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let's get by on nyquil and hibernate

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If you were to ask Pete Wentz at age eighteen where he thought he might be in his forties, he would have told you that he made it out of the suburbs of Chicago, and likely has a partner, a couple of kids, maybe a dog or two. Maybe a house with a yard, a decent car with some top-of-the-line trimmings, and a job with a salary that could support all those things. In his wildest dreams, maybe there’d even be a clothing line or a band of some varying level of success or a New York Times bestseller.

It's not like he hasn’t accomplished a few of the bullet points on that list. He’s got his own house, and his own car. In pursuit of the previously mentioned dreams, he moved out to Los Angeles right out of college, so he made it out of Chicago, too. The job with the salary did exist for a while, a cushy sales position with a tech start-up that he landed after spending his twenties in temp roles and entry-level pay grades. Pete is good at sales, or should he say, he’s good at people. He gets people.

The job was great, while it lasted.  He schmoozed and partied and slept his way through a good portion of West Hollywood. He ignored all other aspects of his life and made it nearly all the way to the top of the social circle. That is, until a global pandemic halted all human interaction and the supply chain to boot, and Pete found himself furloughed along with the rest, nothing but time and his shadow on the chipped-paint plaster of his walls to keep him company. There’s no partner, no kids, and no dog after his beloved bulldog passed away five years ago. It didn’t bother him, not really, until he was forced to stare his circumstances hard in the face. Once that drove him near insane, he turned to Instacart.

Delivering strangers’ groceries for menial pay is not high on Pete’s list of passion points – in fact, it is conspicuously absent. But he finds the rating system highly motivating. Over the last eighteen months, he has worked his way up the unspoken ranks of the Instacart Shopper program, through careful repetitive order selection and analysis of item variability to give him insight into the lives of his customers. That’s where he strikes.

For instance, when Derek Soto on Bellevue stopped ordering bouquets of flowers and switched instead to bottles of Jack, Pete “accidentally” included a copy of Sports Illustrated in his delivery, which earned him a hefty tip, a five-star rating, and a (socially distanced) high five at the door. Or Lizzie Fincher on Tularosa, who ordered two pregnancy tests every delivery for the first three months of Pete’s career, until suddenly the item disappeared from her list. Pete always handed off her order to a smiling elderly woman at the door, so he was never sure what happened there, until the summer hit and Lizzie began requesting diapers and a variety of organic baby food. He bought a Congratulations card and an absurdly soft Ty giraffe from the Hallmark aisle and tucked them in under a bag of apples. That incurred another five stars and an extra twenty in his paycheck, and afterwards, neither Derek nor Lizzie gave anyone who wasn’t Pete five stars, so no one other than Pete claimed their orders. He did this with every Scheduled order until the other Shoppers learned to leave those for him, and after a solid year of this kind of painstaking labor, Pete has built himself up to the only five-star Instacart Shopper at the Vons on West Third, with first dibs on orders each day and a finely crafted delivery route filled with only the friendliest faces and the most reliable tippers. Pete is a god amongst Shoppers, a titan of Instacart-ery, an unstoppable force of store-to-door nature.

That is, until today.

Today, Pete wakes up and opens his Shopper app to find that his rating has plummeted to a ghastly 4.7. In the world of Instacart, this is akin to a death sentence. He can definitely kiss his first dibs goodbye. The other Shoppers will be parading in the streets with his head on a spike, metaphorically speaking. It will take him forever to work off whatever negative review he got and bump his score back up, and as he scrolls through his mental Rolodex of deliveries to figure out which customer it could have been, he comes to a screeching halt on—

3350 Dahlia Ave. The Hermit.

It’s a weekly order, every Thursday afternoon like clockwork. The name says P. Stump, and the items never change. P. Stump never answers the door, either. Per the order instructions, Pete leaves the grocery bags at the top of a small stone staircase with a semi-rusted metal railing, right at the mouth of an alcove where a small off-white door is nestled inside. He rings the doorbell and trusts that P. Stump comes out to receive his order eventually. Before now, there’s never been an issue. The order itself isn’t particularly lucrative, and the lack of interaction with a human goes against Pete’s usual process, but he keeps it in his roster because, well, he finds it intriguing. Like Willy Wonka or something. Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out. The out-of-date Civic in the driveway never moves. The curtains never twitch.

Shit, the bad review must be from The Hermit.

So, Pete is stepping out of his car onto the curb in front of the blue stucco house on Dahlia, on Christmas Eve, in the Year of Our Lord 2021, masked up and armed with a Tupperware of his mom’s famous spicy seafood chowder. His long, bleached hair (the result of lockdown-induced boredom) is pulled up into his Serious Business Bun™ and he’s wearing an actual pair of Diesel jeans and Nikes, instead of his usual self-imposed uniform of band tees, sweats, and slides with socks. It’s LA, so it’s warm enough for just a t-shirt, but he chose to pull on one of his nicer blazers to hide the tattoos and dial down any possible intimidation factor. To be festive, he topped it all off with the Santa hat he’s been wearing on his routes all week. This is going to be a nice, friendly visit, and afterwards, the Hermit will never give him or any other Instacart Shopper a less-than-stellar review ever again.

It takes almost ten minutes of Pete alternating between knocking and ringing the bell before the door opens and P. Stump steps outside. In his very best customer service voice, Pete says, “Hello, Mr. Stump! I’m Pete, your Instacart Shopper!”

The tiny, sandy-haired man in front of him blinks sluggishly, his ocean-blue eyes glassy behind thick-framed lenses smudged with oily fingerprints, the tip of his pale nose rubbed red and raw from store-brand Kleenex. His voice rasps harshly against his throat when he mutters out a bleary, confused, “Huh? What?” His eyes focus a little, then widen in surprise. “Oh, it’s you.”

“You mentioned yesterday that you’re sick,” Pete the Instacart Shopper goes on. He holds out the Tupperware and grins wide, despite the mask obscuring the Hermit’s view. The crow’s feet adorning his eyes will get the message across. “I brought you some soup!”

The Hermit blinks at him, at the Tupperware, then back at Pete. Shifting his weight slightly, he leans to the side and peers distrustfully behind Pete’s back, as if there’s an army of ninjas waiting to strike.

Pete’s veneer of detached over-cheerfulness wavers just a bit. “It’s my mom’s recipe. Christmas tradition. I made it myself.”

The Hermit’s suspicious squint transfers itself back to the Tupperware. His nose wrinkles ever-so-slightly. It’s kind of… cute.

“It’s magic, I swear,” Pete insists, the customer-friendly tone of his voice slipping into something more natural. “I mean, there are no, like, actual medicinal properties, I don’t think. But the broth will clear your sinuses right out, guaranteed.”

“Are you some kind of psychopath?” The Hermit asks bluntly. He’s got on a thick, woolen brown cardigan, and he burrows further into it as he tucks his arms around his middle, eyeing Pete warily. Pete can’t help but observe that P. Stump is soft all over, like a fuzzy but grumbly kitten. “Are you trying to poison me… with soup?”

“Why do you think I would want to poison you?”

There’s a confused flurry of eyebrows, a puzzled glance toward the space behind Pete again, and the Hermit says, “I was rude to you, yesterday.”

Yesterday, when Pete dropped the groceries (which had included a bottle of Nyquil and a six-pack of tissues, the first time the Hermit had ever altered his order in any way) at the top of the stairs and rang the doorbell as usual, there were feet shuffling from inside the house and then a monster made of flannel and down comforter stepping out into the alcove. If it weren’t a few inches shorter than Pete, who is below average in that department already, he might have been afraid. From the top of the blankets was a tuft of tawny hair, and below that was an opening around a pair of glasses.

Startled, Pete said, “Oh! Hey there! I’m from Instacart.”

The blankets groaned back at him.

Pete gestured toward the groceries, inching closer to the steps. “Here’s your order. I would hand it to you, but…” He then gestured a little helplessly to his mask. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to risk it.”

“S’not covid,” the blankets muttered at him harshly. They drifted over to where the grocery bags sat, Pete backing carefully down a few more steps to keep his distance. Something about the posture of the blanket pile told him that The Hermit was glaring at him. A throat cleared, and then a surprisingly clear tenor voice said, belying its words, “It’s strep. And a bitch of a cold. So sayeth my doctor.”

As the blankets bent to pick everything up, the top of the duvet slipped down, revealing the face of the man beneath as it settled around his broad shoulders. His cinnamon hair was mussed over his forehead, sticking up in wild patterns, and his face was covered in a thick layer of unkempt beard. He must have had a fever, from the flush at the tops of his cheekbones and over his forehead. There were rings around his tired blue eyes, sweat dampening the dip of his upper lip. It was the Hermit, at long last, the elusive customer who Pete had built up into a sort of personal urban legend, a fairy tale to tell the other Shoppers and pass the time. Something about his sweaty face caused an unexpected pang of concern in Pete’s chest.

“Are you all alone in there?” Pete asked, mouth operating separate from his brain.

The Hermit shrank back into the alcove a little bit, bags raised as a shield but his eyes blinking curiously at him. “What do you care?”

“Just… I don’t know, isn’t the worst part about being grown up and single that there’s no one to care for you when you’re sick?” 

The bewildered blue eyes widened and the damp mouth gaped. “Thanks for the groceries, Instacart Guy,” he snapped, and then the Hermit in the pile of blankets was gone and the front door was slamming shut.

“I was really sick and not in a great mood and I hadn’t gotten any of my work done, and then some Malibu Ken with a man bun was calling me out for being single and—” the Hermit explains now, all in one long breath. He turns his head and clears his throat politely into the crook of his elbow. Pete watches him with a raised eyebrow. After a moment, the Hermit adds awkwardly, albeit less phlegmy, “Sorry. I’m being rude again. I’m sorry.”

Pete steps forward, holding the soup out more firmly. “Are you going to take this, or what? It’s really not poisoned.”

The Hermit flinches a little, his face reddening, but he reaches out and takes the Tupperware silently, cradling it against his chest.

“I’m Pete,” Pete says again.

The Hermit blinks at him, then says cautiously, “I’m Patrick.”

“Patrick.” Pete tests the name on his tongue. Idly, he notes that Patrick’s upper lip is less sweaty than yesterday, his face less flushed. His tongue chatters on without his permission. “That is, like, a serious beard you got going. Needs a trim, but it works, you know? It’s fitting. Goes with the whole ‘hermit’ motif.”

Patrick’s somewhat vacant blinking ignites. “Hermit? I’m not a hermit!” Pete takes a breath to respond, but Patrick is barreling onward, “Do you know how Merriam-Webster defines a ‘hermit’? Someone who lives outside of society for religious reasons.”

“You just have that memorized?” Pete grins. “Is this an argument you’ve had before?”

“I’m not religious, so there!” Patrick snaps. It’s childish, and rude, but instead of wanting to curse right back at the guy, Pete finds himself holding back a laugh. Patrick looks outraged. “I’m not! Fuck you, and fuck Jesus!”

At that, Pete can’t help it, he lets out one of his loudest, dorkiest laughs, doubling over for a moment before standing back up and holding his arms out on either side. “Ah, yes, a merry Christmas to us all!”

Here, Patrick falters, drooping inward around the soup. “… Christmas?” He looks lost.

“It’s December twenty-fourth,” Pete confirms, and gestures to his hat.

Patrick frowns. His eyes slant away from Pete. “Oh. That’s right, you had that on yesterday. I guess I… lost track.” 

Silence stretches out between them, growing as steadily as the dark, the sun sinking rapidly toward Santa Monica. Pete listens to the pulse of his eardrums, feels the warm bursts of his own breath against the inside of his mask. It’s almost like he’s stuck, wanting to move or say something, but unable to do anything except breathe and stare at Patrick’s teeth gnawing into the pink swell of his bottom lip. Finally, the teeth relinquish their hold, the released flesh now slick wet and bitten red, and then the whole mouth twitches sideways into a friendly, teasing smirk. “You know, the other definition of a ‘hermit’ is a spiced molasses cookie.”

“Next you’re gonna tell me, ‘Fuck cookies!’ Am I right?”

Patrick grins despite himself. “Hell no, but like…do I look like a cookie to you?”

Pete eyes him from head to toe, taking in the cozy brown sweater and the way his thighs fill out his joggers, then studies the soft and inviting swell of his middle, arms solid in their sleeves, chest full, shoulders broad. He looks back up at Patrick’s face, fuzzy and warm in its own right. His red mouth is pouting open in surprise, Pacific-blue eyes flecked with a wondering sort of gleam when Pete’s meet them again. Pete exaggerates a wink. “I mean, not no.”

The blush that streaks across Patrick’s face is the eighth wonder, Pete thinks. It’s a strange thought to have. It knocks him off-balance, dizzy for a moment with the additional thought that he wants to make Patrick’s face do that all the time.

“Anyway, merry Christmas, I guess,” Patrick mutters, backing toward the door.

“Oh. Yeah, um. Merry—”

For the second time in as many encounters, the door slams shut in Pete’s face.

Well, fuck.

As Pete is climbing back into his car, he realizes that he failed to bring up anything about the rating, or the injustice to Instacart Shoppers everywhere, or anything. This should bother him. The Pete Wentz from this morning would be unrelenting in his endeavor, banging on the door until Patrick shows himself again, not just allowing him to retreat like that and get away with his crimes unpunished. But he is not the Pete Wentz from this morning. He is not the Pete Wentz from ten minutes ago. He is the Pete Wentz who went in search of the cryptid and found him, only to discover that he’s just a human after all. (And a weirdly adorable one, at that.) Somehow, the reality is more intriguing than the mystery.

Christmas Day comes and goes, the hours eaten away by Zoom calls with his family, glasses of eggnog that don’t taste quite as sweet in the solitary confinement of his house, and the repetitive noise of holiday classics from his TV in the background. Christmas always makes him miss home more than any other day of the year. Aside from the obvious reasons, an alarming majority of the most beloved Christmas movies are set in Chicago, and even though Pete knows realistically a lot of what he’s seeing are actually just studio sets located only a short drive from him in LA, it still makes his chest ache with longing for lake-effect snow and Malört. 

As he’s laying down to sleep, Pete finds himself wondering how Patrick spent the day. He hadn’t even realized it was Christmas when Pete brought it up, so maybe he didn’t do anything at all. Maybe he’s still too sick to care. Pete hopes he at least ate the soup, and that it helped. He hopes that come Thursday, the order for P. Stump is still waiting and available for him to claim. He wonders if Patrick will answer the door now, or if things will return to the way they were before, bags left on the stoop for him to collect at his leisure, free of all personal interaction. Pete hopes not. Two teensy conversations loaded with strep-induced sarcasm and he’s hooked, apparently.

On Monday, Pete discovers that while his rating has dropped, there is still only one other Shopper ahead of him in terms of claiming order, and that’s Gabe Saporta. Gabe is a part-time Shopper, and one of the few that Pete has taken the time to really get to know. They’re friends, as much as two passing ships in the sea of Vons can be, and so he has no problem getting Gabe to promise that he’ll leave Pete’s usual orders for him. It’s a weight lifted, and Pete spends the beginning of his week exactly like he’s spent every other week for the last eighteen months, with a slight uptick in alcohol orders in preparation for New Year’s Eve. 

When he gets to Thursday afternoon, Pete is relieved to find the order for P. Stump in its usual place at its usual time, free for him to grab up with greedy thumbs. No sooner has he started navigating the aisles, the Shopper app pings with a chat request. Pete’s pulse flutters excitedly; this is unprecedented for Patrick. He opens the chat window eagerly and reads:

 

Hey I forgot a couple things. Can you add to my order?

 no prob wat do u wnt 2 add

1 thank you card. Whatever one has the stupidest pun on it.

But inside write, “Thank you Pete for the most delicious soup I’ve ever had in my entire life. It truly cleared my sinuses and most of my cold so I think you’re right, it must be magic. I was touched that you thought of me, a sinner and a blasphemer, at Christmas. Your new friend, Patrick”

 

In the middle of the cereal aisle, Pete grins like a maniac down at his phone.

 

wats the 2nd thng

Text me to find out.

 

Pete waits a full minute for Patrick to follow up on that with a number, idly grabbing at things he needs as he slowly wanders up the aisle. The clock is ticking on his order fulfillment, and Patrick isn’t saying anything else. It takes a few frantic pumps of Pete’s heart before he remembers that Patrick’s number is attached to his order. Laughing at himself and ignoring the probable breach of the Instacart Shopper code, he copies it over to his messaging app and sends, amidst a string of seemingly random but very carefully curated Emojis:

 

its pete

so????

Do you text everyone you know like a thirteen year old girl?

patrick com on wats the 2nd thing??????

im almost done shopping!!!!

 

Pete includes about nine crying face Emojis here. He can practically see the roll of Patrick’s eyes through the phone, but imagines (hopes) it will be punctuated by a tentative, indulgent smile. It takes another minute, but then Patrick sends:

 

1 box of molasses cookies

 

Pete forgoes the card (they were all so corny he couldn’t decide) but brings the box of cookies. Patrick answers the door and they make their way through half the box, standing against the railing of Patrick’s stoop. They cover the basics, discovering that they both grew up in Chicago, which is some serious “small world” shit. Pete stays at the foot of the stairs to maintain a safe distance since Patrick is still sick. He insists it isn’t covid, and Pete believes him, but he’s not exactly clamoring to catch strep throat, either.

Patrick rolls his eyes at that. “I finished my antibiotics, I’m not contagious anymore. You could stand up here with me.”

“If this is your way of flirting, I gotta say, it’s weird but I don’t hate it.”

“Whatever, shut up. Your hair is stupid and your shoes are ugly and I hate you, so,” Patrick grumbles, shoving the rest of his cookie into his mouth to cover up his smile, the same smile Pete imagined in the store, and he grins back at him from under his mask.

They text regularly over the course of the weekend. The following night, New Year’s Eve, Pete sends off a tentative well-wishing with a firework effect, and Patrick responds in alarm because “he didn’t know his phone could do that.” When they reveal to each other that neither of them are partying or hanging out with friends (Pete has to laugh – the only people he talks to anymore are Gabe and his shift lead, Andy) they spend the rest of the night on the phone together, watching the same cheesy holiday movie on Lifetime and making fun of the melodramatic acting.

The days that follow are filled with intermittent chatter, streams of consciousness via text bubble, snapshots of each other’s day. Patrick’s is fairly rote, just like Pete’s. He’s a copyist for a film composer, and it is just as tedious as it sounds, but from what Pete has gleaned so far, Patrick loves music so he’s happy to work with it in any capacity. After the first couple of days, Pete takes a chance and calls on his usual lunch hour. Surprisingly enough, Patrick answers, grateful for an excuse to step away from his desk for a moment. The next day, around the same time, it’s Patrick who calls him. Pete feels kind of ridiculous, but he gets actual butterflies when he sees Patrick’s name on the screen. 

“By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Patrick ventures, twenty minutes into a conversation about favorite movies and childhood cartoons, “how the hell did you know I was single?”

Pete snorts a laugh, swallowing a gulp of peppermint mocha frappuccino. “Seriously? I’ve been delivering your groceries every week for the last year and a half.”

“Still,” Patrick insists. “I’m thirty-seven, like… it’s pretty unlikely—”

“Ninety percent of your order is frozen food and Kraft dinner. Regardless of how old you are, that screams single. Besides, it’s not that unlikely. It’s LA. I’m over forty and I’m single.”

“What?” Patrick barks. “How is that possible?”

“Hey,” Pete objects lightly, “there’s been a slight pandemic happening, and before that I was a shithead, sleep-around workaholic guy. It’s been… a while.” Patrick hums sympathetically. Pete hesitates, toying with a stray fiber at the ripped knee of his jeans. “Patrick, are you lonely?”

“I wasn’t, Before,” Patrick replies slowly, thoughtfully. “The world is scary and, like, people are scary. I like my solitude. I only let others in when I really want them to be there, which… admittedly didn’t happen often, and never ended well. I guess I gave up after a while. I was okay with being alone.” Pete’s stomach curls sick with the idea of someone else in Patrick’s house – in his bed, his traitorous brain whispers some mystery person out in the world who knows that part of him when Pete doesn’t, someone who left him and hurt him. What a fucking idiot. Patrick goes on, “It’s been a while for me, too, Pete. I hadn’t thought about it until recently, but… yeah. I’m so fucking lonely.”

Pete tilts his head back against the seat. “Me too.”

In a silky sweet voice, crisp and clear as daylight now that he’s healthy again, Patrick says, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing we found each other, then.”

Pete’s chest pulls tight and his eyes prickle urgently, right there in the Vons parking lot. His fingers ache to touch. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”

 

*

 

On Wednesday night, Pete’s phone lights up from where it’s charging on the nightstand. It’s a Facetime request from Patrick. For a split second, Pete hesitates, only because he’s currently sitting in the middle of his bed, propped up on a pile of pillows, bare except for his boxers as he reads a book that Andy recommended. He’s halfway through but hasn’t decided if he likes it yet. This Facetime opportunity can only be described as “golden,” so he sets the book aside and accepts the request.

“Hey, Pete—oh!” On the screen, Patrick blurs with movement, and then his face fills up the rectangle a fraction at a time until Pete can see every smooth, lovely inch of it. Patrick told him he’d shaved two days ago. Pete’s been eager to see.

“Nice face,” Pete teases, though he means it. Vehemently. Dare anyone to challenge him. It is the nicest face.

Patrick scoffs, and blushes, and his eyes flash playfully as his gaze skitters away. His fingers run self-consciously across his bare chin. “I should say the same to you. I’ve only ever seen you with a mask on.” He eyes the salt and pepper of Pete’s stubble with a critical frown. “So I guess you’re not a natural blond?”

Pete barks a laugh. “Fuck you, Stump.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Wentz.”

It takes a swift bite to the meat of his tongue to keep himself from responding. Things are still uncertain where that’s concerned. They’ve flirted, sure, and talked deeply about Bowie while simultaneously streaming Ferris Bueller which in Pete’s world is akin to a marriage proposal. So, Pete thinks they’re on the same page, but until now Patrick has never actually indicated that he’s into this friendship becoming more.

“What are you doing?” Patrick asks after a moment.

On the screen, Patrick’s eyes are wide, shadowed by the angle of the lamp gleaming harshly beside him. It looks like he’s on a couch, so Pete assumes he’s in the living room. The wall behind his head is painted a strange grayish-green that brings out the golden rings in his eyes. His glasses are off, so Pete can see them clearly, the way they stare steadily at the screen, drifting downward like he can’t help it. 

“I was just reading.”

“With your shirt off?”

Pete smirks at him. “Yeah. There’s no one around to see me, so…”

I can see you.” Patrick’s voice catches, and he bites his lip shut. At the edge of the screen, Pete sees his shoulder move in a slow roll, then stop. He watches the muscles in Patrick’s throat work around a swallow. His gut flashes hot with the desire to reach through the screen and feel Patrick soft beneath his fingers.

“I can see you, too,” Pete whispers. “What are you doing, Patrick?”

“Nothing, I’m—” Patrick cuts himself off, flushing bright red and going completely still. His eyebrows crease with hand-in-the-cookie-jar guilt.

Pete asks, “Is there a reason you’re calling me?”

The blush doesn’t disappear, but Patrick’s forehead relaxes a bit as he shrugs. “Just calling, I guess. That’s a thing we do now, right?”

“Hmm,” Pete considers, screwing his face up thoughtfully. “Not historically on Facetime.”

“We’re gonna see each other again tomorrow, right?”

It’s a bit of a non-sequitur but Pete lets it slide, says, “Unless someone steals you away from me, which, full disclosure, I’ve basically bribed everyone not to do.” It’s not a complete fabrication of the facts – he’s bought Gabe’s Red Bull every morning this week. 

Patrick laughs like he doesn’t believe him, but the bridge of his nose stays beautifully pink. “Then… I guess I just couldn’t wait.” He takes a deep breath as Pete blinks through the shock of that statement. If he was looking for an indication that Patrick is interested, he thinks he just found it. Then Patrick gives him another. “I think I like you.”

The air in Pete’s lungs stutters to a halt. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” 

“I think I like you, too.” Pete leans back into the pillows, shifting the phone a little higher, so that more of his chest is revealed. The circle of thorns tattooed around his collarbone is visible, his hair falling over one shoulder, his eyes burning as they watch Patrick watching him, his wet pink mouth dropping open just a fraction. Pete smiles, says, “And now you’ve caught me with my shirt off…” and trails the fingers of his free hand over the plane of his left pec. On the other side of the screen, Patrick’s breath hitches.

“Damn…” Patrick trails off, laughing inwardly, openly admiring as his eyes track the movement of Pete’s hand. He licks over his lips like he’s nervous, shifting around, and then his voice rumbles eagerly, “Can I… see more?”

Pete is so with this program. He shuffles around frantically on the bed, trying to rid himself of his boxers without fumbling the phone onto the floor. As soon as he realizes what’s happening, Patrick starts whispering, a harsh gust of noise over and over until Pete stops flailing and settles into place, one hand firmly over the already half-hard curve of his dick. The sound resolves itself into words, into Patrick’s eager instructions to, “Show me, show me.”

Shivering in time with the stiffening between his legs, Pete tilts the phone downward. Beneath the arousal, though, is a small pang of worry. All his life, Pete has been athletic and in good shape, spry and lean and cut with firm muscle. Over the past two years, like a lot of people, he’s put on some extra weight. The awareness of Patrick’s eyes on him, of someone seeing the new shape of him for the very first time, stops him short. He sees his image reflected in the small box at the corner of his screen, the bottom edge hovering just above where his stomach curves gently out, above the black-ink stain of the tattoo slightly stretched between his hips.

“Pete,” Patrick encourages him in a voice that is soft, but urgent with touch-starved desperation. “Come on, please. You’re so gorgeous, I want— I want to see you.” With a whine, Pete tilts the phone all the way down, stroking himself fully hard as Patrick bites out, “God, god, you’re so— Pete —”

Pete grins like a wolf. “Come on, Patrick. Tat for tit?”

There’s loud thumps and shuffles as Patrick’s image jerks around rapidly, before the entire perspective changes, flipped to the rear camera. Pete nearly swallows his tongue at the sight, bringing his phone down closer to get a good look. Patrick has shifted to lay horizontal on the couch. The entirety of Patrick’s body stretches out in front of him, a thin navy blue t-shirt pulled tight over the expanse of his chest, every curve accentuated. The outline of his nipples is obvious, indecent, and Pete wants to rip his clothes off, shove his face into all of that flesh, get his mouth and his teeth around it and feel him, mark him, hear the sounds he makes as Pete tastes every inch. Beyond that, though, Pete sees Patrick’s fist, sees the furious red of the tip of his cock, appearing and disappearing as he strokes. There are sounds wet and slick, the glisten of Patrick’s arousal on his fingers. His cock is thick, and long enough that the base of it is hidden beneath the band of his sweatpants, but Pete can see enough to know that it is possibly the most gorgeous dick he’s ever laid eyes on.

“Shit,” Pete gasps, squeezing around his own cock twitching appreciation. He breathes out, “Patrick,” like a prayer, and then the other man just starts talking.

Pete lays there, stunned to silence, as Patrick hisses filth into his ear, about the places on Pete’s body he wants to taste, the shapes he wants to press him into, the ways he wants to have him. He murmurs about the way his fist feels around him, the way he imagines Pete would feel instead. It stokes the flame at the base of Pete’s spine, turns his brain to liquid boiled by the fire of his blood. He strokes and strokes, and watches Patrick fuck his hips into his fist with precision, listens to him groaning out praise and worship and desire until he comes desperate and grunting, dampening and darkening the fabric stretched over his chest.

Pete’s hand moves independent from his brain, frantic, desperate for release. The sound in his ear is the stuttered static of Patrick’s panting breath until he laughs darkly, intently, and says, “Next time, I want you in my bed. Gonna spread you out and get my mouth on you, make you come down my throat—”

Whatever else he says is lost to the wildfire decimation of Pete’s final brain cells. Every part of him tenses, tenses, snaps, and he’s fairly sure he’s shouting, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that when he finds the strength to lift the phone from his chest again, he sees Patrick’s face smiling at him.

Pete smiles back. “You know what, after that, I totally forgive you.”

“Forgive me for what?” Patrick asks with a sleepy but bemused tilt of his head.

“You know,” Pete replies, waving a vague hand through the air. “For the whole rating thing. It hasn’t actually affected my pay that much, I still have almost all of my customers, and I’ll do a hundred more deliveries in no time to get rid of it.

From the screen, Patrick blinks at him, his dopey afterglow now firmly shifted into dazed and confused. “Pete, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“Um, the rating,” Pete repeats. “The bad rating that you gave me? On Christmas Eve Eve?”

“What?”

“On Instacart, Patrick.” Pete huffs impatiently. “You were rude to me on the porch, and then you gave me a bad rating, and it dropped my average from five to four point seven, and I was pissed because I thought I would lose my whole route and not make any money, and then I brought you soup and we met and… and now we just had Facetime sex? Ring any bells?”

Patrick stubbornly refuses to look anything other than utterly perplexed. He shifts into a sitting position. “Wait, wait, wait… you thought I gave you a bad rating, so you… brought me soup?”

“I brought the soup to butter you up.”

“O… kay…”

“And then once I buttered you up, I was going to tell you how your rating dropped my score, and how Instacart’s rating system, while a great motivational tool, is skewed against the Shoppers, and one bad rating can like, really affect someone’s average, and therefore their livelihood, and you were gonna feel really bad about it and apologize to me and never do it again, and I—” Pete falters here, the sequence of events replaying slowly in his memory, “And I guess I got distracted by how fucking lovely you are.”

Patrick laughs, and Patrick blushes, and Patrick says, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but the bad rating wasn’t me. All I know is, if you don’t kiss me when I open that door tomorrow, I’ll drop your score all the way to zero. You’ll never Instacart in this town again.” Patrick’s eyes flash with teasing, with promise.

 

*

 

If you had asked him at eighteen where he thought he might be at forty-two, Pete never would have guessed it’d be on a front stoop in Silver Lake, dumping an Instacart delivery on the ground and grabbing the customer – his soulmate, he’s pretty sure – by the shoulders, kissing him deep and demanding and rom-com-first-kiss perfect, with fireworks and a choir singing and Patrick’s fingers sneaking under the waistband of his sweats. Patrick’s tongue eases into his mouth with a reverent sigh, warming him inside out like a Lake Michigan bonfire. As he’s dragged into the house, Pete can’t help but think that this is so much better than he expected.