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    Chapter 33 Two Hearts and a Lifetime Sitting in Rory’s car after the town meeting, Milan took in a breath and then another, his gaze on the closed doors of the town hall. He looked at Rory who sat leaning over the steering wheel looking out into the evening. It was taking more than a minute to process the last two hours. “I wasn’t expecting all of that,” Milan confessed into the silence. “I mean, everyone sort of hugging me and talking at once, and all those hugs. I feel like I’ve been squeezed into a pancake.” Rory burst into a short laugh. “And Iris, playing us up like some sort of celebrities. What ceremony is she’s talking about? I don’t do well with crowds, Rory.” “You did fine in there. Everyone already loves you, Milan.” “And your brother,” Milan continued, because there was no other way to call Chris. He knew Rory’s feelings towards Chris. Chris was Rory’s brother in all the ways that mattered. Milan couldn’t forget it. Chris wrapping strong arms around Milan’s thighs and lifting him up after Iris’s announcement, then running around the hall like a mad man. Milan had clutched Chris’s shoulders, bunching his t-shirt tight in case Chris dropped him. “He really likes you,” Rory said, pleased. Milan rubbed his cheeks. “At least it’s over now,” Milan said. “Yes. No more Rick.” Rory agreed. “The Swamp Lands are now one with us. Elle and Johan will help the transition. The council will handle Cade and Dolon, and all loose ends. Dad will let me know what happens, what they decide.” “What about Biosense?” “We’ll have to see what the council decides. They’re probably having a meeting right now,” Rory said, leaning over to kiss Milan’s cheek. “I’m proud of you. You handled Sanctuary’s requests well.” “What is she? Does she always listen to us? ” Milan asked, curious about the feminine voice that had invaded his thoughts in the town hall. Sanctuary’s presence felt unreal and thrilling at the same time. He was thrilled that she was part of him in a mysterious mystic way. She was definitely part of Rory, added to his strength as a thick pillar steadied a massive dome. It felt unreal to have something so powerful know his thoughts. “She’s Sanctuary,” Rory said, his voice matter of fact. “She is the town’s very pulse. I think of her as the Goddess’s messenger. She lets us know when something is going wrong in the town.” “Or when something is going well,” Milan said, intrigued even more by Sanctuary. She gave him the same vibes Iris and Grandma Asta gave him. “Yes, that too,” Rory said. “Thank you for standing with me, Milan.” Milan reached over to brush dark hair out of Rory’s eyes. Rory gave him the courage to stand at the town hall. Rory gave him courage, period. He felt as though he could take on the world and all challenges as long as Rory stayed with him. Milan’s phone buzzed and he checked the message from Ayu with a smile. ‘How did you know to send her?’ “Rowen’s found Ayu,” Milan said, showing Rory the text. “I thought it was interesting when she asked if she could pick him up. Now I know why.” Rory smiled. “Ayu’s in for a ride with that one.” “It will be interesting to watch,” Milan agreed. “I’m glad Ayu has found someone to call his here.” Rory sat back and started the car. “If you’re up to it, I want to take you somewhere.” “Where?” Milan asked, wearing his seat belt. A small part of him wished they would go back to the hot spring at the caves. He loved that place. “You’ll see,” Rory promised, pulling out onto the road, and driving away from the town hall. *** Rory drove to High Point, the highest part of Portento. High Point was a wild meadow tended by Hunter’s people and those like Iris, with old trees, tall grass and wild herbs. Its expanse ended on a high cliff that overlooked the town. Rory watched Milan’s wolf run around trees, through tall grass and wild herbs in circles. Milan was in high spirits this evening, his beautiful fur shining in the moonlight. When he came close to Rory, Milan pounced on him playfully, and then ran off. Rory ran after him, not holding back his powerful stride. He jumped on Milan, bringing him down. They rolled on the ground, and then played hard. Milan was happy. He laughed when he managed to get away from Rory and ran. He so loved to run. Rory loved watching him be so carefree and let Milan play undisturbed. High Point was Rory’s second favorite spot in Portento. He was glad that Milan was enjoying it. When Milan got tired of running around and taking in the scents of the surrounding trees, Rory took him to the smooth rocks at the edge of the high cliff. Milan’s gasp at the sight below was worth it. The streetlights looked like an avalanche of stars washing over the town, twinkling between a lush coverage of green. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ Milan told him, rubbing against Rory’s side. ‘How did you find this place?’ Rory settled on the ground, content when Milan curled close to him. ‘My mom used to bring me here. I’ve never brought anyone else before. It always felt like our place.’ ‘Oh, Rory,’ Milan pressed against him. ‘I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows this place exists. I just don’t like coming here with anyone else.’ Milan nipped Rory’s ear, then licked it. ‘Noted.’ ‘What’s noted?’ ‘That I’m not anyone else,’ Milan said, amused. Rory turned to look at Milan, his golden eyes filled with love. He curled around Milan, his bigger wolf providing warmth for Milan’s much smaller one. “All my secret places are yours, Milan,’ Rory told him, meaning it, content to watch the night dawn with Milan beside him. He didn’t know a better paradise than this one *** “Ciao, Rory,” Ilaria said in greeting early Sunday morning. She had called Milan’s Skype and gotten Rory, as Milan still slept. “You look well.” “You too, Mamma,” Rory said, adjusting the laptop on the desk, as he sat down in his chair, pushing hair out of his eyes. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry, I just woke up.” “That’s alright, Rory,” Ilaria smiled. “It’s good I got you, anyway. Your father called me last evening. He asked my husband to take on a heavy challenge. I’m to help, but I’m not sure we are up to it.” “What did he ask?” Rory asked, curious, sleep disappearing at the prospect of bringing back Milan’s parents to Portento for good. “He asks we take over Biosense leadership,” Ilaria said. “It will mean a lot more work, for me, for Kiyo. It would mean less time with Ayu and Milan.” “They have us,” Rory said. “They have my family if you need it.” Ilaria studied him for a minute, and then nodded. “You really would do anything to keep Milan happy, wouldn’t you?” “Si,” Rory said, copying Milan’s replies to Ilaria. “Anything.” Ilaria chuckled and nodded again. “I see that. I suppose that is the one thing we have in common, Rory. When I get back, will you let me discover more about your kind?” Rory stared at her, biting his lip. “In a mother in-law kind of way,” Ilaria said, pressing palms to her cheeks as she said it. “Oddio, I have to keep checking that I’m not insane every time I think of that word.” “What word?” Rory asked. “Mother in-law,” Ilaria said, her voice trembling as she spoke it. “Connor is very adamant that you two are together for good. I have now gained a son in-law, while my own son is only seventeen. It’s surreal.” “Think of it as getting double the advantage,” Rory teased her. 'Dad, thanks for pulling the Takedas back,' he sent Connor. 'We really do need them,' Connor said, then disappeared. “Don’t adopt any children until you’re both thirty,” Ilaria warned, making Rory laugh and Milan sit up on the bed. “It will turn me into Nonna too soon.” “You’ll be a cute Nonna,” Rory assured her, knowing if he got children, they would be born via surrogate. He and Milan would need to discuss that in a few years. “The prettiest one in town." “Mamma?” Milan mumbled as he got out of bed, wrapping the sheet around his shoulders as he got out of bed. Rory rolled his chair back and allowed Milan to perch on his lap. “You called so early.” “Is it?” Ilaria asked, looking at the time on her phone. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon.” “Six a.m. for us,” Milan said, resting his head on Rory’s chest. “I could sleep some more.” “Always sleepy,” Ilaria teased. “Ayu get home okay?” “Yes,” Milan said. “He’s staying here with us.” “That’s good to hear,” Ilaria said. “Your Papa wanted to talk to you. Are you up for it?” “Yes.” Milan sat up then, perking up. “Is he better?” “Much,” Kiyo said, appearing on screen, when Ilaria shifted her laptop to her husband. “Look at you so healthy, Milan. Rory, I wanted to thank you. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for what you’ve done for my son.” Rory squeezed Milan’s waist, and smiled at Kiyo. “I did it for both of us,” Rory said. “It wasn’t easy for me to see him in pain either.” “When I come back, maybe we can talk more?” Kiyo asked. “There is so much to learn, I will need your help.” “I’ll be happy to help, Sir,” Rory said, glad Kiyo wasn’t scowling at him. “Papa,” Kiyo corrected. “What?” “Call me, Papa,” Kiyo said. “Same as my boys, you’re one of them now, or am I wrong?” Milan grinned and Rory shook his head. “No, sir—, I mean, Papa. You’re not wrong.” “Good,” Kiyo said, with a nod, closing that topic simply. “Milan, don’t give Rory trouble. Pay attention to your studies. I heard from Ilaria and Ayu that you want to be an architect. You’ll need to keep up with your math and physics.” “Yes, Papa,” Milan said, nodding his head, insanely pleased that his father was well enough to ride him on his grades. “Now that you’re better, expect more pushing from me,” Kiyo promised him. Milan chuckled and leaned back into Rory’s arms. “When are you coming back?” Milan asked, and Rory took in both Kiyo and Ilaria’s expressions. They seemed happy. Happier than when he first met them both. “We’ll let you know, Cucciolo,” Ilaria said. “When your Papa is without any pain and has taken time off. We’ll come back by spring time.” Time enough for Ilaria to adjust to the idea of Milan not needing all her time, and that her husband was taking over the wild beast that was Biosense. “Okay.” Milan nodded, not begrudging them the time away. They didn’t end the call right away, instead talking to Ilaria and Kiyo about Turin and their lives there. Milan’s parents made Rory curious about Turin and Italy. He wanted to see the place Milan was comfortable calling home. He made a note to ask Connor of the possibility of a trip to Italy. After the call with Milan’s parents, Rory and Milan went downstairs for breakfast. Matt and Topher were awake, and they already had a visitor. “Hey Jet,” Milan said in greeting, going to hug Jet. “You’re here early on a Sunday.” “I never left last night after a bunch of us came back here,” Jet said, rubbing Milan’s t-shirt. “Cool t-shirt by the way.” Milan glanced down at the white Linkin Park t-shirt he was wearing. “Thanks, I have a grey one like it I can give you,” Milan said. “Awesome,” Jet grinned. “My mom made peanut butter cookies. I hid them in the pantry when I came over and found you weren’t around. Want them for breakfast?” “You’re the best,” Milan said, following Jet to the pantry where he had kept the cookies. Rory sat at the kitchen table and met Matt’s amused gaze. “You and Jet?” Rory asked, needing to know Matt wasn’t messing around with Jet without reason. Jet was a good kid. Rory worried for him. “It’s private,” Matt stated, clearly not about to share more. “And?” Rory insisted, holding Matt’s stubborn gaze. “And,” Matt’s gaze softened when he heard Jet laugh with Milan. “I’m taking it slow, getting to know him. Same as you did with Milan. He’s yet to hit his eighteen birthday, Rory.” “Right,” Rory smiled. “That’s some restraint, Matt.” “Got it from you,” Matt said. Rory sighed, empathizing with Matt’s efforts and sat back in his seat. “Well, I’m happy for you,” Rory said. “I hope you two connect soon.” “I don’t get you two. Matt, you should just give in. Take him over and get to know each after. You're both wolves, after all,” Topher said, drinking down a green concoction of vegetables from a large blender bottle. He was the health nut of the family. “I’m not you, Vadisi,” Matt replied. “Besides, I like discovering things about Jet. Like taking my time for when we’re truly together. Rory would understand.” “I hope that’s not for breakfast,” Rory pointed at Topher’s bottle, deciding on a change of subject. Matt rarely changed his mind. “You should try it,” Topher insisted, holding out the bottle to Rory. “It’s good stuff, gives you energy, keeps you clean.” “And gives you the runs,” Matt provided, with a laugh. “That was one time,” Topher said, “plus who knows what else you had eaten that day.” “Keep trying,” Matt said, shaking his head, clearly not about to drink the blended vegetable mix. He got up and went to wash his hands. “I’ll make eggs and bacon for us, Rory. Milan?” Milan appeared at the pantry door, holding a bowl of peanut butter cookies. “How do you like your eggs?” Matt asked him. “Are you going to cook them?” Milan moved to lean on the counter as Matt wiped his hands and found a frying pan. “I’m a great cook,” Matt boasted. “Eggs, bacon or sausage and hash browns.” “Then, I like scrambled eggs,” Milan said then. Jet went to wash his hands at the sink. “I’ll help you,” Jet said, when Matt looked at him. Milan smiled and moved to sit at the table next to Rory. For the next ten minutes, Matt worked on scrambling eggs and frying bacon and sausages, with Jet working on the hash browns. Milan got up, washed a bowl of apples and returned to the table to cut them into slices. He passed the slices around the table as they waited for breakfast. Rory was glad to hear Topher and Matt talk to Milan about school, about his now official best friend Jack, about the pack house and if Milan wanted a proper tour, not the one Maryanne gave him, which was rated PG. When Milan laughed, Rory smiled glad to see him relaxed with Matt and Topher. He needed Milan comfortable enough to rely on Matt and Topher if Milan ever needed anything. Jet placed plates of food for Rory, then Topher. He was placing Milan’s plate before him when Jade came into the kitchen, from the main house, carrying an apple pie. “Morning! Before you ask, Mom made the pie,” Jade said, placing the large pie in the middle of the table. “She told me to bring it in cause she thinks you guys will starve to death otherwise.” She squealed when she saw Milan and leaned over Jet to kiss Milan’s cheek. “I saw you Friday night at the restaurant. You danced with Rory that was awesome to watch by the way. But then, you guys left so fast I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself. I’m Jade Vadisi, Topher’s little sister. We’re in the same grade even though I never get to see you. Maryanne said you were hanging out with her Friday, and I wanted to join in. But, I was caught up with practice—” Jet stuffed an apple slice into Jade’s mouth and she pinched his left bicep. “Breathe,” Matt said. “Ignore her, please,” Topher said, winking at Milan. “She’ll talk you into craziness.” “Jade’s band was awesome. What name do you use?” Milan asked, making Rory, Topher and Matt groan. “What?” “You’re a fan?” Jade almost screamed, pushing Jet away from Milan. She pulled a chair close to Milan and crouched on it, her green dress riding up over her tights. “Oh, this is so awesome. Our band’s called The Werefolks. I’ve been trying to convince these guys that our act is good enough to break out of the town, but they won’t believe me.” “It doesn’t make sense for you to leave Portento to play,” Topher grumbled out. “You’re making enough money at the restaurant.” “We’re not in it for the money,” Jade insisted. “We write our own stuff too. We’re having a concert festival for the spring equinox near end of March. Milan, you’ll come, right? It’s going to be so much fun. Everyone will be there. After this, Topher will see our band is good enough to go on the road.” “I’d love to go,” Milan said, excited. “Rory, we’re going, right?” “If it’s what you want,” Rory answered, knowing he was signing up for the three days of concert madness that was spring equinox festival. “Like I would give them a chance not to show up,” Jade scoffed, accepting a plate of eggs and sausage from Matt. “I heard you do art, Milan. Will you make art for our band posters? It would be really awesome if we featured it this concert.” Rory met Topher’s gaze as his mate launched into talking about t-shirts and posters for Jade’s band. The two connecting like the oldest of friends, it was beautiful to watch. ‘Your sister is great,’ Rory told Topher. ‘She pulled Milan in without making him feel like a new comer.’ ‘Jade’s special gift,’ Topher smiled. ‘I’m afraid we might have to let her try a tour out there.’ ‘That’s been coming, Toph,’ Rory said, knowing that Topher worried for Jade’s safety outside the town’s boundaries. ‘She’s good enough, and you know it. We’ll just have to figure it out for her.’ ‘Rory’s right. We’ll deal with it when it’s time,’ Matt soothed, urging Jet to sit next to Topher and placing a plate of food before him. Jet blushed when Matt ruffled his hair and sat down next to him. Rory was sure Matt didn’t have to wait there. Jet looked gone for Matt. Rory sat back watching his family have breakfast, setting tradition for their future Sunday mornings. Chris and Maryanne joined them soon after, with Maryanne sitting on Topher’s lap, while Chris squeezed in between Milan and Jade joining their concert conversation. They ate too much and talked. It was the best Sunday breakfast Rory could remember. *** Rory drove Milan to school on Monday morning. It was nice showing up together, this way none of them had to wait for the other. Milan’s reception was different too. More students greeted him ‘good morning’ than he could count. “It’s weird,” Milan insisted at lunch when Rory sent off a group of girls who wanted to find out if Milan was available for a Wednesday party. “I felt like I lived in an island with you and Jack a week ago. Now, everyone is talking to me.” “You’re one of us now,” Rory said. “It’s not weird at all.” Milan breathed in and took Rory’s hand, squeezing it. “Will it always be like this?” Milan asked, when he looked up and found more than a dozen gazes on him and Rory. “No,” Rory said, grinning. “It will wear off soon. They’re a little excited about the future right now.” Milan laughed then and shook his head. “You’re enjoying this too much.” “Kind of,” Rory said, getting up when the warning bell rang. “I’ll take you to your Italian class.” “Will you learn it?” Milan asked, when they reached Milan’s class and Rory held him back from entering. “I’ll learn sexy words so that I can use them on you. Tell me one right now.” “Sono pazzo a di te,” Milan said, then smiled wide. “I have to go now.” “What did you just tell me?” Rory asked, holding on to his hand. “Discover it,” Milan leaned up and kissed him. “Go to your class, Rory.” “You can’t talk to me in Italian like that, and then tell me to leave you,” Rory complained, pulling Milan into his arms and kissing him again. Possessive, needy, he wondered if they could leave already. “Alpha, you might have authority over me outside this school, but in here, you’re under mine,” Milan’s Italian teacher said from behind him. “Let my student go. It’s time for class.” Rory groaned and allowed Milan to push him away. He hid a laugh when Milan blushed and ran into class. Rory turned and faced Mrs. Antonio. “I’m leaving now.” “I see that,” Mrs. Antonio said, as she entered her class. She held the door and moved to close it. “Ah, Rory, ‘I’m crazy about you’ is what he said. I do offer tutoring in my free time, in case you’re interested.” Rory tried to catch a glimpse of Milan, and then blushed as Mrs. Antonio gave him a knowing look and closed the door on his face. ‘I'm crazy for you too,’ Rory sent to Milan, his heart skipping when Milan flooded their bond with warmth. Later, after school, Rory found himself sitting in an armchair in the living room watching Jack. Milan was in the kitchen doing his homework, as he played catch up on his classes. He had gotten Jack’s homework too, which was how Jack ended up at their place. “Nisin insists on seeing Milan before his change,” Jack said, pacing the length of the living room. His hands in fists, he was eager to get back to his mate. “I thought you’d let me drive Milan over. Grandma Asta has been clear in her explanation, but Nisin is nervous.” “When is the change?” Rory asked. “Tomorrow or tonight if we can get transport into the Swamp Lands,” Jack said. “Have you talked to my uncle?” “It’s not so easy,” Jack said, blowing out a nervous breath. “I’ll call him for you,” Rory said. “As for Milan—" “Please don’t say no,” Jack begged. “I wasn’t,” Rory said, with a small smile. “Milan will make the choice, Jack.” Jack stared at him, and then nodded. “Right. You’re right.” “Sit down for a second, will you?” Rory insisted when Jack stood watching him. ‘Baby, will you come with me to visit Nisin?’ Rory asked Milan. ‘Uh…,’ Milan’s brain was occupied with Calculus homework. ‘Yeah sure, I’m finished with the worksheets I got. I need to stop by my house too.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I left a carrying case full of stuff for my drawing tablet there. I need it for Jade’s project. It will only take a minute.’ ‘Cool, let’s go then,’ Rory got up and looked to Jack. “I’ll drive Milan. We have somewhere to go after.” Jack nodded, thanked him and hurried out to his car, eager to get back to Nisin. *** Jack’s house was a few minutes away from the main town. A cozy ranch-style house built for comfort, very modern on the inside. Jack opened the door for them, and led Milan to a bedroom on the right of the house. He opened the door and Milan saw Nisin resting in bed, under blankets. He looked healthier than the last time they met. His meds corrected, he was less pale. “Ciao,” Milan said, moving to perch on the edge of the bed. Jack hovered behind him. “Jack, it’s Milan,” Nisin said as he sat up, getting comfortable. Jack ignored his chiding and moved around Milan to arrange Nisin’s pillows and pull the covers around him. “I’m fine, Jack. I promise.” Jack pressed a soft kiss on Nisin’s forehead, pulled him into a tight hug, then let go with difficulty. “I’ll be in the living room with Rory,” Jack said, looking at Milan. “Tell me if anything happens, or he needs anything at all. Okay?” “I promise,” Milan said. “Okay,” Jack stared down at Nisin, then when he didn’t move Nisin gave an annoyed huff and waved him out. “Right, I’m leaving.” “He’s just worried,” Milan said, when the door closed behind Jack. “You should have seen Rory before. I had it worse. How are you feeling?” “Worst question to ask someone sick in bed,” Nisin countered, then smiled when Milan chuckled. “You’re right. I hated it too,” Milan agreed. “So, let’s forget I asked. You wanted to see me?” Nisin reached out to take Milan’s left hand, and Milan shifted closer to him, getting comfortable on the bed. “I heard about what my dad did to your family,” Nisin said, staring at their clasped hands. “I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t obvious. When my dad sent me to yours, he dropped some hints. I couldn’t tell your dad about it though because he had promised to let me meet you.” “You wanted to meet me?” Milan asked, surprised. “Yeah,” Nisin smiled, looking up to meet his gaze. “I’d never met anyone like me. Well, let’s just say I didn’t get to meet many kids my age. The way your dad talked about you, the things he did for you, I was jealous and wanted to meet you.” “Oh, Nisin.” “It’s okay, your dad was really nice to me,” Nisin said. “He made me feel a bit of the care he gave you. It wasn’t the same, never the same, but it was something.” Nisin squeezed Milan’s hand, dropping his gaze to their joined hands. “I felt bad that I couldn’t tell your dad about mine.” Nisin shook his head. “You see, my family is not as close as yours. It never will be, but Cade is still my dad.” “I understand,” Milan said then, thinking he knew what Nisin was trying to do. “I’m sorry I knew nothing of you.” “My dad made Kiyo keep my presence in his lab a secret,” Nisin said. “Kiyo wanted to protect me, so he kept it quiet.” Milan nodded, already knowing his father’s intentions. “They told me my dad will leave Portento,” Nisin said after a minute. “He won’t remember working for Biosense, but he’ll remember me.” “Does that make you sad?” Milan asked, wondering what he would feel if Kiyo were to forget having worked so hard to heal him. In a way, the hours Kiyo spent in his lab were a way to know how much he loved Milan. Then again, Cade's hours in Biosense were to line his pockets with money. “Not really,” Nisin gave him a short smile. “He never really paid attention to me, like Kiyo did with you. I’m hopeful, actually.” “Hopeful?” Milan asked. “That this change will give me my dad back,” Nisin said, his tone shy. “Is that stupid of me?” “Never,” Milan shook his head. “Not at all, Nisin.” “I’m glad to hear it from you,” Nisin said. “Will you ask them to treat him well for me? He might not be the best man, but he’s my dad, Milan. Please?” “Sure,” Milan promised, knowing he would ask Connor for this. He felt responsible for Nisin, somehow. “You just worry about getting through your change. Don’t think about anything else.” “About that,” Nisin said, blushing like crazy. “What-what’s it like?” Milan thought about the night Rory changed him. His free hand moving up to touch the spot on his neck where Rory had bitten him. The shock of it, the pain that followed and Rory’s frustration at not being able to help him. Waking up to Rory’s blue eyes and knowing what he was to him. That night was clear in his head, so clear; he thought it a rebirth, something he wanted to keep deep inside, cherishing it for a lifetime, because it had given him a new start, a new life. A different adventure. “Resurrectio,” Milan told Nisin. “Neither good nor bad, easy or hard, just rebirth. I can’t measure….or describe the experience for you. It will be unique, to you, for Jack too. When it’s done, I’ll be your brother, Nisin. La tua famiglia. Your family. Cause only us two will understand what we’ve survived. Do you agree?” “I agree,” Nisin said, with a single decisive nod. Milan pulled Nisin into a tight hug. “Don’t worry about your Papa. I’ll see to it.” Nisin tightened his arms around him, and they stayed like that for a little while. *** After their visit with Nisin, Milan watched Rory drive to the Takeda house. “When is Nisin turning into one of us?” Milan asked. “Tonight,” Rory said. “Matt will take him in and make sure Elle and Johan assist.” “Should I ask Iris?” Milan asked, reaching for the amulet he now wore all the time. It fascinated him when the leather string around his neck remained on even in his wolf form. “No,” Rory shook his head. “Contrary to your experience, Iris is quite frightening to most in this town. Only one with power to match hers or a stronger will can stay with her longer than a few minutes. You saw how she silenced the town with Rick.” “So people like you and your Dad?” “Yes. Dad has Alpha blood. I’m Alpha, with Sanctuary backing me.” “What about me?” Milan asked, as Rory turned into the Takeda driveway. “You’re my mate, and Sanctuary recognizes you as Moon to this pack. Your will is extraordinary too. Your faced so much pain for so long,” Rory stopped the car and faced him. “Iris is like a walk in the park for you.” “I’m stronger than I feel then,” Milan joked. “Yes, actually. You really are strong, Milan.” Rory reached out and touched his ear. “And all mine.” Milan took Rory’s hand and rubbed his thumb over Rory’s knuckles. “Fair enough, I won’t call Iris to Nisin, but Grandma Asta should be there for him at least.” “She’ll be there, in her own way,” Rory said. He looked at the house that was now dark except for the third floor. “Ayu is here.” “I’ll go see him, and grab my stuff,” Milan said, kissing Rory’s jaw. “When I come back, you’ll let me drive us home.” “Whoa,” Rory lifted his hands ready to protest. “I’m not asking to drive your precious sports car, just thus pickup truck. I wanna drive, Rory. You promised to let me practice,” Milan insisted, glaring at Rory when he looked unwilling. “Fine,” Rory said, with a frown, sitting back in the driver’s side, turning on the radio. “Hurry back.” Milan opened his door, vowing to smooth that frown when he came back. He ran into the house, not pausing to remove his shoes. It was surreal going up the stairs in a full run, and not feeling out of breath. In his bedroom upstairs, he paused at the entrance when he saw the stripped bed. Old sheets covered his dresser and his desk. Rory had brought all his books to the pack house. Their wing had a library that now had all of Milan's books, with more to come. Milan knew then that he would never return to the Takeda house to stay, and it felt right. The pack house was now his home. A sense of nostalgia filled him as he walked up to the large photograph of the Milan Cathedral. He couldn’t have known, that day he stood here with Rory making a silly joke, where their journey together would bring him. He trailed gentle fingers over the picture frame and smiled. Changing direction, he went to the closet and found the carrier bag filled with the tablet accessories he needed. Holding it in his left hand, he went out into the room and paused when he saw the connecting door open. Going through it to the bathroom, and to Ayu’s door, he opened it and stopped when he saw Ayu and Rowen on the bed making out. Rowen hid her face into Ayu’s shoulder when she noticed him. “Way to intrude, Milan,” Ayu said in greeting. “I’m just—,” Milan grinned and caught the pillow Rowen threw at him. “Aren’t you happy you still had your clothes on?” “Shut up,” Rowen shook her head, moving to sit next to Ayu. Milan’s grin widened and he moved to stand at the foot of Ayu’s bed. “So?” Milan looked to Rowen. “What are your intentions with my brother?” “We’re so not doing this,” Ayu stated, throwing a pillow at Milan too. “What? You did it to Rory when he showed up.” “That was different,” Ayu insisted. “No, it wasn’t.” “Uh, it was,” Ayu said. “Come on, you know it wasn’t.” “Both of you stop,” Rowen said, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you two.” “You’re kissing my big brother,” Milan said, folding his hands against his chest. “You get to deal with me.” Ayu burst into a laugh and shook his head, resting back on the headboard. “What?” Milan demanded. “You’re cute when you act all taller and stuff,” Rowen said. “What’s cute is you two voicing each other’s thoughts, like a married couple.” “Look who’s talking,” Rowen scoffed, and threw the pillow closest to her at him. Milan laughed then because he was elated to see his brother entangled in a girl. The hope that he wouldn’t be the only one in his family sinking roots in Portento filled him. It felt good to belong to this town as a family. “I’m gonna go,” Milan said, pointing to the door. “Will you two be here then?” “Maybe,” Ayu said, taking Rowen’s hand and winking at Milan. “Okay,” Milan grinned again. “Welcome home, Ayu.” “It’s good to be home, baby brother,” Ayu said, and threw the last of the pillows on his bed at Milan. “Now, get out of here. We’re busy.” Milan laughed and closed the bathroom door behind him. He left his bedroom in high spirits. His memories of this house were only two months long, but they were the happiest memories he knew. He hoped his parents would return to stay. ‘Cucciolo, how much longer?’ Rory asked. ‘Coming,’ Milan said, going down the stairs to the living room and the front door. Milan opened the front door and turned to look back at the living room. Yes, he wanted to see his family happy here too. Outside, he stopped when he saw Rory leaning on his white pickup, watching him. “Took you long enough,” Rory teased. “I got sidetracked,” Milan said, looking up to the third floor. Rory followed his gaze and smiled after a minute. “Ohh,” Rory said. “Big bro and Rowen have found a perfect hideaway.” “Only until our parents come back,” Milan said, coming down the steps to where Rory leaned on the driver’s side door. He accepted Rory’s quick kiss and moved back, holding his hands out for the keys. “Are you sure about this?” Rory asked, dropping them into his palm, then opening the door for Milan. Milan climbed behind the wheel and dropped his bag on the console between their seats. He stuck the key into the ignition and turned the engine on. “Very sure,” Milan said, wearing his seat belt. He smiled at Rory. “It’s cool to see your wolf running next to the car and keeping up, but I’ll go nuts if you’re in the passenger seat. All that raw sexy power at my mercy.” Rory growled and cupped his face, taking his lips in a hard kiss. When he pulled away, Milan took a minute to remember what he was doing. Rory closed his door and went around to the passenger side. Rory climbed in, wore his seat belt and sat back. “Take me home, baby,” Rory said, and Milan gripped the steering wheel, thrilled. He stepped on the gas pedal and groaned when the truck revved hard for a full minute. Removing his foot from the gas pedal, he looked at Rory with a sheepish grin, before he reached for the gear handle to shift to drive. Rory didn’t look amused at all. “Aren’t you happy we’re not driving a stick shift,” Milan soothed. Rory jerked when Milan stepped on the gas pedal and made his turn too hard, sending the truck into Ilaria’s trimmed evergreen bushes. “I’m not sure I’m happy at all right now,” Rory said, as Milan managed to turn in the right direction, heading to the gates. “Oh, don’t worry, my Italian grandmother taught me how to drive,” Milan grinned at him as he headed out of the driveway. “She taught me to drive how I feel.” “How do you feel right now?” Rory gripped the handle above his window when Milan increased speed. “Wild, Rory, just wild… “Milan!” *** Epilogue Days after the Spring Equinox Festival, at the start of April, an old ceremony started. In the ancestral caves of Portento, lighted with magic, and streams of flowers falling from the high ceilings, made of magic too, a circle formed. Each man, woman and child of wolf blood, bound to the pack, and sworn to the town of Portento. Hand to shoulder, forming a vast and complex web, the werewolves of Portento gathered to usher a new Alpha and his mate. In the middle of the circle, at its tightest part stood three, who had led to the best of their ability. Connor, Kutler and Lechter: each one with scars, each one with wins and disappointments. Standing by them were their mates, with the exception of Connor. Iris of the earth stood in Johanna’s stead. They faced Rory, Topher and Matt. Beside them, standing with nervous energy were Milan, Maryanne and Jet. Grandma Asta moved to the middle of their loose circle and urged Rory and Connor to step forward. Milan watched with unbridled excitement as Connor held Rory’s right hand at the elbow, with Rory locking their arms in a warrior’s handshake. Light the color of gold dust danced down Connor’s arm wrapping around their clasped hands for a moment, before it changed to red dust and climbed up Rory’s arm, shimmering into him. Connor let go of Rory’s arm, and took the knife Grandma Asta handed him. With practiced ease, he made a cut on his palm and dripped blood to the ground between them, followed by Kutler and Lechter. Rory then took the knife and did the same, followed by Topher and then Matt. “May I remain strong to guard this town,” Rory spoke, as he dripped blood over Connor’s, “as my ancestors before me.” “May I remain strong to support and provide for this town,” Topher spoke, as he dripped blood over Kutler’s blood, “as my ancestors before me.” “May I remain strong to learn and guide for this town,” Matt spoke, as he dripped blood over Lechter’s blood, “as my ancestors before me.” A wave of light burst from the ground, rising up above their heads, and hovered, waiting… Rory turned to Milan, holding out his right hand. Milan breathed down his anxiety and took Rory’s hand allowing himself to be pulled beside Rory. Grandma Asta stepped up to him, holding the dagger. Milan winced as she took his right hand and made a cut on his palm, the pain stinging. She held out the knife to Topher who did the same for Maryanne, and then to Matt who did it for Jet. When they were done, Grandma Asta had them hold hands with their mates. “Repeat after me,” Grandma Asta said. “Heart of my heart...” Milan met Rory’s blue gaze, his hand clutched in Rory's right, their blood turning into one, heart racing as he said the words Grandma Asta spoke. “Heart of my heart, soul of my soul, blood of my blood,” Milan said, meaning every word. “I stand with you, for you and by you, now and forevermore.” It took him a minute to realize that Rory spoke the same words with him, love shining in his eyes. ‘I thought this was a ceremony to make you Alpha?’ Milan asked, Rory as everyone faded away. ‘It is,’ Rory smiled. ‘Sounds like an Outlander wedding to me,’ Milan mused, looking down at his neat blue shirt and dark slacks. This was not what he would have wanted to wear at his wedding. He had standards. Rory laughed aloud, drawing Grandma Asta’s censoring gaze. Milan wrinkled his nose at him, and shook his head. ‘I haven’t forgotten you want a wedding,’ Rory promised, leaning to kiss his nose. ‘You’re only becoming this town’s Moon, Milan. Look up and see the Goddess’s answer to your pledge. I promise to give you that wedding when you're ready, Milan.’ As though hearing Rory’s words, Milan looked up in time to see the brilliant light waiting there shoot down and engulf him, filling him with joy and a profound sense of belonging that quickly spread out into the people in attendance, and beyond to the rest of the town, leaving no soul untouched. Tears filled Milan’s eyes at the feel of it, and he turned to Rory in awe. “It feels like home.” “And it always will,” Rory promised, kissing him then, sealing it. After the ceremony, there was a party at the pack house. Milan mingled, talking to everyone who approached him. It was getting easier to deal with people. It wasn’t his thing, but Rory thrived on this. Milan saw Rory and Matt busy helping with roasting meat at a large bonfire, laughing with Chris and others Milan recognized from their regular visits to the pack house. His new life gave him so much, so many people. He smiled when Rowen took his hand and dragged him to sit with Jack and Nisin at one of the packed tables. He ate and drank, and wondered if he could escape with Rory to the house. When he looked around and saw Rory talking to Iris, he gave up on that idea. Milan consoled himself with the fact that he and Rory would be flying out in the morning, heading to Italy for their spring break week. They would have plenty of moments there. When he could, Milan escaped the noisy party and found a quiet spot to hide in the backyard. He was sitting on a bench swing under a huge tree when Connor Morgan joined him, sitting next to him. “Hiding?” Connor asked. Milan smiled and nodded. “I’m a little overwhelmed today.” “I figured,” Connor said, sending the bench swing into motion. “You and I haven’t gotten enough time to talk since you moved in. Might as well sit here with you, it will keep people from looking for you.” Milan nodded, staring at his clasped hands. He liked Rory’s father, wondered often how to get close to him. Rory already had such a great relationship with Milan’s parents. Suddenly, Milan remembered a story Grandma Asta had told him. “Uhm…,” Milan started. “Grandma Asta told me about the fishing scream.” Connor looked at him, his expression hard, and Milan gulped, biting his lip. “And the girl who liked to tease you, chasing you around with a snail,” Milan continued, his tone hopeful. Connor stared at him for a minute, and then broke out into a loud laugh, covering his face. “Asta really doesn’t save me any face. Why would she tell you about that?” Milan grinned then. “She said it would make it easier to get to know you.” “Was she right?” Connor asked. “Maybe,” Milan said. “Who was that girl? She must have liked you a lot.” “She did,” Connor said, with a nod, his voice heavy with nostalgia. “She was Johanna Morgan, Rory’s Mom, and she would have loved to meet you, Milan. She would have taken one look at you and tried to find out if she can tickle you until you pee yourself from laughter.” “Really?” Milan grinned, when Connor shifted to look at him. “Really,” Connor said. “She liked dancing, and children. I called her the pied piper…she was really so good with them. You would have liked her too.” “Will you tell me about her?” Milan asked, eager to discover more about Rory. “Why, yes,” Connor said, happy to tell. “Where shall we start?” “How about that screaming saga,” Milan suggested, making him laugh again. *** Milan, Italy Rory walked the vast, snowy creative world that was the Milan Cathedral rooftop. So, many details to take in with a simple glance, one needed to look, look again and take a photograph just in case a detail went unnoticed. The beauty of it all was in the dedication, he decided. How humans would give so much time to the creation of such a huge building. He could understand how his mate would find the cathedral so fascinating. Gargoyles, carvings on marble, amid spires and statues, he could see the awe in this. Yet, even here, faced with the astounding, the only creature he found inspiring stood studying a gargoyle sculpture above him. Milan took a photo of the gargoyle, and then turned to look at him, smiling with accomplishment. Rory hurried to his side, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders as they went to the edge to stare down at the piazza below. The large square was filled with people, tourists, locals, their conversations filling the bright morning. Milan wrapped an arm around Rory’s waist. “It’s perfect,” Milan murmured. “What?” “Us, here, during spring break. I can’t think of anything more perfect,” Milan said, turning into him. “Neither can I,” Rory said, holding Milan. He looked up when he caught movement on one of the spires. His sharp eyes picked out the shape of a man, warrior class, Rory gauged. He was camouflaged with magic to keep the anxious human gazes from seeing. The shape turned to Rory as though sensing his gaze. The man appeared, for a split second, nodding at Rory in acknowledgement before he was hidden again. Guardians, Rory thought, noting a dozen more around them, each one sworn to protect him and his mate. Yes, this was perfect, Rory decided, for the first time believing that he could get Milan everything he wanted. They would see the world together, he decided. Milan would be the architect he wished, and maybe end up building a new addition to the pack house he so loved drawing, in time. They had it now, Rory thought, lots and lots of time, a lifetime together. Rory pressed a kiss on top of Milan’s head. “I love you, Milan.” “I love you too, Rory Morgan.” *** Fin
  2. 88 points
    The sweep of events had carried CJ aloft to heights uncommon for someone his age. His ethos helped propel him into the limelight more than once. A reluctant public figure at first, in time he settled into a grudging acceptance of his soaring popularity. CJ was the highest-ranking, elected member of the Georgetown University Student Association in the 2020 Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service graduating class. Invited to sit on the dais during commencement exercises, he declined. Wanting to be with his classmates, not above them, was the explanation he offered campus newspaper reporters. He did not bother to share his other reason when he confirmed he would be speaking to the assembled graduates nonetheless. That other reason was the cause for the applause and cheering aimed at him, as he climbed the raised platform’s steps after his introduction. Wearing noise-canceling earmuffs, Liebe clung to his gown, snug inside a papoose against his chest. “Yeah, see? I knew this would happen. Y’all are just paying attention to Liebe and no matter what I say, you’re not gonna care.” Laughter rippled through the audience. “Although today is a momentous occasion, the most important day in my life was about a month ago when my daughter was born. I’d like to introduce you to Elizabeth Liston Abelló. Georgetown University class of 2042.” While most of the crowd applauded, and some cheered, he walked to the edge of the riser and handed the baby to Owen. CJ watched him walk away for a moment before returning to the podium and extracting a sheaf of papers from his blazer. “By the way, the good-looking, blond dude I just handed the most important person in my life to is her other father.” He paused for a fraction of a second to allow his comment to sink in. “He happens to be the second most important person in my life. My husband, Owen Liston.” The reaction from the audience was a tad more sedate than when he introduced his daughter. If nothing else, he had everyone’s attention. He had them hooked; it was time to reel them in. “The tapestry of my life is about the size of one of my daughter’s diapers right now.” Laughter was his goal, and the audience delivered. “As I grow older, that fabric will expand. But I am certain my family, my friends, my classmates—heck, even the Jesuits—will always be bright threads woven throughout.” The Jesuits reference earned him a few chuckles from the religious order members sitting behind him. “A huge component of the charmed life I’ve led to date has been my experience at Georgetown University. Coming to the Hilltop was a difficult decision. I’m not a believer and attending a Catholic university was the furthest thing from my mind. You just met one of the reasons I decided to attend college one block away from home. I didn’t want to endure all that time away from Owen. “Growing up so close to the school, I spent plenty of time on this campus during my high school years. Tossing Frisbees on Healy Lawn or lifting weights at Yates Field House fostered interactions with students not many kids get an opportunity to enjoy. Those men and women I met convinced me if I attended, interesting, bright individuals would surround me. And let’s face it, it’s not like I would be at a second rate institution. “So, here I am, some four-plus years after making one of the smartest decisions I’ll ever make.” The pause was a chance to catch his breath and allow the audience to ruminate his comments. “I have enjoyed my time at GU more than I could have ever imagined. I have met fascinating people. I’ve argued with some, and I’ve agreed with others. I’ve laughed with friends, and I’ve cursed professors a few times too.” They were still paying attention; the chuckles confirmed people were listening. “I felt a school that gave us President Bill Clinton and the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia had to be a place where differing outlooks and opinions would be welcome. I was right.” CJ paused again while shifting speech pages. “Those two men at opposite ends of the political spectrum shared a desire to serve their country and did so to the best of their ability following their graduation. I have come to realize their dedication was in part molded by their time here. By being Jesuit educated. “I do not know who said it, but I read a quote that expresses the concept best: ‘Being Jesuit educated means setting the Earth on fire. It means going out of your way, taking that extra step each and every day to help others. Even if it’s just holding a door for a stranger. In addition, one major part of being Jesuit educated is giving back. We all live in the same world, and we owe it to ourselves and others to make it a better place.’ “Call me a cockeyed optimist as a friend of mine has done more than once. However, like President Barack Obama, I believe in the promise of America. I also believe we, the best and the brightest, have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. I’m not talking about American citizens but about the global citizens we share Planet Earth with. Regardless of nationality, or any other trait that may differentiate us. Whether you are an American or not, the responsibility is the same. “I just referenced someone from the left side of the political spectrum I alluded to earlier. Allow me to cross the aisle and paraphrase the late Senator John McCain: Do not despair during setbacks. Believe in yourselves and in the promise of our country. Of our world. “At a time when technology permeates our lives. When advances in communication have shrunk said world and brought us contact with others all over the planet. When some have sought to divide us by building walls instead of bridges. I’m here to tell you they will not succeed. “I believe human interaction will help us challenge and conquer this brave new world. I believe we should celebrate our differences, and we should embrace humanity. I believe we can make Georgetown, America, and Mother Earth a better place by extending a hand to our neighbors. I believe there is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth and enjoying its benefits. However, I also believe—as my parents taught me—that we have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than us. “As we venture out on our own, let us not forget what we learned here. Service to our communities should be part of our life-plan. Volunteer, give money, participate, speak up. Be the last to accept the world we inherit can’t be improved. It’s up to us to make things better. Live and let live… But also, live and help live. Because believe me, it does get better. “Finally, I encourage all of you to not be afraid to fail when you attempt something new. Instead, be afraid not to try. You may be surprised at what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it. “It’s been a wonderful four years. A time of learning and growth. That period of my life is over but the future beckons. I plan to carry on Georgetown’s tradition of public service. Look me up at the State Department if you’re in the hood. “Hoya Saxa!” Owen beat the rest of them to his feet by a fraction of a second. The rousing, standing ovation enveloped them as he hugged Liebe a little closer to his heart. CJ’s vociferous cheering section tossed decorum aside as they stomped and shouted. He saw Owen give him a smile and a wink. Next to him, Ritchie’s enthusiasm was unparalleled. Owen took a step away from the high school senior when Ritchie kept jumping and pumping his fist in the air. As CJ reclaimed his seat on the lawn, he could still hear his brother cheering. “It took your dad a lot longer to become famous, Liebe. I think you’re going to be all over social media today.” The baby slept against Owen’s chest, but he spoke to her as if she was listening. Those walking near them down Thirty-Seventh Avenue chuckled. Once the ceremony was over, countless of CJ’s classmates—some he knew well, others were casual acquaintances, and a few were complete strangers—clamored to have their picture taken with their fellow graduate and his daughter. It was a familiar crowd surrounding them now. Owen’s mother flew to the United States after the birth with plans to spend a month with her first grandchild. His father would visit the following month, making a stopover in Washington during a business trip to France. Sebastián and Rosario Abelló did the same; they traveled to Washington after their great-granddaughter’s birth with plans to stay for CJ’s graduation. The upcoming completion of work at the Capitol Hill house was further enticement for Randy, Tyler, and Silas to visit DC. They arrived in time for the commencement and planned on furniture shopping with CJ and Owen the following week. Because CJ was a local, he had more guests at the ceremony than others. The Squad and the Elite were all invited, and most now strolled toward the Prospect Street townhouse. It was a chance to grab a drink, use the bathroom, and for Liebe to get a fresh diaper. “I never imagined my daughter would end up wearing it.” CJ removed the gold and jade grape-bunch brooch affixed to Liebe’s Georgetown University onesie. He had bought the trinket as a present in Hong Kong during his layover between Tel Aviv and Sydney, on his way to visit Owen’s ill sister. Liz did not survive, but she provided the greatest gift CJ would ever receive. “Mom told me about it but asked me not to say anything. She wanted to surprise you.” Owen wrinkled his nose when CJ handed him the soiled diaper. “Damn, this is as bad as your farts!” “Bullshit! My farts smell like roses.” “Rotting, dead roses, maybe.” “Asshole!” Back upstairs, the dads served mimosas and bloody marys before they all moved to their next destination. César and Brett had reserved the entire restaurant for a banquet to celebrate their oldest son’s achievement. It would be the first time Abuela’s was not open to the public for Saturday lunch. While Owen headed toward his mother so she could hold Liebe, CJ gravitated toward his grandfather and cousins. “Somebody give me a drink. I’m off daddy duty for the next twenty-four hours.” The mischievous tone suggested CJ was ready to play. Randy looked somewhat confused as he poured from the pitcher. “What are you talking about off duty? Dads don’t take the day off.” “Yummm!” CJ wiped his tomato juice-coated lips with the back of his hand. “Owen and I don’t have a choice, cuz. What with three grandparents and three great-grandparents around, the clamoring for Liebe-time has been deafening,” “Plus, the dads insist CJ go out partying tonight. We have a couple of get-togethers.” Owen had wrapped his arms around CJ when he joined the group. “Can I get one of those bloodys? What were you guys talking about?” Rod replied from across the counter where he sat next to Sebastián. “We wanted to ask Abuelo what he was getting CJ as a graduation present. He’s given fountain pens to all of us when we graduated from high school. Dad, César, Randy, and I got cars or the money to buy one when we finished college. But you guys have the Tesla, and you don’t use it all that much—” “It’s being used a heck of a lot since Liebe was born. CJ and I think that will continue when we move to our house this summer.” “Yeah, but you guys use the motorcycles and public transit much more.” Rod shifted his attention to their grandfather. “So, Abuelo, what did you get CJ?” CJ did not trust his grandfather’s grin. “Hey! I said no presents. And I said if you felt compelled to get me something, a donation to Heroes Haven would suffice.” “Compelled? Suffice? What? You think now you’ve graduated you get to toss quarter words around all the time?” Brett’s butt slap jolted CJ; he shook his head while smiling—college graduate or not, Brett was still going to give him crap. “Day’s not over, boys.” Sebastián’s grin grew. “You’ll have to wait. Maybe we got him a present… maybe we didn’t.” The Uber and Lyft caravan stopped in front of the restaurant and disgorged passengers. When CJ and Owen arrived in the last vehicle, they found their family and friends milling outside. While everyone had gathered in a loose circle around something, Harley faced the street and raised an arm in greeting. “Bruh! About time you guys got here. I’ve been waiting like for hours.” “Oh, shut up, Harley. I just saw you at the graduation. How come you didn’t stop by the house like everyone else?” “I had to go get your present. The one from your grandfather.” The man bubbled with excitement, even more so than usual. “Come on, come on. You’re gonna love it!” “What the hell? I told him no presents. If he bought me a car—FUCK!” The group parted when they heard CJ’s voice to reveal a motorcycle parked on the restaurant’s plaza. “Do you like it? It’s the new electric one! I couldn’t believe it when Cap called me and said your grandfather wanted my help with something.” Harley sounded proud of himself. “If you wanna get rid of Hunter, I’ll buy it off you. Wait ’til you get on this one. It sounds like a jet engine. Maybe you can leave the baby with your grandmother one day, and we can go for a ride? I know you been talking about getting a big one, but I think this is better. You can always borrow Cap’s or Mr. A’s when we go on a long trip. Or you can rent like you did when you went to Key West. I think—” “HARLEY!” CJ knew everyone expected him to tell his friend to shut up. Instead, he spread his arms out. “Bring it in, brother. Thank you! As for Hunter, I’m not sure what I want to do. I need to discuss it with Ozzie, but I don’t think we need three motorcycles. At least not until Liebe can ride on her own.” “Three is one too many.” Owen followed his husband as they walked around the 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire. “We’re definitely keeping this one. An electric motorcycle is an excellent match for an electric car. And Hunter’s going nowhere. Sorry, Harley. But if you want, you can have Rosebud.” “You’re gonna get rid of yours?” Harley sounded surprised. “Sure, why not? When we move, a Metro station will be a couple of blocks from home and another one a few from the office. If I ever need a vehicle, I’ll take one of the electric ones.” CJ was in a playful mood. “Hold your horses, son. Who said you could ride my motorcycle?” “Our motorcycle. DC’s not a community property state. So, I’ll be changing the registration on this one to make it joint ownership. If you ever divorce me, I’ll make sure it hurts.” Owen’s grin had a malevolent twist. “Asshole!” CJ turned 360 degrees to scan the faces of the crowd surrounding him. “Thank you, Abuelo. I know I said no presents, but I think I’ll keep this one. Let’s get inside, people. I need a cocktail, and I want food.” Chipper skipped his own graduation from the University of Miami due to his involvement in a project in Los Angeles. He decided to fly into Washington for CJ’s and to meet Liebe. His sister, Cristina, traveled from New York with her daughter, Carolina, for the same reasons. Brother and sister stood with Thiago, watching his son, Fabricio and the little girl play. CJ elbowed his husband. “Check it out, Oz. Those two will be friends with Liebe in no time. Come on, let’s borrow our daughter and join them.” “Give.” Chipper’s one word was accompanied by outstretched arms. “Remember, no baby talk.” CJ handed Liebe over. “That crap rots brains.” “I got, I got it. You and Cristina must have read the same book.” The man shook the bangs off his forehead and cuddled the infant closer. “Don’t you worry, Liebe, Uncle Chipper will take good care of you. Have you met Fabricio and Carolina? I have a feeling the three of you are gonna be hanging out a lot.” Thiago picked up his son and allowed him to grasp Liebe’s foot. “This is your new girlfriend, Lollipop.” “Oh, yeah? What if she turns out to be a lesbian?” CJ earned himself an elbow from his husband. “Don’t start, homie. The Elite and the Squad may be all men, but I can see the Juniors are definitely gonna be co-ed.” Chipper’s eyes swept over his friend before returning his attention to the girl in his arms. “You know something, Liebe? There’s this singer named Adam Levine your dads and I like a lot. He put out this music video with a bunch of women in it. ‘Girls Like You’ is a tribute to female-empowerment. I look at you and Carolina, and I’m convinced you’ll both grow up strong.” Chipper took liberties with the lyrics when he sang. “Spent 24 hours I need more hours with you You spent the weekend Burpin’ poopin’, ooh ooh We spent the late nights Changing diapers, cleaning booties But now it's all good baby Roll that booty baby And stay real close ’Cause girls like you Run around with guys like me ’Til sundown, when I come through I need a girl like you, yeah yeah” Moments later, Owen reclaimed his daughter. He and CJ stepped away, intent on returning her to her grandparents. “I reckon the three of them and Chatri’s two will be close. Too nad he and Helen are out of town today. Pretty cool seeing the upcoming generation. I wonder who’ll be the next one to have a kid.” “Not, Ritchie. I think he’s so scared he’ll be keeping the condom companies in business for the foreseeable future.” “Poor kid. I feel bad for him. Have you noticed the way he sometimes looks lost? It’s good to see him happy today.” “The real happy one’s Brad.” The man had asked that someone pick him up at Heroes Haven in Delaware so he could attend the graduation; Ritchie volunteered, saying he was going to miss driving once he entered the Air Force Academy. “I thought the smile was gonna break his face when he found out Cristina was in Washington.” “So, what are you naming the new bike?” CJ looked his husband up and down, smiling. “Wow! You’re asking? With Sparky, you didn’t even bother.” “Yeah, but that was a present for both of us. Technically, this one’s for you.” “Technically, eh? Lightning! How about that? Kinda fits with it being electric.” “Mint! I like it, mate. I like it. Lightning it is.” Owen leaned into CJ and whispered. “Be discreet when you look, but check out Lincoln. He sat next to Silas during the ceremony and hasn’t left his side since.” “Well, those two won’t be the next ones getting pregnant for sure.” “Asshole!” The gathering brought to mind the wedding reception; CJ again spent most of the time floating between tables, visiting with each of the guests. When dessert was served, he sat next to Owen while holding Liebe in his arms. The clinking of a utensil against glass captured his attention as Brett stood up. “It’s usually my husband or my son who give the speeches at events like this. Today, it’s my turn.” Brett sipped his mojito while the crowd quieted. “Life isn’t worth living if you don’t have passion. I’m easily distracted, so I’ve had a few different ones drive me in my years.” Self-deprecation was a sure way to capture the group’s attention. “Growing up, it was surfing. I was happiest on the beaches of California or Hawaii during frequent trips to the islands with my parents. “When they died, and I went to live with my grandfather, he turned me on to motorcycles. Straddling a big hunk of American steel gave me an adrenaline rush similar to what a big wave did, but I was able to enjoy the high even when there was no beach around. “My parents were travelers, and I caught the bug from them. Deployed overseas, I was able to visit countries I might never have otherwise. Back in the US after taking a couple of bullets, I met César. Yeah, the good looks drew me in—so sue me for having a thing for tall, dark, and handsome—the personality and brains hooked me. The shared love of exploring and riding was but icing on the cake. “Then CJ stuck his nose in my life.” “Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” With Liebe in his arms, CJ tried not to shout. “It means the last thing I expected was to become a father at the tender age of twenty-nine.” “We beat you, Captain.” Owen fisted CJ, making sure not to jostle the sleeping baby. “CJ and I are both younger.” “So am I, Cap.” Thiago lifted one of Fabricio’s arms and wiggled the kid’s hand. “Okay, enough from the peanut gallery. As I was saying, CJ showed up and turned my world upside down. Gave me a new passion. I wanted to be the best possible parent, and I can’t thank the gods enough for his arrival. “CJ turned out to be an extraordinary man trying to lead an ordinary life.” Brett’s grin grew as he scanned the room. “He’s utterly failed.” While he looked proud of his comment, CJ shook his head, and the guests laughed. “I’m proud of both my sons for choosing careers in the public sector. Ritchie’s about to graduate from high school, so I’ll talk more about him then. One day, he’ll be doing his part to keep America safe as an Air Force officer. I always thought CJ was the wilder one, but instead of jets, or ships, or tanks, he chose to join the State Department. He’ll help protect us as a member of the Diplomatic Corps. For now. I have a feeling there’ll be much more from him in the future. Brett paused while signaling a waiter for another cocktail. Several others echoed his request and there was a momentary lull. Once fresh drinks were delivered, he carried on. “Humor, often inappropriate, has been a coping mechanism most of my life. I’m trying to be serious here. CJ impacted my life more than I would have ever expected. And it’s not just him but also the people he surrounded himself with. Primarily the Squad. The way these young men have stood by one another in good and bad times is an inspiration. “Recent years have been leavened with a multitude of fascinating individuals he’s met and charmed. César and I have benefitted from our son’s outgoing personality. We’ve enjoyed meeting politicians, singers, actors and actresses, and countless ordinary yet intriguing men and women. I expect more of the same in the future. “We encouraged CJ to travel every chance he got. To experience new things and meet new people. Traveling and mingling with locals has a way of expanding your mind to acknowledge and accept differences. We’ve seen the effect those trips have had. CJ’s matured into a loving man who cares for others.” Brett’s solemnity was a sharp divergence from his typical demeanor. “I’ve seen an angry teen beat the crap out of a burly biker who bullied someone for being gay and in the process earn the respect of complete strangers. I’ve heard a fouled-mouth young man eloquently speak in front of thousands—millions if you count the TV audience—and earn the respect of politicians and reporters decades older than him. “I’ve been lucky to have had a front row seat as CJ grew from a scared boy into a confident man. A thoughtful student, a loving husband, and now a doting father. But all that doesn’t mean his farts don’t smell. Contrary to what I heard him say a little while ago.” Chuckles, giggles, and snickers served as background to the loud groan escaping César and CJ. “He’s a royal pain-in-the-butt at times. His other dad and I have clashed and locked horns with him more than once. “My son’s almost as astute as I am.” Brett ignored the derisive catcalls. "At some point, he figured out obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." He paused, allowing the words to simmer. “For those of you who don’t recognize the phrase, I stole it from Michael Jordan. “Let me quote someone else. My grandfather used to ask ‘What have you done today to make the world a better place?’ I’m sorry he never got to meet CJ. He would have been proud his great-grandson answered the question with a litany of gestures destined to accomplish just that.” Brett paused and sipped his cocktail again. “A few months back, the two of us took a bike ride by ourselves. It’s something we’ve been doing since he moved to DC. First, he rode behind me as a passenger. These days, I’m the one in back as he leads on his beloved Hunter. It’s a monthly ritual with us, even if sometimes it ends up being a nighttime ride for ice cream because we’re too busy for much more. “During last month’s ride, I finally realized he was man enough to teach me. As he licked melting chocolate from the sides of his sugar cone, he said something I’ll always remember. I may have his words turned into a poster or something. He told me, ‘You have to realize where you come from is gone and focus on where you’re going.’ “Those words, that belief, the vehemence with which he spoke convinced me he was ready to take his place in the world. His place as a leader. The State Department’s lucky to get him. The CIA tried to and failed. The wealthiest man in the world wanted to snatch him and failed. Hell, César and I suggested he join the family business, and we failed too. “The winner’s our country. At a time when our leaders have lost their way. When they quarrel and ignore the needs of our nation. I have faith my son will be a shining star amongst those serving our country.” The momentary pause this time was to wipe away a stray tear. He turned to CJ, smiled, and raised his glass. “So, what all my rambling leads me to is pride. Pride in my son and in the great things I know he’ll accomplish. “Please join me.” Brett waved a hand, inviting everyone to stand. “Raise your glasses with me and toast my son. To his future and ours. “To CJ!” The End
  3. 87 points
    Sanctuary Returns ‘The children,’ Rory prompted sanctuary as he waited for Johan and Elle outside the town hall. ‘How many were they?’ ‘Five souls,’ Sanctuary answered. ‘Too young, their families searched, but their bodies are buried in the deepest part of the swamp.’ ‘Why did none of the warriors take Rick down?’ Rory wondered. ‘He is sly, and patient. He struck when they least expected it. He left no trace of himself.’ Rory sighed, and started a slow pace along the step the steps. ‘This is a mess. I don’t even know where to start.’ ‘Your father will know. Let him finish this for you,’ Sanctuary mused. ‘You might be Alpha, but he is still more experienced.’ Rory nodded, and felt relief when he saw Johan and Elle walking up the steps. Behind them five of the warriors from the Swamp Lands, and ten men and women ranging in age followed them. When they reached him, Elle smiled in greeting while Johan held out a hand his right hand to Rory. Rory grasped it at the elbow, in the old way, a warrior’s greeting. “We’re ready for the gathering, Alpha Rory.” Johan nodded to his people behind him. “If our requests are met, then we shall vow allegiance to you, as Alpha, and join the fold.” “Then let’s get it over with,” Rory said, leading the way into the town hall. “How is your mate?” Johan asked. “Is he adjusting to his new life?” Rory couldn’t help his smile at the thought of Milan. “Quite well,” Rory said. “He’s moved into the pack house. We’re taking it day by day.” “His wolf has great potential,” Elle said. “The pain you both endured is not easily borne. Born of a trial by fire, he is much stronger than you could imagine.” “I suppose it’s an adventure we’ll have to see through,” Rory said. Rory opened the double doors of the town hall, and wasn’t surprised when all eyes in the room turned to look at them. Around three hundred people had made it to the meeting. The high table ahead was set up for the council. There were eight now, without Rick. Chairs in the first few rows of the right column were left vacant for the guests from the Swamp Lands. Rory noted Milan sat at the front of this row with Rowen and Maryanne on each side. Connor was already leading a discussion on Rick’s crimes. Rick was chained to the ground on a single chair in front of the high table. His mouth taped with a black seal made with Sage’s magic. There was a blue ring of power circling Rick’s chair too, it kept him contained. Rory led his group to the empty chairs, urging them to sit. He thanked Rowen who got up and moved down a chair, allowing him to sit next to Milan. “Why do we need to discuss this farther?” Hunter asked, the shifter glaring at Rick. “Either send him to the dungeons, or end his sorry life. There can be no pardon for the murders he is already guilty of. Delaying his sentence is an insult to the victims and their families.” “No one wants to pardon him,” Iris pointed out. Her gaze shifted to the rest of the town. “The people suggesting the dungeons are playing a dangerous game. Keeping him in the dungeons gives him time to plan. Time to cause trouble again, we really cannot allow that. As far as I’m concerned, Rick’s fate is sealed. So, why don’t we discuss the real reason why this town meeting was called?” “What can be more important than the murder of the Pack’s Moon by one of the Council?” a burly man in the crowd demanded. “Rick lied, and brought false evidence. He could be working with humans outside the borders for all we know. That’s important.” More added to that comment, insisting that Rick’s life should end by the Alpha’s hand. Others insisted on the dungeons, so that he may repent his wrong doings. Chris was particularly vocal about Rick meeting his end. “I demand justice for my parents and aunt,” Chris said, standing. He was at the front of the left row, his hands in fists when he looked at Rick. “There is no need to delay this. Please!” Connor slammed his right hand on the high table, forcing the room into silence. “The council acknowledges all your concerns,” Connor said. “Rick’s crimes are unpardonable. I don’t disagree. However, I have been waiting for our guests to arrive and now that they have, I would like to introduce them to you, Johan and Elle McRieve.” Johan and Elle stood. Elle looked beautiful in her red wool dress, and Johan every part the warrior in his leather trousers and a soft white shirt. Their faces enough to let anyone know they fought hard for all they had. Johan wasn’t much of a talker, so Elle spoke for both of them. “We’re here at Alpha Rory’s request. Our settlement has long lived in the wild swamps of this town. Please forgive any disrespect we may cause during this gathering.” “What settlement?” Lisbeth Jones, the town’s mayor, asked. her eyes narrowed as she looked at Elle and Johan. “I don’t recognize you.” “You wouldn’t,” Connor said, lifting his hand to stop Elle from responding. “They have not mingled with us for years. The Swamp Lands are their home; it’s the deepest part of Portento.” Murmurs filled the room, and Rory reached for Milan’s hand, squeezing tight. Milan responded by covering their clasped hands with his free one. He rubbed Rory’s knuckles, as though giving him strength. Rory glanced at Milan sensing a restless in Milan. “How can that be possible?” Linda asked, her eyes wide. Connor had kept the existence of Elle and Johan close knit, only telling Kutler and Lechter. “It is possible,” Elle said. “Very possible when your way of life is threatened and all you want is to seek sanctuary.” “Portento is already sanctuary,” Lisbeth pointed out. “What could possibly threaten your lives within our borders?” “Love,” Elle said, her words hard, where there should have been softness. “I am an ancestor of a child born from the mating of a human and a wolf. For decades now, we have harbored all such pairings in the Swamp Lands. A real fear grows that the council will kick us out of Portento should they discover such pairings. We are here now to see if our stories can be heard and cherished in the same way yours are.” “How many live in the Swamp Lands?” Lisbeth asked. “A few hundred or so,” Elle said, gripping Johan’s hand when the council members started to protest. “The last wolf/human pairing happened decades ago,” Linda said, shaking her head. “They left town.” “No, they did not,” Rory said, getting up, his gaze narrowed on Lechter, needing to have this out with him. “After the council voted, the pair found sanctuary in the Swamp Lands. Elle’s parents saved them. Every pairing that attempted to settle among us, and was rejected, ended up in the Swamp Lands. The Council has failed Sanctuary.” Lechter stood then, anger in his eyes. “That’s a serious charge coming from a Morgan.” “It must be spoken,” Rory said, glad that Milan kept holding his hand. “I feared you would do the same to me and my mate.” “You’re different,” Lechter said, shaking his head. “You’re—" “What?” Rory asked. “The Alpha? So? You have disliked humans for ages. You’ve pushed for them to get kicked out. You campaigned for Milan’s family to get kicked out. I saw it happen. You even had Chris convinced, my own blood.” “That’s before I knew who he was to you,” Lechter admitted. “I—" “You would not have changed your mind,” Rory cut in, quite sure when he met Lechter’s gaze. It was easy to see, to almost feel, the anger that had grown inside Lechter. His love, his mate, murdered by humans, in turn, he decided no human would touch the place she called home. The place she loved him and their son, Matt. Rory shifted his gaze to Matt who stood guarding the man who might have killed his mother. ‘I’m sorry I must do this, Matt. I told you I would.’ ‘Get it over with,’ Matt replied. Rory nodded and returned his attention to Lechter. “Your opinion matters in the council, in this town. Your blind hatred forced all these people to live in seclusion in the Swamp Lands. My mate and I would have joined their settlement had Rick not escalated his plans.” “That’s absurd,” Lechter said. Milan stood then, making them a pair. “It’s not actually. My mate was human. Everyone in this room knows that,” Rory said then, making the town behind him gasp in surprise. “He had his change days ago. You were there. If it weren’t for Elle and Johan, I might not have known how to go about it. So, I might thank you too for pushing me to discover the past.” “Rory,” Lechter murmured. Rory shook his head and Lechter fell silent, his gaze on Milan, then Elle and Johan. After a minute of silence, Lechter sat down and Connor took over the meeting again. “Elle,” Connor said. “I want to thank your people for helping my son and his mate through his change. I also want to extend an invitation to you to join the Council.” “Only if you allow our people to punish the man you call Rick,” Elle insisted. “Why?” “He has taken five of our young ones,” Elle said, pain in her voice. “Sunk them in the swamp and left us to cry tears of blood. He created fear for all of us. We could not cross the swamp into your lands to seek help. Every time we tried, he sunk another.” ‘What is she talking about?’ Milan asked, turning to Rory as they sat. ‘I’ll show him,’ Sanctuary murmured, surprising Rory. She was swift about it too, giving Milan the same images Rory had gotten when he fought Rick. The reaction was immediate. Tears filled Milan’s eyes and he bent over, making Rory pull him into his arms. “I am well aware of this crime,” Connor said, looking at Rory and Milan, worried. Rory ignored Connor's concerned look and focused on Milan. Milan clutched Rory’s t-shirt, eyes closed. ‘You didn’t have to give him everything,’ Rory chastised Sanctuary, pulling Milan into his arms. ‘He’s freaking—’ ‘I know what I’m doing. You’re the one who doesn’t know your role here. Feel it, Alpha,’ Sanctuary cut him off. ‘What he does for the town is different than you. You’re strength, he’s the compassion, you need him to end this meeting in peace.’ ‘We couldn’t have done this earlier?’ Rory complained, aware that Milan’s freak out was not going unnoticed. He remembered the disgust that filled him when he knew what Rick had done. ‘Why would you give him this memory?’ Rory closed his eyes, and reached in for Milan, as Johan decided to speak up, when Elle couldn’t anymore. “Calling it a crime is an understatement. Rick has caused unimaginable pain,” Johan said, his voice gruff. “One of those children was our daughter. She was only six years old. She was playing on the edge of the swamp when she disappeared. We found her a week later at the bottom of the swamp. We didn’t know what he was, only that if no one made an attempt to cross the swamp, that year we would be free of the pain of losing a child.” “His punishment falls to us,” Elle insisted, deep anger brewing when she looked at Rick. “Give us that, and we’ll do whatever else you need, even if it means we leave.” ‘Milan.’ Rory bit back a moan as Elle’s pain filled them both, affecting Milan more than it did Rory. Rory was harder, built to withstand brute force, and the ugliest of matters. Milan, his Milan, Rory wanted to fold him into his arms and protect him from everything. But, Milan was not having it. Milan clutched Rory’s shirt tight, then slowly sat up, his eyes closed. ‘Yes, you can take it,’ Sanctuary said to Milan, pride in her voice. ‘Diffuse it.” ‘How?’ Milan asked, feeling like he might never feel happy again in his life. He clung to Rory, holding his hand tight. Without Rory, he might have drowned with the weight of it. ‘Her pain is deep,’ Milan examining it for a moment, ‘but, it’s not as raw as it was with us.’ “Will you leave him alive?” Chris asked. “No.” Johan growled out, his hands in fists, his anger fueling Elle’s pain. The memory of their daughter filled them both and it was all they could think about now. “I have no objection then,” Chris said, as though sensing their pain. Rory gave a silent gasp, as Milan seemed to draw Elle and Johan’s pain into himself, pulling it away even from Rory. Then he flooded their bond with hope. Hope for a happier future, because he couldn’t erase the memory of their daughter, neither could Sanctuary. Milan knew about hope. Was filled with it, and now that he had escaped his own pain, he was full of possibilities. Sanctuary took that hope and directed it to Elle and Johan, pushing it into the thread of pain. Rory opened his eyes and looked to Elle and Johan. Johan’s fists eased, and Elle took in a deep breath, as though a weight lifted off her shoulders. ‘You did well,’ Sanctuary praised Milan when he let out a soft sigh. ‘It will get easier with time.’ ‘Don’t show him anymore horrible memories,’ Rory warned her. As tension left Milan and he relaxed, the pain disappeared. Sanctuary held her silence, though she was still present in the backdrop. Rory now understood how Connor might have been crippled without his mate. Milan was his second half. The most important part of this town, Rory decided, looking at Milan with a new light. Nothing could happen to him. Connor stood up and walked around the high table to face Elle and Johan. “Then, the matter of Rick is left to you,” Connor said. “Please note that we too have scars. I hope you choose his punishment well.” “We shall. Before we continue, I would like to bring in a gift of our goodwill,” Elle said, her voice soft, shy where she had not been before. “Do you accept it?” “Yes, of course we do,” Connor nodded. Elle looked toward the closed doors of the hall. A minute later, the door opened and in walked a woman with long brown hair, a red scarf around her neck, and a slight limp as she walked. She looked familiar. Rory almost couldn’t place her until he heard the soft cry from Matt. Matt abandoned his post by Rick and ran to meet her before she reached the front. Pulling her into a tight hug and lifting her clear of the ground, vibrating with emotion. Rory looked to Lechter who stood frozen at the high table. There were no words to describe the clear shock on his face. “Rosemary Lechter has been under our care for eight years. Her recovery has been slow; she was near death when we found her, sunk deep in the swamp. We thought her dead. We gave her a home, and she has lived among us, teaching the children how to read. We called her Sena as she could not remember her name for a long time,” Elle explained. “It wasn’t until Iris came to visit when Milan had his change that Sena regained her memories. She refused to return until we had this meeting.” “But her mate’s bond?” Connor asked, looking to Lechter, who still looked shocked. “Sena almost died,” Elle said. “All her bonds near severed by the pain and the brutal nature of her attack. This matter cannot be explained by one as young as me. You must find Grandma Asta for that.” Lechter came around the high table and fell to his knees before Elle. “Thank you! I am in your debt,” Lechter said to Elle. “Please, get up,” Elle reached for Lechter and pulled him up. “You owe us nothing.” “Nevertheless, I shall try to repay the kindness you have shown my family,” Lechter said, tears in his eyes. Elle patted his shoulder, and stepped aside to allow him to walk to Rosemary and Matt. Lechter wrapped them both in his arms, a harsh sob escaping him. Rory felt happy for Matt, but envied him too. He would do anything to see his mother again. To have Johanna meet Milan and hug him as she used to, full of sunshine and laughter. Looking across the aisle, he met Chris’s gaze and read the same longing there. ‘She’d be proud of you,’ Chris told him with a nod. ‘Your mate is handsome.’ Rory smiled and squeezed Milan’s hand. ‘I can’t wait for you to find yours, Bro.’ Chris stared at him for a minute, then grinned. Elle stepped up to the high table, looking directly at Iris. “The souls living in the Swamp Lands seek justice for the lives lost. Daughter of the earth,” Elle said, begging Iris. “Please send the man named Rick to the underworld with the vines of Hel.” “Elle McRieve,” Iris said. “Your request is heard, but I cannot give you your answer without the consent of two others. You must seek their aid.” “Who must I talk to?” Elle asked. Iris smiled at her then directed her gaze to Rory and Milan. “Your true Alpha and his mate, Milan,” Iris said. Elle wasn’t the only one who looked at them. The entire room turned their attention to Milan and Rory. Milan groaned at the attention. ‘This is kinda high profile, Rory.’ ‘You’re high profile, baby.’ Rory teased. ‘Iris is so having fun with this. How are we involved in a sentencing? Rick sounds like scum to me. She should just give Elle what she asks for.’ ‘We can’t avoid it, baby,’ Rory told Milan. ‘We’re going to need to stand up and go to Elle. Can you do it?’ Rory felt anxiety race through Milan and panic rising. For a minute, Rory thought Milan might not manage it but then Milan got up first. His courage racing wild, it was sexy. Rory followed him and listened to Milan take in a steadying breath. Rory took Milan’s hand and led him to Elle, stopping right behind her. He took Milan’s hand and placed it on Elle’s left shoulder, while he touched her right. “Daughter of the earth, we second Elle McRieve’s request,” Rory said, answering on behalf of Milan, as well. “Little Alpha,” Iris said, getting up from her seat. She came around to where Milan stood her gaze full of affection. “I felt your compassion flooding the room. You might not know it, but you’ll be a wonderful influence on all of us. I grant your request. Rick’s ill fate shall not continue. I’m sorry your families have suffered him.” Rory let go of Elle and pulled Milan to his side. Iris approached Rick. The chains Sage used to hold him disappeared and the seal on Rick’s mouth tore open. Rick let out a relieved gasp and shouted, pointing a finger at Rosemary. “You bitch, I killed you. I finished you!” “You tried,” Rosemary’s voice came in a whisper, the damage to her throat clear as she pulled off her scarf. There were deep gouges on her neck. Matt looked away from her when he saw them, grief tensing his shoulders. Rick had taken her voice. “You didn’t succeed. I saw you kill my friends, and when I tried to save them, you stuck me with wolf’s bane and dragged me to the murky swamp waters. You did your best to kill me, but Sanctuary saved me.” Rick stared at her with hatred. “Still, I took years from you and Hillam, at least. He turned into a raging beast without you. There was satisfaction in watching his pain. I’ll take that much.” “Iris,” Connor urged as the town hall erupted into angry shouts at Rick’s words. Milan clung to Rory’s arm when dark green vines broke through the floor, quickly winding around Rick from his legs, up his thighs, then his torso to head. Thick and round they wrapped tight, tighter, then Iris murmured words and the vines dragged Rick down into the floor. In seconds, Principal Rick disappeared, and the floor restored to normal, as though he never existed. The room went silent, as though everyone was afraid to break the spell. The only thing moving was Iris as she waved a hand over the space Rick had sat. Milan imagined she was warding off bad spirits. ‘Iris is frightening,’ Milan noted. ‘Not many people can handle her presence,’ Rory said, agreeing. ‘She’s too powerful.’ ‘Should we sit?’ Milan asked. ‘It’s not over yet,’ Rory said, nodding to his father who now stood facing the town. “These last few weeks have opened my eyes to many issues,” Connor said. “Troubles under the surface of the town: murder, human prejudice, and corruption. I feel ashamed to have not known these things were happening in Portento. Too many have suffered under Rick’s greed. Others because of my own blindness, I can’t believe an entire settlement of souls went unnoticed. On behalf of myself, the Beta and the Third, I apologize to all of you who call Portento home.” Connor bowed his head, and Kutler and Lechter both lowered their heads to the town’s people. When Connor straightened up, he continued. “I would like to propose new changes in the town’s council and a new look at our policies on humans. I want you all to vote on the acceptance of the souls living in the Swamp Lands. We all understand what a mate means to our people. No one should face judgement because of the goddess’s choice. However, everyone in this town needs to be on the same page on this.” Silence filled the town hall at that remark. Rory felt Sanctuary talking to Milan, though he didn’t hear their conversation. Peace flooded him soon through their bond and Rory guessed Sanctuary was having Milan fill the room with more…hope. Rory hid his smile when Mildred Cohagen stood up in middle of the right row. “I would like to say something,” Mildred said, sounding nervous but determined. Her husband sat beside her holding their baby and their daughters sat beside their father. “Sure, Mildred, go ahead,” Connor said. “Well, we’ve all sat here and listened to a list of crimes committed by a man we thought we knew. All of which were designed to break Portento apart. It’s now too clear that Rick was a selfish and evil man. I don’t think it is fair to vote on the future of people who are deserving of living in this town. None of us needed a vote to live here.” “Why not vote when there might be humans among these Swamp Lands people,” a man in the left row said, standing up. “How can we be sure they are good people?” “Rick was a wolf, one of us. Look at what he did.” Mildred pointed out. “Those in the Swamp Lands have provided nothing but kindness to the Third’s mate and Alpha Rory’s mate. They did this despite their losses at Rick’s hands. They are blessings to the town. I think we shouldn’t vote on this. We should offer full acceptance. Anyone else agree?” For a moment, no one spoke, and Rory feared this would turn into a political battle. Then Mildred’s husband stood, followed by their twins. Jack stood, sparking the rise of all his friends. The three hundred or so people in the town hall all stood one by one, until there was no one sitting. Even the man who had shown doubt now stood, albeit still wary of the idea. Mildred came out on to the aisle. She walked to the front and hugged Elle. “My name is Mildred Cohagen,” she said. “If you ever need help, all you need do is ask.” Elle’s eyes filled with tears as she returned Mildred’s hug. “I am Elle McRieve. I thank you for your acceptance.” More people came up to greet Elle. Soon Mildred led Elle back to her seat. More introduced themselves to the others from the Swamp Lands, and the question of whether to accept them into the fold was answered without a vote. Rory and Milan started to go sit, but Iris stopped them. “Well, now that we have that sorted,” Iris said, her voice enough to silence the room. “As one of the council, I would like to remind everyone of the events last week. As you all know, Rory fought his first duel at Biosense a week ago. He defeated Rick’s challenge to take on the role of alpha. He is now Alpha of the Pack. Beside him is his mate, Milan Takeda. After all the sadness, do you agree that it is time to celebrate? Our town shall have a strong future despite the troubles. Am I right or what?” A round of applause roared in the town hall and amid agreements and whistles. “Then, the council shall convene to plan the ceremony,” Iris said, coming to stand beside Milan and pulling him into a hug. She liked Milan, Rory realized, very much. *** The Council relocated to the Mayor’s office. Lisbeth was eager to discover more about Elle and Johan, Hunter cut straight to the point. “With Rick gone, we are left with quite a few loose ends,” Hunter said, moving to sit on of the armchairs in Lisbeth’s huge office. Iris perched on the arm of his chair, nodding her head in agreement. “The high school for sure needs a new head,” Linda said, sitting next to Hunter. “The vice-principal can fill in, but you know that position must be held by a council member.” “Hunter,” Kutler said, standing next to Connor. “What do you think?” “I don’t have the patience to deal with teenagers,” Hunter shook his head. “Iris?” “No,” Linda, Lisbeth and Lechter all said at once, shaking their heads. Iris laughed. “I can do it,” Iris said. “I like young minds. So full of potential, they are. Why do you all look so frightened?” “If you want work, I’ll give it to you,” Connor said. “Kutler needs help negotiating terms with the Swamp Lands on the logging. He’d love your input there.” “I’m likely to side with the Swamp Lands,” Iris told him. “Kutler?” Connor prompted. “I would love your help,” Kutler said to Iris, with a strained smile. “Fine, I’m sure that will be entertaining anyway,” Iris said. “Who will you make Principal then?” “Elle,” Connor asked, looking to her. “You’re the only one without a current post. Sage runs her hotel. Linda is at the grocery store. Lisbeth is here. That leaves you.” “You would trust me with your children?” Elle asked, a bit awed by this invitation. “You have a nurturing nature,” Linda said, in agreement. “They’ll also learn from you.” Elle smiled, and nodded, looking to Johan in excitement. “Then, I’ll accept,” Elle said. “Great,” Connor sat down on a bench set by the window and turned to Lisbeth. “Biosense. We’re in a disadvantage with them so close, Lisbeth. Cade Ogawa was too close, even with Rick’s help.” “Cade Ogawa is a complication,” Linda said, staring at her nails. “His son is my son’s mate. We cannot bring him harm. Nisin is one of us now.” “Complication is right,” Lisbeth said with a shudder. “Biosense is huge, Connor. They will get curious if a branch goes silent with no explanation.” “What about the Takedas,” Iris suggested. “Both are doctors who spent their lives doing research one or another. Can’t we enlist their help with Biosense?” Connor sighed. “Ilaria flew out of here like a bat out of hell. They might have to stay and takeover Biosense. How do we convince her to come back?” “Simple,” Iris smiled. “Her son. She would do it to protect Milan.” Linda nodded. “That’s an idea. Still doesn’t give us a solution about Cade and Nisin.” “His fate would be death,” Lechter said, making Linda sit up, her gaze narrowed at him. “Relax, I’m not asking for that. Cade is too ambitious. You don’t get to his position with a passive attitude. We can’t kill him. We can’t have him staying in Portento as Biosense head. So, why don’t we strip him of his memories?” Linda thought about it for a moment, and then turned to Sage. “Can you remove all his Biosense memories?” “That will get complicated if we have someone else taking over Biosense,” Sage said, pacing the length of Lisbeth’s desk. “If the Takedas agree, don’t you think they’ll want to know everything Cade was working on?” “Use your magic to catalogue all that information,” Iris suggested. “It will give us insight into how Biosense works, and insulate the Takedas from the mothership.” “What do we do with Cade when I’m done?” “Hand him to the guardians,” Connor said. “They’ll make sure no one can reach him. Nisin may visit him as he wishes. The Welfare Office can handle that, can’t they?” “I’ll handle it directly,” Linda said. “Nisin will be my son in-law. I’ll make sure it’s done right.” “Connor, you’ll talk to the Takedas?” Sage asked. “Yes,” Connor nodded. “Finally, Dolon and Lloyd,” Hunter said with a sigh. “Dolon’s condition can be reversed. The hospital is already on it, he didn’t get too much of that poison Rick wanted. His parents are worried though. Their son attacked an Alpha’s mate.” “Rory will reach out to them after Dolon gets better,” Connor decided. “Besides, I’m hoping this has taught Dolon a lesson. He should stop pushing Rory and Chris’s buttons now.” “They burned Lloyd’s body yesterday,” Lechter said. “He didn’t make it.” “I’m curious about why Rick didn’t have the same stench as Lloyd and even Dolon from that poison,” Hunter said. “I could barely stand in the hallway when he was at the end of the room.” “Rick was corrupted from the start,” Connor said. “I would have smelled that corruption, but he took measures to hide it.” “How?” Linda asked. “This,” Sage held up a bunch of dried wolf’s bane. “It will blind any wolf’s senses, even an Alpha. He must have used it long enough. I doubt anyone knew his real scent.” “Should we ban wolf’s bane from the town?” Linda asked. “What’s the point?” Kutler asked. “If someone is determined to get it, they’ll find it.” “How do we know if there are no more Rick’s hiding among us?” Lisbeth wondered. “The golden pair,” Iris said with a smile. “You mean Rory and Milan,” Connor said, narrowing his gaze at her. “Yes,” Iris said, looking tickled. “I felt it today in the hall. Milan took Elle’s pain and turning the room away from anger and disagreements. Sanctuary is alive again, playing her part. Those two will keep Portento clean.” “They’re still too young,” Kutler said. “So much to learn.” “I’m willing to nurture,” Elle said, looking as excited as Iris. “Me too,” Iris said. “Are you sure I can’t teach at the high school?” “What would you teach?” Hunter asked, placing a hand on Iris’s knee. “History,” Iris said, taking Hunter’s hand and placing it on his lap. “I have a long memory.” “You’ll frighten the children,” Hunter teased. “Children need frightening so that they don’t repeat history,” Iris said, her voice making even Connor shiver. “Iris, that’s a no on frightening children. Work with Kutler.” Lisbeth stood up. “I’m glad to see the end of this trouble. It’s sad about Rick. Iris was right about a celebration. Rory is eighteen. It’s the right time to start learning how the council works. Plus, he’s graduating from high school this year.” “Then spring is the perfect time for celebration,” Sage said, making magical flower petals rain down in the room. “The trees will have woken, the flowers blooming, the ice melted.” “Rory wants to take Milan on a trip to Italy,” Iris said. “I heard them talking about it in whisper from the trees. We can help them plan for it.” Connor rubbed his eyes and stood up too. “That would include engaging the services of the guardians.” “Anything for them,” Iris insisted. “Think of Milan as my son from now on, Connor Morgan. I’m your in-law.” Connor chuckled at that and when Iris got up, he raised his arms in surrender. “Yep, totally, I understand. Let’s end this meeting. I have things to do,” Connor said, heading for the door. “Sage, let me know what happens with Cade. I’ll call the Takedas tonight.” ***
  4. 87 points
    Choose me, Milan. Please, choose me. Matt and Topher brought along three snowmobiles from the garage in town, hitched to the back of the SUV on a trailer. They were to use them on their ride through the Swamp Lands. Rory made a mental note to stop by and thank his uncle for all the support he provided without question. Rory’s snowmobile was built for two, so he made sure Milan was settled on the backseat. He bundled Milan tight covering him with blankets and making sure the hood was tied securely. Rory got in the driver’s seat and used a scarf to tie Milan to him around his waist. The reassuring feel of Milan’s weight pressed against his back kept him calm through the cold ride through the frozen swamp. Rory followed Matt’s lead with Topher bringing up the rear, until they got to their destination. Matt stopped his snowmobile first and Rory parked beside him. Rory got off, and hurried to take Milan when Matt moved to help him. Milan’s eyes were closed, he was drowsy, and floating in and out. Rory held Milan tight in his arms, hoping to infuse his mate with the warmth that came naturally to him. Alas, despite the heavy jacket, scarf and two blankets covering Milan, his mate still shivered in the cold. Rory adjusted the blanket over Milan and pressed Milan’s face into his chest, shielding him as best as he could. Topher reached them and came to a stop. “We have to walk in from here,” Matt said, standing a few feet ahead, his gaze vigilant. “The settlement is deeper in past the trees. I sense a number of wolves waiting where we first entered the settlement.” Rory nodded, also sensing the same. He picked up Milan from his seat and followed Matt, adjusting Milan’s weight against him. Topher brought up the rear. They walked slowly, because Rory didn’t want to jar Milan’s shoulder and cause him more pain. It took ten minutes to reach the settlement. Matt stopped ahead and when Rory joined him, he stopped too when he saw the sight before him. Hundreds of wolves stood waiting at the entrance into the settlement. Young and old, strong and bold, they stood with their gazes on Rory and Milan. Matt took a step back, standing to Rory’s left, while Topher stood on his right. A woman in a dark coat with a red scarf walked among the wolves, coming to meet them. Followed close by Asta. Rory dared not ask how Grandma Asta had known to come here. His relief was immense at seeing her. She always knew what to do. He had hoped for her help dearly. ‘The younger woman is Elle McRieve, mate to Johan,’ Topher told Rory. Elle stopped before Rory, a smile on her lips. She stood watching him in the waning moonlight. Then, with the grace of a matriarch, she tilted her head right, exposing her neck and bent her right knee. “We welcome the Morgan Alpha and his mate,” she said. Rory took a step toward her and she straightened to her full height. “I am Rory Morgan. I seek help among you. My mate is very ill.” Asta came around Elle, and touched Milan’s shoulder, peering at him over the blanket Rory had over him. “It’s about that time, Little Morgan,” Asta said. “Elle, you take them to the great hall. Have the kitchens prepare the herbs I brought. I’ll go get blankets. Milan is shivering from the cold.” Elle touched Rory’s arm with a happy smile. “Follow me, I’ll take you where you need to be.” The wolves around them howled with joy as Rory walked among them heading to the winding walkway. Rory smiled when answering howls came from the rest of Portento. The tide was changing, and it felt as though the town was revitalized. *** Elle led them to the middle of the settlement of houses above the swamp. To a very tall evergreen tree with wide branches that grew in the very center of the large settlement. They had built a large hall with a thatched roof around this tree. Elle called it the place of sanctuary. Rory remembered reading about this tree in his Aedan Morgan’s diary. Though, at the time there was no large hall built around it. The tree not so tall, and the earth around it filled with grass and flowers. Much had changed in the years. Elle opened the double doors into the large hall, and Rory stopped to remove his muddy boots as Elle did with hers. Topher and Matt followed suit, and they all walked into the highly-polished wood floors of the great hall. In the middle of the hall, they could see the large tree. It’s trunk thick and gnarled with age. Centuries of growth, so well preserved and natured. “Those of us who have come seeking help found it in this place,” Elle said, stopping before the tree. The hall was free of furniture, no tables or chairs to clutter the space. “I’ll go ask one of the ladies in the kitchens to make Grandma Asta’s herbs. Get comfortable. You’ll find what you seek here.” Elle hurried away before Rory could ask more. He glanced at Topher and Matt, confused. Rory then knelt on the polished floor so that he could lay Milan on the floor. He removed his jacket and folded it a few times, using it as pillow for Milan’s head. He adjusted the blanket over Milan and pressed his right palm over Milan’s forehead. “He’s burning up again,” Rory murmured. “The meds must be wearing off,” Matt said, crouching down beside Milan. “Whatever you need to do should happen now. Then we document the hell out of it so that others are ready, and the fear ends.” Rory stared at the tree before them. Aedan Morgan had called it the key to the change. Without it, all attempts at the change turn out like Lloyd, with the individual dying from rot, or corruption. Rory sighed, wondering where to start. Aedan had not bothered to write what he had done. Selma’s change happened too fast, and all Aedan wrote was his joy at having his mate choose his path without hesitation. Rory now hoped Milan would choose him. ‘Alone,’ Sanctuary spoke in his head, shocking him at how clear she sounded, as though she stood right next to him. Her urgency had him turning to look at Topher and Matt. “Will you leave us alone for a few minutes?” Rory asked. Topher pulled Matt up and gave Rory a short nod. “We’ll be outside the hall.” “Thank you,” Rory said, watching them leave the hall. Matt closed the door behind them. Rory looked around the room and was glad to see there was no other entry way. He and Milan were alone. ‘Wake him,’ Sanctuary said. ‘Be honest with him. You cannot give a gift he doesn’t understand. He must accept it for it to work. He must want it too. When you’re ready, I will guide your next step.’ Rory stared down at Milan, his heart squeezing tight. These past few days had passed in a whirlwind of activity. He felt like he had not had a real conversation with Milan since that day at school when Lloyd attacked. Rory had spent so much time keeping his secret from Milan. When it did come out, it was with violence. Lloyd attacking Milan. Rory stopping Lloyd. Breaking into Kiyo’s lab. Then Rick attacking Milan. They had no chance to talk. He did not know if Milan would want to be a werewolf. After everything these few days…would Milan dare to choose him? Rory touched Milan’s cheek, his fingers gentle on clammy pale skin. Leaning down, Rory kissed Milan on his lips and smiled when Milan responded to his kiss. Pulling back, he found Milan staring at him, brown eyes taking him in. “Have we reached?” Milan asked, his voice not as strong as earlier. Rory moved on the floor until he lay beside Milan. Keeping close to make sure Milan stayed warm. “Yes.” Rory smiled. “Turn to your right. You’ll see the oldest tree ever. Isn’t it beautiful?” Milan turned his head to look at the tree, a smile tagging on his lips. “It’s growing inside a building. You bring me to the coolest of places, Rory Morgan.” Rory chuckled, brushing damp strands from Milan’s forehead. “I love you, Milan. You know that, right?” Milan turned to look at him then, brown eyes filled with tears as he nodded. “I love you too, Rory.” Rory pressed a kiss on Milan’s forehead and wiped away the tears that slid down into Milan’s hair. He took Milan’s right hand and held it tight. “There’s a lot we haven’t talked about. I know you have a lot of questions about what I am. My family and well…” Rory smiled. “Everything about me.” Milan nodded. “Right now though, I want to ask you to accept a gift I want to give you.” “Which is?” Milan asked, a frown playing on his forehead. “I want to make you like me, Milan. Turn you into one of us.” “A werewolf?” “Yes, baby. You’ll be free of CVID. You’ll never have to worry about germs or wear a mask. Most of all, you and I, we’ll be together forever.” “What about my family?” Milan asked. “Will they—?” “I can only change you because you’re my mate,” Rory said. “My fated love, my other half. That’s how it works.” “Will they have to lose their memories of me?” Milan asked, fear in his eyes. He was unwilling to lose his family. “No.” Rory squeezed Milan’s hand. “Not at all. Your family is mine too, Milan. I would never want you to be without them. I’ve almost resolved all the reasons why anyone would want to kick them out of the town. They will not lose their memories of you, of us.” “Almost?” Rory thought about Lechter, and Rick who had committed atrocious crimes. He and Lechter still needed to talk, resolve the issue of human mates and the prejudice Lechter sowed in the town. He pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind, deciding to deal with them when Milan was healthy. “Don’t worry about that,” Rory urged, kissing Milan’s brow. Milan bit his lip hard. Rory brought their clasped hands to rub his thumb on Milan’s bottom lip. Milan stopped biting it and met his gaze. “Will I eat people?” Milan asked, his gaze so serious, Rory was taken aback. Rory couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him then. “No.” Rory shook his head, amused. “Do I look like I eat people?” “Well, you attacked that wolf in our kitchen. I can’t stop thinking about your mouth covered with blood. It’s not—I mean, it would be too much.” “I attacked him because he put you in danger, Milan.” Rory explained. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered with him. I’m not wild or a lone wolf like Lloyd. We’re quite peaceful.” Milan took in a breath and shifted, trying to get comfortable. His frown deepening when he couldn’t seem to find a comfortable position. Rory sat up and pulled Milan into his arms. He unzipped the heavy jacket Milan was wearing and Milan let out a relieved breath. Milan’s left arm was still in a sling, and he winced as he shifted to sit on Rory’s lap, with his back against Rory’s chest. Milan tilted his head slightly so that he could look at Rory. “Will I have to turn into a werewolf when the moon is full? Will I have control over when I shift?” “We love the moon,” Rory said, wrapping his arms around Milan. “We do enjoy the moonlight. You’ll have the urge to run on those nights but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. You’ll be in control, Milan. I’ll be there with you, every step of the way.” “I never asked. How do you know I’m the one, Rory?” Milan asked, his voice small, eyes closed, he hid his face into Rory’s chest. “There’s nothing remarkable about me. I’m sickly. Too skinny. I lean on my family too hard. I—” “You’re everything,” Rory cut in. “I knew it the moment I laid eyes on you. This burning you ignite inside me will never change, Milan. My life is yours, Milan. I’m nothing without you. So, choose me.” *** “Please, choose me too,” Rory whispered. The hope in Rory’s voice was hard to ignore. It gave Milan power he had not thought he had. It was surreal to know someone like Rory looked at him with love. Wanted to keep him. Save him. Milan bunched Rory’s t-shirt and savored Rory’s warmth. It seeped into him, soothing the growing pain. “Yes,” he said. “What?” Rory looked down at him, surprise and pleasure in his voice. “I want to keep you too, so yes,” Milan said, lightheaded at the possibilities. Rory’s eyes widened with joy, blue eyes like jewels. Milan wished he could sit up and kiss Rory to his heart’s content. The meds were wearing off though and his shoulder was killing him. He shuddered in Rory’s arms, needing an escape from all the pain. If only to savor the feel of having Rory, just for once have the strength to hold Rory tight, and lay his claim on him. Milan tightened his hold on Rory’s t-shirt, biting his lip as pain wrecked through him. Rory held him, his gaze turning distant, then Milan’s eyes widened as he watched Rory’s teeth elongate to canine sharp. He froze when Rory pushed his hospital gown aside and bit into neck. Milan gave a startled cry at the burning pain that exploded from the bite. *** ‘He needs your blood,’ Sanctuary whispered in Rory’s head, as though a normal voice would break the spell. ‘The bite is not enough. It only links him to the pack.’ Rory bit into his left palm and holding Milan fast, he dripped his blood into Milan’s mouth. Pouring in as much as he could, some of it sliding down to his wrist. When the cut on his palm healed, he made another and dripped more into Milan’s mouth until he coughed. ‘You’re going to drown him in it,’ Sanctuary mused. Rory spilled the rest on the bite mark on Milan’s neck. When his palm healed, he held on to Milan. ‘Now what?’ ‘Your blood will work to repair the damage caused by the poison, his body changes to match that of a wolf, it could take a day or longer. Stay by him, it’s never an easy trial.’ Sanctuary’s words barely drifted away before Milan’s body arched on a harsh gasp. “Rory, it hurts. Is it supposed to hurt this much?” Milan asked, his voice strained. “Everything hurts.” “I’m right here,” Rory murmured, holding Milan tight. “I’m so sorry this is not easy. If I could take this pain away too, I would.” Milan clung to Rory, taking in deep breaths. When his body arched in pain again, Rory’s eyes filled with tears, his desperation enough to call in Matt and Topher. Elle came in with a mattress, Rory picked up Milan and placed him on it. Topher helped him remove Milan’s jacket and they both started to protest when Milan pulled at the sling on his left arm, throwing it off, saying it hurt to wear it. His body trembled with pain, tears trailing into his hair, when his body arched on the mattress with a gritted groan. “I’m so sorry,” Rory murmured, over and over, holding on to Milan when he allowed it. Otherwise, it seemed to hurt too much to bear touch. Elle hurried out and came back with a bowl of herb medicine from the kitchen. Rory pushed her away when she tried to feed the contents to Milan. He took the bowl instead, and pulled Milan into his arms, bringing the bowl to Milan’s lips. “Drink this, it will make you feel better,” Rory cajoled, when Milan started to push the bowl away. Milan sipped the warm drink and gagged, pushing Rory’s hand away from his lips. “It tastes awful,” Milan complained, still shaking with pain. “You need it,” Asta insisted, coming to join them. “The herbs numb the pain to a slow burn. You’ve barely started, Milan. It will only get worse.” Milan closed his eyes, his face pressed into Rory’s shoulder, his sweat soaking Rory’s t-shirt. When he lifted his head, he looked at Rory, noting the tear tracks on Rory’s cheeks. He reached up and wiped at them. “Rory.” Rory shook his head, unable to speak, his voice lost in the reality of watching Milan in pain. Milan tried for a smile, but it was beyond him. So, he drank the medicine when Rory tipped the bowl to his lips again. He drank it all in one gulp, fighting the urge to gag at the taste. He couldn’t tell which was worse, his body on fire, the horrible herbs in his mouth or seeing Rory cry. He closed his eyes when he swallowed the last of Asta’s medicine, the pain rolling through him slowing down. He waited for another surge of it. It didn’t come. Milan sighed in relief and rested against Rory, exhausted. At some point, he fell into a fitful sleep. Rory stayed with Milan. Matt and Topher left to deal with a commotion at the settlement entrance. Elle came in and out bringing in blankets, a bowl with cold water and compress for when Milan got too hot. Hours inched by, until Milan woke up heaving, pushing away from Rory. He threw up into the bucket Asta held out to him, heaving until it felt like he had thrown up his insides and nothing else would come out. Milan closed his eyes, and almost screamed when Rory rubbed his back and it felt as though all his nerve endings were frayed. “Don’t,” Milan said, pushing Rory’s hand away. Kneeling on the mattress, shaking hard, he closed his eyes unsure what to do. “Don’t touch me.” “What is it?” Grandma Asta asked, noting the hurt in Rory’s eyes. “I feel like every nerve ending is alive. I can’t—” Milan moaned and bent over, his hospital gown opening in the back. Rory gaped at the dark lines on Milan’s back, the lines rolling along his spine. He remembered seeing the start of them in Kiyo’s lab that day. “His insides are changing. Reforming,” Asta said. “Give him time, Rory. This is not easy. He has to go through every minute of it. You have to let him.” “It’s not fair,” Rory said, tears in his eyes again, as Milan held himself still, his body shuddering. “I can’t—” “You have to,” Asta ordered. “Rory,” Milan whispered, waiting until Rory answered. “Mm?” “I can make it. I promise.” Rory ruthlessly held back his fears with that statement, biting his bottom lip hard until he drew blood. He watched Milan’s fingers dig into the mattress, a strangled groan escaping his lips, his body still shaking with pain…Rory couldn’t take it. He just couldn’t. ‘The bracelet,’ Sanctuary murmured, her voice solemn this time. ‘The tree…it unlocks the tree in some way. It’s been so long. I cannot remember it.’ Rory got up, rushing to the tree with tunnel vision. He pressed his left palm on the surface of the tree. The bracelet glowed hot, he didn’t wince at the burn on his wrist. Instead, Rory desperately hoped to find a way to ease Milan’s pain. The hall vibrated with power, and Rory’s eyes widened when the tree warmed under his palm. Old power pulsed through him and he sat on the floor, his palm still burning even as it moved off the tree. Rory watched the last leaf on the bracelet change into a thick green vine on his wrist. He turned to Milan, and the vine grew longer, winding toward Milan. Wrapping around Milan’s right wrist, up his arm and around his torso. “Lie down,” Asta ordered, her tone urgent. “Do it quick. Rory Morgan, you’re truly chosen by this town.” “What’s happening?” Rory asked, doing as she asked, settling on the mattress beside Milan who was now wrapped with thick green vines that were forming a Milan cocoon. “You asked to share his pain,” Asta said, as the vines started wrapping around Rory too. “Your love is true, Little Morgan.” The vines moved fast around him. Rory turned his head so that he could look at Milan. He took in a deep breath, when Milan was no longer visible. Heart beating fast, Rory closed his eyes as pain flooded every cell in his body. The vines tightened around him and he lost consciousness as the pain bloomed. *** ‘Little Morgan.’ Rory felt caught in the warmest possible cocoon. He never wanted to move. So comfortable. ‘Rory Morgan.’ That soft voice intruded into his consciousness, and he sighed, wanting to swat it away, to leave him alone in this comfortable place. ‘Wake up, Rory.’ ‘Sanctuary?’ ‘Your mate is waking. I thought you would not want to miss this.’ Rory’s eyes flew open at the thought of Milan. Heart in his throat, he sat up fast, worried. “Milan,” he said, the words strangled out of him. “Relax, he’s right beside you,” Asta said, her voice calming. Rory turned and forgot her when he saw Milan’s still figure lying on the mattress. His mate’s eyes were closed, his black curly hair longer and fuller than usual. His skin no longer pale, instead a healthy glow clung to it. His body lay straight, his arms folded on his chest. He was still in his hospital gown, but that sickish sheen was gone, so the gown looked odd on him. A blanket covered his lower half. He looked asleep. The vines that wrapped around them long disappeared. “Milan, wake up.” Rory touched Milan’s hand, rubbing it, disappointment filling him when there was no response. ‘Patience, Alpha,’ Sanctuary said, her tone one of waiting. Rory looked up to find Asta perched on a stool, knitting a new red scarf, this one only just started. He rubbed his eyes and pushed hair out of his eyes. “Do you only knit scarves?” Rory asked, irritated by her calm. “Why not sweaters?” “Because I can’t use them to swat you in the head when you get impatient,” Asta teased. Rory ran a hand through his hair and frowned. It felt thicker, longer. He shifted on the comfortable mattress. The space around them was clean again, free of sick buckets and compress bowls. White sage burned in a wooden bowl on Milan’s side filling the room with a relaxing aroma. He glanced at his left wrist, a brow lifting when he found the bracelet gone, disappeared. “How long have we been out?” Rory asked, looking to Asta. “A day and a half,” Asta said. “Shit,” Rory cursed, thinking of Ilaria. He was sure the pack house was on fire by now. She would have found it and put a match to it in her search for Milan. ‘Dad?’ Rory reached out to Connor. ‘Glad to hear you awake,’ Connor said, relief in his voice. ‘Milan?’ ‘Waiting.’ ‘Don’t worry about anything. I’m on the way there.’ ‘Ilaria?’ ‘I have her,’ Connor said, then ended the connection before Rory could ask more. Rory decided to trust his father on that and returned his attention to Milan. He could not help smiling at the thought of Milan awake. Milan healthy and never facing the danger of severe illness just by stepping out into the air. The world was theirs now. Suddenly, Rory couldn’t wait to see his mate awake. The thought of it seemed to have enough power, as Milan’s eyes opened and Rory grinned when he stared into warm gold eyes. ‘Mate.’ Milan’s voice filled Rory’s head, bringing Rory to his knees with delight. ***
  5. 85 points
    Chapter Twenty-Two How Valuable is Your Trust in Milan? Rory sat in history class answering questions on the surprise history quiz by their teacher. He knew most of the answers, thanks to hanging out with Milan after school. Reading with Milan pushed him, got him to read chapters ahead in all his classes. Rory wrote in the last answer and glanced up at the clock on the wall. There were five minutes left to the bell. Luckily, he could leave after finishing his quiz. The perks of being Alpha and a top student. Rory stood, grabbing his books, he took his paper to the teacher. She gave his paper a quick glance and nodded, letting him leave. Rory smiled at her and left class happy he could meet Milan at his calculus class on time today. He was putting away his history book in his locker when a familiar sickening scent drifted to him. Closing his locker, Rory looked on both sides of the hallway and frowned when he only saw the librarian pushing a cart of books to the library doors. She gave him an acknowledging nod. Her scent clean, fresh notes of sage. She disappeared into the library and he was once again alone in the hallway. Rory’s frown got deeper when the scent persisted. Where was it coming from? Moving to the center of the hallway, Rory closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. Sifting through scents, he found the fading note in seconds. He started moving in the direction the scent was thickest. His heart slammed in his chest when he followed it to Milan’s calculus class. A thick cloud of it filled the space right outside the door. Rory peered into the classroom through the glass on the door. Milan sat in the near back next to Jack. His mate was writing on Jack’s notebook, their heads bend over a problem. Milan explained a formula to Jack. ‘Jack.’ Rory called to him, meeting Jack’s gaze when Jack looked up. ‘Anyone new come into your class?’ ‘No.’ Jack shook his head. ‘Okay. Thanks.’ ‘Something wrong?’ Jack asked, concern drifting into his gaze. ‘No.’ Rory didn’t know what to think of the strange scent. There was no need to alarm Jack. ‘Better pay attention to Milan. He gets annoyed when he thinks you’re not listening.’ Jack smiled just as Milan poked his right arm with his pencil. “Did you get it?” Milan asked of Jack, making Rory chuckle and move away from the door. Looking down both sides of the hallway, he wondered why this scent would be here. Rory started to lean on the side of the door to wait for the bell to ring. He didn’t want to leave Milan now, but then…he could not shake the feeling of being watched. It made the fine hair on his arms rise. Straightening to his full height, Rory turned to his left. The hallway remained clear. The doors to the rest of the classes closed. Rory turned to his right and stilled when he saw a tall pale man with dark matted hair standing in the middle of the hallway. That sickening scent was coming from him. Rory did not recognize him as part of Portento. The pale man stared at him and when the bell rang, he turned and disappeared down a side corridor. Rory cursed as the halls filled with students. He broke into a quick stride, hoping to keep up with the strange wolf, and not alert the rest of the school to the trouble. It took him a moment to catch up. Taking the side corridor meant the pale man was unfamiliar with the school layout. It was like taking the long way to the front or the back exit. Realizing this might take longer, Rory wrote Rowen a message asking her to stay with Milan. Milan loved her company. Then he sent a quick message to Milan, in case he was late. The pale man found the hallway leading to the back exit and Rory ducked into it, dodging students as he tried to keep up and stay discrete. He was glad when they got outside. Rory put in a burst of speed catching the lone wolf in the middle of the back parking lot. Rory grabbed the pale man’s left arm and jerked him to a stop. He was not gentle. “Who are you? State your family name,” Rory demanded, the order unbreakable. “Lloyd,” the pale man answered, unable to resist. “No last name, lone wolf status.” “What are you doing here?” Rory asked, letting go of the pale wolf, curious when Lloyd made no attempt to escape him. “Assignment,” Lloyd said, his gaze narrowing. “Alpha Rory, you’re much taller than I expected. Stronger than he claimed. I can barely resist the urge to cower in your presence.” “Who orders you?” Rory growled out. Lloyd smiled and shook his head. “I was asked to come here and check on the Takeda kid. The youngest—" Rory grabbed Lloyd’s t-shirt collar and shook him, anger rising at the thought of anyone after Milan. “Who ordered you?” Lloyd ignored his question and instead let a chuckle escape. “I’m surprised to see you’ve let him stay ignorant of the danger he faces in this town. Still, Dolon was right. Morgans are so shot-tempered.” Rory pulled Lloyd closer to him, taking a deep whiff of Lloyd’s scent, his eyes turning yellow as he studied Lloyd’s skin and the roots of his hair. Meeting frightened eyes, Rory sneered. “You stink. Your blood is corrupted. You seem to be rotting from the inside out.” “That’s not true,” Lloyd said, his voice laced with excitement. “I’m getting stronger. I’ll be stronger than you soon. He promised me. The boy in there is also stronger. I hear he’s not able to walk around and be so careless with his breathing. He didn’t have a mask on in there. I saw him.” Rory gripped Lloyd’s neck, with his bare hands, his hands changing, fingers elongating, he pressed on Lloyd’s neck. “Who sent you to Milan Takeda? Tell me now, or you’ll face a very slow painful death,” Rory asked. Lloyd studied him for a moment, then a soft chuckle escaped his trembling lips. “The boy matters to you, doesn’t he?” Lloyd mused, making Rory tighten his hold on the bastard’s neck. “Wait, wait, before you kill me, you’d better listen.” Rory shook Lloyd hard, fighting against the rising anger in his veins. He needed to know, so he eased his hold on Lloyd’s neck. “Better work harder to keep him safe,” Lloyd said on a short chuckle. “My boss is impatient for results and that boy seems to be the only working specimen. It would be so easy to blame his death on your precious pack. After all, he’s in a town full of wolves. All we have to do is claim your people killed him for intruding into your precious territory. His blood will be so sweet spilled—" “Enough,” Rory roared, making Lloyd shut up. “Do not threaten him.” “Why can’t I?” Lloyd asked, dark eyes challenging Rory. “He’s a puny human. We can do what we want with him. Your people don’t care about his kind. They dislike humans. In fact, I should have taken him today.” The exit door opened and Milan appeared, drawing Rory and Lloyd’s attention. Rory let go of Lloyd’s neck in surprise, especially when Rowen followed after Milan. He had clearly asked her to watch Milan. What were they doing out here? “What a gift,” Lloyd said, his tone laced with pleasure and a nasty taste of excitement. “Why don’t I take him to my boss now?” Lloyd struck Rory’s chest, a strong punch that sent Rory flying. Rory fell on the pavement, inches away from his heavy-duty pickup. He recovered fast, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Lloyd from attacking Milan in his wolf form. Milan’s frightened scream drove Rory over the edge, he changing into his wolf, and attacked Lloyd with vengeance. He dragged Lloyd’s black wolf off Milan, attacking him with unsheathed rage. A small whimper from Milan brought him back from the darkness, long enough to push Lloyd into an unconscious state without killing him. He needed answers and Lloyd seemed to have them. When he was sure Lloyd would not be getting up, Rory turned to find Milan staring at his white wolf in recognition and shock. His mate trembled with fear, or the cold, Rory couldn’t tell. Rowen helped Milan to his feet, but then his mate refused to enter the building intent on finding Rory first. Milan’s worry for him was hard to bare. Rory couldn’t believe Milan had been attacked right in front of him. He should have been able to protect him. That he hadn’t ate at him. Rory stood over the black wolf listening to his mate’s heartbeat thunder in his chest. Milan was scared out of his mind. It sounded as though Milan would have a heart attack with the amount of fear coursing through his slender frame. Rowen tried her best to pull Milan into the building but his mate would not budge. He wanted to save Rory from the wolves. In that moment, Rory made a choice he had agonized over since the day he laid eyes on Milan. Transforming before Milan felt liberating and frightening in equal measures. Rory kept all his senses attuned to Milan as he stayed crouched on the ground stark naked. His gaze stayed on Milan. Milan stared at him in even more shock. Was that even possible? Milan’s trembling increased. Brown eyes wide, unbelieving. Milan’s mouth opened in a perfect ‘o’. His heart rate rising to what Rory knew was absolutely not normal. “Milan.” Rory rose to his feet. He couldn’t help appreciating Milan’s gaze on his naked body, and the soft gasp that escaped Milan when his gaze rested on his length. He wanted to smile but this was not the time. “Milan.” Rory held out his hands to his mate, only to have Milan meet his gaze, his mouth still open but no words came out. “Are you okay? I know this is a lot to process. You’re in shock—” “Shock?” Milan breathed out, taking a step back, his gaze holding Rory’s blue one. “I think that’s an understatement. My boyfriend turns into a wolf is borderline.” “Milan.” Rory took two steps closer to Milan. “Wait,” Milan said, holding his hands out to stop him. “Wait, just a minute. I need to think. I need to b-br-breathe. Shit, I can’t think.” Milan pressed a hand to his chest, trying to calm his racing heartbeat. Worried, Rory closed the distance between them just as Milan crumbled to the ground. Rory reached for him fast, saving his mate from hitting his head on the pavement. Cupping Milan’s cheek, he wasn’t surprised to find Milan’s eyes closed. Milan was out cold. Of course, this would be too much to take in at once for any normal human. Rory cradled Milan against him, and looked up to find Rowen staring at him. “Why didn’t you stop him from coming out here?” Rory demanded. “Why didn’t you throw off the black wolf, Rowen? What the hell are you good for?” “Don’t blame me for this,” Rowen said, holding out her arms so that he could see her wrists. Black marks surrounded her slender wrists. They looked like black chains inked into her skin. “Wolves are not the only ones with laws, Alpha Rory. My mother makes sure I can never turn a human into a toad on a whim. My powers are bound close to one.” “That’s why you didn’t like him much at the start,” Rory guessed. “Any attempt I made to push off the black wolf right now left me in pain. I don’t have the strength to break my mother’s spell,” Rowen said with a sigh, folding her hands against her chest. She took a step closer, peering at Milan. “Why the hell would you expose yourself like that?” “He’s my mate. I can’t stand it when he’s in distress,” Rory stated, brushing hair from Milan’s forehead. Thinking about the black wolf’s threat, Rory cursed under his breath. “I need your help Row.” “What’s going on?” Rowen asked, when Rory stood, Milan in his arms. Rowen gaped, slapping her hands over her eyes, her cheeks flaming red. “You know, I see why Milan fainted. I would too if I thought I had to take that. Gosh, you need to put it away, Rory.” Rory chuckled turning away from her and heading to his truck. “Glad to know you’re impressed. We’re leaving.” Rowen dropped her hands to her side, following him with fast steps. She was excited. His truck was parked closed. Rory opened the backseat and placed Milan on the comfortable back bench with care. He covered Milan with his heavy jacket and grabbed up a pair of jeans from the back of the seat. He wore them fast, followed by his spare boots. “Start the truck,” Rory told Rowen, heading back to get Lloyd who had changed back into his human form. Lloyd now lay on the cold pavement, blood on his neck, his wound healed though Rory had hit his head hard enough to keep him down for an hour or so. Swinging the naked man up over his shoulder, Rory hurried back to his truck and dropped Lloyd in the back of his truck, on the truck bed. He got duct tape from the glove compartment and spent a few minutes taping Lloyd’s arms behind his back, his mouth and then taping his legs together, making sure he would not run off. Pulling the cover over the truck bed to hide the lone wolf, Rory made sure it was secure before he climbed into the backseat with Milan. “You’re driving,” he told Rowen when she looked at him from the front passenger seat. “Who is he?” Rowen asked, climbing into the driver’s seat. Rory moved Milan to his jean clad lap, making sure the jacket covered him. He pulled the mask resting on Milan’s neck over his mouth and nose. The truck was clean, but Milan had come out without a jacket and fallen on the ground. Rory pressed his palm to Milan’s forehead as he often saw Ilaria do. Milan felt cool to the touch, no fever. Well, he doubted an infection would start so soon anyway. “Where am I going?” Rowen asked, from the front. She was stopped at the intersection on the road from school. Rory held Milan closer. “We need to find Kiyo Takeda. Head toward Milan’s house.” Everyone knew where the Takeda family lived. Rowen turned left without his direction. “Why aren’t we calling Principal Rick?” Rowen asked, as she increased speed. “I don’t trust anyone with this,” Rory said. “Anyone?” Rowen looked at him through the rear view mirror. “What am I then?” “An alien with unbelievable powers,” Rory teased. “Flat, that one’s flat, Rory Morgan.” Rory chuckled, and stroked a thumb over Milan’s left brow. He was half afraid Milan would wake up on the drive to Kiyo’s lab. He didn’t want to see Milan look at him with fear. At the same time, he wanted Milan to wake up so that they could talk about this. Everything would be alright once they talked. Rory leaned down and pressed a soft kiss on Milan’s brow. Rowen drove fast, her foot heavy on the gas pedal. Rory looked out the window at the surrounding forest. He thought about June and her request that he not leave her out of any developments. Cursing under his breath, he looked to Rowen. “Rowen, I need you to break those shackles on your wrists. Our visit to Kiyo needs to stay private.” “I can’t promise it will work,” Rowen winced. “Your mate is a serious weakness for me.” Rory glanced down at Milan. “He’s my strength.” “He freaked out that you’re a wolf.” “It was never going to be an easy conversation,” Rory murmured, arranging the jacket over Milan, making sure it didn’t fall off. The ride to the Takeda house continued in silence. Rory imagined Rowen was testing out her limits when he felt energy dance over his skin over and over during their ride. When they got to the Takeda gate, Rory made Rowen stop. “Can you hide the car?” Rory asked. “June has a team of three monitoring Kiyo’s lab.” Rowen turned to look at him. “The only way I’m going to break my mother’s spell on me is if I draw from someone more powerful than her.” Rory looked at the gate to Milan’s house. He hoped Marie wasn’t paying attention. She was usually busy cleaning the house during the mornings. Rory turned to the little warlock in the driver’s seat. “Rowen.” “Hm.” “As you can see, we’re only two back here. This powerful someone, do you have a plan on where you’ll find him or her?” Rowen grinned. “It’s you, dummy.” Rowen touched his knee, and the marks on her wrists disappeared. Rory looked down his chest to see a black long-sleeves sweater cover his chest. “Yes! It worked. We got lucky.” Rory touched the black sweater and narrowed his gaze at her. “Morgan, don’t look so worried. It’s not like I can melt the next Portento Alpha.” Rowen smiled at him and faced forward, disengaging the vehicle from park. “You’ll need to place your hand on my shoulder. Don’t let go even for a second,” Rowen advised as she started driving. "If you do, it will be game over." Rory adjusted Milan’s weight on his lap and leaned forward to place his right hand on Rowen’s shoulder. The effect was immediate. Strong current ran through Rory, making his nerve endings sensitive. The soft hair on his arms stood straight. Rowen kept driving, with Rory giving her directions to Kiyo’s laboratory. Rowen’s foot remained heavy on the gas pedal, so they showed up faster than Rory expected. She stopped the pickup outside the cottage and turned off the engine. Rory looked out his window, aware of the three wolves patrolling the area. They were careful to stay hidden, meticulous in their documentation of who came to visit Kiyo Takeda. Rory decided he needed to talk to Kiyo first before June got involved. “Are you sure they can’t sense us?” “Yes.” Rowen gave him a strained smile. “You have insane energy, Rory Morgan. My mother’s juice is nothing on you. What’s next?” “Are you strong enough to drag the lone wolf inside?” Rory asked, glancing down at Milan. Milan was still unconscious. He didn’t want to leave him in the car. “As long as you keep your hand on me, I’ll do anything.” The dance out of the truck was not easy, but they managed. Rory held Milan in his arms. Rowen held on to his left shoulder and Rory watched her levitate Lloyd from the back of the truck, her hair crackling with energy. She smiled at him when she was in full control of Lloyd and they started into the cottage, the lone wolf floating after them. “You’ll be a frightening warlock in the future,” Rory told her as he unlocked the floor door. Rowen gripped his shoulder tighter. “I can be nice too. It will depend on what situation I find myself,” Rowen said, as they went down the stairs. The floor door closed above them and Rowen let go of his shoulder. “What about the truck?” “It’s a safe enough distance from your mate. I can keep it hidden on my steam,” she said, dropping Lloyd on the floor with no ceremony. “I don’t suppose you have a key for that?” Rowen asked, pointing to the large metal door securing Kiyo’s lab. Rory moved Milan over his left shoulder, making sure he was comfortable as he could be. His right hand free, he took hold of the keypad on the wall, beyond caring for niceties. With all his strength, he wrenched the keypad off the wall, digging in until he pulled out all the wires, shorting out the lock. The heavy door hissed open and Rory pushed the door in with a satisfied nod. “I guess that works too,” Rowen said, impressed. Placing a delicate hand on Rory’s shoulder, she brought Lloyd along into the lab. They didn’t stop until they reached the living room he had seen when he came in with Ilaria. There was a white comforter on the couch, indicating someone had slept there, but no sign of Kiyo. Rory placed Milan with gentle care on the couch, using the comforter to cover Milan. Once he was sure Milan was comfortable, Rory stalked to the locked door in the wall. “Rowen.” Rory flexed his hands reaching for his wolf, fighting at the same time to keep his human side alert. “Rory,” Rowen said, matching his solemn tone. “If you don’t want to get deeper into this, you can leave now. Take the truck with you, I’ll find a way out. Once I open this door, there will be no return,” Rory warned. He turned to look at Rowen, hoping to see her leaving. Instead, she sat on the edge of the coffee table by Milan’s head. She made no effort to get up, but took Milan’s right gloved hand. “He’s my friend,” Rowen said, when she met Rory’s questioning gaze. “Milan is my friend, Rory.” Rory smiled then because he had not expected that from her, but it was great to hear. Milan’s wins were his too. He returned his attention to the door, pushing the change halfway, his chest muscles doubling, and arms strong as he gripped the metal door to forcibly open it. It was time for him and Kiyo to talk. **** Kiyo wiped sweat off the back of Nisin’s neck. His temperature was not going down, and the stomach upset persisted. Nisin coughed over the sterilized toilet bowl for what he hoped was the last time. The kid was exhausted, and weak. “Okay?” Kiyo asked, leaning up to turn on the water in the sink. Kiyo dumped the cloth he held into the laundry basket in the corner and got a new one from a shelf over the sink. Nisin nodded and Kiyo helped him to the sink to rinse out his mouth and wash his face. When Nisin was refreshed, Kiyo carried him back to the rumpled bed, taking extra care to adjust the IV line going into Nisin’s left hand. He pulled the covers over Nisin, and sighed when Nisin closed his eyes, listless. “I’ll call your father,” Kiyo said. “We need a new way to handle your meals. The chef at Biosense is not careful.” “No one can know where I am,” Nisin murmured, opening his eyes to look at him. “Dad was very specific about that. I’ll have to make do with what I get.” “I won’t stand for it,” Kiyo said, wondering if he shouldn’t ask Marie for a supply of meals. It would be more work for her, and it could mean explaining to Ilaria the presence of Nisin in his lab. He needed to talk to Cade Ogawa first. “Nisin, I’ll be right back. Press the call button if you feel uncomfortable for any reason. Alright?” Nisin nodded, closing his eyes and turning away from Kiyo. Today was not a good day. Kiyo left the sterilized room, making sure to close the door behind him. Nisin didn’t need more trouble today. Kiyo got a small bottle of hand sanitizer from his pocket and walked down the small corridor to his working area. The tests he ran on the food that came in from the Biosense kitchen were done. He was about to check them when the room filled with a teeth-jarring scrape, and the walls shook. He gaped as the door he kept secured started caved in, and in the next second fell to the ground with a sizable chunk of the wall still attached. Kiyo stood frozen on the spot when he saw the frightening beast standing in the open space looking at him. Tall and huge, it turned his blood cold. His first instinct was to grab a syringe he had left on the table closest to him and hold it up in defense. He doubted he could outrun the thing. The syringe was not helpful either, unless he got close enough. Shit! There was Nisin- Then, the beast started to shrink. Slowly changing into the normal shape of a human, and he gaped when he recognized Rory Morgan in minutes. “You!” “Sorry to startle you,” Rory said with a small grin. “I have an emergency that can’t wait.” “What are you?” “We’ll get to that,” Rory said, giving the syringe Kiyo held an amused glance. “Put that away, it will be unfortunate if you get hurt. Milan would not forgive me.” Kiyo stared at the syringe, his hands gripping the plastic tube hard, unwilling to let go. “Or keep it,” Rory dismissed it. “I need you to check on Milan.” Mention of his son catapulted Kiyo into motion when Rory disappeared from the mangled entrance into his lab. He dropped the syringe adn ran out. Kiyo was careful moving around his damaged door, pausing to check the wall. No normal human should be able to do this…then again, whatever Rory was sure was strong…shit, shit, double shit! “Stay away from my son,” Kiyo said, when he saw Rory sitting next to Milan on the couch. There was a girl perched on the coffee table too. Kiyo wondered if she was a beast too. “Get the fuck away from him.” “Language, Dr. Takeda,” Rory chided, his fingers gentle as they stroked Milan’s cheek. “Please, check on Milan first, then we can talk.” Kiyo moved around the couch to where Milan’s head rested on the pillow he had used last night. Pressing a finger to Milan’s pulse at his neck, he was glad to find a stable pulse. He pressed a palm to Milan’s forehead and breathed out in relief when there was no heightened temperature. “Why is he unconscious?” Kiyo demanded, glaring at Rory Morgan. “Why is he out of school?” Rory caressed Milan’s cheek again, a loving caress that sent annoyance racing through Kiyo. The urge to push Rory’s hand off Milan’s cheek was strong. Rory seemed to sense his feelings as he got up, taking the girl’s arm and moved away from the couch with her, giving Kiyo space. Kiyo moved fast, sitting next to Milan, close enough to protect him if needed. God, how were they going to explain this to Ilaria? “Milan passed out at school,” Rory said. “I showed him what I was and it was too much for him to process.” Kiyo wiped a hand down his face, and as he dropped his hand back to his lap, he was not surprised to find it shaking. “You have nothing to fear from us,” Rory said, as though the simple statement should ease Kiyo's worry. Kiyo had just watched a Rory beast pull off his most secure door. “W-what are you? What is going on? Why would you barge into my lab like this? And with Milan—" “Milan is in danger. Your family is in danger,” Rory said. “You, Dr. Kiyo, whatever you’re working on has placed them in danger. I came here hoping we could help each other before a tragedy occurs.” Rory walked to the screen and came back dragging a pale man who was tied up with duct tape. Kiyo got up when Rory dropped the man on the coffee table with no measure of gentleness. Kiyo took a good look at the man’s face, and gasped. “Why did you kidnap Lloyd?” **** “You know him?” Rory asked, surprised by Kiyo’s question. He had hoped Kiyo had no clue about wolves living in Portento. “Yeah, he is a lab technician at Biosense,” Kiyo said with a frown. “He brings me the packages of blood from my boss’s lab. Why is he here?” “Lloyd is a werewolf,” Rory said. “No.” Kiyo shook his head. “I would have noticed something so utterly ground-shaking. I still don’t believe it even after seeing you brute-force my door.” “How?” Rory asked, meeting Kiyo’s disbelieving gaze. “If you had no idea I am one, or that the whole town is made up of werewolves. How would you have known about Lloyd?” “The whole town? You’re lying to me,” Kiyo countered. “It’s absurd. Werewolves don’t exist. Not at that large a scale—” “Believe it, Daddy Takeda,” Rowen said, shifting her feet beside Rory. “Don’t let it bake your brain too fast. Our Alpha here needs answers to some questions. If you don’t mind answering them. I’ll go back to keeping Milan company.” “Don’t touch him,” Kiyo snapped, reaching for her when Rowen started to move around him to get to Milan. Electricity zapped his fingers and Kiyo jerked his hand back, stepping away from her in shock. “Don’t touch me,” Rowen said, dropping her hand from Rory’s arm. “I’ll burn you.” Kiyo inspected his fingers, blowing on them watching Rowen sit on the couch, taking Milan’s hand. “I-I-,” Kiyo turned to Rory. “This is—” “Take a deep breath, Dr. Takeda. I would never do this if it was not absolutely important. I need to understand the web woven here and it looks like it all ties to you. For Milan’s sake, and your family. You have no idea the trouble you’re in.” Kiyo dug fingers into his hair and turned to look at the door lying on the ground in his working space. “You just took down my lab door while you looked like a beast. How the hell am I supposed to trust you?” Rory kept his silence at that question. He had not thought that far when he was trying to get access. Then again, it was done now. He needed Kiyo, and Kiyo needed him. Rory’s gaze fell on Milan’s peaceful face. “Think of Milan,” Rory suggested, meeting Kiyo’s distressed gaze. “You can trust Milan's judgment, Dr. Takeda.” ***
  6. 84 points
    Chapter 29 The Dream Castle in the Wild Rory led Ilaria down the hall to the waiting room at the end of the hall. He closed the door, watching Ilaria move to sit in an armchair in the corner. She looked small, wearing a pair of jeans and blouse. Her hair in a ponytail. She wore no makeup, or jewelry save for her wedding ring. She worried it now, turning it round and round on her finger as she watched Rory perch on a stool. “Thank you,” Ilaria started. She stared at her wedding ring. “One of the nurses told me that you’re the reason why Kiyo is so well taken care of here. Also, that you will send…Iris? They assure me she’s an expert who will help Kiyo. I’m really grateful, Rory.” “Kiyo should have never been in the position to be injured so badly,” Rory said. “We should have protected him from Rick’s malice. Kiyo is also Milan’s Papa. I would do everything to make sure he is healthy.” Ilaria looked at him then, her gaze unreadable. She studied him for a moment, then returned to turning her wedding ring. Once again, Rory missed his own mother. Johanna had also loved him and Connor with fierce dedication. It made him want to win Ilaria’s favor and have her look at him with that look she gave Milan when he wasn’t looking. A look full of unconditional love. “About Milan,” Ilaria started again. “He told me you want to fly back to Turin with him,” Rory said, his heart squeezing with panic at the thought of Milan leaving him. He was mated to Milan. Under wolf law, their union was unbreakable. In Portento, that was always absolute. Every soul recognized that bond. Yet, under human law, he and Milan remained un-bonded. Milan was seventeen, still under his parents’ legal care. He needed Ilaria’s cooperation to keep Milan, at least for another year. Then Rory planned on binding Milan to him in all the ways legally possible. “I beg you,” Ilaria said, looking at him, her gaze tearing him to pieces. “Please let him come with us. This place, I brought him here. I brought him here and now—” “He’s cured,” Rory reminded her. “He has a new start, Mamma, because of this town. Don’t take him away from me.” Ilaria shook her head, tears filling her eyes again. “I need you to understand me, Rory.” “Then tell me, why aren’t you happy that Milan’s no longer ill, Mamma?” “The price is too high,” Ilaria said, her voice heavy with worry. “Milan is barely lived. It’s insane to think of him with a lifetime mate. He has so much to learn, so much to experience. If he ever got well enough to go out and play, I wanted him to travel the world. I spent so much time keeping him confined, that I promised myself when he could escape that prison, I would help him live. Let him fly across the vast world. To visit places he wished, see all the things that would inspire him to draw, or-or build what he wished. Rory, I’m afraid that he can’t find all of these things here.” When she finished, it was Rory’s turn to stare at the floor. His gaze on his boots as he realized that he had not stopped to think about the future. He always wanted to be Alpha of Portento, but Milan… Milan had a dream. A dream he carried in his heart, carefully hiding it with the fear that he might never achieve it. Architects needed education, training, experience. None of which could be found in Portento. “I know you love him.” Ilaria got up from the chair and came to kneel before him, taking his hands in her much softer hold. “He loves you. There is no denying that anymore. I see it now. Grazie mille for loving my child and giving him a new life. One I could never afford him in a thousand years. Still, I beg you. This mother begs you. Please, don’t limit him. Please help me give him his dreams.” Rory felt tears slide down his cheeks. Knowing that Ilaria pleaded out of love. Still, Milan belonged in Portento. This was his sanctuary. Rory turned away from where Ilaria gripped his hands. “Turin is so far,” Rory said, knowing Milan didn’t want to leave Portento. He had felt it at the cave. A heavy reluctance that filled Milan’s heart like nothing else, it gave Rory clarity. “It is,” Ilaria agreed. “He’s already started school here,” Rory reasoned. “Can’t you let him leave for college when he finishes twelfth grade? Let him finish school here. When he graduates, I promise to support all his plans. Whatever he wants to do, where he wants to go, I’ll make it happen. No one will stand in his way.” “Twelfth grade is in a few months,” Ilaria said, reaching up to wipe his tears away with her palm. “For now though, I must take Kiyo away to recuperate and I don’t want to leave Milan alone. He’s never been without us all his life. He might be well, but he still needs his family.” “Milan can stay with me,” Rory said. “I have more than enough room for him.” “I should say,” Ilaria said, her gaze wistful. “I need him beside me, Rory. I—I need my family around me. Milan won’t leave as long as he feels you can’t handle him away. So, I’m here asking you to help me take him away from Portento for a week or two.” “What about school?” Rory asked Ilaria, feeling her need to escape the town grow. He understood her need to leave, but Milan was his now too. He was determined to keep him. “Mamma, Milan is a month into a new semester,” Rory said. “He loves it very much. You know that. Then, there is Ayu who has a full schedule for the semester at the university. Leaving now will derail their credits. If you’re worried about them staying at your house, then they won’t. They can move into mine. I have plenty of space and on my word, they will be safe.” Ilaria closed her eyes and gripped his hands tight. “Rory—” Rory got up and crouched before Ilaria, his head bowed, stopping Ilaria’s next words. “I can’t be without Milan,” Rory whispered, pressing his forehead on her shoulder, allowing emotion to bleed through. “I know how precious he is to you. Believe me, I know, because he is just as precious to me. Mamma. Please trust me with him. Let him stay in Portento. I’ll watch out for him while you take care of Papa.” “Rory.” “I beg you, let him stay,” Rory said, tears filling his eyes, soaking into Ilaria’s blouse. Every part of him willing her to let Milan stay. Hope grew when she brought her arms around him and held him as he sobbed into her shoulder. *** Milan rubbed his thumb over Kiyo’s knuckles. His father’s hand so much larger than his, so much more capable. Milan remembered Kiyo holding his hand as they walked into buildings, or crossed the road. His father’s hold always assured, dependable. Milan missed it now. “I don’t think Papa’s ever been ill enough to be laid up in bed,” Ayu noted, on the other side of Kiyo. He held Kiyo’s left hand while Milan clutched the right. “I mean, he gets stupid tired, and sleeps for two days straight. But, never this sick.” “It’s weird seeing him this way,” Milan agreed, looking at Kiyo. “Mamma is losing her mind.” “I know you don’t want to leave,” Ayu said. “I’ve been thinking, and I promise I’ll work on convincing her to let us stay. I’m over eighteen. I doubt she’ll worry so much if you’re left in my care. She did it all the time when we were in Turin and she would go on trips with Papa. This should be the same.” Milan smiled at Ayu. “What about Christina in Turin? Don’t you want to go see her?” Ayu glanced at Milan, a small smile playing on his lips. “Christina and I are just friends now. We’ve both moved on these past two months. She’s found someone.” “And you?” Milan asked, trying to see if his brother had found a place in Portento. “There might be someone I like,” Ayu said, his smile widening. “It’s still too early though. I’ll have to see where it takes us.” “Who?” Milan asked, eager to know, happy that his brother had found some form of happiness. “I won’t tell yet,” Ayu winked at him. “It’s a work in progress.” “Tell me,” Milan insisted. “Ayu, come on, tell me.” “What will you give me if I tell you?” Ayu asked. “I won’t tell anyone you have a crush on someone,” Milan teased. “Gosh, you’re so blushing. When did you start blushing, Ayu?” “I am not blushing,” Ayu protested, a tad too hard. Milan chuckled, and stopped when the door opened. They both turned to look and found themselves staring at the woman who walked into the hospital room. Long golden hair free around her shoulders and down her back, long floaty skirts, petite and pretty. She reminded Milan of a fairy tale. He blinked when she walked right to him and stood a moment studying him with avid interest. “Aw, look at you, so handsome,” she said, reaching out a slender hand to touch his cheek. Her fingers cool against his skin. “So beautiful to look at. The goddess was kind to you and your mate. A perfect match if I ever saw one. Rory is lucky indeed.” Milan blushed and heard Ayu snicker behind him. The woman grinned and kissed both Milan’s pink-tinged cheeks. “My name is Iris. Daughter of the earth, and I recognize you, you chosen child of the earth. If you ever need anything from me, all you need is ask.” Milan stared as she reached into her pocket and pulled out the amulet Rory had given him. Milan had kept it in a box on his desk at home, afraid to wear it daily in case he lost it. Now, to see Iris holding it felt surreal. How had she known he had it? She moved even closer and put the leather cord around his neck. “I snooped into your space, but I had to. Rory gave this to you, and you kept it away. . This is your mate’s wish. To protect you, to always know nothing will happen to you. I would ask that you don’t take it off again, Little Alpha.” Milan watched Iris sweep her fingers over the surface of the amulet and the metal shimmered. Symbols appeared on the edge of the amulet in a perfect circle. They reminded Milan of Nordic Runes. Iris kissed his right cheek and then his left, once again making him blush. “If you ever need me, all you need do is touch this amulet and call to me,” Iris said, releasing the amulet around his neck. “I will hear your call.” Milan touched the amulet and looked up at her in surprise. She smiled at him, then pulled him into a comforting hug. “You’re family now. And, you must be Ayu,” Iris said, over his shoulders. “Yes,” Ayu said, staring at her like he had turned stupid. Milan reached over and pinched his brother’s arm when Iris let go of him. She laughed at the gesture and shook her head when Ayu got off Kiyo’s bed with a hard blush. “Your older brother is adorable,” Iris told Milan. “Now, why don’t I take a look at your Papa? He looks in bad shape. The poison from Rick’s blood is working fast.” Milan sobered, moving back, to give Iris access to Kiyo “Can you help him?” Milan asked, worried. “He is your father. Your blood came from him. As you’ve been able to transition so beautifully, some of that must have come from him,” Iris said, pulling the covers down. “I’ll exploit that loophole to undo the damage done to him by one of us.” “One of us?” Milan asked. “Yes, the enchanted,” Iris answered him with a wink. “The extraordinary that live in Portento.” Ayu helped Iris unbutton Kiyo’s pajama shirt to reveal the bandages taped to his chest and stomach. There was blood starting to seep through. Kiyo was due a dressing change. Milan wanted to look away when Iris carefully undid the bandages to reveal the sutured wounds on Kiyo’s stomach. The skin around them was angry red, and wet. Milan wished he could look away, but his gaze stayed riveted on Iris and her study of Kiyo’s disturbing wounds. Iris frowned, but then reached into the pocket of her long skirts. She got out a small bag and poured dried herbs onto her palm. She rubbed them between her palms, her eyes closed, murmuring words that Milan did not understand. The herbs turned into white smoke seeping down on to Kiyo’s stomach from between Iris’s palms. She moved her hands over the wounds on Kiyo’s stomach. The smoke dancing over the harsh wounds, seeping in. When it faded from her palms, she got more herbs, rubbing them between her palms and making more smoke. Ayu came to stand beside Milan, wrapping an arm around Milan’s shoulders when black ooze started coming out of Kiyo’s wounds. Dark and wicked, it seeped into the bandages on each side of Kiyo’s wounds. When Iris finished murmuring, the smoke ended, the wounds on Kiyo’s stomach looked less red. Less harsh, not as ugly as they looked before. Kiyo’s breathing came easier, and he shifted, as he would when in a deep sleep. Iris studied Kiyo for a moment, before she reached for the call button and pressed it. “Your Papa will heal quite fine. The rest is for the nurses,” Iris declared with a smile. A nurse came in with a cart, and Iris moved away from Kiyo’s bed to give her space. “The worst is out of his system. His system is on the path to healing. The process will move fast, but he will need quiet time and rest.” “Thank you,” Ayu said, looking at Iris in a state of awe. Iris smiled and moved to pinch Ayu’s cheek, a gentle caress. “I’m going now,” Iris said, looking at Milan. “I will see you at the town meeting.” “What town meeting?” Milan asked, not sure what she was talking about. Iris hugged him and rubbed his back with affection. “There will be one. Ask Rory about it.” Iris left them then, her presence in the room missed as soon as she was gone. Kiyo moved on the bed on his own and Milan forgot about the town meeting. Instead, running to his father’s side, elated when he saw Kiyo’s eyes open. *** ‘Rory, where did you go?’ Milan called to Rory, testing out their connection. He wondered if it would work outside Portento. ‘Talking to Iris. She says she brought your amulet to you,’ Rory answered almost immediately. Milan frowned when he felt unease from Rory. Something had upset his mate, and Rory was hiding it. As though sensing his thoughts, Rory soothed him. ‘I’m fine, Milan.’ Milan frowned, but didn’t push Rory. Instead, he settled on the chair next to Kiyo’s bed and watched the doctor check the wounds on Kiyo’s chest. They looked less angry, but Kiyo was still in pain. Iris was right. Kiyo would need time to recover. The doctor gave a satisfied nod after he was done with his inspection. He scribbled notes on Kiyo’s chart as the nurses covered the wounds with bandages. Ilaria walked in just as the doctor started to give instructions to the nurse. “There you are,” he said. “I’m glad to see you. I wanted to tell you that your husband is fit enough for travel now. As long as all measures are taken to reduce infection, he should make it to Turin with no trouble.” “Thank you, Doctor,” Ilaria said, coming to shake the doctor’s hand. “You’ve been a real help.” “Anytime,” The doctor said, glancing at Milan and Ayu. “I’ll be back later for rounds.” “Sure,” Ilaria said, moving to Kiyo’s right side. She checked his temperature by pressing her palm on Kiyo’s forehead. When Kiyo opened his eyes, tears shimmered in her eyes and she perched on the edge of the bed, taking his hand. The doctor left with a quiet goodbye followed by the nurses. “Mio amore,” Ilaria said, leaning to kiss Kiyo’s cheek. “You scared me.” “I’m sorry,” Kiyo managed with a small smile for her. “I tried to avoid it, but that Rick was going to hurt Nisin. I had to do something.” “I know,” Ilaria brushed dark hair out of Kiyo’s eyes, and caressed his jaw. “I know. We’re going to have you rest for weeks. You need to heal and get better.” “What’s this I hear about going back Turin?” Kiyo asked, with a frown. Milan moved closer to the bed ready to lodge a complaint about his mother’s decision. Ayu right beside him. Ilaria gave him a complex glance before he could speak, and Milan watched her squeeze Kiyo’s hand. “I’m afraid if you stay here you’ll end up in your lab,” Ilaria said, her voice as cheerful as she could get it. “You have too much at your disposal and you’ll end up working when you should be resting.” “So?” Kiyo asked, studying her, his gaze gentle. “So, I’m taking you to Turin,” Ilaria said, then glanced at Milan and Ayu. “The boys can stay. They have school. We’ll be back here when your health is better.” Kiyo’s gaze shifted to Milan’s shocked face and then to Ayu. “I guess you’re surprising them with this?” Milan felt afraid to even ask why Ilaria had decided to change her stance. He kept his mouth shut, and held on to Ayu’s hand, his gaze on Ilaria. “Rory’s family has a huge house. He showed me a picture,” Ilaria said, squeezing Kiyo’s fingers. “Rory assures me there is a place for Ayu and Milan. He promises to protect them.” ‘You talked to her,’ Milan said to Rory. ‘I reasoned, and begged,’ Rory replied, sounding close. ‘She loves you so much, Milan. I’m envious. It’s not easy for her to let you stay. She’s trusting me to keep you safe.’ Milan moved around the bed to where his mother sat. He pulled her into a tight hug, and closed his eyes when she buried her face into his shoulder. This was harder for her than him. Ilaria had a hard time letting go. He was so ready to be independent, and it was hard on her. “Rory is a good boy,” Ilaria said in Italian. “He seems to love you very much, Cucciolo. Be good to him.” “Si, Mamma,” Milan answered. He let go of her and she kissed his cheeks. “Papa and I will head to Turin with Marie. I’ll let him sleep in and eat all the foods he wants until he gets better,” Ilaria said, taking Kiyo’s hand and squeezing it. “When he can walk without pain, we’ll come back. Yes?” “Sounds good,” Milan agreed, glad he didn’t have to leave Portento. He would miss his parents, but it felt worse to leave Rory right now. “Ayu?” Ilaria glanced at her oldest son. “What about you? Will you help me take Papa to Turin? You can see Christina.” Ayu smiled at her. “I’ll take you to Turin, then once you’re settled, I’ll fly back to keep Milan company.” Milan chuckled knowing Ayu was returning for the mysterious person he liked. ‘Thank you,’ Milan said to Rory. ‘Anything for you, Milan.’ *** Marie played a large role in closing up the Takeda house. Rory helped her set up a cleaning service to clean the place every week, and make sure dust did not accumulate. She packed up Ayu and Milan’s bags, and Rory handed them to Topher and Matt to take back to the pack house. Rory took Ilaria’s and Kiyo’s suitcase, as well as Marie’s, and put them in his SUV ready to go to the airport. Once that was done, Marie pulled him into a tight hug that had him swallowing hard. “Thank you,” she murmured, pressing a book into his hands. “This has Milan’s favorite dishes. If you have someone who can help, prepare them for him when he’s down. He’ll miss his parents very much. So, spoil him a bit for me.” “I will,” Rory kissed her cheek. “Take care of yourself, Marie. I’ll miss you too.” Marie smiled and patted his cheek as she hurried off to sleep ready for the early wake-up call in the morning. Rory drove to the pack house to get a change of clothes, and a quick shower. He would drive to the hospital in the morning as Milan and Ayu were camped in Kiyo’s hospital room. Wanting to spend as much time as they could with their parents. Rory gave them the space. After all, it was only one night, then he would have Milan in his life, in his house for good. *** The drive back from the airport went fast. Milan sat in the front passenger seat, his thoughts on his parents and Ayu. Watching them board their flight had been hard. Not being with them harder. He was still numb about it all. The past few days felt like a whirlwind that had yet to stop and settle. “They’ll be fine,” Rory said, squeezing Milan’s thigh as he slowed down his SUV to make a turn into another non-existent road in the forest. “It’ll be okay, Milan.” Milan let out a sigh, and placed his hand over Rory’s, squeezing it. Yes. It would all turn out okay in the end, he decided. Plus, it wasn’t as though he wouldn’t talk to his family. Ilaria would Skype him the moment they landed in Turin and settled. Maybe then he would be all thawed out and thinking more clearly. “Do all of you love living in the forest?” Milan asked, as Rory’s car drove through a dirt road leading deeper into the forest. "And , you have an aversion to real roads." Rory chuckled. “We love living in the wild, but no one wants to damage the forest's ecosystem laying out tarmac. Not when we have Iris and Grandma Asta living among us. So, we only construct the roads that are absolutely necessary.” “Like the one to the Swamp Lands?” Milan asked, having heard Rory talking about getting approval to build an easier way into the swamp. “Yeah,” Rory turned to look at him and winked. “Are you ready to see your new home?” Milan smiled, hard to stay unaffected by Rory’s excitement. Rory was practically vibrating. Milan held Rory’s hand, and shifted in his seat so that he could watch Rory drive. “Very ready,” Milan said, just as Rory drove into a stunning lush green driveway. The car slowed down, and Milan turned to see Rory’s home, a moan of appreciation escaping at the sight before him. He loved buildings, loved it when buildings melded into their environment. The pack house, as Rory called it, was a masterpiece if he had ever seen one. A castle hidden in the wild: stunning, a dance of tall glass at the front, green branches crawling up one side of the building. Heavy with history. Then the new addition to the right of the building, that spoke of youth and charm. Milan couldn't believe Rory lived here. It felt like a dream. “Welcome home,” Rory said as he parked, and smiled wide at Milan. "I've waited a long time to bring you here." ***
  7. 84 points
    Chapter Twenty – Three Get me a wheelbarrow and a shovel for all the answers Kiyo sat in the armchair closest to Milan, his gaze on Rowen who held Milan’s gloved hand. It was strange to imagine Milan forging what seemed like deep bonds with people who were now of scientific interest, if he was to be honest. Werewolves, he couldn’t stop the scoff that escaped his lips. Was this a look into M. Night Shyamalan’s muse? It left him feeling a lot out of his depth. His gaze shifted to Rory who paced the back of the couch. Rory’s arms crossed against his chest, the black sweater he wore defined his muscles. Muscles Kiyo now knew could change and turn him into a huge beast that could crush Milan to nothing. Kiyo took in a deep breath to calm his blood pressure. “First, why is my family in danger?” “Your friend, Lloyd,” Rory nodded to the unconscious technician trussed up on the coffee table. “He showed up at school. He was stalking Milan, and talking about taking him away to meet his boss.” “Cade?” Kiyo frowned. “His boss is mine too. Cade is my best friend. There is no way he would hurt Milan.” “Who is Cade?” Rory asked. “Cade Ogawa, Head of Biosense.” Kiyo gripped the arms of his chair. “He offered me the position here. I only agreed because he promised that my research, coupled with his resources would help find a cure for Milan.” “But Milan’s condition has no cure,” Rory stated. “I know more about that than you,” Kiyo snapped, not about to be schooled by a teenager on what he knew about his son’s health. Milan was his son. He was the one that discovered Milan’s condition when his son would not stop getting ill. He knew every aspect of Milan’s condition like the back of his hand. All experiments he ran for the past decade were to give Milan a way to live a comfortable happy life. “I’m sorry,” Rory said, his tone gentle, drawing Kiyo’s gaze. “There is nothing to be sorry about,” Kiyo said, letting out a short sigh. “Besides, Cade would not harm Milan when I’ve promised to let them meet later this week. He’s counting on seeing Milan’s progress for the sake of his son.” “Milan’s progress,” Rory scoffed, turning away from Kiyo. “You have no idea what you’ve been doing to him in the name of research.” Kiyo’s gaze moved back to Milan. He’s been healthy this month. For the first time in years, he has not worried about infections. His stats are improved. This is the best formula I’ve made. After his birthday, we’re going to get him another dose—” “Over my dead body,” Rory growled, turning to look at Kiyo, his eyes very other. They made Kiyo nervous. “Rory,” Rowen murmured. Rory glared at Kiyo, then turned away from him. He paced the length of the couch, once, twice, then stopped and walked around to where Lloyd lay on the coffee table. “What do you collect samples with?” Rory asked Kiyo. “I have vials in the—” Rory hurried to the inner lab, not letting Kiyo finish. He returned minutes later with two clean test tubes from a set Kiyo had arranged on his worktable. Far from the vials Kiyo had referred to, but they worked too. Rory walked around the couch and gripped Lloyd’s bound hands. Kiyo watched in a mixture of awe and disgust when Rory dug his nails into Lloyd’s pale skin drawing blood. He used one of the test tubes to collect the drops of blood that disappeared when Lloyd’s skin closed up on itself. Rory handed the tube of blood to Kiyo who got up, confused. He froze when Rory knelt by the couch and took Milan’s right hand. Rory pulled off Milan’s glove with gentle care, then pressed a kiss on Milan’s knuckles. He used a pin, also from Kiyo’s desk, to prick Milan’s thumb. He collected the drops of blood in the second tube, and brought Milan’s thumb to his mouth. Kiyo frowned when Rory sucked on Milan’s thumb. Something he had only seen Ilaria do when their sons hurt their fingers. “Place Lloyd’s blood under a microscope, first,” Rory said, placing Milan’s hand on his stomach as he got up. “It stinks of rot. I don’t know much about the science of it, but you should be able to see what’s wrong.” Kiyo held Rory’s gaze for a moment, then nodded and went to the inner lab. In minutes, he was set up at his microscope, wearing gloves, a smear of Lloyd’s blood on a slide. He ignored Rory’s hovering, and got to work, eager to see the composition of a werewolf’s blood. *** Rory paced Kiyo’s work space, caught between annoyance and worry as Kiyo worked without looking at him. Rory held Milan’s blood in his hand, not ready to give it to Kiyo until he figured out what was wrong with Lloyd. Rory could hear Nisin’s breathing in a room at the end of a short hallway. There was the scent of sick in the air, which made him wonder if Nisin was having a hard time. Thinking of Lloyd’s warning earlier about his boss, Rory decided it was time to pull in his father. ‘Dad.’ Rory called to his father on their very private family link. ‘Rory.’ ‘I have access to Nisin and Kiyo Takeda’s inner lab.’ ‘Great job. What do you need?’ ‘First, I’m reporting an attack on a human by a lone wolf at the school parking lot. I took him down, but he had some interesting comments to make. I’ve been on an interesting path today and its clear we have a traitor among us.’ ‘Any clue who it is?’ ‘No.’ Rory kept his gaze on Kiyo wondering when the man would finish. ‘I only have the lone wolf, and now Kiyo Takeda who seems innocent. I ask you and your most trusted to meet with Kiyo Takeda. I will lay out his case as I believe he is in special circumstances.’ ‘You understand if we determine he needs to move out of Portento, the decision can’t be changed, even with Milan being your mate.’ Rory paused, looking at Kiyo’s back. He had yet to disclose the presence of the settlement in the swamp lands. Rory decided he would talk about that when he could look his father in the eye. ‘I’m confident they can retain their status within our town.’ ‘I trust your judgment. If that is what you want, then bring Milan’s family to the pack house tonight. I’ll make sure Lechter keeps his head. It’s time we heal the rift forming in this community.’ ‘Thank you, Alpha.’ “There is a heavy presence of the blood Cade gives me in Lloyd’s system,” Kiyo said, after what felt like an hour but was only ten minutes. “His body is treating it like an infection. White blood cells are high, but the blood is eating them up faster than they can fight.” “Lloyd’s an idiot is what he is.” Rory cursed under his breath. “What else?” Kiyo swiveled his chair to face Rory. “The formula filled with antibodies I created for Milan. It’s an earlier version made in December before Milan got his first infusion of this kind. I had not refined it then but its effects are similar. I sent it into Cade for analysis when he asked for a progress report. I can’t believe Lloyd used it.” “I doubt he had a choice,” Rory said, his gaze narrowed. “What’s it doing to Lloyd?” “It’s stopping Lloyd’s system from fighting off the foreign blood,” Kiyo murmured. “His organs are damaged from fighting so hard. It’s a lot like having sepsis. The infusion is enabling the foreign blood, makes him feel stronger when he’s not.” “Can it be fixed?” Rory asked. “Not now,” Kiyo shook his head. “The small sample here shows a hundred percent corruption. There is nothing to be done for him. His immune system is eaten away.” Rory nodded and held out Milan’s blood to Kiyo. “Now, check Milan’s blood,” Rory said, his hands shaking when Kiyo took the glass tube. “See what they have in common.” Kiyo narrowed his gaze, before he turned to get to work. *** Milan opened his eyes to find Rowen peering at him. She grinned and poked his right cheek with her index finger. “I can’t believe you fainted,” she teased. “I’m so never letting you live that one down.” Milan chuckled, taking in a deep breath as he sat up, disoriented. They weren’t in school. He gripped Rowen’s arm when he saw the pale man lying on the coffee table. He had thought it a dream, the memory of the black wolf’s muzzle on his back. The white wolf pulling it off. Rory was the white wolf. He met Rowen’s gaze and she gave him a faint knowing smile. “You’re not surprised.” “How can I be?” Rowen shrugged. “I’ve known they exist all my life.” Milan’s gaze widened in realization. “Anyone else?” Milan asked. “Well, since the wolf’s out of the bag, there is no harm in you knowing the rest,” Rowen said, taking his hand as she sat on the couch with him. “Truth is everyone living in this town is a wolf, with a few exceptions.” “Exceptions?” Milan asked. “What kind of exceptions?” “My family is made up of warlocks,” Rowen wrinkled her nose. “Your kind would call us witches, but that’s such a baroque word. Others like Grandma Asta—I know you must have met her through Rory—have a connection to nature that I have yet to fully understand. She’s not exactly one to tell her secrets. Rory trusts her like no one else.” “Jet?” Milan asked, wondering about the one friend he had made out of school. “Wolf,” Rowen confirmed. “Werewolves to be exact. They walk in both a human’s body and a wolf’s form.” “Not to be…baroque,” Milan said, shaking his head at the barriers his imagination was breaking today. “It’s all kind of…overwhelming. I feel like I’ve walked into the Underworld set. I hope there is no Seline barging in soon with silver bullets. I kinda like my boyfriend. Wouldn’t want to lose him before I figure out his beastly white wolf side.” Rowen laughed. “Glad to see you’re amused.” “I’m—” Rowen chuckled and shook her head. “I’m just glad you’re not running out of here screaming in fright. I thought it would happen that way when you passed out. In a way I think Rory did too.” “Give me a break. A huge black wolf tackled me to the ground wanting to eat me. Which would have totally sucked by the way. I don’t do scary-wolf’s-delicious-treat very well.” Milan pushed hair out of his face with his right hand. “The only one allowed to eat me is Rory.” “Oh, the mush.” Rowen rolled her eyes getting up. “Come on, I don’t want to stay next to stinky doofus here.” “Why did he attack me?” Milan asked, letting Rowen pull him up. “What did I ever do to him?” “I’ll leave that to Rory and your dad to answer,” Rowen said. Milan stopped, staring at the debris on the floor and the huge metal door his father installed to guard his research. “I guess I missed a lot,” Milan said, climbing over debris into the private workspace he had not seen before. He stopped when he saw Rory pacing by his father’s workstation. Kiyo was bent over a microscope. Rory looked up when they entered and stopped pacing, his gaze on Milan, blue eyes both pleased and wary. Rowen let go of Milan’s hand and moved away to explore Kiyo’s private workspace. “Hey,” said Rory to Milan. Milan moved closer to him. Rory was in a black sweater now. He remembered a t-shirt earlier this morning. Placing his hand on Rory’s chest, he smiled when he felt the warmth that often rolled off Rory in waves. Rory always burned a little hotter than him. Now he knew why they were so different. “So,” Milan looked up to meet Rory’s gaze. “Is this the secret you were going to tell me when I’m ready?” Rory nodded, his expression solemn. Milan could see anxiety in Rory’s eyes. Rory worried about what Milan would say, what Milan thought. The wolf incident that left his heart in his throat clear in both their minds. “We’ll have to talk more about it,” Milan insisted. “You have to promise to tell me everything. I don’t ever want to be surprised like that again, Rory.” “I promise.” The speed at which Rory’s promise came made Milan smile. “Okay,” Milan said. Milan watched the tension in Rory’s shoulders drain. He smiled when Rory kept staring at him in wonder, and Milan decided he was tired of hiding his truth too. “I love you.” Milan confessed, not caring that his father sat a few feet away. “I have since the day you showed up at my house with that stupid pie for Marie. It’s just taken me a while to tell you.” Rory’s smiled wide, then hissed, his gaze going to his left wrist which was glowing red hot. No, the wooden bracelet there seemed to be on fire. It burned red hot and Milan started to reach for it to help, but then the color faded and the bracelet was back to normal. “Why did it do that?” Milan asked. “First time it’s done that so hard,” Rory said, touching the one leaf on the surface. Milan thought he had seen more before, but his thoughts scattered when Rory caressed his jaw and gave him the words back. “I love you too, Milan.” Milan watched Rory study the bracelet, as though waiting for something to happen again. Then he gave a soft sigh and leaned down to kiss Milan hard, pulling him into his arms. Milan melted against Rory’s warmth, enjoying the kiss until a loud cough broke into his scrambled thoughts. Rory ended the kiss, brushing his thumb over Milan’s hot cheeks. Milan couldn’t help the smile on his lips, then looked around Rory’s left side to see his father watching them with a deep disapproving nod. “Papa.” “Milan.” Kiyo gave Rory a narrowed gaze when Rory shifted to face him, and then spoke in Italian. “You’re too young to know love, Cucciolo.” “Maybe, you’re too jaded to see what we have as love,” Milan replied, matching his father’s language. He held Rory’s left arm, leaning into Rory’s warmth. “Mamma has given us her blessing. Rory loves me, Papa. Please don’t refuse him.” “He can break you.” “My illness breaks me worse.” “Lo vuoi così tanto?” You want it that much? Kiyo asked Milan, his gaze full of worry for him. Milan wished he could express the depth of his feelings for Rory to his father, but alas, no words came to mind. Man, or wolf, hell Rory could be a flower and he would love him still. How could he make words that could express that kind of emotion? It was impossible. “Si, non posso vivere senza di lui,” Milan answered his father, drawing his gaze away from Kiyo to look into brilliant blue eyes. “I can’t live without him.” Milan repeated for Rory’s benefit, and was rewarded with a kiss on his forehead. Rory held him closer, wrapping Milan in his warmth. “What are we doing here?” Milan asked, stepping away from Rory, to look around his father’s lab. “Why is your door down, Papa?” “Your boyfriend wrenched it out of the wall,” Kiyo said, sending an accusing gaze to Rory. “You’re getting that fixed by the way.” “No problem,” Rory said with a grin. “Why are we here?” Milan asked, looking to Rory. “Your Dad’s research is causing problems,” Rory said, looking to Kiyo. “What did you find in Milan’s blood?” “The same problem as Lloyd,” Kiyo said, his tone solemn, heavy with disappointment. “The antibodies in the formula are making Milan strong enough to fight off infections, which is good. But, it’s left your organs overtaxed. Your immune system will crash too hard when they are used up. It will be much worse than when you need regular infusions. You’ll need to be isolated soon.” “I don’t want to live in a clean room,” Milan complained. “I almost went out of my mind the last time you made me do that, Papa.” “I’m sorry, Milan,” Kiyo said, his eyes filled with tears. “I was so excited to find something to make you healthier, happier. I didn’t stop to look more into it. I can’t believe Cade would lie to me when I’m supposed to use it on his son.” “Those blood packages Lloyd brings you from your friend’s lab are filled with corrupted werewolf blood. It’s poison to humans. Cade probably doesn’t understand it. The werewolf providing the blood has introduced something bad into his system.” “I didn’t know.” Kiyo shook his head. “I didn’t know.” “Papa!” Milan ran to his father, pulling him into a tight hug. “I’m fine. Look at me walking around, causing trouble, and kissing Rory, even though you don’t like it. I have not gotten sick once this year. You gave me a month long bliss.” “Oh, Milan,” Kiyo held his son tight, meeting Rory’s gaze, doubt in his eyes. “What is Cade’s purpose?” Rory asked, when Kiyo kept holding on to Milan, as though to protect him from the worst. “Cade has a son with the same condition as Milan,” Kiyo said, his voice heavy with grief. “Though, Nisin’s condition is more severe. His system is not able to handle any form of infection.” “Is that why he is here?” Rory pointed down the hall where Rowen wandered to. Rory watched her open a door at the end enter the room where Nisin was staying. “How do you know that?” Kiyo asked, wonder in his eyes. “I smell him,” Rory answered with a shrug, moving to sit on one of the stools Kiyo used for his worktable. “He smells of sick right now.” “The Biosense kitchen is not as clean as Marie’s kitchen. They sent food that made Nisin react. I was about to call Cade to discuss it.” “So, Cade wants a cure for his son,” Rory stated, resuming his pacing. “The presence of Lloyd means that Cade knows we exist. Lloyd was human before he turned wolf, not good for him as only a mate can turn a human. The blood you receive is from a third person, who Lloyd calls boss. This boss has Dolon. I have solved so many mysteries in one afternoon. We should have talked sooner, Dr. Takeda. It would have saved me so much trouble. I just need to turn my father on to Cade Ogawa.” “What does that mean?” Kiyo asked. Rory paused when Milan shifted against his dad to look at him. This life, his life, was going to be Milan’s too. There was no use hiding the ugly parts. It was best to have them out in the open. “My kind guard our secrets with ruthless dedication,” Rory said. “Any humans who know of us must be associated with us through blood: family. Otherwise and we silence their knowledge.” “Silence as in k-kill?” Milan asked, eyes wide in shock. “Not death, but wiping away memories, which is almost similar. We take it all away, giving the human a clean slate.” “That’s mean,” Milan said. “Memories are important, Rory.” “They are but keeping a few makes it possible that the person might remember what he or she mustn’t. We’ve had a few mistakes happen over the years. A clean slate is the only way to ensure silence.” “So, you’re saying that’s what will happen to me and my family if we break up?” Milan asked, eyes wide in disbelief. “We’ll be these clean slates walking around not knowing we’re a family or all the things we’ve—” “Milan that will never happen to you,” Rory soothed. “You are my mate. The moon of a powerful pack. Your family is safe. I will make sure of it.” “Moon? What is that? What do you mean by mate?” Milan asked. “I guess that’s the stuff we need to discuss” “Yes.” Rory nodded. “Right.” “Are you saying Cade knew wolves live in Portento before he asked me and my family to move here?” Kiyo asked. “Most likely,” Rory nodded, his attention on Milan, and the frown dancing on his forehead. He wanted to pull Milan into a private room where they could talk it out. It annoyed him that they still had so much to work out with Kiyo. He wanted time alone with his mate. “My research—” Kiyo was saying. “Cade must be using it for something else,” Rory said. “Lloyd was human before he turned. A wolf with corrupted blood turned him and injected him with your infusion to make him strong. This individual then used him to walk around town, causing trouble. Trying to get to Milan.” “Will Lloyd be alright?” Milan asked. “He doesn’t look very well.” “I don’t think his mate turned him, so yes, he’ll die. Painfully,” Rory answered, satisfaction in his voice. When he saw Milan’s shocked expression, Rory shrugged. “Don’t look at me that way. He attacked you, Milan. He deserves it.” “He what?” Kiyo turned to Milan, grabbing his hands and pulling up his sleeves to check his arms. “Did he bite you? Are you hurt?” “I’m fine, Papa.” “I need to be sure. A single scratch on you can lead to infection, Milan. We have to check.” Kiyo pushed him away and dragged his sweater up to expose his stomach, then his back. Kiyo stilled, his gaze on Milan’s bare back. Pushing Milan’s sweater higher to his shoulders, Kiyo touched Milan’s back in shock. “What?” Milan asked. “What are these?” Kiyo asked. “You look bruised. Did you fall?” Milan tried to see his back, but he couldn’t with Kiyo holding his clothes on his shoulders. Rory moved closer to see what Kiyo was freaking out over. “Does this hurt?” Kiyo asked touching Milan’s back, running a finger along his spine. “No.” Milan frowned. “What is it?” “You have dark lines along your spine. They look like fading waves,” Rory said. When he touched Milan’s back, Milan shivered. “What?” Kiyo asked, looking at Milan with a frown. “Are you cold?” “No.” Milan cleared his throat, throwing Rory a warning glance when Rory touched him again and the shivers down his back persisted. Hot, delicious thrills that swept deep into his core, making Milan bite his lip to keep from moaning in pleasure. He was hard and wanting Rory to touch him again. The sensation was like nothing he had ever experienced, and he wanted to keep it from his father. It felt too personal. Rory moved closer taking his right hand, comforting him. Milan leaned into him. “Must be an effect from the infusions,” Rory suggested, trying to push Milan’s sweater down to cover his back. “Could it be? An effect of the poison blood?” Kiyo asked, his frown deep. He seemed ready to reach for a needle and start drawing blood. “I should check on this.” “Not today,” Rory murmured, shaking his head at Kiyo. Milan pressed his forehead into Rory’s chest, breathing him in. There was so much happening in the space of an afternoon. He almost felt crazy with overload. He wasn’t ready for his father’s brand of drawing blood, the numerous needles…Milan shook his head. “Papa?” “You’re fine, Milan.” Kiyo sounded as though he was reassuring himself. “Rory is right. There’s been too much happening today. I’ll run the blood we got earlier through a few more tests.” “Okay,” Milan said, relieved when Kiyo smoothed his clothes back in place. “Stop worrying so much. I’ll be fine.” Kiyo nodded, running a hand through his hair, scratching his beard as he looked around his lab. “Should I talk to Cade?” Kiyo asked Rory. “Ask him about Lloyd? About the source of the blood?” “No.” Rory shook his head, pulling Milan into a loose hug. He was afraid talking to Cade would alert the traitor. “I think it’s time our families met. Dr. Takeda, I’d like to invite you and your wife to dinner at my house. You can meet my Dad.” Milan clung to Rory, brown eyes wide in surprise as he looked up at Rory. “Are you sure?” Milan asked. “Yes.” Rory touched the corner of Milan’s lips, then turned to Kiyo. “Dr. Takeda, I will need to make a thorough case on your behalf and Milan. I’ll take Lloyd with me to start. I’ll have to ask you to bring the details of your research with you when you come to dinner later. My father’s people will want to look at it.” “Your father has people?” Kiyo asked, amused. “Very paranoid ones,” Rory said with a quick nod. “It’s now very clear. I can’t solve all this alone. I’ll need your help, so you have to be thorough. Now, what are we going to do about Nisin? He can’t stay here anymore. I don’t think it’s safe or healthy for him.” “I haven’t met him,” Milan said against Rory, his gaze sliding to Kiyo. “I don’t think this is a good place to stay for him.” “I suppose the clean room I have set up at our house will do for now,” Kiyo said. “Nisin has been missing human contact. Marie is a much better cook than those quacks at Biosense.” Kiyo placed his hands in his scrub pockets and moved to the corridor. “You guys wait here. I’ll go talk to him.” Milan pushed away from Rory’s hug when his dad headed to Nisin’s room. “I don’t want to be in the room when Papa talks to Mamma about Nisin.” Milan shuddered at the thought. Rory chuckled. Milan then gripped Rory’s arm tight. “So, about tonight,” Milan bit his bottom lip, worrying it for a moment. “What do I wear to meet your dad? Is he a werewolf too? What am I saying? If he wasn’t, you wouldn’t be. What does he look like? Do you think he will like me?” *** Thinking of Milan’s million questions made Rory chuckle. Milan seemed eager to meet Rory’s dad. The excitement of it kept Milan in high spirits even when he met Nisin. His mood infectious, it helped Nisin find energy to get up and bundle up for the ride to the Takeda house. Rory drove, leaving Rowen to keep them hidden one more time on their journey away from Kiyo’s lab to the Takeda house. When Rory parked the truck outside the Takeda front door, he got out and opened the back passenger door for Kiyo. Kiyo jumped out and carried Nisin into the house. Milan lingered, hugging Rory. “What time should we come over?” “Seven is fine,” Rory said, adjusting his jacket over Milan and holding Milan tight, to keep the cold away. “You’ve been bad today. You left your jacket at school. You forget to wear your mask. I’m afraid you’ll catch a cold.” “It’s coming anyway,” Milan said with a shrug. “Papa is never wrong about a crash. I’m expecting one. I just hope it comes after my birthday.” Rory kissed Milan’s forehead, upset by the thought of Milan ill. “We’ll fix you,” Rory promised. “Now, go on inside and I’ll see you in a few hours.” “How do we get to your house?” Milan asked. “I’ll meet you on the way.” “Okay.” Milan nodded, worrying his bottom lip. “Stop thinking so hard,” Rory said, kissing Milan to distract him. “Everyone in my family will love you. You’ll see. It will be a beautiful evening.” *** “That poor kid,” Rowen murmured when they drove off from the Takeda home. “Do you think that’s how sick Milan gets?” Rory glanced at Rowen, unwilling to think of Milan suffering. “You were in the room with Nisin a while. How is he?” “He was in a lot of pain. Severe stomach infection,” Rowen said, shaking her head. She lifted her wrists at him, reminding him of the chains reigning her gifts. “I couldn’t do anything for him.” “Kiyo will help him, and with Marie around he won’t get sick again,” Rory soothed, heading to Rowen’s house. Rowen sighed and stared down at her hands. “I guess you’re facing a crisis, Rory. Milan’s parents in the pack house could go either way. My mom will probably have to do the deed when it comes to wiping their memories.” “That’s not happening,” Rory stated quite confident. “I can talk to Mom, ask her to be the swing vote. Milan deserves to have his family living with him in Portento, despite his father’s choices.” Rory pulled up to the storybook house where Rowen lived. It was surrounded with vibrant flowers, growing despite the winter weather. The air was warmer here too. “Your mom is in a happy mood,” Rory noted. “She usually is since we moved here, until I do something to annoy her. Those days winter descents worse than the North Pole. So we can’t ever tell her about my adventure today,” Rowen warned. “Magic near humans is not allowed.” “I got your back, Santos,” Rory assured her. “You owe me lunch for a month for today.” “I’ll get Jet to deliver you carrots like a rabbit.” “Careful, I don’t have trouble turning you into a rabbit,” Rowen said, wiggling her fingers at him. “Good luck tonight, Rory.” “Thank you, Rowen.” She waved at him, then jumped out of the truck heading to the front door. Rory made sure she was inside before he reversed and drove out of the short drive. He raced home from there. At the pack house, Rory drove to the side of the new extension. He pulled out Lloyd from the back of his truck and wasn’t surprised to find angry eyes glaring daggers at him. Lloyd was awake and struggling. Rory entered the extension and went straight to the panic room built in the basement to protect children and mates in case of trouble. Right now, it was the perfect place to stow away an angry lone wolf. He was just finished strapping Lloyd into a metal chair when Matt, Topher and Jack showed up at the door. “Your dad told us to meet you,” Topher explained. “He’s coming down shortly. Is this the wolf that attacked Milan?” “His name is Lloyd, lone wolf status.” Topher walked in, stopping before Lloyd. “You made a grave mistake approaching Milan today. Your life is forfeit for it.” Lloyd could only make a growl in answer as he was tightly strapped to the chair. His mouth taped. “What’s going on, Rory?” Jack asked. “I got Milan’s lunchbox from the parking lot like you asked and kept it in my locker. Nurse Lori helped cover for him the rest of the classes. Rowen had herself covered. You know how she is with that. I also checked as you asked. I didn’t see Principal Rick in his office this afternoon. No one could find him.” “Thanks, Jack. This afternoon has been exhausting.” Rory sighed, leaning on the wall. He wiped a hand down his face. “Dad’s coming down now, I’ll explain when he’s here.” *** Milan pulled up a soft blanket over Nisin Ogawa. The clean room was not his favorite place, but it was the safest for people like them. Nisin’s dark eyes held his and Milan smiled at him. “You’ll get better here,” Milan said, perching on the edge of the bed. “It can be quiet, but there is Siri to keep you company when you get lonely. Which won’t be very much with me here.” Nisin gave a weak chuckle. “Siri?” Milan grinned. “She’s the best,” Milan said with a short laugh. “Siri, will you turn on Netflix?” Netflix came on the glass screen fitted on the wall opposite the bed. “What do you like watching?” Milan asked Nisin. “Movies mostly,” Nisin answered. “I haven’t had much of a chance this past year so I don’t know what’s good. Spent too much time moving around until your Dad’s lab. Choices underground are limited.” Milan stared at Nisin unfamiliar with the disconnect Nisin was living. He at least had his drawing to escape into, and his family who cushioned him and pulled him back from that scary edge. Nisin looked alone. He looked afraid of that loneliness. “Watch any movie you want, Nisin,” Milan said. “An hour and a half will go by, then you can pick the next movie for the next hour. The pain will fade in your head. That’s how I get through those really worst days.” Milan brushed straight black hair out of Nisin’s eyes. “Do you have any food you miss? I can ask Marie to make it for you. She’s magic in the kitchen.” “Rice porridge,” Nisin said. “My mom used to make it for me when I was staying with her. It’s been a year since I tasted it.” “You’re in luck.” Milan got off the bed, and patted Nisin’s hand. “Marie’s rice porridge is the best. You wait here, I’ll be back with a bowl. Okay?” Nisin nodded, clutching his blanket tight. “Milan,” Nisin said. “Hm?” “Thank you. I knew I would love meeting you.” “Don’t worry, Nisin. It will get easier now,” Milan said, patting Nisin’s thigh before he turned and left the clean room. The door sealed shut behind him, and he stepped out into the corridor of the second floor. Milan stopped short when he heard his mother yelling in Italian in the master bedroom. The door was open, and he could not resist moving closer to their door. By passing the stairs down, he clung to the railing and stopped outside the open door. “What else are you hiding from me?” Ilaria demanded of Kiyo. “What else?” “Ilaria—” “You are forgetting I’ve been to your lab, Amore mio. We had a wonderful time in that living space. A night and half a day, yet you said nothing to me of the child you were hiding behind that sealed door. What does that make you? How can I even look at you? That child looks younger than my Milan—” “Actually, he’s older by a year. He’s eighteen.” Milan jumped when a jade bowl hit the bedroom door and crashed to the floor, breaking. “You are missing the point!” Ilaria yelled. “Ilaria, if you break that vase you’ll be upset with me later,” Kiyo said, moving closer to the door to escape his wife. “We bought it in Paris for our anniversary. There is no other like it. You love it very much.” “I love it when it has flowers. You have been too busy hiding a child in your lab to get them for me. Why do I need the vase?” “I’ll bring you flowers every day from now on.” “You’re not getting away with this so easy, Amore mio. You’re right about the vase, I won’t throw it.” There was silence, then Kiyo came running out just as a lotion bottle hit the door. Kiyo stopped when he saw Milan. “That was her favorite lotion bottle,” Milan pointed out. “I know.” Kiyo sighed and came to lean on the railing with him. “You’ll help me shop for a new one?” “No way,” Milan shook his head, stepping away from Kiyo when Ilaria showed up at the door, her hair wet from a shower. She was in a white robe, clearly in the middle of getting ready. “Oh, there you are,” Ilaria said, pointing at Milan. “I heard from your Papa. Rory is a werewolf. When were you going to tell me?” Milan lifted his hands up in early surrender. “I just found out too.” “I knew he was hiding something. No man is that handsome for nothing. Why can’t I get a break with any of you?” Ilaria asked. “That’s hurtful, Mamma.” “Is it? Your father has brought home a new child, you’ve brought home a wolf,” Ilaria said. “Ayu better bring home someone useful or I will be upset with him.” “Rory can be very useful,” Milan argued, defending his boyfriend. “He is strong. He can lift anything you need moving. He has a bunch of merits…, which I can’t think of right now, under duress.” Ilaria stared at him perplexed, then slammed her bedroom door closed. Kiyo took Milan’s hand with a chuckle. “Looks like we’re both in the doghouse for now. Give her time to process.” “Yeah.” Milan let Kiyo lead him downstairs. “Papa, Nisin wants to eat rice porridge. Is that okay?” “It sure is,” Kiyo said, smiling at Marie when she looked up from reading a recipe book at the kitchen table. “Marie, how are you?” “Kiyo. It’s good to see you home.” “It’s great to be home,” Kiyo said, pushing Milan into a chair. “Milan hasn’t had much to eat today. We should get him something. We also have a new boy in the clean room. His name is Nisin and he’s not feeling well right now.” “What is he sick with?” Marie asked. “A stomach flu,” Kiyo said, leaning on the counter with a tired sigh. He was still in scrubs from his lab. His beard was a few days old. “His condition is similar to Milan, though his is more severe. Biosense sent him food a day ago that’s has left him in trouble.” “Poor thing,” Marie murmured. “We’ll get him back on track then.” Kiyo yawned, giving Marie an approving nod. Milan doubted his dad had gotten much sleep if he was tending Nisin. It was only four in the afternoon. They still had time before they had to get ready to go to Rory’s house. “Papa, you should rest too,” Milan said. “Use the guest room down the hall. I’ll take food up to Nisin. Marie and I have him.” Kiyo rubbed his eyes. “That sounds like great idea,” Kiyo agreed. “Marie, make sure Milan eats something. He’s—” “I’ll eat, I promise,” Milan said, waving his father out of the kitchen when he yawned again. Kiyo stopped by Milan’s chair to kiss the top of his head. “I love you, Cucciolo.” “Love you too, Papa.” Kiyo rubbed Milan’s head and left the kitchen, letting out another loud yawn. Milan waited until he heard the guest room door down the hall close. “Nisin wants rice porridge,” Milan told Marie, smiling hard. “I told him he will love your rice porridge.” Marie chuckled. “You’re lucky we always have rice stocked. What if we didn’t?” “It’s you, Marie, you’re like wonder woman. My wonder woman.” “Don’t make me blush. Rory will get jealous.” “He understands,” Milan said with a short happy nod when Marie placed a plate of chicken sandwiches before him and a glass of milk. “Thank you.” His stomach growled in anticipation and Marie laughed as he reached for a sandwich and gobbled it down like a man starved. “You must have been hungry,” Marie teased. “It was a long day at school,” Milan said, drinking his milk to help the sandwich go down easier. Milan ate his snack, watching Marie move around the kitchen with practiced grace. She found the ingredients for rice porridge fast, getting the rice cooker working in minutes. Milan was rinsing his plate out at the sink about to help Marie set up a tray for Nisin when the kitchen door slammed open. Their kitchen door was hardly ever open unless Marie was cleaning. Marie gave a startled shout, and Milan dropped the glass he was holding in the sink at the sight of the man walking into their kitchen. “Principal Rick?” Milan gasped, as Marie hurried to his side. Milan slammed his hand on the tap to turn the water off when Ayu followed Rick into the house. Fear gripping Milan when he saw the knife held against Ayu’s neck by a second man who looked around Rory’s age. Dark hair, same pale skin as Lloyd. Marie stood in front of him, her arms opened wide in a protective stance. “Who are you?” Marie demanded. “What do you want?” “I want to see that boy you are protecting there, and the other one,” Rick said with a horrible sneer. “I can see why he likes coming in here. What a cozy kitchen.” “Ayu,” Milan called to his brother, the knife on Ayu’s neck looked too close. “Milan. Call for Papa,” Ayu said in Italian. Rick turned and slapped Ayu across his face with force making Milan cover his mouth to stifle his scream. “Uh-uh, English only.” Rick warned them. “If you behave you’re likely to live. If you don’t…well, I can’t be blamed.” “What do you want with me?” Milan asked. “Let my brother go, I’ll come with you. He has done nothing to you.” “We had to find our way in here. Just in case,” Rick murmured, moving deeper into the kitchen. Milan, grateful for Marie shielding him, reached into his pocket and dialed Rory’s number. He left the call on, and slid the phone back into his pocket. “Good boy, I’m glad you know to call him,” Rick said, looking at Milan. Milan clung to Marie’s shoulders. “What? Did you think I would stop you?” Rick sat at the kitchen table and folded his hands against his chest. “I just saw your father’s lab. I’m quite sure you know we’re werewolves now. Our hearing is quite excellent. You can’t make a call without me or my friend, Dolon, there listening in.” Milan closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. His fingers clung to Marie’s arms. She was shaking, but she moved with him when he tried to go around her. He opened his eyes and met Ayu’s dark brown ones. They were full of fear, but Ayu tried to give him a brave smile. Tears filled Milan’s eyes when he saw the knife on Ayu’s neck touching his skin. “Please.” Milan begged. “I—I don’t understand why you need me. We’re not fighting you. You have us. Can’t you stop digging a knife into my brother like that?” Rick turned to Ayu and Dolon who still stood by the door. The cold air coming into the warm kitchen. “The kid’s right, Dolon. Let his big brother go, we’re not complete beasts.” Milan bit his lip hard, waiting as Dolon tightened the arm he had around Ayu, then let go by pushing Ayu toward Marie. Ayu stumbled into Marie’s arms, making Milan hold on to Marie to steady them. Marie hugged Ayu tight, relief clear on her face. “Aw, how nice,” Rick smiled, then his demeanor changed, then Milan saw him throw a knife at Ayu’s back. Milan pushed Ayu and Marie out of the way with all the force he could master. He miscalculated and the knife sunk deep into his left shoulder with frightening force. Milan jerked back against the sink counter, a harsh cry escaping him, pain exploding on his left shoulder. “Rory,” Milan said, his right hand coming up to touch the knife in his shoulder in shock. “Please hurry.” *** Rory answered Milan’s call expecting more questions about dinner tonight. He moved out of the panic room leaving his dad, Kutler and June interrogating Lloyd. “Milan?” “…can’t make a call without me or my friend, Dolon, there listening in.” Rory froze, recognizing Rick’s voice in an instant. His left hand curled into a fist and he turned back into the panic room, pressing his phone into his ear. His heart slammed against his chest when he heard Milan beg. “Please. I—I don’t understand why you need me. We’re not fighting you. You have us. Can’t you stop digging a knife into my brother like that?” Rory walked up to Connor and pressed the hands free feature on the phone so that Rick’s voice filled the room. “The kid’s right, Dolon. Let his big brother go, we’re not complete beasts.” Rory met Connor’s gaze, as he too recognized Rick. Then, Milan screamed in pain and Rory’s world turned blood red. ***
  8. 84 points
    Chapter Twenty-One Expect the unexpected Milan watched emotions war on his mother’s face. He knew how hard it would be for her to accept Rory in his life the way he wanted. She had sat up with him through countless hours on very bad days and nights, worried to death. That kind of commitment...the bond forged, it was sacred. It needed discussion and everything Milan could give. Letting go of Rory’s hand, Milan got up and went to kneel before his mother, taking her hands in his. “Mamma, I’m sorry my words hurt you.” He looked into her eyes, not missing the sheen of tears. “You are so important to me. I would be nowhere without you,” Milan said. “Still, I’m asking you for Rory, for you to accept him because…” “He gives you something I never could,” Ilaria finished for him when he trailed away. “I know these things. I know, Cucciolo, no need to explain.” She freed her right hand from his hold, so that she could brush her fingers through his hair. “I’m upset this moment has come sooner than I expected,” Ilaria murmured, her gaze sliding to Rory, who remained seated. “You’re only sixteen—” “Seventeen in a few days,” Milan reminded her. She chuckled, biting her lip to stop it, then nodded. “Fine, seventeen in a few days,” Ilaria said. “I hoped you would fall in love ten years from now. A mother’s foolish wish. I want to protect you from everything that could hurt you, bambino.” “You can’t,” Milan murmured, holding her gaze, his hold on her left hand tightening into a gentle squeeze. “I-I need you not to, Mamma.” Ilaria closed her eyes and tear drops slid down her smooth cheeks. Milan kissed them away, holding her when she pulled him into a tight hug. “First Ayu, now you,” Ilaria said into his shoulder. “I’ve held on too tight, and now you want to feel free, and it hurts.” “Mamma.” “Va bene, Milan. I’ll work on not being so protective. It won’t be easy. I want the best experiences for you, and if having Rory in your life will make that happen, I’ll accept it.” Milan closed his eyes and held on to Ilaria. “What about Papa?” Milan asked. “He is your father first, no matter what you think. He worries for you. We’ll work on him together. You have to know, after Rory’s behavior, it will be difficult.” “I can meet with him, Dr. Ilaria,” Rory said, drawing Ilaria’s gaze. “Try and patch things up with him.” Ilaria sighed, pulling Milan to sit next to her, as she looked at Rory. “In time, Rory. Right now, trust me and stay away from him. He needs time to process the idea of you.” “But, Dr. Ilaria—” “Come here,” Ilaria waved him over and Rory got up, moving to crouch before her. Ilaria smiled, and placed a gentle hand on Rory’s jaw, her fingers caressing the dark shadow there. She studied him in a comfortable silence. “You came out of nowhere,” she murmured, holding Rory’s blue gaze. “Call me Mamma. Dr. Ilaria is for my patients.” Rory smiled and tried it out. “Mamma.” “Good boy,” she said, with a small nod, stroking dark hair away from his forehead. “We’ll get through this together then.” Rory looked to Milan and for the first time, Milan read hope in Rory’s gaze. Hope that had not been there before. *** Rory left Milan’s house after dinner with the Takeda family. Ayu had made it tonight, and his reception to Rory and Milan’s relationship was much happier than Kiyo. Ayu even gave Rory a short hug in welcome. It seemed as though Kiyo Takeda was the only one in opposition. “You are smiling like an idiot,” Topher broke into his thoughts. “Can’t help it,” Rory said, looking at his Beta. Topher was the reason why he had not stayed with Milan tonight. Topher had called to him right before dinner started, asking to meet. They had chosen the new wing of the pack house for their meeting. The large living room in the ground floor was comfortable and deserted. No one would come in here without invitation. “Why did you want to see me?” Rory asked, settling into a new armchair. “Found the McRieves,” Topher said, with a wide grin, looking to Matt. “You’ll never believe what is in the swamp lands. Your Dad has overlooked a huge settlement of wolves.” “Do they have what I want?” Rory asked, hopeful. “And more,” Topher said, pulling out an old leather bound book from his jacket pocket. “This belonged to your great-grandfather. The lady who gave it to us says your blood will open it.” “Why not yours and Matt?” Rory asked, taking the leather bound journal, his hand tracing over the dark tree of life engraved on the cover. “Portento is protected with the blood of our three bloodlines.” “According to Elle, that book is sealed with Morgan blood. Your great-grandfather found himself a witch to protect it, then left it under the care of the McRieve generations.” “Why?” Rory asked, a frown creasing his forehead. “That you’d have to ask him. Elle said if you have questions after reading the journal, visit the swamp lands and listen to their elders,” Matt said, sitting in the armchair to Rory’s left. “How many in the settlement?” Rory asked, placing the book on the wooden coffee table before him. “Enough to fill a town hall,” Topher said. “Maybe more. Matt said he could sense humans.” Rory smiled at the thought. He now didn’t have to worry about Lechter. He lengthened the nails on his right hand, sharp and deadly enough to damage an enemy. Pressing the tip of his index finger on his left palm, Rory cut a thin line, drawing blood. He watched it well into a sizeable droplet before he brought his palm to drop the blood on the tree on the cover. His blood seeped into the dark tree drawing, turning it silver, the lock on the book snapped open releasing the pages. Rory opened the cover, tracing the name on the first page with reverence. ‘This book belongs to Aedan Morgan, the Morgan Pack’s Head.’ “Aedan…his mate was Selma. My grandfather used to talk about Selma Morgan,” Matt said, leaning forward so that he could see the book as Rory started to turn it. “He said everyone thought she was crazy because she would disappear into the woods for days.” “Probably visiting the Swamp Lands,” Topher offered. Rory frowned skipping journal entries describing daily life in his great-grandfather’s time that he would read later. Turning the book, he touched the red string tucked between the pages. Pulling it up so that the pages marked opened. Rory’s frown disappeared when he read the contents of the two pages. “Aedan Morgan mated Selma McRieve, daughter of the human family Nathaniel and Tami McRieve,” Rory read aloud. “Selma lived through the fires of change, emerging a beautiful grey wolf. She was the mother of two, a boy and girl.” “Selma was human,” Matt said with a wide grin. “Why would the McRieves now live so far? Why is this hidden?” “Elle told us they had not bothered to renew their connection with the Alpha for two generations. She was adamant about not leaving the swamp lands. She claimed it was not safe for them,” Topher said. Rory touched the open page. “An Alpha mating is cause for celebration. Aedan accepted them, trusted them enough to keep his personal journal,” Rory said. “Elle’s wariness means the trouble is with us, here. I have a feeling we have someone working against the pack around us. Finding them is key.” “Any news on Dolon?” Topher asked. “No.” Rory closed the book holding it on his lap like a newfound treasure. “I still don’t know how to get close to Nisin. Kiyo and I are on opposite ends. It’s not like I can walk up to him and ask him about the boy he’s keeping hidden in his lab.” “So, what do we do next?” Matt asked. “You and Milan shouldn’t end up in the Swamp Lands. That’s not practical.” “We find a way to fix the problem,” Rory said. “Find out who is making our people afraid to live their lives.” “Will you tell your dad?” Topher asked. “In confidence,” Rory said, knowing Connor would wish to know about wolves living in Portento without a connection to the rest of the pack. “Secrets have led us all here. I don’t want to have any between us.” “Alright, then we throw everything we have on finding Dolon,” Topher said. “I think the town should know he’s missing. We can ask for their help.” “No.” Rory shuddered at the thought of the Takeda family in danger. “They might blame Milan and his family. Ilaria works at the hospital, Ayu is at the university and Milan is at the high school. They are too accessible, Topher.” “True.” Topher nodded in agreement. “Then we pull in everyone at the security office, since we’re already doing patrols with them.” “Including Topher’s Mom,” Matt suggested. “That means telling her the truth about Milan, Rory,” Topher insisted. When Rory started to protest, Topher reached out and squeezed his right shoulder. “It has to happen soon. Milan is going to be the Moon of this pack. He is your mate. The sooner everyone gets adjusted the better. My Mom is not closed-minded. You need to trust someone other than your dad,” Topher said. Rory sighed, afraid for Milan. Afraid this side of his life might prove too much for Milan to handle. There was just so much. “Fine, we’ll tell her tomorrow,” Rory said, getting up, taking his great-grandfather’s book with him. “We should get some sleep now. You guys must be tired.” Topher yawned, stretching his arms above his head. “You can say that again. I had to fight Elle’s mate to prove my strength.” “You what?” Rory rounded on Topher, annoyed anyone would dare question his Beta. “They’re living with old world rules, Rory,” Matt said, his tone soothing. “It’s expected that they are a bit on the wild side.” “Still,” Rory frowned. “Who did you fight?” “Johan McRieve.” Rory memorized that name. Challenging his beta was challenging him. “He yielded,” Topher said, coming up to Rory. “Let it end with me.” “Still need to remember him,” Rory insisted. “Just in case.” Topher chuckled, patting Rory’s back as they turned to leave their newly minted extended wing heading to the main house. “When are we moving in?” Topher asked, on their climb up to their rooms. “You can move in anytime,” Rory said, pausing at his suite door. “You and Maryanne need the privacy. I’m surprised you haven’t moved in yet.” “We didn’t want to move in without you,” Topher said. Rory wondered if he shouldn’t just move in, but then, he needed access to the records in the attic. Part of why he had not packed up his stuff to move into his new space was because living in the main house allowed him to go up there unnoticed. The other reason had to do with Milan. “I want to move in there with Milan. It feels right to do it that way,” Rory said, meeting Topher’s gaze. “Can you wait that long?” Topher held his gaze for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. They were both unsure when Rory and Milan would be okay to move in together. Milan did not even know their true nature still. “Move into your new suite, Topher,” Rory insisted. “You and Maryanne deserve it.” Topher grinned and pulled Rory into a short hug. “We’ll make sure the place is well set-up by the time you’re moving in with Milan.” “I know you will,” Rory said, entering his room leaving Topher to go break the good news to his mate. Rory took a quick shower, then settled on his bed to read Aedan’s journal. He was glad to find another Alpha with a human mate. Another Alpha who made him feel less unusual. Reading the old journal gave him the sense that everything was going to be alright, when he wasn’t so sure. *** Rory would never forget telling June Vadisi about Milan being his mate. June was in shock for about a minute, then she pulled him into a tight hug, apologizing for talking bad things about Milan and his family. Rory laughed through the whole session, amused by June’s attitude. He had not expected she would be so accepting. When she was composed enough to have a coherent conversation, she asked to meet Milan, but Rory convinced her it was too soon. They needed a way to neutralize Lechter first before he even considered bringing Milan to the pack house. A week and a half passed in relative quiet. Rory loved spending most of his time at the Takeda house. Every minute spent with Milan was precious, he did not want to think of leaving Milan alone, and so, on some nights he slept over, in secret of course. Milan’s window came in handy. Marie fed him too much. Ayu treated him like a little brother. It was easy, as Ayu was the same age as Chris. The two were becoming fast friends, hanging out together between classes and sometimes out of school. Ilaria worked at getting to know Rory. Her efforts to do so amused and charmed him. He couldn’t help but love her too. One Friday evening, she insisted on having movie night with him, Ayu and Milan. Rory discovered that Ilaria loved old black and white movies. Problem was that she had watched them so many times, she could recite the lines in the movies. In the end, they didn’t really watch the movie that night. Ilaria turned the volume low and spent the time asking Rory questions while she drank red wine. Ayu and Milan doing their best to help him through Ilaria’s questions. From his favorite food, to what he wanted to do after high school. Rory answered her questions as best as he could, without letting on that he was to be head of a werewolf pack in the near future. Ilaria got drunk from the bottle of wine she took down, much to Milan’s chagrin. Rory and Ayu helped her upstairs to the impressive master bedroom. A spacious space that almost took up the second floor. “I like you very much, Rory Morgan,” Ilaria said, when she settled in her bed, hugging a pillow tight. “I can see why my son is madly in love with you. He hides it, but his eyes are filled with stars when he looks at you.” Milan pressed hands to his cheek and ran out of his mother’s bedroom. Ayu laughed while Rory nodded, pleased, giving his full attention to Ilaria. “If you hurt him, just know I’m quite handy with a scalpel,” Ilaria slurred out. “I can take out your heart without flinching. I thought I should warn you first.” Ayu laughed harder, but Rory took her warning seriously. Ilaria might be drank but her words sounded heartfelt. When they left Ilaria’s bedroom, Rory went upstairs to Milan’s room wondering when his mate was going to tell him how he felt. He still had two leaves on his bracelet and the waiting was driving him insane. On a bright Thursday morning, three days to Milan’s birthday, Rory pressed Milan into his locker and brushed his lips on Milan’s cheek. He could feel curious gazes on him from his school mates. Everyone in the pack had noticed his attachment to the human Milan Takeda but dared not ask. The more vocal ones assumed he was slating his lust with Milan until his mate came along. Those comments left him angry, but he still could not act on them. Brushing soft kisses on Milan’s cheek was the most he dared in school without announcing to every wolf in here that Milan was his mate. How frustrating! Letting a sigh escape, he brushed soft dark hair from Milan’s forehead and smiled at his frowning mate. “Who sighs in the morning?” Milan asked, pushing Rory back so that he could turn and open his locker. Rory helped him take off his jacket, and watched as Milan stowed it away in his locker, followed by his book bag. “I’m frustrated,” Rory said, wrapping his arms around Milan’s waist. He pulled Milan back against him and nibbled on Milan’s right ear. “Wanna go to the library with me?” The library was their safe place. They had found a quiet corner where hardly anyone passed. They could spend hours there kissing with no interruption. “To do what?” Milan asked, holding on to his locker door, tilting his head to give Rory access. “We can make out instead of going to class.” “Rory.” Milan tried to move away but Rory held him fast. “I miss you when we’re apart,” Rory complained. “I miss you too,” Milan said, taking out books from his locker, and closing the door with a little slam. He turned in Rory’s arms to look up at him. “We’re still not ditching class to make out in the library.” “You have no sense of adventure,” Rory accused, pressing Milan against his locker again. Milan laughed, then dropped his books on the floor. Wrapping his arms around Rory’s neck, Milan pulled Rory down to his height and kissed Rory square on his lips. Rory gasped, bracing his hands on the locker, he moaned and deepened their kiss. Heart beating wildly at the fact that Milan had initiated this kiss. Sliding his tongue into Milan’s warm mouth, he explored to his heart’s content. They broke apart only when breathing right became important. Milan was flushed and when he heard a low impressed whistle, he hid his face into Rory’s chest. Rory looked up to find people watching them. So much for keeping his feelings for Milan a secret. ‘Keep moving.’ Rory growled in the common pack link. The hall emptied fast and Rory returned his attention to Milan who still had his face buried in Rory’s chest. Rory chuckled and sunk fingers into Milan’s soft hair, using it to tilt Milan’s head back. Milan’s brown eyes met his and he took in a breath at the love he read in them. “Why are you embarrassed?” Rory asked. “I’m not used to making out in the hallway,” Milan said, fire seeping into his eyes. It made Rory smile. “I didn’t think about them when I was kissing you. You’re turning me crazy.” Rory brushed his lips on Milan’s left cheek and then his right. “I like that I drive you crazy,” Rory said, caressing the pink color on Milan’s cheeks. Brushing his fingers over soft skin, he frowned when the bell rang and Milan sighed. “I’ll see you at lunch,” Milan said. “Or, we could really ditch class and go to the library.” Milan bent down to pick up his books. Rory helped, taking the drawing book Milan always carried with him. He flipped to the last page and was delighted to find a new sketch of him reclined on the couch at Milan’s house. There were more of them showing up on Milan’s daily book. It was fun to discover them. Milan took the book from him. “Go to class, Rory,” Milan urged. “You can text me if you miss me too much.” Milan started to turn into his homeroom, but Rory pulled him back, giving him one last kiss. He broke it off when the second bell rang and Milan laughed watching him run off to his homeroom. *** Milan came out of calculus eager to get to lunch. Jack stayed back to talk to their teacher, Mr. Barnes, so Milan went to his locker alone. He was busy keeping his calculus book in his book bag when his phone buzzed. Reaching for it, Milan found a message from Rory. ‘I’ll be late for lunch. Hang w/Row.’ Milan wondered what would hold Rory up. Finishing with his calculus book, Milan took his lunch box and was closing his locker when two hands covered his eyes. “Guess who?” Milan chuckled. “Hi Rowen,” Milan said, turning when Rowen’s hands disappeared. She was pretty today in a red dress with puffy skirts that stopped mid-thigh and black and red polka dot tights. Her black thick wedge lace up shoes topped her outfit. The shoes made her taller than Milan by a few inches. “Going on a date later?” Milan asked. “Yep. How did you know it was me?” Rowen asked. “I don’t have that many friends who smell like sweet flowers,” Milan teased. Rowen chucked and led the way to the cafeteria. “I didn’t know you had class this way,” Milan said. His locker was the farthest from the cafeteria. “I don’t,” Rowen said, shrugging her slender shoulders. “Rory is caught up with his teacher. Something about assignments. He asked me to walk with you.” Milan smiled. Rory worried too much about him. “You two are too soppy for my taste,” Rowen said, sidestepping two of the ice hockey team jocks who were running down the hallway heading to the cafeteria. “Are those the kink tastes or the masochist ones?” Milan teased, turning to his left when he heard a shout. It was hard to tell who was shouting, the hallways were filled with students in an exodus to their next class. Milan stopped when he thought he spotted Rory at the end of the hallway on his left that led to an exit in the back of the school. Milan paused, not listening to Rowen’s answer. His gaze and attention riveted on Rory—it was Rory—he was sure of it. Rory walked as though he was following someone ahead of him. His stance cautious. Milan started after him without hesitation. The need to know who Rory was following pushed him ahead. “Milan?” Rowen came hurrying after him. “The cafeteria is the other way.” “I—” Milan stopped, searching for Rory in the crowd of students. For a second, Milan thought he had lost him, but then he saw the glass exit doors close. Milan broke into a short run, Rowen following him. He pushed the exit doors open when he reached them, stepping out into the back parking lot. Milan stopped short when he saw Rory standing in the half-empty parking lot facing a pale tall man with matted dark hair. Before he could call out to Rory, the pale man’s eyes turned to him, and Milan gasped at the sight of them. They shone a chilling gold. Rowen took his left arm, pulling him back toward the door, but Milan stood frozen looking at Rory then the strange man. One minute, Milan saw the pale man, the next, he was staring at a huge black wolf, its teeth bared, and saliva filling its mouth. It knocked Rory to the ground sending him flying in the air as it came running for Milan, moving too fast. “Rory!” Milan shouted, worried for his boyfriend. Milan felt Rowen’s hold on his left arm tighten. Rowen pulled him back toward the building, but it was not fast enough. Milan felt wet heat on his back and the collar of his sweater tightened around his neck. He fell down to his knees and turned to find the black wolf biting into the back of his sweater, the wolf’s eyes glowing with ferocious anger. A scream lodged in Milan’s throat when he struggled, and the wolf shook its head, and pushed him to the ground with a force he did not expect. Its hot breath sinking through the layers, caressing his skin, making him shiver in fright. Fear eating him alive, Milan prayed to God and all the forces with the power to help him. He hoped the wolf wouldn’t bite deeper. He did not want to turn into a wolf meal at school. Tears filled his eyes as he struggled to get away, his gloved fingers holding on to the pavement searching for anything to help him up. God, what about Rory? Was he okay? Milan turned back when he felt the wolf’s hold on his sweater release. Shock filled him when he saw the huge white wolf he had seen that day near the gazebo dragging the black wolf off him. Sitting on the cold ground, Milan watched the two wolves fight and struggle caught between shock and awe. Then the white wolf bit into the black wolf’s neck, hard. When the black wolf stilled, the white wolf stepped back and turned to look at Milan, yellow eyes staring at him. It was curious, the fear eating at him dissipated. The white wolf stood over the black wolf, but did not take a step toward him. “Milan, let’s go back inside,” Rowen said, her arms going around him, helping him up to his feet. Milan gripped her hand stopping her from pulling him in, his gaze on the white wolf. “What about Rory? We can’t leave him out here.” “We need help,” Rowen said. “You go get help,” Milan insisted, pushing Rowen’s hand away, his gaze still on the white wolf. He wondered what the wolf would do if he tried to go around it to where he had seen Rory fall. “I’m not leaving Rory out here. I need to get him. What if he’s hurt? He could be—” Milan stopped talking when the sound of contorting bones filled his ears. Bones cracking and shifting, it wasn’t pleasant. Milan watched in dismay as the white wolf changed right before him turning into Rory Morgan, in all his naked glory. ****
  9. 83 points
    Please, can’t you help me hold on to this? Dinner in the Takeda house was at seven o’clock. The time never changed, unless Marie was occupied, or the family was otherwise occupied. It was only around six thirty when Milan took the bag Rory brought in to his room with him. The bag held the cookies and herbs from Jet’s farm. He had forgotten about them. He paused at the second floor to make sure his parents were still locked in the master bedroom together. He couldn’t hear them talking, so that was a relief. It was not that hard to tell when Ilaria and Kiyo were fighting. Ilaria loved to throw things and yell in Italian. The silence meant the fighting had ended while he slept, or it hadn’t happened at all. Then again, after the thing at the gate, maybe he didn’t know his parents very well. Ayu seemed to have disappeared. Milan hoped his big brother had found some place to call his in this cold town. Entering the kitchen, Milan smiled at Marie who was placing potpie on the counter. “Cucciolo, you’re awake. Mamma will be happy. What do you have there?” “Cookies and,” Milan said, handing them to Marie. “Fresh herbs from this farm Rory took me to visit today. I made a friend there. His name is Jet and he gave me the fresh herbs for you.” “Aww,” Marie took the bag from him and kissed the top of his head. “Thank Jet for me when you talk next.” Marie brought the herbs to her nose and took a deep whiff. “So fresh. I’ll test the herbs see if we can get more from them. As for the cookies, I hope you didn’t eat any.” Milan grimaced. “They were fresh baked at the time. I almost went out of my mind smelling them.” Milan sighed, looking at the chocolate chip cookies with envy when Marie took a bite. “The taste is good, I can do better. I’ll mix a batch for you. You can have two tonight, the rest we’ll put in your lunch box tomorrow,” Marie said. Milan walked up to her and pulled her into a tight hug. He didn’t have words to express how much she meant to him. “It’s okay,” Marie said, rubbing his back. “I love you too, little puppy.” Milan nodded and let her go, wiping his eyes and turning away from her. “I don’t want to eat with everyone today,” Milan said. “Still mad at your Papa?” Marie asked. “He is being unreasonable. Don’t try to talk for him. I’m allowed to get mad,” Milan said, reaching for a tray. He needed to get enough food for him and Rory. “Fine, I’m not talking for him,” Marie said, watching him place a large plate on the tray, and two bowls. He cut three large slices from the potpie closest to him. He ladled pea soup into one bowl and scooped the mix of broccoli and cauliflower stir-fry into the second bowl. When he reached for the dinner rolls Marie leaned on the counter next to him. “Planning on stashing food for the siege?” “I want to eat enough today. I didn’t have anything all day,” Milan said, covering the plate. He placed the tray on a breakfast table with fold-able legs. “Well.” Marie brought four bananas, placing them on top of the plate cover. She took two spoons from the drawer and placed them on the tray too. “I hope you and the horse you are feeding this night can fit in fruits beside the potpie. Bananas are less messy. Bring the tray downstairs when you are done.” Rory was sort of like a horse. He seemed like a guy who could burn that much fuel. Maybe that’s why he was so strong. Milan touched a dinner scone and smiled at that thought. Fate was strange. It had brought the strongest possible to him, the weakest possible. Milan turned to Marie, guilt flooding him at the look in Marie’s eyes. She looked as though she knew that Rory was upstairs in his bedroom. For a moment, he wondered if she would tell his parents, but then— “Cucciolo, go have your dinner,” Marie waved him away. “Can you carry the tray or do you need help?” “I’m fine,” Milan said, taking the tray and heading out. Marie chuckled as he left and he bit his lip, hoping she didn’t mention the possibility of a hidden horse in his room to his volatile father. Upstairs, Rory opened the bedroom door for him and took the tray out of his hands before he could take a step in. Milan closed and locked his bedroom door, watching Rory place the tray on the floor. Rory got two pillows and placed them on the floor on opposite sides of the little table the bed tray made. Rory waved him over and Milan smiled, hurrying to join him. Rory waited for him to settle before he sat opposite him. “The food smells good,” Rory said, picking up his spoon. “I can see why you would want to marry Marie.” Milan chuckled. “How do you know about that?” “Ayu told me,” Rory said, taking a bite of his chicken potpie. His gaze studying his plate with intense interest. Milan watched him eat in silence for a minute before he chuckled. “Are you jealous of Marie?” “You like hugging her,” Rory said. “I’ve seen it, more than once.” “She’s older than my mother, and I just hugged you. I kiss you too.” Milan frowned. “Why would you think I like her that way?” “Don’t you?” Milan picked up his spoon and shook his head. “If we’re going to discuss irrational ideas, let’s talk you and Rowen.” “Me and Rowen.” Rory blinked, dropping his spoon in his pot pie. “What gave you that idea? I have never touched or looked at Rowen in that way.” Milan broke a piece of his scone and sunk it into his bowl of soup. He spooned the soggy mess into his mouth and stared at Rory. “Seriously, Milan. You have to believe me.” “She approached me in the cafeteria that first day.” Milan narrowed his gaze at Rory. “She told me I was going to bring you trouble. She’s super hot with an insane attitude and she wants you. Are you saying you’ve never looked at her and wanted her?” “Never.” “Hmm.” “What’s with the hmm?” Rory frowned. “What are you thinking right now?” “Nothing.” “Milan.” Milan put his spoon down and looked at Rory. “I know I’m kind of nuts, but I’m surprised that you don’t want her and see me instead. I keep thinking you’ll come to your senses and walk away from me.” Rory got up then, and moved to sit next to Milan. When Rory took his hands, Milan shifted so that he faced Rory. “You are the moonlight to me.” Milan chuckled, meeting Rory’s gaze. “You don’t have to say cheesy things to me, Rory.” “It’s the truth,” Rory insisted, his gaze enough to make Milan pause. “I feel like I’ve waited for you all my life. Now that you’re here, I’m afraid you won’t be able to handle all that I feel for you. That it might scare you off.” Milan took in a short breath, taken aback by Rory’s expression. Rory was not joking, he was dead serious. An excited thrill raced through him at the thought of keeping Rory Morgan for good. He reached up and touched Rory’s jaw. “I’m right here. You would catch me if I tried to run anyway.” Milan smiled. “I can’t get very far. We should eat. None of us had a proper meal today.” “Do you believe me about Rowen?” Rory asked, still holding his gaze. Milan pressed a soft kiss on Rory’s cheek. “I believe you.” Rory nodded and stayed on the same side as Milan, shifting his plate to Milan’s side. “I think Marie knows you’re here,” Milan said, watching Rory polish off his potpie. “She handed me two spoons when I went to get food.” Rory grinned. “Nothing escapes her attention.” “What if she tells Papa?” Milan asked, breaking off a piece from his bun and dropping it into his soup. “She won’t,” Rory said, sounding sure. Milan decided it didn’t matter even though Marie told. He would be glad to face a firing squad if Rory stayed in his room with him like this. They were doing nothing wrong. *** Rory was reclined against Milan’s pillows reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, one of the Mario Llosa books from Milan’s shelf. Milan sat on the bed drawing on his tablet, a commission from his DeviantArt account. It was almost nine o’clock at night, dinner long finished downstairs. He had listened as Ilaria and Kiyo ate dinner in near silence, none of them making an attempt to find Milan. Ayu had called Ilaria saying he was staying over at a friend’s house. It was strange for the family to be so fragmented at dinner. Rory wondered if it had to do with the fight at the gate. Rory looked at Milan wanting his mate’s attention even as he worked. “Why do you read Mario Llosa books?” “I had a tough tutore in Italy. She thought I read too many graphic novels. So, she brought all those books for me, saying I needed to expand my literature horizons.” “Did you like them?” “Some of them,” Milan flashed him a quick smile. “Why do you ask?” “I just want to know everything about you.” “I feel as though you know everything about me. When do I get to know everything about you? Don’t you think it’s unfair?” Milan asked. “Not unfair, we’re taking this bit by bit,” Rory said. “Building us.” “Oh yeah?” Milan moved his tablet to the side. “You still haven’t told me. Why are you that strong?” “I told you. I ate spinach from Jet’s farm. It’s quite healthy and magical. You should try it.” “Come on, Rory. You lifted Papa off the ground earlier. Like feet-dangling-in-the-air lift, he’s not exactly pint-sized. I’m curious.” Rory sat up straight, using a finger to mark his place in the book he was reading. “Does it bother you that I can do that?” Milan stared at him, and Rory wished he could read Milan’s thoughts in that moment. It would be nice to know what Milan was thinking. “No.” Milan shrugged. “I guess it’s kind of cool since I’m useless on the strength department.” “So, you’re not scared that I can lift your father.” “No.” “What if I can lift a car?” “Interesting, and very intriguing.” Milan narrowed his gaze at him. “Can you lift a house?” Rory chuckled then. “No.” “Well, that’s a letdown,” Milan said, returning to his drawing. “Which house would you want me to lift?” “Yours, bring it next to mine so that we can live close to each other,” Milan said. “When you left earlier, I realized I didn’t know your address. It made me sad.” “I don’t have an address. I live in the middle of the forest like Grandma Asta,” Rory said. “When you’re ready, I’ll take you there.” Milan stopped drawing to look at him, his brown gaze clear. “You have a secret, don’t you?” Milan stated. Rory studied him for a moment, not sure what to say. Then because he wanted to blurt out all his secrets to Milan, he nodded. “Yes.” “You’ll tell me when you think I’m ready?” “Yes.” “Is it something weird?” Milan asked. “Like a disease?” Rory shook his head. “No.” “Fine, I’ll wait.” “Just like that?” Rory asked. “Yep.” Milan continued working on his drawing. Rory shifted so that he was sitting closer to Milan, legs folded under him. He kissed Milan’s cheek, then his forehead. When Milan lifted his head, he took his lips in a sweet kiss that quickly drew them into a heated make-out session on Milan’s bed. *** Temperatures dropped on Monday. Topher and Matt stopped in the garage in town to pick up two four by four Quad bikes. Rory’s uncle did not bother asking what they would use them for, as long as they returned them. Topher made sure the bikes were secure in the back of the truck they were using. Adjusting his heavy winter jacket, he jumped into the passenger side, as Matt took off heading to the swamp lands. The drive took them about forty-five minutes. Matt took the turn off leading into the wild swamp lands, driving on winter roads created by lumber yard trucks that sourced wood in the wild forest surrounding the swamp. “How close do we have to get?” Matt asked. Topher turned down the music on the stereo, reading the note Rory handed him this morning. “Close,” Topher said. “Rory said the records read, ‘the stilt homestead stood hidden in white cedar-groves’.” “Guess we find somewhere to park the truck and head out into the swamp,” Matt said, driving slow on the snowy road forged between trees. “The landscape might have changed in the years. The grove expanded.” “We’ll have to see,” Topher said, when they reached the end of the rough road. Matt pulled the truck to the side, and turned it off. He zipped up his heavy jacket, adjusting the furred hood over his head. Topher followed suit, making sure his hood was secure over his head. Jumping out of the truck, he went to help Matt with the quad bikes. In less than ten minutes, they were moving around thick cedars on frozen snow. When they were in the thickest part of the swamp, surrounded by tall thick trees, Topher stopped his quad bike, turning the engine off. “Do you hear that?” he asked, when Matt stopped beside him. “What?” “Exactly,” Topher said, gripping the handles on the quad bike. His gaze searching the trees, the ground, everything blending into one. “No bird calls at all. No insect sounds, nothing.” “We are intruding,” Matt said, getting off his bike. “I see no sign of a homestead. No one in their right mind would live here, Topher. Too cold, too wild.” Topher frowned, deciding to use his other senses instead of sight. The swamp smelled like a pig farm, thick, rich and blinding. Topher comforted himself with the thought that Rory would not have sent them out here for nothing. “I—” Matt broke off, turning to the right, eyes closed. ‘Movement,” Matt linked to Topher. ‘Nervous steps heading deeper into the swamp. Leave the bike.’ Topher got off his quad bike and followed Matt as they started a fast run. ‘How many?’ ‘Two.’ Matt answered, pausing behind a thick cedar tree. ‘One has to be too young, slowing down the adult. Can’t pick up their scents thanks to the swamp stench, but we should be able to cut their route off in a few minutes.’ ‘Let’s not show ourselves yet,’ Topher warned, eager to follow the two unknown wolves to their home. He followed Matt’s direction, careful to keep hidden behind trees, and soon he too could hear the taxed breathing of an adult carrying a child. Crouching low on the ground, using a crevice between thick roots, Topher tracked the huffs of fast breathing moving closer, until he put eyes to a short woman carrying a boy of three or four on her back. She was in a heavy red wool coat that covered her whole body. A wool scarf around her neck that she then used to wrap around the little boy she carried. The little boy was in a long down parka with a fur hood pulled over his head. “Mom, why are we running? Why aren’t you calling Daddy?” the little boy asked. The woman looked into the trees, her gaze wary as she walked by Topher’s hiding spot, heading up a non-existent path that lead out of the more swampy area. “Daddy warned us not to wander too far into the swamp,” she said. “He’ll be cross with us if he finds out.” ‘Traps between the trees,’ Matt warned him when Topher started the climb after the woman. ‘There are fine lines tied between trees that set off traps dug into the ground. Follow her steps.’ Topher kept up behind Matt, careful to step in the same places the woman had used. When they reached the edge of the trees, Topher stopped when Matt did, hiding behind smaller trees to stare at the huge network of stilt wood houses and walkways in the clearing surrounded by white cedar. The woman they had seen earlier stood at the entrance of the closest house, the little boy disappeared. In front of her was a bear of a man in jeans and an open leather coat, his hair long and held on top of his head with a thick rope made of green string. “It’s very rude to spy,” he spoke, looking to the trees. “We are of peace here. What do you seek?” Topher took in a deep breath and emerged from behind the tree, followed by Matt. “I did not mean to startle the woman,” Topher said in greeting, lowering his head slightly in greeting. He stopped right at the edge of the walkway not daring move in further. “My name is Topher Vadisi, son of Kurtler Vadisi, the Beta of Portento Pack.” “Beta Topher,” the man answered, nodding in acknowledgement. “Johan McRieve. Your friend?” “Matt Lechter, son of Hillam Lechter, the Third of Portento Pack.” Johan whistled and glanced at the woman behind him. “Elle, we’re in the presence of royalty.” Johan joked. “What brings you to the swamp lands?” Topher did not miss the warrior class men slowly making their way around the open space, moving to close the gap behind them, cutting off their escape. “A simple inquiry,” Topher said, aware of Matt turning his back to him so that he could keep an eye on their enemy. “You came alone,” Johan noted. “If I recall correctly, Connor Morgan should be Alpha now having taken over from his father. Any trips into this swamp lands would include his son, Rory Morgan.” Topher smiled. “I’m glad you know him. He seeks information from you.” “Information?” Johan chuckled again, shifting from one foot to the other. “It’s been a long time since I heard a Morgan needing anything from a McRieve.” “He would not ask if it wasn’t important.” “Disrupting the peace of our homestead is important too,” Johan growled, moving closer. “These men wish you escorted off our lands. It’s bad enough we have to deal with loggers encroaching on our wild land. We will not have council business spilling in too.” ‘Tell him Rory is willing to listen to their concerns,’ Matt suggested. ‘The logging company belongs to your father, Topher. Rory can help negotiate a deal.’ “Are you willing to listen to an Alpha’s request in exchange for a boon?” Topher asked, looking at Johan. Johan paused his approach, turning to look at Elle who still stood by the door of her house. They seemed to have a short private chat, and then Johan turned to Topher. “You’re Rory Morgan’s champion, aren’t you?” Johan asked. “I protect his interests, yes,” Topher answered. “You have invaded our home with no invitation. It is my right to see if you’re worthy of my time,” Johan said, throwing off his coat and turning into a large gray wolf. ‘Shit, old world rules,’ Mat cursed as he took Topher’s coat. ‘A duel?’ ‘Sort of. He wants a show of strength,’ Matt replied. ‘You lose and Rory loses their respect for sending someone inferior. These ones are on the wild side.’ ‘I’ll take it. I’ll fight him, then get him to promise to meet Rory.’ Topher shifted into his brown wolf, snarling when the gray wolf came at him. He rose on his hind legs, pushing the gray wolf back, escaping snapping teeth. He met the gray wolf in full combat, intent on pinning his aggressive attacker to the ground and making him submit. Strong and sure, Topher blocked Johan’s attempts to lock his powerful jaws on him, snarling as he bit into Johan’s neck, only to lose grip when Johan kicked him away. They fought fast, dirty, breaking wood and falling into the snow below the walkway. Topher focused on the fight, confident that Matt would keep Johan’s people out of it if necessary. Johan was strong, and aggressive, fueled by the wild. No matter how many times Topher dropped him, he sprang up, ready to face him again. Topher got lucky when he pinned Johan on the ground pressing him into a stilt. His jaw locked on his neck, teeth sinking deep intent on ending Johan, he snarled when Johan tried to shake him off, tightening his hold, his canines sinking deeper until blood filled his mouth. Topher tried to talk to the wolf under him, to stop him from resisting, but there was no connection. “Stop!” Elle shouted from above. “Stop, he is my mate. Please don’t kill him.” Topher let go and stepped back, changing into his human form, breathing hard. The scratches on his arms and legs from Johan’s bites healing fast. The cold air cooling his hot blood fast. “Do you submit?” Topher demanded, his voice rough, his eyes yellow, still not turned back. “I will listen,” Johan answered, after shifting into his human form. “Why do you not have the pack link?” Topher asked, wondering why he could not talk to Johan in his wolf form. If his mate had not intervened, Johan would be dead. Johan sighed, pressing his hand into his bleeding neck where Topher had made a deep wound. “Never bothered to renew it since we started living here. We have lived without it for a few generations.” “But you’re Portento pack,” Topher noted, watching Elle come running down the steps to the ground under the stilts. She carried two pairs of jeans, and her cheeks were wet with tears. She threw one pair at Topher, and knelt on the wet ground next to Johan. “Why are you here?” she demanded, throwing Topher an unhappy gaze. “Look what you’ve done to him.” “I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to harm,” Topher said, wearing the jeans, and stepping back to look up on the walkway above them. Matt threw him his jacket and boots, which he wore fast hoping to retain some of the warm from the fight. “Your mate insisted and wouldn’t yield at the end.” “You’re an idiot, Johan,” Elle accused. “Fucking idiot. This is my fault. If I hadn’t taken Foster out today, this wouldn’t have happened.” “Don’t blame yourself, woman,” Johan said, his tone heavy with annoyance. Johan got up and wore the jeans she brought him. He didn’t bother with a jacket as he walked to the stairs on bare feet. Elle stared after him with a frown, wiping her tears, before she turned to Topher. “What do you want?” “Information,” Topher said. “And a promise to meet Alpha Rory.” “Where?” Elle asked. “Wherever is comfortable for you,” Topher said. “For the record, I’m obligated to tell Rory Morgan of how large your population is here. These many wolves with no connection to the town’s Alpha—” “We are loyal to the Morgans. We just don’t show up for the town hall meetings,” Elle countered. “Let’s go inside. I’ll feed you, warm your insides and give you the information you want, then you can be on your way. Rory Morgan will have to come here if he wishes to speak to McRieves. We don’t venture beyond the swamp land.” Elle started to the stairs and Topher followed her. “Why?” he asked. “It’s safer here,” Elle said, leading the way to her house when they got to the walk way. Matt kept up with Topher. ‘I smell young human blood,’ Matt told him. ‘Within the buildings, can’t pinpoint where.’ ‘Maybe this is why they are so protective,’ Topher answered as they entered a large warm living area. Johan sat in an armchair already, Elle busy checking his neck. Two other women came in from what Topher assumed was the kitchen. They carried trays, one with a pot of hot coffee, and the other with two plates of meat sandwiches. “Eat,” Elle waved at the table, when Topher and Matt made no attempt to move. “It’s not poisoned.” Topher reached for a slice of the beef sandwich on the closest plate and took a bite. Matt was more cautious. He picked up the mug of coffee though he didn’t sip from it. “What do you wish to know?” Elle asked, her attention on Johan’s neck. “The McRieve line once had a human mate,” Topher stated. “What happened to the pair? Why are is your line not recorded in the books?” Elle finished attending to Johan and turned to look at Topher and Matt, her brown eyes wide with excitement. “You would only ask this question if your Alpha was paired with a human,” Elle said with a wide smile. “I can’t believe this is happening in my time.” Topher looked at Matt confused. “What is?” Matt asked, placing his mug on the table. “The Morgan Lore coming to life,” Johan said with a wide happy smile. “You should have spoken up sooner, Topher and Matt. We have been waiting for this for a long time.” *** At the same exact time, Rory sat in the living room at the Takeda house staring at Ilaria Takeda. Milan sat beside Rory, his hands clenched tight in Rory’s, as he was a mass of nerves. They had both decided to face Milan’s parents together after school today. Rory was happy they were only facing Ilaria, as Kiyo had returned to his lab. His temper was still too raw to face Kiyo Takeda. He worried now on a constant basis about Milan, and the poison in his body. What it would be like when it ran out. What would he do to stop Kiyo from adding more? “So, you want to date my son,” Ilaria was saying, her gaze wide with disbelief. “You have been kissing each other in his room for how long? I never got the answer to that.” “Is it relevant?” Milan asked, blushing hard. “Quite,” Ilaria said, her elbows resting on her lap as she leaned forward to study them. “Rory Morgan, how did you slip in? I thought you were a friend. When did it become more?” “From the first time I saw him,” Rory said, holding Ilaria’s gaze. Ilaria rubbed her eyes, then looked at Milan. “Cucciolo, I know what this must feel like to you. Your first time falling in love. He is gorgeous, I’ll give you that. But—” “No buts, Mamma,” Milan cut her off, his fingers squeezing Rory’s tight. “I need you to support me on this. Please.” “It’s difficult to think of you two together that way. I can’t disinfect Rory’s mouth to keep you from getting ill,” Ilaria joked, her eyes wide. “Rory, do you see where I’m going with this?” “I’ll protect him,” Rory promised, wishing he could make her understand the lengths he could go to protect Milan. “Can’t you trust in that?” Ilaria studied him for a moment, before she turned to Milan. “You hurt us yesterday, Milan. You said you preferred to die if that was where kissing Rory led you. Why would you say that?” “Mamma.” “Don’t I matter?” Ilaria asked, her eyes glittering with tears. “What about Ayu? There is Marie. Most important, Milan, your father. We all love you so much.” Rory turned to look at Milan. He hadn’t known his mate had said that yesterday. No wonder Ilaria had not pressed Milan to come down for dinner. “I’m sorry,” Milan murmured, staring down at their clasped hands. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” “Yes, you did,” Ilaria said. “No, I didn’t.” Milan looked at his mother. “I just wanted you to understand that I’ve had to give up on a lot in this life I’m living. I’ve found something in Rory. Something I don’t want to give up. Please, can’t you help me hold on to it?” ***
  10. 82 points
    Chapter 30 Sinking fingers into dirt Rory woke up to a warm weight on his stomach. Rubbing his eyes, he lifted his head and smiled when he saw Milan’s head resting on his stomach. Milan sprawled on the rest of their huge bed, his feet tangled in the sheets. His mate traveled in his sleep. Rory dropped his head back on his comfortable pillow and sunk fingers into soft dark curly hair. He dreamed of this paradise so many nights of this paradise, that he kept touching Milan to know it was real. Milan was now with him, in his bed, his house…his life. Two days and his spirit felt near settled, he couldn’t imagine what two weeks would be like. After that there would be two months, then two years, decades. His blood surged with joy at the prospect of all those nights spent with Milan by his side. Rory took in a deep breath, holding in the scent of mandarin oranges. He breathed out slow and turned his head to look at the time on the bedside table. It was about six o’clock. His clock beeped and he reached for it fast before the alarm went off. He turned off the alarm, and sat up with care, holding on to Milan, so that he wouldn’t wake up yet. He cradled Milan’s head, lifting him up with care and moving him to their shared pillows. Milan shifted then, moving into his arms with a soft sigh. Rory bit back a chuckle and wrapped his arms around Milan, holding him tight. Milan kept sleeping. The wide windows in their bedroom showed off the early morning. Snow fell beyond the windows, turning their world into a winter wonderland. Today would be cold, Rory thought, adjusting the duvet over Milan’s shoulders. Two weeks ago, he would have worried about Milan going out in the cold. Now, he was glad that worry ended. His new concern involved Milan finding his place in the pack house. Rory worried Milan would find life here too different, compared to the Takeda house. Two days in and Milan had not voiced discomfort. Yet, Rory was aware of the tightly coiled knot growing each day Milan woke up. Rory kissed Milan’s forehead. He wondered when Milan would talk about it. *** Milan woke with the sun in his eyes. He let a soft sigh escape and reached for Rory. He turned when his hand touched cool sheets. Sitting up, he stared at the empty space next to him. Rory woke up early. The two days since he moved into Rory’s house, Milan always woke alone. It shouldn’t matter. After all, he had woken up alone all his life. Yet, it felt weird to go to bed with someone and then wake up alone. Folding his legs, he pushed hair out of his face and glanced at the clock on Rory’s side. He frowned when he saw the time. Nine in the morning. He was lucky he was taking time off from school this week. It was already Friday. He talked it over with Rory and decided it was better to start school on Monday. Jack brought him the school work he needed to catch up. A soft knock came on the bedroom door and the door opened before he could invite his visitor. “Hi Milan,” Maryanne greeted him, entering the bedroom. She looked pretty in a long black polka dot skirt and cute frilly top. Her brown hair piled on her head with pins. She waved at him, her smile infectious. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” Maryanne said, coming to sit on the side of the bed. “Rory would have my head.” Milan shook his head with a smile. He liked Maryanne. She was older than him by a year, and went to the same school as Ayu. She was also Topher’s mate. Milan blushed every time he saw them making out in the kitchen. Which was often. “I don’t have classes today,” Maryanne said, reaching for his left hand. “I thought we can hang out. We haven’t gotten a chance to know each other.” Milan squeezed her hand tight, grateful for her. She included him when he felt a tad intimidated by the tight-knit web in the pack house. He was trying his best to get along with everyone, but it wasn’t easy. He missed his family. Missed the solid acceptance of their love. Here, he was the outsider. Rory would pinch him if he heard him say that, but Milan couldn’t help feeling it. “What do you say?” Maryanne prompted, tagging on his hand, when he didn’t reply in time. “I’d love to hang out with you,” Milan said, smiling at her. ‘Morning, Cucciolo,’ Rory spoke to him through their private connection. It still felt so intimate to do so. Milan wondered how much of Rory felt from him. ‘Morning.’ Milan replied. ‘You didn’t wake me,’ Milan chided. ‘I told you to whenever you’re about to leave.’ ‘Didn’t have the heart to wake you. I’ll be home in the next fifteen minutes.’ ‘Okay.’ Milan pushed the covers away. “Rory had to help plow the streets early,” Maryanne said, studying him. “Topher went out with him. They got a call from Alpha Connor.” “Does it happen often?” Milan asked, intrigued by this new side of Rory. He hadn’t known the number of responsibilities Rory had until now. “When the snowfall is too heavy,” Maryanne said. “The Sheriff’s office runs a service, but when everyone is called out, Rory, Matt and Topher help out where they can.” Milan nodded. He now knew that Topher and Matt were Rory’s best friends, as well as the pack’s Beta and Third. Titles he discovered were important in the grand scale of things. There was still so much to learn. Milan got out of bed, adjusting his t-shirt, and the waistband of his pajama bottoms. “Let me shower real quick, then we can have breakfast,” Milan told Maryanne. “Sounds good. I’ll wait,” Maryanne said, sprawling on the huge bed, her skirt fanning out around her. “You look pretty today,” Milan said as he entered the bathroom. Maryanne grinned wide. *** Rory entered the house through the garage completed a week ago thanks to Jack Bennet. He paused to remove his boots, and stepped into a short corridor outside the kitchen on socked feet. He paused at the door into the kitchen when he heard Milan laugh. “Wait, wait, you’re adding too much,” Milan said. “Let me, gosh, no matter how awesome the machine, the batter will overflow if you put in that much. I did it once and the batter ended up on the counter. Marie made me clean it for hours.” Maryanne laughed, and Rory peeked in to the kitchen to see Milan standing next to Maryanne by the cooking range. The waffle maker on while Milan poured in batter. He closed the top and stood to wait for their waffles to cook. When it was ready, Maryanne opened the lid, her excitement hard to ignore. When the waffle turned out well done, she gave a happy shout and hugged Milan. “I haven’t ever made edible waffles. This is awesome, Milan. I love you. You’re not allowed to ever leave this house,” Maryanne gushed, smacking a kiss on Milan’s cheek. She let go of him as he placed the waffle on a plate and started to make the next one. “Let me try.” Rory watched them for a second more, then wanting to join in the fun, entered the kitchen. Milan looked up the second he entered the kitchen. His ready smile enough to turn Rory into a soppy fool. He walked up to Milan and wound an arm around him, pulling him into a hungry kiss. Milan leaned into him, allowing the kiss. When Rory broke it, he started to move away but Rory wouldn’t let him go. Instead, he kept holding Milan around his waist. “Rory,” Milan started. “What are you making?” Rory asked, resting his chin on Milan’s shoulder. “Maryanne can’t cook to save her life, you know. We’ve had to get breakfast from the main kitchen.” “That’s so rude,” Maryanne scowled at him. “I can boil water, with the kettle, and make coffee, with the espresso machine. How much more cooking does a girl need?” Milan chuckled prompting Maryanne to open the waffle maker before she burnt the new batch of waffles. Rory kept holding Milan, even when he took over the waffle-making from Maryanne. It felt good to stand in their kitchen, making a late breakfast, with no looming news over their heads. Rory’s stomach growled and Milan chuckled. “Hungry?” Milan asked. “Starving,” Rory murmured, pressing a kiss on Milan’s left ear, making him shiver. “You can have a waffle,” Milan suggested as he placed a new batch on the plate next to Maryanne. “It’s better when we’re all eating at the same time,” Rory said, glancing at Maryanne without moving his head from Milan’s shoulder. “How come you didn’t go to school today?” “It’s Friday,” Maryanne said. “Don’t have any classes. Milan promised to hang out with me. I usually help out the welfare office today. I thought we could hang together.” Rory sighed, wishing he could spend the rest of the day with Milan. Too bad he couldn’t, he had a meeting with Elle and Johan. They had finally agreed to come into the main town. They didn’t want to meet at the pack house, so he was to meet them in an open space right outside the swamp. “Rory,” Milan cut into his thoughts. “Mm.” “I want to wash the bowl,” Milan said, holding the bowl he used to mix batter and a spatula. Maryanne was busy cutting the waffles and placing them on a large platter. She moved away to find maple syrup and honey. Rory buried his nose into Milan’s neck and breathed him in. Mint and avocado from his shower. It pleased him to know that Milan used his hair shampoo. ‘I like you smelling like my shampoo.’ Rory pressed a kiss on his neck and Milan leaned into him. ‘I’m still annoyed with you for leaving me this morning. Move.’ ‘I wanted you to sleep longer.’ ‘I told you to tell me when you leave,’ Milan insisted, going to the sink. Rory followed him, wrapping his arms around Milan’s waist as Milan turned on water and started to wash the bowl. ‘I’ll wake you next time,’ Rory promised. ‘You said that yesterday,’ Milan pointed out. Rory rested his head on Milan’s shoulder again and let out a sigh. ‘Milan,’ he groaned. ‘I really have no power when I look at your sleeping face. It’s really hard for me to wake you.’ ‘Don’t be cute with me.’ ‘I’m being serious,’ Rory said. Milan chuckled as he placed the bowl in the draining rack. He flicked water at Rory’s face, and Rory tightened his hold on Milan in retaliation, turning him around to kiss him. A quick, hasty kiss as Maryanne entered the kitchen and gave them a short whistle. “Time to eat, guys,” Maryanne said. Milan kissed Rory’s cheek and pushed Rory to sit at the island table. “I’ll get you orange juice,” Milan said as Rory sat, and went to the fridge to get the bottle. “Looks like we need to do shopping. There’s barely any food in here.” Rory turned to Maryanne. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to Linda about stocking this part of the house.” “I’m heading to the welfare office today, with Milan,” Maryanne said as she sat. She got a waffle and immediately drenched it with maple syrup. “I’ll do up the forms to set up the secondary house.” “Thanks,” Rory smiled at her as he got five waffles and placed them on his plate. Milan placed a glass of orange juice for him, then Maryanne, and finally sat down beside Rory. Breakfast was everything Rory could have hoped. He felt happy watching Milan and Maryanne get along, joking about cooking, and teasing Rory when he ate too fast. Rory made sure Milan drank his orange juice. He wondered if the method Maria used for fresh juice was written in the book she gave him. Just because Milan was now healed didn’t mean he should stop eating healthy. He was a freshly turned wolf. He needed plenty of rest, and eat well. “Iris mentioned a town meeting?” Milan cut into his thoughts. “She said to ask you about it. What’s the meeting for?” Rory picked up his glass of orange juice and drank deep. His meeting with Johan and Elle had a lot to do with the town meeting. The wolves in the Swamp Lands had a lot to negotiate before they decided to join the council. Maryanne and Milan would be required to attend the meeting in an official capacity. It would be good for them to know what the meeting was about. “Milan,” Rory shifted in his seat so that he could look at Milan. “Since you moved into this town, there has been a lot going on in the pack house.” “A lot how?” Milan asked. Rory glanced at Maryanne and she gave him a short nod, urging him to continue. It was time Milan knew the truth anyway. He now had to help Rory lead the pack. “The Portento Pack has laws,” Rory said, taking Milan’s hand. “One of those laws deals with humans living or moving into Portento. To protect who we are, what we are, humans are often moved out of the town, as fast and as quickly as possible. For a long time, decades before me, before my father, all wolves in Portento have followed this law. Sometimes, it caused more trouble than it should have. It has led to long-standing prejudice against humans. And, a fracture in the town’s people.” “That’s why no one wanted to socialize with us,” Milan said, in surprise. “Mamma told me that apart from Linda at the grocery store, no one wanted to get close to her at work. She always felt like an outsider.” “Not her fault,” Rory said, shaking his head. “She didn’t seem to mind going to work and getting home to Marie and you guys. Linda was a good friend to her. I didn’t think she needed more.” Milan stared at their clasped hands. “No wonder she wanted to leave.” “Milan.” “It’s okay,” Milan said, squeezing his hand. “Continue. What’s changed?” “Everything,” Rory said, with a small smile. “When I discovered you were my mate, I decided to find a way to change the law of not letting humans stay in this town. On that journey, I discovered Johan and Elle who live in the Swamp Lands. Their people have embraced human mates, and build a strong community. Then, our coming together, you and me, fulfilled an old prophecy by the goddess called The Morgan Lore.” “What’s the prophecy?” Milan asked. “Portento is considered sanctuary to all in need. Most times, those in need have been of our kind. Enchanted souls who face unimaginable pain from the humans beyond our borders. They seek refuge within our borders. However, there are humans too who seek sanctuary. The goddess calls them her chosen children. You and Nisin are the first I’ve met. Those in the Swamp Lands are another example. Elle’s ancestors came from one such as you.” “So, the town meeting?” “Yes, the town meeting is going to serve as a way to amend that law, to include you, your family and all those in the Swamp Lands.” Milan took in a deep breath, holding Rory’s hand with both his hands. “Is this what you’ve been dealing with alone?” Rory smiled and leaned over to kiss Milan’s forehead. “I told you I would deal with anything for you.” “So, what else are you discussing at the town meeting?” Maryanne asked, piling their plates into a small stack. “Well, there is the matter of Rick,” Rory said. “He violated all the laws possible in this town. His vengeful heart almost destroyed you, your father, and Cade Ogawa.” “Cade Ogawa is Papa’s best friend,” Milan said, his tone full of regret. “I never met him, but Papa speaks highly of him. He’s the big boss at Biosense.” “Yes. A big boss who tricked your father into creating poison using Rick’s blood. He knew about Lloyd turning himself into that horrible wolf,” Maryanne shuddered. “Who knows what would have happened if he succeeded.” “He’s Nisin’s Papa,” Milan said, with a frown. Rory brought Milan’s hand to his lips. “Which is why his fate shall be decided at the town meeting. Rick approached him first. It’s impossible to know we exist without one of us revealing it. Rick would have deliberately met Cade and revealed himself. Cade would not have pulled in his best friend without the proof of wolves from Rick.” “It’s all wrong,” Maryanne shook her head. She met Milan’s worried gaze and shrugged. “I know Cade is a friend to your father, but what he did, after knowing, allowing the creation of that poison is wrong. He is not a good person.” Milan bit his lip and shook his head. “I don’t know what’s okay. I just…Nisin doesn’t deserve to lose his Papa.” “Well, it will all get decided tomorrow,” Rory said, pulling Milan on to his lap. He held him tight. “The town meeting is happening tomorrow afternoon. Everyone is required to attend.” “Even me?” Milan asked, resting his head on Rory’s chest. “Especially you,” Rory said, caressing his cheek. “You’ll keep me from killing Rick. Otherwise, I’ll just give in to my anger that he stabbed you and kill him.” Maryanne chuckled and got up to take their dirty plates to the sink. As she washed, Rory held Milan for a few more minutes. “Okay. I’ll come with you. What are you doing today?” Milan asked. “Meeting Johan and Elle,” Rory said. “It might take a while, as they want to give me the list of things the Swamp Lands want negotiated. Then I’ll come back home and hang with you.” “I’ll be with Maryanne,” Milan said, meeting Rory’s blue gaze, reaching up to rub Rory’s stubble, then tracing his lips with his thumb. “Wherever she’ll take me.” “I’ll find you,” Rory said. “I miss you already.” Milan held him then, and pressed a chaste kiss on Rory’s left ear. “Hurry back then.” *** Discovering the offices behind the huge house he called home, Milan moved from one door to the next, amazed by the organization. It was like working in a real company or something like that. His parents lived a migrant life, so he had never gotten the opportunity to see them in real offices, only labs and hospitals. This was so different. “The Welfare Office takes care of any issues people might have in Portento.” “Like what?” Milan asked. “Well,” Maryanne rested her left arm around his shoulders. She was taller than him and at a comfortable height to do so. “Our town is just like every other town out there. We take care of the elderly, and any children who came to us needing sanctuary.” Maryanne stopped them at the counter in the welfare office. She picked up a clipboard and found her name. “Like today, we’re on the roaster to drop supplies off to a Ms. Maggie Steel. She just gave birth three weeks ago. She lives alone, but one of the ladies from this office is staying with her.” “Oh cool,” Milan took the clipboard from her. “It’s almost like social work.” “Yeah,” Maryanne smiled. “Much easier than security which is where Topher, Matt and Rory end up most of the time.” “What happens in the security office?” Milan asked, taking the pen Maryanne gave him to sign his name on the clipboard next to Maryanne's. “Dealing with rowdy teenagers, spells gone wrong with the warlock kids, sometimes adult warlocks who are more scary. Fires, breaks in the barriers around Portento,” Maryanne shuddered. “People are into weird stuff in this town.” Milan followed Maryanne behind the counter into an open hall. It was already busy with hundreds of cartons awaiting delivery. One of the ladies handing out the cartons saw Milan and Maryanne and hurried to them. “Hi Annie!” Maryanne greeted her. “Maryanne,” Annie said, her gaze on Milan. Her brown hair in a tight ponytail. She studied Milan with a curious gaze. One that left him wanting to step behind Maryanne. Milan didn’t like Annie’s study of him. “Is this him?” “This is Milan Takeda Morgan,” Maryanne introduced him. Her addition of Rory’s name to his had Milan’s gaze widening. ‘Since when am I a Morgan?’ Milan asked Rory. ‘Maryanne is introducing me with your last name.’ ‘The moment you let me change you,’ Rory said, his answer smug. ‘Does that mean we’re married?’ Milan asked in surprise. Why hadn’t he thought of it that way? Being Rory’s mate was for life, he knew that. Still— ‘You pulled me into your house with my eyes closed. I can’t believe you. I so want a real wedding, Rory Morgan, a real proposal before that, you punk!’ Rory chuckled again, his laughter flooding their bond. ‘I love you being a Morgan, Milan.’ Milan rolled his eyes and shook his head, returning his attention to Maryanne and Annie. They both looked at him with interest. He had clearly missed a comment or question. He ignored it and jumped right in. “Well, where are the supply boxes. I’ll carry them, Maryanne. I hope you’re the one driving. I haven’t gotten a chance to practice since I landed here. I might send us into a ditch if I drive.” “I’ll drive,” Maryanne said, with a short laugh. Annie frowned, turning away with a blush as she led them to three huge boxes filled with groceries and baby supplies. Milan took up the first box, loving the ease with which he picked up the box. He had so much strength now, he loved it. Heading out of the room, he went outside the back door to the car Maryanne pointed out was theirs to use. Maryanne followed him with the second box, and when he went to get the last box, he found Annie waiting for him. Milan smiled at her, then started to move around her to get the box, only for her to block his way. “Why would he choose you?” Annie asked him. “There is nothing special about you. You were once a human. Why?” Milan stepped back and met her gaze, not surprised when he saw anger in her eyes. She wasn’t friendly. Milan decided to play stupid. “What are you talking about?” “You don’t even know anything about Portento, or our people. How will he make it with you?” “Oh, you mean Rory?” Milan asked, staring at her with wide eyes. “He’s strong and smart, you know. He can handle anything.” She scowled at him and he grinned. “You’re so serious,” Milan said. “Stop thinking so hard, and let me by. I need to get that box.” “I’m having a serious discussion with you.” “You’re not,” Milan said, meeting her gaze. “Step aside.” A hand shot over his right hand, slender fingers wrapped around Annie’s neck and Milan turned to see Maryanne glaring at Annie. “He said step aside,” Maryanne said, her tone chilly. “Who are you to stand in his way?” Milan reached out and took Maryanne’s hand, pulling it away from Annie’s neck. Annie stumbled back, drawing the gazes of everyone in the hall. Milan steadied her and moved her to the side. “Annie, was it?” Milan asked. When she nodded, he patted her cheek. “I won’t answer your questions because I don’t think you have the right to an answer. Not when you asked them the way you did. However, whatever I need to learn to help Rory, I’ll learn it. Don’t worry too much. I’m a quick study.” Giving her a short nod, he picked up the last box. “Maryanne, let’s go.” Maryanne gave Annie a warning glance, then led the way out of the hall. She didn’t talk until they were on the road heading to Maggie Steel’s house. “You’re going to get a bunch of them acting like Annie,” Maryanne said, shifting gears, her jaw set. “They think they have the right to have mated with the Alpha. It pisses me off when they act that way. Clearly, the goddess has made her decision, who are they to question it. They forget, Rory’s your choice too.” Milan leaned over to kiss Maryanne’s cheek. “Thank you for being angry on my behalf.” “I’ll beat them to the ground for you,” Maryanne said. “You don’t even have to ask.” Milan chuckled, folding his arms against his chest. Maryanne looked at him with a skeptical glance, a brow raised. “What?” “It’s the first time,” Milan said. “First time for what?” “First time to be someone’s envy,” Milan laughed. “It’s not a pretty thing, but I can’t say that I’m not tickled about this.” “Gosh, you’re cute,” Maryanne said, reaching for the radio dial. She tuned to a local station playing rock music, and settled in for the drive. Milan enjoyed spending time with Maryanne. Maggie Steel’s house was close to Jet’s farm. After their delivery, Milan wrote Jet a message asking him if he was around. Just their luck, Jet was home from school too, so they drove up to the large farmhouse. Milan hugged Jet hard when they saw each other. He couldn’t help a chuckle when Jet blushed from Maryanne kissing his cheek. “I’m helping my grandma plant strawberries in the green house. Want to help?” Jet asked. “Sure,” Milan said, eager to get dirty. It would be his first time planting anything. His mother never allowed him near dirt. “You’ll have to promise to do my manicure later,” Maryanne said, waving her red nails at them. “Ask Rowan to do it,” Milan teased her. “No way, that little warlock will turn them black,” Maryanne protested, as they headed to the green house. In minutes, Milan’s fingers were sunk deep in optimized soil. He lifted them out, enjoying the texture of the soil running over his skin. Grinning like a crazy man, he sunk his fingers deep again, excited by the feel of touching dirt. *** Rory found Milan at Jet’s farm. His mate was busy potting strawberries, a smudge of dirt on his cheek as he planted a fragile strawberry seedling into a pot. He looked happy. Excited to be working with Jet and his grandmother, while Maryanne stood a few feet away. She had a plate of strawberries beside her, which she popped into her mouth and chewed with relish. She winked at him when she saw him walk in. Rory brought his finger to his lips stopping her from alerting Milan to his presence. He came up behind Milan, wrapping his arms around Milan tight, getting a kick out of Milan jumping up in surprise. Rory kissed his cheek, moving his mouth along Milan’s jaw to his neck, leaving a trail of kisses. “Stop that,” Milan said, his tone amused as he steadied the pot he held. “If you make me break the roots, you’re going to help me plant the next one.” “Should we take some home?” Rory asked. “Can we?” Milan asked, looking at him, pleading. “I don’t know if they can survive the cold outside the green house,” Rory frowned. “We can put them on the kitchen table.” “Just two pots then,” Milan said. “Then in the summer, we’ll try to plant our own. I’ve never planted anything in my life.” “Then we’ll plant a summer garden,” Rory said, rocking him from side to side. “How are Elle and Johan?” Milan asked. “They're well. They wanted to see you today. Said it was sad I didn’t bring you along,” Rory said, thinking of Elle’s disappointed gaze. She had a real soft spot for Milan. “Well, I can see them tomorrow if they show up for the town meeting.” “They will,” Rory said, he had gotten their promise. Milan finished with the strawberry he was planting and lifted the pot, proud of his work. “It looks good. We should take this one,” Rory said. “We’ll take care of it together.” “Like a pet?” “Yeah, sure. A strawberry plant pet,” Rory said, with a chuckle. “I can get behind that,” Milan said with a satisfied nod. “Want to go on a date with me?” Rory asked. Milan placed his strawberry pot on the worktable and turned in Rory’s arms to look at him. His brown eyes wide with excitement. “Are you being serious right now?” Milan asked, lifting his dirty fingers up so that he wouldn’t touch Rory’s nice blue sweater. “Quite,” Rory nodded. “We never got to go out on a date. I want to take you out, Milan.” Milan smiled, staring at Rory. When he didn’t speak, Rory peered at him, wondering if he had stunned him with the request. A chuckle broke when Milan got up on his toes, cupped his jaw with his muddy hands and kissed him. It was the sweetest kiss he ever received from Milan, Rory thought as he wrapped his arms around Milan and lifted him against him. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Rory said, when they broke their kiss for a second. “Yes,” Milan said, smiling hard. Rory fell a bit more in love with Milan in that second. He couldn’t imagine a moment in his life without Milan Takeda. It just wouldn't be worth living. ***
  11. 80 points
    Amore Consumato Vibrating with excitement, Milan stood in the bathroom brushing his hair. He swept fingers through the soft mass when he was done and wondered if he shouldn’t get a cut. It had grown longer. A gift from the change, he thought. Dropping the brush into its holder on the bathroom counter, he pinched his cheeks and smiled at the red flush there. He was no longer pale and sickish. He took that as a serious accomplishment. Milan left the bathroom and was in the closet getting dressed when he heard the Skype ringtone. Pulling on his white One Ok Rock t-shirt, he rushed to the bed and his laptop to answer the call. He smiled wide when he saw Ilaria’s face fill the screen. “Buona sera, Cucciolito,” Ilaria greeted. “Come va?” “It’s going well,” Milan said, happy to see her. “How is Papa?” “Better. Much better,” Ilaria said. “Ayu is with him now. He is saying goodbye as he prepares for his flight back to you.” “Ah,” Milan settled on the bed, adjusting his t-shirt. “You look happier, not as worried.” Ilaria nodded, her dark hair moving around her like silk water. Her face looked bright; her eyes rested, no more shadows, even though it was one o’clock at night in Turin. “Mi spiace, Milan,” Ilaria said. “I’m sorry.” “For what?” “Acting like a crazy woman the last few days,” Ilaria said. “I—” She broke off for a minute as though thinking hard, and then continued. “It wasn’t easy seeing your Papa so ill. It’s the first time for all of us to see him like that. He has been a rock for me…and to see him down…I-I just wanted to get my family away from there. I know I was unreasonable, but—” “I understand,” Milan cut in, hating the contrite look on his mother’s face. He understood her perfectly. One might not think it, but Kiyo was Ilaria’s pillar. The reason she stayed strong for him, for Ayu. Without him…well, the breakdown at the hospital was a clue as to what would happen next. “It was a lot to happen to all of us,” Milan continued. “A lot to take in, I’m still processing it too.” This was the best he could give her. He had hated disliking her for wanting to pull him away from Rory. Ilaria had given him a gift with the extraordinary efforts she put forth to take care of him. She was such a mother, that he sometimes forgot she was human. She made mistakes. She always forgave his. Now, it was his turn. “Ti amo, Milan,” Ilaria said, as though reading his thoughts. “You must never forget that. No matter what shape you take, who you love, what you love, what you want to do, why, when, all of it. You remain mine, il mio bambino. I will love you a lifetime and more. You understand?” Milan smiled. “I love you too, Mamma.” Ilaria let out a relieved sigh and tried for a smile. “Let’s not be on opposite ends ever again. It hurts too much.” “Yes, Mamma, for me too.” Tears slid down Ilaria’s cheeks and Milan wished he could hug her through the screen. “Oh, Mamma, don’t start crying,” Milan begged when she sniffled. Ilaria reached for a tissue from a box next to her, and wiped her eyes. “You’re turning into a crybaby,” Milan teased her when she blew her nose. “Don’t make fun of your Mamma,” Ilaria said, pressing the tissue to the corner of her eye. “Is Rory’s family treating you okay? Have you checked the bag I gave you? I left money there to spend in a wallet. Tell me if it runs out. I will talk to Rory’s dad about groceries and all other needs.” “Rory’s family is very good to me,” Milan said, knowing it was useless to talk her out of calling Connor Morgan. “How is school?” “I’ll start again on Monday,” Milan said. “It felt like the best thing to do. A friend is bringing me work from my classes. I’ve made up most of it.” “Va bene. I trust your judgment on that,” Ilaria said, and then she launched into telling him all the gossip from their neighbors in Turin. She talked for thirty minutes straight, until he had to stop her, as he needed to finish preparing for his date with Rory. “Where is Rory?” Ilaria asked. “We’re going on a date,” Milan said, with a wide grin. “He wants to pick me up, so he went to prepare in his old room.” “Oh, you’re wearing the t-shirt?” Ilaria asked, frowning at him. “Cucciolo, stand so that I see what you’re wearing.” “He said it was casual,” Milan said, getting off the bed, turning the laptop so his mother could see his black jeans and white t-shirt. “This is good enough.” “What are you wearing on top?” “The blazer you had that tailor in Florence make me,” Milan said. “Si, si, that will work,” Ilaria snapped her fingers. “Dress shoes?” “No way, my converse shoes will work.” Ilaria smiled. “Then, I want pictures. Make sure you send them to me.” Milan agreed, promising to get Rory’s picture too. “I have to go now,” Milan said, when he looked at the time. “Rory is almost here.” Ilaria was reluctant to let him go. “Your brother is leaving on the four a.m. flight. I’ll drive him to the airport. You and Rory can pick him up when he lands. Yes?” “Okay, text me his flight details,” Milan said. “Oh, I wanted to talk to Papa too.” “You can talk to Papa tomorrow when I call again. You tell me when you’re not busy. It doesn’t matter how late, I’ll answer.” “I will let you know, Mamma,” Milan blew her kisses. “I have to go now. Kiss Papa for me.” “Okay, okay.” Milan grinned because Ilaria kept looking at him. He reached out and ended the call afraid she might talk to him all night, if allowed. Happy to have cleared the air with her, Milan went to get the dark blazer she bought him, and wore it over his t-shirt. Adjusting the belt on his jeans, he wore socks and jammed his feet into his converse shoes. He was adjusting the laces when Maryanne came into the bedroom. “Oh, Milan,” she said, her voice in a singsong. “Your date is downstairs. He is breaking hearts looking insanely sexy. You’re lucky he’s your mate. Otherwise, all the chicks in the back offices will swarm him. I have Topher and even I’m tempted to have a bite of him.” “Maryanne,” Milan chided. “What?” Maryanne went to the windows that showed off the front yard and pulled back the curtains. “Look at that guy.” Milan hurried to stand beside her, leaning on the wall when he saw Rory standing by his red mustang, looking sexy as sin. Who knew black would look so good on him? Rory wore a black jacket over a black tee and black fitting jeans and his feet in sexy black boots. As though sensing Milan’s gaze on him, he pushed off the car, and looked up to the window, meeting Milan’s gaze. Milan took in air unable to believe Rory was his for good. It still felt like a dream, and he was going to wake up and find himself stuck in a bed hyped up on damn good meds. Maryanne patted his shoulder proving his idea wrong. The surprise of this being reality had his heart beating on a rampage again. Maryanne turned him away from the window. “Go on,” she said, pushing him to the door. “He’s been waiting for you forever, Little Alpha.” Milan left their bedroom and ran down the stairs, opening the front door with his heart pounding in his chest. He gasped when he found Rory waiting at the doorstep. He flung himself into Rory’s arms as though they hadn’t spent the afternoon together. Rory kissed him, holding him close. “Hey, you,” Milan breathed, when they broke their kiss. “You look delicious, smell even better,” Rory said, squeezing him tighter. “You look real good too,” Milan said, reaching up to caress Rory’s clean-shaven jaw. Rory took Milan’s hand and led him to the car, opening the passenger side for Milan. He waited until Milan settled to close the door, and then jogged around to the driver’s side. Once inside, Rory started the engine and they headed out. “Where are we going?” “To have fun,” Rory promised. “There’s more to this place than cold you know.” “So, you won’t tell me what we’re doing tonight?” “Nope.” Rory flashed him a grin. “Okay,” Milan said. “Did you have a nice talk with Mamma?” Rory asked. Milan glanced at Rory, not surprised his mate would know about his call with Ilaria. Rory felt more than he did in their shared bond. Milan knew he wasn’t reaching in as much, knew if he wanted, he could discover all there was about Rory through their bond. Yet, he was holding back, unable to delve into Rory’s personal space. Rory knew it too. It hurt Rory that Milan dared not venture deeper. Milan felt that much. Still, he kept his distance. He didn’t know what he was waiting for. Permission or a—, he couldn’t describe it. “Yes,” Milan answered Rory about Ilaria. “She looked happier. She’s had time to think, said she was sorry for trying to make me move back to Italy. You know, I thought I would be sad having her so far away, but it feels nice somehow. I think we needed time apart. Does that make me a bad child?” “No, it doesn’t,” Rory said. “If you want we can visit them before they come back during spring break. You can show me that cathedral you said you’re named after.” Milan laughed. “I was named after the city, not the cathedral.” “Yeah, the cathedral has your name too.” “A lot of buildings end up having my name. There are even cookies with my name. I don’t know whether I should complain that I came first, or they should complain that I took their name.” Rory chuckled. “It doesn’t matter because you’re the only Milan to me.” “That one’s too sweet,” Milan said, shifting in his seat to study Rory. “How long have we known each other?” “A lifetime,” Rory stated with a straight face. Milan laughed again. “Doesn’t it feel that way?” “It does,” Milan agreed. “When I read books and the characters end up together too fast, I always think the writer is being unrealistic. No one gets together that fast. I thought it was a fantasy since all I ever got were people staying away from me.” Milan’s gaze dropped to where Rory held his hand. “Now—” “Now?” “We’re the cliché, and I don’t care,” Milan said. “Actually, we’re not,” Rory said. “Maryanne and Topher are the cliché. Nisin and Jack are the norm. We’re not.” “Why not? We’ve known each other for two months, barely and we’re attached for life.” “My people mate within hours of meeting each other,” Rory stated. “What?” Milan sat straight in his seat. “No way that’s Nisin and Jack. Nisin is complicated. Jack wouldn’t have it easy with him.” Rory grinned. “Fortunately, Jack is more straightforward than me. And, he didn’t have to deal with meddling parents. He and Nisin are a couple. Jack insisted on telling him everything the first night they met. When Jack heard your change was complete, he took Nisin to the Swamp Lands. They talked it over with Grandma Asta. Nisin’s conversion is set for some time next week. Johan and Elle wouldn’t let Jack do anything until the people in the swamp lands join the town.” “So, where is Nisin now?” “Jack took him to his house. It’s been days since anyone saw Nisin. Jack is being very protective of him.” “Aren’t you worried about Nisin?” Milan asked, concerned. “Shouldn’t you send people to check on him? We should drive to Jack’s place.” “Milan. Don’t meddle in private matters. Nisin is Jack’s mate. I disliked your father very much when he tried to stop me from seeing you. I argued with your mother when she tried to take you away. Let’s not play that role with Jack. He is the best person for Nisin right now.” “But—,” Milan broke off and stared at Rory, and then he sighed and leaned against the door. “You’re right. I just feel bad that I haven’t stopped to think about Nisin since that day Rick attacked. I mean my father just disappeared on him. He must be going through so much. I—and his Papa is also in trouble.” “He has Jack. Believe me. He’s in the best hands possible. Jack won’t let anything happen to him. Do you trust me?” “Yes.” “Then believe me when I saw Nisin is fine.” Rory slowed down the car. Milan looked out to see where they were. Rory turned into a short drive that led into a parking lot full of cars. An attendant helped them find a parking spot close to the entrance. Rory turned off the car, and sat looking at the lighted gardens ahead. “Where are we?” “The Rose Restaurant,” Rory said. “It’s run by Rowen’s mom. Topher’s sister has a band. They usually play here on Fridays. She gave me tickets yesterday. “It’s a pretty place.” Milan undid his seatbelt and started to open his door. “Wait,” Rory said, opening his door and getting out. Milan watched Rory hurry around the front and come around to his side. Rory opened Milan’s door and Milan came out with a smile. He waited as Rory locked the car, and then they headed into the restaurant together. Their table was in a corner by the windows, set for two, private and with a great view of the stage. Milan removed his jacket and placed it on the back of his chair. He adjusted the amulet on his neck as he sat down and smiled at Rory who watched him. “What?” “I’ve dreamt of this moment so long,” Rory said, his smile infectious. “I can’t believe you’re out with me. I’m just enjoying it.” “You’re Alpha of an entire town. I’m the one who is supposed to say that,” Milan said, looking to the stage, where the band played a perfect rendition of Icecream by Sarah McLachlan. Ilaria liked her music; as a result, Milan now knew all McLachlan music. The singer had a great voice, soulful, as she perched on a stool, beautiful in peach. “The band’s great.” “Jade will like you then,” Rory said. “She thinks Topher and I don’t care.” “I doubt that,” Milan said, picking up the menu, and reading it. He couldn’t remember the last time he sat in a restaurant to order food. He was too young when he first got sick. After that, there was no eating out anymore. He glanced at Rory over his menu. This milestone was also thanks to Rory. “What’s good here?” Milan asked. “The short ribs,” Rory said, pushing his menu to the side. Milan did the same and rested his elbows on the table, meeting Rory’s amused gaze. “Order for me,” Milan said. “I’ll eat what you have. Why aren’t we cliché? You only gave me Jack and Nisin’s example. They don’t count. Nisin is sick. Jack probably wants to fix him.” Rory moved the salt holder aside and took Milan’s right hand, straightening Milan’s fingers so that he could trace Milan’s palm. “Fair enough,” Rory agreed. “Maryanne and Topher found each other at a party when they both turned eighteen. You’ve seen them in our kitchen.” “I left the room yesterday,” Milan mused, remembering Topher and Maryanne making out against the kitchen counter. “Yeah, it’s gotten better. They couldn’t keep off each other when they first met. Most wolves mate within hours of meeting their fated partners.” “So, we’re different because you waited?” Milan guessed. “More than waited,” Rory said, shifting his gaze to Milan’s palm. “I had to have Grandma Asta give me a bracelet to control the need to claim you. Your mother would have put me down otherwise.” Milan gave a short chuckle at that. “Was it that hard?” Rory’s hold on his hand tightened, his tracing finger pausing to rub on a line on Milan’s palm. “I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone touching you, even your brother.” Rory shook his head. “Worst case scenario, I would have turned into a mad man and kidnapped you. It would have been a shock to you. Strange thing is I didn’t know what the hell I would do with you once I got you. I had never seen a wolf/human pair before. Grandma Asta saved us both from that ending.” “So, we’re that special huh,” Milan mused. “Quite.” “We’re not usual,” Milan said. “Far from it,” Rory said. “You’re a gift from the goddess to me.” Milan nodded in acceptance. His life was not conventional; of course, the love of his life would not be someone ordinary. Wasn’t it his good luck too to find Rory at seventeen? There were many who never found the right person at all. Milan decided to take it as is. “I met someone at the welfare office today. Her name is Annie. She didn’t think I was good enough to be the Alpha’s mate. Thought I didn’t understand anything about the town. Maryanne thinks there will be more who think like Annie.” Rory made a face. “What they think doesn’t matter. Nothing can change who you are to me, or who you are to this town.” Milan smiled at Rory’s answer. Storing away the solid support, he moved on from Annie. “Why Portento?” Milan asked. “Why are their wolves here? Why this place?” Rory played with Milan’s fingers as he talked about Portento’s history. Milan listened as Rory talked about the founding trio. The alpha who begged for sanctuary for his family and how the goddess answered by creating a barrier around Portento, ensuring their safety. How she made them promise to offer sanctuary to all who needed it, as she had offered. “We’ve kept at it for centuries, generation to generation. We don’t always get it right, but we’ve done well.” “You were right about your roots running deep,” Milan said. Rory let go of his hand when their drinks came. Milan sipped his passion juice, his gaze straying to the band. The lead singer had disappeared. The band now played instrumental music and he didn’t recognize the tune. “I’ve never belonged to a place before. My family and I, we’ve always been on the move. You know that.” “If you had to stay, would you miss the travel?” Rory asked, drawing Milan’s gaze. Milan thought about that for a moment. The fear he felt when his mother asked him to leave for Turin. It was new, and unexpected. That fear tied to Rory, more than Portento. He didn’t want to be away from Rory. “I like being anchored.” “Do you mean that?” Rory asked, holding his gaze. “I do,” Milan said. “Milan, living in Portento with me doesn’t mean you can’t travel if you want. This is not a prison but sanctuary. If you ever feel that you want to travel, all you have to do is say it. Can you promise me that?” Milan smiled and nodded. “I promise.” Sipping his juice, a thought filled his head. “By the way, are there wolves living beyond the town’s borders? Are there humans who know about us?” “Our kind works hard to keep our existence secret from humans. Of course, there are settlements of wolves across the country and others abroad, but I don’t know any like Portento. Our town is the exception, a haven with a majority share, unlike out there where humans have precedence. Portento tries to keep minimal contact with everyone to keep our location hidden.” “Only those in desperate need can find Portento. Rowen says her mom knows a lot more of the settlements around the world. Rumor is that her mom fell in with a bad group who hunt our kind, and needed to find a place to keep Rowen safe. Her extensive research brought her to Portento’s borders.” “Bad groups, with people like Cade Ogawa?” Milan asked. “They want to research on werewolves?” “Worse,” Rory said. “Extremist who think we’re a blight on the world. They kill our kind without asking questions. The group is ran by humans, one of the reason why everyone in this town is wary of them. They hunt us down like beasts.” Milan shivered at the thought of being hunted down like an animal. “Do you have gatekeepers?” Milan asked. “You know, like a videogame. You can’t enter sanctuary without meeting the gatekeeper.” “Yes, we have several gatekeepers. We call them guardians,” Rory nodded. “They keep watch for trouble. Or, stand guard when important assets of Portento leave for any reason.” “So, Portento is the Atlantis for your kind,” Milan said. “You only get in if you are worthy.” “Our kind,” Rory corrected. “I guess you could say that.” “How did Biosense get so close?” Milan asked, his frown deepening. “I mean—there must have been an uproar when we moved into the main town.” Rory fell silent when their waiter brought their plates of food. Their waiter was polite and efficient, placing their plates and ensuring they had everything they needed. He hurried away soon after, leaving them alone. “The Mayor brought Biosense,” Rory said. “Portento is like any other town. We need money to maintain many things. So, she found Biosense to provide a new hospital, while we gave up a small part of the forest where Biosense has set up. I can’t really say more on it, as I don’t know the details. We’ll find out tomorrow. As for you, and your family, your presence was different. It tipped a scale.” Rory watched Milan take his first bite of food made outside home. “Is it good?” “Delicious,” Milan said, feeling like he might eat Rory’s share too. The short ribs were mouth-watering. They melted in his mouth as soon as he took a bite, his appetite surging like a beast. “Mm, we should eat here every day.” Rory grinned his approval and started on his food. “Were you upset about your mate being human?” Milan asked, curious. “Were you…disappointed?” “No.” Rory ignored his food to look at him. “Not even for a moment. I was just glad to have found my mate. I turned into a stalker to be honest. I lived on that tree behind the Takeda house for a few days, watching you.” “What?” Milan’s eyes wide at this revelation. “It was snowing out.” “I didn’t care. I just wanted to keep seeing you.” Milan gaped. “Come to think of it,” Milan narrowed his gaze. “Did you ever work at the grocery store?” Rory grinned. “Nope, but it was the only way I could meet you without freaking you out.” Milan sat back in his seat watching Rory pick up his fork and dig into his food. Any doubts in Milan’s heart disappeared with that confession. He didn’t know how he had gotten so lucky, but he would take it. All of it, the town, Rory, his being a wolf, it was all a blessing, he decided. Milan continued eating, their topic changing to Rory’s favorite music, especially when the band covered his song. Rory had a thing for the Bad Wolves. He’d heard their music in Rory’s car more than once. They laughed a lot, ate a lot, lost in their own world. When dessert came, Milan took a piece of vanilla cheesecake with his fork and he held it out for Rory. “Taste this.” Rory stood, taking his chair and brought it closer to Milan. Milan smiled when Rory sat and leaned closer to take in the bite of cheesecake. They were inches apart now, Milan shifted so that there was no space between them. His left shoulder brushing Rory’s right. He ate a bite of cheesecake too, looking up to Rory. Rory held his gaze. “It’s good, isn’t it?” Milan asked Rory, loving the taste of the cheesecake. He had so many things to taste. “I haven’t tried cheesecake before. I love it. I might get addicted to it.” Milan fed Rory a second bite and grinned when Rory leaned in to kiss him, sharing the taste of vanilla cheesecake. “You’d better be addicted to me first,” Rory teased, ending their kiss. ‘By the way, you’re hiding from me,’ Rory told him. ‘I’m sitting right next to you.’ Milan countered, taking another bite of cheesecake and holding it out to Rory. ‘I’m even letting you eat my cheesecake.’ ‘You know what I mean,’ Rory took the fork from him, and pulled the plate closer to his side. He took a huge bite of the cheesecake, and smiled at Milan. ‘Rory, you thief.’ Rory chuckled and fed Milan the next bite, making sure to make a mess of it. He leaned in and licked Milan’s chin and the corner of his lips, making Milan chuckle. ‘Cheesecake or Milan,’ Rory mused, pushing the empty plate aside. ‘I definitely prefer Milan.’ Milan rubbed Rory’s clean-shaven chin, charmed. The music changed, turning lively. There was a dance floor near the band. Milan watched as people moved to dance. “Let’s dance,” Milan suggested, getting up. He held out his hand to Rory. “Come on.” “Don’t want to talk anymore?” Rory asked, removing his jacket. He placed it on the back of his chair, allowing Milan to lead him to the dance floor. “Dancing is a way of talking too,” Milan said, when they reached the dance floor. Holding Rory’s hand, he swayed to the music. When Rory crowded behind him, and moved with him, he grinned because he wasn’t an expert at dancing, but it felt good to move to the beat with Rory. Rory touched him: his waist, his hips, up his arms, pressing little kisses on his neck setting him afire. The dancers around them turned into a blur, the music the only thing that filtered through. Beat after beat, he moved with Rory, until Milan turned to face Rory. A soft breath escaped when Rory pulled him in tight, their faces inches apart. Milan forgot the world. Rory’s blue eyes the only thing that mattered here and now. Milan rose up on his tiptoes, and closed the small distance between them, kissing Rory in the middle of a dance floor. Lost in the heat of the kiss, in Rory’s arms wrapping around him. He drew back when whistles and claps broke through. Heat suffused his cheeks as he realized they had an audience. Rory grinned, happy, and kept holding Milan when he tried to step back. Milan groaned and pressed his face into Rory’s chest. ‘You weren’t so shy a minute ago,’ Rory teased when they moved away from the dance floor, heading back to their table. ‘I don’t know what came over me,’ Milan sighed, rubbing his hot cheeks. ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ “I’m glad you did,” Rory said, sitting down in his chair. Milan excused himself to go to the bathroom. His face felt overheated and he needed to use the toilet. Milan finished peeing and moved to wash his hands at the sink. Staring at his face in the mirror, he bent over and splashed cold water on his face. When he looked in the mirror again, it was to see his brown eyes turned gold. He felt buzzed and hot, extra hot. Dancing with Rory did that to him. Having Rory’s hands on him set him on ablaze. Leaning over to splash more water on his face, Milan turned off the tap and straightened up. “It’s not the first time he’s touched you,” Milan said to the unfamiliar gold eyes he was starting to love. ‘There was the cave. You liked it.’ His cheeks burned thinking of that day at the cave. At the time, he had been so worried that his newfound connection with Rory was in danger. Then Rory brought him to the edge, and those thoughts disappeared. The ecstasy in that moment, Milan bit his bottom lip, remembering it to detail. He was hard, just thinking of it. He wanted more, and didn’t know how to ask for it. Milan wondered whether it was the same for everyone. Having Rory close made him want to rip all of Rory’s clothes off and explore to his heart’s content. That need so deep, he felt crazy with it. ‘If you come out here, we can get out of this restaurant and I’ll let you do that,’ Rory’s sexy voice filled his head, fueling the consuming need to fling himself into Rory’s arms. ‘Milan.’ The door to the bathroom opened and Milan sucked in needed air, hating the intrusion. He hurried out of the bathroom to avoid the very interested newcomer’s gaze. Back at their table, Rory stood watching him. Blue eyes shimmered with gold and Milan’s steps slowed at the answering fire in his blood. This night was no longer about a simple date. He saw it now. Rory took Milan’s jacket, and met him, taking Milan’s hand. Milan closed his fingers around a hot palm, feeling as though he clung to a live wire. Rory led him out of the restaurant and to their car in silence. Rory unlocked the doors, and opened the passenger door for Milan. When Milan started to go around him, Rory had other ideas. Pressing Milan against the car, dropping Milan’s jacket on his seat, he took Milan’s lips, kissing him hard, a beast starved. Milan clung to Rory, reaching up to wrap his arms around Rory’s shoulders. Rory used it as leverage lifting Milan, taking more, drowning Milan in their shared desire. *** Their true first time turned into an education. There was no elegance in their coming together, instead a mish-mash of sensation, a learning. Nips and caresses on soft skin, tickles, and squeezes, stubbed toes, torn zippers on jeans, and a band t-shirt with a ripped sleeve. They fell on their bed, pushing all the covers to the floor. Milan slid his palms over Rory’s hard stomach, tracing contoured muscles, trailing soft hair down, lower, to treasure. Rory’s hiss of pleasure when Milan took his length in his palms. Strong and powerful, holding Rory’s thick length was awkward at fast, but then it got familiar, obsessive especially when Rory went mad with pleasure. Milan could not forget the feel of Rory’s fingers gripping his hair when Milan decided to taste Rory. His shout of surprise when Milan sucked him and the tremble of Rory’s body when he came. Hours later, both of them slicked in sweat, Rory slid inside him, feeling too large, too much, Milan’s fingers dug into Rory’s arms. Pain bloomed amid the pleasure, Rory held him still when he would have moved. Milan closed his eyes, and fell into the depths of Rory’s love. Their bond snapped in place, a full vibrant color that shot through Milan’s very being, with no barrier left. Rory’s pleasure flooded him, pushing the pain aside, Milan gasped and met Rory’s gaze as Rory surged into him. Once, twice, countless times, heat building, burning. Milan accepted Rory’s open kiss, coming apart at the seams the deeper Rory took him. They turned into one, and when Milan couldn’t take anymore, he exploded with a cry, spilling between them. Rory kept going, hungry for Milan, taking what he had wanted for so long. Milan met his every touch, his every kiss, with his own, until they were both immersed in each other, thoroughly and completely. *** Morning came, bringing with it the sun through the windows with no curtains. Rory turned his head away, to find Milan tucked into his side, face buried into his shoulder. His soft breath brushed against Rory’s skin. Milan had flung a possessive arm over Rory’s chest, his thigh riding high on Rory’s right leg. The sheet Rory had found at around four in the morning tangled around them. Rory smiled, brushing his fingers through Milan’s hair so that he could see his mate’s face. Reaching for his phone on his side of the bed, Rory snapped a picture of them, and saved it as his wallpaper. Milan’s phone already had a picture of them at the green house holding their strawberry plant. Returning his phone to the bedside table, Rory was content to watch Milan sleep. He knew the exact moment that Milan woke up. Brown eyes with a mix of gold seeking him out, Milan’s arm tightening on him when he saw him. “Morning.” Milan blushed, a marvel after all they had done to each other last night. He buried his face into Rory’s shoulder. “Morning,” Milan said, his voice sexy low, it sent thrills through Rory. “You stayed today.” “No snow,” Rory said. “Plus, it’s a Saturday and the sun is out. It will be a warm day.” “I love sunny days,” Milan said, eyes closed, not moving from his comfortable position. Rory shifted, wanting to hold Milan. He pulled him into his arms, adjusting the sheet around them so that he could move his thigh between Milan’s, wanting more skin contact. Milan rubbed his legs against his, and yawned. “I wanna sleep some more,” Milan murmured. Red marks clear on his neck down to his shoulder, and the bite mark Rory gave him when turning him. It had not faded, remaining to show everyone that Milan was claimed. Rory traced the fading red marks, making Milan lean into him. “Sleep, Baby.” They spent the morning in bed. Milan slept, Rory read the One Piece manga Milan was reading, careful to keep Milan’s place marked with a bookmark. At ten o’clock, Milan woke up. Wide awake he sat up, kissed Rory with wild abandon, then rushed to the bathroom. Rory sat up with a laugh, marking his own place in Milan’s book. He placed it on the table on Milan’s side of the bed. Arranging their pillows, Rory paused when he found Milan’s leather drawing book hidden under the pillows again. Milan flushed the toilet in the bathroom, and Rory heard him open the shower stall door. Rory took Milan’s diary, curious about what Milan was drawing now. A pencil marked the last drawing Milan made, and it was a fantasy drawing of the pack house. Milan had given it a life of its own, turning it mystical and wondrous, with vines growing around it. “Do you like it?” Rory looked up to find Milan watching him from the bathroom door “It’s beautiful,” Rory said. “All your drawings are.” “You’ve been sneaking a look,” Milan stated, his tone matter of fact. Rory knew Milan would have discovered it through their bond. There were no secrets between them now. “To read your thoughts,” Rory said, closing the diary and returning it to its hiding place. “You put what you’re thinking about most in this one.” Milan studied him for a moment, and Rory waited for a scolding for the snooping. “Wanna take a shower with me?” Milan asked, and then entered the bathroom without waiting for an answer. Rory got out of bed fast, running after Milan. He wished they could laze around in bed all day, but they needed to get ready for the town meeting. He couldn’t wait to finish the troubles with Rick, so that he and Milan could have more time. That’s all he wanted, more and more time. ****
  12. 80 points
    Welcome to the family. Snowflakes drifted down, covering the windscreen making it difficult to see ahead. Ilaria sprayed antifreeze, and set the wipers to fast. The road was clear of traffic, it always was in this town. Her heart ached. Loving a brilliant man was hard. Loving children she wished to protect from everything in this world, harder. She swiped her right hand over her eyes when the road blurred because of her tears. “Mamma, you should let me drive,” Ayu suggested. “I prefer to driver, Ayu,” Ilaria said. She needed something to do. Otherwise, her head would explode from all the worry brewing inside her like a storm. Milan missing from the hospital left her breathless. His bouts of infection were barely under control. Who knew what he had picked up? She had checked the security footage at the hospital and seen Rory carry Milan out of his room. Her son bundled in a heavy dark jacket, his head pressed into Rory’s chest. She refused to acknowledge the fact that Milan had looked willing. She knew Milan. Knew how often he wished he could escape the suffocating nature of his illness, the helplessness of lying on a hospital bed. She knew because there were times she also wished she could take him away. She was both furious and envious of Rory Morgan’s ability to cut through the constraints. Furious because it could cost Milan his life, and that was just something she could not afford. Milan, her youngest, her baby. She did not ever want to think of putting him in the ground. No mother should bury her child. She wanted so much for Milan. She wanted to see him learn how to build the buildings he dreamed of, and see him travel to places he wanted. Experience everything in the world. She wanted to see him happy, and eventually married to a partner of his choosing. If Rory took that away, she would never forgive him. Tears filled her eyes again and she swiped them away fast, her foot heavy on the gas pedal as she raced to the Sheriff’s office in town. Her worry was two-fold. Her dear brilliant husband was in the ICU, installed in a bed right next to Milan’s room. Kiyo lost a lot of blood after suffering deep scratches on his chest from a vicious wolf attack. The paramedics who brought him in said that bastard Rick injured him when he tried to save Nisin. There was nothing to do for him but wait for him to wake up. Seeing Kiyo in a hospital bed felt surreal. Ilaria could barely believe it. Ilaria slowed down at an intersection, taking a deep breath, it came out harsh. She felt as though she could not breathe. Panic at the thought of losing two people she loved so much left her unable to move. “Mamma?” Ayu placed his hand on her knee, squeezing tight, bringing her back from a dark corner. “Ayu,” Ilaria brought the car to a stop and looked at her oldest son. He was a constant. Never complaining, giving up so much for the sake of his little brother. She knew well that he had given up Christina in Turin. How hard that must have been for him. Reaching out, she caressed his jaw and smiled. “Let’s go back to Turin when we get your brother. We’ll take Papa and Milan to a familiar place. They can both recover near family and people we know. It will be good for all of us.” “What about Milan?” Ayu asked. “He loves Rory. You’ve seen it. Will it be okay to separate them?” “Rory knows Milan’s condition and has placed him in danger like this, how can I accept him?” Ilaria shook her head. “No. It is better if we leave. Milan will forget him.” “What if it is real love?” Ayu asked. “Milan would never forgive us.” “If we reach Turin, and he gets better and wants to come back,” Ilaria said, determined to get Milan out of this town first. “Then, I’ll help him.” “Mamma.” “This is what I feel will be best, Polpetto. I’ve asked Marie to book the flights. I’m doing this for the family.” Ilaria said. “None of us have been happy here anyway. We should leave to forget all the bad things that happened in our house. To Milan. To Papa. This is best.” Ayu sighed, but he nodded agreeing. Ilaria leaned over and pressed a kiss on his cheek. She settled back in her seat and with a calming breath started driving, headed to the Sheriff’s office. *** Ilaria walked into the Sheriff’s office followed by Ayu. She stopped when she saw the four men standing in the middle of the room, amid a heated discussion. They all were tall, brawny, and dangerous. She remembered Connor from that first meeting at the hospital. Rory’s father. Yes, she remembered him well. Rory being a werewolf, meant he was one too. Probably the other three too. A small tingle of fear raced up her spine. The youngest of the four men looked about Rory’s age. His hands were in fists as he faced Connor. “Rowen’s mom just proved that Rick is responsible for mom and dad’s accident. Why is he being held in custody? Why hasn’t the Alpha killed him? All those who have suffered under Rick need closure. This is not right.” “Chris, Rory’s seeing to his mate—” “Then he should have ended Rick’s life in the duel. Rick deserves it. I won’t stand for it.” “Chris!” “You shouldn’t either,” Chris said, rounding on a man leaning on the counter. “Lechter, your whole life has turned into a mess because of Rick. Now that you know the Alpha’s mate is a human, do you think it will be easy to get away with all your propaganda? Rory won’t let you breathe another word against humans. Rick screwed you up.” “Chris, stop this now!” Connor ordered. “I understand you’re angry and this hurts but lashing out will not work for you. Your grievances will be heard as soon as Rory returns.” “Where is he anyway?” Chris asked. “Yes,” Ilaria said, gripping Ayu’s arm, her worry for Milan giving her courage. She led Ayu closer to the four men who frightened her. “Where is Rory Morgan? He has my Milan, doesn’t he? I’m here to make a complaint against him.” “Dr. Ilaria,” Connor said in surprise, staring at her. “Sheriff,” Ilaria said, her voice shaking. “Are you going to help me find my son?” “Your son is safe. I’ll take you to him when it’s time,” Connor said. “So, you know where he is?” Ilaria asked, in surprise. “Tell me, now!” “The hospital told me you were upset. That you would come here to look for me for help,” Connor said. “Please don’t worry.” “Don’t worry?” Ilaria stared at Connor in disbelief. “Do you think I’m just worried? My child, who has no immune system to speak of is out of the hospital with your son. I’m not worried, I’m going insane, Mr. Morgan. If you don’t let me see my son in the next few minutes, I will find silver and sink it into your main source of water.” Ilaria stated, her hands in tight fists. “Don’t think I won’t. How dare you people take him from me? How dare you!” “Dr. Ilaria,” Connor started, his tone meant to calm her. “Why don’t you sit for a minute, so we can figure this out?” “Don’t manage me,” Ilaria said, vibrating with anger. “If I don’t put eyes on Milan this instant, I’ll skin all the wolves in this town and make wonderful fur coats. I’m quite skilled with a scalpel.” “Mamma!” “Hush, Ayu. Your brother needs us and he’s in the hands of a bunch of mutts. Once I get my hands on him, I’m never letting that Rory Morgan near him again.” Ayu turned to Connor. “Look, she’ll keep insulting you, until you can’t take it anymore. So make it easy on all of us, and take us to see Milan.” Connor wiped his hand down his face. Ilaria looked like a wild pixie, her eyes glaring at him as though he was the devil incarnate. He really couldn’t help believing that she would skin them alive. Her clenched hands vibrating. She was afraid of him but she ignored it. She looked on the verge of hitting him. “Alright,” Connor held up his hands in surrender. “Where is my son?” Ilaria demanded. “He is not in the main town. I’ll need to discover how to get to where he is,” Connor said. “Meanwhile, do you think you can sit for two minutes?” Ilaria started to protest, and Connor lifted his hands to stop her. “I can’t work while you’re glaring at me like that,” Connor pleaded. “I’ll need to contact someone to get the exact location. It won’t be easy with you hovering.” “I don’t fucking care.” “I do,” Connor said, biting back a chuckle. Ilaria narrowed her gaze at him and he raised his hands again. “I promise to take you to your son.” “Don’t lie to me,” Ilaria said, pointing her index finger at him. “I won’t, I promise.” “Don’t try to run out of here, I’ll find you,” Ilaria warned. “I’m shaking in my boots at the thought,” Connor said with a quick grin. Ilaria hissed at him, then led Ayu to sit at the waiting area. She broke into rapid Italian as she talked to Ayu. Connor doubted any of what she said was in praise of him. Connor glanced at Chris, Lechter and Kutler, a brow raised. “I guess we should make arrangements to get to the Swamp Lands,” Kutler said, grinning at Connor. “She’s not moving from there.” **** ‘Mate.’ The word burst out of Milan. The sense of recognition ran deep, deep down to his soul. Profound awareness of how precious Rory was to him filled his heart. An absolute truth that would never change. He felt as though he had always known Rory was his. It was belonging. Fated. His violenza imperdonabile would be to even think of looking away from Rory, even a second felt unbearable. His heart sped up, and Rory smiled at him. ‘You can hear it?’ ‘Yes. I feel it too, that truth coursing through you like magic. You’re breathtaking, Milan.’ Milan blushed and started to sit up, all at once he was aware of his body being free of pain. Fatigue, his constant companion, who had plagued his every waking moment was now gone. It was a load off his shoulders. He could breathe easier, his eyes saw better, his sense of smell keen, so keen…he pulled Rory closer, wrapping his arms around Rory’s shoulders. Milan took a deep whiff and closed his eyes in bliss. ‘You smell like a perfectly balanced tart berry, tangy citrus and cream smoothie. I wanna take a bite. It’s insane how much I want to take a bite out of you, Rory Morgan.’ Rory chuckled again, and wrapped his arms tight around Milan, burying his nose into Milan’s neck. ‘Your scent is of mandarin oranges. You’ve driven me crazy with need since the day I saw you in the gazebo.’ Milan closed his eyes, holding Rory. ‘That feels like years ago.’ ‘Mere hours,’ Rory said, holding Milan tighter against him. Milan smiled into Rory’s shoulder glad for the pressure. It didn’t hurt to be held so tight. It felt liberating. He wanted to be even closer to Rory. ‘I’ve not had nearly enough time with you, Milan. I want more. Loads more.’ Milan chuckled and licked Rory’s neck, the gesture playful. The resulting wave of need left him trembling in Rory’s arms. He closed his eyes, his fingers tightening into Rory’s shirt. ‘What was that?’ ‘You must know,’ Rory moaned, and kept holding him. ‘Don’t tempt me right now. I’m barely holding myself back. If we were alone, I might have taken you right here, but Grandma Asta is watching us.’ Milan lifted his head from Rory’s shoulder and grinned when he saw Asta studying him with interest. She kept knitting the scarf on her lap. He wondered if she would miss a stitch, but she didn’t miss any. “Cucciolo, he calls you,” Asta said. “Childhood nickname?” “Yes,” Milan said, smiling at her. “My family has used it forever.” “What does it mean?” Asta asked, cocking her head to the side, her gaze studying him. “Little puppy,” Milan then laughed, the sound happy even to his ears. “I guess that is apt now. They must have had a premonition.” “Little Morgan and Little Puppy,” Asta added, making Milan laugh even more. “You won’t be laughing when you turn thirty and Grandma Asta is still calling you that,” Rory pointed out, rubbing Milan’s back not ready to let go. Milan pulled back so that he could look at Rory, still keeping his hands on Rory’s shoulders. “I wonder when she started calling you Little Morgan.” “I saw it when he was just a boy,” Asta said, winking at Milan when he looked at her. “Saw it?” Milan frowned, then bit back a laugh when Asta nodded to Rory’s shorts. “What?” “Grandma Asta!” Rory shouted at her. “Who told you to try and compare it to your father’s in front of me?” “I was six years old.” “Hence the name, Little Morgan.” “Enough,” Rory ordered, when Milan started laughing in earnest. But Milan didn’t stop. It felt good to laugh. Just to laugh, big belly laugh that sent happy tingles through him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed with such abandon. Rory kissed him and his laugh stopped, replaced by a new feeling. God, if he had known turning into a werewolf would make kissing Rory into a religious experience he would have done it sooner. It felt as though they were kissing for the first time. As though they had done it a million times too. Milan shifted onto Rory’s lap and deepened their kiss, forgetting Grandma Asta, the bed he now knelt on. The insane pain he endured to meet Rory on equal terms. Sinking his fingers into Rory’s hair, eyes closed, Milan indulged and reveled in a kiss that rendered him thoughtless. He might have lived in that state forever. “Milan Giovanni Takeda, get off that boy this instant!” His mother’s angry voice pulled him out of a very addictive blissful cloud and had him letting go of Rory, and standing up in shock. He had forgotten all about Ilaria and her fiery temper. ‘She’s using all my names. How long?’ Milan asked Rory, panic filling him when he saw his mother stalking toward him. Her hair a wild mess around her. She didn’t look as though she had slept a wink. ‘Almost two days,’ Rory said, getting up to stand beside him. Rory took a step forward, making sure Milan was behind him. ‘I’ll take it. I did this to her. I’ll take her anger.’ Milan reached for Rory’s left hand and held on tight, tangling their fingers as Ilaria stopped before Rory. Ilaria slapped Rory hard before he could speak, the slap rang through the large hall. Milan gasped when he saw the men walking in behind Ilaria take a step forward at the assault. He let out a relieved breath when Rory waved them to stop. “I can’t forgive you for this one,” Ilaria said, her eyes filled with tears. “How dare you take him from me? I asked you to leave him in the hospital. Now—” “Mamma,” Milan started to intervene. “Non, Milan. This is between Rory Morgan and me,” Ilaria said, holding Rory’s gaze. “You’ve broken trust with me. What do you think I should do?” “I will beg your forgiveness,” Rory said, his voice low, repentant. “I couldn’t take watching him in pain when I knew I could save him.” “Save him?” Ilaria shook her head and stepped forward, glaring at Rory. “From what? The hospital? From me? Do you know the worry Ayu and I have lived through? Can you understand it?” Milan moved between her and Rory then because he remembered Rory enduring unimaginable pain with him. Rory going crazy before making that final choice. Tears in Rory’s blue eyes. Their love for him humbled him, Rory’s love and Ilaria’s love, none of it was less than. He felt lucky to have them, but they needed to love each other too. “Mamma,” Milan said, letting go of Rory’s hand. He placed a warm hand on Ilaria’s left cheek, and met her stormy gaze. When she started to turn away from him, he cupped her face and leaned in. “Please look at me. Sto bene, Mamma. Look at me. See me. Tutto bene.” “Milan.” “I’m fine, Mamma,” Milan repeated, watching her eyes fill with tears. He pulled her into a tight hug and held her, hoping to fill her with all his new found strength. “I’m alright. Everything is fine, Mamma. You don’t have to worry so much anymore.” “Milan,” Ilaria cried into his shoulder, holding on to him. She smelled of sweet flowers, she felt precious in his arms, and Milan rocked her in his arms. He felt Rory’s ache for a mother seep into the edges of their bond. That bond so present, so strong, he couldn’t believe it. Yet, it was a foundation of all that was them. He wanted to explore it more thoroughly. Rory was right, they needed more time alone. ‘She’ll forgive you,’ Milan sent to Rory. ‘She might throw some dishes at you for a while, but, she’ll forgive you. Even Papa gets vases thrown at him from time to time. It comes with loving Ilaria.’ Rory moved closer to him, so that Milan felt his warmth on his back. ‘Where are we?’ Milan asked, looking around the large hall. ‘A place called the Swamp Lands. I’ll explain later.’ ‘You have a tank load to explain.’ Milan reminded him as he kept holding Ilaria. ‘We have time,’ Rory promised, his tone happy at the thought of the word time. ‘Right now, Mamma is a bit of a mess.’ Milan sighed and brushed damp hair from Ilaria’s forehead. Her hair was in tendrils, it needed a wash and a good brushing. He missed the glossy texture it usually had. “Mamma.” “Give me a minute,” Ilaria said, reverting to Italian. She pressed her forehead on his shoulder, and he felt her work at wiping her eyes, and blow her nose with a napkin from her jacket pocket. When she was done, she took in a deep breath and stepped back. With a critical eye, she brought her palm to his forehead. Milan let her knowing refusing it would hurt her. She checked his temperature and nodded when she felt no elevated heat. She reached for the hospital gown he wore, and pulled it to the side to check on his shoulder. Everyone in the room heard the soft gasp she gave when she found healed skin. No sign of the nasty wound from the knife, or the stitches from his surgery. With reverent fingers, she traced his soft skin and looked up to meet his gaze. Lastly, Ilaria took his left wrist and checked his pulse with her fingers. She was adept at it, after having done it most of his life. A minute later, she looked to Rory. “What did you do?” Ilaria asked, her tone clear. Rory could not lie to her. Milan realized this almost as soon as Ilaria asked her question. His devotion to Milan made it impossible for him to deceive Ilaria. “I’ve made him one of us,” Rory said, wrapping an arm around Milan’s waist, “because he’s my mate.” “Your mate?” Ilaria frowned, still holding Milan’s wrist. “Like a partner?” “Yes, a lifetime partner,” Rory said, his smile infectious. Milan smiled and turned to find his mother looking at him. “You agreed to this?” Ilaria asked, her gaze…speculative. “Of course, Mamma. You know how much I love Rory.” It was easy to see with his new eyes, the lines of doubt that traced Ilaria’s face. Her eyes fixed with a soft shadow, dampening her joy that he was now healthy and no longer in danger. He should have read relief in her instead, intense worry hit him so hard he stepped back into Rory. Ilaria nodded, biting her bottom lip, keeping her concerns to herself. Milan wished he could make her speak them aloud. If only to sort out the worry beating down on him. She reached up and cupped his jaw with a gentle hand. “My baby,” Ilaria said, her tone wistful. “You’re the one to surprise me at every step.” She took in a deep breath and smiled, though her smile did not reach her eyes. ‘She’s not happy,’ Milan lamented to Rory. ‘Why is she sad?’ ‘We’ll find out together,’ Rory assured him. Milan took comfort in that word, ‘together’. Rory was a rock, unshaken and immovable standing by him. He made Milan believe there was no problem they could not solve together. Ilaria patted his cheek, then took a step back, taking in a deep breath. “Papa is in the hospital,” Ilaria said. “I was worried about you, so I came out looking. Now that you seem fine, we must get back, Cucciolo. The doctors are waiting to let us know what’s next.” “What?” Milan gasped. “They say he was injured by Rick as he tried to save Nisin,” Ilaria explained, her voice trembling with stress. “I haven’t had a clear minute to think since he came in, and you disappeared. I needed to find you first, then now go back and watch over him.” “Oh God,” Milan wrapped his arms around Ilaria. “I’ll go with you to the hospital.” “Milan—,” Rory started. ‘My family needs me, Rory. Papa needs me,’ Milan sent to Rory, the private plea coming easy. He found this intimate form of connection easier with Rory. ‘Don’t stop me.’ Rory sighed, letting go of Milan with hesitation. “I’ll take you back,” Rory said, looking at Ilaria, his gaze pleading with her. Ilaria held on to Milan, frustration filling her when she looked at Rory. It was so clear in her eyes, Milan once again wondered why his mother was reacting this way. “You should change,” Rory said to Milan, touching the hospital gown he still wore Milan glanced down at his attire and agreed with Rory. “I had clothes brought from your house for you,” Rory said. “So that you’ll be comfortable.” Milan kissed Ilaria’s cheeks. “I’ll be right back, Mamma. We’ll go to Papa together. Where’s Ayu?” “Outside, everyone thought it would be easier if I saw you first,” Ilaria said. “Oh,” Milan frowned glancing at the four men standing by the door. He didn’t recognize them. One of them looked like Rory. The other two watched him with expectations. The last man stared at him with a mix of anxiety and dislike. Milan stilled. He could not help wondering what he truly knew about Rory’s life. What did he know about this man he now couldn’t live without? The thought shook him. ‘Don’t panic on me baby. Step by step, let’s get changed first,’ Rory assured him, squeezing his shoulders. ‘As for those men watching you, they are just worried about you. They stare because they are eager to meet you.’ ‘Stop making fun of me.’ ‘I’m not,’ Rory said, directing him toward the door. “Grandma Asta, please look out for Ilaria and Ayu. Make sure they get something warm to drink.” “Of course, Alpha,” Asta said, getting up and placing her knitting on the stool she had been using. She walked to Ilaria and pulled her into a warm hug. Milan turned to see his mother holding on to Asta like one might cling to a tree in a storm. The world was turning upside down for Ilaria. It hurt to see her so shaken. *** Elle showed Rory and Milan into her house, taking Milan to a neat bedroom with a bath so that he could freshen up. While Milan took a quick shower, Rory used a smaller bath just off the laundry room to wash up too. Splashing water on his face, he looked up into the mirror. Like Milan, he spotted subtle changes, his hair longer, the stubble on his jaw more, he felt stronger. Most of all, he was glad that he now had Milan. His mate recognized him, saw him and knew they belonged. They would sort out the rest in time. Rory smiled in the mirror, happy. He finished washing up, eager to get Milan alone sooner. “Rory,” Connor said, when he entered Elle’s living room fifteen minutes later and found him perched on the arm of a couch. Rory was waiting for Milan to finish his shower. He could feel Milan’s need for time alone, so he sat here, waiting: forcing himself to wait. Arms crossed against his chest as though it would help restrain him in place. He was glad for the distraction when Connor walked in. “Dad.” “Congratulations,” Connor said, coming to pat his shoulder. “Your mate is handsome.” Rory grinned, proud to call Milan his too. “His mother is one tough woman,” Connor said, sitting on the wooden coffee table, shaking his head. “She walked into the sheriff’s office ready to tear my head off if I didn’t help her find Milan. She’s going to be one heck of a mother in-law.” Rory smiled. “I can’t wait.” Connor chuckled then. “How bad is Kiyo?” Rory asked, and watched his father sober up fast. “It’s a werewolf injury on a human not mated with one of us,” Connor shook his head. “Unless he wants to live like Lloyd, there is no cure.” Rory closed his eyes, afraid of the thought of Milan in grief. One thing he knew was that no matter the differences Milan had with his father, the love existed. Kiyo’s death would devastate Milan. “We have to find a way to save him,” Rory murmured. “Ask Rowen’s mother for help.” “We might need to ask Iris,” Connor said, also folding his arms against his chest. “Sage checked him out and her skill set can’t help him.” “Iris,” Rory sighed. “Only Grandma Asta knows where she lives. She doesn’t let anyone else that close.” “Then talk to Grandma Asta before you leave,” Connor said. “As for you, the council needs your attention. They need a decision on Rick. Holding him in lockup is not helping anyone.” “What did Rowen’s mom find out?” “Rick did murder your mother, my sister and brother in-law,” Connor said, anger clear in his voice. “I can’t look at him without wanting him dead. With sanctuary talking to you, I figured there was a reason why you needed him alive. It’s not easy holding off Chris and Lechter from killing Rick.” Rory nodded, and stared at his boots. “I kept him alive for these people in the Swamp Lands,” Rory said. “Other than the crimes against The Morgan, Rick has made these people suffer. All because Sanctuary led Rosemary Lechter into the swamp lands for safety. Rick couldn’t get through, so he worked at terrifying them by killing children when they wandered into the swamp. They need closure. I want to pull them back into the fold and the only way to do that is to have them invited into the council. Have them resolve their long standing grievances.” Connor nodded. “I didn’t know there were so many. So many souls living out here. How did you know?” “The records in the attic,” Rory said, looking up at his dad. “I thought I would not be the only Alpha to have gotten a human mate. I found records of the McRieves that stopped in the eighteen hundreds. Matt and Topher helped me reach out to them. There is unknown deep history here. History we need to know and understand. I think we can use some of it to resolve Lechter’s prejudice.” Connor sighed. “I have been complacent,” Connor said. “My duty to this town failing. The only time I heard Sanctuary was when a challenge came. Those times I heard her clear and sound. I can’t believe there were people living in fear in Portento. That’s not supposed to happen.” ‘He heard me during a challenge because we wanted the same thing at the same time,’ Sanctuary murmured in Rory’s head. ‘Other times, his grief shut me out. Though I know his heart filled with joy when he looked at you.’ “Dad.” Rory placed a hand on Connor’s shoulder. He met Connor’s gaze, needing him to know that he understood. Losing Milan would send him to his knees, crawling in the dirt until he died too. He knew because watching Milan writhe in pain had just about done it. He didn’t ever want to live through anything like that again. Yet, Connor had lived through worse, and still done the best he could for the town, for him and Chris. “I’ll need your help, Dad,” Rory said. “I don’t know half of what I’m supposed to do now that I’m Alpha. I thought I was ready, but as I walked into that courtyard to fight Rick, I realized that it felt too soon. I feel overwhelmed already.” Connor sat up then, his shoulders straight. Rory smiled. “Anything you need, Rory.” “Thank you,” Rory squeezed Connor’s shoulder. ‘You don’t need help,’ Milan teased in his head, and he glanced up to see Milan standing by the bedroom door. ‘I can feel how capable you are, Rory. You’re looking forward to the challenge of it all. You just said that because you’re afraid for him.’ Rory stood and held out his right hand for Milan. Milan walked up to him, taking his hand, smiling when Rory pulled him into his arms. ‘He’s my dad. Even after all these years, he is still grieving for mom. Involving him will distract him. I’m going to introduce you to him now. Ready?’ Milan clutched Rory’s hand tight as he turned to face Connor. ‘Ready.’ “Dad, I’d like you to meet Milan Takeda, my mate.” Connor stood too, looking at Milan, his expression warm. Their meeting was overdue, Rory had meant for Connor to meet Milan before the change. But this worked too. “Milan, this is my dad, Connor Morgan.” “Nice to meet you,” Milan said, holding out his right hand to Connor. A beautiful smile on his lips, it made Rory want to kiss him. Connor took Milan’s hand, shook it, and then pulled him out of the security of Rory’s arms. Rory let go of Milan and watched his father hold Milan in a tight hug. “I welcome you to my family, Milan,” Connor said, meeting Rory’s gaze. “Thank you for making my son so happy.” ***
  13. 79 points
    Blood Born Right Rory could only remember three instances of an alpha challenge in Portento. Once, when Connor turned eighteen and was about to take over the role of Alpha from his father. Connor’s father insisted Connor take on the challenge to prove that he was ready to take on protection of the town. Connor won the challenge of course, but that meant that he was now acting Alpha, allowing his father to take a step back. The second time was before Rory’s mother died. Rory was too young then to understand the situation. His mother had forced him and all the kids in the pack house to be kept safe through the fight. When it ended, Connor came into the house wearing the challenging wolf’s blood, without a single scratch on him. The challenger disappeared never to be heard from, Rory didn't know his name. The last challenge came when Rory was fifteen, from a newcomer into the community who had thought to take on the challenge of Alpha. His name was David Brown, a werewolf who had moved in from the south escaping hunters. Finding Portento a jewel worth coveting, David walked in to the pack house compound and challenged the Alpha. That fight did not take long. Three minutes and Connor flattened David on the ground after breaking every bone in his body, and shaming him from staying in Portento. The Alpha of the Portento Pack took all challenges on his role serious. The right to Alpha might be blood born but the show of strength mattered. To keep the town secure, and free of idiots who thought they could come in and try to take over. Rory was eighteen now, about to take on his role as Alpha. He had trained for this position all his life, looked forward to it. Yet, now…he was surprised to feel reluctant to take on the role. Rory walked into the Biosense compound, a frown playing on his forehead. His thoughts on Milan and how still and small his mate looked in his hospital bed. He wanted to be at the hospital, waiting with Ilaria and Ayu. It pained him to be here to see Rick fight his father. It annoyed him. Even though it was evening, it was easy to see that the Biosense Complex was impressive with a courtyard in the middle designed to allow staff to sit on benches and enjoy nature. There was damage on the face of the building now. June’s security team was not kind when they infiltrated the complex. Determined werewolves caused absolute distraction. Doors ripped out of their frames, walls crumbling in parts, glass broken. Rory felt pity for the Biosense staff who he saw being herded into a large hall by Matt and a few others from the security team. Walking into the courtyard, Rory paused when he saw Cade Ogawa kneeling on the cold ground. Topher standing beside him, his nails digging into Cade’s left shoulder. The pack would not be kind to anyone who dared play with wolf blood. Cade Ogawa’s future was already decided. Nisin stood with Jack a few feet apart, tears tracking down his face. He was wrapped tight with a blanket, and a mask over his nose and mouth. Nisin looked too pale, still unwell. There was fear in his eyes, and an angry aura around him. ‘Jack, your mate doesn’t need to see this,’ Rory said, noting Jack’s protective stance. ‘Get him out of the cold. He is not well enough for this.’ ‘I’ve tried a few times. He won’t go,’ Jack said, his misery clear. ‘He wants to know what happens to his dad.’ Rory sighed and brought his attention to the four men standing in the center of the loose circle made by the pack security team. Connor, Lechter and Kutler surrounded Rick in a tighter circle. Rick stood with his hands in fists, his eyes bright yellow, clearly revving up for a fight. “I challenge the Morgan Alpha for the right to rule. The right to protect. The right to run this pack into a progressive future,” Rick said, when he caught sight of Rory. “I don’t think that the Morgan Alpha is right for the pack.” ‘Dad.’ Connor turned and looked at Rory. ‘You are to be Alpha. I want you to fight this challenge.’ Rory started to protest, but then Lechter and Kutler also looked to him with expectation. “The future will be yours, Rory.” Kutler spoke for the benefit of the rest of the pack members present. “Rick challenges, a Morgan Alpha must respond. Do you accept the challenge?” Rory clenched his jaw, taking in the expectant gazes from the pack members. He could not refuse a challenge. Not here. Not like this. Rory took in a deep breath, and nodded his assent. Conner, Lechter and Kutler started to move away. “Wait,” Rory said, his gaze on Rick. “Before we get into a fight to the death. I need to know, why? Principal Rick is a respected member of this town. He has an entire school of students who look up to him. He is a council member. He has seemed happy among us. Why would he decide to challenge the Morgan for Alpha?” “Because,” Rick smiled, a nasty curve of his lips that made Rory’s skin crawl. “Leadership in this pack is ignorant of what’s important.” “And what’s important?” Connor asked, stepping aside to allow Rory into their circle. Rick’s fingers clenched tighter. “For months, I’ve talked to Lechter about the presence of humans in Portento. Ever since the Mayor signed a deal with Biosense, they have increased in number. Leading up to the family of humans now living in plain sight. Rory Morgan frequents the Takeda house, and even sleeps there. Don’t think I haven’t watched you, Rory Morgan. You like kissing the youngest one, Milan.” “You have no right to speak his name,” Rory said, anger brewing. “You stabbed him while he was defenseless.” “I can’t believe you are defending a human,” Rick said. “That should be the first clue as to why you are not the one to lead this pack. Am I right, Beta Lechter? I know you agree on my views.” Rory looked to Lechter, his gaze accusing. “I might not agree with the presence of humans in this town, but causing injury to them when they have done nothing is wrong,” Lechter said. “That’s not what I want. I’m only asking that we do not have them so close to our borders. Once again, I remind everyone, we have all suffered in some way at the hands of a human. I was only trying to protect the town.” Rick narrowed his gaze, then pointed a claw at Lechter. “You’ve been walking around town asking everyone you could to support your idea to kick out Biosense. Here we are now, inside the beast itself. If I had not collaborated with the human at Topher’s feet, do you think you would be able to enter this facility?” “Your collaboration exposed our kind,” Kutler pointed out. “Your blood is corrupted with chemicals from Cade Ogawa’s private lab. You chose to betray us to him. Lechter’s agendas are misguided, but not as grave as your crime, Rick.” “My crime,” Rick scoffed, looking around the courtyard. “I’m at fault? Of course. The three of you never look beyond tradition. Never look beyond what your ancestors laid out for this town. Never want to expand the town, or take advantage of our superior existence to gain more from this world. What’s the point of sitting in a council with you? What’s the point of deciding who will babysit the elders this week? Or join in the stupid community activities when we could be taking over the state?” Rory couldn’t help his chuckle, drawing Rick’s gaze. “Why are you laughing?” “I’m amused,” Rory said, folding his hands against his chest. “All of these because you want to govern a state? Rick. No one stopped you from getting in your car and driving out of Portento. Better yet, change into your true form and run the distance, right to the capital. Go do it. Why do you need us?” Rick narrowed his gaze. “The power in this town is unprecedented. You can turn it into money, use it to control strongholds, rule the humans promising them health and wealth—” “Let me stop you there,” Connor interrupted Rick. “This is the most elaborate plan I’ve ever had the annoyance to deal with. I will give you credit for playing the long game. I had no idea you wanted to challenge a Morgan.” Rick smiled. “Yes. That was the beauty, wasn’t it? Sitting across you in the council, watching you try to figure out why anyone would pull Chris Morgan into a race. That was fun to watch. It was too bad that the nice human doctor did not find out about us then. I didn’t expect you to visit Chris in the hospital so soon. Or have Ilaria Takeda moved out of rotation so fast.” “You instigated Dolon,” Rory said, remembering Chris wondering why Dolon would come after him. “It was easy too,” Rick shrugged. “I’ve watched over you two enough to understand your triggers. When Dolon’s plan didn’t work, I knew you wouldn’t rest until you found him.” “So you took Dolon from the hospital to silence him,” Kutler said, looking to June who finally had a riddle solved. “Then found Lechter to push the seed of doubt in his mind about humans kidnapping Dolon.” “Dolon was the perfect subject,” Rick said with a nod. “He came in handy as I needed Cade Ogawa to understand what he had found in this town. You see Cade is sitting on a few billions in this complex. He wanted a cure for his son, I promised he could find one if he helped me out.” “What would Cade help you with?” Connor asked. “Becoming the alpha of the pack,” Rick grinned. “Cade gets access to the town’s people to perform all the research he could want. I’m glad you’ve taken care of him for me right now. He’s a tad self-absorbed. I’m quite sure I would have ended up killing him as the plan progressed.” “To what?” Rory asked, with a frown. “Only the strong can survive, Rory Morgan. With Kiyo’s infusions, I plan on making a very formidable army that can expand Portento’s borders. I will drag us all into the future you are too afraid to step into. Make the humans bow to us.” “I'm surprised you haven't noticed that the infusions are poison to our kind,” Rory said. “Lloyd, Dolon, and you. Have you not seen the corruption in your bodies? Dolon’s wolf was grey, now his fur has turned to black with corruption. The human Lloyd is rotting from the inside out. By the way, he used your blood to turn into a wolf. Which is forbidden. You broke the law. What about you? Kiyo's infusion is not the first thing you've used. Your blood is tainted adding Kiyo's infusions makes you worse.” “But, I’m stronger,” Rick insisted. “Strong enough to fight a Morgan Alpha. When I win, this town will have no choice but to bow to me in respect.” Rory nodded, understanding there was no need to push for more answers. Rick was beyond reasoning. Rory looked to Connor. ‘Will you fight him?’ Connor asked again. ‘Yes.’ Rory agreed, this time with conviction. ‘Goddess be with you,’ Connor said to him, urging Lechter and Kutler to step back to join the others. Rory stretched his arms out, the air cool against his skin. The temperatures had lowered considerably without the sun. The lights from the building illuminated the courtyard well enough. He was conscious of the security team creating a tight circle around the courtyard leaving no room for escape. This was the first challenge on Rory’s leadership. If he failed, the pack would disintegrate into corruption under Rick’s rule. He had no choice but to win. *** Rick was strong. Stronger than Rory expected. He had taken enough of Kiyo’s infusions to turn his body into an unbreakable machine. Rory chose to face him in his human form. Which worked for Rick, he had spent most of his time training in his human form too. Drawing on the strength he had nurtured, he met Rory in close combat. No weapons allowed on either side. Rory was fast, but not swift enough to escape Rick’s unrelenting, determined blows. Tension filled the courtyard each time Rory fell to the ground, spitting out blood from one of Rick’s powerful blows to his face, his stomach, his chest, his side. Rick knew a fast win was best. Rory was younger, healed faster, but he was also less experienced. So Rick called on his experience, pummeling Rory, beating him down with all his strength. When Rory fell on the ground, his mouth filled wit blood, Rick bent over him, and rained fist blows on Rory without a break, determined to end the young Morgan. He was lucky Connor had chosen not to fight this challenge. Rick congratulated himself on waiting right when the young Rory was supposed to take over leadership. Eighteen was a magical year for Morgans, but this time, the Morgans would have to leave this town for good. Stepping away from Rory after a particular rough blow, Rick stood a few feet away from him, with a happy smile when Rory gave a painful moan. Rory rolled to his left side groaning with pain. Rick waited, unworried. Confident. It would be easy to finish Rory now. Rory was not Connor, the seasoned Alpha, but a fledgling. The Portento Pack would soon be his. *** The cold ground pressed on his side. Rory spit out blood, and stared at the red contrast on the snow. He ached with pain. Rick was no pushover. Rory knew he had underestimated Rick’s determination. After all, Rick was a highly-seasoned warrior with enough strength to flatten intruders and join the council to fight alongside his father. Sitting up, Rory looked around the circle of wolves watching him with yellow eyes. Tension rising, he could feel their hopes pressing on him. Their fear growing the longer he sat on the ground. The more Rick beat him down. ‘Rory,’ Connor’s voice filled his head. ‘Reach for the town’s power, fight with your heart, son.’ Rory pushed himself to his feet, blood dripping from a cut on his arm to the ground. He clenched his fists and stared at the drop seeping deeper into the cold soil. Closing his eyes, he thought of Milan lying in a hospital bed. His mate already bound to him in love, if not blood. The thought of never seeing him again left Rory shaking. ‘You wish to protect him,’ a soft quiet feminine voice filled his head, making Rory’s eyes open in shock. He looked around the circle searching for the owner of the voice. He didn’t find her, only June watching him in apprehension. ‘Yes.’ Rory answered the voice. A soft delighted chuckle filled his head, and warmth filled him where the cold had started to seep in. ‘You remind me of the First. Your love is pure. I admire it. You have much to repair in Portento. Trust in your heart, Little Morgan. Reach for the town, it will answer.’ Not understanding what that meant, Rory faced Rick again, rolling his shoulders to ease the tension in his muscles. Knowing he could not let Rick win this fight. For Milan’s sake, for the pack and the souls living in the Swamp Lands. Even for Cade Ogawa, and Kiyo Takeda who had been pulled into a plot not of his making. Rory took in a deep breath and went on the offense, gritting his teeth when Rick blocked his attacks, moving fast enough to evade his punches. It was frustrating. Rory went after Rick again, working harder to hit him, only to be blocked over and over. ‘Stop and still your mind,’ that soft voice ordered, when he missed Rick again. Rory closed his eyes and stood still in a moment when he should have dodged the coming hit. Rick smiled, thinking Rory was giving up, and came at him, his fist heavy and aimed at Rory’s left temple. The moment Rory stopped thinking too much, power filtered into him, sinking into his very bones, he felt like he was flying high and grounded at the same time. He felt Rick’s fist coming at him, and moved back in time to miss the hit. Rick tried again, and again, his frustration rising each time Rory dodged his fists. Then Rory grabbed Rick’s right fist, and with all the power surging through him, he broke Rick’s arm. Fueled forward, Rory broke Rick’s left arm, turned him and kicked out Rick’s knee, sending it into an odd angle that had Rick falling to the ground with a scream. Rory stepped away from Rick and watched him writhe on the ground in pain. ‘Do you wish him dead?’ that soft voice asked in his head. Rory stared at Rick. ‘No.’ Rory shook his head. ‘Your soul is true. Not his though. He has murdered many,’ the voice repeated, heavy with sadness. ‘The dead hidden in the swamp waters, their blood staining the town. Silent deaths. We mourn.’ Rory knelt down beside Rick and grabbed his neck, sickened by this revelation. “Confess your crimes,” Rory ordered, his fingers digging into Rick’s neck. “Now, if you wish to keep breathing.” “Why are you so strong? I had you. What changed?” Rick asked, choking on Rory’s hold. “Why is it no one can win against a Morgan for this town?” Rory smiled, only now understanding the voice in his head. “The town has to choose too,” Rory said, his voice low in wonder. “Every soul in this town is here hoping for a quiet future, happiness, love…fueling the town’s power. Your hopes turned corrupted, Rick. She can never choose you.” “That’s some bullshit,” Rick said, shaking his head on a choke. “I’m not sorry for trying to bring you down, Morgan. I’ve always hated your family. Since the day Asta kicked out my uncle for making the council vote against a wolf and his human mate. Your family watched her do it and did nothing to help him. He was killed by a lone wolf outside the borders. I’ve hated you all since.” Connor sighed and walked up to Rory and Rick. “What do you wish to do with him?” Connor asked Rory. “You are now Alpha. Your judgment stands.” The whisper in his head made Rory pause, as he let go of Rick. Standing, he met his father’s gaze. “When did you stop hearing the town’s whispers?” Rory asked, worry in his eyes as he looked at his father. Connor gave him a sad smile. “The day your mother died.” ‘His grief pushed the town's hopes out,’ the feminine whisper filled Rory’s head. ‘We’ve mourned over the loss for years. He never heard our call when the one on the ground went unchecked.’ ‘I don’t understand,” Rory frowned. ‘The one on the ground murdered Johanna Morgan, Leona and her husband,’ that soft voice whispered, heavy with sorrow. ‘Rosemary Lechter witnessed his crime by mistake and he went after her to silence her. He injured her severely but I led her to the swamp lands. She was injured. i cannot tell if she survived. Afraid that she might emerge alive, this man terrorized those in the swamp lands. Sinking their children into the swamp waters until they were too afraid to meet their Alpha. He has since worked on making sure Lechter campaigned against humans.’ Rory fell to the ground on his knees, his gaze on Rick, anger burning hot. “You murdered my mother,” Rory accused Rick, making everyone standing around them gasp in shock. “You made it look like humans killed them on the outskirts of the town, but it was you. You killed her and Aunt Leona.” Rick’s gaze went wide. “How did you know that?” “There is more to this town than meets the eye,” Rory said, shaking his head. “What about Rosemary Lechter? Why?” "What?" Lechter surged forward. “What are you saying?” Rory turned to look at his father’s Third. He saw it now, this man who had worried him was only responding to the grief of losing his mate. The living pain in Lechter, was the same pain that had pushed Connor into oblivion. ‘Seek out those in the swamp lands for more answers,’ the feminine voice advised. ‘What do I call you?’ Rory asked, standing up, his gaze returning to Rick who still lay broken on the ground. ‘Sanctuary,’ she said. ‘That’s what Portento is to those who need it. Like Milan Takeda and his family, and the little one, Nisin. Your mate needs you now.’ Rory let out a soft breath and as the voice faded away, he met his father’s knowing gaze. With a wide smile, Rory looked around the courtyard, meeting gazes of respect from the wolves present. “Rory.” Kutler placed a strong hand on his shoulder. “Congratulations on winning your first challenge.” Rory nodded and pointed to Rick. “Before you kick him out, ask Rowen’s mother to search his memories. He has truths about Rosemary Lechter’s fate. Also about my mother, aunt and uncle. I need to go now.” “Where are you going at a time like this?” Lechter asked, still looking shell shocked. “To my mate, Milan Takeda. He’s going to be your moon,” Rory stated, gaining another round of surprised gasps. “Matt and Topher can handle the rest with your help.” Rory couldn’t help laughing in delight as he hurried out of the Biosense Complex eager to get back to the hospital. He no longer had to worry about the town accepting Milan. All he needed now was to fulfill the mating bond with Milan and all would be well. Portento had called Milan home. **** Milan woke to numb pain and the sound of a heart monitor. The blank ceiling was unfamiliar, but it was enough to tell him he was in a hospital. The harsh scent of sterilizer filled his nostrils. Well, at least he was not in a clean room was all he could think. Milan shifted his head to his right and wasn’t surprised to find his brother sleeping on a chair, a blanket around his shoulders. Ayu looked uncomfortable but in deep sleep. Waking him would be cruel, so Milan swallowed hard and turned to his left. Ilaria rested her head on his bed by his knee, her hand on his thigh. She had a blanket over her back, as though someone had come in and draped it over her with care. Milan wondered where his dad was, but imagined Kiyo was probably out there terrorizing the doctor in-charge. It was typical. The last time he was in a hospital, the doctor in-charge threatened to kick his family out if they didn't stop micro-managing. Biting back a soft chuckle, Milan shifted on the bed, taking stock of his body. His left shoulder was numb, and his left arm was in a sling. The IV lines were installed on his right hand. He brought his right hand up to push hair out of his eyes, careful of the lines. The glass door slid open and Milan dropped his hand down to stare at Rory. His boyfriend had a faint bruise on his left eye, and a red spot on his lip. “Rory,” he whispered out, not wanting to wake his mother and Ayu. “Shh…” Rory came up to the bed, moving around Ilaria with care. Milan’s breathing hitched, and he blushed when his heartbeat increased when Rory leaned down and kissed him on his lips. Rory smiled and looked into his eyes. “There you are,” Rory murmured, stroking hair out of Milan’s eyes. “You were out for three days. I worried.” “Three days!” Milan frowned. “Why? I—" “Infection set in on the first night here. You got such a high fever it drove you into delirium.” Rory shook his head. “We’ve all had a rough time waiting for you to fight it off. Mamma, especially, since she’s had to fight her way into the medical team taking care of you. No one wants to have a parent doctoring their child around.” Milan sighed and looked to his mother. “She gave them hell I bet,” Milan smiled. “Like the Italian firebrand she is,” Rory said, pride in his voice. “Thank you for waking up. I missed you.” Milan smiled then, accepting Rory’s kiss. “I missed you too.” Rory swept hair out of Milan’s eyes, pushing it back, his blue eyes intent on Milan. “Milan," Rory said, his voice quiet, careful not to wake Ilaria and Ayu. "I want to take you away from here. I’ve tried to do it several times since you came in, but your family is very stubborn.” “Where do you us to go?” Milan asked. “Somewhere I can help you,” Rory said. “Take away the pain for good. Would you like that?” Milan held Rory’s gaze for a minute, then looked to Ayu and Ilaria. Their constant worry whenever he was in hospital was hard to take. He sometimes wished there could be an end to his illness. Meeting Rory’s gaze, he smiled. “I would.” “Okay.” Rory kissed his forehead. “We have to be quiet. Otherwise, your mother might never allow me near you again.” Milan nodded and watched Rory turn off the machines monitoring his condition. When the machines were off, Rory unhooked the IV from Milan, and removed all the other lines attached to Milan. Rory picked Milan from the bed, careful not to wake Ilaria. Milan buried his face into Rory’s chest as Rory made a quiet getaway into the well-lit hallway. They took an elevator that led to the back of the hospital. Matt and Topher met Rory at the exit, pausing only to cover Milan with a heavy jacket. It was dark outside. “What time is it?” Milan asked, when Rory slid into the back of a black SUV. “Just after midnight,” Rory answered, helping Milan wear the heavy black down jacket. He zipped it up over Milan’s left arm that was still in a sling, then wrapped a scarf around Milan’s neck, and mouth. “Are we going to the arctic?” Milan teased, his arm still numb from the excellent pain meds. Rory pulled the furry hood over Milan’s head, and pressed a kiss on his forehead. “Close,” Rory said. “Happy birthday, Milan.” Milan smiled wide. “Is it really Feb. 11th?” Rory nodded, and pulled Milan into his arms again. “I’m seventeen,” Milan said, cuddling closer into his boyfriend. “You are,” Rory said. “And what a beautiful seventeen it’s going to be.” Matt and Topher sat in the front. Matt driving while Topher spoke low on his phone. Milan watched them for a bit, before he closed his eyes content to be in Rory’s arms. A small part of him felt bad for leaving his family in his hospital room. For the most part, he was glad to escape because knowing his condition, he was looking at a month long stay before anyone thought he could leave. Hospitals could be suffocating places. It was better to be out here with Rory on a strange midnight adventure. ***
  14. 77 points
    “Careful, Aba.” Owen steadied Olga by the elbow as she stepped on the temporary treads. Saturday morning visits to check on the Capitol Hill house remodeling progress were a regular occurrence. “The stairs will be back to normal soon. We decided to get new steps to match the new floors.” “The house is so big for just the two of you and a baby. Cleaning’s going to take a lot of time.” Following his grandmother and husband, CJ dismissed her concern. “Something none of us will have to worry about, Aba. We’re hiring a service to do it.” Ritchie had been to Miami a couple of times in the past few weeks. Once, to organize and help coordinate the move. Another, to supervise the packing company. Done, he flew back to Washington with Olga. She was staying at the Georgetown townhouse as they had discussed; this was the first tour of her future abode since arriving. “But why did you need such a large place? You could have bought something smaller. Something less expensive.” Olga often seemed to forget money was not an obstacle for her grandsons. Having grown up in modest surroundings, she often commented on what she called the siblings’ extravagant ways. “First, it’s not just CJ and me and the baby, Aba. You’ll be here too. And we hope she won’t be the last great-grandchild we give you. We want more.” “And then there’s Owen’s family in Australia. We want to have room for them to stay with us. Same with our other out of town friends. We figure Chipper will be a regular visitor. And his sister Cristina might stay here whenever she comes to DC.” “Is that the girl in New York? The one getting divorced?” CJ grinned and nodded. Damien Prado’s attempt to coerce his wife into being a full-time homemaker had backfired. He forced himself on her wanting to get her pregnant again but instead found himself being served divorce papers soon after. Ethan Feldman was her lawyer, and he epitomized the image of divorce attorneys as sharks. Damien would regret his actions for a long time. When Ethan was done with him, he would have to give up a high percentage of his assets and future income. “That’s her. You’ll meet her and her baby daughter soon. Our friend Brad’s been talking to her a lot. She promised she’d come to DC as soon as she settles into her own apartment. Before she starts working again. She’s been staying at our place in New York for the past couple of months.” Throughout most of the house, drywall was up with bare studs visible in a spot or two. The third-floor master suite was the furthest along. Olga pointed at a stack of raw wood by the front window. “What’s that for?” “Baseboards, door casings, crown molding, and chair rails for the nursery. One day it’ll be an office for CJ and me. What do you think, Aba?” “I’m sure it’ll be beautiful, but I’m still not convinced you needed this big a place.” “Too late, Aba.” CJ gave his grandmother an affectionate, noisy kiss. “Okay, let’s talk about one of the main reasons Ozzie and I wanted to bring you over today. The baby will have her room next to ours, but we thought you’d like to pick yours. Either one of the middle floors and either front or back of the house.” “The lower one, so I can be closer to the kitchen. I don’t care which bedroom. Can we put your rocking chair in the front space of the same floor?” A warm smile lit up Olga’s face when she looked at her grandson. Owen was familiar with the referenced item; it was one of the few pieces of furniture the woman kept when her house sold, and most of its contents were disposed. “Why do you call it CJ’s rocker, Aba?” The smile on her face grew, and her eyes appeared unfocused as if she was lost in memories. “Because we bought it when he was born. I rocked CJ and Ritchie to sleep on it a lot. It’ll be nice to do the same thing with your daughter.” “Perfect!” The connection his kid would have with him and his brother excited CJ. “We’ll make that the girls’ floor. When she’s ready, we’ll move the baby to the bedroom next to yours. The piano can go in the same area as the rocker.” “What piano?” “We’re buying one sooner or later, Aba.” Owen’s expression was a mixture of sadness and anticipation. “My sister used to play, and we hope at least one of our kids will want to learn.” Anticipating the baby’s birth and the move to their house, CJ and Owen were not meticulous about organization. Amazon deliveries of baby supplies and household items multiplied as both events neared. Stacks of cardboard boxes bearing the company’s lopsided-smile logo were stacked everywhere. Amidst the chaos, fatherhood crashed into their lives like a tsunami. A groggy CJ reached for his phone. “Hello?” “CJ? Hi. It’s Valerie. Gina’s friend?” He heard imaginary alarms in his mind. “Valerie, yes, of course. Is something wrong with Gina?” CJ glanced at a stirring Owen next to him. “No, no, nothing’s wrong.” She sounded extremely chirpy. “But you guys may want to get over to the hospital. Her water broke and contractions started already.” “You’re with her?” When he looked over to his side, Owen’s eyes were open. “I’m gonna put you on speaker. Ozzie’s awake. It’s Valerie.” “Good morning, Ozzie. Yeah, I’m at her place. I’ve been staying here for the past few days. Listen, she’s ready to go. I need to hang up so I can order an Uber. We’ll see you at the hospital.” Alternating waves of elation and fear battered CJ as he and Owen readied to head out. For the first time in longer than he could recall, CJ felt insecure. “I’ll drive. You take the bag.” For once, Owen was alert and not complaining about waking up early. “I’ll stop in front of 7-11. You run in and get us coffees. Okay?” “Yeah… I have a feeling it’s going to be a long day.” CJ glanced at his phone and groaned. “Fuck! Three in the morning! Why can’t women go into labor during normal hours?” Owen’s chuckle relieved some of the stress they both felt. “Asshole! Okay, you run in, and I’ll e-mail my boss. When are we going to text people?” “Let’s wait ’til sunrise at least. We’ll let the dads know, and they can start calling others then.” “Okay, I’ll reach out to Australia when we get to the hospital.” Hands and arms washed, and wearing gowns over their street clothes, CJ and Owen stood to the side of the delivery room. Each of Gina’s contractions and accompanying grunts over the previous hours had made them jump. “You guys can come closer if you want. I promise not to bite.” Gina’s feeble smile faded as another contraction rocked her. Valerie held her hand and encouraged her to breathe. When she signed up for Lamaze classes, Gina had asked CJ and Owen if they minded her partner being a friend of hers. The men raised no objections. Instead, they encouraged her to do what made her feel better. As CJ put it, she was giving them a gift. The most precious gift possible. Even though they were paying her a fee and all expenses, Brett and César insisted on doing something special for the woman facilitating their first grandchild. Gina would return to her native Alaska with no outstanding student loans. “I think we’re about ready, let’s get the doctor in here,” the nurse staring between Gina’s spread legs said. “She’s sufficiently dilated.” Finally, at 9:50 a.m. on April 22, 2020, the newest Abelló came into the world. The obstetrician snipped the umbilical cord; CJ and Owen had arranged for cryogenic storage of the cord blood and stem cells extracted from the placenta. The nurse wiped the newborn and approached the new fathers. “Okay, guys, you have a perfectly formed daughter. Congratulations. You said you brought your own blanket to wrap her? Who gets to hold her first?” Unable to form words, CJ nodded, reached into the backpack they’d carried, and pointed at Owen. At last, he found his voice. “Let him hold her”—he draped a white cotton cloth over his husband’s outstretched arms—“this is the same blanket Ozzie, his brother, and his sister were wrapped in when they were born.” Pam Liston had sent it to them months before with a note explaining its significance. While Owen held the baby and rocked her, CJ took his phone out and snapped a couple of pictures; they had been so engrossed in what was happening, they had not contacted anyone yet. “I’m sending it out, Oz.” “Don’t forget my mum, dad, and Spence. What are you saying?” CJ had been typing after taking the shot; smiling, he turned the screen around so his husband could see it. The inability to articulate his thoughts, to pair emotions and words was new. It was impossible to tear his eyes away from the wrinkled face visible from the fabric-wrapped bundle in Owen’s arms. The message sent to family, The Squad, and The Elite was simple: Elizabeth Liston Abelló is alive and kicking! CJ’s smile grew when he saw it was Ritchie calling. Sidwell Friends School did not allow cell phones on during school hours, but CJ knew his brother had been flaunting the restriction for the last week, anticipating the birth. “Gratz, big brother! Or should I start calling you, Daddy CJ?” “You do, and I’ll kick your butt. Where are you?” “On my way to the principal’s office. I kinda screamed in the middle of the hallway when your text came through. A teacher said some crap about me breaking the rules by having my phone on. So, how do you feel?” CJ let out a sigh. “Exhausted… Excited… Exhilarated’s more like it. Relieved she’s healthy. Amazed at how tiny she is. Totally, like totally in love with her. And, with her other father who’s holding her right now. Scared shitless. Ready to protect her. To fight anyone and anything that might threaten her. “Ritchie, you have no idea all the emotions running through me. I can’t believe Ozzie and I created something so damn beautiful and ugly at the same time.” “Did you just call my niece ugly?” “Just look at the picture, bro. You’ll agree. She’s like most newborns. Wrinkled, blotchy, almost hairless… She’s fugly, but she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” “Have you been drinking?” Thanks to Ritchie’s chuckling, the question came through in halting bursts. “I’m not sure you’re making sense.” “Don’t be stupid. Of course I’m not making sense. Although I am. Oh, when you asked me how I felt? I forgot determined. So damn determined to make certain she grows up knowing she has two men in her life who will never abandon her. Who will protect her, nourish her, and love her unconditionally.” CJ didn’t have to explain what he was talking about. The siblings had talked about their mother often in the last year or two. Surprisingly, Ritchie was the one who still harbored some resentment towards his deceased parents because of how they rejected his brother due to his sexuality. CJ had reached a modicum of closure. “Make it three men instead of two. I’ll always be there for her along with you and Ozzie. Bro, gotta go. I’ll explain what’s going on to the warden and let the guards know I’m taking the rest of the day off. Whether they like it or not. I’ll see you at the hospital as soon as Uber can get me there.” Ritchie may have been the first one to react to the birth announcement, but only for a fraction of a minute. CJ had texted his fathers, grandparents, Ozzie’s family, and the two groups of friends. Voicemail alerts and text message chimes from two phones provided enough of a soundtrack for the nurse to comment. “I need to take her away for a few minutes, guys. Go to the room we set aside for you while we measure and weigh her. Sounds like you have a few more people to talk to anyway.” To their surprise, there was no reply from Brett or César. CJ and Owen at last figured out the reason when the newly-minted grandfathers showed up with Olga minutes after Ritchie did. Although his younger brother was the first to hold her after the newborn’s fathers, watery eyes abounded as in turn, each hugged the small bundle. “Fuck! I don’t want to move to Colorado anymore. I don’t want to be away from her.” “Forget it, Ritchie. Don’t even kid about it. She’ll be all proud and stuff when she becomes aware her uncle’s an Air Force pilot.” CJ mussed his brother’s hair with affection. “But you gotta start watching the language, bro. Can’t go dropping F-bombs around her.” “Yeah, well, between you, Ozzie, and them”—Ritchie jerked his head sideways to indicate the grandfathers—“I have a feeling F U C K will be part of her vocabulary soon enough.” “Vocabulary? Quarter word!” “Shut up, Jarhead.” César hip-butted his husband. “What’s bothering me is these two have made me a grandfather at forty-two. I only have a touch of gray, and I’m feeling old.” The jubilant reception greeting the birth of his daughter shocked CJ. He was the only surprised one. His cousin Rod summed it up best. “A man who impacts the lives of those around him as much as my little cousin does—often unaware of the effect he has—will elicit this type of response when he becomes a father.” “Damn, Rod. When the fuck did you get so eloquent?” Grins, giggles, and a couple of grunts followed Brett’s quip. “Language, Jarhead. Liebe’s an Abelló. Her superior brain’s assimilating language already. We don’t want her sounding like she was raised in the barracks.” César softly bounced as he spoke. His immense smile could have been for either his husband or his granddaughter, but his eyes did not waver from the tiny girl in his arms. CJ smacked himself on the forehead. “Oh, for goodness sake. Come on, Oz, we’re taking our daughter home. All these grownups acting like idiots’ too much for me.” The smile on his face belied the statement. The parade of visitors streaming through the townhouse—where CJ and Owen decided to spend the days after their daughter’s birth—had ebbed. Only family remained. Pamela Liston had arrived the previous day as had Rosario and Sebastián Abelló; the new fathers barely had to lift a finger since. They had returned to their apartment earlier in the day to ready it. There was always a grandparent or great-grandparent willing to hold, feed, or change Liebe. “Bro, I’m going to get the food. Anything else I need to pick up?” Ritchie had already placed the order with the restaurant. Even if earlier in the day than most weeks, Chinese food was still on the Sunday menu. César palmed his granddaughter’s behind, raised her while sniffing the air, and wrinkled his nose. “You’re leaving now that she needs changing? Fine uncle you are.” “Let him go and give me the baby. I’ll take care of her.” Pam reached for her granddaughter and cuddled her for a moment before slipping into one of the basement bedrooms. When CJ returned to school the next day, and Owen’s paternity leave ended in a few weeks, it would be where the girl spent most days under Olga’s care. Until their own house was ready for occupancy. “Who wants a glass of wine? I’m opening one of the bottles Mum brought with her.” Owen’s mother had carried a six-pack of the most recent Liston Semillon on the plane with her. “Open a couple of them, Oz. I think one bottle will last about thirty seconds in this crowd.” CJ’s piercing glance at Rosario made his grandfather chuckle. The young couple returned to their apartment much earlier than most Sundays. They were exhausted, and although an infant fed formula ate less frequently than a breastfed one, they knew they would be woken more than once overnight. CJ had to be in school the next day, so Owen promised to handle the middle-of-the-night feedings while on leave. Aside from caring for Liebe, his only chores on Monday would be to ensure the printed announcements were mailed. He would also post the first picture of their daughter on social media; they expected fresh waves of messages afterward. While Owen showered, CJ sat on his blue-leather corner armchair holding the baby. “So, Liebe, what’s up? You enjoying your first few days?” He had read that talking to infants as if they were adults helped them develop faster than if baby talk was used. “We’ve taken lots of pictures and videos. One day, when you see them, you’ll realize how many people love you and are excited you’re here.” His left hand cradling his daughter and clutching her to his chest, CJ used his other one to thumb through his phone. “So, you have an uncle who’s a student at the University of Miami right now. His name’s Chipper. You’ll meet him soon enough when he comes visit. He’s a singer and sent us a little present last week. It’s a song he recorded when his first niece was born. It’s an old Billy Joel tune. I’ll play it for you now, but I promise I’ll learn the words so I can sing it sometime soon.” He adjusted the volume so the words and music were but a soft, background sound. “Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes And save these questions for another day I think I know what you've been asking me I think you know what I've been trying to say I promised I would never leave you Then you should always know Wherever you may go, no matter where you are I never will be far away.” The song was nearly over when a second voice joined in, singing the last stanza. “Goodnight my angel, now it's time to dream And dream how wonderful your life will be Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby Then in your heart there will always be a part of me Someday we'll all be gone But lullabies go on and on They never die That's how you and I will be.” When Owen had memorized the lyrics, CJ had no idea, but the smile on his face conveyed his delight. “Pretty good, Oz. You want to put her to bed while I go clean up? She’s already asleep.” “Nah, mate. This is her first night in the apartment and in her own crib. We do it together. Might as well get her used to the idea her two dads are always going to be around to take care of her.”
  15. 77 points
    “Guys, guys, gimmie a break.” CJ’s plea silenced the barrage of questions assaulting him. “I just told you everything I know. Sorry, Thiago, but I think Ozzie and I need to get to my parents. I’ll call you as soon as we know more. We’ll do this again whenever you have time.” “Fuck you, homes. You’re nuts if you think I’m going home now. I’m coming with. I’ll call my mom and let her know what’s happening.” CJ’s sad half-smile conveyed satisfaction. The Squad hung together in good and bad times, and always had each other’s backs. “Fine, you call your parents.” Channeling his fathers’ lessons, he started planning the way César did and issuing orders as Brett would. “Tank, you let Danno and Trip know in case my dads haven’t called them. Ozzie, get us an Uber. Harley, text the rest of the gang so they know what’s going on.” Nobody objected to the demanding tone and absence of please. This was an emergency and they were ready to follow their leader without objection. The short ride to Georgetown had all four men focused on their phones as messages streamed in; Carson said he would meet them at the house after he dropped off his date. Kim, Harley’s girlfriend, sent her regards and promised prayers for the injured soldier. Patrick told them he was on his way to his mother’s house. CJ rushed to the front door while Owen, Harley, and Thiago followed a step behind. Adrenaline coursed through his bloodstream; his fingers were unable to follow brain commands. He input the wrong code on the lock twice, then fumbled and dropped the keys while trying to open it the old-fashioned way. Frustrated, he resorted to banging on it with his palm. “Shhh.” Brett held a finger to his lips as he threw the door open. “Tom’s talking to his ex-wife.” “…because he didn’t want you to hear it from a stranger, Hilary. Yes, I knew he had me as the emergency contact, and I promised I wouldn’t tell you. I also promised if something happened, I’d call you, and let you know whatever I heard.” Tom Kennedy sat on the couch facing the floor-to-ceiling front windows, but his arms and legs were in constant motion. Tapping heel-to-toe on the floor, he repeatedly ran a hand over his shaved head, while the other one held the phone. “That was CJ banging on the front door. He was out to dinner and one of his dads called him.” Tom waved at the newcomers with a grim expression. “Jesus, Hilary, how many times I have to tell you I know nothing else?” Tom took a long pull from the beer bottle on the coffee table. “Look, sorry I sound upset, but I am upset. I’m freaking out as much as you are.” CJ hugged JP, and after Owen, Harley, and Thiago dropped the food on the kitchen counter, they repeated the greeting. “Hilary! The man who called me wouldn’t even tell me where he was calling from. He said Brad was alive and being flown to Germany. He said there were casualties. His unit’s on blackout until the relatives of the dead service members are notified. None of his fellow soldiers are gonna call us no matter what Brad may have told you. But the man promised someone at Landstuhl would get in touch as soon as our boy got to the medical center.” The early-spring evening was cool and windows were open. Hands inside his hoodie’s pockets, CJ gave himself half a hug. He did not know if the chill he felt was due to weather or circumstances. When he heard the rumble of a motorcycle, he assumed it was Dragon since Harley was already with them. He motioned for one of the other guys to open the back door. Devon Marvin Jefferson, an African-America DC native, belonged to the fathers’ group of friends calling themselves The Elite. The tall, muscular man graduated from Howard University’s School of Social Work and was employed by the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services agency. César and Brett had relied on his advice to help their son deal with his exile from Miami, and later with Ritchie after the boy lost both parents in a boating incident. The conversations between CJ and Dragon forged a special bond between them; the younger man often called on the older one when facing challenges. “Hey, Dragon.” Owen raised the bottle in his hand. “Want a beer?” “Yeah, I have a feeling I’m going to need a couple of them before the night’s over.” “That was a motorcycle engine. I’m guessing it’s our friend Dragon. All the other bikers are already here.” Tom did not bother to look at the new arrival; his eyes remained firmly affixed to a spot on the floor. “Okay, I’m not sure what else I can tell you. Of course I’ll call if I hear anything. No matter what time.” The call finished, Tom stood and gave everyone a sad smile. “You guys could have finished your meal, you know? Not much we can do.” CJ had not seen the police officer look so haggard since he was shot years before. That was a weekend CJ did not want to relive. “Right! As if… Not a chance I could have eaten.” CJ wrapped his arms around the taller man and held him while Tom began to sob. If the red-rimmed eyes were an indication, this was not the night’s first bout of tears. “Okay, what are we doing? Has anyone checked flights to Germany yet? Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s right next to Ramstein Air Base where I used to live. We need to fly to Frankfurt and—” “CJ!” César’s shout made him stop talking. “Slow down, buddy. Why don’t you join the other guys and eat whatever you brought home?” “Your dad’s right.” Tom clasped his shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. “You should eat. Anyway, there’s no reason to go flying off to Germany until we know more.” “Bullshit! I’m not letting Brad be in a hospital by himself. Not when we can be there.” He turned around and stared at his friends sitting at the breakfast bar. “Harley! You’re better at this shit than any of us. Get online and find me flights from Washington to Frankfurt.” “Dude, slow your roll.” Brett grasped CJ’s arm and turned him around so they could look at each other. “The Pentagon has military-wide standards they’ll follow. There’s no need to go flying off halfway around the world until we know more.” César approached them and the two fathers bracketed their son. “You have school to worry about anyway. It’s not like you can just up and leave. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but—” CJ shook free of Brett and took a step away from his fathers. “What I’m thinking is my brother’s hurt, and I’m going to see him. The same I’d do for Ritchie. Or for Ozzie. Or for any of you.” CJ’s tone kept rising. He recognized his growing anxiety and sought to calm himself with regular, deep breaths. “And screw classes. If I managed to survive missing a shitload of them for a stupid election, I’ll manage this. They can all flunk me for all I care. I’ll take them over next semester.” “CJ, that was your first semester in school. And you had the support of higher-ups. This is different.” “Damn right it’s different. This isn’t fucking Clinton. This is Brad!” “Here, I poured you a glass.” CJ was so caught up arguing with his parents he failed to notice Owen approach. “César, Brett, please give us a minute alone.” “Thank you.” CJ sipped his wine, trying not to guzzle it down. He realized he was overexcited and needed to calm down. These were the times he missed pot. “Sorry I’ve been ignoring you.” “You haven’t. But I think you need to chill.” Owen leaned in and gave his husband a kiss. “I don’t know why the dads bother to argue with you. By now, they should realize they can’t win. Remind me never to become so overprotective with our kids.” CJ chuckled. Owen definitely knew how to improve his moods. “Nah, we’ll be even cooler dads than those two.” “I’ll hold you to that. Now, you do realize the trip may not accomplish much. At most, I see it giving you a little peace of mind. And helping Brad realize he’s not alone at a—“ The ringing made everyone turn and stare at the coffee table where Tom had left his phone. It took a fraction of a second for him to snatch it up and answer without looking at the screen. “Hello?” After a moment listening, Tom’s shoulders dropped, he sighed, and reclaimed his seat. “It’s Patrick,” he announced to the room. Owen steered CJ back toward his fathers and the others. “Dads, stop arguing with him. CJ’s made up his mind. No matter what anyone says, he’s going to Germany. Let’s work on this together. Harley, what do you have?” “Bruh, there’s a gazillion flights. Looks like the most popular ones leave here in the afternoon and land in Germany the following morning. About eight hours flying and a six-hour time difference. I checked for you; you don’t need a visa. You have to pick an airline, though.” “Don’t listen to what any of them say. You do what feels right to you. Even if my dad fights you on it. Hell, I’d be going too, but I think I need to stick around here. I’m headed over to Mom and Mac’s place and I think I’ll stay there until things settle down.” Patrick asked to speak with CJ after his dad finished filling him in on what he knew; Hilary was hysterical when she spoke to her youngest son, and her husband suggested Patrick call his dad for details. CJ studied the faces of the men staring at him after ending the call and focused on Dragon. “What do you think? Preach says I should go for it.” The carefully worded reply was typical of the tall man’s approach to conflict resolution. “I agree with your fathers and Tom you may not accomplish much by flying to Germany. However, the importance of seeing for yourself how Bradley is can’t be discounted.” Although he spoke to CJ, everyone else paid rapt attention. “Often, bringing a sense of peace to those affected is as much a priority as healing the wounded. That includes physical and mental wounds. You should do what you feel’s right.” Dragon echoing the words of the injured soldier’s brother brought a smile to CJ’s face. “And let’s face it, you may not solve anything, but I doubt very much you’ll do any harm. If Brad’s conscious, the presence of someone dear to him may just improve his chances of recovery.” With Owen’s calm demeanor paving the way, they reached an agreement soon after Patrick’s call: CJ and Tom would fly to Germany the next day. CJ admitted he was spoiled, wanted to fly business class, and knew last-minute tickets were expensive. Tom balked at the cost, but César and Brett talked him into letting them pay for the flights as their contribution to the effort. They pointed out Tom would benefit from the added comfort during the long flight, and did not want him to feel pressure about flying anything other than coach. Harley made the reservations using César’s credit card. Prior to their departure, Tom received two more phone calls, so they had a better idea what to expect upon arrival. Once on the ground in Frankfurt, CJ insisted on driving the rental car, claiming his knowledge of German would help reading street signs. It was a flimsy excuse, but he felt Tom was still too distraught to be behind the wheel. At the hospital, the liaison officer assigned to them explained Brad was in surgery again. “He won’t be out for a couple of hours, Mr. Kennedy. You mentioned you’d driven straight here from the airport. May I suggest you go to your hotel, rest and freshen up, and then return? I’ll arrange to have the orthopedic surgeon and your son’s primary physician available to speak with you then.” CJ remained quiet while Captain Israel Menendez gave them an abbreviated report on Brad. He was experiencing déjà vu about dealing with similar conversations after Brett was injured in a helicopter crash. “Excuse me, Captain. We were unsure what to expect and didn’t bother making hotel reservations. Could you suggest a place?” “I’ll do one better.” The man reached into his desk’s top drawer and retrieved a piece of paper he placed in front of the two visitors. “This is a list of lodging close by. If you pick one, I’ll call and book rooms for you. All these cater to American visitors to the hospital and the base.” “How about the closest one?” Tom glanced at CJ who nodded. It was an easy walk since they only had overnight bags with them. After checking in, they agreed to meet later, once they had cleaned up and changed. Uncertain about what to expect back at the hospital, the two men stopped to eat. When they returned a couple of hours later, Brad was out of the operating room and in recovery. “I can’t discuss the nature of the mission Sergeant Kennedy was involved in at the time of his injury. It’s classified. What I’m allowed to tell you is that when the vehicle hit the improvised explosive device, your son was driving. The man in the passenger seat perished, but the other occupants survived.” The medical explanations did not register in their entirety with CJ. The physicians discussed recovery period, transfer to a stateside facility, and the very likely possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder. They all assured Tom and CJ the military would do its part, but the best medicine would be having a strong support system. CJ almost laughed, thinking how his friend would be smothered with attention by The Squad and others. “Did anyone else survive?” Brad‘s groggy first words were hard to understand, and CJ marveled they were about his companions. The nurse warned them about the sedative in the saline-drip feed. “Hello, son.” Tom sat next to the bed and held one of Brad’s hands. “Yes, they did. There were casualties when the IED went off, and during the firefight afterward, but most of your unit survived. How do you feel? Are you in pain?” “No… I don’t know… Guess I’m okay.” Brad did not seem surprised Tom was at his side but he blinked twice when he saw the other visitor standing at the foot of the bed. His gaze rested on him before settling on his own lower body. “CJ...” The pause stretched as he stared at the foot of the bed. “Did I lose both?” The detached way he asked was otherworldly. CJ could not decide if his friend was that cool, or if his demeanor was the result of the narcotics coursing through his blood. He decided to avoid discussing the soldier’s lower limbs for the time being. “Damn, Red, you didn’t have to go to all this shit just to get you some attention.” The comment was in line with what CJ had seen his father do; Brett was a master at using humor to defuse tension. “Asshole…” Brad’s twitching lips formed something akin to a smile. His retort earned him lopsided grins from his visitors. “Am I gonna walk again?” There was neither hesitation nor delay in CJ’s response. “Fuck, yeah! Damn right you’re gonna walk again, bud. And run. And jump. And anything else you want to do.” The remainder of the conversation was short; Brad fell asleep. Prior to dozing off, he seemed to smile again when CJ promised him the best pair of store-bought legs money could buy. Both had been amputated below the knee. The early spring sun was below the horizon when Brad awoke next. The summons from a nurse interrupted CJ and Tom’s reading; they trudged back to the intensive care unit together. “Hi, Dad. Hi, CJ.” Brad sounded much more alert than before. “Sorry I passed out.” “Don’t be silly, son.” Tom ran a hand over his son’s messy red hair. “You need a haircut. Feel any better?” “I’m not sure… Where am I?” “Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, right by Ramstein Air Base, my old stomping grounds.” CJ patted his friend on the shoulder hoping there were no wounds beneath the gown; bandages abounded all over the man’s body. “You sound much more alert.” “Yeah… The nurse told me they didn’t add painkillers to the IV when they changed the bag.” He pointed at a small contraption by his hand. “I think he said to push the button if I feel pain.” “Morphine?” “I have no idea. But he said it would knock me out. Right now, my right foot hurts like a bitch and I think I need to push it.” He did, and as predicted, was asleep soon after. Over the next couple of days, as Brad’s condition slowly improved, CJ felt like a journalist filing reports with their newspaper or station. Following each interaction with his friend, he would share information with those waiting back in the United States via e-mail. He and Tom spent most of their time at the medical center, unwilling to venture far in case Brad woke up. In fits and starts, during each lucid period, Brad recounted what he remembered. CJ shared comments from their friends back home, and Tom video called Hilary at least twice a day so she could see their son was improving. “The prognosis is actually very good.” The young doctor spoke to CJ and Tom after Brad had once again fallen asleep following the most recent examination. “The legs are gone. Phantom pain will be an issue, but his other injuries will leave only a few scars. The burns to his right side are minor. There’s no need for skin grafts. No sign of infection in the abdominal cavity and x-rays show all shrapnel was removed.” “I promised him bionic legs and the ability to walk.” CJ’s comment earned him a smile from the physician. “Was I wrong?” “Not sure about the bionic legs part. Who knows what Veteran Affairs pays for these—” “Money will never be an issue.” CJ raised a hand to silence Tom when he made to speak. “I’ll make sure of that.” The Army doctor seemed surprised but shrugged her shoulders. “In that case, it’ll be up to him. Depending on how hard he’s willing to work, he could take his first steps on prosthetics in a few months. But I’m warning you, it won’t be easy. Physical therapy will be excruciating. And his mental attitude will guide his progress. Too many of our wounded warriors lose the recovery battle when they find themselves struggling alone.” “Ha! Not a chance that’ll happen. Brad has an entire squad back home ready to push and help.” An exhausted CJ made it to classes on Thursday. After spending three days with Brad, he returned to Washington while Tom remained behind. In Germany, they learned the average stay at LRMC was under a week. The older Kennedy would come home on the same C-17 cargo plane returning his son to the United States.
  16. 76 points
    28- I've Always wanted to run The ride back to town was done in silence. Rory drove, Milan sat in the passenger seat of the black SUV. Ilaria and Ayu sat in the back. The anxiety rolling off them enough to make Milan’s stomach roll. Rory made a turn and Milan glanced in the rear view mirror to see the white truck Rory used following them. Topher and Matt, Rory’s best friends. Milan had not known that and had always thought Jack and Rowen were Rory’s best friends. He had only known about Chris. Rory’s brother/cousin. Gosh, there was so much to learn about Rory. He wanted to learn it all, now, as fast as possible. His gaze moved to the rearview mirror, and his heart ached when he saw his mother holding on to Ayu’s hand. Rory reached out between them and took Milan’s hand, tangling their fingers. ‘It’s going to be okay,’ Rory assured him. ‘How can you be sure?’ Milan asked, looking at him. ‘Because we’re together.’ Milan believed him. Rory’s resolve made his heart steady when it would have gone into a tail spin. So, they drove to the hospital. When they got to the hospital the head of the hospital met them at the doors. Rory held Milan’s hand tight as they followed the man. The nurses and doctors they passed all looked at Rory, then at Milan. When Milan met their gazes, he saw smiles of encouragement. A nurse by the elevator touched his arm, sympathy in her eyes. “We’re with you every step of the way,” she said, and turned to Ilaria. “We’ll take good care of your husband, Dr. Ilaria.” They entered the elevator, Ilaria started to press the button to the second floor, but Rory stopped her, pressing the fifth floor button. He turned to Ilaria to explain. “We moved Kiyo to a private wing on the fifth floor. We’ve asked the doctors to keep him comfortable until a solution is found,” Rory said. “Marie brought you a change of clothes. There is a place for you to rest and take a shower.” Ilaria studied him for a moment, then nodded and turned to stare at the lights changing on the elevator buttons. When the doors opened, Rory stepped back so that Ilaria and Ayu could come out first. Rory urged the doctor to keep up with Ilaria and listened as Ilaria asked questions about her husband’s condition. ‘I’m sorry she’s shutting you out.’ Milan squeezed Rory’s hand before they reached Kiyo’s room. ‘I can take it.’ Rory promised, brushing his lips on Milan’s cheek. ‘Go see your dad. I need to meet some people.’ ‘Okay.’ Milan hugged Rory, squeezing him tight, then he let go and followed his family into his father’s hospital room. The private room was much nicer than Milan expected. Seeing his father in the hospital bed hooked to machines shook him. Milan remembered his father urging him to eat, then ruffling his hair as he left to go sleep that day he got stabbed. Kiyo had looked tired but happy. To see him so frail now, Milan’s eyes filled with tears. “Papa.” Milan moved to the bed, taking Kiyo’s hand, careful to hold the one without an IV going in. “Why are you here like this? Please wake up.” Ilaria came to his side and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “He’s medicated for the pain,” Ilaria said. “It will be hard to wake him right now. Let him sleep.” Milan wiped away tears from his cheeks and stared at his father’s still hand. Kiyo’s capable hands that had worked tirelessly to keep Milan healthy. This was the last thing that should have happened to Kiyo. “What’s wrong with him?” Milan asked, squeezing Kiyo’s hand, hoping to infuse his energy into Kiyo. Help him heal faster, there was so much to tell him. “The doctors worked hard to repair the deep wounds in his stomach and chest. He lost a lot of blood in the process. They said Rick’s blood has poison. It’s infected your dad and they’re hoping to help clear it out. We’re waiting,” Ilaria said, her voice sad. “Every time I see him like this, I can’t help thinking that we should have never come to Portento.” Milan could see why Ilaria would say that. He had not wanted to move either, but now he had Rory. Rory whose whole life was in Portento. They would have never met if Milan hadn’t moved here. “Mamma.” “I want us to fly back to Turin,” Ilaria said, squeezing his shoulders. “Papa can recover there without trouble and the cold. Marie already got the tickets. I want you to come with us.” Milan kissed Kiyo’s hand before he stood and turned to Ilaria. “We just got here two months ago. You made me and Ayu enroll into school. Now you want us to leave?” “I do,” Ilaria nodded. “This place has not been easy, Milan. Not for me, or your Papa, even Ayu is not happy. And you—” “What about me?” Ilaria moved away from Kiyo’s bed to the couch set against the wall. She sunk into it with a tired sigh, pushing fingers into her hair. “I think you need a break from this town,” Ilaria said. “You need time to process. Turin will give that to you.” Ayu came to stand beside Milan and wrapped an arm around Milan’s shoulders. “Mamma is just worried,” Ayu explained. “It’s not easy for her to see Papa this way. Turin is like home, Milan. Papa will be more comfortable.” Milan breathed in, then out, fighting off panic at the thought of his family leaving him. “Do you want to leave too?” Milan looked at Ayu. “Why can’t we stay? Papa can get help here. Much better help than in Turin. Please, just give this town a second chance.” “This is not a choice,” Ilaria said. “The tickets are ready. I have already contacted our friends in Turin and the hospital there is willing to admit your Papa. You are coming along.” “Mamma!” “This is my decision,” Ilaria said. “You’re seventeen, still my son and under my roof. Don’t argue with me.” “This is not fair,” Milan said, angry. “I’m not going to Turin.” “Not even for your Papa?” Ilaria asked. Milan stared at her in shock, then turned to look at Kiyo who lay unconscious. He was familiar with the loneliness, frustration and despair that came along with pain. God, he wanted the best for his father. Always, but leaving Portento felt like blasphemy. He didn’t want to leave. He couldn’t leave Rory. Milan gaped, staring at his mother, then Ayu in shock. When had he moved away from them? When did they end up on opposite sides like this? Confused, Milan ran out of Kiyo’s hospital room ignoring Ayu’s alarmed call. He punched the elevator button but when the doors didn’t open, he chose the stairs, racing down, his speed exhilarating. Heart racing, Milan burst out into the cold air behind the hospital and took in a deep breath. His skin itched, everything inside him bursting at the seams, heat rising, he reached for…he didn’t know what he reached for…but then— Cracking bones, shifting and pulling muscles, the change came so fast, he had no warning. His perspective changed, and he stared at a beautiful new world. A world of scents, and vivid color, amplified hearing and a sense of wild connection. He took a step, and the urge to run filled him. *** Rory paced the length of the waiting room in the fifth floor, thinking about Milan even as Chris sat on one of the armchairs complaining about Rick. “Why would you keep him alive? He deserves to die, Rory. End him, as it is supposed to be.” “The Swamp Lands need justice, Chris. I’m not letting that happen without a proper hearing. Dad has already agreed to organize a hearing in the town hall. My family, yours, Lechter's and those of the Swamp Lands can seek justice in that hearing.” Chris let out a frustrated sigh and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Are you afraid of doing what’s right?” “No.” Rory turned to face his cousin. “I do, however, know that Rick’s death, if needed, shall be decided by all those who have suffered in his hands. I’m Alpha of Portento. This is the town’s will.” Chris studied him for a moment, then nodded. “Fine, I’ll back the hearing, because I want to see Rick get his comeuppance,” Chris said after a minute. His gaze shifted to the floor, his head bent. “By the way, Lechter wanted to talk to you earlier. You left without giving him the time.” Rory grunted, resuming his pacing. He needed a clear head to talk to Lechter. “Rory, you mentioned that Rosemary Lechter was alive,” Matt reminded him. “Do you think she is in the Swamp Lands?” “Talk to Johan and Elle,” Rory said, shaking his head. “I only know she sought sanctuary in the Swamp Lands. They might know more.” “Then I’ll reach out to Johan,” Topher said, already reaching for his cellphone. “Tell Johan and Elle that I would like to meet with them. With Milan’s dad in hospital, it will be easier if they come to town. I’ll guarantee them safety if they’re worried,” Rory said. “I’ll let them know,” Topher said, typing into his cell phone. A knock came on the door and Rory stopped pacing when he looked up to see Connor enter the private waiting room. Grandma Asta followed behind Connor, and then Iris came in last. Rory let out a relieved sigh at the sight of her. “Blessed be,” Iris greeted when she saw him. She smiled, walking up to him and taking his left wrist where the wooden bracelet had once been. “I see the earth chose to hear your prayer. You are mated.” “Thank you for coming, Iris,” Rory thanked her, feeling a heavy weight settle on his shoulders. “Yes. I could not turn my head from your plea, or your mate.” Iris looked around the room, her gaze searching, then she stopped. “Your mate is in distress, Rory Morgan. He is not here though.” Rory could feel it too. Panic flooded him from his bond with Milan. Pain and confusion a close second. “Go to him,” Iris murmured. “I’ll visit Kiyo Takeda and see how I might help.” Rory broke into a run, heading out of the waiting room. He followed Milan’s scent to the stairs. *** ‘Milan.’ Milan stood outside, taking in the snow covered ground, the tall trees ahead. He took in a deep breath, knowing Rory stood behind him in his wolf form even before Milan saw him. Milan looked at the white wolf with new eyes, heart fluttering at Rory’s majestic wolf. ‘You’re beautiful.’ Rory stated. ‘Your wolf is beautiful, Milan.’ Rory moved closer, and Milan saw himself in Rory’s eyes. His coat of white fur with a dusting of gold on his neck and on his tail. The joy in Rory’s eyes flooding their bond, only dampened by the conversation Milan had with his mother upstairs. Rory licked Milan’s nose, then his neck. Affectionate caresses meant to calm. Meant to steady Milan’s chaotic emotions. Milan looked to the forest, ‘I want to run, Rory. I’ve always wanted to run.’ ‘Then, let’s run,’ Rory agreed. Milan did not need a second invitation, taking off into the forest at full speed. He ran hard, his new body accommodating the fast pace he set. Once in a while, Rory bigger wolf would rub against him, and soon Milan realized that Rory was leading him along the Portento boundary and making sure he didn’t go beyond. They kept running, Milan marveled that he did not get tired. He paused at times to take in the beauty of the snow-filled forests. Drowning in scents, tasting stories left by the other wild animals in the trees, listening for bird calls. When Milan finally stopped, breathing hard but not fatigued, they were outside a huge cave. Rory came up to him and rubbed himself all over Milan, before he nipped at him, making Milan chuckle. ‘I can’t believe you’re my mate,’ Rory said, such pleasure in his voice, it washed over Milan like a soothing balm. ‘You’re so beautiful!’ Milan felt warmth flood him from their bond. Heavy curiosity too. Rory was curious about the reason why Milan had ran out of the hospital, but Milan wasn’t ready to think about it. Instead, he glanced at the huge cave entrance. ‘What’s this place?’ Milan asked, walking to the cave entrance. ‘A sacred place,’ Rory said, with reverence. ‘I’ll show you around. There’s something I want to show you.’ Milan followed because old places intrigued him. He loved the scent of the cave, mint and sage so thick in the air. He followed Rory in. The cave tall, with shafts of light coming in from the entry and small holes in parts of the outer cave. The deeper they went, the darker it became. The more intricate the paths became, leading to smaller and bigger caves. Like rooms carved out of stone by nature. Milan’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he missed nothing. The caves seemed like the perfect place to explore when he had more time. Rory led him into a cave lighted with crystal lights. This cave was smaller than the rest Milan had seen. Hidden around an obscure bend. One would have to be very familiar with the network of paths to find it. The cave’s floor was smooth stone, a sizeable pond stood in the middle of the cave, with a spring running from one wall and out the other. Milan watched Rory change back into his human form, his naked body beautifully sculpted, his hair skimming his shoulders. Milan could watch his mate’s naked body for days, his hands itching to explore every inch of skin. Desire bloomed. Rory walked into the pond and sank into it, going deeper until he was in the middle of the pond, with only his shoulders visible. ‘Join me?’ Rory requested, sinking deeper into the water. When Milan made no move to shift, Rory sunk deeper into the water until he was submerged, then rose up pushing wet hair out of his eyes. Milan stared at him, tempted, if only to kiss water off Rory’s lips, but he didn’t want to leave the comfort of his wolf. His wolf, Milan the wolf, had every right to remain here in Portento. Be Rory Morgan’s mate and live happily. Milan the human had too many ties, too many loyalties. He worried that his mother might hate him for wanting to stay in Portento. For being saved when his father was now so ill. ‘Milan, come to me,’ Rory prompted, his tone cajoling. Milan sat, his tail sweeping the rocky ground, he watched Rory cup water from the pond and pour it over his chest. More temptation, so hard to resist. Rory was handsome, and so very sexy, Milan sometimes thought it was a joke they were together, mated. ‘The water is not cold,’ Rory said, smiling at him. ‘For some reason, this pond is filled by a hot spring that only runs through this cave. I use it when I’m feeling in need of rejuvenation. You’ve had a hell of a time, Milan. Come join me.’ Milan chose to watch Rory soak in the pond for thirty minutes, curled up in a ball, content with watching. Until Rory tilted his head back, resting his head on the smooth wall of the pond, eyes closed. Milan stared at the droplets tracing a line down Rory’s smooth skin, along his neck to his chest. Wanting to follow their path, Milan changed into his human form, the transition leaving his muscles sore. He walked up to the pond, pausing when he dipped his right foot into the water. It felt warm, not the hot he had expected. He took another step in, but the rocks under were too smooth, he slipped. Rory was suddenly there to wrap a strong arm around Milan’s waist, and pull Milan against him. Milan sucked in air at the feel of Rory holding him. They were skin to skin, his chest pressed into Rory’s chest. He looked up to meet amused blue eyes. “I’ve got you,” Rory murmured, reaching up with his free hand to brush dark hair out of Milan’s eyes. Rory then lifted Milan up, carrying him deeper into the pond. Milan moaned when the water wrapped around him like a hot blanket, wrapping him up in a cocoon. His sore muscles celebrated the gift of heat seeping in to his bones, his very core. ‘Feels good, right?’ Rory asked him. Milan rested his arms around Rory’s neck as Rory sat on a platform along the pond wall at the deepest part. Rory settled Milan on his lap. Milan closed his eyes with a soft moan when Rory stroked a hand down his back. He arched into the touch and pressed closer to Rory’s chest. Shaking with a discovered need. Milan breathed in Rory’s delicious scent. It felt good to be held like this. To be wanted. He could feel the weight of Rory’s desire growing in their bond. Rory wanted him, in a way Milan had never dared to imagine before. Heat growing, turning him hot and needy. He was so insanely in love with Rory, his heart felt overloaded. Rory stroked caresses down his back and Milan bit his lip holding back a moan. He lifted his head from Rory’s shoulder to look at his mate. ‘You’re driving me crazy doing that,” Milan told Rory, smiling when Rory grinned at him. Rory kissed him then. It was meant to be a quick kiss but it turned urgent and needy. Milan sunk his fingers into Rory’s hair, holding on as Rory explored his mouth, his hands moving over Milan’s back, sending fiery desire rushing through him. Driving Milan to the edge, right on the verge, his cock hard and weeping, he whimpered. Rory lifted him up, swift and strong, and Milan straddled Rory’s lap. Milan cried out when Rory’s hand moved between them and took Milan’s length in his palm. His body ached, pleasure filling his every pore, he clung to Rory’s strong shoulders, head thrown back as Rory drove him to a mad fever with his touch. Rory only stroked him once, a second time triggered Milan’s orgasm. He came hard, his body trembling in Rory’s arms, his fingers digging into Rory’s back as he released into Rory’s palm, his body bucking, toes curling with pleasure. Milan closed his eyes and felt love wash over him through their bond. Tears in his eyes at the depth of it all. Rory held him through it, dropping gentle kisses on his shoulder, up to his ear. “I love you,” Rory told him when he was much calmer, and could think. Milan pressed his forehead into the curve of Rory’s shoulder and breathed him in. Letting the worry in his heart free, he sighed. “I love you too, Rory.” “Then don’t shut me out,” Rory cajoled, stroking Milan’s back, sending little pleasurable shivers through Milan. “Tell me what upset you so much you ran away from the hospital.” Milan traced his finger over Rory’s shoulder, his fingers connecting droplets of water. His heart aching at the thought of his family gone from him. He could not remember a moment in his life where he had not been close to his family. Never apart, never far, never on opposite ends of a decision. Until now. “Mamma wants to fly back to Turin. She says Turin will be better for Papa. She thinks it was a mistake to move to Portento. For the first in my life, I don’t want to do what she says. I don’t want to leave you.” Milan felt tears fill his eyes as he held on to Rory. “How can it have been a mistake to meet you, Rory? I don’t know what to do.” “She’s just worried,” Rory soothed, rubbing Milan’s back. This time his touch felt comforting, not like earlier when Milan’s body shivered with need. “I can talk to her. We’ve found a solution for Kiyo. He should be fine by this evening.” “Mamma’s already bought the tickets,” Milan sighed. “It’s hard to change her mind once she makes a decision. She’ll insist on leaving.” “Do you want to go?” Rory asked, hugging Milan to him. “I can’t bear the thought of it,” Milan murmured. “Does that make me a bad son?” “It doesn’t, Milan. We’ll meet with Mamma and sort it out,” Rory said. “I promise.” Milan settled against Rory, feeling a bit more rational now that he had told Rory about Ilaria’s plans. If Kiyo could be helped here, then staying was the best option. Ilaria would stay for Kiyo’s sake, and Milan would never have to discover what it was like to live without his family, or without Rory. If that made him selfish, then fine, he could live with it. “I turned into a wolf today,” Milan said, the memory of running through the wild forests of Portento filling him. Rory beside him, making sure he was okay, and they wouldn’t run into trouble. It had felt so wild and free, so far from his fragile days. “Did you like it?” Rory asked. “I loved it,” Milan said with a wide pleased smile. “I’ve always wanted to run and couldn’t before. It felt liberating to go all out, and not worry my body would fail me. Can we do it often?” “As often as you want, baby,” Rory said. “You can join the pack runs too if you want. They’re fun, and everyone will be eager to meet you.” “Your Dad is kind of scary,” Milan said, thinking of Connor Morgan. “He’s bigger than you. You got your height from him.” “He’s my Dad,” Rory said, a smile in his words. “He likes you already.” “I was too shy to ask him about the screaming saga with the snail like Nonna Asta told me,” Milan mused. “I couldn’t get it out.” “It will get easier when you get to know him,” Rory promised. “Why do they call you Alpha?” Milan asked, lifting his head from Rory’s shoulder to meet cool blue eyes. “At the hospital, when we were at Elle’s house, everyone kept calling you Alpha. What does that mean?” Rory smiled, and reached up to stroke Milan’s cheek, then trace his thumb over Milan’s bottom lip. “Because,” Rory said, meeting curious golden brown eyes. “I’m now the head of the Portento Pack, my love.” “Head of the pack?” Milan’s eyes widened. “As in the boss?” “Sort of, though it’s more complicated than that,” Rory grinned. “You know what that makes you?” “The boss’s awesome boyfriend,” Milan said with a laugh. “Hmm…,” Rory kissed him. “I think it’s more complicated than that, Milan Takeda.” “How much more?” “You’re the Alpha’s mate,” Rory said, wrapping his arms around Milan, holding him closer, their lips inches apart. “Moon and love, you’re my heart, Milan. I would do anything to make you happy.” Milan kissed Rory this time, his heart full to the brim and overflowing. He had not thought he would be lucky enough to find someone to love him. Someone to look beyond his thousands of weaknesses and see him. He held Rory to him, grateful for the extraordinary chance to love and be loved back. *** They played in the pond at the cave for an hour, then Rory took Milan back to the hospital so that they could check on Kiyo. The time alone was good for both of them. Milan was relaxed again, no tension plaguing him. As for Rory, he wondered how much longer he could hold back with Milan. Watching Milan come apart in his arms left him wanting more. The number of distractions in their lives left him in frustration. Rory decided then that when Kiyo was out of hospital, and Ilaria calmed down, he was going to close himself in with Milan in his suite and not come out for a week. School and all responsibilities be damned. He hoped Milan would agree to this plan. Milan paused outside his father’s hospital room and looked at Rory, amusement clear in his eyes. “What you’re thinking about,” Milan said, making Rory blush. “I’m willing to be locked in with you for a month.” Milan then entered Kiyo’s room with a giggle, and left Rory standing in the hall with the mother of all hard-ons. “Rory,” Ilaria said behind him. Rory cursed and tried to think of the swamp’s murky waters, stinky gym socks, Lechter and his domineering attitude anything but Milan’s sexy smile. Inside Kiyo’s room, he could hear Milan’s amused chuckle at his dilemma. Rory sent his mate a threat of retaliation, as he turned to face Ilaria, glad his erection had subsided enough to be presentable. “Mamma, I’ve brought Milan back. He’s inside with Kiyo,” Rory said, meeting Ilaria’s bloodshot eyes. Her lashes clamped from recent tears. “Can I talk to you for a moment?” Ilaria asked, looking to the closed door. “Somewhere more private.” Rory glanced at the closed door too. Inside, he could hear Milan and Ayu talking about Kiyo. Their voices low as they both perched on Kiyo’s bed. ‘Baby, I’m going to talk to the doctor for a bit,’ Rory told Milan. ‘Hurry back. I miss you already.’ ****
  17. 73 points
    “RITCHIE!” “WHAT?” The brothers stared at each other. CJ, atop the stairs, was annoyed; his younger sibling below smirked. Further words were unnecessary. The confrontation was another episode of an ongoing battle. As much as he enjoyed holiday trappings, CJ had manifested his weariness with the barrage of Christmas music heard wherever he went. “If you don’t lower the volume, I’m gonna fuck you up.” “Scrooge! Why are you so cranky? This is a great song!” The tune in question—“Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses—had been released years before either was born. It was seventeen-year-old Ritchie’s favorite seasonal song, and he expressed his love of it by cranking up the decibels whenever it played. He lowered the volume for all others on the playlist. “Mate, give it up. Our brothers are down there together. If I know Spence, he’s egging Ritchie on.” Owen clamped a hand on his husband’s shoulder and steered him back towards the kitchen. “Then, I’ll fuck them both up.” CJ grinned when silence enveloped them. His brother had cut the feed to the first-floor speakers. Eschewing a large celebration after his twenty-first birthday bash the previous year, CJ opted for a family dinner Monday night. He and Owen, Ritchie and his girlfriend, Lucy, César and Brett, and Spencer and Tilda gathered at Annie’s Paramount Steak House in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The restaurant and the multitude of other eateries and bars in the vicinity catered to the area’s substantial gay population. CJ and Owen were regular visitors; management knew them and delighted in providing a birthday cake while staff and patrons joined in singing “Happy Birthday.” On Christmas Eve, following a day of sightseeing, the Australian visitors and their American hosts landed at Fish—Chef José Andrés’ outpost at the MGM National Harbor—and at the casino afterward. They staked seats at a roulette table but abandoned them when the minimum bet became one hundred dollars. “Hey!” César held his phone aloft for his son to see. “Before you ‘fuck ’em up’ and we have to clean up the blood, how about we call your grandparents?” “I’ll take care of them outside. Pink snow will look pretty on the side yard.” CJ knew before the day was over, their guests would gather around the blazing firepit with cigars and after-dinner cocktails. CJ’s paternal grandparents and his maternal grandmother were on a two-week cruise circumnavigating their native island. The voyage—a joint present from their children and grandchildren—was the first time any of the three had returned to Cuba since their exile. It was an opportunity to visit their birthland and a chance for Olga Santos to spread her deceased husband’s ashes on Baracoa’s sandy beach. “Dude, are you gonna open one of those bottles?” Brett pointed at the case of wine sitting under the Christmas tree by the front window. “Not sure, Captain. Santa CJ gave them to me for being good this past year.” Owen wiggled his eyebrows. “Really good now I think about it. What about you? Have you been naughty or nice?” His relationship with his father-in-law and fellow surfer was outstanding; the teasing was nothing out of the ordinary. Earlier in the day, they had all gathered at the townhouse for a casual breakfast and gift exchange. Owen surprised CJ with a Georgetown University graduation ring on which he had the generic stone replaced with a real, blue sapphire. The Aussie’s present was a case of Biondi-Santi 1975 Il Greppo Brunello di Montalcino CJ purchased at auction. “He better not uncork it unless he plans to share with me.” Spencer had joined the group in the kitchen. “That Ritchie spends way too much time playing pool. He ran the table on me, and he’s doing the same with Patrick right now. Beast!” The other men joined CJ’s nodding. “Yeah, he spends as much time hitting the cue ball as he does playing with the flight simulator. Or pulling his pud. What are Brad and Tilda doing?” Patrick Kennedy, home from college, maneuvered his brother’s wheelchair over the cobblestones of the shared driveway soon after breakfast. The Boston University sophomore traveled to Washington with his mother, Hilary, and his stepfather, Mac. His father and his husband, Tom and JP, had invited the Boston couple to join them for Thanksgiving and now for Christmas. Until Brad became accustomed to his artificial legs, it was easier for the others to travel. César and Brett insisted they all come over on the twenty-fifth, assuring them they had been included in the count given the caterer. “I’d be careful, Spence. His dick wasn’t blown off. Lately, Legless’ had bouts of the horns a lot.” “CJ!” “Sorry, Oz.” CJ shrugged. “I meant he only lost his legs, Spence. His other appendages survived. Your brother hates it when I call Brad Legless.” “Here you go, Preston. This is from CJ and me. Merry Christmas.” Owen handed the Amtrak porter a card with two hundred-dollar bills inside. “Thank you, Mr. Liston. You too, Mr. Abelló.” The man stuck the envelope in his back pocket as he tipped his red cap. “Will you be celebrating New Year’s Eve in New York?” “That’s the plan, my man.” CJ took a step sideways so the attendant would have a clear view of the other couple. “This is Ozzie’s brother, Spencer, and that’s his girlfriend, Tilda. They’re here from Australia. We’ll all be in Times Square on Tuesday.” “Oh, my! Good luck navigating through that unruly mob. A million souls and not a toilet anywhere. I hear people wear diapers since they spend hours and hours standing.” “Hopefully that won’t be us, mate. CJ has something else planned.” Spencer and Tilda smiled and remained quiet during the exchange. As soon as they boarded the train and sat, he pounced. “What the bloody hell was that?” “What do you mean?” CJ’s innocent reply hid his amusement. “That! You give the conductor a Christmas card with, I guess, money in it. And he knows both your names? W T F?” Laughter precluded CJ from offering a response. The responsibility fell to Owen. “Mate, we take the same train every month it seems. After a while, you start trading head nods, then a few words, and next thing you know, you’re asking them about their kids or their bum knee. You forget CJ can talk to a wall and make friends with it.” “Asshole!” “Here.” Owen handed Tilda a glass of wine. “The next street over’s Park. Then there’s Madison and after it, Fifth Avenue. That’s Central Park’s boundary. If I know my husband, we’ll ride hansom cabs through the park after dinner. And we’ll walk around there tomorrow.” “Ta.” Tilda leaned over the balcony’s railing, staring west through the concrete canyon. “This is such a lovely view. All these tall buildings! So different from anything in the Hunter Valley.” The sliding glass door opened. Spencer took a step outside and within seconds returned to the apartment’s warmth. “Brrr… too damn cold out there. How do you like the wine?” “Haven’t tasted it yet. You’re right, it’s a tad chilly out here. What are we drinking?” Tilda asked as they all moved to the living room. CJ held the bottle aloft while reading the label. “A Chilean Cabernet. Alma Libre 2017. Not bad. Haven’t had it before, and I have no idea who bought it. My dads and their friend who owns the co-op with them have been here since Ozzie and I last visited.” That evening, Owen’s prediction came true. After dinner at Uskudar, a Turkish restaurant a few blocks away from the apartment, CJ insisted on a stroll through Central Park and a ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages. As usual, CJ was the first one awake. He threw on jeans and a sweatshirt, started the coffeemaker, and slipped out of the apartment. The sun had yet to climb above the buildings to the east when he jogged to Pick-A-Bagel for baked goods, lox, and the usual fixings. “You’re a nutbar! It’s freezing outside and that’s all you wore?” Tilda sat on the couch satisfying her need for caffeine. The sound of two showers meant the Liston brothers were also awake. “It wasn’t bad. I only went a couple of blocks. But it is cold. I cranked up the heat before I left. It’s already warmer in here than when I got up.” CJ dropped the bags in the kitchen and returned with his own mug. “Any ideas what you want to do today?” “Well, Spencer’s told me about places he saw when he did his walkabout before uni.” As the temperature in the apartment climbed, the woman shed the blanket she had wrapped herself in. “I wanted to visit the Statue of Liberty, but he told me you need to take a boat out to it. I don’t think I want to be out on the water in this cold.” “We can head over to Battery Park. You can see the statue from there and take pictures. Whenever we’re down there, we always end up at the Freedom Tower afterward. You’d enjoy that. The observatory on the hundredth floor is sick. The 9/11 memorial makes me tear up every time I visit, and the train station next to it is out of this world. It was designed by one of my favorite architects.” “Shower’s all yours. Tilda.” Spencer, freshly shaved and dressed, stopped for a moment on his way to the kitchen. “G’day, mate. I meant to ask you, what was that large envelope the doorman handed you yesterday when we arrived?” “Yeah, CJ. Why don’t you tell us what’s in the envelope?” Owen’s mocking tone made CJ smirk. “Asshole!” His husband knew what it was; he was certain Owen wanted to see him squirm while weaving a plausible explanation. He was going to throw him a curve. “Admission to New Year’s Eve.” “What?” Owen looked startled. “I thought you were going to surprise them.” “I was. Then I realized you wanted to see me sweat trying to make something up. I decided not to give you the pleasure.” “Who’s the asshole now?” Tilda’s head followed the exchange, her mouth agape. “Are you two for real?” “What?” The three males replied simultaneously. “The way you talk to each other. I swear I’ve never seen anything like it. Anyone hearing you would think you’re seriously arguing. But I can see you’re not. It’s like you guys get off on this.” “Blame it on CJ and his dads. They corrupted me after I moved.” “Fuck you, Oz. Your sarcasm’s always been there. You may have loosened up a bit since we met—” “It’s a defense mechanism, Tilda. I had to adapt to avoid extinction. Brett and César banter like you wouldn’t believe it. CJ gets it from them. Of course, the three of them surround themselves with like-minded people. You know, birds of a feather and all that shit.” Owen stopped when CJ chuckled. “What now?” “Nothing, I just think it’s funny how you view our friends. I need a refill. Anyone else?” Three mugs were raised. “I’ll bring the carafe in. Carry on, Oz.” “Anyway, Spencer can confirm all this. He was around us last year. What amazes me is that CJ and his dads surround themselves with really diverse people. Race, religion, nationality… But they all seem to be clones when it comes to personality. That and being in shape.” Tilda waited until CJ refilled her mug. “It makes sense. You definitely have those two traits yourself. And you nailed it with the birds of a feather comment. It’s natural for people to flock to those they share values with. In this case, those values are smartassness and hunkiness.” “And on that note…” Spencer stood and pulled his girlfriend up. “Why don’t you go shower? I’ll help Owen sort breakfast.” Spencer offered Tilda a hand, helping her out of the taxi. Her head turned, and her eyes followed the line stretching from PRIME’s entrance. “The queue’s ginormous. We’re going to freeze while waiting to get in.” “Ah! A damsel in distress. I shall rescue you, milady.” CJ was in rare form. They spent the day sightseeing with laughter as the soundtrack. He decided Tilda was okay. As far as he was concerned, she could join the family. The martinis prior to dinner and the wine with the meal contributed to his joviality. “JURE!” CJ raised a hand in greeting as he approached the door. “Hi, CJ.” The bouncer smiled, and the smile grew when he spoke to Owen. “Welcome back, Ozzie. How are you tonight, handsome?” The security man had a history of flirting with Owen. “Remember, if you get bored, I’ll be here waiting for you.” “Give it up, mate. Ain’t happening. Hey, this is my brother, Spencer, and that’s his girlfriend, Tilda. They’re visiting from Australia.” “Welcome to New York. I hope you enjoy your time in the city. You’ll definitely have a blast in here.” Jure raised the velvet rope, allowing them to enter without checking ID or paying the cover charge. As always happened, those in line grumbled. “Mate, that was awesome. I like going out with you two.” Spencer may have clung to Tilda a bit more when a couple of guys walked by and undressed him with their eyes. “Yeah, well, don’t get used to it. This is about the only place in New York we get away with it.” CJ held Owen’s hand as he strolled towards the back. “Come on, let’s go see Sean. Ethan texted me he’s already here waiting for us. So are the owners and Tony’s brother and his girlfriend.” They were far from sober when they left the bar at closing time. Mario and Spencer made plans to join CJ and Owen at the gym the next day while their girlfriends went shopping. Back at the apartment, Owen was the responsible one, ensuring everyone took painkillers and drank a bottle of water as hangover prevention. When the reporter and the actor relaxed, signaling a commercial break, CJ sprung to action. Cupping his mouth, he shouted at them. “Anderson! Bradley!” “CJ!” The response was simultaneous and accompanied by hand motions inviting him to climb on stage. Spencer’s request for something extraordinary on New Year’s Eve led them to their current spot. Every December 31st, crowds streamed into New York City’s symbolic heart beginning in the afternoon. The celebration on Times Square had gone on for over 100 years as people gathered to watch the world-famous ball drop at midnight. When planning the trip, CJ and Owen realized they would need to stand for hours if they wanted to secure a good location from which to enjoy the festivities and discussed alternatives. CNN’s Anderson Cooper had interviewed CJ during the 2016 campaign. Owen met him the following summer on Fire Island, and the men had remained in contact. CJ’s latest appearance on the TV anchor’s show took place during the promotional tour for Bullies Beware. The envelope couriered to the apartment the previous week contained four passes allowing them access to the network’s area on New Year’s Eve. “What’s this? A Coopers convention? Do I need to change my last name?” CJ shook hands with Bradley Cooper as soon as he reached the raised platform. “Man I haven’t seen you in ages! I didn’t know you were gonna be here tonight.” “We’re in town, and Anderson convinced me to stop by. We’ve been talking about my latest movie.” The film had a limited release before Christmas, and rumor was the actor was in line for another Academy Award nomination. “Hate to interrupt the lovefest, boys. We’re coming out of commercials.” Anderson motioned for the four visitors to step back. “CJ, stand outside camera range while we finish the segment. Next break will be a long one. Commercials, remote reports, and more commercials. Your group will be on afterward.” The reporter had been agreeable when his young friend explained the night’s plan. A graduate of Georgetown University, Bradley Cooper returned to The Hilltop now and again. CJ met him when the actor screened A Star is Born on campus the previous year. School administrators asked César and Brett to host a cocktail reception for him, and he had remained in touch with the fathers, CJ, and Owen. “I’ve never done this before.” Tilda held her hair out of the way while the four friends were fitted with lapel microphones and earbuds. “There’s nothing to it.” CJ jammed his Hoyas knit cap back on his head once network personnel finished adjusting the equipment. “I was nervous the first few times. Just ignore the camera. Make believe we’re not on TV. Or that millions of people are watching.” “Asshole!” Owen whispered, but the microphone broadcast his words to the control booth. “Careful with the language, please.” The disembodied voice was heard by all through their earpieces. Spencer covered his microphone with a hand, before adding his own comment. “You’re such a wanker, CJ. Now that’s all we’re gonna think about.” “That’s a wrap.” It was the director speaking in their ear again. “You have a fifteen-minute break, Anderson.” The anchor passed the handheld microphone to an assistant. “Why is it I’m not surprised you two know each other?” He pointed at Bradley and CJ. “We’re both Hoyas!” The actor plucked the hat off CJ’s head and stuck it on his own. “You guys know my husband… That’s his brother, Spencer and his girlfriend, Tilda. They’re visiting from Australia. This will be their first time on air. Be gentle with them.” “Be back in a minute, guys. I need to use the porta potty.” Their host left them alone on the stage. “Nice to meet you, Spencer, Tilda. Welcome to the US.” “Thanks, mate.” Spencer was calm, but Tilda seemed star-struck. She shook hands with the famous actor but did not say a word. “How long are you guys in town for?” The woman at last found her voice. “We fly to California on the second.” “Perfect!” Cooper turned to CJ. “What are you doing tomorrow?” “Recovering.” Owen’s response was confirmed by CJ’s nod. “Brunch and maybe we’ll catch your new movie.” “Nah… You can do that any time. Or I’ll give you a DVD of it. Irina”—Irina Shayk was the man’s partner and mother of his daughter—“and I are having friends over. I want the four of you there.” “When and where?” CJ did not bother consulting with his companions. He was certain they were all agreeable. “Any time after ten. Let me text you the address.” The man grinned at Owen while tapping on his phone. “I bought a townhouse in the Village. I remember your wine connection, Owen. You’ll like my new place. The cellar holds a thousand bottles or so.” “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. I just met Bradley Cooper! My girls back home will never believe it.” Tilda blabbed non-stop. “They will when they see the pictures.” Spencer returned his phone to his back pocket. “And if he was serious about going to his house tomorrow, I’m sure we’ll get more.” “Oh, he was serious.” CJ raised his own phone. “He already texted me the address.” “Okay, boys and girl. We ready to do this?” Anderson Cooper clasped a hand on CJ’s biceps, his other one firmly affixed to the shoulder of the man accompanying him. “CJ, have you met Andy?” “I haven’t before.” He stretched a hand out to Andy Cohen, the show's co-host. “But I know who he is. Nice to meet you, Mr. Cohen.” “Please, it’s Andy. Anderson told me about you. We’re about to go on air. Relax and you’ll all be fine. We’ll talk a bit about each of you and about how it’s already 2020 in Australia.” “We’re back in New York. Andy’s returned from cavorting with the crowd, and we’re joined by four special guests.” Anderson’s eyes sparkled, and his smile shone as he faced the camera. “I was not cavorting. I was working.” Andy sounded indignant, but his grin did not falter. “Those man-on-the-street interviews are hard after a few cocktails. And some of those men were just plain hard. The muscles!” “You or them? Anyway, I met CJ Abelló during the 2016 presidential campaign. He appeared on my show a few times. Later, he introduced me to his husband—” “They’re married? There goes my fantasy.” “Hush. As I was saying, I met Owen Liston, and we’ve remained in touch. Last year, CJ published the acclaimed Bullies Beware. I was lucky to interview him again. Happy New Year, gentlemen.” CJ’s experience was evident when he didn’t hesitate. “Same to you and Andy, Anderson. Thanks for having us. Hey, let me introduce you to our companions. The guy’s Owen’s brother, Spencer. The lovely lady’s Tilda, his girlfriend.” “G’day, mate. Happy New Year to you too.” Spencer sounded calm, but incessantly patted his coat’s front pocket. Andy’s eyes shot wide open. “Oh, em, gee… You’re Australians! I looove the accent.” He was hamming it up for the camera; he was already aware of their nationality. “Hush. Stop gushing.” Anderson sounded like an annoyed parent. “Tilda, you haven’t said a word. How are you tonight?” “I… I’m a little nervous but good.” “Nothing to be nervous about, dear. Why don’t you tell us about yourself and how you ended up with these three ruffians?” “Hey! Watch it with the name calling!” Owen’s quip and chuckles were apparently enough to calm the girl. “Well, I’m from Pokolbin. That’s a town in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. I’ve known Spencer and Owen since I was little. Everyone knows the Listons! Their winery produces—” “Wait, wait, waaait.” Andy raised both arms and bent his wrists so the palm of his hands faced upward. “You’re all Australians, and you own a winery? I’m in love.” “Hush, Andy.” Seldom shy, CJ left Cohen with his jaw reaching for his chest while Cooper laughed. “They are Aussies. I was born in Miami. If you’re a good boy, maybe we’ll bring you a bottle of the family wine one day.” “YESSSS! I’ll have you on my show, and we can do shotskies all night.” His eyes raked over CJ and Owen. “Can’t really tell under all the layers, but I suspect you both have rocking bodies. Maybe we’ll do the show shirtless.” While Owen shook his head, CJ nodded. “Sure thing, buddy. I hope your network has deep pockets. We’ll do your show shirtless, but you’ll have to make a six-figure contribution to a charity of our choice.” Anderson rolled his eyes. “Are you two quite done? Sorry, Tilda. You were saying?” “It’s okay, they’re funny. Liston wines are some of the best in the region. Unfortunately, they don’t make enough to sell outside Australia. But CJ and Owen get cases sent to them as pressies all the time.” “For those of you not fluent in Oztrayan, pressies means presents.” The look Anderson gave his co-host was decidedly evil. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Andy. I tried some last summer while we were all on Fire Island. Next time I’m Down Under, I’m bringing back as many bottles as I can.” Andy’s pout made them all chuckle. “I hate you all. Please continue, Tilda.” “Well, about the same time Owen moved to America, Spencer left for uni in Sydney. When he returned, he started work in the family business, and we would see each other now and then. Last year, after CJ and Owen got married, Spencer and I started dating when he came back from Washington.” “Did your brother getting married inspire you to date, Spencer?” “Nah, mate. I always thought Tilda was pretty and nice.” He glanced at his brother and brother-in-law for a fraction of a second, both winked at him and took a step back out of camera range. Anderson smiled. He was in on it. “So, what are your intentions toward this lovely young woman?” “Well…” He reached in his pocket and withdrew a small box. Eyes fixed on his girlfriend, he opened it to reveal an antique opal and diamond ring. “Tilda? You know that old song I love? The one by Gin Wigmore?” Tilda covered her mouth with both hands; the realization of what was happening washed over her. Spencer dropped to a knee and sang. “Oh my God I'm beaten in the game of love And I fall down I fall down on my knees I fall Oh my God, I'm beaten in the game of love “And since I’m beaten, I gladly surrender. Matilda Linsay, will you marry me?”
  18. 73 points
    “Our next guests have taken the publishing world by storm. Their new book, Bullies Beware, has been atop the non-fiction bestseller lists since its release. Please welcome, Trip Houston and CJ Abelló.” Music played, the crowd applauded, and CJ and Trip waved at the audience as they walked on stage. CJ recognized Christina Aguilera’s anti-bullying anthem “Beautiful,” but not the specific dance remix. He was familiar enough with the show to know the cool guests danced their way to the sitting area. He grasped Trip’s arm, handed over the gift bag he carried, and half-shoved his writing partner toward their host. While the older man chuckled and shook his head, CJ grasped the edges of his blue blazer, flapped them a couple of times, and busted out some of the same moves he had displayed at The Abbey a few nights before. The crowd roared. Both men hugged and kissed the host of the uber-popular, eponymous talk show, and sat on the white sofa after waving at the crowd one last time. “Well, that was definitely an entrance. Nice moves, CJ.” “Thanks, Ellen. Maybe you and Portia”—Portia De Rossi was Ellen’s wife—“should come dancing with us sometime.” CJ retrieved a bandana from his back pocket and dabbed away sweat drops from his forehead. “I think you missed a couple on your chest hair, CJ.” Ellen was the most popular talk show in the United States, and the host was well known for flirting and encouraging male guests to disrobe. “We don’t want that nice t-shirt under your jacket to get wet. Why don’t you take both off?” The majority-female audience cheered with abandon. “I don’t think so, Ellen. My other half may not approve.” He reached for the bag Trip placed on the couch and handed it over to the woman. “Speaking of my other half, we brought you a present. It’s a bottle of Liston Vineyards Semillon from my husband’s family winery.” “Thank you! For those of you who may not know, Portia and Owen were both born in Australia. We discovered the coincidence a little earlier in the green room. Owen Liston is CJ’s husband, and he’s in the audience. Owen? Where are you, Owen?” When the big blond stood and waved, he was pelted with wolf whistles. Ellen came to his rescue. “Down, people. Down. Remember he’s married.” Ellen DeGeneres smiled while reaching toward the small round table next to her armchair and held up a copy of the book. An image of the cover appeared on the display screen behind them and on the monitor in front. “Well, this is a nice way to start the year; I have two very good-looking men on the show.” Applause and wolf whistles returned. “I understand CJ’s had an eventful 2018, but I want to start with his co-author. Trip, you’re a reporter for The Washington Post and have also published several magazine articles. However, this is your first book. What inspired you?” “That’s an easy one to answer, Ellen. It was CJ. He was the initial inspiration for the book. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s been an advocate for the downtrodden. For those taken advantage of by others. Best of all, he’s always backed up his words with actions. CJ’s always exuded an inner strength and raw courage I thought could serve as inspiration to others not lucky enough to see him in action as I have.” Ellen pointed at CJ and winked. “We’ll get to you in a minute, handsome.” The crowd cheered again, and CJ felt his face grow warmer; the screeching from a section of young women was something new to him. “So, Trip, when and how did you first meet your writing partner?” “Oh, this is going to embarrass him to no end.” Trip chuckled, took hold of CJ’s knee, and gave it a reassuring shake. “What were you? Fifteen?” When he received a nod, he returned his attention to the host. “CJ had just moved to Washington. The day I first heard about him, he’d been at the Rolling Thunder Rally with his parents, and afterward headed to Rogo’s Bar and Grill.” “What’s Rolling Thunder?” “Ohhh, it’s a huge, annual, motorcycle ride honoring Vietnam War vets. It starts at the Pentagon and ends at the Vietnam Memorial.” “Were you riding motorcycles at fifteen?” Ellen’s face registered surprise at CJ. “Not back then. I rode behind one of my dads. But—“ “That’s enough for now. You can go back to sitting there looking pretty. I’ll be back to you.” The quip had the entire audience cackling. “So, Trip, you first met CJ at a bar when he was fifteen”—those in the studio responded with renewed laughter—“tell us about it.” “Crap! You’re making all this sound bad. It wasn’t. Honest! Anyway, I wouldn’t call it a bar… More like a restaurant serving adult beverages.” Trip snickered when Ellen nodded but did not look convinced. “Anyway, his parents and the owner were and still are close friends. A large group of bikers landed at Rogo’s after the rally, and I started hearing snippets about some kid taking a big, burly biker down. Turned out they were talking about CJ. I was fairly new in town myself and always on the lookout for interesting stories to tell. What I was hearing sounded like a possible winner.” “What was it he did?” “It took me a while to get the whole story; I didn’t approach him at the time since he was surrounded by people. But even after I knew what he’d done, it took forever to get him to talk about it with me. He made me sweat it out.” The fist Trip waved under CJ’s nose was batted away. “CJ’s always been reticent when the conversation’s about him.” “That’s ’cause everyone always exaggerates!” “Hush. Ellen said to remain quiet. Let me finish.” Trip gave him a dismissive wave. “When I finally had enough information, this is what I discovered happened. A young man was being harassed by one of the other bikers. The kid was pushed and ended up on the ground. CJ ran to help him, and then confronted the bully. When the man charged CJ, I doubt he expected to tangle with a black belt in whatever martial arts discipline my friend here specialized in. I know he’s good at a few different ones. So, in front of who knows how many people, the bully ends up on his back himself after a few well-placed kicks and slaps. From what I heard, he had scrapes thanks to the parking lot, his nose was a bloody mess, and I’m certain his ego was severely bruised.” “So, a fifteen-year-old kid battled and defeated a grown man. Quite a story. And I guess it proves size isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” The explosion of applause and laughter was louder this time. “Get ready, CJ. Your turn when we return from commercial break.” While their make-up was freshened, CJ tried to teach Ellen how to pronounce his last name. He gave up laughing after the third try. “And we’re back! During the break, CJ tried to teach me the correct way to say his name. It wasn’t long before he figured out I’m useless when it comes to Spanish. I have a feeling this won’t be his last appearance on the show. I promise to practice before you come back. Okay, I mentioned at the beginning you had an eventful year. You’re a junior at Georgetown University and you got married last summer.” A groan erupted from the section screeching moments before. “Sorry girls, I don’t think you had a chance with him anyway. Tell me about your husband, CJ.” His eyes went to Owen sitting in the front row to the side; both smiled at the same time. Until Owen jumped in his seat when Danno elbowed him. “As you already mentioned, his name’s Owen Liston. He’s from Australia but on his way to becoming a US citizen. An attorney, back in school for a third degree. And he’s the most wonderful, caring, loving man in the world.” The applause was so loud Ellen motioned for Owen to stand again. When he did and waved at the audience, she leaned into CJ and mock-whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “He’s cute!” “Darn right, he is.” “Okay, girls, settle down. Remember, they’re both married… To each other. So, when did the two of you meet? And how?” “On my sixteenth birthday! One of my parents’ best friends is Ozzie’s cousin. He was going back home for a visit and invited us to tag along. Our first night in the country, we went out to dinner with his parents and Ozzie was with them. He moved to Washington a few months later to attend law school.” “That was it? Love at first sight? You met, and he decided to move to the US?” “No, no, no. Not quite like that. Anyway, there’s no such thing as love at first sight.” Boos peppered the studio. “Wow, they turn real fast, don’t they?” Ellen’s head bobbed as she rolled her eyes. “Anyway, you can’t fall in love with someone unless you get to know them first. Otherwise, it’s just lust based on appearances.” The ovation was loud and prolonged. “Nice save, kiddo. You were telling me about Owen moving to the US…” “When we met, he was already going to move. He’d been accepted to law school and planned on living with his cousin. To be honest, we had a great time while I was in Australia, but then I was kind of a jerk to him.” “It seems to have worked out. I understand you keep telling everyone you’re not romantic, but in reality, you are. What did you do right before you got married while you were in Amsterdam?” CJ was a little confused. “I… I don’t know… We went sightseeing, we went out partying with friends, we watched a bunch of rugby games because we were there for a tournament… Did I tell you my husband plays rugby? He’s good too. He’s a great hooker.” Ellen tried to speak, but the crowd’s noise drowned her out. “That might be worth another appearance on this show. But I’m going to assume that’s a position. Like quarterback or something.” The monitor in front of them showed Owen nodding. “Nice try. But don’t change the subject. Don’t forget I do this interviewing stuff for a living.” Ellen’s eye roll elicited further laughter. “Right before your wedding. While you were in Amsterdam. What did you do that required you to shave your chest?” “Oh! That! I had the Southern Cross tattooed above my heart with his name underneath the stars. That’s the constellation on the Australian flag.” Ellen had to wait until the applause died down before speaking. “Right. And you’re not romantic at all.” CJ tried to look innocent while shrugging. Ellen raised a hand to silence him when he tried to speak. “Hold that thought. Okay, so the tattoo thing sounds great. Take off your shirt so we can see it.” The noise level reached new heights. “Ummm, I don’t think so.” Booing filled the studio. “Oh, come on. You can’t tell me you’re shy. It looks like you’re in great shape. I think the audience wants to see.” Ellen gave CJ a smirk and turned her attention towards the audience. “Would you like CJ to take off his shirt and show us his tattoo?” His immediate reaction was to cover his ears with his hands, the response was so loud. “Sorry, Ellen, but if I did that on national TV both my grandmothers would kill me.” Looking at the host, he suspected she was up to something based on her grin. “Fine! Be that way. Fortunately, we raided your Instagram account.” The monitor underneath the camera flashed a picture of a shirtless CJ pointing at his tattoo. Based on the audience reaction, he assumed it was also displayed on the giant screen behind them. The image remained on the monitor while the audience cheered and then switched to one of CJ and Owen in suits, arms around each other, both holding martini glasses aloft. “And this one? Want to tell us about it?” “I’m going to kill whoever gave you my account name. That one was taken last month. At my twenty-first birthday party.” “You’re a college student, right?” She waited until CJ nodded. “I’m guessing that martini was the first time ever you drank alcohol.” “Ummm, well… maybe…” CJ shook his head, not believing what she was putting him through. However, he was enjoying himself, unlike most appearances he made during the Clinton campaign. “Look, I’ve been back to Australia a few times. Drinking age is eighteen there. And Ozzie’s family does own a winery so…” “Another good save.” She momentarily returned her attention to Trip. “What about you, Trip. You have any tattoos we should know about? You look to be in great shape too. Why don’t you take off your shirt and show us?” While the audience yelled encouragement, CJ nodded. Trip did not sound amused. “Sure, Ellen. As soon as you convince CJ to do so, I’ll follow right along.” “Liar… Okay, enough frivolity. “You’ve had more than your fifteen minutes of fame, my friend. You were a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign.” The image switched to one of CJ shaking hands with Barack Obama. You were a guest of President Barack Obama when he was awarded the Profiles in Courage Award in 2017.” The famous picture of CJ placing himself between a man wielding a baseball bat and an older, black woman flashed on the screen. “Later that year, you were in the news again when you saved the life of an elderly woman in Charlottesville. In 2018, you got tattooed, married, and drunk. Ooops, scratch that last one. It’s me projecting. I can’t wait to see what you have planned for 2019.” Ellen paused while the applause died down. “Some have called you the next John Kennedy. A charismatic, good-looking, wealthy young man who's destined for high elected office. What do you say to them?” There was no hesitation on CJ’s part. “That I don't want to be the next anybody. President Kennedy was a great man unable to reach his full potential. I hope I reach mine. I want to be a positive force within my community. I want to set a good example for the youth of America. I hope years from now, someone wants to grow up to be the next CJ.” “I think you’re well on your way. And this book’s a step in the right direction. The two of you have managed to paint a clear picture of what so many go through, and how it’s up to all of us to step in and put a stop to it.” “That’s right, Ellen.” CJ spoke to the camera. His experience being interviewed was coming in handy. “Bullying comes in many forms. My martial arts training has come in handy more than once. Although I don’t encourage violence, I believe kids should be able to defend themselves. However, not until other efforts have failed. Parents, teachers, and clergy should be the first option. “Bullying doesn’t have to involve fists. Social media has given cowards a new platform. Whether it’s an idiot on Twitter or a classmate on Facebook. We need to teach our children those people don’t matter. That we’re all worthy of respect. We need to ignore the haters.” The standing ovation surprised CJ. Previous TV appearances during the book tour had been in a studio without an audience. This was definitely different. Once the noise abated, Ellen focused on her other guest. “Trip, tell me about the Trevor Project.” “Although bullying affects anyone, gay and lesbian kids suffer more than their fair share. GLBT youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of their heterosexual counterparts. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. “It’s an organization CJ and I both believe in and support. It’s the reason we included it amongst the list of resources at the end of the book. And why we’re donating a portion of the proceeds from book sales to it.” Ellen reached behind her armchair and slid a large, rectangular piece of cardboard alongside it. “It’s also one of the organizations I support. And so do our sponsors.” She lifted the white cardboard and turned it around to reveal a facsimile check for ten thousand dollars. “We’re making a contribution to the Trevor Project in honor of both of you.” As the applause and cheering reached a crescendo, she raised a hand to quiet the audience. “We’re also sending everyone in the audience home with a copy of Bullies Beware and encouraging all of you to support the Trevor Project. CJ, Trip, thank you for stopping by to both of you. I can’t wait until you join us again sometime soon. We’ll see you all next show, and remember to be kind to one another.”
  19. 72 points
    “You know something? This is the first time I wore a coat and tie since your birthday party a year ago.” Brad Kennedy tossed his walking stick in Sparky’s back seat, belted himself in, and shut the car’s door. “You should do it more often, Red. You look good.” CJ had approached his friend the previous week with a lunch invitation. Searching for increased funding, he had quietly lobbied on behalf of Heroes Haven and wanted Brad to meet one of the individuals he had spoken to several times. “So, let me tell you about Tammy. I told her you were like my brother. Also told her you were a good example of the type of vet we’re trying to help.” What he did not tell the former Army Ranger was the meeting was also intended to assist the recovering vet. The time with Alex Minsky a couple of months before helped his friend’s attitude; he was in a much more positive frame of mind after. When he was fitted with new legs, he followed Minsky’s advice, working hard to regain mobility. “Senator Duckworth—” “We’re having lunch with a United States senator?” Brad sounded surprised. “Umm… Yeah. Is that a problem?” “Nah. I just thought you were staying out of politics these days. Figured we were meeting some rich person to ask for donations.” “I am staying away. Mostly. This isn’t about politics. Heck, I didn’t even have to register as a lobbyist since I’m not getting paid. Anyway, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ladda Tammy Duckworth agreed to meet me when I asked your relative to introduce us.” “Joe?” “Yep. Representative Kennedy has become a good friend. Anyway, I approached Tammy to see if we could get her support lining up some Federal funds for Heroes Haven. The program intrigued her. She insisted on visiting the place. Afterward, she made phone calls and wrote letters to get us a little money. It’s an ongoing project, and we’re in regular contact. Okay, we’re here.” CJ stopped in front of Forbes Grille and smiled when he saw the glint in the valet attendant’s eyes; the Tesla always attracted attention. The restaurant was a private dining club catering to business people. Years before, César bought a membership for his son as a present, and CJ made use of it on a regular basis these days. Inside the door, long, mournful notes emanating from ceiling mounted speakers caressed CJ’s ears. A Florida grocery chain had used Pat Metheny's “Last Train Home” in holiday commercials for years. CJ was very familiar with it and thought it appropriate for the moment. Brad had escaped the battlefield, but he had a last ride before he was truly home. He needed to overcome his tragedy and focus on his future. “Mr. Abelló, it’s wonderful to have you back with us.” The maitre’d flicked a silver lock of hair away from his forehead and shook hands with the younger man. “Senator Duckworth’s already arrived. She’s waiting for you in the dining room.” “Thanks, Nelson. I’m not sure if you remember my friend, Brad Kennedy…” Nelson Wheatly had manned the front of the house for years; CJ suspected the sixty-something man had a photographic memory. “Of course I do. You’re the friend who went into the Army after graduation.” He shook Brad’s hand enthusiastically. “I am.” Brad tapped one of his legs with the walking stick. “My fighting days are over, though.” “Well, welcome back. I guess we’ll have two honest-to-goodness American heroes with us today.” “My apologies for making you wait, Senator.” CJ extended a hand toward the Thai-American official from Illinois. “No apology necessary, CJ. You didn’t make me wait. I escaped the madness on The Hill early so I could catch a breath. I have you to thank for the respite.” Brad stood next to his friend in silence until the woman locked eyes with him. “Brad Kennedy, ma’am. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “It’s mutual, young man. You two sit, please. You’re both tall enough I’m about to get a crick in my neck.” When the men took their seats, she spoke to Brad. “Where do you keep yours?” The redhead appeared confused. “I’m sorry, ma’am?” “Your Purple Heart. Where do you keep it?” Brad hesitated for a moment. “Oh… I’m not sure where it’s at. I gave it to one of my dads and asked him to keep it safe. It doesn’t mean that much to me. Maybe if I have kids one day they’ll want to see it.” “And why do you hesitate when you mention kids? Did you get injured somewhere that would prevent you?” “No, not at all.” A miniature smile formed on his lips. “That part escaped injury and works well.” “Good. In case CJ here didn’t tell you, I’ve given birth twice since I lost my legs. I want you to remember not having them doesn’t prevent you from doing almost anything you want.” “Why did you ask about my medals?” “A little unofficial research. I’ve discovered most recipients feel as you do. Politicians make a big deal out of awards and recognitions. They fail to understand what most of us want are opportunities. To live and be productive.” “CJ mentioned you were injured in a helicopter accident—” “Baloney! It wasn’t an accident! Those suckers were trying to kill me.” The woman’s vehemence startled CJ. “If it had been Vietnam or any other American war, you and I would be dead today. But we’re not thanks to improved field medicine. With so many of us returning injured, I intend to rattle as many cages as I can until all who serve are taken care of. It’s why I’m interested in the organization CJ represents. Have you been there?” “No, not yet. CJ and Ozzie promised to take me for a day trip next month.” CJ felt a need to explain. “Ozzie’s my husband, Owen, Senator. It’s a nickname.” “I still have to meet him. I heard good things about him from a couple of mutual friends.” “Then I’ll have to bring him by your office sometime soon.” CJ had a devilish smile on his face. “Or we can have lunch again if you want to escape the crazies one more time.” Senator Duckworth’s laugh was rich. “I may just take you up on that. So, Brad, how long have you had your new legs?” “Less than two months. I’m still getting used to them. That’s the reason for the stick. To help with my balance.” “Give it time, soldier. It’ll get easier to maneuver around. Let me tell you something. I have a great pair of legs I hate. They’re painted to match my skin tone and one of the toes is a little longer just like my real one used to be. I look at myself in the mirror when I wear them, and all I see is loss.” She pointed at her steel and titanium prosthesis. “But when I see these, I see strength. Same thing with my wheelchair. People always want me to hide it in pictures. I say no! I earned the damn thing. It’s no different from a medal I would wear on my chest. Why would I hide it?” Conversation lagged while the server recited the day’s specials and took their order. Brad asked for a beer, but when the senator requested iced tea, CJ followed suit. “Has the Veterans Administration been doing right by you, Brad?” Duckworth toyed with a breadstick from the basket on the table. “I guess… I’ve probably had it easier than others. One of my dad’s best friends’ a doctor. He and his two partners have become part of the team treating me. I know they’ve spoken to the VA docs at Walter Reed.” Brad smirked, stabbing CJ’s arm with a finger. “And this guy keeps an eye on me. I know he’s made phone calls to unjam things a couple of times. He also had a friend of his—a marine who lost a leg—fly in from California to talk to me.” Brad momentarily hesitated. “And I suspect that’s why I’m here today. He figured you could also help me.” The woman neither confirmed nor denied his suspicion. “You’re lucky. The kind of support system you enjoy isn’t what most injured vets have. Too often, we abandon them. We use them up and discard them. One of us commits suicide every hour, and that’s one too many. We’re failing them, and it’s the reason I’m trying to help fund Heroes Haven. So they can expand their programs and hopefully save some lives.” The food’s arrival interrupted their conversation. When resumed while eating, it revolved around the senator’s infant daughters, Brad’s brother and mother in Boston, and CJ’s impending graduation from college. Duckworth declined dessert and settled for a cup of coffee when Brad ordered a slice of pie. “What are your plans for the future, Brad?” “I…” He hesitated while drumming the tabletop with his fingertips. “I have no idea, Senator. I don’t have any training except for killing people. CJ asked me the same thing a year ago. At the time, I was considering following in my dad’s footsteps. Becoming a cop. But now…” “Now what?” “Well, now that’s out of the question. Not much use for a cop without legs.” “Bullcrap!” She reached for her phone and tapped at it. “What’s your phone number? I’m texting you a name I want you to google later. Matias Ferreira is a U.S. Marines veteran who lost both legs. He was sworn in as a police officer in New York six years after he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. “Don’t give up on your dreams, Brad. The moment you want to quit is the moment when you need to keep pushing. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be painful. It’s never going to get easier. You just get stronger. Your future’s created by what you do today. Don’t allow fears or naysayers tell you you can’t achieve what you set out to accomplish.” “You look good mixing drinks behind the bar, mate.” “SPENCER!” Tank nearly dropped the cocktail shaker in his hand when Spencer Liston stood before him. “What the heck? What are you doing here? I’m going to kill your brother for not telling me you were coming in. How long are you in town for? I have to work a lot over the—” The shock was such he apparently failed to notice CJ, Owen, and a pretty, young blonde standing behind the man. The loud laughter stopped him midsentence. “The two of you are so dead. Y’all, sit.” The commanding tone brokered no argument. “Let me finish this and I’ll be back.” While serving as groomsmen for CJ and Owen, the bartender and the younger Liston sibling befriended each other—both were gym bunnies and avid weightlifters. He poured the contents of whatever concoction he was working on into glasses, garnished them, and delivered them to the waiting server at the end of the bar. A chuckling CJ pulled out one of the stools and offered it to the girl next to him. “Did you see his face? I think we surprised him.” “I thought he was about to launch into a Harleyesque monologue.” Owen directed his brother to the seat next to the girl and sat on the other side of Spencer. “What with them living together, I was worried it was rubbing off on our Ragin’ Cajun.” On Friday night before Christmas, Rum & Cola—the bar attached to Abuela’s Restaurant—was packed with young professionals. Some were well inebriated, no doubt having stopped by the popular watering hole after work and still languishing around. Others resembled the new arrivals, stopping for a drink while waiting for a table. All appeared in good spirits; the atmosphere brimmed with holiday cheer. Wanting to surprise Tank, CJ did not bother with reservations. One of the benefits of being part owner of the place was his ability to be seated even when it was crowded. “Okay, now that I can think straight—” “HA!” Tank threw the white towel he had been wiping the bar’s surface with at CJ. “Y’all better watch it, bro. You’re next in line after I beat the crap out of your husband. Now, what’s going on?” He smiled at the girl sitting with the guys. “Hi. I guess you’re with these guys?” “Nothing going on, mate. I missed my brother. So I flew over to spend the holidays with him.” Spencer reached for the woman’s hand. “And Tilda’s never been to America. Tank, this is my girlfriend, Tilda Lindsay. Tilda, my lookalike behind the bar is Tanix Janda. I’m sure you already figured out he goes by Tank.” “G’day, Tank. It’s great to meetcha, mate.” “Same here. How come Spencer hasn’t mentioned you in any e-mails? How long has this been going on?” The girl threw her head back. Her teeth brightened the tanned face, and her laughter lit up the room. “Ah, yeah. He told me you were the guy in the wedding party he became closest to. He wanted to surprise you. We’ve known each other since we were kids. I’m also from the Hunter Valley. What are you making?” Tank reached for a bottle of blue liqueur and poured a generous amount into a steel cocktail shaker. “Captain on Acid. Since you guys didn’t tell me what you wanted to drink…” “Sounds scary. What’s in it?” “Captain Morgan rum, coconut rum, pineapple juice, blue curacao, and a bit of grenadine. It’s a beachy drink for it being so cold outside, but it’ll warm you up. So, you’ve known Spencer since you were kids?” “Yeah… When he came back from Sydney with his fancy Bachelor of Viticulture and Winemaking”—the air quotes made Tank’s grin grow—“we bumped into each other in town. After his trip here for the wedding, he called me, we went out, and we’ve been dating since.” “So how long are you guys in town for? And what are your plans?” “From what I hear, we’re eating a lot. CJ’s birthday dinner, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. At least you guys don’t celebrate Boxing Day or it would be one more.” Spencer butted in. “We’re going to New York for New Year’s Eve. We’re in DC until the twenty-eighth. You should come up with us. I hear their place up there’s big enough.” “I can’t. Gotta work that night.” Tank winked at Tilda. “Then I have a date with a hot college wrestler.” CJ and Owen left their guests sleeping when they went to the gym the following morning. Jetlag caught up with the Australians, and they asked to sleep in. Breakfast was late; it was near noon when they bundled up against the cold and clambered into Sparky. “So, you bought this house two years ago?” Tilda tucked a loose strand of golden hair under the knit Georgetown cap CJ had lent her. “To the day!” Owen was excited to show off the place he and CJ would soon be calling home. They drove Spencer by it when he was in town for the wedding but were unable to show him the inside. “Days later, the people we leased it to took over. They vacated early. That’s why we get to go in.” CJ felt giddy when he slipped the car into a spot in front. “We could park in the back, but we want you guys to experience going in through the front door.” The long, narrow house was empty and clean. The German company that leased it for the previous two years hired professionals to scrub the interior. “Mate, your masonry needs work.” Spencer ran a hand over the white-painted brick next to the entrance. “Too bad my brother isn’t here. He’s a brickie.” Inside, Tilda removed her overcoat and tossed it over the staircase’s handrail. “This is lovely. It’s in good shape.” “Yeah, well, we’re about to gut the interior.” Owen shivered as he had when he and CJ had discussed how much work there would be. “We have lead paint, and that means removing lots of plaster. CJ wants an automatic house. That means we need to run all new electrical and wiring for certain things. Quite a few walls will come down and get rebuilt.” “I’m glad we came by here and turned up the temperature before you guys arrived.” The furnace would be replaced with a more efficient gas-powered one to serve as a backup for solar power. “Let’s start upstairs. We’ll work our way down to the basement. That’s the only space for which we have decent architectural drawings.” “You guys said the top three floors are the same, right?” Spencer trailed his brother and girlfriend with CJ at his side. “Yeah. A seating area in front, a bedroom, a bathroom, another bedroom, and the storage space running along the back. The two middle floors we’ll rehab, but we’re not moving walls.” “You’ll see the house CJ grew up in later, Tilda. We’re doing the same thing the dads did. The entire top floor will be a master suite. The seating area will become part of the front bedroom. The bathroom and closet will grow, and the back bedroom will become first a nursery and then an office slash study.” “You and Spencer will have to come visit us again. We haven’t picked out colors, or furniture, or fixtures yet. But we’ll make sure all the bedrooms have comfortable beds.” CJ winked at his brother-in-law and wiggled his eyebrows. “Wanker!” Back on the first floor, CJ talked about placing a giant Christmas tree in front of the bay window facing the street. He cut the description of their plans for the main living areas short; he could tell Owen was itching to give his brother a detailed briefing on their plans for the basement. “Oz, why don’t you take them downstairs? I’ll join you in a minute. I’m gonna get that box out of the car’s back.” “We still haven’t decided about the walls.” Owen was in the middle of his description when CJ returned. “CJ’s cousins suggested a brick veneer, but we’re not sure we want the fake stuff. They’re going to price using real brick.” “Even behind the wine storage bins?” Spencer looked doubtful. “Nope. Since it’ll run the entire length of the house, those outer walls are gonna be covered in spray insulation and drywall panels. The brick would be on the wall separating this section from the hallway we’re creating and all the equipment on the other side.” CJ leaned the box he had fetched against the staircase and joined the others. “Since the house’s brick on the outside, and we’re covering three existing walls, we thought it would be cool to kinda recreate the feel with the new one we put up. We’ll use it to hang some art, and Ozzie wants part of it as a living wall. But I’m pushing to do that in the master bathroom. It’d be cool behind the soaking tub.” “So all the bins will have glass doors?” Tilda flipped between a couple of pictures in Owen’s phone. “Is this a sink? Are you having a full bar down here?” “Nope. Just wine and beer. And cigars. The doors Ozzie asked for so we could have different temperature zones. The sink’s there to rinse out glasses and stuff.” “If you swipe through the rest of the pics, you’ll see the hammered copper bar sink they want to use. We won’t hang out here a lot. But on days like today, when there’s only four of us, we could sit here and share a bottle. Keep flipping. The blue leather chair and the cork storage barrel table you already saw in our apartment. The next picture should be the cowhide Barcelona chair and ottoman. Then there’s a few choices for two more chairs. We haven’t decided what we’re going to use yet.” “Is this pink stone?” Tilda turned the phone around to show the referenced image. “Yeah, my cousins are a pain the butt. They claim since this is gonna be a gay household, they had to throw a little pink in. That’s a slab sliced off an amethyst geode and polished. It’ll be the new top for the cork storage table. Oh, and although Ozzie claims we haven’t chosen the other chairs, my vote’s for the Frank Lloyd Wright barrel ones.” “I’ll probably let CJ pick those. After all, he’s given me free rein otherwise. We’re using cork on the floor. I think it’s fitting, and cork’s an environmentally friendly material. It’s soft, would prevent a bottle from breaking if dropped, and it can be refinished like hardwood.” “Sounds like you’ve thought of everything, mate.” Spencer stared at the drawing on the tablet Owen had given him. “I don’t see a bathroom in here. What with all the drinking…” “There’ll be one outside this room. Since this space will be locked, we want anyone using the laundry stuff to have access to the restroom. We’ll have a half-bath with a toilet, a urinal, and a sink.” “A urinal?” Tilda sounded surprised. “Yeah! Wait until you see my dads’ house. One of them insisted on putting one in their basement when they remodeled. Over there it works great since that’s where we watch sports, and men make up most of the guests.” “What’d you go get from the car, mate?” The two couples had returned to the main floor. CJ’s lopsided grin got an almost-giggle from Owen. “What is it with younger brothers? Spencer’s as nosy as Ritchie.” “Watch it, you little bugger. I happen to be older than you.” “Fuck off, Spence. Anyway, not sure if you saw the brass address plaque by the front door. Ozzie and I ordered a new one and it arrived a couple days ago.” “Can we see it, please?” Tilda’s politeness was a welcome respite from most of their friends. “Sure. Ozzie and I’ve been thinking about what we wanted on the new one for a while. We settled on it a few weeks ago after we met with my cousins.” CJ reached for the flat parcel, slit it open with a key, and removed the bubble wrap around it. “You guys are the first ones to see it.” EVERHOPE 131 11th Street S.E. Capitol Hill Historic District National Register of Historic Places 1896 “What’s Everhope?” “That’s the name of our house!” CJ and Ozzie wanted Tilda to meet some of their friends, so they invited Harley and his girlfriend, Kim to join them at Guapo’s Restaurant for dinner. Located in the Tenleytown neighborhood near the American University campus, the Mexican eatery was a favorite spot, and it didn’t disappoint that evening. “So, how did you come up with the name?” Kim Hoang attended the University of Maryland and was home for Christmas break. “Everhope’s very unusual. Although it has a lyrical sound to it.” “CJ likes to name inanimate objects. I knew the house would end up with one. Since we own it together, I told him we had to name it together. He’s said from the beginning this would be our forever home—” “You mean the two of you want to stay in Washington permanently?” “I do, and it’s something I discussed with Ozzie before we got married. As much as he loves Australia, and as much as I love Florida, neither one of us wants to return to those places. The State Department may post me anywhere, but this will always be home base. It’s why we’re spending so much on the remodeling.” Owen dipped a churro in chocolate sauce and closed his eyes while humming with content. “Anyway, Kim. We hope to raise our kids in DC. We hope our place’s always full of friends like you and Harley. We hope my Aussie family comes visit often.” Spencer fisted his chest in macho approval at that comment. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Next time you come, that’s where you’ll stay.” “How about one more round of hot chocolate, guys?” CJ motioned for the waiter when everyone nodded. The tequila and chili powder laced beverage was ideal before they braved the cold once more. “Between our hopes for the place and hoping it will be where we live for many years, Everhope sort of came about.” Sunday morning, CJ made sherry poached eggs and served them in crispy-prosciutto cups. Owen defrosted, sliced, and toasted one of the sourdough loaves he had shipped from San Francisco on a regular basis. Bundled up against the cold, they set out on a sightseeing tour. The route and stops honed over the years were always popular with visitors. They started across the Potomac at the Iwo Jima Memorial. The Marine Corps Memorial was the one place in Virginia they parked Sparky and walked the grounds, even though they drove up to the main entrance of Arlington Memorial Cemetery and the Pentagon afterward. Returning to DC, they found a spot in the same lot near the Jefferson Memorial CJ had used before. “Mate, this looks so different from the other two times I’ve been here.” Spencer had visited the monument by the Tidal Basin during his gap year travels and again when in DC for the wedding. “Both times were in summer. This is the first time I’ve seen the grounds covered in snow.” By the time they were done with the presidential and war memorials, they were cold and hungry. They ducked into the Smithsonian’s Castle Café for sandwiches and coffee. “Which one’s your favorite one, Ozzie?” Tilda circled a finger over a map of the Smithsonian. She perused the brochure while nibbling on her sandwich. “The natural history one.” The woman ran a fingernail along the drawing searching for it. “The National Museum of Natural History? Why?” “Don’t laugh.” Owen looked embarrassed. “The dinosaurs. Yeah, yeah, I know that’s what a ten-year-old would say. But with me, it’s the fact that such incredible creatures disappeared. It was natural causes, but it drives me. I want to help protect the species we have today. It’s been a guiding force. I also like their Ocean Hall and the geology one. I mean, I wouldn’t mind one or two of those little gemstones.” “Mate, that’s so gay. Jewelry?” Spencer had trouble talking and laughing at the same time. “But props for the first part. We’re all proud you’re making the world a better place.” “What about you, CJ?” “The National Museum of American History. The artifacts fascinate me. They’re like little windows into our past. Like with the red shoes from The Wizard of Oz, to me they mean nothing. But you stand near them long enough, you’ll hear an older person talk about seeing the movie when it first came out.” CJ raised a hand to stop anyone from interrupting while he sipped from his cup. “But to be honest, the one Ozzie and I’ve been to the most is the Air and Space Museum. My little brother drags us there whenever he can.” “You’ll like Ritchie, babe.” Spencer’s head bobbed. “Solid kid, not as stuffy as my brothers here”—asshole was uttered simultaneously by CJ and Owen—“he’s already a pilot, and he wants to fly jets. Damn does he ever. I heard those words so often…” “Well, okay then. Those are the three I wanna see. We can do one now if there’s time. If not, we have a couple of days.” In the evening, Tilda at last met CJ’s fathers and brother. “So, you have Chinese food the same day every week?” “Ever since Ritchie moved in.” Brett used a chopstick to push the last few bites around his plate. “We always liked eating together as a family.” “It used to be a nightly event. Then, CJ and Ritchie had other interests and obligations, so it didn’t happen as often. We try to preserve the tradition on Sunday nights.” César sounded nostalgic. “Mate, the dads are gonna be a basket case when Ritchie goes away to college next year.” Owen’s comment made Spencer look askance at him. “The dads?” “That’s what everybody calls them, Spence.” Ritchie pointed at the wine in the middle of the table. “Can I have some more?” “I don’t know. Can you?” César’s words made CJ roll his eyes. “Stop being an ass, Dad.” He reached for the bottle and passed it to Ritchie. Tilda and Spencer had carried half-a-dozen bottles of Tasmanian Kreglinger Estates Sparkling Rosé with them as a present. Since they would be unable to drink them New Year’s Eve, CJ and Owen decided to share them with the rest of the family. “No need to correct his lousy grammar all the time.” “Hey! I use proper grammar.” “Then you should have said may I have some more. Don’t worry, Air Force pilots don’t have to be smart.” CJ wiggled his eyebrows. “They only need to look studly.” “Asshole!”
  20. 72 points
    *** NOAH *** A loud noise wakes me up suddenly. “Sorry, sorry, go back to sleep, I’ll be quiet,” Jordan says hovering over the bed. “What time is it?” I ask looking for the clock. “Five in the morning.” “What are you doing up so early?” A lot has changed in our lives, but one thing hasn’t — Jordan never gets up this early. Usually I get up first and then I start the long process of waking up Jordan. It’s basically our daily morning routine! He had a phase, after our break up years ago, where he was getting up early. I was so happy! It didn’t last long. “I couldn’t sleep,” Jordan replies. “I only fell asleep a few hours ago,” I say with a yawn. “I know. Go back to bed, we still have lots of time.” I didn’t get that much sleep last night. That is all Jordan’s fault. We were up quite late last night. No, not because of that. It’s usually because of that. But last night we stayed up late talking. Both of us are a bit anxious, but mostly excited. Today is a big day. “It’s okay, I’m getting up. I still have to iron my clothes, shower, and shave.” “I’ve already taken out your clothes and ironed them.” “You what?” I say sitting up. “I ironed them. I put them right over there. Don’t act so surprised.” I am surprised. This is a big deal. “In all the years we’ve been together, not once have you ever ironed my clothes.” “I’m sure I have at least once,” he replies. “Maybe in a dream you did once.” “Well, you’re welcome.” I can tell he is excited too. This is a momentous day for us. We’ve talked about it, scrutinized over every detail for months. Now the day is finally here. We’re standing at the threshold. Once we take this step our bond will be even stronger. I get out of bed and walk over towards Jordan. He is furiously looking through a drawer trying to find something. He doesn’t even notice I’m behind him. When I wrap my arms around his torso, he jumps just a bit. I press my chest against his back. “It’s all going to be okay, don’t worry.” “I know,” he says placing his hand on top of mine. “It’s just ... we’ve been planning this for so long now and it’s finally happening … I just don’t want anything to go wrong. Say if I don’t —” I cut him off. “Everything will be fine. Since when do you worry about these things? That’s my job, remember?” Jordan is always so calm. It’s sort of touching to see him so vulnerable. “I’m not worried. I have you. I’ll be okay.” This has been one incredible journey. It’s been filled mostly with moments of joy, but also some challenges too. I know I couldn’t have done it without Jordan. He has been my rock all these years. He never once let me fall. He was there when I graduated, and when I started my master’s degree in history. He supported me when I decided to go to teacher’s college. I still remember walking with him on my first day to work. I was extremely nervous. I didn’t know what to expect teaching history to a bunch of high school students. I was petrified that I would say something dumb, or do something stupid. But Jordan kept me calm the entire way there. He kept telling jokes, making me laugh. He told me he had faith in me, and knew I would be a fantastic teacher. It was just what I needed to hear. At first, when I started teaching, I wasn’t sure if I should hide my sexuality from my students and the other teachers. For one, it’s not everyone’s business (straight people don’t go around proclaiming they're straight), and two, I didn’t know how it would go over with the school or parents. Eventually, if a colleague asked, I would tell them. I didn’t see a need to hide who I am. But I’ve generally been a bit more reserved with my students. I’m proud to say I’ve also been there for Jordan, supporting him through both the wonderful and difficult times. Unfortunately, not everyone on Jordan’s volleyball team was all that supportive of him at first. He could tell some people didn’t feel comfortable around him in the locker rooms. No one said anything to his face, and Jordan said he was okay, but I know it affected him. This was his team. He poured his heart and soul into it. Then some of the other teams in the province found out about Jordan’s sexuality. That’s when things got really ugly. I was at one of his games when an opposing player started to taunt Jordan for being gay. What he said was extremely vulgar and offensive. I was furious. I wanted to beat the shit out of him. I’m positive the referee heard (I was sitting in the stands and I could hear!), but he pretended like he didn’t. As for Jordan, I thought he was going to explode. But he didn’t even flinch. He just walked away. Liam though, bless his soul, made a scene. He would not let it go. Even though it was an awful moment, what happened next was amazing. Jordan’s team rallied behind him. Even the people who were initially reluctant came to Jordan’s defence. An attack on one was seen as an attack on all. I could tell in that moment Jordan was really proud of his teammates. Was everything perfect after that? No. Far from it. There were still issues here and there. But the situation improved a fair bit. Then a few weeks later something unexpected happened. Chris, the team captain, was expelled from school for plagiarism. Turns out, he did it a lot! Liam nominated Jordan to be the new captain. Jordan was adamant he wouldn’t win. He was sure some people on the team still weren’t too thrilled he was even there. But he did, and by a wide margin. In the end, Jordan was a remarkable captain. He mentored the younger players, really boosted everyone’s confidence and morale. I’m so glad he got the opportunity. And to think he almost didn’t because of my own insecurities. In his final year Jordan decided not to join the team because of school. He wanted to focus all of his attention on getting into medical school. He did still practice with them. He stayed on more in a mentorship role. As for the year he was captain, how did they do in the end? I’d love to say they won the provincial championship, but they didn’t. They came very close though. They lost in the semi-finals. There was one silver lining though. In the quarter-finals they were up against that team with the homophobic player. I could see the joy on Jordan’s face as his team annihilated them. The minute the whistle blew, Jordan grabbed my hand, pulled me onto the court, and planted a big kiss on my lips. It was simply electric! And a giant fuck you to everyone who gave him shit for being gay. But, of course, not everyone was happy about that moment. Someone complained about our public display of affection. The coach responded they can go fuck themselves. He pointed out that no one complained about the straight players kissing their girlfriends. Hypocrites. That’s just one example of some of the bigotry and hate that we’ve faced as a gay couple over the years. But that said, I should point out that overall, the vast majority of people have accepted us. Being gay in this city has not really been a huge issue. Yes, there have been moments, and sometimes you have to be careful where you are, but I’ve generally never felt unwanted or unsafe. We truly are blessed to live in such a great city and a great country. Now, as I was saying earlier, we’ve had lots to celebrate too. I was there for Jordan when he graduated. And I was also there the day he got his acceptance letter for medical school. He was too nervous to open the envelope, so he asked me. I still remember the way his eyes lit up when I screamed that he got in! I was so proud of him in that moment. And I showed him just how much as we celebrated that night. Hands down, probably some of the best sex we’ve ever had. Jordan was on fire! I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to walk properly the next day (I was fine). The weeks leading up to that day were nerve wracking. Jordan is always so calm and collected, but I could tell he was stressed out. It was his dream to become a doctor, and he didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t get in. I’m glad we didn’t have to cross that bridge in the end. That said, things really changed for us after that. Medical school was extremely difficult. Jordan was continuously swamped with work. Some days I barely saw the guy! And if that wasn’t bad enough, Jordan continued to work part-time! I told him to quit. I told him I’d work more (his first year of medical school, I was in teacher’s college). I started to tutor more kids at night. That year, to cut down on costs, we decided to share a two-bedroom place with Jenn. That was an interesting year, to say the least, especially because Jenn was no longer single. The year after, when I started teaching, we were able to get a place on our own again. But during that time Jordan continued to work. I don’t blame him. Paying for a master’s degree, then teacher’s college, then medical school, has not been easy. We are in A LOT of debt! But it’s okay. Not once have we ever fought about money, which is a relief! And we both got to follow our dreams. Eventually Jordan will make a lot of money. That’s what I’m banking on! (Kidding, of course). Now, I’d love to say it’s almost over, that Jordan is almost done. Nope. He just finished his medical program. In a few weeks he starts his residency at a nearby hospital. He also wants to specialize in paediatrics, so that will add on a few more years. Even though he won’t be making much, at least now he will have an income. That will help. I was also waiting for this moment before I returned to school. Because I’m an idiot I’ve decided to go back part-time to start working on my PhD. So yeah, it’s not over yet for either of us! “Where is Jenn?” I ask Jordan as we wait by the door. Evan, our loyal companion, is sitting beside us. He thinks he’s coming too. Not today, buddy. “She texted me. As usual, she’s running late. She’ll be here in a few minutes.” Then there is Jenn. She hasn’t changed a bit. Not one bit. I’m not surprised she’s running late. After she graduated, she took a year off, then went back to school as well to get her master’s degree in journalism (she now works as a reporter). That was the year we all lived together. Why was it interesting? Well, for one it is Jenn. I have to say though that she always respected our privacy. At first, I was wary of having sex with Jordan when she was at home, but I got over that pretty quickly! I can’t share a bed with Jordan and not fool around with him. It’s practically impossible! Besides, Jenn started dating too soon after. At first, I think they were going to try to hide it from us. A claim they vehemently deny. But I don’t buy it. All four of us were hanging out at our place one night. Jordan and I were both exhausted so we went to bed early. The next day I got up earlier than usual. I was hungry, so decided to make myself some tea. And who do I see exit Jenn’s bedroom? A very shirtless Aiden followed by Jenn (in the heat of the moment the other night he forgot his shirt in the family room). They both froze when they saw me. I broke into a smile (I bet Jordan the two would hook up within the first month, and I was right). Jenn says they were going to tell us, but then why was Aiden sneaking off so early? Yeah. I thought so. After Aiden finished school, he moved back to Canada from Australia. He originally went to Montreal for a bit, but then moved down here. They hooked up like two weeks later. It was so obvious they liked each other. I don’t know why they were pretending! So, yeah, that led to an interesting year! Aiden was over all the time. Jordan, naturally, was thrilled. So was I. I really do like Aiden, and I think the two of them are really perfect together. Thankfully, Aiden and Jenn spent most nights at his place, so Jordan and I were spared from hearing what those two did in bed together. After that year, Jordan and I moved out, and Jenn and Aiden got a place together. Last year, they made it official. They had a huge wedding in Halifax, Jenn’s hometown. Jordan was Aiden’s best man, and I was Jenn’s ‘maid of honour’ (she insisted on calling me that, and I didn’t really care). As one could imagine, Jenn was a total bridezilla. There were moments that I … yeah … but I still love her. “Did you get all the stuff we need?” Jordan asks as we step outside the apartment. “Yep, I have everything.” “Including the documents? We’ll need those —” “Jordan,” I say cutting him off. “I have everything, trust me.” “Okay,” he says. Jenn is there waiting in her shiny new car. We don’t own a vehicle. We’ve been saving for today. Plus, you can’t really buy expensive things when your partner has huge student loans. Besides we don’t even really need a car. We’re still living in the city, though not right in downtown. We moved a bit further out. This place is closer to my work and not too far from the hospital. At one point in time though, it seemed like he would have to leave this city, or live apart for a while. At first, Jordan was offered a residency in Montreal. The transfer would have been easy for him because he’s fluent in French, but it would have been a problem for me. For one, I start school here in September, though I would have deferred. Two, my French sucks. I’ve taken some French classes along the way, and I can speak a bit, but not enough to teach. There are English-speaking schools, but not as many jobs. In the end though, we didn’t have to move. Jordan got a placement here as well. I’m glad we stayed. This is our city. It’s where we found each other, and found ourselves. It’s where we fell in love. Toronto is home. It always will be. “Aiden just texted me,” Jenn says. “They just left. Should be there soon.” Aiden is bringing Jordan’s mom. She came to Toronto a few days ago. There was no way she was going to miss today! And there was no way we were going to do this without her! She’s honestly been amazing. She is one of our strongest supporters. She’s gone out of her way over the past few years to make me feel like I’m part of her family. Honestly, her warmth and compassion know no bounds. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother-in-law. I know why Jordan’s mom has moved mountains to be there for us. Obviously, she loves her son and me (I joke with Jordan sometimes that she loves me more than him). But it’s not just that. She’s really tried her best to fill that void left in my heart, and my life, by my own mother. In the end, my mom didn’t call. I hate to say this, but she’s not part of my life anymore, though it’s not as bad as it was before. Overall, I’m okay with that. I’ve moved on. I’ve accepted reality. But I would be lying if I said I was completely over her rejection. Part of me hates that I no longer have a relationship with someone who I was once extremely close to. I’ll see an interesting recipe online, and right away, instantly, I’ll think about my mom. To this day, I’ll be in the kitchen experimenting, making some crazy concoction, and I’ll want to call her and tell her how it turned out. I miss not being able to just sit down and talk like we used to. I know this sounds crazy, but to this day I still love her. It’s odd even after all this time … after all we’ve been through … part of me still cares for her, and always will. And I’m okay with that. I’d rather my heart be filled with love, as opposed to hatred. All of this hasn’t just been hard on me, but on my family as well, especially my dad. He has lived up to his promise. It’s been remarkable to see his transition. He is one of our biggest champions now. He even went to the Vancouver Pride parade one year! Once he saw how happy I am, and got to know Jordan (he really loves Jordan), the fact that his son is gay wasn’t an issue anymore. Without a doubt, I know he is extremely proud of both of us. He supported my career choice. He was fully behind my decision to go to teacher’s college. He loves the fact that Jordan is becoming a doctor. My dad talks about us all the time to his friends, his family, even my mom’s family. That though has been problematic. My mom’s family is full of bigots. And my dad has fought with several of them several times. Once, to a family gathering, he wore a shirt that said something like ‘Proud of My Gay Sons’. My aunt was not amused. But as the host, she couldn’t ask him to leave or take it off. My dad can be a bit of a shit disturber at times. It’s one of his many qualities I love. My dad’s unyielding support though, initially led to a lot of problems between him and my mom. He tried to hide it at first, but the two were clearly fighting a lot. And I hated that. I hated that my sexuality was putting a strain on their relationship. They had a huge fight over whether I should be invited for Christmas that first year. My dad was adamant that I come home, but my mom was against the idea. She even threatened to leave the house if I was there. But then my siblings threatened to boycott if I didn’t go. I could tell the situation was spiraling out of control. I had to work hard to get everyone to calm down. In the end that year, Jordan and I went to Montreal instead. I know my dad, siblings and nephews and nieces were all upset. It was the first Christmas I spent away from home. The kids just couldn’t understand why Uncle Noah wasn’t there that year. It’s not that I didn’t want to see them. I did. But I didn’t want to share a meal or spend time with someone who despises me. Plus, I didn't want to leave Jordan’s mom alone. That didn’t feel right either. Jordan said it was okay if I went to Vancouver on my own, he wouldn’t mind. He’s been incredibly supportive when it comes to my family. But I told him there was no way in hell that was going to happen. I told him I was going to be where he was. For her part, Jordan’s mom said it was okay if both of us went to Vancouver. She said if it helped patch things up with my mom, she was all for it. That is what a mom is supposed to say! But it didn’t feel right leaving her alone. I wanted to spend time with the woman who supported us from day one. But after that, I could tell my family was on the verge of collapse. My dad and my siblings were really starting to resent my mom. I was afraid my parents were going to break up because of me. And I honestly didn’t want that. I didn’t want their marriage to end because of my sexuality. I decided I would do whatever it takes, put my own issues aside, my pride, to help my family stay together. My issue wasn’t how my mom would treat me. I was okay if she ignored me, or continued to spew hate. I knew I could handle that. I was not, though, going to subject Jordan to that crap. Not a chance in hell. All that said, there was only so much I could do. The rest had to come from her. Eventually, my mom came to the same realization. I learned from my sister that my mom understood that in order for us to stay together as a family, she would have to tolerate my lifestyle. I honestly hate that world ‘tolerate’. I don’t want to be tolerated I want to be accepted. But I know acceptance is a long way off with her, if ever. She clearly does not approve of my life, and has made it clear she will not encourage my behaviour. Still, even though she said she would tolerate me, she didn’t make it easy. The next Christmas, she didn’t object when my dad asked me to come home. He really wanted all of us to be together again for the holidays. I also wanted to go back, to see him, my siblings, and their kids. I hadn’t seen any of them in more than a year. I told my dad I’d do whatever he wanted me to do, so long as it didn’t cause him problems. In the end, Jordan and I spent Christmas Eve in Montreal (I also wasn’t going to ditch his mom), and then flew to Vancouver that afternoon. We got in quite late and went straight to the hotel. I know my dad wanted us to stay at his house, but we all knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. I told my siblings I would see them the next day at my dad’s brother’s place. We figured it would be best to meet in a neutral territory for the first time. But soon after we got in, around 11 o’clock at night, we heard a knock on the door. In his absent mind, Jordan figured it was someone from the hotel, and didn't bother putting on a shirt, and opened the door. Yes, we were about to, you know. Turns out it wasn’t hotel staff, but my father, brother and sister. They said they couldn’t wait. They missed me and wanted to see me that night. So, once the kids were in bed, they came. I was flabbergasted. It was so good to see them! I was about to cry. Thankfully, I had all my clothes on. It was also the first time they met Jordan in person. They probably saw more than they wanted to at first, well excluding my sister. My brother and dad looked away. Not her. She smiled! Pervert. The next day we all met again at my uncle’s place. The kids were ecstatic to see me, and I was just as ecstatic to see them! They were all confused why I wasn’t staying at grandpa’s house. That one was hard to explain. The one thing though that wasn’t difficult to explain was my relationship to Jordan. Much to the objections of my mom, both my siblings told them about my sexuality, and my partner. Naturally, they had a lot of questions at first, but now they totally understand. All of them took an instant likely to Uncle Jordan. He is a good guy, if I can say so myself. As for my dad’s family, everyone was amazing. They welcomed us with open arms, as I expected. But it wasn’t all positive. My mom pretended like I wasn’t even there. She’d leave the room if either Jordan or I were there. Was I surprised? No. Was I disappointed? Absolutely. A couple of times though I caught her looking my way, or looking at Jordan. So, what would I do? I'd put my hand on Jordan’s shoulder, or around his waist. Should I have antagonized her? Probably not. Did I feel bad? No. Eventually though, when I was alone, she approached me and said hello. Again, I was surprised. Because we were in company, I didn’t want to make a scene. So, I said hello. She asked how I was. I replied and asked her the same. She answered and then excused herself. That was it. Baby steps, I figured. I really had this urge to go introduce Jordan to my mom, just to piss her off. Even though Jordan said he’d love to see her reaction, he convinced me it was a bad idea, and it would only make matters worse. Unfortunately, he was right. Don’t get me wrong, Jordan is still a clown at heart, but he really has matured! We stayed in Vancouver a few days so I could show Jordan my hometown. I later learned from my sister that my dad wanted us to come to the house before we flew back to Toronto. My mom said I was welcome to come back, but Jordan was not. She could tolerate me, but not him. In her mind he is the one who corrupted me and tore me away from my family. She believes if it weren’t for Jordan, I wouldn’t be gay. And for that, she’ll never forgive him. Naturally, that pissed me off. But Jordan, sweet, sweet Jordan, was okay. He said it was fine if my mom never acknowledged him. If it meant there was peace in my family, he could live with that. He even said he would stay at the hotel, and that I should go. Again, I told him I was not going anywhere without him. I don’t know exactly what happened, if my mom changed her mind, or someone said something (I assume it is the latter), but the morning of our flight, my dad called and told us to get ready. He was picking us up and taking us to breakfast. It became painfully obvious right away where we were going. I told him it was a bad idea. I was not going to ditch Jordan. But he assured me Jordan was welcome too. And so, with a lot of trepidation, I stepped into my parents’ home. And there was my mom, sitting in the kitchen. She greeted us nicely. I wouldn’t say she was warm, but she wasn’t rude. And she acknowledged Jordan too. Again, no hug or hand shake, it was a bit icy, but it was something. Even though Jordan despises her (for good reason), he was polite and charming, as usual. I’m positive my brother or sister said something. Someone made some sort of threat. There is no way she changed her mind on her own. But neither of them would say. And I realized, for everyone’s sake, I should just let it be. Since then, I’ve only seen my mother on two other occasions. Both times she was polite. She even spoke a bit to Jordan. Again, it all felt a bit contrived, a bit formal. But it’s better than nothing. Sometimes it feels like some of the hatred in her heart if slowly, and I mean like the speed of a turtle slow, starting to melt away. I don’t expect her to ever call me, send me a gift, or anything like that. But we can at least now be in the same room together. She doesn’t cringe when she sees Jordan. That’s a start, I guess. That of course leads me back to today. Would it have been great if my mom was here today? Absolutely. Before I came out, I would have bet money she would be by my side on such a momentous occasion. The pain of her rejection has dulled over time, but it is amplified on days like today. But it’s honestly okay. Jordan and his unconditional love make up for all of that. He loves me for who I am. And always will. What more can a guy ask for? Plus, my father, brother, sister and their children are all here. I’m not alone. I have my family. “Hey, Noah, did you forget this folder in the car?” Jenn asks as she locks up. Before I can even answer she flips it open and sees the paper inside. “Oh my God! Finally! This is so much better than I ever expected.” She starts to laugh. I look at Jordan. Oops. She knows. “Give me that,” I say to her. “That stays between us!” Jordan says to her. “But it’s so awesome! And so, so fitting for you. I’m so going to use your middle name. Jordan Juliet Young!” “And if you say it one more time, you’ll see what happens,” he says. “But I have to know — why did your parents choose Juliet as your middle name?” “They didn’t,” he sighs. “It’s supposed to be Julien,” Jordan says in a very sexy French accent. “It was my grandfather’s name. But somehow the ’n’ got mistaken for a ’t’ and it was printed that way on my birth certificate. And because my dad was lazy, he never changed it. So, it stayed as Juliet.” “It’s perfect,” Jenn says with a huge grin. She is going to enjoy this. “I’m going to call you two Romeo and Juliet from now on.” Jordan just glares at her. Poor guy. He’s never going to live this down. “You’ll always be my Romeo,” I lean in and whisper into his ear. And soon I’ll be able to call him by another name too. “Shall we?” Jordan asks extending his hand. “Absolutely.” I say placing my hand in his. “I love you, Jordan.” “I love you too, Noah.” “Yes, yes, the two of you are in love, we get in, great! Now let’s move! We’re on a schedule!” Oh, Jenn. ——— Fear, To be. Insecure, To want. Ashamed, To love. For too long, My truth Hidden, By guilt. My heart Caged, By misguided loyalty. My soul, Afraid of Rejection, Withered away, In the dark, Searching for Acceptance. Approval, I thought, Would set me free. It did. But not theirs. My own. Courage, To be. Audacious, To want. Willing, To love. Accepting My truth, Erased That guilt, Opened My heart, Unshackled My soul. In the dark, A piercing blue Guided me to Salvation; To you. In your eyes, I found myself. In your arms, I have no fear. By your side, I truly am free. Free to be, Free to want, Free to love. ————— The End.
  21. 72 points
    “FUCK!” CJ’s monumental hangover the morning after was momentarily forgotten when he stubbed his toe on the toilet. On the way to the kitchen, he peeked at the thermostat and lowered the setting. The apartment was too warm; his body felt clammy. He cracked a window and stood in front of it allowing the chilly air to cool him. Before his friends poured him into a cab the previous evening, CJ had vomited in the gutter to the applause of people he immediately added to his must kill list. Owen wiped his husband’s mouth with a handkerchief and discarded it in the same sewer drain. Once home, he forced CJ to swallow aspirins and drink a bottle of water before helping him get undressed and into bed. “Happy birthday, bro. You look like crap.” Ritchie and Silas, wearing nothing but shorts, stared at the television set with bowls of cereal in their hands. “And you’re naked.” “That’s because you guys turned the heat on so high I woke up sweating.” CJ scratched his balls, sniffed his fingers, and tried to shove the middle one under his brother’s nose. “Ugh! Get that hand away from my face. You’re disgusting!” Ritchie shook his head as Silas inched away from him, most likely afraid of being the next target. The Chicago teen, however, allowed his gaze to linger on CJ’s mid-section. It was not the first time CJ had noticed the interest; he ignored it. “Happy birthday, CJ. We made coffee,” Silas said. “Figured you guys would want some this morning.” “Yeah!” Ritchie added. “But considering it’s so late, not much morning left. What time did you guys get in anyway?” “Ummm, not sure. I don’t remember much after I threw up.” “You barfed? Holy cow, CJ. I would have loved to see you that drunk. What happened?” “Alcohol happened. Too much of it.” CJ filled a mug and sighed after the first sip. “You know we started drinking in the afternoon. By the time we got to the bar, we were already tipsy. Then, even though my drinks were on the house, complete strangers started buying me shots after midnight. I’m never drinking again.” “Yeah, right. I’ve heard Randy and Ty say the same thing mornings after going out with friends. You’ll be back at it tonight. Like they always do.” Silas watched as CJ dropped his naked butt on an armchair; his eyes followed each movement, rested on CJ’s penis for a fraction of a moment, and settled on the raised, angry-looking skin around the new ink. “Does it hurt?” He pointed at the man’s hip. “Like a motherfucker.” CJ glanced downwards and rubbed a finger over the ridges of the tattoo. “It’s gonna look awesome after it heals.” Ritchie placed his empty bowl on the coffee table. “But you look funny as shit right now with half your ass and your thigh shaved. You didn’t act like you were suffering yesterday.” “That’s ’cause I wasn’t. All the alcohol dulled the pain.” “Then you should just stay drunk today.” “Whatever… I’m going to wake Ozzie up and shower. We can talk about food after. I need grease and carbs to soak up whatever booze’s left in my stomach.” “Tell them about standing on the bar and dropping your pants.” Owen did not stop on his way to the kitchen. “I need coffee.” “I did no such thing!” CJ tried to recall what transpired, but there were gaps in his memory. He certainly would remember getting naked in public. “Did too…” The first sip of caffeine seemed to sharpen Owen’s tongue. “There’s probably a bunch of pictures on social media already. At least I convinced you to keep the jockstrap on.” The expression rolling on the floor laughing came alive as Ritchie fell off the couch clutching his sides. “Epic, bro! You know those will show up the day you run for office. Ozzie, did you snap one? Or do I have to start calling the rest of the guys?” “Fuck you, Ritchie.” CJ hoped it was not as bad as it sounded. “Silas, text your dads. Tell them we’ll be at Lexington Candy Shop. It’s on Lex and Eighty-third if they want to join us. Tell them to let everybody else know too.” Nobody was interested. Everyone begged off claiming tiredness and a desire to rest prior to going out in the evening. CJ and Owen ended up taking the teens to lunch and to Central Park after. Harley and Thiago, sharing the second master bedroom, joined them—Harley could always eat. Ritchie wanted to show Silas the old-fashioned carousel, and all six ended up acting like kids while riding the wooden horses. They made it to the Central Park Zoo to watch the afternoon penguin feeding, and listened to a husker playing near The Plaza Hotel while nibbling on mustard-covered, hot, soft pretzels. Back in the apartment, CJ, Owen, Harley, and Thiago napped, while Ritchie and Silas battled each other on the game console. The frigid, overcast afternoon presaged evening snow. White flecked their outer garments the moment they stepped from under the front awning. By the time they reached their destination twenty minutes later, the light dusting had become flurries. “You should have hired Clive to take a picture of all twenty-one of us, CJ.” Chipper handed his overcoat to the attendant and pocketed the claim ticket. He adjusted the knot on his necktie and smoothed his jacket lapels, brushing off imaginary lint. “Except for my sister’s wedding, the last time you, Ozzie, and I wore suits at the same time was during that photoshoot with him. How the heck often do we get dressed up like this and look this good?” “Dude, you do look great. You remind me of Timberlake. What with the black suit and the skinny black tie.” CJ draped an arm over the aspiring singer, and steered him around the Christmas tree toward the bar. “If Clive was here, we would have had to invite him to join us for dinner. It would have ruined the symmetry of 21 at 21 for my 21st.” “Mate, my husband’s a chronic planner. You have no idea what it took to coordinate tonight.” Owen leaned in and pecked CJ’s cheek. “Anybody else want a cocktail while we wait for our table?” “Yeah! Silas and I will take a beer.” Ritchie avoided his brother’s eyes and stared at his brother-in-law with a hopeful expression. “Nice try. We’ll sneak you guys a glass of wine or two with dinner. You know the rules. César and Brett would kill us if we let you have too much booze. What do you want, CJ?” “Sapphire martini, straight up, olives… Have him wave it in Italy’s direction for the vermouth. You know, the usual.” “Damn, CJ!” Brad’s red hair reflected the holiday lights strung around the establishment, making it seem as if his head was on fire. The illusion brought seraphim to mind and CJ thought it an apt comparison for an Army Ranger. “You ain’t fucking around, are you? I’m surprised after last night.” “Dude, this morning sucked but I’m feeling great right now. Anyway, I’m having a couple of cocktails before the meal, wine with dinner, and then either brandy or port after. We be grown up and legal, Red. Let’s be like it.” The wattage of CJ’s smile was high enough to power a city block. Brad concentrated on his shoes for a moment; he was not as cheerful next time he spoke. “I don’t know, CJ. I don’t know about that shit. Sometimes I feel like—” “Mr. Abelló?” The clean-shaven young man scanned the room until he noticed CJ, Randy, and Rod had raised their hand. “Ohhh, Mr. César Abelló?” The man appeared lost when all three lowered their hand and resumed their conversations. “Oh, bloody hell. Stop mucking around, guys.” Owen looked at the man’s nametag and pointed at CJ. “Please forgive my husband and his cousins, Darren. We’ll make sure they don’t get dessert tonight. Anyway, that’s César Abelló. He goes by CJ since that’s also his father’s name.” “Are you Mr. Liston?” “That’s me. I’m the one who made the arrangements anyway. I just used his name. Is there a problem?” “Oh, no, sir. Not at all. If your guests are all here, we’ll seat you now.” “Perfect!” Owen smiled at the man and turned his attention towards the group. “Okay, they’re ready for us. Darren will take us downstairs.” “Oh, we don’t get to eat up here? But I told my dad where we were going and he said to make sure and check out the jockeys outside and all the pictures and drawings inside.” Although the restaurant required gentlemen to wear jackets, nobody seemed to object to Harley’s attire: Wesco boots shined to a dull glow, new black Levi’s 501s, a white shirt with silk necktie, and his black leather Perfecto jacket. CJ suspected the amount of money they were spending, and the fact they would not be in a public room, accounted for the leeway. “Why aren’t we in the main room? I thought we might see someone famous. I mean what with CJ being here and all I thought people would come by our table to say hello and stuff. And what—” “Harley! Shut it, mate. This is CJ we’re talking about. Not Don Corleone in The Godfather. People aren’t going to come by to pay their respects.” “You sure about that, Ozzie? I thought you reserved the basement so we wouldn’t have to deal with CJ’s fan club.” Rod did not move away fast enough; Taisha was quick to slap her husband’s arm. Randy was not about to be left out of the fracas. “I’m sure one of the bartenders already called somebody, who called somebody, who called somebody else. Betcha the paps are gonna be waiting outside when we leave.” “We’re eating in the basement? What are we like dogs or something?” Ty’s smile grew in proportion to the distance he placed between him and his sister-in-law Taisha. Tyler Scott was not as rambunctious as his husband Randy or his brother-in-law Rod, but he was not above the occasional zinger. “Nah, that’s all they could afford. It was too expensive to eat in the main dining room.” Thiago’s quip earned him a raised eyebrow from the birthday man. “Et tu, Thiago?” Far be it for Chipper not to contribute to the banter. “Are we getting real food or kibble?” “See what I have to put up with?” Taisha took Marina’s elbow and guided her to the front of the group. “We’ll follow you, Darren. I’m reconsidering my decision to marry into this family. They’re all adults, but god forbid they act their age. Out for a celebration in a top spot, and they behave like children.” “Hey! Ritchie and I aren’t eighteen yet, so don’t count us as adults.” Silas leaned over and kissed his uncle’s wife on the cheek. “Anyway, you know you love us. All of us.” Shy and quiet Silas seemed to be learning how to be simultaneously sweet and sarcastic from his accomplice, Ritchie. Taisha tried to ignore the youngsters as Darren guided them through the kitchen. “Anyway, Marina, it would have been better for us if the other females invited could have made it. Guess we have to keep them in line ourselves.” “There were supposed to be more girls?” Marina orbited the group at a further distance and was unaware of weekend details. “Who, and why aren’t they here? I couldn’t imagine turning down the invitation to this.” “Yeah… One was Lucy Wilkinson. She’s Harley’s sister and Ritchie’s girlfriend. Her parents decided it wasn’t a good idea for a sixteen-year-old to be around all the alcohol. Or alone with Ritchie at times like last night.” “That makes sense. My conservative Greek parents would have done the same.” “The other one’s Kim Hoang. That’s Harley’s girlfriend. She’s a freshman at the University of Maryland. Her family is strict and objected to her traveling alone with Harley. They’re conservative Catholics from Vietnam, and she decided to respect her parents’ wishes.” “Too bad. So we would’ve been twenty-three instead of twenty-one?” “Nope. When those two said they couldn’t come, CJ invited Tony and Colt to join us.” “Wow! I’m sorry the girls couldn’t make it, but I’m glad those guys were their replacement. I had a blast at their place last night. And it was great to meet Tony’s brother and his girlfriend. We traded numbers with Mario, and plan on getting together with them in the New Year.” CJ had trouble trying to figure out who said what. Comments flew around him, but it did not matter—contentment was a wonderful feeling. His delight at how well the weekend was going distracted him, and he almost spilled his martini when he ran into the guy in front of him. The women were the first ones inside the room, and their sudden stop had a rippling effect. “Wow! I had no idea this was down here. No wonder Ozzie picked this room.” Marina pulled Taisha to the side allowing the rest of the group to enter. “Do you realize I’ve lived in New York my entire life and I never knew this was here?” Wooden bins holding countless bottles lined the walls from the ground to the low ceiling. Soft light emanated from recessed fixtures, illuminating a narrow hallway. A turn and a couple of additional steps left them standing in a large room with a massive wooden table sporting a 21 flanked by two jockeys in the center, under the high-gloss varnish. . Silverware and crystal sparkled, battling the liquor storage for attention. “Why don’t you all come in and take a seat. The one at the head of the table is reserved for my husband and the one to his right’s mine. Otherwise, sit anywhere you want. Once we get another round of cocktails, I’ll tell you what I know about 21 and the cellar.” Owen grasped CJ’s hand and led them to their seats, both chuckling at the expressions and comments of their guests. When Darren leaned down and whispered in the Aussie’s ear, Owen nodded and shared the comment with CJ. “They have a photographer on staff tonight because of all the special events. I said yes to having him come down here and take a few shots of us.” “That’s awesome, Oz. We won’t have to bother with phones. Except I do want one picture on mine. So I can share it on Instagram.” Once everyone found a seat and ordered drinks, Owen took his phone out and tapped at it a few times. “Okay, we have time right now before we get food and tuck in.” The others quieted when he looked around the table. “I checked with everyone beforehand to ensure we didn’t have any vegetarians and settled on Colorado rack of lamb as the main. CJ’s had a fixation on lamb since we ate at a Turkish restaurant in Amsterdam. There’s a menu for the evening atop your plate listing all six courses. And yes, this room’s my idea of heaven. When CJ and I move into our house one day, we’ll create something like this. We won’t have hundred-year-old bottles in it, but I promise when you come visit, you’ll enjoy what we store down there. “Let me read you a bit from the restaurant’s website. ‘Officially opened on January 1, 1930, 21 is one of America’s most famous speakeasies from the Prohibition Era. Designed with its own disappearing bar and a secret wine cellar to hide the illegal liquor from prying eyes, it’s a place where celebrities and captains of industry have wined and dined for more than 80 years.’” “Hear that, Ty? Celebrities and captains of industry. We know our cousin’s a celebrity, but how the fuck did we get in here?” “Shut the heck up, Randy. And watch the language. We have women and youngsters with us.” Smirking, Owen adjusted his reading glasses and glanced around the table as their cocktails were brought in. “The Jack and Charlie in this next section refers to the founders. ‘Raids by police and federal tax officers during the Prohibition Era were persistent and frequent. This led many club owners to go to great lengths to hide their illegal liquor. Jack and Charlie did just that when they employed architect Frank Buchanan to design a complex system of camouflaged doors, invisible chutes, revolving bars and a secret wine cellar to hide and destroy the evidence.’” “You guys realize some of that booze might have gotten here thanks to my relatives?” Everyone stared at Ethan in confusion. “Oh, come on guys. Don’t you know your history? A lot of liquor was smuggled in from Canada during prohibition. I know some of my family was involved in that.” “You’re Canadian?” Sean feigned surprise and outrage at his boyfriend. “Are you legal? I better not be harboring an undocumented alien when you spend the night. No wonder you became an attorney. Being a crook runs in the family.” “Oh, you’re so not getting any tonight, Sean.” Ajax’s quip brought on renewed laughter. Chipper was next to offer an opinion. “Hey! Brad and Preach are related to the Kennedys. Joe Kennedy also smuggled booze. Maybe it was their family that supplied 21.” “Are you all done? Should I continue?” Owen’s exasperation was definitely an act; his grin screamed he was enjoying the banter. “Please do, Ozzie.” Marina, sitting between Chipper and Ajax, clamped a hand on each of their arms. “I’ll try to keep these two under control. If they don’t behave, they won’t be getting any tonight. I’ll even lock them in separate rooms.” Still grinning, Owen shook his head before returning to the story. “’Rather cleverly, the wine cellar was not part of the 21 building at all, but the basement of number 19 next door. Therefore, when the authorities asked the bar staff if they had any liquor on the premises, their no was an honest reply. In reality, it housed 2,000 cases of wine.’ The website mentions the names of famous people who stored their wine collections down here.” “Hey, Sean, does Tony have a hidden cellar under PRIME?” CJ alternated looking at the redheaded bartender and his boss. Colt, Tony’s husband, jumped in the conversation before his redheaded employee could reply. “For sure. But it’s more a dungeon than a wine cellar. If you and Ozzie are interested, we’ll be happy to give you a private, after-hours tour.” Tony slapped his partner on the back. “Dammit, Colt. You’re not supposed to talk about our play area in public. I’m sure the walls have ears in this place. Unlike ours that are soundproofed.” “Not you too! I thought since you were the old men in the group you’d behave. Stop it with the sexual innuendos.” CJ earned himself middle finger greetings from the previous evening’s hosts. “Old men, my ass. We’re both in our thirties.” “Like I said: old men.” “Fine, if you guys are just going to BS all night I’ll stop reading.” “Ignore them, Ozzie. Keep reading. I’m interested.” Tank’s comment was accompanied by nodding from most of the other guests. “These guys have the wrong brotitude; they need to show a little respect.” “Brotitude?” Carson stared at the blond bodybuilder next to him, and shook his head. “What’s that? Some sort of muscle head lingo, bro?” “Okay, I’ll keep reading. But I want you children to behave. It’s an upscale establishment. Act accordingly. Now, where was I? Ahhh, yes. This is one of the world’s most coveted private dining rooms. Some of the wine bottles around you are priced in the thousands and they have several costing over ten grand apiece. Unfortunately, I had a budget to work with and none of those will be uncorked today.” Groans and a couple of “Cheapskate” comments met Owen’s quip. “Hey! You don’t want any of what the sommelier helped me pick, that’s fine. More left for the rest of us. Anyway, I think you’ll like the Spanish Rioja. I haven’t tasted it before, but the Beronia Reserva 2010 received a nice write up in the wine magazines.” CJ was pleased when Brad Kennedy sat to his left. He was uncertain when or if he would see his friend again, and tried to spend as much time talking to him as possible. “What time’s your train tomorrow, Red?” “Around noon. Mom and Mac are riding down from Boston and Paddy and I are joining them for the second leg of the trip. I’m glad Dad and JP invited them to celebrate Christmas in DC. I get to spend time with both parents. Who knows when or if I’ll ever see them again?” CJ tried not to show his surprise at how Brad’s comment echoed his thoughts. The Army Ranger seemed cognizant that death walked beside anyone serving in the military. “We didn’t get to talk as much as I wanted to last night. I didn’t get to ask if you’ve decided how long you want to stay in.” “I haven’t. I’m giving it another year and we’ll see what happens. But I’ve been talking to Dad about what it would be like to join a law enforcement agency. I may end up being a cop like him after I get out.” Sitting next to Owen, Ritchie took his phone out of his blazer’s pocket, smiled, and tapped away at the screen. From across the table, Patrick Kennedy leaned forward. “Hey, what are you doing?” He asked the question at a much lower volume than the conversations surrounding them. “It’s Lucy.” Apparently, that was enough explanation as far as the teen was concerned. “What about that rule your family has of no phones at the dinner table?” “Nah, that’s the dads rule. CJ and Ozzie won’t mind if I—“ “RITCHIE!” CJ was not too distracted to notice what his brother was doing, and decided to have some fun scaring him. “What the heck do you think you’re doing? Put the damn phone away.” His brother’s shout, red tinge to the teen’s cheeks, and the speed Ritchie shoved the device back in his pocket focused everyone’s attention on him. “Sorry… Lucy says happy birthday again. I was just—“ “That’s nice of your girlfriend, but I don’t care. You know dinnertime’s phone-free time.” He had become so accustomed to his dads’ rule it was now second nature. “Told ya.” Patrick’s smug grin and comment made Ritchie roll his eyes. While restaurant staff cleared the meal’s detritus, CJ tapped on his water goblet with his fork. Multiple conversations came to a halt. “While we wait for the next course and for the photographer to drop in, I want to thank you all for helping make my birthday such a great one. And I want to thank my husband for doing most of the work organizing this weekend.” Moments after CJ spoke; two servers began popping corks for the fifth course: Orange sorbet Champagne floats. Flutes placed in front of each guest were filled with bubbly. Owen had specified a wine from France instead of the less expensive domestic sparkling one. “Okay, people, this is a palate cleanser before we get dessert. However, I asked for the flutes at this time so I could offer a real toast. Meeting CJ was frustrating. The wanker turned me down when I told him I wanted a relationship. As my late sister pointed out, I probably scared the crap out of that sixteen-year-old.” “Cough—cradle robber—cough.” “You’re so dead, Randy. Anyway, it took a little time, but he came around. In the process, he’s made me a very, very happy man. I’m not sure we’ll ever have another celebration as large and intimate as this one, so I’d like to propose a toast to my husband.” Owen raised his glass and motioned for the others to join him. “To CJ! The best man I’ve ever met. I hope this birthday celebration outshines all past ones but dulls in comparison to future ones. Happy birthday, babe.” “Hear, hear!” When the lights were turned off and waiters carried in trays with plates aflame, Chipper led the group in singing “Happy Birthday.” Owen had asked for a dessert not on the menu. Popular decades before, the restaurant agreed to prepare Chocolate Bombe Alaska with hot chocolate sauce. When the dish was placed in front him, CJ could smell the remnants of the brandy used to light it afire. “Damn, that’s good.” “Anyone want my meringue?” “I love the orange sponge cake.” “Don’t you think vanilla ice cream would have been better than chocolate?” “If you don’t want it, I’ll eat yours.” All other conversation faded while everyone concentrated on eating once again. As plates were all but licked clean, and people leaned back complaining about overeating, Ritchie reenergized the crowd. “Speech time, bro. Your turn.” “Speech! Speech! Speech!” The exhortation filled the room. “Hell if I’m going to pass up the opportunity to talk.” CJ scanned those seated around the table, pausing for a fraction of a moment on each of his friends. His smile grew as he felt his love for them reflected on their faces. “When I first started traveling to Washington to visit my dad, I came in contact with his friends. The tight-knit group of men, who tongue-in-cheek referred to themselves as the Elite, was a revelation to a kid dealing with his sexuality. Gay men who defied stereotypes. Who lived and loved without regard to what others thought or said. Unapologetic and proud. They gave me strength to accept myself.” While CJ spoke, servers brought in fresh bottles of Champagne in ice buckets, and refilled the delicate crystal flutes in front of each guest. “Little did I know a few years later I’d be surrounded by just as magnificent a group of friends. When Ritchie slapped the Squad moniker on y’all I—” “Moniker? Cap would call that a quarter word.” “Shut up, mate.” Owen elbowed his brother-in-law who failed to slide away fast enough. “Let your brother talk.” CJ’s smile grew a bit broader. “I resisted the appellation. That’s another quarter, Ritchie. Anyway, the name grew on me. I’ve been called the leader of the group, but that’s inaccurate. We’re all equal. Even those of you augmenting our core group tonight. Some of you are a little older than our average age and a couple of you are younger. But I feel just as close to you as I do to the usual contingent. “Today’s more than my birthday.” CJ reached over and grasped Owen’s hand. “It’s also the fifth anniversary of the day I met Owen Zachary Liston. The man who’s now my husband put up with my wishy-washy attitude towards relationships. Put up with me telling everyone he wasn’t my boyfriend. Put up with me not telling him how head-over-heels in love with him I was for a long time. He exhibited patience I’d be hard pressed to muster. Thank you, Oz. I love you. “To those of you in Colorado for my eighteenth, thank you. Thank you for sticking around. Thank you for continuing to enrich my life. To those of you who’ve joined us since then, welcome. I’m glad you’ve joined us tonight. I look forward to many years of our lives being intertwined.” The smiles around the room confirmed this gathering had been the right thing to do. “As you all know, Thiago’s about to become a daddy.” CJ paused while his friend was cheered and congratulated. “The group’s first crying, pooping, vomiting, rug rat.” Laughter won out over the smattering of boos and hisses. “The first of the next generation. The generation we’ll watch over and nurture the way my dads’ friends watched over me and guided me. I wouldn’t be half the man I am today were it not for them. My world is better because you and they are in it.” He stopped again for a moment, trying not to shed the tears ready to burst from his eyes. “I hope I get the words right. There’s a song Chipper turned me on to I want to quote. ‘We were born ready, ready to be free. Chasin' every thrill we could see. With our eyes steady, waking to the dream. Aching to be thrown in the ring.’ The song’s ‘Enjoy the Ride’ by Krewella. “A few of us are already out in the real world. Some of us are still preparing. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to be thrown in the ring. I’m ready to enjoy every thrill, but I’m also ready to fight. Ready to fight for my family. Ready to fight for my friends. And ready to fight for my country.” CJ paused and stared at Brad. “Although Red here’s been doing so for a couple years already, and I’m not sure I’ll ever live up to his example.” He was happy. Teeth bared in an ecstatic smile, CJ reached for his glass and raised it. “This is the last birthday celebration for a long time. I think the next one will be Ozzie’s thirtieth. ’Til then, I propose a toast. To family, to friends, and to our future. To borrow a Hebrew word from my Jewish friends: l’chaim! To life!”
  22. 71 points
    Saturday lunchtime, with a shop full of customers, Nathan’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Aware he had been anticipating a confirmation call from the Eastbourne solicitors, he popped on his Bluetooth earpiece and answered while still serving customers, not something he normally did or allowed in the shop. But the caller turned out to be Polly. She asked if he’d be okay to pick up Jaymes from his office in Mosswold Forest after closing for the day. Jaymes’ Rover had been playing up, she told him, so she’d dropped him off that morning. Nathan smirked. Later on, he’d happily give Jaymes stick about his pride and joy. After the flurry of messages on Tuesday night, Nathan had arrived home and fired back apologies, in the process agreeing to have beers and a curry with Jaymes and Polly on Saturday night. So while working the till, he agreed to pick up Jaymes. Poor man, perhaps Kell-Bell had more important things to do than climb him like one of his trees on a Saturday night. As soon as the sarcastic voice sounded in his head, remorse filled him. Squeezing his eyes shut for moment, he chastised himself, and told himself not to be weird. Hopefully, Jaymes would be in one of his more upbeat, slightly silly moods, rather than the more serious and pensive one. Seeing more customers entering the shop, he was about to end the call, but then curiosity got the better of him, and he asked why Polly couldn’t pick up Jaymes. Out of the blue, apparently, she’d been invited out on a dinner date. “You’ve got a date, Polly?” Nathan couldn’t stop the tone of amazement filtering into his voice. While using tongs to place two chocolate croissants into a brown paper bag, he smiled at the customer. As an afterthought, he popped in a couple of complimentary macaroons. “No, I uh—” He knew Polly well enough to hear her discomfort. “Just dinner.” “You said a ‘dinner date’. Your words, not mine.” At the till, he handed over the bag and took the cash from the young blond girl, one of the Bennington clan. All of the offspring had the same trademark blonde hair, brown eyes, and chubby red cheeks. Before ringing up the purchase, he mouthed an apology about the call and received a slight shrug in return. After handing back the change, he smiled, and nodded to the next customer. “Can you help or not?” came Polly’s irritated voice. “Ooh-err. Polly’s got a date. Who’s the date with, you saucy minx?” “Oh, my God. I swear, you’re turning into Jaymes. Can you help, or not?” Familiar with his next costumer and her order, he checked before wrapping her order of a fresh baguette. “Short or long?” “What?” came Polly’s startled voice. “Not you, Polly. Sorry, I’m serving right now. Got a shop full of customers. Of course I can help. I’ll drop by after I close up here.” And right then, the truth sank in. Tonight there would be only Jaymes. No Polly to run interference. Could he cope with that, he asked himself? Maybe later, he’d find out. Because, of late, Jaymes’ face kept insinuating itself into his waking dreams, in a not unpleasant way. Dreams could be forgotten upon waking, though, whereas the two of them together for a whole evening should prove interesting. Still, being out and about had to be better than another Saturday night sat in alone, falling asleep in front of the television. “Great. I’ll get him to text you.” “Anything else you need to tell me?” “Like what?” “Like should he expect you home tonight?” “‘Bye Nathan,” said Polly, before hanging up. By seven-thirty, after pulling down the shop shutters, clearing the last of the trays away, cashing up, and racing up the stairs for a quick shower, Nathan paused for breath and texted Jaymes to say he was on his way. On the drive over, the realisation hit home again, that only the two of them would be hanging out tonight. Taking a few deep breaths, he pulled himself together, told himself to stop overthinking things, that Jaymes didn’t bat for his team. Friends, nothing more. But maybe this would be a chance to get to know each other better. Instead of dwelling on the thought, he concentrated on driving towards the ominous darkened horizon of Mosswold Forest. During his childhood, he’d been there many times. At one end of the public car park, he remembered they had a small lodge and shop—National Trust owned—where they sold souvenirs, maps of walks through the forest, and books about the forest’s flora and fauna. Nathan had loved the eerie quiet in the heart of the forest, feeding his imagination at a time when his nose had been buried in fantasy stories about elves and trolls and ancient kings. With his headlights on full and heater warming the inside of the van, he followed Jaymes’ directions into Mosswold Forest, and spotted the small private lane leading away from the public car park. Following the winding road for a good five minutes, he eventually came upon a plain raised cabin in a clearing in the woods. Empty of vehicles, lights burned inside. Not wanting to step out into the cold, Nathan pulled out his phone and texted Jaymes. Nathan: I’m outside in the van. Jaymes’ reply popped up immediately. Jaymes: Come inside. Nathan: Too cold. Come out. Jaymes: Need another 10 mins to finish up. Come in. Nathan huffed out an irritated sigh. In all his days, he had never met anyone so infuriating. Most annoying of all, Jaymes always seemed to get his own way. After pulling on his woollen hat and gloves, he got out of the van and clumped up the three wooden steps to the main entrance. Opening the door, he peered inside but saw nobody around. “Jaymes,” he called out. “In here,” came Jaymes’ voice, from the open door of a smaller office at the end of the cabin. Built entirely of wood, the space still retained the smell of timber along with the ubiquitous odour of soil, trodden into the flooring. Functional and very sparsely furnished, the larger room he passed through had plain grey filing cabinets and simple metal bookcases stuffed with box files. A single remarkable feature defined the place, one whole wall covered from floor to ceiling with a giant map of Mosswold Forest, multi-coloured pins stuck in various places meaning something to somebody, as well as six or seven darts from a dartboard set, which probably weren’t used for business. In between two of the four desks sat a small, lonely blow heater—switched off now—and if there had been any residual heat in the building, it had managed to escape through the door space, window seals, or gaps between the slats of timber. Nathan couldn’t wait to get back to the heat of the van. When he walked inside the smaller office, he was met with Jaymes, laid out on his side across the length of the desk. Stark naked, except for a tree axe with the metal head covering his vital parts, the handle sticking up vertically, he grinned comically. One hand cradled his handsome face, while the other lay on top of his thick, muscular thigh. Nathan’s jaw dropped open. Jaymes most definitely had a good figure, but the sudden vision stopped Nathan in his tracks. “What the fuck are you doing?” “Giving you inspiration. If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.” “Are you insane? It’s bloody freezing in here.” “Yeah, I know. Thought you’d never get here. My nuts have shrunk to the size of peanuts. What do you think of my chopper?” Jaymes clamped a hand around the handle of the axe, and waggled his eyebrows. Despite himself, Nathan burst out laughing and felt any tension he’d been feeling drain away. “You are a complete fucking moron, do you know that? Get dressed. You owe me a beer and a curry. I’ll meet you outside in the van.” “Don’t you want a snap on your phone?” “Get dressed, Jaymes!” As he turned, still chuckling, Nathan heard Jaymes moving. Honestly, the things Jaymes would do just to get a laugh. And Nathan hadn’t been kidding. Inside the lodge, the temperature had to be only a couple of degrees above the freezing temperature outside. Despite Nathan’s curiosity and the warm feeling coursing though his body, he did not turn around and grab another eyeful of the man’s amazing body. Friends only, remember? When Jaymes finally joined him in the van, togged out in his trademark jeans and brown leather pilot’s jacket, Nathan had the engine idling and the heater running on full power. Despite himself, Nathan couldn’t keep a straight face. Just looking sidelong at his friend’s mischievous face, he could tell. Tonight, he would be dealing with playful Jaymes—and without Polly to help him. Heaven help me now, he thought. As soon as Jaymes closed the door and belted up, Nathan began the drive back. “See, Nate? Easy as that. Now can I come to your photo shoot?” “Is that what your debauched display was all about? Getting me to agree to you coming to my session?” “Maybe. So? Can I?” Nathan shook his head and grinned, while navigating the small lane. “As long as you behave yourself.” Jaymes clapped his hands and whooped with joy. “And don’t show me up.” “What? By taking my clothes off? Would that constitute showing you up? Because, let me tell you, baby, once the photographer gets a glimpse of this hot body, Nathan Fresher will be totally off the menu.” Jaymes shoved Nathan in the shoulder and laughed aloud. Nathan rolled his eyes, but kept on grinning. “You are such a dork. Hey, who’s Polly going out with tonight?” asked Nathan. “She’s seeing a bunch of girlfriends.” “The hell she is. She’s got a dinner date.” “Has she now?” said Jaymes, his voice curious and mischievous. “That’s not what she told me, the saucy little minx.” Nathan peered out the driver’s side window, grinning. He’d called Polly the same thing. Almost exactly those words. Was she right? Was he turning into Jaymes? “Do you know which restaurant?” asked Jaymes. “We are not spying on her. Give your cousin some privacy, for goodness’ sake.” “You’re no fun.” Nathan drove for a little while without them speaking, wondering how to bridge the next topic. “Surprised you’re not seeing Kelly tonight.” “Kell-Bell?” said Jaymes, apparently surprised by the comment. “Why would I? She’ll be back in Bangor by now. Was only here for a couple of nights.” “Oh, I see,” said Nathan, his fingers drumming the steering wheel. “She’s nice.” “She is.” Nathan turned the heating down. His cheeks had begun to burn. “Is that your type? “Is what my type?” “Long hair? Brunette? She’s a very sexy lady.” Nathan noticed Jaymes’ grin broaden, even though he kept his gaze ahead. “And you call me a dork,” said Jaymes. “Let’s just say that Peter, her husband, who is also my ex-colleague and best mate back in North Wales, clearly thought so. Otherwise he wouldn’t have married her.” “Oh.” “Yes, oh. She stopped by Tuesday to drop off the books I’d left behind. If you’d been a bit more sociable and hung around you’d have found that out. Any more questions? Hang on, is that why—?” “So where do you want to go tonight?” interrupted Nathan, his cheeks aflame by now. “Couple of pints at the Arms and then the curry place on the high street? Or we could drive to the Golden Buddha Thai restaurant just outside Mayfield.” Jaymes hissed out a laugh and slouched back in his seat. “Nah, you know what? It’s bloody cold out, I’m knackered, and I don’t want to waste brain cells trying to think. How about we just grab a Thai takeaway and pick up some beers? Go back to your place and watch some mind-numbing Netflix movie or another?” Which is exactly what they did. Nathan had turned the heating up in the flat before he left and the place felt toasty warm when they got home. Jaymes, as always, made himself at home, kicking off his shoes and helping himself to beer. If he was going to be completely honest, Nathan really enjoyed having Jaymes over, enjoyed his easy company as much as the banter. Part of him wondered if he ought to offer Jaymes his spare room. He still felt a little guilty about not doing so before. Not that he needed the rent money. He’d inherited the business from his father, with the flat above the shop, including a substantial sum from a life policy. Maybe he would bring up the idea of the spare room tomorrow when they visited the solicitor on the south coast. After eating Thai food at the table and then relaxing on the sofa with plenty more drinks, they watched an old comedy about a bunch of widows planning to rob a bank. From time to time, whenever he laughed at some of the action, Nathan sensed Jaymes looking at him, studying him. Halfway through the movie, Jaymes excused himself and headed to the bathroom. Nathan quickly checked the time on his phone—ten to eleven—and also wondered if he might have had a message from Clifton, but since Raul had returned, there had been radio silence. Maybe for the best. Absently, he adjusted the volume on the television. Jaymes seemed to prefer the volume louder. He hadn’t even acknowledged Jaymes’ return, until the man threw himself back onto the sofa, and snatched the remote control out of Nathan’s hands. Without a word, he changed channels from the action film to a rugby game. “Jaymes! I was watching that!” “Boring. They get away with it in the end, anyway, the heist. Predictable really.” Nathan folded his arms. Enough was enough. “My house, my rules. Change the bloody channel back.” “This is far more interesting.” Nathan glared at Jaymes, but the bigger man simply smiled his annoying smile and continued to watch the game, stubborn as ever. “Jaymes. Give me the remote.” “If you want it, come and get it.” “Give me the bloody channel changer!” Nathan tried to snatch the remote back, but with each attempt Jaymes pulled the device out of reach. Losing his patience, Nathan tackled him on the sofa and the two tussled together. Eventually, they both rolled onto the carpet, and although Nathan had been annoyed at first, he soon found himself chuckling. As always, Jaymes’ face shone with mischievous playfulness, but also a fierce competitiveness. No way was Nathan getting the remote. For all his jokiness, Jaymes had size and strength on his side, and before long he had rolled Nathan beneath him, straddled him and pinned both his wrists firmly to the floor. Nathan writhed and squirmed, until Jaymes tightened the grip of his thighs around Nathan’s midriff. “Get off me, you big oaf.” “I win.” “Get off!” Jaymes shook Nathan’s wrists, his head hovering over Nathan’s face. “Say it, Nate. I win.” “Get off me—” “Say it!” Nathan’s stopped struggling, and lay still, met Jaymes’ mock glare, their eyes locked like male bucks clashing horns. Nathan’s chest rose and fell quickly, his breathing loud and pronounced. “Okay, okay. You win, Jim.” At first, Nathan smirked up into Jaymes’ eyes. But then, as though a switch had been flicked, the light in Jaymes’ eyes darkened, and Nathan experienced a sudden spark of arousal. Staring at each other for a few seconds longer, neither laughing anymore, Jaymes brought his lips down to meet Nathan’s. The kiss started out slow, tentative; but not innocent. Jaymes knew how to kiss. And then Nathan caught up, thrusting into the embrace, pushing his tongue past Jaymes’ teeth and into his hot mouth, wrestling Jaymes’ tongue. Which appeared to be all the permission Jaymes needed before twisting his head to take the kiss to the next level, releasing Nathan’s wrists to hold Nathan’s head in place and probe deeper with his tongue, exploring the depths of his mouth. Nathan pushed his groin up to meet Jaymes’, erections rubbing together, causing the larger man to utter a deep, guttural moan and thrust back. Only as Nathan wrapped his arms around Jaymes’ neck, did Jaymes suddenly freeze and pull away. Shocked, he stared at Nathan, before recoiling and lumbering to his feet, wrenching himself out of the embrace, as though only then realising what he had done. “Shit. I shouldn’t have—” Nathan sat up, wondering if Jaymes might bolt for the door. But instead, he threw himself back onto the sofa and put his head into his hands. Crisis of conscience. Nathan needed to pick his next words carefully, give Jaymes a get-out. “Okay, Jaymes, you’ve done nothing wrong here.” Jaymes remained silent. “Look, we can put this down to a moment of insanity, an alcohol influenced delirium, and you can phone Polly now, tell her to come pick you up. Neither of us is fit to drive. Or you can stay over and sleep it off on the sofa or in the spare room. If you can bear to be here. Nobody needs to know what happened. I give you my word I won’t say anything to anyone, especially Polly. What do you want to do?” Jaymes sat on the sofa staring down at his hands before rubbing each of his wrists, as though someone had just removed his handcuffs. After a moment of hesitation he pulled out his phone. Thumbing across the screen, he eventually prodded a number and put the phone to his ear. Nathan felt a tinge of disappointment, but quietly understood Jaymes’ decision. When he looked up, Jaymes was not so much staring straight at him, as into him. “Got her voicemail. Hi Poll. Jaymes. Just wanted to let you know. I’ll be sleeping over at Nate’s place tonight, so don’t wait up for me.” After ending the call, he put the phone away but continued to stare at Nathan. “Which way to the bedroom?” “The spare room’s down the hall on the left.” “Not the spare room, Nate. Yours.”
  23. 71 points
    “What up, Legless?” On his first full day back in Washington, CJ stopped by Walter Reed Medical Center to visit his injured friend. “You dipshit.” Brad’s laughter was contagious. He bumped fists with a chuckling CJ and adjusted his position on the bed. “I betcha the stinkin’ fuckin’ Arab who planted that IED had no idea it would lead to me getting a new nickname.” “You’re in mighty good spirits.” CJ sat on the bed’s edge next to the soldier, delighted to find him in a happy mood. Three weeks after arriving from Germany, Brad’s body continued to heal. His disposition showed marked improvement from when CJ last saw him before leaving on the motorcycle trip. “Fuck, yeah. I’m ready to get out of this shithole. Where’s Ozzie?” “He said to tell you he’ll come by tomorrow. He had a meeting at the Nature Conservancy. You know he starts work there fulltime at the end of summer, right?” “Yeah, my cousin’s going to be in the real world at last. You guys leaving town again in a couple of days?” “Headed to New York. Since this is the last time we both have the entire summer off, we’re trying to get in as many trips as possible.” CJ thought through his next words, not wanting to say something that might upset his friend. “We made plans last year to spend time on Fire Island. At Tony and Colt’s place.” Now came the tricky part. “We’ll also stop by to check on Chipper’s sister. She’s due like yesterday, so we figured we’d go visit her and the kid. Their mom’s flying up from Buenos Aires for the birth. It’ll be good to see Susana again.” “Oh, yeah, that reminds me.” Brad stretched an arm and grasped the edges of a folder resting atop the swivel table by the bed. He retrieved a squarish envelope from inside and handed it to CJ. It was addressed to Baby Prado. “Would you take it with you and give it to Cristina and her husband? I had Paddy pick it up for me. It’s a congratulations card.” CJ was delighted with how well Brad was handling the woman he crushed on through high school giving birth. “You got it, bud. Anything else I can do for you?” “Nope. I think everything’s set at home. You were right about that Leo guy who works with your dads. He’s one of the good ones.” Leo Dallas, the retired Marine owner of Leatherneck Construction, was the primary contractor for Third Line Development. “Not sure if you heard, but he added ramps, reconfigured a couple of doors, and fixed up the downstairs bedroom and bathroom for me.” “I knew he was going to do the work. I heard your old man mention installing an elevator so you could use the second floor. That still on?” “Doesn’t make sense, CJ. The wheelchair’s a temporary thing. Once I get legs, I can handle the stairs. Bet you didn’t know Leo refused to charge for the work or the materials.” “Seriously?” “Yeah. He said it was the least he could do for someone who’s worn the uniform. He’s come by to see me and told me he has a nephew in the Marine Corps right now.” CJ tried to suppress the smile bubbling on his lips. He remembered fucking Eli in the darkened, unfinished basement by the outside light’s glow. Leo’s nephew had left with a smile on his face. “Eli! You didn’t get to meet him before he enlisted. Cool as shit guy. The summer before you and your brother moved down, he worked for Leo when they did my dads’ basement. One of the nicest guys I ever met.” “Maybe I’ll meet him if he ever comes back to DC. So, how long are you and Ozzie gone this time?” “We’ll be back by the Fourth.” “That’s great. I’m pushing to get out of here by then. I can recover at home as well as in here. If you’re back in time, we can watch the fireworks from your dads’ rooftop.” On Friday, Chipper and Ethan met CJ and Owen at Penn Station; together, the four traveled the rest of the way to Fire Island. The beaches on the thin barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island were a summer refuge for New Yorkers. Amongst the villages dotting the enclave, Cherry Grove and The Pines catered to the GLBT community. “What if your sister goes into labor while we’re over here?” Buffeting winds threatened to lift Ethan’s ball cap off; he turned it around and jammed it over his head until the bill struck the back of his neck. With no paved roads connecting the small island’s car-accessible end-points, vacationers relied on regular ferryboat service to reach their destinations. “Mom calls me, and I make my way back to Manhattan.” Chipper adjusted his sunglasses and ran a hand through his hair. The four friends clustered on the boat’s top deck, ignoring the carousing and flirting surrounding them. “Not like I’m going to be in the delivery room or anything. By the way, Ethan, thanks for inviting me out.” “Save your gratitude for Colt and Tony. They’re the ones who control the house, and the ones who organized this weekend. Sean and I don’t even have a full share.” Leasing a beach house on Fire Island for the summer was expensive; groups came together and split the cost and occupancy privileges. “What happened to whatshisname?” CJ stared at Chipper as the man sat on the pink Adirondack chair next to his. They spent Friday and Saturday either around the pool or on the sand, a cocktail never far from reach. Last night they had gone dancing, toasted CJ and Owen’s first anniversary at midnight, and Chipper had dragged home some pretty actor-wannabe for a fuckfest. “Ugh! He left after we screwed. Scared him off.” “Braggart!” Sitting on the pool coping with their feet in the water, Colt and Tony bumped fists. Laughter brought both perilously close to spilling their coffee. “I mean, we’ve all seen you naked. Your tackle’s nice, but nothing to run away from. What was he? A virgin or something?” “Jerk! Hardly a virgin. Trust me.” Chipper sipped from his own steaming mug while wiping sleep off his eyes. “It had nothing to do with dick size. He said he didn’t do confused guys when I told him I was bi.” “You’re confused?” Tony sounded perplexed himself. “Fuck no, I’m not. I know I like both. He said he couldn’t have a relationship with someone who might leave him for a woman.” “Mate, you brought back a trick, and you discussed relationships?” The men shared Owen’s surprise. “And he got upset because you might leave him for a woman? What if you left him for another man? Would that be okay?” “Don’t look at me, mate. He started it. None of that shit makes sense to me. All I wanted was some dick and ass. I think the guy’s one of those that thinks if you have sex it means you’re interested in pursuing something. Haven’t these people heard of sport fucking?” “Give it a break, Chipper. I’m all for hookups if that’s what someone’s into. But we’re not all wired the same. After you guys made a big deal of our anniversary at midnight, we talked to another couple for a while. They were surprised we turned down the offer for a foursome. One said we were too young not to fuck around.” CJ stood and stretched while yawning. “I need more coffee. Anyone else?” “You’re gonna have to wait a few minutes.” Also yawning, Ethan stood on the threshold holding a mug. “I just took the last of it and started a new pot. Why are you arguing with Chipper so early in the morning?” “It’s not that early. And where’s your other half?” “An hour out. He just called and woke me up. And you avoided answering the question.” “Jeez… Give the lawyerly approach to questions and answers a break, Ethan. We weren’t arguing.” CJ recounted the conversation while peering into the kitchen through the glass doors. “So that’s where you walked in.” “I’ll give this one to CJ. No two relationships are the same.” Ethan peered over the rim at CJ and smirked. “Except for your dads, their neighbors, and you and Ozzie. You guys are like clones of each other. You’ll always be together.” CJ leaned over the back of Owen’s chair and planted an upside-down kiss on his husband. “You better believe it, buster. That’s us. Together forever.” “Together forever and never to part Together forever we two And don't you know I would move heaven and earth To be together forever with you” The impromptu, simultaneous rendition of Rick Astley’s 1980s classic by Colt and Tony elicited peals of laughter. “I love that song! Damn! I gotta learn it.” Chipper jumped off his seat and headed inside. “I’m gonna turn on the sound system, guys. Okay?” “Knock yourself out.” Tony slid off the pool’s edge into the water. “Oh yeah, that feels good. Hey, CJ. You were talking of acceptance without understanding. I’ve got two of those. Transgendered people and gay men with wives.” General nodding indicated agreement from CJ and consensus amongst the group of friends. “The first one I doubt I’ll ever completely understand. Feeling as if you’re one thing trapped inside another would be maddening. The other one, I can understand some of the reasons why it happens, but I’m not sure I could do it.” “Hey, coffee should be ready by now.” Ethan used a thumb to point behind him. “But before you go, let me tell you about one of the partners at my firm. Real old guy, in his eighties. Retired, but still comes in a couple of days a week and does some work. After he found out I was gay, he started talking to me. Turns out he’s been married to the same woman for over fifty years even though he’s always been into guys. It was what was expected, so he did it. I asked about cravings for sex with men. He joked they disappeared over time due to him ignoring them. He supports gay rights like crazy, but he’s not sure he’d do things a different way. He wouldn’t want to give up his wife.” CJ shrugged. “To each his own. Not for me. I may feel a little sad for him, but that’s based on my own life, and the time I live in. Maybe he’s happy for real, and I say more power to him. I hope he has no regrets.” Eventually, Sean’s arrival with a bag of fresh bagels drove everyone inside. They took turns in the kitchen with Tony directing brunch preparation. While the food cooked, Colt mixed a pitcher of mimosas. By the time the meal was over, the pitcher was refilled more than once. For the second year in a row, CJ discovered a wine he liked while on Fire Island. He reached for the bottle of Sawmill Creek 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir—a product of New York’s Finger Lakes region—and refilled his glass. “How come Mario and his girlfriend aren’t here?” “A couple of reasons.” Colt motioned towards his own empty wineglass, and CJ complied with the silent request. “With the increased traffic expected at PRIME this weekend, and with Tony and Sean both away, we felt having a family member on the premises would be advisable. My brother-in-law’s one of the few people we trust implicitly.” “I liked them when I met them back in December. Hopefully, I’ll see them this coming week. What’s the other reason?” Colt steered them through the growing crowd of men in the house and around the pool until they ended up leaning against the wooden deck railing. The afternoon sun warmed CJ’s face. Inhaling the salt-tinged air, he swayed to the dance music coming through the sound system. Combined with the wine’s taste and the feel of rough lumber against his lower back, he delighted in the sensory overload. The view was not too shabby either. The foliage and structure framed a group of mostly young, fit, nearly-naked men enjoying themselves. “Mario claims the moment you introduce a straight man into a gay crowd, the dynamics change. It’s even more pronounced if you add a female to the mix.” Colt scanned the crowd and nodded toward a new arrival wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit. Attire varied; it ranged from Speedos to the classic preppy look of polo shirt, khaki shorts, and deck shoes. He and CJ were both shirtless. “We kind of agree with him. Anyway, he’ll have plenty of chances to hang out here in the future.” “How come?” “Keep it quiet for now. Tony and I plan on a toast in a little bit to celebrate your anniversary, and we’ll make an announcement then. Our offer on this place was accepted last week. We’ll close soon, and be able to visit year-round.” “Really? That’s lit. Congrats! Something like this must cost a fortune. I’ve never looked at how much these beach houses go for.” “Not cheap, but we think it’s a good investment. We’re paying less than you and Ozzie did for your place in Washington.” “Ugh! Don’t remind me. We get the house back at year’s end, and then we start remodeling. My cousins are heading up the effort. They already warned us to get our checkbook ready.” “Do it right, and don’t skimp, CJ. If it’s going to be your forever home like you and Ozzie mentioned, it’s worth spending the money.” “That’s our thinking. But you gotta remember I’m twenty-one and Ozzie’s twenty-six. We’re so young, sometimes I freak out thinking I might live in the same place for the next sixty years. We might change our minds.” “As long as you don’t overspend if trying to flip the property you’ll be fine. When I worked in finance, I always preached a long-term approach. Same applies to real estate. If you decide to sell ten or fifteen years down the road, you’ll recoup your investment and then some.” “Hope so. But we think this will be the place we call home for a very long, long time.” “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Going back to our conversation earlier today—” “Which one?” “The one about sport fucking and different types of relationships. Tony and I were talking about you and your husband. We know you’re solid, but wonder why you decided to tie the knot so young. No issues with the monogamy, but that’s also surprising. How come?” A tiny smile played on CJ’s lips as he scanned the party searching for Owen. “There’s a lot to it, Colt. I grew up with a military stepfather. Dickhead wasn’t abusive, but he was strict. Frivolity wasn’t encouraged, and I think that helped me mature a bit faster.” CJ paused, trying to shake off the tinge of hatred that now and then surfaced when he thought about deceased Air Force Major Richard Peterson. It was something he tried to suppress out of love for his brother; he did not like to trash Ritchie’s father. “Anyway, I came out, moved to Washington, and for a while the people I interacted with the most were my dads’ friends. I was surrounded by a bunch of thirty-something gay men who treated me as an equal. That helped me grow up some more. I also got to see a bunch of different types of relationships. The dads set some rules, but for the most part, were rather permissive.” Memories of his first summer in DC flooded his mind. “Lost my virginity at fifteen, screwed around with a few guys—some my dads heard about, some they didn’t—met Owen somewhere in there, and then he moved to the US. After a while, I realized I was happy just being with him.” “Why get married so young?” “Oh, there’s a couple of reasons for that too. One’s that it makes it easier for Ozzie to stay in the country. He’s married to a US citizen, and that helps him become one himself.” He paused again, trying to decide how much to reveal. “The other main one’s we both want kids. And we want them soon. Dad’s only twenty years older than I am. I think that’s helped our relationship develop to a point he’s not only my father but also one of my best friends. It might not have been that way if he was older. I want a similar connection with my kids. Don’t tell anyone, but we hope to have the first one by this time next year.” By lunchtime Tuesday, the house stood empty. Everyone headed back to Manhattan after breakfast, but the partying was not finished. “So y’all staying for a week?” Mathew Calhoun may have lived in Washington for years, but his Alabama roots were unmistakable thanks to his drawl. “Y’all better not be bringing back a ton of boys to party in the apartment. Your dads and I don’t need the neighbors complaining about sex noises.” Matt, César, and Brett jointly owned the Manhattan pied-à-terre CJ and Owen used more often than any of the other men did. “Get a grip, Doc.” CJ transitioned from calling all his fathers’ friends uncle as he aged; his relationship with them evolved into one of friendship as equals. “You know us better than that.” While CJ and Owen frolicked on Fire Island over the weekend, Dr. Calhoun and his partner, Dasan Ash Turner, arrived from DC to spend an extended weekend in New York. They were returning home the next day and invited the younger couple to dinner at Caffè dei Fiori. The Italian eatery—on Lexington Avenue a five minute walk away from the apartment—offered what some described as elevated food inside a three-story townhouse. “He’s jealous and projecting.” Dasan was somewhat more subdued than the other Elite members, but once in a while came up with a winner. “Ever since he turned forty back in May, all he does is complain about getting old. I should leave him behind and have him go partying with you.” “Nah, he’s right. He’s too old. You can stay, Dash. We’d love to go party with you.” CJ had a soft spot for the man from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was the first HIV positive person he had met, had not been reticent when asked questions about how he had been infected and was candid about what it was like to live with the virus and the stigma still attached to it. “I don’t think so. Although I disagree with Matt about the old part. Remember, I’ll be thirty-eight myself next month. My party days are behind me.” “Your loss, mate. I don’t think either one of you’s old.” Owen removed his reading glasses after perusing the wine list; everyone at the table had pointed at him when the server brought it over. “We do plan on going out over the next few days, but there’ll be no craziness. Neither one of us enjoys hangovers.” “Speaking of hanging over…” Dasan paused while his gaze shifted between CJ and Owen. “Before we left Washington, I had a call from the agent who brokered the rental of your house.” Dasan had helped coordinate a two-year lease with a German conglomerate, when he represented the couple during the purchase of a place in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in December 2017. “His client would like to renew for another year. Are you guys interested?” The homeowners stared at each other, their mouths hanging open in surprise. “I…” CJ’s hesitation made Dash chuckle. “Damn! I—” “Not interested.” Owen spoke with conviction; there was no hesitation in his reply. “We want it back.” “You guys sure? I’m certain they’ll sweeten the offer if we pursue the matter.” “Nope.” CJ shook his head. “Ozzie’s right. We’ve talked about it, discussed it with the cousins, and we’re ready to tackle the remodeling. It’s going to take time. Plus, with me graduating next May, we’d love to move in sometime in the summer. Hopefully, before I start my job.” “How much work are you planning on? And how long do they think it’ll take? For real. This type of project tends to go over budget in both time and money.” Conversation over the remainder of the evening revolved around the changes they planned for the 120-year-old property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On June 28, 1969, in and around the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, the struggle for equal rights by the GLBT community exploded. A New York City police raid on the bar ignited the fuse. In those days of archaic laws and hostile oppression, the reaction by bar patrons was atypical: they fought back. Their numbers, augmented by sympathetic neighborhood residents, fueled a riot leading to six days of demonstrations. Conflicts with law enforcement occurred outside the tavern, in nearby Christopher Park, and along neighboring streets. Attitudes and laws began to change that day. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating the area as a National Monument. The city transferred the small park’s title to the federal government, facilitating the creation of a National Park Service unit. The Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and portions of the surrounding neighborhood were labeled a National Historic Landmark for their association with the Stonewall Uprising. In his message, the president stated, “…the designation of a national monument at the site of the Stonewall Uprising would elevate its message and story to the national stage and ensure that future generations would learn about this turning point that sparked changes in cultural attitudes and national policy.” On June 28, 2019, fifty years after the uprising, the world came together to rejoice in the momentous anniversary. The World Pride celebration returned to North America to mark Stonewall 50. The month of conferences, fashion shows, art exhibits, countless parties, and a multitude of smaller events culminated on Sunday with the annual parade. The laws had changed, acceptance continued to grow yet oppression remained. Pope John Paul II railed against the initial international celebration in Rome in 2000; Orthodox Jews did the same in Jerusalem in 2006. Religion continued to lead the hateful charge with homosexuality still a capital crime in Muslim nations. The GLBT community refused to buckle and hide in the shadows. The 2019 defiant celebration was proof. “Mate, I can’t believe you talked me into this. The sun’s just coming up.” Owen sipped from his mug and adjusted the backpack’s straps over his shoulders. He was not a fan of early mornings. “Stop bitching, Oz, You agreed to this days ago. It’s kind of cool to check out the Today Show from the outside instead of being in the studio.” CJ’s appearances on the NBC morning television show took place during the 2016 presidential race, and later during the promotion of Bullies Beware. Today, they planned to be at Rockefeller Plaza as part of the audience. The show had promised several segments dedicated to the World Pride/Stonewall 50 celebration, and CJ had suggested being outside with hundreds of other people would be a nice way to start their own day. “Hey! I know you.” Leaning against the metal barricade containing the crowd, CJ was surprised when Savannah Guthrie spoke to him. “How are you, CJ?” Weather permitting, the show’s hosts stepped outside the studio and mingled with fans several times throughout the broadcast. During a commercial break, the woman who had interviewed CJ in December approached him. “Hello, Savannah. We’re doing great. Looking forward to the concert.” As part of their special programming for the day, singer Adam Lambert would be performing on the plaza. The woman shifted her attention to the blonde standing behind him for a moment. “When you were here promoting your book you mentioned you were married. Is this your husband?” “Oh, yeah. Sorry, I’m being rude. This is Owen Liston. Owen, you know who Savannah is.” “Of course, mate. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Guthrie.” “Oh, please, call me Savannah. Hey! I have an idea. Would you guys be willing to come inside, and chat with us on camera?” Owen hesitated, but when he nodded his agreement, CJ followed suit. Savannah motioned for someone to join them; the assistant producer ushered the couple through the crowd and into the building. After discarding their ball caps, having their hair styled, and submitting to makeup application, CJ and Owen waited off-camera until invited to join the show’s personalities on the set. They were given an idea of the line of questioning they could expect, and neither had a problem with it. “We’re joined by two unexpected guests this morning.” With little time to add their bio to the teleprompter, Hoda Kotb—the show’s co-anchor—referred to hastily scribbled notes in front of her. “CJ Abelló has been our guest before, and today he’s joined by his husband, Owen Liston. Welcome to the Today Show, guys.” “G’day, Hoda. It’s a pleasure to be here.” “Oh, I’m in love with your accent already.” “One of the many reasons I fell for him.” CJ’s goofy smile elicited a groan from Owen. “Thank you, Hoda. CJ’s being silly. He fell for me ’cause my family’s in the wine business.” Kotb, known to sit at the anchor desk with a wineglass during the show’s fourth hour, was quick to retort. “I definitely want to spend time with you guys! I assume you’re in town for the Pride festivities. Why?” “I’m a history buff, Hoda. I… We felt it was important to celebrate an event that’s impacted both our lives so much. The Stonewall Uprising started a movement we’re the beneficiaries of.” CJ’s words and smooth delivery held the reporters’ attention. “Marriage equality is one of the victories we rejoice in. The Supreme Court acknowledging our right to wed came as a result of years of work by countless individuals. But the drive for equal rights for the GLBT community isn’t over. There’s still inequality. These events should remind everyone the struggle’s not over.” Savannah shifted her attention to Owen. “Your husband’s had his fifteen minutes in the spotlight and more.” Someone in the production team was a fast worker; an image of CJ on stage at the pre-election night rally in Philadelphia appeared on the wall of monitors behind them. “He was a passionate representative for Secretary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.” An image of CJ pointing a gun at a man brandishing a baseball bat filled the screens, while descriptions began scrolling on the teleprompter. “The following year, he was once again in the news when he saved the life of an elderly woman during the protests in Charlottesville. The picture of him holding a firearm went viral at the time. Something unexpected from someone many considered a liberal.” An image of Bullies Beware’s cover joined the previous ones on the split screen. “Last year, he again gained notoriety when he co-authored a book bemoaning bullying and encouraging victims to fight back. How do you feel about his activism?” “I support him one thousand percent.” Owen’s reply came so fast it was evident it was not a composed, rehearsed comment. “Doesn’t mean I agree with all his positions. We’ve had more than one row over issues like gun control and the death penalty. But he’s always amazed me with how thoughtful he is when developing positions on controversial issues.” “How come we haven’t seen you out in public as much as him?” “What? Talking to you with millions of people watching isn’t public enough?” While the interviewers chuckled, CJ was surprised at how well Owen handled the questioning. “I’m a tad less flashy than my husband.” “What Owen’s modesty fails to highlight”—CJ’s pride in his mate was unmistakable—“is he’s helping improve our world every single day. As an environmental attorney, he works to protect our natural wonders for us and for future generations. It’s an endeavor I wholeheartedly support.” “What does the future hold for both of you?” Hoda discretely nodded towards a side monitor counting down the time remaining in the segment. “I’ve worked with the Nature Conservancy all through college. This coming fall, I become a full-time staff member. My goal is to continue bringing together the public and private sectors. To forge alliances. To help find science-based solutions to the problems facing our environment. And to leave this world a little better than I entered it.” “What about you, CJ?” “Finishing school. This fall I’m entering my senior year at Georgetown University and getting ready for the real world’s my priority. I’ll continue to support causes I believe in, but not too much in public.” CJ paused for a moment while checking the remaining time. “If I could plug one of them… Heroes’ Haven is an organization working to support disabled veterans. A cause near and dear to my heart since my father’s a retired Marine Corps officer, and one of my best friends—a brother, really—returned home after a stint in the Army missing two legs. I encourage everyone to check their website, and show some love by supporting this wonderful group.” “Thank you, gentlemen. We’ll get a link to Heroes’ Haven up on our website. We’ll be right back.” Sometime later, as they made their way toward the Stonewall Inn, CJ received a text from Peter Davis. The founder and executive director of Heroes Haven let him know the appeal on national TV flooded their web page with inquiries, and donations were pouring in. “Bloody hell, it sounds like a United Nations gathering.” The cacophony of myriad conversations in multiple languages assailed their ears as they neared the Stonewall Inn. “I know, right? Listen to all those great accents.” The world had come to New York City once again. CJ grasped his husband’s arm when they reached the entrance to Christopher Park. “Let’s ask someone to take our picture in front of the sign.” The throng thickened with each step taken toward the famous bar. “Forget it, CJ. We’ve had drinks in there before, and we’ll do it again. Not worth it today. May as well let the tourists have the opportunity.” CJ thought it funny Owen did not consider the two of them tourists. With the amount of time they spent in New York City, the distinction was not inaccurate. “If Madonna makes another surprise appearance and performs, I’ll never forgive you.” The music icon had shocked bar patrons with an impromptu show on the last day of 2018. “How about ice cream instead?” Five minutes into a stroll that any other day took a total of two, they gave up. The waves of people lapping at the entrance of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop down the street from the park made them realize it would take some time to reach; the sea of visitors and locals was not about to part for them. “No way, mate. Give up on any of these places.” Owen pointed at the mobbed Starbuck’s. “Wanna try to get a couple of Cokes from one of the street vendors? I have my flask full of rum in the backpack.” “Sounds like a plan.” CJ cajoled his way to a hotdog cart, bought two sodas, and guided Owen in the other direction toward the perimeter of the crowd clustered around the triangular park. “Check it out, Oz. Typical entrepreneurial New Yorker.” Someone had leaned a small ladder against the lamppost at the corner of Waverly Place; the hand-painted sign next to it offered the opportunity for people to climb, and have their picture taken by the brown sign for the intersecting road. CJ had taken a similar picture next to the marker for Gay Street during his first visit to New York. Late in the afternoon, they returned to the Upper East Side apartment for a nap. Chipper and Ethan joined them for dinner; afterward, the four made their way down to Chelsea. Even though it was early, the line outside PRIME already threatened to turn the corner at Ninth Avenue and Nineteenth Street. “Shit! I don’t think the happy hour crowd ever left.” Ethan sounded surprised. “I’ve never seen this long a wait this early.” “Be happy. It means your boyfriend’s raking in the bucks.” CJ clasped the man’s shoulder and propelled him towards the entrance. “Get ready for the hateful bitching.” When the doorman waved them inside without checking identification or collecting the cover charge, CJ’s prediction came true. Those near the front complained about them. The club remained crowded the entire night, and by the time they caught a taxi, they were sweaty and tired. Saturday they woke up late, went for a jog and breakfast, and afterward lounged around the apartment. For over thirty years, Dance on the Pier had been one of the jewels on the New York City Pride crown. In 2019, the event was held on Pier 97 at Hudson River Park in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. Dancing with Owen and their other friends next to the flowing waters, CJ reveled in the bliss that came from being surrounded by so many other men indulging in everything that felt good. The couple’s sobriety during the event put them in the minority. It was a last minute decision to abstain, brought on by the massive amounts of alcohol imbibed over the previous week. But it gave them the opportunity to view and recall the festivities without the intoxication haze most revelers would remember it through. “OWEN! CATCH!” The Aussie turned his head in time to watch the spheroid fly at him. Catching the ball, he clutched it to his chest with a hand and extended the other arm to block imaginary tacklers. “Damn, CJ. You’re not the only rock star in the family anymore.” Ethan’s forceful backslap made CJ stumble forward a few inches. The crowd was so thick further movement was impossible. “Jerk! I almost bumped into the kids in front of us.” The two pre-teen boys turned and glared when called kids. Their mothers looked at the sky and rolled their eyes. “Sorry, guys.” CJ’s apology mollified the kids. “I’ve been telling everyone about Ozzie forever, Ethan. About time some of you boys realized he’s not some wallflower.” When the next ball came at him, CJ grabbed one of the youngsters’ arms and helped him catch it. Pointing at a player, CJ showed the boy how to throw it back underhanded. “That was fun, mister. How do you know those guys?” “Those are the Gotham Knights. My husband”—CJ thumbed at Owen standing behind him—“plays for the Scandals. That’s the team back home in Washington. We’ve met some of the New York players at tournaments.” The group had gathered at Colt and Tony’s loft apartment, walked to Seventh Avenue, and claimed a spot a couple of blocks from the parade’s starting point. From the heart of Chelsea, it would meander down to Greenwich Village toward Christopher Street before turning north on Fifth Avenue and ending on the edge of the Hudson Yards neighborhood. CJ’s Love Trumps Hate t-shirt wasn’t unique. Owen’s rainbow-hued kangaroo one attracted plenty of stares. “We’ll be back.” Mario Martellini, Tony’s younger brother, grasped Owen’s hand and pulled him alongside as he scurried forward. Curiosity made CJ and Mario’s girlfriend tag along. “I need your help. When we get a break in the crowd, I want you to call a couple of the players over. I want to take a picture showing off their uniform.” PRIME was a sponsor, and the bar’s name was prominently emblazoned on their shirts’ front. The group of friends repositioned itself at the spot from where Mario selected to take pictures. The change in location brought a change in atmosphere; the air was redolent with the sweet smell of marijuana. “Do you miss smoking?” Owen asked when CJ inhaled lungfuls of air. “Meh. A little. I know I’m going overboard abstaining. I’m sure the State Department would never find out if I did, but I don’t want to lie if I’m asked. What about you?” “Not really. You know I’d rather have a glass of wine anyway. By the way, thank you. “For what?” “For New York City this time. As much as I always wanted to live in the US, I never imagined spending as much time here as we do. I love Washington, and that’s home, but there’s something about New York…” Owen’s tone bordered on reverence. “Who would have thought I’d know people in this parade. Every time we’re here, the city seems to unfold for us. Each layer peeled back reveals new secrets, new marvels, new opportunities.” “Damn, Oz, you’re being poetic. I think DC can be the same, but there the emphasis is politics. We’re immersed in it all—“ “Fuck yeah!” Chipper’s outburst interrupted CJ’s rumination. “I gotta go, guys. My sister’s at the hospital. She’s in labor.”
  24. 71 points
    Luca Giovanni looked around the room. Within were the powers of what many called organized crime. There were senior capos of many of the Families in both the old country and here in the US. There were even a couple of Dons who wanted to voice their opinions directly in the upcoming matter. In total 13 men and 3 women would make the decision. Luca waited a moment while a few latecomers settled in and when the voices had settled, he stood. "Thank you all for attending, and lending your voice to this proceeding." He began to stroll before the two rows of chairs where the Family sat. "Before we start with our final judgment on the disposition of Corbin Reina, I feel the need to review how we arrived in this situation." Luca nodded at a recently freed Stefano. The man stood, and Luca stepped back to allow his senior capo to take the stage. "As most of you know, the Reina Family was one of the more violent, and brazen of our group." A number of those assembled nodded in agreement. "As concerned parties, every one of your Families tried to reason with the Reina leadership. However, this fell on deaf ears." He glanced up at the men and women. "When this failed, representatives from your Families contacted us, the Giovanni, for information gathering. I was chosen as the one to infiltrate the Reina. I was a well-kept secret, known only within my own Family, and I was given the name of Moretti. All record of my relationship as a Giovanni was erased, and I became a competent, though simple enforcer. Attractive to the Reina as a foot soldier. My time with the Reina began seven years ago. And through necessity, during this time I had little contact with my own Family." Stefano took up the slow walk before the men and women. "About five years ago, the Reina were being actively investigated by a man named Charles Harris. He was an agent in the FBI, and he was tenacious. The Reina threatened both him and his family. And when Harris refused to quit, they hired a squad and killed his family. This had the effect of steeling Harris' resolve, and he became obsessed with the truth of his family's death. My place within the Reina was not trusted or elevated enough for me to know this operation occurred. And so I remained ignorant of it." Stefano's expression changed as he searched his memory. "I did find a few thoughtful, intelligent, less bloodthirsty few within the ranks of the Reina. Corbin Reina and his partner Liam Walsh both were kindred souls. And I struck up a friendship with them. Initially, this was to help my cover. Though, later, I came to respect and even," he frowned, "care for the both of them." He looked over the assembled faces. He had their entire attention. "The Reina continued their cavalier ways. And I slowly began to build a bank of evidence against them. Should it have been required, the Giovanni could have used it as leverage to reign them in. But … Corbin ran into an untenable situation before this could occur." He smiled at the nods around the room. All had heard of the apartment fiasco, and the end of the Reina Family. "Corbin worked with the FBI, and Charles Harris specifically. And now we know, Agent Harris was on a personal crusade against the entire Reina Family, Corbin included. How he discovered the men who carried out the hit, we're not sure. But ultimately that led him back to the Reina. And he knew for certain they were responsible for the death of his family." He paused and took a long deep breath. "The apartment operation began. During the confusion of the operation and the Reina downfall, Harris personally killed Liam Walsh, and he framed me for the murder. This had the effect of cutting Corbin off from any support from his old life. And I was forced to flee." He frowned. "I gave what information I had over to my Family, but it wasn't enough to exonerate me. We also didn't know for certain who killed Liam. I needed to speak to Corbin directly. Yet, that was an impossibility while the trials of the Reina continued. And as time went on Harris poisoned Corbin against me. I was certain Corbin feared and hated me. So we would need an extraordinary plan to convince him of my innocence." Stefano looked back at Luca, and the men traded places. Luca smoothed his white shirt as he stood before the Families. "Once the trials ended I waited for word of Corbin's resettlement. Luckily, our penchant for placing Family in the usual towns the FBI tends to utilize for Witness Protection paid off. I was sent word he was here, in Hailey. And I pulled my most trusted and competent people for this operation." He gestured at the restaurant where they all gathered. "Within these very walls, you met Corbin Reina. You took his measure. Yet, you have not seen him at his best. You have not seen him truly tested." His eyes narrowed. "And that is why you are here today." Luca looked each of them in the eyes then he continued. "I will show you the culmination of our efforts, here," he motioned at a screen pulled down before a projector. "And then you will decide the fate of Corbin Reina. Will he be judged as a traitor to his Family, and as a danger to us? Or will you take my recommendation?" Luca nodded at Stefano, and the man started the video. The screen came to life and showed the split screen view of the video feeds in Corbin's cabin. All of the men and women watched, fascinated as the scene played out before them. Many flinched as Corbin shot himself and there were a few gasps of disbelief as Zampa attacked. The clip ended, and soft, low conversation started among those gathered. Stefano gave them a moment then he cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen. As you saw in the video, I was there. Ask what questions you will of me, and I will answer." A man stood, his dark eyes skeptical. "Reina truly shot himself? To save… who?" "That is his partner, a fireman named Paul Boyd. Corbin was willing to sacrifice himself for him." He looked around the room. "Corbin Reina has uncommon courage and honor. He surrounds himself with individuals who exhibit the same qualities. You knew him only as a man who ran to the FBI. As a rat." He motioned at the screen. "Yet, you see here he is not. He is more. He is a man of principle." Stefano raised his chin in a challenge. "Who among you, have a man you think would do the same for you?" The capo that had asked the question slowly sat down. All gathered were silent, and they looked thoughtful. After about twenty more minutes of various questions, the group seemed satisfied. Luca stood before them. "Now, I ask for your judgment. The Giovanni's voice is known, and it speaks for Corbin." He raised his right hand, and his silver ring glinted in the subdued light of the room. "Those in favor of recognition of Corbin Reina, as Don of the Reina." Slowly hands rose into the air. Luca nodded as he counted, and a satisfied smile spread on his face. "Thirteen in favor, four opposed." Luca looked at each of those dissenting. "I trust you will abide by the majority?" One by one nods were given by the three men and one woman who withheld their approval. Luca set his jaw. "Good." He held up the golden ring of the Reina. "I go to deliver this tonight to the man we will count in our number." The crowd broke up into small groups as they discussed the happenings, and the implications of what it was they had decided. Luca left Stefano with them, and he went to find Jenoah and Bruce. They had a trip to make to the hospital. ____________________________________ Recovery seems slow when you have a lot of things vying for your attention. Corbin was two weeks in, and he had finally healed enough to be released from the hospital. Though with strict orders for rest, breathing exercises, and wound care. Paul sat beside him and listened attentively as the doctor explained what would be required for his care. Corbin hated to need help while Paul was happy to provide it. They left the hospital and went down to the parking lot. The fireman helped Corbin get into his truck. "Paul, I'm fine." Corbin flinched a little as the movement stretched the skin around the stitches in his back. Paul noticed. "Yeah. You're fine. And you're gonna stay that way." Paul got him up in the seat. Corbin instinctively sat forward a little so as not to press his back against the cushion. Paul pursed his lips, reached, and very gently pushed him, so he sat flush against the seat. "It shouldn't hurt just to sit. If it does tell me. Because I'll need to let the doc know." Corbin sighed. "It doesn't hurt. I'm just protective of it." Paul stared at him a moment, trying to decide if Corbin was telling him the truth. He finally nodded, then got up into the driver seat. He shut the door and started the machine. "Hey." Paul looked over at the blonde man. Corbin's eyes were honest and so blue, Paul felt as if he could just look at him for hours. The smaller man smiled. "Thanks. For everything." He swallowed. "I know you didn't ask for this." He shook his head. "For any of this. And I'm sorry I dragged you into my mess." Paul smiled. "I'm not sorry." He reached over and put a strong hand on the back of Corbin's neck. "I will pay whatever the price of admission is into your world." The silver ring of the Reina on his finger glittered in the light. "And I'll do whatever you need me to do." He grinned. "Even if you don't want me to do it." Corbin laughed. He gingerly leaned over so as not to injure himself and the two men kissed, slow, sweet, and lingering. They pulled slightly apart, and Corbin smiled. "That sounds good, Paul." He sat back in his seat. "Okay. Before anything else, I need to go see Luca." Paul sighed. Luca and the Giovanni were a reminder of the world he and Corbin had both been mired in. The Don had been very patient while Corbin recovered, but they both had instructions to visit him as soon as Corbin was released. Corbin had already called Luca to let him know they would be there this morning. Luca asked for at least two hours of warning before they came to see him, and Corbin gave it to him. But now it was time. Paul drove them both over to the restaurant. As soon as they parked, two of the Family walked from the door where they stood as sentries. Their escorts bowed respectfully to Corbin and inclined their heads in greeting at Paul. Then they walked them over to the building. "Luca is ready for you both." One said and opened the door. Corbin and Paul entered, and Corbin was a little surprised that their escorts did not accompany them inside. Guard or not, he knew where to go. He led them upstairs to a now familiar door. He knocked gently. "Enter." Corbin opened the door, and the two of them stepped inside. Luca sat at his desk, his hands in their familiar position - fingers steepled in front of his lips, and his chin on his thumbs. Jenoah was to the left of the desk, and Stefano was on the right. Luca smiled. "Come, sit." There were two chairs before the desk, and Corbin and Paul did as Luca asked. Corbin was only mildly surprised that Luca spoke English. "I imagine you have questions for me." Luca motioned at Corbin, sat back and waited expectantly. Corbin glanced at Paul then looked back to Luca. "I do." He straightened and raised his hand with the golden ring. "Why did you give this to me?" He shook his head. "I am not the Don of the Reina. No one will accept that." Luca nodded at the logical question and statements. "You have already been accepted as the Don of the Reina. The Families convened here, shortly after you went into the hospital, and after Stefano was released." He smiled. "So, you are indeed the Don." Corbin looked at him. It was only through a tremendous act of will that he kept an incredulous look off of his face. "I… I see." He stared down at the ring then he looked back up. "I am the Don of a Family with no members and no power." He cocked his head at Luca. "Why do such a thing? Without a way to enforce my will, then I am Don in name only." Luca nodded, pleased with the question. "The lack of the Reina left a vacuum in our power structure. Even now, there are troubles in New York, as the old Reina territory is bickered over, and inter-Family conflict approaches." His eyes narrowed on Corbin. "But … YOU are the Don of that territory. If you were to award this territory to another, the Families have already agreed to abide by your wishes in the matters of your Family." Luca held up a hand at Corbin's look of realization. "I admit, the Giovanni are interested in the New York territory. But should you wish to retain it, I will ensure you have the muscle to do so." Stefano and Jenoah both looked at one another, the question on their face obvious. It was the same one on Corbin's lips. "But, why?" Corbin frowned. "I don't … I don't want the territory in New York. And I don't understand why you would do such a thing for me." Luca nodded again. "Then I humbly request, Don of the Reina, that the Giovanni be allowed to take on the territory of New York. And in exchange - for there must be an exchange, or it will be looked upon badly by the other Families, I will turn over my operation here to you." Again, the look between Stefano and Jenoah. They were both lost, and so was Corbin. "Luca… I don't understand why you would do this." "If you did understand, would you accept these terms?" Luca's hands were now clasped, his fingers entwined and he looked over his hands at Corbin. Corbin looked over at Paul. The fireman stared back at him, and Paul smiled. "Luca has treated us well. He's kept us in the dark a lot… but ultimately, it turned out okay." Corbin nodded at Paul. "So … you'll come along with me?" He licked his lips. "I mean, we can do whatever we wanted with this responsibility. We could go completely legit. Keep the restaurant, make it profitable. As long as all the Family are fed, paid, and happy, then there's no need to do anything below board." "Of course. I'm wherever you are," Paul said, and his eyes told Corbin that he spoke his truth. Corbin swallowed and nodded. "Okay." He turned back to Luca. "Make me understand why you would do this for me." He shook his head and shrugged. "You could easily have maneuvered your way into command of the New York territory without all of this. So, please, explain. And then, if I understand, then yes … I accept." Luca took in a deep breath. "Jenoah, Stefano … you are to both leave this room." Luca looked over at Paul as well. "You too, Mr. Boyd." He smiled slightly. "You have my word, no harm will come to Corbin." Paul looked at Corbin, and the blonde man nodded once at him. He got up and followed Jenoah and Stefano out. Then the door shut behind them. Luca stood up and turned to face the window. His hands were behind him, and he gripped his wrist as he looked outside. His hand opened and closed unconsciously as he thought. He began to speak. "The reason I would give up my operation here - with multiple millions in assets, and even personnel, is because … I am indirectly responsible for the death of Liam Walsh." Corbin felt a cold sensation in his belly. He stared at the back of Luca's head. "Explain." His voice snapped across the desk. Luca actually flinched at the tone. He sighed. "I was the one to leak the identity of the killers of the Harris family to the agent. My connections are vast. And I knew their identities. I also knew it would only be a matter of time before Harris made the connection between the hitmen and the Reina. I thought he would take the information to the FBI, and your Family would ultimately be weakened, or completely removed from power." He shook his head. "I didn't know he would hoard the information, and instead begin his own private campaign to destroy the Reina himself." He turned around. For the first time since he had ever met Luca, the Giovanni wore a look of regret. "I miscalculated. And it cost Liam his life." He brought his eyes up to Corbin's. "Stefano told me of the great love you had for Liam and he for you. And I am haunted that I destroyed something so rare." Corbin swallowed and blinked. His mind swirled with emotion which warred with his logical self. He wanted to launch himself across the desk and throttle this man. "You … miscalculated?" Corbin stood up, his eyes bright with anger. "And, you think this," he waved a hand over the restaurant, "will fix it?" "I don't." Luca looked at him, his hands down and limp at his side. "I have told no one of this. If my nephew knew, I don't know what he would think of me." His eyes were sad. "He truly loved Liam, as he loves you." Corbin frowned and shook his head. He knew there was no real way Luca could have known what Harris would do. He knew that logically, but he still hated him for what he did. He shut his eyes and forced a semblance of rational thought. When his eyes opened, there was a fire there. "I will accept the exchange of the Reina territory of New York for the operation here, the service of your man in the hot spring, all of the personnel here, and any others you have stationed in the state. Idaho is mine." Luca started to speak, and Corbin held up a hand. "AND, ten million dollars to fund operations. Those are my terms. If you don't accept, I will go back to New York, and you will provide the personnel you promised to maintain the territory." Luca breathed slowly, and the two men stared one another in the eye. Corbin could tell the wheels turned furiously in his mind. Finally, he nodded. "I accept, only if you give your word, you will never reveal what it is I told you. To anyone." Corbin set his jaw, but he nodded in agreement. He stepped forward, and the two men shook hands. Both gripped firmly and locked gazes with the other. Luca sighed. "It is done then. I will inform the Families of the swap. They will want to verify with you as well." He looked at Corbin. "Should there be any Family who truly wish to remain with me, I assume you will allow it?" Corbin nodded. He had no desire to keep people who didn't want to follow him. That would be more trouble than it was worth. Luca smiled. "Good." He grimaced. "I think I may have overplayed one hand in that respect. Jenoah is bound at the hip to that boy, Bruce. I fear I will lose my great nephew to you, Don Reina." Corbin softened a bit. "You must know, anyone left with me will be treated well." Luca smiled, the expression not entirely kind. "I expect they will be treated how they deserve to be treated. No better, no worse." Corbin returned the expression and nodded. "As you wish, Don Giovanni." The men concluded their business, and Corbin left the room. He walked downstairs and found Paul sitting with Stefano and Jenoah at a table in the dining room of the restaurant. Paul stood up, his eyes curious. "We're done. Let's go, Paul." As they turned to leave Stefano's voice called out. "Corbin." He turned, and Stefano walked to him. Stefano gently embraced Corbin, careful to avoid his injuries. Then he pushed Corbin to arm's length. "I'm glad you're okay." Corbin smiled. He really had missed this connection with Stefano, and he was happy to have it back. "Me too. Thanks, Stefano." Corbin gave him a knowing look. "We'll see each other again." He patted the man's arm, then he and Paul continued out of the building. Out at the vehicle, Paul opened Corbin's door. "Here, let me help you." The strong fireman assisted Corbin while he awkwardly got inside the cab of the truck. Once Corbin was settled he got behind the wheel. Paul looked over at him. "So… are we mafiosos?" Corbin sighed then laughed. "I guess we are." Paul shook head and smiled. He started the truck. "You know, my best friend, the police officer is going to love this." Corbin looked at him, his face shocked. "You cannot think you are going to tell Chad!" "What?" Paul looked at Corbin, his face innocent. "We share everything." Then he slowly grinned at Corbin's expression. Corbin laughed, and the two men drove away, on the way home. __________________________________ Corbin lay, warm, and snuggled up to his hairy heater of a man. At least he had been. He woke because that man had gotten out of bed. Corbin made an unhappy noise, and Paul laughed. "I'll be back. Jeez, can't a guy pee?" He watched as a perfect, hairy ass disappeared around the bedroom doorway. He heard Paul relieve himself in the toilet, then the sound of the flush. Corbin grinned to himself. He turned and lay on his side, facing away from the door and waited for his big spoon to come back. Zampa stood up from her spot. She had come in sometime last night and wedged herself between their feet. Now she stretched in that very cat-like way. She even walked up close enough for Corbin to give her back a good scratch. She allowed him to touch her for about five seconds, then she jumped off the bed and padded off down the hall. Last week they installed a pet door. Zampa now roamed between Paul's house and property. She had also stopped eating the mice they provided her. It was evident that she was hunting, and doing well. Paul was sure they would never see her again, but, so far, she had returned every day early in the morning to sleep for a few hours with the men. Paul patted her as she walked down the hall, then he entered the bedroom. After a moment Corbin frowned. He hadn't gotten back into bed. He looked over his shoulder, and Paul stood there, looking down at him. Corbin rolled onto his back. "What?" He reached and took hold of Paul's hand. "Something wrong?" Paul shook his head. "No. Everything is … it's perfect." The fireman peeled back the blanket and sheet and gingerly climbed on top of Corbin. Corbin was still healing, and Paul made every effort to avoid hurting him. He sat on Corbin's groin, and he leaned down. The men kissed. Corbin's hands roamed over Paul's chest, sides and his powerful legs. Then invariably they found Paul's thick member. The fireman made a breathy noise when Corbin's hand closed on the shaft. Corbin's own cock was hard, and his hips unconsciously began to move against Paul's backside, sliding it back and forth against the tall man. He did this for a bit then he laughed. "Ah, this is just torturing me." He patted Paul's legs. "You better stop teasing." Paul reached and grabbed the lube. "Let me do the work." He lifted himself and applied a generous amount to Corbin's dick, and the blonde man inhaled at the slick, warm hand as it slid back and forth. Then Paul did the same to his own rear. All the while he looked down into Corbin's eyes. "Paul … what are you …" Corbin licked his lips as Paul positioned himself against his erection. "Ah, Paul …" The fireman closed his eyes and exhaled. Corbin could feel him try to relax, and Paul pressed down with his hips. Paul frowned at the pressure, then after a moment, Corbin entered him. Paul breathed again. "Paul …" Corbin felt the incredible sensation as he slowly entered the fireman, bit by bit. "Are you okay?" Paul nodded and opened his eyes. He smiled down at Corbin and finally settled fully on Corbin's hips. He began to stroke himself, and he used his legs to raise himself slightly. Then he allowed gravity to pull him back down. Corbin groaned and Paul's eyes closed. The fireman opened his mouth. "Ah. Ah god." He breathed heavily. Corbin ran his hands all over Paul's body. He stopped at his nipples, and Corbin gently gripped both of them. Paul gasped, and then his eyes shot open wide. "Ah fuck." He stared down at Corbin's face. "I … I love you." Corbin watched as his eyes fluttered and his back arched. He let gravity pull him all the way down, and as much of Corbin's cock as possible was inside him. Then he released with a moan. Semen shot from him and landed in a streak from Corbin's chest to his groin. Corbin followed quickly, as Paul's muscles clamped down on his penis. The blonde man gripped Paul's legs and pushed his hips into the fireman as he got off. He looked up at Paul, and he finished with a euphoric shiver. The two men stayed in position and panted. Paul looked at Corbin's injury on his chest. "Are you … you okay? I didn't hurt you?" "I'm great." Corbin grinned up at him. "You didn't hurt me. Though you did surprise me." He smiled gently and rubbed Paul's face. "Didn't know you were going to let me do this." Paul smiled, and he nodded. "Sorry, it took me so long." He bit his lip. "But I think we can switch off if that's what you would like." Corbin smirked. "I don't know." He reached and shook Paul's half-soft cock. "I've come to really like having this thing inside me." Paul laughed. "Either way is fine with me." The men got up and took a nice long shower. The sun was out, and so their hot water was virtually unlimited. They got out of the shower and were drying off. Then Corbin's phone buzzed on the vanity. He looked at the number and frowned. "Luca. Hang on." "Ciao, Luca." "Ciao, Corbin." Luca's smooth voice came over the receiver. "The Family has accepted the swap, and there is no longer a threat of violence in New York." "Good to hear." Corbin dried his hair with one hand. "Your fee for the swap has also been transferred. Please, keep the line of communication open between our Families. I foresee a healthy partnership in our future, so long as we both work toward that end." Corbin nodded, even though Luca couldn't see that. "I will. And thank you." He had a little more time to think about Luca's involvement in Liam's death. And he knew there was no way the Don could have known his scheme would go so badly. Corbin had largely forgiven him for his part in the event. "Till next time, Don Reina." "Till next time, Don Giovanni." Paul finished drying and pulled on his briefs. "Things okay?" Corbin put down his phone and nodded. "Yeah. Though I think I need to go to the restaurant today. I need to check in on everyone, make sure they're all really okay with me running the show." Almost all of the men and women Luca had with him had stayed on with Corbin. This meant Luca had eyes and ears on the new Don, and Corbin had no illusions about that at all. As expected, Jenoah stayed in Hailey. And Stefano flew to New York to take on the day to day affairs of the new Giovanni territory there. Now, he was in charge of a group of about forty people statewide. They had various positions. Some in real estate, some in government, healthcare, the hospitality business, and even a few in law enforcement. It meant Corbin had his fingers on the pulse of what happened in the state. Their combined skill sets were vast, and there was next to nothing he couldn't eventually get done. So long as he had patience, and used his resources intelligently. Timothy was assigned as his new handler. The young man seemed to know Corbin wasn't entirely free of the influence of the mafia, but he had no idea how deep the connection remained. Corbin was amused that he had an FBI bodyguard, and was the head of a crime family. The guys dressed, then Corbin let Paul help him up into the truck. As Paul boosted him up, he smiled. "There you are, my Don." Corbin laughed as Paul walked around and got in on the other side. "You don't have to call me that, Paul." Paul looked over at him, and his smile dropped away. In its place was an affectionate, but severe expression. "Do you want me to?" Corbin frowned. If he were to keep the respect of those he commanded, then it was a good idea. "I … if you wouldn't mind when we're around the others?" Paul stared at him, and he nodded. "Yes, my Don." He said the words seriously, and he didn't laugh. He put the truck in gear, and they started on the drive to Hailey. Then the tall man sighed. "What?" Corbin looked at him, worried he may have pushed the fireman too far. "Oh, I'm just annoyed." He laughed and shook his head. "I'm gonna have to learn Italian." Corbin laughed. "Yes. Yes, you will." He looked over and smiled. With a thrill of happiness, Corbin put his hand on Paul's warm leg as he drove. They arrived at the restaurant, and Paul got out. Corbin waited while Paul walked around. The fireman let him out. Jenoah met the two men, and then he and Paul fell into place behind Corbin. As he walked toward the building … HIS building, Corbin felt something new. He felt the power he now possessed, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. He would keep those he loved safe. He would keep them Guarded.
  25. 71 points
    “Damn! You guys brought me a present? How’d you know I like the tall, skinny ones best? They always got long dicks and tight asses." The bouncer licked his lips as he appraised the subject of his admiration. “What’s your name sexy? I’m Jure.” The momentary shock left them all silent as Jure leered and a wide-eyed Harley fidgeted. Chipper was the first to crack. His laughter followed a fraction of a second later by CJ and Owen hanging on to each other while chortling. Ethan was the only one to retain his composure. He did snicker before slapping the bulky, bearded doorman. “Lay off, Jure. He’s off limits. With me and straight.” “Oh, hi.” The bouncer spared Ethan a cursory glance; a wink later, he at last paid attention to Harley’s license. He seemed intent on memorizing every scrap of information on it. “Didn’t notice you. I sort of got distracted.” He moistened his lips with his tongue once again, staring at a bewildered Harley. “I’m good at breaking in straight boys if you’re interested, baby.” Jure ran a hand down his torso and cupped his groin. The predatory display elicited groans from CJ and Owen. “Back in Croatia, both my best friends said it didn’t hurt them that much when I fucked them. And then they liked it and came back for more.” CJ decided it was time to rescue his friend. “Ignore him, Harley.” He snatched the ID out of the bouncer’s hand and returned it to his disconcerted traveling partner. “Jure tried the same shit with Ozzie last time we were here. We’ve got to talk to Tony about this shit. He keeps hiring new people, and it takes us forever to train them. So hard to find good help these days.” Jure gave CJ a dismissive glance before focusing on Owen. “Hi, Ozzie. Welcome back to PRIME, handsome. You know where to find me if you want a real beef injection tonight.” “Give it up, mate. Not going to happen and you know it.” Owen gave CJ a conspiratorial wink. “But if you’re interested in being bottom boy for the five of us tonight…” While the man narrowed his eyes, the others again stood silent, mouths agape, until Chipper spoke. “Wait! Let me pick my jaw up from the floor. Who are you, and what have you done with Ozzie? Damn, CJ, you been giving him lessons in sarcasm and innuendos?” “He’s a good student. Let’s go fuck with Sean.” CJ, Owen, and Harley left Washington mid-morning and rode the interstate the entire way to New York City. They would revert to their preferred back roads later in the trip; the first segment of their adventure traversed areas without the visual appeal of upcoming ones. Chipper was already at the Upper East Side apartment when they arrived, having flown in from Miami a few days earlier. Ethan joined them for dinner, and afterward, the five friends rode the subway down to Chelsea. Although the neighborhood was no longer quite the GLBT bastion it once was, it was still home to many gay bars. PRIME was their preferred watering hole in the City because of their friendship with the owners and the head bartender. Inside, they inched their way through the Friday night crowd toward the rear serving area. Retro night was as popular as ever and Cher’s “Strong Enough” exploded through the sound system. It reminded CJ he needed to send the star diva a text or e-mail. He had not spoken to her since right after the wedding. “Hey, boy! A round of redheaded sluts and make it pronto.” CJ did not like the concoction of Jägermeister, peach-flavored schnapps, and cranberry juice all that much, but the name made it hard not to order the shooter whenever they visited the club. Sean Brody stepped back from the bar so his entire body was visible. Smirking at the group of friends while grabbing his crotch, he shook his head so the curly, red hair created an illusory halo. “I’ve got your boy right here, sir.” “You gonna join us, right?” Chipper knuckled the bartender first and the others followed. “I will this round. But I’m not keeping up with you all night. I’m working, and I have a feeling the five of you seem ready to get shit-faced.” “Nah, the three of us are riding tomorrow.” Harley pointed at himself and his two traveling companions. “I hate having a hangover when I’m gonna be on the bike for that many hours. That‘s why I prefer to smoke. But with CJ avoiding cannabis these days…” “Oh, man, Sean. You should have seen Harley’s face when the bouncer offered to pop his cherry. We couldn’t stop laughing.” CJ barely avoided the punch Harley threw at him. “It ain’t funny, CJ. I’m used to going to gay bars with you guys, but that was a first. Nobody’s ever tried so hard to get in my pants when I’ve gone to DIK Bar with you and the Scandals. Those guys always stopped hitting on me after one of you told them I wasn’t gay. I mean, this one kept going and going and going, even after Ethan told him I was straight. And he said he’d done it to his friends in Croatia. I guess that’s where he’s from? Isn’t that the same as Tank? This guy’s bigger but not so muscular. What is it with people from Croatia? Are they all big and gay? At least this Jure guy—“ “HARLEY!” Sean’s shout made several patrons stare at the group for a moment before resuming their conversations. “Here, bud. Have a drink. We need to slow you the fuck down. So you guys headed up north tomorrow?” “Yep. We’ll return in a couple of weeks. The plan’s to stop in New York again on our way back to Washington. But that may change. We’ll let you know.” CJ raised his glass, encouraging his friends to do the same. “Here’s to good friends. Salud!” “Salud, dinero, amor, y tiempo para disfrutarlos.” Chipper’s expanded toast had Sean staring at him after they downed their drinks. “I’m in town until my sister gives birth, Sean. Then I’m headed to Buenos Aires, so I’m practicing my Spanish. It means: health, money, love, and time to enjoy them. It’s an old Spanish saying.” “When’s your sister due?” Collecting the empty glasses, Sean dropped them in the sink’s sudsy waters. Without bothering to ask what they wanted, he began mixing their preferred cocktails. CJ’s was the easiest: Hendricks over ice with a lime. After the first one, he always switched to Sapphire martinis. “The end of June, early July. My mom’s flying up when the baby comes, and she’s staying for a month or so to help Cristina out. I’m sure my dickhead brother-in-law’s gonna hate having her around. He’s such a fucking control freak. Anyway, you’ll be seeing me in here until then. There’s a few auditions I’m trying to line up, but I’m going to have a lot of free time. I’ll fly to Argentina right after I meet my niece.” “No butt-fucking while I’m in the room, okay?” Harley dropped his bag and helmet on the bed closest to the door while CJ and Owen claimed the other one. They stopped twice to fuel the motorcycles and once for lunch but otherwise, the ride from New York to New Hampshire was a high-speed run aimed at arriving at the hotel with time to do something in the afternoon. “Dude, what the fuck? Where did that come from?” The weather was typical for a late-spring, New England day. It was chilly enough they had worn their Perfecto leather jackets over t-shirts and hoodies. Combined with the motorcycle boots and Levi’s, they resembled members of a gang displaying their colors. “Just sayin’… If I can’t have sex, neither can you.” Harley threw himself on the bed and scooted back to sit with his shoulders against the headboard. “I’m so glad to be off the damn interstate for the next few days. I’m looking forward to riding backcountry roads now. That’s almost always where adventure awaits.” “CJ? Who’s this guy? Didn’t we think he was asexual at one point? Chipper said something last night about me acting different, but this is on an entire different level. And now he’s getting philosophical on us too.” Owen rummaged through his bag and retrieved a Dopp kit. “I’m going to wash my face and brush my teeth. We can head out any time after that.” “I’ll do the same after you’re done.” CJ moved the bags and helmets to the chairs next to the room’s small table and replicated Haley’s position on the bed. “As for Harley, I think Kim’s been a bad influence on him.” “You better be nice to her, CJ. I’m not like Thiago or Chipper, who’ll have sex with anyone. We’re talking about the woman I’m gonna marry.” CJ’s jaw dropped at the announcement. He and Owen liked the girl and knew Harley was happy with her. Marriage was something new. “We better be invited to the wedding!” It was the best he could muster. Details could wait as far as he was concerned. They had a few days together ahead, and he planned to squeeze every scrap of information possible out of his bestie. The ride north from Weirs Beach Motel and Cottages to Laconia Harley-Davidson took ten minutes, and CJ marveled at the number of motorcycles already on the road. If this was what the first day of Laconia Motorcycle Week was like, he suspected by the time it ended on Father’s Day it would be much more crowded. It reminded him of the throngs in Daytona Beach except for not seeing too many riders in shorts and flips. He still had no idea how those people could shift gears wearing plastic sandals. A carnival atmosphere greeted them when they slowed down in front of the dealership. White tents obscured most of the paved space in front, and an attendant wearing neon-lime bib overalls directed new arrivals to a temporary parking area on the grassy lot behind the building. CJ caught glimpses of a band stage underneath the largest canvas awning. A pin-striper worked on a shiny, blue Tri Glide beneath a smaller one, and a tattoo artist was inking a man’s calf in another. “Where to, Harley?” “Inside. I texted Keith before we left the hotel. He’s waiting for us.” “Mate, how do you know this guy?” Owen was the only one who wore a helmet during the ride; he locked it on the engine guard before following the other two men. “I’ve never met him. One of the techs at work knows him and put us in touch. I e-mailed Keith I was coming up with a couple of friends, and he told me to stop by when we got in town.” Keith Askins was several inches shorter than CJ; the three visitors towered over him. The forty-something man’s long, scraggly beard ended halfway down his chest and his arms showed multiple grease-streaked tattoos. He resembled the stereotypical biker. Glancing at the three of them, he extended a hand. “Which one of you’s Harley?” “That’s me. And these are CJ and Ozzie. Ozzie’s the blonde.” “Nice to meet you, guys. Are you all in the same riding club? Those are nice jackets. Looks like you’re wearing a uniform.” “Nah, except for HOG.” Harley referred to the Harley Owners Group, the club sponsored by the motor company. “But we’ve been friends since high school. CJ and I met ’cause I started talking to him the first day of classes. His dad has a Road Glide and CJ rode behind him that day.” “Cool, so where are you guys staying?” “Over on Weir Beach? I forget the name of the hotel.” “You’re right in the middle of things. That’s where a lot of the events take place.” Keith stepped away from the service counter when a customer approached, and the others fell in step behind him. “What are your plans tonight?” “Nothing so far.” “What with all the bikes in town we’re kinda busy here. This week we always end up wrenching non-stop. I don’t have a lot of time to visit now, but I get off work at six. Let’s meet for a beer at the Broken Spoke right after. You know where you turned onto US-3 on the way here? It’s right there on the corner.” Owen nodded at CJ. “That works. We want to stop at the HOG tent and pick up rally pins. These two got me hooked on the damn things when we went to Daytona last year.” “Cool accent. Where you from?” “Australia. But I’m on my way to becoming a citizen.” “You’ll have to tell me how you ended up around these two when we meet up after work. By the way, you should stop by here every day. We have food, we have music, we have specials, and there’s a bunch of contests and raffles.” Harley stared through the glass windows at the activity outside and spoke without turning. “Is the tat artist any good?” “You wanna get inked?” “Maybe. It’s been a while since my last one. I’m itching for more.” “He’s good. He’s from Boston, and this is the third year he sets up shop here at the dealership. Come on, I’ll introduce you. What about you guys? You want to get a tat?” “Not me. But maybe CJ. He’s got two of them and I know he wants more.” “I’m good for now. You go with him, Harley. Ozzie and I want to buy t-shirts. I need a new pair of motorcycle-cop gloves too. Couldn’t find the left one this morning.” A while later, they rode back to the lakefront headed toward the corporate Harley-Davidson exhibits. At the HOG tent, near the entrance to the Weirs Beach Drive-In, they showed their membership cards and added a new rally pin to their collection. Harley had some from events he attended with his father in the past, while CJ and Owen had them from the 2018 Daytona Bike Week and a couple from Rolling Thunder in Washington. They strolled through the vendor booths, bought pins and patches, and it seemed Harley tried to eat something from every food vendor. At half past six, when Keith walked into the Broken Spoke Saloon they were sitting at a table, beers in hand, waiting for the server to deliver Harley’s hamburger. The next morning, the sky was cloudy, but rain was not in the forecast, and the temperature had risen. All three wore a t-shirt, a hoodie, and their leather vest. CJ and Harley had brought miniature sewing-kits and affixed Laconia 2019 patches on those the previous evening. “If I can have your attention…” The heavyset man with the long, gray hair and beard stood in front of the group of riders flanked by four other men. “My name’s Lucas. I’ll be your road captain this morning.” At least a hundred bikers had gathered in the parking lot anticipating the ride through White Mountain National Forest. “Let’s get through the pre-ride meeting and we’ll hit the road.” Lucas rested a hand on the handlebar of a BMW R1200GS CJ assumed was his ride. “We have a large group, so these guys next to me will all ride sweep.” All five wore, bright-pink bandanas around their necks for easy identification. “How many of you’ve never ridden in a group before? Raise your hands.” A smattering of arms went up, but it seemed most of those present were veterans of riding with others. Lucas previewed their destination and the roads they would be traveling. They would be climbing peaks with an elevation of around 6,000 feet, so he stressed the importance of knowing their motorcycle’s capabilities. “We’ll ride in staggered formation. Keep a bike’s length behind the rider in front of you. Please remember although it’s a group ride, safety’s a personal responsibility. If you encounter any problems, pull to the side of the road. One of the sweeps will stop to help you.” The White Mountain Trail outing lasted slightly over four hours. They traveled a landscape unspoiled by overdevelopment on gently curving roads, enjoying uninterrupted views of mountains, rivers, wetlands, and woodlands. CJ loved these times best; he could turn his mind off, and concentrate on the ride. Or take advantage of the solitude to delve into whatever he had been thinking about last. During one of the stops, the road captain and sweep riders assembled the large group and took pictures with as many phones and cameras as they were handed. CJ, Owen, and Harley asked for one of just the three of them. Owen was the one who voiced what all three were thinking. “This one’s getting framed and will become part of the new gallery wall at the apartment.” The three friends said goodbye to the group when they returned to the staging area and headed toward the Harley-Davidson dealership again. On the way, Harley motioned for a stop at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant. Somebody mentioned they served Thanksgiving dinner year-round, and he claimed he was in the mood for turkey with all the fixings. “This is what I drew last night. What do you think?” Max glanced between the drawing he set atop the tall, tool chest and Harley. He absentmindedly rubbed the intricate dagger inked on his right temple. “I tried to keep it simple. If you end up with a full sleeve, it can be easily incorporated into the design.” “I love it!” Harley resembled a kid with a new toy; his body vibrated with excitement. “What do you guys think?” “I like it! I think I’ve seen that logo before but I can’t remember where.” Owen scratched his head staring at the drawing of a five-point star encased in a circle with five horizontal bars extending to each side. Atop and below, Max had used a military-style, stencil font to write THE SQUAD. “On a bunch of the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling in Ritchie’s room.” CJ had helped his brother build some of those. “That’s the old US Air Force logo. Nice job, Max. You want color, Harley?” “Yeah! It’s going on the left bicep above the Stars and Stripes. Since that one has a lot of red, I think this one should be mostly blue.” “I think I’d want it in just black on me. Since neither one of my other two has color.” CJ chuckled. Max’s grin and shimmering blue eyes were an interesting counterpoint to the shocked expression on Harley and Owen. “What? I’m just thinking about it.” Harley’s energy output may have jumped a little at the comment. “Bruh! That’s frickin’ awesome! We’re gonna have matching ink!” CJ ignored his friend for a moment and glanced at his husband. “Can I, Oz?” The tattoo artist’s confusion became comprehension when Harley said, “They’re married.” “Bloody hell! If you two get that tattoo, the other guys are gonna want to do the same. I’d prefer not to be odd man out. I hate this peer pressure shit, but maybe I need to give in.” Owen shook his head and waved dismissively when CJ and Harley both wrapped an arm around his shoulders and simultaneously yelled, “YEAH!” “Oh, this is gonna be great. It’s like a rite of passage, Oz. When can you fit me and Ozzie in, dude?” CJ rubbed his hands together in anticipation and glee. Max glanced at a piece of paper taped to the side of the tool cart holding inks and other supplies. “Late tonight or this time tomorrow. Since most people go out riding in the early morning, I open up right before lunchtime. I have three other appointments coming in right after this one, and one of them’s a big back job.” “How about tomorrow? I’d rather get you while you’re fresh instead of worn out from going at it all day. One thing, though. We need a hard copy of the drawing you use to create the stencil. There’s a few more members to our little group who may want to get the same thing done. I know for sure my brother’s gonna want it. He’s been bugging our parents about getting inked.” “Not a problem. I’ll make a copy right now and put it in an envelope for you. I’ll include a card for our shop in Boston. In case any of your friends live in the area.” “Actually…” CJ and Owen didn’t have a strict schedule to adhere to for the remainder of their trip. This being the last summer both would have a large chunk of free time, they wanted to travel as much as possible. “Most of us are in the Washington, D.C. area, but one friend goes to Boston University. Oz, what do you think about stopping on the way back and spending a night with Patrick? Maybe we could have dinner with him, Mac, and Hilary.” CJ was the drunkest of the three late that evening when they left the bar. Keith and a couple other techs from the dealership had joined them with their girlfriends or wives. The raucous evening ended when Owen dragged his husband out after CJ bought a round of tequila shots for the entire establishment. Owen told Harley he could not wait for the next morning when CJ realized what the bill was for that stunt. “Fuck the government and fuck the State Department. The day I become emperor, pot’s gonna be legal all over. Fucking Neanderthals and their Victorian attitudes.” CJ’s tirade was more grunted than spoken. “Hell, it would do some of those uptight assholes a ton of good to get stoned now and then. This is why I hate drinking. I’m in pain. I need Advil.” He grumbled all the way to the bathroom. Eventually, they rode to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, ran into people they met the previous day, and immersed themselves in the spectacle of vintage motorcycle races. Having Harley with them meant they had their own commentator. How his friend was able to retain so much information about so many different motorcycles never failed to amaze CJ. The afternoon they spent at the Harley-Davidson dealership once again. Owen stuck by his husband’s side when Max inked CJ, while Harley stepped in and out of the tent. Each time he returned, he shared his most recent conversation or discovery. He spent time inside chatting with dealership staff, or outside admiring motorcycles and discussing them with their owners. After the excruciating pain of the intricate design on his hip six months before, the current session under the needle produced nothing more than slight discomfort. Although no longer in agony, the hangover lethargy led to CJ dozing off while being worked on. Owen, on the other hand, groaned and grimaced when it was his turn. “I swear this is my one and only. I don’t care how many you and Harley get. It hurts!” “Pussy!” CJ’s comment earned him a middle finger. Returning to the Broken Spoke Saloon was out of the question. CJ refused to set foot in the place again. Instead, they ended up at a smaller bar by the shore of Meredith Bay, had dinner, a few cocktails listening to a blues band, and talked to people from so many different states they lost track of the number. Their final day in Laconia they rode around the countryside on their own, stopped at the dealership to say goodbye to Keith and Max, and ended up back at the motel as the sun began to set. While locking their bikes, someone they had exchanged pleasantries with earlier in the day stopped to invite them to an impromptu party around the pool. “We tapped a keg, we have tunes, and the pool’s heated. Drop your shit in your room, put on a bathing suit or shorts, and come join us. We’re just chillaxing.” “Yeah… No.” CJ shivered at the thought of going swimming in fifty-degree weather. “You’re not getting my ass in the pool when it’s this cold. I’m a Floridian. But we’ll come hang. Thanks, bro.” One of their stops earlier in the day, at Owen’s request, was at Hermit Woods Winery. The tasting room was where CJ and Owen hung out, while Harley stuffed his face at the deli. They purchased an assortment of wines and had them shipped. A bottle of their 2016 Heirloom Crabapple found its way into a saddlebag. They carried it with them to the pool area as a contribution to the party. Owen liked the medium-sweet, tangy wine made from Dolgo crabapples, and mentioned it would pair well with the spicy foods they liked. Plastic cups in hand, CJ and Owen sat on a wooden bench watching the cavorting in and around the pool. “Why is it most of these bikers have such long, scraggly beards?” Owen ran a hand over his unshaved face. He had tried cultivating a goatee several times, but the growth was slow and sparse; he always shaved it off a fortnight after. “Don’t be jealous, Oz. Just ’cause you can’t grow one. Hell, Harley can’t either. I think that’s why he’s letting his hair grow. If he can’t braid a beard, he’ll prolly settle for braiding a ponytail. Haven’t you noticed how many of these men have them?” “As long as he doesn’t start going around with a man bun. Those things are hideous. There were so many of them at PRIME I was ready to start amputating.” “Ozzie! You’re being judgmental!” CJ chuckled when Owen looked startled. “So unlike you. And I don’t know about man buns. Some guys look hot with them.” He moved his head closer to his husband’s and lowered his voice. “What I don’t get is why most of the women hanging around these bikers are so skanky.” “Who’s being judgmental now?” “Fine! We’re both judgmental assholes. Oh, shit. Don’t look now but here comes Harley and he looks pissed off. What’s up with all these changes in him? The jokes about butt-fucking, the marriage thing, the philosophical observations…” “Our kid’s growing up, CJ. It’s called maturing.” Owen shifted his attention to Harley when the man sat on the lounge chaise next to their table and grunted. “Hey, mate. What’s going on?” Harley raised his head but instead of saying anything, he glared in the direction he had come from. When CJ looked, Nolan, the guy who had invited them to the party was walking in their direction, a beer in each hand. “Brought you a fresh one, Harley. Since you left the other one behind.” He sat on the edge of the seat and shifted his attention to CJ and Owen. “Hey, guys. Sorry about what that bitch said. She’s not part of our group, so we asked her to leave.” CJ felt as confused as Owen looked. “What are you talking about?” “Harley didn’t tell you?” “I didn’t get a chance.” Harley sipped from the beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Thanks for the beer. The chick he’s talking about made a homophobic comment. When I told her I didn’t like that, and that my two best friends were gay, she went nuts. She looked at the two of you, called you faggots, and said she hoped you’d get AIDS. I told her to go fuck herself with the hot end of a tailpipe and left.” Harley shook his head and took another sip of beer. “Damn, I wish I had a joint.” “You guys smoke?” Nolan smiled for the first time since joining them. “I’ve got some primo stuff. Let me go roll a couple of Js.” “Hold off.” CJ raised a hand to stop the man. “Just take care of Harley. I can’t do it anymore because of a job I’m applying for. Ozzie was never a big smoker, so he gave it up with me.” Nolan stared at Owen and his smile grew. “Dude, you’re a better man than I am. That’s love. I’m not sure I’d give weed up for my wife. Listen, my apologies again. Don’t let a drunken cunt ruin the night for you. Most bikers don’t give a shit who you sleep with as long as you’re cool. I know none of us traveling together do. I’ll be right back.” “See that?” Harley beamed, and CJ was unsure if it was due to the apology or to the prospect of getting high. “That’s what real bikers are like, bruh. Nobody cares what you do in private. Live and let live.”
  26. 71 points
    For a friend with an understanding heart is worth no less than a brother. Homer - The Odyssey On Saturday, July 7, 2018, Richard Leonard Peterson turned sixteen. Claiming CJ and Owen’s wedding two weeks before was enough of a celebration to last him a while, Ritchie asked there be no big party to celebrate. Now that he was old enough, he was more interested in getting ready for his maiden solo flight as a student pilot on Monday. “So Ozzie and I have kind of a present for you.” César Marcos Abelló, Jr. was in the kitchen of the old Georgetown Theatre apartment he and Owen Zachary Liston moved into the week before their wedding. While his brother sat on a stool watching, CJ whisked batter in a stainless steel bowl for the Elvis pancakes Ritchie always enjoyed. Breakfast was CJ’s favorite meal of the day, and he liked cooking the peanut butter and bananas concoction for others. “It’s not like a real pressie, mate. More like a long-term loan.” The blond, Australian-born surfer grinned at his brother-in-law. The newlyweds had taken the kid to dinner the previous evening and then to a late showing of the new Jurassic Park movie. They had invited him to spend the night in the guest room. Ten years younger than Owen—with CJ in the middle of the age span—the teen spent as much time with his peers as with the couple’s older group of friends. Still a kid in many ways, Ritchie’s comportment molded itself to the age bracket of whoever his companions were at the time. “I don’t need a present from you guys. You do enough for me already. Plus, with all the grandparents still in town, and Aba and Abuela cooking dinner for us tonight, I’m sure I’ll get something from them and the dads.” Ritchie paused as his lips twisted into an evil grin. “Although I’ll take Gal Gadot’s phone number. I’m sure you and Ozzie got it.” They met the Israeli actress during the filming of the second Wonder Woman movie; several scenes shot along the street in front of their apartment used the neon GEORGETOWN sign out front as a backdrop. Owen tried to suppress a chuckle but failed. He and CJ had discussed how the horny boy had become a horny teen right before their eyes. He still tried to emulate his older brother, but was not as outgoing as CJ around strangers. “Sorry, mate. We didn’t bother. Your brother and I were more interested in meeting Chris Pine.” CJ turned on the stove to heat the griddle pan, and retrieved a small, gift-wrapped box from the pocket of the apron he wore over boxers. “Too bad. You’re still getting a semi-present. Happy birthday, bro.” Ritchie took the package and ripped off the wrapping. He may have not wanted a present, but his expression showed delight. “A key?” Recognition made his jaw drop. “Defiant? You’re giving me Defiant as a present?” The kid jumped off the stool and wrapped his arms first around Owen and then his brother. “Fucking A! This is awesome. You’re still taking me to get my license, right? And I can drive it home afterward?” “Yes… And maybe.” CJ chuckled at his brother’s somewhat confused look. “We’ll go get your license Tuesday after you do your solo flight on Monday. If you pass the test, you can drive it home.” Owen waited until the teen calmed down before breaking the news. “Hey! Remember I said it’s not a real present. Consider it a loan without a firm due date.” “What do you mean?” Without doubt, confusion was Ritchie’s expression of the day. “That sounds like legal double-talk. Can’t you forget you’re an attorney for a bit and speak plain English?” “Asshole! Ozzie means we want the Jeep back when you get tired of it or buy something else.” “How come?” CJ’s chuckling intensified when he noticed Owen roll his eyes. “There’s a short story I read online a while back. Melvyn Ford. This great author I really, really like wrote it. It’s what gave me the idea. Ozzie thinks I’m nuts but what the heck. “Anyway, the story’s about a Ford bought by a man in the late 1920s. His young son named the car, Melvyn. When his father died in the war, he inherited it. The car gets passed down through generations, and I want to pass Defiant on to our first kid when he or she’s old enough to drive.” “And I keep telling him he’s nuts. By then all cars will be electric. If we even have cars by then. But it’s a nice thought, so I’m going along for the ride.” Owen’s smirk earned him a stuck-out-tongue from CJ. “I love you guys! I promise I’ll take good care of it. But I’m changing the spare tire cover. I want an Air Force one instead of the Marine Corps one you have on it.” A month after the wedding and their honeymoon trip to California, CJ and Owen were once again in an airplane. They did not travel alone. Strong fuselage vibrations accompanied the landing gear’s noisy deployment as the plane approached Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. Lightning flashed outside the aircraft and lit the cabin’s interior making a startled Owen peel his face away from the window. The raging storm had been with them for the past thirty minutes or so, and did not show signs of abating. The tires made contact with the runway’s surface for a moment before the Boeing 737 lurched, and began rising again. “Bloody hell!” Owen’s curse was not loud enough to hear above the rattling, except by those next to him. “Relax.” Ritchie patted his brother-in-law’s thigh in a comforting way. “The pilot’s pulling up and going around for another attempt. I thought he was coming in a little fast and in this weather—” “Listen to you!” CJ leaned across the aisle and gave his brother a punch in the arm. “You’re not even licensed yet and you’re critiquing the pilot’s performance?” Sitting next to him, Harley chuckled. “Bruh, I can’t fricking wait ’til he’s a pilot. He can fly us all over in his own plane.” Although CJ’s affection for the group of friends his brother nicknamed The Squad was equal, his fondness for Harley Oshkosh Wilkinson was a tad more pronounced. The dark haired man was the first fellow student he met at School Without Walls High School. “Don’t hold your breath, bud. The dads discussed buying or leasing a plane before. I don’t think they’re interested. Some of that’s prolly because Papa Brett’s parents died in a small plane crash.” CJ recalled the conversation they had about airplanes the first time he flew to Miami with his fathers. He had come a long way from the brash boy who challenged his mother after she stood by when her husband threw him out of their home. The best thing ever to happen to him as far as he was concerned. Even if he could not see it at the time. A syzygy of events found the newlyweds and their companions traveling to Wisconsin at a time CJ and Owen thought they would spend most of the summer’s remainder getting used to living on their own. CJ had two years left at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Owen, already a graduate of the University of Sydney and the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, would enter his final year at George Washington University in the fall pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. Their life was not typical for men as young as they were. Family wealth allowed them to travel frequently, and they grasped every opportunity to do so. The Wilkinson family’s gift of an engraved rivet from the Harley-Davidson Museum left the twosome yearning to see it and touch it. Harley revealed his mother and father hesitated after he suggested it as a wedding present from all of them, and it took a call from Mr. Wilkinson to César and Brett to convince them. CJ’s fathers thought it a great idea. Borrowing the concept from people he watched tracing the engraved names of loved ones at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Owen visited an art supply store prior to leaving Washington. He left armed with a pad of archival quality paper and several charcoal sticks. “Photos will be great. However, I think this would be more organic. For lack of a better word.” Owen’s explanation satisfied CJ’s curiosity as his husband packed the supplies in his backpack. “If they turn out the way I think they will, we can frame one together with a picture of the rivet.” Having flown overnight after their time in California, CJ and Owen arrived in Washington early in the morning. On the way home from the airport, they texted the family to let them know of their return and promised to come for dinner that night. Within a half hour, Ritchie was at their door, his skateboard held with one hand, his panting dog’s leash with the other. Wingnut made himself at home, curling up on the floor by the large front window after lapping up the water Owen laid out for him. “So how was it?” Ritchie poured a mug of coffee, doctored it with an inordinate amount of milk and sugar, and watched as CJ and Owen emptied their luggage and sorted laundry into piles. “Mate, it was fantastic.” Owen rummaged through his backpack, looking for a trinket they had bought for the youngster. “You would have loved the balloon flight.” CJ opened the door to the closet with the washing machine and dryer stack, and started throwing clothes in. “What have you been up to, little brother?” “Not a lot. I’m looking forward to my solo flight and my driver’s test. I’ve been studying for them a lot. And I got to hang out with Lucy and some of her friends at the mall one day before she left town.” Ritchie and Lucy Wilkinson had known each other for a few years. Spending time together was inevitable since their older brothers were best friends. Over the past months, their relationship had grown. While Ritchie attended the private Sidwell Friends School, Lucy was a student at the same charter school from which her brother and CJ graduated. Both pestered their siblings to take them along when they visited each other, and Lucy was always invited to any gathering organized at the Prospect Street town house. During CJ and Owen’s wedding reception, Ritchie asked Lucy to be his girlfriend; she said yes and invited him to spend part of the summer at the dairy farm owned by her grandparents in Wisconsin. The evolution of the friendship did not surprise anyone. Ripple Farm was where Harley, Lucy, and their younger sister Charlotte spent summer vacations since the family moved to Washington. Following the invitation, the parents conferred once again and consented to the visit. The timing was set to coincide with the annual, world-famous Oshkosh Air Show after Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson found out Ritchie was taking flying lessons. Harley’s presence on the flight was due to his job’s start date. He had several employment offers when he completed his motorcycle technician training, but all were in Florida and Georgia. Returning to Washington, he approached the Harley-Davidson dealerships in the area and was able to land a position at the one in Fairfax, Virginia. His dad’s friendship with the general manager helped ease his way in. The caveat was the position was not open until September, when one of their current techs would be retiring. Since he had three months of leisure ahead, Harley decided to accompany his friends and visit his grandparents. “Slow down, CJ. It’s bucketing out there. I’m struggling to see out.” Rain still fell when they landed, retrieved their luggage, and collected the rental car. They reserved a convertible as they had in California, but the inclement weather precluded lowering the top. Or allowing Ritchie to put his learner’s permit to use. CJ was behind the wheel with Owen in the passenger seat, both trying to decipher street signs, afraid of missing a turn on the way to the hotel. Harley guided them, but the driver still had to ensure they took the correct road. “We’re gonna get so fucking soaked when we get out of the car.” CJ squinted as the windshield fogged. “Oz, give me something to wipe the inside of the glass with. I can’t see shit right now.” “Here, use my t-shirt.” Ritchie slipped it off and handed it to his brother. “The weather better get better or the air show’s gonna suck.” “Bruh!” Harley’s exclamation made CJ tear his eyes away from the road for a moment and glance in the rearview mirror. His friend was staring at his brother and not at him. “You been lifting? You’re getting some muscles on you.” “Yeah… The dads gave me a membership to the gym at GU as one of my Christmas presents last year. I’ve been trying to go a few times a week after school. And since classes ended, I’ve been there in the mornings almost every day.” The Iron Horse Hotel had a canopy above the main entrance; it protected them and their luggage from the downpour once they arrived. The car came to a stop under it and Owen sent Harley inside to borrow an umbrella; CJ used it to keep dry as he sprinted back after parking the Mustang. “Welcome back to Milwaukee and the Iron Horse, Mr. Abelló.” The man behind the registration desk glanced up from the computer screen as he slid CJ’s credit card and driver’s license back across the polished surface. “I’m sorry the weather’s lousy today. The forecast calls for less rain this coming week. You should be able to enjoy our city without getting soaked.” Ritchie stared at him and smirked. “So, do you know my brother too? Or is this like when we went to Australia and the hotel had records of him staying there before?” “The latter, young man.” The hotel employee’s benevolent smile was infectious; CJ and Owen looked at each other and grinned. “The Iron Horse values returning guests. The system flagged your brother’s reservation showing he stayed with us four years ago. A Mr. Wilkinson accompanied him at the time. Is that you?” he asked Owen. Owen did not get a chance to reply. “Nah. I’m Harley Wilkinson. The blonde dude’s Owen. He’s CJ’s husband.” Conditions improved by the following morning. Graphite clouds prevented sunshine from reaching them, but a light drizzle replaced the previous day’s sheets of rain. “Let’s go find our rivet on the wall first.” CJ led the way as they walked across the grassy fields separating the hotel from the Harley-Davidson Museum; he had contacted them prior to the trip to ascertain it was installed and the exact location. “We’ll have time to take pictures before we catch the bus to the factory.” Harley had toured the Pilgrim Road Powertrain Operations facility in Menomonee Falls several times. He and CJ visited it during their previous trip to Milwaukee, but it was a new experience for Owen and Ritchie. Both raved about it and about the time spent browsing through the museum afterward. Lined up three wide and nose-to-tail, the Motorcycle Gallery featured a different bike for each model year, with those from the late 1940s to the present displayed on the main floor. All four men posed for pictures next to the bike representing their year of birth. “Bruh, you decide yet what model you want when you get one?” Harley had promised Ritchie the opportunity to learn how to ride a motorcycle while on the farm—much the same as he did with CJ. The kid shook his head gazing up at the taller man. “Nah… I wanna learn how to ride and get the motorcycle endorsement, but I don’t think I’ll get one for a long time.” “Hey! CJ got his when he graduated from high school. Maybe your dads will get you one then too.” “We’ll see… If I get into the Air Force Academy, it’d be a waste. You’re not allowed to have a vehicle until you become a C2C.” Owen grinned and slapped Harley’s back. “Don’t look so confused, mate. A C2C’s a Cadet Second Class. It’s what we call juniors in the real world.” “Hey!” Ritchie looked aggrieved. “The Academy’s the real world too.” “How do you know all this?” Harley appeared even more confused. As often happened with the group, CJ thought he would have the last word. “Because my brother’s memorized the rules already. He’s not even accepted and he already knows what’s expected of new cadets. Of course, that means the dads, Ozzie, and I have to listen to him talk about this stuff all the time. You have no idea how boring it can be.” The playful tone did not deter Ritchie from flashing him the finger. “No worse than all those architectural lessons.” Unlike his usual approach to mornings, CJ dawdled over coffee the next day. Ritchie was impatient, inquiring about the delay until his brother mentioned he wanted to make a stop at the Milwaukee Art Museum to check out the building before heading north. “Why do we have to wait? The weather’s nice. We can even put the top down if you want me to drive by it on the way to Oshkosh.” “You drive by it?” CJ gave his brother a doubtful stare. “And what makes you think we’ll let you drive? Anyway, that’s not it, bro. You remember the last time we watched the Transformer movies? In the third one, I told you the house the bad guy lived in was a museum in real life.” “Oh, yeah! Is this the one?” “Yep. The building’s a masterpiece by Santiago Calatrava. That’s the Spaniard who also designed the new, ground-zero station back in New York. This one has the same metal ribs but they move. They look like wings and I want to see them spread open again. That happens at ten. We’ll take pictures and we’ll be on our way. Maybe take a short video to post on YouTube later. The drive to Oshkosh’s less than two hours. We’ll be there around lunch.” A barking black and brown monster pushed the screen door open and ran at them as Ritchie turned off the car’s engine. It vaulted over the side, landed atop Harley, and tried to eat the man’s face. “Get off me, you mutt. Get off me!” Ritchie and Owen had never met the Rottweiler; they exited the car and kept their distance while laughing. CJ knew the pooch was a friendly brute not worth fearing. “Come on, Jerry, get off him. Come on, boy. Let’s get you a treat.” Treat was the magic word; the dog turned his head toward the man calling him and jumped out. “Meet Jerry Garcia, guys. He may look mean but he’s a”—CJ was about to say pussy but changed his mind when he saw Harley’s sisters approach them—“sweetheart. Really! Hi, Lucy. Hi, Charlotte.” “Hello…” Lucy Wilkinson waved and smiled at them but her gaze remained fixed on CJ’s younger brother. “Hi, Ritchie. Welcome to Ripple.” Her grandparents were Grateful Dead fans and named the dairy after one of the band’s songs. “I’m glad you’re here.” CJ leaned over the side of the car and whispered to Harley still inside. “Dude. Whiskey, tango, foxtrot. She didn’t even look at us and she’s already flirting with my brother.” “Whatever. Who cares? I’m not getting involved in my sister’s life. Ever! Let’s get inside and find out what’s for lunch. We can get the luggage later. Oh, and I figure afterward, we can give Ritchie and Owen a tour of the milking room. Maybe we’ll take the ATVs out and ride through the pasture. It’s getting dark later, so we have plenty of time. Since Ritchie’s staying another week after you return to DC, I’ll put him on a scooter then. I think he’s sharing a room with me so you and Owen can have your own. At least that’s what Grandma told me they were doing. Oh, and you’ll get to meet my aunt this trip. She said…” CJ shook his head, smirked, and approached the two girls, intent on hugging them as a proper greeting. Harley was still talking when they entered the large farmhouse. The Oshkosh Air Show was an annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts held each summer at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Thousands of aircraft, hundreds of thousands of visitors, and a multitude of exhibitors created the perfect atmosphere for anyone infatuated with flying. The largest gathering of its kind in the world made the airport's control tower the busiest on the planet during the week of the show. This was Ritchie’s candy shop; he seemed unable to decide where to look. The grin plastered on his face left no doubt he was thrilled. “Can we check out some of the planes first? We have a couple of hours before the T’birds go up.” The Thunderbirds—the United States Air Force flight demonstration squadron—was based out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada but toured the country, performing aerobatic formations and solo flying stunts. Their aerial, death-defying configurations elicited gasps and cheers from spectators. CJ had seen them before and eagerly anticipated the day’s flights. “Whatever you want, bro. This is your birthday trip. You call the shots, we’ll tag along. If we get bored, we’ll let you know.” Later in the day, CJ elbowed Owen while they strolled through the exhibitions by flight-related companies. “Hey, check that out. You wanna try it?” Owen looked doubtful. “I don’t know, CJ. It seems dangerous.” “Oh, come on. Don’t be a pussy.” “Asshole. Don’t try and goad me. You know that works with the others but not with me.” Owen shook his head and grinned. “Fine, I’ll do it. What about your brother and the rest of them?” “Let’s check at the booth. But I think I read somewhere you have to be eighteen to do it.” “You’ve thought about this before?” “A long time ago. It was something I wanted to do, so I looked into it.” CJ, Owen, Ritchie, and Lucy returned the following day while Harley and Charlotte remained at the farm. When Harley’s father first suggested the trip, Ritchie went online and joined the airshow’s sponsoring organization so he could take advantage of certain events. He booked himself seats for a ride on a Ford Tri-Motor. Lucy held Ritchie’s hand as they walked through the airfield. “So there’s one of these planes at the Air and Space Museum back home?” The girl hung to Ritchie’s arm and stared at his face with adoration, paying attention to every word he said. “Yeah! Wait until you see it. It’s such a cool plane. They built them for just a few years ending in the early 1930s.” The kid turned his head and spoke to his brother and brother-in-law who followed close behind. “I’m sorry I only bought the two seats and you guys can’t ride with. I didn’t know you were coming on the trip. And it was all sold out when I tried to get more.” “It’s okay, mate. Your brother and I will entertain ourselves while the two of you go up.” Owen’s disappointed expression became Machiavellian. “But you better remember this next time CJ and I do something you don’t get to join in.” While the young couple walked ahead holding hands, Owen sang softly. “Watching every motion, in my foolish lover’s—” “Really, Oz?” CJ chuckled while shoulder bumping his husband. “The theme from Top Gun?” “Mate, how many times have we sat through the damn movie with your brother? I have the soundtrack and chunks of dialogue memorized by now. And you have to admit they look cute together. All lovey-dovey and stuff. We were never like that.” “Yeah, well, I think the movie’s opening song might be more appropriate. I still shake my head he likes that flick so much. After all, it’s about Navy pilots, not Air Force ones. I see how he struts around, all confident and shit, and all I hear is Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone instead.” CJ and Owen had slowed down, allowing a little distance to form between them and the younger couple. “Can you believe how much he’s grown in the past year? He’s just a couple of inches shorter than me now.” “You think he’s going to get any taller?” “Not sure about that. He’s about the same height his father was.” CJ tried not to think too much about his deceased stepfather. The man had thrown him out of his home when he found out CJ was gay. “Oh, and as for us never being that lovey-dovey, you know I’m not into the mushy stuff. Plus, we were older when we met.” CJ stared at the ground as he put one foot in front of the other. He sounded apologetic. “And I had my head stuck up my ass at first.” “That, you definitely did. I was older, but you were the same age he is now. At least you came to your senses and realized I was a good catch.” This time, Owen initiated the shoulder bump. “Asshole! I hate it when you’re right.” Later that night, the visitors sat around the large farm table with their hosts. Wade Wilkinson, Harley’s grandfather, served dessert while his wife, Vanessa, brought out a bottle of wine. “I thought you might like to sample one of our local wines, Owen.” “Definitely. I’m always interested in tasting new ones.” CJ watched while the woman poured a small amount of Door Peninsula blackberry wine into clear, juice glasses. He hesitated, wet his lips, and tried not to make a face after the first taste. “Blackberries…” Owen swirled the dark liquid and took a second sip. “Very sweet. This is a dessert wine for sure.” CJ was surprised when his husband helped himself to more; this was not even close to their usual fare and he wondered if Owen was simply being polite. “It’s not what we drink most of the time, but it goes well with the blackberry pie.” Owen forked another chunk of dessert in his mouth. “This is very good, Wade. I love that you used the fruit your granddaughters picked yesterday to bake it.” After a couple of days spent around the farm and its surroundings, the four males in the group were back at the show on Saturday morning and Ritchie was not happy. “I hate you right now. Both of you. You too, Harley. This isn’t fair.” While CJ and Harley laughed, Owen attempted to placate the kid. “I told you not to complain when you rode that plane and we couldn’t, mate. And that was because you thought exclusively of yourself and your girlfriend when you bought tickets. You didn’t think of anyone else. This isn’t our doing. You have to be eighteen.” The Aussie sneaked in the dig about the plane ride tickets seamlessly. “I did think of you! But I was too late. It’s still not fair. And why couldn’t Lucy come with us?” “Bruh, she wanted to stay behind. This is CJ and Owen’s last day here and she wanted to help fix tonight’s dinner. I can’t wait!” Leave it to Harley to enthuse about food before embarking on a dangerous adventure. “Fine. But I ain’t sitting around all day waiting for you. I’m gonna go find me some planes I can explore.” CJ stopped his brother with a hand on the shoulder before Ritchie could wander away. “Try not to get into trouble, okay? You need money?” “Nah, I still have most of the cash I came here with. And I have my new credit card just in case.” He glanced at his companions for a moment. “Do you guys want me to buy you show t-shirts?” “I’m good.” Harley seldom wore non-motorcycle inspired garments. “Get one for us.” Owen unsnapped the leather wristband he used as a wallet and took a fifty out of the zippered compartment. “Here’s some money anyway. CJ and I can share t-shirts so one will be enough.” The training, admittedly advertised as brief, lasted less than five minutes. Then the waiting began. “You do realize it’s just string that’s gonna keep us from crashing to the ground at terminal velocity, right? Whatever that speed is.” Although he had agreed to do it, Owen continued to sound hesitant. “Bruh, I’m so glad you thought of me. This is gonna be sick. Don’t worry, Ozzie. I’m sure the guy jumping with you wants to live, so he’ll make sure you do too.” “Buk, buk, buk… Chicken!” CJ had relentlessly tormented his husband since signing up. “What the hell are you so worried about? We’ve climbed the Harbour Bridge and you weren’t scared then.” “Not the same, mate. That was a few hundred feet. This is thousands. Not to mention on the bridge we were attached to the railing. Why am I jumping out of a plane again?” “Because you love me, you trust me, and you know it’s going to be insane. One thing bothering me is the harness attaching us to our jump partner. Did you hear that guy say how his nuts hurt like a mother the first time he jumped? Oh, and these outfits are dorky as fuck.” They were advised to wear sneakers, comfortable shorts for ease of movement, and a not-too-loose shirt. After signing the final waiver—which Owen pointed out described death-by-falling too many damn times in too many different ways—they were issued jump suits with a wild orange print over a dark shade of blue. Told the attire would help with drag while falling, CJ thought it was an excuse to share pictures of the jumpers looking like fashion victims. The roar of the airplane’s engine and the wind blowing through the open door made conversation nearly unfeasible once they took off. Owen remained apprehensive, Harley could not sit still, and CJ smiled at both of them. He was ready for the new experience, and ready to tick off one more item off his bucket list. “Bend your knees.” The shout from the instructor attached to his back was almost impossible to hear over the ambient noise. The man adjusted the straps connecting them so tight CJ thought he was about to lose circulation to his legs. He folded his arms across his chest and prepared himself to jump while giving his companions a thumbs-up, Owen and Harley would follow him. “Don’t forget to smile for the camera,” the man shouted as he pushed them out the opening. The photographer hung halfway out the door and then he was out of sight. CJ’s lips curled back and he was uncertain if it was because of the wind or because of the elation. Aware there were sixty seconds of free-fall before deployment, he extended his arms as if about to be crucified, and glanced downward. He knew he was falling but that was not what it felt like. The impression was he was floating still and the ground was moving upwards, trying to collide with him. The wind buffeting the falling pair and the snapping of the jumpsuit’s fabric added to the sensory overload. A peek upwards told him his husband and best friend were out of the plane and plunging to certain death if the parachutes failed to deploy. Too soon for his taste, it was over. The instructor did whatever he was meant to do, the fabric canopy deployed, there was a sudden jerk upwards, and they were gently floating toward the touchdown zone. “FUCKING AWESOME!” CJ shouted as loud as he could; all he heard was the wind rushing over him. He did little to land; the instructor brought them down and after a couple of steps and a short slide, they stood and disengaged from each other. CJ ripped the goggles off, shielded his eyes against the sun with his hand, and stared upwards. Harley landed a few dozen feet away; his goofy grin hinted at how much he enjoyed the experience. CJ shifted his attention to Owen. The instructor appeared to stumble. Instead of taking a few running steps, he came to a sudden stop. Owen put his hands out to break the fall as his diving companion pushed him toward the ground and landed atop him with a thud. They rolled on the field for a moment and then remained still while the parachute floated and settled over them. “FUCK! Fuck! Fuck.” CJ ran to his husband, the other instructors and Harley followed a few steps behind. The parachute covered both men and CJ ignored the admonition to stay away and let company personnel handle it. He pulled at the material until the two men were visible. “Ozzie? OZZIE!”
  27. 70 points
    One ice cold pint of Skol down, and the shock of their usually sedate meeting had begun to lose its potency for Nathan. Sat on high bar stools in one of the town’s two local pubs—The Crumbington Arms—they’d carefully dissected the events of the evening. Usually Mikey would join them, but apparently, according to Father Mulligan, he and the wife were at some butcher’s function or another that night, which explained Mikey’s absence. “Lady Gaga.” Nathan giggled again, like a school kid. “I nearly fell off my seat. Good job I managed to keep my Poker Face. You certainly know how to wind Arlene up.” “What can I say? I was Born This Way! Seriously though, me and her are going to fall out in a big way before the day comes. She’s so damned competitive.” “Lady Gaga?” “No, smartass. Lady Muck. Arlene.” “Why do you do it, then? Volunteer?” “You know why. Because our Head thinks the school should be involved. And it means I can do things outside the school grounds without other teachers involved, without their petty politics and bickering. And, most importantly of all, I get to hang out with the coolest baker in Crumbington.” Nathan rolled his eyes. In front of people, she often referred to him as the coolest baker in the village, knowing full well he was the only one. “Fair enough. So who are you going to persuade to sit in the ducking stool?” “Off the top of my head? I have a list of favourites, but none of them would agree.” “Then you need to come up with a strategy. Get some of the kids on side. Or the parents. Amazing how a little cajoling from the right, influential, resourceful, school-supporting parent can make things happen. Didn’t you once tell me that?” “Actually that’s not a bad idea.” Right then her phone vibrated and shuffled across the table top. “Oh, shit, hang on a sec, I need to take this.” When she wandered off, Nathan looked around the little local. The place had been built in the seventeenth century and had benefited from a scant few modernisations and paint jobs along the way. The flooring was still uneven in places—not so great if a person had consumed one too many; the toilets stood out the back in a lean-to kind of shed, fine in summer but not in January, when a quick pee could end in frost bite. But apart from that, especially in winter with no tourists around, the place with its threadbare carpets and worn chesterfield sofas felt like a second home. Most of the locals seated at the bar, all retired residents of Crumbington, he knew by name. Having Polly and Nathan in the place brought the average age down by a decade or two. The landlord and his wife had run the pub for over fifteen years, and before that had owned a small cafe on the high street. Nathan noticed Polly frowning down at her phone, before shaking her head gently and heading back to him. “Missed his message. My cousin’s just arrived. Dad’s brother’s kid. Two bloody hours late, true to form. My aunt—his mother—asked if he could sleep on my couch while he sorts himself out a place, hopefully no more than a week or so. Family can be a pain in the bum. Do you mind if he joins? Otherwise, I’ll need to head home and let him in.” Funnily enough, Nathan did mind, but said nothing. He enjoyed having Polly to himself. When Mikey joined them, he tended to monopolise the conversation, either wanting to talk about his kids, football, or gripe about customers, suppliers, prices, or another new hypermarket opening within driving distance of their village and trying to steal his butcher’s shop livelihood. Hopefully the cousin was a listener. “Of course. Didn’t even know you had any cousins. He’s a kid?” “A big kid, yeah. A thirty-one year old child called Jaymes. Whatever you do, don’t call him Jim, he hates that. He’s down from North Wales. And he spends a lot of time out of the country, that’s why I’ve never mentioned him. Always getting me into trouble when we were young.” “I’m sure he was,” said Nathan, not believing a word of the last statement. Polly needed no encouraging where trouble was concerned. “Must be a family trait. So what’s brought him down here?” “Something to do with meeting people in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t really paying attention.” About to take a drink of her gin and tonic, a huge smile blossomed on her face. “So are we going to talk about the elephant in the room? Clifton?” Nathan’s face fell. He put down his fresh pint and licked his lips nervously. “Oh, come on, Nathan. It was like—what—fifteen years ago?” “Ten. We were both eighteen when he fell off the face of the planet.” People disappearing from his life felt like a curse. His mother leaving when he was ten, Clifton when he was eighteen, his father passing away five years ago and effectively chaining him to the family business. And although losing his mother and father had hurt, he had been in love with Clifton, and his desertion had scarred him deeply. “Maybe you’ll finally find out why. You were best mates, weren’t you?” “We were a darn sight more than that.” “Well, you never know. Maybe he still has feelings for you.” “Bullshit. He’s married now. Doubt he’ll even remember me.” “Bit of closure, then.” Nathan had been about to respond, when, over Polly’s shoulder he spotted a man stroll into the bar, someone definitely not local; he could count all of Crumbington’s attractive men on one hand. Ruggedly good looking, he gave off an outdoorsy vibe—tanned face, windswept hair, solid build. Even from where they stood, Nathan could tell he was put together nicely beneath his tan leather pilot’s jacket and jeans, broad-shouldered, trim waist, and big strong thighs to match. Maybe his blond hair needed tidying up, but then again the bed hair suited him. When his gaze swung around to take in Nathan, his eyes—blue, grey?—not only remained on him, but the handsome face creased into a broad smile, causing Nathan’s pulse to quicken, his mouth to hang open, and his face to flush. Polly, noticing this with concern, twisted around just in time for the stranger to stride forward and sweep her off the stool into a hug. “Poll dancer. How have you been?” “Put me down, you bloody oaf,” Polly pushed herself out of his grasp and readjusted her clothes. Her teacher tone only made the man grin wider. “I’m not seven anymore and you’re not ten. Even though, clearly, you’re still happy to act like a child.” “Gonna buy me a drink, or what? As you kept me waiting in the cold.” “You were supposed to be here over two hours ago.” “Yeah, well. M25 got snarled up.” “For two hours. Bullshit. And if so, why didn’t you text?” “I’ll get some drinks in,” said Nathan, hopping off the barstool and stepping away from the table. “Let you two duke it out in peace.” “Hold your horses one minute.” Jaymes reached out and placed his hand on Nathan’s forearm. Even through his thick shirt, Nathan trembled at the firm touch. “Shouldn’t I officially meet my little cousin’s boyfriend? Especially if he’s going to be kind enough to buy me a drink.” “I’m not—” began Nathan, horrified. “We’re not—“ said Polly, at exactly the same time, looking equally mortified. At the same moment, the two swung around to look at each other and burst into giggles, which helped soften the tension. “We’re friends from school,” said Nathan. “And he’s gay,” added Polly. “Polly!” said Nathan, his face aghast. “TMI!” Jaymes tipped his head back and burst into loud laughter. He had a nice laugh, Nathan noted, a little like his personality: loud, masculine, unsubtle, and more than a little infectious. “Yeah, anyway. What do you want to—” “Outed by your best friend. Priceless. I’ll have a Guinness, uh—?” “Nathan. Nathan Fresher. Polly’s ex best friend. Nice to meet you, Jaymes.” “Oh, so she talked about me, did she? As I said, I’ll have a pint of Guinness, Nate. Thanks” Brilliant. Nobody ever abbreviated Nathan’s name, not even his father when he’d been alive. The only person who had ever done so, and had also called him Nate, had been Cliff—Clifton. After ordering and having a chitchat with the landlady, Nathan returned to the table balancing three drinks, relieved to find no blood on the floor. “Good,” said Polly. “You’re back. Babysit the child for me, while I go for a pee. Maybe he can give you some advice on your naked football team calendar.” “Your what?” asked Jaymes, brightening up, as a slyly grinning Polly excused herself. “Oh, heck,” said Nathan, setting the drinks down. “Our chairman on the fête committee wants to up-the-ante for the event this year. Wants our local team to do a naked photo shoot for a calendar. All the proceeds would go to charity. I’ve got to convince the team and get them onside.” After downing a good gulp of his drink, Jaymes lowered the glass from his mouth and appeared to consider this, nodding thoughtfully. “Are you on the team?” “I’m the captain.” “So you’ll be stripping off, then?” “No! Well…” Nathan hadn’t thought about whether he would be in the calendar or not. He’d assumed he wouldn’t. “Hold on a minute.” Jaymes put his glass down on a coaster and folded his arms. “You’re the one from the committee who’s been volunteered to get your team out of their kit, yes? And you’re also the team captain, correct?” “Yes.” “Then of course you’re going to be in the calendar. How can you not be? Captains need to lead by example. Otherwise you’ll be seen as a total hypocrite.” Nathan hadn’t thought that far ahead. “It’s a moot point, anyway. None of the guys are going to agree to get naked in front of a camera.” “How do you know?” “Because I play football with them. I know them.” “Hang on. I bet you all get naked together in the changing rooms. And you might be surprised,” said Jaymes, calmly, knocking back another slug of his Guinness and leaving a white moustache on his upper lip. “Maybe the guys will be a little coy at first, but I bet their other halves will back them all the way. Would your partner have a problem with people seeing you in the buff?” “I don’t have a partner. And even if I did, I bet he’d have issues.” “You’d be surprised.” “Personal experience?” “I’d get my kit off at the drop of a hat for a good cause. Got nothing to be ashamed of.” Nathan eyes appraised Jayme’s body again, as Jaymes placed his empty glass back on the table. “Yeah, well. You’re in better shape than most.” “Are you hitting on me?” asked Jaymes, a grin curling one side of his mouth. “What? No!” said Nathan, reddening, before scanning the bar. “Where the hell is Polly?” He craned his neck to see if she was on her way back, but even though the Friday night pub was packed, she stood out in her shocking pink woolly poncho and was nowhere to be seen. Something about Jaymes made him uncomfortable, self-conscious, maybe his candour, his raw masculinity, maybe his proximity—but he was definitely the kind of person you either loved or hated. Right now the jury was out. “Okay, this has to be my last,” said Nathan, tossing back the rest of his lager. “It’s barely eight.” “I know, but I have an early start tomorrow.” “Oh, yeah? What is it you do?” “I’m a baker. Run the bakery on the high street.” “No seriously, Nate,” said Jaymes, chuckling in a way that irritated Nathan. “What is it you do for a living?” “Like I said, I run the bakery. I’m a baker by profession. Fresher and Son. Family Baker. You have a problem with that?” “No, not at all. I just never—” Whatever he had been about to add, wisely he through better of it. “So is there a lot of dough in that? I only ask, because I hear bakers make a shitload of bread.” Jaymes followed up by laughing aloud at his own joke. And just like that, the jury returned. Guilty as charged. Of being a total and utter prick. “You truly are a child, aren’t you?” “Don’t be a doughnut, I’m a practising Buddhist. Seriously though, come on, Nate—” “Nath-an. It’s Nathan. Two syllables, if you can manage that.” ”Come on, Nathan. Was that what you always wanted to do? Your life ambition. To become a baker?” Joking Jaymes had no idea how much he had hit a nerve with that little interrogation. Nathan felt heat in his neck, his anger rising. “It’s a family business. I joined my father straight from school. Although it’s also a front for my other job as a professional hitman. Someone who quietly takes care of people, the types others don’t particularly like. You know, like irritating relatives with puerile senses of humour.” Most annoying of all, Jaymes also found this diatribe hilarious. Out of the corner of his eye, Nathan spotted pink Polly returning, and breathed out a sigh of relief. “So what do you do for a living that’s brought you to our little shithole of a village? No, let me guess. You’re unemployed and on the dole?” “Forestry Commission,” said Jaymes, wiping his eyes, and bringing his laughter under control. “I’m a Senior Environmental Specialist. Mastered in ecology, forestry or land management at Durham Uni. I’ll be working over in Mosswold Forest for six months, at the very least. So, which bakery college did you attend?” “Have a nice life, Jim.” Ignoring the laughter behind him, Nathan strolled over to the bar and thumped down his empty glass, before catching Polly on his way out. “Just for the record, your cousin’s an asshole.” “Tell me something I don’t know. Will I see you Sunday? After the game?” “Are you bringing the neanderthal?” “I imagine he’d have found other apes to swing with by then.” “I bloody well hope so,” said Nathan, scowling. “Chill, Nathan. He’s actually harmless,” said Polly, sighing, before kissing him on the cheek and looking over Nathan’s shoulder. “Bit of an acquired taste, I grant you, but his heart’s in the right place.” “You mean he has one?” “Ha, ha. I promise I’ll be there Sunday. You?” “Yes, then. Around twelve-thirty. Love you, Polly.” “You too, Nate.” Nathan took a step back and eyed her dangerously. “Sorry, darling. Couldn’t resist. See you Sunday, Nathan darling.”
  28. 70 points
    Hope dangles on a string, like slow spinning redemption Rory picked up Milan from the armchair, and took him to the couch. Asta brought him a cushion for Milan’s head, and Rory helped him get comfortable. “He’s not opening his eyes,” Rory said, sitting on the edge of the wide couch. He held Milan’s hands between his. “Stop worrying and answer my question.” Asta perched on the coffee table her gaze on Milan. “He’ll wake up, Little Morgan. Trust me.” Rory let out a sigh, and squeezed Milan’s hands. He reached for the glove Asta had removed and focused on putting it back for Milan. “I don’t understand how he could have poisonous wolf’s blood. He’s my mate, Grandma Asta. I would have smelled it. I would know.” Rory adjusted the glove’s fabric over Milan’s fingers. “Trust me, Rory. It’s there.” Asta leaned forward pressing two fingers to where Rory held Milan’s right wrist. They both watched dark lines spread up Milan’s arm. Milan surged up, a wince appearing on his face, the pain from Asta’s touch clear. “See that. It’s there.” “Stop hurting him.” Rory pushed Asta’s fingers away from Milan. Asta sighed and folded her hands against her chest. Rory rubbed Milan’s wrist, hoping to ease the pain. His touch did nothing to Milan, so he glanced at Asta, expectant. “How are you doing this anyway?” “I’m an old soul.” Asta smiled at him. “I’ve picked up a few things over the many years on this earth. Wolf’s blood sings to me in any form. This…I’ve never seen this one.” “What do you see?” Rory asked, returning to the task of fitting Milan’s glove. “It’s in his blood, surging through his veins like a person shooting up drugs,” Asta frowned. “It’s not much though, or if it was, it’s burning up faster than possible. Whatever it’s supposed to do for him will stop abruptly, and he’ll crash.” Rory thought about Kiyo talking to that strangely familiar voice in his lab. “Milan is sick. He has CVID,” Rory said. “He needs infusions every month to stay healthy. His father makes the infusions he’s getting. I was there for the last one. From what I've read, the infusions are made from plasma. It has to be what you see.” “The blood is stripped down and laced with chemicals, which is why you can’t smell it.” Asta’s gaze narrowed. “As for his illness, he is your mate. An alpha’s mate at that. The violence of your bite should correct any troubles he’s facing. Your blood is strong enough to correct his genetics, though it will be a trial of fire for him. The change will demand that much from him.” “Can I do it now?” Rory asked, happy to hear that Milan could be saved from a lifetime of managing his condition and the poison his father had introduced. Kiyo did not even know he was poisoning his own son. “No.” Asta shook her head. “Whatever the concoction in his veins was meant to do, it’s damaging to you and him. The wolf’s blood used to make it is tainted, he needs to be clear of it before you can introduce yours. Otherwise—” “Otherwise?” Rory demanded, meeting Asta’s gaze, afraid of her next words. “He’ll die,” Asta said. Rory let go of Milan’s hand and got up. He paced away from Milan, fear taking over. “I don’t understand.” “I know, Little Morgan. “Why would the goddess allow this to happen?” “She’s never wrong though,” Asta soothed. “We can work this out.” “How?” Rory asked, his gaze returning to Milan. “I’m keeping so much from him already. I can’t imagine what it will do to him to know his father is basically poisoning him.” “Humans are very resilient,” Asta said, leaning back her hands braced on the table. “You’d be surprised how much they will forgive because of love.” Rory scoffed and dug fingers into his hair. He could not sit back and watch Kiyo push more infusions on Milan. That was just not happening. “What now?” “Now,” Asta smiled, “I wake the Little Morgan’s mate and get to know him. You can only help him when his body burns off the poison inside him.” “Can’t you remove it?” Rory asked. “It’s keeping him healthy,” Asta said. “Won’t you miss his smile if we find a way to drain it out of him? I think it would be better for him to get it out of his system his way. That’s what his body is designed to do anyway. Use the concoction up. Should be about two weeks.” “For someone who acts like she doesn’t know anything, you know a lot,” Rory said, dropping his arms. “Why aren’t you in the Council?” “I was once when I was young and foolish.” Asta shrugged. “Mistakes were made, people died. When my head cleared of the haze from that disaster, I left the position to Iris and Hunter.” “Would you come back?” Rory asked, aware of the pleading tone in his voice. It would be so much easier to face a council with Asta around. She would not judge Milan's family too harshly. Asta looked at him then, her gaze haunted and shook her head. “It would serve no purpose, Little Morgan. The future belongs to you and the young ones. Decisions on how you want to live should come from you. You should know that by now.” Rory sighed and came to sit on the table next to Asta. “Will he be in pain when the poison blood is out of his system?” “It sure seems so,” Asta said. “He will be weak, again. It will frustrate him.” Rory closed his eyes, his hands clenching into fists. How much more pain did Milan have to live through before they found a true chance? Asta placed a gentle hand on his right fist. “Your mate is stronger than he looks, Rory. What you should worry about is the source of poisonous wolf’s blood. Tainted blood can only mean someone is tampering with one of us.” Rory nodded remembering the black wolf with a decaying scent. “Can a wolf’s fur color change?” Rory asked. “I suppose, with enough corruption,” Asta nodded. “Yes.” “Hm.” Rory frowned, a thought blooming. “Please wake Milan,” Rory said, after a few minutes of silence. “As you say, Little Morgan,” Asta said, leaning over, she brushed a gentle finger over Milan’s brow. No pain came with her touch this time. Rory realized that she must have sensed wolf’s blood in Milan at their approach. Suspecting Milan of foul play, she delved in with no mercy. “You frighten me,” Rory told her when she sat back. Asta chuckled, her gaze expectant as she watched Milan wake up. Milan sat up on the couch, eyes wide as he took in Asta. When he looked at Rory, he narrowed his gaze. “What happened?” Milan asked. “You fainted,” Asta answered. “You must be thirsty. I’ll get you some water.” Milan frowned, shifting so that he now sat on the couch facing them. Rory smiled as Asta stood and hurried to her kitchen. “Rory?” “Hey, you gave me a scare,” Rory said. Milan rolled down his right glove, checking his wrist. Rory hoped Milan did not remember the black poison rolling up his veins. Milan rubbed the delicate skin there, before he shrugged and pulled the glove back. “I thought I saw—” Milan shook his head. “I’m sorry. I guess I’ve pushed the limits today.” Asta came back holding a glass of warm water for Milan. “It’s safe to drink,” she said, knowing Milan was going to protest. “I boil all my drinking water.” Milan took the glass with a grateful nod and drunk half the water in one breathe. “So.” Asta sat on the coffee table next to Rory. “You’re Milan.” Milan nodded, holding the glass with both hands. Asta smiled and reached out to pinch his cheeks. “You’re so adorable. I just want to kiss your cheeks. How old are you?” “Turning seventeen in two weeks,” Milan said with a shy smile. “What a perfect time for a birthday,” Asta glanced at Rory and winked. Rory blushed, thinking he too would want to see Milan healthy on his birthday. “I’m looking forward to it,” Milan said, when Asta let go of his cheeks. They were stained with color, his eyes bright with amusement. Rory could have kissed him then. “Your first birthday with Rory?” Asta asked. Milan blushed harder and nodded, drinking his water. Rory smiled, elated. “How much do you like this Little Morgan?” Asta asked, holding Milan’s gaze. Milan did not hesitate with his answer. “Very much. I lo-like him very much.” Rory felt the bracelet on his left wrist warm up and he glanced at it to see a leaf fade away, leaving two. Excitement vibrated through him, it was hard to sit still. “Why do you call him Little Morgan?” Milan asked Asta. “Because I know the Big Morgan,” Asta said, her tone teasing. “Rory’s dad,” Milan said. “I haven’t met him yet.” “You will, soon,” Asta assured him. “When you first meet him, he will look gruff and forbidding. I want you to tell him that you know about the fishing scream.” “The fishing scream?” Milan asked, glancing at Rory, then returning back to Asta. His eyes bright with amusement, once again, Rory only wanted to kiss him. “What is that?” “Well, Big Morgan went fishing in the river once. He is squeamish about wet things, and there was this girl who loved to tease him. She found a snail on their trip to the river and made it her goal to make him touch that snail. Let’s just stay it was the first time anyone had ever heard a Morgan scream in fright.” Rory chuckled, when Milan laughed, remembering that the girl in question was his mother. Asta and Milan talked for an hour, until Milan’s stomach growled from hunger. Rory glanced at the time on his phone. It was almost two o’clock. They had been out too long. It was time to head back home. Asta hugged Milan goodbye making him smile. Rory thanked Asta for having them and they started back to the truck. *** “I love your Nonna Asta,” Milan said, when they were driving back to Milan’s house, his mask around his neck. “She makes me miss mine.” “Which one?” “My dad’s mom,” Milan said. “I don’t meet her often but when I do, it’s always like with your Nonna Asta.” “And how is that?” Rory asked, taking Milan’s hand as he drove. “Freeing,” Milan said, thinking that the best word to use. With his parents, there was the constant worry for his health, his future, his…well just everything. Talking to his grandmother made him feel like a little kid. He had gotten that same feeling from Asta. “It’s stupid—” “No.” Rory squeezed his hand. “I know what you mean. Grandma Asta makes me feel the same. As though you can just be. I’m glad she makes you feel that way. Visit her anytime you want.” Milan looked around the winding road that was leading them back home. “I’m not sure I could find her,” Milan mused. “I’ll take you, just ask,” Rory said, his tone matter of fact. As though all Milan had to do was tell him and he would drop what he was doing and drive Milan to Grandma Asta. Milan shifted in his seat until he was facing Rory. “You’re really strange,” Milan noted. “Would you really just take me if I asked?” “Yes.” “Just like that,” Milan snapped his fingers. “Yes.” “Hmm.” Milan bit his bottom lip. “Why?” “Because it would make you happy.” Milan stared. He really had never met anyone like Rory Morgan. “You’re one of a kind, Rory Morgan,” Milan said. “I can’t believe you’re my boyfriend.” Milan felt Rory squeeze his hand as he drove, turning on to the familiar road that mean the gate to his house was coming up. Milan covered Rory’s hand with his. “I want to tell Ayu and Mamma about us. Mamma is gonna freak,” Milan said. “But I still want her to know. Just in case.” “In case of what?” Rory asked, stopping the car outside Milan’s gate. Milan dropped his gaze to their clasped hands. “I’ve had a really good month, health wise,” Milan shrugged. “When I crash, it usually comes fast, and I can be out of school for days. Just in case, I want her to let you in to see me. If you want.” “Milan.” “Hospitals can be strict about stuff like that, my parents even worse—” “No one will ever keep me away from you,” Rory said, parking the truck and turning to face Milan. Rory brought Milan’s hand to his lips, dropping a soft kiss that Milan wished he could feel on his skin instead of through his gloves. Looking up, he met blazing blue eyes that sent thrills racing through him. How had he gotten so lucky to have those beautiful eyes look at him with affection? “Do you believe me?” Rory asked, holding his gaze. “That I would find a way to see you. No one can keep me away from you.” Milan’s chest tightened, and he took in a shaky breath. He wondered if Rory could see the love blooming in his heart. Incredible, huge and violent, he worried his heart might not manage to keep it hidden, keep this love locked up inside until it was okay to tell Rory. He had never known anyone that fell in love this fast. It had to be because he was inexperienced. Untouched by anyone in all his years. Not even a decent crush. Now here he was, head over heels for Rory Morgan. “Milan?” Milan let out that shaky breath and leaned close to Rory, kissing him because he didn’t know what else to do, afraid if he spoke he might blurt out his feelings. Which would be…so uncool. Rory kissed him back, leaning in so that their kiss deepened. Milan lost himself in the kiss, desire unfurling in him, making him want to press his body into Rory, wanting more, needing more. He moaned in protest when Rory broke their kiss for a millisecond to unsnap Milan’s seat belt. Then he was free to climb onto Rory’s lap, ignoring the steering wheel pressing on his back, fingers sliding into Rory’s soft hair with a happy hum. Rory’s arms going around Milan, holding him tight against him. They were lost in each other when the driver’s door swung opened with a swift jerk. Milan gasped when he was yanked out of Rory’s arms. The cool air shocking him back to his senses in time to see his father’s angry face. “What the fuck are you doing with my son?” Kiyo demanded of Rory, pushing Milan into a surprised Ilaria’s arms. “Get out right now.” “Papa.” Milan swatted away Ilaria’s hands when she reached for him and rushed to grip Kiyo’s left hand. “Don’t do this. I—” “I don’t want to hear from you,” Kiyo said, pointing a finger at Milan, his face twisted with anger. His gaze squarely on Rory, who jumped out of the truck with ease and now stood facing Kiyo hands in fists. Rory’s gaze stayed on Milan. “Milan,” Rory said, his tone soothing. “I’ll be fine.” “Like hell you will be. Were you just kissing my son?” Kiyo demanded, pushing Milan behind him when he tried to stand between them. “How dare you! Who knows what germs you’re carrying? My wife told me that you know his condition and—” “Milan is safe with me,” Rory cut in. “What you’re doing now will only hurt him more. Having Milan stand outside in this cold is not good for him, “Safe? With you?” Kiyo scoffed, turning to Ilaria, drawing Milan’s gaze to Kiyo’s car parked behind Rory’s truck. Why hadn’t they heard it? “Ilaria take Milan inside. I’m going to have a serious talk with Rory Morgan.” “Papa!” “Not now, Milan,” Kiyo yelled at him. “You’re in so much trouble right now.” “Don’t do that,” Rory warned, making Milan turn to him in shock. He could swear he had heard Rory growl, that deep frightening type of growl that could only come from a predator in the wild. “Don’t do what?” Kiyo demanded, he took Milan’s arm and pushed him to Ilaria. “Who the hell do you think you are? Milan, for godsake, pull your damn mask up and go with your mother. I will not ask again.” Milan, whose gaze was on Rory, gave a startled scream when Rory seemed to move too fast, and in the next minute had Kiyo suspended up in the air by his jacket collar. Rory held Kiyo up with both hands, Kiyo’s feet two inches off the ground. “Rory!” Milan held out his hands, afraid. How strong was Rory? “Rory Morgan, you put my husband down this instant,” Ilaria ordered. “Get out of here, Milan,” Rory warned, his voice rough. “Take your Mamma.” “I can’t,” Milan shook his head, tears filling his eyes. This was his fault. If he hadn’t kissed Rory, this wouldn’t have happened. Rory wouldn’t be fighting his dad. He took in a deep breath and tried for sense. “Rory, that’s my Papa you’re holding up like that. I—please don’t hurt him.” “Put me down,” Kiyo demanded, gripping Rory’s wrists. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Rory.” Milan took a step closer to Rory. “Stop. I need you to stop.” Milan took in a deep breath when Rory looked at him, his eyes different from what Milan remembered. The blue seemed silver, the corner of Rory’s mouth lifted in an angry sneer. “Please,” Milan begged. Rory closed his eyes and dropped Kiyo to his feet. Kiyo stumbled back, almost falling. “Get out of here,” Kiyo ordered, rubbing his chest. “I don’t want to see you anywhere near my son, or in my property again. You’re not welcome here.” Milan stood trembling, tears trailing down his cheeks as he wondered how this day had gone so wrong. If he had not kissed Rory just now— “Don’t blame yourself,” Rory said, coming up to him, despite Kiyo’s obvious distaste. Rory pulled Milan into a tight hug and brushed his lips on Milan’s forehead. “Don’t worry, baby. We’ll get this sorted out.” Milan clung to Rory for a minute, then let go because his parents were watching him in shock. Rory brushed a caress on his cheek and then went to his truck. A minute later, he drove away from their gate with a short honk for Milan. Milan hated the drive back to the house in his parents’ car. His dad cursed out Rory in all the languages he knew. Ilaria sent him sad looks, Milan wasn’t sure whether they were filled with pity, or disappointment. “You’re grounded,” Kiyo said, when they entered the house and Milan removed his jacket, gloves and mask. “That’s not fair,” Milan dumped his stuff on a couch and rounded on Kiyo. “Rory and I did nothing wrong. You, on the other hand, you have been nothing but mean to him. Why can’t you leave us be?” “Milan,” Kiyo stopped inches away from him. “He had his tongue down your throat.” “Actually, I was on top of him letting him do it. Didn’t you notice?” “That’s not helping, Cucciolo” Ilaria chimed in, perching on an armchair in the bright living room. “How long?” Kiyo demanded. “How long what?” “How long have you two been kissing?” Kiyo asked. “I need to know the damage to your health. We have to factor in these variables if you get sick—” “All you think about is your stupid research,” Milan said, shaking with anger. “Where have you been these past weeks, Papa? The first time you get home, and all you can do is shout at my boyfriend and embarrass me. You didn’t even give Rory a chance to explain. You don’t even know what kind of person he is. He worries about me just as much as you do.” “Rory Morgan will not be your boyfriend,” Kiyo said, his eyes wide with shock. “He’s a brute. Did you see how he acted at the gate? No way am letting you close to him again.” “Well, that’s not your choice, Papa. If kissing Rory will kill me, then I’d rather die,” Milan stated. “You’re not keeping him away from me.” Milan turned and ran up the stairs to his bedroom, slamming the door closed with all the force he could master. He fell on his bed and buried his face in his pillow hot tears spilling out. He had never fought with his parents this bad before. It hurt. *** “I can’t believe I left him,” Rory hissed, shaking his head, his head filled with Milan’s pleading gaze. “I should go back.” “Calm down, Rory,” Chris soothed. “You can’t help Milan if you’re freaking out in front of his parents too. You need a minute, or maybe hours.” Rory paced the front of the shack they used to hang out. Topher and Maryanne stood leaning on the railing on the small porch. Matt lounged in an old arm chair, sipping a beer, watching Rory implode. Rory let out a sigh and stopped. “You’re right. I should wait,” Rory said, shaking his head. He dug his fingers into his hair. “Grandma Asta says Kiyo is poisoning Milan. If I dare try for the change, it would kill Milan. He has to get rid of that poison in his body first. All I could think was, ‘what if Kiyo gives it to him again?’. I can’t wait another month, who knows what will happen. I wanted to kill Kiyo in that moment and stop all these. I think I’ve lost my mind.” “You have lost your mind. No complaint to that,” Chris agreed, folding his hands against his chest. He leaned on the doorjamb. “Did you really lift a father clear off the ground and expect him not to send you away from his fragile son?” “He pissed me off,” Rory sighed. “He kept yelling at Milan. I couldn’t control the anger. Only Milan’s begging stopped me.” “Milan begged you,” Maryanne scoffed. “You’re so done for. He’s going to want answers. There is no way he’ll let this go.” “I want to give them to him,” Rory said, then added. “As soon as Topher and Matt find a McRieve.” “What’s a McRieve?” Chris asked. “Proof,” Rory said, leaving it at that. He had searched long and hard. So, he would only explain the McRieve family when they found one. “I can’t find one myself. Everyone would get too curious.” “We’ll try for tomorrow after school,” Topher offered. “If not, Matt is free of classes on Wednesday this week. He’ll head over.” “Thanks.” Rory came up the short steps to the porch and sat on a chair. “What the hell am I going to do with Kiyo Takeda?” Topher chuckled. “You need to woo him, Rory. He’s going to be your father in-law, somehow. Plus, the only way to save Kiyo from the Council is to help him navigate out of his current troubles. For both you and Milan. Otherwise, it will turn into another tragedy. I doubt Milan would forgive you if Kiyo turned up dead.” “Topher is right. Milan loves both his parents,” Maryanne said. “Losing any of them is not an option, Rory. I can't believe you're mated to a human by the way. That's kind of cool." Rory remembered Milan’s pleading gaze when he was holding Kiyo. Those brown eyes filled with tears. It hurt to see Milan in tears. “I’ll find a way,” Rory said, rubbing his eyes. “Shit, before we ran into Kiyo, this was such a good day too.” “I heard,” Matt said with a chuckle. “How?” Maryanne asked, leaning on Topher. “Jet asked me what kind of phone to get. He seems to think him and Milan will be best friends,” Matt said with a wide smile. “You and Jet are talking?” Chris asked, with interest. “Yeah." “Hmm…” Topher said, making everyone laugh. “You assholes, it’s not like that.” Matt sat up. “What’s it like then?” Chris asked, with a wide grin. “Jet’s a great kid.” Matt sipped his beer and shrugged. “He makes me laugh.’ Rory smiled when Topher and Chris continued teasing Matt through the afternoon. Being around them allowed him to calm his nerves. Allowed him to think of what to do next. He couldn’t stop worrying about Milan. His mate had looked so upset. He couldn’t leave it this way. At around six in the evening, Rory got up and stretched his arms. “I have to go.” “Where you headed?” Chris asked, curious. “Need to check on Milan. Talk to you tomorrow.” “Be careful,” Chris called. "Kiyo might own a shotgun." Rory gave him the bird as he ran off *** “How much longer do I have to wait? I’m running out of time.” “I don’t know. You’re not the only one waiting on results,” Cade Ogawa said, reading emails at his desk in his Director's office at Biosense. “Waiting is hard work, buddy. You need to cultivate patience.” “How long have you given me that line? The council is getting close. They are now actively looking for Dolon.” “Dolon was your gift to me,” Cade said, with a small shrug. “I didn’t ask you for him, that’s why I refuse to keep him here. He’s too big a liability. Why don’t you release him?” “He has a big mouth. I didn’t want him blurting the truth to the Morgan brothers about his race. That plan was a waste by the way. Takeda’s family still hasn’t discovered they are living in a town full of wolves. How dense can they be?” “Don’t talk about them that way,” Cade warned. “The progress we’ve made so far is because of Kiyo. I enticed him into coming here because his work is very promising. I’m meeting his son soon. We’ll see how the infusions are working on him. If he is strong, then—" “Ah, yes, I forgot about your son. How is Nisin? I haven’t seen him around the building. Where has he gone?” Cade looked up from the tablet he was reading to study the man sitting in his guest chair. There was a certain look to greed in a man’s eye. He had learned to seek it out in this business. Making money in research was not easy, especially when one didn’t have the talent for research like Kiyo Takeda. So, Cade learned how to cultivate men with that hungry need to gain power. Only then could he attain resources, and secrets that left him both powerful and on the cusp of greatness. And he so wanted the power that would come from the creation of an infusion made from werewolf’s blood. It would be strong enough to heal an ailing human, make a perfectly healthy human stronger, and in the case of the man sitting opposite him, crazy enough to take over a town’s leadership, strong enough to upgrade his blood. Just thinking about it made Cade want to buy up all of Biosense’s stock. All he needed was to keep Kiyo Takeda happy and in the dark of his plan. “Nisin is with his mother,” Cade said, smiling. “I’m not a total monster. The child needs a soft touch.” “And Kiyo, he hasn’t come into the mothership for weeks.” Cade raised his brow in question. “I asked around when I came in. The girls at reception like me.” “He’s busy. He needs more blood though. His research is going well. Like I told you, I get to see his son soon, to confirm his results. You on the other hand, should already have some idea of what we can do with the infusions. You’ve seen it on Dolon already. How goes your campaign to leadership?” “Driving a sane man crazy is not easy. Lechter is pushing for your company to leave. He is rubbing everyone in the council wrong. I've worked hard playing on his weakness, pushing his buttons. He thinks his wife was murdered by humans on her way back from a conference, so he hates them. It won’t be long until he implodes the council.” “Wasn’t she?” Cade asked, wondering about Lechter’s wife. He placed his tablet on his desk, and sat back to look at the frightening man. “No.” A swift smile. “She discovered one of my secrets. I had to get her out of the way.” “What secret is that?” “Will you tell me where your son really is?” Cade smiled. “Come on, that’s hardly fair.” “Then you don’t need to know my secret. I’ll stop by your lab, and donate more blood to the plan. Don’t forget, Cade. This town is mine. When I’m Alpha, you’ll answer to me. If you’re good to me, I’ll get you all the blood you could need for your research.” “Who could forget?” Cade murmured, when the man left his office. Letting out a soft sigh, Cade sent a new message to Kiyo Takeda. He wanted the treatment on Nisin expedited. The faster he could get his son out of this town the better. It was bad enough he had thrown his best friend to the wolves, quite literally. *** Milan cried himself to sleep and didn’t wake up until six in the evening. He woke up to find his room dark. The silence in the room soothing. His room felt too hot, so he kicked off the blankets. Ilaria must have come in and covered him. Feeling lazy to wake up, he hugged his pillow tight and closed his eyes. He wanted to see Rory. Thinking about his Papa’s anger, he realized the possibility of not seeing Rory again scared him. He didn’t even know where Rory lived. They had known each other for less than a month, and he had yet to see Rory’s house. He had never asked to visit. Granted it was hard for him to even get out of this house but, an address would be nice to know. Just in case. He was lost in thought when a soft knock on his window had him opening his eyes. Lifting his head from his pillow, he gasped when he saw the tall figure standing on the small balcony. Getting out of bed, he turned on the bedside table lamp, and smiled when he recognized Rory. “Let me in,” Rory said in greeting. Milan had not tested the glass windows since moving here. It was always so cold. Smiling, he pulled the lever to unlock the sliding glass. Rory helped him push it open. Milan shivered hard when a cold wave filled his bedroom. Rory climbed in and closed the window fast, making sure it was sealed tight. Milan didn’t give him time to say much before he moved into his arms, holding him tight. “I’m sorry about earlier,” Milan murmured into Rory’s chest. “Papa was mean to you. And I was afraid you’d hurt each other. That’s why I stopped you. I—“ “Shhh,” Rory rubbed his back, soothing him. “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have lost my head that way.” Milan buried his face into Rory’s chest and chuckled remembering his father’s expression at the gate. “You lifted my father into the air, Rory.” Milan titled his head back to look at his boyfriend. “What kind of spinach are you eating, Popeye? I wanna know.” *** A/N: This chapter's heading is a lyric from Vindicated by Dashboard Confessional, find the link to the song below.
  29. 69 points
    “What are we listening to?” Tyler Scott ran his eyes and a finger down the wine bottle’s label. “Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Blend 2017 Pinot Grigio. And why are we drinking Two Buck Chuck?” “Here, Ty.” Owen handed the man a different, nearly empty bottle and a glass. “Don’t you know Chef CJ doesn’t like to be distracted while cooking?” “Asshole!” CJ was happy. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving meant he and Owen had their cousins and their spouses at their apartment. The rest of the family was at Abuela’s, but the three younger Abellós declined the invitation to join them. “That’s Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.” “Mate, your cousin always plays an artist’s music to death after we go to a concert. Saturday night we were at the Kennedy Center for a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra, and he’s been playing classical music all week.” Owen opened a fresh bottle after Randy slid the now empty one aside. “And don’t knock Two Buck Chuck. Considering it’s three dollars a bottle, the stuff’s okay. We use it a lot for cooking. Not so much for drinking. The flavor notes are kinda mundane.” Taisha had been looking at the wall where the guys hung favorite pictures, nursing her own glass of wine. “I guess the one with the sharks’ the most recent one?” Owen refilled her empty wine glass. “For now. We have one from a GU party and the one we took with Bezos at the HRC National Dinner. We need to hang them.” “So, what are you making, cuz?” Randy stared at CJ while resting his chin atop his own husband’s head. “What’s the wine for?” “Veal scaloppini. The recipe calls for chicken broth, but I’m replacing most of that with vino.” “Damn! You’re such a doodie.” “Are you calling me a shit?” CJ’s smirk and raised eyebrow drew chuckles. “Nah… A doodie’s a dude who’s a foodie. Silas called Ty that one time when he was cooking, and I appropriated the word.” “Speaking of Silas, how come he didn’t want to come over tonight? Isn’t he going to work on our house? I thought he’d want to be here for our discussion.” “The kid loves Cuban food, and we don’t get to eat it that often in Chicago. His part in all this won’t really kick in until we settle on structural changes anyway. Ty and I will give him a summary of whatever we decide. We’re all having breakfast together, right? He’ll be there to help describe the plans for the basement.” “That’s a perfect lead-in.” Rod opened the notebook he had placed on the counter. “I’m ready to take notes. Since the Germans decided to vacate the house early when you wouldn’t extend their lease, we can start some serious planning. I have a few questions to get us started.” “Ask away, mate. CJ and I have been talking about this on and off for almost two years.” “Let’s start with what we know. Ozzie wants a Tesla solar-tile roof. That means—” “How much is that gonna cost us?” CJ wielded the knife in his hand as a pointer. “Ahhh, we haven’t really priced it yet.” “What? Come on, cuz. You’re slacking. How are we supposed to approve things if we don’t know the price? You think Ozzie and I are made of money?” “Yes!” The reply was simultaneous by the cousins and their spouses. An amused CJ shook his head. “Assholes!” Even when the discussion revolved around a serious matter, levity remained within reach. “Mate, we want to do this right, and we’re willing to spend money. That doesn’t mean we don’t want a budget. Remember I work for a non-profit. I get paid shit.” “Cry me a river. You’ll get one, Ozzie. In time. But we talked about the roof and the new HVAC a long time ago. Considering we’re dealing with fairly new technology, it didn’t make sense to cost it out until we were close to starting. Uncle Brett won’t let us overspend anyway.” Although Brett would not be involved in the day-to-day details, CJ knew he and Owen were in good hands with Third Line Development serving as the project’s coordinator. “True dat. Carry on, cuz.” “Crap, you guys are gonna be tough clients, aren’t you? Anyway, Silas, Ty, and Randy have preliminary drawings for the basement. Since we plan to review those tomorrow, we’ll skip that part of the house tonight. I know you said you wanted Ozzie to make all the decisions about the wine cellar, and they’ve all talked about it.” Rod paused to sip his wine. “We know we have lead paint, so our first project will be abatement. Taisha handles a lot of the permitting for us, and she’ll get started this coming week.” The man sought confirmation from his wife; she satisfied him with a nod. “That’s all going to be a pain. With your place on the National Register of Historic Places, we’ll have more hoops to jump through than usual.” “What else do you want to know?” A smile lit up Owen’s face when CJ had him taste the sauce. “That’s brilliant!” “Top priorities after what we already have. From both of you.” “We can discuss those while we eat.” CJ poured the skillet’s contents over a platter of cooked veal cutlets. He carried the pot to the sink, drained the angel hair pasta, poured it into a bowl, and sprinkled fresh, chopped parsley over it. “Okay, boys and girl. Help yourselves. There’s salad and grated Parmesan on the coffee table already. You know the drill. Fill your plates and plop your ass down on a floor cushion or the couch.” Owen stepped over to the beverage refrigerator by the wall unit. “I’ll open another bottle.” Silence reigned while everyone took an initial bite, then the compliments poured forth, starting with Taisha’s. “Ozzie, you’re gonna get fat if he cooks like this all the time. This rocks.” “Nah. We generally eat light and healthy at home. Tonight’s special because you guys are here.” “That’s it, Oz. Butter them up so we can get what we want.” CJ’s joke was mostly ignored; a couple of smirks popped up while everyone savored the meal. “So, Rod, next top priority for me is automation. I want a smart house.” “How smart? Elementary school or college?” CJ wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Cute, cuz. Alexa, lower living room window blinds.” Everyone seemed disappointed when nothing happened. “Doctorate degree smart. I wanna be able to do that kind of stuff everywhere in the house. It didn’t work here ’cause all we have is regular old blinds. And I want to be able to do as much as possible from my phone or tablet.” Rod exchanged the fork in his hand for a pen and scribbled in his notebook. “We’ll have to bring in a subcontractor for that. They may need to do some hard wiring, but I think most of that can be accomplished through Bluetooth these days. What do you want to be able to control?” “Lights and sound, heating and cooling, blinds and drapes, door locks and security cameras. I also want it to—” “You also want it to wipe your butt when you go to the bathroom?” “Shut it, Randy.” CJ could not contain the chuckle. “I swear. I don’t know why you’re involved in this. What do you bring to the table?” “Ohhh, bring to the table… Is that how you diplomat types talk? I bring my good looks and my architectural savvy. You need me, cuz.” “I get it, CJ.” Rod ignored his brother, made another notation, and returned his attention to the meal. “I’ll do a little reading, and once I pick a specialist, we’ll all meet. It sounds like you’ll have a big exposure to hacking and need lots of computer power. Are you guys considering a private server to tighten security?” “NO!” CJ’s quick and emphatic response made Owen laugh. “Are you nuts? You think he didn’t learn anything from all the time he spent with the Clintons?” “How could I forget politics?” The eye rolling was not limited to Rod. “What about you, Ozzie? What else do you want aside from the solar roof and wine cellar?” “A green house.” “To grow veggies in?” “No, you wanker. A green house, as in an environment-friendly place.” “How green?” “As green as possible. Highest possible LEED certification.” Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a third-party construction certification developed by the U.S. Green Building Council was the most widely used building rating system in the world. Rod paused with the fork halfway to his mouth. “That’s it?” “Well, yeah. I mean, we’ll have to figure out how we get there. But I want the house to be as eco-friendly as possible. Recycled materials, sustainable products, energy efficient appliances…” “I have a question for all of you.” Taisha had been uncharacteristically quiet. “You spent over two million on the house, and it sounds like you’re going to spend a lot more. Isn’t owning the most expensive house on the block considered a no-no?” “Somebody has to.” CJ’s flippant retort earned him a hard glare from the woman. Tyler intervened in time to save his cousin from a tongue-lashing. “I think that’s because most people are already thinking of selling when they buy, T. I don’t believe that’s the case with these two. Sounds to me as if they have a completely different frame of mind.” “Got it in one, Ty. Ozzie and I want a family. We want to raise our kids in that house. And one day we would like to have grandchildren running around.” CJ shrugged his shoulders. “Look, I know all that’s way, way off in the future. Hell, it may never happen. But both of us value family and hope the place’s always full of relatives and friends. Just like my dads’ townhouse.” “My turn to ask a question.” Randy reached for the wine bottle and refilled his glass. “Do you guys have at least an idea of how much you’re willing to spend?” During the subsequent momentary silence, CJ and Owen exchanged glances. The Australian waved a hand at his husband, giving him the go-ahead to reply. CJ’s reply was tentative. “About a million?” “Jesus Christ!” “Damn skippy.” “There goes the piggy bank.” “There goes your birthday present next year.” “Y’all done?” The reactions amused CJ. “That’s just a number we pulled out of thin air. We discussed it with the dads. You people know they financed the house for us. Since we bought it, our access to my trust fund increased. Money wouldn’t be an issue, but the dads said they would finance the renovations anyway. Once we have it nailed down, they’ll modify the loan.” Rod seamlessly steered the conversation back to the environmental certification. “Back to the green house. My exposure to LEED’s been limited to new construction, Ozzie. One issue I can foresee is the windows. If we want maximum energy conservation, we’ll need triple glazed ones. Those are expensive to begin with. Since we can’t change the exterior because of the historical designation, we’ll need to order custom ones. That means more money and time. Not like we can go to Home Depot and buy standard sizes.” “Do we have measurements?” Owen tried to refill his wine glass, but the bottle was empty. “We need more. Anyone want anything while I’m up?” Headshakes all around was the response. “Gray might have them,” Tyler said. “He’s the one who gave us the basement’s measurements for us to work out the wine cellar’s design.” Rod scribbled in his notebook again. “I’ll check with him when we’re back in the office on Monday.” Gray Young began working for Third Line Development’s primary contractor on the company’s first project. Since then, he had earned his license. He now ran his own crew, supervised projects, and had been tapped to lead the house-remodeling project. “I have a question about the wine cellar.” Taisha focused her attention on Randy and Tyler. “Shoot,” Randy said. “There’s obviously going to be a lot of storage. Is all that off-the-rack or custom?” “Most likely a combination. If we can find the right supplier, using standard systems will save us time and money. But there’s stuff we’ll need to build to the project. Why do you ask?” “I read an article a while back about a Baltimore company that you may find interesting. There’ve been reports on TV and the newspaper about the city planning to demolish thousands of abandoned, dilapidated row houses. Part of their effort to diminish crime.” The opening comment captured the men’s attention. “Knowing what CJ’s involved in with the vets, I think this might be right up his alley. “The Forest Service launched a matchmaking effort to connect non-profits employing former prisoners who deconstruct abandoned buildings in big cities with private companies looking for reclaimed lumber. I forget the number, but tons of old wood end up in landfills every year. There’s a high-end furniture company that buys most of the old floors and walls coming out of Baltimore. “If you guys end up having a carpenter build some of the cabinetry, I could make a few phone calls. Maybe we can get our hands on some of that wood. I think it’d be cool to say the new stuff’s as old as the original house.” “I love it!” CJ’s excitement was palpable. “The effort to rehabilitate prisoners might be up my alley, but I’m sure Ozzie loves the idea of less going to landfills. Hey! I have an idea. We’re gonna end up moving some walls, and that would mean having to patch or replace floors. Right?” Since he was the historical restoration expert, CJ aimed the question at Tyler, who nodded. “So, what if we get in touch with whatever non-profit coordinates the program and hire them? They can send their workers in to remove whatever we plan to replace.” He paused to assess the reaction and was encouraged by the apparent agreement. As usual, Randy could not resist an opening. “So, you want a bunch of sweaty ex-cons running around your house working with wood? Sounds like great porn in the making.” “Asshole! We may need to find a cabinetmaker willing to work with the reclaimed stuff…” The following morning, CJ was surprised when he stopped the Tesla in front of his fathers’ home. He and Owen had texted Silas, asking him to wait outside for them. Randy and Tyler were staying at Rod and Taisha’s place while their son took over one of the basement bedrooms at the townhouse. Ricardo Abelló stood next to his grandson with an arm draped over the teen’s shoulders and climbed inside the car after the youngster did. “Hey, Uncle Rico, what you doing?” “What does it look like?” The man studied the interior of the car and smiled. “I’ve never ridden in one of these before, and I decided I wanted to have breakfast with the boys. Either my mother or my wife would find something for me to do if I stayed behind.” Owen sounded confused. “What do you mean? There’s nothing to do. The entire meal’s catered.” “You obviously don’t know the Abelló women that well, Ozzie. They would find something. Anyway, Randy, Ty, and Silas have kept the details of what they’ve been working on for you away from me. I want to see what my kids designed.” “Umm, it’s only the wine cellar.” CJ made the turn on Wisconsin Avenue and headed north toward the Takoma neighborhood. “More the reason for me to check out the plans. We’ve never done more than a tiny closet for wine storage. From what I heard, this is on a whole different scale.” Ricardo Martín Abelló was over ten years older than his brother, César. Rico met his wife while in college, and after their wedding settled in her hometown of Chicago. With financial assistance from his father, he founded Second Line Restoration; the company flourished and was well regarded for their meticulous work on historical structures. “Mate, if you really want to see a top-notch one, you and Lynne should visit Australia. My parents would welcome you. The Liston Winery cellar would knock your socks off.” “Maybe next year. Your parents did invite us to visit when we met them at the wedding.” Taisha refused to join the men for breakfast. She claimed she had enough of the Abelló boys’ banter the previous evening. There was a lively discussion at the breakfast table while the men scrutinized the design. In the end, they tweaked a few details; the primary ones being there would be an effort to use wood reclaimed during demolition and biometric access to prevent pilfering by guests or teenagers. It was around lunchtime when they all returned to Georgetown and crowded the basement to munch on snacks and watch football. “Hey, Legless.” The smack to the back of his head made CJ stumble. Who knew his aunt had such strength? “Ouch!” Lynne was not finished with him. “How dare you poke fun at a war hero? Shame on you, CJ. I thought I knew you better than that.” Brad Kennedy leaned on his cane to prevent his own stumble. The hearty laughter confused the Chicago woman. “You should see your face, Mrs. Abelló. Your surprised expression matches CJ’s.” The elevator’s noise had alerted everyone in the basement someone was joining them; CJ had been certain it was Brad. He had his own key, so he could come and go at will. “Dude! You’re wearing your legs. That’s awesome!” Brad had been fitted with artificial limbs recently and was still getting accustomed to them. His gait was awkward, and he tired quickly but claimed it was getting easier. “Yeah… I thought it might be a little crowded over here to maneuver the wheels around. About him calling me Legless, Mrs. Abelló—” “Please, Brad. It’s Lynne. How long have we known each other for?” “Thank you. Lynne it is. Anyway, Legless has become my new nickname, and I’m fine with it. It’s descriptive since I lost them. And since it was CJ who first called me that, I have to put up with it. He’s my brother. I’ve called him worse.” Fudge packer was what he often used in private. “Come on, Red. Come sit on the couch. You want wine, beer, or something harder?” “What’s the wine? Liston?” Brad had succumbed to the spell Owen wove amongst their friends—most all Squad members had become wine enthusiasts. “None open, but we can crack one if that’s what you want. Most of us are drinking something from Australia, though.” Owen raised his flute, twirling the liquid inside, allowing the light to reflect off the pink wine. “Ninth Island Sparkling Rosé from Tasmania. Wanna taste?” “Nah, not in the mood for bubbly. I’ll take one of César’s Dos Equis Amber.” In the late afternoon, everyone moved upstairs for dinner. The sun set early and by the time they were ready for dessert the sky was dark, streetlights were on, and the stray pedestrian outside the floor-to-ceiling front windows could be seen scurrying around bundled up against the cold. “If we could have everyone’s attention…” All eyes turned toward Owen and CJ standing behind the kitchen peninsula. “CJ and I have something we’d like to share with you lot.” “Let’s make sure everyone has some bubbly. Ozzie and I would like to propose a few toasts.” Both men held full flutes. “This is your chance, Ritchie. I’m lifting all limits.” “HEY!” “Relax, Captain. We know what we’re doing.” “I sure as shit hope so.” “Shut up, Jarhead.” César grasped his husband’s arm when Brett made to rise. “Let it play out.” “Thanks, Dad.” CJ unfolded a piece of paper he retrieved from his back pocket. “The first one is to all of you. Our family and friends who’ve loved us and supported us. Who’ve stood by us in good and not-so-good times. We’ll never be able to repay you. Salud!” As they lowered their glasses, CJ winked at Owen. “You’re on, Oz.” “Our second toast is to the armed forces, to the veterans amongst us, and particularly to our brother, Brad. We love you, mate. And even though you’re battered, what matters is you’re still with us. You’re alive and kicking.” The line elicited chuckles from the injured Army Ranger and a few others. “Thank you for your service to our country.” Owen barely wet his lips before adding, “Yes I said our country. One of these days I’ll be an American citizen, and I can’t wait.” “Okay, our final one requires a little explanation.” CJ nervously fidgeted with the piece of paper in his hands. “Dads, what do you think about becoming grandparents?” “You getting a fur baby to keep Wingnut company?” Brett’s mention of his name made Ritchie’s golden retriever raise his head, but it was not enough for him to abandon his rawhide bone or the spot in front of the fireplace. “Shut up, Jarhead.” “Fur baby, Papa? You anthropomorphizing puppies now?” “Quarter word!” “Shut up, Ritchie.” CJ thought César sounded like a broken record. However, his dad had a glint in his eyes. “In vitro or adoption?” César’s question lit a fire of comprehension amongst the group; comments and questions flew around the room so fast it was impossible to understand what anyone said. Eventually, when neither CJ nor Owen uttered a word, everyone quieted down. “Okay, you all know Owen’s sister Liz died a little over two years ago. We had a long conversation with her the day before she left us, and we’ve never shared what was said at the time.” CJ took the napkin his husband offered and wiped a couple of stray tears the same way Owen had. CJ passed the sheet he held over to his husband; Owen glanced at it, raised his eyes, and a sad smile formed on his face. “I guess I get to read this. My sister was weak and in pain the last time we visited with her. Although we spent some serious time together, the conversation wasn’t really that long. But she knew what she wanted and gave us a letter with all the details. She ended it with a poem I’d like to share with you.” Silence permeated the room. Not a word was spoken; the only sound the crackling of the burning logs in the fireplace. Owen cleared his throat and read the four lines they had printed earlier in the day: “And when I die and when I'm dead, dead and gone, There'll be one child born and a world to carry on, to carry on.” “That’s not a poem. It’s a song. ‘And When I Die’ by Blood, Sweat and Tears.” “Shut the fucking fuck up, Jarhead.” César’s outburst broke the spell, and everyone spoke at the same time once again. When the muttering died down, CJ raised his glass. “So, we’d like to propose a toast to Liz. We want to thank her for leaving us the eggs she had frozen during her first bout with cancer. It’s taken some time, and we had a couple of setbacks, but we’re pregnant.” Pandemonium ensued. CJ and Owen once again remained quiet but endured the hugs and kisses rained on them with smiles. Glasses were drained, more bottles were uncorked, and the toasting lingered after everyone reclaimed their seats. “I think I can answer most of the questions you’ve shouted out real quick.” Owen smiled at the grandmothers as both wiped rivulets of tears and at Brett as he blew his nose. “My Mum was in on it. It’s Friday morning in Australia, and she was supposed to tell everyone about it over breakfast. CJ and I have kept our phones off, and I suspect there’ll be a large number of calls and messages waiting for us. Our friend Gina Nichols is our surrogate, and she’s due sometime in late April.” CJ picked up the narrative. “On this side of the world, our brother, Ethan, and our friends, Chatri and Helen, are aware of what’s going on. They helped us navigate through a multitude of legal and medical issues. Ritchie knew we were trying but not how far along we were.” “My dear brother-in-law found out over the summer when he was part of a conversation we had in Miami after battling sharks.” The seamless transitions between the couple almost sounded rehearsed. “The conversation was with Aba. She’s agreed to move to Washington next spring and serve as nanny to her first great-grandchild.” “I swear the two of you won’t quit until you convince me I’m old. A grandfather? At thirty-seven?” Brett wagged a finger at CJ and Owen. Rapidly declining temperatures forecast to dip below freezing overnight did not deter the family from gathering, covered in coats, quilts, and blankets, around the fire pit in the side yard. “Dude, quit bitching. I’m like sooo in my happy place right now. Don’t mess with it.” CJ exhaled a cloud of bluish smoke and rolled the Cuban cigar between his fingers. Surprised expressions and shrugged shoulders greeted the sound of a car navigating the driveway on the house’s other side. CJ voiced everyone’s thought. “Are we expecting anyone?” “Not us.” César waved his cigar to indicate him and Brett. “We’re not either.” Tom glanced at JP for confirmation. Tank’s voice cleared the mystery. “Where are my daddies?” Their friend was followed by another one of Owen’s Scandals Rugby Football Club teammates. A few of the team members had organized a potluck meal for those with no nearby family. “And why have you been ignoring texts and phone calls?” “Hey, Tank!” CJ stood to greet the man. “Sorry, our phones were turned off when we sat to eat. How the hell did you already hear the news?” “Harley. Brace yourselves for tons of messages when you turn them back on. The Squad’s been going nuts. So is it true? Are you guys gonna have a kid?” “Harley?” CJ and Owen asked at the same time while staring at a guilty-looking Ritchie. “Sorry… I texted Lucy, and she said she was going to tell him.” Lucy Wilkinson was Ritchie’s girlfriend and Harley’s sister. “Join us, guys. We’re celebrating. Either one of you want a little brandy?” César’s offer was accepted with nods; Ritchie was sent inside to fetch two additional snifters. “So yeah, Brett and I are going to be grandfathers.” “That’s awesome! Congratulations. So, am I gonna be an uncle or an aunt?” “Damn, son. You’re going to be the most muscular aunt ever.” CJ could not stop chuckling. “Actually, we’re not telling yet. We found out when they did tests to screen for a few things, but we don’t want to jinx anything.” Tank’s gaze swept the gathering until it rested on Sebastián. “Thank you for the kind words last night at the restaurant, sir.” “Bah, nothing to it. It seems my grandsons”—the man waved his cigar in CJ and Owen’s direction—“managed to solve the little difficulty you had with Al.” Alvaro Diaz was the chef and majority owner of Abuela’s, the restaurant Sebastián held an ownership interest in with CJ. “He was so scared of losing his business; he came clean with his father. I had to speak to him about his son being bisexual, but he was more worried about the sexual harassment. I think he talked some sense into the kid.” “Like I mentioned to CJ and Ozzie before and to you last night, it’s been great. Al’s gone out of his way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. New employees get verbal and written rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not.” CJ leaned over and pecked his husband’s cheek. “You done good, Oz.” “The two of you make a good team.” César’s pride in his son and son-in-law was unmistakable. “I have a question about the baby. How come you decided to do it now instead of waiting until you were established at work?” “You.” CJ’s one word surprised his father. “You do realize when the kid’s born I’ll be older than you were when I was, right?” “Yeah… I guess. I hadn’t thought about that.” “Look, Dad. The fact you and I are so close in age has made it easier for you to deal with me. That’s something most of my friends don’t have. Ozzie and I want to be good parents like you and Papa. And like you, we want to be our kids’ friends too. That’s harder when the age difference’s larger. And to be honest, we like the idea you and Papa will be young grandparents. That will be a great experience for your grandchildren.”
  30. 69 points
    The vibration against his butt made CJ wiggle twice during dinner; he ignored the phone until the meal was over. As the remnants were cleared, he reached for it. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” “What’s going on?” “It’s Thiago. Nadine’s in the hospital. The baby may be coming earlier than expected.” “Wait, isn’t the kid due in April?” “Yep. Like six weeks away.” CJ tapped away at his phone before sitting again. “Crap. I hope the baby’s okay. Can it even survive being born so soon?” César returned the dirty dishes to the table, claimed the seat next to his son, and rubbed his arm. “Yes, they can. Think positive, CJ. Preemies survive much better these days. Did you reply?” “Yeah. Told him to text or call me.” CJ’s attention remained fixed on his phone, willing it to ring or chirp. Anxiety filled him, concern for Thiago and the baby uppermost in his mind. When the call came through, he nearly dropped the device. “Hello!” While he listened, the other men reclaimed their seats. “Sorry, man. Yeah, family Sunday dinner, and you know the rule about phones.” Slowly, he relaxed, and a smile preceded a grin. “Yeah, well, fuck you too. What happened?” CJ stood, walked towards the kitchen, and reached into the refrigerator for a beer—the wine opened for dinner was long gone. He held the bottle aloft when he faced the family, and Owen raised a hand signaling he wanted one too. “That’s awesome, bro! Congratulations! Hey, Ozzie, the dads, and Ritchie are looking at me drooling for info. I’m gonna put you on speaker.” CJ forgot the beers atop the kitchen counter and returned to the dining table. “It’s Thiago. He has some news for us.” The eye rolling and smiling appeared synchronized. Owen was the first one to speak. “So are we uncles?” “Yes, you are.” Thiago sounded tired. “You have a healthy, bouncing nephew. I haven’t met him yet, but a nurse came out to tell me. I’m waiting until they take him to neonatal ICU so I can go see him.” “Thiago, this is César. Is he okay? Where are you? And how’s Nadine?” “Hey, Mr. A. She’s fine according to the nurse. Her mom was in the delivery room with her. We’re at Howard University Hospital. The kid’s perfect. Ten fingers and ten toes according to the nurse. She said his weight was good for a preemie. I think the ICU thing’s out of caution.” “Dude, this is Brett. Congrats! So, does the critter have a name yet?” “Critter? Fuck you, Captain. That’s my son you’re talking about.” You could hear the new father chuckling. “Of course he has a name. He’s named after my brother and my best friend. I can’t wait for you to meet Fabricio Cesar Baravento.” Monday was President’s Day; CJ and Owen hit the gym early, and afterward drove the Tesla half a dozen blocks to Dog Tag Bakery. The bakeshop run by disabled military veterans had become a favorite place for breakfast treats. “What’d you get?” CJ had remained in the car while Owen hustled inside. “The three coffees and six scones. Half sweet and half savory. Between these, the Redskins onesie, the bottle of 2009 Dom Pérignon, and the Cuban cigars in the backpack, I think we’ve got all bases covered.” “You wanna text Thiago and let him know we’re on our way to pick him up?” “Sure. Hey, are we gonna stop in and see Nadine when we get to the hospital?” CJ’s failure to respond caused Owen to stare. “Well?” “I don’t know, Oz. I’m not sure I can keep my composure around her. I’m afraid my face will show how I feel.” “Your mom?” CJ’s resentment against his dead mother had been the subject of countless conversations between the two. “Yeah… I… It just hits too close. Lourdes discarded me and then gave up parental rights without a fight. I know I came out smelling like roses since Papa Brett was able to adopt me, but still…” He would have had no problem if Thiago’s ex-girlfriend had decided to terminate the unwanted pregnancy. An abortion he could understand; abandoning a child was something that made him uncomfortable. “You can stop by her room if you want. I think I’ll wait until we’re at the hospital before I decide.” Thiago sipped the remainder of his coffee and discarded the disposable cup in the trash bin next to the nurses’ station. “Good morning, I’m Thiago Baravento. I think you have my kid in here. I’d like to bail him out.” The grandmotherly woman behind the counter burst out laughing. “Oh boy, I can smell a first-time father a mile away, and you stink of it. Making jokes, but nervous as all get out.” “Do you know if he’s okay? Can I see him?” The nurse glanced away from the computer screen she had paid attention to since Thiago introduced himself. “You betcha. And if you ask real nice, we’ll let your two bodyguards see him with you.” She winked at CJ and Owen. “Really? But I thought—“ “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You thought because he was in ICU visitors would be restricted. I have news for you, Daddy. We moved your son out of neonatal intensive care this morning. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him.” She looked around conspiratorially. “If you ask me, they screwed up the original due date. That kid was ready to come out.” Thiago shrugged off the hand his two friends placed on his shoulders and turned to hug them both at the same time. “You hear that, guys? Fabricio’s all right! That has to mean he can come home soon.” “Maybe as early as tomorrow. Now, someone left a note about not using the mother’s room for your visit. They’ve set up a separate one for when you’re here. Why don’t the three of you follow me? You can ditch the coats, and scrub down in there. I’ll have your son brought in.” Owen found it hilarious they referred to the practice of holding the newborn against your chest skin to skin as kangaroo care. While Thiago cradled his son sitting in a recliner, CJ and Owen perched on the edge of the bed. “Mate, the nurse said when a mother does this it stimulates milk production.” Owen’s chuckles bordered on giggles. “Maybe you’ll do the same, and can do away with formula and bottles.” “Screw you, homey. Just wait until you have a kid. You’ll have to be careful it doesn’t suffocate in CJ’s chest-hair forest.” CJ watched the father-son duo in wonder. The tiny brown baby had fallen back asleep as soon as Thiago clutched him to his naked torso. “You haven’t fed him yet, have you?” “Nope. It’ll be a first when the nurse brings in the bottle.” “You know what to do?” “I think so. Mom and everyone else have been giving me pointers. I’m sure the nurses will walk me through it when the time comes. I know about burping and the likelihood of getting barfed on.” “That sounds delightful. Not! I remember Mum feeding Liz after she was born.” Sadness clouded Owen’s visage for a moment. He had been six when his sister Elizabeth Liston was born; her death from cancer at eighteen was a shock to everyone. He and CJ often talked about her and the void her death left in their lives. “She would let me hold the bottle for Liz after she stopped breastfeeding.” Thiago’s smile disappeared at the mention of breastfeeding. “That’s not something Fabricio will experience anytime soon. He’ll have to wait until he’s older to play with a tit. By the way, Nadine’s mother talked to me last night. Nadine doesn’t want to see the baby or any of us.” March Madness found CJ in the middle of the hoops hoopla. The annual extravaganza began with each collegiate athletic conference’s tournament and concluded with the national championship game. The Big East Conference held its men’s basketball tourney every year at Madison Square Garden in New York City; he and Owen were in town to cheer on the Georgetown Hoyas. “So, do you have to do anything special for the team while you’re in town?” Ethan fingered the pass hanging from the lanyard around CJ’s neck. “Not really. They’ll let me know if they need me. However, I doubt it very much. They didn’t last year.” CJ still held the title of Special Assistant to the Associate Director of the Academic Resource Center for Student-Athlete Services. A mouthful for being a glorified tutor, but the basketball program also used him in their recruiting efforts. More than one high school athlete had stopped by his parent’s basement for a game of pool during their official campus visit. “Then what’s this official-looking thing give you access to?” “The locker rooms while my school’s team is in them. Stop drooling, pig! The floor while my team’s warming up. There’s also a courtside seat behind the players’ bench reserved for me. I’ll take you down there during the warmups before the game. We can take pictures.” They split their attention between watching the DePaul and Seton Hall game, the sushi containers on their laps, and conversation. CJ sat at the end of the row in case he had to run and do something for the team, with Sean and Ethan between him and Owen. “Mate, why are you and Sean both paying rent when it’s so expensive to live in New York? You two should just move in together.” “Fuck you, Ozzie.” Sean leaned forward and stared at his friend. “Just ’cause you had your fairy-tale wedding, and are now living happy ever after, doesn’t mean everyone has to do the same. Why is it whenever someone gets married or has a baby they start thinking all their friends should do the same? Leave Ethan alone.” CJ came close to choking when he tried to swallow while laughing; he had to put the spicy tuna roll down so he could comb out bits of food from his beard. “If I choke to death, I’m never gonna forgive you. What the hell’s the big deal anyway? The two of you spend more time together at each other places than alone in your own.” “Because…” Sean paused and sighed. “Look, we’ve talked about it. If we’re still together in a couple of years, we’ll revisit the issue.” “Why the wait?” “Because Ethan’s still a very junior member at the law firm. Because if I start going with him to functions, someone’s bound to recognize me at some point. I’m not ashamed of having done porn or having worked as an escort, but not everyone’s as open-minded as you guys, your parents, or their group of friends. Even less so amongst the fucking breeders.” “You’re worried about what other people think?” The surprise in CJ’s voice was clear. “In this case, I am. Not for me, but for Ethan. What if an old trick of mine decides he or she doesn’t want to risk their hiring a prostitute becoming public knowledge and fires him? What if somehow, someone, somewhere sees one of my movies? Right now, it could end up damaging his reputation and interfering with his job. Once he’s better established—or better yet, makes partner—it won’t be as big a concern.” “That’s fucked-up. If anyone who hired you or watched a video you’re in did something against Ethan, they could get in as much trouble by going public.” “For being so smart, sometimes you’re quite naïve, CJ. They could find one of a million reasons to get rid of Ethan. I don’t want to risk it.” “It’s still fucked. Why don’t the two of you move to DC? At least the chances of an old trick recognizing you would be smaller.” “Yeah, but the movies would still be an issue. Plenty of clips of me fucking someone on the internet. And you know well enough once something’s online, it’s there forever.” The following day CJ did not have any commitments until late afternoon, so Owen arranged to visit a section of the Gateway National Recreation Area in the morning. Squeezed into the train during rush hour, CJ found it hard to believe they were headed to the type of natural space he expected to find in a remote area instead of Brooklyn. “You never told me why you wanted to come here.” Owen held onto the metal bar with his knees bent to help balance himself as the train swayed. “The Nature Conservancy’s working on a couple of projects to create wildlife refuges in large metropolitan areas. I want to see what a successful one looks like.” Owen’s connection with the Conservancy helped ease the visit. The office of the Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor arranged for a ranger to meet them in Jamaica Bay and escort them around. “I grew up in Bensonhurst, and the bay was a place I spent a lot of time around.” Hutch must have been in his early thirties and had a friendly disposition. Even though it was the tail end of winter, he still had a tan, attesting to hours spent outdoors. “But back then my mother would have killed me if she knew I went swimming around here.” They turned up their coats’ collars to ward off the late winter chill. It was colder next to open water than in Manhattan’s concrete jungle. “How come?” CJ watched as a wedge of geese flew by. “And how come there’s so many birds around? I thought they flew south for winter.” Hutch chuckled as they stared at the avians. “This is south for Canada geese. They come here from the Arctic. All these islands and the freshwater creeks and ponds are a crucial habitat for migrating birds. And I was prohibited from swimming out here because of the pollution. It’s much cleaner these days than when I was a teenager.” “What changed?” Owen stopped taking pictures and pocketed his phone. “I mean, I’ve read the reports. I know the park came about almost fifty years ago when the City donated the land to the Service. We’re trying to do something similar in other metropolitan areas, and I think a first-hand account is just as important as lists of numbers and legal mumbo-jumbo.” “Cooperation. Local, state, and federal government pulling together with environmental activists and other concerned citizens. When all stakeholders join in and work together, you’d be amazed at what can be accomplished.” Owen smirked and elbowed CJ. “Maybe we’ll hire my husband here to do some lobbying for us when we run into a recalcitrant politician.” “You two are married?” Hutch followed up his inquiry with one aimed at CJ. “What do you do for a living? Are you a lobbyist?” “Hell no! I’m still in college, but I want to work for the government. I hope to land a position at the State Department. And yes to your first question. Ozzie and I tied the knot last summer.” “Congratulations! How come he mentioned hiring you as a lobbyist? If you want to work for the US government you’d be on the other side of the table.” “Oh, I did a little volunteering for a campaign a while back. Ended up meeting a bunch of politicians, and I’m still friendly with a few.” “CJ’s being modest. When he says he’s friendly with a few he means he has numbers for a couple of past Presidents and a bunch of Senators in his phone.” “Shut up, Oz. Today’s about you, not about me. All that’s history anyway. I’m just an average college student these days.” “Not so average if you know that type of people.” Hutch sounded impressed. ”Anyway, considering how the current administration’s decimating our natural spaces by reducing their size and pushing for oil and gas exploration on protected lands, anyone with your type of connections can play an important role. Even an average college student can have an impact as long as they speak up.” “You’re gonna get in trouble with Mr. A.” Ritchie tsked a couple of times, pointing at the phone his brother placed next to his plate. CJ and Owen returned home early Sunday afternoon and called the dads suggesting they have dinner at their apartment instead of the big house. It was something that happened at least once a month since the wedding. “What are you? Ten?” CJ rolled his eyes and stuck his tongue out at Ritchie. “You trying to get me grounded? For the record, one of the reasons we wanted to have you bring food over here was so I could have the phone out. Different home, different rules.” “You’re sticking your tongue out at your brother? Who’s acting ten now?” César rolled his eyes. “And what’s so important you need to answer a call in the middle of a family dinner?” “Not necessarily answer, Dad. Most of our friends would text first anyway. Look, in the past three months, we had important calls from Carson, Gina, and Thiago. None were life or death emergencies, but all were important.” CJ glanced at Owen seeking support. “So Ozzie and I decided to modify your rule. We’ll avoid using the phone, but we want them out so we can see a message coming through. After missing Thiago’s texts when Fabricio was born, we decided one of our phones would always be visible. Doesn’t mean we’ll answer, but…” Owen stuffed a fried won ton in his mouth and did not elaborate. “You guys are flying out Wednesday, right?” “Stop talking with your mouth full. Are you trying to change the subject?” Brett took a sip from his beer and returned the bottle to the coffee table. “We leave in the late afternoon. César and I will be in the office in the morning. We’ll bring Wingnut over when we come in.” Third Line Development, and their related companies that continued to sprout like weeds, occupied the second unit on the building’s third floor. They were outgrowing the space, and Brett was already renovating the second floor to suit their purpose. The previous tenant had vacated the space in January, and the fathers would be moving as soon as they finished the remodeling. Their current office would then revert to being an apartment. “You guys better take good care of him.” Ritchie sounded like a concerned parent. “Like we haven’t the other times you’ve been out of town?” CJ focused his complete attention on his brother. “Are you excited?” “Yeah… But I’m also a little scared. What if I don’t get in?” Ritchie and the fathers were flying to Colorado for a few days. They planned to spend time at their place in Vail, enjoying late-season skiing, and then drive to Colorado Springs for an interview and tour of the Air Force Academy on Saturday morning. “I felt the same while I waited for GU to accept me, bro. Relax, you’ll get in.” “Love this song!” Owen closed his eyes and swayed to the strains of “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi’s hit from a couple of summers before. In late 2017, Sebastián Abelló surprised the family with his plans to invest in a restaurant in Washington. Excited about the possibility of decent Cuban food within walking distance, CJ expressed an interest in joining his grandfather in the ownership group. Abuela’s opened in the fall of 2018 with CJ and Owen owning a percentage of the company. “Why are we sitting outside in winter?” Tank held his hands up towards the stainless steel gas heater positioned next to their table. “It’s freezing out here. I think my butt’s gonna be stuck to the chair. I betcha it’s gonna snow again.” CJ had become as adept at rolling his eyes as his father. “Stop whining. That damn tower’s putting out enough heat to keep us warm. And for your information, the first day of spring was ten days ago.” “Give him a break, mate. You gotta remember Tank’s used to Louisiana swamp weather. You know, muggy and full of mosquitos. Just like Florida.” Owen had adapted to the colder weather after moving from Australia as well as CJ had after leaving Miami. Their friend still complained when the temperature dipped below seventy degrees. “Enough about the weather. We’ll order some rice and beans and all those carbs should warm you up.” CJ reached for one of the menus the server had placed on the table. “This is gonna be our big meal today, Oz. I’m in the mood for fried pork chunks and moros.” Tank looked confused. “What’s moros? “Short for Moros y Cristianos. It’s what Cubans call white rice and black beans cooked together. CJ’s grandparents explained it to me the first time I visited Miami. They say it’s a reference to the white Christians and dark Moors who battled over Spain in the fourteen hundreds.” “Not very PC…” “Dude, my peeps are definitely not PC. It’s not overt prejudice, but people of my grandparents’ generation think nothing of referring to a black man as ‘el negro’ or an Asian one as ‘el chino.’ What are you gonna have, Oz?” “Not sure yet. I’m thinking of the vaca frita. So, Tank, what’s up? You said you wanted to talk about something important.” Owen’s fellow rugby player had texted them in the morning, revealed he had a problem he needed advice on, and asked if the couple had time to meet with him. CJ and Owen tried to patronize Abuela’s at least once a week and invited him to join them for a late lunch. Their plans for the day were to study; the half-mile walk to the restaurant was a welcome break. “Danno’s selling Rogo’s.” The blunt announcement, made without preliminary or subsequent explanation, drew a gasp from CJ. “Say what? No way! When? How come we haven’t heard about this? Crap, do my dads—“ Owen grasped his husband’s forearm. “Slow it down, mate. Give Tank a chance to answer.” The inopportune appearance of their server precluded an immediate explanation. Once they placed their orders, CJ pounced. “Okay, son. Spill.” “I just found out last night. He said I could talk about it with our friends, and he would be talking to your dads and the rest of their group this weekend.” Tank removed his ball cap and ran a hand through his hair before replacing it. “It’s all your fault, you know?” “What the fuck? How the hell is it my fault?” “Not yours alone, CJ. Yours and Ozzie’s. He came back a changed man after the trip to California with you two, and the time he and Trip spent in Hawaii afterward. Kept talking about missing the warmth, the beaches, and the surfing.” “Crap! What about Trip? When’s this supposed to happen?” “No idea about Trip. We didn’t discuss him. As for when, he thinks the sale can happen by summer. He said he’s had inquiries about selling the business and the property before.” “Jeez… So, you’re worried about your job?” “That and living arrangements. Remember, I get to live in the apartment above the bar for free. Part of being the manager.” “I wouldn’t worry about work, mate. Any new owner might want to keep you on. If not, you can get another one, or go back to doing massages.” Owen did not address the residential aspect of Tank’s worries. CJ did. “Hey! The housing thing might not be a big problem either. Harley wants to move out of his parents’ place. Maybe you and him can become roommates? I’m sure the dads have an empty unit somewhere you guys can rent. We’ll check with them tomorrow night at dinner.” The conversation lasted through the meal with CJ and Owen reassuring their friend things would work out. They had walked to the restaurant, and Tank had ridden his scooter; all three hit the men’s room before heading back to their places. As they exited the lavatory, a thirty-something, bearded man accosted them. “What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” The black and white checkerboard pants and the white chef’s coat suggested a restaurant employee. “You come in, don’t stop by the office to say hello, and I have to find out you’re here from a server who recognized you?” “Hey, Al. Ozzie and I planned on saying hi.” CJ and Owen shook hands with the man. “We got caught up in our conversation. Have you met our friend Tank before?” The two strangers sized each other up before shaking hands. While Tank was a few inches shorter than his friends, the olive-skinned man stood somewhere between the other three in height. Short, curly, brown hair and a beard not quite as full as CJ’s framed an angular face. Warm, coffee-colored eyes appraised the shorter man. “Alvaro Diaz. I don’t remember you being part of the group in here for happy hour on Fridays.” “Nah, I work most Friday and Saturday nights, so I miss those outings. I’m Tanix Janda. You’re the owner, right?” “One of them.” The man chuckled. “Your two friends here have a piece of the action.” “Tank plays rugby with me. That’s how we met.” Owen clasped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “He’s the manager at Rogo’s, the place owned by the dads’ friend we’ve mentioned before.” “Speaking of your fathers”—Al turned his attention to CJ—“I haven’t seen them in a while. Tell them we can use their business.” “Dude, what the hell you talking about? This place’s always packed.” CJ jostled his business associate with a shoulder. “You getting greedy?” “Hey! I have partners who expect a return on their investment. Anyway, good seeing you guys, and good meeting you, Tank. Stop by anytime. Even if it’s without these two. We take care of our friends in the biz.” Over dinner the following night, they discovered Trip would remain in Washington if Danno returned to Hawaii. Two months after Fabricio’s birth, CJ received a call from Thiago’s mother. She asked for help getting her son out of the house. Except for going to school or work, Thiago had not stepped outside since bringing the baby home. He needed a break, but would not listen to his parents; they thought CJ and Owen might be able to draw him out. With his parents pushing and CJ pulling, Thiago, at last, agreed to resume his Friday night visits to the dojo when he was not working. The first time it happened, Owen and Harley met them at Rogo’s afterward. The four sat at the bar talking to Tank, enjoying a beer while waiting for their burgers. “So that’s it, guys. The place’s for sale. Danno mentioned a couple of inquiries, but no bites yet.” Tank wiped the clean bar surface repeatedly between pouring cocktails. “I don’t know what to tell you, Harley. I want to stay here where I pay no rent as long as possible. Stashing away as much money as possible in the bank. I’ll understand if you want to start looking for a place on your own before I’m ready.” “Bruh, no way. I’ll wait. I’m doing the same by living with the rents anyway. I thought I’d do it for a year, but I don’t mind a couple more months. We can talk about it again in the summer, and see what’s going on then.” “Dude, what the hell’s taking so long? Did they go kill the cow or something? I’m hungry.” CJ had skipped lunch, munching on a protein bar instead, while stuck in a planning meeting for the upcoming student government election. “Dude”—Tank mocked CJ’s tone—“you sound like Harley. Stop bitching. If you’re that hungry, I’ll get you some more nuts.” “Fuck the nuts, I want meat!” “That’s your department, Ozzie.” Thiago stared at his phone atop the bar surface once again. “Mate, stop staring at the fucking phone. Fabricio’s going to be fine alone with your parents. Don’t they look after him when you work nights anyway?” “Yeah, but… I miss him. Hell, now that they don’t stink so much, I don’t even mind changing poopy diapers anymore.” Thiago’s only complaint about the newborn had been the malodorous diapers; the pediatrician suggested a change in the baby’s formula, and he noticed an improvement in the smell afterward. “And I feel kinda guilty. I mean, my parents have been awesome. I hate to go out and force them to look after Fabricio unless I really have to.” “Bud, you’re sooo wound up you’re going to explode unless you take a break now and then.” CJ threw an arm over his friend’s shoulder and gave him half a hug. “Wasn’t it your mother who called me, and practically threw you out of the house?” “Still, I have to—” The ringing phone cut him off, but it wasn’t his, it was CJ’s. “It’s Dad,” he said, looking at the screen. “CJ’s phone, CJ speaking. Hey, Dad. What’s up?” As CJ listened, the color drained from his face, and his hand shook. He reached in his pocket, took out his credit card, and slapped it on the bar. “We’re at Rogo’s waiting for food. But we’ll get it to go. We’ll be over as soon as we can.” The other four men stared at him while he tried to compose himself. He had not felt this lost in a very long time. “Tank, run my card through and make those burgers to go. We need to get to my parents’ place. JP and Tom are there. They just had a call letting them know Brad’s on the way to a hospital in Germany.”
  31. 69 points
    César and Brett arrived the afternoon before Christmas. When CJ began planning his twenty-first birthday celebration, his fathers insisted on remaining in Washington. They told their son to invite his own friends instead. They would join him, Owen, and Ritchie the day after the dinner party, and the five would spend Christmas in Manhattan. “So, what’s the plan for what’s left of the day?” Brett put his feet on the coffee table and leaned back against his husband. The three younger men in the room had finished regaling them with tales from the past two days, and CJ had dropped his pants to show off his new tattoo. “Dude, your ink makes me want to get more. You think this guy’s working today?” “Forget it. It’s Christmas Eve. He doesn’t take walk-ins anyway.” CJ raised his sweats and sat on the floor with his back to the couch. “I promised Silas we could go up to the Empire State Building at night.” Ritchie and Silas got along well and spent a lot of time together during the trip. The Chicago couple kept their plans to stay in New York for Christmas secret until after the party the previous evening. Randy’s twin brother, Rod and his wife, Taisha also remained behind, while the rest of the guests scattered to wherever they planned to spend the holidays. The five had gone to lunch together and would meet with the remainder of the family later. “That’s always fun.” Owen walked in from the kitchen carrying two wine glasses. “I found a bottle of chilled Taittinger Brut and popped it for mimosas this morning. Hope you don’t mind. We’ll replace it before we fly out. I thought you guys might want to enjoy the rest of it.” Handing them to his fathers-in-law, he sat next to CJ. “Don’t be an ass, Ozzie.” César sipped and sighed. “Damn that’s good. Why would you feel obligated to replace a bottle of booze at your own home?” “We weren’t sure if it was Doc’s or yours.” “Who cares? You and CJ stock that wine fridge on a regular basis, and we all drink it. Don’t even think about it.” “Okay… You know what I’d like to do after dinner? We’ve been running around the past two days and nights, and haven’t seen much of anything. We can do the Empire State, and then I want to check out the Christmas Windows at Bloomie’s, Saks, and the other stores along Fifth Avenue.” On Christmas Day, the family went ice-skating at Rockefeller Center; CJ spent more time on the ground than anyone else. He gave up complaining it hurt too much to land on his still-healing tattoo after they all ignored him. During a break, Ritchie approached Brett and César. “Hey, dads. There’s a mass at St. Patrick’s right now. Is it okay if I walk over? I just want to take communion.” “I’ll go with you, bro. I’m tired of spending so much time on my ass.” CJ’s offer raised eyebrows all around. “What? I’m just going to keep him company. I haven’t changed my mind about the evils of religion.” That was true. He considered most faiths to be the cause of pain and suffering. But he had come to realize some people found comfort believing in an all-powerful, mythical creature who could influence their lives. “Thanks, CJ. Don’t worry, I’m not turning into one of those crazy people. It’s just that…” Sadness clouded Ritchie’s visage for a moment. “It’s just that Christmas Day Mom and Dad always took us to church. You remember that? Anyway, it’s more about tradition than the religious stuff.” It was not CJ’s first visit to the famous church; he loved the structure but had no desire to partake of the sacrament. He was there as a companion to his younger sibling. While Ritchie walked down the aisle toward the altar, CJ sat in the last pew and waited. The time in New York flew by for CJ and Owen. The day after Christmas, they had the apartment to themselves; the fathers and Ritchie returned to Washington in the morning. Wanting to do something different, they headed across the East River for a visit to the Brooklyn Museum. “What do you call this style of architecture again?” Owen glanced past the modern, glass-enclosed entrance pavilion at the original edifice. “That’s definitely a Beaux-Arts building.” Standing across the street from the structure, CJ snapped a couple of pictures of the museum’s exterior. “I like how the new section doesn’t block the view of the old one.” “You taking more pictures?” Owen’s sideways glance and smirk led to CJ sticking his tongue out at him. “I thought you took plenty last time we were here.” During their trip in March for the Big East Basketball Tournament, the couple traveled to Brooklyn to see the David Bowie is exhibit. This time around, they were there to tour a new show: Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. “Duh… One set with snow on the ground. One without.” “Oooh… Excuse me, Mr. Seasonal Photographer.” Owen’s sarcasm was in top form. “I assume we’re looking at the sculptures again? I mean, they may look different depending on whether there’s snow on the ground or not.” “Fuck, you, Oz.” In a playful maneuver, CJ shoved his husband sideways. “You can entertain yourself any way you want while I look at them.” “Nah. I love watching you turn into a little boy around that stuff.” The Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden displayed architectural items rescued from New York City demolition sites. Some of the objects were carved limestone, brownstone, granite, or marble; some were metal and many others cast terracotta. Scrolls and garlands, fruit and flowers, cornucopias and shells, and geometric and foliate patterns abounded, as did human and animal forms and fantastic creatures. CJ remarked he felt like a kid in a toy store upon discovering the exhibit. “Mate, we have time before our dinner reservation. We’re always on the Upper East Side or Chelsea. We don’t make it to Brooklyn that often.” Owen slipped on his overcoat and gloves as they stepped outside the warmth of the museum. “Let’s take a walk around here.” “Works for me.” CJ ran his fingers through his hair and shivered. “Fucking cold out. Let’s head north on Washington Avenue since that’s the direction of the restaurant. I wouldn’t mind stopping somewhere and getting a drink. Now that I’m all legal and shit.” They did not go far. Two blocks later, they ducked inside Tooker Alley. The long, narrow space had a smattering of tables and a bar running along the side near the back. “Bloody hell, this is perfect.” Owen scanned the crowd and smirked. “We fit right in.” The place was warm and they blended in well with the millennial hipster crowd. An hour or so later, after a couple of cocktails, they stopped at an ATM to retrieve cash before boarding an Uber to the Williamsburg neighborhood. Neither the pub they stopped at, nor the restaurant they were headed to accepted credit cards. Peter Luger Steakhouse had been crowned best in New York City for thirty-plus years by Zagat and countless other reviewers. This was the couple’s first visit to the landmark restaurant. “I can’t believe you’ve never been here before.” Owen glanced at the wooden floor, tables, and paneling, as they followed the man with the menus. Clean and well-maintained, the establishment lacked the adornments found in other popular, upper-echelon eateries. Decorations were at best stark. “I know, right?” CJ closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated on the wonderful scent of grilled meats. “But you have to remember I’ve only been in New York a couple of times without you. And that was right after I moved to DC. The dads took me to places around the apartment at first. Since then, we always seem to have our weekend trips planned out in advance.” If the aroma was enticing, the sizzle of the dry-aged steak-for-two they ordered was just as pleasing. The attack on their olfactory and auditory senses—enhanced by a visual element once the food was served—was overwhelming as the first bite crossed their lips. “Bloody hell that’s the best piece of meat I’ve ever tasted. I’m warning you, CJ, this won’t be the last time we eat here.” Nakoa Wolf Manakauapo and Charles Beauregard Houston arrived the following afternoon and insisted on going out to PRIME in the evening. Danno and Trip struck up a friendship with the owners during CJ and Owen’s wedding and wanted to see the place they had heard so much about. Their visit was part of the continued marketing for Bullies Beware. CJ and Trip made appearances on a couple of morning shows, taped a segment with Anderson Cooper for CNN, and had book signings at the two Amazon bookstores in Manhattan. “I don’t fly that often, but I could get used to this. Much better than coach.” Danno sat next to CJ in the Los Angeles-bound plane while Owen and Trip occupied the two seats across the aisle. “I’m surprised the book publisher sprung for the more expensive tickets.” “Not sure it was their doing, Danno. I think Bezos had a hand in it.” Jeffrey Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon, had become a champion of the book written by Trip—a reporter for the Bezos-owned Washington Post—and CJ. “You heard he offered me a job after I graduate, right? He’s been pursuing me the way I see Coach Ewing and the Georgetown basketball program go after five-star recruits. He insisted we do appearances at his stores in New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I’m pretty sure he had something to say about TV bookings, lodging, and travel.” “Well, I’m not going to complain about flying first class and staying at The Beverly. Like I said: I can get used to the life of the rich and famous. It’s gonna be rad to be out of the cold again. That snow shit’s not right for a Hawaiian boy. I miss warm winters.” Danno owed his nickname to a character in the television series Hawaii Five-0; CJ did not find out his real name until months after meeting the beefy man. “Ever think about moving back?” CJ caught the flight attendant’s attention and motioned for another round of cocktails. Danno left his tropical hometown of Honolulu for the desert sands of Phoenix after high school graduation. His time at Arizona State University was short; he dropped out and headed to California. “All the time.” The man stared out the window and appeared lost in thought. “More each day as I face turning forty next year.” “How the fuck did you land in DC anyway? I’ve never heard the story of how you ended up with Rogo’s.” The smile of Danno’s face bordered on a leer. “Thanks to my huge cock…” “You’re such a pig. Fine, I’ll bite. Tell me how your little dinkie landed you in the nation’s capital.” “Little? Dude, you’d be walking funny for a week if I put it to you. Anyway, you know when I left school I moved to the coast, got into stunt work for movies and TV, and landed a bit part in the old Baywatch show. I think they wanted someone with Pacific Islander looks. When I realized I was never going to make it as an actor, I drifted out of town. “A couple of years later, I was in New Orleans working as a roughneck on the oil rigs. I was shacked up with an older guy, an executive in the energy company that owned the well I was at in the Gulf. He couldn’t get enough of my dick. The ultimate sugar daddy. When he died in an accident, I found out he left me Rogo’s—he was an absentee owner and a cousin managed the bar for him.” “Wow! I never knew that part.” “Not many people do. Your dads would have told you if you’d asked.” “Nah, you know I don’t pry into people’s lives. If they want me to know something, they’ll tell me.” CJ at times was thought of as aloof because of his reticence to pry into the lives of people he knew. He smiled realizing that did not apply to his close friends; with them, he was up in their shit all the time. “Now you know. I’m glad we’re taking this little trip. When you and Ozzie head back to DC, and Trip and I go spend a week in the islands, I may try to convince him to move.” CJ did not voice his hope it would not happen. Seeing Rashid Khan in London prior to the wedding, made him realize how much he missed his uncle after his return to England. CJ did not want to lose two more of the men who meant so much to him. CJ and Owen initially thought about renting motorcycles during their stay in Southern California. They settled on a convertible when Danno and Trip let them know they wanted to hang out together. Arriving in the early afternoon of the next to last day of the year, they stopped at the hotel, dropped off their luggage, and changed into lighter clothes. There was a temperature difference of almost thirty degrees, so they traded sweatshirts and jeans for shorts and polo shirts. “Where to, boys?” Having spent considerable time in Los Angeles, Danno offered to drive, so the other three could enjoy the sights. “We got lucky with the weather. Christmastime can be chilly in LA.” Danno fiddled with his phone and the BMW 4 Series Convertible’s sound system. Before putting the car in gear, Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” blared from the speakers. “I think the first thing on CJ’s list is Griffith Observatory. We can do that now, and then head out to dinner.” Owen looked at his husband for confirmation and received a nod and a smile. “Dude, you have a list? Sounds like you inherited that bad habit from your dad.” “Fuck off, Danno. I’ve never been here and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss the important shit. For the record, the observatory’s first on the schedule because Ozzie wants to see it. Typical of him to throw me under the bus.” CJ gave his husband a slap on the shoulder, but his smile did not falter. “Of course I have a list. You know, the seven Ps.” The song reached the third stanza and Danno belted out the words with gusto: “Roll down the window, put down the top Crank up the Beach Boys, baby Don't let the music stop We're gonna ride it ’til We just can't ride it no more—“ Trip turned and stared at the younger couple. He ignored his singing partner and spoke over him. “What the hell’s the seven Ps again?” CJ chuckled and motioned with a hand, encouraging Owen to reply. “Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance. CJ lives by those words.” Built on the south slope of Mount Hollywood, Griffith Observatory was a Los Angeles landmark and a popular tourist destination. Immortalized in countless movies and television shows, it offered a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, the Hollywood Sign, and Downtown Los Angeles. Danno kept below the speed limit as they drove up Western Canyon Road; the narrow, twisting roadway climbed through arid landscape until it reached a small parking lot next to the observatory. Along the way, as they got closer to the top, cars lined both sides of the road. Sundays appeared to be a popular day to visit. “We got lucky, boys.” Danno stopped to allow a car to leave a parking spot before taking the vacated space. “How’s this for door-to-door service? So, Ozzie, how come you wanted to come here first?” “Hey, I didn’t say anything about this being the first stop.” Owen’s chuckle ruined his attempt at sounding innocent. “Not that I’m complaining. CJ’s the explorer in the family, but he does try to accommodate me when I say I want to see something. Anyway, my mother’s a fan of old movies. We used to sit around watching them, and my brother and I would complain. Now, I guess I’m glad she forced us to watch with her. I’ve seen Rebel Without a Cause more times than I can count. As cheesy as it looks these days, it’s still a great movie.” CJ leaned against the railing that bordered the grounds of the observatory, staring at the spectacular view of the city, with the famous Hollywood sign perched above it on a hillside. Slowly turning 180 degrees, he fixed his gaze on the observatory and delighted in the beautiful lines of the Art Deco structure. “Picture time, guys. I want one with the sign behind us. One next to the James Dean bust, and another one by the front of the building. Right where Sal Mineo was shot in the movie.” Owen had stopped complaining when CJ tackled recipes cooked by contestants in the reality television show Top Chef—some were a success, others a dismal failure, but those were few. The couple also tried to patronize restaurants run by former chefstetants whenever possible. When the trip to Los Angeles was planned, they made reservations at Michael Voltaggio’s ink.well in West Hollywood. “CJ got me hooked on the bloody show.” They had returned to the hotel to freshen up and rest for a short while before heading out to dinner. “I’m not complaining, though. He’s managed quite a few fancy meals inspired by what they cook on it.” Owen held the elevator door for the other three men as they left their rooms. “This guy competed in the same season as his brother, right?” Trip sounded exasperated and stuck his phone back in his pocket. “Damn Wi-Fi’s not working in the elevator. I was trying to find out the season this guy was in.” “Sixth season. Michael won against his brother and another guy in the finale.” CJ rattled off the information without missing a beat. “He and Bryan grew up in Maryland. And while Michael lives out here, he and Bryan now own a steak house at the MGM in National Harbor.” “Well, if it isn’t Mr. Wikipedia himself.” “Fuck off, Danno!” After the meal, they stopped at one of West Hollywood’s many gay bars for a cocktail. Due to the time zone change, the long flight, and their desire to get up at a decent time the next day, they made it an early night. In their room before midnight, CJ and Owen managed to exert themselves before collapsing in a sweaty mess and falling asleep. The hotel’s state-of-the-art fitness center was deserted when they arrived. Having gone to bed early, the guys agreed an early morning workout would be a good way to begin the final day of 2018. Done, they met again for breakfast after showering. An outgoing man, Danno had friends scattered through every state he had lived in. “There he is. Eric!” The Hawaiian pushed his chair away from the table, stood, and waved at the man standing at the restaurant’s entrance scanning the diners. Eric Swallows’ smile split his rugged-looking face as he raised his sunglasses, settled them atop his longish brown hair, and strolled toward his friend. “Dude! You’re getting fat! What the hell you doing? You drinking and eating everything at your joint?” Swallows was in his thirties according to Danno and worked as a stunt-double in the film industry. The tight polo shirt he wore hinted at a ripped body. “Fuck you, fag. Bet you’d still bend over for me, even if I’m fat. Hey, let me introduce you to these guys.” The newcomer took the seat saved for him and shook hands with Trip, Owen, and CJ. “Don’t know about that, bro. Looking at the company, maybe I’m ready for something different.” “Good luck with that. Those two”—Danno pointed at his traveling companions—“are still on their honeymoon six months after getting married. You don’t stand a chance with them.” “Oh well, at least they’ll be good eye-candy tonight. We all still going out, right? ’Cause if we are, I need to make a call. I can get any party favors we want as long as I place the order early enough.” Danno looked at the younger couple and raised an eyebrow. “You guys up for a little substance abuse tonight?” CJ was unable to reply through a mouthful of pancakes so he looked at Owen and shook his head; Owen spoke for them. “Thanks, but alcohol will do for us tonight. CJ’s in process of applying for a job, and the State Department frowns on drug use. We’re on the wagon until further notice.” “The State Department as in the State Department?” Eric sounded amused. “Damn, Danno, not only are you getting fat, you’ve been upgrading your friends. I knew we’d lose you when you moved to DC.” Eric planned to spend the day with Danno and Trip lounging around the hotel’s famous pool, a place popular with guests and visitors who came by to enjoy the al fresco, all-day breakfast menu at the poolside Cabana Cafe. Owen and CJ took the car—selective exploration was how they described their plans—planning to return in the late afternoon for a nap, before going out to dinner and then dancing. Their first stop was a short fifteen-minute drive away, the venerable Chinese Theatre. Known worldwide for the concrete imprints of famous movie stars’ hands, it also served as a starting point for a stroll along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. They did not have time to browse through over 2,500 tributes, but they did manage to take pictures of several honoring people they recognized, including Michael Jackson’s across from the theatre. The Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall was their next destination. The stainless steel-clad structure he had read about fascinated CJ. He wanted to take pictures and run his hands over the surface. Although the exterior exhibited an avant-garde design, the self-guided, hour-long audio tour revealed the inside as a traditional box. Albeit with what was acclaimed as one of the best acoustical environments for a performance space. Sightseeing for the day ended at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. The admission price included a visit to the Observation Pit where they got a glimpse of what a real fossil deposit looks like—a jumble of bones neither could identify as belonging to any of the creatures featured on the graphics or in the museum exhibits. “I’m hungry.” CJ glanced at his watch and did some calculations in his head. It was already late, they had rushed to see as much as possible, and he felt it was time to slow down. “How about we drive through a fast food place and then go shopping?” “We can do that. As long as we have time for a long nap after. If we’re going out dancing tonight, we’re gonna be out late, and I need my beauty sleep.” “Oh, you don’t need any more sleep to look beautiful, Oz.” CJ leaned in and gave his eye-rolling husband a peck on the cheek. “At least not to me. But yeah, I want some relax time before we head out to dinner anyway. Let’s hit Rodeo Drive. I want a cool shirt to wear tonight. And one for you too. Oh, and remind me I need to trim so the tat can be seen when we take them off on the dance floor.” Owen ran the trimmer over CJ’s chest, clipping the hair just enough so the Southern Cross could be seen, but not so close his husband’s pelt of hair looked overly manicured. Showering together, he returned the favor by running a razor over the Aussie’s pectoral muscles to remove the almost invisible stubble. In a festive, frivolous mood, CJ had to stop a couple of times when chuckles and laughter made him scared of cutting Owen. He smiled recalling how he always found hairy chests attractive but ended up marrying someone with so little fur it was better to shave it off. “Damn! Can you dim that shirt down a bit? It’s gonna blind me!” Danno covered his eyes with a fingers-splayed hand when the younger couple approached him and Trip in the lobby. “At least your husband shows some style.” Owen had purchased a knit, silk V-neck pullover, in a blue that matched his eyes. It contoured to his muscular chest, the two rings on his nipples visible through the fabric. “Fuck off, Danno. Don’t be a hater.” CJ looked down at his new top and smiled. The black short-sleeved shirt’s fabric had multi-colored metallic threads woven through it. The garment shimmered with his every movement. “Just ’cause you have no sense of fashion…” “Fashion, my ass! The Bee Gees are looking for that shirt! Did you stop at a disco-era, second-hand shop? When I first met you, all you wore was t-shirts. Lately you’ve become a little classier and more conservative. But that damn thing’s neither classy nor conservative. It’s plain fugly!” “Fuck off, Danno.” None of them wanted to drive; they eschewed the rental car and relied on Lyft to take them to Nobu for sushi, and to the club in West Hollywood afterward. The line to enter The Abbey was long and full of good-looking men and women. Danno was the first one out of the car and pointed away from the crowd toward the entrance where Eric waved at them. “That’s for general admission, guys. We get to skip it tonight.” The young couple was familiar with the legendary Los Angeles venue; they had binge-watched half-a-dozen episodes of What Happens at The Abbey on a snowy Saturday. It was not a continuous session; the multitude of hunky men showing off plenty of skin inspired them and led to impromptu bouts of sex. “Welcome to a WeHo institution, men.” Eric exchanged hugs with all of them while the man standing next to him smiled and scratched his furry face. “We’re gonna party all night. Hey, this is my friend, Fisher.” He draped an arm around the bearded stud and pulled him into the tight little circle they created. “He’s the one I mentioned earlier. If you want any party favors, just let him know what you need.” CJ wondered about Fisher’s background while introductions were made. Almond shaped eyes hinted at Asian blood, while thick, luscious lips and olive skin suggested Mediterranean or African ancestors. Those features softened the brutish appearance created by the shaved head, full beard, hoop earrings, finger tattoos, and bulky, muscular body. When the two of them shook hands, CJ thought he could lose himself in the pools of melted chocolate his eyes resembled. “Good to meet you, CJ. Eric said you live in DC but flew in from New York. You were there celebrating your twenty-first? Happy belated birthday, bro.” “Thanks, man. Ozzie and I had a great time and we’re looking forward to doing it again tonight.” Fisher brought his head closer and lowered his voice. “Eric said you and your boyfriend aren’t partaking tonight. If you change your minds, let me know. I’m not working, but I have plenty of stuff on me. On the house. Consider it a belated birthday present. And I hope you don’t mind if the rest of us get a little messy.” “Nah…” CJ chuckled and clasped the man’s thick biceps. “We’re not against it. I’ll tell you why we’re not doing anything but drinking champagne later. Oh, and he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my husband.” The comments earned him a high-five from the dealer. Inside, a pretty, black girl steered them toward a booth. Before she left their side, a shirtless, muscle-bound server stood next to the table. “Welcome to The Abbey, gentlemen. Hey, Fisher. Great to see you, bud.” “Gio! Looking good, bro. You still chasing girls?” Fisher rose from the bench seat, and hugged the man with the toothpaste advertisement smile, his arms unable to wrap around the huge torso. “You know it, dude. Still terminally straight here. You gonna introduce me to your friends?” “Hell, yeah! Guys, this meat-stick’s Gio. Careful with him. He claims he’s straight, but will flirt with you to no end.” Gio shook hands with the rest of the group, left them for a few minutes, and returned with a silver-colored bucket full of ice. “Champagne for five and sparkling water for one,” he said, giving Trip a wink. “I think I know who’s the designated driver tonight.” The evening started slow, but the atmosphere grew progressively more festive with each round of tequila shots. When Gio found out CJ and Owen were newlyweds, he insisted they had to be part of something special, even if their wedding had taken place six months before. The club had created a small shrine to Elizabeth Taylor after her death, featuring a large portrait of the movie star. The Abbey was her favorite nightclub in Los Angeles. She frequented it often when in town, and did so a lot more as she got older and less mobile. Newlyweds taking their picture in front of the memorial to the supporter of the gay community had become a tradition. “I’m going to regret this tomorrow morning.” CJ downed the remainder of the champagne in his flute and held it out for Gio to refill. The man was tableside every time one of them needed their drink topped off. The server threw his head back—his floppy bangs flying off his forehead—and laughed. “Worry about it tomorrow. Fisher said you guys are at the Beverly. You can spend the day recovering. Dr. Gio prescribes aspirin and mimosas by the pool.” “Don’t think so, mate. We’ve never been to LA before. We want to do a little more sightseeing.” Owen draped an arm around CJ’s shoulders and gave him a kiss while holding his glass out to Gio. Midnight found the six sweaty men clustered on the dance floor. They had kept their shirts on for the time being, but CJ’s had lost a couple buttons when Danno pulled the sides apart after CJ complained once too often about being hot. Owen laughed until some guy traced his abs and he realized his own garment was so wet it clung to every muscle ridge, and he may as well not be wearing it. The torrid kiss he and CJ exchanged as the clock struck twelve seemed never-ending; their friends pried them apart and pushed them toward their table so they could toast 2019. Familiar with closing time in South Beach being 5:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. in New York City, CJ and Owen were surprised when Gio came by just before two in the morning to announce last-call. “Hey! Where are you all headed when we close? If you’re interested, there’s an after-party a bunch of the staff and a few favored customers are going to. Should be a blast. Mixed gay and straight group. You guys would fit right in.” Before he could finish, CJ gave Owen a head shake. “Thanks, mate. Another time we’d jump at the chance, but I think we’ll head back to the hotel. Like we said, this is our first time in LA, and we want to get in some sightseeing tomorrow.” “That don’t mean you guys have to call it a night.” CJ waved a finger in the direction of the others at the table. “Depending on when you drag in, we may have taken the car and left. But we’ll text you our plans when we leave the hotel.” “Aloha, dudes.” Danno was in rare form as they parted ways. CJ suspected the big man would be useless the next day. Although far from empty, the throngs of people they were used to seeing on television or the movies were not around Venice Beach on the first morning of the New Year. Muscle Beach was deserted, the workout equipment covered in a light layer of wind-blown sand. CJ and Owen wandered the sidewalks sipping coffee, munching on croissants, and trying not to make too many sudden moves. They were hungover and postponed a real meal until brunch. Correctly assuming traffic from the Rose Bowl Parade would clog the roads, they waited until the afternoon to visit the Santa Monica Pier. They rode the Ferris wheel and took pictures flanking the Route 66-End of the Trail sign, but avoided the rollercoaster. CJ and Trip had to work the next day, so in the evening the two couples went out to dinner but returned to their rooms by midnight. “Are you sure we can’t stop in Yorba Linda for like an hour?” CJ’s request to visit the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was again met with derision and a resounding no. Instead, they stopped in Laguna Beach for an early lunch and a stroll through some of the many art galleries. He stood his ground as they neared Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. They groaned and moaned, but CJ insisted they had to stop and take pictures standing by the main entrance sign. “My dad was stationed here at the beginning of his career. This is a way for me to connect with him.” Their presentation and signing at the bookstore in San Diego was well attended in the afternoon. In the evening, they had cocktails and dinner in the famed Gaslamp Quarter. The next morning found them on lounge chairs around the pool. Trip and CJ wanted color on their faces, since the following day they would be in front of television cameras. In the late afternoon, there was another book discussion and signing at the Los Angeles Amazon bookstore after which they headed out for Mexican food with Eric. “Las carnitas, por favor.” Owen ordering the pork dish in Spanish brought smiles to their server. “You speak Spanish!” “Un poquito. My accent’s not that good but I can understand well. You just need to speak a little slower than normal.” “Did you learn the language in Australia or was it because of this one?” Eric pointed at CJ. “Mostly his grandparents. They’re all fluent in English, but I know they’re more comfortable using Spanish. And we’re in Miami so often it helps at restaurants.” “So, how’ve you liked your first trip to LA?” “I’ve had a blast.” CJ sipped from his beer bottle. “I wish we had more time and I didn’t have to work, but still…” “Work? You call sitting behind a desk signing books work?” “Fuck off, Danno. See if Trip and I invite you on one of our junkets again?” “Then I better enjoy myself. Are we going out tonight?” “I’m game.” The other men nodded their agreement. “My dads mentioned The Argyle. Is it any good on a weeknight?” “Definitely!” Eric sounded excited. “I haven’t been there in a while. I may not know the door staff, but I know they’re big on looks. You and Owen are pretty enough and young enough we should jump to the head of the line. You’ll have to dress up.” “Sounds like a plan. So, since Danno’s ugly and old, does that mean he won’t get in?” “Asshole!”
  32. 69 points
    “I’m dizzy. It’s either the booze or Ozzie’s blazer and CJ’s tie.” Carson Sawyer, the Delaware student CJ helped move into the dorms their initial year at Georgetown University, became the key to an active campus life even though CJ was a commuter. During their sophomore year, the curly-haired McCourt School of Public Policy student became involved with a small group of students who hosted the annual Harvest Ball. Gina appraised the men, tilted her head a smidgen, and grinned. “I don’t know, Carson. I kinda dig their look.” Owen wore a jacket made from the Liston family tartan, and CJ had a necktie of the same fabric. The event, held in a ballroom in Copley Hall, dated to the 1970s; admission was by invitation. The host committee underwrote the evening, with each member allotted a limited number of the sought after admissions. Proper attire was required. Coats and ties for the men, while dresses were not mandated but were encouraged for the women. The music ranged from Sinatra, to The Beach Boys, Motown, and Bublé. No hard rock or hip-hop made it to the playlist; the event was a throwback to an earlier period. Even though no alcohol was provided, it seemed everyone carried a flask. A couple of hours into the evening, the crowd’s high spirits suggested more than adequate consumption. “Son, you dissing my husband’s family’s colors?” CJ’s aggrieved look made his other half chuckle. “See if you ever get another drop of Liston wine.” Although CJ avoided the limelight after his involvement with the Clinton campaign in 2016, the publicity his adventure in Charlottesville garnered, and the New Yorker article Trip penned about him in 2017, earned him a fresh modicum of recognition on campus. He became a member of the Harvest Ball Host Committee his junior year. “Hey, Carson, wanna go for a walk around the building? CJ and I want to get a little fresh air.” Owen’s invitation halfway through the evening made Carson grin. “Only if we plan on polluting said air. Is it okay if I invite my roomie to join us?” Gina waved her hand in dismissal. “That’s my cue to leave you potheads. Have fun, boys.” She walked away shaking her head. “Bye, Gina. Sure thing, mate. We like Bentley.” Bentley Riff was a classmate of Carson’s in the McCourt School and active in the university’s student government. “Go get him and meet us outside.” The four men strolled around the building sharing a doobie and ended up standing on the edge of the small on-campus cemetery. “Damn, I’m going to miss getting high.” CJ complained but did so with a smile on his face. “How come?” The crisp autumn evening became redolent with the aroma of cannabis as they stood still. “You gonna stop smoking?” Bentley passed the joint, and stuck his hands in his scarlet corduroy slacks. “I’m applying to the State Department and pot smoking’s still a no-no with them. Ozzie and I agreed our last hurrah, for now, will be the end of 2018.” “Too bad, man. You always seem to have good stuff.” Bentley had benefitted from CJ’s generosity more than once. “You can thank his best friend for that.” Owen declined the roach Carson proffered. “Harley’s grandfather grows it on his farm in Wisconsin and we reap the reward.” Bentley remained quiet for a moment, staring at the white tombstones before raising his eyes. “This may not be the best time to ask you, CJ, but it’s not like I see you on campus all that much. You know I’m involved in student government. I’m thinking of running for president next year. Would you be interested in the second spot on the ballot? I think you’d make a great VP. And you have enough name recognition it might just put us over the top.” “Hi, guys.” CJ and Owen stood at the bar, waiting for the four martinis they had ordered. César and Brett were still talking to the friends who stopped them as soon as the three couples walked into the Washington Convention Center. Ritchie and Lucy had taken their sodas and strolled over to the display area to check out what was in the silent auction this year. “Gina! Aileen! You look splendid.” CJ kissed both women on the cheek and Owen repeated the affectionate greeting. “Can we get you ladies a cocktail?” “I’m certain it won’t be as good as what you guys serve at your place, but I’d love a glass of red wine.” Gina Nichols was the one female who hung around the couple most. She glanced around for a moment, and lowered her voice. “Wanted to make sure your parents weren’t around. I may as well enjoy my alcohol as long as I can.” “Bourbon on the rocks for me.” Aileen Ridder gave Owen a mock punch when he raised his eyebrows at her. “Don’t give me that look, Ozzie. I’m working. I need something strong to get me through the evening. Some of these prima donnas think they give us a little money, and then we have to cater to their every whim.” Owen smirked and shoulder bumped his husband. “Mate, she’s talking about you.” Aileen met CJ years before when he volunteered at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters during the efforts to achieve marriage equality for the GLBT community. She wagged a finger in front of the Aussie’s face. “You’re putting words in my mouth I didn’t utter, Mr. Liston. The two of you and your fathers are a pleasure to deal with. Plus, I have CJ to thank for sending Gina our way. After the outstanding job she did this summer, we kept her on. Part-time until she graduates, but we’ve discussed making it permanent after.” “That’s awesome!” CJ passed the women their cocktails and took a martini in each hand. “So, we get to keep you in Washington?” Gina shook her head. “Not necessarily. I explained to Aileen that I might have to take a leave for a month or so next year for personal reasons. Afterward, I’d love to return to Alaska, and the HRC may have a position for me there. Of course, it all depends…” There was an awkward pause for a fraction of a second before Owen spoke. “I think it’s okay if you tell Aileen what we’re up to, Gina.” “Really? You guys won’t mind?” “Not at all. We trust her to keep quiet.” CJ switched his attention to the older woman. “Gina’s agreed to do something for us, but we haven’t told anyone yet. Please don’t let it slip in front of my dads. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we better get these drinks to them before United States Marine Corps Captain Brett Davenport”—CJ infused his father’s title and name with mock solemnity—“starts yelling at us. Damn Marine gets cranky real quick if he doesn’t get his daddy juice.” Aileen whispered to Gina for a moment. After the young woman walked away, she returned her attention to CJ. “I’ll invite myself along. I’d love to say hello to your parents. And okay, I have an ulterior motive. I sent Gina to go find Ben Gibbs from our Greater Washington, D.C. Steering Committee. Our local chapter you might say. Have you met him?” CJ was doubtful he had. “Not sure… Maybe I’ll recognize him if I see him.” “He’s a good man. I think you’ll like him. I often sit in on their meetings as an observer and liaison. We work well together. There are a couple of open spots on their board. I brought up your name as a possible candidate, and he wants to talk to you. We’d like you to take one of those seats and become a director.” “We’re ready for you, Mr. Houston.” The polite young woman pointed toward the front of the room. Politics and Prose lacked the vellichor CJ loved in older bookstores, but it was still a place he visited often. Rummaging through shelves full of bestsellers and old classics was a favorite way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy or cold afternoon. His visit to the shop on the last Saturday in October was, however, different from previous ones. The shop GQ magazine once called "liberal Washington's most sacred space" was well regarded for its knowledgeable staff and the author events it hosted. He had attended a few of those readings and chats in the past but never imagined he would be headlining one. “Let’s get this show on the road, CJ.” Charles Beauregard Houston III placed a hand on the college student’s shoulder before they walked through the chairs filling most of the room. The journalist planted the seed for the collaboration on Bullies Beware while writing the article chronicling CJ’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign. This appearance was part of the promotional effort for the book. “How’re you feeling?” “Ummm, a little nervous right now. I’ll be okay once we start. Let’s do this.” The article’s publication in The New Yorker the previous year earned him renewed interest and countless new followers on social media. In time, he had made peace with being a public figure, embraced the notoriety with reluctance, and agreed to the joint project. The book, published at the beginning of the month with a foreword penned by Ben Cohen, drew a smattering of positive reviews. It climbed the non-fiction best-seller list of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Amazon; it was now in the top ten on all three. CJ agreed to make limited personal appearances on weekends and during the upcoming break from school for the end-of-year holidays. This was the first one, and he was glad it was on familiar ground. Trip, as friends called him, met CJ soon after the young man moved to Washington. A freelance reporter then, he was involved in a loose, open relationship with Danno. Both were members of CJ’s fathers’ group of friends. The Elite had welcomed the teen and provided him support during the trying times following CJ’s expulsion from his Miami home. Trip, in and out of recovery facilities during his twenties, had remained sober in recent years. He played an integral role when CJ confronted Brad about his drinking. “Crap, I can’t believe he’s here.” Trip whispered so only CJ could hear. They had each read an excerpt from the book and answered questions from those in attendance on the content and the collaboration process. The authors were now ensconced behind a table, autographing copies for their fans. “Who?” CJ finished signing the book in front of them and returned it to the woman with a smile and a final word of thanks. “My boss at the Post.” CJ’s co-author took the book the man next in line handed him and smiled. “Good morning, Mr. Bezos. I’m surprised you’re here.” The wealthiest man in the world chuckled. “You shouldn’t be, Mr. Houston. Have you forgotten Amazon started out as a bookseller? And don’t I have a reputation as a micromanager? If one of my newspaper’s star reporters co-authors a book on the best seller list of the Post and Amazon with an up-and-coming young man, I want to meet them both.” Bezos fixed his gaze on CJ and extended a hand. “Hi, I’m Jeff.” “CJ Abelló, Mr. Bezos. It’s an honor to meet you.” He attempted discretion; looking the man over he scrambled to find a suitable inscription for the book the business tycoon handed him. The founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Amazon was not physically impressive. A fringe of cropped hair surrounded his nearly-bald head; he stood half-a-foot shorter than CJ, and wore a rumpled dark sweater over a white shirt. He resembled a happy-go-lucky uncle more than a titan of business. “The honor’s mutual, young man. Would you mind if I sat with you for a bit? You can keep signing books while we chat.” A bookstore employee standing to the side found another chair and positioned it by the table. “I did a little digging on you, CJ. You and I have a lot in common. Did you know I graduated from Palmetto Senior High School?” “In Miami?” CJ had heard the man speak at a banquet the previous year, and read a couple of articles about him. His attendance of one of Miami’s top-rated public schools came as a surprise. “Really? I had no idea you were from Florida.” “I was born in Texas, but lived in South Florida for a few years. I read with interest how highly you speak of your adoptive father. It’s something else we have in common. Although the man I call dad and always looked up to is Cuban and a civilian. Unlike the Marine who adopted you.” “Wow! You live in Washington now, don’t you? I remember reading you bought an old museum and turned it into a home.” “The old Textile Museum in Kalorama. We’ll have you over sometime soon so you can check it out. I understand you’re a junior at Georgetown?” “Yes, sir. At the School of Foreign Service.” “I’ll assume you want to join the diplomatic corps. Applying to the Department of State?” “I am. I’m starting the process right now. If you don’t mind me asking, how come you know so much about me?” CJ was somewhat suspicious the man had dug into his life. The man laughed and waited until CJ exchanged pleasantries with the person holding the book he had inscribed. “Nothing nefarious, I swear. More like neighborhood gossip. At the beginning of summer, we had some nearby residents over for dinner. Michelle Obama told us of a wedding she and President Obama attended on the grounds of the Jefferson Memorial. They both raved about the men getting married, one of them in particular. Someone who impressed them as a volunteer on Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated run for the White House. They told me a little about you. “Imagine my surprise when I saw your name pop up as the co-author of a book with one of my reporters. I decided I wanted to know more about you. In the book, you wrote about taking the long view. Of becoming aware things get better. I loved your comment about sacrificing short-term satisfaction and preparing for the future. You encourage those being abused to learn self-defense, and to apply themselves to their studies. Physical and intellectual growth go hand in hand in your approach. I happen to agree with you.” Over the next month, CJ and Trip made several additional appearances in support of Bullies Beware. Saturday visits to Richmond, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where they could leave Washington in the morning and return later in the day, or weekday evening readings and signings in several DC metro area locations. At Bezos suggestion, the Amazon bookstore on M Street hosted separate appearances to help increase attention to the book. The one journey he made involving an overnight stay during this period was to Blacksburg, Virginia—home of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University—the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday. The town, some 250 miles southwest of Washington, had a population around fifty thousand, about half of it students at the university. Conceived as nothing more than playtime with friends, CJ and Chipper—not sober at the time—came up with the idea at a bar in New York City the previous year during the latter’s birthday weekend. Watching the University of Miami defeat Notre Dame, they thought a football game road trip would be fun. Their plans solidified as soon as the 2018 schedules were released, showing the Miami Hurricanes playing the Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg. At the time, CJ reserved a small house two blocks away from campus on Airbnb. “We get the master bedroom.” Owen reached for the switch beside the door, and they all squinted when the lights came on. “Mr. Houston gets the other one. He’s old.” CJ stumbled when Trip shoved him and sputtered the remaining words while laughing. “The rest of you can have the couches and air mattresses.” “I’ll show you old…” Overnight bag slung over a shoulder, the man went in search of his room. “I’m gonna make sure whatever bar we end up at knows it’s just Owen who’s over twenty-one. You may as well forget alcohol this weekend.” They had borrowed César’s Cadillac, left Washington in the afternoon after classes, and arrived in Blacksburg early enough to collect Chipper and his two companions at the airport. They had traveled on the flight chartered by the UM Alumni Association for fans attending the game. Owen did most of the driving while CJ and Trip read about the university, and planned the next day’s presentation. “Who said you get to hang out with us, old man?” CJ’s retort earned him a loud “Fuck you, twerp.” “Are they always like this?” Michael Quintana stared at Chipper with a big grin. He and his boyfriend, Blaine Emerson, were staying at the house as CJ’s guests. “It’s like a comedy routine.” “Dude, you have no idea. It’s like that with CJ and with one of his dads too. He and Brett have the same twisted sense of humor. Some of the banter over the years has been epic.” Blaine dropped his bag on an armchair and headed back to the car. “It’s like an old comedy routine by Abbott and Costello. Just makes you want to chuckle. Be right back, I’ll go help Ozzie bring the rest of the stuff in.” “Thanks, Blaine.” CJ toed the door open and tossed his and Owen’s backpacks on the bed without entering the room. “Hey, Trip. We don’t even have to go out if we want to drink. The extra backpack we brought has a bottle of dark rum and three bottles of wine.” “Liston?” The reporter sounded interested. “One. We’re running low on whites, so we brought a bottle of the 2013 Cabernet/Shiraz. Stuff’s real good, and Ozzie thought the guys would like to try something from our winery.” “Our winery?” Chipper’s hand connected with his forehead. “Jesus Fucking Christ! They get married and CJ can’t wait to lay claim to his husband’s family business.” “Asshole!” The contract signed with the publishing company led to several meetings between César and his son. The modest advance and potential future royalties meant CJ would have income from something other than investments—with a few million free and clear or in trust, the book revenues would be insignificant. Still, there was no need to pay any more taxes than legally required. They created an entity to funnel publishing proceeds through, and CJ began tracking certain expenditures. A portion of the Blacksburg’s foray costs could qualify as a tax-deductible business expense if he could arrange a book event while there. CJ and Trip were at the campus bookstore minutes after it opened, while the others dawdled back at the house. A half hour later, they went into their usual dog-and-pony show, and when Owen came to stand next to them, they were already signing books. “Hey, Oz. Where’s the rest of the guys?” “They’ll be here soon. We walked through campus and got a lot of attention because of the obnoxious orange and green outfits those three are wearing. When I left them, they were drinking beer with a bunch of Virginia Tech frat boys, explaining that green overalls and orange sweatshirts were winning colors. Or some crap to that effect.” The smell of alcohol wafted in his direction when Michael stood in front of him holding out a copy of Bullies Beware. “This is so cool. First time ever I get a book signed by the author. I can tell my kids one day that I hung out with you for a whole weekend.” CJ shook his head in disbelief. “One, you smell like a brewery. I thought we had plenty last night and would wait ’til after lunch to start again. Two, you shouldn’t have spent money buying the book. I would’ve sent you one of the promotional copies we have at home. And three, you better tell your kids something different. I sure as hell hope we get to spend more time together in the future than just this weekend.” Michael’s grin overtook his entire face. “Thanks, CJ. I hope so too. Tell you what. Why don’t you and Trip sign this one for Blaine? You can send one for me later. That way we both get to have our own copy.” A few hours later, the Miami Hurricanes football team ran onto the field to cheers and jeers. The rivalry between the two teams dated to their time in the Big East Conference; it did not diminish when both schools jumped to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lane Stadium was packed, and the small section reserved for the visiting team was a sea of green and orange. Even CJ and Owen donned knit caps with those colors after leaving the bookstore. Their eyes were riveted to the giant screen as the Hokies made their entrance and the crowd’s roar exploded. Owen leaned into CJ so his question could be heard. “What are their players doing?” He pointed at the Virginia Tech team members who reached upwards and touched something above the opening of the tunnel leading to the playing field. CJ was glad he had read up on the school. “They’re touching a block of Hokie Stone. Superstitious tradition. They think it’ll bring them luck.” “Hokie stone?” “Yeah. It’s a type of limestone used on most buildings around here. The school owns the quarry it comes from, and it’s the only one allowed to buy it. I want to make a stop tomorrow before we leave, and you’ll see more of it.” Sometime during the second quarter, CJ handed the binoculars to his husband while retrieving his phone. “Hold this, Oz.” Glancing at the opposite side of the field, he pointed somewhere right of center at the Virginia Tech bench. “Take a look at the two guys standing shoulder to shoulder. One’s blond and the other one’s wearing a black bandana. They have my gaydar pinging.” “Bloody hell, what do you mean it’s pinging? Long distance? Since when did your reception get so good?” Chuckles accompanied CJ’s response. “I was watching when they came off the field. After a moment talking to a coach, the two have been standing next to each other the whole time.” “And that makes you think they’re gay?” Owen sounded skeptical. “Two footie players talking to each other during a match seems normal to me.” “It’s not that. It’s the way they’re standing. And how they keep bumping into each other while doing so. And I’m not sure, but I think they almost held hands for a—here’s the first one: Efrain Garza.” CJ had googled the Hokies team roster and showed Owen the picture of a dark-haired, Hispanic looking guy. A few swipes with a finger and the screen displayed the image of a smiling straw-haired man. “Cory Card from Texas. If those two aren’t fucking, I’ll eat my hat.” The following morning, before departing for home, CJ insisted Owen accompany him on a short expedition. Chipper tagged along. Back in April 2007, within hours of the horrendous shooting on Virginia Tech’s grounds, grief-stricken students assembled on the Drillfield—an oval-shaped, grassy stretch of land bordered by trees that served as a central point for campus activities. They placed thirty-two pieces of Hokie stone liberated from construction sites on campus in an arc, creating an impromptu memorial to those murdered by the shooter. “Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, Santa Fe, Pittsburgh—” “What are you mumbling, mate?” The university formalized the display by engraving the names of each victim on the polished top face of rock chunks over which CJ stood reciting a litany of names. “Trying to remember all the places where there have been massacres like here since I was born. “When we went to the demonstration the Parkland students organized, I believed change was coming. Even the idiot in the White House appeared to be on board. But as usual, the NRA squashed any potential restrictions on firearms. I’m so tired of the bullshit, Oz.” CJ wiped away moisture from his eyes. “You know damn well I support gun ownership. But this is stupid. I sure as shit hope we elect someone with the balls and influence to make a change before I die.” Chipper’s beautiful voice interrupted CJ’s rumination. “We may not yet have reached our glory But I will gladly join the fight And when our children tell their story They'll tell the story of tonight They'll tell the story of tonight Tonight” Confusion turned into recognition as the man sang a cappella. CJ reached for Owen’s hand and held it while their friend belted out the song Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt composed for the March for Our Lives initiative. CJ, Owen, and Ritchie had attended the demonstration led by students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School; the three of them and the dads had contributed money to support the event. A smattering of applause surprised the three friends. The small gathering behind them had gone unnoticed while Chipper’s eyes were closed, and CJ and Owen stared at their friend and the stones. Talking to a few of the people around them, they discovered most were alumni who visited the memorial whenever they returned to campus. Football rivalries were all but forgotten. A few weeks after their trip to Blacksburg, CJ sorted through fan mail forwarded by the publisher, when one caught his eye. The writer explained he was a member of the football team and was unable to attend the presentation given at Virginia Tech. He stated both he and his friend and teammate had read the book, and wondered if CJ would be willing to sign their copy if they mailed it. The signer, Cory Card, promised to pay postage both ways. The following day, two complimentary copies of the book were on their way to Blacksburg. One bore a dedication to Cory, the other one to his friend Efrain. CJ refused to schedule anything over the week of Thanksgiving. Except for Rod and Taisha Abelló who lived in Washington, he had not seen any of the family since the wedding. He wanted to spend time with his relatives. Wednesday before the holiday, the CBC Family Foundation held its annual board of directors meeting at Forbes Grille. In the evening, the three cousins—CJ, Rod, and Randy—gathered at the Georgetown Theatre apartment with their spouses. “Very nice. Where’d you get them? And do they make a Chicago one?” Tyler Scott sat on one of the stools at the kitchen peninsula pointing at two round wooden clocks, one with the skyline of Washington cut along the top and the other one with Sydney’s. “I’ll take a wild guess that’s the time in Australia right now.” A product of Chicago like his husband Randy, Tyler began working for Second Line Restoration after graduating from high school. Over the years, he attended school part-time, obtained his general contractor’s license, and rose to become general foreman for jobs involving historic properties. Half a foot shorter than his husband, the man was nearly as wide as he was tall, with what had to be one of the lowest body-fat percentages amongst all of CJ and Owen’s friends. “Got it in one, mate. But just the eastern part of the country.” Owen raised a bottle of wine, offering Randy’s husband a refill. “We found them in San Francisco and they had like fifty different cities. I’m sure Chicago’s one of them. I’ll give you the name of the store. They have a website.” “The black bean hummus is awesome, guys. Where’d you pick it up?” Rod dipped a miniature rice cake into the spread and scooped out a healthy amount. “CJ made it.” “Really? Is it hard to make? Can we get the recipe?” “Mate, I’m not much of a cook, but even I could handle it. Open a couple of cans and throw everything in the food processor. I’ll email you the list of ingredients.” “So, let me get this straight.” Randy slid his empty glass toward Owen—signaling with a finger for more—while staring at CJ. “You’re not twenty-one for another month, you sit on the board of directors of the family foundation, and you’ve been invited to join the Human Rights Campaign Washington Steering Committee.” “Yep, and don’t forget I’m also on the board of Heroes Haven in Delaware.” “That’s the place building micro houses for veterans with PTSD, right?” “If you, Ty, and Silas come to DC next summer, we should all go for a visit.” Taisha perched on her husband’s knee with his arm around her waist. “CJ and Ozzie took us for a tour after they returned from their honeymoon. It’s a beautiful place and they’re doing great work. They’ve opened up parts of the old grounds. Maybe we could go camping.” “CJ camping? I thought he only stayed at five-star resorts.” Rod’s comment earned him an elbow from his wife. “Shut up, Rodney. This is an adult evening. None of the usual BS between the three of you allowed.” Randy bumped fists with his brother behind Taisha’s back. The woman often called him the evil twin, since he was apt to start any shenanigans when the brothers got together with CJ. “Okay, so you sit on three board of directors. You also have that position with the university’s basketball program. That means you do a little tutoring and a lot of schmoozing of potential recruits and wealthy donors. And you’re running for student government next semester.” He had an inkling where this was going but CJ decided to humor his cousin. Staring at him, he realized the twins did not look as buff as they had a few years back. Randy and Rod had both gained a little weight, and with their considerable amount of body hair, they now looked like cubs. The bears at UPROAR—the Scandals Rugby Club’s bar sponsor—would eat them up. “I’m thinking about it. I told the guy who asked me to run I’d let him know after Christmas break.” Ignoring CJ’s comment, Randy chattered on. “Then, without telling any of us, you write a book that’s doing real well. You’re making personal appearances, and you meet the owner of Amazon. Of course, he invites you and Ozzie to his mansion here in Washington, and offers you a job when you graduate.” “Mate, you should have seen the place. It’s so big you could get lost in there.” Owen had carried along two bottles of Liston wine when they went to dinner at the Bezos’ home and charmed both husband and wife. “You should hear Ritchie bitch. He wants to meet Bezos too. Because of the man’s interest in space travel.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah… Lives of the rich and famous. Spare me.” Randy waved a hand in dismissal. “If all that wasn’t enough, you won the election for whatever it was you ran for. How’d you find the time to campaign?” “It’s called the Advisory Neighborhood Committee, cuz. And I didn’t have to campaign all that much. The guy who approached me about running served as the informal campaign manager. He and his cronies organized a series of meetings at different homes. I did a bunch of those where I would talk to people and that was it. It’s an unpaid position. It’ll take some time, but I can handle it.” Owen reached for the corkscrew intent on opening another bottle. “It was very low key, Randy. I went to a few of them. Someone always introduced CJ, spoke about his internship with Senator Marco Rubio years ago, his involvement with Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and how he was registered as an independent. DC’s a liberal city, but Georgetown’s a wealthy neighborhood and has plenty of old-line conservative Republicans. They were all very nice, though. Well, except for someone who complained about my husband being a ‘spoiled trust-fund baby’ with no business representing anyone.” “Who the hell said that? Did you beat the shit out of them?” “Fuck you, Ty. Is that how you think I deal with people? No, I did not beat anyone up. We don’t even know who said it. Someone told us about it at one of those events.” “Damn, cuz.” Randy shook his head and smiled. “I hate to admit it, but I’m impressed. Student, philanthropist, politician, and author. What’s next?” “Ummm, not sure. Ozzie and I have something in the planning stages. But we’re not ready to say anything yet. But as soon as we know for sure, the family finds out first.” The couple had discussed telling the relatives about Gina but decided to wait until the process was further along before making an announcement. “He’s also volunteering with La Casa Latina on campus. Working with minority students, including Dreamers.” Owen sounded proud of his husband. “And we’re both going to spend time at a homeless shelter slash soup kitchen starting in January.” “Why January? Isn’t the time around Thanksgiving and Christmas the popular time to do that type of stuff?” “That’s why we’re not doing it now, Randy.” CJ reached for the bottle of wine and topped off his glass. “Everyone’s gung-ho to give a hand this time of year. They forget the need’s there 365 days. Hunger and homelessness don’t disappear after the New Year.” The involvement overload was in part a result of the tirade Ethan subjected CJ to while in New York. Financial support would still play a large role in the couple’s charitable activities, but they agreed getting their hands dirty now and then while helping others would be good for the soul.
  33. 69 points
    Over time, most of Owen’s clothes found their way to the closet in CJ’s basement bedroom at the Georgetown townhouse. He finished moving out of his own place days before the wedding, when the young couple took over an apartment at the rehabbed and repurposed Georgetown Theater. Since storage at their new abode was not as ample as what they were accustomed to, CJ left behind a good chunk of his t-shirt collection. The beneficiary was Ritchie, who was quite happy to accept his older brother’s discards. Three months after the wedding and the move, convenience coupled with constant harping from César and Brett, found CJ and Owen eating dinner with the family more often than not. “Are you gonna turn into a spook? I sure as shit hope not.” Brett’s question made CJ roll his eyes. The retired Marine Corps captain turned real estate developer might have been CJ’s adoptive father, but the similarity of their humor could lead one to believe they shared the same DNA. Brett Andrew Davenport was often accused by his husband of acting more like their barely-out-of-his-teens son than a mid-thirties adult should. Echoes of his youth as a wealthy, carefree, California surfer-boy rippled through his personality. “I don’t know... Maybe?” CJ’s sideways glance and smirk presaged a potential battle of wits. “Here we go again.” César shook his head, pointing at his husband. “You need to stop questioning everything he does. And you”—he swung his finger around and aimed it at his son—“you need to stop teasing him so much.” From his usual spot at the head of the table, Ritchie pontificated on the matter. “You should do it, CJ. I think it’d be sooo cool to have a spy in the family. We could learn how to kill people without leaving evidence and stuff.” César’s attention shifted to their youngest one. “And you need to stop reading all those spy novels, and watching those silly action movies.” Possibly to compensate for his husband’s occasional childish behavior, César Marcos Abelló often tried to be the voice of reason during domestic interactions. The accountant and chief financial officer of the various family-owned enterprises became a parent at twenty; CJ suspected early fatherhood had helped shape his more sedate personality. “Mate, I don’t think he’d be doing any of that covert stuff if he went to work for them.” Owen knew more of his husband’s plans than the three other men did; he told CJ he would support whatever decision he came to. During the wedding, his old friend Jacob Cruz again approached CJ, and brought up the possibility of applying for a position with the CIA. When the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service alumnus called to invite him to lunch, CJ accepted. “Look, dads, I’m not saying anything will come out of this. I still want to work at the State Department. I’d like to serve the country as a diplomat. That’s my first choice. However, we all know how the administration feels concerning diplomacy. Even though they’re still recruiting and hiring, there’s a gazillion unfilled positions at State. Who knows what the situation’s gonna be like in two years about the time I graduate. Or how long it’ll take the next President and Secretary of State to rebuild the diplomatic corps. “And although he’s bashed our intelligence services often enough, at least the idiot in the White House hasn’t tried to cripple those agencies the same way. So I’m gonna go have lunch with Spike and meet whoever he wants to introduce me to. I’ll listen, but I’ll make no promises. Anyway, how many people get to visit CIA headquarters at Langley? Hell if I’m gonna pass up the opportunity.” “So, you named the Jeep, Defiant; the motorcycle, Hunter; that stupid gun, Lola; and this is Sparky. What’s the name of the house?” Taisha Kravitz Abelló sat in the passenger seat of the Tesla with CJ behind the wheel. Their spouses had been relegated to the back. They were on the way to an opening night reception at an art gallery before going out to dinner. A little over four years after she began working as Brett’s assistant at Third Line Development, and a year and a half after marrying her boss’ nephew and company project manager, the dark-skinned woman was entrenched as a beloved member of the Abelló-Davenport family. Her sensible, no-nonsense attitude was often on display whenever her husband Rod, her brother-in-law Randy, and their younger cousin CJ behaved as children. “Actually, I was the one who named this car. As for the house, he hasn’t given it a name yet.” Owen reached forward and patted his husband on the head. “He’s being a good boy. I told him it had to be a joint decision. And that we should wait until we live there.” “Good boy?” Rod sputtered the words. “Damn, cuz, he’s already got you trained!” Although more somber than his brother in general, Rodney Sebastián Abelló shed his professionalism around his cousin. The civil engineer was not above verbally sparring with CJ if the opportunity arose. “Fuck you, Rod. I don’t need no training. And I’d be careful if I were you. I spent the day at the CIA and may have picked up a trick or two on how to hurt people.” “Yeah, like I’m scared. What’d you do over there anyway?” “I could tell you all about it… Of course, I’d have to kill you after.” Taisha’s exasperation apparently reached the point she had to intervene. “What is it with you Abelló men? Do you always have to turn everything into a testosterone-fueled battle? I’m used to CJ and Randy going at it, but this is a little too close to home for me. Rod, you better behave or you’ll be on the sofa tonight.” CJ laughed. “Who’s well-trained now, cuz?” “You shut up too. Or I’ll tell Ozzie to make you sleep on your couch.” The woman telegraphed her annoyance well enough for the men to chuckle. “Here’s a novel idea: we all try to behave as adults tonight. This is a rare treat and I want to enjoy myself, not babysit.” She went from annoyed to threatening to placating, before ending in surprised. “I still can’t believe you agreed to join us, CJ. Friday nights you’re usually doing the martial arts thing with Thiago.” The mention of his friend gave CJ the opening he was looking for. “He’s taking a temporary break from the dojo. Picked up a few extra nights at the pharmacy since he’s trying to save a little extra money before the baby arrives. Have you talked to Nadine?” He caught a glimpse of the woman narrowing her eyes before replying. “Nice fishing expedition… Sorry to disappoint you. All I know’s the same you said Thiago told you. Nadine’s parents objected to an abortion. They convinced her to carry to term, and place the baby up for adoption. She has no desire to become a mother now. So her signing over full parental rights wasn’t a complete surprise.” Once Nadine returned from her parents’ home and informed Thiago of her decision, his friends took action. Ethan Feldman came into town for a weekend and spent most of it sharing knowledge he had acquired in family law with Owen. Together, they drafted a plan of action and the first step was a paternity test to confirm the child was Thiago’s. Nadine was at first offended they would consider the possibility she had slept with other men, but capitulated in the end. “We haven’t talked much since you two recruited me to convince her the paternity test was a good idea.” Although reluctant at the time CJ and Owen approached her, Taisha eventually agreed to get involved. “I think she decided I was too close to you guys and we couldn’t be BFFs anymore.” The men also elicited help from Helen Mookjai. They asked her to introduce the expectant mother to her gynecologist, and convinced the physician to waive any charges not covered by health insurance. CJ and Owen secretly arranged to pay those amounts. “Helen did tell me Nadine’s met the OBGYN. Although all those privacy rules meant she didn’t have details, the doctor mentioned everything was going well. As far as I know, Nadine still wants to move to California after graduation. What surprised me with this whole thing was Thiago’s reaction. Last thing I expected was he nixing the adoption plan and wanting to raise the kid himself. I hope he’s ready to become a single father.” All Squad members and the immediate family had been to the Georgetown Theatre apartment at one point or another since CJ and Owen took possession. They were now inviting friends over on a regular basis with some coming over for dinner and others, like members of the Scandals Rugby Football Club, gathering to watch sporting events. Those occasions made the place seem small with a bunch of muscle bears packed inside. “Hi, Uncle Ozzie.” Nearing his third birthday, Gamon Mookjai was a typical toddler; shy around strangers, he was comfortable with adults he had met and dealt with before. The boy melted into Owen’s hug, lowering his eyes when Gina stared at him. His exotic features, a blend of his father’s Thai heritage and his mother’s all-American looks, often drew praise from strangers. “Hi yourself, mate. I want you to meet our friend Gina. You’ll like her. She’s nice.” Gina Nichols, the Georgetown University student from Alaska, had become a close friend after approaching CJ during his involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign. “My, you’re a cutie. You’ll be breaking hearts when you’re a little older.” Finishing dinner preparations, CJ watched from the kitchen. He and Owen were ready to execute the plan hatched at Elizabeth Liston’s bedside prior to her death. Tonight’s gathering was another step in the implementation. “Hey, guys, thanks for having us. The place looks great.” Keeping an eye on her son, Helen kissed CJ on the cheek, and placed a bottle of vodka on the counter. “We weren’t brave enough to bring wine. What with Ozzie owning a winery and you two bringing back cases of the stuff from the honeymoon. You’ll have to make do with the harder stuff.” “Thanks, Helen. I told Chatri you didn’t need to bring anything.” Chatri Mookjai was the first friend CJ made after the move to Washington. The Georgetown University School of Medicine graduate became his personal physician when he finished his residency and joined the medical practice founded by Prescott Harding and Matt Calhoun. His wife Helen had already worked as their head nurse for several years at that point. Both hailed from Seattle, Washington but felt comfortable in the nation’s capital. They decided to make it their permanent home, and raise their children there. “Yeah, you try telling that to my wife. She’s big on proper manners.” Chatri pointed at an open bottle of Purple Flame chardonnay sitting in an ice bucket. “Is that for now, or do I have to wait for dinner?” CJ reached up and opened the cabinet above the refrigerator. “There’s glasses. Help yourself, bud. And pour some for your better half.” “I’ll pass,” Helen said, patting her stomach. “My alcohol consumption over the next few months is restricted. I’d rather have a glass with our meal. I’ll take a little club soda if you have it.” There was a moment of silence before everyone started talking over each other. Exclamations of surprise and congratulatory comments flowing one over the other. “Thank you! So, yeah, we just found out Gamon’s going to have a little brother or sister. I’m due in May.” Grabbing the glass of wine he had been nursing while cooking, CJ raised it in salute and downed the contents. “Damn, next year’s gonna be babypalooza around here. First Thiago, and now you. We better buy stock in a diaper company, Oz.” “Are you rushing the celebration?” Everyone turned toward the front door. Ethan, who handled most of the couple’s legal matters, had traveled from New York the previous afternoon. He had run out of contact lens solution and walked to a nearby pharmacy when CJ began prepping dinner. “Not quite.” Owen placed Gamon on the floor; the toddler trotted over to his father and raised his arms asking to be picked up. “We just found out Helen and Chatri are having another baby.” While the meal finished cooking, they sat in the living area, staring out the large front window while sipping their cocktails. Since there was no proper dining table in the apartment, they scattered a multitude of pillows on the floor around the large coffee table where the meal was served. While enjoying dessert, Ethan reached for the briefcase he had placed next to the sofa. “Although I love the opportunity to spend time with friends and it’s been a lovely evening, we all know the reason behind the gathering.” Ethan handed Gina a manila envelope. “Inside there’s the proposed contract. There’s also a list of three attorneys I think you could work with. I’ve talked to all of them, explained the situation, and made it clear they’re to send bills to my office. If after you talk to them you don’t feel comfortable with any one, give me a call. My business card’s in there too. I’ll try to find you some other names.” “Guess it’s my turn.” Chatri reached for his wallet and withdrew a business card. “Call the office and make an appointment. I’ll stay late one day or go in on a Saturday if that works best for you. Once we know there are no general health issues, we’ll hook you up with the right physician. I’ll do it the same way Ethan’s handling finding you an attorney. There won’t be a charge to you either.” Gina chuckled, everyone’s attention on her. “Damn, I didn’t realize I was going to have homework after tonight.” “Hang on one minute.” CJ stood and walked over to the wall unit returning with a folded piece of paper. “This is a copy of the wire transfer to Ethan’s trust account. He’ll hold it in escrow.” “Anybody want a little Port?” Owen pointed at the wine storage cabinet tucked next to the large wall unit. “Somebody gave us a couple of bottles and a crystal decanter as a wedding present. I think this is a great occasion to crack one of those babies open. We can drink a toast in celebration of my sister.” On Tuesday, the couple was at the Capital One Arena for a Maroon 5 concert. CJ loved their music and it became his personal soundtrack for days after. He also liked the fact Adam Levine, the lead singer, was not shy in declaring his love for his gay brother. Sitting with his husband on a late Friday train to New York City, CJ tapped his foot to the beat of “It Was Always You.” As it always did, the song infused him with warmth. He always thought of Owen when he heard it, even more so since the wedding. Amtrak served Dunkin Donuts coffee in disposable cups on its trains. CJ disliked the former and Owen despised the latter; metal travel mugs where a permanent fixture in the outside mesh-pockets of their backpacks. CJ chugged the remainder of his latte and slipped the empty container back in its holding place. He glanced upwards and sideways, past the story he was reading on his tablet, and noticed Owen with his eyes closed, head resting against the seat. Whatever he was listening to made his husband smile. He nudged the man’s foot with his own. “What you listening to?” The Aussie removed the headphones and scrunched his face. “Huh? I didn’t hear you.” “I asked what you were listening to. It’s making you smile.” “Oh! An old song by Birds of Tokyo. ‘Lanterns’ makes me think of you. Of us. It’s about someone embarking on a journey to a place they’ve never been. About fighting for what’s right. It talks about I, but switches to we. There’s a line about being young and ready with nothing to fear that reminds me of us. And you? Listening to Adam Levine and Maroon 5?” Owen was well aware of CJ’s tendency to play a musician’s songs ad nauseam after attending a concert. “You know me. And funny thing’s the song I was listening to made me think of us too. I may have played hard to get, but it was always you. I’m glad I came to my senses.” “CJ! OWEN!” The shouts carried through the cacophony inside The Stumble Inn. CJ saw Ethan Feldman waving at them and followed Owen toward their friend. They had agreed to meet at the sports bar at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 76th Street, two blocks away from the apartment. “You’re looking good, Ethan.” The Aussie hugged his fellow law school graduate who still wore business attire; he had apparently come to the watering hole directly from the office. “You guys do too. Like I told you in DC last weekend, married life agrees with you.” Ethan repeated the bro hug with CJ and motioned for a server. “Sean’s pissed at you two. Says it’s bullshit we’re not hanging out in Chelsea.” CJ waited until the scantily clad young woman took their order. “He’ll get over it. If we’d gone to PRIME tonight, we’d prolly ended up dragging home real late and drunk.” Sean Brody, Ethan’s boyfriend, bartended at the 9th Avenue club the Washington couple frequented while in New York. “We’re in the City like every other month. We’ll spend plenty of time together in December when we return.” “I’m surprised you aren’t at the rehearsal dinner tonight. Out of town guests tend to be invited.” “We were.” Owen closed the menu he had been scanning. “CJ talked our way out of it.” “We had to come to the wedding—” CJ paused while the server delivered three, foam-topped, frosty glasses of Brooklyn Lager and took their food order. “We like Cristina. Plus, her mom would’ve been upset if we’d skipped it. Susana’s always been the best. But I can only take so much of the groom’s epic douchebaggery.” Ethan’s laughter attracted the attention of the women at the next high table. “Don’t look now, but the girls next to us are checking us out.” “Don’t worry, mate. We’ll protect you.” Owen smirked when Ethan rolled his eyes. “Anyway, Damien Prado’s a tosser. We prefer to limit our exposure to him.” “Exposure? Is he contagious? He woulda prolly behaved tonight. I’ve only dealt with him a couple of times, but I think he’d be concerned about creating a scene at his own wedding. He seems too focused on image.” “Yeah, well, he’s been a prick whenever Ozzie and I’ve been around him. Let’s change the subject. We’re really thankful for the help with Thiago. But like we mentioned last weekend, you still haven’t billed us for this project.” “There’s no bill to send.” “That ain’t right. You worked and you should be paid. Send us a bill.” Ethan looked incredulous. “Really, CJ? You think I’m going to charge for a few hours spent on behalf of a friend? I thought you knew me better. Thiago’s a fellow Squad member. We all look out for each other. What I did for him, I’d do for any of the others in our group. Money’s not everything as you often say. Friends—Family—are a hell of a lot more important.” “It doesn’t feel right, bud. The reason you got involved was ’cause I asked Ozzie to call you. Send us a bill. You know we can afford to pay you.” “Fuck you! And fuck your money.” Ethan’s angry eruption surprised CJ. “I’m tired of you thinking you have to solve all your friends’ problems. Yeah we know you’re rich. But if you’re too stupid to realize some of us don’t give a shit about that…” The words hung in the air and CJ was unsure what to say, where to look, or what to do. A glance told him his husband was not coming to his defense. The Aussie leaned back and crossed his arms, his face revealed nothing. “I… I’m sorry. I don’t…” “Look, you’re wealthy, you know it, and you have no compunction about lavish spending. Funny thing’s you do it just as easily, if not more so, on others. You’re generous to a fault, CJ. But not all of us can afford to throw money around the way you do.” A smirk creased Ethan’s lips. “At least not yet. If ever. But we care about our friends as much as you do. “So, if I can’t afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to help out Thiago, let me spend a few hours doing it. Stop trying to control everything and everyone around you. Let some of us do our part. Hell, you defer to Ozzie all the time. Give the rest of us in the Squad a chance. Give us a break and defer to us now and then. “And for the record, it’s not me who’s not charging. The firm’s allowing me to work on it pro bono. When I approached the managing partner, described the case, and explained the relationship, he approved my time. You have no idea how many brownie points I earned when you became a client. “You signed the release, so you know we do background checks on all potential clients. Your net worth and reputation make you two the type of people we love to represent. Even if we don’t do that much for your families, the potential’s there for a lucrative relationship as far as the higher-ups are concerned.” CJ had a lot to think about. “Sorry. I sometimes get carried away. I won’t bring it up again.” Coffee, orange juice, and a flat bagel with a schmear were first breakfast the following morning. The second one—a real meal—would follow their jog through Central Park. Ear buds in place, the two set out from their apartment building under clear skies; the cool October morning was perfect for a run. One foot in front of the other, they kept pace with each other without a word exchanged. They had their music, their thoughts, and their frequent glances. The familiar circuit covered approximately two miles, traversing Strawberry Fields, skirting The Ramble, and ending at the bronze Alice in Wonderland statue where they cooled down and stretched. Later in the day, kids and tourists would scamper through and over the montage of characters from the Lewis Carroll children’s classic, scrambling for position to take pictures atop the mushrooms or next to Alice, the Mad Hatter, or the rabbit. “Ready to go home and shower?” Owen’s brilliant smile was a worthy companion to the sun—both brightened their surroundings. “Actually…” CJ hesitated for a moment. “It’s nice out. Can we hang for a few? I wanna talk about something.” Owen leaned his back against the edge of the Mad Hatter’s bronze top hat and crossed his arms. “What’s up?” “It’s what Ethan said last night. About me trying to control everything and thinking I can fix it all with money. Is he right?” “Yes.” The swift response was not unexpected. CJ had mulled over their friend’s words from the previous evening while he ran. “At times you do.” “Thanks for being honest.” “Always, CJ. Always. I’ll be honest with you even if I have to say stuff you might not want to hear. But I’ll temper Ethan’s criticism with the fact you always have good intentions. You want to help people. Your friends in particular. And as you did with Clinton’s campaign, you throw yourself into everything with gusto.” “Funny, I was thinking back to the campaign while running. You realize since then I’ve done very little volunteering? Yeah, I give money to support causes, but I’ve slacked off otherwise. I wanted to get so far away from politics… I don’t know. I think I need the pendulum to swing in the other direction a bit.” “So, what are we going to do?” “We?” “Of course. I mean, we don’t have to do everything together... But if you’re thinking of volunteering somewhere, I might be interested.” CJ reached a hand to Owen’s neck, tilted his head upwards, and kissed his husband. “I definitely married the right man. Let’s go home, shower, and walk somewhere for a big breakfast. Let me think overnight, and we can discuss what we might want to do during the train ride tomorrow.” “Are you sure they won’t mind us being there early? I thought this was for family and people in the wedding party.” Owen reached over and straightened Chipper’s bow tie. Cristiano Humberto Israel Pereira, Jr. was the same height as CJ but weighed some twenty pounds less. He was fit instead of skinny, but lacked the bulk his buddy had developed due to time spent lifting weights. “You look great, mate. You’ll be the hottest of the groomsmen.” Their friend, an aspiring musician and student at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, had flown in from Florida the previous day and headed directly to the rehearsal dinner for his sister’s wedding. He was staying in the apartment with Owen and CJ, who were asleep as he crawled in. He had still been in bed when they went for their morning run. Returning to the apartment, Chipper had not wanted to do anything; he had a hangover and wanted to rest so he could drink again that evening. “Exactly! They’re taking pictures and you two have to be in at least one with me. You’re family. You’re my brothers.” Chipper fingered the white silk scarf CJ draped over his shoulders and grinned. “Nice… You should have bought me one of these. Anyway, last night at the rehearsal dinner both my parents asked about you. They wondered why you weren’t there.” CJ turned off the sound system, grabbed his keys from the hook by the door, and followed the other two men to the elevator. They had reserved a car to take them the near-twenty blocks to the wedding venue. “Yeah, but that’s your parents. I’m thinking the groom might not have been as enthusiastic. I figured out he’s a control freak who makes my dad look like a wild lunatic.” “Oh, you’d be surprised. He also asked.” Chipper held the elevator’s door open while CJ stood frozen, his jaw dropping as far as it could. “Close your mouth, mate.” Owen placed a hand on his husband’s back and prodded him inside. “You’re making that shit up, Chipper. Aren’t you?” “No! Serious. He wanted to make sure you were showing up. He said he was looking forward to seeing you again.” “What the fuck?” CJ acknowledged the doorman with a nod and a wave as he stepped into the crisp autumn twilight. “The guy’s said something to piss me off each time we’ve met, and I haven’t been that friendly after.” “Yeah, but my sister’s marrying no dummy. He talked to me a lot during your wedding. He kept bringing up the fact you had two former presidents and a bunch of Senators and Representatives from both parties there. Seeing Eva Longoria and the video messages Cher and Jennifer Lopez sent had his eyes bugging out. Then he met Patrick Ewing. Damien grew up in New York City and he’s a Knicks’ fan. He knew who the man was real well.” “That’s it? That’s all it takes to impress him? Meet a few famous people and he stops being condescending?” Chipper took the car’s front seat while his friends slipped into the back. “I may have mentioned something else that sparked his interest.” “What’d you tell him? I bet it had something to do with money. The guy’s struck me as a wealth snob.” “Got it in one, Ozzie. I brought up the fact César and Brett signed the letter sent to Congress last year by wealthy people. The one where they asked not to have their taxes lowered. I think that’s when it hit him you guys were uber-rich.” “He’s gonna be nice to me because my dads have money?” CJ knew wealth impressed certain individuals but still found it hard to process. “It ain’t just your dads, dude. You have plenty of your own by now.” “Yeah, but I haven’t done shit for it. I’ve made a few investments on my own and made a profit, but most of my money came from the trusts. The one established by great-grandfather Davenport primarily. Hell, if Papa hadn’t adopted me, giving him a legitimate heir, all that would have also ended up in the foundation.” “And that’s just it. Damien doesn’t come from a wealthy family. He made it all himself on Wall Street. You can trace yours back through the Davenports. To someone like him, old money holds special attraction. He wants to be included in those circles.” “Don’t sound so surprised, mate.” Owen’s hand-squeeze was a comforting move. “How many times have the dads mentioned some people would want to be around us because of money? You’ve been bloody lucky our close friends don’t give a crap. You’re not always flashy with it, so that helps.” Founded in the early 1900s, the Friars Club evolved from gatherings by a group of press agents who met at a restaurant on a regular basis. Over the years, membership expanded to include first the agents’ clients in the entertainment business, then augmented with entrepreneurs and tycoons. At some point, they purchased the stately mansion that served as their headquarters. Famous for risqué roasts of its more famous associates, the club made the facility available to members for special events. After Chipper’s rendition of “At Last” for the first dance, and the bride and groom’s dance with their parents, Chip Pereira approached CJ and Owen at the bar. “Hello, guys. I haven’t seen you since CJ’s high school graduation. Congratulations on your wedding.” “Thank you, Chip.” CJ shook the proffered hand. His resentment over the Argentinian-born banker stepping out on Dr. Matt Calhoun years before faded over time; he learned not all relationships were like the one his dads’ had. Not everyone was destined to be in a long-term, monogamous partnership the way he hoped to be too. Cristiano Humberto Israel Pereira was a philanderer, cheated on his wife with men, divorced her, and moved to Washington. He eventually did the same to Matt, with a guy just a few years older than his son, and once again escaped town after being found out. He now lived in Tampa. “You both look very dapper and very happy. Marriage suits you.” “Thanks, mate. We work at it. It’s been just a few months, but we figured even before the wedding that it takes more than sex and living together to make it work.” “You’re lucky if you’ve already discovered that, Owen. It took me forever. It’s not something you get to do for a while and then forget. Relationships are hard. You have to work at them all the time.” “CJ! Owen! I’m so happy to see you.” Susana Pereira looked resplendent in a lavender gown; she had repaired the mascara streaks caused by tears shed while her daughter exchanged vows. Her return to Buenos Aires years before precipitated the crisis that led to her son relocating to D.C. At the time, Chipper was too upset with his father for once again destroying a relationship by having an affair; the teen refused to move to Argentina with her or to Florida with Chip. “You look fantastic, Susana.” Owen kissed the woman on both cheeks. “I saw you tear up during the ceremony. Reminded me of my Mum at our wedding.” “Chipper mentioned you spent your honeymoon in Napa touring vineyards. You have to tell me all about it.” Interlacing her arms with the young men, she led them away from the bar. “Come. I want your opinion on the wine we’ll be serving with dinner.”