Prologue: New Year’s Eve

 

 

IT WAS a well-known fact that Eliot was a lightweight when it came to alcohol. A beer would make him tipsy. Two and he was drunk. Any shot of hard liquor and he was dancing on tables, generally making an ass of himself.

His friends knew this. They were well aware of Eliot’s inability to function after more than one drink. They had witnessed his most embarrassing moments, which ranged from vomiting in a woman’s hat, to waking up in someone’s bathtub, and the ever memorable wearing of lipstick and eyeliner. The photos of that one had been particularly horrifying since his best friend Jen, who had been equally drunk at the time, had applied the makeup sloppily yet enthusiastically. The result was that Eliot had looked like a disturbing, bespectacled clown. His other best friend, Pete, had protested. He had proclaimed that Eliot looked lovely, for a clown, and had taken copious photos. They’d appeared on Eliot’s Facebook page a few hours later, much to Eliot’s horrified chagrin.

Yet, despite all the documented evidence, it did not stop Jen and Pete from shoving drinks at Eliot throughout the course of the night. When he tried to refuse the last one, a bright-orange concoction that smelled strongly of vodka, Pete pushed it in his face and yelled over the din, “It’s New Year’s, Eliot. Lighten up.”

Eliot sipped the drink. The overwhelming combination of citrus and alcohol made his head spin, and he stumbled through the dancing crowd to his couch. There was a couple making out on it, firmly attached at the lips. He wanted to tell them that the ball wasn’t to drop for another ten minutes, and they should save the theatrics for then, but he suspected his opinion and intrusion wouldn’t be well received. Instead, he sat next to them in a fuzzy, loose state, the beat of the music a steady thrum reverberating in his chest.

He surveyed his rented home, full of people who he somewhat knew, laughing and enjoying themselves, drinking liquor, eating food and generally having a good time. In a disconnected kind of way, Eliot thought it was nice.

Slumping farther down in the cushion, Eliot allowed his head to fall back and roll until he was comfortable. His head swam slightly, his eyes a little unfocused, his limbs a little heavier than normal. Eliot shouldn’t have had that last drink. But it was New Year’s and wasn’t that the tradition—to get smashed and reflect on the previous year and look forward to the new one?

It hadn’t been the best year, but it certainly hadn’t been the worst by far. He supposed that as years went, this one had been fair to middling, and he counted himself lucky that he still had a job, he could still afford his schooling, and he still had a place to live, even if he shared it with Pete and Jen.

It had been a year of consistency and he had needed that, a solid routine. It had carried him for 365 days and he hoped it would continue into the next. While everyone around him reflected back and geared up for the countdown, swapping stories with their friends of “remember when we did this” and “can you believe we did that?”, Eliot was content to listen, a little drunk, a lot tired. Even though he didn’t have those kinds of stories, he did have a few things—Doctor Who marathons, Pizza Tuesdays, and the ever increasingly random events that involved Pete—and that was good enough for him.

“Eliot!” Jen yelled from across the room, her voice loud and unmistakable amidst the ruckus. “Don’t fall asleep!”

“I’m not,” he responded, slurring, eyelids drooping of their own accord.

In a slow blink, Jen was in front of him, her dress a flash of yellow in the dark, tiara firmly pinned in her curly hair. Jen was the picture of good cheer, a smiling, comforting presence. Eliot had met her his freshman year at college and they had been inseparable ever since. She was his anchor, and the only person who could talk him into doing anything, including wearing ill-advised makeup. She pulled him unsteadily to his feet and smiled, brilliant and mischievous.

“Come on, you’re going to have to be my kiss again this year,” she said with a wink, poking his nose with her plastic scepter, her British accent thicker than normal because of her own tipsy state.

“Again? But I was it last year.”

She nodded, pulling him in front of the TV where people were shouting and counting down.

“Why not Pete?”

She crinkled her nose. “No, only God knows where he has been. Besides, I think he’s busy.”

She pointed and Eliot laughed at the sight of his other housemate eagerly kissing and groping some random girl. He briefly thought he should take pictures so he could have some ammunition of his own, but Jen yanked on his arm. He almost tripped, balance briefly faltering, before he grabbed onto Jen’s shoulders, his face smooshed into her hair. He was lucky he’d missed the pointy ends of her tiara.

“Oh, Jen,” Eliot said, muffled by a mouthful of blonde curls. “When are you going to find your knight in shining armor to kiss on New Year’s?”

She shrugged, the strap of her dress slipping down one shoulder and her smile forced.

“Maybe next year,” she answered.

“Really, in this whole lot of people,” he said, swiping his hand to encompass the crowd, “there is no one that you would rather kiss than me?”

“You’re safe,” Jen answered, tiara tilting as she wobbled into him, the heel of her shoe catching on someone else’s foot. “And it’s part of the best friend job description.”

Eliot sighed dramatically. “A best friend’s duty is never done.”

“Nope, and you better remember that,” she answered, and when the shouts of Happy New Year permeated the air and the sounds of noisemakers went off all around them, she leaned in and planted her lips against his.

Eliot had the fleeting thought that if he weren’t utterly over women, the kiss might’ve been kind of nice, but then the moment was over. He pulled away, smiled fondly at Jen and the tangle of streamers in her hair before turning away and promptly puking in the potted plant.

 

 

Chapter 1: January

 

 

ELIOT woke to a pounding head and his face in a pile of confetti and drool. At least, he hoped it was drool. He wasn’t quite sure since his last really clear memory of the night before was his spectacular stomach pyrotechnics into the ficus plant.

Squinting against the weak light of the January morning, Eliot lifted his head and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. When he pulled his hand back, he found saliva and clinging bits of colored paper and let out a loud sigh. Rolling over on the carpet, he groped for his glasses, and was happy to find them only a few inches from his nose. He slipped them on and the blurry vision of Jen standing in front of him sharpened. She was in her robe, freshly showered and cupping a steaming mug. Behind her, Pete was stretched out on the couch, still blissfully asleep and snoring, askew party hat covering one ear, and lipstick staining his lips and chin.

Eliot scowled, envious at Pete’s ability to remain comatose for ridiculously long periods of time.

“Up already?” Jen’s cheerful voice came from above him. “I thought I had at least a few more hours of quiet before you and Pete came to.” Jen nudged his arm with her toe. “You look awful,” she stated with a grin.

Eliot winced. “I am never drinking again.”

Jen made a soft noise of disbelief before helping him into a sitting position. She got him a glass of water and after leaving to rummage in the bathroom for a moment, threw a bottle of ibuprofen at him that he failed spectacularly to catch. It ricocheted off his shoulder and to the floor where it erupted into a sea of small white tablets. Eliot picked up two and downed them with the water, grimacing as his stomach roiled.

“Erg,” he said as she walked past him and patted his head. “How’d I get on the floor?”

Jen shrugged. “Better than someone else’s bathtub, I’d say. You’re cleaning the plant by the way. That was gross.”

“Tell me again, Jen. Why do we host parties?”

“Because we’re fabulous at it and without them you would not get your quota of human interaction for the year.”

“Hey,” he protested, not as vehemently as he would’ve liked because his skull was still too small for his brain, “I interact with people.”

“Not by choice,” she replied, settling in the recliner. “You’ve become a hermit. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Eliot crawled slowly to her so he could lean against her leg and rest his throbbing head on her thigh. She absently ran her fingers through his hair as she sipped her tea, and he did everything in his power not to close his eyes and purr.

They stayed there in silence, and Eliot found himself nodding off again, the warmth radiating from Jen’s body lulling him into a post alcoholic-binge stupor.

It was certainly not the first time that he had fallen asleep in her comforting presence. He could remember many late-night studying marathons on a slim dorm bed where they’d passed out after hours of anxiously memorizing information, only to wake up sore after being squished together all night. More recently, there were nights when her company was the only thing able to ease his inconsolable grief, her pale arms wrapped around him in a tight hug providing a modicum of respite as he poured his distress into his pillow.

Eliot flinched from those memories, dragged his thoughts away and focused on the brightly colored miscellany of their party. The noise makers, the ripped glittery paper of banners and memorabilia, and other merry remnants that belied the actual melancholic passage of time, of yet another year of their lives slipping into oblivion, never to be had again.

Eliot frowned. He hated hungover introspections and wondered why he was doing so now. He must still be drunk.

“Eliot, about what you said last night…,” Jen said softly, her voice loud in the otherwise silence of the room.

“I’m sure I said a lot of things. You’ll have to be more specific.”

She lightly pinched his ear. “I’m trying to be serious here. What you said about finding my knight in shining armor… well… I think it goes for you too.”

Eliot groaned and buried his head into the fabric of her robe, the terry cloth soft against his cheeks.

“No, no. Hear me out. Since, well, since the last few years, we’ve been kind of static. You go to work, go to class and then come home to me and Pete, do homework, eat take out, and sit on the couch and watch Doctor Who. I’m not much better, I mean, I occasionally go out with friends from work but other than that it’s you two,” she said with a gesture to the still-sleeping Pete.

“We do watch things other than the Doctor,” Eliot protested. “I’m an equal opportunity science-fiction television watcher. And I sat through an entire season of that horrible vampire show just for you.”

Jen sighed and tugged a little harder on his hair. He could tell she was frustrated with his attempt to derail, but they had spoken bits and pieces of this conversation before and Eliot always loathed it, especially when Jen gave him the pitying look.

“That’s not the point,” she continued, tone still soft but with an edge of exasperation. “We do the same things over and over every night with no variation whatsoever. It’s like we’re stuck in that movie with Bill Murray and the groundhog.”

“I guess you’re going to say there is something wrong with that?”

“Yes,” she said fervently, giving his hair a good yank.

“Ow! Jen!” Eliot sat up and batted her hands away before glaring at her blearily. “First, I happen to like my life. I have the two best friends and housemates in the world. I have a pretty good job at a campus library and I’m furthering my education. And second, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“No,” she agreed. “There’s not, but it seems… that maybe… there could be more.”

Eliot huffed. “I’ve had more. I’ve experienced more. I don’t want more.”

She sighed and Eliot looked away before she pinned him with one of her indulgent, coaxing expressions. “I know you’re scared.”

“What gave you that idea?”

“Eliot, the last time you had a date was two and a half years ago, right after your mum—”

“I know when my last date was, thank you.”

“And the last time you tried something new was even longer ago than that.”

He raised his eyebrow, incredulous. “If this is going to be the year of criticize Eliot, then I’m going to go to bed.” He started to stand, albeit wobbly, but Jen grabbed his arm.

“No, Eliot, wait, I’m worried about you. I think something needs to change and I have an idea,” she paused. “Call it a New Year’s resolution.”

Eliot slumped back to the floor and tried to ignore the stinging truth of Jen’s words about the painfully obvious rut that was his life. In the end, he scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed loudly.

“A resolution?”

She nodded. “Yes. We do one brand new thing a month. Something neither of us has ever done before.”

“One new thing?”

“A month. Twelve total for the whole year.”

Eliot already knew he was going to agree because he could never refuse Jen—kind, gentle Jen who made hot chocolate with the big marshmallows, made sure Pete took his medication and that Eliot ate even when he was stressed. She knew it too, but he would be damned if he didn’t drag this out a little longer.

“And you’ll take full responsibility when I either embarrass or injure myself horribly or break something expensive?”

Her smile widened in anticipation. “Of course. Don’t I always?”

Eliot sighed yet again and gave his best put upon expression. “Well, all right, then.”

Jen squealed, dropped her mug on the carpet and threw her arms around his neck.

“Oh Eliot! It will be so much fun! Just one new thing a month. That’s it and we’ll do them together and it will be marvelous!”

“Right,” Eliot answered, skeptical. “Marvelous.”

 

 

“WE’RE joining a gym?” Eliot asked, biting into his exquisitely burnt toast.

He sat at the island table in the kitchen, bare feet tangled in the rungs of the stool. He had managed a shower and his hair was still wet, sticking to his forehead in dark, heavy strands. His stomach had calmed enough to attempt toast and he licked his lips where the butter clung to the corner of his mouth.

Jen sat across from him looking over the brightly colored brochures, flipping through the slick pages, a contemplative expression on her face.

“We’re joining Pete’s gym?” Eliot asked again.

Pete slammed the refrigerator shut looking unfairly awake and chipper. His sandy hair stuck up in the back and lipstick was still smeared across his mouth, but he either didn’t realize or didn’t care. Knowing Pete as Eliot did, he was certain it was the latter.

Pete popped off the top of the milk, sending it soaring into the sink.

“It’s not my gym, Eliot. I just work there.”

Eliot gave him a withering glare before eating more toast. Pete grinned back smugly.

“And you can get us a discount?” Jen asked, engrossed in the pamphlets.

Pete lifted the milk jug to his lips and Jen reflexively handed him a glass and gave him a scowl. He huffed, but poured his milk anyway.

“I can get you a discount and a free towel and a Rush! gym bag complete with antenna ball. It’s a deal. You should totally take it.”

“I don’t even have a car, Pete,” Eliot pointed out.

“Then put it on your bike, you loser.”

“Idiot.”

“Jerk.”

“Ass.”

“Twig.”

“Boys,” Jen admonished.

Pete made a rude gesture to Eliot behind Jen’s back and Eliot stuck out his tongue.

“So,” Jen started, ignoring them both, her normal strategy when they were acting like two-year-olds, “what do you think, Eliot? You can become one of those rough and tough muscle-bound guys.”

“You mean I don’t look like one already?” Eliot asked, gesturing down his body.

“Sure don’t, Twiggy.”

“Shut up, Pete.”

“God, you’re moody today,” Pete accused, wagging a finger in Eliot’s direction. “You really should join the gym. Go work off all that sexual frustration. Maybe find one of those muscle-bound gym guys to spot you. If you know what I mean,” he leered and arched his eyebrows.

Eliot felt the blush rise in his cheeks as he fiddled with his leftover crust. The idea did have some merit, even if Eliot would never ever voice it in front of Pete or Jen. It had been a very long time since he even looked at someone else with intent, and he could just imagine the amount of eye candy available at a high-price gym; the muscles, the sweat, the locker room.

“You really don’t know the meaning of tact, do you?” Jen asked, swatting Pete with the pamphlet in her hand. She turned back to Eliot, shoved the glossy, pompous brochure in Eliot’s flushed face, and his eyes crossed under the assault of garishly bright colors and gym equipment.

He batted it away. “Fine, I’ll join. Just no more innuendos.”

Jen beamed.

 

 

THE second day of January dawned bright and cold. Eliot loved the crisp mountain air and he breathed it in deeply when he stepped out onto the front porch. The morning was lovely and quiet, the city of Asheville barely waking as the sun began to peek out over the mountains in the distance. Winter had set in and the residents preferred to stay indoors, holed up in the downtown coffee shops and bookstores, instead of enduring the blistering cold. The spring and summer would see everyone outdoors but in the winter, the city slumbered.

Eliot, Pete and Jen lived west of downtown, in a small neighborhood that had seen better days. The house they rented was a three bedroom situated on a postage-stamp lawn with a set of very steep stone steps that connected the house to the street. The street was narrow but safe, and Eliot liked his neighbors even if they didn’t appreciate the housemates’ parties some of the time.

He adjusted his glasses and his scarf, tightening it around his neck as the bitter chill tried to creep in. He slipped on his knitted hat Jen had made him for Christmas and pulled it low over his ears. He half-thought about going back inside to ask Pete or Jen for a ride to work instead of taking his bike, but he needed to save those favors for when the inevitable snow came and it was too difficult to navigate the streets. As it was, today was just cold.

Eliot’s bike was an old yellow ten-speed that had been his mother’s. He cherished it. It was probably his favorite possession and he treated it with the care most people treated their much more expensive cars. He swung his leg over, hitched his backpack higher on his shoulders, and took off down the street. The ride to work was uneventful and soon he was pulling up outside the campus library and locking his bike to the stand.

Eliot enjoyed the library. It was warm and it smelled like books and ink. He loved wandering the stacks on his lunch break, looking for titles that would catch his eye, trailing his fingers over the spines. It was fun and calming and he reveled in it. It was why he was studying to be a librarian.

Work passed quickly. With the students gone for winter break, there wasn’t much to do and soon Eliot found himself turning down his coworkers’ invites for dinner and drinks after the library closed. And for the first time in a long time, he had a legitimate excuse. He had an introductory appointment with Jen at the gym. With his scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and knitted hat firmly over his ears, Eliot hopped on his bike, and with ever-increasing unease, rode to his meeting.

Looking up at the flashing green-and-purple neon sign proclaiming that he had indeed arrived at The Rush!, Eliot felt more than a little sick and quickly looked around for a ficus plant to puke in. Finding none, he gamely tried to swallow his apprehension.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to join; it was that he really didn’t want to join.

Jen had his best interests at heart, he was sure, but honestly, he was clumsy on his best days and catastrophic on his worst. There was no way this would end well. It would also mess with his routine, his carefully crafted routine that kept him distracted and reasonably happy. Now he’d have to add “working out” to it somewhere, maybe between work and studying and making sure Pete didn’t accidentally kill himself, and he wasn’t really sure about all this. Wasn’t there some kind of rule in the “best friend contract” that disallowed pacts when one party was impaired? Eliot knew he didn’t really have to follow through, and all he would have to put up with would be Jen’s pouty face for a few weeks and the inevitable quips by Pete about being a wimp, but Jen’s words still rung in his ears. They stung his pride more than the chilly winter wind did his cheeks.

Eliot parked his bike and fiddled with the lock, his hands a little shaky with nerves and his fingers a little numb from the cold despite his gloves. He walked up to the entrance, took one deep and calming breath, and pushed opened the door.

He grimaced immediately at the assault on his ears that the gym thought was music and the combined smell of sweat and disinfectant. He took a step over the threshold, and was halfway in the entrance when a person pushed past him. He knocked his shoulder into Eliot’s without so much as an “excuse me,” sending Eliot’s already questionable balance off and his body into the door. The thud against the glass was enough to send some stares in his direction, but Eliot didn’t notice as he glowered at the back of a blond head and a tailored suit that disappeared into the chaos of bodies.

“Jerk,” Eliot muttered, straightening and allowing the door to close behind him with a snick.

He took a moment to compose himself while he scanned the gym. He caught sight of Jen, standing next to a man who was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. Even from the distance, Eliot could see the stars in her eyes as she gazed adoringly up at him. Eliot sighed. Great. One minute in and Jen was already hooked.

Eliot shoved his cold and shaking hands into his jean pockets before steeling his resolve with a breath. He took a determined step forward and was immediately jerked back. For the second time, he landed against the door with a loud thump.

He was disoriented for a moment, leaning against the glass, face heating with every eye that was pinning him with an amused stare, embarrassment ratcheting higher with every snicker. He ripped off his hat—because when had it gotten so hot in there?—and began tugging at his scarf that had somehow gotten even tighter around his neck. When it didn’t give, despite the insistence of his fingers, he looked down and found the end firmly stuck in the door.

Oh!

Sheepishly, he pushed the door until it opened slightly and quickly pulled the end of his scarf loose from where it had gotten caught. Head down, heat creeping up his neck and burning his ears, he walked to Jen.

Standing next to her, he finally looked up and she gave him a sympathetic pat to his arm and an encouraging smile.

“Eliot, this is Carlos. He’s going to be showing us around.”

Eliot gave Carlos a timid wave, feeling completely overwhelmed.

“And this is Eliot. He lives with me.” Her eyes widened. “I mean, not lives with me. Well, he does live with me because he’s my roommate. We’re not together, at all. Not that he’s a bad guy or anything. He’s really quite lovely and….”

“Jen!” Eliot interrupted.

“He’s celibate!”

Carlos let out an uncomfortable little cough as Eliot turned an even deeper shade of red. He covered his face with his hands, absolutely mortified.

“What?” Jen asked. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure if Eliot wanted he could be having sex all the time.”

“Jen!” Eliot squawked through his fingers, voice cracking.

“It’s a compliment, Eliot. You’re a good looking bloke.”

Eliot groaned. “Jen, shut up.”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Please!”

Jen snapped her mouth closed with an audible snap. There was a long beat of awkward silence until Carlos cleared his throat.

“Let’s go take a look around,” he said, picking up a clipboard from a nearby desk. “We can discuss your goals and how we might be able to help. Let’s not talk about sex though, since that seems to be awkward.”

Eliot let out a small bark of a laugh and lowered his hands. Carlos smiled at him and winked, and Eliot felt the knot of tension ease slightly in the face of Carlos’s easy demeanor. Jen gave Carlos a wide, beaming grin.

“Come on,” Carlos said, slapping Eliot on the shoulder.

Eliot did his best to try to pay attention while Carlos talked but he kept being distracted by… everything. The music was loud, a steady thrumming beat that grated on Eliot’s ears but he was sure was meant for rhythm. It mixed with the whirring sounds of treadmills and elliptical machines and the steady clank of weights. There was an entire wall of televisions, all set to different channels, in front of several rows of cardio equipment. There were rows upon rows of weight machines that Eliot thought looked suspiciously like medieval torture devices, and racks of free weights. They passed a wall of mirrors where many girls were stretching obscenely wearing only tank tops and fitted pants. Eliot noticed his hair was sticking up when he passed, and smoothed it down.

His first impression of the people who frequented The Rush! was that there were an alarming number of thin girls and buff guys who all looked pretty while sweating, but upon further examination…. no… it was still true. Eliot wondered if it were a requirement that you already be insanely gorgeous or double-jointed before you were allowed to join, or if gyms hired actors and actresses to walk around to show unsuspecting newbies like him and Jen what they could look like if they started a fitness regimen.

It was amazingly distressing to his self-esteem.

“Eliot,” Carlos said, startling him out of his reverie. “I’ll show you the locker rooms while Jen goes with Mae.”

They walked into the men’s locker room together, Eliot trailing slightly behind. It was filled with steam and the thick tangy scent of sweat and soap. Among the lockers and showers, several guys stood around.

“And then his scarf got stuck in the door!” one of them, a tall blond, crowed and the group around him laughed. “And did you see his hair?”

Eliot’s hand immediately shot to his hair and he tried to smooth the unruly strands down. He felt a quick blush rise in his cheeks again, the skin hot and undoubtedly flushing.

“Oh, lay off, Matt,” someone chimed. “I bet he’s been dragged here by a girlfriend. He’s just another resolution rusher.”

Matt huffed. “He’s the clumsiest person I’ve ever laid eyes on. I doubt he lasts a day.”

Eliot didn’t know if it was the smug certainty in the man’s tone, that he had already written Eliot off based on one small mishap, or if it had to do with all the self-doubt that had been swirling in his thoughts since Jen had drudged up his very uneventful life, but whichever it was, it made him angry.

“Hey! He’s standing right here!”

Matt turned around and Eliot noted his perfectly tousled blond hair and an expensive-looking suit jacket draped over his arm. His designer shirt was partly unbuttoned and Eliot caught a glimpse of perfect collarbones that were completely unfair.

“You!” Eliot pointed. “You’re the jerk that knocked me into the door.”

Matt crossed his arms, the muscles flexing beneath his shirt, and looked Eliot over, amusement barely contained in the quirk of his lips.

“Do I know you?” he asked, tone dripping with condescension.

“No, but I know your type.”

“And what type is that?”

“A muscle-bound jerk who likes to pick on the little guy to make himself feel better and to overcompensate for things that might be lacking,” Eliot answered hotly.

Matt chuckled. He smiled at Eliot, arrogant and gorgeous. “I bet you were pushed into a lot of lockers when you were in school. I bet you still have a little of that inferiority complex,” he said taking a step closer.

“All right, Matt,” Carlos interrupted. “That’s enough.”

Eliot bristled, but Carlos grabbed him by the shoulders and manhandled him toward the door. Eliot cast one last glance back at Matt and his criminally charming grin, the pale green of his eyes, the broad expanse of his shoulders, and Eliot felt a twist in his gut that was as foreign as it was unwelcome.

He was so screwed.

 

 

A WEEK into the new year and Eliot was sore. His body ached in places he didn’t know it could and it took every ounce of strength to drag his burning, screaming muscles across the floor of the apartment and to the couch. He dropped onto it, buried his head in the cushion and groaned.

“Tough day?” Pete asked, dropping next to him and jostling his friend.

Eliot let out another low moan. “You have no idea.”

“Yeah, I do,” Pete replied while gulping milk out of the carton since Jen was not home yet. “I work there, you know.”

Eliot looked up, scowling, and poked Pete’s thigh with his toe. “And why aren’t you joining us in this little quest? I’m sure Jen would appr