i_am_tl_dr: (hand in hand)
[personal profile] i_am_tl_dr
Title: A Fresh Start
Characters: Nate O'Reilly, Joshua Tree, and Baxter Hale
Rating: PG-13
Word count: 8570
Notes: New characters!! Quentin is so angry. Quentin's going to have to suck it up because I gave him plenty of time to work with me and he dragged his heels. Anyways, these guys are in Las Vegas, I think they're fun. Nate is very sweet.


Timestamp: February/March 2015


Josh and Nate had been friends on Instagram long enough to not remember exactly how long it had been. Nate had friended Josh's business account, where he posted pictures of sketches he’d drawn and clothes he'd made and videos from the DJ booth on nights he was spinning, and a few weeks later Josh had friended Nate from his personal account, enchanted by Nate's ethereal selfies and quirky observations of life in the Big Apple. It wasn't too long after that when they added each other on Facebook and lowkey stalked each other from opposite sides of the country. The time zone difference meant that Nate’s angsty late nights coincided with Josh’s schedule often enough that they got to be good friends from long conversations on Facebook over the years.

you should come model my threads if you ever come out to Vegas, Josh told Nate, more than a few times, and Nate always deferred with his fear of airplanes holding him back. Then at the beginning of 2015 Josh said I'm coming to New York for a couple of weeks, we should definitely meet up, and that Nate agreed to instantly. Josh flew in the day after Valentine's Day to meet with the producer of an off-off-Broadway show who wanted him to design the costumes, and two days after that he finally had the time to arrange a coffee date with Nate.

Nate suggested a place to meet, a little bookshop cafe by Central Park, and as soon as Josh stepped in his eyes found Nate by his bright blue hair. "Nate? Hi! Oh, it's so good to see you in person." Nate popped up for a hug and Josh kissed his cheek warmly.

"Hi, hello, aren't you cold? You look cold. Do you even own a scarf?" Josh laughed and sat down across from Nate, shaking his head.

"I've lived in California and Nevada my entire life. Why would I own a scarf? I've made scarves, but I don't keep any of them."

"You're going to get sick. Here, take this one." Nate unwound the pale pink paisley pashmina scarf from around his neck and looped it around Josh's. "These are two for ten on practically any street corner. I own a dozen. There, it looks good on you."

"Thank you!" Josh buried his nose in the scarf for a moment and looked up with a grin. "Oh, wow, your aura is amazing. You're a total sunshine person, I had a feeling you would be."

"My aura?" Nate looked surprised. "I can honestly say no one's told me that before."

"Yeah, well, it's true. I'm so glad that I was right about that, it's hard to tell online but you're just so bright and effervescent that it shines right through everything you say."

"I'll take your word for it," Nate said, but he was smiling. "Can I get you a drink? Or, you have a sweet tooth, right? This place does amazing pastries."

"I do," Josh agreed, "what do you recommend?"

"Well, I mean, my options are limited by my diet. I know all the vegan cookies are really good, but they do a dozen other things too."

"I'll go look at the case. Be right back." Nate watched Josh walk over to the counter, feeling butterflies all over his insides. As long as they’d been friends online, they’d known each other through some of the toughest times in their lives. Nate had wondered for a long time what Josh was like in person without realizing that his internet crush was going to hit him like a subway train when they were in the same place. I should have expected this, he thought, trying valiantly not to stare at Josh’s ass in his snug jeans. I really should have.

Josh came back a couple minutes later with a latte and a brownie cut in half. “I decided to try the vegan brownie,” he said, pushing half across the table to Nate. “They said it was made with pumpkin and cinnamon. I was intrigued.”

“Thank you,” Nate said, brightening up. “This is one of my favorites. The pumpkin flavor is really subtle but the cinnamon is bold. I hope you like it!”

“I think I can trust your taste,” Josh said with a laugh, breaking off a piece and popping it in his mouth. His eyes widened. “Oh, wow, that’s so good.”

“Right? This cafe is the best.”

“That’s why I prefer to ask locals what’s good instead of checking Yelp. I’d much rather go where my friends love to go.”

“I have spent so much time here. So many first dates, so many afternoons with my notebook and an IV drip of caffeine.”

“Now that’s the sign of a really good cafe. Intravenous coffee delivery.”

“Can’t get that at Starbucks,” Nate said with a laugh, nibbling at the brownie. “Mm. So how long are you in the city?”

“Until the end of the month,” Josh said. “I fly out on the 26th. I’m basically just working my ass off while I’m here. If this place really did an IV drip I’d have to come here every day. I have so many all nighters in my immediate future.”

“Two weeks doesn’t seem like enough time to do what you said you came here to do,” Nate said, and Josh shrugged.

“I’m not doing all the work. Just, you know, most of it. It’s okay, I work well under pressure. I’m just going to desperately need to see my chiropractor when I get home after spending so long bent over a sewing machine. And I may have to ask you for restaurant recommendations while I’m here if I want to remember to eat.”

“I’m sure I could come up with a few.”

“You’re an angel.”

“Not even remotely close,” Nate said, grinning. “But I do my best.”

“Your best is pretty good,” Josh said, and Nate laughed and took a sip of his latte.

“You’ve never seen my best. But you could if you wanted.”

“Oh, could I really? What do I have to do to make that happen?”

“Well, did you mean it when you said you wanted me to model your clothes?"

"Of course I meant it! You look like a divine being. Let me take your measurements and I'll bring things next time I'm in the city. I wish you could come back with me, the photographer I work with would love to shoot you."

"Well... what if I could?"

"I thought you don't fly."

"I don't fly. But..." Nate shrugged. "I lost my job last week, I'm on the verge of being evicted because I can’t make rent without a job and my roommate’s already scouting to replace me, I could do worse than starting over somewhere I already have a friend."

"Oh, Nate, I didn't know things were so bad for you here." Josh reached across the table to touch his hand. "Yeah, absolutely. You can crash with me until you get settled! It'll be awesome. I'll show you around."

"Really? I wouldn't presume to invite myself into your home..."

"I insist. My couch is super comfortable. As long as you don't mind my dog constantly begging for pettings..."

"Your dog is adorable, I don't think I'll mind!"

"Awesome. Clifford will love you. I think Baxter will too."

"I thought I could take the train to Vegas... because I really, really don't want to fly," Nate confessed, looking a little embarrassed about it. "I'm so deathly afraid of heights. And I don't want to pop a couple Xanax and not remember how I got from New York to Vegas. I hear it's a nice train ride, it just takes a couple days to get there. I can deal with that."

"Hey, if you don't mind sitting on a train for that long, it sounds like a good option."

"I'm pretty sure I can fit everything I care to keep in two big suitcases. If you could pick me up at the train station..."

"Of course I can. Let me know when you're supposed to arrive and I'll be there."

“You really wouldn’t mind?” Josh curled his fingers around Nate’s hand and smiled at him.

“Nate, I would be overjoyed if you would come stay with me. Seriously. We’re going to have such a great time together.”

Over the two weeks Josh was in New York, they met up eight times, usually for dinner at any place Nate suggested. Josh insisted on paying for every meal, saying that Nate’s company was all that was keeping him from going crazy on fourteen-hour work days and it was the least he could do, and Nate couldn’t protest too hard when Josh’s company was pretty much all that was holding him together at the moment too, while he was trying to sort through his belongings and condense everything he wanted to keep into two pieces of luggage. The night before Josh flew out, they ended up stretching out dinner and a bottle of wine until the restaurant kicked them out, then walked slowly through the frigid night to where Nate had to catch the train back to Brooklyn. Nate had his fingers crossed for a kiss before they parted ways, but the warm, tight hug he actually got was almost just as good, and Josh’s murmured, “See you in five days,” kept Nate glowing the whole way back to the apartment he couldn’t wait to get out of.

The train ride took almost three days, and Nate wasn’t used to sitting still for so long. He paced the length of the train, ate in the dining car with random people, spent a lot of time staring out the window and writing in the fresh Moleskine notebook that was the last purchase he’d made in New York City. By the time the train crossed the Nevada border, he’d written so much that his pen went dry. He texted Josh as he got closer to the station, and when Nate deboarded the train, dragging two heavy wheeled suitcases behind him with his pillow tucked under his arm, Josh was right there on the platform ready to help. Josh wrapped his arms around Nate and picked him up with an enthusiastic hug, and Nate laughed and threw his arms around Josh’s neck.

“Welcome to Vegas,” Josh said, and he took one of the suitcases and lead Nate out to his car, a dusty blue Civic with a messy backseat. Josh swept everything off the seat into the footwells behind the front seats and put one of the suitcases on the backseat; when he popped the trunk, it was half-full of laundry baskets of uncut cloth, but he managed to wrestle the other suitcase in with them. “How was the trip?”

“Surprisingly beautiful,” Nate said. “I met some interesting people, I saw a lot of amazing landscapes, I did a lot of writing.”

“Awesome, I hope you took a few pictures.”

“Of course! As good as I could get from a moving train, anyways.” Nate rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms over his head, arching back a little with a yawn. “Those Amtrak seats are not super comfy. And train coffee is not super tasty.”

“Well, in twenty minutes you can have a nap, or we can get you better coffee on the way to the house, or you can ask Bax to make you espresso because he really makes a killer cup.”

“I think I should meet him before I start asking him for favors,” Nate said. They got in the car, and Nate tapped at the spray of teardrop crystals hanging from the rear-view mirror. “Your aesthetic is immediately obvious.”

“My aesthetic is why you know me in the first place,” Josh laughed. “And your aesthetic is what caught my eye in return. And now we get to see how successfully we can meld them. I’m so fucking excited to start making things to put you in, I’ve been working on sketches since I got home from New York and I can’t wait to show them to you.”

“I’m really excited about it too!”

“Do you want coffee? I can stop at a Starbucks.”

“Actually, the nap sounds more enticing,” Nate said. “I haven’t been able to lie down in three days. I just need like an hour and I’ll be ready for whatever there is to do, I’m a very efficient napper.”

“Sure,” Josh said. “I’m pretty sure Baxter won’t be home until six, you can crash on the couch until he gets home and I get to introduce the two of you. I think he’s going to love you, you’re by far the prettiest model the two of us will ever have worked with.”

“Thank you,” Nate said, beaming. “It’s nice to hear that without creepy ulterior motives behind it. Usually when people ask me to model for them, it’s sketchy as fuck, but I know you’re aboveboard.”

“You’re confident in me.”

“I’ve been following your career for how long now? I’m so psyched to have you make beautiful things for me to wear. And you’re one of a very small number of people who make any effort to make me feel better. Yeah, I’m confident in you.”

“I’ll do my best to live up to that,” Josh said. “I’m determined to make this move a purely positive thing for you. So just let me know what you need to be happy and I’ll try to make it happen.”

“Right now, I need that nap and food that hasn’t been microwaved or frozen,” Nate said, and Josh nodded.

“Are you more hungry or tired?”

“Tired. By far.”

“You can close your eyes if you want,” Josh said. “We’re about fifteen minutes away, but it’s not an interesting view, we’re just heading into the suburbs.”

“Don’t let me fall asleep in the car or you’ll have to carry me inside,” Nate said, tilting his head back and closing his eyes.

“What a hardship,” Josh said. “I feel like that could be a scene from the first gay Disney movie. Carrying Sleeping Handsome to a safe place to break the enchantment.”

“Are you going to kiss me awake? Cause I think that would be wonderful,” Nate said. Josh laughed quietly.

“Sure, if you’re giving me permission. But I’m not going to let you fall asleep right now. I’m going to make you listen to the remix I just finished instead.”

“Let’s hear it,” Nate agreed, and he lifted his head when the beat began, arching an eyebrow at Josh. “Did you remix Avenue Q? Seriously?”

“The Internet is for porn,” Josh said blithely. “And this is going to be so meme-able when I get it perfected.”

“You are a ridiculous human being.”

“You say that now. Wait until this hits Reddit.”

“I’ll probably say it more frequently after that.”

“I know,” Josh said, aiming a grin at Nate. “I look forward to it.” He tapped his fingers against the steering wheel to the beat, dancing a little in his seat, and Nate studied him with a smile, resigned to the fact that his crush was going to spin out of control in even shorter order than he’d anticipated.

They got to Josh’s home and wrestled Nate’s luggage into the house, piling the suitcases against the wall next to the TV stand. Nate had packed so everything he needed before he got a place of his own was in the blue suitcase, and he rummaged through it to get a clean t-shirt and underwear and took a quick shower before his nap, washing off the last traces of New York from his skin.

The couch was as comfortable as Josh promised it would be, and Nate fell asleep almost as soon as he stretched out on it, oblivious to Josh moving around the house and not stirring when he left to take Clifford on a walk or when they came back twenty minutes later. He dreamed of swift-moving landscapes, mountains rising and falling like sleeping giants, trees swirling in mystic dances and flocks of birds wheeling and diving to cloak him in shed feathers.

Clifford started barking when a car pulled into the driveway, waking Nate up from his doze. He stumbled into the bathroom to splash some water on his face. When he came back to the living room Josh was standing in front of the couch talking to a short man with intensely blue eyes. Josh perked up and beckoned Nate over.

"Nate, this is Baxter, my partner. Bax, this is Nate."

"Nice to meet you," Nate said, offering his hand. "Partner? Business or personal?" He sat on the arm of the couch next to Josh when Baxter let go of his hand. Baxter sat on Josh's other side. Clifford paced in front of the couch for a moment before deciding that Nate was his best bet and settling his head on Nate's knee, where he promptly received the scratching behind the ears he'd been hoping for.

"Sort of both," Baxter said. "We met on a movie set, I was doing photography and Josh was doing costuming and makeup. By the time the film wrapped we'd become really good friends."

"We'd both been in horrible relationships around then, and by the time Ryan cheated on me and Damien dumped Bax and the movie was over, we just decided that moving in together was a better idea than being alone and miserable. Well, I decided that Bax needed someone to keep an eye on him because he takes terrible care of himself when left to his own devices."

"I can take care of myself," Baxter said, rolling his eyes, "Just... that involved a lot of fast food and Netflix until 3am."

"Like I said, terrible. And between the two of us we could afford a nicer place than either of us could alone..." Josh waved a hand around the apartment. "Voila. It's a very symbiotic relationship. I keep him healthy and he keeps me happy, people are more likely to hire me when I've got attractive pictures of my work and they're more likely to hire him when he's taking pictures of attractive things." Josh gave Nate a bright smile. "So really you'd be doing both of us good by modeling my clothes, being super attractive yourself. Everyone wins."

"Sounds good to me," Nate said cheerfully. "I should warn you that I'm vegan, but I'm not a crazy militant vegan or anything, I'm not out to convert you. And I'm a morning person. Like a very early morning person."

"Ugh," Baxter said, and Josh hit him on the shoulder.

"Baxter is also a morning person," he said. "Or rather, Noel is a morning bird, which means that Baxter wakes up when Noel wakes him up."

"Bird?" Nate looked around with a brow arched.

"Her cage is in my room right now," Baxter said. "She's an African Grey. Smart as hell. Likes to tease the dog."

"Clifford is not a morning dog. And I am not a morning person. So I suppose if you get a pet it will have to be a very early morning creature to match you, Nate."

"I've never had a pet of my own," Nate said thoughtfully. "None of my landlords would allow it. So fucking hard to find an affordable place in New York with a pet."

"So fucking hard to find an affordable place in New York, full stop," Josh said. "Vegas isn't cheap either. That's why we live in Summerlin. It's not far but it's a lot nicer."

"It seems really nice," Nate said. "I've never lived in the suburbs before. I've spent my entire life in the city."

"Really? Me too. Bax, too. L.A. for me and Vegas for him. Up until we moved here, neither of us had been suburban. Have to say it's suiting us pretty well though."

"Speak for yourself," Baxter said, laughing. "Josh is totally suburban. Yoga and jogging and cooking healthy meals, give him a week and he'll learn to cook vegan for you."

"I just keep Bax around to look pretty and mow the lawn," Josh said. Nate pressed a hand to his mouth to stifle a giggle and Josh grinned. "And he's terrible at mowing the lawn."

"He doesn't look like the lawn-mowing type," Nate agreed. "Pretty is accurate, though."

"Where'd you find this kid, Josh? I think I might like him."

"I've known Nate longer than I've known you, actually. Online, at least. We've been Instagram friends since... god, what's it been?"

"2011, maybe? We were early adopters."

"Oh, come on, I met you in 2011," Baxter said.

"Nate? Do you remember the first draft of the movie costumes? I posted those before I even signed the contract. I didn't meet you until we were both on set, Bax."

"I remember that fucking hideous plaid number I told you you absolutely couldn't commit to film."

"Right! I changed that to a tiny polka dot after a bunch of people hated the plaid. I thought it was classic."

"Nothing about a fuchsia plaid is classic, Joshie. Never has been, never will be."

"I still have a bolt of that fabric," Josh said. "Now I'm going to dress you in it."

"As long as whatever you make for me has better lines than that ugly skirt, fine."

"Oh, don't put him in fuchsia, it doesn't suit his coloring at all. Is your hair always blue?" Baxter asked. Nate shook his head.

"My hair's been every color except black. Well, it was black for about two hours before I completely fried it with bleach because the black looked absolutely terrible."

"Oh, yeah, don't ever do that. Blue looks really good on you. I bed red looks good on you too."

"It does," Josh said. "He was practically ginger when we became friends on Instagram."

"I'm Irish-American," Nate said. "My last name's O'Reilly. I'm not naturally ginger, but I wear it like I should be."

"Oh, now that you say it it's pretty obvious," Baxter said. "Between the pale and the freckles and your eyes."

"I'll probably go back to it when I'm on the job hunt. Cause an obviously unnatural hair color isn't a boon."

"You have a job," Josh said, leaning against Nate's hip. "You're our model."

"I thought that was a favor, not a job."

"We're professionals," Baxter said. "We pay our models. I mean, no one's going to get rich doing it, but you're not doing it for free either."

"I thought I was getting paid with couch space?"

"Josh, what have you been telling this poor kid? Are you taking advantage of his sweet nature?"

"I would never take advantage of you, Nate," Josh said seriously. "Unless you asked me to, in which case it's not actually taking advantage."

"That's new," Nate said. "Most people do it without a second thought. I didn't think I was being taken advantage of, I thought I was being done a favor."

"I just hadn't gotten around to showing him the contract yet," Josh told Baxter. "I figured I'd let you settle in a little before getting to business," he said to Nate, smiling up at him. "You only just got here. I was at least going to feed you and let you rest before I asked you to sign anything."

"I'd like that," Nate said with a smile. "Can you feed a vegan, though?"

"Oh, sure. Nothing fancy, right now, but if you tell me what you like to eat I have to get groceries today anyways. What do vegans eat?"

"The same thing parrots eat," Baxter said. "Just take our shopping list for Noel and size it up by a factor of ten... Nate looks like he eats like a bird anyways."

"Not inaccurate!" Nate laughed. "I'm really not difficult. Fruits and veggies and nuts and grains. Almond milk. I can mostly fend for myself, you don't have to cook for me."

"He's going to cook for you anyways," Baxter told him. "That's one of the ways Josh proves his love."

"Oh, please, that's one of the ways Josh keeps from having to bring you to the hospital more frequently than for your regular appointments," Josh said. "Cause you eat like total shit if I leave you to fend for yourself. And I basically have to baby you once a week anyways."

"Which you do because you love me," Baxter said brightly, and Josh patted his knee.

"Which I do because I love you. Yes."

"You guys are cute," Nate said. "Are you sure I'm not imposing?"

"Absolutely you aren't," Josh said.

"If Josh trusts you, then you're trustworthy," Baxter said. "He's got the best instincts about people of anyone I've ever known. He wouldn't have brought you home if you weren't worth keeping here."

"You're very confident in him," Nate said, and Baxter nodded.

"I have no reason to be anything but. He's not been wrong yet. Well, except about his own ex."

"I wasn't myself then," Josh said. "Kind of literally. I don’t advise a psychotic break as a relaxing vacation. But man, did I ever realize I was wrong about him when he never even came to see me in the hospital. Baxter was there to visit me almost every single day, Ryan never showed his face once."

"That's awful," Nate said, "I'm glad that you had a friend who cared about you, at least."

"So am I," Josh said, nudging his shoulder against Baxter's gently. "That was a couple months before the movie wrapped. I was out of commission for almost two weeks. By the time I got released, Damien got so jealous of the amount of time Bax spent with me that he broke up with him."

"That wasn't the only reason," Baxter said. "That wasn't even the main reason. He flipped out when he found out I was sick. Even after I told him that there was almost no chance I could get him sick too."

"What kind of sick?" Nate asked. "If you don't mind telling me."

"I don't mind. If you're living here you should know. I have hepatitis C, it's been... treatment resistant, I've been living with it for a few years. It's blood-borne, I'm really, really fucking careful about it, there's practically zero chance I could give it to anyone as stringent about it as I am." Baxter shrugged. "But once a week the interferon knocks me on my ass. And Josh isn't really joking about me taking shitty care of myself. So he helps me maintain my physical health, and I help him with his mental health, and we're both a lot healthier living together than we'd either be on our own."

"Well, good. I'm really glad you have each other," Nate said. "I can try to help too, I'm pretty helpful when I want to be."

"It doesn't bother you?" Baxter asked. Nate shook his head.

"No way. I have a lot of friends who are living with illnesses. If you say you're careful, I trust you. I'm pretty on top of how to avoid blood-borne pathogens. I'm not worried about it." Baxter looked surprised, and Nate gave him a wry smile. "Now I just know not to challenge you to drinking games."

"You can challenge me to drinking games," Josh said. "Please do. Or smoking games. Or board games. I like all sorts of games."

"Except mind games," Baxter interjected. "Josh doesn't play mind games."

"Bax plays mind games," Josh said. Baxter didn't look abashed. "He's a little bit evil. Just a little."

"I'm barely evil," Baxter said. "Since you got your claws in me I've been practically virtuous."

"He likes to toy with people who aren't sober," Josh said cheerfully. "Like a cat toying with a mouse. Speaking of who's using his claws."

"Should I be worried?" Nate asked. Baxter smirked a little.

"How often are you not sober?"

"Not often," Nate said. "Less often than that, if I have a reason to worry."

"Oh, you don't have to worry about him like that," Josh said. Baxter's eyes widened and he shook his head.

"No! I'm not malicious, Jesus. I don't know what kind of people you ran with in the city but Josh and I are harmless."

"I ran with all sorts of people in the city," Nate said. "Occasionally to my detriment. I wasn't that worried about you. For what it's worth, I feel comfortable here already. There's a very good energy in this house."

"That's mostly Josh's doing," Baxter said. He waved around the living room. "Most of the decorating is his idea. All of the photography is mine, but he decided what to hang. I think it's just the vibe he puts out, he's a very comforting person to be around."

"I try my best to be," Josh said. "It's sort of what I do. Make people comfortable."

"I'm the one with the bird, but Josh is the one who's feathered our nest," Baxter joked, and Josh grinned and leaned against him. "But we have plenty of room for you until you get established here. I'll just warn you that I spend my Sundays on the couch after I take my medication for the week..."

"Sundays are his bad days," Josh said. "Mondays are bad sometimes too. If he still feels bad on Tuesday, it's time to see his doctor."

"He mother-hens me," Baxter said. "But I haven't spent a night in the hospital since I moved in with him, so I'm not complaining.”

“We complement each other well,” Josh said. “I make the house cozy and Bax goes on cleaning binges and keeps it tidy, I do the cooking and he does the dishes, we offset each other’s unhealthier tendencies, and professionally we’re just absolutely perfectly matched.”

“I’m not going to interfere by being here, will I?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Baxter said, studying Nate thoughtfully. “I don’t really know what you’re like at all.”

“I’m easygoing, mostly,” Nate said. “I have a lot of practice at staying out of people’s way. I promise I won’t bother you.”

“I get bothered easily,” Baxter said, and Nate shrugged, smiling slightly.

“I’ll try really hard not to bother you. That’s the last thing I want to do.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” Josh said. “At least for as long as it takes Nate to find a place of his own. Probably just a few weeks, unless you’re completely unhireable.”

“Not if I’m selective about the references I give,” Nate said brightly. “Last place canned me because I complained about being constantly propositioned by one of the game devs. But the jobs before that I left on better terms.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Baxter asked. “Firing someone because they’re being harassed?”

“I like to think I can choose my battles more wisely than that,” Nate said. “I might be male, but that Gamergate bullshit can get aimed at a queer guy just about as easy as it gets aimed at women in the biz. And I kind of like not being flooded by rape threats on Twitter. Anyways, losing that job prompted me to come out here. So… fuck that creepy nerd and everyone who defended him.”

“There are no creepy nerds in this house, at least,” Josh said. “And we’re not going to ask you for rent or anything, you can stay here as long as you need to get your feet under you. Don’t worry about anything except getting settled here.”

“That’s really nice of you,” Nate said. “Like absurdly nice. Like suspiciously nice. What’s the catch?”

“You have to put up with Baxter’s grumpiness every week,” Josh said. “And you’re probably going to get bitten by a parrot at least once. And you’re definitely going to have your face licked by a golden retriever every time you lay down on the couch. We’re going to ask that you help with chores, but we won’t insist that you have to wear the French maid uniform.”

“I’d like to insist that he wear the uniform,” Baxter said. “Because I’m sick of wearing it for you.” Josh dissolved into giggles, and Nate looked between them with an eyebrow arched. “Kidding,” Baxter added. “Unless you’re into it. In which case, do what makes you happy.”

“I mean, I did come here intending to play dress-up and let you take my picture,” Nate said. “I was just hoping they’d be classy pictures.”

“I’m not a pornographer,” Baxter said, looking a little huffy about it. “I don’t take prurient photos.”

“You do sometimes,” Josh said.

“Bite your tongue,” Baxter said. “I will occasionally take sexy pictures by request for individuals who suck at taking provocative selfies. And I did a boudoir shoot that one time and I charged through the nose for it because she could afford it.”

“When he says through the nose he’s not actually referring to being paid in cocaine,” Josh clarified.

“God no. I got paid in acid once at a music festival, but those were extenuating circumstances.”

“Extenuating circumstances means he really likes acid,” Josh said. “And then I had to trip-sit him while I was also on acid, just less of it than he was on.”

“Sounds like a good time to me,” Nate said. “Not that I make a habit of doing hallucinogens.”

“Good, then you’re the new trip-sitter,” Baxter said. “Because I do make a habit of it.”

“I’m pretty sure that his spinal fluid is mostly LSD at this point,” Josh said. “One of these days he’s going to get so high he doesn’t come back down, but he’s funny as hell when he’s tripping, so as long as he doesn’t totally incapacitate himself it’ll probably be fine.”

“Please don’t make me trip-sit too often,” Nate said. “I reached my lifetime tolerance of Alice in Wonderland a couple years ago.”

“Aren’t you like eighteen?” Baxter asked.

“I’m almost twenty-two,” Nate said, and Baxter’s brows lifted.

“Well, it’s nice to no longer be the only person in the house who looks younger than he actually is,” he said. “Cause when you walked in here I honestly thought Josh might have seduced a high schooler into crossing the country.”

“Excuse you,” Nate said. “I almost have a college degree.”

“Almost?”

“This was my last semester. I finished my minor but not my major.”

“And those were…?”

“I was majoring in creative writing,” Nate said. “I’m halfway done with my thesis. I’m still going to finish it even though I withdrew, I can’t stand leaving a project half done. And my minor was in LGBTQ studies.”

“Welcome to the household of overpriced and undervalued degrees,” Josh said. “Fine arts, creative writing, and fashion design.”

“I put myself through school,” Baxter said. “It’s only overpriced if you have to pay interest on loans for twenty years. I cleared my bill every semester.”

“On a fine arts degree? Were you selling drugs or your body?” Nate asked, only half joking. Baxter snorted.

“Neither. But I was doing something very dangerous and I got paid in cash.”

“How long do we have to be friends before I get to hear that story?”

“Longer than this,” Baxter said.

“Fair enough. I’m going to ask in a week, though.”

“I’m not saying I’ll tell you in a week.”

“Then I’ll just have to keep asking,” Nate said cheerfully. “You’ll either like me enough to tell me or you’ll be so annoyed you’ll tell me just to shut me up.”

“Oh, don’t set out to annoy him,” Josh said. “He’s stubborn.”

“I’m stubborn too.”

“Let’s not turn it into a contest,” Baxter said. “Because it’s not polite to bulldoze guests. And it looks like it would probably be pretty easy to make you cry.”

“I’d be offended if it wasn’t accurate,” Nate said. “But I tear up looking at cat pictures on Facebook sometimes. Please don’t try to make me cry.”

“Nobody’s going to make you cry,” Josh said. “Bax, don’t bully him.”

“I don’t bully anyone,” Baxter said. “Except shitty photographers with huge Facebook followings. I bully the fuck out of them. I’m not going to bully you, Nate. I’m not a horrible person. I just don’t like being annoyed.”

“I’m just going to have to get you to like me, then,” Nate said brightly. “Is that going to be difficult?”

“Probably not,” Baxter said. “A character reference from Josh goes a long way with me. But I really have to see how you are with Noel before I make a call one way or another.”

“I have no experience with birds,” Nate said. “Except for the one time a pigeon landed on my head and I screamed the entire way running home. But in my defense I was six years old when that happened.”

“Oh my god,” Josh said, folding with laughter. “Oh man. I’m sorry, that’s just the funniest mental image.”

“It’s hilarious in retrospect,” Nate said. “But it made me scared of pigeons for a few years, which isn’t really sustainable in New York City.”

“Noel is definitely not a pigeon,” Baxter said. “She can be slow to warm up to people sometimes. But she likes blue-eyed people and she can be bribed.”

“As long as she doesn’t fly onto my head, I’m willing to suck up to her.” Nate tilted his head slightly. “So food is my in to the bird, and the bird is my in to Baxter. I can make that work.”

“Speaking of food… come help me make a grocery list,” Josh said, leaning against Nate’s side. “Or come grocery shopping with me. Or both.”

“I can do both,” Nate agreed.

“Don’t even try to use the vegan as an excuse not to get the twinkies,” Baxter said warningly. “That’s not a valid excuse.”

“Your impending diabetes is the excuse,” Josh said.

“You can use that excuse as soon as my blood tests start actually showing it,” Baxter said. “But right now I’m fine and I demand twinkies.”

“Baxter’s junk food habit will eventually be the death of him,” Josh said.

“Pretty sure my liver is going to be what kills me, not my insulin levels.” Nate’s eyebrows shot up, and Baxter shrugged. “I can make jokes about it, it’s my body. I’ve probably got another fifteen years of mediocre health in me.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop making you eat somewhat healthy.”

“You’re probably going to make me eat even healthier now that you’re cooking for Nate too. So I should really make you get me twinkies and cupcakes.”

“I can make you cupcakes,” Nate offered.

“Vegan cupcakes? Baked with sadness?”

“My cupcakes are baked with joy, I’ll have you know.”

“Junk food and health food are mutually exclusive categories.”

“Challenge accepted,” Nate said brightly. “I bet I can make something for you that tastes good without all the artificial bullshit in your gross Hostess treats.”

“Not only do I not believe you, but I will bet twenty bucks that you fail at it.”

“Wait, if you’re making an actual bet then there needs to be terms,” Josh said.

“By the time I move out, I’ll have succeeded,” Nate said. “If not, I will hand him the money when I leave.”

“I accept these terms,” Baxter said. He offered a hand and Nate shook it over Josh between them. Josh sighed and nudged Baxter with his elbow.

“I’m going to watch you take a bite out of all of them,” he said. “Because I know what you look like when you enjoy something but I bet you’d try to bullshit Nate even if you liked it.”

“I am offended by your lack of faith in me,” Baxter said.

“I don’t care if you’re offended, you know I’m right.”

“I didn’t say you were wrong.”

“I have confidence in my own abilities,” Nate said. “And I never said I’d be making them vegan. They will be healthier than that processed crap though.”

“Why would you make something you can’t eat?” Baxter asked.

“I’m an imperfect vegan,” Nate said. “It’s not ideological, really. I’m not one of those PETA psychos. I’m just healthier when I’m not eating meat and dairy’s never agreed with me. I’ll eat fish but only farmed fish because the fishing industry is destroying ocean ecosystems.”

“Weird,” Baxter said. “All the other vegans I know are dicks about it.”

“I try not to be a dick,” Nate said with a shrug. “Just as a general lifestyle choice. Although I have a tendency to attract dicks.”

“Metaphorically or literally?”

“I attract people who are awful and I prefer to attract people who have penises,” Nate clarified, “extra preferentially to the second but not the first, but my luck has been terrible more often than it’s been good.”

“Just have Josh vet anyone you might date here,” Baxter said. “He’s a super accurate judge of character.”

“That’s because I’m psychic,” Josh said. “And protective. And a little bit crazy.”

“You just said the same thing three times,” Baxter said, and Josh grinned.

“I could deal with someone being protective of me,” Nate said. “It’ll be a nice change of pace.”

“Then you have come to the right place,” Baxter said. “Because Josh is emotionally protective and I am physically protective.”

“No offense, but you don’t look that scary,” Nate said.

“Wait until you see him with his gun in his hand before you make that assessment,” Josh said. “Those baby blue eyes hide a stone-cold killer.”

“I don’t shoot to kill,” Baxter said. “Unless there’s a really good reason.” Nate’s eyes went wide.

“Is he joking? I can’t tell if he’s joking.”

“I’ve never killed anyone,” Baxter said. “Yet. Not saying it’ll never happen.”

“You should have said that when you were telling me not to be annoying. I would have agreed a lot faster.”

“I’m not going to shoot you unless you really really really fuck up,” Baxter said with a grin. “So don’t fuck up that bad.”

“I will be on my best behavior.” Nate lifted a hand to his chest. “Cross my heart, please don’t kill me.”

“Nobody’s getting shot,” Josh said, standing up and looking between them with a smile. “Okay. Twinkies for Bax, real food for everyone else. I can never go grocery shopping without a list, or I will buy everything that looks good.”

“I can’t go grocery shopping hungry or I do the same thing,” Nate said.

“Then we should get you fed before we go,” Josh said. “I’m pretty sure we have some fruit, but probably not enough vegetables to make a decent salad. We’ll find you something to nibble while we make the list.” Nate hopped off the couch and followed Josh into the kitchen, getting himself situated pretty easily with an apple and some peanut butter while he listed off things he could eat and Josh asked him about his favorite recipes.

When they got back from the grocery store they ended up making crispy avocado tacos for dinner, partly because it was easy and partly because everyone in the house already appreciated avocados and tacos were a good compromise between healthy (Nate’s, loaded with crunchy vegetables) and unhealthy (Baxter’s, drizzled with ranch dressing and covered in shredded cheese). By the time Nate finished washing the dishes, which he’d insisted on doing, he was practically falling asleep standing up.

“I was going to ask if you wanted to come on the nightly walk, but you look like you’re going to fall over,” Josh said. Nate stifled a yawn and shook his head.

“No thank you. I will tomorrow, but right now I think I need to adjust my internal clock.” Josh took the dog out and Nate got ready for bed, settling down on his back staring up at the ceiling thinking over the events of the day, trying to figure out what life would be like going forward from then.

Josh came back from walking Clifford, changed into pajama pants, and went to brush his teeth. On his way back through the living room he paused behind the couch and smiled at Nate stretched out with his head on the arm of the couch. "You don't have to sleep out here if you don't want to," Josh said. "I mean, my bed's big enough for two skinny guys. And that's not a come-on. I'm not going to try anything."

"Won't that make Bax unhappy?" Nate sat up on the couch, looking up at Josh. "I'm not trying to cause trouble in paradise. Or get shot."

"I think you might be misunderstanding the nature of our relationship," Josh said, and Nate arched an eyebrow. "We don't sleep together."

"Why not? You seem practically married." Josh huffed a laugh and leaned against the couch.

"It's his call. He's..." Josh shook his head. "It's not my place to say. You'll get to know him and he'll tell you or he won't. If he ever changes his mind, he knows I'd do it in a heartbeat, but either it's not going to happen or it's the slowest burn relationship I've ever been in in my life."

"Oh..." Nate looked puzzled, and Josh smiled slightly.

"Invitation's been extended, anyways. If you'd like a little more room to stretch out, you're welcome to it. If you're happy on the couch, that's cool. I should warn you that Noel rises with the sun and Baxter talks to her all morning long."

"I rise with the sun too," Nate said.

"Then you can have conversations with the bird too!"

"Is she a good conversationalist?"

"A bit repetitive. And she steals food."

"That's okay, I eat like a bird anyways." Josh snorted a laugh.

"Then you should have an excellent breakfast partner from now on. I'm going to bed, goodnight."

"Wait..." Nate uncurled and sat up straight. "It won't bother you if I get up earlier than you?"

"Nope. I sleep like a rock. I won't even notice."

"And I won't be kicking Clifford off the bed?"

"Clifford doesn't sleep on the bed, he's got a bed of his own."

"So... it's really okay?"

"I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't really okay," Josh said. "But I'm not pushing, either."

"No, you aren't, I'm just... double-checking."

"Well then, come on. You're totally welcome." Josh waved into the bedroom, and Nate picked up his pillow and came into the room, pausing just inside the door.

"Jesus Christ, what do you need a bed this big for?" Josh gave Nate a gentle nudge into the room, laughing.

"You never know when you might need to host an orgy. Best to be prepared."

"...have you really?"

"Not yet, but the day may come!" Josh said brightly. "If you want the truth, it's a hand-me-down from my parents. My father kicks in his sleep and my mother sprawls, so they needed a big bed if they were going to share one. They got one of those fancy sleep number deals right before I moved to Vegas and gave me this one to take with me. I've been thinking about replacing the mattress but it's not uncomfortable yet. Maybe if I ever schedule that orgy I'll make a point of upgrading before there's more bodies on it at once." Nate gave him a sidelong glance, not sure how serious he was being, and Josh beamed at him. "But it's been a while since there's been anyone in it but me. And occasionally Bax if he's having a really bad night."

"Really? That seems like a shame," Nate said, hugging his pillow to his chest. Josh shrugged and pulled back the covers on the left side of the bed.

"Usually I go to other people's beds."

"So, um... you and Baxter really don't--?" Nate set his pillow on the right side of the bed and curled up on his side, blue eyes curious on Josh. Josh sighed and settled down facing Nate.

"I would if he wanted to. But every time I asked, he said no, so I stopped asking. I understand why he doesn’t want to, I think. I’m not going to try to change his mind. He’s got good reasons. I’m not going to argue that I’m not like who he’s been with before, all I can do is show him that I’m not going to do what they did to him. So that’s what I do.”

“Oh,” Nate said, nodding. “Okay. That I can understand. I haven’t had the best luck with my exes either. But the way you two talk about each other…”

“He’s my best friend,” Josh said. “He means the world to me. I’d do anything for him. And he knows that I would.”

“But he doesn’t want you like that.”

“No.”

“So… you’re available?” Nate asked hopefully. Josh stifled a laugh into his pillow. “You don’t have to laugh at me,” Nate said, stung.

“I’m not-- I’m not laughing at you,” Josh quickly said, reaching across the bed to pat Nate’s hand. “Sorry. I’m just-- you probably should see how this household works before you proposition me. There’s a reason I keep my sex life and my emotional life on separate tracks. Most people don’t appreciate how close Bax and I are, and I’m not willing to let go of him to prioritize someone else.”

“That’s fair,” Nate said, and he caught Josh’s hand back and laced their fingers together. “Sorry. But I… can I be honest with you?”

“Please do.”

“I’ve kind of had a crush on you since I was like eighteen. I know it’s dumb to think you know a person because of how they are on social media, but you’ve always been so open and friendly and encouraging to me even when things were really, really bad for me. This is like…” Nate paused, shaking his head slightly. “This seems unreal, yet. Like the train ride was an acid trip and I just fell into Wonderland, and in a couple of days I’m going to wake up in Brooklyn with a headache and a heartache right back where I started.”

“This is real,” Josh said. “I promise. You’re 2500 miles away from the apartment you got evicted from and all your exes and your shitty old jobs and I’m not sending you back there if you don’t want to go back.”

“I don’t,” Nate said. “I really don’t. Ever. There’s nothing left for me there.”

“I’m not saying you have to stay here, either. You can, if you want to. I hope you’ll stay for a while. As long as we all get along, which I think we will. You don’t even know how excited I am to dress you up, and Bax is super fun to model for. I honestly think this is going to be awesome.”

“I believe you.”

“I’m really happy to have you here.”

“I’m really happy to be here!”

“Good. Tomorrow I’ll show you around the city, okay? There’s a lot to see around here. I want to help you settle in quickly.”

“Thank you,” Nate said softly. “For everything.”

“You’re entirely welcome,” Josh said, and he squeezed Nate’s fingers and let go to turn off the bedside light. “Good night, Nate.”

“Good night, Josh.” Between how tired he was and how comfortable he was, Nate went out almost as fast as the light did.
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