Sawyer entered the dining room in the food enclave. Rufus Twigg and Lute Thundercloud were sitting at one of the tables, munching on cookies.
Wow, so those two were together all the time now. Sawyer wondered if they were a couple. He wasnâ€™t sure if Lute was gay, though. The straight muses outnumbered the gay ones, and Sawyer was fairly sure he knew who all of them were. But maybe he was wrong. Or maybe Lute was a late bloomer.
He almost turned around and walked right out again. The last thing he wanted was to be confronted with Lute while he was thinking about all this crap.
But Lute waved at him. â€œHey. Sawyer, right?â€
Sawyer waved back. â€œHi, Lute. Rufus.â€
Lute beckoned. â€œSit down with us. I mean, if youâ€™re not in a rush.â€
Sawyer hesitated. There was no reason on earth to sit down with Lute and Rufus. None at all.
But he found himself traipsing over and sitting down. The table was round, and he could see both of their faces.
â€œActually, I was just leaving,â€ said Rufus.
â€œYeah, I know,â€ said Lute. â€œYouâ€™ve got stuff to do. But I want another cookie, and I want company, so maybe Sawyer will hang with me.â€
Rufus eyed Sawyer.
Sawyer looked away. He hadnâ€™t spoken to Rufus since the other guy had given him crap for dating Nora.
â€œUh, how are you?â€ said Rufus.
â€œFine,â€ said Sawyer.
Rufus got up from the table. He pushed his chair in. He gripped it and took a deep breath. â€œHey, Sawyer, you know, about last yearâ€¦â€
Sawyer looked at him expectantly.
â€œSorry about that,â€ said Rufus. â€œYou know, it wasnâ€™t really about you, it was just about how stupid all those rules were that Agler was making.â€
â€œRight,â€ said Sawyer. Agler had been jealous of Nora and Sawyer and tried to keep the two of them from being together. â€œDonâ€™t worry about it. Itâ€™s okay.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s not. It was crap of us,â€ said Rufus. â€œReally, I donâ€™t care if you like girls or boys or both, you know?â€
Sawyer nodded. â€œForget it. Really.â€
Rufus took a deep breath. â€œWell. Anyway. I just wanted you to know that I was sorry.â€
â€œLike I said, forget about it.â€
Rufus turned back to Lute. â€œYou sure you donâ€™t want to come along?â€
Lute shook his head. â€œNah. Thanks for inviting me, though. Have fun.â€
Rufus nodded again. â€œOkay, well, Iâ€™ll see you later.â€
â€œSee you,â€ said Lute.
Rufus still didnâ€™t leave.
Lute raised his eyebrows.
Rufus backed away from the table. He turned and started to walk towards the door. Then he stopped and looked back. â€œYou really donâ€™t want to come?â€
Lute laughed. â€œBye, Rufus.â€
Rufusâ€™s shoulders slumped. He turned and slouched out of the dining room.
Lute rubbed his chin. He had a fine, golden stubble. His hair was blond, but it wasnâ€™t as light and silky as Sawyerâ€™s. Lute had honey-colored curls. His eyes were blue. He grinned at Sawyer. â€œYou want a cookie?â€
Lute was already getting up. â€œYou should have one. Theyâ€™re amazing. Macadamia nut and butterscotch chips. I never tasted anything like it.â€
â€œOkay.â€ Sawyer looked down at the table. What the heck was he doing here? And what was he going to tell Nora when she asked where heâ€™d been? Should he lie? He couldnâ€™t very well tell her that heâ€™d eaten cookies with the most beautiful boy in the whole of Helicon, could he?
Lute returned with a plate full of cookies. â€œIâ€™m going to want more than one. You will too. Youâ€™ll see.â€ He set the cookies down. â€œMan, Rufus wonâ€™t leave me alone.â€
â€œYeah?â€ said Sawyer. â€œI thought maybe you guys were, you knowâ€¦ like a couple or something.â€
Lute threw back his head and laughed.
â€œIs that funny?â€ Sawyer swallowed. â€œOh, I guess you arenâ€™t gay. I shouldnâ€™t haveâ€”â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s not that.â€ Lute was still laughing. â€œI mean, Iâ€™m not gay. I mean, well, I donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t think I am.â€ He waved that away. â€œBut no, itâ€™s funny because even if I was gay, I would never go for someone like Rufus. And I have made that abundantly plain to him, and he wonâ€™t accept it.â€
â€œOh,â€ said Sawyer. â€œWell, maybe heâ€™s just not picking up on your signals.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s not like that.â€ Lute let out another laugh. â€œI told him point blank. I said, â€˜Rufus, Iâ€™m not into you like that. I just want to be friends.â€™ So, itâ€™s not like thereâ€™s signals or whatever.â€
â€œMaybe heâ€™s just hanging out with you to be friendly?â€
â€œDo you even like Rufus? I mean, donâ€™t you think heâ€™s kind of a dick?â€
Sawyer considered. The guy had been rude to him last year. But heâ€™d apologizedâ€¦ He shrugged. â€œI guess I donâ€™t really know him.â€
â€œHeâ€™s just got his own ideas about things, you know? And he doesnâ€™t want to budge or see anyone elseâ€™s point of view. Itâ€™s his way or no way. He rubs me the wrong way.â€ Lute popped a piece of cookie in his mouth and chewed.
â€œYeah, I guess I can see how that would be annoying.â€
Lute swallowed the cookie. â€œWell, I donâ€™t want to be rude to the guy. And he can be okay in small doses. Itâ€™s not like I never want to talk to him ever again. I just wish he would stop following me around.â€ He broke off another piece of cookie. â€œSo, uh, thanks for rescuing me. Rufus was trying to get me to go to some meeting of all the gay muses in Helicon.â€
â€œThey have those?â€
Lute shrugged. â€œApparently. And, like I said, Iâ€™m not gay, but Rufus seems to thinkâ€¦ Anyway, thereâ€™s no way he would have let me stay here by myself. You were a perfect buffer.â€
â€œYouâ€™re welcome, I guess.â€
Lute grinned. â€œHeck, yeah, man. You were awesome. Now eat a cookie already.â€
Sawyer picked one up, feeling sheepish. He had just noticed that Lute had perfectly straight, perfectly shaped, perfectly white teeth. The boy was like a golden god or something. It was ridiculous how attractive he was. It should be illegal for guys to look like that. It really should. He bit into the cookie.
Lute raised his eyebrows. â€œSo?â€
Sawyer swallowed. â€œOh. Yeah. Good.â€ The cookie was pretty tasty, he guessed. But he was on sensory overload from looking at Lute. He could hardly even register the taste.
â€œActually, what are you even doing in here? Usually, youâ€™ve got like an entourage.â€
â€œYeah, the redhead. Your girl? And that other girl, the brunette? And sometimes that Jack guy, that Agler guy. Your entourage.â€
Sawyer laughed self-consciously. â€œTheyâ€™re just my friends.â€
â€œRight.â€ Lute leaned across the table as if they were sharing a secret. His blue eyes twinkled. â€œSo where are they? How come youâ€™re not with them?â€
Sawyer was finding it hard to breathe. He stuffed more of the cookie into his mouth.
Lute watched him chew, waiting as if he was enthralled by whatever Sawyer did.
Sawyer coughed. Cookie particles sprayed all over his shirt. Mortified, he brushed them away.
Sawyer swallowed. â€œTheyâ€™re, um, probably sitting around the fire in the tweens and rebels enclave, drinking or playing music or something.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re not.â€ Lute arched an eyebrow, and there was something almost suggestive about it.
Sawyer looked away. He had to be imagining things. Hadnâ€™t this guy just told him that he wasnâ€™t gay?
â€œI have you all to myself.â€
Sawyer didnâ€™t know how to respond. He could feel himself start to sweat in all his crevices. He felt uncomfortable, but at the same time, he didnâ€™t want to be anywhere except right where he was.
â€œYouâ€™re a very interesting guy, you know that?â€ said Lute.
â€œIâ€™m not that interesting.â€
â€œYou are, though.â€ Lute slid back in his chair, looking comfortable and delicious.
Sawyer started to break what was left of his cookie into tiny little pieces.
â€œYouâ€™re different than any of them.â€ His gaze flicked over Sawyer, from the top of his head and down his torso.
Sawyer drew in a shaky breath.
â€œI notice you a lot. Youâ€™re hard to miss. I see you. I think about you.â€
â€œLook,â€ said Sawyer, his voice coming out in a harsh whisper, â€œI have a girlfriend.â€
Lute laughed again, but he locked eyes with Sawyer. â€œYeah. I know that.â€
Sawyer felt adrift in the blueness of Luteâ€™s irises. â€œYou said that you werenâ€™t gay.â€
â€œIâ€™m not.â€ He hadnâ€™t broken the stare.
Sawyerâ€™s jaw worked.
They sat that way for a long time, each looking into the otherâ€™s eyes. Sawyer didnâ€™t think heâ€™d ever stared this long at someone without looking away, not even with Nora. It feltâ€¦ intimate on a level that he could hardly explain. He felt connected to Lute, as if they were forging a bond.
But then Luteâ€™s gaze flicked away. Casually, as if it was no big deal. Lute ran a hand through his hair. â€œI just, you know, might be a little, like, uhâ€¦ curious aboutâ€¦ things.â€ He laughed again. This time the laugh seemed nervous. â€œHonestly, I donâ€™t know what the hell Iâ€™m doing.â€
Bullshit, you donâ€™t know, thought Sawyer. His heart was starting to race. He got up from the table. Fast. Maybe too fast, because he knocked over his chair, and it clattered against the floor. He picked it up, feeling clumsy and unsure of himself. â€œI should go.â€
â€œFind your girlfriend, yeah?â€ Lute was smiling again, an easy, unaffected smile.
â€œYeah,â€ said Sawyer.
â€œRight on.â€ Luteâ€™s smile widened. He looked Sawyer up and down again, this time taking in his whole body, since Sawyer was standing.
Sawyer felt sweaty again. â€œIâ€™llâ€¦ see you later.â€ He turned to go.
He turned to look at Lute. â€œYeah?â€
â€œYouâ€™re going to be at the Winter Ball, right?â€
â€œOf course.â€ Everyone went to the ball, didnâ€™t they?
Lute ran his thumb over his bottom lip. â€œCool.â€
Thoroughly unnerved, Sawyer hurried out of the dining room.