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In the Cards

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David has rules about these things. Tell Stevie where he’s going. Pick a public place for the first time. Never bring anyone home—a rule that’s gotten a lot easier now that he’s sharing a room with his sister. And last, but not least, never meet anywhere he truly cares about, just in case he can never show his face there again. Which is why sitting—or rather, perching—in the blue velveteen armchair in the back corner of Elmdale’s finest (and only) independent bookshop is such a mistake. Next time, he’ll insist on somewhere more appropriate—like Bob’s Bench or that coffee shop with the barista who’s always rude to him.

“David Rose?”

Thank Christ. The man actually looks like his photo—better than his photo, really, up close David can see that those jeans are doing all kinds of favors for his ass and while the blue button-up is a distressing sartorial choice, the way the sleeves are rolled up to show off his forearms more than makes up for it.

“That’s me.” The words are breathier than he means them to be. His eyes catch on the open V of the man’s shirt.

“Patrick. Patrick Brewer.” He offers a hand, as if this is a job interview instead of the prelude to a hook-up. It would be rude not to take it, and he doesn’t regret it. Patrick’s grip is firm without being uncomfortable. Will he show an equal amount of finesse when he wraps his hand around David’s cock? He can’t wait to find out. “Can I buy you a coffee?” Patrick points over his shoulder to the tiny coffee bar in the corner of the store.

Patrick is obviously one of those guys who likes to ease into things. Which is nice. He seems nice. They might be here to trade quick hand jobs in the bookstore’s bathroom, but a bit of conversation makes a nice change of pace. “A caramel macchiato, two sweeteners, and a sprinkle of cocoa powder. Just a sprinkle. Sometimes they add too much and it ruins the whole thing. You know what? I’ll come with you.”

Patrick shakes his head. “I’ve got it.” There’s a confidence to him that David finds far too appealing, like he’s the sort of guy who could put David on his knees and make him enjoy it. He’s always been drawn to confident people—although most of the people from his past were more of the confident-because-I’m-better-than-you sort, and Patrick doesn’t seem like that at all.

“Really?” A dozen former personal assistants and hundreds of baristas have failed to get his coffee order right on the first try.

“Yep.” Patrick smiles at him, looking entirely too fond for someone he’s known for a matter of minutes. The fondness will undoubtedly fade, but David decides to enjoy it while he can. The back corner of the bookstore is nearly deserted. Apparently, most of the other patrons aren’t interested in manga comics or world history today.

Patrick is very speedy, and he returns minutes later with a pair of cardboard coffee cups. David takes a cautious sip, the cocoa and caramel dissolve on his tongue. It’s perfect. Taking the chair beside David’s, Patrick sets his drink on the coffee table and raises his invisible eyebrows. “I thought we could play a bit of a game?”

Oh. Oh. Patrick doesn’t strike him as someone who would be into games that don’t involve hockey balls or basketball bats, but David is very interested in the possibility—depending on the ground rules, of course. “I like games.”

Patrick slides a hand into the back pocket of his jeans—an impressive feat in its own right—and pulls out a handful of cards. He splays them out in one hand and offers them to David. “Pick three.”

With a quick shimmy of his shoulders, David chooses three cards. Maybe Patrick is into roleplay or tantric sex. It’s been awhile. Hopefully, he’s not into Pop Rocks blowjobs. The incorrect stickiness outweighs the novelty in his opinion. He flips over the first card.

Find a book from your childhood.

“What’s this?” This wasn’t the sort of roleplay he was expecting.

Patrick leans close, David can smell the citrus of his shampoo. “Is there a problem?”

“No. No. No problem. I guess I assumed things would move a little faster?” He’s not opposed to getting to know someone before moving to the main event, but digging into their childhoods seems excessive, and frankly, unnecessary.

“I like to take things slow.” Patrick squeezes his knee, a promise of things to come. “Get to know someone on a first date.” Wait. What? First date? This isn’t a date. Is it? Patrick’s knee knocks against David’s, distracting him from the idea that Patrick thinks they’re on some sort of date. Patrick nods at the remaining two cards. “What else did you get?”

Date or not, he’s here now. He might as well play Patrick’s game and see where it goes. He flips over the other two cards.

Find a nonfiction book that taught you something.

Find a book with a character you fell in love with.

This definitely isn’t headed in the direction he expected. He looks down at the cards and then back up at Patrick, who is practically beaming at him. “So, um, what are the rules of this game?”

Patrick gives a half-shrug. “We each find books that match the cards and then we share them.”

Oh god. He’d come here prepared for a hook-up, but this is frightfully close to sharing the parts of himself that he tries to keep hidden. What kind of monster wants to learn about another person’s childhood on a first date? He swallows down a protest as Patrick looks at him expectantly. “Okay. Fine.”

“That’s the spirit.” Patrick pats him on the shoulder before disappearing among the bookshelves. With a sigh, David heaves himself out of his chair. Of course, this is the sort of game that Patrick would enjoy. He almost wishes for the Pop Rocks.

The nonfiction book seems the safest, so he starts there, automatically gravitating to the art section. His hand hesitates over Anna Wintour’s biography, which he’d read but hadn’t enjoyed as much as he’d hoped. A volume next to it catches his eye. Working it free, he examines the familiar cover. Perfect.

In the fiction section, there’s only one book that he wants to share, so the decision is easy. Which leaves the children’s book. He knows which book he wants to pick, but maybe Patrick will think it’s silly? It’s probably too many feelings to put onto someone he’s only known for less than an hour. But this game was Patrick’s idea. If it’s too much—if David is too much—then it’s better for Patrick to know that now. Not that there will be a later. But whatever. Adding the last book to his pile, he returns to the chairs in the corner. Patrick is already waiting for him, his own selections facedown in a neat pile on the table beside him.

Setting his books beside Patrick’s, he curls into the chair. He’s nervous. Why is he nervous? It’s just a stupid game and a bunch of books with someone he’ll probably never see again. But it feels weighty, portentous, like the books he’s chosen might change something. He nods at Patrick. “You go first.”

Patrick slides the first book off of his stack. There’s a vintage style drawing of a baseball player on the cover. David can just make out the title. The Utility of Boredom. It’s not a book that David would have even picked up, let alone read. “Um—” Patrick looks down at the book, turning it over in his hands. “I love baseball. Playing it. Going to games. But this book isn’t really about baseball—”

“The cover leads me to think that it is.”

Patrick chuckles, running his finger along the title. “Yeah. It is about baseball. But it’s also about structure and order and expectations. I read this book when I was struggling with a lot of things that I thought I should want, but didn’t. And this book taught me that maybe I couldn’t control everything in my life.” As someone who has never believed he’s been in control of anything in his life, David can’t entirely relate, but can see the book means a lot to Patrick. Patrick pats the book gently and sets it aside, nodding at the books David selected. “What about you?”

David picks up his first book and passes Patch Work over to Patrick. He’d stayed up until four in the morning the first time he’d read it and now his copy is tattered and worn. He’s read it at least a dozen times. “I like fashion. Not just the designers and runways, but the fabrics and all of it. But this book made me realize how much people’s clothes say about them. If you pay attention, everyone’s clothes can tell you who they are.”

Patrick frowns at him and gestures to himself. “These are just clothes, though.”

“You don’t think your clothes are saying something?” David looks him over, letting his eyes linger a moment too long on the stretch of the tight denim. “You like to be seen as competent, professional, but not stuffy. You’re not confident about switching things up with your wardrobe, so you have a formula and you stick to it. You probably own a dozen of those shirts, all really similar. You want people to notice you—” David’s eyes are drawn to the tight jeans again. “—But you’re not sure if you want to stand out.” He breaks off. Patrick is staring at him, eyes wide with disbelief. Fuck. Just as he was enjoying himself, he’s gone too far and shown Patrick who he really is.

Patrick sucks in a breath and shifts in his chair. David waits for the excuse that he’s sure is coming. “Wow. I—”

This is why he’d been looking for a hook-up. Now, he’s pushed Patrick away, and it stings a little. Spinning his rings, he tries to backtrack. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said any of that.”

“No. No, you’re absolutely right. You don’t need to apologize. I guess I never realized how easily someone could see me.” Patrick squeezes David’s knee, his hand warm against the bare skin that’s exposed by the rip in his jeans. “What’s next?”

David hands over the copy of Sense and Sensibility to Patrick, who studies it for a moment. “I haven’t read this one. They made us read Pride and Prejudice in high school, but—”

“No one does romance better.” He’ll walk right out of this bookshop right now if Patrick fights him about Jane Austen.

“Hmm. My high school English teacher didn’t exactly inspire me to read her other books. And I was more interested in other things.” Patrick shrugs and hands the book back. “Like baseball.”

“Of course you were.” It’s increasingly clear that he and Patrick have nothing in common. He regrets not pushing for the blowjobs when he had the chance instead of being drawn into Patrick’s game.

“Who’s your favorite character?” Patrick points at the book. David relaxes his grip and smoothes the cover. It’s not the book’s fault that David is regretting his life choices. And yet—when he looks up, there’s something warm and curious in Patrick’s eyes that makes him want to tell the truth.

“If you’d read the book, you’d probably think it would be Marianne, because—” He breaks off not wanting to go too far down the road of similarities between himself and a flighty teenager. “But I like Elinor. She’s very steady. She holds everything together. I always wished—” David twists his rings. This is too much for a first date, especially a first date that he’d assumed was a hook-up. “I always wished someone would do that for me.” He laughs, it’s bitter around the edges. “But books are about fantasies, right? It’s not like they’re real.”

“Sometimes.” Patrick looks almost sad, but at least he’s not fleeing the store. Picking up his next book, he hands it to David. The Song of Achilles Biting his lip, David slowly raises his eyes to meet Patrick’s. He wouldn’t have expected someone who started this game with a sports book to go with Madeline Miller as his next choice. Patrick’s fingers dance across the cover as though they’re greeting an old friend. “My fiancée—my ex-fiancée—gave me this book. Which is ironic, given that it made me question everything about myself, including our wedding and my sexuality.”

“Yeah.” David had ended up in a very embarrassing situation on a subway train after making the mistake of reading The Song of Achilles in public. It doesn’t sit comfortably—the revelation that true love only lasts if you die. “Which character do you like?” Probably Patroclus. Patrick seems like someone who would be drawn to loyalty and devotion. Even their names are similar.

“Patroclus.” Patrick confirms David’s suspicions, gathering his thoughts. “I like how he defied everyone’s expectations at the end. I haven’t always done that.”

“Hmm.” David reaches for his last book, hesitating before he flips it over. Maybe he should have chosen something else. It’s too late now. Biting his lip, he slides the book over to Patrick. On the cover, the illustration of the worn rabbit stands tall, longing clear on his fabric face. The Velveteen Rabbit.

Patrick stares at it for a moment, and then, with a chuckle, he flips over his own book, revealing the identical cover. “My mom used to read it to me every night before bed. I’m sure she was sick of it, but I couldn’t get enough of the idea that love could turn him into a real rabbit.”

David swallows the lump in his throat. “When I was little, I read it to my sister even though it was my favorite, not hers.” It’s too much to share that he’s still waiting for that moment when someone’s love makes him feel real and seen. “I had the same copy for years and then we had some problems with the government…” He trails off, Patrick doesn’t need the pathetic details of his life story. “Anyway, I don’t have it anymore.”

“That’s too bad.” Patrick gives him an upside down smile that David feels in the swirl of butterflies in his stomach. “I remember asking my mom how I could become real.” Patrick’s voice is distant, lost in the memory.

“What did she say?” Maybe the mother of this man he’s just met has the answer to the question he’s always wondered about, but never had the courage to ask.

“She just laughed and said I was already real.” Patrick twists his hands together. “But I’m not sure I believed it until—”

“Until?” David arches an eyebrow at Patrick, hoping he’ll finish his sentence.

“Until I came out last year.” Unable to help himself, David gives Patrick’s shoulder a quick squeeze. Nothing about this afternoon has gone the way he expected, but he finds that he’s enjoying Patrick’s company. If only he knew what was supposed to happen next. Maybe there’s still time for a blowjob in the bathroom? Before he can suggest it, Patrick is frowning at the clock on the opposite wall. “Oh, damn. I have to go.” Of course. Of course Patrick wants to end things so abruptly now that he’s seen a glimpse of what goes on in David’s head. “I’m sorry. I promised my mom I’d come for dinner…”

“It’s fine.” It’s good planning, having an excuse ready. Patrick seems like a planner and scheduling a dinner with his parents makes the perfect excuse to get out of a bad date.

“Actually, I have a confession.” Patrick gets to his feet, rocking on his heels for a second. “I did it on purpose. Just in case things didn’t go well.”

“Okay?” Just as David has suspected. But why is Patrick telling him this now when he could just leave without making a big deal of it?

“But the thing is—now I don’t want to leave.” Patrick grins at him bashfully, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

“Oh.” What should he do now? He’s never had to handle someone having regrets about not having enough time with him. Quite the opposite, really.

Patrick holds out his hand. Unthinkingly, David takes it, letting Patrick pull him up and out of the chair until they’re face to face, bodies almost touching. “I had a really good time today, David.”

“Me too.” Up close, Patrick’s eyes are like pools of whiskey—no, honey. Or maybe toffee—something warm and sticky. They draw David in and make it hard to look away. He’s enjoyed this afternoon more than he’d expected. So much that he’d like to do it again and Patrick seems like the kind of guy who might have a plan for a second date—Patrick’s eyes flick to his lips and with a smirk, he leans forward, closing the already infinitesimal gap between them.

No first kiss should be this confident. The press of Patrick’s lips brings the hint of a promise of things to come. Of tangled sheets and the sheen of sweat mixed with something gentler, like sunny afternoons and ice cream. Patrick’s tongue brushes against David’s lower lip and David bites back a whimper that’s entirely inappropriate for a place of business.

All too quickly, Patrick steps back, the smirk still teasing the corners of his mouth. “Can I see you again?”

“Yes.” The word is barely a whisper and Patrick’s eyes crinkle as his smirk turns into a full-blown smile.

“Good. I’ll text you.” With that, he presses a kiss to David’s cheek and then he’s gone, leaving David standing in the bookshop, hand pressed to his lips like a teenager after their first kiss.

He’s still standing there minutes later when a voice interrupts him. “Mr. Rose?”

“What? Yes. That’s me.” Lips tingling from the press of Patrick’s mouth, he turns to face the bookshop’s employee.

“This is for you.” The young woman hands over a blue paper shopping bag with the bookshop’s logo printed on the front. “The man said to tell you that some stories are real.” Before David can respond, she’s weaving her way back through the shop to her post at the front counter. What does Patrick think he’s doing? David doesn’t even need to look. He knows what will be inside. Reaching into the bag, he pulls out the book.

The Velveteen Rabbit