hair was silken against Nathaniel’s forehead, his skin supple and smelling of some luxurious lotion, but his body was all angles and lines. Feeling him pressed up against the places where Nathaniel was plush and cushioned felt right in a way that Nathaniel had never experienced before with a lover. It was like they were made to fit together.
It was a lovely dream. It was less lovely, in between one contented breath and the next, to realize it was not a dream. No shrill screeching of an alarm could have jolted Nathaniel awake more harshly than this. His body was flooded with cold fear, and as he scrambled backwards, he twisted his knee a little and pain rushed through his leg. Shaking, Nathaniel raised his eyes to Finn’s face.
Finn was awake. His golden eyes were wide in the darkness, still so close to Nathaniel’s. They weren’t touching now, but it was a near thing, with Nathaniel practically falling off of his end of the bed.
A wave of shame rose up in Nathaniel. God, what kind of a friend was he? Not only had he wrapped Finn in his arms, but, he immediately realized, he’d been aroused while doing it— was still aroused, and he didn’t have a clue how to apologize.
He was startled to hear Finn do it first. “Sorry, angel, I’m—” Finn looked nearly as wrecked as Nathaniel felt. His breaths were coming in gasps, and his eyes wouldn’t stay fixed on Nathaniel’s face.
“My fault entirely,” Nathaniel rushed to say.
“No. No, you were asleep. You were cold. I was the one—” Finn’s body seemed to twitch a little and then he froze.
It had been, Nathaniel noticed, a particular kind of twitching, appearing to originate in the hips.
Nathaniel’s eyes fell to the blanket that covered them. He couldn’t see anything beneath it, but Finn seemed to feel him looking, and he twitched again, and then groaned.
“Finn—” Nathaniel whispered.
“Fuck,” Finn said, very quietly.
Nathaniel felt warmer now— and harder— than he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to throw off the blankets and see Finn in those black silk trousers, which, if his wild imagining could be right, might now be tenting over his cock.
“Listen,” Finn said, “if you just give me a minute, I’ll— take a mental cold shower. Fuck, I should take a real cold shower—”
“Don’t.” Nathaniel said.
Finn twitched a little again, helplessly, as he looked at Nathaniel in shock. “Angel—”
“It is.” Nathaniel tried to calm his shaking voice. “Uh, that is, if you— if it is you. I mean, or is it just because I— because I was aroused?”
Finn stared at him with wide eyes. “You’re hard?”
“You didn’t notice?”
“Had my own problems.”
“Ah.” Nathaniel nodded. “So, then it’s not—”
Finn looked haunted, heartbroken. “Angel, I’m desperate for you. Did you not know?”
“You—” You said you couldn’t love, Nathaniel thought. But this wasn’t love, was it? It was desire, hot and hard, and it filled Nathaniel to overflowing.
“I need you,” Nathaniel said, and it was perhaps the most truthful thing he’d ever said to anyone.
Finn let out a whimpering sound, and then they were pressed together, with Finn’s hand behind Nathaniel’s head, pulling him in hard so that they could kiss. It was immediately deep and hungry and frantic, and while their tongues tangled, their arms and legs did the same.
Kissing Finn was exactly as Nathaniel had imagined it— hot, delicious, and overwhelming. Nathaniel didn’t even notice any pain from his knee. All sensation was lost, except that of Finn. And Finn was hard, gloriously hard, and long.
“Finn, let me see you,” Nathaniel begged, and the sheets and blankets immediately found themselves covering what little floor space there was. Finn was visible then in all his glory, mouth swollen, flame-red hair mussed, in nothing but black silk pajamas, and they didn’t conceal much, not anymore.
“Off, please,” Nathaniel said, pulling at the fabric, and Finn hastened to comply, tossing his clothes over the edge of the bed as well.
“Oh,” Nathaniel breathed. “You’re incredible.” And god, he was, somehow more elegant stark naked than he’d ever been clothed. His cock rose strong and straight, and flushed dark.
Finn made a disbelieving sort of noise, but he just tugged at Nathaniel’s sleeve. “Fair play angel. Strip.”
Nathaniel’s fingers started eagerly on the buttons of his flannel shirt, but then he paused. “I don’t look like you,” he said softly.
Finn snorted. “Good thing I don’t want to fuck myself then.” He reached for Nathaniel, and between the two of them, Nathaniel’s clothes were soon tossed aside as well. Nathaniel found himself naked on his back, gazing up at a very handsome, very aroused man, who was looking at Nathaniel like he was the most enticing thing he’d ever seen.
“Oh, angel,” Finn said softly. “Look at you.” His hips twitched again, the movement visible for what it was now, a helpless thrusting, and he groaned. “How do you want this?”
“I want you to ride me,” Nathaniel breathed.
“Yeah,” Finn said, in a strangled voice. “Yeah, okay.” He was gone from the bed suddenly, and Nathaniel realized he was going through his suitcase.
“You brought lube?” Nathaniel asked.
Finn came back, uncapping a half-full bottle. “Wasn’t going to make the week sleeping in a room near yours without needing to see to myself. Especially if I was going to watch you eat.” He gave Nathaniel a look that was equally amused and incredulous. “Honestly, angel, I’ve no idea how you missed this.”
Nathaniel couldn’t reply, he couldn’t do anything but watch as Finn reached behind himself and slid a finger inside. “Didn’t— didn’t bring condoms,” Finn said, “but I’m clean, got tested—”
“Yes. Me too.”
Finn dropped his head back with a moan as he worked his finger in farther, and his cock dribbled a little precome. Nathaniel reached for him, but Finn shook his head. “I’m too close. Watch those hands, angel.”
Nathaniel compromised by running his fingers lightly up Finn’s legs, sliding against his smooth skin, unable to avoid urging him closer. Finn was up to two fingers now, and Nathaniel could feel Finn’s leg muscles working under his palm. This was easily the hottest thing Nathaniel had ever seen, this gorgeous man with his eyes closed in pleasure, hurried working himself open for Nathaniel’s cock.
Nathaniel groaned. “Finn, please.”
“Yeah.” Finn gasped a little, and the minute he removed his fingers, Nathaniel pulled him on top of himself.
Nathaniel’s tongue lapped up the beads of sweat on Finn’s throat, and his hands slid up his thighs to clutch at that gloriously taut arse. Finn fell forward a little more and then they were kissing, as desperately and deeply as before. Nathaniel’s hands tangled in Finn’s hair and then a second later went back to his arse, kneading at him, pulling his cheeks apart, and then to the jut of his hipbones, the stiff rise of his cock—
“Angel, just fuck me,” Finn growled, and his hand closed around Nathaniel’s cock, slicking him with lube. As Nathaniel spread his legs, Finn moved his hips forward and then sat back, taking Nathaniel’s prick into his arse in a slow slide.
“Yes,” Finn moaned. Nathaniel could only gasp. Finn paused a moment, and then he started to move, working himself up and down on Nathaniel’s shaft.
Nathaniel reached around to feel Finn’s arse as it stretched for him. “Oh, fuck, Finn. You feel so— god, you’re unbelievable.”
“Yeah.” Finn started moving a little faster. “Fuck. It’s never felt like this, never. Angel, touch me, please.”
Nathaniel immediately wrapped a hand around Finn’s cock, pumping the length of him.
“Oh, shit,” Finn gasped out, and he fell forward a bit, bracing himself on his hands and rolling his hips against Nathaniel’s. His eyes closed and Nathaniel stared up at his flushed, wrecked expression.
“Do it,” Finn whispered. “Do it, angel, I can take it, I need it—” He knocked Nathaniel’s hand away and started fisting his own cock, so Nathaniel put his hands on Finn’s hips and pulled him back onto his prick. Finn cried out, and Nathaniel started to fuck him properly, hard and fast.
Finn’s expression changed to one of ruin, then rapture, and just as he came all over Nathaniel’s chest, Nathaniel spilled himself into his arse. They worked themselves together for another frantic, ecstatic moment, and then Finn collapsed on top of him.
“Finn,” Nathaniel whispered. “Finn, Finn—” Their mouths found each other again, and Finn was kissing him hungrily, pressing him into the mattress.
Nathaniel didn’t fall back to sleep for hours.
In the morning, Finn was gone.
Nathaniel woke up alone, and immediately reassured himself that Finn was probably just downstairs getting breakfast.
Nathaniel climbed out of the bed that smelled like himself, Finn, and sex. He showered, reluctantly washing Finn’s scent off of his own skin, and then dressed quickly, mindful of his sore knee. Actually, there were other parts of his anatomy that were just as sore this morning if not more, especially his arse— but none of it mattered as much as the mental anguish that continued to rise up in him like steam in the shower, fogging up every other thought.
They hadn’t discussed anything last night. There had been no dreamy, sweet pillow talk as they fell asleep all warm and tangled up. Instead it seemed that at some point they must have just passed out from physical and sexual exhaustion. The last thing Nathaniel remembered was Finn cleaning him gently with a damp cloth and pressing kisses against his forehead. There had been no words spoken.
Still alone, Nathaniel tidied the room, locked up his suitcase, and then looked through the window to the town beyond. The storm had blown itself out and the day was clear, the sky a distant blue. It was cold, though, Nathaniel could feel that through the glass, and in the lingering chill of the room. Well, soon enough they’d check out of the pub and get back on their way. They’d have one last stretch of time in the car before Aberdeen, and surely at that point they’d talk.
Except Nathaniel had no idea what he would say.
He’d honestly never expected to have the opportunity to sleep with Finn— in the literal or sexual sense. Finn wasn’t interested, Nathaniel had been sure of that. Whatever it was that Nathaniel was supposed to have noticed in Finn’s behavior, he must have explained away. When he thought back on it, yes, perhaps there was more to Finn’s watching him eat than Nathaniel had thought. Maybe Finn’s habit of walking slightly behind him through the library stacks could have given him the chance to check out Nathaniel’s arse. Maybe his expression when Nathaniel wrapped the scarf around his neck— ok, yes, Nathaniel had been oblivious. But now that he’d gotten started thinking along this line, he wondered if there might be more to it.
Finn routinely driving back and forth all the way from London just to see him for an evening? Returning to the library so many times in those first few months? Always giving Nathaniel presents and treats, scowling at the mention of Nathaniel’s dates, escorting him to this conference— it seemed that maybe Finn actually felt something stronger for Nathaniel than desire. Was it possible that Finn loved him? Finn had said he couldn’t, wouldn’t love anyone, and yet—
The door to the room finally creaked open and Nathaniel turned around, his heart pounding. It had been too long of a wait to see Finn this morning, and yet it also felt like he was back far too soon.
Finn was carrying a tray of food and coffee that smelled wonderful.
He didn’t look at Nathaniel.
Nathaniel felt his hunger immediately evaporate.
“Hey, ang— Nathaniel,” Finn said, to the food again. “Got you a proper Scottish breakfast.”
“Thank you.” Nathaniel’s voice was a tiny, frightened thing.
Finn finally stole a glance at Nathaniel, and Nathaniel nearly gasped. Finn looked terrible, his eyes reddened and skin pale. Like he hadn’t slept at all last night. Like he hadn’t slept in a week.
“Listen,” Finn said. “I’ve got to step out, return a phone call. Missed it while I was getting breakfast.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Yeah, just business.” Finn picked up one of the cups of coffee and disappeared back through the door.
Nathaniel took his own coffee and made himself drink it.
He did not make himself step away from the door to prevent eavesdropping.
Finn sounded agitated on the phone. “I said no,” he snapped. “Not here.” There was a pause. “I don’t care about that. I’m not here on business, Hastur. If you want a meeting, send somebody else—” Another pause. “Because I’ve got a complication here! You know that.”
Finn fell quiet, but Nathaniel could hear him pacing back and forth. Finally, he made a growling noise, sounding more menacing than Nathaniel had ever heard him. Nathaniel nearly flinched. “I’ll take it up with Beez, then,” Finn spat. “Yeah, fuck you too.”
It was a few minutes before Finn came back in, and when he did, he concentrated on packing up his suitcase. Neither of them ate any breakfast.
The end of the drive to Aberdeen was actually pleasant, in a way. There were no heated words or arguments, desperate apologies, or begging. Instead the two of them completely ignored everything that had happened between them the night before.
It was a form of torture nonetheless. Nathaniel watched the morning sun playing over Finn’s skin, and realized that he himself had brought warmth to that skin last night, when the sun was absent and everything was cold. He listened to Finn chatter on about sports or something, knowing now what Finn’s voice sounded like in breathless wanting, in desperate encouragement, in ecstasy. But it didn’t matter. It was useless knowledge. The night had vanished like it had been nothing but a dream after all.
It seemed that Finn had been truthful about love all those years ago. People get stuck dreaming of a perfect life with a perfect person, he’d said. But reality can never measure up.
If Finn did love him, then Nathaniel seemed not to measure up. Instead, he was a complication.
Finn had managed to get them separate rooms at the conference hotel. He made sure that Nathaniel was settled, as solicitous as ever, but as soon as the programming started, Finn disappeared.
That night, when Nathaniel got back to his room, his phone pinged with a text.
Nathaniel— I’m sorry, I’ve been called to work. Give me a call when you get home.
Finn was gone.
Nathaniel finished the conference and flew home as scheduled. He did not call Finn. Finn did call him, twice, and sent texts. Nathaniel did not answer.
For the first few days, Nathaniel tried to think of the situation as if it was just another failed date. So he hadn’t hit it off with Finn. So he’d keep looking.
The next few days, Nathaniel ate a lot of chocolate and cried constantly. After that, he threw himself into his work, hardly leaving the library for a week.
And then it was almost Christmas, and Nathaniel was tired. He went home, took a hot bath, then cleaned his cottage and put up his Christmas tree. He hung a wreath on his door. He put the presents he’d gotten for Finn— a book of Shakespeare’s comedies and a set of wine glasses with stems formed of twisting glass snakes— into the closet. Then he took them out again and wrapped them. Then he put them back into the closet. And then he picked up his knitting needles.
Because somewhere amidst the tears and frantic work and rushing madly from the extremes of anger and regret to visions of a joyful reunion, Nathaniel had found himself sitting wearily on a sort of middle ground. He simply missed Finn. He missed his company, missed three years of friendship. Surely a close relationship like that deserved one more chance? It surely deserved more than Nathaniel refusing Finn’s calls.
Nathaniel finished his knitting on the 23rd. On Christmas Eve he got into his little white car and drove to London.
The radio played Christmas music all the way through the countryside, into the city, and through to Mayfair. Nathaniel managed to find a parking space, but he felt oddly out of place as he climbed out of his car. Everyone on the street seemed to be in groups. No one was alone except for Nathaniel.
Nathaniel climbed the steps to Finn’s flat, and walked down the hallway, one set of shoes echoing themselves. It took him another few moments to find the final courage he needed, and then he raised his hand to knock on the door.
Before he could, it opened.
For a second, Nathaniel thought he’d interrupted a guest leaving Finn’s flat. And then he realized he was looking at Finn himself— you couldn’t mistake that flame-red hair— but he seemed to be wearing some strange disguise: blue jeans, a brown jumper, and around his neck, a hand-knit white scarf.
“Angel,” Finn said, in shock. His face blazed as brightly as his hair. “I was just leaving to— I was coming to see you.”
“What on earth are you wearing?” Nathaniel asked.
Finn looked down at himself. “Oh, uh— new look. I, um— I quit my job.”
Finn stepped back. “Look, come in, will you? Sorry the place is a mess.”
(For the record, there were a few dirty dishes in the sink. Otherwise, the flat was as spotless as ever.)
Neither of them sat down, although Nathaniel took off his coat. Finn paced back and forth, stealing a glance at Nathaniel every few steps. “I was going to rehearse this on the drive,” he said.
“I rehearsed mine,” Nathaniel offered. “Of course, I didn’t expect you to have, um, changed.”
“Well,” Finn said, frowning. “Still me. I just— I couldn’t— if you and I— oh fuck.”
Nathaniel sighed and set down the shiny green gift bag that held his knitting. “We fucked this up,” he said. “The both of us.”
Finn shook his head. “No. No, it was me. I’m the one who left.”
“Why did you?”
“To protect you.”
Nathaniel was certain that there was only one threat that Finn would think required his absence rather than his presence. “They wanted you to work in Aberdeen,” Nathaniel said. “Your employers.”
Finn looked wrecked. “Angel, that morning, I woke up with you and it was— it was everything. I’m not sure if you want to hear that, sorry. But it was, for me. You in my arms in that freezing room. I don’t think I’ve ever been so warm. But there were missed texts on my phone, and a call— and I couldn’t stay. You shouldn’t get close to what I do.”
“But you work in my town all the time,” Nathaniel protested. “I know you have contacts there.”
This made Finn laugh, and it looked as beautiful on him as ever. “Angel— of course I don’t. It’s far too small. I only work in the larger cities.”
“But you were always there for work.”
“I was there for you.” Finn stopped pacing finally and let his eyes fall on Nathaniel. “I was driving through your town and thought I’d stop for lunch. I saw you at the cafe, through the window. God, you were— you were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I knew I shouldn’t, but I followed you back to the library anyway. Nathaniel—” He took a shaky breath. “I love you. I’ve been in love with you since the beginning. I know I said I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. And that was true. Because I knew I would never be remotely good enough for you. I would never measure up. And so I was protecting myself from heartbreak, protecting us, our friendship. But then— in that room in the pub, you were in my arms, and it was— it was paradise.”
Finn ran a hand through his hair, mussing it, and then started waving his hands in space, as though he was trying to paint Nathaniel a clearer picture. “But I don’t belong in paradise. That’s the thing. I’m— I’m the serpent in the garden. Dangerous. Going to wreck it all. And that’s exactly what I did,” he said, nodding. “I wrecked it. But then somewhere, somehow, one night, I thought, what if? What if I could change? What if I wasn’t the— the demon, the bad guy? Maybe then I could be in the garden. I could convince you, maybe, to let me stay, let me try to show you the way it could be— So I tried. Am trying. This is me, trying. I quit my job.”
“Oh,” said Nathaniel. “But I love you as you are.”
Finn stared at him, words and hand gestures failing him.
“Oh, come now,” Nathaniel said. “You can’t tell me you didn’t know.”
Finn pointed at him. “No, no, no. You don’t.”
Nathaniel made an annoyed noise. “I do.”
“Then why do you date other guys?” Finn exclaimed.
“You mean, why did I start unsuccessfully dating other guys as soon as you told me you couldn’t love me?”
Finn fell still again. “Oh.”
“You’re oblivious,” Nathaniel accused gently.
Finn scowled at him. “No worse than you.”
“No.” Nathaniel sighed. “Oh, Finn. But you enjoyed your job so much, didn’t you?”
Finn’s mouth twisted a little. “I did. Co-workers not withstanding.”
“Well, then you should get it back.”
Finn groaned. “No. No, don’t you see? You’re an angel—”
“Who’s in love with a demon.” Nathaniel took a hesitant step closer to him. “Darling, I agree with you about that night. It was paradise. It will be paradise as long as you’re with me.”
Nathaniel reached into the bag he’d brought, and pulled out Finn’s new gift. “You idiot. Just see what I brought you as a peace offering.”
“You made me another scarf,” Finn said softly.
Nathaniel nodded. “Take off the one you’re wearing. Go on.”
Finn obeyed, and stayed still as Nathaniel wound the new one around his neck.
“It’s black,” Finn said.
“Finn, I drove up here to tell you that I miss you. That I didn’t want to be without you. Even if it was just as friends.” Nathaniel looked up into Finn’s golden eyes, which were still widened in surprise. “But oh, my darling— I love everything about you, especially the way you stand out in my town with your black clothes and fancy car and job no one will speak of. You’re far too glamorous and dangerous and mysterious for us, and I love you for it. And— and I wanted to say I’m sorry, and that if you were willing, maybe we could still— we could still be friends?” Nathaniel felt his breath hitch a little on that last bit, and he concentrated on trying not to cry.
“I want to be friends,” Finn said. “I want to be more than friends.”
Nathaniel was crying now anyway. “Finn. Take off those ridiculous clothes.”
A bit of a smirk flashed across Finn’s face, shaky though it was. “And then?”
“And then don’t you dare put anything else back on.”
Finn’s expression grew more heated. He picked up the abandoned white scarf and draped it around Nathaniel’s shoulders, then tugged on it, pulling Nathaniel forward until they were so close that Nathaniel could feel the heat of Finn’s body stealing across the scant space that separated them.
“Just so long as you,” Finn said, “don’t wear anything more than this scarf for the next twenty-four hours. Don’t worry, angel, I’ll keep you warm.”