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The Building Inspector


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So this is a real, “Long time listener, first time caller,” situation for me — I’ve been lurking here for ages, and first of all, I just want to express my gratitude for all of you. Finding this place helped me understand myself at a time when I really needed it, and it’s provided both the comfort of knowing it’s not just me(!) and a lot of entertainment over the years. Thank you. 

Secondly: I write a fair amount of fiction, but I’ve been badly blocked for a long time. So recently, I decided to try an experiment — writing something with no expectations, no pressure, strictly for the sake of enjoying myself, just to see if I could still do it. Turns out I can! As long as the story I’m writing centers around… one very particular topic. And I figured, since you folks are the other people on earth who might enjoy this (and since you’ve given me so much great content), I might as well finally create an account here and share my efforts with you.  

This is the first part of a longer story that I very much intend to continue, but, in deference to the whole “no pressure” aspect of this little experiment, I’ve written this opening chapter to be okay standing alone. There is some light swearing in it, largely for tone and character building purposes, but I think that’s about all we’re looking at in terms of content warnings? And apologies for any formatting issues — I’m posting this from my phone, and in any case a new platform always takes me a few tries to really figure out.

I hope you enjoy this story even half as much as I’ve enjoyed all the incredible work on this forum over the years. Thanks again. 






Mark Kaplan stops in front of the doors to his office building and sighs. It’s not that he hates his job; in fact, he loves it most of the time. But that’s because most of the time, being the Art Director for Finest Frozen Foods is something he can do in sweatpants from his own home. Mark’s not a shut-in or anything, but he’s selective when it comes to both friends and conversations, and nothing drains his social battery quite like making small talk with painfully straight coworkers. Also, this is the third time in as many days that he’s had to come into the office for a meeting that could have just as easily been an email, and he is, quite frankly, over it.


At least it’s a late meeting, so the lobby is pretty empty when he steps inside. The early mornings here are the stuff of Mark’s nightmares — he always ends up stuck waiting for the elevator with one of his chattier coworkers, and has to stumble through pretending to remember the details of their kids’ lacrosse tournament, or college applications, or whatever else while only half-caffeinated. But now, because it’s 3PM on a Friday afternoon, everyone Mark passes is uninterested in speaking to him, or to anyone. They’re all scurrying towards the exits, heads down, looking to escape for the weekend before anyone notices they’ve gone. 


Mark rounds the corner, approaches the elevator and pushes the call button, taking a moment, as he always does, to curse whatever S-level cheapskate chose this building to move the company into last year. The elevator situation alone —  a single, ancient unit that moves at a snail’s pace and gets briefly stuck at least once a day — should have disqualified the whole place from consideration on sight. But while Mark has ultimate veto power on, say, the font on the packaging for Finest’s new line of gluten free breakfast burritos, his opinion is not considered in matters of real estate. It’s a shame, really. They could obviously use his help. 


The elevator makes a distant, unhappy creaking noise. Mark groans; in his experience, this means it’s descending from the top floor, and he’s in for an excruciating wait. Bitterly, he spends a moment entertaining himself with a list of things he hates about coming in to the office: the parking, the coffee, the small talk, the weird smell, the horrible elevator, everything about the concept of ‘business casual,’ the bathrooms — 




The sneeze interrupts Mark’s train of thought entirely. As he looks around as subtly as he can for its source, he can’t help thinking, Well, there’s one benefit of coming in, at least. He adores his mostly-remote work setup, but Mark’s house, for all its many upsides, does not feature a lot of opportunities to satiate this particular appetite. It’s probably for the best — Mark’s never told anyone about his pronounced, peculiar interest in sneezing, and when he was in the office full-time, he was always afraid his face would betray him every time someone reached for a tissue. Still, he misses catching his coworker’s occasional, random sneezes now that he mostly doesn’t get to anymore; hearing one over a Zoom call just isn’t the same.


Mark doesn’t see the sneezer, but he does hear footsteps, and the sound of one of the exterior doors closing. That means whoever it was likely just stepped inside the building, and whether they’re planning to use the elevator or the stairs, they’ll have to round the same corner he did to get anywhere. He waits, watching the hallway in question out of the corner of his eye, and then —


Oh. Oh, yes. If Mark’s looking to satiate his appetites, then the man who rounds the corner is a veritable feast. He’s gorgeous, first of all: he looks about Mark’s age, somewhere in his early thirties, and he’s tall, with messy dark hair, blue eyes, and shoulders so broad they’re visibly straining the seams of his white button down shirt. In fact, all of his clothes are wearing a little oddly, as though he’s more used to t-shirts and jeans than khakis and a tie. Even as Mark watches, the man loosens said tie enough to unbutton the top two buttons of his shirt. This gesture of work-weary defeat, combined with his close-cropped beard and the leather tool belt slung over his stiff khakis, somehow adds up to an overall vibe of “Very hot lumberjack on his first day in the witness protection program.” Mark would be lying if he said the look wasn’t working for him. 


Secondly, and more importantly, the man is quite obviously the sneezer. His rather large nose gives him away — faintly pink all the way up to the bridge and a deep, chafed red around the nostrils, it’s clear that the sneeze Mark just heard wasn’t the first of the day. He hopes it won’t be the last, especially when the man stops next to him in front of the elevator. 


He nods pleasantly to Mark and then turns towards the doors to wait, which is exactly what Mark would normally want from a stranger in this situation. It’s not the guy’s fault he’s so desperately attractive that, just this once, Mark wishes he would try to start some insipid conversation about the weather, or sports, or whatever; anything to get them talking. Mark would strike up a conversation himself, but he realizes abruptly that after spending so much time trying to avoid exactly this sort of workplace interaction, he can’t quite remember how to start one.


They stand in silence for a minute, Mark watching the man surreptitiously in the reflection of the stainless steel elevator door. Whatever was bothering his nose before is clearly not entirely through with him; Mark’s anticipation climbs as the man takes a few shaky breaths, then reaches up and rubs two fingers beneath his nose. This seems to take care of things for a moment, but then he’s reaching up again and pinching both nostrils between his index finger and thumb — rubbing that finger and thumb up and down along the sides of his nose — dropping his hand to his side with a slightly frustrated sigh. 


This cycle repeats as Mark tries frantically to remember if he’s ever seen this sniffling stranger before. Surely he’d recall it if he had; Finest’s Frozen Foods is not long on cute guys, let alone devastating stunners like this one, and Mark sincerely doubts he’d have missed him. 


So: a new employee, then? Or just a reclusive one? Or — Mark looks the man up and down out of the corner of his eye, his gaze catching on the tool belt — maybe he’s a fire marshal, or an electrician, or… something. Someone whose work has to do with the building itself. Most of the things hanging from his belt are mysterious little plastic meters — not a lot to be gleaned there, at least not for Mark — but several of them do have printed labels on the side that say GRAHAM. Inconvenient though it is that Graham could be either a first or a last name, it’s all the information Mark has to go on, and he decides to run with it, at least for now.


The man — presumably Graham — sniffles deeply, then pinches his nose shut again. He holds the gesture rather longer this time, and when he drops his hand, his reddened nose twitches slightly. There’s both congestion and the faintest edge to a hitch in his voice when he says, “Does the elevator always take this long?”


“You must be new,” Mark says, smiling at him. “It’s the slowest elevator in America, at least as far as anyone here can tell. Most people give up and take the stairs, but,” he gestures towards his cane, then remembers with a start that it’s not in his hand. “Oh, god, right. Sorry, that’s — usually there would be a cane there, but my knee’s actually not that bad today, so. Left it in the car. It wouldn’t survive the stairs, though — my knee, I mean, not the cane — which is why, you know. I always wait for the slowest elevator in America.“ Mark, realizing abruptly that he’s babbling, snaps his mouth shut, horrified with himself.


Luckily, Graham’s either very polite or a big fan of babbling, because he smiles. It’s a breathtakingly good smile; wide and warm and friendly, crinkling his eyes at the corners. Slightly breathily, he says, “Makes sense. And I’m not new — or, well, technically I am new, but I don’t work here.” He opens his mouth like he’s going to say something else, but takes a sharp, hitching breath and pauses instead, reaching up to pinch his nose shut once more. When he drops his hand this time, his nose twitches again, far more obviously than earlier, and he sniffles hard. His eyes are starting to water, too. For once in his life, Mark’s glad the elevator’s so slow.  


“Sorry, what?” Mark says, pretending not to have noticed — or, at least, not to have understood — what just happened. His heart is pounding, but he sounds innocently confused as he says, “You’re new, but you don’t work here?”


“I’m — I’m the new — b-building inspector,” Graham says, audibly struggling to get it out. His nostrils are flaring now, and he lifts two fingers to hold beneath his nose as he gasps, “I’m so sorry, I — I have to — h-have to — sn-sn-sneeEEEEEEESHIEW!” He turns away from Mark as the itch finally overwhelms him, but Mark watches the sneeze play out in the reflection from the elevator, noting that Graham keeps his fingers under his nose despite their utter failure to hold anything back. Witnessing this alone would be enough to justify a dozen trips to the office, but immediately after releasing the first sneeze, Graham tips his head back, fingers still held beneath his nose, and builds up into two more, each sounding itchier than the last: “HihHh-hIhhHhh-HISSSSSHU! HiiiiiiiISSSSSHOO! Oh my god, excuse me.” He’s so congested it comes out, ‘Oh by god, excuse be,’ and Mark decides he’s going to have to give up remote work one of these days, if this is the reward for being physically present.


“Bless you,” he says, instead of any of that. 


Graham smiles, though the expression looks… distracted. He’s sniffling rather more wetly now. “Thanks.”


“Did you catch that awful cold that’s been going around? I literally just had it; it was brutal.” This is a shameless play for information — Graham’s red, bloodshot eyes suggest allergies more than illness — but Mark can’t help himself. He hasn’t technically lied, anyway; it’s true enough that he just got over a nasty cold.


“No,” Graham says with a sigh, sniffling hard again. Incredibly, it sounds like there’s another sneeze building in his voice; the elevator finally reaches the lobby as he’s talking, and Mark’s never been less happy to see it arrive. “I just have really — really crazy — hEHhh — oh, god, excuse me. Crazy allergies.” He rubs a knuckle fiercely underneath his nose as, ruefully, he adds, “I’d understand if you’d rather I catch the next one, though.”


“Are you kidding? You’d be waiting here til Christmas; I’m not a monster,” Mark jokes, trying not to sound overly eager to get into an unreliable elevator with an allergic stranger. He steps inside, pushes the button for his floor, holds the door open with an arm, and, noticing the slight reluctance on Graham’s face, adds, “Seriously — I’m not worried about it, man. Plus, if you’re the building inspector, then I want to personally ensure you inspect this elevator. It’s my nemesis, and probably haunted; I need all the allies I can get in my quest to defeat its dark evil.”


Jesus Christ, Mark has got to stop talking. The man is simply too hot — he shouldn’t be allowed to wander around unsupervised, affecting innocent citizens this way. Just being around him, especially in his itchy, allergic state, has critically damaged Mark’s brain-to-speech filter. Normally he has a carefully refined system in place for this sort of conversation, where words about to escape his mouth go through a quick series of crucial checks like, “Wait, is this a really fucking weird thing to say?” and “Seriously: are you sure?” But Graham’s presence has frazzled Mark so much that even his trusty filtering system seems to have overheated, and he has no choice but to soldier on without it. 


Luckily, Mark’s declaring an elevator his sworn enemy seems to entertain Graham. He laughs, though it sounds careful, like he’s afraid breathing in too deeply will trigger the sneeze he’s obviously fighting back. Stepping onboard the elevator, he selects the floor before Mark’s. 


Please get stuck, Mark silently begs the elevator as the doors shut and it starts to creep its way back up. You’ve done me dirty so many times — I’ve been late for so many meetings — please! Do the one thing you’re good at and get! Stuck! 


They make it up one floor — two — Graham is rubbing his nose again — his breath is coming slightly faster — three floors, now — and, yes! The elevator lurches gently, groans, and comes to a dead stop.


“You have got to be kidding me,” Graham says, his voice pitched somewhat higher than it was a moment ago. “Is it s-stuck?”


“Yeah,” Mark says, affecting an air of long-suffering despair. He doesn’t have to reach far for the emotion, since it’s what he’s felt every single other time the elevator has ever done this with him inside. This particular time he’s downright gleeful — they’ll be stuck in here for fifteen minutes at least, and the chances of another sneeze are growing by the moment — but doesn’t think it would be great to let on about his enthusiasm to Graham. He sighs as he pushes the alarm button, projecting annoyance as he says, “I swear it does this like once a day. There’s some reset button downstairs you have to hit, I guess; the alarm will let somebody know we’re in here eventually.”


“Well, that’s d-definitely not up to code,” Graham mutters, reaching both hands down to rustle in his pants pockets, then in the various leather pouches and pockets that make up his tool belt. Mark wonders if he’s looking for a tissue; whatever he’s after, he doesn’t find it, and his shoulders sag as he drops his hands back to his sides. After a second, he reaches up to pinch his nose again, not removing his grip as he says, “H-how long does it usually t-t-take?”


Mark shrugs. “It depends. Fifteen minutes? Twenty? The longest I’ve ever waited was forty-five minutes, but that was while everyone was at lunch.”


“Oh, g-god,” Graham says. It’s obvious he’s at the end of the line, and he must know it; he releases his nose from the pinch and curls his hand into a fist instead, pushing it up hard into his twitching nostrils from below. Quickly, like he’s trying to beat the sneeze to the finish line, he gasps out, “L-listen, I know — I know it’s an — heHhh — an enclosed s-space, and I — hehHhH — oh my god, I don’t mean to be a dick, b-but I — “ His eyes glaze, then flutter shut as he says, so mangled by congestion and hitching that Mark barely understands it, “I r-really, r-r-really n-n-need to s-sn-sneeze. I’m s-sorry, I c-can’t — I can’t h-h-hold it b-back any — anymore, I — I — heHh-hEhHhHhh-hEHhHHHH-HEHHHHHHHHHSHIEW!”


This sneeze by itself would have elevated the whole encounter into the upper echelons of Mark’s fondest memories, to be worn thin as tissue with replaying in quiet moments. It is harsh, desperate, wet, and loud, all but reverberating through the tiny space they’re standing in, and it bends Graham’s whole body violently to the left, away from Mark. He sneezes directly into his closed first, a faint cloud of escaping spray briefly visible in the elevator’s shitty fluorescent light, and gasps out a stunned, half-vocalized, “Gah,” at the end, a dazed expression on his face. It is a perfect, exquisite moment, at least for Mark; he has to imagine it’s somewhat less pleasant for Graham.


But then, amazingly, Graham begins hitching again. All he manages to say is, “Oh, god,” before he’s cupping both hands over his nose and mouth and dissolving into an absolutely vicious fit: “HaH-HAH-HAAAAAASCHOO! HAAAAASCHOO! Heh-HEHISSHU! ISSHU, ISSSHU, ISSSSSSSHU, HAh-HAH-HAHHHH-HAAAAAAAAASCHEW! HAHSHEW! HAHSHEW! HAHSHEW! HEHHHH-ESSSSSSSHIEW!” He gasps damply for a second after this last one, and then, shakily, says, “Oh my god, ex-excuse— ehh-EHHHHHSHIEW! Christ. Excuse me.”


“Holy shit, dude, god bless you,” Mark says, boggled. He’d hoped to catch one more sneeze, not an entire baker’s dozen! Not that he’s complaining, obviously — this has rapidly turned into the single best office visit of his life — but elated though he is, he feels compelled to ask, “Are you, like… okay?”


“Y-yeah,” Graham says, sighing. His hands are still tented over his nose and mouth; Mark’s not sure if it’s to conceal what must be a terrible mess, or if he’s expecting more sneezes. “This is just what it’s like on b-bad allergy days. It — oh, wait, I — I’m gonna — s-sneeze — again — HAAAAAAAASCHIEW! HEHHHSHEW! HihHh-hIhHh-hIHHHH-HIHISSSSSSSSSSSHU! Excuse me, oh my god. You w-wouldn’t h-happen to have a tihh — a tiHHhh — a tihhh-IHHHH-ISSSSSSSHU! ISSHU, ISSHU, ISSHU, ISSHU, ISSHU, HAH-HAISSSSSSHU!”


“A tissue? Sorry, man, I really wish I — hold on,” Mark says, remembering something abruptly. Feeling like an idiot, he slides one arm of his backpack off his shoulder, swings the bag in front of him, opens the front pouch, and — “Ha! I totally forgot I stuck this in here while I was sick last week, or I would have offered you one earlier. Here.”


He pulls out a small, slightly battered, but mostly full box of Kleenex and holds it out towards Graham, whose eyes are starting to flutter shut again. Keeping one hand over his nose and mouth, Graham frantically snatches two tissues with the other and lifts them to his face. Perhaps due to the relief of finally having something to properly catch them with, he immediately fires off a series of the most intense sneezes yet, not even turning his head away: “HUH-HUHHHHHHSHOOO! HUHHHHHSHOO! HUHHHHSHOO, HUHHHSHOO, HUHHHHSHOO — oh, n-no — RAAAAAASCHOO! RAAAAAASCHOO! RAAAAAASCHOO! RAAAAAASCHOO! HUH-HUH-HUHHHH-RAAAAaaAAASCHOOooO!” He takes two huge breaths at this point and then releases a harsh, difficult to parse sound; Mark can’t totally tell if it’s another sneeze or if he’s blowing his nose. Either way, it turns into a classic, trumpeting nose blow after a second, and Graham honks several times into the tissues before he finally balls them up tightly and drops them into an empty section of his tool belt.  


“Bless you like, a million times,” Mark says, trying to sound cool and casual and like this little display has not been a realization of many of his most intimate fantasies. “That sounded rough, man.”


“I’m so s-sorry,” Graham says, still sounding terribly itchy and congested despite blowing his nose. “Ihhh-it’s probably going to s-stay like this for — for the rest of the — oh, AAAAAASHIEW!” He snatches another tissue out of the box to catch this sneeze in, and then laughs once it’s out, as if at himself. “God, sorry, that was probably rude. I don’t mean to just b-be — HAAASHIEW! AAAASHIEW! Ugh. Stealing your tih-tissues without aHh-asking.” 


“Dude, it’s seriously fine,” Mark says, amazed and somewhat charmed by this guy’s attempts to stay polite during the worst allergy attack Mark’s ever had the pleasure of witnessing. “My tissues are your tissues, or whatever — you definitely need them more than I do. And you can stop apologizing for the sneezing, too; I really don’t mind. It seems a lot worse for you than it is for me.”


“It’s not… the best,” Graham admits. As if to confirm this, his nose begins to twitch again; he grabs another tissue and holds it hovering in front of his face, obviously waiting for the next bout. One allergic tear slips out of his left eye, unnoticed, as he says, “Th-thanks for being s-so nice about it. Sometimes people are — they’re — they’re — hiiiiiiiIIIIIIIISSSSSSHOO! HIIIIIISHOOO! Oh — HAAAAAASCHOO! HAAAAAASCHOO! HAH-HAH-HAAAAATCHOOO! Oh my god, excuse me. Sometimes people are assholes, is what I was g-going to say. I don’t totally blame them, but it — it — hehhhhssHOO! God. It kind of sucks.”


“Bless you,” Mark says. “And don’t thank me for basic decency — it’s not like it’s hard.”


Without thinking about it or meaning to, he gestures towards Graham with the tissue box, a silent question — Do you want another? You sound like you really need to blow your nose again — that his subconscious decided to ask without getting clearance from his brain first. But Graham nods gratefully and takes two, blows into them for almost a full minute, and then repeats this process with a second set of tissues before, finally, leaning against the elevator wall and tipping his head back to rest against the fake wood paneling. 


“Whew,” Graham says, and sighs. There’s still a slightly sneezy edge to his voice, but it’s muted now, as though the itch has receded somewhat. “That’ll only hold it for a minute or two, but at this point, I’ll take it.” 


“I don’t blame you,” Mark says, some of his astonishment seeping into his voice despite his best effort. “I think I’d want a break, too, if I were you.”


Graham shakes his head, voice going wry as he says, “D’you know, I never used to be allergic to anything? 32 years, no problems. Amazing. And then this past spring…” He gestures wearily at himself, a perfect picture of allergic misery from his red nose to his watery eyes to his dark hair, badly tousled now from so much violent sneezing. “It was like it all just kicked in at once. My mom always had crazy bad allergies, but I thought I’d dodged them — I didn’t know they could turn up so late.”


“Dude, that sucks,” Mark says sympathetically. It doesn’t suck for him, of course, but he feels for this excruciatingly attractive stranger, who seems like a polite, affable guy underneath his allergic misery. “Are they always like this? Because if they are, I mean… that must have been… a lot.”


Graham laughs wearily. “You have no idea. I was a real outdoor sports nut — multi-day hikes, competitive mountain biking, that sort of thing — and it totally screwed up my social life. I had to drop out of a bunch of races and plans, I lost a big deposit for a glamping trip I never even wanted to go on in the first place, my boyfriend broke up with me — “


“Oh, what?” Mark demands, though inside his head the word ‘BOYFRIEND’ is lit up in gigantic neon letters. Trying to communicate as much of his own queerness as possible in the sentiment, he says, “I mean, don’t get me wrong — I have a long list of fucked up ways guys have dumped me — but that’s such a dick move.”


“Eh, we weren’t going to work out anyway,” Graham says, with an easy little shrug. He sniffles, takes another tissue from the box in Mark’s hand, and rubs his nose gingerly within it. “It was one of those things where we were together when we were together, but that was mostly at campsites, or rock climbing retreats, or whatever. He was always kind of a jerk, but… I don’t know. It was familiar. He was around.” Graham winces, lowering the tissue. “God, this is making me sound like such an asshole.”


“Nah, we’ve all been there,” Mark says, waving an easy hand. “I mean, not the camping part — some of us are indoor gays, thank you very much — but sometimes you just kind of end up in a rut with someone. Anyway, you’re not the one who dumped a guy for his medical condition, so. I sort of think you get the moral high ground automatically.”


“Yeah, that… stung,” Graham admits. He wrinkles his nose and lets out a few hitching breaths, then sighs heavily. “God, sorry, I don’t mean to just be dumping all my problems on you. A random stranger!” he adds, chidingly, as if to himself. 


“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Mark says, smiling at him. “If it makes you feel any better, I will remind you that just a few minutes ago, I asked you to get into this elevator because it is my nemesis. So maybe this was just destined to be kind of a weird interaction, you know?”


Graham laughs. “Well, you were right about the elevator. It’s seriously in need of replacement, and I think it’s in violation of the ADA and fire codes, too, since it’s the only one. You could probably bring a lawsuit, if you wanted to.”


“Eh,” Mark says, “I mostly work from home, so I’m only in here a few times a month, and even thinking about going to court makes me so… tired. I appreciate the thought, though.”


Graham nods. He’s starting to look decidedly sneezy again — as Mark watches, he rubs at his eyes with the tissue in his hand, then grabs a fresh one to have at the ready, his mouth parting slightly. Sure enough, after another second he says, “I have to warn you, my nose is r-really starting to ihhh-IHHHH — god, excuse me. Itch. The s-sneezing is probably going to start up again in a s-second here; I’m sorry.”


“Oh my god, dude,” Mark says, laughing on it a little. “You don’t have to warn me like you’re, I don’t know, some kind of bomb that’s about to go off or something. And you don’t have to keep apologizing, either! It’s literally fine.”


“I just — hate making — such a s-spectacle — of myself,” Graham pants, his nostrils flaring wildly. “It’s — embarrassing. My ah-aHh-allergy sneezes are always — s-so huge and m-m-messy, and I know it’s — disruptive and — and g-gross. But I — oh, I just c-can’t — h-h-help it.” He moans, his whole nose scrunching up against some unbearable tickle, then says, “Oh, god, I’m — I’m gonna — g-gonna — hehhhHh-HHHEHHH-HYAAAAAAAAAAAAAASHOO! HYAAAAAASHOO! Ehhh-ehHhHH-ESSSSCHHHHIEEWWW! Huh… hUHhh… HUHHHHSCHOOO!”


“Bless you!” Mark exclaims, surprised by the intensity of these sneezes, which have folded Graham over at the waist.


Still half-bent, Graham blindly grabs for the tissue box; Mark helpfully moves into the path of his hand. Graham snatches a few more tissues out and gasps, “Nuh-not d-d-done — HAAAAASHIEW! ASHEW, ASHEW, ASHEW, ASHEWASHEW, HEH-HEHASHEW! Oh my god, ihhhh-it’s so ihhh-iHHHH-IHHHHHHTCHOO! IHHHTCHOO! HIhHH-HIHHH-HIHHHHHITCHOO! So itchy, I — HAAAAASHOO! HAAAAAAASHEW! HAH-HAAAh-haaAaAAAAASCHIEW!” Graham blows his nose furiously after this one, but it doesn’t seem to help; he shoves the tissue into the now half-full pouch on his belt, only to grab another one and hold it hovering a few inches from his nose with one hand, looking dazed.


“Wow, seriously, bless you,” Mark says, a little dazed himself. 


“Thanks, but there’s — there’s no — point,” pants Graham, crimson nostrils flaring again. “They’ll just — heHnhH — keep — keep coming. Once it starts it — it’s really hard to — to — hEhh — hEHHhhHhHEEEEESHIEW! ESHOOOO! HAAAASHEW, HAAAAASHEW, HUH-HUUUUHSHEW! HEPTCHOO! HEPTCHOO! O-oh my god, p-please ex-eHhh-excuse — ehhh-eHhhHh-EHHHHHHCH! EHHHHCH! EHHHHCH! EHHHHCH! EHHHHHCHOoOoOo!” These last five come so rapidly that they seem to be fighting to get out of his nose first, each half vocalized “EHHHHCH” more desperate and throaty than the last. He blows his nose again, and lets out one last helpless, “Aaasshiewww!” into the tissue before crumpling it up with a sigh. 


Bless you,” Mark says stubbornly, though he sees Graham’s argument about it being pointless. This is now, bar none, the single hottest encounter with another human being Mark has ever had, but he’s starting to like this guy, and his allergies look brutal. “Sorry you’re going through this, man; it seems like it’s a nightmare. Can I like… do? Anything? For you?”


“It’s okay, I’m — hEhhh — HehHHHh? — oh, it went away. I’m used to it, is what I was going to say. Anyway, you’ve already b-been a lot more helpful than people u-usually are,” Graham says, smiling at him. He hitches again, and laughs ruefully as he grabs another tissue. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be — be using — all your tihhh-iHHHH-ISSSSSHHHHHOOO! ISSHOOO! Oh my god, tissues.”


“Personally, I think they’re living up to their glorious purpose,” Mark says. It is a perfectly insane thing to say, and he wishes the minute it hits the air that he could drag it back into his mouth.


Luckily, Graham sneezes again at this exact moment, a huge, “HUHHHHHSHOOO!” that obliterates Mark’s horrible sentence. He follows this up with a sniffle, and then fuzzily, says, “What? Sorry, I — I — HAAAAASHEW! God. I missed that.”


“I said the tissues are a bribe,” says Mark, which isn’t actually a lot better than his first attempt, but whatever. “So you make the building fix the elevator. I told you, man — that’s what it’s all about for me. I’m Captain Ahab, and this elevator is my big, slow, poorly lit white whale.” 


“Oh, I’m definitely — d-definitely — HAAAAAASHOO! HAAAAASHOOO! AhHhSHIEW! Definitely m-making them f-fix the elevator,” Graham manages to say. “It’s — it’s c-crazy that th-they’re running it like this, I’m going to — to fine — f-fine the s-shit out of theAAAAASHEW! ASHEW, ASHEW, ASHEW, ASHEW, HAAAAASHEW! Jesus Christ, excuse me. Fine the shit out of them.” He blows his nose again, but then smiles blearily at Mark and says, “No bribery necessary — after getting stuck in here like this, it’ll be my pleasure to bring the h-hammer down. I’ll just have to owe you a favor instead.”


Later, Mark will think of all the cool, suave things he could have said in this moment. Things like, “Why don’t you do me the favor of joining me for dinner later?” or “I could use some help right now, actually, with putting your number into my phone,” or even a simple, “How about you just buy me a drink and we call it even?” Any one of those options would be a good choice, a smart choice. A choice that would provide information which might prove helpful vis a vis ever seeing this guy again


What he does say, like a fool, is, “Hey, no, that’s — it’s — whatever, man. They’re just tissues. I told you before: I’m not a monster.” 


“That’s become very clear,” Graham says, with mock gravity. He’s smiling again, undercutting his affected tone, his eyes crinkled up at the corners. It’s… distracting. Then his expression shifts, and as the next wave of sneezes approaches he gasps, “Oh, damn it, I still — still haAHve to — hAh-HAAAACHOO! HAAACHOO! HAAAACHOO! EHHH-EHHHH-EHHHHSHOOO! EHSHOO, ESHOO, ESHOO, EHHHHHSHIEW! God, I am so sick of sneezing,” he moans, plucking two fresh tissues from the box. “It’s — it’s been — like this all — all — d-d-day — AAAAAAAAAAASHIEW! AAHH-AHHHHHSHIEW! And I r-ran out of — of tiHHssues — and — a-and — AAAAAASHIEW! AAAAAASHIEW! AAAAAAASHIEW! Oh, god, my meds aren’t — aren’t w-working — because of the stupid r-r-raAAAAAAAAASHOO! RAAAAAASHOO! Ugh. The stupid r-ragweed.” He blows noisily into his now rather ragged tissue, crumples it up, and wearily starts to reach for another.


“Okay, first of all, I think you should just take the whole box,” Mark says firmly, pushing it into his hands before he can protest. “And secondly, that sounds like a really crap day, man. Why don’t you just go home?”


“G-god, thank you, that’s — that’s seriously so nice of you,” Graham says, accepting the tissue box, pulling out a fresh one out, and holding it to his now-running nose. “As for going home, I — I was trying to s-stick it out and finish my d-day, but I do th-think I’m going to have to b-bail once we get off — thIIIIIHHHis — this ehhHh-eHhhHhh-EHHHHHCHOO! EHHHHHCHOO! EHHHHCHOOO! God, excuse me again. Off this elevator.” 


As if summoned by this phrase, the elevator groans, lurches and starts moving again. Mark panics — he didn’t think this far ahead! He was so absorbed with Graham’s allergy attack, and with Graham himself, that he forgot to think about salient details like the fact that eventually, the elevator would have to start working again. He has very limited time left to get a confirmed name — a phone number — something — 


But before Mark has time to think of a plan, Graham’s allergies overwhelm him again, pulling him into a rapid fit that doesn’t let him get a word in edgewise. Normally Mark would appreciate the rough, urgent sneezes that repeat in cycles of five: “Hahh-ASHCHIEW! ASHCHIEW! ASHCHIEW ASHCHIEW ASHCHIEW!” But the fit doesn’t let up until the elevator door is opening onto Graham’s selected floor, at which point it’s more or less too late to say anything except —


“Bless you,” Mark says sadly, resigning himself to this glorious afternoon becoming only a very fond memory, and not, as he’d been starting to hope, the first day of the rest of his life. 


Graham stumbles off mid-nose blow, and then stares back at Mark from the other side of the elevator door. For a moment he looks stricken, as though he too meant to exchange more information before this moment arrived. Then his eyes glaze over again, and all he manages to say is, “Ihh-it was nice to — to — to meet — yYAAAAAAAAAASHIEW! HEH-HEH-HYAAAAAAAASHOO!”


“Nice to meet you, too,” Mark says, forlorn, as the elevator door closes on the sound of Graham sneezing furiously once more. 


Mark rides the rest of the way upstairs in a daze; makes himself a fresh cup of coffee in a daze; sits through his meeting in a daze, staring out the window and not paying any attention at all. Several times someone has to physically nudge him because he hasn’t responded to the sound of his own name. It’s not like it’s an important meeting, just a retrospective on their last project, and Mark is honestly barely there. The bulk of his consciousness is still on the elevator, paying rapt, fascinated attention to that terribly allergic man. 


When the meeting breaks up, Nell, his favorite coworker, corners him on his way out of the conference room and forces him over to her desk. She’s a beautiful little busybody of a woman, with a non-nonsense expression and a thick twist of heavily greying hair, who mentored Mark his first year here. They’ve become good friends, and though Mark is now technically senior to her, neither one of them would ever do anything so gauche as acknowledge it. 


“What’s with you?” she demands, hands on her hips. “Are you already getting sick again? That would be fast, even for you.”


“No,” Mark says, “I just — well. Honestly? I got stuck in the elevator with this insanely hot guy on my way here, and I cannot stop thinking about it.”


Nell squeals with the delight of a woman who has been happily married with children for the better part of two decades, and thus must live vicariously through the fresh romances of the (relatively) young. “Ooooh! Amelia and I met in an elevator, you know — “


“No you didn’t,” says Mark, rolling his eyes. He’s had dinner with Nell and Amelia many times, and knows the story. “You met at a book signing.” 


“Well, there was an elevator nearby,” Nell says with a wave of her hand, as though Mark is quibbling over trifling details. “And she got off it — or maybe I did — anyway, who cares? That’s ancient history: I want the news. Tell me everything.”


Mark definitely does not tell her everything. But he does tell her most of it, just… neglecting to mention the sneezing parts. Everything he says is true: the man was a building inspector, and very nice, and very hot, and definitely at least bisexual, and they got to talking, and it seemed to go well, and then Mark forgot to get his name or number or any identifying details at all.


“I am God’s perfect idiot,” he declares when he finishes relating this, putting his head down on her desk in despair. “Why didn’t I just ask him out? Shoot my shot? God, I’m just realizing I never even told him my name. He was too hot, that’s the problem! You can’t think around a guy that hot; it’s not possible.”


“Ew, speak for yourself,” Nell says, obviously joking. She pats him jovially on the shoulder, and adds, “C’mon, kid, cheer up. Sure, it was a bit stupid to let him walk off like that, but you know what? If it’s meant to be, you’ll find him again. Wait and see.”


“Maybe,” Mark mutters sullenly into the desk, but he doubts it. 



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Immediate follow. My mind was blown could not belive the treat this was. I am squealing like Christmas came early. Like Oliver I am saying "more please more"

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WHOA this was wildly hot. Thanks so much for sharing, this was wonderful to read.

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On 12/8/2022 at 4:39 PM, treehouse said:


Amazing story!

Edited by MusicaDiabolos
Didn't mean to post accidental click
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Hi folks! Not totally sure how to reply to individual messages on here yet (real “Tell me you’re over 30 without telling me you’re over 30” hours right now), but I just wanted to say thank you so much for all your kind and lovely comments! I am working busily on the next installment of this story and hope to have it up for you soon 💜

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Goodness what a wonderful read!! This is truly a gem and so are all of the characters! Can't WAIT for the next chapter! ^^

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Goodness what a wonderful read!! This is truly a gem and so are all of the characters! Can't WAIT for the next chapter! ^^

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I absolutely adore this story! I'll be waiting patiently for future additions to it, but in the meantime, welcome to becoming a writer of the forum!

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Hello again! Thrilled and somewhat baffled to report that this story is absolutely pouring out of me, and I will be posting Chapters Two and Three today (with a slight pause in between as I wrangle my edits). After all that talk about no pressure in the last update, I’m sorry to say I’ll be leaving you on a cliffhanger once both these chapters are posted, but I was more than 7,000 words in to what was supposed to be 5,000 word chapter and I simply had no choice.

On the topic of apologies, I also want to issue one for the relative lack of sneezing here in Chapter Two; moving these characters into the next stage of the story I’m telling took more words than I expected. The narrative will reward your patience in Chapter 3 and after, I promise.

Final piece of housekeeping stuff: I’d love to change the thread title to include most recent update dates, but I’m pretty sure I’m too new to the forum and thus cannot? But if I’m wrong about that and just missing some obvious button, please let me know 🙏 

Okay that’s it. Thanks again for all your lovely comments, they have truly made my week! Hope you enjoy these next few chapters.




To say Mark spends some time thinking about his elevator encounter over the next few months would be a gross and wanton understatement. The memory all but consumes him, sliding into his mind when he’s supposed to be thinking about other things and replaying in glorious technicolor before he falls asleep at night. It was all so unbearably, deliciously perfect that he spends a few weeks half-convinced it was a very vivid dream; it’s easier, that way. It helps him silence the voice in his head that’s screaming, nearly constantly, about how insanely stupid Mark was not to ask for the man’s number. 

Of course, then one day in October he goes into the office for a meeting and the elevator has been replaced with — well. It’s not exactly a state-of-the-art new model, but it runs at a reasonable speed and doesn’t ever trap anyone inside. This is an enormous improvement, even if it does make Mark feel a bit like he’s living in The Monkey’s Paw. All he wanted for years was a solve to his elevator problems, but seeing it fixed makes it impossible for Mark to hold on to his comforting blanket of purposeful denial. 

That afternoon in the elevator happened. It happened, and Mark screwed it up, and now Graham or whatever his name really was is just out there somewhere, sneezing his absurdly beautiful head off, without any way for Mark to track him down.  

It’s not that Mark hasn’t tried to track him down. He’s tried. He scoured the city’s building inspection website half a dozen times, opening every link even though he knew they were all for zoning forms and inspection requests, just in case he happened to stumble across an errant staff photo; no dice. Then he tried running down the “Graham,” lead, but it turns out there are a lot of people with the first name Graham, and even more with the last name Graham, and after several nights of fruitless social media scrolling it occurred to Mark that Graham might not be his first or his last name. It could be a middle name, or a nickname, or it could have just been the brand name of the little meters it was printed on. For that matter, those could have been someone’s else’s little meters entirely! This particular possibility irritates Mark so intensely that he has to set aside the search for a few days, and try to forget he ever thought of it. 

Once Mark accepts that his internet-stalking skills have failed him, he spends the rest of October and the beginning of November trying to think of a different, more effective, and most importantly non-creepy approach. Craigslist missed connections might work if the circumstances were different, but Mark can’t think of a way to write, “I got stuck in an elevator with you while you were having an allergy attack and it was so good for me that I completely forgot to tell you my name or suggest we get married; call me?” that won’t make him sound like an absolute weirdo. He’s also not about to dial up City Hall and say, “Hello, taxpayer here, I am looking to be connected to the sneeziest building inspector you’ve got.” He does actually think that might work — Graham’s allergies definitely did not seem subtle — but again, it doesn’t pass the “Is this within the realm of normal human behavior?” test, so it’s out.

Mid-November rolls around without a solution, at which point Mark does what he seems to do every time the seasons change, and catches a whopper of a cold. It sidelines him completely for the better part of week, leaving him capable of little more than reheating frozen matzo ball soup, watching reality television, and sneezing his way through box after box of Kleenex. It isn’t exactly a picnic letting off one high-pitched, breathy, “HeHh-heHhhh-eHhhckKCHooOo!” after another, but it’s honestly a nice break from obsessing about his missed chance with Graham.

That’s not to say he doesn’t think about the guy at all, of course. He’s just too ill to sustain the energy for both self-recrimination and self control, and thus succumbs to sappy, overwrought fantasies instead. Hating himself for it a little, he can’t help picturing Graham bringing him tea, fetching him tissues, or cooking him dinner, especially in moments where he’s feeling particularly resentful about having to do those things for himself. 

It’s insane, and he knows it’s insane. Mark doesn’t believe in love at first sight, let alone at first sneeze — this guy is just a stranger he had one conversation with in an elevator, and Mark needs to let it go. He is a practical, logical, reasonable person, and there’s just no sense at all in the baffling feeling that he let the great romance of his life slip right through his fingers. The fact that he does feel that way, despite his most concerted efforts, is more than a little galling.

He decides, without much hope, to try to put the whole thing out of his mind.


The worst of Mark’s cold clears up in time for Thanksgiving, though he’s still coughing and vaguely foggy-headed for the rest of November. After hearing him hack his way through their Zoom calls for most of a month, it’s not until early December that the powers that be at Finest Frozen Foods finally demand Mark’s physical presence for a meeting. Since he got such a long reprieve, he doesn’t even grumble about it, just marks the date on his calendar with a skull emoji and accepts his fate. If, when the day finally arrives, he spends twenty minutes longer than usual choosing an outfit just in case the building is being inspected, then nobody has to know about it. 

It’s a few minutes before 11AM on a Tuesday morning when Mark arrives the office. The lobby is empty, and because it’s so late in the year, the way light falls across the ugly beige carpet reminds him painfully of a certain September afternoon. He walks over to the elevator, pushes the button, and, feeling utterly foolish, closes his eyes, wishing — hoping he’ll hear — 


The new elevator’s chime is as cheerful as its arrival is timely. Doomed to be mocked by elevators, Mark sighs, opens his eyes, and rides up alone.

Even without an incredibly allergic civil servant to entertain him, it’s not a bad office visit, as office visits go. The meeting is actually interesting for once, which is a nice change, and Mark doesn’t cough at all, which is sadly a real victory at this moment of his life. He does, naturally, choke on a sip of coffee the minute he steps out of the conference room, setting off a coughing fit that goes on for about half a minute, but you can’t win them all. 

He’s just managed to get himself under control when Nell bears down on him like an avenging angel. “There! That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about!”

“My inability to drink coffee?” Mark asks, wiping his eyes.

“Your winter cold problem,” Nell says.

Mark groans. “Oh, god, Nell, please tell me this isn’t about — “

“The garage? Of course it’s about the garage, Mark,” Nell snaps. “I told you last year, didn’t I? I said, ‘You wait, kid, next year I’m going to annoy you so much that you have to do it.’ Not my fault if you didn’t believe me.”

“I don’t know how you got this idea into your head that I have a winter cold problem,” Mark tells her, for probably the hundredth time. “I don’t have a winter cold problem! I have a year-round cold problem, the problem being that my immune system completely blows.” Actually, Mark’s immune system is sort of okay; it seems to hold its own, more or less, against stomach flu, ear infections, and most other annoying, low-level maladies. But colds are his Achilles heel, managing to sneaking through his security with nothing more than a trench coat and a false nose at least six times a year, and he suffers with them regardless of the temperature outside.

Nell, however, is unmoved. “Listen to me — here are the facts. One: it is December, and it’ll start snowing any day now. Two: you have a huge, perfectly serviceable garage which you don’t use, because it’s full of junk — “

“Not my junk!” Mark protests. “The previous owners left it all in there at closing, it’s not my fault — “

“A valid excuse four years ago,” Nell says, cutting him off. “That first winter after you bought the house, you know what, okay. You couldn’t have foreseen all that, and you had a lot going on. But, since then, four years have passed, which means their junk has been sitting in your garage, on your property, for nearly half a decade. QED, it’s your junk.”

“That’s,” Mark says, floundering to think of a way to refute this point. “I mean, it’s hardly relevant — “

“I’m still speaking,” Nell says primly, and then barrels right along: “Fact number three: every single year, there is a day, when it snows, where you have to come in here. And every single year, you stumble in looking half dead, and moan about how horrible it was to dig your car out of the snow. And every! Single! Year! You immediately come down with a terrible cold that lingers for weeks. Every year! I’ve had enough! Clean out the goddamn garage!”

“You know it’s not that simple,” Mark says, rather than bother pointing out that being outside in the cold doesn’t actually make people get sick. He’s tried it before; he knows she won’t believe him, no matter how many studies he shows her. “I can’t move heavy stuff around on my own except on a really great knee day, and even then, it fucks me up for weeks.” He grimaces slightly down at his cane, which there was no avoiding bringing in today. “Forecast isn’t great on that front right now, honestly — it’s been on the rough side for a while.”

“Well, that’s terrible,” Nell says, clipped, “and I’m very sorry, but I’m extremely busy being annoyed at you right now, so it will simply have to wait.”

Mark can’t suppress the grin that steals over his face at this — Nell is so insane, and he can’t help but be charmed by it. “Oh, of course. My bad. Carry on.”

“Thank you,” Nell says with a little nod. “Now, where was I — ah, yes. I understand that you can’t do it yourself, Mark. I even understand that you’re not willing to ask your friends to do it for you, although I’m quite sure they would — “

“It’s rude,” Mark argues, as always. “And anyway, it’s not like they’re such a rugged bunch themselves. It’s the right group to call if you need to stage a production of Phantom on a shoestring budget, for sure, but most of them are not what I’d call great at heavy lifting.”

“I understand,” Nell says, in a soothing voice. Mark stiffens up immediately in suspicion — from her, that tone is downright dangerous. “And I also understand that you are no longer the sad, broke baby graphic designer who slunk in here eight year ago looking for freelance work. You’re the Art Director! You make a good salary, and I know you bring in extra with your illustration work. Hire someone. That,” she adds, in the tones of someone communicating an important lesson to a four year old, “is what money is for.”

“Huh,” Mark says thoughtfully. He’s never considered that before, but: “What, just like — post an ad on Craigslist? What if whoever answers is a serial killer? Or a homophobe? Or both? Do you really want me to clean out my garage badly enough to risk my death by homophobic serial killing?”

“Always so dramatic,” Nell chides, rolling her eyes. Then her expression brightens, and she leans towards him conspiratorially. “Hey, I know what you should do — you should put up a flyer on the community board at City Hall.”

“The… what?”

“The community board at City Hall!” Nell repeats, as though he’s asked a ridiculous question. “Honestly, Mark, how long have you lived here? It’s very active, you know — I see something new on it almost every day. I can’t believe you’ve never looked at it.”

I’m not married to the deputy mayor,” Mark points out. “I think I’ve been to City Hall twice since I moved here, and both times all I was really thinking about was paying off the stupid traffic tickets.”

“Well, there’s a community board there, and people post requests like this all the time.” She looks at him with twinkling eyes, and adds, “The building inspection office is at City Hall, you know. So there’s always a chance a certain mysterious someone might see it.”

Damn it. She has him, and he can see on her face that she knows it. This is what he gets for complaining about the Graham situation to her these last few months; he should have known better than to give her so much emotional ammo. It’s pathetic — it’s such an insane long shot as to be hardly worth the effort — but now that she’s said it, he has to try. 

“That’ll never work,” he says weakly, putting up the token protest for the sake of his dignity.

She smiles meanly at him, knowing she’s won, and says, “I’ve got to go into my next meeting, but I’m heading out for lunch with Amelia in an hour. If you have a flyer ready by then, I can hang it on the community board while I’m picking her up.”

She flounces off, though she turns at the end of the hallway and cackles merrily when she sees Mark sitting down and irritably pulling his tablet out of his bag. Cheerfully, she calls, “I know your number, Kaplan! See you in an hour!”

It takes Mark, a professional graphic designer, roughly 45 seconds to mock up the basic flyer. Large font text box on the top, smaller font text box on the bottom, stick a stock image of a garage between them and slap a crying emoji on it; done. He spends the remaining 59 minutes and 15 seconds trying to decide what to write. 

The simple answer, of course, would be to put something like, “Seeking Assistance Cleaning Out Garage. Will Pay — $$ Negotiable. Make Me An Offer!” But the thing is, whatever Nell says, Mark doesn’t actually care that much about getting his garage cleaned out. For one thing, he’s going to get sick this winter whether he has to dig his car out of the snow a few times or not. For another, it’s a detached garage, so parking within it won’t spare Mark the actual worst part of snowy winter mornings — the walk across his ice-slicked driveway on his bad knee, which always aches worst in inclement weather. 

Point being: the simple, standard language is what Mark would put on the flyer if cleaning out the garage was his main goal. But his main goal isn’t cleaning the garage, and putting up a boring, basic flyer isn’t likely to serve his real purpose. What Mark wants to do here is set a lure for one very specific man — which, like everything else involving Graham, would be a lot easier if he knew anything about him. 

Certainly not for the first time, Mark runs over their encounter in his mind, trying to remember the details of the conversation and not drift into misty recollection of the itchy, desperate sneezing instead. He’d said he used to like… outdoor sports, right? And camping? And he’d… he’d…

Mark sighs, forced at last to confront the true core of his fixation on this guy. Of course he was sickeningly hot, and of course his allergies were a bonus so incredible that Mark feels a bit lightheaded just thinking about them, but the real kicker was that he’d seemed to actually like Mark. Not “Office Mark,” who is largely a collection of work-appropriate anecdotes and personality suppression skills; not “We Met On Grindr Mark,” who is almost entirely personality suppression skills; Mark, the real and (mostly) unfiltered version. Graham had seemed to not just tolerate, but actually enjoy Mark’s strange jokes, nervous babbling, and probably slightly invasive questioning, even in the middle of a vicious allergy attack. This is not what Mark would call a common trait in human beings, and it’s vanishingly rare within the pool of people Mark would actually be interested in dating. To find it in someone who looked like that, who sneezed like that — god, Mark should have tackled him to the floor of the fucking elevator instead of letting him go. 

Turning away from this well-worn loop of regret, Mark looks at his tablet screen and cracks his knuckles. If Graham liked the weird, then that’s the answer: get weird. Stop thinking and just… go with his instincts. Mark takes a deep breath, moves the garage stock photo to the top of his page, removes the crying emoji, and sketches a quick, expressive face onto it, so the garage itself appears to be weeping. Then he turns both his text boxes into columns, one headed with “Q” and one headed with “A,” and moves them to sit beneath the little illustration. He starts typing.


Q: Why is the garage crying?

A: It’s a garage full of other people’s junk, but it cherishes a beautiful dream of being an empty garage.

Q: Why is it full of other people’s junk?

A: It’s a long story.

Q: Can I hear the long story?

A: If you help me clean out the garage. 

Q: What’s in it for me?

A: You can take anything you want out of the garage and put it in your own garage. Or sell it, or whatever — I don’t care, I just need it gone. I think there’s some bikes and stuff in there??? Also, I’ll pay you.  

Q: How much???

A: I don’t know; I’ve never hired someone to clean out a garage before, but I’m willing to be generous if it makes the crying stop. Make me an offer.


Mark looks this over when he finishes typing, then nods curtly at the screen, slaps his phone number on the bottom with the words “TEXT PLEASE, phone calls will disturb and unsettle the garage,” underneath, and sends it off to the office printer. He pulls it out of the tray just in time to catch Nell coming back to her desk, and thrusts it out to her face down, hoping she won’t read it and knowing that she will. 

Sure enough, she flips it over immediately and scans it, eyebrows climbing. After a moment, sounding like she’s trying very hard not to laugh, she says, “Oh, my. What a lovely, evocative, completely batshit item you have created. You absolutely must send me the digital file of this.”

No,” Mark snaps, scowling at her. “And there’s a method to my madness, and — I don’t have to explain myself to you!”

“You might have to explain yourself to your garage,” Nell says, still choking back laughter. “I mean, does it know you’re planning to tell the whole town that it’s unsettled by phone calls?”

“I’m going home now,” Mark says loftily, putting his tablet into his bag and zipping it shut with finality. “Please hang my flyer at your earliest convenience, or do not! I can always wait until next year to clean out — “

“I’m hanging it, I’m hanging it,” Nell says, rolling her eyes. “Bite your awful tongue. But listen: if he does end up calling you, I get to give a toast at the wedding, okay? Promise me.” 

“He’s not going to call, because this has no chance in hell of working,” Mark points out. “And even if pigs start flying and it does work, I’m sure we wouldn’t get married. He might not even have been into me — “ 

“Oh, I’m definitely not having this conversation with you again — “

“And even if he was, probably it would be one date, maybe two, and then he’d come to his senses and realize that I’m a proud but deeply weird seven and he’s the hottest man who ever walked the earth, and ghost me.”

“First of all,” Nell says, “Don’t sell yourself short: you’re a proud but deeply weird eight.”

“Thanks, Nell,” Mark says, genuinely touched by this compliment, even though Nell knew she was a lesbian before she was ten and her taste in men is thus somewhat suspect.

“And secondly,” Nell says, clapping him on the shoulder as she tucks the flyer into her bag, “don’t be so defeatist. I’m telling you, I have a good feeling about this.”

“Ugh, I’m leaving,” Mark groans, trying not to let her words settle on him. “I don’t want to get my hopes up; it’ll hurt so much worse if I do.”

“I’m so terribly sorry, my tiny violin is in my other pants,” Nell says, with a roll of her eyes. When Mark snorts out a laugh entirely against his will, she grins. “See you later. I’ll text you once it’s up.”

“Thank you!” Mark calls over his shoulder, already heading for the door.

He gets a text from Nell that afternoon saying the flyer’s been posted, and then several more texts over the course of the next few days. Most of them are people at City Hall saying things like “Saw your flyer — LOL!” or “I don’t want to clean out your garage but I do want to know the story!” He engages with all of them a little, trying to get a sense of each one’s vibe, but none of them remind him of Graham. Mark knows logically that 20 minutes on an elevator with a stranger is not enough to intuit what kind of texter they’d be, but he trusts his instincts anyway, rationality be damned.

On Friday evening, though, he gets a message that stops him dead in the middle of cooking dinner: “hey. is your garage still crying?”

Mark, forgetting about his pot of stew immediately, stares at the text for a long moment. Now, this  — this could be him. It could also be anyone else, of course, and almost certainly is, but… the tone is familiar, somehow. Probably Mark just wants it to be familiar, but… he can almost hear Graham saying this, if maybe sneezing once or twice in the middle. 

He types, “i’m afraid so. and when you go inside you can hear the faint, ghostly echo of a sarah mclachlan song” and hits send before he can think better of it. Then he puts down the phone and turns back to his cooking, bracing himself to wait patiently for a —

His phone buzzes. Mark’s eyes widen when he picks it up and reads: “lmao. i can definitely help you clean it, but it sounds like maybe it needs a therapist.”

Mark laughs, surprised, in his empty kitchen. He turns the heat on the stew down to a simmer, sits down at the table, and settles in for a proper text conversation with this stranger who, no matter what he told Nell earlier, he hopes rather desperately is the man from the elevator.



MARK KAPLAN: my plan was to get it cleaned out and then introduce it to my car. maybe it just needs a friend 

UNKNOWN NUMBER: solid theory 

UNKNOWN NUMBER: i’ve seen it work before 

MARK KAPLAN: what, are you a professional garage rehabilitator?

UNKNOWN NUMBER: actually kind of yes, lol

UNKNOWN NUMBER: my sister owns one of those professional junk removal companies. i worked for her for a while and there were… a lot of garages 

MARK KAPLAN: …. oh my god i can’t believe i never thought of calling one of those places

MARK KAPLAN: also: no shit? damn, i bet you saw some crazy weird stuff 

UNKNOWN NUMBER: 🫠 you have no idea lmao

MARK KAPLAN: i’d like to promise you there won’t be anything weird in mine, but honestly i don’t know??? 

MARK KAPLAN: the vibes are not good, tho

UNKNOWN NUMBER: yeah, sarah mclachlan isn’t usually a good sign lol

UNKNOWN NUMBER: but no worries. i always kind of liked a good mystery garage. made things interesting

UNKNOWN NUMBER: about payment…

MARK KAPLAN: happy to do w/e there. we can do a flat rate, or $$/hour, or you can come look at it and give me a quote? idk i’ve never done this before 

UNKNOWN NUMBER: actually — sorry if this is weird — i was going to see if you’d mind donating to a gofundme instead?

UNKNOWN NUMBER: trying to raise money for my friend’s cat. he’s a really cool little guy and it sucks what happened to him. told my buddy i’d do what i could, and messing around in a mystery garage sounds more fun than driving uber to make extra $$$ 

UNKNOWN NUMBER: here’s the link 


Mark, his heart in his throat by this point, clicks the link. It takes him to a fundraiser for an orange cat called Whiskers, who was hit by a car, lost three of his legs, and needs to be fitted for a custom cat wheelchair. He scrolls through the photos and videos with his hand over his mouth, utterly charmed by the mischievous little creature who has clearly not let his accident dim his spirits. 


MARK KAPLAN: update — i would die for whiskers 

MARK KAPLAN: i’m donating whether you clean my garage or not

MARK KAPLAN: but like. please clean my garage 

UNKNOWN NUMBER: lmao, deal. when’s a good time?

MARK KAPLAN: honestly kind of whenever? i mostly work from home and i’m around a lot. when works for you?

UNKNOWN NUMBER: wanna say tomorrow? 11ish?


Tomorrow? But that hardly gives Mark any time at all to wonder and fret and hope and try not to hope and work himself up into an absolute state — which, now that he thinks of it, actually might be for the best. He sends back, “11am works for me, thanks!” and his address, receives a thumbs up emoji in reply, and sets his phone down on the table. 

It’s not him, Mark tells himself firmly as he finishes cooking, eats, and puts away his dinner. It’s not him, he reminds himself as he  tidies up the first floor, throws in a load of laundry, and sits down to try to focus on a book. It’s not him, because that encounter on the elevator was insane, random, perfect luck, and that kind of lighting doesn’t strike twice. It’s just — some random city employee, probably, with a solid sense of humor and love in their heart for a truly adorable cat. That’s all. That’s it. He’s not getting his hopes up.

It’s such a lie — he barely sleeps a wink with nerves — but he has to tell himself something.

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Saturday morning dawns crisp and wintery, one of those peculiar late-year days that manages to be bright despite a gray sky. Mark gives up on sleeping and throws off the covers around seven, shivers, goes to his closet, and pulls out his favorite sweater.  It was a holiday gift a few years ago from his friend Billie, a beautiful green and blue Fair Isle knit that must have taken them months to complete, and he’s never once had a bad day while he was wearing it. It’s thick and soft and warmer than a jacket, and he tells himself firmly that that’s why he’s putting it on. It’s not because it’s his lucky sweater; it’s because he’s cold.

He tests his knee out critically at this point, hoping for, but not really expecting, a low pain day. As he anticipated, it’s as angry and swollen as it usually is this time of year — maybe even angrier. The pain has that sharp knife-edged ache to it that usually heralds approaching weather, and Mark sighs as he wraps a brace around it, pulls on a pair of black jeans, and grabs his cane from where it’s hooked over the bed frame. After three years of this, he’s pretty much used to it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get annoying. 

He brushes his teeth and moisturizes his face, then tries to get his medium brown hair into a vague approximation of a style. It stays riotously curly and totally immune to his efforts, like always, and like always he says, “I don’t know why I even bother,” with rueful amusement as he turns away from the mirror in defeat. He runs a hand through it while putting on his socks instead, on the theory that if it’s going to look messy anyway, it might as well be on intentional. 

At this point, Mark realizes he is fully dressed and ready for something that will not be happening for another four hours. Deciding this is a sign that he needs caffeine on a critical level, he shoves a clean handkerchief into his pocket out of bleary, half-awake habit and goes out into the kitchen to make some coffee. It’s all of 7:30 by the time he finishes it, so he makes pancakes, too, more out of the desire for something to do than because he’s particularly hungry. He looks at the clock gleefully when he finishes eating them, sure that it will tell him it’s 9AM already, and groans when he realizes it’s only 8:15. 

He cleans out his fridge, which takes fifteen minutes, and his freezer, which takes ten, and then tries to focus on an illustration project for a while. It doesn’t really work; he’s too distracted to make much meaningful progress. At 10:30 he gives up all pretense, makes a fresh mug of coffee, grabs a grey beanie to jam over his hair, and goes out to his front porch to wait.

It’s started snowing lightly, and Mark sits under a blanket on his porch swing, sips from his steaming mug, and experiences the morning’s first real moment of peace. Garage issues aside, Mark loves his cute little Craftsman style house on the edge of town, with its big porch, large lot, and long, narrow driveway. He’d never really expected to be able to buy a house, having long since accepted that his odds were low both generationally and because he chose a creative career, and it still feels good to look at the place and think, This is mine. It doesn’t get rid of his nerves, exactly, but it does help settle them out.

At ten minutes to 11, a blue Jeep Wrangler pulls up in front of the house. Mark sits up a little straighter, straining to see who’s in the car; then the door opens, and… and…

Holy. Shit.

Mark’s mouth drops open; he stands abruptly, the blanket sliding unnoticed to the ground, and only barely manages to keep hold of his coffee mug. His knee sends up a small spike of agony at the abrupt position change, but it doesn’t matter, because the man who has stepped out of the Jeep is unquestionably, unmistakably Graham. He looks a little different — his hair’s a bit shorter, and he’s clean-shaven today, dressed a lot more comfortably in jeans, a flannel, and a canvas work jacket — but his face is fixed so clearly in Mark’s memory that it might as well be tattooed there. It’s him. It worked. Holy shit. 

What’s more, the minute he catches sight of Mark, his eyes widen. Then, immediately, his face splits into an enormous, incredulous grin. He all but bounds across the lawn, stopping when he gets to the bottom of Mark’s front stairs, and says, “Oh my god, it is you, I can’t — wait, hold on, what am I doing?” He climbs the stairs in two huge steps, yanks off one of his thin black gloves, and holds out his hand. “Hello; I’m Nate Graham. I promised myself that if I ever saw you again, I’d say that first thing, so I couldn’t fucking forget to again.”

Mark bursts out laughing, so giddy he feels a little dizzy, and reaches out to take Graham’s — god, no, Graham’s his last name — to take Nate’s hand. It’s warm and calloused, the grip firm as Mark shakes it, holding it a second too long as he says, “Mark Kaplan. Also… extremely guilty of forgetting to mention that last time.”

“Mark Kaplan,” Nate repeats, in the tones of someone who has just solved a very vexing mystery. Mark knows the feeling. Then Nate laughs, and says, “Sorry, I just — you know, that flyer sort of reminded me of you, and then when we were texting I thought maybe, but — I kind of can’t believe I’m looking at you? I can’t tell you how much I kicked myself when I realized I’d never gotten your name that day. You were so nice, and so cute, and I — “ He pauses, flushes, and says, “Oh my god, sorry, I didn’t actually mean to say — I mean, I don’t mean that you’re not cute, just that I was hoping to like — play it cool — wow, I am making this worse.” He laughs slightly helplessly, running a hand through his thick, dark hair. “Would you believe I’m normally good at this? Because I’m normally good at this.”


Mark stares at him, gobsmacked, for a long moment. Then, before he can get a handle on his tongue, he says, “Yes, I’d believe you’re normally good at this. Look at you, dude! I’m the one who’s supposed to be babbling on like an idiot about how I never thought I’d see you again, and how all my friends are sick of hearing about the Adonis in the elevator that I let slip right through my — “ Mark snaps his mouth shut abruptly, feeling his own cheeks flush, and then mutters, “Goddamn it, I walked myself right into that.”


“You really did,” Nate says, but he’s smiling that smile again, the big, brilliant one. It makes all Mark’s critical thinking skills swoon dramatically and shut down. “But I’m glad we’re, ah, on the same page. I’d kind of thought we might be, but — I mean, Jesus Christ, I was such a mess that day. I was afraid the vibe I was getting was just wishful thinking.”

“I — you — I need you to understand that this doesn’t like. Happen to me,” Mark informs him sharply, although he can feel a huge, uncontrollable smile spreading across his own face, heedless of his admittedly half-hearted attempts to stop it. “I am always the wishful thinker, okay? Guys are not usually out there pining for me! So if you’re going to come here and — and — be all — like this, then you’re going to have to give me a minute to let my mind recover from being blown to pieces.”

“That you know of,” Nate says, scoffing. 

Mark stares. “What?”

“Guys aren’t out pining for you,” Nate says, still smiling at him, “that you know of. I think you’re way off there, myself. There’s probably a whole club.”

“Okay, that’s,” Mark says, badly wrong-footed and distinctly pleased, “I mean, just gross flattery and — and — very nice of you, obviously, but — look, do you want some coffee? I just made a fresh pot.”

Nate’s grin has slipped down into a smaller, softer smile, the corners of his eyes still crinkled with warmth. “I’d love some coffee. Thanks.”

“Great,” Mark says faintly. He grabs his cane and hurries to the front door, holding it open once he’s inside in an invitation for Nate to follow. 

Nate does, immediately looking around the place with interest. Despite trusting his own taste with absolute bedrock certainty, Mark feels slightly self-conscious as Nate’s gaze flicks from the art on the walls to the rugs on the floor to the French doors that lead to Mark’s bedroom, then drifts up towards the high ceilings with their exposed wooden beams. It’s a relief when he turns to Mark and, clearly meaning it, says. “This is a nice place, man. You don’t see a lot of Craftsmans around here, but I’ve always liked them, and this one’s in great condition. The art’s really cool, too.”

“Thanks,” Mark says, with a modest little shrug, as they cross into the kitchen. “But in terms of the art, it’s more a reflection of my luck in friendships than my taste — most of those pieces were gifts from artists I know.”

“Do you know whoever did this one?” Nate says, gesturing to a framed illustration hanging on the wall next to the back door. It’s a drawing of a raccoon in a yellow puffer jacket and earmuffs, pulling a bright green wagon down a snow-covered road. “I really like it; it reminds me of this picture book my niece is obsessed with. Actually, now that I think of it, it might be cool to get her a print of this as a Christmas gift. Six is old enough to appreciate art, right?”

Mark feels himself turn beet red, and hastily busies himself with getting a mug and pouring the coffee. Trying to sound chill, casual and relaxed about it, he says, “Is it one of the Roger Raccoons, by any chance? The book, I mean.”

“Yeah!” Nate exclaims, sounding startled, as he takes off his jacket, hangs it from the back of a chair, and sits down at the kitchen table. “Roger Raccoon’s Big Snow. How on earth did you know that?”

“I kind of… illustrated it?” Mark says, turning back to give him a helpless little shrug. Nate’s eyes widen, and Mark babbles on as he gathers milk from the fridge and sugar from the counter, unable to stop himself: “I do the whole series. It was my first big-time contract, actually — it helped me buy this house. That piece on the wall is one of the concept drawings that got me the gig. It’s… sentimental, I guess? I keep it in here to remind myself that any day could be a day your life changes. Helps me fight off the early morning existential dread, you know?”


Nate stares at him. After a moment, he says, “That — I mean, it’s so fucking cool, obviously, and you’re really talented, but — I read Ramona that book practically every time I see her! Like, multiple times a week!” He pauses for a second, and then, sounding stricken, says, “Oh my god — illustrated by Mark Kaplan. I’ve read that sentence out loud so many times — Christ, wait a minute. Tell me there isn’t a photo of you on the dust jacket.”

Mark winces as he sets down the mug of black coffee on the table in front of Nate, followed by the milk, the sugar, and a spoon. “I wish that I could, but — “

Nate groans, dropping his head feelingly into his hands as Mark sits down across from him. “Well, that’s — going to bother me forever, actually, that the answer was right there the whole time, but. Great. Okay.” He takes a deep breath, and then, lifting his head, seems to shake off the irritation. He’s back to affable good cheer as he says, “So you’re an artist, then? That’s amazing.”

“Only kind of,” says Mark, who absolutely is one, but still feels like he’s pretending when he says as much, even now. “My day job is doing graphic design stuff for a frozen foods company. I just do the illustration work on the side.”

“Ah, yeah, I know how that is,” Nate says. “Having a side hustle, I mean, not illustration; I can barely draw a stick figure. But I do a lot of carpentry in my spare time, especially since my stupid allergies messed up most of my old hobbies.” He grins, and adds, “Actually, I shouldn’t complain — that’s been a lot better lately, ever since the first frost. I don’t even have to take my meds right now. Winter is definitely my new favorite season; I’m thinking about taking up cross-country skiing.”

“You do seem like you’re feeling better today,” Mark says, and keeps his ‘More’s the pity’ to himself. He is, genuinely, glad that Nate’s not suffering, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t miss the sight of his red nose and watery eyes. “Although, personally, I consider the desire to cross-country ski a sign of serious illness.”

Nate laughs. “That’s right — you’re an ‘indoor gay,’ isn’t that what you said? Not, I gotta say, a useful identifying detail, but it was basically the only thing I knew about you, so I remembered it anyway.” He pauses, and then, mouth twisting into an unreadable shape, says, “God, this is a little weird, isn’t it? I mean, I still don’t know really know anything about you — except I guess that you’re an artist, and you illustrated Ramona’s favorite book, and you make really good coffee. Still, though! You’re basically a stranger. It shouldn’t feel so… comfortable, talking to you.”

Mark nods, reminded by this compliment to his coffee that he should drink some; being around Nate, even while he’s not sneezing his gorgeous head off, seems to make Mark’s mouth go a little dry. He swallows down a long sip and then says, “Yeah, I know what you mean. I remember thinking that back in September, too, that it was strange we — I don’t know, vibed or whatever — so quickly. Getting on with people is… not always my best thing.” Then, because he might as well, he adds, “Returning briefly to the topic of things we promised ourselves we’d say if we ever met again: maybe we should get to know each other better over dinner?”

Nate laughs again, a warm, wide sound that seems to fill the entire room. “Wow, man, that was so smooth.”

“It turns out that when you think about saying something for three months, it helps with the delivery somewhat,” Mark says, dry. “Admittedly, I’d rather not have found out the hard way, but data is data, right?”

“Sure,” Nate says, smiling down into his coffee cup. “And I’d love to get dinner with you — just name the time and place.”

They spend a few minutes setting up an official first date for later in the week, both of them careful to avoid pointing out that it is, in fact, Saturday, and they could just go out for a meal tonight. There are a lot of reasons Nate might be dancing around it — he could be seeing other people, for one thing — but Mark’s pretty sure they’ve got the same motivations for glossing over what day of the week it is. They obviously like each other; they’ve both been thinking about this for months; they’re already here, at Mark’s house, the place they’d likely wind up after a successful first date anyway. If things go well today, the way Mark is hoping they’ll go, then the last thing either one of them will want to be dealing with at 8PM is any kind of reservation. God willing they’ll be calling for a pizza at midnight instead, which they’ll eat like ravenous animals before failing utterly to get any sleep at all. 

Mark wants that pizza, and the activities that will lead to its purchase, so badly he can almost taste it, but it would be a little gauche to say so just now. He and Nate — Mark pinches himself a little as he thinks this, just to make sure he’s not, in fact, having a cruel but fantastic dream — are still only in the early stages of whatever’s going to happen between them. It’s the phase of courtship where sentiments like, I’ll be far too busy hooking up with you to leave the house tonight, or hopefully tomorrow, have to be expressed with body language and lingering looks alone. Truthfully, that sort of communication has always been a weak area in Mark’s generally spotty dating game, but Nate’s oddly easy for him to read. He makes sense to Mark, somehow, in a way people usually don’t. 

And he really is dangerously easy to talk to. They wile away nearly an hour over the dregs of their coffee, talking about their jobs, their families, each clearly trying to put together a rough sketch of the other’s life. Mark shares his own details quickly and haphazardly, eager to get to Nate’s, and talks about his four younger brothers, his well-meaning but largely frustrating parents, and his strange journey from majoring in pre-law to dropping out of college and waiting tables for a year and a half, before finally deciding to apply to art school instead. In exchange, he learns that Nate’s one of three, with a little brother who works in media and the older sister he mentioned in his texts; that his mom died when he was a kid, and his dad own and runs a cheese shop; that he studied mechanical engineering in college, but realized by the time he graduated that he hated the thought of making a career out of it. At that point, Nate started working for his sister, and then taking on construction and carpentry jobs while he was trying to figure out his path, only to realized it was right in front of him. 

“So you like inspecting buildings, then?” Mark asks.

“I mean, it’s a living,” Nate says with a shrug. “It wouldn’t say it thrills me, but yeah, I like it okay. I don’t have to sit in an office all day, and I get to do something that feels… I don’t know. Real, I guess? Real the way making something with your hands is real. That elevator where we met is a perfect example — maybe it would have taken a year or two, but eventually that unit would have failed catastrophically, and someone would have gotten hurt. Now they won’t; I like that.” He gives Mark a sidelong look, and adds, his tone warming Mark all the way to his toes, “Plus, you know, sometimes I get to meet very interesting people.”

“Not that I don’t appreciate the compliment,” Mark says, “I do strive to be interesting above all else, but — what do you mean by ‘that unit would have failed catastrophically?’ Exactly how close did I come to a Final Destination scenario?”

“Probably better not to think about it,” Nate says, with a frankly alarming wince. Then, with the air of somebody hoping to change the subject: “So, uh…. how about that garage? Not that I’m not enjoying the coffee and the company, but I did say I’d clean it out.”

This manages to distract Mark from dark elevator-related thoughts, because: “Oh my god, I’d completely forgotten about the garage,” he says, shaking his head. “Dude, I mean — obviously you don’t have to do that. I can just hire one of those companies — your sister’s, even — which is really what I should have done in the first place. It’s probably too much work for one person. Anyway, I’m hardly going to ask you to like. Do a bunch of manual labor for me right now? I’m not — “


“A monster?” Nate interrupts, grinning when Mark blushes. “You know, I do seem to remember something about that. But I did promise, and I have to admit, I’m really curious about what’s in there. Plus, I mean, I wouldn’t want to let Whiskers down.”

“As I have already told you, Whiskers will be receiving my money whether you go near the garage or not,” Mark tells him, affecting a lofty tone to conceal how painfully adorable he finds Nate caring this much about his friend’s cat. “He’s perfect and iconic and he deserves the world; I’d buy him an island if I could. Anyway, I’m not even the one who wanted the garage cleaned out — I mostly put up the flyer to appease a friend of mine.”


“Well,” Nate says, “how about this? Let’s go out and take a look. It’ll satisfy my curiosity, and if nothing else, I can give you a pretty good ballpark guess on what Sam’ll quote you.”

“Sam’s your sister?” Mark asks. When Nate nods, Mark pauses for a moment and then says, “Sam… Graham?”

Nate covers his mouth briefly with his hand, clearly smothering a grin. “Sam Middleton, now, but yeah, she used to be. Gotta advise against ever mentioning it to her, though. She spent a long time aggressively going by Samantha, and I think it’s still a sore subject.” 

“Duly noted,” Mark says, trying not to laugh. “Well, if you really want to see the garage, then who am I to stop you? And I can’t lie, the quote would be helpful. Come on.”

He stands, and then his body turns on him; he chokes on his own stupid spit and starts to cough. It’s ridiculous, Mark thinks as he furiously hacks into his elbow, that he’s still coughing almost month after he got sick in the first place, but this is his life, and these things happen. He wrestles down his embarrassment and just focuses on getting through it as quickly as possible, knowing his body is more in the habit of coughing than actually trying to bring anything up.

When he catches his breath after about twenty seconds, he looks up, braced for a horrified look, a request for hand sanitizer, or some hasty excuse to bail. God knows it’s happened before But Nate, bless him, just looks concerned; Mark realizes with a start that this is a benefit to Nate’s horrible allergies he hadn’t even thought of. Here, at last, is someone who understands what it is to be at the mercy of a body that doesn’t care at all if it’s mortifying you. It’s a bigger relief than Mark would have guessed, and he feels his defenses start to lower.

“You okay?” Nate asks, and Mark can tell he’s really asking, not just using it as a polite stand-in for, ‘Yikes, man, what’s wrong with you?’ 

“Fine,” Mark says, slightly croakily. He takes a swig from the very bottom of his mug; the coffee is ice cold and unpleasantly grainy, but it does at least clear his throat. “Sorry about that. I had a cold about a month ago that turned out to be very persistent. It’s mostly over now; I think it’s just the muscle memory of coughing at this point.”

Nate’s brow furrows. “Weren’t you getting over a cold last time I saw you?”

Mark sighs. Usually he likes to hold this back until the third or fourth date, but he’s not going to lie about it, and anyway, he thinks Nate might understand. “Yeah, I… have an unfortunate talent for catching colds. The working theory is that my immune system hates me, but I’ve also seriously considered the possibility that I was cursed by a witch.” 

“Oh man, I’m sorry, that sucks,” Nate says. Then, more thoughtfully, as though he’s just come to the same realization Mark did a minute ago, he says, “Is that why you were so nice in the elevator, while I was — I think the technical term is ‘McLosing It?’”

Marks laughs as Nate stands and puts his coat back on. “I mean, yes and no. Mostly you just seemed like a really hot guy having a really bad day, and I make it a point to be helpful in those circumstances.” Nate flushes at hearing himself described as hot, which is a little bit like making a Greek statue blush; gratifying but somewhat unsettling, since it shouldn’t be possible. Maybe this is what pushes Mark to add, somewhat more honestly, “But — yeah, I guess? Probably at least a little. I know how shitty it is to be betrayed by your own nose.” 

Nate looks at him for a long moment, expression unreadable. Then, just — easily, like it’s not costing him anything at all to offer it up — he says, “I think I’m really glad I met you, Mark.” 

God,” Mark groans, equal parts pleased and horrified by his sincerity. “You can’t just — just say things like that! I mean, same, obviously, but holy shit, dude. It’s 11AM. You can’t make me feel things before noon on a Saturday; it’s rude.”

“It’s 12:15,” Nate says, his smile widening. When Mark gapes at him, he nods towards the clock on the back wall without breaking Mark’s gaze. “I only noticed myself a minute ago; you make for very distracting company.”

Oh, god, he’s looking at Mark’s mouth now, his eyes flicking down to it every few seconds and lingering for a moment before looking up again. Mark recognizes the gesture because he’s doing it himself, gaze keep flirting helplessly back to the curve of Nate’s smile. For a drawn-out moment he teeters on the edge of throwing basic decorum out the window, grabbing Nate by the lapels of his jacket, and —

The sound of a dog on the sidewalk outside, followed by the sharp cry of, “I swear to god, Baxter, stop fooling around and do your business,” breaks the moment neatly in two. Nate laughs and looks away, and Mark shakes himself lightly, regains his self control, and opens the back door.

They step outside; a few of the grey clouds have shifted, so it’s even brighter than it was when they went in. Mark raises a hand up to shield his eyes, and turns to Nate, meaning to say something about the garage —

— but Nate’s eyes are closing, brow knitting together, as he lifts two fingers to rest beneath his nose.

All thoughts of the garage once again forgotten, Mark tries not to stare too openly as Nate turns his head to the left and stifles a sneeze. From the position of his fingers to the way his head bobs, it’s the exact same motion as the very first one Mark saw him release back in September, but this time all that escapes is a soft sound, this little “HmPhh-ch,” that Mark barely hears. Mark wonders, with a shiver of pleasure at the thought, if this kind of stifle is what Nate had intended back in the lobby of Finest Frozen Foods, and if the huge, explosive sneeze he had released instead was a result of the intensity of his allergy. 

“W-whoops,” Nate says, fingers still under his nose, “s-sometimes — b-bright lights — hMphH-ch! HmPhH-cH! Whew, there it is. Excuse me; sometimes bright lights get me for a second, is what I was going to say.”

“No worries; bless you,” Mark says. He hopes he’s not blushing, or that, if he is, Nate will attribute it to all the flirting, and not to what just happened. Unable to hold the words in, he adds, “Do you need a tissue or anything? There’s a box in the living room I can grab.”

“Nah,” Nate says easily, though he looks pleased as opposed to weirded out by the offer, thank god. “It was just a couple of sun sneezes; I should be good now. I appreciate it, though.”

“Sure,” Mark says. He tries frantically to remember anything he could say that isn’t sneeze-related as they start walking towards the garage, and comes up damnably short. 

Luckily, Nate solves this problem for him by saying, “So — I have a question that I believe I’ve earned the right to ask.”

“Shoot,” says Mark nervously, praying it won’t be, ‘I’ve noticed you watch me closely while I’m sneezing; why is that?’

“Why is your garage full of other people’s junk?”

Mark laughs, largely in relief. “Oh. It’s a long story, but the short version is: when I bought this house, they last owners just like… left a padlock on the garage door and all kinds of shit inside? They told my agent they’d come pick it up soon, but I waited six months and they never did, so we gave them a deadline to come by or it was all getting tossed. Then they said they’d need to keep using the garage as a storage unit for the foreseeable future, claimed I’d agreed to this when I bought the house — “

“Which I assume you didn’t?”

“Which I definitely didn’t,” Mark agrees. “And then they insisted they’d sue me if I damaged any of it, which was just so nuts. I ended up having to take them to small claims court — it was a huge pain in the ass.”

“Christ, who does that?” Nate says, grimacing. “I mean, you sell the house, you take your stuff — that‘s how it works. What a nightmare.”

“Yeah,” Mark admits, and sighs. “I won in the end, and they had to relinquish all claims to the contents of the garage and pay some damages, but then I got into the car accident that fucked up my knee on the way back from the courthouse, so. Sort of a Pyrrhic victory.” He shrugs as they approach the building, which, in addition to being full of junk, badly needs a new coat of paint. “After that I just sort of tried to stop thinking about it, I guess? I don’t know. It had caused me so much trouble — the thought of putting any more time and energy into dealing with it felt overwhelming, you know?”

“I can imagine,” Nate says quietly. “I’m sorry, Mark. That sounds like it was… really, really shitty.”

“Oh, thanks. It… was,” Mark says, surprised how good it feels to just admit it. Usually in situations like this, he strives to put on a brave face and act like he’s never experienced any emotional turmoil in his life, even though he knows he doesn’t actually succeed in convincing anyone of that most of the time. 

Nate puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes briefly, turning all Mark’s bones to jelly, before he drops it to gesture at the garage and ask, “Is that why your friend wants you to clean it out, then? To banish the demons, or whatever?”

“Oh, no. Nell just thinks digging my car out of the snow makes me catch cold,” Mark says with a roll of his eyes, relieved to have a reason to change the subject. He doesn’t, as a general rule, like to think too much about the accident. “I’ve tried to tell her that there’s no scientific merit to her theory, but she’s not having it.”

“She’s probably right,” Nate says, shrugging slightly as they stop in front of the garage door. When Mark turns an outraged glare on him, he laughs. “I mean, not about getting the colds — I know how viruses work — but I’m sure digging the car out doesn’t help. If you’re already fighting something off, exhausting yourself in freezing weather probably isn’t setting your immune system up for success.”

“Honestly, you’re all against me,” Mark mutters, though warmth blooms it his chest at Nate’s concern. “It’s really the driveway that’s bad, anyway — the city plows take their sweet time coming out here, and my driveway guy refuses to do the city’s work for them, which, like, I get that. But it means that if he comes out here before they do, the driveway doesn’t get done. If I really have to get somewhere, I have to shovel it myself, which is… not great… on my knee. Plus, parking in the garage won’t save me the ice luge that is the walk out here from the house, which is the actual worst part of any winter.” Mark stops talking because he probably should, but then can’t help but add, “I did have someone come out here last year and give me a quote on a covered walkway from the back door, on the theory that it might prove motivational for dealing with the garage. But he said it would be fifteen grand, so — “

Fifteen thousand dollars?” Nate demands, sounding scandalized. “That bastard was trying to shake you down for sure — I could throw that together for you in a weekend, with a couple of buddies to help.”

“Stop trying to do manual labor for me,” Mark commands, amused. “You’ll start to think I only like you for your brawn.”

Nate grins at him, then shakes his head, his expression growing concerned again. “You’ve got to at least let me clean out a spot in the garage for you to park tonight. There’s supposed to be big snow hitting later; it was all over the news this morning.”

Doubtfully, Mark looks up at the sky. It is currently snowing, but in a fitful, halfhearted way, leaving behind a thin dusting of tiny white flakes that don’t look like they’re going to stick. “I don’t know about all that — it’s probably just hype. Anyway,” he leans down, grabs the garage door handle, and yanks up to trigger the spring lift, “I think you may be underestimating how full this thing is.”

The door rises slowly, revealing the chaos behind it. The spacious two-door garage is packed wall to wall with crap, some of the piles of junk nearly reaching the ceiling. There is a branching, narrow path through the mess, winding its way around a busted up grill, a stack of old cardboard boxes, and a large wooden sled before disappearing into the rest of the garbage. It’s all been sitting here for at least the last four years, and god knows how long before that, so everywhere Mark looks, he sees dust, grime, and spiderwebs.

Nate lets out a long, low whistle. “Damn. No wonder it’s so sad — wait, do you hear that?” He holds a hand up to his ear and then, very quietly, starts humming Sarah McLaghlan’s “Angel.” 

“Oh my god, stop that,” Mark says, giving him a playful shove. “You’ll give it ideas.”

“I doubt any that it hasn’t already had,” Nate says, but he stops humming as he looks around, then whistles again. “Christ, what a mess. This is what my sister would call a black hole; it doesn’t look like there was any kind of system or logic to this even at the start, and god only knows what they chucked in here. No wonder they didn’t want to deal with it when they left.”

“Yeah, that part always made sense,” Mark admits. “I just wish they hadn’t stuck me with it, instead.”

“That’s definitely where it tips from understandable to reprehensible,” Nate agrees, stepping inside. 

Mark watches from the other side of the raised door as Nate looks around speculatively, and then focuses in on the rusty tools hanging from the nearest wall. Selecting a garden hoe, he pulls it off its rack and spins it around in one hand with an evaluative expression. The dexterity is pretty hot — he doesn’t hit anything with the spinning tool, despite the cluttered quarters — even if Mark’s pretty sure he sees at least one spider sail through the air. After a second Nate catches the wooden shaft of the hoe against his other palm, nodding as though he’s learned whatever he needed to from it. 

Using the metal end of the tool, he pokes with interest at one of the smaller piles. It seems to be made mostly of cardboard, and, to Mark’s absolute horror, responds to being poked with a series of small chitters and skittering noises.

“Thought so — rat infested black hole,” Nate says, sniffing in distaste. He looks at Mark and, presumably noticing he has paled with disgust, winces and adds, “Sorry. It might be squirrels? But… I doubt it. Sam’ll quote you about $700 for this, I think. Cheaper than wasps, if that’s any comfort.”

“Okay, well, I am definitely not having you spend your afternoon battling rats for a parking spot,” Mark says with a shudder. “It’s not like I’d want to park in here with them anyway! Let’s go back inside, and you can give me your sister’s number; this is clearly a job for the professionals.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I could make this work by myself anyway,” Nate admits, though he doesn’t move to leave. He sniffs again, and Mark notes with interest it sounds a bit wetter than before. “It’s a lot worse in here than I’d realized. We should take a look around first, though; I want to make sure it’s structurally sound, and sometimes Sam’ll knock some money off if there’s good resale or salvage inside.”

“You want me to go in there?” Mark says, embarrassed to hear it come out in a high, nervous voice. “With the rats?”

Nate’s expression, which had been one of curiosity about the various piles, turns into a soft, indulgent smile that’s just for Mark. God only knows what about his rat-related concerns has elicited this reaction from Nate, but Mark’s certainly not complaining, even if the expression does make him feel a little short of breath.

“I will protect you from the rats,” Nate says solemnly, and holds the garden hoe out in front of him like a sword. He waves it through the air for a second, only to lower it abruptly, lift two fingers to his nose, and stifle four increasingly intense sneezes: “HmPhH-cH! HMpHh-CH! HmpHh-chOo! HMPHH-CHOO!” The “choo” on the last one comes out sounding almost surprised, like Nate wasn’t expecting it to be so strong. He blinks and waits for a second, clearly making sure there aren’t any more, before he drops his fingers and says, “God, excuse me. I’m not sure where that came from.”

“Bless you,” Mark says, the rats forgotten. He’s too busy noticing that Nate’s nose has started to turn faintly pink to worry about vermin right now. “You’re not allergic to dust, are you?”

“Nope,” Nate says cheerfully, “though I can’t say I blame you for asking, especially after that damn elevator ride. But like I said, I worked with Sam on projects like this for years, so, no. No chance. Probably that was just a leftover tickle from the sun, or something.” He sniffles again and rubs his nose, vague concern flickering briefly across his face before it vanishes, replaced with what Mark’s beginning to recognize as his typical expression of affable good humor. “Come on; let’s try to see what’s in here. I promise I’ll fight any rat that comes near you, okay?”

“If I die of rabies because of your curiosity I will absolutely haunt you,” Mark warns him, following him gingerly into the depths of the garage. “And I’m not just saying that, either; I’ll do it! Spite is a very strong motivator for me.”

“I — I b-believe you,” Nate says. The full weight of Mark’s attention turns to him at that stuttering little hitch, all thoughts of death by rabid rat blown out of his mind like so much smoke. He watches with rapt attention, barely paying attention to where he’s walking, as Nate says, “I c-can think of worse — w-worse fates than — being ha-haunted by — by — heHhh-hEhHh-hEHHHSHOOO!” 

He doesn’t even try to stifle this one, although Mark’s not sure if it’s because he’s afraid he won’t succeed or because he’s hoping to get rid of the tickle for good by just letting one rip. Whatever his reasoning, Nate comes to a dead stop next to a stack of old newspapers and lifts up the collar of his jacket to cover the sneeze, then leaves it over his nose and mouth as he hitches his way into two more: “Hihhh-hIhhH-HAHHHH-HAAASHOO! HAAASCHOO!”

“Bless you,” Mark says, pleased when it only comes out slightly strangled. 

“Thanks,” says Nate, sounding a little dazed. He lowers the jacket, only to lift it again as he says, his voice growing more sneezy with every word, “Oh, what the hell, I — HAAAAAAAASHEW! AAAAAASHEW! I’m so sorry, I — I don’t know what’s — c-come over — AAAAAAAAAACHEW! ACHEW, ACHEW, ACHEW! HAHHH-AAAAAASHEW! What’s come over me, oh my god.” 

“Are you sure that you’re not allergic to dust?” Mark asks, even though he’s now quite certain of the answer. “Because like. No offense or anything, but you’re doing a pretty a convincing impression of someone who is.”

“I’m d-definitely — definitely not — a-allergihhhhhh-IHHHH-IHHHHSHOO! ISSSHU! IHHHSHIEW! Ugh, excuse me, oh my god,” Nate says, with a huge sniffle. “Definitely not allergic to d-dust.” Half of his face is still hidden behind the coat, but Mark can see his blue eyes fluttering, his shoulders heaving with his huge, hitching breaths. “It must be — leftover p-p-pollEEEEEEEEESHOO! EHHHSHOO! Jesus Christ, pollen.” He sniffles again and, shakily, says, “I p-probably just need to b-blow my — my n-nuH-HuHh-huHhhhCHoOO! HUHHCHOOO! HUHHHCHOOOOO!”

These last sneezes have a wet, almost splattery quality to them, and Mark remembers abruptly that he has a handkerchief in his pocket. Whipping out the soft cotton cloth, he holds it out to Nate and says, “Hanky? I promise it’s clean; I just get so used to stashing them when I’m sick that I end up grabbing them out of habit.”

“Oh, god, t-thank you,” Nate says, snatching it up gratefully. He shakes the large green paisley-print handkerchief open with one hand even as his shakes his whole head against the approaching wave of sneezes, which he eventually fires desperately into the hanky: “HuHhh-huHhhhhhHhh-HUHHHHCHOO! HUHHCHOOO! HUHHHSHEW! HUHHHSHEW! HUHHHEHSHEW! ESHOO, ESHOO, ESHOO, EHHH-ESHOO! Heh-eHHHH-EHHSHHIEWW!” He takes a huge breath and then blows his nose furiously, honking four glorious times, before letting out one more itchy, “HeHh-esCHIEW!” Another honk and he’s lowering the hanky, a sheepish look on his face. “Ugh, there — I think it’s over. God, Mark, I’m seriously so sorry. I promised myself I wasn’t going to do this again.” 

Mark, far too overcome by this whole insane, incredible day to second guess himself, reaches out and puts a hand on Nate’s arm. Squeezing gently through the canvas of his jacket, and holding Nate’s startled gaze, he says, “Bless you, first of all. Secondly, stop apologizing to me this instant. It’s really, really fine. Anyway, it’s not like you can help it.”

“Well, that’s definitely true,” Nate mutters. Then he meets Mark’s eyes, and the scowl on his face fades into an expression that’s almost shy. “But seriously — thanks for being so cool about it. Uh, again. It’s — I didn’t think…” He pauses, and runs a hand over his now slightly flushed face. “I just… really appreciate it.” 

“Okay, at some point we need to talk about why you feel it so necessary to thank me for basic decency,” Mark says, squeezing Nate’s arm again before dropping his hand. “But first — call me crazy, but if the dust in here is bothering your allergies, then why don’t we… leave? I mean, much as it would break my heart to say goodbye to the fucking rats, you’ll probably be more comfortable inside.”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t the dust that made me sneeze,” says Nate, with the perfect confidence of a born fool. “Like I said, I used to do this kind of thing with Sam a lot, and anyway, my job has me around dusty places all the time. This may shock you, but most buildings? They’re kinda gross.”

“Didn’t you say your other allergies only kicked in this year, though?” Mark points out. To himself, not wanting to make Nate more self-conscious than he already is, he adds, And as insane as those allergies are, wouldn’t it have been easy to misattribute a reaction to pollen that was actually from something else?

“Yeah,” Nate says, with a wave of his hand, “but that was different. After all the dust I’ve inhaled over the years, I’d swear I’m pretty much immune. It must have been some stray pollen or something that got me going. Or maybe some dander from that dog who walked by earlier made its way back here; who knows?”

This puts Mark at something of a crossroads. On the one hand: whatever he says, Nate is quite obviously allergic to dust, and allowing him to stay in here will undoubtedly trigger an enormous allergy attack. On the other hand: there’s absolutely no way for Mark to point this out without revealing exactly how much attention he’s been paying to Nate’s allergies. There’s just no simple explanation for saying, ‘Listen, dude, your nose has been getting steadily pinker since we walked in here, and you’ve already sneezed more than twenty times; I know this because of reasons.’ No simple explanation other than the truth, of course, which Mark is wholly unwilling to tell, at least on this topic.

And on a third, horrible, self-interested hand… well. Mark genuinely doesn’t want Nate to suffer, and feels bad that he’s even thinking about this, but it’s probably already too late to spare him the attack, and — the thing is, Mark would be lying if he said he’d never had this exact fantasy. A gorgeous guy in a dusty room, insisting he’s not allergic when it’s painfully apparent that he is? Mark can’t be expected to think clearly, to make good choices, in a situation like that. It’s too surreal, and too distracting, and most especially too hot for Mark to have any thoughts at all — or, at least, any remotely appropriate ones. 

Then the moment for making a decision passes. Mark’s pained internal debate must not only show on his face, but read to Nate as doubt, because Nate laughs and says, “Oh my god, listen — it’s really sweet that you’re worried about it, but it’s fine, I promise. I’ll prove it to you.” Then, before Mark can stop him, Nate runs a sleeve over the front of a nearby box, sending a small wave of dust cascading gently into the air. Mark can see the little motes floating through the beams of light filtering in from the open garage door. 

“I’m not sweet,” Mark says, instead of, Oh my god, you beautiful idiot, you absolutely shouldn’t have done that and I’m so glad you did. “Ask anyone, they’ll tell you — salty, sure, but sweet? No way.”

“Think I’ll draw my own conclusions, if it’s all the same to you,” Nate says. Mark can already hear a slight hitchy edge slipping into his voice, along with the faintest echo of congestion. “And see? Not even one s-sneeze. I’m definitely — d-definitely not a-allergic.”

“Uh-huh,” Mark says, narrowing his eyes as Nate reaches up to rub his nose. “Sure you’re not.” 

“W-what,” Nate says, pinching his nose his nose hard and then releasing it, “do you not — not b-believe me or something?” His nose is starting to slide from pink to red in places, and it’s twitching now, a little spasm every few seconds. “B-because I’m — IiiIiHHHHH’m — f-f-fine. I don’t h-have to s-sn-sneeze at — aHHHHt — god, excuse me. At all.”

“It would be okay if you did,” Mark points out, trying to act causal and not like Nate is, yet again, enacting one of Mark‘s filthiest fantasies in real time. Then, the urge to say it so strong that it breaks through his paranoia about being caught out, he adds, “It does kind of seem like something’s getting to you?” 

“I c-can’t be a-allergic to d-d-d-dust,” Nate gasps. His body is obviously in less denial than his brain; he’s lifting the handkerchief to hover half a foot below his face even as he says, “I’m — I’m a c-carpenter, for god’s s-sake.” He pauses, and doubt enters his expression, undercut somewhat dramatically by his nose, which is now twitching violently. He reaches up to push his knuckles against it as he says, “I mean, I guess — the s-s-sawdust does — s-sometimes make me — make me — hEHnhHh — oh, eh-excuse me. Make me a little sn-sn-sneezy. And s-sometimes I get ihhh-ihHhhtchy when I — when I — c-clean…”

“Nate,” Mark says slowly, not even sure how he’s going to finish the sentence. Just sneeze, man, you obviously need to and the anticipation is killing me, is right out, but so too is, The longer you hold them back, the worse the fit is going to be, based on my extremely careful observation of you in our one (1) previous encounter. But Mark doesn’t get a chance to find out what he would have said, because Nate’s nose finally overpowers him.

“Hah-haHhh-hIHhHh-haHhHHHH-HAHHHHHH-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASCHOO!” Nate sneezes, his whole body snapping forward. The hanky catches about half of the mess, but it’s so far from his face — and the sneeze is so enormous — that a huge cloud of mist escapes around it. Nate doesn’t even seem to notice, already building to his next one: “HaHh-HAHH-HAAAAAASCHOO! HAAAASCHOO! AhHh-AHHH-AHHHHHSCHOOOOOO! ASCHOO, ASCHOO, ASHEW, ASHEW, ASHEWASHEW HEH-HEHASHEW! EHSHOO! HEHHCHoO! EhHhh… ehHHH… EHHHHHHSHIEW! O-oh m-my g-god, I — I — HAAAAAAASHEW! ASHEW! ETCHOO, ETCHOO, ETCHOO! EHH-EHHH-ETCHOOO! I’m so — so s-s-sorrYAAAAAAAAAAAASHOO! YAAAAAASHOO!”

Bless you, Nate, holy shit,” Mark says, placing a hand on his upper arm again. Nate sneezes in reply, and Mark suppresses a shiver of delight as he feels the taller man’s body pitch forward under his hand. “And stop apologizing! Are you all right?”

Nate nods, waving a hand. “I th-think — HEHCHOO! HEHHCHOOO! — I th-think m-maybe — AAAAAASHOO! — m-maybe I am— ahHhh-aHhHHH-AHHHHHCHEW! AAAAACHIEW! AHHHHCHIEW! AllergiHHHHc to… to… duh-hUH-HUHHHHSHIEW UHHHHSHIEW HAAAAASHIEW! Jesus Christ. Allergic to d-dust.”

“You don’t say,” Mark says, dry.

Nate laughs, but it turns into a sneeze partway through, so what comes out is, “HahaHAH-HAAAAH-HAAAAAATCHOO!” He builds up for another sneeze, but seems to decide at the last moment to blow his nose instead, honking furiously into the green paisley handkerchief. When he lowers it, sounding sheepish, he sniffles and says, “I’m thinking maybe I need to get out of here.” Even after blowing his nose, he’s so congested it comes out, ‘I’b thigkig baybe I deed to ged oud of here.” 

Between that, his now-crimson nose, and the red rim that has appeared around his eyes, Mark all but melts. Somewhat fuzzily, he thinks that it should be against the law for a man who looks like Nate to be so allergic to so much. It’s not fair; it’s not right. It’s going to send Mark to an early grave — but god, what a way to go.

“Oh, no, not going back into the nice warm house,” Mark says, keeping the sarcasm in his voice gentle and teasing, as he turns around to lead them back out of the garage. “Where it’s clean, and there’s more coffee, and rats are decidedly not welcome — fuck!” This last Mark shrieks, jumping about a foot in the air and only just managing not to crunch his bad knee in landing. A large grey rat, as if summoned by Mark’s comment, has just skittered across the floor directly in front of him. 

“Whoa, Mark, it’s okay,” Nate says, putting both hands on Mark’s shoulders and squeezing. “Did you see a — oh, d-damn it, hold on, I — I gotta — gotta — hUHHHHCHIEW! HUH-HUHCHIEW! Ehh-EHHHH-EHHHTCHOOOO!” He must turn his his head to the side to let these sneezes out, because Mark doesn’t feel any spray hit him. He does feel Nate’s grip on his shoulder flex and release unconsciously with each sneeze, though, and that’s hot enough that it almost makes up for the rat. 

Almost. “It was huge,” Mark says, in a squeaking voice he’ll be mortified about later. He steps back into Nate’s personal space, trying to put as much distance between himself and the spot where he saw the rat as possible. “And it looked at me — it was a threatening look, Nate! It was a look that said, ‘I’m going to crawl up your pant leg and bite you 800 times and then you’re going to get rabies and die,’ I fucking know it was!“

“E-easy there,” Nate says, in a voice that lands somewhere between calming, congested, and trying not to laugh. He takes one of the hands on Mark’s shoulder and runs it soothingly up and down the length of his arm, but removes the other hand entirely; after a second, upon hearing a slightly muffled, “EhhHhhCHIEW!” Mark figures out it was to grab his handkerchief. Nate blows his nose far more quietly than usual, perhaps because they’re standing so close, and then, kindly, says, “Nobody’s getting rabies on my watch. Why don’t you let me go — go — AAaAAsShiEW! AAAASHIEW! AhH-HAHAAAAASHIEW! Excuse me, my god. L-let me go in front.”

“Yeah, I’ll — I’ll take you up on that,” Mark says, shuddering. “Sorry, I know I’m being a baby, I just… ugh. I really, really don’t like rats.” 

“I d-did get that sense, yes,” Nate says, rubbing Mark’s arm again. “And I d-don’t think you’re being a b-b-baby, you should see me around — a-around — oh, g-god — ihHhhhSHHHHHHU! IhHh-ihhhhHHH-ISSHU ISSHU ISSHU ISSHU ISSHU ISSHU ISSHU! HAH-HAH-HAAAAAAISSSSHOOO!” Mark’s far enough into Nate’s personal space to almost feel these sneezes wrack his body; he tries to commit the moment to memory for later reference even as it’s happening. After a final “ISSHU!” and another quiet (and, Mark suspects, woefully inadequate) nose blow, Nate says, “God, sorry, I didn’t mean to d-do that while you were so close to me; I’m sure it was g-gross. I was going to say you should s-see me around — c-c-clAAAAAAAAASHOO! AAAASHOO! Christ, clowns.”

Bless you,” Mark says, and then, underscoring his point by leaning back that last crucial inch or so, so his back is resting against Nate’s chest, adds, “And shut up; of course I don’t think you’re gross. If you’re going to put words in my mouth, at least have the decency to make them words I might actually say. Words like, ‘Nate, you upsettingly handsome devil, if we don’t get out of here soon I’m going to lose my shit’ — oh my fucking god, is that another one??” He presses back against Nate shamelessly now, trying to get away from the horrible creature’s beady little gaze. 

“Yikes, t-that is a big rat,” Nate says, watching over Mark’s shoulder as it skitter under a pile of old clothes. He squeezes Mark’s arm again, then fires off one more “HUHCHOO,” into the hanky, turning his head away. “Here, let me just — step around you — “

He moves and so does Mark, both of them trying not to jostle each other or anything around them as they negotiate the narrow path. Mark manages it, if only just, keeping his cane as tight to his body as he can and letting out a huge, relieved breath when he’s safely on the other side. 

But Nate… only almost manages it. He gets surprised by a sneeze mid-motion, and when he turns his his head and lifts his arm to catch the breathy, “AaaaAaShEW!” in his elbow, he bumps into a nearby mound of junk. It’s not a particularly hard bump, but it is a particularly tall stack; the pile of boxes goes nearly to the ceiling, each one marked with things “Kitchen stuff?” or “J.M. — Office.” 

In front of him, Nate’s blowing his nose, one of the huge, honking blows that he was clearly holding back while they were pressed together. For once, Mark barely notices; he’s too busy watching, holding his breath, as the tower of boxes trembles — wobbles — oh, god —

To Mark’s (admittedly slightly conflicted) horror, a half-open, medium-sized box marked ‘Baby clothes,’ slips from the top of the stack and tumbles towards the ground. Nate, blearily lowering the handkerchief, doesn’t see it, and though the moment plays in front of Mark’s eyes as if in slow motion, there isn’t time to warn him. His mouth is still opening, rounding around the first syllable of Nate’s name, when the box hits the ground with a thud at the poor man’s feet. 

The cloud of dust that punches up out of it is so thick as to be clearly visible, even in the dim room. Mark reaches out and grabs the back of Nate’s jacket, hoping to pull him away from the worst of it, but he’s too slow.

He has no choice but to watch, transfixed and horrified, as the dust plume rises with relentless efficiency to hit Nate squarely in the face.

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As a proud but deeply weird 8 (okay, 6…) with my own tiny violin… I LOVE THIS. 🤩. Thank you, and I am so excited for more! 😊👍🏻

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