A sequel of sorts to A Dream is Just a Dream is Just a…
Eliot disappeared the second Parker brought out the gingerbread house.
Nate, expecting the response, watched as he sheathed the sword with a scowl and stomped out.
The others didn’t notice. Sophie was sitting next to Parker, dreamily holding the ‘Your Name Here,’ bracelet up to the light, no doubt pondering what alias she would’ve inscribed on it, had she the chance. Parker was playing with her money, folding it into shapes that probably made sense to her, but didn’t to him. Hardison was zoned out in his chair, head bent towards the smart phone in his hands. He hadn’t looked up since Parker had returned from outside—Nate wasn’t sure if he was still breathing, but figured the others would notice if he wasn’t.
So they weren’t paying any attention and wouldn’t notice if he finished his champagne and snuck away.
He sighed and told himself to hold his horses. Eliot had been singularly crabby lately and every time he’d thrown a joke or tried to catch his eye, Eliot had either not noticed or simply growled.
So maybe his own personal Christmas present—the one he’d been anticipating for three hours while the team came down from their usual post job-gone-well high—was going to have to wait.
He was turning his glass, watching the champagne swirl gently when his cell rang. He glanced at the screen. Well, speak of the devil. “Hello,” he answered, making his voice as obnoxiously pleasant as possible.
“Where the hell are you?”
“Where do you think?”
When Eliot didn’t answer, Nate turned his back to the room to hide his grin—it would be a dead giveaway if anyone were watching. “I take it you have something to say to me? Or would that be, something to give to me?”
“All right, all right.” He finished his champagne in one gulp. “I’m coming.”
Eliot hung up.
Nate turned back around. The team was doing what they’d been doing although he was pretty sure that flash of red had come from Parker. Yeah, her cheeks were flushed and she was smiling down at her money a little too gleefully.
“Guys? I’m done for the day. Set the alarm, okay?” Sophie waved her bracelet. Hardison grunted. Parker looked up and winked. Nate did a double take, then decided he really didn’t want to know and kept going.
He took the elevator instead of the back stairs, bouncing on his toes as it slowly creaked and groaned, trying not to anticipate, trying not to imagine. Christmas hadn’t been his favorite holiday, not for years, but as the con had gone deeper, he’d started to enjoy himself more. Enough that when Sophie had suggested presents, he’d said sure, why not. And as they discussed ideas, his good mood only increased.
Until he found out about Colin Mason, the little weasel. He’d really screwed up there and it still stuck in his craw, that he hadn’t—
The elevator door opened and he stepped through. “Eliot?”
He looked around. The kitchen lights were on low and the monitors were off—he couldn’t make out much of anything, certainly no Eliot. And yeah, it looked like it had been too much to expect a naked Eliot lying on the sofa with nothing on but the Santa hat.
He shrugged and was heading towards the staircase when a dark shape rushed him, pushing and pushing until he hit the brick.
Okay, so Eliot wasn’t naked and he still had the sagging red suit on, but— “Hey, Santa. I’m glad that’s covered,” he said, nodding to the sheathed sword pressed to his throat. “I don’t think I’d be much good to you without a head.”
Eliot’s throat worked, probably trying to not say the dozen of responses, dirty or otherwise, that Nate had left an opening for. He finally growled and grabbed Nate’s neck, pulling him down for a kiss that hurt at first.
And then didn’t.
And then didn’t even more when Nate opened his mouth, welcoming him with lips and tongue, kind of melting into the wall even though he couldn’t really melt, though that was what it—
Eliot bit his tongue, then licked it. “Nate?”
He didn’t let go as they staggered to the staircase, hitting the sofa and side table, stopping only once to steady the tottering lamp with his foot and somehow that turned on Eliot even more and he was snarling softly as he pushed him up the stairs backwards.
The only bad moment that was also sort of funny was near the top of the stairs. He was grasping Eliot’s wide black Santa belt and the rail, and his heel caught on a tread. He went down on his ass, cushioning Eliot’s fall, but still…
He laughed into Eliot’s mouth as he tried to stick his hands down Eliot’s pants.
Eliot didn’t laugh. He just fisted Nate’s sweater and pulled him up. To his feet and towards the bed.
“If I had hair as long as yours, would you drag me to your cave by it?” Nate asked facetiously.
“Hell, yeah,” Eliot muttered. “I’d even do this.” He shoved gently, throwing him on the bed, then leaned to the side to lay the sword carefully on the chest at the foot of the bed.
He propped himself up on his elbows. “Should I be insulted that you’re treating that sword nicer than you’re treating me?”
He expected Eliot to say something like, ‘you can take it, the sword can’t.’ But he didn’t—they both knew that as much as he was better, healthier, sometimes his craving for an alcohol-induced stupor was overwhelming and sure enough, when Eliot kneeled between his legs and bent close, his kisses and hands were gentle.
He let Eliot do the undressing, only moving his arms and legs when he had to, and when he was naked, he got under the covers—it was too damn cold, even if the air felt sexy on his skin, even if Eliot’s appreciative glance made him want to lay there and never move.
Eliot squirmed out of his clothes, easily getting naked because the Santa suit was practically falling off and all he was wearing underneath was a t-shirt and shorts. Nate held the covers up and when Eliot slid in and on him, he sighed because nothing could compare to the first touch, the way they fit together, the way they didn’t.
He spread his legs, his encouraging sighs turning to moans when Eliot kissed his throat, his chest, then down under the covers to kiss his belly and cock. But it was too much, too soon and he grabbed Eliot’s hair and tugged, whispering into the cave made by sheets and blankets, “No, c’mon. C’mon back up here with me.”
Eliot crawled up from below and Nate had to hold back a laugh—his hair was all over the place, sticking up in fine, static-crazy strands.
“What?” Eliot asked suspiciously.
He smoothed Eliot’s hair down and shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just glad you’re here, that’s all.”
The thing was, Nate thought, as he groaned deep in his throat and tried fruitlessly to hold onto sweat-slick skin, was that Eliot was like an open book. When he was like this—at his most furious, fucking him with a glare that could crack diamond—he was also at his most tender. Never hurting beyond the required, never going to fast, too slow, almost hyper aware of Nate and his responses.
And one day he’d tell Eliot that, tell him that he loved the duality, the conundrum that Eliot presented him with every day. But not now.
Eliot took two steps then raised his arm and murmured, “To associate with others with sincerity…”
He cracked one eye open. “Eliot?”
But Eliot ignored him, instead raised his other arm, adding, “And to forever pursue the cul—”
He turned on his side and brought out the big gun. “Honey?”
That did it. With a snarl that came from deep in his chest, Eliot pivoted and pointed the sword at him. “We talked about that. Don’t call me honey!”
“How about sweetheart?” And then, when Eliot took a step forward, he smiled and murmured archly, “Pumpkin?”
“Nate,” Eliot growled.
But he was done, laughing as he held his hand up. “Okay, okay. Calm down. I just wanted to tell you to be careful. That thing could take a hand off.”
“Then you shouldn’t have bought it for me.” Eliot turned back to the room and began again, swinging the sword in swift, stylized motions as he stepped and hopped here and there.
“I didn’t buy it,” Nate said absently. He’d been trying to catch his breath, flat under Eliot, when he’d pushed to his feet and pulled on his shorts and got the sword.
He should look ridiculous, capering around the bed like that in just his shorts, but he didn’t. He looked sleek and dangerous and hot and Nate’s belly tightened in new desire.
“Anyway,” Eliot said. “I’d never cut my own hand off.”
“Well, be careful, anyway.” He reached for the latest copy of Archeology he’d bought earlier that week. There was no way he’d be able to make love so soon—returning to the article he’d been reading earlier would be a good way to waste a few minutes. Besides, who knew when the information about the new find in Thebes would come in handy. He found his place and added, “Anyway, I was really thinking of my own hands.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“I don’t know why you’re so worried. I know what I’m—” Eliot broke off with a little hiss, then mumbled, “Oops.”
Nate closed his eyes and turned over with a sigh.
Luckily, Eliot hadn’t cut off his own hand or any part of his body. He’d just gotten a little too enthusiastic and misjudged the distance. Or maybe just the dimensions because he was standing in front of the lamp by the windows, sword outstretched, watching as the shade began to sag, then droop like a dying flower.
“That cost a hundred and twenty dollars,” Nate said blandly.
“A hundred and twenty for the lamp?”
“No, for the lampshade.”
“Who spends a hundred and twenty bucks on a lampshade, Nate?”
“I do,” he said mildly. “Or rather, I did.”
Eliot waved his hand like he did when Hardison got him really worked up. “It’s a lampshade for Pete’s sake. It covers your lamps.”
“Not now it doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter.” He tossed the magazine on the nightstand and lay back. Yeah, it had been expensive, but he could buy another. Eliot knew that. “It’s not a big deal.”
Eliot brushed his hair back. “I know that.”
But he didn’t and Nate could see an unexpected shame color on his cheeks—he hated that. “I can go out tomorrow and get another.”
“Eliot,” he said gently. When Eliot looked over, he held out his hand, then quickly drew it back. “Put away the sword first.”
Eliot made a face, but sheathed the blade and laid it on the bench, then got into bed.
He pulled Eliot onto his chest. “I could care less about that lampshade.”
“Then why did you spend so much on it?”
“Because that’s how much it cost.”
“Hmph,” Eliot said into his neck.
He grinned. This was another thing he loved about Eliot—never give an inch, never surrender.
“I’ve been wondering… How did you get it so quickly? Parker’s gift probably took all of two seconds to steal and Hardison’s— Well, okay, I don’t know how long it took to get his thingamajig, but that?” He jerked his head to the foot of the bed, his hair stroking Nate’s chin and throat. “You can’t buy a sword like that at the mall, Nate.”
He stalled for time by rubbing Eliot’s calf with his own. He’d been hoping Eliot would be too stunned by the gift to actually think. At least for a few days—and by then, they’d be onto a new job and he’d forget about the how and concentrate on the what.
At the very least, he’d hoped that he’d have time to take a small trip before Eliot got a clue, getting out of the line of sight, as it were. “You’re right.”
He shrugged—no way out of it. “Remember the London job?”
Eliot frowned. “The one where Sophie was a fake, not-fake, countess?”
“Well, we don’t know if she’s a real—”
He shrugged again and began to stroke Eliot’s hair, over and over. “Yeah, okay. Parker found it. It was in the storage room at the auction house and she told me about it. When the con was completed, I went back for it.”
“Did you steal it?”
Eliot was silent for a long moment. “Do I want to know how much it cost?”
“No. I’m not gonna tell you, in any case.”
“Hmph,” Eliot said again. And then, when Nate thought he’d fallen asleep, he muttered, “Nate?”
“I got you a present, too.”
Nate stopped stroking. “You did?”
“Well,” he said after a moment, “are you going to give it to me?”
With a hesitation, Nate didn’t miss, Eliot nodded again and got out of bed and went to the closet. He slid the doors open and reached up and moved some stuff on the top shelf and brought down a big cardboard box.
Son of a bitch—Eliot had hidden his own gift in his own closet. Which was pretty damn clever, and when he came back to bed and knelt on the covers, Nate was grinning.
“Okay,” Eliot said, speaking mostly to the top of the box. “I wasn’t gonna do anything like this, but I had a friend who needed a break, so I helped him out and he gave me this.” He shook the box without looking up. “I didn’t have any use for it, so I thought you might like it.” He took a deep breath and shoved the box towards Nate with a mumbled, “Merry Christmas.”
Nate sat up and took the box and lifted the flaps. Inside was another box, about fourteen by eighteen, and if the outer box was cheap, to be thrown away, this was meant to hold a valued keepsake. Cherry, by the look and—he bent close and sniffed—smell. It was hinged on the side, like a book—he flipped the latches and opened it up.
And bent forward, squinting at a framed document, covered with glass.
“Here,” Eliot said.
He looked up. Eliot was holding his reading glasses, still staring down at the box.
He took the glasses and put them on—this time he was able to see clearly.
It was a letter, clearly an antique. Yellowed and foxed with age, the worn edges the product of time and use, not trickery. The note itself was short and began with, ‘Dear Sir. Seven o’clock, and retired to my fireside, I have determined to enter into conversation with you…and ended with, ‘Yours affectionately, Th Jefferson.’
“Eliot,” he whispered, touching the glass reverently, running his thumb over the cold surface. Jefferson’s script, like so many of his age, was graceful, even beautiful. “This is one of the letters Jefferson Madison letters. Where did you get it?”
“I told you. A friend needed some help, so I helped him out.”
“By help do you mean money or muscle?”
“Does it matter?”
Nate looked up. “Yes.”
Eliot shifted from his knees to sit cross-legged next to Nate. “He owns a small, private collection of antiques. I ran into him in London a few years ago, and…” He shrugged and pretended to pick lint off the bedspread. “I got to know him. He’s a nice man. He called a couple months ago and told me he was being blackmailed.”
“He’s gay and he’s not out with his family, so…” He shrugged again.
Nate wanted to take his hand. “So, he asked you to help with the blackmailers. What happened?”
“I did my thing, convinced them to leave Stephen alone.”
“Is that how you got that bruise?” He nodded to the unblemished skin over Eliot’s ribcage where a five-inch bruise had since faded. He’d waited for a reason to ask about it, then, when it had healed, decided that if Eliot wanted him to know, he’d tell him.
Eliot ran his fingers over his ribs, as if he couldn’t remember being hurt. “Yeah, they caught me by surprise outside Stephen’s house.”
He wondered if Eliot and Stephen had been lovers those ‘few years ago’ but couldn’t ask. Eliot’s face gave no inroads and besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Wasn’t sure what he would do if the answer were ‘yes,’ and just the thought… “So he gave you this?” He nodded to the letter, glad that the burn of jealousy hadn’t made it to his voice.
“Well, no,” Eliot finally smiled. “He wanted to give me cash, but I told him I wanted the letter instead.”
Huh. It must have been a lot of cash, judging by the smile and so much for wanting to get rid of something he couldn’t use. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything,” Eliot answered gruffly. And when Nate, not able to help himself, reached out, he rolled off the bed, saying, “I’m hungry. Are you hungry? I’m gonna see what you’ve got in the refrigerator. Probably nothing, knowing you.” He picked up his t-shirt and was gone, still muttering, pounding down the stairs before Nate could grab him.
He looked at the letter again, rubbing the sleek frame. He should give it to the Boston museum, and he would, but not for a while. He’d keep it in the safe, the one no one but Hardison and Eliot knew about. But for now…
He touched it again, then got out of bed with a grunt and padded to the closet. He got his robe and pulled it on, then went downstairs.
The second floor was still dark. Eliot wasn’t in the kitchen—he was by the street windows, looking out. He’d pulled on his t-shirt but he had to be cold.
Nate hesitated, then whispered, “Screw it,” and walked up behind and curled his arms around Eliot’s waist. He didn’t resist—he just leaned back and wrapped his arms around Nate’s.
“Yeah, I’m hungry,” he whispered into Eliot’s hair. “And, yeah, I have food in my refrigerator. Feel like cooking?”
Eliot nodded, then pulled away and went to the kitchen.
Nate stayed where he was, though, and watched Eliot’s reflection in the glass. He’d gotten the food out of the refrigerator and was setting everything out in neat piles in that way he did. Nate had asked him about it once, ‘why so particular about the order?’ Eliot pretended frustration and pointed to piles of vegetables and meat, saying, ‘so you know that this you dice, this you slice, this you cut.’
Always so rigid, as if the world would fall apart if he didn’t do something just so, just right.
Nate wanted to turn and say that he knew the letter was a present not just of love, but also as a thank-you for giving Eliot something he needed.
And he wanted to say—to reassure—that as much as one loved someone, it was never perfect, never easy, and that he knew from personal experience how the urge to run could be all consuming. And that it meant something that they were both still here, trying.
He rested his palm on the cold glass and watched the way the heat from his hand fogged the surface in a neat outline and pictured it, Eliot’s reaction, his own. He shivered.
And turned away, back to where Eliot was calmly cutting up a stalk of celery, saying “Do you feel like watching TV? There’s probably a movie on.”