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*

Ryan doesn’t know what he expects to find when he drives up the wooded, winding drive to the cabin.

Steven had called it a cabin, anyway (“a guy I know has this cabin…”), but as the building in question pulls into view Ryan thinks that’s not quite the word.

Is there another word for a cabin that looks like it would list on Zillow for a cool twelve mil? If there isn’t, there should be.

“Dude, get up,” Ryan says. Without taking his eyes off the drive, which runs precariously close to the wide, quick-rushing creek with only a short fence between, he reaches over across the car’s center console to give Shane’s upper arm a nudge. “Wake up.”

Shane mumbles and curls in on himself, shoulders hunched and then stretched as he eases out of the nap he’s been taking for the last hundred and thirty miles or so.

“We there?”

“I think so.” Ryan nods at the so-called cabin, a beautiful A-frame home with floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the front to catch and hold the weaker northern California sunshine. It’s sleek, with light timber and clean lines that make his mouth want to ironically form the words modern rustic.

Shane whistles his surprise. “Who’s Steven’s friend again? The crown prince of a minor but disgustingly wealthy Middle Eastern nation?”

“He didn’t say. Some chef, I thought. Or someone in tech.”

“Maybe it’s Elon Musk. That would explain Steven’s recent Tesla fetish.”

Shane stretches again when he’s out of the car, leaning left and right, hinging first one and then the other leg back from the knee like a runner to stretch his quads as he shakes out the long car journey. He inhales fresh air and tosses his head back, cheeks to the sun.

Some expression passes over his features, a moment of pure, unabashed delight, the stumble and trip of a real smile in a year so thin on them. Ryan watches, greedy for it.

He’s not much of an outdoorsman, but even he has to admit it’s nice here, crisp but not cold, quiet enough that his often-fretful internal monologue falls silent too. It took them five hours to get here to the edge of Yosemite, about as far from Los Angeles as any of them could imagine driving in the middle of a godforsaken pandemic, and there’s a certain amount of relief to be found in being outside, unmasked and breathing deeply of new air. 

It’s probably not festive by Shane’s definition, so exactly calibrated to December in Chicago—but at least it’s different. Ryan’s doing the best he can.

*

They’re here for work, Ryan reminds himself as he retrieves the key from the lockbox and pushes open the front door to greet the giant Christmas tree still standing lit and lovely in the main room. To work.

They’d had to jump through a lot of hoops to do it, including several rounds of testing and the weirdest Christmas morning he’s ever had, outside and masked on his parents’ back deck. It’s all worth it for the way Shane’s reluctant smile just about cracks his face in two when he follows Ryan in and spots the tree.

All at once Ryan’s supremely grateful to Steven for having the idea for a Team Watcher retreat in the first place. He’d suggested they go away for a few days as a staff, since they’re already in a work bubble, so they could get some planning done for upcoming content and celebrate the new year. It’d be good for morale, Steven had said, and he’d volunteered his acquaintance’s cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for the job.

The thing he’d only said later, and only to Ryan, was, “Let’s see if we can get Shane out of his funk. I know he says it’s fine, but nobody should spend the holidays like that.”

By like that he’d meant alone, or nearly. Shane had spent all of December putting on a brave face about being stuck in Los Angeles for Christmas, acting like it didn’t bother him, that the sacrifice was necessary and worth it to save lives. Of course it was both those things, but Ryan’s sure that didn’t make it any less lonely.

And this had felt like something Ryan could do, that he could help with, so he’d thrown himself into planning this retreat. He’d volunteered to come up with Shane a day earlier than the others to get things ready, to make the beds and pick up groceries and set up a war room with whiteboards and surge protectors where they could get work done.

Now he watches as Shane approaches the tree with something like reverence, reaching out to brush his fingers against a branch. It’s a real pine, easily fourteen or fifteen feet tall, bedecked in a charmingly old-fashioned style with white lights and popcorn garlands and shiny silver and gold baubles, candy canes hooked amongst the dark green. It’s new made to look classic, expensive made to look homespun, and he can tell Shane’s taken with it.

Feeling rather like he’s prying into Shane’s private feelings by looking, Ryan puts his bag down and pulls his phone out. His phone tries to connect at once to the wi-fi network “BE OUR GUEST,” which makes him smile.

“How do we even have wi-fi here?” he wonders out loud as he types in the password from the information sheet (“S3rv1ce2theTest”).

“I bet the person who built this cabin invented wi-fi,” Shane says, but he doesn’t look away from the tree.

*

Ryan leaves Shane to explore and settle in and he goes to get groceries from the nearest town, about a twenty-minute drive. When he gets back it’s dusk. Shane’s turned all the Christmas lights on, inside the house and out, so Ryan’s welcomed by their ethereal glow.

Through the floor-to-ceiling glass he can see the tree, and Shane lying on his back at its base, one hand braced behind his head, looking up. Ryan sits in the car and watches Shane’s other hand flit along the lowest branches, not sure what Shane’s looking for, not knowing why he wants to watch from afar instead of heading in. Maybe it’s a strange voyeuristic tendency born of months of Zoom living, a bad habit he’ll have to break before he’s ready for public life again.

His creepiness doesn’t last, but only because Shane spots the headlights and comes out to help him bring in the groceries.

“Dude, there’s a hot tub out the back,” he says in greeting as he lopes out to the car, kindly not mentioning the solid five minutes that Ryan spent sitting alone in the car like a serial killer. “And a pool table. And televisions in all the bathrooms, and heated floors, and this digital screen on the refrigerator door so you can tell it what kind of ice cubes you want. Like, capitalism is evil, obviously. However.”

He's talking fast, excited like Ryan hasn’t seen in a while. It’s been so long since any of them had anything to look forward to, something new to see. On the drive up Ryan had gotten hyped at the prospect of sleeping in a different bed, not because there was anything wrong with his own bed, but because it was always there and he was sick to death of looking at it.

There weren’t a ton of options in town, but Ryan’s brought back Chinese for dinner. They eat in front of the smart tv in the main room, flanked on either side by the tree and an equally massive gas fireplace.

There’s a sprig of some plant sitting on the floor by the tree, with small paddle-shaped leaves and clusters of white berries. Ryan reaches out for it. It’s clearly not pot, but he still says, “Bold of you to pack this for a trip with Steven.”

“Hm?” Shane looks up from his noodles, which he’s gamely trying to get through with chopsticks. “Oh, that. Found it in the tree. I think it’s mistletoe. See the berries?”

“Hope you brought your Chapstick.”

“It’s actually a parasite, you know.” Most of Shane’s concentration is on his take-out container, still fighting to get a good grip on a noodle. “It latches onto trees and sucks all the nutrients out of them. Also, I read once that the word mistletoe means ‘poop twig’ in Anglo-Saxon, so how it got its reputation is beyond me.”

This decidedly unromantic tidbit of information surprises a laugh out of Ryan. “Poop twig! That’s good.”

“Yeah, it grows from bird shit that’s fallen on trees. So remember that the next time some pretty lady corners you under it for a smooch, assuming future Christmases go back to normal.”

It’s as natural a point of entry as Ryan’s likely to get. The “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal” text he’d sent on Christmas morning had gone ignored, and it lingered in his mind in the days that followed, out-of-character enough for Shane to be worrisome. Ryan’s got the uncomfortable sense that it was a bird-shit-on-a-tree-branch kind of holiday.

“So how was your Christmas?” he asks carefully. Shane keeps sneaking glances at the tree, like he’d prefer not to be caught enjoying it.

“Oh, fine.” Shane’s smile is anemic. “Had a quiet morning, and then Scott came over for dinner. We sat out on my balcony and shot the shit, and I made a roast. And my parents mailed us some presents, so we opened those on Zoom, and it was, uh, it was good. Nice. Fine.”

There is, in Ryan’s opinion, a world of distinction between good and nice and fine.

“I thought you might be...” He keeps his attention squarely focused on his egg roll. “I know I’d be bummed if I couldn’t see my parents for Christmas. I was thinking about you all day.”

Shane makes a face, like gross. “Thanks for your concern, but I’m a big boy, I can deal with disappointment. It’s only—hopefully I can see them this summer, when the vaccine…”

He trails off. There’s so much dreadful uncertainty. It’s hard to make plans, either personally or professionally, when it feels like you can’t count on anything. It’s not like Ryan can reassure him, either: same boat, same current, no oar.

Shane clears his throat, like he’s got something stuck in it. “This is nice, though. I didn’t bother to put up a tree this year, it felt so—fuckin’ pointless, you know. But this place is something. Add a little snow and it’d be about perfect.”

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” Ryan says. “I don’t think it snows this far south, not at this elevation. We should have taken you to Big Bear, gotten you on some skis. That would have been very funny for me personally.”

It’s a slip—Ryan hadn’t meant to suggest that this scheme was as much about getting Shane a stiff shot of holiday cheer as it was about team-building and content strategizing—but Shane doesn’t seem to notice.

Shane shrugs. “I dunno, man. This cabin’s got an automated feature for everything else under the sun. I bet if I snoop around for a while, I’ll find a button to toggle on the weather.”

The others are leaving L.A. early in the morning, due in by the afternoon. At some point the work will start, Steven will see to that, but for tonight they’ve got nothing to do except figure out how to get back in the swing of being in each other’s company.

It’s more of a learning curve than Ryan expected. This is the first time he’s been in Shane’s presence without a shoot to get through since March, and he’s caught off guard by how anxious he feels, how overwhelmed he is by the need to make it count. There’s a self-imposed pressure to cram the missing months into a few short days.

It’s strange how he sees Shane more than ever, spends more time with him than he ever has before in terms of hours on the clock, and yet Ryan feels a keen sense of loss. He misses all of them, and the easy camaraderie of the office, but Shane is set apart in his head somehow: the hardest loss to take, the biggest missing piece, the most untenable absence.

He feels starving, like he might gorge himself on Shane’s company now that he has it and get a stomachache. Instead he should take it easy, pace himself. Just have a nice time, and not worry so much, for once, about how he might be fucking up.

“Wanna play pool?” he asks after they’ve tossed the empty dinner cartons and stuck leftovers in the fridge.

“Yeah, alright. Pool table’s in the basement. There’s a bar down there too, and a ludicrous amount of wine. Plus something that might be a sex swing, but I didn’t look very closely at it and also I’ve never seen one, so, grain of salt.”

“Well, let’s start with a round of pool and see where the night goes,” Ryan cracks. Shane guffaws.

They play a few rounds, and they watch a movie, and not long after that Ryan’s yawning into his arm and Shane’s looking bleary-eyed. They haven’t done much today, just a lot of driving, but the excitement of going somewhere that isn’t his townhouse or his parents’ home or the grocery store has worn Ryan out.

The cabin has four bedrooms, each with a queen bed, each meticulously decorated in the same modern rustic style straight out of a Pinterest board. It seems fair enough that they each claim one, in payment for coming down early to set up, and let the others duke it out for the remaining rooms in the morning. So Shane claims the bedroom sensibly called Bedroom I—there’s a plaque outside the door, and god forbid a Silicon Valley tech bro exhibit even an ounce of creativity—and Ryan takes Bedroom II.

The mattress is plush and supportive, the pillows down-soft. After Ryan crawls into bed, he plays a hunch and says, “Hey Google, turn off the lights in bedroom two.”

There’s an acknowledging beep and the lights dim down to nothing on command, but it’s still too bright in the room, well-lit as it is by moonlight coming in through another set of large glass windows.

“Hey Google,” Ryan tries, “close the blinds in bedroom two.”

Another automated chirp, the technological equivalent of a swift curtsy. Then the blinds slide shut on their motorized track, leaving him blanketed in darkness at last.

It’s a very smart cabin.

*

Ryan wakes at some ungodly hour to Shane saying, “Hey Google, turn on the fucking lights in bedroom—what the fuck bedroom is—two. What the fuck.”

“Okay,” the Google Assistant says, obeying the order although even she sounds like she thinks it’s too early for it.

He sits up groggily. Shane’s standing by his bed, shifting from foot to foot in his boxers and an old Buzzfeed t-shirt that unexpectedly makes Ryan’s sleepy brain stutter over itself in a sort of nostalgic confusion. For a moment he forgets where he is and why, and even when, in the timeline of his own experience. In that split second his heart speeds up, like they might be in some haunted place, like he’s supposed to be afraid.

“What’s—what time is it?”

“Seven,” Shane says grimly. “Listen, we’ve got a situation developing.”

“What situation could possibly be developing at seven in the morning?”

Shane goes over to the window. “This kind,” he says with what Ryan feels is unwarranted drama, and then he tries to pull the blinds open. But he can’t, they’re on the stupid automated track, and the whole thing falls hilariously flat. “Oh, for fucksake. Hey Google, open the blinds in bedroom two.”

The blinds open again with a barely-there mechanical whir, and Ryan is blinded in slow-motion by white.

“So, it’s snowing,” Shane says casually, but there’s an edge in his voice. “Like, a lot.”

“I can see that.” Ryan sits up. He puts his glasses on. It’s snowing so hard he can’t see through it, can’t even make out the shape of the back deck. There’s a hefty pile of snow already on the ground. “What the fuck?”

“We got a text from Steven, it woke me up. And then I saw—” Shane gestures out the window.

Ryan checks his phone.

Hey guys, bad news. I think you’re snowed in by a freak snowstorm—or at least, we’re snowed out. We’re not going to be able to get up to the cabin today. Call me when you get this.

“I already called him. It’s pretty bad, there was a foot of snow overnight and it’s still going.” He hesitates. “Ryan, it hasn’t snowed more than an inch a year here since 1977.”

Ryan knows he should be disappointed that the others can’t join them, but somehow he’s not. Instead he feels rather serene, lulled into uncaring, perhaps, by the beauty of this aberrant blizzard. And after all, if you have to be snowed in somewhere, it might as well be the most comfortable, well-appointed forest retreat he’s ever had the pleasure of setting foot in.

“Weird,” he says. He scratches his nose and adjusts his morning wood in his boxers, still waking up, and Shane looks away, focused again on the flurry of activity out the window. 

“Weird,” Shane echoes. “You’re not worried?”

“I mean, you know me, I’m always worried. But we’ve got food. We’ve got internet. We’ve got nowhere to be.” Ryan hesitates. “And you were so disappointed not to see snow this year, and now you can.”

“Yeah, and that’s a whole—that’s another thing,” Shane says, his mouth moving to the side in pursed consideration, his brow furrowed. “We were just talking about how unlikely it would be to get any snow here at all, and now…”

“Yeah.” Ryan doesn’t know what else to say. Like, it’s strange, a freak coincidence of a snowstorm, and Ryan’s not entirely sure he believes in coincidences even at the best of times. And because this year is not the best of times, and freaky shit seems to be falling on their heads at every turn, he’s doubly wary. “Still, are you happy?”

Shane’s face twitches again into a smile. He looks like the Tin Man, begging for an oil can to get the muscles in his cheeks to work. “You know, I am. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to hanging out with everybody, and I’m sure we’d have gotten some useful work done but this is—this is good too.”

And then he seems to remember where he is, that he’s intruding, because he steps back towards the doorway and hooks his thumb in the general direction of the kitchen. “I’m gonna get some breakfast started, but I can leave you leftovers if you want to go back to sleep.”

It’s no good; Ryan’s up now. He never had a snow day growing up, but he imagines this is what it must’ve been like: the joy of having nothing in particular to accomplish and no way to do so, even if you wanted to. The excitement of waking up to find the world has made itself over especially for you.

“Nah, I’m up,” he says, clambering out of bed, searching around for the robe he found hanging in his closet last night and pulling it on. He’s not cold—the cabin seems to maintain a perfect temperature at all times, heated floors and all—but it seems like the sort of thing you do to be cozy in a situation like this.

There’s a moment of hesitation where Shane doesn’t seem to know whether he should wait for Ryan or go ahead, and then a moment of further flustered awkwardness when they both make for the doorway at once.

Then Shane stops in his tracks. He throws out his arm, the way Ryan’s mom used to in the car whenever she had to come to a sudden stop, not quite trusting the seatbelt with her precious cargo. Ryan halts against it.

“What—”

Shane points up.

Hanging in the doorframe is a tiny sprig of mistletoe.

Ryan snorts. He takes a step back, gesturing for Shane to leave the room first. “After you, sir.”

As Ryan leaves the bedroom behind him, he plucks the mistletoe down and runs his thumb along one of the bright berries. Another leftover Christmas decoration, no doubt, left up through January so the person who owns this cabin can get his money’s worth. 

And after all, it’s a silly holiday tradition, as Shane had pointed out yesterday. Nothing says they would have to observe it. If they’d walked through the door together, a big fat nothing would have happened.

It’s just—Ryan’s sure it hadn’t been there last night.

*

Everything slows down in a snowstorm, Ryan discovers, including himself.

They putter around the kitchen for a while, aimless and unconcerned. Ryan sets about figuring out the unnecessarily complicated coffee maker. Shane makes cinnamon toast and sticks bacon in the oven, and soon the whole place smells like cooking meat and cinnamon-sugar and pine sap.

He’s humming under his breath as he pushes frothy, too-buttery eggs around a pan with a spatula that probably cost a hundred dollars from Williams Sonoma, scrambling them slow and low.

Ryan clutches a full mug of coffee to his chest, letting it steam his face. He leans against the kitchen island to listen as Shane’s humming turns into quiet, unselfconscious singing. It’s a Christmas song Ryan doesn’t recognize, major-keyed but melancholy: oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Ryan got used to the sound of Shane singing to himself. He took it for granted, before. For a long time it was the everyday soundtrack to his working life, when he didn’t have his headphones in, and now that he doesn’t hear it as much he wants to drink it down.

“What,” Shane says. Ryan blinks out of his stupor. He hadn’t realized he was looking so intently.

“Nothing. Sounds like a bummer song.”

“Well, sometimes holidays can be bummers.” Shane goes back to the eggs, as if they’ll overcook to ruin in a second if he doesn’t watch them. They’ve eaten enough rubbery diner eggs together in the last five years that he ought to know Ryan won’t mind. “You should get more comfortable with bad feelings.”

Ryan is entirely comfortable with bad feelings. Bad feelings are his life’s companion, his brain’s natural state, and only with a lot of work over the last few years has he learned to keep them at arm’s length: far enough removed that he can get through the day, but always close enough to see the whites of their eyes.

No, it’s Shane’s bad feelings he’s having trouble rolling with these days. He’s never been so hyperaware of someone else’s moods before; so obsessive about cataloguing every smile and every frown, weighing the balance of them. It’s a metric that’s hard to calculate on Zoom. Here in person, with the benefit of proximity and body language, Ryan has a dizzying amount of data to work with.

“Why don’t you make yourself useful and pour me some of that?” Shane indicates the coffee maker with a nod of his chin.

“It’s decaf,” Ryan warns.

“So I’ll take a nap.”

Again they ignore the table to eat by the fireplace, which Ryan turns on with a remote that controls everything in the cabin that isn’t voice-activated. Shane sits with his legs crossed, shoveling food into his mouth and watching the snow fall in big fat flakes with a dreamy look on his face, and the whole thing makes Ryan know peace for the first time in he doesn’t even know how long.

“I think I’ll try to take a walk later,” Shane says.

“In this?”

“Yeah. I mean, if the snow slows down, I might wander around. You’ll come with?”

Ryan’s about to say fat chance, but something hopeful lingering about the corners of Shane’s mouth stops him. He’s obviously desperate to get out in it, to crunch snow under his boots, and Ryan doesn’t want to be a buzzkill. If it means something to Shane to share this with him, Ryan can be game.

“Sure, why not.” Ryan says. Except—ugh, his boots. “Not that we packed for it. My ghoul-busting boots aren’t exactly snow-proof.”

Ryan packed for the fifty- and sixty-degree days that his phone’s weather app had told him to expect. While he’s got a few hoodies for the cooler nights, he didn’t even bring his peacoat, let alone the sort of all-weather gear that he imagines a foot of snow requires. 

“Shit.” Shane’s face falls. “You’re right.”

“Maybe we can find a shovel and clear off the deck, at least. Sit out there for a while.”

“Maybe.”

It bothers Ryan to see Shane’s glum acceptance. He’s not annoyed with Shane but with the cabin itself, for some reason, as if the weather could be its fault, or else its rich owner’s.

“Hey Google,” he says to the room, somewhere between a joke and a whim and an order, and half-expecting the accommodating beep. “How about you stop the snow for us, pronto.”

“Don’t worry about it, man,” Shane says. “I’m gonna get cleaned up. I spied a waterfall showerhead in my ensuite bathroom last night with my name on it. You know how hard it is to find a shower I don’t have to duck in?”

“You’ve got an ensuite too?” Ryan frowns. He’s not one for math or calculations if he can help it, but he’s having trouble making the floorplan of the cabin match the picture in his head of the size and shape of its outside. “How many rooms does this place have? Like…does it seem bigger on the inside than on the outside to you?”

They both look around. It could be the high ceilings, or something about the design of A-frames, but Ryan does think it seems more expansive inside than it had looked driving up.

“It must be bigger than it looks.” Shane seems confused too, as though he hadn’t put his finger on the discrepancy until now. “Maybe it just looked small next to all the huge trees and the creek and stuff. Something about the geological features.”

“Or it’s a Winchester Mystery Cabin,” Ryan says with a grin.

“What, like a House of Leaves situation?”

“Like Mary Poppins’s bag, but a house.”

“Like the inside of the TARDIS.”

Shane stands, gesturing for Ryan’s plate. He glances outside again, and then he does a double-take so exaggerated Ryan snickers at his gobsmacked face. 

“What?”

“I think it stopped snowing.” Shane steps forward, so he’s nose-to-nose with the glass window. Ryan squints. Sure enough, the snow seems to have turned itself down from a near-blizzard to the gentlest of flurries. “Weird timing.”

“Weird,” Ryan echoes.

*

They both go get ready for the day. Ryan takes a long shower. The water stays hot the entire time, which is a blessed change from living in a shitty townhouse with bad water pressure and two roommates.

He’s starting to towel off when he hears Shane yell for him, a sharp “Ryan!”

Thinking something’s badly wrong, Ryan wraps the towel around his waist and makes for Shane’s bedroom at once, not bothering with more than one last cursory pass over his chest.

Shane’s coming out of his own room to find Ryan at the same time. They almost smack into each other in the doorway, but Shane sticks his hand out and forces Ryan to take a step back right before they collide.

“Wh—”

Shane reaches above his own head to pluck another sprig of mistletoe from where it’s nestled on the doorframe. Then he looks at Ryan, one quick sweep from head to toe. Ryan’s fingers flex against the terrycloth of his towel, all too aware of the puddle he’s making on the floor as water drips from his hair down his arms.

He and Shane stare at each other for a moment.

“Is it me, or do they seem to be multiplying?” Shane sets the sprig of mistletoe on the dresser, giving it a sideways glance of mistrust before he beckons Ryan in, like he half-expects it to leap up on two tiny legs and affix itself above the door again. “Come see what I found in my closet.”

“Narnia?” Ryan snarks. In this place he could almost believe it. He’s starting to get a vibe.

“No, just—” Shane throws the door of his closet wide.

Hanging there are two pairs of snow pants, two cozy-looking chunky knit sweaters of Chris-Evans-in-Knives-Out caliber, and two down puffer coats. Two pairs of gloves, two scarves, two wool beanies. On the floor of the closet sit two pairs of snow boots.

Ryan kneels carefully to check the sizes, gripping his towel shut for modesty’s sake. One of the pairs is a size ten; the other, a size eleven. His and Shane’s boot sizes.

“Lucky us,” he says softly. He looks up at Shane, his eyes wide. “Guess I know what I’ll be wearing today.”

“Ask and ye shall receive.” Shane’s smile is wry.

*

It’s easy to mistake Shane for a hipster, from a distance. If you don’t know him, you might be fooled: the glasses, the deliberately eccentric outfits, the occasional ironic facial hair. The penchant for obscure bands led by sad middle-aged men that were popular on college radio stations in 2007.

Ryan knows better.

The thing about Shane that sets him apart from all that is his genuine, undisguised love of the human experience. When they film for Weird Wonderful World, Shane’s leaning into a character, but no part of him is acting. He’s really that earnestly thrilled by every pocket of strangeness, and he soaks up the enthusiasm of strangers like a sponge until their joys belong to him too.  

Sometimes Ryan thinks that Shane doesn’t believe in the supernatural because he simply doesn’t need it. That he finds sufficient wonder in the mundane and the everyday; that solving these larger existential questions doesn’t call to Shane the way it calls to Ryan because the real world has already presented him with enough unknowable delights. 

The four walls of an apartment must seem especially tight to such a person, Ryan thinks. A year like this one might do permanent damage to that spirit, might even be enough to turn someone who plays a fake nihilist on a podcast into a real one.

But Shane’s face when they get out in the snow makes Ryan’s fears seem unfounded. There’s an excitable flush across his nose and cheeks, a familiar inquisitive spring to his step as he bounds out the back door and picks his way through the snow with high-kneed steps.

He reminds Ryan of nothing so much as the dozens of TikToks he’s favorited in the last few weeks of big dogs darting out their doors and running face-first into piles of snow with a fierce, frenzied kind of pleasure. He doesn’t usually think of Shane as a particularly physical person, but that was wrong, because there’s an outpouring of cooped-up energy in him now like he’s five minutes away from rolling around in the snow like a husky.  

It’s not as cold out as Ryan had feared, probably because they’re bundled up so well. The winter gear in Shane’s closet fits them both perfectly, a fact Ryan prefers to let shimmer in a corner of his mind for now rather than acknowledge head-on.

The snow’s still falling, but only gently, so he doesn’t notice unless he sticks his hand out to watch the tiny flakes settle on his glove.

Shane blazes the trail out from the back deck. The snow will be too deep to get very far, but they can at least snoop around, get the lay of the land.

To their surprise, when they get on the steps leading off the deck, they find the snow melted right off it. There are a few paths that lead the way to hiking trails, and they, too, are wet and slushy but mostly snow-free.

Shane frowns. He looks down at the map, and then down at the bare timber of the stairs, and then back at Ryan. Finally he twists to look at the driveway they came in on, which is still piled high with snow, blocking any route back to civilization.

“Heated deck?” he asks, uncertain. “Heated…pathways?”

“You’re saying they paid to heat walking trails but they didn’t pay to heat the driveway?”

It seems theoretically possible, and Ryan doesn’t know enough about snow to dispute it, but he also can’t imagine why a person would pay to install them in a place where it’s barely snowed in over forty years.

Shane shrugs. Ryan takes one glove off and squats down. There’s heat coming off the ground, to be sure. He touches his fingertips to the snow, half-expecting to find that it isn’t there at all, that it’s an elaborate mirage. Or fake, like the snow in a snow globe or on a Hollywood soundstage, creating the illusion of a snowscape with none of the hassle.

It’s cold to the touch and it melts against his hand, as it should. It feels real enough.

“Where to?”

Shane nods in the direction of the river. “I’d like to wander that a-ways, check out the creek.”

Ryan stops, listening for it. He can’t hear it at all. The snow has dampened every sound, turning their whole world quiet and private. He lets Shane lead the way, down a path that brings them to its banks. 

What Ryan had taken for a creek yesterday upon their arrival is really more like a proper river. As soon as they get close, he realizes why he couldn’t hear it. Where yesterday it flowed freely, burbling against its banks, today it’s frozen almost solid. There’s no snow on it, leaving the surface immaculately smooth and the same deep, dangerous blue-black of a glacier.

There’s a small waterfall that looks like somebody snapped their fingers and froze it in time. It cascades over rocks like hot wax that’s hardened over the divots and turns of the landscape, gravity forming brutal icicles.

Ryan’s never seen a frozen river before. The novelty of it, the pure cinematic quality of it aesthetically, delights him. Here’s this massive thing, this force big enough to power entire cities, held in check by nothing less than a stronger version of itself.

Driven by a sudden impulse, he sticks his foot out, testing the strength of the ice. Shane shoots his hand out whip-fast to stop him, making a noise of alarm, but the ice holds.

“I think it’s pretty solid.”

“Ryan, I know you know next to nothing about winter weather, but I promise you it’s not safe. It takes a long time for a river this size to freeze enough to—”

But Ryan’s waving him off, stepping out onto the ice with his other foot, not afraid in the least even though it looks treacherous. He can’t explain how he knows it, but he knows it’s safe. He’s certain that no harm will come to them here.

“Ryan—"

“No, it’s okay. Come on, I want to go out in the middle. Haven’t you always secretly wanted to do the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind thing?”

Ryan takes another step onto the ice. It’s slippery, naturally, because it’s ice, and he wobbles like a baby deer finding its feet. Shane’s still got an arm outstretched as if he could catch him and reel him back in, but he’s too far away.

“If you break through, I’m letting you drown.”

“If we break through we’ll drown together, and nobody will find our bodies for months and there’ll be a very thrilling inquest,” Ryan says. The ice is still holding; there aren’t even any baby hairline cracks forming under his feet, scientifically improbable though that may be. He reaches out his hand, impatient for Shane to overcome his natural caution. “Come on. You said you wished you had a river. To—however that song went.”

Shane bristles, still hesitating. “I can’t believe you don’t know Joni Mitchell. It’s embarrassing, man.” 

“Whatever.” Ryan gestures around them at the unlikely scene. “Ask and ye shall receive. Or don’t you trust me not to let you fall?”

After another moment of lip-bitten indecision, Shane squares his shoulders and picks his way out onto the ice. He doesn’t grab for Ryan’s hand, but he does wrap his gloved fingers around Ryan’s forearm for balance. Together they shuffle along, out into the very middle of the river.

Ryan laughs out loud, looking down at the frozen river beneath his feet, and then up at the sky, where the sun’s start to peek out again.

It’s impossible to pinpoint what he’s feeling—joy and fear, adrenaline and disbelief. The rush of experiencing something brand new, in a year so full of mind-numbing monotony. The pure gladness of having Shane right here with him, close enough to touch, to hold on to.

He does an experimental slide, with his left foot and then his right, like he’s ice skating on his shoes. He looks back, expectant, and Shane follows, pushing off tentatively.

Shane’s more unsteady on his feet, struggling against his higher center of gravity. He pushes off too hard and comes skidding at Ryan, his feet flailing under his body for purchase. Ryan grabs him, holds him tight to prevent him from falling on his ass, and they careen against each other with a characteristic lack of grace.

Still, Ryan catches him, like he said he would. 

“Where do you think you’re going, big guy?”

Shane stands upright again, adjusting his coat a touch fussily, reaching up to straighten his hat. His cheeks and nose are flushed from the cold, and maybe from the embarrassment of almost busting it, and Ryan’s heart thuds in his chest out of pure fondness.

“If I break my tailbone it’s your fault. You know I’ve got no padding there.”

“Sounds like that’s your mama’s fault.”

Moving slowly, with an abundance of care, Ryan lowers himself onto his knees and then his back. He looks up at the sky, at the clouds—or what would be the sky and the clouds if Shane weren’t looming over him, staring.

“Get your unpadded ass down here,” Ryan says, and Shane obliges, rearranging his long limbs so he’s lying next to Ryan on the ice.

Ryan imagines what they would look like from above, the classic bird’s eye shot, like in Eternal Sunshine. To the untrained eye would they look like two friends lying side by side, or like something else? He habitually considers what he looks like to strangers, the way he comes across, but usually it makes him self-conscious. Today he glows under it, the idea of scrutiny having taken on a novel appeal of late.

He reaches out to grab Shane’s glove in his own. Even through the layers he can feel the surprised flap of Shane’s hand, though Shane doesn’t pull it away.

“What’s up?” he asks.

“Nothing. I’m happy to be here,” Ryan says honestly, and it costs him nothing to say it, out here on the ice with no one to hear it but them. He only knows that if he doesn’t say it, if he lets this moment pass without acknowledging that it’s special to him, he’ll regret it. “I’ve missed you.”

Shane laughs, a low half-laugh. With his free hand he’s shading his eyes from the sunlight, so Ryan can’t see his face properly.

“How can you miss me? We talk ten hours a day. You see my mug more than ever.”

“Yeah, on Zoom. That’s not shit. I miss your, like…your rest-of-you.” But that sounds silly, inconsequential, when what Ryan means is more comprehensive. “I miss working next to you. I miss that shady-as-hell face you make when Steven calls another meeting that could have been an email. I miss seeing a movie and feeling you shift in your seat next to me and knowing you’re thinking exactly what I’m thinking.”

He only means that when you’re part of a matched set, when you’ve calibrated yourself to be the head to someone else’s tails, it can be hard to know how to be without it. So much of the work they do is based on their ability to play off each other, to spin into that dynamic like a dance. Some days Ryan feels like he’s lost a limb and he’ll have to learn how to dance all over again, knowing it’ll never be as natural and seamless as it was.

Shane’s quiet for a while. He turns his head to Ryan, his face still partially in shadow.

“Yeah, I…me too,” he says at last. He sighs. “Ryan, not wanting to come out on the ice had nothing to do with trusting you. You know that, right? There’s a lot we can’t control, and that’s the stuff I worry about.”

“Nothing’s going to hurt us here. Can’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

Ryan shrugs. He’s not sure he can put this particular feeling into words. He’d assumed Shane noticed the vibe too.

“I don’t know, dude. Watchfulness. Intention.”

“Please tell me you’re not suggesting this cabin, which was built in 2017, by the way, I looked it up, is haunted.”

“Not haunted,” Ryan says, because it’s not the same thing at all. He feels the warmth of attentiveness, as if something unseen is setting up dominos one by one and waiting to see whether they’ll topple them. To what end, he isn’t yet prepared to guess. “Just…you know. One step to the left.”

Shane makes a scoffing noise, but he doesn’t argue. He must see, as Ryan does, that whatever weird shit is going on here in their own little world is bound to be a whole lot safer than everything going on out in the real one.

*

Eventually it’s too cold even for Shane, and they head back for the warm light of the cabin.

The minute Ryan closes the door behind him, it starts snowing again. He affixes Shane with a look, like told you so, which Shane studiously ignores.  

The afternoon passes into evening, a blur of leftover Chinese and pool rematches and exactly the kind of beer Ryan would expect some rich NorCal douchebag to keep in his basement beer fridge. He takes a nice long nap at some point, stretched out on the couch, and he wakes to Shane standing over him again.

“You’ve got to stop looming like that.”

“It’s not my fault you’re always on your back,” Shane retorts. Then he furrows his eyebrows. “Uh. Did you turn the hot tub on?”

“What, did I sleepwalk to the hot tub, turn it on, and then sleepwalk back here? No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.” Ryan sits up, tilting his head this way and that, cracking his neck. Then he realizes why Shane must be asking. “Why, did you turn it on?”

“No I did not. I took my coffee out to watch the sun set from the deck and it was just…on. Bubbling away. Merry as you please.”

“Maybe it stays on all the time.”

“It wasn’t on when I looked at it yesterday.”

Ryan’s not sure what Shane wants from him here. Ryan hasn’t gone near the hot tub. He looks at Shane blankly.

“Yeah, okay,” Shane says with a sigh. “Well, it’s on a timer or something. Either way, I’m getting in. I’m not about to waste a perfectly good hot tub because there’s a slim chance it might be haunted.”

He pauses, not exactly inviting Ryan to join him but leaving the door open, and Ryan thinks again about intention. And he thinks about how he and the cabin seem to have come into this working vacation with a similar one: to make sure Shane has a nice holiday.

“I’ll get my trunks on,” he says.

As he passes into the hallway, Ryan jumps up to grab the sprig of mistletoe that’s sprouted above the archway sometime after he fell asleep by the fire.

He’s starting to suspect the cabin of being a little too smart.

*

Shane’s already in the hot tub when Ryan eases in. He’s got his head tipped back on the edge and his eyes closed. His arms are outstretched, so long they monopolize a whole corner of the tub. Steam rises in lazy eddies from the surface of the water and into the cold air.

It’s so easy for Ryan to forget he’s in California; so easy for him to forget he’s in the world at all, in fact. It’s almost as if they crossed the border into a parallel one when they drove across the property line.

“Got a text while you were changing,” Shane says without opening his eyes. “Steven says they’re not gonna make it. The roads are too perilous—he actually said that, perilous—so he said they’ll see us when they see us.”

“So much for getting work done.”

Shane squints one eye open. “Speak for yourself, I’m doing important work over here. Relaxing is part of the creative process. Besides, tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve. Unclench.”

“Making any resolutions?”

“If I tell you, they won’t come true.”

“That’s wishes. Birthday candles and shit. Not resolutions.”

Ryan ducks under the water to slick his hair back. When he comes back up, he wipes water from his eyes to find Shane watching him steadily. His mouth is relaxed, his face flushed again, from the heat this time.

“I wouldn’t say I’m making resolutions,” Shane says. “It’s pointless to resolve anything these days, isn’t it? Nothing’s our call anyway. This year I’ll make some hopes and call it a night.”

“Fine, what do you hope for?”

Shane reclines in a gangly sprawl, his long legs stretching on a diagonal all the way across the hot tub so his feet brush Ryan’s calves under the water. Without bothering to overthink it, Ryan reaches down to grab Shane’s ankles and hold them in place, letting Shane use his knees like a footstool. Shane blinks, but he doesn’t pull away.

“I hope 2021 is more like this and less like the other fifty-one weeks of 2020, for a start.”

They’re quiet for a while. Sometimes the quiet is hard for Ryan, but it’s not so difficult now, with something to do with his hands. He digs his thumbs into the sharp turns of Shane’s ankles, rubbing the pads of them right over the bone over and over again.

He’s thinking about Beauty and the Beast. He’s thinking about the wi-fi network, “Be Our Guest,” and about talking teapots and grumpy clocks and matchmaking candelabras. That’s how this place feels: not haunted, enchanted. Like when he leaves a room, the smart appliances start talking to each other, and they’re all talking about him.

“I think,” he says, finally, “that if we looked around this cabin hard enough, we’d find a rose underneath a—a glass thing, what’s it called—losing petals. Metaphorically.”

“A cloche.”

“Mm.”

Shane pulls his feet away to sit up straight, regarding him. “What do you mean?”

“It’s all just too strange, isn’t it? The snowstorm, right on cue. Things turning themselves on and off without us telling them to. Stuff—” Ryan doesn’t say mistletoe, in case there’s some chance Shane hasn’t fully appreciated that it’s spawning from nothing like in a video game “—appearing and disappearing.”

There’s a content, lazy grin spreading across Shane’s face now. “I was thinking about that, what you said earlier. You know what I decided? I think when you’re as rich as whoever built this cabin, your life is so fucking easy that it feels like magic. Your house is always clean, but you never see anyone clean it. Your stuff always works, even though you never see it maintained. The world bends over backward for you.”

Ryan’s pretty sure even Bill Gates couldn’t command the weather or make a plant grow out of a wall, but he takes Shane’s point.

“You think it’s a well-designed internet of things, and we’re only noticing because in our regular lives everything’s shitty and nothing works right?”

Shane nods, swiping his sweaty hair back from his forehead. His whole body is flushed a light lobster pink now, every inch of skin that Ryan can see above the white froth of the water. “This must be what it’s like for rich people all the time. Which is why we must eat them and redistribute all their shit.”

Ryan’s not convinced, but he’s prepared to let it go for now. They don’t need to have yet another variant privately of the same fight they always have performatively. It doesn’t matter why whatever’s happening is happening, after all. He needs to be better about accepting that not every unknown thing needs to be chased down and brought to heel.

Perhaps they’ve found themselves staying with a particularly attentive host, one they can’t see or talk to, and that’s fine.

But it’s unnerving that at some point during this day, Ryan stopped thinking of the cabin as a where and started thinking of it as a what. And then, eventually, a who.

*

Even that doesn’t have to be a problem—assuming, of course, that Ryan and the cabin are on the same team. Assuming they’re working toward similar goals.

Maybe he shouldn’t have made that assumption.

Maybe he should have thought harder about what might happen if, having not gotten what it wanted with gentle cajoling and positive reinforcement, the cabin decided to take the opposite strategy. Whether it might instead start playing dirty.

When he wakes up freezing in the middle of the night, he gives that a good think. He lies under his blanket for a long time, shivering, his teeth chattering, trying to get back to sleep.

It’s dead quiet in his bedroom. Too quiet, he realizes, absent the usual white noise whirs of the various electronics and apparatuses that power the home.

“Hey Google,” he says, “turn on the lights in bedroom two,” but the Google Assistant doesn’t comply. He looks at his phone, plugged in to charge on the bedside table, and sees that it stopped charging at 76%. There’s a digital clock on the table too, and it’s blinking the time it stopped, 12:35 am.

Ryan sits up, keeping the covers wrapped around him. The power is out, which means the heat is out, which means—and he can’t explain why he jumps to this conclusion, but he does so swiftly and with certainty—the cabin is on strike.

It’s unnaturally frigid in his bedroom, colder by far than he was outside the previous afternoon with his back against a sheet of ice. He throws on a hoodie and the thickest sweatpants he brought, puts two pairs of socks on, but none of it makes the slightest difference.

He wonders if Shane’s lying awake in the next room, also freezing his nuts off. Shane would be too stubborn to come find Ryan if he were cold. He’d never ask to crawl in Ryan’s bed, to press his cold feet between Ryan’s so it might warm them both up. He’d never ask for something as precious and personal as body heat, which is why Ryan’s going to have to ask for them both.

Ryan shoves his arms into the robe and stalks down the hall. He bats a fresh sprig of mistletoe down as he goes.

He knocks once at Shane’s door and then pushes in, whispering his name into the dark. It’s every bit as cold in here as in Ryan’s own room. When he passes by the massive window—Shane sleeps with his blinds open, like every unnecessary barrier between himself and the out-of-doors is an injustice—he touches the glass to find there’s frost on the inside of the pane. Outside, snow is swirling again.

“What is this, the fucking ice castle from Frozen?”

“Let it go, Ryan,” Shane mumbles from the bed, not asleep after all. Ryan jumps half a foot in the air with a yelp, which makes Shane wheeze with laughter. “What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean, what’s wrong?” Ryan’s voice comes out a chattering gasp. He can see his breath on the air. “It’s like trying to sleep in the Arctic tundra, that’s what’s wrong. It’s so cold in here my nips could cut through this glass, that’s what’s wrong. The cabin is punishing us and it’s your fault. That’s what’s wrong!”

“I mean, the power’s out. What do you want me to do about it?”

“I want you to move over.”

“I’m not your electric blanket,” Shane says, but he pulls back the opposite side of the covers anyway. “Get in the other side, I’m not giving up my warm spot.”

Out of sheer spite Ryan clambers over him instead of walking around the bed, kneeing Shane between the legs by accident, laughing a touch meanly when he groans and curls in on himself. 

“If I’d known you were such a little ballbuster, I’d never have accompanied you to a mysterious woodland retreat,” Shane says, breathing through his teeth. “How is this my fault, exactly?”

“You insulted the cabin, dude. You called its bluff.” A whole-body shiver sends Ryan rocking against Shane as he pulls the covers as high as they’ll go. “You threatened to redistribute it.”

The cold is making Ryan giddy, half out of his mind, manic and careless and silly. This is hypothermia, probably, he might be about to take all his clothes off in a fit of madness, what is that called—

He shoves in close to Shane, pushing his foot between Shane’s shins, his hands under Shane’s armpits. Shane gives a performative squirm and an indignant kick and then goes limp and lets it happen.

“What is happening right now? This is, uh, pretty weird, man.”

“Paradoxical undressing,” Ryan says when the phrase comes to him. “I’m about five minutes from doing that thing people do right before they die of hypothermia where they take off all their clothes and dig a hole.”

“Hmm.” Shane’s own hands come back to life, finding the back of Ryan’s hoodie and worming their way between his t-shirt and its soft fleece. They’re so freezing cold Ryan can feel them through the thinness of the undershirt, and a chill runs the entire length of his spine. “Can’t have that.”

Out of retribution, or else because Ryan’s so cold he can’t think, or else because he’s missed Shane so much these last nine months that his proximity now has put Ryan clean out of his head, Ryan slides closer still, shoving a thigh between Shane’s where it’s so very warm, so warm it makes him press his face into Shane’s shoulder to hide a blush. His hands find the hem of Shane’s shirt and disappear under it, spreading cold fingers and pressing them against his belly.

“It’s even warmer in my pants,” Shane jokes, and Ryan laughs with his face tucked into the space between Shane’s shoulder and his neck, laughs like he wasn’t, for one fleeting, insane moment, seriously considering it.

He’s starting to feel downright toasty.

And not just his body, tucked under the blanket against Shane’s. The ambient air around them is gradually warming too, until Shane’s shoulders lose their tension and his breathing goes deep and even; until Ryan’s own teeth stop chattering and he falls asleep.

*

When they wake up the cabin is happily humming again, all the usual bells and whistles whirring around them in what Ryan can only assume amounts to an obscene electric bill. It’s not loud, but there’s a presence there, not unlike the background noise of living in a city, that Ryan only noticed by its absence.

He’s on his side. Shane’s curled up tight behind him, one hand still tangled in the back of his hoodie, the other low on his belly and burning a hot handprint on his skin.

Ryan never thought much about Shane’s hands one way or the other, before. Now that they’re on him he knows that they are big and warm, and maybe it’s because it’s morning and he’s hard, but it sets him on an unexpected train of thought. And as his half-asleep brain hitches a ride on that train, something changes in the air of the room. It’s a sensation of smell rather than a real smell, a memory of a feeling: someone baking cinnamon rolls, pouring him a mug of hot cocoa spiked with something special, threading their fingers through his own.

It’s been eleven months and twenty-six days since Ryan last got laid. That is so many months, longer by a factor of about four than his longest previous dry spell, and if he’d known there was about to be a plague he would have been more urgent about finding a date for Valentine’s Day.

No wonder he’s being so weird about this vacation. He’s lonely.

Under any other conditions it would be unthinkable. But here, in this room that’s made for it, in this bed that wants it for them, it might be very easy indeed to scratch this curious itch, to encourage Shane’s hand down and see what happens. And because they’re half-asleep, because the normal rules of polite society have forsaken them this year, they wouldn’t have to talk about it, and—

And that’s when it coalesces, finally, in Ryan’s mind, from a subconscious thought into a real one. Of course this is what the cabin wants. This is the purpose of the enchantment, whatever its nature may be: not to make Shane happy, in the general way Ryan had in mind, but this. The mistletoe, the technology fluctuations. Even the snow and the frozen-when-it-shouldn’t-be-river, things that should not be possible but are.

They are getting fully Beauty and the Beast-ed, in absolutely every sense.

“I’m not gonna cheerfully throw myself off a cliff so you can get freed from your witch’s curse or what the fuck ever,” Ryan tells the room at large.

The room goes chilly again, a noticeable dip in temperature, an unpleasant ice cube in the cocoa. Shane shifts behind him, closing the distance between them. He rubs his own morning wood listlessly against Ryan’s thigh, big enough that Ryan can feel the warmth of him even through all the layers.

Shane makes an inquiring noise in his throat like he’s starting to rouse. “Hmm?”

Ryan reaches back to nudge him the rest of the way awake. “You gotta wake up before you drill a hole through my leg looking for oil, big guy.”

Ryan can’t see the red of Shane’s face, angled as he is, but he can practically feel it. Shane’s hands pull away from him, and the warmth at his back retreats.

“Yikes, sorry.” Shane’s voice is still thick and husky with sleep, right at the end of his lower register, and it makes Ryan’s stomach twist in a moment of wait, but— “Was asleep, I didn’t…sorry. Christ.”

“It’s okay, happens all the time,” Ryan says nonsensically. He’d only meant that he used to crash with friends plenty in college and that dicks can’t be held responsible for what they get up to when no one’s watching, but it comes out sounding like a panicked overreaction. “I mean, not—not that—it’s whatever.”

Shane rolls away and heads to the bathroom, leaving Ryan bereft of his body heat and feeling strangely let down.

He’d done the right thing, of course, by telling the cabin to stuff it. He isn’t about to be bullied by a fancy automated pile of timber and glass into making a rash move he’ll regret later.

Better, by far, to let sleeping dongs lie.

*

Breakfast that morning is a muted affair, marked by a silence Ryan wouldn’t quite call comfortable.

Shane doesn’t deal great with embarrassment, or really with any bad feeling. When he’s unhappy or uncomfortable he pillbugs in on himself. If it weren’t for the foot and a half of snow on the ground and the fact that they’re many hours from home, Ryan would have expected not to see him for several days following the morning’s awkwardness.

Because that’s not an option here, they orbit each other warily. Shane flips pancakes with a touch of aggression. He doesn’t ever talk about his romantic life, but surely he, like Ryan, can add sexual frustration to the long list of reasons why the pandemic blows.

A nice quick bicker about something stupid would probably set them right, restore the balance of their friendship to its usual cadence, but Ryan doesn’t want to fight. Not this week.

The cabin’s quiet too, all morning. Ryan hopes it’s realized they’re a lost cause, that turning off the power was its last-ditch effort to throw them together, and having failed it’s decided to leave well enough alone.

Shane tosses himself sideways across a chair in the corner of the main room, so his socked feet dangle off one side. He spends hours reading and sucking his way through a series of candy canes while Ryan flips through Netflix and Hulu and HBO and every other streaming app under the sun, finding nothing else he wants to watch more than Shane’s tongue licking up the side of a twenty-cent stick of peppermint.

It seems fitting, Ryan thinks sourly, that 2020 should go out like this. That, having dragged them all through twelve solid months of shit, the year would crawl back into its hole secure in the knowledge that it used its last gasps to leave a bad taste in their mouths.

He’s not hungry at lunchtime, but he is bored, so he rifles through the fridge to make a sandwich. And that’s when he sees it: a sprig of mistletoe glinting smugly at him from atop the refrigerator door, where before there was none.

There’s no reason that should be the last straw, but it is.

“Fuck you, cabin!” Ryan tosses his head back and yells to the ceiling beams. “We’re not Barbie dolls for you to smush together, you fuckin’ creep! Find some other unsuspecting vacationers to turn your Restoration Hardware lookin’ asses back into your human forms with the power of true love!”

Shane looks up from his book.

He watches as Ryan snatches the mistletoe from the fridge, tosses it to the ground, and stomps on it. His eyebrows knit together in concern.

“Ryan, what…?”

Ryan picks up the offending mistletoe and tosses it at Shane. His aim is true. It hits Shane square on the forehead and falls down onto the pages of his book, leaving marks of wetness from a burst berry that’s now leaking juice all over the place.

“Dude, this place is trying to get its holly jollies by trying to make us get real cozy.”

Shane lifts the mistletoe out of the spine of his book with his thumb and forefinger, depositing it on the side table. He wipes his forehead. “Is this about this morning? I said I was sorry.”

“It’s not you, it’s this tech bro nightmare Beauty and the Beast castle we’re stuck in,” Ryan insists. “It’s trying to get us to, like—I don’t know, some true love’s first kiss fairy tale bullshit. There’s mistletoe cropping up over every door in this place, or did you not notice? You think the power going off last night was a coincidence?”

Shane cocks his head. “Uh, yes? There was a snowstorm?”

“Yeah, that too! It hasn’t snowed here in decades, but the day we get here there’s a freak storm, and all that winter stuff we needed in the closet, and the river that was frozen even though you said it shouldn’t be?”

“I think it’s a lot more likely that I was wrong about how fast rivers freeze, Ryan.” Shane adjusts his glasses, pushing them up his nose. “If this is about this morning, it wasn’t…like, I wasn’t trying to make you uncomfortable.”

“I wasn’t uncomfortable,” Ryan snaps. “I was perfectly comfortable. Because somebody,” he raises his voice again, projecting it up to the rafters, “wanted me to be! All the romantic set-ups…you have to see what’s going on here.”

Shane considers him for a moment longer. Then something in his face softens, crumbling in understanding.

“Hey,” he says, and there’s something soft and pitying there that gets Ryan’s back up. “I know the last few months have really sucked. I know you’re missing people, and things got a little weird here, maybe, with us, and that’s okay. You don’t have to make up excuses. The pandemic’s excuse enough.”

“That’s not what I’m doing.”

Shane looks doubtful. He runs a hand through his hair, tousling it out of place, and Ryan remembers the heat of that hand against his stomach. He shoves his own hands into the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie.

“Okay, Ryan, you’re right. It’s far more likely that due to some—what did you call it—some witch’s curse, an enchanted hot tub is trying to coerce us into a saucy menage à trois. Silly me. Why couldn’t I see it before?”

When Shane says it like that it sounds unspeakably stupid, which is of course why he said it like that in the first place. Sometimes things that sound reasonable in Ryan’s head come out garbled and wrong once Shane’s run them through his own filter of militant skepticism. It makes Ryan start to doubt the things he’s seen and felt; makes him try to talk himself out of things he knows to be true.

“Look, forget it,” Ryan says, and he stalks down the hall to wash his disappointment off in the shower. He doesn’t want them to spend this precious time together arguing. The snow will melt soon enough, or a plow will get to them, and then it’ll be back to L.A. and back to work and back to staring at his coworkers over Zoom because they’re in the middle of a fucking plague.

He doesn’t want to fight.

*

It’s New Year’s Eve, and he can’t fucking wait to usher out this shitshow of a year. Ryan intends to celebrate, weirdness or no. 

They’d brought a few things with them, when they’d thought the whole Watcher staff would be ringing in the New Year together: noisemakers and silly hats and plastic champagne flutes, all the Party City usuals. They’d brought a bottle of cheap champagne, too, to toast to the new year, but when Ryan goes rummaging through the hall coat closet where he’d stored the stuff, he can’t find it.

“Hey, did you do something with the champagne?” he asks Shane. Shane’s shuffling around the kitchen with an apron around his neck, a frilly red and green thing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Christmas Shoppe but looks very anachronous indeed in this cabin’s sleek Joanna Gaines-ified aesthetic.

Shane’s making some Polish stew his family always makes for New Year’s, and which Ryan has a sinking feeling will involve sauerkraut and prunes. He knows this because when he went to the grocery the evening they arrived, Shane made him get sauerkraut and prunes and refused to explain why.

“It should still be in that box in the closet.”

“Well, it’s not.”

Ryan starts wandering around, opening various closets and cupboards. He even checks at the basement bar and in the wine cellar, where he finds a lot of expensive wine and not a single bottle of champagne.

When he comes back upstairs, Shane greets him at the top. He’s got a comically enormous link of sausages in his hand and a faint sheen of sweat on his brow, which makes Ryan question whether the cooking is going altogether to plan.

“Found the champagne,” Shane says, and he nods to the fridge.

Sure enough, right on the top shelf of the refrigerator, where they would surely have seen it if it had been there hours earlier, is the bottle of champagne. Next to it are two immaculate crystal champagne flutes.

No, not the bottle of champagne. Not the one he brought. Another bottle of champagne.

Ryan stares at it in disbelief.

“You probably put it in there to chill earlier and forgot about it,” Shane says. He’s placidly chopping up the kielbasa with a chef’s knife.

“You think I shelled out a thousand smackeroos for a bottle of Dom Perignon for our Watcher team building weekend, Shane?” Ryan brandishes the bottle at him. It even feels expensive. He’s afraid he’s going to drop it. “Wrapped it up in a big velvet red bow and everything?”

Shane doesn’t look up from attending to his sausage. “I didn’t say it wasn’t freaky. I just said there’s bound to be a better explanation than ‘our accommodations are gaslighting us into a romantic entanglement.’”

Ryan pours them each a hundred-dollar glass of champagne.

*

If Ryan had thought about it for half a second, he would have realized that, duh, New Year’s Eve is going to look different this year.

But he turns on the television at eleven PM and there’s no Times Square celebration, no crowds of people. There’s nothing but a camera trained on the big glittery ball, which will drop into a near-empty block. There’s something post-apocalyptic about it.

“This fuckin’ year,” Shane says, sipping his champagne, leaning forward in his seat to survey the scene on the screen. They should have gone through the bottle twice over by now, but whenever Ryan goes back for more it’s like they’ve barely made a dent in it.

“Pretty grim.”

Shane looks up at Ryan from where he’s sprawled out on the rug, tipsy and loose-limbed. “Weren’t there supposed to be, uh, noise-doodads? Funny hats and stuff? All I want’s a funny hat, Ryan.”

“Oh, right. Yeah, I’ll grab them.”

Ryan returns to the closet at the end of the hall, past all the bedrooms. He thinks again that there’s really no way for all these rooms to fit inside this house. Everything about it, the size, the shape, seems contrary to the A-frame structure of the cabin. He wonders if, like at Hogwarts, the staircases move; whether, if he were to leave the property and come back, the rooms would have switched places on him.

It’s a walk-in closet, and as soon as he’s in it the door snicks shut behind him. He reaches up to pull the string for the single lightbulb that lights the closet—this must be the only room in the whole cabin that doesn’t run on a fancy system—but it doesn’t turn on. Instead he uses the light from his cell phone to find the box of party supplies on the floor, and then he goes to leave the closet, and—

—the door is stuck.

The door is stuck.

Ryan pushes again, harder. He puts the box back down to use his full weight, and nothing. It’s not locked, and when he twists the doorknob, it turns with his hand. It’s just firmly, immovably shut.

“Really?” he says out loud. “Oh, you’re gonna get cute, huh? You think this is funny?”

The silence is deafening. Ryan checks his watch. 11:37 pm. If he doesn’t hurry up, he’s going to miss the ball dropping. It’s not that there’s much to miss, not this year. But he heard somewhere that you start the new year as you mean to go on, and if there’s any truth to that, it seems really crucial that he not start 2021 alone in a closet.  

After a few more tries at the door with no luck, he gives up and texts Shane:

help I’m trapped in the closet

It takes a few minutes, but Shane texts back.

R. Kelly is canceled, Ryan.

Ryan texts back furiously. no you idiot I’m STUCK in the CLOSET

And the reply: Is this a metaphor?

Ryan rests his head against the door with a quiet thunk.

no shane, i’m fucking literally stuck in the HALL CLOSET and it’s DARK and the DOOR WON’T OPEN!!!

Half a minute later he hears footsteps approaching down the hall. Then there’s a knock at the closet door.

“Playing hide and seek?”

“Would you please find a way to open the fucking door?”

Ryan barely gets the sentence out before the door swings open, easy as you please. He gets one good look at Shane’s grinning face, obviously about to make fun of him.

Shane opens his mouth and says, “See, Ryan, you put your hand on the knob and you turn it to the right, like so, and—”

And then something happens.

Later, they won’t be sure what happened, exactly. There will be some healthy disagreement as to the specifics. All Ryan knows for sure is that one moment Shane’s smiling and the next he’s come sprawling through the doorway and run smack into Ryan, like someone gave him a good hard shove across the threshold.

Maybe he tripped. Maybe he didn’t.

But they can both agree on what happens next: the closet door slams shut behind him, hard enough to rattle the hinges.

“What is your damage?” Ryan yells, up at the ceiling. He pounds his fist on the wall for good measure. “Learn to take no for an answer!”

Shane tries the door, but it doesn’t open. It’s stuck again, as Ryan had known it would be. Shane gives it a few full-bodied heaves of his own, and Ryan joins in, but no joy.

It’s fifteen minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and they are being held hostage in a closet.

No, not in a closet, Ryan thinks darkly. By a closet.

Shane finds the string for the light and gives it a good tug. Nothing happens, and he laughs uneasily. “Technology, huh. Can’t ever count on it when you need it.”

He tugs the string again. Ryan’s about to point out that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result when, to his surprise, the light does come on. It’s not bright, but it’s enough illumination that he can see Shane’s face, very near to his own.

Ryan doesn’t need to say, “I told you so.” He can be the bigger man here. Instead he merely gestures around the closet, indicating the mutual pickle in which they have now found themselves.

Shane rolls his eyes. Then he does a vicious double-take, looking up at the ceiling above them.

Dangling from the lightbulb, affixed to the string, is a sprig of mistletoe.

*

“It pains me to say it, Ryan, but I think you might have made some good points earlier that I overlooked,” Shane says solemnly. He looks, at the very least, like he is now regretting having referred to the mistletoe as a ‘poop twig’ inside its hearing.

They’re sitting on the floor of the closet, backs flush to the door. It’s nice that they’re no longer in the dark, but on the other hand the pull-string for the lightbulb is spinning of its own accord above their heads in what Ryan can only assume is meant to be an intimidation tactic.

He keeps catching flashes of the mistletoe out of the corner of his eye. Obviously mistletoe don’t have teeth, or indeed even mouths, so he must be imagining the glint of a toothy smile coming from this one.

“Yeah, you think, Shane?” He pulls his knees up to his chest and cups his hands around his mouth. “Yo, we don’t negotiate with terrorists!”

“Certainly not until I have to pee,” Shane says. He regards his fingernails, picking at one cuticle. “Which judging from the amount of champagne I drank should be in about half an hour. What d’you reckon?”

“What?”

“You’re the one with the theories here, which now appear to be panning out in a big way, so, uh, kudos. You got a plan to get us out of here?”

Ryan kicks out with his foot, frustrated. It connects with the back wall of the closet, hard enough to stub his toe, and he curses at the sharp pain.

There’s a rattle above them, like he’s shaken something loose, like the earth is moving under their feet and making the shelves over their heads sway. They both duck instinctively, hands over their heads to protect themselves as something comes tumbling down around them.

Somethings, plural. Lots of small, square, sharp-cornered somethings, raining upon them from on high, dark and angular in the light.

Ryan peeks out from between his arms, watching as Shane reaches out for one of the matte black squares. The box they were in, the last thing to fall, hits Ryan square on the head and bounces off.

“Ow, fuck!”

Shane looks at the thing in his hand, and then he throws his head back and starts to laugh. He’s still laughing when he presses the object in question into Ryan’s hand.

“Indeed,” he says around his giggles.

Ryan knows what it is immediately from the feel; the size and shape of the wrapper, the circular ridge, the slip of the foil packet against its contents. Still, he brings it up to his face to see better, to read the text. “SKYN. Feel everything.”

Shane’s still laughing, bent over at the waist, wheezing with it. “Subtle. Gee, what could our deranged mistletoe captor possibly want, Ryan?”

Ryan takes the opportunity to flick the condom back at him, catching him on the jaw. Shane bats it away and leans back against the door, clutching his stomach.

He holds up the box, the one that nearly brained Ryan, and squeaks, “Now with 40% more ultra-smooth lubrication.”

For some reason that’s the last straw for Ryan too. He throws his head back for a sharp bark of a laugh, falling against Shane’s shoulder. They both sit there sprawled against the door, laughing themselves silly.

Above them, the single lightbulb flickers threateningly. Then it goes out, bathing them both in darkness. They laugh harder.

*

It’s 12:00 am on January 1.

“Oh god, it feels good to laugh,” Shane says. He wipes tears from his eyes. With his other hand, the one around Ryan’s neck, he tugs Ryan against him shoulder-to-shoulder. “What a stupid…this is so stupid. I can’t believe how stupid this is.”

Ryan turns his wrist to illuminate his watch face. Shane’s face is blue-white in its glow, the whites of his eyes shiny. He shows Shane the watch face, and with it the time.

“Hey, 2020’s over. The ball dropped and we missed it.”

“Not sure we missed much on that one, bud. A pretty sad affair. Nobody’s celebrating the year that was, we’re all too busy making a run for 2021 like our lives depend on it. Which, it turns out, they do.”

And that’s all true, but Ryan feels something nudging at him, a viciously nostalgic gremlin inside him that says, wait, but

“We did launch Watcher in 2020,” he says. “That was pretty good, even though the circumstances weren’t…”

“Not ideal,” Shane agrees. He presses his leg to Ryan’s, knocking their knees together. “But you’re right. It wasn’t all bad. I should be better about remembering that.”

“I think we did about as well as we could, with what we were given. I’m proud of the stuff we made this year. I’m—you guys, you and Steven, there’s nobody else I would’ve wanted to do it with.”

A rush of air goes by his face: Shane, adjusting his position, moving his arm to comb his hand through his hair again.

He hums. “We’re a good team. We built a good team.”

There’s something about the closeness of the closet that feels, to Ryan, illicit. He got used to being alone, to being masked, to keeping his distance. Being near enough to someone to feel their breath sends a chill up his back; has him leaning forward and into it, eager to remember

It makes something that should be ordinary feel very extraordinary indeed, and probably that’s enough to explain the tension that’s settled between them.

They’re just out of practice, is all, with the full scope of being human. That’s why Ryan’s palms are so sweaty.

*

They sit in the quiet dark for a few minutes.

It’s 12:00 am on January 1, 2021. Still.

“My watch stopped,” Ryan says. He illuminates the face again, showing Shane. Shane uses the glow to consult his own watch, an analog one with a brown leather band.

“Mine too. Says it’s still midnight.”

“Hmm.”

“Hey Google,” Shane tries. Silence. “Hey Google, go fuck yourself.”

Ryan makes a small dissenting noise.

“What? You were happy enough to yell at it earlier.”

“Yeah,” Ryan says. It’s just that he’s been thinking about this, really thinking about it, and as he’s started to unravel it all he’s become more sympathetic. “Is it weird that I’m starting to feel sorry for it?”

“For the cabin? For the cabin that’s currently holding us hostage in a coat closet? Uh, yes.”

Shane says this to him upside-down, his head by Ryan’s knee. He’s slid onto his back, propping his legs in the air, against a shelf. Ryan’s eyes have calibrated to the dark, but Shane’s legs are long enough that they disappear past Ryan’s field of vision, like they might go on forever.

Ryan’s been thinking about a person who would build a place like this, the hints and clues he’s been able to find scattered here and there. He imagines a solitary guy, Shane’s age or a few years older. Wildly successful, and he wants everybody to know it. Work-obsessed, chilly, drives a Tesla. His secretary thinks he might be a serial killer.

Maybe he parades a string of women through here to impress them, all of them younger than him and better-looking, and he fucks them in the hot tub and bends them over polished granite countertops and forgets their names the minute he gets back to his wife in Palo Alto.

A cabin like this is a second home, a third home, a show piece. A busy tech mogul might only visit a handful of times a year, but he keeps it because it makes him look good to loan it out and he can write the maintenance expenses off on his taxes.

Mostly it sits empty and waiting: all this smart tech, purposeless, spinning its wheels. A place so deliberately soulless—designed within an inch of its life, Instagram-ready—that it might have to grow its own soul out of sheer self-defense.

Ryan can’t blame it for going stir-crazy. He’d want to have some fun too.

“It seems lonely here,” Ryan says thoughtfully. “If something here were, like, sentient—don’t laugh, we were just beaned in the face by an entire value pack of condoms—wouldn’t you want to live vicariously through the people who stayed here? Wouldn’t you want…I don’t know. Something real?”

“I think you might be projecting. You’ve watched Wall-E too many times.” Shane gives a grunt of discomfort, sitting up straight again. He must be feeling painfully cramped, if even Ryan with his normal-sized limbs is claustrophobic in here. “Still, I like it more than ‘witch’s curse that makes the little dishes sing and dance.’”

“Maybe I’m going soft.”

Ryan does feel soft. The strange months have dulled his senses and sanded him down, until he worries he’s lost every competitive edge he ever had, every instinct that made him successful in the first place. Maybe it’s not that he doesn’t want to fight, but that all the fight’s trickled out of him, leaving him scatterbrained and washed out, and perfectly content to sit here in this closet, getting drunk on closeness instead of finding a way out.

“Something real,” Shane muses. “You know, I like that.”

*

It’s 12:00 am on January 1, and something’s bothering Ryan.

“Something’s bothering me.”

“Hm.”

“You compared this place to the Tardis,” Ryan says. “Bigger on the inside, or whatever. That’s the phone booth-lookin’ Doctor Who thing, right?”

“Right.”

“So, when the Doctor gets in the Tardis, where does he go?”

Shane goes up on his elbows. “What do you—I don’t understand the question.”

“When the Doctor goes into the Tardis, where does he go?” Ryan doesn’t think he could be any clearer. “Is it like another dimension in there?”

“It’s called TARDIS,” Shane says. “I can tell from how you’re saying it that you’re not capitalizing it right.”

“Okay, but…when he gets in it, where does he go?”

“Wherever he wants to go. Or she. Anywhere in time and space. Other dimensions too, I guess. Why? Do you think we’re in another dimension?”

Ryan hasn’t ruled it out. 

*

It’s 12:00 am on January 1.

Ryan is beginning to doubt that their watches have stopped. He thinks, instead, that perhaps time itself has stopped. They’re suspended here in the snow globe, waiting for the next shake-up.

“Intention,” Shane says. He says it slowly, in several distinct syllables, in-ten-shun. “You said that, when—god, was it only yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

“Whose intention? Did you mean mine?”

There’s a strange tone to his voice, clipped and careful. He sounds—caught out, or something. As if guilt is creeping in, though Ryan doesn’t blame him for their predicament.

“You wish for snow, you get it. You wish for a river, it’s right there waiting. You start thinking about doing a little hot tubbin,’ and the thing turns on by itself.” Ryan pauses, deciding whether he should say the next thing. “You wish for me to go the hell away, I assume, and the next thing I know I’m locked in a closet.”

Shane makes a noise of disbelief in the back of his throat. “I can’t believe you could think that after the year we’ve had, I’d ever want you to go more away.”

“Or—" Ryan considers whether this is too personal, too revealing, but he doesn’t think it is. If it is, he doesn’t much care. “Or it could be my intention. Steven and I wanted to come here in the first place so you could have a nice New Year, to make up for your shitty Christmas.”

“You guys went to all this trouble for me?”

“Seemed like a good way to kill two birds with one stone.” Ryan shrugs. “Get some work done as a staff, get you some fresh air. I wanted to see you happy, and everything seemed to be kind of falling into place to make that happen, in a way that made me wonder if it was because the cabin was trying to help me give you what you wanted. Until…”

“Until?”

“Well, then things started getting kind of, um.” Ryan picks up a condom from the floor by his knee. He flicks it against his watch, making it go thwip-thwip-thwip like a flipbook. “Saucy. So unless your idea of the perfect vacation includes making out in a closet on a pile of condoms and you haven’t told me…”

Shane laughs again, a surprised burst. “It hadn’t been on my agenda, no.”

“Right, mine either. So maybe I’m overthinking it and it’s just random. Like something was here, spinning a web of romantic intrigue for reasons of its own, and we stumbled right into it.”

“Like Cabin in the Woods, but instead of horror tropes it’s rom-com ones, and we’re the little chess pieces it’s moving into place.”

“Exactly.”

Shane turns to look at him, his eyes wide, an earnest look on his face. “Well, if it’s the future of humanity on the line, get over here and lay one on me, baby.”

“Shut up, Shane.”

*

Except that it’s still 12:00 am on January 1.

Except that, while it’s been fun, Ryan would like to leave the closet now.

Except that Shane is sitting distractingly close, and he smells like champagne and the pleasantly androgynous bath products that are in all the bathrooms here, like it’s a five-star hotel instead of a place a person could actually live. And Ryan’s still thinking about last night, and he’s not sure he cares whose idea it was in the first place. Because now he’s had the idea, it’s in his head, and it’s not going anywhere.

“What if it’s not true love’s first kiss that breaks the spell?” he says, wondering out loud. “What if it’s something else.”

“Hm?”

“Let’s say you’re writing a romantic comedy set on New Year’s Eve,” Ryan says, putting it to Shane like it’s a hypothetical, like it’s a bit. Shane sits up straighter next to him, paying full attention now. “You’re crafting the big finale. What happens?”

“They kiss at midnight,” Shane says, without having to think about it. “The countdown, noisemakers, a big declaration of love. People are singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in the background. That’s the Hallmark Channel move, right?”

“Exactly,” Ryan says. He brandishes his watch again, stuck at midnight. “They kiss at midnight.”

Shane’s eyes drop to his mouth and then dart back up.

“Oh, you’re serious.”

“I think it’s midnight and it’s going to stay midnight until we kiss under this fucking mistletoe, man. The cabin’s confused, but it’s got the spirit.”

He thinks Shane will need to be talked into it, but it seems as if he, too, is not in a mood to waste this trip caught in circular arguments, or to spend the rest of it on the floor of a closet. He laughs under his breath, low and speculative.

“Oh, why not,” Shane says gamely.

“Really?”

“Your logic is sound, for whatever definition of logic seems to be operating here. You were right before, so you’re probably right now, too. So yeah, sure. Why not.”

“Okay,” Ryan says. He wasn’t prepared for such quick assent. Now he’s got to move right into the next part, the doing part, and that’s the hard part, isn’t it, and his brain starts to whirl with second guesses, and—

Shane leans in.

There’s a moment of awkwardness, of fumbling in the dark. They do the kiss equivalent of that thing people do when they’re caught in a doorway and no one’s sure who should go first and who should hang back, no, please, after you

They both go left, and then they both go right, and Ryan’s petrified that this will prove to be yet another human thing he’s forgotten how to do. Then Shane laughs at their shared ineptitude, at the fissure of nerves passing back and forth between them like a hot potato. It’s only a puff of warm air, but it’s so intimately close to Ryan’s face that he closes his eyes and his mouth goes soft in expectation.

Shane’s hand comes up to steer the ship, to find the side of Ryan’s neck and follow the line of it up to his jaw. He tilts Ryan’s head carefully with the curve of his thumb, to the left, and he leans right, pressing his lips to Ryan’s in a chaste kiss.

It’s only a moment. Not long enough, Ryan thinks, to form an opinion about it. If he were a lonely cabin longing for romance, he’s not sure he’d be satisfied.

He, as a human person, also lonely, also longing for—for something—is not sure he’s satisfied.

“Okay,” Shane says. He exhales. He shuffles on the ground, pushing foil wrappers around the floor of the closet, and then he moves away with a nervous clear of his throat.

And Ryan processes that Shane is moving away, and it’s gone badly wrong, it was a mistake—his brain heaves into panicked overdrive at the feeling of Shane pulling back instead of pushing forward. He resents the sudden appearance of space between them, where Ryan realizes so belatedly he would rather there be no space at all.

He’s desperate to stave off the argument he knows is coming, the performative bantering that will sour into something pointed and hurtful as Ryan fends off his own embarrassment and Shane fends off his—his fundamental, infuriating Shane-ness. Ryan simply doesn’t have it in him. 

“I don’t want to fight.” Ryan cringes at how his voice cracks, waiting through a pause that feels impossibly fraught.

“Yeah,” Shane says, and there’s warmth there, a hint of humor where Ryan expected detachment. “I don’t want to fight either, bud.”

That’s when Ryan realizes Shane was only moving back in order to reposition himself, that he’s angling himself to face Ryan better, not flinching away out of regret or disgust. Shane has no intention whatsoever of fighting anything: not Ryan, not this cabin and its sorcerous matchmaking, and certainly not himself.

“Okay,” Shane repeats, and this time there’s resolve in it, something steely and firm-backed Ryan doesn’t recognize. But in some deep instinctive place he knows what it means, and so when Shane comes back, Ryan’s ready for him. He rises up on his knees to get a height advantage, which isn’t easy to come by with Shane.

Ryan’s hand finds the softness of Shane’s hair and burrows in, in case he gets any stupid ideas about pulling away again.

“Okay,” Shane says a third time, against Ryan’s mouth. His lips curve up in a smile, a smile that tells Ryan he’s not imagining things, that it’s really so much more than okay. There’s a rhythm developing now, the slip of Shane’s mouth against his own turning effortless and natural, and there’s desperate relief to be found there when Ryan realizes he remembers how to do this after all.  

He flits his tongue against the seam of Shane’s lips. Shane’s hand shifts from the floor between them to brace on Ryan’s thigh. He lets Ryan slip his tongue inside, to pass tentatively along the slickness of teeth and tongue, and then he pushes in return, a grazing snag of teeth against the sensitive skin of Ryan’s lower lip where it’s chapped from the cold.

Ryan slips his hands around bony hips to slide them into the rear pockets of Shane’s jeans, a signal that escalation wouldn’t be unwelcome. That’s all Ryan ever wants, really: for Shane to push back, to meet him halfway.

Before he knows it, he’s on his back. The closet felt cramped before, but now by some trick it’s more than roomy enough for Shane to press him flat, to lay him out and bend over him like the boughs of a tree, like the lofted timber rafters of this cabin.

In his heart, in his head, rooms are moving. Staircases are pivoting on their bases until he can see shortcuts to new places; until he can see that he doesn’t look on the inside like he does on the outside either. That beneath his own simple A-frame, hidden construction is at work.

So few people know their way around him in the dark with their eyes closed, and one of them is breathing heavy into his neck now, long fingers flitting along the sparse line of hair under his navel to find the button of his jeans and thumb over it.

“Okay,” it’s Ryan’s turn to say, and Shane makes a sound, not much more than a tremulous shudder with no words attached to it.

He gets Ryan’s jeans off his hips, and then he hesitates. “If it really is.”

Ryan understands taking a beat. There was never even a question of this, never a possibility before this week. Whether Shane does it in his private life, the parts he keeps for himself, Ryan doesn’t know, but he doubts it. There are too many telltale nerves, something in the hunch of his shoulders, the uncool quaver of his hands.

“Some smart guy told me it hasn’t snowed more than an inch a year here since 1977,” Ryan blurts out.

It makes sense in his head, though perhaps less out loud. He only means that past behavior is not necessarily a reliable predictor of future behavior. That sometimes the dominos are set up just so and then a freak weather event sweeps in to topple one and send the whole line crashing down.

Shane drops a kiss to the side of Ryan’s mouth. “I think that might be very sweet,” he murmurs, his voice such a complicated mix of sardonic and soft, and Ryan knows he gets it.

Ryan cants his hips up, dragging his hard-on against Shane’s thigh, a plea to get on with it. He didn’t think he’d be the one on his back, and he’s not sorry he’s here, but if Shane doesn’t hurry up and do something—

Shane curves his hand around the shape of Ryan’s cock in his boxer-briefs, hardly more than a glancing touch, learning the contours of him. He bends close to mouth at Ryan’s neck, to tug the collar of his t-shirt to the side for more bare skin and bite gently at the meat of his shoulder and finally to pull the whole shirt up and off, flinging it into the depths of the closet.

It’s like before, like yesterday, when he bounded out onto the snowy deck, finally set loose after so long spent coiled up tight. So pent-up he’s dangerous with it, primed and ready to be reckless.

Ryan passes his hand over Shane’s shoulder and down his back, rucking his shirt up to rest his hand in the dip of Shane’s lower back, telling him without words that it’s okay to dive into the snow.

*

It was thoughtful of the cabin to provide protection, but they won’t be needing it. They’ll shove the condoms in their bags as a finder’s fee, spirit them away for later, but neither of them has the patience or the hand-eye coordination for it now.

Instead it’s a pants-around-the-ankles affair, a desperate, adolescent thing. Seven minutes in heaven, Ryan thinks hazily, except there’s no one on the other side of the door counting down, except the hands on the watch aren’t moving.

Shane clutches at his ass, at the back of his thighs, digging his hands into flesh to keep Ryan where he wants him. They rut together until Ryan’s whining raggedly on every pass. There’s wetness on his belly, on his dick, and he doesn’t know if it’s his own or Shane’s or both, but it’s almost as good as lube.

Shane moves his hand between their bodies. Ryan’s resentful for a second about having to make space for it until Shane wraps it around them both and strokes them together, and then Ryan’s struck again by the clear ringing jubilation of something new, something different. After nothing but his own hand for so long, it’s shocking.

Ryan’s not alone in it. Shane keeps biting his lip, looking down at the slide of their cocks together in his own hand and then away again like he can hardly stand it, like he can’t believe. Every time he moves his hair falls in his face, and then he rakes it back with his free hand, and then it happens all over again until Ryan reaches up to grab him by the jaw.

“Don’t check out now,” Ryan hisses between gritted teeth. His cock catches against Shane’s, and it’s almost enough, almost. “Not when we’re so—”

“Can’t look at you,” Shane says. A muscle in his jaw works overtime, a clench and release as he tries to keep in control. Ryan wonders if he’s reciting the alphabet backwards or something. “I’ll come in like two seconds.”

“Who cares, man? If you chicken out on me now, the mistletoe spy will report back to its boss and then we’ll both be in so much trouble.”

Shane laughs, a helpless exhale that stutters out like a car engine failing to catch. “That must be the single weirdest sentence any person has ever said during sex,” he says. It crunches out like gravel, barely above a whisper but still loud in the confines of this space.

Intimacy’s something Ryan took for granted once. To be so close to someone that they could be sharing one breath, to pant against someone’s mouth as their hands learned for the very first time how to unlock him, was once a common enough thing that it warranted little more than a high-five from one of his dumbass friends the next morning. And sure, it was always fun. It was almost always good.

But it hasn’t been like this, not since the first few fumbling times a decade ago: a recalibration of what good can be, a lesson in what bodies are for. And it’s never, not ever before, felt like bravery. It’s never felt like an act of defiant survival until today, right now, gasping and rocking up into Shane’s hand until hot tears prick in the corners of his eyes.

Shane whimpers. It’s such a tiny sound, in the grand scheme of things, but it hits Ryan hard. There’s a whiteout squall behind his eyelids, snowed-out like the static of an analog television, and then he comes sudden and messy across Shane’s knuckles with a surprised yelp.

He’s not yet fully back to himself when he reaches down to cover Shane’s hand with his own. He just knows that Shane deserves to feel this too, the revelation of someone else’s touch. His fingers intertwine with Shane’s and then under them, grazing around the head of Shane’s hard cock and through the slick mess of his own come.

He ought to find it gross, like how porn immediately becomes foreign and disturbing to him the moment he’s come, but the way Shane gives a hitching sigh of relief and his foot knocks against Ryan’s calf at that first touch lights him up all over again.

Shane lets him take over, shifting his hand out of the way, bracing his forearm against the door of the closet.

Ryan’s still tingling all over, entirely shattered. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, the mechanics backwards and his hand cramped, but he lets his body pull him along instincts he recognizes: make Shane feel good, make him smile, make him laugh, make him

“God, I’d forgotten,” Shane says, and then he gives a disbelieving laugh that Ryan feels in his very soul, “I’d forgotten how it can be.”

His head tips down, his forehead to Ryan’s shoulder, and then his whole body shudders as he comes between them. It’s so marvelous that Ryan needs to see him, has to see his face at this outrageously vulnerable moment, and he nudges his shoulder against Shane’s jaw to tip his head up. Shane obeys, and when he meets Ryan’s eyes his pupils are blown wide and dark, his mouth so slack that Ryan has to kiss it.

Ryan kisses him until Shane’s not shaking anymore, until Shane kisses him back, dazed at first and then more confident, until naturally they pull apart to breathe through their disbelief on their backs.

When he comes back to himself fully, all he can think is that they’ve countered magic with magic. The energy they’ve created in this closet should be enough to blow the door right off its hinges. On a whim he half-sits up, reaches out for the door of the closet, turns the handle, and—

*

Nothing happens. The handle turns, but the door doesn’t open.

“Huh,” Ryan says. He’d really thought it would open. He consults his watch. It’s 12:43 in the morning, so something’s snapped back into place at a space-time continuum level, at least. “Happy New Year, I guess. I’ll take that cup of kindness now.”

Shane snorts. He wipes his messy hand on the hem of his shirt. He looks at his pants like he’s thinking about trying to get back into them and then he splits the difference, pulling up his underwear but kicking his pants off his ankles entirely.

“Don’t think I have any left in me, buddy, but give it a couple minutes.”

There’s nothing left for Ryan to do but laugh again, crowded back against the closet door. He claps his hand to his chest and laughs until his stomach aches.

He’s not sure it’s funny, exactly. Or maybe it’s situationally funny but not ha-ha funny. He just knows that as soon as he stops laughing, he has to start thinking, and the idea is anathema to him. He’d like another ten minutes to feel good without worrying about it; another twenty, another thirty.

Shane is rubbing his hand on his shirt. He hands Ryan his underwear. “Don’t suppose you’ve got some Wet Wipes up there somewhere?” he asks the closet, and Ryan’s laughter fades into a series of wheezes.

“Somebody didn’t think this one through,” Ryan says, and he means either the cabin or else the mysterious otherworldly entity possessing it, but it comes out sounding like he means himself. Shane gets a look on his face like someone’s chasing him, a look that suddenly makes Ryan worried he’s going to bolt like a deer and leave a giant Shane-shaped hole in the wall.

“Hey, so,” he says, clearing his throat. Ryan’s shoulders tense the way they always do these days when someone coughs. “You’re off the hook on this one, okay? I’m not gonna expect…obviously this is a wacky situation.”

“Off the hook.” Ryan’s stomach drops out from under him.

“Yeah, like—if it’s a one-off, if you want to pretend it didn’t happen, that’s fine.”

“Why would I want to pretend it didn’t happen?”

Shane shrugs helplessly. He’s looking off into space now, which comes off especially ridiculous since they’re stuck in a closet and there’s really nowhere else to look. “Things are really messed up right now. I wouldn’t want you feeling like you don’t have a choice.”

Ryan doesn’t feel coerced, if that’s what Shane’s getting at. No one’s taken advantage of him. But if Shane feels that way—

“You think this only happened because of the cabin?”

“I don’t know.” Shane’s got a finger in his mouth again, chewing at his cuticle. It makes Ryan want to bat his hand away, or else take it in his own. “But I think it’s worth considering whether it was my—my intention that did this, even if I didn’t realize I wanted—if it wants me to get what I want, and that thing is you, whether it might make you…”

He trails off.

As soon as Ryan sees that the prospect has Shane genuinely shaken up, he searches inside for some evidence that something other than himself is in control of his own body and head. He can’t find any sign of an intruder. It’s more like the cabin is a mutual friend playing matchmaker, well-meaning but clumsy. Setting them up on awkward blind dates and then stumbling into good luck when they liked each other in spite of its efforts, rather than because of them.

“I feel like myself,” Ryan says. “Do you feel like you?”

“I’ve felt more like myself these last few days than I have in months,” Shane says, and a ghost of a smile crosses his features, a thin, wan thing. “But it’s not just that, is it? There are other ways to—to not have choices.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that if someone offered you a safe trip right now to SeaWorld, you’d take it, and you’d probably think you had a great day. But it’s not because you really like SeaWorld, not as much as you love Disneyland. It’s because you miss theme parks so much you’re not in a place to be picky.”

Shane’s lip wobbles as he says it, which is such a foreign thing to Ryan that he almost misses it, his brain doesn’t acknowledge what it’s seeing.

Then Ryan understands what he’s really getting at. Not that the cabin might be leaving them with no choice, but that the cabin is a microcosm of a far more macro problem.

And hey, Ryan’s pretty new to this whole bisexuality thing—like, in the last half hour new—so he can’t claim to be an expert, but he’s pretty sure at least half the point is that you can spend a good day at one park and a good day at another and nobody’s going to make you pick a favorite, pandemic or no.

“Shane, you’re not SeaWorld,” he says. “And even if you were, a good day’s a good day. I take my happiness where I find it.”

Shane’s mouth pulls into a frown. “But doesn’t it mean something that this never happened until now? Because we had a long time to get around to this, before, and we never—and I don’t want this to be something we do because our heads are wrecked, and then we regret it later.”

“Should’ve thought of that twenty minutes ago,” Ryan jokes, and Shane shoots him a look that, by the dim light making its way in from under the crack of the door, passes for despairing. “Wow, you get really maudlin after, huh?”

Shane makes a face at him.

It might be possible, Ryan thinks, for a series of circumstances to converge just so to wear away at his better judgment in the way Shane’s implying. The lonely, solitary months; the psychological warfare from their sex pest of a cabin; the bottomless champagne; the snow, and Shane’s face in the soft glow of it. The way it’s been so long since he felt this, the shiver of romantic possibility, a warm body against his own.

Of course it’s possible that he wants Shane now because Shane’s one of a few people he can see and touch in person. Of course it’s possible he wants to kiss Shane again so badly because Shane’s mouth is the one that’s here. 

But even if any of that turned out to be true, it wouldn’t be the same as not wanting it. And it not being what Ryan wanted a year ago doesn’t matter either, because he was a different person then, with less perspective, with a less keen understanding of what it means to have to live without someone.

And besides, his head’s always kind of wrecked. He’s always perpetually in a state of putting that Humpty-Dumpty back together again, and that was true before this year and it’ll be true when or if things go back to normal.

“I didn’t want this a year ago,” Ryan says, his mouth running ahead of his thoughts, as usual. “But then again, a year ago I didn’t always wash my hands after I peed, so fuck that guy.”

“I—what?” Shane asks. He sort of goggles at Ryan.

“Oh, don’t act like you always did. No man always, one hundred percent of the time—”

“I absolutely did, but that’s beside the point. Elaborate, please.”

“Like, so what if we never got around to this before? I’m not the same person I was before, and neither are you, and blah blah blah unprecedented times and whatever bullshit, but it’s true. Maybe unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions.”

“That’s pragmatic of you. Can we go back to the hand-washing thing, please, because—”

“Shut up, Shane,” Ryan says. “I’m saying that even though this year sucked, there’s no rule saying things that come out of shitty situations can’t be good in spite of that. Better, even, than what they used to be.”

“Oh, like how before you were a foul, gross boy who didn’t always wash your hands after you peed and now the pandemic’s made you follow the standard baseline rules for hygiene like a human being? Like—is that the comparison you’re going with here?”

But Shane’s smiling again, despite his professed disgust. Ryan thinks his point has landed.

“When things happen that have never happened before, that nobody has any pre-existing plans for, it means you get to come up with a new plan. And it can be anything you want, something totally new. Maybe it even has to be.”

“We did that this year,” Shane says, considering the logic. “With Watcher.”

‘Yeah, and it was nothing like we thought we wanted, nothing like we planned, but it was still good, right? We made it good. We even stumbled into some stuff that really jived.”

“So…”

“So fuck precedent. We have to figure out what works for us now, in all things. And this”—Ryan gestures around, indicating them and closet and everything they did in it— “I don’t know about you, but it worked for me, and I don’t hate myself enough to second-guess my way out of one of the few things in the last year that’s made me feel good.”

Shane’s got his knees pulled in tight, folded close to his body. If Ryan is bigger on the inside than he looks from the outside, Shane is so very deliberately the opposite: tucking his expectations and wants and needs in small, in constant apology for the space he takes up with his body. Ryan would kill to see him unfurl, to feel sure enough to live bigger in every way. He thinks it would be something to see.

“Worked for me too,” Shane says, and as he breathes Ryan thinks he can see fresh air get in. “Big time.”

Ryan waits until he’s sure Shane’s looking at him, and then he puts his hand on his own chest, above his heart. “I don’t just mean good physically, either. I mean good in here.”

Shane’s face collapses until his smile’s tiny, almost shy. “Yeah.”

Ryan exhales, letting tension go that he’s been storing in him for months, rooted so deep into his muscles that he’d thought it was a permanent part of him now.

“Alright, well. Then I vote we move forward from that place instead of thinking too hard about what might have been if there was no—if there was no 2020 and no pandemic and no weirdly horny cabin that controls the weather. Because those things happened, and whatever we are now, it helped make them.”

“What a normal love story for the grandchildren,” Shane says with a touch of irony. “Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme. Broomstick and the Beef.”

“I—am I the Beef?”

“Of the two of us, Ryan, I am assuredly not the Beef.”

It feels like a decision has been reached, one singular resolution between them for the new year. Nothing concrete, nothing specific: a decision to try, and to trust that the foundation they’ve built is strong enough to hold no matter what they choose to build on it.

There’s something to be said for having such a big conversation in such a small place, even if it’s just the beginning of a conversation and not the end of it. Ryan’s grateful for the four close walls of this closet now. They feel like all that’s keeping him contained, like if it weren’t for them his heart would beat right out of his chest and on down the hallway and out the door into the wilderness. 

Shane’s bare ankle is brushing against Ryan’s knee, and it’s assumed a place of utmost pre-eminence in his mind, until that spot of warm contact is all he can think about. His senses are heightened, as if he’s spent the last few months floating alone in a sensory deprivation tank and now everything’s blown up huge.

Shane must be feeling it too, because he’s looking fixedly at the spot of contact. “So do you want to, like, make out in this closet until it decides to let us out?”

“You know, I really do.”

Ryan doesn’t need to wait for more of an invitation than that. He clambers into Shane’s lap, straddling his narrow hips.

“But are you having a good vacation?” he asks, mere centimeters away from a kiss, because it’s the question that’s preoccupied him non-stop since they arrived at the cabin. He feels the puff of champagne-fizz breath against his face when Shane laughs merrily.

“Ten out of ten spirits,” Shane confirms, closing the infinitesimal distance between them.

*

They fall asleep right there on the floor. There’s no fancy mattress that probably cost more than Ryan’s first car. There’s no alabaster-white goose down comforter, filled with feathers from the goose from the fairy tale that laid the golden egg.

It’s not a perfect sleep, an enchanted sleep. It’s a tossing-and-turning, back-aching, neck-cracking sleep, the kind you have when you fall asleep on top of a stranger’s wool cashmere overcoat on the polished pine floor of a closet, and Ryan drifts in and out of it fitfully, and he kind of has to pee. But he still doesn’t get up to check the door.

He doesn’t bother, because when he squints his eyes open Shane’s there, nose-to-nose with him, breathing gently through his mouth in that way that could almost be snoring. And his fingers are tangled into the dip of Ryan’s hip, right at the waistband of his underwear where his skin’s still tacky, and the memory of it makes Ryan blush and close his eyes and snuggle in again.

*

Then it’s morning and Ryan’s squinting his tired eyes into sun-glare and licking his hangover-dry lips, because there’s light streaming into the closet.

And there’s light streaming into the closet because the closet door is flung wide open, triumphantly so, like it’s a goddamn metaphor or something. Ryan could make a joke about it, but he thinks it’s a little well-trodden at this point.

Shane groans, his mouth mashed against Ryan’s bicep.

“If I don’t get a glass of water in the next two minutes I’m going to literally die.” Shane waits a few beats. When no water appears magically upon request, he says, “Oh, sure, now that you’ve gotten what you wanted, huh?”

“Poor you,” Ryan says, stretching. It seemed like he could lie flat and stretched out in this closet last night, but now his legs can only straighten if he inches them up the wall. “Don’t make it mad, it’ll shut the door again.”

Shane laughs, but he also tosses his arm out so it would stop the door, if such a thing were to happen. “Should we venture forth and see what 2021 looks like?”

“I’ve got to piss like a racehorse,” Ryan says. “I’ll do something real sexy for you if you bring me breakfast in bed.”

Shane quirks a singular eyebrow. “Okay, I’ll call that bluff. But only because I don’t think you’ve thought through what real sexy might entail and I want to see what you land on in your panic.”

So they stumble out of the closet and into the new year. Shane heads down the hallway, and Ryan goes into his bedroom and into the adjoining bathroom to pee and throw water on his face. He brushes his teeth, too, in anticipation of further kissing.

Then he crawls back into his bed, pulls the covers up to his chin, and closes his eyes for a few delicious minutes.

*

When he next cracks one eye open, Shane’s looming over him once more.

“Is this gonna be, like, a habit?” Ryan asks. “It’s fine if it is. I just want to be ready.”

Shane holds out a glass of orange juice. There’s a sprig of mistletoe garnishing the rim of the glass, which Ryan regards with lingering suspicion mixed with fondness. Now that he knows the cabin’s on their team after all, and that he was the one letting the side down by being too stupid and inattentive to get with the program until he got literally locked in a closet about it, he’s inclined to be more friendly.

“Breakfast is ready,” Shane says, and he pulls the covers back so Ryan has no choice. “Come see.”

“That was not the agreement,” Ryan grumbles, but he takes the glass and follows Shane out into the main room all the same. “Now you’ll never find out what my sexy surprise was gonna—"

What he finds there stops him in his tracks, midsentence, and leaves him gawping. Shane takes the glass back so he doesn’t drop it.

There’s mistletoe everywhere, growing in thick vines on the walls and creeping around the feet of chairs and hanging from the ceiling. The whole space is green with it, smelling fresh and medicinal at once. There’s a pan full of eggs sizzling on the stove, and mistletoe curling delicately around its handle like it intends to finish and plate them.

It’s as if they conjured it in the night. As if the cabin, unable to contain its joy at their union, burst forth with a display so undeniable and so wild it makes Ryan’s heart pound in his chest at the sight of it.

“You ever have sex so good it makes your house come?” Shane asks, nonplussed.

Ryan can feel it growing inside him too, turning his blood to berry juice, crowding into every spare inch of every chamber of his heart until it’ll be impossible to weed out. He’s not even sure why he would want to, not even if it lays claim to every precious resource he has left.

“Dude, keep it in your pants, this is embarrassing,” he tells the cabin, but as rebukes go it can’t be a very full-throated one. He knows he sounds tickled fucking pink. He knows that the cabin’s only taking what it found inside them—inside him, anyway—and giving it right back, showing him what his tangled mess of feelings looks like when given free rein to curl over every surface and wall of his infrastructure.

He can’t believe that something he feels, something inside him, made this.

“It is embarrassing,” Shane says, though Ryan had not been talking to him. “It’s embarrassing how much I—how much—”

He doesn’t have to finish his sentence, because Ryan understands perfectly. He’s so relieved Shane feels it too, that it’s not just him. He wonders how long this has been growing unnoticed and unseen between them, encroaching on their friendship, turning it brighter and more magnificent without their knowing.

“Yeah, me too,” Ryan says. “Shit. I can’t believe we were the poop twigs this whole time.”

He inspects the mistletoe on the walls, rolling white berries between his fingers and touching the sharp points of the leaves. He has the strange urge to take a cutting of it and preserve it between the pages of a book, to remember it by. A peculiar, old-fashioned instinct for a peculiar, newfangled place.

Shane looks away, as if pondering the terror of an emotion so intense it has no choice but to manifest itself physically as an entire room exploding in beautiful weeds, and something catches his attention out the window.

“Hey, the snow.”

Ryan joins him at the window. It’s melting—almost melted, really, and it’s too soon.

There’s already so much less snow than there was yesterday, a thaw too quick to be natural. There’s water dripping down the glass, the icicles that collected along the cabin’s frame shrunk to nearly nothing. The snow on the driveway is so diminished that Ryan can already see the shadowy threat of asphalt beneath its thinner patches.

“That was fast,” Ryan says, and as far as he’s concerned it’s too fast. He wonders if the cabin used up all its energy on this last showy burst of greenery and doesn’t have enough to sustain the other bells and whistles. Or maybe it thinks they’re done, that they don’t need it anymore. He begs to differ.

“You wanna pack up and go after breakfast?” Shane asks, surveying the scene. “We probably could, at the rate it’s melting.”

It’s too soon, and Ryan’s not ready. He thought they’d have a few days to enjoy this thing before they had to figure it out and define it and stamp a name on it. He knows that what they have can live and thrive here, nurtured by whatever off-kilter energy thrums through this place. He’s not so sure about the inhospitable dust bowl of modern Los Angeles, and the dreadful unmagical monotony of his everyday life.

Ryan doesn’t know what dating Shane would look like. He’s not even sure dating is the right word for what he wants. It feels awfully young. It feels insufficient. Dating is, after all, the thing you do when you’re getting to know someone. He doesn’t know what the word is when you already know someone so well that they’ve wormed their way into every corner of your life.

Plus it implies you can go somewhere, like on a date, and that’s not going to be possible for months. Ryan tries to imagine it, Zoom dates and Facetime sex and stolen weekends away when the restrictions lift for a while, and it’s not enough.

He looks around at the riot of color in the kitchen, nature busting through the walls for them, and he thinks they owe it to themselves to find a better way.

“What I want is to demolish these eggs,” Ryan says, stalling. “On toast. And then I want to go back to bed and sleep for at least four more hours.”

“And then?”

“And then I want to see how much of this place we can cover floor to ceiling in mistletoe before we drown in it,” he says, and he lets the mischief positively drip from his voice. If that doesn’t keep Shane here, nothing will.

“Kinky.” Shane mimes writing something in a notebook he’s made of his palm. “Freaky plant stuff…check. But then what?”

“What could possibly be more than that?”

Shane rolls his eyes.

“We can’t stay here forever, Ryan.”

“I know,” Ryan says. “I just don’t know what this looks like out there. I don’t know how—how do people even date in a pandemic?”

“I was sort of, I was thinking about that, while you were napping,” Shane goes on. “I was cracking eggs and there was mistletoe, like, crawling up my leg, and around my wrist where I was holding the pan, and I thought, I didn’t know it was like this. And when I saw it I thought, we’ve already—I don’t want to dick around with it. Not now that I do know.”

Ryan’s so busy looking out at the disappearing snow, trying to wish it back, that it takes him a moment to realize that Shane is unfurling. He’s coming loose and uncoiled, standing at his full height, and of course logically he can’t be as tall as the Christmas tree, but he looks it to Ryan.

“I was thinking,” Shane repeats, like he’s winding himself up for it. “What if it looked like you coming to stay with me until—until things settle down?”

Shane’s phrased it so carefully. Come to stay, not move in. Like those dusty old novels Ryan skimmed in high school English class, the ones where some posh lady crashed at her friend’s manor for months because it took so long to haul her carriage across the moors or whatever. 

It knocks Ryan down for the count, how easily Shane has suggested it. He can’t have given the idea more than half an hour’s thought, and Shane’s the kind of person who can spend a full day considering what kind of cereal he’ll buy at the grocery that week.

It’s very fast. Maybe it’s too fast. Maybe they’ll find in a week or two or four that they were too hasty, and Ryan will have to unceremoniously drag all his shit back to the townhouse with his tail between his legs. 

But then again, maybe not. He thinks about the 1940s, about all the couples who rushed to get married in their victory gardens, wearing last year’s Sunday best because the dress factories were busy building bombs for the war effort.

That’s the other thing about unprecedented times: they change your whole timeline, your barometer for what is normal, and after a while you start to wonder whether normal is even desirable or if it’s just the devil you know. What’s normal gives way to what you can live with, what makes you happy and does no harm, and you’re free to prune away everything that doesn’t suit you and start anew.

In that spirit, and already mentally packing his carriage, Ryan says, “I could do that.”

“Your roommates wouldn’t miss you?”

“Oh no, they’ll pine.” Ryan heaves an exaggerated sigh. “But they’ve had me for years, and these days all we can do is wave at each other across the living room anyway. Might as well give someone else a bite of the ol’ Bergapple.”

“Bergapple,” Shane says, aghast, but his eyes scrunch up as he smiles.

There are new lines there, around his eyes and between them, ones Ryan hasn’t had the opportunity to see close up. And there are new grey hairs sprouting from Shane’s beard, even from his head, though they’re sprinkled so sparsely there that Ryan scarcely noticed before.

He reaches up and untangles one coarse grey from the soft mess of brown, made messier by a night’s sleep on the floor of a closet. Shane ducks his chin to his chest to make it easier.

“You lookin’ at my greys?”

“Just thinking,” Ryan says, rubbing the coarse hair trapped between his thumb and pointer finger. “This year made us old, huh.”

He hopes Shane doesn’t think he means it as an insult, because it’s not that. It’s an acknowledgment that things have been hard lately, and they might get harder still, before they get easier. This year’s given Ryan his first greys too, a few hidden and glinting in his stubble. 

The next grey hairs Shane gets, Ryan wants to be there to see them. He doesn’t want them to arrive unceremoniously, unnoticed. In fact, he kind of wants to be the cause of at least a few of them, an impulse too bratty to be strictly upright.

Shane’s cheeks are pink in the sunlight, his little smile pleased under Ryan’s scrutiny. He looks like a holiday. It makes Ryan want to make something old-fashioned and classic and rustic together, something that they can update to fit their needs. It makes him want to run for the victory garden at the first thaw, dressed in his Sunday best.

“Well then,” Shane says, and he makes a show of checking his watch, eyeing the snow vanishing from the driveway. “No time to waste.”

*