Leonid quickly tucked into his breakfast, and was already elbow deep in soapy dishes by the time Jerry, the last of their trio, had just begun to ladle the thick porridge — generously studded with roasted turnips, sunhats, and smoked verskit — into his bowl.
“Somebody’s eager to get on the road,” teased his Commander. “With your impeccable manners, this is practically you shoving us out the door.”
“Just ready to move to the next town,” Leonid demurred, wiping down the cutting board and rubbing it down with lemon-scented oil. Always leave the kitchen nicer than you found it .
“Right. The next town, where I’m sure your travelling-booth boyfriend will just happen to show up.”
“Boy friends ,” Leonid corrected gently.
“Whatever.” Commander Rose rolled her eyes. “So you get two kisses instead of one, no need to brag.”
It was important, Leonid wanted to tell her. Using a singular pronoun perpetuated the common misconception-
He shook his head. A soft touch was better with her. Confronting her would only make her more defensive.
“How did you sleep, Jerry?” he asked their third member, who was blankly shoveling porridge into his mouth.
Leonid wiped his hands and poured a cup of coffee, sliding it wordlessly towards the troll who immediately latched onto it.
“I love you,” Jerry growled roughly.
“Careful, you’re going to make Leonid’s boy friends jealous,” Rose warned him, raising an eyebrow at Leonid.
Leonid smirked. “We both know he’s talking to the coffee.”
Despite his best efforts to get them on the road early, it was nearly lunchtime by the time they hit the road, waving goodbye to the chefs they’d been working with for the last two weeks.
“I miss that wood smoker already,” mourned Jerry. “I wonder if the Academy would consider building one?”
“Nah,” said Rose. “Too regional, too slow. Would take up too much dedicated kitchen space. That Baurun jerky though...” She smiled dreamily.
Leonid also smiled. He had a two small packages of that jerky tucked away in his pack, one salty and one sweet, a gift for his boyfriends Luis and Louie.
Who would be in the next town.
Who might already be setting up their stall of goods, Luis humming as he arranged the trinkets and Louie deciding which pans to showcase.
Soon , he thought, and let the anticipation simmer in his veins, tamping it down to keep the rise of excitement down to a low burn.
It was dark by the time they made it to the town of Pinzel, an unexpected detour and overly chatty mayor finally behind them.
“Okay, you know the drill,” Commander Rose said as they wearily trooped into the hotel. “Tomorrow morning we’ll finish up our report, meet up with these new chefs, and get a tour of the kitchens. You’ve got the afternoon off before we dig in first thing the next morning.”
“Third floor,” intoned the dour-faced hotel clerk, handing out keys. “214 for the gents, 215 for the lady. It’s an honor to serve the Brigade.”
“Thank you,” they automatically echoed.
“It’s all yours,” Leonid told Jerry, who was already turning towards the promised rooms. “I’m going to crash with—”
Jerry cut him off with a grunt and a wave, already halfway down the hall.
“Goodnight,” Leonid called after him, then turned to Rose. “Goodnight, Commander.”
“You’re so damn polite,” she teased. “We’ll see you in the morning, brigadier.”
Luis and Louie’s immense travelling cart was easy to find.
“There you are!” boomed Louie as he knocked, the door bursting open, Leonid quickly scooped into a large hug that lifted him off his feet.
“Sorry, we ran into some delays,” Leonid said a bit breathlessly, crushed as he was against his boyfriends’ large chest. “Been here long?”
“Got in early this morning,” Luis told him, and gently returned him to ground.
“Already sold out of baking pans,” Louie added cheerfully. “Didn’t realize this area was so deprived of ovenware, we’ll have to stock up the next time we come through.”
“Brought you both some jerky,” Leonid told them, pulling it out of his pack, Luis tucking his away while Louie immediately popped a piece in his mouth.
“Oh, yum! This is from that smoker you guys were learning about?”
“Here, we got you something too! Check it out! Bet they didn’t have this in your little backwoods town!”
“Oh,” exclaimed Leonid in surprise, reaching out automatically to take the book with both hands, fingers smoothing over the glossy slipcover.
The backwoods town had, in fact, gotten it. He had been reading it before bed every night for the last week.
“I love this author,” Leonid said honestly. “It’s wonderful, thank you.”
Louie beamed, while Luis gave him a small smile.
In the city square, the midnight bell tolled.
“Come on,” Louie said, and Leonid let himself be pulled into the bedroom. “We’re tuckered out.”
They fell into the large bed quickly, each exhausted by the day of travel. Within seconds, Louie was asleep, snoring lightly.
“You’ve already got a copy of the book, don’t you?” Luis whispered softly, kissing the back of Leonid’s neck.
“I do,” Leonid admitted regretfully. “The town I was in was small, but because it’s got a research station, they had a surprisingly robust bookstore. I’m already halfway through.”
“I started reading the copy we bought for you,” Luis confessed. “I was particularly struck by section that discussed, hypothetically, the permanent removal of the monsters.”
“Yes! While certainly they were a blight upon our lands at first, now they have become our nation’s greatest economic strength. Victusia has become a ‘must-visit’ tourist destination, and our culinary prowess is a source of great pride for our residents.”
“Quite a different outcome from what was originally feared — that this would be the final blow to an already faltering nation.”
“Hmm,” agreed Leonid, and yawned.
“You should go to sleep. Early morning tomorrow.”
“I know. But this is nice. I missed you.”
“I missed you too. Now, sleep. You and my brother can catch up over coffee.”
“He doesn’t need it,” muttered Leonid. Louie was an unrepentant morning person.
“He likes to be spoiled, and you like to spoil him.” Luis pulled him closer. “Besides, I like waking up to the smell of coffee.”
Leonid woke to a gentle hand carding his hair.
“Good morning, sleeping beauty,” grinned Louie.
Leonid smiled and sat up, careful not to jostle Luis. “Good morning to you too.”
Louie tilted his head. “Kiss?”
“Ugh, with my morning breath?” Leonid made a face.
“Come on, you know I don’t care,” teased Louie, before pouting. “It’s been two weeks.”
“Just one,” Leonid allowed, and then laughed softly when Louie promptly stole two. “You cheat! Maybe I won’t make you coffee after all.”
“How terrible,” Louie deadpanned. “Instead of leaving me to putter around a kitchen - which he does literally all the time - my boyfriend wants to stay in our nice warm bed and cuddle.” He sighed dramatically. “I’ll just have to kiss him some more, morning breath and all.”
“Oh, stop,” laughed Leonid, but he let himself be kissed once more before sliding out of the bed to brew some coffee in the wagon’s tiny little kitchenette. He brought back two fragrant, steaming mugs - one black, and a larger mug with a generous addition of milk that he handed to Louie, who had carefully propped himself and the still-sleeping Luis to lean up against the headboard.
Leonid slid back under the warm covers on Louie’s side.
“Mmm,” Louie hummed appreciatively. “You make the best coffee.”
“I make it the exact same way you do,” Leonid protested.
“But your coffee comes with coffee-flavored kisses,” Louie said smugly. “No more morning breath. C’mere,” he cajoled, a gentle finger tracing Leonid’s jaw. “Just a quick taste test.”
Laughing softly, Leonid let himself be reeled in.