Stephen Hunt’s having a terrible holiday season. It’s mid-December, and he’s about as far from the familiar scholarly walls of his Oxford professor’s office as he can get -- Southern California, in fact, for an academic conference. Back home, his ex-boyfriend’s moved out, and Stephen’s alone and miserable in the hotel bar with his research on obscure ancient Roman holiday traditions. The bartender’s adorable, though, so at least that’s a good distraction from his thoughts.
Brian Dwyer’s a very good bartender. Good at making drinks and having holiday spirit, good at talking to customers, good at making people smile. He’s decided that the gorgeous but unhappy professor at the end of the bar definitely needs to smile. And once Stephen opens up and starts talking to him, Brian just might be in love with historical trivia, knowledge and passion, and those soft brown eyes. And if the night’s one of those decadent ancient holidays that Stephen knows so much about, even better -- they’ll just have to find a way to celebrate together.
Stephen Hunt, being just drunk enough to catch the attractive hotel bartender's eye and mournfully inquire, "Do you even know what day it is?" was nevertheless not so drunk that he did not immediately regret the existence of words.
All words. Every word in the world. His scholarly research words, which he was nervous about sharing with others in the morning. His ex-boyfriend's words, which hurt like broken rainbows inside his chest. Words in general.
But most specifically his own words, just now. Opening conversation. With a stranger. An adorable American stranger. One he'd just asked -- indirectly -- about a holiday that only a scholar steeped in classical history would even know about.
A gift-giving, lavish, cheerfully vibrant holiday. None of which applied in Stephen's case. Not now.
He tried not to think about holidays. Or incongruities. Or his own idiocy. He drank more beer.
The bartender, evidently not put off by tipsy Oxford-accented melancholy, came over to smile at him. The bartender looked like everything Stephen had imagined Southern California to be, tanned and golden and sapphire-eyed and muscular in the way of surfers and swimmers; in concession to the December season, he'd stuck an astonishingly colorful Christmas tree pin onto his shirt, just above his name tag, and his shirt-sleeves were rolled up, showing off smooth sun-kissed forearms, and Stephen tried not to look and kept looking regardless.
He wondered how that sunshine skin would feel, would taste. A fleeting wonder, and impossible: so very distant from his own skinny pale height, brown hair and brown eyes and clumsy academic lecturer's elbows.
"Hey," the bartender said. "You're here for the conference, right? That historical society of whatever? And I feel like the answer ought to be, it's my lucky day, but I'm pretty sure you're not actually going for the pick-up line here." His name tag announced his name to be Brian. His smile, amid reflections of twinkling lights and palm trees and holidays in San Diego, held a surprising amount of kindness. The kindness lingered in blue eyes, in the way they watched Stephen's face, genuinely waiting for the reply.
"I'm sorry," Stephen said helplessly, lost to those eyes. "Yes, I am -- I mean here for the conference, not that I'm sorry -- oh, no, not that I'm not that too -- oh, never mind. Don't let me bother you."
Brian glanced around the bar. Southern California warmth, unobtrusive hotel business happening at the check-in desk, visiting academics in sandals and reindeer jumpers, and a menu announcing something called a mistletoe margarita all collectively shrugged and did not require his attention.
Stephen stared desperately at his own mostly empty pint. American beer, it'd been. Darker and more intense and stronger than he was used to. And unhelpful as far as rescue.
"So," Brian said. "What day is it?"
"You did ask." With one more smile, weightless and effervescent. "Or do I have to guess?"