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  1. 93 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 friends 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
  2. 92 points
    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
  3. 88 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. 83 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. ***
  5. 82 points
    “That’s enough, Carson. Put the brush away. There’s no more lint on any of us.” CJ marveled at his former college classmate’s dedication and attention to detail. Carson Sawyer had served him well as chief of staff—a role the man was about to reprise—and more recently as campaign manager. Unmarried, Sawyer’s focus was on his job twenty-four hours a day. He followed CJ to Havana when the man was appointed U. S. ambassador to Cuba. Returning to Washington, Carson served his friend through two elections and a little over one term as the District’s mayor. He reprised his role in New York during CJ’s time as ambassador to the United Nations. His tenure as gatekeeper to the President of the United States began today. “Sorry, Mr. President, but it’s my job to ensure you all look your best. How will you be recognized as America’s most photogenic family again if I don’t pay attention to the little things?” Along with the expanding waistline, Carson had developed a deep familiarity with the Abellós over the years spent with CJ. He knew what buttons to push to calm or get a rise out of his boss. Today, he was being playful; everyone knew CJ hated looks-based popularity. Even if it was one of the reasons he had won the election. “Let him be, Ceej. Don’t be a pain. Jeffer and I are going to miss this kind of TLC at Annapolis. Let us enjoy it while we can.” High school seniors, Roosevelt and Jefferson Abelló paid more attention to their appearance than either of their fathers ever did. They did a final modeling shoot prior to the campaign going into high gear and bitterly complained when told they could not strut catwalks or book additional photo sessions before the election. Although they did not need the money, they thrived on the attention. “Watch your mouth, middie. Are you forgetting who you’re talking to? That’s our Commander-in-Chief.” Owen tried not to laugh—mock stern was not his strong suit. “I swear the two of you primp more than your sister does. Why can’t you be more relaxed like her?” CJ tried to disguise his smirk by turning and coughing. After all their years together, Owen still took his breath away. He anticipated celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary while residing in the White House and had promised this was the last dance. It was to be his final effort at following the advice he gave his classmates when he spoke at his college commencement: remain involved and help your fellow men. Once his term was over, they would travel and enjoy spending as much time together as possible. Owen was the one person who saw CJ without the public mask. He knew the man about to become the most powerful person in the world best. Love and trust defined their relationship. Through all the jobs and the necessary moves, Owen never complained and never failed to be CJ’s staunchest supporter. If there was one aspect of their lives the Aussie at times questioned, it was how they had raised their children. Intelligence, wealth, and physical beauty the kids had handled well, but their personalities were too damn close to their parents. The youngsters’ banter echoed the way the two fathers interacted with the rest of the extended family. “Leave me out of it, Oz.” Elizabeth Abelló, a Georgetown University student planning on law school after graduation, had thrown her own tantrum earlier. “I’m still upset. Fabricio should be in here with us.” “I thought we settled this, Liebe. Your boyfriend’s right out there, and you’ll see him soon enough. Stop acting like a petulant child.” Although both fathers enforced rules and administered discipline, CJ was the one the kids preferred not to anger. That revelation made by their daughter during an interview the previous year led to Owen calling CJ the ogre for a while. “This is family time. Don’t forget you’re in charge of your little brother this morning.” “I don’t need no one to watch me, Papi.” Davenport Liston Abelló—ten years younger than his sister—had been the center of Liebe’s world from the day he had been adopted as a newborn. Her maternal instincts flourished under the watchful eyes of female relatives. “I can take care of myself like I did last summer in Australia. Liebe, Roo, and Jeffer were only there for like a week.” All four children grew up spending portions of their summer vacations in the Hunter Valley at the Liston family compound. The previous year, in the heat of the presidential campaign, his sister and brothers insisted on traveling the United States with their fathers. To them, it was an adventure; for CJ and Owen, it was a nightmare. Supervising three teenagers while attending endless meetings and rallies was not something either one of them enjoyed. “We know, Davey.” Owen squatted in front of his son and adjusted the boy’s necktie. “But you know this is a very important day, and we have to follow the plans. As soon as the photographer gets here and snaps a few pictures, you guys can go outside. You’ll go first and sit next to Grandpa César and Grandpa Brett. Okay?” “Speaking of Fabricio, check it out. The camera’s on him and his dad.” Although the sound was off, CJ knew commentators would be introducing important guests to the worldwide viewership. “Thiago looks happy. He’s going to make a great Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” For a man who was never in the military, Thiago Baravento had become an indefatigable champion for anyone separated from service. “Can somebody turn up the volume? I want to hear what they say about Harley.” “Of course, Katie. President Elect Abelló has said in countless interviews that these two men were the ones he first met and associated with in high school. The nucleus of what evolved into the now famed CJ’s Squad. The group of Millennials who’s about to take over the West Wing.” “True, but the appointment of Harley Wilkinson as Administrator of the Small Business Administration was still fraught with controversy. You may recall the pundits had him pegged as our next ambassador to Vietnam. Since his wife’s family hails from the country, many predicted that was where the couple would end. What they called ‘a cushy job handed out to a longtime friend.’ I have the feeling his performance will surprise many.” “They didn’t take into account President Elect Abelló would want to keep his closest associates in Washington. I’m not so sure an appointment of Mr. Wilkinson to any governmental post would have been a simple handout. After all, the man has proven he’s a savvy businessman. He did rise from being a mechanic to owning the best-known motorcycle custom shop in the United States.” “Which he started with a loan from his friend’s family.” “While attending school at night to obtain a business degree. Now, if you want to talk about a controversial appointment, the man sitting next to Mrs. Wilkinson was at the center of the biggest—” “Okay, you can mute it. I don’t need to hear about Ethan and Sean again.” CJ recalled how his fathers and Carson had been the only ones in the transition team not opposed to the appointment of Ethan Feldman as Solicitor General. Then again, Carson and Ethan were both Squad members; there was zero chance of those men not supporting each other. Sean Brody’s past as a sex worker titillated the public for weeks, but CJ stood his ground, and Ethan’s brilliance took center stage in time. A grin crossed his face. Wait until the pundits found out Ethan would be his first appointment to the Supreme Court. “Hey, guys,”—Brad opened the door after two quick knocks—“this is your make-up artist. The photographer’s here too.” The official White House photographer had told them there would be no posed pictures this morning. He asked them to ignore his presence as he clicked away. “Uncle Brad, can you make sure nobody takes my seat next to Fabricio?” Liebe had not been happy when her fathers requested Brad Kennedy be appointed head of her Secret Service protection detail. Her cousin, Carolina Prado, was even less so. After all, the two women were best of friends, spent much of their time together, and no one freshly out of their teens wants to go out trailed by bodyguards. Particularly when one of them is the man you call dad. “Really, Liebe?” Brad’s incredulous face elicited grins from everyone in the room. “There’s not a single human alive who would dare take your seat. They’re all scared as fuck you’d beat the shit out of them.” The man had gained his ward’s trust when he found her on her knees pleasuring her boyfriend and kept his mouth shut. She was flabbergasted when she told CJ about what had happened and realized her father had no idea Brad had stumbled upon her. “Hey! Language, Red. Not in front of the children.” This time, Owen was able to deliver his line without laughing. “Really, Ozzie?” The hands on the hips and the frown may have been what kept Brad from cracking up. “Have you ever heard a conversation between your children? Cristina and I blame our kids’ foul mouths on their cousins.” “Duuude, like, what the fff… frick?” Jefferson glanced at his fathers out of the corner of his eye. He had almost broken one of the cardinal rules. Swearing was prohibited when non-family members were present. Brad was family, but the photographer was not. “Really, Jeffer?” Third time was the charm. Agent Kennedy lost it. The laughter was rich and deep. It came from a man who loved life. “I’m just glad I got Liebe and get to stay in Washington. I pity the agents assigned to your detail. If there’s a way to get into trouble at the Naval Academy, the two of you will—” The comment died when he noticed the man on the monitor. “Hey, somebody turn up the volume. It’s Paddy.” “No surprise that Father Patrick Kennedy’s delivering the invocation today. Or that he’s been selected as White House Chaplain. He’s the only cleric who could have convinced our next president to attend this morning’s moving prayer service.” “Excellent point, Katie. It was in character for Mr. Abelló to tinker with tradition by moving the event to the National Cathedral and opening it to the public.” “That’s right, Peter. Some assumed he would skip it, but since the Episcopal priest is a member of his cabal, those of us aware the two have been friends for over a quarter century were not surprised.” “Let’s not forget Father Kennedy headed the religious leaders’ group who pledged their support for the presidential candidate in spite of his well-known dislike of organized religion.” The camera pulled back to show Patrick, his husband, and their kids embrace Chipper. “His sons, Boston and Tokyo, are part of the twenty-odd youngsters we suspect will spend a lot of time in the White House. They may be at the core of a Junior Squad. Along with the President Elect’s children, his niece and nephew, Scooter and Springer Wilkinson, Gamon and Benjamin Mookjai, Carolina Prado and— “Speaking of The Squad, there’s a fifth member. Cristiano Humberto Israel Pereira, Jr.—that name’s a mouthful, no wonder he goes by Chipper—electrified the crowd during the concert at the Lincoln Memorial a couple of days ago.” “I’m certain the reaction was the same wherever on the planet his fans watched. After all, he’s been one of the world’s top recording artists for years. I look forward to hearing his rendition of the national anthem.” “And I’m pretty sure he’s the only person who could challenge the President Elect in popularity right now. His upcoming residency in Las Vegas sold out months before he first steps on that stage. In contrast, the man now standing behind him has always kept a low profile.” “As we would expect from the next Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although Lincoln Duvall Erickson has a sterling reputation within the FBI, his single brush with fame came on the heels of the incident in Mexico City.” “The same event that supposedly solidified his position as the oldest and last individual accepted into the inner circle.” “It’s ironic his predecessor resigned the day after the election, claiming his beliefs did not allow him to serve under a homosexual. Director Erickson will be the first out gay man to head the agency.” Whoever had the remote control muted the sound when three raps on the door preceded the appearance of a man dressed in chef’s whites pushing a beverage cart into the room. “Uncle Tank! Uncle Tank!” Davenport rushed to embrace the stocky man he acknowledged as his favorite uncle. The fact Tanix Janda, who attended culinary school while working as a bartender and bar manager and later became a pastry shop owner always brought the youngest Abelló edible treats may have influenced the kid’s opinion. “Did you make me flan?” “Hi, Davey. No flan right now, buddy. But I brought hot cocoa for everyone.” Tank reached underneath the top shelf and retrieved a bag hidden underneath a linen napkin. “And I have miniature marshmallows to put in yours. As for the flan, since your dad hired me to work in the White House’s kitchen, I promise I’ll make it at least once a week.” The man looked up to see both CJ and Owen smiling at him. “Hey! There’s Ritch on the screen. He doesn’t look too happy.” CJ chuckled. “Yeah, my little brother’s all pissed off at his commanding officer. His temporary transfer to the Pentagon was just made permanent. He’s not thrilled about flying a desk full-time.” “Did you have anything to do with that?” “Don’t look at me! I explained the same thing to him: I’m not yet President, so I don’t have that much pull.” “You’re so full of crap, Ceej.” Liebe helped herself to one of the steaming mugs. “You can’t think it’s a coincidence he was promoted and transferred a few days after your election. At least Aunt Lucy’s happy to be back in Washington. And I think it’s pretty cool they get to live in our house while you’re President. Aurora’s all excited about taking over my bedroom, but Falcon still hasn’t decided which room he wants on the boys’ floor.” “I’m glad they moved too!” Davenport blew on his drink before bringing the mug to his lips. “I think it’s great. I have all my cousins in town now. It’ll be fun having everyone at the White House on Sunday nights for Chinese food.” “There’s Aba!” Roosevelt’s shout was rewarded with a hard backslap by Jefferson. “She looks good.” Their great-grandmother’s wheelchair had been placed on the inside edge of the first row; CJ had insisted she have the best seat in the house. “Fuck protocol and tradition. My inauguration, my way. Either my grandmother gets preferred seating, or we do this behind closed doors.” Sebastián and Rosario Abelló had not lived long enough to see their grandson’s election, but the octogenarian Olga Santos was still going strong. The wheelchair was a convenience and not necessary at all times. “I’m sure Uncle Ritch didn’t mind you getting elected when his request to fly to Miami was approved so fast.” Liebe had paid closer attention to the transition goings on than her brothers. She laughed at the Air Force officer’s reaction when his request for time off to charter a private jet, fly to Miami, and bring his grandmother to Washington for the inauguration was approved in record time. “He always looks hot in his uniform.” “Liebe! That’s your uncle. You do not refer to him as hot.” “Screw that! I have the hottest fathers and uncles in the world. All my girlfriends think you guys are DILFs. You have any idea how many of them have that picture of all twelve of you at the pool showing off the matching Squad tattoos? Wait until they see the grandfathers all dressed up today. Grandpa Brett looked great in his dress blues. Too bad Uncle Tank and Uncle Brad don’t get to wear their uniforms.” “Or us! I can’t wait until Jeffer and I get to wear ours. We’re gonna look like studsss.” “Spare me, little brother. You two better not turn into snobs, or I’ll tell the dads to root for Army and Air Force when football season comes around.” “Ha! Roo’s right, we’re gonna look hot. Ceej’s gonna have to act all impartial because he’s Commander-in-Chief, but we know who he’ll be rooting for. Even more during rugby matches when we get our chance to play.” “Okay, everyone.” Carson’s voice cut through the various conversations. “Let’s get this show on the road. Overcoats and gloves on. Liebe, Davey, you go first. Jeffer and Roo, you follow six steps behind. Your dads will walk down when you’re all seated. Remember to smile.” “And don’t pick your noses!” As usual, CJ had the last word. "I, César Marcos Abelló, Jr. do solemnly affirm…” CJ glanced at his hand resting atop Owen’s leather-bound copy of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He had given it to the Aussie as a graduation present from law school so many years before. He raised his gaze and gave his husband a nearly imperceptible wink when their eyes met. “…that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States…” He repeated the words Chief Justice Obama read without the need to pay close attention; he knew the oath by heart and had even practiced it the previous day in front of his husband, daughter, and sons. “…and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend…” He tried to maintain his composure and not shed the tears threatening to escape; there were millions of people watching in the United States and around the world. After all, he was the youngest, the first Hispanic, the first out gay man, the first Floridian, and the first resident of the District of Columbia elected to the highest office in the land. “…the Constitution of the United States.” The thunderous response made it hard for him to hear the congratulations uttered by the Chief Justice. CJ smiled and turned to kiss Owen after scanning the faces of friends and relatives sitting in the stands. He was about to retrieve the hard copy of his inaugural address when Liebe, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Davenport surrounded him and would not set him free until he had kissed each of them. Facing the massed crowd gathered on the National Mall, he unfolded his speech and ignored the teleprompters. “My fellow Americans…”
  6. 81 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. ****
  7. 79 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.”
  8. 78 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.
  9. 74 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?”
  10. 74 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.”
  11. 73 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!”
  12. 73 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.”
  13. 73 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.”
  14. 72 points
    Subject: Fourth Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Wednesday 18 April Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Arbuthnot Mulligan; Michael Stanton Apologies: Polly Fischer April showers. Molly had tuned the shop’s personal address system into a radio station called Gold, the current programme playing non-stop classics from the last century. Nathan remembered his mother singing along to the song from an old compact disc bequeathed her by Nathan’s grandfather. A deep baritone accompanied by a full orchestra oozed the tune, one Nathan still associated with her. Maybe the choice of song had been the radio host’s attempt at humour. In reality, the showers arriving in Crumbington that April felt like an augur; a constant downpour bringing day after day of endless gloom. Despite what people said, the weather did affect the bread business. Fingal stood next to him that Wednesday morning, staring out in solidarity at the rain. “We ought to ramp up the delivery service in preparation for times like this. Nobody comes out in this weather and I hate waste, even though I realise it’s a necessary evil in our business. For all their loyalty, customers won’t tolerate us being out-of-stock. They’ll simply go somewhere else.” “We’re not bad on wastage. Much of what we can’t sell goes to charities, while the rest goes to local pig farms. But if you have any ideas, Fingal, you know I’ll always listen.” Without turning, Nathan could tell Fingal was smiling. “You got one of those meetings tonight?” “You make it sound like a support group. If you mean the fête committee meeting, then yes. Six-thirty. You want to go in my stead?” “Mrs Killjoy and I are not on speaking terms right now. Not since I defected.” Nathan laughed out loud. These days, he seemed to be laughing a lot more. But Fingal had a point. Despite the ‘insider knowledge’ accidentally provided by Arlene’s husband about Upper Crust being about to make an offer on his bakery, over the past fortnight Nathan had received no phone call from a potential buyer, no attractive offer for his shop. And tonight he would find out first hand the extent to which Arlene had been irritated by the outcome of Fingal’s allegiance—surely not one she could have anticipated—and whether her attitude towards him, Nathan, had changed. “Right. Then if there are no customers, and all the work is done, it’s time for a brew.” Fingal’s constant good mood made the day a little brighter for everyone. “Usual?” “Why not?” “Molly?” “Usual, please.” Even on a gloomy day, Fingal brought levity into the old place. Since their chat and his earlier suggestions, Nathan had met with Molly’s daughter, Janette, that lunchtime and had shown her around the shop during his lunch break. By the end of the tour, they’d agreed to have her preparing food on the premises and selling selected items across the counter beginning the end of April. As luck would have it, the arrangement favoured everyone, because she could no longer afford the small kitchen she rented to prepare her organic meals. Using the bakery, she could cover everything including the new demand from Fresher Bakers. Fingal had already put his ovens up for sale and made a draft order for the new model of oven he’d recommended. Levity was not the only benefit Fingal provided. On Sunday, after Nathan's football game and with Jaymes’ blessing, Nathan agreed to accompany Grant to the city of York to see the sights, or what Jaymes called bonding time. They spent two days wandering the old city, Grant’s bubbling enthusiasm infectious, his knowledge of sites like York Minster, Castle Howard and the city walls probably more detailed and extensive than having a personal tour guide. Grant had organised not only first class rail tickets, but had pre-booked them into a heritage hotel in the heart of York, elegant adjoining rooms overlooking the city centre, and would not take Nathan’s money. Eventually Nathan had to insist on buying dinner the first night at an expensive but highly rated fine dining restaurant. He could tell Grant wasn’t comfortable at having to wear pressed trousers, button-down shirt and a jacket for dinner, had done so simply because Nathan had made the booking. “This is not your thing at all, is it?” said Nathan, as the waiter took away the amuse-bouche plate. “It’s fine, Nate.” Hearing Jaymes do the same, Grant had taken to calling him by the short form of his name. “Really. I’m just not—I’m not used to this kind of tucker.” “What? They don’t have fine dining restaurants back in Melbourne?” On the table top, the phone Grant had brought with him, buzzed with a message. Abiding by the restaurant policy for patrons, they had put their phones on silent mode. “Are you kidding me? Melbourne is arguably the gastronomic centre of Australia. But I’m more of a meat and veggies straight off the barbie kind of person. Never really been one for fussy food. That much I get from my dad.” “Over here, we think all Aussies are born with barbecue tongs in their hands.” “No longer the case, mate. Plenty of my countryfolk are gastronomes. Can’t turn on the television without wading through channel after channel of cooking shows. Probably to do with all the fresh, organic produce we have back home. I blame my particular predilection on my old man.” He had already explained to Nathan how his parents had divorced before he turned fourteen. “He spent his down time out the back of our house, either tending garden or socialising with friends and hogging the barbie on our deck. Simple, honest food and good company, was his motto.” “Sorry, Grant, you should have said.” “It’s not an issue.” Grant’s phone wriggled on the tabletop with another buzz, but he didn’t even look down. “You’ve got to try everything at least once, haven’t you?” Nathan said nothing, but simply smirked and looked out across the restaurant. “Not sure what’s going through your filthy mind, cuz, but the answer’s no,” said Grant. “In case you were going to ask. I’ve never been with another dude, nor do I ever plan on doing so.” Nathan turned back to look shocked across the table at Grant. “That wasn’t what I was thinking.” “Liar,” said Grant, grinning. “Okay,” said Nathan, chuckling at being caught out. “But just so you know, I’ve never been with a woman, either. Nor do I ever plan on doing so. Aren’t you going to see who that is?” “Later.” “Is it Polly?” “If it was, would that be a problem?” Nathan studied Grant for a while before answering. “Why would it be a problem?” “She’s your best friend. And Jaymes’ cousin. Wouldn’t that be weird for you?” If he was going to honest, the thought had crossed his mind. But at the end of the day, they were all grown ups, finding happiness wherever they could. And he not only liked, but trusted his cousin. Moreover, if they did get together and anything went pear-shaped, Nathan felt sure it wouldn’t be Polly who’d end up needing a shoulder to cry on. “I’m seeing Polly’s cousin. And she doesn’t find it weird. In fact, she’s really warmed to the idea since you turned up a couple of weeks ago. So if I did object, I’d be a bit of a hypocrite, wouldn’t I?” Grant smiled back, before picking up his phone and dialling a number. “Hey Polly. How’s it going?” They arrived home on Tuesday around six-thirty in the evening. Grant headed back to his hotel, while Nathan went to unpack and shower. Not that he got to do either. An unexpected bonus of the few days away was how much Jaymes had missed him. As soon as he entered the flat, without a word being spoken between them, Jaymes tackled him and took him to bed where they stayed most of the evening. All in all, piece by piece, his life had become the kind of perfect picture he could never have imagined. An hour before he left for the church hall, Polly texted him to tell him she would not attend. School had rescheduled her timetable and she had to be there tonight for the parent’s evening. But she’d join them for drinks later. Despite a string of sad faced emojis, Nathan’s heart sank. Tonight of all nights, he could have done with Polly’s support to front Arlene. He’d almost been tempted to text Grant and ask if he wanted to come, but then reconsidered. Sitting through a committee meeting might scare him back to Australian forever and they’d only just gotten to know each other. After finally texting Grant and then Jaymes to remind them both to come to the pub for drinks and food after the meeting, he made his way to the village hall. Only as he text the word food did his stomach growl, remembering he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. At the meeting, Arlene arrived last. Efficiently and with a quick nod to everyone, she got straight down to business. Nathan noted no undercurrent towards him, just her usual business self. The topic of the calendar came up last, after all other agenda items were out of the way. “Due to pressure from our public—following the publishing of the online article—preorders of the calendar have gone wild. I’ll need to contact the printers for a re-run at this rate. At £14.99 a copy, that gives us a clear profit of just over ten pounds for each one sold. Doris reported that we already have over seven hundred pre-booked sales, so that’s seven thousand pounds in the fête kitty already and we haven’t even set up a single stall yet. Officially the calendar launch will be the third week in May, here in the village hall—Nathan, can you make sure they’ve all marked their calendars?—with all the players signing copies and, of course, Jenny explaining her concept. We’re expecting to have prominent members of the press in attendance. There’s been a lot of interest nationally, especially since Clifton O’Keefe and his husband Raul will be here, too. So, of course, we’ll need to lay on a range of canapés, bubbles and cocktails for the event. My contact in catering will take care of all that.” “Nathan could do the catering. Keep things local,” said Mike, uncharacteristically bluntly. “It’s a sizeable order, Michael,” said Arlene, not even bothering to acknowledge Nathan. “We’ll be expecting around two hundred in attendance. Moreover, my contact has already been informed.” “So un-inform them. Nathan can handle the catering, can’t you, Nathan?” “I suppose so. It’s—what—a month away?” “There’s no need. Everything’s under control—” “Your control,” said Mike. Something or someone had really gotten to him. “But if you insist on us using your contact, then we need to have the details. The committee needs to approve the supplier.” “That won’t be necessary—” “Michael is right, Arlene,” said Father Mulligan. “We should really have voted on Jenny Gillespie before contracting her to take the photographs for the calendar. But I think in that instance, we would have all been in favour, seeing as we had no viable alternatives. I’m not saying I don’t agree with you on the catering matter—I’m sure your previous role as an events coordinator would have brought you into contact with some very capable people—I’m just stating a matter of protocol.” “Fine, then,” said Arlene, glaring at Father Arbuthnot, rattled but still sitting stiffly upright. “Let’s have a vote, if we must. Who’s in favour of Nathan’s little shop providing the catering?” Mike shot up his hand, followed by Doris, and, after a few seconds pause, Nathan put his hand up as well. If he was going to be honest, he didn’t want the job, but if the weather stayed this bad, perhaps he could give Molly and Fingal something else to do. “So that’s three against two,” said Mike, triumphantly. “What about Polly?” said Father Arbuthnot. “She may not be here in person, but she should still get a vote.” “Seriously?” said Mike. “You know she’s going to side with Nathan.” “I’m not a side—” began Nathan, but was totally ignored. So much for trying to mend his relationship with Arlene. “Nevertheless, somebody ought to call her,” said Father Arbuthnot. “I’ll do it, then,” said Mike, before anyone else could offer. Bringing out his phone, he swiped the screen and tapped the display twice with his thumb. “Since when did you have Polly on speed dial?” murmured Nathan, an eyebrow raised. “Since my twins were in her class,” said Mike, rolling his eyes. “We’ll be seeing her at the school tomorrow night.” Luckily for them, Polly appeared to answer on the first ring. Perfect timing, Mike told them, passing the message on as Polly spoke to him. Apparently they’d just finished one round of interviews, he explained, and were having a quick half hour break. When Mike explained the situation to her, she talked for some time, during which Mike listened carefully, frowning and occasionally nodding his head. Eventually, he put her on speaker, so everyone could hear what she had to say. “Hi everyone. Sorry I couldn’t be there tonight, but duty calls. Listen, I really think we ought to consider Arlene’s contact for this. There’s going to be a lot of important people attending we need to impress and we could do with someone who’s experienced in these things. I know Nathan would do a good job, but let’s use someone who does this kind of thing for a living. My vote is with Arlene.” Nathan sat stunned. Although he didn’t really want the job, he was floored that Polly would choose Arlene over him. Even Doris let out a soft ‘well, I never!’ After thanking Polly, and getting back to the meeting, Arlene took back control, her hands clasped triumphantly in her lap. “So that’s a draw. In which case, as the chair, I have the deciding vote.” Nathan turned his attention to Mike, who no longer seemed irritated. While Arlene finished off the meeting he tried to read between the lines. Why had Polly voted against him—not that he wanted the job anyway, but she didn’t know that? And why had Mike suddenly chilled? While Arlene droned on, he pulled out his phone and sent a frowning emoji to Polly. She immediately replied with a simple ‘I’ll explain in the pub later.’ After shaking his head, his attention returned to the room. “…two more meetings until the event. By May, the next meeting, all arrangements for the calendar should have been completed, so we can concentrate on the actual event, and, of course, the date auction. Nathan, I’ll expect you to have finalised the list of players who can participate by the next meeting. Persuade as many as you can from the calendar.” “I’ll do my best. But some of the boys are concerned because they’re either married or in relationships. Ken wondered if we could revise the auction prize into the men offering their services for their given professions. Ken would offer them a round of personal training sessions—” “What?” said Mike, grinning. “So Mel would mow their back lawn, and Eric and Tom would decorate a room. All to the highest bidder? Would they need to be naked when they carry out these jobs?” “Of course not,” said Nathan, beginning to see the flaw in the idea. “Then why not just—I don’t know—hire them? Got to be cheaper.” “He’s right, dear. Who’s going to bid for that?” asked Doris. “And what would they be bidding for with me?” asked Mike. “Your meat,” said Father Mulligan, which had Nathan chuckling and Doris coughing into her drink. All the while Arlene sat back and said nothing, a thin smile on her face. “Okay, but can you just make sure the publicity is clear, and says the highest bidder gets to have a dinner date—with the emphasis on dinner—with the person. We could combine the offer of the individual’s professional services to add a further incentive and sweeten the deal. Most importantly, let’s not compromise the goodwill of the players or mislead the bidder into believing they’re getting something they’re not.” “The wording in the publicity is crystal clear, Nathan. We’re not pimping any of you out, for heaven’s sake. But do remind the men it’s for charity.” As usual, the meeting petered out and, as soon as Arlene left and Nathan had tidied furniture away, he made his way over to Mike to talk. Until Doris stepped in and intercepted him. “Ooh, Nathan, dear,” she said, grabbing his forearm in both her veined hands. “Just wanted to tell you. I had a long chat on the phone with Margie Hogmore—Clifton’s mother—over the weekend. Called out of the blue. She does that from time to time. Anyway, she’s flying into London next week and, among other things, she wanted to come here and talk to you. I gave her your number, I hope that’s okay?” “Absolutely fine. What does she want to talk about?” “She didn’t actually say. But from the other things she mentioned, she’s worried about Clifton. He’s going through a difficult patch at the moment, and she knows you two have reconnected. So I think maybe she wants get your advice on what’s best for him.” “Why doesn’t she talk to Raul?” “I have no idea. Maybe they don’t see eye to eye.” Nathan found that hard to believe. In his experience, Raul came across as likeable with everyone. More than likely, though, Raul knew where his allegiances lay, and would not be as candid with Clifton’s mother as someone like Nathan. “Not sure what good I’ll be, but I’m happy to meet and talk.” Actually, he had fond memories of Aunt Margie from when they were kids, standing on the sidelines with his mother, watching them play football. Even if he was no help, he’d welcome seeing her again. “Good. Anyway, she’ll call or message you.” “Thanks, Doris.” “Still got those rings?” Nathan smiled and looked sheepish. “Safe and sound.” “Not thought about sharing one yet?” “Not just yet, no.” “Well, don’t leave it too long. Don’t want to miss the opportunity.” Lost in his talk with Doris, Nathan noticed a stranger enter the hall. Clad in black jeans and a thick North face jacket opened up, he wore a brown shirt with a logo Nathan vaguely recognised. If anything, his grim expression made him appear annoyed or put out, or both, as his eyes darted about the room. “Is Polly Fischer here?” he barked out. “No, she isn’t,” said Nathan, before anyone else could answer. “She’s at the school tonight. Parent teacher night. Is there anything I can help you with?” Unsteadily, the man sized up Nathan before making up his mind and continuing. “It’s about her cousin.” Coldness washed over Nathan, as the blood drain from his face. “Jaymes?” “You know him?” “Of course I do. He lives with me. What’s happened?” “You’d better come with me. I’m Kurt, one of his co-workers. There’s been an accident at the lodge. They’ve taken him to Eastbourne General.” +++++++ Nathan didn’t usually mind hospitals, especially not this one. Twice a year he hung about in Eastbourne General during his bi-annual heath check, waiting to have various specialist tests performed, so he’s become immune to the pungent smells, stark neon lighting, and strict precision. In his past experience, medical staff had been courteous, friendly even, chatting and smiling as they went about their duties. But health checks happened in a different wing; relaxed, decorated, bordering on sedate, where he inevitably felt fit and healthy. Tonight he felt sick to his stomach, worn thin, as though he had been woken too early from a deep sleep. Kurt managed the half hour journey in record time, speeding around bends, breaking hard, accelerating rapidly whenever the road allowed. And now the accident and emergency waiting area did nothing to soothe him, the hall wholly unfamiliar and unnerving. Row upon row of pale-faced people sat either waiting for loved ones or to be seen by professionals, while fraught medical staff rushed from one emergency room to another. According to Kurt, as they stood drying off in the foyer after a short walk through the crowded carpark, prolonged bad weather ensured a fuller house than a Bon Jovi concert. On the way down, largely to keep his mind occupied and himself from throwing up with worry, he grilled Kurt about the accident. Having shed his jacket, Nathan finally recognised Kurt’s short sleeve shirt uniform and breast logo of the Mosswold Forest National Trust. For all his indifference, Kurt drove competently, knew exactly how to handle his silver Toyota Landcruiser. Sitting high on the road, its beams flooded the silvered road and wipers dealt efficiently with the constant downpour. Either talk did not come naturally to Kurt or he didn’t want to discuss the accident. After a number of Nathan’s questions, he finally snapped. “Look, I wasn’t there. All I know is what I’ve been told.” “Which is?” insisted Nathan. “Which is that they should never have been out there in the first place.” So there it was. Kurt’s taut shake of the head and barely surpassed anger had Nathan wondering at what Jaymes seemed to consider his close, tightly-knit team. “Mitch is going to be fucking pissed when he gets back.” Nathan had heard Mitch’s name mentioned before. He ran operations at the centre. “So what happened?” “I told Fischer to leave it ’til tomorrow—see if the weather improved—but if you know him, you’ll know what a stubborn prick he can be. Could have gotten somebody killed.” Yes, himself, thought Nathan, but by the sound of things Kurt meant someone else. Only ten minutes into the journey and he got the strong impression Jaymes and Kurt were not the best of mates in or out of work. Nathan knew Jaymes well enough to recognise how he could be stubborn sometimes, but never reckless. “But she always sides with him. Every fucking time.” “Sorry, who?” “Beth,” said Kurt, turning to Nathan as if the answer was obvious. “They went to inspect a patch of trees in the northeast corner of the forest, a part fenced off from the public—for good reason. Anyway, from what I heard, they reached a spot covered by bracken beneath dense trees. One minute, Fischer goes prancing off the path into the undergrowth, next minute he disappears from view. Beth called out a couple of times and then went to check on him. Beth’s smart, cautious—she’s got good instincts, a good person to have by your side. Anyway, she discovered a steep, hidden ravine. She called down, but got no answer. Just as well Fischer took her in the end. If he’d gone alone, help may have come too late. Beth’s a total pro and radioed the incident in straight away. Even so, four people were needed to haul Fischer’s body back out, strapped to a gurney and still unconscious.” “What’s the latest?” “No idea.” When Nathan sighed, Kurt glanced over briefly before continuing on. “I don’t know, because I got tasked with finding the cousin, from the emergency contact he provided. A landline number. Who has a fucking landline these days? Every call I made went to her voice-call service.” “Oh, shit. Polly’s going to freak.” “Only left one message. Told her to call me. Nothing more.” “I’ll text her mobile when we get there. Are his injuries serious?” “No idea. All I know is he was unconscious when they pulled him out.” “Nobody’s given you an update?” “Nope.” Not that Kurt would have given a monkey’s. Maybe they knew that much, maybe Kurt had been given this particular task for a reason. Nathan decided not to push. “How did you know about the committee meeting?” “I didn’t. Beth did. She’d been banging on about some calendar or another, and mentioned Fischer’s cousin being on the committee. Heard Fischer saying he was going for a drink tonight with his mate and her after they’d finished the meeting at the village hall. So after I had no joy with her number, I went there to find her. I suppose you’re the mate?” “I am.” “Figures.” Despite his apparent lack of knowledge of, or interest in, events, Kurt excelled in the hospital, finding out information, stopping staff and addressing them directly, until he found out what he needed. Nathan assumed he had done this kind of thing before, and used the alone time to call Polly and Grant. As luck would have it, they were already in the pub, with Polly insisting on coming straight away. As soon as Nathan clicked off the call, Kurt returned with an older nurse, who led them to a ward room two floors up, to the first bed inside the door. Kurt marched straight into the tableau, where two other brown shirts stood around the bed. One was a pretty blonde-haired woman around five six standing near the head of the bed, the other, a big man in brown short sleeve shirt and shorts, stood opposite. Sitting up, Jaymes had part of the left side of his head covered by a large patch bandage, but when Nathan saw he was conscious—a little tired and shaken, but otherwise healthy—realisation and relief hit him hard. As though his body had been tensed up the whole time, awareness hit him like collapsing soufflé. Apart from a very early breakfast, a small bowl of oatmeal and berries, he had eaten nothing all day. Supported by the cool wall, he steadied himself, watching Jaymes take in Kurt as he lumbered over to the woman. Without even a glance at Jaymes, Kurt placed a hand on the shoulder of the woman, who had to be Beth, and began an earnest conversation. On the opposite side of the bed, the other colleague now stood in Nathan’s line of sight of Jaymes. A mountain of a man, he had a startling shock of ginger hair tied back in a ponytail, enhanced by the brown uniform of shirt and shorts, a colour which continued down in the hairs of his big, tattooed arms and thick thighs. Kurt must have announced something at one point, because as one, they turned to where Nathan stood, with Ginger stepping out of the way, and Jaymes’ gaze swinging Nathan’s way. Immediately Jaymes’ sat up, his face brightening, but then almost instantly creasing with concern. “Nate?,” said Jaymes, softly. Hearing so much love and care in the voice threatened to overwhelm Nathan. “Are you okay?” Nathan pushed away from the wall, but then thought better of the action. Nausea and dizziness hit him like an oven door opening and the ground tilted suddenly, threatening to topple him. “Actually, I don’t feel so—” “Fuck. Ralph, get him a seat.” Before he knew what was happening, a strong arm clamped around his shoulders and lowered him into a plastic hospital seat. Voices carried on around him, as he leant forward, his head cradled in his hands on the side of the bed. “Shit, sorry everyone,” Without even attempting to lift his head, he spoke to the grey linoleum floor. “I haven’t eaten all day. Feeling a little light-headed. Give me a minute.” “Want me to get him a coffee and a sandwich from the cafe?” said Beth. “You’re an angel, Beth.” Jaymes’ voice. “I’ll come with you.” Kurt, cold as ever. “Me too. Give you two some time to—err—catch up.” A deep voice, accented, warm, and the only one Nathan couldn’t make out, must have belonged to the large ginger-haired man. And suddenly, apart from the general background noise from the rest of the ward, glorious silence descended. Nathan took a few steadying breaths, about to lift his head, when a warm hand landed on the back of his neck. Tears filled his eyes, as he let the familiar hand massage his neck. “Hey, Nate. I’m sorry.” With an effort of will, and excruciatingly slowly, Nathan raised his head. Jaymes’ beautiful face and adoring gaze almost undid him. “You scared the shit out of me. I thought when I got here, you were going to be in a coma. That fuckwit neanderthal told me next to nothing.” “Ha. You met Kurt? I’ve met oak trees with more emotional intelligence.” “The way fuckwit tells it, you were goofing around in the woods, and thought leaving the path might be a brilliant idea— “Path? What path? There are no fixed paths in that part of the forest. Old trails maybe, but most of those are hidden by the undergrowth. Unless you know that section of the forest well, you’d never find them. I went on ahead to check because the ground seemed to undulate, and I didn’t want Beth put in any danger. But some of those areas are tricky, deceiving, where branches have fallen and vegetation has grown over the top.” “You see? Kurt’s a prick.” Jaymes grinned and leaned over to take hold of Nathan’s hand. “I called Polly and Grant,” said Nathan, feeling more centred now. “They’re coming down, but I said I’d call and give them an update. What’s the diagnosis?” “I’m fine, I really am. Banged my head on a stump, and got a few scratches and scrapes, but bloody lucky that’s all, according to Beth. When they lifted me out, she saw what a deathtrap the hole was. They’re going to keep me in forty-eight hours for observation. Mainly for possible concussion. And then I’m back home.” “Don’t suppose there’s a flying ban in there somewhere?” Jaymes smiled sadly then, and gently shook his head. “Okay, Nate. We need to sit down and talk about me going to Malaysia. The reason I left early this morning was to have a conference call with them, something I didn’t want to do at home with you around. We’re both skirting the subject and before we know it, the time will upon us. So when I’m home, let’s sit down and have a serious chat. About the trip, and most importantly, about us.” When Jaymes reached out and touched the side of Nathan’s head, Nathan placed his own hand on top. “Because I don’t know about you, Nate, but I want there to be an ‘us’ in our future.”
  15. 72 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.”
  16. 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.
  17. 71 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.”
  18. 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.
  19. 71 points
    Just before six in the morning, Nathan Fresher stood in the stairwell leading up to his family flat. Breathless from his early morning run, he stared down at the letter from Surrey University. A single drop of perspiration landed on the page. Ten minutes ago, he’d jogged past Bob Collier, one of the village's two postmen, who’d barked at him to stop and tossed him their bundle of morning post. Nathan’s heart, already racing from the exertion, had taken on a different rhythm seeing the post on top of the pack, the university name printed plainly in sight. Sprinting home, he’d barely managed to open the front door before ripping open the envelope. Three times he’d read the words on the page. Only on the final read had they sunken in. Incredible. With his meagre A level grades, they’d offered him a place on the Sport and Exercise Science degree programme. For some reason, he’d felt certain they would decline him. Otherwise he might have been more keen to check the college’s online messaging board. Or his personal emails. Good things rarely happened to Nathan Fresher. And now the world had opened up. Fees might be a challenge, came his ever-present cynical voice, although his father had agreed to help him out, should he be successful. Hell, they needed to talk. Today, everything would change. Thrusting the letter into the pocket of his hoodie, he kicked off his trainers and thundered up the stairs to their two bed apartment above Fresher’s Family Bakers. Inside the space, early morning stillness met him. “Dad. Dad, are you here?” Silence. More than likely, he’d find his father in the bakery downstairs, getting under Arthur Meade’s feet. Arthur, the true baker and talent behind Fresher and Son bakery, had been with them since before Nathan’s birth. Mixing dough and baking their daily offerings, he and his three assistants unfailingly had the daily produce displayed or delivered when they opened the doors at six-thirty. A lightness filled Nathan, knowing his life story didn’t have to end with his forefather’s legacy. Since the early part of the last century, the Fresher family had run the outfit, baking for and serving the local community. But maybe the time had come for change. Nathan hoped so, because he could think of nothing worse than being chained to the shop’s routine day after day, doing something for which he had zero passion for the rest of his life. Maybe he’d inherited that particular trait from his estranged mother. Throwing his shoulder bag down on the table, he pulled out his iPhone 5—a Christmas gift from his father—and sent a message to his best friend Polly Fischer. For a fleeting moment, he considered calling, but then thought better about waking her. Not a morning person, he’d witnessed her explosive anger once, shaking her awake from a post-pub Sunday snooze on their sofa. Never again. Besides, if she happened to be up, she’d call him straight back. Together they’d conspired to get him enrolled in the four year degree course. Polly had suggested Surrey University in Guildford, a softer sell for his father. Less than two hours’ drive away from Crumbington, he could be home weekdays when he had no lectures, and especially on Friday night to help in the shop all day Saturday, their busiest day. Mitigate the damage of him studying away, so to speak. Stepping into his single bedroom, he stripped out of his shorts, socks, vest and jockstrap, and dropped them into his laundry basket, before donning a towel and heading to the bathroom. Only then did he notice the door to his father’s bedroom was closed. Whenever his father rose, he always left his door open. Nathan smirked. Although it happened rarely, sometimes his father overslept. If so, Nathan would gently rib him all day. In the shower, he let the hot water soak into his sore body, and ran through in his mind what he would need to organise; course books, accommodation, prep dates. But first of all a formal visit to the campus. Polly would come with him, she’d love that. His stomach clenched with excitement. Polly’s college friend had heard great things about the LGBTQ community meet-ups and events at the college. Maybe Nathan would finally meet some like-minded people. Unlike his father, he was going to be something else in this world, someone who followed their dreams. At only fifty-four, his father—by far the better businessman and face of the family bakery—could carry on running the outfit for at least another ten years. With his regular help, Nathan hardly needed to be there. He refused to feel guilty about the opportunity. Beside, Nathan would still help out. And when his father was nearing retirement, well, they could have that conversation when the time came. But he wanted to travel the world first, and to work in the health and fitness sector. Polly had suggested getting a job as a fitness instructor on a cruise liner, a dream that had stuck. At six-fifteen, dressed in his shop outfit of blue shirt and navy cardigan, and noticing his father’s bedroom door still firmly closed, he prepared a mug of Assam tea with a dash of milk and knocked on the bedroom door. A creature of habit, his father would be furious when he realised he’d overslept. Opening the door wide, Nathan allowed light from the hallway to filter into the room, rather than switching on the harsh room light. “Hey Mr Sleepyhead. It’s almost opening time. Molly’s already here, I can hear her moving about downstairs. Drink some tea and take your time, I’ll go help…” Sensing something innately wrong, he placed the mug down on a coaster on the bedside table, next to the ashtray with the stubs of two cigarettes still sitting there from the night before. Even before he put a hand to his father’s forehead, he knew. By the bloodless pallor of the skin, and the eyes not quite closed, staring at the curtained window. Coldness swept through him then, accompanied by a distant ringing in his ears, or maybe the sound of someone screaming in the distance. Unable to stand, his legs gave way and he perched on the side of the mattress. Staring into the gloom, he took his father’s cold hand and squeezed. A chill dismay descended upon him, at the implications of the scene before him, earlier words floating into his mind, coming back to haunt him. Today, everything would change.
  20. 71 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.”
  21. 70 points
    “Damn!” CJ’s exclamation elicited a grin from the man. “Not what you expected?” The lack of a noticeable accent suggested a Mid-Westerner. “Sorry… Definitely not what I thought a Special Agent would look like.” He shook his head, returned the smile, and extended his hand. “CJ Abelló. And this is my husband, Owen Liston.” “G’day, mate. You’re big.” Leave it to Owen to state the obvious. Lincoln Duvall Ericson was indeed a large man. CJ guessed closer to seven feet than six, and nearer to 300 pounds than 200. His biceps threatened to rip the rugby shirt’s sleeves. A massive chest stretched the purple fabric taut, and tree-trunk thighs bulged under tight blue jeans. Clutching a black leather jacket and a helmet in one hand, he would fit in well with either their rugby-playing or motorcycle-riding friends. “My size makes it hard to blend in. I thought dressing like one of your friends and riding the motorcycle over might help. Just in case our suspect’s watching.” Lincoln had parked his BMW K 1600 GTL next to CJ and Owen’s Harleys. Brunch at Bradley Cooper’s on New Year’s Day had been a fitting capstone to Spencer and Tilda’s East Coast experience. The Greenwich Village townhouse was spectacular. Food and drink were plentiful, and the friendly crowd was in a festive mood. After much begging by the guests, Lady Gaga agreed to sit at the piano for an impromptu concert. She kicked it off with a short medley of her hits. When she belted out, “This is Me” from the movie The Greatest Showman, it became a sing-along. CJ had enjoyed the film. The song about someone accepting themselves as they are and fighting intolerance put into words everything he believed in. For her final number, she had their host sit next to her; Gaga and Cooper performed their Grammy and Oscar winning “Shallow” from A Star is Born. “You two better be at my concert next time I tour Australia.” As they said goodbye in the afternoon, Lady Gaga handed Spencer a card. He and Tilda agreed to e-mail the singer’s manager to coordinate admissions and backstage passes. “And you two”—the woman turned her attention to CJ and Owen, offering them a similar card with a hand-scribbled note on it—“better call me next time you’re in New York. You now have my cell. If I’m in town, we’ll get together.” Sadness prevailed the following day when the couples parted. Spencer and Tilda flew to Los Angeles for the West Coast portion of their trip, while Owen and CJ returned to Washington. Months later, while in Australia for a promotional tour, Cooper praised CJ, Owen, and the 2016 Liston Chardonnay they had taken to his party. Bottle shops carrying the product sold out, inventories dwindled, and prices rose along the supply chain. Winery profits were better than usual that month. Back in DC, the remainder of the week they read, worked out, and binge-watched home remodeling shows. On Monday, Owen returned to work. On Wednesday, CJ began his final semester at Georgetown University. His curiosity was piqued when Brett texted asking him to stop by the office before going up to the apartment. “Yo! Brett!” The man shook his head when CJ called out and waved. He and César complained every time since their son began using their first names on a frequent basis. CJ greeted office workers he passed on the way to the glass-enclosed conference room at the front of the building. Inside, his other father and his cousin Rod stood next to the large table, bent over a pile of documents. Gray paced by the floor-to-ceiling window, his phone plastered to the side of his face. Aware of the long permitting process for renovations to a house on the National Register of Historic Places, Gray Young—their friend and general contractor for the project—began filing applications months before CJ and Owen reclaimed possession of the Capitol Hill property. On the first workday of the New Year, abatement crews began removing lead-contaminated plaster and asbestos-infused vinyl sheet flooring discovered in the kitchen. “How was your first day back?” Brett kissed the top of CJ’s head and ushered him inside the room. “Meh… One interesting class and two boring ones. Spent most of the time talking to people. I have to go back for a student government meeting tonight, but your text got me curious. What’s going on?” “Hey, CJ.” César’s enigmatic expression did not portend well. “We have an issue with your place.” He pointed at the documents on the table CJ realized were the renovation plans and timetable. “That don’t sound good. What’s the problem?” “The problem’s we have a jerk inspector.” Gray had finished his call and joined the others. “Sorry about this, CJ.” “Dude! It ain’t your fault.” Rod clasped and shook the man’s shoulder. “This isn’t the first time we have this kind of shit happen.” CJ shook his head in confusion. “Fine, let’s start at the beginning. Somebody wanna fill me in on the details?” Everyone turned their attention to Gray. “Okay, I do have a bit of good news. Lead and asbestos abatement will be complete by the end of the week. Next Monday, we can get back inside and start tearing down walls.” “That’s good news. But maybe we can start demo on Sunday? We’ve been watching all these remodeling shows, and I’m itching to sledgehammer a wall or two. Please?” CJ’s child-like pleading elicited chuckles. “Yeah, guess we can do that. But you’ll have to be nice to my other half. Pres usually has plans for me on Sundays.” Gray grinned, lifted his ball cap, and ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, the reason we called you in. I had an unpleasant visit from an inspector this morning. He said he had a problem with how the elevator tower would affect the property’s appearance.” “Say what?” CJ was confused. “The elevator won’t even be in the house.” One of his first asks, when planning began, was for a lift like his parents had. The design called for locating it inside the carriage house. Since that structure was not as tall as the residence, a tower would be added to reach the home’s top floor. “The problem isn’t with the unit itself. This guy claims the tower will protrude above the roof line.” “That’s bullshit!” CJ’s confusion teetered on anger. “You won’t see shit standing in front of the house. And if you’re on the sidewalk across the street, I doubt you’ll see it either.” “We’ve been reviewing the plans most of the morning.” Rod ignored the fire in his cousin’s voice and spoke in an even tone. “We even called Chicago. Ty says there’s no way this should happen.” Tyler Scott, Rod’s brother-in-law, was experienced in renovating historical structures. He had been an integral part of the design process. CJ had assimilated construction knowledge since Brett founded his firm, but it was not detailed enough for a solution to jump at him. “What do we do?” “One option is to let him deny the permit.” César lifted one of the documents from the table. “These are the regulations for appealing. We’re all certain in the end we’ll get the proper approval.” “Spit it out, César. I hear a but.” At times like this, CJ hated his father’s precise, methodical approach. “It would delay us. And we don’t know how long.” “Not acceptable. With the baby on the way, Aba moving, and me starting work in the summer, we want to settle in as soon as possible.” “Tell him the rest, Gray.” “I think the guy’s looking for a payoff.” “The fuck? How do you figure?” CJ paid attention like he had not in class. “He peppered our conversation with comments about the owners’ wealth. How much the house had sold for. How much was budgeted for renovations. How much building the tower and supporting it would cost. All throughout, he mentioned ten thousand dollars as his estimate for specific items.” “And that means he wants ten grand to approve the fucking thing?” “Most likely,” Brett replied before Gray could say anything. “We’ve encountered similar situations before.” CJ sighed and at last dropped into one of the chairs. “How did you handle it?” “We appealed. And we’ve won every time. However, this is different. We’ve never dealt with a structure on the register.” “One other thing.” Gray’s continued apologetic tone bothered CJ. He would talk to him afterward and reassure him he was not to blame. “I was on the phone with a friend in the construction business. He’s dealt with this douche before. The guy has a reputation.” “Fine! Set up a meeting. I wanna meet this crook and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll bring Lola as backup.” “Asshole!” The fathers’ simultaneous comment brought forth renewed smiles. “We can just pay him off and be done with it. I mean, in the scheme of things that’s a drop in the bucket.” Rod’s suggestion was not well received. “Like hell we will! If I can’t shoot the fucker, I wanna ruin him. I wanna make sure he loses his job and is publicly humiliated. Hopefully, he’ll end up as somebody’s bitch in jail. Trip will have a field day with this story.” “Vengeful much?” Brett’s remark, at last, broke the tension. CJ’s scowl was not as pronounced. “Hey, how about we call Tom and ask for advice?” As a result of the conversation with District of Columbia Police Captain Tom Kennedy, CJ contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Their Public Corruption Unit assigned Special Agent Lincoln Ericson to the case. On the phone with CJ and Owen, Lincoln had asked countless questions; it was now clear why the final ones had been of a personal nature. “When you mentioned both of you rode motorcycles, I figured this was a chance for me to take my own scooter out for a spin. Thankfully, there’s no snow or ice on the roads.” “Yeah, but you prolly froze your butt off. It’s cold as hell.” CJ thought he would enjoy warming him up by climbing all over the man, but one look at Owen made it easy to dismiss the thought. “Nah, not that bad. I’m from Detroit. Michigan’s plenty cold.” “Mate, we’re gonna have to go out riding together after this mess’ over. By any chance, you play rugby?” “Stop recruiting, Oz. Let’s nail this Hussein guy first. Then you can try and rope Lincoln into becoming a Scandal. That’s if he doesn’t mind cavorting in mud with a bunch of overgrown, oversexed gay men.” “Why would I? That sounds like fun. One of the reasons I was assigned this case’s ’cause I’m gay.” By the time CJ and Owen returned home on Sunday, they were tired, covered in dust, and satisfied with the amount of destruction wreaked inside the house. During the following days, lumber and drywall filled a large portion of the carriage house, and solar roof-tile pallets crowded the side courtyard. Gray began working inside the residence while awaiting the results of the FBI operation. The Saturday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday weekend, seven days after the meeting with Special Agent Ericson, home remodeling was the furthest thing from CJ’s mind. “You guys warm enough back there?” CJ rubbed his hands trying to vanquish the remaining chill. Getting into a snowball fight with his gloves back home in Washington was not his smartest move. Carson stopped tapping on his phone. “I'm good. Brad?” “Yeah, it's fine.” The Army veteran had been uncharacteristically quiet since leaving Heroes Haven. “What’s on your mind, Red? You haven’t said much.” CJ orchestrated the trip to Delaware as part of his continuing efforts to ensure his friend did not become a statistic. Over twenty veterans a day killed themselves in the United States. He and Owen had vowed not to allow such a fate to befall their friend. “Thinking… Man, I really don’t have that fucking much to complain about, you know? Some of the people I talked to today have nobody. Their injuries and having no one at home when they got back is what left many homeless” Brad spent time alone with compound residents while CJ and Owen met with the executive director. “I’m making you guys a promise right now. I’m gonna stay alive. Those men would do anything to have family and friends around like I do.” “Turn right at the next intersection, Ozzie.” Carson tagged along on the trip for lack of anything better to do and the opportunity for a home-cooked meal. Mr. And Mrs. Sawyer invited their son’s friends to spend the night at their home. “That’s not what the GPS says, mate.” “Screw the GPS. We’re taking the scenic route. It’ll take longer, but I texted the rents. They’re not expecting us until later.” “Okay… if we get lost, I’m siccing CJ on you. Brad? Keep thinking the way you are. You living and thriving is what we all want too.” “Thanks, Ozzie. And thank you, CJ.” “For what?” “For once again jumping in trying to help me. You seem to do that a lot. Kinda funny you were the ice breaker today.” “What do you mean?” “They all knew who you were. Those who had met you before said how nice you were. Those that hadn’t at least knew you were the youngest member of Haven’s board of directors. When I ended up following them to see the indoor arena, one asked me how I knew you. Ended up telling them the entire story of how we met.” Brad chuckled. “They thought I was gay too. Had to set them straight.” “So to speak…” The chuckles were more pronounced. “Yeah… It felt good to share stories of our high school days and our friends. I even had to show them the tat.” Over Christmas, Brad and his brother Patrick had the same tattoo other Squad members shared inked on their left arm. “I swear some of them were salivating. We’ve really led a charmed life, haven’t we?” “I remind CJ how lucky we are constantly.” Owen shared a wink with his husband. “Yeah, well, it’s not what those guys know. They never had the tight relationships we all do. Some found them in the service and then lost them. That’s part of what landed them where they are. The changes and the isolation. But I could see hope in them. That if they were lucky, they might one day have something similar again. It felt good to share those memories. The fact we all had battle experience made it easy to talk to them. Kinda fucked up to laugh at our antics, when shared pain was what we had in common. “The reason we were in there so long, is they wanted to show me the horses. They move lessons indoors when the ground freezes. The loose sand’s easier on the body when you fall. You know? That was the closest I’ve been to a horse. Excluding when you dragged us out to Central Park for carriage rides. Those guys came alive when they talked about their relationship with the animals. I’d love to learn how to ride.” “YES! Yes, yes, yes.” CJ’s shout and fist-pumping made Owen take his eyes off the road for a second. “You gonna be alright, CJ? I think I know what got you excited. Why don’t you share it with Brad and Carson?” CJ twisted to face the back seat. “Hell yeah, I’m okay. This is perfect! Brad, buddy, you just solved my dilemma.” “What the hell you talkin’ about?” “How’d you like to move to Heroes Haven for six months or so?” “I wish… But I ain’t homeless. I wouldn’t qualify. And I don’t want you pulling strings, bending rules, or pushing your weight around to get me in. You hear?” “Ahhh, but there might be a way. Without me having to do any of those things. Listen, the reason Ozzie and I spent so much time with the executive director was a long phone call to someone out in California. The woman we spoke with wants to do a documentary on the place. It would follow a resident for a few months. To chronicle participation and changes. Ozzie and I agreed to invest in the project. And when we get back to DC, we’re talking to the dads about the family foundation getting involved. But they were also trying to convince me to be in it and maybe narrate it.” “Yeah? Sounds good. But that don’t mean shit for me.” “Dickhead! Don’t you see, Brad? This is the way you get to move in. Dude, we tried to come up with a good hook for my involvement in the film. You’re it. What could be better than one of my closest friends, one of my brothers, being the connection?” “But I’m not homeless or destitute!” “Details, details. We’ll work that shit out. They can focus on you, and cover the homeless aspect through your interactions with the others. Like exploring the reasons for their condition and how Haven tries to help. Damn it! I’m a fucking genius.” “Asshole!” It was naked studs as far as the eye could see. The entire first floor was stripped of plaster walls, and the wood supports stood like silent guardians. A low whistle emanated from Special Agent Ericson. “Damn! Moving right along… You guys aren’t fooling around with the remodeling, are you? Is this going to be all open space?” CJ and Owen returned to DC Sunday afternoon; at first light Monday, they met Lincoln and a handful of agents at the 11th Street house. All vehicles were inside the carriage house, and the doors were locked. The other agents were ensconced on the second floor with the monitoring equipment installed the previous day. “We thought about it. It’s what CJ’s dads did with their place. But we agreed we wanted to retain as much of the house’s original character as possible. We’ll make the front parlor a bit smaller, enlarge the formal dining room, and combine the kitchen with the back room.” “Are you keeping the fireplace?” Lincoln inspected the minuscule camera and microphone his team had installed on the mantle. There were others placed in strategic spots. Anything taking place on the first floor would be seen, heard, and recorded. “Yeah! I love the smell of wood burning on a cold day. Ozzie’s letting me keep this one as is. There’s one on every floor, and the others will be converted to gas. My husband’s the ultimate environmentalist.” A hint of pride infused CJ’s words. “The whole project’s been an exercise in compromise, mate. CJ and I have disagreed and argued. Sometimes, we’ve flipped a coin. He’s actually agreed to more stuff I wanted than the other way around.” Owen’s smirk elicited chuckles from the other two men. “I’m expecting epic battles once we start choosing furnishings and paint colors.” “Hope I get invited back, so I can see the results. Okay, this guy’s going to be here soon. Let’s go over the plan again.” The knock on the outer door startled them. Lincoln had joined the other agents while CJ and Owen walked around the first floor discussing possible furniture placement and artwork locations. CJ tried to maintain a neutral expression when he opened the door. “Quadim Hussein?” “That’s me. And you are?” The FBI had told them the man was a naturalized citizen born in Pakistan. His skin tone was similar to other people CJ knew from the same area of the world. “CJ Abelló. I’m one of the owners.” He pointed at Owen standing by the fireplace. “That’s Owen Liston, the other one.” Neither CJ nor Owen made a move to shake hands. This was not a social visit. “I’m glad you invited me to discuss our little issue.” “It might be a small matter to you, Mr. Hussein. To us, it’s a big deal.” Following the Special Agent’s instructions, CJ moved closer to his husband and leaned against the fireplace’s mantle. He rested his hand on the edge, next to the plastic bank-bag Lincoln strategically placed on it. The movements were designed to direct attention to the banded currency visible inside the gaping bag. “We believe we could appeal your decision and win, but the delay would put us behind schedule and cost us a lot of money.” Quadim’s eyes followed the intended path and glimmered when he noticed the money. “Maybe we can come to some sort of arrangement?” Perfect. This was the opening they were told to look for and seize. “That’s our hope too. Did you have something in mind?” Owen’s comment sounded innocent. The goal was to make the man ask for a payment, not offer him one. “Maybe…” Hussein’s eyes roamed over the space as if studying it but consistently returned to the fireplace mantle and what they all knew was his bribe. Still, he danced around the issue. “I can tell there’s a lot of money being spent in this place. Have you considered a contribution to one of the local preservation groups? I might be willing to bend the rules and give you an approval if you were to make one. Not everyone can afford to maintain this kind of property. Several organizations raise money to make low-cost loans to homeowners who can’t find funds to repair their homes.” “Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of that, CJ? It’s something we do in the environmental field all the time. Developers are granted regulation waivers in exchange for land or cash donations.” Owen’s performance was Oscar-worthy in CJ’s opinion. “Ohhh, that’s something we’d be willing to do. Anonymously, of course. Do you have any suggestions for an organization and an amount, Mr. Hussein?” CJ was ready to reel the man in and get the entire thing over. “Well, I’d have to think about which group would be best. Ten thousand would be a reasonable amount.” “Very reasonable.” Owen’s nodding was mimicked by CJ. “The problem’s we’re so busy, I’m not sure CJ or I have the time to research this.” “I’d be happy to coordinate it for you. After all, we all want the same thing, right? Spread the wealth around to help others and get you your approval.” Hussein was still being careful with how he worded comments. “Maybe I could help you out. I can take the payment and make your problem disappear.” Bingo! They had him. “Lovely of you to be so helpful. CJ and I appreciate your help.” Positioning himself so his eyes were not visible to any of the cameras in the room, Owen winked at the man. They did not want to deal with entrapment claims. “That would be ideal!” CJ pointed at the cash-stuffed bag. “Would you like to count it? I think this is what you’re asking for.” “I’ll trust you. I need to get out of here and go home. I told the wife I wouldn’t be gone for long.” He reached for the bag, glanced inside, and zippered it shut. “You two enjoy the holiday. I’ll be back tomorrow with the approved plans.” “FBI!” Lincoln’s shout made even CJ and Owen jump. “Quadim Hussein, you’re under arrest.” On the last day of the month, CJ spent most of his time at the dojo describing what he claimed was snail-paced progress on the house. He exaggerated the delays. Almost two weeks after Quadim Hussein’s arrest, they had all the necessary approvals for the renovation project. Individual, periodic inspections would be required along the way for specific tasks, but those would not be burdensome. He was looking forward to mucking around the property with Owen the next day. Ritchie’s presence at the apartment when he returned home was a surprise. “What up, bro? I’m surprised you’re here. How come you’re not with Lucy like most Friday nights?” Owen interrupted before Ritchie could reply. “Give us a minute, mate. CJ, drop your bag, change into shorts, and come back out. I opened a bottle already. We’ll have a glass of wine while your brother explains.” CJ’s brow furrowed with suspicion. “Fuck that! There’s obviously something going on. What gives?” There were no interruptions this time. Ritchie blurted out the reason for his presence before Owen could stop him. “Lucy’s pregnant.”
  22. 70 points
    Subject: First Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Friday 12 January Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan Apologies: Michael Shanton Above the wooden double doors of the village hall, the ancient clock showed ten past ten, as it had for as long as Nathan could remember. Would somebody, someday, fix the damn thing? Another interminable day in the shop, he let his eyelids fall shut and couldn’t resist dropping his head forward. Arms folded across the front of his thick woollen sweater, slouched in one of the new plastic chairs with their antiseptic smells, in the hall with its own unidentifiable but not unpleasant melange of odours from across the eons, and he could still smell baked goods. No amount of Boots ginger and mandarin body wash during his revitalising end of day shower could entirely eradicate the smell from his skin. Polly had been right. Baked dough defined him like his own personal brand of cologne. Ah well, he thought, could be worse. His forefathers could have been undertakers. An audible yawn escaped him as the scratchy monotone baritone continued, and he opened his eyes guiltily to check nobody had noticed. At some point in time, he needed to step down from the committee of the annual Crumbington Summer Fête, six volunteer members committed to keeping the traditional festival alive. Debates over the size of toffee apple stands, the depth of coconut shies, and height and colour of festive bunting got very old, very quickly. Sometimes, when others droned on about one trifling matter or another, and he closed his eyes momentarily, he felt sure he might open them one day to find a semi-circle of skeletons seated around him. “Thank you for such a long and unnecessarily detailed introduction, Father Arbuthnot,” announced Arlene Killjoy. “As your newly appointed chairperson, I’d like to warmly welcome you all to the first meeting of this year’s summer fête committee. Apologies this meeting lands on a Friday. In future we’ll stick to midweek and not impinge on your weekends. But as the only new member, can I say what a pleasure it is to be a part this tradition. One that has served our beautiful little village since the early part of the last century.” Residents new to Crumbington loved overusing endearing words to describe their community of dwellings, referencing something from a bygone, halcyon age, one that most likely never existed. Postcards in the local post office described Crumbington as a picturesque village on the border of East and West Sussex, in the southeast of England. With a population of less than one thousand, the village stood as one of the smaller in southern England. Nevertheless, the settlement boasted its own church, village hall—where they sat right now—a small green, and a cosy shopping area with largely independent stores, most selling locally sourced produce. That they were almost entirely surrounded by green belt land—with Mosswold Forest hugging the eastern edge—and you could understand why some residents felt they lived on an island. “Going forward, I’ll be introducing a formal written agenda for each of our meetings, with specific timings for speakers and an allocated minute-taker. We’ll also have action points assigned to each member at the end of the meeting, so that I can keep track of where we are. Because this is the first meeting, unless anyone objects, I’ll record everything on my phone and then write up the notes and actions myself.” As an inquisitive eleven year old, Nathan remembered asking his father why Crumbington was called a village and not a town. His answer didn’t really satisfy, seemed over-simplistic, but he managed to shut the question down. In England, he told Nathan, apart from the size of the population of each settlement, a city was the largest and had a cathedral or a university—sometimes both; a town had to have an agricultural market, while a village didn’t have a cathedral or a market, but usually boasted a church. A hamlet, the smallest of all, had very few houses and usually no shops or church. The only hamlet Nathan had ever seen, involved a cast of local amateur actors and a dreadful theatre production on the Crumbington village hall stage. “Michael Shanton sends his apologies tonight, at the very first meeting nonetheless, so with us today are Doris Watts; Polly Fischer; Father Arbuthnot Mulligan and Nathan Fisher. Welcome everyone.” Born and raised there, Nathan had been shackled from birth to the family high street bakery his father owned and ran with his mother—until she could take no more and escaped into the night. He had been ten at the time, and to this day he could never forgive her. Why had she not taken him with her? And why had she never written or sent a rescue party? Tourists visiting their village used words like sleepy, idyllic, heavenly, divine, to describe the settlement, and likened the place to the backdrop of any one of a raft of rural English books, films, or television shows. Inevitably, they’d drop into their gushing soliloquy just how lucky he was to live and work there. On one such occasion, he found it difficult to keep smiling and not to tell them he considered each day spent there a purgatory. In Nathan’s eyes, mind numbing routine and boredom defined the place, something he had resigned himself to. One thing he and all inhabitants of Crumbington could rely on wholeheartedly. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. “Before we get to the first point of order, does everyone have something to drink?” asked Arlene. Instead of the usual arrangement of tables, she had opted to remove them completely and made them sit in a half moon as though enjoying a support group meeting. Maybe that was her intent. At the final word, Doris Watts, owner of the local florists and seated opposite him, suddenly snorted awake. “Drink?” she enquired, the octogenarian’s glazed eyes scanning the room hopefully. Father Mulligan, the previous chairman, now relegated to committee member, had always laid on a selection of beers and wines for the meetings, which made them far more palatable. “Coffee, tea? Orange squash?” said Nathan, to an instantly deflating Doris. Teetotal Arlene’s first act as chairperson was to cut back on unnecessary expenditure. Doris closed her eyes again. On his death, five years ago, Nathan’s father had bequeathed him the running of the family business along with his place on the committee. All hope of a life of adventure had flown out the window that day. Not that he wasn’t tempted to cut and run. So here he sat. And as his late father had drummed into him, being seen to be part of the community and having personal input into the event, however minimal, ensured their bakery stall stood pride of place at the fête entrance on the village green. This, in turn, provided advertising for their high street shop—Fresher & Son, Family Baker since 1895—which had been there for six generations. Except as the last surviving Fresher, Nathan had no offspring to carry on the name, and most likely never would. Did that mean he would need to get the sign repainted at some point? A familiar stab of guilt pierced him at letting his ancestors down. Since puberty his wet dreams only ever showcased the male form. Not that he could blame marriage as a limiting factor, now that his kind had the right to wed their own, even to have kids via adoption or surrogacy. The main problem? There were two actually. Firstly, running a bakery, which consumed most of his days, hours and minutes, had never been even remotely a passion. Secondly, any half decent looking men in and around Crumbington were single-mindedly straight, and almost all of those were married with kids. Most annoying of all, any local gay liaisons, and there had been one or two, eventually escaped to the real world as soon as they had their get-out-of -jail-free card handed to them. And why wouldn’t they? None of them had any reason to stay. If he said he’d never dreamed about selling up and moving on, he’d be lying. At least tonight he attended the meeting with his oldest and best friend from school. Polly Fischer, local junior school teacher, and fellow survivor, someone who was a master at dragging him out of himself and his stuffy flat above the shop. “Quick drinkie after?” she leaned in and whispered, as though she’d heard his thoughts. “Try and stop me. Not a late one, though. Saturday tomorrow.” Nathan insisted on closing all day Sunday, so most of his business came through the doors on Friday and Saturday. “Did you get an agenda for tonight’s meeting?” “No, but what’s to know? Same old shit. We could do this with our eyes closed.” “Seems to work for Doris.” The two giggled together like school kids. Once a month for the six months leading up to Crumbington Summer Fête, Polly and Nathan met with the other four members to discuss the shape of the festival and the choice of local charities who would benefit from the money raised. Last year, they’d only needed to attend three out of six meetings, mainly because the format had remained largely unchanged for the past ten years. However, this year, after a vigorous campaign and the stepping down of Father Mulligan from chair position to committee member, Arlene Killjoy had been elected chairperson. Fifty-five year old Arlene had moved to Crumbington two years ago from an inner city London borough and to call her outspoken would be a huge understatement. Nathan enjoyed watching jaws dropping as she voiced her unorthodox but compelling views upon her election, to an audience of largely conservative villagers. “So, first of all, the date has been fixed. What was it again, Father Mulligan?” “Twelfth of July. Locked and loaded.” “Thanks you, Father. And now the hard work begins. Hope you don’t mind if I say so,” she began, even though she clearly neither minded nor cared. “But I think our fête is well overdue for an overhaul. Modernisation, so to speak. Last year’s was a fête worse than death, if you’ll excuse the obvious pun. So I’ve been doing a bit of research behind the scenes. Last year, before I even considered getting involved, I attended with my children and spotted the usual bouncy castle, tombola, raffle, white elephant stall, and, of course, Molly Miller’s home produce stall offering cakes, jams, pickles and other preserves. All very charming, and all very traditional. We stayed all of thirty minutes. In total, the event managed to raise around two thousand, four hundred pounds.” Light applause followed her pronouncement, one they knew only too well. The sum had been plastered across the fête website and the Mayfield, Mosswold, and Crumbington Gazette a week after the event. “Do you know how much our neighbour, Parsnip Green, raised last year?” Those gathered peered guiltily at each other as though this might be something every committee member ought to know. “Upwards of twenty-three thousand pounds. Almost ten times as much.” “It’s not a competition, Arlene,” said Polly. The two had already had words. Nathan felt sure they would come to blows by the time the day of the fated fête arrived. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s a travesty. My children raised more money at their Christmas school play. More importantly, attendance numbers were down by over thirty percent on the previous year. Something needs to be done. I’m recommending we ditch some of the traditional stalls and inject some originality and excitement into this year’s offering. Don’t you agree?” “So what? No baking competition?” asked Doris, mildly affronted. “Of course we’ll have a baking competition. After the success of the Great British Bake Off, we’d be crazy not to take advantage of that kind of publicity. It’s the show that’s brought our little anachronistic event back into the public eye. But I’m thinking maybe change the format, have cakes baked and decorated with a theme, then showcased and judged at the event. I’d even considered whether we could get one of the show’s stars to host the event, but they’re beyond our budget. So let’s think outside the box. Now, before I give you my other suggestions, does anyone else have any?” Her remark had clearly caught members off guard, which was perhaps her intention. Everyone—except Doris, who rested her eyes again—peered at each other for inspiration.` “How about Lady Gaga?” said Polly, eventually, leaning back and folding her arms. “Maybe she could play a gig for us. It is for charity, after all.” Polly slouched low in her plastic seat, her jean clad legs crossed at the ankles, looking like a rebellious teenager. When she glammed up—which was rarely—she looked amazing with her natural blonde hair and sky blue eyes. Nathan knew her well enough to distill sarcasm from her tone. Arlene did not and her eyes opened wide. “Do you have connections to Lady Gaga?” “No.” Slight pause. “But you know someone that does?” “No.” Longer pause. “Do you have connections to any pop stars?” “No.” Finally, the penny dropped. “Can we keep suggestions out of the box, but planted firmly in reality.” “Dunk the teacher,” came the voice of sleeping Doris, her eyes finally opening. “Sorry,” asked Arlene. “At Parsnip Green, they had a dunk the teacher stall. If you threw a sponge and hit a target, the teacher dropped into a big tub of water.” “A ducking stool,” said Polly. “Perfect. Both shockingly barbaric, yet quintessentially English.” “Maybe we could find a witch to burn at the stake,” said Nathan. “That would guarantee a crowd.” “I think it’s a marvellous idea, Doris,” said Arlene, ignoring Nathan’s comment. “Polly, one for you. Do we have any teachers at your school who the kids might want to dunk in water?” “Take your pick.” “I suppose a better question would be,” added Nathan, seeing where this was going. “Are there any teachers who would be willing to take the stand?” “The ones who would be game, are the ones the kids like. The ones the kids dislike, and would be happy to dunk, would never agree to being humiliated publicly.” “Could you not appeal to their better natures?” asked Arlene. “You’re assuming they have one.” “Well, do your best, Polly. I’ll put that down for you to pursue. Now as we haven’t got all night and rather than labour this, I’ll give you some of my suggestions. If you have anything before the next meeting, we’ll set up a WhatsApp group and we can text them to each other.” “I’ll sort that out,” said Doris, the committee communications and website specialist. Without another word, Arlene brought out a notebook from her handbag and opened to a page already marked by a scarlet ribbon. “Keep an open mind as I go through my suggestions. This is largely off the top of my head, but as some of you know I used to be the global vice president of marketing and events coordination for one of the top high street banks, and I know what I’m talking about. So what I have so far is; an amateur dog show; an old fashioned fairground with a carousel, helter-skelter and rides for the kids—already sourced; local youth bands playing during the day; food court with offerings from around the world and, of course, the obligatory beer tent. Maybe even a kissing booth. And in the evening, we’ll organise a social here in the village hall for adults. I’ve already arranged for someone famous to open and attend the day. But before all that, we need something to get people’s anticipated excitment about the day, to give them something to talk about before the event. Nathan, you play for the Crumbington United football team, don’t you?” “I do. So does Mikey Shanton.” “Nathan’s the captain,” added Polly. “How would you feel about being photographed for a Crumbington United team calendar—” “A what?” asked Nathan. Even father Mulligan snorted a laugh. “Yawn,” said Polly, patting a hand against her mouth. “One moment, I haven’t finished. I’m talking about a naked calendar, a bit like the kind those rowers do every year. Or the French rugby team. We can follow up with a fun date auction on the night for all the single players, have them all on stage before the social begins. All for charity, of course.” Right then, in the church village hall, silence fell, an almost biblical stillness as though someone had openly and blatantly blasphemed. Arlene clearly took the lack of response to mean approval. “A friend of mine is a most brilliant professional photographer—” “Wait, wait. Hang on,” said Nathan, holding up both palms of his hands. “Naked pictures of the football team? None of the boys are going to agree to that.” “Tastefully done, Nathan. You wouldn’t be showcasing your nether regions. We’d place footballs in front or have you standing behind goal posts. My friend will have lots of suggestions.” “Ooh, I think it’s a lovely idea.” Eighty-two year old Doris—wide awake now—pressed her veined hands in prayer beneath her double chins. “Arlene, have you actually met any Crumbington football players,” asked Nathan. “Physically, we are hardly the Chippendales. Far from it.” “Please, Nathan. Women—and I am not just speaking for myself here—prefer real men. Not those pumped up on too many protein shakes and steroids. And you’re already considered local celebrities. Am I right, Doris? Besides, my friend can touch you up on her computer before they go to print. How many are in the squad?” “Around eighteen, if you include the temp players, those who can’t make every game. But hang on a moment, none of them are going to agree to this.” “So we’d finally get to see you with your kit off?” said Polly, an aside to Nathan. “Not helping.” “Well, as you’re on the committee, Nathan, I’m making it your personal responsibility to get them on board. Or twelve at least, one for every month of the year. And we need the shoot done next month at the latest if we’re going to get this edited, printed, and ready to sell by the end of April, in time for the actual fête. So I suggest you get your finger out,” said Arlene. “If you need backup, give me a call.” “We’ve got a game this Sunday. I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not promising anything.” “Good. My photographer friend is here this weekend. I’ve reserved the private bar at the back of The Crumbington Arms so the committee and some special guests can meet. I’ll lay on finger food and soft drinks. You can buy your own if you want alcohol. And bring your other halves, if you want. Let’s hope Nathan has good news by then. I’ve already booked the fairground rides, so Polly, can you find out if any of your teachers are game for dunking and whether you have any decent bands at your school who can play the kind of music people might actually want to listen to?” “I’ll do my best.” “Good. Doris, can you update the website, and announce the date that’s now been confirmed.” “Consider it done, dearie. I’ve made some modifications from last year, to make sure the site works better on mobiles and tablets, too. I’ve also got the online donation page ready to go live, as you asked in your email.” “Well done. And one last thing. As I mentioned, I’ve already confirmed special guests to open the fête. One of our more famous ex-residents of Crumbington, Clifton O’Keefe, will host the day.” “Clifton O’K—Keefe?” stuttered Nathan. Unnoticed and unfelt by anyone but him, a cold wind had blown through the church hall. Only Polly stared at him, understood his discomfort. Even then, she didn’t know the whole story. “Who’s Christian O’Keefe?” asked Father Mulligan. “Clifton, Father Mulligan. He’s a rising star in the American film and television industry. And he’s over shooting episodes for his new series, which will keep him here from February until September. Staying at his grandparent’s place, apparently. My husband’s a part of the production team and called in a favour. Clifton, and his husband, Raul Jurado—famous Mexican ice skater—have also agreed to judge the Crumbington Bake Off best cake award. And they’ll stay for the social including the football team date auction. If that doesn’t draw the crowds in, nothing will. That’s confirmed by the way, Doris, so you can put that news up on the website, too?” In high school, Nathan had fallen in love with Clifton Hogmore, now reinvented and known as the actor, Clifton O’Keefe. Back in school, both of them played for the football team, and Nathan had tried his damnedest to hide his feelings, to be just a friend and nothing more. Until the day Clifton had admitted to having the hots for Nathan. After that, well, nobody and nothing could keep them apart. But they kept everything in the locker room, so to speak. And as far as sex was concerned, Clifton was Nathan’s first and, to this day, he honestly believed Nathan had been Clifton’s. They became inseparable for the next three months. Until the end of term party, when Clifton didn’t show up. He and his family disappeared off the face of the planet, to resurface six years later in Los Angeles with Clifton as Hollywood’s latest heartthrob. And now he was married. Nathan closed his eyes and huffed out a sigh. Nothing out of the ordinary was ever supposed to happen in Crumbington. What the hell just did?
  23. 69 points
    Three in the afternoon on a quiet Wednesday, Nathan sat in the small office at the back of the bakers, nursing a mug of tea, logging invoices and paying bills from his laptop. The only personal items he kept in the office were his overcoat, scarf and an assortment of umbrellas, in case he needed to head out to the high street for anything. Over the weekend, an electric kettle, mugs and tea bags had found their way onto one side of his office desk. And now, the small fridge his father had installed there, many moons ago, placed atop a waist-high filing cabinet, contained not only chilled bottles of water but a tall carton of fresh milk. Fingal’s doing, according to Molly. Apparently, he had baulked on Friday at having to run upstairs to the flat every time he fancied a brew. Rather than being rattled, Nathan found the change endearing, reminded him so much of his father. Strangely, the weekend away from the shop had changed him, chilled him, and he suddenly imagined a world outside his own. Even the announcement of his cousin coming to see him hadn’t fazed him, something he had taken in his stride. About to close down the laptop, he hesitated, then opened a browser and searched again for the Huffpost article on the calendar. In all fairness, the story had been well-written and provided excellent publicity for the upcoming event. The catchline ‘Crumbington Baker Bares All’ with the photo of him laid out on the wooden bench had initially filled him with cold dread, but had since begun to lose its potency. As had the couple of times he had been stared at or, on one occasion, wolf-whistled on the high street since Monday. More to the point, he wondered, would the title and picture entice anyone to read the actual article? He hoped so. Nevertheless, a smile tugged his face on seeing the photograph and remembering what exactly had been happening behind the camera. After finally leaving her a message Saturday night, Jenny Gillespie called Sunday lunchtime as he and Jaymes stuffed their bags into the back of the Rover and began to bid farewell to Clifton and Raul. Apparently her contact had initially confirmed publishing the article mid to late April. When he saw the material, and having had a fairly quiet month on the news front, his editor had insisted on publishing early. Her apology sounded genuine and Nathan placated her with his tale of being hijacked by a woman at the party, which had Jaymes laughing in the background and seemed to mollify Jenny. Before she called off, Jaymes demanded to know the details of the website, which she promptly provided. Clifton became quiet and pensive, and gently shook his head at Nathan, while all the others either hooted with joy, whistled, or made largely positive noises. Nathan put Clifton’s reaction down to his own dubious online experience. As they drove to the antiques store in Oxford, Nathan received a string of text messages from his teammates. Apparently, the site was now in the public domain. Two hours later, as they stood in the heart of Martin and Gallagher’s antiques shop, Arlene called. Although she sounded guarded at first—probably expecting to be blamed by Nathan—she didn’t seem overly bothered. Publicity, she put it assertively, being the key to a successful campaign and, ultimately, a profitable festival. Once she had finished her lecture, Nathan breathed out a sigh and then chuckled, and told her not to worry. That particular reaction, strangely, elicited a response from her, almost one of suspicion. But in a resigned voice, he told her the circus had already begun and that he simply would have liked to have been given a heads-up. On Monday morning, Jaymes texted him a photograph of his desktop computer with naked Nathan as the new wallpaper. An hour later, without knowing about her cousin’s action, Polly sent him one exactly the same but hers now filled the home display of her smartphone. After rolling his eyes, he resigned himself to being in the spotlight for a few more weeks. Just as well, too, because several people came into the shop that week, immediately seeking out this famous baker. After giving them a smile and a nod, telling them the calendar would be on sale very soon, he often watched them leave, and wondered what they thought when they realised he really was just an ordinary person, a true to life boring baker. “So this is where you hide yourself, is it?” came a baritone voice with a gentle Irish lilt. “Well, don’t just sit there. Make yourself useful and put the kettle on. Me and Molly here are parched.” Fingal stood in the doorway, smiling, Molly grinning over his shoulder. Nathan rolled his eyes, but got up and went to fill the kettle from the sink in the restroom attached to the office. When he returned, Fingal had already installed himself in the old chair opposite. As Nathan plugged in the kettle and set about making tea, Fingal watched him good-humouredly. “I was going to berate you about not publicising your damn fine produce enough. But seems you’ve gone above and beyond in that respect. I’d never have considered getting me togs off back in Ireland. An advert in a local paper holding a loaf maybe, but I’d never have considered appearing in the buff.” “Oh, my lord,” said Nathan, putting his face in his hands. “Who told you?” “Nobody needed to. After the third time being asked by a customer where the naked baker was, I kind of guessed they weren’t talking about Arthur—although I did wonder about his son. And then, before we closed up Friday, Molly’s daughter came in and showed us the photo on her phone. You do know takings were up by about a third for both days, don’t you?” “And I apologise for the trouble it caused. I want to truly thank you for coping, and especially taking the team out for a drink on Friday. But the calendar was never meant to be about me or the shop. It’s for charity—” “I know all that, Nathan. But a little bit of publicity for the shop can’t do any harm, can it?” Nathan finished off preparing the teas, and took one out to Molly, telling her to call him if things got busy. When he returned, he took his seat while Fingal folded his arms and observed him. “Now, son. Are you happy to hear some advice from an old timer?” “I’m all ears.” “Are you? It’s just, some people don’t want to hear from those they consider outsiders. And if you knew me well, you’d know that I’m not one to pull any punches.” “I’m a big boy.” “To be sure. Even Molly knows that. She saw the photo,” said Fingal, chuckling, while Nathan groaned and looked away. “What I mean is, please go on,” said Nathan, braving Fingal again. “Tell me what you think.” “Okay then. Like I said to you before, you’re missing a lot of tricks, so I’m going to start gently. To begin with, every morning you deliver fresh rolls and mini baguettes to seven cafes and convenience stores dotted about town. Once delivered, each store spends time filling them to sell as breakfasts, or lunches, or in readiness for their lunchtime trade. So I’m thinking, why don’t you do everything here instead, find out what fillings are popular and do the work for them? Price them accordingly, but I bet they’d love you for that. Molly’s more than capable. Although you might want to consider getting extra help. You could sell them here, out of the shop, too. And did you know her girl Janette has her own business making organic pies, salads and soups for schools, clubs and local cafes? How about you let her sell through the bakery? That way people can get freshly baked, freshly filled rolls or baguettes as well as pies, soups or salads for their lunches. Could get yourself a smart little side business going, if you wanted.” “Nice idea. But I’d need to find space if we’re going to prepare fresh food. And wouldn’t the health department need to approve us preparing fresh food on the premises?” “Your food prep licence might already cover you, but anyway, it’d be nothing more than a technicality. And as for space? You’ve got four ovens out back, Nathan. And you only ever use two. Sure, they’re a few years old, but they’re still in good nick. I bet you could sell them fairly easily, which is what I would do.” “Sell two? But I keep two as a back-up, in case—” “In case of what? According to Arthur, those ovens have rarely even needed any maintenance. They’re just sitting there, taking up valuable space, space that Molly could use to prepare rolls and baguettes. My advice would be to sell the whole lot, two at a time, and install a new Duvall Grande Deluxe at the back, which would take up a fraction of the current space and still easily cope with your current demand.” “I—I’d never thought of that. Should I talk to Arthur?” “Look, I really like Arthur, I do. He’s a professional, an artisan—and, man, can he down a pint—but he’s not a businessman. Whatever you say to him, he’ll agree. This ultimate decision would be yours.” Nathan sat back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Two days under his roof and Fingal had identified so much, while Nathan had simply let the business drift. Was this what Jaymes meant about having a passion for what you do? “I googled your place, by the way,” continued Fingal. “Did you know you used to have a shop logo and a slogan in each of your front windows and on the glass in the door? Must have been back in the eighties.” “Before I was born. Probably my grandma.” “Cute little sign that read: Buy Local, Buy Fresher, with a smiling cartoon baker with his thumb up while cradling a cottage loaf. A subtle but kind of cute way of flipping off the supermarkets. Your shop front could do with a makeover, how about resurrecting the old sign. Kind of thing speaks to today’s consumer.” “I don’t think I know anyone, but I could ask Polly—” “Don’t worry about that. I got plenty of contacts,” said Fingal, putting down his mug of tea, and leaning forward. “Now, another thing. Don’t be surprised if, over the next couple of weeks, you get a call from an agent interested in buying the shop on behalf of a third party. Between you and me, they’ll likely be a representative of Upper Crust, that big outfit on the outskirts of town. From what I heard, they’ll offer you a substantial amount not only for the business and premises, but also for the goodwill. They’ll want to keep your family name but the shop will be run independently by Upper Crust.” Nathan sat staring disbelieving at Fingal, biting his bottom lip. Selling out to Upper Crust could be the answer to everything, would allow him to follow his dreams. And yet a part of him felt a stab of betrayal at even considering letting some faceless corporation stamp all over the family business. “I’ll let that sink in while I move onto the tough love. I mean no disrespect, Nathan, but I’ve a feeling you’ve got your head up your ar—I mean, in the sand—right now. Gonna put my cards on the table, so you know the kind of man you’ve been dealing with. The reason I agreed to come and help out over the weekend is because I owed Bob, Arlene’s husband, a favour. But when his wife called me up and asked that I help you out only because she wanted me to get intel on your operation, I almost told her to go to hell. But I agreed anyway, and I’m glad I did but for a very different reason. Not sure if you’re aware, but Mrs Killjoy is doing freelance marketing work for the big boys who run the chain of hypermarkets all along the south of England, the ones who also own Upper Crust. I’m telling you all this because I’m in favour of local businesses. Hell, I ran one myself for forty years. I think there’s been a trend away from the mass market style of selling goods and services, and—okay, there is also online shopping for some goods—but these days people in communities want to actively support local businesses, especially those generating fresh and organic produce. That’s why this town needs you, but if you’re going to do this, you need to grow a pair and fight back, Nathan.” “I don’t know what to say.” “Well, you’re clearly going to need help. And seeing as I’ve got time on my hands—” Nathan sat bolt upright. “You’d come and work for me?” “Part time. The missus would never forgive me if I agreed to do full time. But honestly, I’m climbing the walls at home at the moment. My wife just told me she had the best weekend in months doing spas and whatnot, without having to keep me entertained. And I thought you could do with some support, and give you a chance to take a few days off. Win-win, I think they call it. So I wondered if I offer to do a shift every fortnight, alternating Wednesday through Saturday when you’re at your busiest, and then Sunday through Wednesday when you’re quieter—” “We don’t open Sundays.” “Not yet, we don’t.” Nathan suddenly felt a weight lifting from his shoulders, and his eyes began to tear up. With Fingal on board, he could finally take time off, might even be able to schedule a holiday if they could work out schedules between them. He would also have someone he could trust working alongside, who’d be happy to speak his own mind. “Yes, Fingal. Hell, yes. I’d love to have you working here,” he said, until a thought came to him. “But what do we do about Arlene?” This time Fingal leant back in his chair, and nursed his tea mug, a smug grin on his face. “Bob’s a great guy, you know? He really is. But I have no idea what he sees in his wife. She is one ruthless bitch—or at least she likes to think she is. But you don’t need to worry yourself about Arlene Killjoy, Nathan. You’ve got me in your corner now. And, between me, your friend Polly—she’s a little firecracker, isn’t she?—and some very influential friends of hers, well, let’s just say, when the time is right, Arlene Killjoy is going to find out the true meaning of the word payback.” “What have you done—?” “You know, Nathan, as a member of the fête committee, I think the less you know, the better. So now you know I’m as devious as your committee organiser, do you still want me on board?” Nathan put down his mug, stood and leant across the table, his hand outstretched. “Absolutely, yes,” said Nathan, shaking Fingal’s hand. “It would be my honour to have you work alongside me.” “Good then. My wife has just become your new best friend.” Just then, Nathan heard Molly’s voice calling from inside the shop. “Nathan, can you come out, please. There’s a gentleman to see you.” After releasing Fingal’s firm handshake, Nathan walked into the shop, smiling. Molly stood frozen at the till, staring open-mouthed at the stranger. The man standing self-consciously in the centre of the empty shop, wrapped in warm garb, may have been a few years older than Nathan but the resemblance was uncanny. Same dark hair in almost the same style, same complexion, same shape and shade of eyes—even though Nathan couldn’t tell the exact colour—same shaped eyebrows, lips and mouth. If Nathan believed in doppelgängers, in having a mirror image, he would have called this person his. Before he had a chance to speak, the double, who appeared extremely nervous, spoke first. “Hello Nathan. My name’s Grant—” “Yes, I know who you are,” said Nathan, a little more abruptly than he’d meant. To soften the remark, he smiled and pointed to Grant’s face. “Family resemblance. And I’ve been expecting you.” “You know what,” said Fingal, his voice sounding over Nathan’s right shoulder. “It’s almost closing time. Why don’t I stay and help Molly shut up shop, and then you can take this young fellow-me-lad out for a coffee or something stronger.” “How about that, Grant? Fancy a coffee or—?” “A pint. Down the local. Would be perfect. My treat,” said Grant, appearing to relax slightly. Maybe he needed a drink to help calm his nerves even more. “Let me get my coat and scarf, and I’ll join you out front.” When Nathan returned, Molly and Fingal stood together laughing at a shared joke. “So, Mr Finnegan.” Nathan’s relieved mood had not been dampened by the arrival of Grant. No matter what his news might be, Nathan felt prepared for anything. He now had a fearless Irishman on his side. “When do you think you might be able to start?” “Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? So I may as well work until Saturday, if that’s okay by you? I’ve still got the spare set of keys, so I’ll keep hold of them.” “Fine by me,” said Nathan, grinning. “And at some point, I’ll need to get you officially onto our payroll.” “I’ll sort that out,” said Fingal. “You go and talk to your—cousin, is it?” Nathan peered out through the shop window, watching his cousin standing nervously, peering off down the road. Something resonated in that moment. Grant looked like Nathan’s father—or at least photographs of him when he was younger, when he was happy with Nathan’s mother. A tiny wave of affection hit him then, which he quickly batted away. What if Grant had come to claim his business from him? The thing was, even though they had just met, Nathan felt a connection. Maybe he should keep an open mind. “Be nice to him,” came Fingal’s voice. “He’s scared to death, poor chap. And by the sound of that accent, he’s a long way from home.” Without another word, Nathan sighed deeply, before walking out and joining his cousin. At first, they strolled unspeaking towards the pub. Grant was the first to break the silence. “You know, it’s autumn in Melbourne. Temperatures hover around twenty to twenty five during the day. Here feels like the middle of winter.” “Officially, spring has already started. But I know what you mean.” “But your history in England is incredible. The woman in the newsagent said this village dates back as far as the twelfth century. Even walking down the high street, with the black and white fronted Victorian buildings, feels like I’m in a Dickens novel.” Nathan laughed aloud. Some things he had learnt to take for granted. “Never really think about it.” “You should, it’s amazing. And not only authentic, but somebody’s spent a lot of time and money making sure they’re maintained. You can’t buy heritage. Well, you can—didn’t someone in Arizona buy London Bridge in the sixties and reassemble the whole thing on the Colorado River?” “Lake Havasu City. And rumour has it the guy thought he was getting Tower Bridge.” “Yeah, I think that’s a myth. But I wonder how the bridge looks now. Hundreds of years, Londoners walked or rode across, and now it’s plonked in the middle of Arizona. Yes, I know people are still crossing the bridge, but if Disney had built a replica instead, would anyone have noticed or cared? I walked across Westminster Bridge on Saturday. I know it’s not the same one Wordsworth refers to in his poem Upon Westminster Bridge—his poem was written in 1803 and the bridge was rebuilt later in the century—but standing there, staring at the River Thames and the skyline of London, and you can almost feel ghosts walking past.” Nathan turned to his cousin and raised an eyebrow, an expression not lost on Grant. “Oh crap. You think I’m a dork?” “No, I think you like history. Clearly.” “I love it. And especially when I see old buildings still being lived in, built centuries ago. To me, cousin, that is seriously mind-blowing.” “You’ll find the interiors have mod cons now. How else could we get through these bleak winters?” “I know. I’m staying at Uppingham Manor Hotel near Five Ashes right now. Old stately home converted into a hotel. And at some point I’d like to stay at Claridges in London—built 1865—before heading up country.” “Heavens. Someone has a few bob stashed away?” Grant looked away then, appeared a little embarrassed. Nathan figured his father had been as generous to him upon his death as he had been to Nathan, even more so. He immediately changed tack. “Might want to consider investing in a thicker jacket, if you’re thinking about doing any travelling. Weather’s even colder up north.” “Good advice. And if you ever need to escape this weather, you should come visit me when I get back to Oz. Bet you’d like Melbourne.” Nathan fell silent. Almost on impulse, he had been about to cite all the usual reasons why leaving the shop was impossible—except he no longer believed his own overused argument. Having Fingal on board would give him more freedom now. And he had still not forgotten Fingal’s words about Upper Crust making an offer for his shop. As they passed the small charity shop, a familiar woman whose name he couldn’t recall stopped in the shop doorway and called out to him. “Hey there, Mr Fresher. Nice photo. Keep up the good work.” “Thank you.” As they continued on, Grant peered at him quizzically. “I’ll explain later,” said Nathan, without turning. “Once I’ve got a pint in my hand.” “Would that be the reason I got stared at so much on the street Saturday? Did they mistake me for you? I’m sure someone even whistled.” “Could very well be.” Nathan said no more, and Grant grunted with laughter but didn’t push. “So what do friends and family call you? Nathan or Nate?” said Grant, as they reached the door of the pub. “You know us Aussies. We like to shorten everything.” “Well, I used to prefer Nathan.” Nathan smirked when he thought of Jaymes. He held the door open while Grant walked inside. “But Nate is beginning to grow on me. So how long are you over here for?” Inside, the warmth soon had his cheeks tingling. They both approached the bar, but Grant stopped him when he reached inside his coat for his wallet. “My treat, remember. Pint of lager?” Nathan nodded and then smiled when Grant ordered two pints of the same brand, Nathan’s favourite. As soon as the girl moved away to fetch their drinks, he turned back to Nathan. “To answer your question about how long I aim to stay, at least a month, but I’ve got no set plan. Tourist visa is for six months. Main objective was to come here and get to know you. Then I thought I’d spend time visiting historic places like York—which I did over the past couple of days—as well as Cornwall, Windsor and Edinburgh. But I really want to get to know Crumbington while I get my UK passport sorted, which might take some time.” “Are you changing your name?” Grant eyed Nathan carefully before speaking. “That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. Would you be freaked out if I did?” “No. I mean, why would I?” “Well, all these years you’ve been an only child with no other living relative. Now suddenly—” “Why would that be a bad thing?” “Not bad, perhaps. Just might take some getting used to.” “I’d be honoured if you took the Fresher family name.” Either someone opened the pub door wide right at that moment, or a cold wave of premonition swept through Nathan. Fortunately, at that moment, the girl behind the bar returned with two pint glasses full of golden beer and Grant had turned away to pay. They took their drinks to a small nook at the back of the pub. As Grant put his wallet away, he smiled and brought something out of his pocket. “When I visited the shop with my father—years ago—your father gave me this.” Grant produced a small keyring which had an old fashioned silver half crown inside a perspex shell. Nathan chuckled and then drew out his own set of keys with an identical coin. When he held the token up next to Grant’s, his cousin’s smile drained away. “Do you think he knew?” Nathan’s own smile slipped then. He put the keyring together with his phone down on the table. “No. How could he? Even my grandfather didn’t know.” “Didn’t he?” After staring at Grant for a full minute, Nathan took a gulp of his beer. Grant was right, of course. Had his grandfather and father known about the orphaned brother? And even if they had, what good could it do now? Nathan shook his head and downed a little more of the pint. “So what do you want to know?” he asked, putting down his glass and wiping his upper lip. “Everything.” “Come on, Grant. Help me here.” “Look, I know my dad’s my birth dad. But it’s been odd finding out my grandfather—his father—is not actually family. And to be honest, I think I knew. In all the photos of my grandfather and his brothers as kids, they had golden hair. And grandma was a natural red head. But somehow, my dad ended up with dark hair like me.” “It’s been known to happen, family genes skipping generations.” “But the point is, they didn’t, did they?” “Did you ever say anything to your father?” “Once. He laughed it off. Asked if I thought grandma had been moonlighting. But now I know my real grandparents were different people, living their lives on the other side of the planet. Did you ever meet him, your great grandfather?” “Not really. I vaguely remember his funeral. I’d have been around eight when he died.” “How about my uncle, your grandfather? What was he like?” “Serious. Hard-working. Not particularly warm, and not much of a sense of humour. His whole life revolved around the bakery. My dad stepped straight into his shoes when he retired.” “But not you?” “For a time I wanted other things. But what choice did I have? How old are you, by the way?” “Thirty-seven.” “Single?” “That obvious?” Nathan snorted. He liked Grant. Even though they looked the same, they were different in some ways, but Grant had the same humble air about him, the same as his father and grandfather. Even if he hadn’t been given the letter, he might have suspected a family connection somewhere. “You’re very lucky, Nathan.” “Lucky? How so?” “To have a job where you not only create something, but you feed people. There’s something really noble about that. Must feel really satisfying.” “You want it? It’s all yours.” “No, I’m good,” laughed Grant, before sipping on his beer. “But, you know, I wouldn’t mind seeing the place in action, a working bakery, if you’d be okay with that?” Nathan smiled and nodded. A dose of realism never hurt anyone. He wondered why people romanticised his job, something he’d never found either worthy or fulfilling. “What do you do?” he asked. “For a living?” “Very little now. Don’t really need to. My dad’s partner, Dan, runs the real estate business. I’m a director—which is more of an honorary title—and I show up whenever there’s a board meeting or if there’s an emergency, which is never. Dan prefers it if I stay well out of the way. And to be perfectly honest, dad left me so much I don’t really need to work. He knew the business inside out, worked there every day up until the day he died.” “How old was he?” “Eighty-one.” “He had you late in life?” “Guess you could say that. Forty-four. Met my mum the year before. So maybe there’s hope for me yet.” While Grant had been speaking, a message beeped on Nathan’s phone. Nathan leant forward and touched the screen to bring up the full message. “Who’s that?” “Polly. Just stopped off at the shop to talk to me. Says she’s on her way.” Nathan peered up from his phone. “Hope that’s okay?” “Is she your—uh—your girl?” “Polly’s a friend. A good friend. She’s the one who tried to bar you from coming into the shop Saturday. Didn’t you two go for a drink—” “Oh shit, mate. Her? She’s coming here?” said Grant, taking a swig of his beer, before putting the glass down. After wiping his hand on his jacket, he swiped at his fringe. An amusing blush had appeared on his cheeks. “Calm down, Grant. She’s just—” said Nathan, before a sudden realisation dawned on him. “Oh my God. You fancy her. You fancy Polly.” “Are you kidding me? She’s a beauty, a stone cold fox. Doubt she’d even look at me twice.” “Wouldn’t be so sure about that. She has a thing for dark hair and green eyes. And she likes older guys. Reckon if I’d ever swung that way, she might have even had a thing for me.” “You’re gay?” Oh shit, thought Nathan. What a way to come out to your cousin. Although Grant’s face didn’t appear to hold any disgust, just inquisitiveness. “Is that a problem?” “Uh, mate, we do have gay people in Melbourne. Billy Hughes is my best bud from school and he’s gay. We’re on the same soccer team.” “You play football?” “Soccer.” “This just keeps getting better. I play for the local team. So, before Polly gets here, let me explain something the team’s been involved in recently for charity, the reason for the attention on the street.” Just as Nathan finished the story to a wide-eyed Grant, Polly turned up. Nathan spied her entering the pub from his vantage point, but she hadn’t seen them yet. With the pub relatively empty, she soon found them and Nathan smirked at Grant’s formality as he stood abruptly to greet her. When he offered to buy her a drink, she accepted immediately—a glass of white wine—and he almost fell over a chair to get to the bar. “Someone has an admirer,” said Nathan, smirking, as Polly took a seat opposite. Polly’s keen gaze after Grant told him everything he needed to know. “Be nice,” said Nathan. “He’s a gentle soul.” “When I am ever not nice?” asked Polly, a perfect pout in place trying hard to mask a smile. “I called Jaymes, by the way. He’s on his way, too.” Nathan laughed. Polly appeared to be amassing the troops. “Why? Did you think I needed saving?” “I dropped by the shop.” Polly folded her arms and gave him her best stony expression. “Fingal said you were headed here. So I thought it might be nice for your cousin to meet a couple of your friends. Is that a problem?” “No, not a problem. I appreciate the sentiment. But if you were worried about me, don’t be. From what I can tell in the short space of time I’ve known him, he’s a decent sort.” “Which is what I told you.” “Anyway, now I’ve got you alone, do you want to tell me what you’ve found out about Arlene?” Polly stared at Nathan, but gave nothing away. “Fingal says you’ve been digging,” Nathan added. “All in good time, Nathan darling. All in good time,” said Polly, before something caught her eye through the side window. “Jaymes is here.” Nathan turned, his interrogation instantly forgotten. Jaymes entered the pub with his usual confidence. He had come straight from work, still wore the clothes Nathan had watched him pull on that very morning; hugging jeans, thick black jumper beneath his warm parka jacket and solid work boots. Sex on legs. But even more, Nathan never tired of seeing Jaymes’ happy face. As always of late, his insides turned over a couple of times and he could not stop the smile stretching his face. Jaymes reciprocated as he made his way over. On autopilot, he made his way straight for Nathan, before stopping in front, a hand planted on either shoulder, about to place a kiss on Nathan’s lips. Except he froze at the last minute, when his gaze swung behind Nathan. “Poll,” he said, patting Nathan’s shoulders and dropping his hands. “There you are. Gonna buy me a drink?” Polly folded her arms and looked between the two of them. “Honestly, you two must think I walk around with my eyes closed.” “What—what do you mean?” asked Nathan. “His clothes in your wardrobe; lube left out on the side of your bed; the unused spare bedroom. Doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure things out. How long’s it been going on? No, let me guess. Since he saw you naked? At the photographer’s studio?” “Before then,” said Jaymes, calmly, surprising Nathan by putting his arm around his shoulders and fronting Polly. “But I knew as far back as January. The day I arrived., the day I walked in that door.” “You did?” asked Nathan, turning to Jaymes. This time, Nathan was rewarded with a peck on the cheek. “Hook, line and sinker. You have no idea what you do to me. Sorry I took so long to get my shit together, Nate.” They gave each other goofy grins, but Polly hadn’t finished. “And has he told you he’s off again? In June?” she said, her tone serious and assertive. Jaymes had been about to respond, but Nathan squeezed a hand on his forearm. “Polly. Jaymes has been upfront about everything. I know he’s only here for a few months, but I’m prepared to take whatever he can give. How can I be annoyed by someone who has a job they love? If anything, he’s an inspiration. And, in case you’re going to ask, I asked him to move in with me. Not the other way around. Your cousin is the best thing that’s happened to me in as long as I can remember.” “Oh, Nathan.” Polly’s gaze seemed almost maternal, pitiful. “What has he done to you?” This time, Nathan couldn’t stop the grin spreading across his face, and he pulled Jaymes in for a tight hug. “He’s made me happy.” Even Polly couldn’t resist then, and joined in the group hug. Just then a nervous cough sounded behind them. “Did I miss something?” came Grant’s voice.
  24. 69 points
    Nathan hesitated in the doorway to his bedroom, sensing the heat from Jaymes’ body at his back. An involuntary shiver trembled through him. In his mind, he still thought of the room as his father’s—well, his parent’s—even though he had redecorated and bought new furniture after his father passed away. He had also invested in a queen-sized bed, even though he’d shared the space with nobody since the purchase. And right now a man—a very attractive man—wanted to climb into bed with him, and hopefully have sex with him. His stomach tightened and, as if hearing his thoughts, a warm hand landed on his shoulder. “Nate?” came the concerned voice. “Are you absolutely sure about this?” said Nathan, without turning. “Because if we go the rest of the way, there’ll be no going back. Everything will change.” “I am. But I think your question is, are you?” “Oh God.” The hand slipped from his shoulder and Nathan immediately missed the warmth, the connection. “What is it?” “It’s just—” Nathan breathed out a sigh and turned to face Jaymes, who stood there patiently, an endearing look of concern in his eyes. “I can handle juvenile Jaymes. But this grown up version is making me nervous.” Jaymes’ face bloomed into a broad smile, which helped reduce Nathan’s nerves. Eventually, Nathan felt a smile tug the corner of his mouth. “Relax. You’re in good hands.” Jaymes put a hand on each of Nathan’s shoulders and pulled him forward into an innocent hug. The closeness, the warmth and musky smell of Jaymes, the side of his face resting against Nathan’s, smoothed the tension out of his body. “I am?” “You are. And in case you’re worrying if this is a first for me, it’s not. Just—let me take control, Nate. Can you do that?” “What does that mean, exactly?” “Do you trust me?” Nathan paused for a second or two, pulling back and staring deep into Jaymes’ eyes, before nodding his head. “Yes. But just so you know, it’s been a while for me.” Since his father’s death, he’d had little time to play. Before that, he’d often driven to Brighton at the weekend, the gay capital of England, and spent the night with friends. One guy had been his on-and-off since his early twenties, but never more than a roll in the hay, though there was a time that might not have been the case. But when his father passed away, any dream of being with someone went out the window. Who wanted to be with a man who rose before the crack of dawn and was asleep by eight o’clock each evening? “Then all the more reason to trust me. Now, don’t move, okay?” “Okay.” Like a parent undressing a kid, Jaymes lifted Nathan’s arms in the air and slowly pulled the sweater over his head. When Nathan’s head reappeared, his hair falling back into place, Jaymes smiled and kissed him chastely on the lips. Nathan began to reach out for Jaymes’ own sweater, but Jaymes stopped his hand, and then held a finger up in front of Nathan’s face. “I said don’t move.” Jaymes bit his bottom lip and concentrated on undoing the buttons of Nathan’s shirt, while Nathan took his fill of the imposing man. Jaymes’ single-minded attentiveness felt damned sexy. When he had completed the top half, removing both shirt and undershirt, he hands went to Nathan’s belt, slowing undoing the buckle, before unbuttoning his jeans and forcing them down to his knees, but carefully avoiding moving or touching Nathan’s seriously tenting boxers. Jaymes appeared to get off on this power play because his breathing had deepened considerably. On his way back up, he smoothed a cheek against the cotton cloth over Nathan’s erection and the damp spot there. Straightening, he forcefully kissed Nathan, and ended by pushing him by the shoulders to a sitting position on the bed. Crouching again, he slid off Nathan’s jeans, before crawling up his body pushing him back until he lay on top, their mouths locked in another powerful kiss. Even fully clothed, Nathan could feel Jaymes’ arousal through his jeans. Jaymes released the embrace, leant back and yanked both of Nathan’s arms above his head. In turn, he pushed his nose and mouth into each armpit, before nuzzling on each of Nathan’s nipples, his tongue wetly circling the gooseflesh skin, before nipping gently on the nub, bringing each fully erect. Nathan squirmed and moaned with pleasure. “You’ve got too many clothes on, Jaymes.” “Shh.” Jaymes sat up then, straddling Nathan’s thighs. While rhythmically pushing his groin into Nathan’s, he slowly began to unbutton his own shirt, and, with no undershirt beneath, revealed his hairy, defined chest for the second time that evening. Broad shouldered, and sporting a flat stomach, Nathan spotted a small tattoo on one side of the crease leading down to his groin, what looked like a dog or a wolf. Hell, thought Nathan, the man could put on a show. Nathan wanted to touch and feel, suck and taste him, run his hands over his amazing body. But he’d had strict instructions: no touching—yet. Eventually, Jaymes pushed off the mattress, backing onto the carpet, where he began unbuckling his trousers, removing them and his underwear until he stood buck naked except for the leather bands around both wrists. While his gaze appraised Nathan’s body, one hand smoothed down to his own groin. Nathan couldn’t help the intake of pleasure at the sight, of Jaymes’ impressive body and generously proportioned cock, standing to attention, gripped in a fist and aimed liked a warhead at Nathan’s head. “I’ve wanted to fuck you since the first day I met you,” said Jaymes, stepping out of the jeans around his ankles and coming forward, the pupils of his blue eyes darkened with need. “Yeah?” “Oh yeah,” he said, reaching now and pulling Nathan’s boxers down, watching as his erection sprang free, all the while admiring the view. “You’re absolutely beautiful, Nate.” Jaymes climbed onto the mattress again, like a predator crawling over his prey, planting soft kissed on each of Nathan’s thighs, breathing hot breath onto Nathan’s straining erection—but not touching—drawing his tongue up from the stomach to between his pectorals, then licking and nipping at his nipples. By the time he had lined up their bodies, his scorching cock smoothing up the length of Nathan’s own, his face hovering over him, Nathan was about ready to let go completely. But a question needed answering. “Then why the hesitation earlier?” Jaymes huffed out a sigh and looked away briefly. “Polly warned me you were off limits. You’ve been through enough, she said, and she thinks I’m a bad influence. So I promised. Sadly, not only do I find you totally addictive, but my usually trusty willpower’s defective in your presence.” Once again, Jaymes brought their bodies and mouths together, and probed his eager tongue into Nathan’s mouth, exploring, smoothing, teasing. Jaymes’ mouth tasted of beer and sour Thai sauce and pure need. After a few molten seconds, Jaymes pulled away. “But I get that it’s been a long time. So if you want, we don’t have to go all the way.” Nathan felt Jaymes’ substantial erection nudge between his legs, and a tingle filled his stomach, his arse cheeks clenching involuntarily with need. All of his previous encounters—and he could count them on one hand—had been fast and furious. He and Clifton had never gotten past blow jobs and mutual masturbation. If only for one night, he wanted everything with Jaymes. “I want to go all the way with you.” “You do?” “Hell yeah, but you’re going to have to take it slow.” “Slow is my speciality. I’ll have you singing like an opera diva by the time I’m finally inside you.” “Fuck, Jaymes. Hurry up, then. I’m about ready to burst here. Condoms and lube are in the bedside drawer. This side.” When Jaymes jumped up and went to the drawer, Nathan pulled himself further up the bed. Jaymes lost no time and after throwing the items onto a pillow, launched himself back at Nathan. Holding his head in both hands, he planted his weight on top of Nathan and kissed deeply. Apparently Jaymes liked to kiss, which was as well because Nathan loved being kissed by him. “Am I allowed to move yet?” asked Nathan, as they came up for air. Jaymes laughed playfully at that. Hot breath bathed his left ear when he spoke. “Knock yourself out.” Nathan rolled them over and straddled a chuckling Jaymes. This time, Nathan took his time to drink in the incredibly hot guy beneath him. When he reached down and grabbed a handful of Jaymes’ erection, the bigger man’s eyes widened, his grin dissolving. Pupils darkening with need, he sucked in a breath, closed his eyes, and bucked his hips repeatedly into Nathan’s grip. His heart thumping, Nathan made his way down Jaymes’ body, eventually stopping and hovering over the cock. Maybe he wasn’t so good at other things, but he knew a thing or two about giving blow jobs, or so he’d been told. Keeping his grip on Jaymes’ shaft, he drew his tongue slowly from root to tip, tracing bulging veins before licking repeatedly around the ridge. “Bastard,” hissed Jaymes, his hands reaching into Nathan’s hair. Before Jaymes could speak again, Nathan had cupped his balls in one hand and squeezed gently, before taking the whole head in his mouth. Obscene words drifted down from Jaymes’ mouth, as Nathan bobbed his head up and down, letting out an occasional popping sound as he released the head. After a few of these, Nathan decided to shut Jaymes up by taking his whole length—not an easy task because of the girth—into his throat while snaking his tongue repeatedly around. Before he had finished, Jaymes used his hands to pull off Nathan’s head, a soft whimpering sound coming from him. “Okay Nate,” he said, his voice shaking and serious. “I get it. You give fucking amazing head. But if you carry on like that, it’ll all be over before it’s begun. Let me take over now, give me a chance to recover.” Flipping places once again, he crushed his mouth onto Nathan’s. Without breaking the kiss, he eased Nathan’s legs apart, before pulling his knees up and sliding the head of his hot cock along Nathan’s crack. Jaymes knew how to tease, the heat amazing, the tip already slick with pre-cum. Nathan’s legs squeezed tight around Jaymes’ lower back, letting him know he wanted more. Releasing Nathan’s mouth, Jaymes went down on Nathan, sucking his balls and torturing him by taking him into his mouth, while still managing to press the length of his cock along Nathan’s crack. Before long, the length was replaced by a spit slick middle finger, thick and calloused, squeezing slowly inside while Jaymes worked Nathan’s cock with his mouth. After moments of twisting and probing, the finger withdrew and this time Nathan heard the snap of the lube bottle opening. He had been expecting to feel cool liquid touch him, but instead Jaymes released his cock, and swiped his tongue around the sensitive skin of Nathan’s hole before pushing inside. Nathan moaned aloud and almost came there and then. Emboldened, Jaymes brought his head away and pushed two fingers inside this time, his mouth returning to swallow Nathan’s length. Nathan loved the feeling, realising how much he had missed the intimate sensation, until Jaymes withdrew and pushed a third finger into him, finally finding his prostate, his pleasure centre. Nathan literally yelped, bucked his hips, and then moaned, which set Jaymes chuckling. “There you are, my little friend.” After twisting his fingers, Jaymes stroked the spot once more. Nathan felt pressure building at the root of his cock, knew he wasn’t far from coming. He’d almost forgotten how much pleasure two men could give each other. “Jaymes, you need to fuck me now. I beg you.” But Jaymes was way ahead. As soon as he withdrew his hand, the head of his already sheathed cock replaced the loss of heat, pushing in slowly and stopping. Nathan’s breath stuttered for a second, the pain sharp, but the burn of being stretched gradually subsiding. As promised, Jaymes took his time, pushing forward gradually and allowing Nathan time to adjust. Without doubt, Jaymes was bigger than any man he’d ever had, and despite the coolness of the room, Nathan felt perspiration dotting his forehead. Finally, Jaymes’ own sweat-slick face appeared over his, eyes wide with wonder. “I’m all the way in.” “You are?” “Yes.” “Then what are you waiting for?” Jaymes grinned again, but when he started moving, a tortured mask of ecstasy replaced his smile. After a few tentative strokes, he began to pull out almost all the way before sliding back in again. Soon all pain had subsided, Nathan’s nerve endings brought to life, and he began to move forward into each stroke. When Jaymes changed angles at one point, and thrust back in hard, he hit right on target and Nathan whimpered eager encouragement and affirmation into his ear. Each subsequent thrust hit home, fast and hard, followed by long, slow strokes. Along with the lovemaking, the bed frame creaked like an industrial machine while the headboard slammed rhythmically against the wall, each bang marking out the increasing pleasure and tension building inside Nathan. When Jaymes’ mouth crushed into Nathan’s and once again he rammed in hard and fast, Nathan finally came apart, cum erupting from him, hitting their joined chests and filling his navel. Jaymes came seconds afterwards, growling loudly, and pushing his cock as far into Nathan as he would reach, filling the condom. Collapsing on top of Nathan, their chests bounced against each other, fighting for air, their bodies slick with sweat and semen. Eventually, Jaymes pulled out, slowly and gently, which made Nathan smile shyly. Jaymes was a generous and careful lover. Both lay on their backs, staring at the ceiling, unspeaking, breathing in sync. Eventually Nathan broke the silence. “Is there anything you’re not good at?” Jaymes’ laughter rumbled and he turned on his side to face Nathan. With one hand cradling his head, he reached out and stroked a thumb around Nathan’s groin, fondling his balls and bringing his cock back to life. “If I could turn you into a pizza right now, this would be a perfect night.” “There’s one in the freezer I could defrost and bake, if you want?” “Nah. We haven’t finished here yet. You ready for round two?” “If you keep that up, I will be.” “Let me quickly get rid of this first of all,” said Jaymes, plucking off the filled condom, rising from the bed, and disappearing towards the bathroom. “For the record, I hate condoms,” said Jaymes, returning and stretching out next to Nathan. “Why?” “Reduced sensation. Like kissing through shrink-wrap. But having lived with a cheating bastard for five weeks, I understand the need.” Jaymes shuffled closer and lined their bodies up. Almost chastely, he smoothed the back of one hand down Nathan’s chest, before leaning in and kissing him. Both of their bodies responded to the close contact, Jaymes’ erection straining against Nathan’s stomach. As their breathing deepened again, Nathan had been expecting Jaymes to roll on top of him, but instead, Jaymes rolled the other way, and pulled Nathan on top. Immediately, one hand went to Nathan’s crack and stroked there, a finger probing into his warm depths. Nathan moaned with pleasure into Jaymes’ mouth, before pulling away. “You’ve no idea how much I needed this,” he whispered. “Yeah, I think I do. Grab me a condom.” “Let me.” Nathan reached over and plucked a condom from the box. With the foil wrapper between his teeth, he squirted lube into his palm, then reached behind and massaged Jaymes’ hot, straining erection. Jaymes groaned and pushed his hips into the caress. “You’re good at this, Nate.” “Yeah, well. Got to be good at something.” Finishing off, Nathan ripped open the foil and rolled the latex down Jaymes’ length. Pushing the remaining lube from his fingers into his backside, he positioned himself over Jaymes and lowered gently, his eyes rolling back into his head and closing. “Oh fuck, that feels so good,” moaned Jaymes, as Nathan lowered all the way onto his length, waited for a few moments, before rising slowly, his hands braced against Jaymes’ chest. “Mm-hmm.” After a dozen or so more times, moving slowly and savouring every tiny pleasurable sensation, Jaymes’ deep voice broke the silence. “Look at me, Nate.” Nathan opened his eyes and saw such intensity in Jaymes’ beautiful eyes, such trust and tenderness, he almost forgot to breathe. Craning forward, he wrapped his arms lightly around Jaymes’ neck and brought their mouths together. After taking his fill, he stopped moving, pulled back and smiled at Jaymes. “Your turn, big boy. Give me everything you’ve got,” he said, allowing Jaymes to move into him at his own pace. Jaymes needed no encouraging. With a guttural rumble in his chest, he brought his knees up and pounded hard, his strong arms around Nathan’s waist, holding him in place. So fast and furious came the response, Nathan almost fell off the horse, so to speak, before locking his arms around behind Jaymes’ neck. Jaymes had possibly sensed the same thing because he pulled him closer, until Nathan’s cock rubbed up and down Jaymes’ stomach. “God, Jay. I—I think I’m going to—” Both panting with pleasurable exertion, Jaymes’ came first, thrusting into Nathan and holding there, releasing a long, raspy growl of ecstasy. Nathan followed right behind, rubbing still against Jaymes’ body, and spurting shot after shot of warm cum onto Jaymes’ chest and neck. Both collapsed again, Nathan slowly rolling off Jaymes until they lay side by side, staring at the ceiling. “We should get some sleep,” said Nathan. “I’ll get a wet cloth so we can clean up.” Nathan moved to the door and stopped. A sudden nervousness filled him when he turned to witness Jaymes studying him, a grin on his face. “Will you sleep in here tonight?” asked Nathan. After everything they’d just done, he felt nervous about having Jaymes actually sleep next to him. “I’d like to. Unless you want me to sleep next door?” “No, I—” said Nathan, a smile finding its way to his lips. “No, definitely not. I want you here.” Five minutes later, as they settled beneath the sheets, Jaymes lined his body up against Nathan’s spine, his knees tucked into Nathan’s, an arm around his waist. Nathan had never felt so comforted. “I could get used to this.” In response, Jaymes simply kissed the back of his neck. While his bedside clock ticked out seconds and minutes, Jaymes’ gentle breath in his hair slowed and a soft snuffling sound issued from him. Nathan didn’t want to sleep, wanted to savour every last minute with naked Jaymes in his bed, because he felt sure this wouldn’t last. Nothing ever did. But soon tiredness overtook him, and he descended into dreams of laughter and freedom and possibility.
  25. 69 points
    Amazingly, Arlene Killjoy broke the tension by finally returning with a glass of Moet champagne for Clifton. By then Jaymes had released his hold on Nathan but remained fixed at his side, a smile Nathan could only describe as weapon-like plastered on his face. Clifton, his usual unshakeable confidence rattled, had most definitely slipped out of character, and Nathan was still unsure whether to be pissed at Jaymes’ intervention or flattered he’d stood by him. Before Arlene returned, he had been genuinely worried about the two of them engaging in conversation, felt sure Jaymes would once again showcase his love of a fight together with his irritating and childish sense of humour. What Nathan definitely did not want was to be stuck between the two. Fortunately for him, Arlene once again started hogging Clifton’s attention, giving Nathan the perfect opportunity to retreat. Except Jaymes had already begun to move, grabbing him by the elbow, and half hauling him across the room to where Polly tucked into a plate of sushi. On seeing Nathan’s face, she froze mid-chew. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Nathan, yanking his arm away from Jaymes. “What happened?” asked Polly. “Saving your arse.” Jaymes picked up his pint of dark ale from the table. “And a simple ‘thank you’ will suffice.” “I don’t need saving, asshole. I know exactly what I’m doing. Clifton and I go back a long way.” “What happened?” Polly asked again, this time thrusting a fresh pint of lager at Nathan. “I was right. Mr Scumbag, the wannabe-movie-star over there, was trying to smarm his way into your best friend’s pants by getting him to attend some sleazy sex party. Recreational drugs, too, if his reputation is anything to go by. And all this while his husband’s out of town. Pure class. The man makes me want to vomit fur balls.” Nathan looked aghast. In all this time, Nathan hadn’t taken in Jaymes’s face, which—still handsome in a rugged kind of way—had darkened dangerously. All he’d seen the other night was the playful but irritating joker. This angry side of him came as a revelation and tempered his own anger. “Jaymes, he was not—” “Oh, come on. You’re not a child. Poll and I were standing all the way over here and even we could tell what he was up to. Looking at you the way a lion looks at a baby zebra. Licking his fucking eyebrows. When I got to you, I was surprised to see no saliva on his chin.” After a few deep breaths, Nathan calmed for a moment, before turning to Polly. “You told him? About me and Clifton?” “He asked,” said Polly, a little sheepish now. “And, to be honest, he’s right. You did look as though you needed someone to bail you out. But I told him not to go.” “What the hell does this have to do with either of you?” “Wake up, buddy,” said Jaymes, who had now calmed himself after a good tug on his pint of stout. “You’re my cousin’s friend. And therefore you’re mine. And I look out for my friends. So get used to it.” “I don’t need looking out for.” “The hell you don’t.” “Boys,” said Polly. “Play nicely.” Snatching Nathan’s attention away, the phone in his jacket pocket dinged a couple of times in short succession. Taking the opportunity to move away from Polly and Jaymes, he walked towards the pub window to check the messages. Behind him, he could hear the two of them start a heated exchange, but tuned them out. On checking his phone, he noted the first from Clifton, sent earlier. Before Jaymes had butted in. Unknown: Cute as ever, Nate. Next Saturday 7:30pm. Details to follow. Cliff xx The second came as a surprise, because he hadn’t even set up the message group yet. Bob Morris: Just been chatting with the lads over a pint. I’m in and so is Eric. And I’m sure others will come around, too. It’ll be a laugh. Nathan stared out of the pub window, noticing a light drizzle beginning. He grinned happily to himself. Four members agreeing to the photo shoot already. Would wonders never cease? Right then he spotted Clifton leaving the pub, strolling across the car park behind a larger man in a dark suit while tucking something into his inside jacket pocket. They moved over towards the sparkling Tesla parked up next to Mikey’s estate car, Clifton stopping and waiting for the man to open the back door for him. Every action, every movement, looked so perfect, as though the walk from the pub exit to the car had been choreographed by a film director. Had Jaymes been right? Was Clifton simply hitting on him because he thought he would be a familiar and easy fuck during a dry spell? If anything, Nathan preferred to give people in life the benefit of the doubt instead of making assumptions. As the car reversed out and headed to the main road, Nathan peered down at the final message. Unknown: Sorry about earlier. Please feel free to bring your friend. Still need some time alone with you. Lot of catching up to do, and some explaining, I guess. I’ve missed you. Sending contact address file now. Cliff. xx Nathan bit the inside of his lip. One thing was for sure. He needed some answers from Clifton, about why he and his family had disappeared without a word ten years ago. Memories of his beautiful face especially when he climaxed when Nathan sucked him off, the way his eyes lit up when they were together, even the simple things like how well they worked together on the football field. All the good things came back to Nathan, something he’d naively believed they would use to build into a life together. Until the family disappeared. Customers to the bakery speculated about Clifton’s father, a relatively successful futures trader for a global investment bank. Rumours sprang up saying maybe he had escaped the country before suspicion of fraud could be levied against him. But nothing appeared in the press about any difficulties with the bank, and no police came knocking on anyone’s doors, so the rumours soon fizzled out. Later, people found out the father had quite legitimately given notice to leave his job. And the money angle had been wildly overstated, anyway, because Clifton’s grandfather owned a fortune, money from the sale of commercial warehouses in East London in the early eighties, money which would one day pass on to his son. No, money couldn’t have been the reason. What did come to light was the fact their head teacher had known about Clifton’s removal from the school a month before it happened. That particular piece of news had devastated Nathan. If Clifton knew he would be leaving, he had said nothing, not a word, to his best friend and lover. So yes, Nathan needed answers. When Nathan returned to Polly, he gave her a smile and a nod to let her know he had calmed down. In his short time away, three young women had joined them—or joined Jaymes, by the looks of things—with Jaymes mid-speech, his handsomely rugged face attractive in the way he enthused about his job. “And what people don’t realise is that the threat to trees from pests and diseases has never been greater. Your grandparents may have told you about DED, Dutch Elm Disease. Changed the face of the English countryside back in 1975. Even in our generation we’ve had cases of Oak Processionary Moth—OPM—even though working with the EU, we’ve managed to reduced the number of cases—another reason why Brexit is such a bad idea. But others of our tree species are at risk such as ash and larch. Plant health officers inspect wood imports at ports around the country every day to minimise the risk from invasive pests and diseases. But even then, with those strict regulations in place, sometimes diseases get through. So if any outbreaks do occur, experts like me work with local authorities and landowners to contain and control any spread.” “Your cousin’s a tree-hugger?” Nathan whispered to Polly, making her chuckle. “It may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but someone needs to protect our species of forest plants and animals for future generations. Despite what some world leaders may tell you, climate change is real, and we’re in danger of losing many of our native species, not only in terms of flora, but also forest animals. You only have to look at the news in places like North America or Australia to know that a beautiful forest which has been there for generations, could be gone in a matter of days to wildfire under the wrong conditions. Our own Mosswold Forest doesn’t have a dedicated environmental specialist, so the Forestry Commission sent me here for the year, to carry a kind of stock and health check.” “So you’re, like, Greenpeace for trees, yeah?” said one, which had the other two girls giggling. “Except I get paid a wage. I’m not a volunteer.” “You look like a superhero to me,” said another. Nathan held his tongue, even though a couple of comments began to form. “Hey, do you drive a range rover? And wear a flat cap and green wellies and go fox-hunting?” asked another. Okay, thought Nathan, not the most intelligent of questions. Hat’s off to Jaymes, he took the comments in his stride, kept smiling and answered good-naturedly. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Arlene making a beeline for him. “Actually, I drive an old Land Rover and, yes, I do possess a pair of green wellies, as well as a matching Barbour jacket. But both are only worn when the weather’s bad.” Without even a glance at anyone else around, Arleen pulled Nathan away from the crowd to a quieter spot at the back of the bar. Nathan was getting a little irritated at being dragged around by people. “Clifton O’Keefe left,” she said, a little alarmed. “Yes, I know, I saw him go.” “Oh. He said nothing to me.” “I get the impression he’s quite the busy man right now.” “Of course, of course. I didn’t realise you two were so close once. I don’t suppose you have his contact details? I could ask my husband but he’s already done so much. All I have at the moment is an email address.” For a split second, Nathan considered sharing them with her, but then wondered if Clifton might consider that an invasion of his privacy. “I’m seeing him next Saturday night for dinner. I gave him my details and he’s going to let me know where. If you don’t mind waiting until then, I can either give him your details or ask permission to pass his onto you. How does that sound?” “Marvellous.” “And we’ve already got four agreed to do the calendar.” “Wonderful. Who?” “Mike Shanton, Eric Noble, Bob Morris, and me.” “Oh,’ said Arlene, her disappointment clear and vaguely insulting. “Is that all?” “So far,” said Nathan, a little miffed. “I’ve only just told them. It wasn’t a show of hands, so some will want to talk to their other halves. I’m sure there’ll be a lot more.” “Let’s hope so. And how many of the squad are single?” Nathan made a quick mental calculation, made sure he included those who were single, divorced or separated—and not dating—into the pot. “Nine.” “Including you?” “Of course not. I’m gay, Arlene.” “And single. So it’s ten, then. Excellent. I’m thinking we start the bidding at a hundred pounds a person. What do you think?” As if it even mattered what he thought. He knew exactly what was going through her head. One event and she would already have made almost a half of what the committee came up with last year for the whole day. “Fine.” “It’ll be fun,” she said. Her attention elsewhere now, she wiggled the fingers of one hand at friends and headed away. He waited until she was well out of earshot before murmuring to himself. “It’ll be an embarrassment.” “What’ll be an embarrassment?” came Jaymes’ voice, next to him, startling him. “What the—! Will you stop stalking me?” “I’m not stalking—” Jaymes looked away, his eyebrows scrunched together and pushed out a sigh. “Polly sent me over to see if you wanted a lift home. In case you haven’t noticed, the weather’s none too bright. She says you’re on our way. Or you could come back and share some lunch with us.” “Polly’s cooking?” said Nathan, aghast. Polly only ever opened packets or tins. He wondered if she even knew how to use her microwave. “Of course not.” “Oh, so you’re getting takeaway?” “I’m cooking. Why do people find that so hard to believe?” “Give me a few minutes to come up with a suitably sarcastic response.” “You want a lift or not?” Nathan peered out the window again, where the weather had become noticeably worse. Rain now hammered down from the sky, January rain—ice cold, unrelenting, and able to pierce even the thickest overcoat. His flat stood a forty-five minute brisk walk away, usually giving him refreshing exercise after a beer, but now he would get soaked. A lift home would be very much welcome. “Go on, then. Home please. Thanks.” After finding Polly chatting to an older woman who turned out to the photographer, hiding from Arlene, they stayed for a few more minutes before making their farewells. Trudging across the car park beneath the umbrellas Jaymes and Polly had sensibly brought, they made their way over to a racing green Land Rover, an old style with two doors and a canvass covering over the back of the vehicle. “Series three, single wheel base,” said Jaymes, pulling keys from a jacket pocket. “My pride and joy. Came off the line in 1976, long before I was born. Belonged to granddad. She’s a beauty, alright. Just needs a bit of love and attention from time to time.” “Don’t we all,” said Nathan and Polly in unison, both laughing at their shared response, and high-fiving. After opening the passenger side for Polly, Jaymes walked to the rear of the car and opened up the canvass flap, before looking expectantly at Nathan. When Nathan peered inside, he saw an untidy mess of toolkit, deflated football, plastic tub and buckets, two huge water bottles—the type you find upside down on a water cooler—range of brushes, rubbish sacks, Snickers wrappers, and old bits of flora peppering the floor. “You want me to get in there?” “Either that or the roof,” said Jaymes, that smug smile on his face again. “We’ve only just met, and you already take great pride in humiliating me, don’t you?” “You need no help from me, hotshot. Getting in or not?” Nathan clambered awkwardly into the back and made himself cosy on an old, rolled-up carpet against one side of the car. Seeing Nathan get comfortable, Jaymes still held the canvass flap open. “What now?” asked Nathan. “Are you going to pretty boy’s house next weekend?” “What do you care?” “Nate! Nathan. Are you going?” “I’ve been invited, yes.” “Just you?” “Just me.” “What time Saturday?” “Why? You’re not—” “What time Saturday?” “It’s a dinner party, Jaymes. Nothing more—” “Nathan!” Nathan breathed out a sigh. Maybe he did need some moral support that night. “Seven-thirty.” “I’ll pick you up at seven.” “Fine.” Jaymes reply came in the form of the canvass flap being slapped back into place, and the driver’s door opening and slamming closed. All the way back to the shop, Nathan braced himself against the chassis to stop from being thrown across the car, doing a better job than the poor squashed football.
  26. 69 points
    “I hate you, bruh.” Harley did not look happy while hugging Owen. The two of them and CJ had spent the previous few days together, most of the time on their motorcycles riding through the countryside around Laconia. Now it was time to part ways. Owen took a step back but kept a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You know you’re welcome to come with us.” The ride to DC from New Hampshire was long enough Harley was heading south this morning and planned to spend a night with Chipper in New York City. “Can’t and you know it. I need to get home. Promised Danno I’d spend a couple of days helping him complete the project he’s been working on. What with him wanting to move to Hawaii and shit. And I have to be at the dealership on Monday.” Harley started working with Danno while in high school. The owner of Rogo’s restored American muscle cars as a hobby, selling most of them but now and then adding one to his collection. Nobody knew what he planned to do with the ones he currently owned when he sold the bar and the attached warehouse. CJ frowned and scratched his head. “I still can’t figure out why you keep doing this with him. It was good money while we were in high school, but you have a decent paying job now. I mean, you spend all your days wrenching on motorcycles, and then go tinker on cars with him.” “I like it, bruh. It’s like working on scooters’ fun, but the cars are a nice change. It also means I won’t forget how to work on cages.” The arrangement had been lucrative for Harley. Danno paid him by the hour but also shared a small portion of the profits with him. It meant the young mechanic did not have to worry about spending money during the two years he spent training in Orlando. “Okay. I wish you could stay, but I understand. And since this is the last car project… You have a safe ride, okay? When Ozzie and I get back, we’ll give you and Tank some help looking for a place. If the dads don’t have any apartments available, they might know of something else.” Thanks to the people they hung around with at the motorcycle rally, CJ’s riding playlist had grown. Before sticking his helmet on, he made sure the connection between the Bluetooth earbuds and the phone was active and hit play. Kip Moore’s “Motorcycle” was queued up. “Too bad it’s about a wench instead of a stud.” “What’d you say?” Owen lifted the front of his full-face helmet; it was tough to hear anything with it closed. “Nothing. Talking to myself.” CJ gave his husband a thumbs-up and turned his engine on; it was time to get going. Taking less traveled roads and stopping only once to stretch their legs and admire the bucolic landscape, CJ and Owen arrived in Freeport, Maine three hours after leaving the hotel in Laconia. LL Bean’s flagship store, across from the Tommy Hilfiger outlet, and a block down the road from the Polo Ralph Lauren one dominated the view. The white building with green awnings was by far the largest on Main Street. It might have been the primary thoroughfare in a small New England town, but it felt like an outlet mall. “What are you looking for?” CJ insisted on the detour to Freeport for two reasons. He wanted to stop at the L.L. Bean store and the prospect of riding US 1. The same road that began in Key West, and he had traveled on so many times. “The Liston tartan.” Owen sounded frustrated while flipping through the stacks of flannel shirts. “I’ll ask, but I don’t think they have it. These are all probably generic. I may end up buying the blue version of the one you’re getting.” The shirt and a pair of Bean Boots—officially called Maine hunting shoes—were the reason CJ insisted on the shopping spree. His old pair of the rubber and leather footwear had been stolen from the back of his topless Jeep. The boots, manufactured in Maine since the early nineteen hundreds, were a fashion staple in prep and Ivy League schools; CJ thought they were the perfect shoes for when he had to trudge through wet or snow-covered sidewalks on his walk to and from campus. “Okay, they don’t have it, so we’ll both have the same shirt but in different colors.” Owen bypassed the stack of iconic red and black Buffalo Plaid shirts and looked for his size on the pile next to them. “We can always dress up like lumberjacks for Halloween. Where to now?” “Kicks.” “Ugh. At the rate you buy shoes, we’ll need to make the master bedroom closet even larger before we move to our house.” Rearranging walls on the house’s third floor had allowed them to create an oversized storage space; a section had been designated for footwear. “Asshole! Stop your bitching. I don’t own that many.” “Says the man with every color PF Flyers hi-tops ever made. Hey, check those out.” The sign on the table, rising above the displayed wares, read Hudson Bay Point Blankets. Owen and CJ both ran their hands over the soft, off-white fabric featuring stripes in green, red, yellow, and indigo. The coverings also had smaller bars in black near the edge, not running all the way across. “I think the black ones represent the size of the blanket. I read about these a long time ago.” CJ’s eyes became somewhat unfocused as he imagined one of those on their bed. “Not sure I’d want it as a bedspread, a little too rustic for what we both like. Maybe for our place in Colorado. But it’d be cool to have a big one on the couch. We could use it in cold months when we cuddle to watch TV.” Owen nodded while reading a smaller sign on the display. “The short black lines are called points. The more of them, the larger the blanket. Let’s get a king. We need to have whatever we buy shipped. There’s no more room on the bikes.” “That’s cool. But I want to keep the flannel shirt with. We need to do laundry tonight, and I’ll wash it. I can wear it when we ride at night or if we hit another cold day.” Minimal storage meant minimal packing. Prior to departing Washington, Harley helped rig a removable sissy bar to CJ’s motorcycle, allowing him to strap a bag atop the microscopic passenger seat. The Harley-Davidson luggage doubled as a backrest. They feasted on lobster rolls at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a side street, and Owen vowed to eat nothing but the crustacean while in the state. Nearly four hours later, after riding along the rocky Maine coast on US Route 1, they checked into a cottage on Mount Desert Island; it would be their base of operations for subsequent days. They were about to leave a voicemail when the phone signaled an incoming call from the same number they had just tried to reach. “Hello? CJ?” The voice sounded sleepy. “Oh, shit! I forgot about the time difference.” CJ glanced at Owen sitting next to him and shook his head. “Sorry to wake you up, Silas. Go back to sleep. We’ll call you later.” “No, no, no. It’s okay. Randy or Tyler will barge in my room any time now anyway. I need to get up and start getting ready.” With each word, the kid sounded more alert. “I’m graduating from high school today.” Owen chuckled at Silas’ proud tone. “We know that, mate. This is Ozzie. CJ and I wanted to call and congratulate you before we started our day.” “Thanks. Where are you?” “Acadia National Park. In Maine. We’re at the halfway point of a two-week motorcycle trip. So what time’s the ceremony?” “Ten. But we’re supposed to meet Randy’s parents and Ty’s brother for breakfast before then. CJ?” “Yeah, dude.” “Thanks for what you wrote on the card. And thank you both for the leather portfolio. I love it!” Silas planned to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago to study interior design. “We thought it would come in handy. Something to carry drawings, swatches, and whatever.” “It’s great! It even has loops to hold pens and pencils. I already put the fountain pen Abuelo Abelló sent as a present in there.” “You got one of those too, eh?” “Yeah, he said he bought the same thing for each of his sons and grandsons when they graduated high school. He told me I was the first great-grandson to get one.” CJ thought he heard a hitch in his nephew’s voice. He did not get a chance to ask about it. Tyler’s deep voice came through the connection. “Time to get up, Silas. Take your hand off your dick and go shower. We have to meet the others in like an hour.” “See? Told you they’d be waking me up. Guess I gotta go.” “That’s okay, buddy. Ozzie and I need to go eat too. Listen, I’m not sure when, but we’ll see you sometime this summer. Tell Randy and Ty we want your input on the designs they’re working on for our house.” “For real?” “Hell, yeah. Just remember, the place’s rented now, so work won’t be done for a while. We love you, Silas.” “Congratulations again, mate.” Owen and CJ smiled at each other. “He’s a good kid. Ready to call Patrick?” “Yeah…” CJ scrolled through the contact list and tapped the entry for their friend. “What’s up, CJ? Where are you guys?” Patrick was his usual cheerful self. “Yo, Preach!” The new nickname for the Boston University student majoring in theology had stuck. “We’re in your neck of the woods. Acadia National Park in Maine. Means Ozzie and I have added two new states to our list of visited ones.” “What’s the other one?” “Hey, Patrick. It’s Owen. We were just in New Hampshire with Harley.” “Oh, that’s right. So, what do I owe the honor of the call to?” “We were thinking of stopping in Boston overnight on the way back. Maybe we could hang out a bit and have dinner with you, your mom, and Mac?” “They would love to see you. And you know they would put you up too. One problem though, I’m not there.” CJ was surprised. They knew Patrick had a summer job lined up in Boston. “You’re not? Where are you? What happened to the job?” “I called, told them what was going on with Brad, and that I wanted to spend the summer in Washington to be near him.” “Wow! Speaking of our favorite hero, how’s he doing?” “Bah! Good days and bad days. They told us it would take time for his mood swings to level out, but there are times I want to strangle him. He gets weepy, and the rest of the day he’s useless.” “We’ll make sure we spend as much time as possible with him when we return. If he acts up, I’ll kick his ass. So are you doing anything this summer apart from hanging with your brother?” “Yeah!” Patrick suddenly sounded excited. “I landed a job with the Caps”—the Capitals were Washington’s team in the National Hockey League—“working in their summer camp for disadvantaged kids.” “Sounds right up your alley.” “It is, CJ. We get a new group of kids every two weeks, and I get to teach them how to skate and a few basic hockey moves. I love it.” “Okay, if you’re not in Boston, we’ll skip that stop. We’ll be home in a week or so. Give Brad a hug for us, and we’ll talk when we talk.” “I will. Be safe, guys.” Over breakfast, CJ regurgitated information about the national park he had read in the bathroom earlier. He had taken one of the National Park Service’s pamphlets available in the motel’s lobby the previous night. “Did you know this place was first a national monument and when it became a park it was Lafayette National Park before the name was changed?” Owen’s response was limited to a grunt; his mouth was full of maple syrup drenched waffle. A sip of milk helped him swallow. “No! Really? That’s fascinating!” “My sarcasm detector just went critical. Am I boring you already?” “Never!” Owen’s chuckle made CJ shake his head but the smile did not falter. “Honestly, CJ. Every time we visit a National Parks facility, you pick up those brochures and like memorize them. You’re going to pepper me with facts and figures for as long as we’re in the park.” “Fine! I’ll shut up.” “No, no. And quit pouting. I do enjoy hearing what you learn. How about we wait until the first stop before you give me any more facts? Instead of oversharing this early, give it to me in smaller doses.” “Damn! I keep forgetting you have a small capacity brain. We should look into an upgrade.” He ducked to avoid the sweet roll thrown at his face. “Just one more thing for now. Control over the area fluctuated between the French and English a couple of times. French Jesuits started the first permanent European settlement here. But the English burned it down. I’m glad the Brits didn’t pull the same shit with GU. I may have had to go away to school if they had. And then where would we have been?” Even with maximum speed on park roads being thirty-five miles per hour, riding the twenty plus mile Loop Road should not have taken more than an hour. It lasted three. Every bend of the asphalt ribbon revealed a new vista they had to stop for, admire, enjoy, and photograph. The afternoon they spent in Bar Harbor. “I see you were serious.” CJ chuckled as the server walked away after taking their order. “Different restaurant, same lunch.” “I told you I was going to eat as much lobster as I could this trip. Remember how after Israel you said falafel tasted better over there? Even if what we ate in DC was excellent. Same with these critters. Must be a location fixation.” “Don’t give up the day job. I don’t think you can make a living as a poet. So what do you want to do after we eat?” The seafood restaurant’s menu described dishes in English, French, and Portuguese. When asked, their server explained French was for the benefit of their many Québécois visitors. Portuguese was due to the owners’ heritage. A multitude of immigrants from the sea-faring nation had settled in the New England region and thrived in the area’s fishing enterprises. In keeping with the establishment’s roots, Owen ordered glasses of Portuguese wine. As soon as he placed the order, he tapped away on his phone while CJ smiled. When the server delivered their order, CJ was enthusiastic. “Damn, that tastes good. Tell me about it, Oz.” “You know something? I think Portuguese would be an easy language to learn. Between French and Spanish, I can decipher most of the strange words. The winery’s Quinta Covela. Not sure what quinta means, but I suspect it’s something about a fifth.” “That’s right. In this case, I’m guessing it means farm. I’ve heard it used like that in Spanish.” “Okay, this is a Vinho Verde. Not sure how to pronounce the first word. It means a young, white wine. Something bottled within like six months of production.” “Pronounce it like niño. That’ll be close enough. I’ve heard other words with N H in them pronounced that way.” “Okay… I like it when you teach me. It’s the 2017 vintage, made from avesso grapes, and cheeeap! Average ten bucks a bottle retail.” “We need to get a case or something. I like it. Reminds me of a Liston Verdelho. Dry and kinda citrusy. But a little more mineral. Maybe green apples?” “Brilliant, CJ!” Owen’s approval elicited a smile from his husband. “We’ll make a wine connoisseur out of you yet!” “Wine snob’s more like it. Wine’s a perfect example of getting what you pay for. That last five-buck-bottle I brought home tasted like crap. And the funny thing’s people drink it. I’d rather have less of a better slash more expensive one than drink more of the rotgut. “So, what do you wanna do the rest of the afternoon?” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe walk around and check the place out?” It was what they ended up doing. Bar Harbor was a quaint seaside town with typical New England charm; they strolled along Shore Path following the edge of Frenchman Bay from the town pier to Wayman Lane. When they inquired about a whale watching boat excursion, they discovered the charters would begin the following week. The town’s population swelled with tourists over the summer, but it was still early in the season, so some businesses remained shuttered. At low tide, a sand bar connecting the town to Bar Island appeared, making it accessible to walkers. They hiked old roads and trails through the forested island, paying close attention to the time. More than once, they stood still and silent, listening to birdcalls and the whisper of the wind through the pines and birch trees. Warnings about visitors ending up stranded by fast incoming tides remained uppermost on their minds. Back in town, they walked in and out of antique shops and art galleries. The hand-woven, sea-grass baskets purchased at Island Artisans they had shipped home. They also purchased a large watercolor reminiscent of Hudson River School paintings they thought would look great in the dining room once they moved to their house. “You go on ahead, okay? It’s too early. Wake me up when you get back.” Owen tried to burrow back under the covers, but CJ yanked them off the bed. “Oh, no you don’t.” They had reached a compromise the previous night. CJ relented on a pre-sunrise hike up Cadillac Mountain, and Owen agreed to accompany him as long as they rode the bikes instead. “A deal’s a deal. You can’t back out now. Come on, get up.” The grumbling and arguing did not stop until they were sitting on the smooth, rocky top of Acadia's tallest mountain and the highest point on the Atlantic Coast. The spectacular views of Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay as the sun climbed above the horizon at last put a stop to Owen’s complaints. “Fine. You win. I admit it. It was totally worth getting up early to see this.” “Ummm, Oz? I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.” “Asshole!” It seemed everyone they talked to claimed no trip to Maine was complete without seeing one. The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was on the rocky southwest portion of Mount Desert Island within the confines of Acadia National Park; it was their destination after breakfast. The afternoon they spent traipsing around the fishing village of Bass Harbor, talking to fishermen, and watching boats unload their catch. Rugged, grunting men coiled ropes on their vessel’s deck, while buckets of fish were dropped into large, white chests filled with ice. The crews were mostly men, but a woman or two had infiltrated the male-dominated world. They stared in awe as the sun set over the water, and returned for dinner to the same restaurant where they ate lunch, wondering if they had seen the seafood they ordered brought ashore earlier in the day. Saturday morning, they packed the motorcycles and headed north. Their ride flirted with the Canadian border that paralleled US-1 most of the way; whenever they glanced to their right, they looked at New Brunswick. Their destination, Fort Kent, was the northern terminus of the road that began in Key West. They took pictures in front of the sign marking the spot and checked into a hotel for the night. Since neither had ever visited Canada, they walked across the international bridge for dinner in Clair. They discussed riding to Quebec City, but Lola being with them, meant they would have to backtrack if they left it locked in the US. Further north-of-the-border exploration would have to wait. The return to Washington was fast; they rode interstates most of the way. It was also uneventful, except for the murder of crows that toyed with them south of Bangor, and the bone-chilling downpour they rode through in Massachusetts. Monday night, they slept in their own bed.
  27. 69 points
    “So, you have martial arts practice every Friday night?” Bentley Riff, Carson’s roommate and a junior at GU’s McCourt School of Public Policy was a candidate for president of the Georgetown University Student Association. The previous fall, he had asked CJ to run for the second spot on the ballot. He was not part of the inner circle of friends; his knowledge about CJ’s life was limited. “Yeah, my buddy Thiago and I have been doing it since high school. Although he’s been slacking off lately.” “Don’t be an ass, CJ.” Owen reached for another slice. They had invited Bentley, Carson, and a few of the other candidates for pizza and beer. “The man has a baby to take care of now. Let’s see if you don’t slack off a bit when you become a father.” “Hey, can I ask another question about Brad?” Carson was the newest member of The Squad and had only met the soldier twice: at the wedding, and at the birthday party in New York. “Shoot.” CJ tried to decide whether his next slice would be a meat-lovers or a veggie-delight. He ended up choosing plain cheese. “So, he lost both legs and that’s pretty fucked already. But did he have any other serious injuries?” “Scrapes and scratches all over. Burns on the side of the body closest to the explosion. A couple of broken fingers, and shrapnel embedded in various parts of his body. The day I got there, he was in surgery. They were removing metal from his abdomen. The doctors worried more about that than his legs being gone!” “What happens next with him?” Gina was one of two non-candidates present. Although she was about to graduate, she had campaigned for Bentley and CJ’s slate of candidates and served as the main contact with the GLBT community. Everyone seemed to think having CJ on the ticket all but guaranteed getting that voting block. The ticket’s endorsement by the Student of Color Alliance, the umbrella organization for groups serving students of color at Georgetown, was also credited to CJ and his impassioned presentation in front of them. “He flies back to the states, gets admitted to Walter Reed, and starts rehab as soon as he’s able to. I guess at some point he’ll get artificial legs. I’m not sure what else happens. Haven’t had time to check up on it yet.” Although most of them were drinking beer, Bentley accepted Owen’s offer of wine. “Ozzie, this stuff is incredible.” CJ had agreed to open a bottle of his treasured Liston Verdelho for the evening; he wanted the man to experience what he thought was the best offering from the family’s vineyard. “So, your family sends you guys a couple of cases every month, but it’s not sold in the United States otherwise?” “Nope, we don’t make enough for export. My brother wants to expand production. He’ll end up running the business when our dad retires, so maybe one day.” “Well, I may be inviting myself over a lot next school year if you guys drink this all the time. And the soundtrack doesn’t hurt. This is the stuff my parents played while I grew up. I’m surprised you like country music.” “That’s CJ. He has the most eclectic taste in music ever. All this stuff’s older than him.” At the moment, Garth Brooks’ “We Shall be Free” emanated from the speakers. “Brooks became a favorite when CJ discovered the artist’s sister was a lesbian and he co-wrote a song for her. It’s one of his anthems. He plays this all the time.” ”Hey, CJ! One final question about the election. When we win, I’d like to have a few meetings of the executive committee over the summer. Are you available?” CJ looked at Owen who shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. This will be the last summer Ozzie and I have free together. He starts work at the end of August, beginning of September. We’re traveling some. We’ll be gone most of June for sure. And we’ll spend a weekend or two with friends on Fire Island at some point. But otherwise, I’m pretty sure we’ll be around. We can meet here or use my dads’ place if you want.” “I gotta pee.” Carson stood but did not move. “Hey, even if you’re out of town, the rest of us can meet. I know you guys skype with Ozzie’s family in Australia all the time. We could do the same.” “Go to the bathroom, Carson. We don’t need you having an accident the way Wingnut did last time he stayed over.” CJ shook his head remembering how he had ignored the dog while lost in his studies, and ended with a puddle in the middle of the kitchen. “On the way back, grab me another beer from the fridge, please. If I’m spending the next two days at Lauinger Library studying, I may as well get a buzz tonight.” “Daddy!” Gamon Mookjai slipped away from CJ and Owen and ran to his father. Chatri looked tired. His clothes were rumpled, and dark circles had sprouted beneath his eyes. His wife, Helen began experiencing contractions the previous day, and they had dropped their son off at CJ and Owen’s place on the way to the hospital. “No running, Gamon.” Chatri leaned down and picked up the three-year-old. “Did you have fun spending the night with your uncles? Thanks for looking after him, guys.” “I helped build a castle! With Legos!” His head tucked into his father’s neck, the kid went from sounding excited to sad. “Uncle CJ said I can’t have any. ’Cause I’m too little.” “Yeah, but I promised I’d buy you some as soon as you’re old enough.” CJ and Owen had kept close tabs on the kid, afraid he would try to eat one of the plastic bricks and choke. “It was a pleasure looking after him, mate. They played with the Legos while I fixed dinner, and then we watched a Disney movie.” Owen grinned at the kid, whose head bobbed in agreement. “He can come hang with us anytime. And now that we have a car seat, I’ll even offer pick-up and drop-off service.” After Thiago’s son was born, they purchased a child carrier thinking ahead to when any of their friends having kids would ask them to babysit. “Stop rolling your eyes. Not everyone gets the same offer.” “How are the mother and the new rug rat, Pad Thai?” CJ’s use of the quasi-derogatory nickname earned him a slap to the head from Owen. “You’re still the same twerp I met all those years ago at the gym.” Chatri may have been berating his friend, but he smiled throughout. “Both fine. Helen’s napping, and the baby’s in the nursery right now. Come on, time for you guys to meet your new nephew, and for Gamon to meet his brother.” “So, Gamon means from the heart. What did you end up naming the new one?” “Right hand’s son,” Chatri replied, smirking. “What?” “That’s what his name means, you doofus. We named him after Helen’s father. Come on, let’s go see Benjamin Mookjai.” Owen’s graduation from George Washington University coincided with Gina’s commencement exercise at Georgetown. He had already told CJ he did not want to make a big deal out of the milestone. It was his third degree, and he did not need to don a cap and gown again. Their friend’s graduation was another matter. Gina Nichols was the first one in her family to graduate from college. Due to distance, cost, and the fact she would be flying home to Alaska two days after the ceremony, she had no relatives to help celebrate her accomplishment. CJ and Owen decided to compensate by making a big deal out of it. On Friday night, they threw a party at the Prospect Street townhouse with her as the guest of honor. “Captain Davenport, Mr. Abelló, thank you for doing this. You didn’t have to, and I appreciate it more than you can imagine.” “Actually, Gina, we didn’t have a choice. CJ told us he was throwing a party and told us what we needed to order. I’m surprised he didn’t tell us we had to get out of our own house for the night.” “Jarhead! Stop being a jerk.” César shook his head in apparent disbelief. “Don’t listen to him, Gina. He’s being ornery.” “What Dad means to say is: Papa’s being an asshole. Again!” CJ blew out a perfect smoke ring and brandished his cigar to emphasize the comment. “CJ’s language might be a bit more colorful than what I had in mind, but he’s right. It’s our pleasure to have you and your friends here. When CJ and Owen mentioned most of the guests were going to be members of the GLBT group at GU, neither one of us hesitated. We figured being this close to campus, our place was convenient.” “Everyone can drink as much as they want, and there’s no need to drive.” Owen took a sip from the twenty-five-year-old El Dorado rum Abuelo Abelló sent him as a graduation present. When he googled the brand, he was surprised to discover how rare and expensive the Guyana product was. He told CJ it was not to be shared with anyone outside the family; he was unsure they could replace the limited edition bottling. “And we figured this was as safe as space as anyone could find, what with it being a gay household. Well, except for Ritchie, but he’s used to us and our friends by now.” “I don’t think he pays much attention to sexual orientation.” Gina repeated a remark she had made before. “But I was impressed the one friend he invited tonight is gay. I wish more high school kids were like your brother. Bullying would be history if we could all be as accepting as he is.” “I hope you don’t become a stranger now that you’re graduating, Gina. You’re welcome to stop by whenever you want after you return from Alaska.” “That won’t be a problem, Dad. Ozzie and I plan on having her over to our place—and by default here—as often as possible in the coming year.” CJ was gratified when his prediction about Brad having a strong support system proved accurate. The day after his friend arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center, his mother, stepfather, and brother traveled to Washington and remained for a week. Ethan and Sean came from New York for a visit, and so did Chipper as soon as his exams were over at the University of Miami. Chipper’s sister, Cristina, called and sent flowers. Even CJ’s grandparents reached out to offer support. Brad had lost his legs, and the recovery would be long and arduous. However, of most importance, he was alive.
  28. 69 points
    Sometimes CJ missed home. Even if home was a ten-minute walk away. He sipped from the steaming mug and smirked, wondering how long he would continue thinking of his parents’ house that way. Seven months after getting married and moving into his own apartment, the townhouse on Prospect Street still beckoned. Particularly on weekend mornings. Although the setting had changed, the routine remained constant. He woke up before his husband, started the coffeemaker, and sat to page through the Washington Post. He did miss the fireplace. Insulated windows and central heating kept the two-bedroom unit comfortable enough they did not bother with clothes except when expecting visitors. Even on days when the overcast sky and chilly January temperature had the few people on the sidewalk below the window bundled up. The text message chime made him reach for the phone. He typed a response and rose to get a refill, wake up Owen, and throw on sweatpants and a t-shirt while wondering what was so important Carson wanted to come over this early. Trying to decide what to cook for breakfast, he remembered to text his fathers to let them know they would not be joining the family this morning. “Sorry to bother you guys so early on a Sunday.” Carson Sawyer lived in the dorms on Georgetown University’s campus and was at the apartment within thirty minutes of trading messages with CJ. “I almost called you guys last night. I started freaking out.” “Don’t worry about it. You know CJ’s up early most mornings.” Owen sat at the kitchen peninsula, nursing a mug of black tea. “I had to get up anyway. Both of us have to study.” Through the conversation, CJ chopped ham, peppers, and onions for omelets. “He’s right, Carson. You’re never a bother. And all you screwed up was me throwing Ozzie against the wall like I did last night and shoving my—“ “TMI, TMI. I don’t wanna hear details, okay? More so since I haven’t gotten laid since we got back from Christmas break. And not in the condition I’m in.” “And what the fuck condition is that? You still haven’t told us what’s got you weirded out.” Carson looked embarrassed for a moment. “I… I think it’s better if I show you.” He stood, opened his jeans’ button fly, and dropped them to his ankles—he wore nothing underneath. “Wow!” “Damn! Jelly, jelly, jelly here.” CJ and Owen shut up as laughter overtook them. “It ain’t funny, guys,” Carson whined. “Sorry, mate.” Owen shook his head, staring at Carson’s oversized scrotum. “Those low hangers look full and ready to burst. Did someone kick you in the balls? Do they hurt?” “Not… not really. But it’s uncomfortable. They started swelling up a couple of days ago. I thought it would go down, but it’s gotten worse. I went looking on the internet and I think I have testicular cancer.” “Dude! Did you go on WebMD? You can’t do that! No matter what symptoms you type in, they always come back with cancer as the diagnostic.” CJ tried hard not to make fun of their friend. “But I’m the right age! And all I read seems to point at—” “What you read don’t mean shit, son. You need to see a doctor and let them examine you.” “That’s why I called you guys. I haven’t been to a doctor since I started at GU, and I don’t want to go to the student clinic. You think you could get me an appointment with your friend? You know, the Asian guy?” “I felt bad for him, Dad.” CJ reached for the wine glass but stopped with his hand poised above it. “Ozzie and I were shocked at the size of his balls. We were laughing, and he looked scared and embarrassed.” “He just dropped his pants in the middle of your place?” Ritchie sounded surprised. “What’s the big deal, mate? We’ve all seen each other naked before. You’ve been around us so you know. I felt just as bad as CJ did, but it was still a funny sight.” “Babe”—Brett stared at César with concern—“remind me never to tell these two anything that might be embarrassing.” “Screw you, Papa. We’re not heartless, you know? It was just funny seeing the biggest ball sack ever in the middle of the kitchen while I’m trying to cook breakfast.” César sighed and shook his head. “Right. You’re not heartless. You just laughed when a close friend came to you scared he had cancer. What did you do afterward? Text everyone so they could laugh too?” “You know what, Dad? You’re turning into as much an asshole as Papa.” Anyone not seeing the grins and smirks would have thought they were all seriously arguing. “As for what we did, we called Chatri right away. He told Carson he didn’t think it was serious, and to show up at his office first thing in the morning. Even if he didn’t have an appointment.” “So, does he have cancer? How do they know anyway?” Ritchie sounded worried. “Uncle Matt said it hits young guys and I should check for lumps. But I kinda never really do it.” “No, he prolly doesn’t have cancer. I have no idea how they can tell. But you should check yourself. Ozzie and I do. Well, we end up checking each other.” CJ grinned when his brother made a face. “You should just do it every time you pull your pud, bro. You’d be checking yourself a couple of times a day that way.” “Fuck you, CJ. You’re just pissed ’cause you’re getting old, and can’t get it up that often anymore.” “I don’t know about that, Ritchie. Based on close and frequent observations, your brother’s equipment works just fine.” Owen’s comment brought renewed laughter to the men. “Anyway, Chatri said he suspected it was something called orchitis. It’s an infection and they treat it with antibiotics.” “Well, that’s good news. Chatri proved he values your friendship by taking him in right away instead of making him wait. Or sending him to the hospital. You’ve done well picking your friends, CJ.” César sounded pleased. “I have some good news too. Concerning money.” Ritchie was involved in the conversation up to that point. As usual, whenever the subject of finances came up, he seemed to lose interest. CJ marveled at how blasé his brother had become about the family’s wealth. His own interest had increased with time, and he now closely monitored how his money was invested. “Did you win the lottery?” “Close… You know that stock tip Jeff Bezos gave you? The one you asked me to invest fifty grand in for you and Ozzie? I decided to do the same for the rest of us. It’s gone gangbusters. Up double digits in the last month since they added blockchain to their name. It’s like when companies added dot com in the old days. Based on what I’ve heard, we can expect some serious gains later in the year. After they roll out an expanded business plan.” “That’s awesome. I’ll have to thank Jeff next time I trade messages with him. What about the other company he mentioned? The biotech startup in North Carolina.” “I’m going down to Durham next week to meet with them. We can talk about it when I get back. Just remember this is a start-up looking for venture capital. It’s a lot riskier. Brett and I’ve never done this before. We wouldn’t really profit until they go public, or are gobbled up by somebody else. The risk of losing the entire investment is very real.” “Yeah, but if Bezos’ putting his own money in there…” “I agree with CJ on this one, babe. It may not be what we’re used to, but I think it’s a good bet. I’ve read up on Bezos since he started chasing CJ.” Brett gave his sons the finger when his admission to reading raised eyebrows. “I mean, the man gambled on Google, Airbnb, and Uber amongst others. His investments have paid off more often than not.” “I’m with Papa, Dad.” CJ looked at Owen and received a nod. “Considering you guys have been pulling money out of the market, this might be good. If stocks do crash the way you think they will, this could turn into something to tide us over until things get better.” “We trust you, César. We’ll go along with whatever you decide.” Owen sipped from his wine glass before continuing. “But considering how hard Bezos pitched CJ to go work for him, I don’t think the man would steer us wrong.” “Hell, I might just end up working for him anyway. What with the mess the State Department is right now, and the stupidity emanating from the White House…” CJ had been considering alternatives to going to work for the government after graduation. Unless things changed, he was thinking of staying in school for another degree or forgetting about a career in the diplomatic corps altogether and joining the corporate world. After the midterm election results, he hoped the American people would come to their senses in the 2020 presidential contest, and toss out the lying piece of shit. He was not holding his breath; there was a segment of the population that clung to him no matter what he did or said. But there was hope. He had contributed the maximum allowed to Will Haskell’s campaign, and the 2018 Georgetown University graduate had unseated the Republican who held the Connecticut General Assembly seat for as long as Will had been alive. The fight for the White House began in state legislatures, and it was gratifying to have a Hoya in the Connecticut Senate. “Y’all want to explain again how I get to spend a weekend in Vail and spend almost no money? You better use little words. I ain’t all that smart. Ya hear?” “Asshole!” CJ nearly rolled his eyes out of their sockets. “You forget who you’re talking to, Tank. That dense, good ole Southern boy routine may charm your customers and get you laid whenever you want, but we know better.” “You mean if I act dumb I could get laid more often?” Carson may have been smiling, but CJ was certain there was a genuine interest there. The man was obsessed with getting laid; even more so since he had recovered from his swelling episode. “Mate, it would if you looked like Tank. People see a meathead and expect to hear one too.” Owen bumped fists with their bodybuilder friend seated next to him. “No, seriously, guys. After you called and told me how much it would cost, I had almost no time to call Danno in Honolulu to see if it was okay with him. Then I had to rearrange the schedule at the restaurant and pack. Y’all didn’t tell me much to begin with.” CJ sighed but decided Tank needed to know so he could relax and enjoy the trip. “Not much to tell. My dads planned this trip a while back with Tom and JP. Since three of them have the flu, they had to cancel. The dads offered us the plane tickets. We don’t trade cash for shit like that in the family, so they’re free. Since we’re flying into Vail, there’s no need for a rental. Uber and our feet will get us everywhere. We own the place we stay at. The management company that rents it out for us was supplying it for four people staying three nights so no additional cost. They also take care of lift tickets in advance whenever anyone in the family uses the place.” “Stop asking so many questions, Tank. If all we have to spend money on is equipment rental and incidentals…” “That’s you, Carson. Y’all are used to this shit. You forget I grew up poor, unlike y’all. This is like a rich man’s vacation. And I already got a free trip to New York less than a month ago. My sister said I’d gone all bougie then. I can just imagine what she’ll have to say when she hears about this. I can’t help it if I feel like I’m taking advantage of CJ.” Tank may have been borderline whining, but there was also a sense of embarrassment and pride in his voice. Owen raised a hand and the others became silent. “I’ll handle this one. Look, Tank, you’ve heard about CJ and I meeting when he went to Australia. What nobody knows is we had our first disagreement, fight, or whatever right after meeting. Over money. Because he insisted on showing off his black Amex—“ “Bullshit! I wasn’t trying to show off.” CJ reached across the aisle and punched his husband’s biceps. “Ouch!” Owen’s claim of pain did not seem valid coming amidst chuckles. “Fine, he wasn’t showing off, but he kept paying for everything. It bothered me, and I explained I might not be as rich as him, but I could pay my way.” “Yeah, but then you had to deal with the same thing with the dads.” Carson and Tank leaned forward in their respective window seats, their eyes following the exchange between CJ and Owen. “That was like eight months later.” “Tell them what happened.” “Fine. Okay, so, the next summer, CJ went back to Oz by himself. We spent two weeks traveling through New South Wales, and the plan was for us to fly out of Sydney together. I was moving to DC for school. CJ was stopping in Miami for a few days to visit his grandparents first, and César and Brett were meeting him there. They invited me to join them in Florida and insisted on paying the difference when they changed my flight.” “You’d met his parents before, right?” “Yep, at the same time I met CJ. To make a long story short, they forgot to mention they’d also upgraded me to first class. Their little boy couldn’t deal with flying coach.” “Fuck you, Oz. I don’t hear you complaining anymore.” “I gave up. I know when I’m beaten. It took a while, Tank. I had conversations with both dads and realized they were not out to impress anyone with their wealth. They had money and enjoyed spending it on themselves and their friends. That’s where my husband gets it from.” Carson leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes; Tank still appeared unsure. “So how come me and Carson? I thought you’d invite Harley and Thiago. They’re your oldest friends.” “That’s why the two of you are here instead of them.” CJ chuckled at Tank’s confused expression. “Dude, they went skiing with us for my eighteenth birthday. You and Carson weren’t around then. Ozzie and I thought it was fair to bring the two of you with us this time. Although I have to admit, I wasn’t sure you could make it. What with Danno still being on vacation and all.” Tank was the general manager for Rogo’s Bar and Grill, and Danno was the owner. “Heck, I was surprised myself. But when I told him you’d invited me, he said to go for it. He must really like you.” “I guess…” CJ shrugged unsure what else to say. “Then he said some real weird stuff. Something about the time he spent with you in California and then the trip to Hawaii had opened his eyes. He said he realized how much he was missing by worrying so much about making money.” “Huh?” The surprised reaction from CJ and Owen was simultaneous. After a weekend drinking and skiing, the four men returned to Washington late on Martin Luther King Day. They all later admitted to stumbling through Tuesday in a zombie-like state. “What are we listening to?” Ritchie aimed his question at the car’s front seat. “Australian music. Trying to get in the mood. That’s ‘Healing Hands’ by Conrad Sewell. Ozzie keeps track of what’s popular down under, and this was a top hit last year.” The Saturday after returning from Vail, with Ritchie and Lucy in the Tesla’s back seat, CJ and Owen drove to the Embassy of Australia on Massachusetts Avenue. One of CJ’s initial forays into the world of politics and diplomacy after moving to the District was a reception at the building on Embassy Row. He and his fathers were guests of JP at the time. “Do you guys come to this every year?” It was Lucy’s first time attending the celebration and she was all smiles. CJ shifted in the passenger seat to face Ritchie and his girlfriend. “My first one was in 2014 after I moved to DC. Ozzie started coming the following year after his move.” The annual invitations for him and Owen now came from the ambassador. “This is my second one. The dads only let me have one glass of wine last year. But the food was real good.” After Ritchie turned sixteen, César and Brett had relaxed the alcoholic restrictions somewhat. The same way they did with CJ. “I think your parents talked to mine about drinking.” The girl giggled as if sharing a secret. “They told me the usual stuff about behaving, but said I could have wine as long as Captain Brett and Mr. A said it was okay.” “It won’t be as good as some of the stuff you’ve had at the house, Lucy. JP told me they’re featuring South Australia wineries this year.” Although Owen acknowledged quality wines when he tasted them, he seldom admitted any were better than those produced by his family. “JP’s your cousin, right?” “Yep. His mum and my dad are brother and sister.” “So that’s why you two don’t have the same last name. I’ve never talked to him too much. Ritchie said he and Captain Brett went to school together?” Born in Australia, John Paul Smith grew up a Yankophile, much as his younger cousin Owen did. From an early age, he spoke of moving to the United States at some point; his wish came true when he was accepted to an American university. “That’s right. He and Papa both went to UC Berkeley.” CJ always marveled at how those two men meeting in college led to him and Owen getting together. “After they graduated, Papa served in the Marines. JP traveled and was a model for a while, then ended up working at the embassy. They reconnected when Papa was stationed at Quantico.” Ritchie knew enough of the story to pick up the thread. “It’s weird how people meet. I think it’s so cool Uncle Tom and Mr. A were friends, and they met the captain and Uncle Pope the same night. And they all ended up getting married.” “Why do you call him Uncle Pope sometimes and Uncle JP other times?” “That’s what CJ and some of their friends call him.” “It’s a nickname, Lucy. Not many people call him that. But when I moved to Washington, I heard it a few times and I started calling him Uncle Pope. Ritchie picked it up from me. His father was Catholic and named him after Pope John Paul II. Funny thing is JP’s dad left the Catholic Church because of their stand against gay people, and now goes to an Anglican one.” “Oooh… okay. So how did Detective Kennedy and Mr. A meet?” “By accident.” CJ’s comment elicited a groan from Owen. “Hey! It was. My dad was in a motorcycle accident, and Tom was a street cop at the time. He was the officer who responded. Somehow, they ended up becoming friendly. One night they went out to a bar together, and so did JP and my other dad. The rest is history.” “Wow! I guess when Ritchie calls him Uncle Potus it’s also a nickname. Right?” “You got it. His full name’s Thomas John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He’s from Boston and was named after President Kennedy. Potus comes from President of the United States.” “I know your friends Brad and Patrick are his sons. Was he married to a woman first?” “He was. Hilary’s great. That’s his ex-wife. You’ll like her if you ever meet her. Avoid his dad, though. Mr. Kennedy’s a jerk. I almost beat him up once.” “What happened?” Lucy sounded fascinated by the history CJ was sharing. “I’ll give you the short version since we’re almost there. Tom married young and Brad and Paddy were born soon after. He was in the Army, became a cop when he separated from the service, and eventually came out. His dad’s a homophobe, disavowed his own son, and that’s when Tom moved to Washington.” “But why did you almost get into a fight with his father?” “Tom was shot in the line of duty back in 2013. I was at the hospital with him overnight. I was so damn scared… Anyway, his father and mother showed up with a priest. They were talking about how their son was a sinner needing to be saved. They wanted to give him last rites. I didn’t want them waking up Tom, and we got into an argument. The crap that man talked made me want to beat him up. Luckily, a nurse called security, and they threw the jerk out.” “Enough history for now, mate. We’re here. Let’s go celebrate Australia Day.” CJ returned from the dojo and after kissing Owen hello, jumped in the shower. They had decided to stay in Washington over the President’s Day weekend since both were swamped with schoolwork. This evening, they were meeting friends for dinner. He was running late, having lost track of time when he lingered after practice, talking to Thiago about the imminent birth of his kid. He failed to notice Owen walk in the steam-filled bathroom until the Aussie spoke. “Hey, CJ? We’re gonna have to cancel dinner with the guys.” CJ rinsed his face and slid the curtain aside. “Why? What happened?” “The hospital just called. Gina’s being admitted.” “WHAT? Is she okay?” “Duh! Probably not since she’s in hospital. I have no idea what’s going on. The lady just said Gina asked her to call us. I figured we’d skip dinner and go see her.” “That works. Why don’t you call the guys and let them know while I finish up?” Georgetown University Hospital was on the edge of campus furthest from their apartment, on Reservoir Road next to the School of Medicine complex. On the way over, they slipped into the drug store near the apartment to pick up a flower bouquet. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay? We can spend the night if you want.” CJ was concerned but uncertain what to do. Gina shook her head. “Don’t be silly, CJ. I’ll be fine. Hell, they admitted me out of extra caution. I could have gone home tonight. The doctor thinks it was stress related. I never realized how common this is.” “We’re staying in town this weekend, so if you need anything, you let us know.” Owen sounded a lot more relaxed than CJ felt. “Call us when you know what time you’re getting out. We’ll have lunch or dinner together depending on when they release you.” “Sorry about this, guys. The doctor said it’s not unusual. A little rest and I should be okay. After graduation and before I start work, I’m going to Alaska for a couple of weeks. We’ll try again as soon as I get back to Washington.” “So what was wrong with Gina?” César accepted the fried rice container and spooned a good-sized portion on his plate. Things might have changed in certain ways when CJ and Owen married and moved, but Chinese takeout was still the Sunday night go-to meal. “If she was only in overnight for observation it couldn’t have been too serious.” CJ disliked misleading or lying to his fathers, but he and Owen had agreed the timing was not right to come clean. “Not entirely sure what happened, Dad. Woman issues, you know? All we found out was, it was stress related. Most likely because of her upcoming graduation and starting to work right after she returns from vacation in Alaska.” “If nobody’s going to eat the last egg roll, I’m taking it.” Brett reached for it before anyone could object. “Didn’t you say a long time ago she planned to get a masters in communications? Did she change her mind?” “She postponed it. After she finished the job, CJ lined up for her last summer at HRC. Aileen Ridder offered her a full-time position after graduation.” Owen glanced at CJ and gave him a wink. “My husband keeps changing people’s lives. Anyway, last we heard she’s working for a while and saving money. She’ll go back to school afterward. She’s hoping the Human Rights Campaign will offer her a permanent spot in their Alaska operations.” “Can I have a little more wine?” Ritchie had graduated from half-a-glass with dinner to a full one; now and then, he was even allowed more. “This is good.” After César and Brett nodded, CJ passed the bottle of German Riesling to his brother. It was a recent addition to the household’s wine repertoire; the result of a tasting CJ attended organized by his German professor. Unlike the usual sweetness the wine was well-known for, the 2016 Robert Weil Riesling Trocken was, as Owen put it, “…rich in minerals with a surprising lemony taste after it came in contact with air.” “You look tired, bro. How come?” CJ refilled his own glass after Ritchie returned the bottle. “It’s been a long day. I woke up early so I could go to the gym. Then went for a run before my Sunday shift at the Smithsonian. Came back, worked on my application, and I have to study tonight.” “Hey! You’re the one who wants to go to the Air Force Academy. When I hooked you up to get a nomination, I warned you it was going to take a lot of work to get in.” Acceptance to any of the United States military academies was extremely competitive. Physical, medical, academic, and extra-curricular standards had to be met, but it all started with a nomination in one of several categories. In Ritchie’s case, District of Columbia Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton agreed to recommend him after CJ asked and his brother met with her. “I know, but… I didn’t realize how much stuff they look at apart from grades. At least the fact I’m getting my pilot’s license helps. And the boxing team does too.” Ritchie had joined a pugilist club the previous year, and had practice sessions on Fridays; CJ had been there a couple of times, but the schedule conflicted with his own time at the dojo. “But I may need your help with something else.” “What?” CJ replied with a mouth full of food, earning him an oink from Owen. “I think I’m going to run for student government. I need to give a speech and I want you to review it.” “Politics? You have to be shitting me. After all the crap you gave me?” The kid tried to look innocent, but the snicker did not work well. “I may have learned a thing or two while you were doing all that. Anyway, the girl also running for the position I want’s a bitch. If nothing else, I want to beat her. To show the stuck up cunt she ain’t all that.” “Lesson number one, mate: Don’t let anyone hear you trash your opponent.” Owen was definitely trying not to laugh. “CJ and I talked a lot about that. Talking crap about somebody you’re running against can backfire.” The fathers had been quiet while their sons talked; eventually, Brett pointed at his eldest with a chopstick. “You still running for vice-president of GU’s student government?” “That’s the plan. Think about it, dads. Both of us could win, Ritchie could get hooked, and then both of us could end up running for office one day when we’re old enough.” Ritchie shook his head so hard CJ hoped he would not hurt himself. “Not me! I’ll do it in school but that’s it. You can run for President. I just wanna fly jets.” 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.”
  29. 68 points
    Nathan had a dreadful game that Sunday, largely because he wasn’t concentrating, knew his team would slay him once they knew what he needed to ask of them. Overnight frost had made the ground as hard as granite, so when he fell for the third time, instead of being covered in mud, he managed to scrape skin from his shin and upper thigh. Three times during the game, Mikey sidled up and asked him what was wrong. If only he’d been at the meeting, Nathan would already have someone on his side. As it was, what could he say? Sorry, mate, but I’ve promised to get you all naked and on a calendar for the summer fête. When the full time whistle blew, they’d managed a goalless score draw, no thanks to him. In the changing rooms, the usual banter ensued. Funny really, but even with them all knowing Nathan was gay, nobody seemed to have an issue. For Nathan, it had taken a long time for him to feel comfortable around the other men. Straight men had the wrong idea about gay guys in changing rooms. Gay guys would not be the ones wantonly ogling the bodies of other men, making lurid comments and getting a semi in the process. They’d be the ones with their eyes glued to the floor, a towel covering their faces, or staring into their lockers, carefully avoiding eye contact or even a casual glance at another man’s body. They’d be either the first or last to shower—in the shortest time possible, if they even bothered to shower at all. If you wanted to spot the gay guy, look for the most terrified man in the room, the one who refused to give eye contact. More importantly for Nathan, he found none of them sexually attractive. Yes, a few of them looked after themselves, had good bodies, but none had the combination of attraction and intelligence, and none of them were gay, which was non-negotiable. “What was up with you today, Fresher?” asked the full back. “Not on my best form today, sorry chaps,” said Nathan. “We all have our off days.” “Thought maybe one of the opposition had caught his eye,” said Ken, one of the younger and better looking team players, smirking and winking at Nathan. Laughter filled the room at that remark and Nathan joined them. One thing he could confidently say about his team was that none of them cared about his sexuality. “That would be a definite no.” He also enjoyed being a part of the banter, but sat nervously, already changed into his grey crew neck sweater and jeans, waiting until everyone was dressed. When he felt the time was right, he stood up on the bench to get their attention. “Before you all bugger off, I’ve got something I need to run by you. I can’t come and have a beer today, because of a previous engagement, so I need to get this out of the way now.” One thing Nathan could count on was getting the team’s attention when needed. They were a good-hearted bunch, had played a game for charity the previous year against St Joseph’s school for physically disabled kids—which the kids had won. As he went through the proposal for the summer fête, the room grew progressively quiet, and as he came to the end, a deathly silence hovered over the room. “Look, you don’t have tell me right away. Maybe have a chat with your other halves, see what they think,” he said, hands on hips. “To be honest, I’m not over the moon about the idea. It’s a lot to ask and the new chairperson, Arlene Killjoy, doesn’t know you. So if it’s a no, I’ll back you all the way. But I’ll add you all to a WhatsApp group called Summer Fête Initiative—so we keep things inconspicuous—and only if you’re in, do you need message me. But if you are—and we’ll need twelve, one for every month of next year—I’ll need your response before our next committee meeting, so before the end of January. The shoot, if it goes ahead, will be in Feb.” A quick glance around the room, and Nathan could see heads shaking, and the faces of those who did not like the idea. Most of them in the room, by the looks of things. “Would we be showing our cocks?” asked Bob Morris, the goalkeeper. “It’s not Tinder, dick brain,” said Mikey. “Don’t worry, they’ll photoshop yours, Bob. To make it look like a real one.” “Fuck off.” Laughter was always the best medicine in tense situations. Nathan laughed along with them. “No cock shots. Arlene guaranteed there would be no junk on display, just very tasteful and attractive shots of the best bits of our bodies. To make us look as sexy as possible.” "Like I said, Photoshop, Bob." More laughter, but this time Nathan took the murmur of voices to be a good sign. “Are you going to do it, then?” came a voice from the back of the room, after a lull. “If you’re in, then so am I. I’m not going to be a hypocrite here.” However immature he thought the man, he was grateful to have Jaymes’ words come back to him. “I would never ask you to do something I’m not prepared to do myself.” Silence again. He glanced at his watch. Arlene’s function was due to begin in thirty minutes, so he would need to rush. Maybe he needed one last carrot to dangle. “And I’m going to insist that the majority of the proceeds from the sale of the calendars goes to St Joseph’s. Think that’s only fair, because we know them and they know us.” As he jumped down from the bench, he noticed a few of them finally nodding. Yes, he thought, they were a good bunch of blokes, really. Outside the clubhouse in the chill midday air, Mikey called out his name, before dashing to catch up with him, and pulling him to a stop. “What the fuck?” “I know.” Nathan huffed out a sigh, staring at Mikey’s collar. “I’d have give you the head’s up, but I couldn’t find you. You missed an interesting committee meeting this week. Do you think they’ll do it?” “Some might. And if you’re in, I’m in.” Nathan looked up into his friend’s eyes. “Really?” Actually, Mikey had a good body, made up in his physique what he lacked in the looks department. Far more toned than Nathan. Somewhat unkindly, Polly described Mikey’s types as prawns; sculpted body, ugly face. “Reckon my missus will love it. Might even get me a shag or ten.” “Nice. So we only need March to December. Work on a few for me, will you?” “Sure. Benny Osmond might come around. If only we could guarantee that your teacher friend got to see him in the calendar.” “Polly? Why does Benny—?” “He’s not said anything to you, because he knows you two are friends. But the man would give his right arm for a date with her.” “Really?” Nathan had no idea, but he wondered what Polly might say. If anything, Polly tended to go for older men. “I think he might be a bit young for her.” “He’s twenty-five. How old is she?” “Same age as me, twenty-eight,” said Nathan, glancing sidelong at Mikey. “Think she likes them older. But maybe I can put in a good word for him, if he agrees to do the calendar?” “Blackmail? Love it. Are you going to this shindig Arlene’s holding now?” “Of course.” Mikey started moving quickly away. “Come on, then. I’ll give you a lift. The wife’s already there. Her mum’s got the kids.” On the way, Nathan brought Mikey up to speed with the other items on the committee agenda. “As much as I hate to say it, she’s probably right,” said Mikey, turning his car into the pub car park. “The event has got a bit stale. Even my kids say so.” Sunday, and the car park was fuller than usual. Mikey parked up his Volvo estate between a beaten up old Toyota and a sleek Tesla, which just about summed up Crumbington. Families liked to get out of the house and take advantage of the reasonably priced pub lunches. Usually on a Sunday, Nathan would have a pint with the lads after the game and then head home for a sandwich lunch. This was more Mikey’s domain. Nathan trailed Mikey into the private bar, already filled with bodies. A big cluster of people chatted excitedly at one end of the bar, one of those being Arlene. Somebody else clearly held court. After pecking Mikey’s wife on the cheek, Nathan peered around trying to find Polly. Eventually, he offered to get a round of drinks for them and headed to the bar where a flustered barman finally got to him. As he ordered a rum and coke and two pints of Skol, he stared at the lad, thought he recognised him. “Pretty busy today, I see,” said Nathan, stating the obvious. “Bat shit crazy, more like.” “Are you Bob Morris’s son?” “Kyle Morris,” said the lad, ginning wide and looking even more like his father. “Yep, that’s me.” Everybody knew everybody in Crumbington. Kyle was Bob’s eldest, probably just turned eighteen. Kyle still had a full head of unruly red hair, but had the same rosy cheeked complexion as his father. “Your dad played a blinder in goal today. Didn’t let a single one in.” Kyle shook his head but laughed, too. Nathan handed over a twenty pound note. “That game’ll be the death of him.” “But at least he’ll die happy. Hey, have you seen Polly Fischer?” “Miss Fischer? The teacher?” Polly hated being called Miss Fischer outside of school, especially along the high street when one youngster or another would address her as simply; ‘miss’. “Yes, her.” “No, not seen her,” he said, handing over the change, and giving Nathan a small tray. “But I’ll let you know if she turns up. So you’re here with Mrs Killjoy’s mob to meet the celeb, are you?” Nathan chuckled. So they’d labelled her photographer friend a celebrity already, had they? Typical of the village folk to consider anyone who worked in the big smoke a celebrity. “Looks like it,” said Nathan, taking the drinks. Nathan had barely put the drinks down and begun chatting to Mikey’s lovely wife, when Arlene stepped over and grabbed him by the forearm. Her eyes sparkled with excitement, her cheeks reddened. Nathan hadn’t realised how excited she was about the team shoot. Was there a kinky side to Arlene Killjoy? Across from him, unseen by Arlene, Mikey rolled his eyes in sympathy. “Nathan, I need you,” she said, before he could speak. No word of apology to Mikey and his wife for taking him away, no polite explanation or apologetic smile. Polly was right. One day they would come to blows. “Someone is insisting on meeting you.” Without another word, she pulled him away, leading the way through the room of bodies. Of course, he thought, her photographer friend would also be putting the thumb screws on him to get the players to agree to the shoot. They headed for the far corner, where the larger crowd still hemmed in the poor photographer. “Oh. I thought you wanted to know how it went with the team.” “Later,” she said, over her shoulder. “More important things right now.” Without consideration, Arlene shoved people out of their path like a professional bodyguard, until only the front row stood in their way. With a loud cough, she got the attention of the front two women, who parted to let her through, to meet… Oh shit. Clifton O’Keefe. Nathan had no time to check himself and stood there, doing a fantastic impression of a goldfish in a bowl suddenly being gawked at by a roomful of amused onlookers. Clifton looked even better in the flesh, better than Nathan remembered him. Not that he hadn’t always been handsome, but somewhere in the background, someone had taken him in hand, accentuated all his many good points—the sweeping black fringe, those thick, perfect eyebrows and piercing brown eyes, the full lips and immaculate teeth—and given him a particular look. Magnetic, Nathan mused, effortlessly drawing attention to himself wherever he went. Maybe that was something movie stars were taught. Why else would people pay good money to watch them pretending to be other people. Nathan had only seen one of his films—Prince in the Snow—a Christmas story Mikey’s kids had wanted to see at the cinema complex in the nearby town. Knowing nothing about the plot, Nathan had been stunned silent when he recognised the face on the screen, especially the familiar voice coming from the very familiar mouth; one that, once upon a time, he had been allowed to kiss. Clifton—clearly used to being the centre of attention—gave Nathan a sympathetic smile, before coming over and giving him a gentle, but somewhat theatrical, embrace. Nathan froze, let himself be hugged like a farmer positioning a scarecrow, unsure of how to respond. “Nate Fresher, my old friend. How are you?” he said, and then to those gathered. “Nate and I went to school together. All the way from Crumbington Junior to Applegate High. We both played for the school football team.” And occasionally sucked each other’s dicks, thought Nathan. Or jerked each other off while kissing in the groundsman’s shed. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t hear those thoughts and simply cooed at Clifton’s admission. “Still baking bread. Still feeding the masses?” “Bread. Yes.” Nathan’s mouth spouted words like a long distance phone call. “Baker. Um, baking. Yes.” “So I was just telling everyone here that I’ll be around until the end of the year, staying locally, so please treat me as one of you.” For a moment, Nathan wondered at Clifton’s formality, until he noticed the way his eyes swept across the crowd of onlookers, realised he addressed the flock, not just Nathan. “When he arrives, Raul and I will be attending a number of events for the LGBTQI community, especially relating to our personal favourite charity: Out On The Streets, aimed at homeless gay kids. Which is good practise, because we’ll be adding to our family unit later in the year. But in case you’ve not heard yet, the big news is we’re delighted to be hosting the Crumbington Summer Fête in July. Raul will adore this place, it’s so quintessentially English. And, of course, the place where I grew up. Right now, though, Arlene has reminded me that there’s still a whole tableful of food that needs to be eaten, so please go and help yourselves. If you don’t mind, I’d like a few moments alone to catch up with my old friend.” Clifton knew how to work a crowd. Everyone dutifully moved away, even those who clearly wanted to speak more to him. Only Arlene remained by his side, as though she needed to protect her asset. Even then, Clifton managed to get her away, by leaning in and whispering something in her ear. For a moment, Nathan thought she might click her fingers and summon someone over to do her bidding, but eventually, after looking around her, she realised there would be nobody and finally excused herself. “Hey there,” said Clifton, once Arlene was out of earshot. His voice came out natural, honeyed, the warmth of his gaze comfortably familiar. “Sorry, Cliff,” said Nathan, before placing a hand in front of his mouth. “Shit, I mean Clifton. Arlene told us you were coming for the summer fête, but I didn’t realise you’d be here already. Took me by surprise.” “Then it’s me who should apologise. And Cliff’s fine. For you, anyway. Was then, is now. Arlene told me your dad passed away.” “Five years now.” “I’m so sorry. What happened?” “Not sure really. Weak heart, the doctor said. Broken heart, more like. Don’t think he ever really got over my mum disappearing into the night without a word.” Clifton’s professional smile slipped for a moment. Nathan realised why—Clifton had been there at the time his mother skipped town. He had also done the same thing to Nathan. “I saw one of your films. Prince in the Snow,” said Nathan, changing tack. “Oh, God. Hardly my finest work.” “Mike Shanton’s kids loved it. Thought you made a—what was it his six-year-old daughter said—a totally crush-worthy prince. I even think she has a poster of you on her bedroom wall.” When Clifton laughed, it felt like old times, and Nathan sensed himself relaxing. “I’ve done a lot more and had far better roles. I’m even up for a Teen Choice award this year for Tangerine Smile. And my manager reckons I might even be in the running for a Golden Globe nomination.” “I—I never saw that one. Only Prince in the Snow.” Clifton smiled his incredible smile again. “And what did you think?” “Honestly? I had a hard time reconciling you up on the screen. In fact, I’m having a hard time believing it’s you standing here now.” This time, when Clifton’s eyes bored into Nathan, something calculating settled there. Moments passed between them that felt like hours. Reaching into his jacket pocket, Clifton drew out and unlocked his mobile phone before handing the device to Nathan. “Give me your number.” Nathan smiled, and did as asked, using his thumbs to enter the number. Once he had finished, Clifton texted a message and Nathan heard the gentle ping of the message arriving in his jacket pocket. “Look, I’m having some like-minded couples over to my grandparent’s house next Saturday evening for a dinner party—catered, of course—starting around seven-thirty. I’m staying there taking care of the place while they escape to their villa in Barbados for the winter months. I’ve just sent you an invite, if you’d like to come. Raul won’t be over until mid-March, so we’ll have a chance to catch up properly—if you know what I mean? What do you think?” Clifton grinned broadly and winked. At first, Nathan felt bemused but flattered. Something felt a little off about the smile—something his father would have called a salesman’s smile. One thing was for sure. The shy, nervous boy he’d known ten years ago bore no resemblance to the beautiful, confident man standing before him. Nevertheless, he’d been about to accept the invitation, when a heavy arm landed around his shoulders. “We’d love to come, wouldn’t we, Nate?” came a deep, now familiar voice. Jaymes. Nathan had been about to roll his eyes and shove the arm away, when he noticed barely suppressed anger flash across Clifton’s face out of the corner of his eye. What the hell? “And you are?” asked Clifton, his usual pleasant tone slipping. “Jaymes Fischer,” said Jaymes, genially holding out his free hand, bunches of leather bands tied around and dangling from his wrist. For a few short moments, Clifton peered down at the large outstretched hand, giving Nathan a moment of clarity. Clifton probably employed bodyguards who looked like Jaymes. “Nate?” asked Clifton, glaring at Jaymes and ignoring the outstretched hand. “He’s a friend,” said Nathan, finally catching up. “Friend?” said Clifton, his gaze sweeping to Nathan’s face, a mixture of bafflement and disgust in his face. “Boyfriend,” said Jaymes. “Didn’t Nate tell you?”
  30. 67 points
    Stood alone in the darkened room, Nathan glared hard out through the front window into the bleak night. Dark bulky shapes—the outlines of cars—stood beneath a clear night sky full of bleary-eyed stars. Memories of a peaceful, almost transformational, weekend had dissolved in just a few minutes. Only as he stood there for a full minute with the phone glued to his ear, his temper held at bay, did he realise nothing was happening. When he checked closely, by the light of the device’s display, he realised his phone had no signal, not a single bar. Audibly, he cursed himself. He hadn’t even asked his hosts if they had a WiFi network he could log onto. His first thought was to head back and find Gallagher and Martin, ask to use the house phone—Jaymes had left his mobile phone at home, insisting on a tech-detox weekend—but then, at the notion of Jaymes, other thoughts crowded his mind and he stalled. Had Lawrence been Jaymes’ ex-lover? The one who cheated on him? Admittedly, Lawrence did have a certain charisma. Until he opened his mouth. Surely the Jaymes he had grown to know—and yes, love—would never have fallen for someone so shallow and self-absorbed. And hearing him articulate Jaymes’ wanderlust in terms of being commitment phobic was at the very least unsettling. Part of coming to terms with Jaymes’ eventual departure had been his understanding that Jaymes’ enjoyed his profession with a passion. As far as Nathan was concerned, anyone who loved their job in this life deserved to be given every possible latitude to follow their dreams. “Nathan? Nathan Fresher?” came a deep voice, both familiar and unfamiliar. Nathan turned to see the silhouette of a short man in the doorway, the light from the hallway behind him. “Do you mind if I switch the light on?” came the voice, and before Nathan could respond, light flooded the room. Only then did Nathan realise he stood in a room off the main hallway. Large black plastic boxes—the solid types used by removal companies—formed a wall against one side of the room. On each, the letters HBC4 stencilled onto the side in bright green. Apart from three stainless steel coat racks filled with coats of all colours and sizes, the room was otherwise bare, in stark contrast to the rest of the house. Giorgio Costello came into the room and shut the door behind him, before turning to Nathan. “I was trying to make a call. But there’s no signal.” “Yep, this place is a freaking fortress. Try outside the front of the house. Or the back but it’s a little rowdy. I managed a few calls in the parking bay earlier. Listen, I’m glad I caught you, I wanted to speak to you in private. About Clifton. And I saw you dive in here, so I thought I’d grab my chance.” At first, Nathan wondered if Giorgio wanted to talk about the filming at his shop but then noted Giorgio’s seriousness. After scrutinising Nathan in silence for an uncomfortable minute, he let out a deep sigh. “If only Clifton had ended up with someone like you, things would be so much easier. Raul’s a lovely guy but they’re both constantly in the spotlight, both being scrutinised by those muck-raking media morons. Couples are so much easier to handle when one of them’s a nobody.” Maybe Nathan should have been more insulted, but a sudden thought had come to him. Had Giorgio been the one hovering and watching from outside the bedroom when Clifton made his move? Was that why he was here? Perhaps he realised the slight in his final words because he quickly appended his remark. “No offence meant.” “None taken. But you know that could never have happened, don’t you?” said Nathan, trying to preempt any accusation. “My inherited vocation not only ties me to one place six days a week—most of the time, anyway—but also means me having to be up well before the crack of dawn. I could never have accompanied Clifton to his endless parade of evening celebrity shindigs or travelled abroad with him.” “You could have sold up.” “It’s a family business.” Recently, those two last words had begun to lose their power. And had he discussed the same thing with someone recently? Or maybe the fanciful notion had visited him in his sleep once again. And why he felt the need to justify himself to Giorgio, he had no idea. “Now that I do understand. My family’s Italian American, settled in New York from Sicily in 1910. Our family restaurant business became a way of life. My oldest brother still runs the outfit back of the Meatpacking District. Only kept afloat because the rest of us throw money at the place. Should have gone under years ago.” “My shop still makes money. If yours isn’t, why aren’t you tempted to let it go?” “That’s what I’m saying. The shop is as much a part of the family as our own flesh and blood.” “And how many are there? In your family?” “Including me? Eight. Five brothers and three sisters.” “What if it had just been you?” “What do you mean?” Even Nathan had been thrown by his own sudden change of tack. “What if you’d been an only child and your family place was going down the drain.” Giorgio stared hard at Nathan for a long time before he spoke again. “You need financial backing? Is that what you’re driving at? Because publicity from the television shoot is more than likely going—” “No,” said Nathan, harder than he meant to. “That’s not what I’m asking. The bakery is doing fine. But if it wasn’t, whether a family business or not, I’m not sure I’d have your faith. Maybe you do understand the extra pressure that goes with keeping a family business afloat, but it feels as though all I’m doing right now—by keeping the damned place going—is being loyal to ghosts.” Giorgio had a habit of rubbing two fingers and the thumb of his right hand together when he thought hard. Maybe he wished they held a cigar for him to puff on. Eventually he broke the silence. “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. Clifton says you know about his—uh—predicament.” “You mean the bastard ex and his hidden handy-cam?” Giorgio’s pudgy face broke into a yellow-toothed smile then. “One way of putting it.” “When you do find him—before you throw his arse in jail—will you promise to bring him to the shop so that I can be the first one to kick him in the nuts.” This time Giorgio laughed aloud, and also appeared to relax. Why had he been so tense? “Look, in case you’re going to ask, I will not tell another living soul. Cliff is a good friend—always will be. If there is anything I can do to help him—legally—just let me know.” “You told him to come clean. To give an interview.” “Well I didn’t exactly tell him to give an interview, but I told him I thought honesty is best. Rip off the plaster, so to speak. Before some rag or another sniffs out a little bit of the story, and then makes up the rest.” “Which is what I advised him months ago. And it seems he’s come around now, after chatting with you. So I just wanted to come and say thank you. You’re impartial, unlike Raul and me, and I’m quickly getting to realise that you’re a good influence. You two used to have a thing, didn’t you?” Ah, thought Nathan, so here it comes. “When we were kids. Long time ago. Water under the bridge. We’re just friends now.” “Are you?” “We are. And in case it escaped your notice, Jaymes and I are very happy together.” Giorgio nodded sagely and began to turn for the door, before turning back. “He still carries a torch for you, you know? Ever since he’s been back.” “Don’t worry. He’ll get over it.” “Will he?” “Mark my words. When he’s holding a couple of giggling, dribbling babies and is up to his knees in poopy nappies, I’ll be but a distant memory. He won’t give me a second thought or—” Right at that moment, the door opened a crack and Jaymes poked his head in. “There you are. I thought you’d run off. Finished helping Gallagher and then I couldn’t find you anywhere. Sorry for leaving you with Lawrence. But I think if I’d stayed, things might have gotten ugly.” “Lovable Larry. They did anyway, I’m afraid.” “Oh shit,” said Jaymes, coming into the room. “What happened?” “You can probably guess. He said some unpleasant things about you, which I was not about to let go unchallenged. His finale was along the lines of me not being good enough to snare someone like you.” “Sorry, who is this you’re talking about?” asked Giorgio. “Lawrence Cotterbourne,” said Jaymes. “One of the cast members, I’m guessing. Someone I used to know.” “Who’s currently with his pals getting ‘freshened up’ in an upstairs cloakroom.” Nathan used double finger air quotes to emphasis the two words. “Whatever the hell that means.” “He’s what?” said Giorgio, his tone almost as dark as his face. “Someone came and dragged him away. Those were the exact words they used.” “Upstairs, you say?” said Giorgio, moving quickly to the door. “Thanks for the heads-up. That’s all I need. Clifton involved in a police raid on a house where their idea of a party is popping pills and snorting happy dust. See you guys later. Once I’ve dealt with this shit.” When Giorgio squeezed past Jaymes and closed the door, Jaymes simply stood there. They both appeared oddly awkward around each other. “Oops, sorry. Did I just snitch on your ex?” said Nathan, trying to make light of things. “My ex?” said Jaymes, his eyes narrowing on Nathan. “You think Lawrence is my ex?” “Isn’t he?” “Give me some credit, Nate. Yes, we were at college together and we kind of bounced around in similar circles, but we were never more than friends of friends. What are you doing in here, anyway? Surely not hiding from a prick like Lawrence?” “No. I’m trying to call Arlene bloody Killjoy. Some kind soul has already published one of the naked team photos online, one of mine. A random woman singled me out after you went to help Gallagher. I want to hear what Arlene has to say, because she’s probably the one who leaked the thing.” “Okay,” said Jaymes, shrugging. “And the problem is—?” “The problem is I’ve been blindsided.” “Didn’t you give your consent for her to use the photos?” “Yes, but...” Nathan responded, but then hesitated. Jaymes stared at him in all innocence and didn’t see the breach of faith in what she had done. Yes, truth be told, he had agreed to her using his photographs for an online magazine, so she’d done nothing illicit. But he had expected to be given some notice, at least, as a simple courtesy. “Nate. Eventually these calendars are going to go on sale, yes? For charity. That was the point of the exercise. And then, the whole world will be able to purchase them and see you in the buff.” “Why are you doing this?” “Doing what?” “Taking her side?” “Taking her side? Seriously? I’m not taking her side, I’m not taking anyone’s side. I’m simply stating a fact. You told me an online magazine reporter spoke to Jenny and wanted copies of your photo, that they were going to do an article about the calendar.” “After speaking to me.” “Oh, I see,” said Jaymes, holding both palms up, his face registering comprehension. “Okay, in which case I apologise. You didn’t tell me that bit. Now I understand why you’re pissed.” “I—” began Nathan, but then realised he’d only assumed the reporter would want to speak to him. “Actually, no. You’re right. We didn’t agree that part. I guess I just assumed—hell, I don’t know what I assumed.” Jaymes let out a deep sigh and studied Nathan. “Are you having second thoughts about being in the calendar, Nate? Because if you are, you really need to have a conversation with Arlene before—” “I’m not having second thoughts,” said Nathan, pushing a hand through his hair and looking suitably rattled. “I just—I was thrown. What do you say when some random woman walks up, calls you the naked baker, and then mentions you having hot cross buns.” At least Jaymes had the decency to put a hand over his mouth to mask his smile. “Apart from telling her to keep her bloody hands to herself, I’d say she has pretty good taste.” “Jaymes,” said Nathan, not seeing the humour in the remark. But Jaymes strode forward and pulled Nathan into a hug. At first Nathan resisted, but after a few moments he relaxed into Jaymes’ body warmth. Perhaps Jaymes had a point, he thought. Soon the whole world would be able to buy the calendar online, and he did seem to remember telling Jenny he didn’t mind if the Huffpost journalist did a story on them and used a photo. Maybe Lawrence had wound him up more than he’d realised. “What’s going on with you, Nate? This weekend you’ve been so changeable; incredibly chilled one moment, and then as tight as a Scotman’s wallet the next. So here’s a thought for you to consider. Instead of calling Arlene—who will probably be doubly pissed about not having been invited to Clifton’s cast party—and giving her a hard time, how about you phone Jenny and ask her? She’s been pretty up front to deal with.” Nathan chuckled into Jaymes’ shoulder and then sighed. When Jaymes left, he was going to miss having someone calming him down, someone providing plain common sense. Right then, he considered asking Jaymes about Lawrence’s quip, about the ex who had taken his own life. But even if Lawrence had been telling the truth, he might only succeed in pissing Jaymes off, and he liked this version of Jaymes. As if hearing Nathan’s thoughts, Jaymes brought them face to face and kissed him, softly at first, but at Nathan’s enthusiastic reciprocation, the kiss became something more urgent and carnal. Eventually Jaymes broke away breathless. “This feels really sordid and wholly disrespectful, making out in our good friend’s storeroom. Is there a lock on this door?” “Hate to be the voice of reason,” said Nathan, straightening Jaymes’ collar, “but shouldn’t we get back to the party? It’s ten-thirty and people are leaving now, anyway—I can hear cabs pulling up—and I want to be there to help Martin and Gallagher.” “Spoilsport.” “And then we can head to bed.” “Now you’re talking—” “On our eeky, squeaky, bouncy castle mattress.” “Oh.” “But we’ll be home tomorrow night, just you and me. Once we get rid of Polly.” “Just us,” said Jaymes, adjusting his trousers before learning in and kissing Nathan again, softly and almost chastely this time. When Nathan pulled away, he still had his hands on each of Jaymes’ shoulders. “Who’s going to be my voice of reason when you’re gone?” “If the website I checked out is telling the truth, they now have mobile phones and FaceTime in Malaysia. There might be a bit of a time difference, but I’ll still be at the end of a phone line, Nate. It’s not the end of the world. And Polly will still be here.” “Fair point. Okay, I’m decent again. Let’s head back.” “Hang on,” said Jaymes, grabbing Nathan’s hand. “I know it’s late. But how about you try phoning Jenny now? Rather than leave things until the morning.” Which is exactly what they agreed. Nathan found a quiet spot out front—away from the noise of departing cars and arriving taxis—where he managed to get a decent reception. As soon as a signal kicked in, he noticed missed calls and another two messages from Polly had popped up on his phone. The earlier one had been a simple ‘how are things?’ which he chose to ignore. These appeared far more urgent, including a ‘call me back now!’ Instant coldness filled him and he immediately thumbed Polly’s number. “Polly, it’s Nath—” “Where the hell have you been? I’ve called you three times this evening. Did you turn your phone off?” “I didn’t, it’s— I didn’t realise I couldn’t get a signal in the house.” Nathan realised he had stopped breathing. “What happened? Why did you call? Is it the shop? Tell me it’s not the shop.” “Okay, first of all calm down, Nathan.” Probably realising the concern she’d caused him, Polly’s voice softened. “The shop is fine and business has been amazing. Just so you know, the poor buggers were rushed off their feet again today. Molly said people kept coming in all day asking if you were around, not regulars according to her. And some of them stood outside the shop, taking selfies with the shop as the backdrop. What that was about nobody seems to know. Any ideas?” “Ah, yes. Somehow one of the naked photos of me was published in an online publication. I was about to phone Jenny the photographer to find out more. So that’s what you were calling about?” “Uh, no. So, anyway, after a crazy day, they managed to close the doors at around six-thirty. Some people were still in the shop, so Fingal and Molly served the last of the customers while I helped them, standing at the locked front door letting people out. When I went to let the last woman and her kid go, a man came up and tapped his knuckle on the front window. I was about to tell him to bugger off, but Nathan, when I saw his face I nearly fell over.” “Why? Who was it?” “Fingal asked me if it was you,” said Polly, skirting the truth. “Asked why I wasn’t letting you in. Honest to God, Nathan, the guy could have been your older brother. Your really good-looking older brother. So of course I let him in and, like everyone else that day, he asked for you. I told him you were away and he said he’d come back and see you Wednesday. Said he’s away in the north of England until then. Honestly Nathan, even though his voice is very different—an Australian accent—he even has the same eyes and nose as you.” “Grant Brooks,” Nathan spoke quietly, looking over at Jaymes who sensed something wrong and strolled over to stand next to him. “My long lost Australian cousin?” “One and the same.” “Did he say what he wanted? Or did he leave a number?” “No. Just needs to talk to you. He wouldn’t say any more than that, and, believe me, I tried. Took him out for a drink at the local. Interesting guy. Over here for a month, is all I could get out of him. Despite my usual irresistible charm, he was totally tight-lipped when it came to you.” “You took him for a drink?” “Of course I did. How does the saying go? Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies—” “You think he’s an enemy?” “All I can tell you with any certainty is that he is definitely from the same Fresher gene pool as you. And, as I say, he wouldn’t take your phone number, wants to speak to you in person.” “Thanks Polly. We’ll be back around three-thirty tomorrow.” “Don’t worry, Nathan. He seems like a nice guy and I am usually a good judge of character.” “Are you?” “I’m friends with you, aren’t I?”
  31. 67 points
    Sufficiently inebriated and in a great mood, CJ and Owen left the bar before closing and stumbled down the still-buzzing streets of Key West. Continued carousing was tempting, but they did not want to spend the next day recovering. Inside the Cypress House compound, they shed what little they wore, and splashed in the pool until the sweat and cigarette smoke permeating skin and hair dissipated. A quick rinse under the outdoor shower to wash away the chlorine was the last thing CJ remembered. He was content when the following morning they woke up wrapped around each other, the soft, white sheet tangled between their legs. The ceiling fan whirred above them, and sunlight streamed through the open french doors leading to the second-floor veranda. The morning breeze carried the scent of tropical blooms. “So this was President Truman’s vacation spot?” The Conch Train Tour trolley dropped them off in front of the Little White House after they had stopped at the Hemingway home and taken pictures in front of the US1 mile-marker zero sign. Owen babbled about his plan to reframe the one they had taken the prior year on the Canadian border by the northern terminus of the same road. “Yep. I read that he visited like a dozen times while he was president. There’s something about Florida… We’ve never had a President born in the state, but Truman vacationed here. Kennedy did it in Palm Beach, and Nixon right outside Miami in Key Biscayne. Clinton stayed at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables all the time, and the orange buffoon has Mar-a-Lago.” “You gonna keep the tradition going when you get elected?” “Shut it, Oz. Let me graduate college first. Then we can discuss me running for office. Or not.” Aaron insisted on driving them to the airport on Monday. “Guys, I can’t thank you enough. Do you realize we’ve already booked rooms because of your posts? If nothing else, you’ve proven word of mouth is still the best kind of marketing. Whenever you want to come back, you have a room.” “Thanks, big guy. Not sure when, but we’ll return.” Their flight landed in Washington with enough time to catch the tail end of the party. CJ was happy to see his father’s Escalade parked near Thiago’s place; he knew the access code, so he transferred their luggage while Owen paid the cabbie. “That’s convenient your dads are here. Saves an Uber ride back to our place.” Owen threw his backpack in the SUV and closed the gate. “Let’s get inside. It’s too cold for a hoodie over a t-shirt after a weekend in the warmth.” “Then move it. I’ve got the present.” While strolling Duval Street the previous day, a plush animal in a store’s window had attracted their attention. It was now in the bag CJ carried along with a birthday card. “Mate, can you believe Fabricio’s already one? It feels like it was just yesterday—” “CJ! Ozzie!” Brett opening the door caught CJ and Owen by surprise. “You playing doorman, Brettman?” “Let us in already. It’s bloody freezing out here.” Brett’s laughter made heads turn toward the new arrivals. “Listen to the Aussie. A weekend in Key West and he’s—” “Uncle CJ! Uncle Ozzie!” The brown blur moving faster than his legs should have allowed tried to run toward them, stumbled, and crawled the rest of the way. “Hey, Lollipop, happy birthday!” The boy wiggled until Owen picked him up. Harley had plastered the name on the kid; he claimed the tall, skinny toddler with the bushy afro resembled one. “We brought you a present.” The wide-open eyes showed delight when CJ handed over the stuffed animal. ”It’s a Manatee from Florida.” “Come on in, guys. Welcome back.” Thiago traded his son for the two beers he carried. “How was the trip?” CJ recognized the strains of the world famous bossa nova playing in the background. He smiled when the image “The Girl From Ipanema” conjured was Tom Brady’s wife, Gisele, strutting down the catwalk during the Rio Olympic Games opening ceremonies, showing leg all the way up to her hip. There went his fag card. “Dude, it was awesome. We ate, we drank, and we relaxed. I’ll tell you about diving on a wreck later.” If finding his fathers at the party was a pleasant surprise, seeing Ritchie talking to Harley was a shock. For the past year or so, Ritchie had spent less time with the older crowd and associated mostly with his school peers. “Hey, bro. What are you doing here?” “What? Thiago invited the Squad. I didn’t crash the party.” The defensive tone made CJ think something was wrong. “Wasn’t implying you did. What’s up, Harley? Why’s my brother sitting with you instead of your sister?” CJ looked around the room searching for his brother’s girlfriend. “Where’s Lucy?” “Home as far as I know, bruh. And like I already told Ritchie, I’m not talking about her. Didn’t I say a long time ago I’d never get involved in my sisters’ love lives?” Harley raised his hands in surrender. “I’d rather talk about your trip. What bikes did you end up renting? And how was the new helmet?” CJ had his suspicions about what was going on and decided to wait until later to talk to his brother. Instead, he recounted the riding portion of the trip for Harley. Later, once the single candle was blown out, and the cake was cut and shared, the party fizzled out. As soon as his father started the car when they left, CJ pounced. “Okay, bro? What’s going on? Did you and Lucy get into a fight?” “Easy, son.” César’s admonition reminded CJ his fathers did not know of the girl’s abortion. “Hey! I’m just curious. He and his girlfriend are usually attached at the hip.” “Not no more.” Ritchie mumbled his response, making CJ stare at his brother in the last row of seats. “We broke up.” Owen’s expression blended sadness and concern. “Oh, bloody hell. Sorry, mate. How are you doing?” “Meh… okay, I guess. It was her idea. She said since we’re going to be so far away from each other it made sense. I guess she’s right. Everyone kept telling us long distance relationships are hard. Still, getting dumped’s no fun.” CJ was certain the inopportune pregnancy played a role in the decision but figured that would be a subject to be discussed when the parents were not present. “Sorry, bro. Hey, why don’t you come hang with us when the dads drop us off? Either Ozzie or I will give you a ride back home later, so you don’t have to walk in the cold.” The following week, the fathers let CJ and Owen know Ritchie’s stoic attitude was an act. He came home each day and moped around, watching TV after he was done with schoolwork and chores. The couple was busy and unable to find time for the teen. To compensate, they invited him to spend Saturday with them. “Wow! You guys done a lot since last time I was here.” Spray insulation covered the inside of exterior walls and a stack of drywall awaited installation. Ritchie’s previous visit had been after the lead and asbestos mitigation when bare walls and wood supports were all that remained. “Your brothers wanted it done fast, so we’ve been working a few of hours of overtime each day. And Saturdays too as you can tell.” Gray had asked the couple to meet him so they could finalize a few design decisions. “Break time!” Owen motioned for the laborers wrestling one of the new windows in place to join them. After picking up Ritchie, they had stopped at Dog Tag Bakery and carried a large coffee container, cups, and a box of baked goods with them. “This looks good, Gray. What are we looking at as far as completion date?” CJ knew better than to rush the work, but he was itching to get out of the apartment and into the house. “Mid-summer. As long as we don’t hit any snags. Whatever you did after that douche tried to blackmail us worked. Every time I call for an inspection we have someone here the same day or early the next morning.” “Ozzie put the fear of god into those people.” CJ patted his husband on the back. “They’re all afraid of the big, bad Aussie.” “Hey! I’m not the one they have to be scared of. You’re more likely to hurt them if they look at you wrong.” Ritchie glanced at the staircase one of the workers had been sanding when they arrived. “Can we go upstairs?” “Yeah… Actually, that’s where I need you guys to confirm some decisions.” Gray switched his attention to a dust-covered man. “Roberto, no mas.” He pointed at the portable sander the worker had been using. “Help them with the windows when you’re done with your break.” CJ chuckled and slapped his friend’s back. “We’ll get you fluent in Spanish yet.” “I wouldn’t bet on it, CJ. I work with these guys all the time, and they laugh at me whenever I say something.” They skipped the middle floors and ended in what would become the master suite. The appearance was similar to the first floor: all plaster was stripped, leaving a wooden skeleton. The wall separating the original front section from the first bedroom no longer existed, and a large walk-in closet next to the bathroom was framed. Ritchie peered out the front window before turning around to take in the entire space. “This is going to be a huge room. Have you decided what furniture you want?” “Not even close, bro. The cousins’ been sending us pics and links for possibilities, but we haven’t liked anything yet. We’ll probably go to the Washington Design Center in the next couple of weeks to check out showrooms. We’ll let you know in case you want to come with.” CJ and Owen had agreed to include Ritchie in as many of their activities as possible. They felt it might help the teen weather his relationship’s failure. Owen clasped Gray’s shoulder with one hand and waved the other one in the direction of the bathroom. “Okay, Gray, what is it you wanted to discuss?” “Come on, let’s walk back there.” He led the way toward what would become the master bathroom; not even plumbing pipes remained after it was gutted. “I taped off the space so you can get a better idea of where things will go.” “What’s in there?” CJ pointed at a cardboard box in a corner of the room. “Samples. We’ll get to those in a minute. Okay”—Gray faced the wall fronting the alley next to the house—“the design calls for two small spaces with pocket doors.” He pointed at the corner. “One’s for the toilet and the other one’s for the urinal. To the left will be the glass-enclosed shower and to the right, the soaking tub.” “Yeah, about that.” Owen retrieved his phone and flipped through gallery pictures. When he came to the one he wanted, he passed the device to Gray. “That’s the one we settled on.” “Nice…” “Let me see.” Ritchie pushed himself between his brother-in-law and the general contractor. “Copper inside and black outside? Aren’t you doing a copper sink in the wine cellar? Is it going to be the same all over the house?” “Nope. Those will be the only metal ones. Maybe the kitchen, but that’s up in the air. The rest are all porcelain or stone. And if you remember, the one in the basement is hammered copper, so it’s a different look.” CJ scratched his head while thinking. “Listen, I have an idea, but I’m not sure what you guys will think. The cousins seem to have forgotten we asked for a bidet. Can we flip the water closets and the tub? Toilet, urinal, and bidet on one side, and the shower stall in the other. That way, with the free-standing tub centered in the space, the living wall Ozzie wants would look real good.” “I can see that…” Gray appeared lost in thought while rubbing his chin. “It balances the placement of the fixtures, but if we do an all-glass shower, the other side will look too heavy because of the drywall. What would you think about making the end wall of the water closets opaque glass and doing the same with the shower?” “Could we get some 3D drawings to get a better idea?” “Yeah, I’ll e-mail Chicago and get them to send us something. And speaking of Chicago, that box you asked about is something they sent. It’s full of samples. Wanna pick tiles for all the bathrooms? I already looked at the stuff inside. I think you’ll like it.” “Let’s do it.” An enthusiastic CJ looked to Owen for approval and was rewarded with a nod and a smile. “Are we using the same for all three floors?” “That’s up to you guys.” Gray sliced the tape he used to reseal the box with a utility knife. “Let’s start with the floor. They sent three options we’ll lay atop the mesh with the heating coils.” “That one!” Owen pointed at a sheet of small tiles in varying shades of white with darker veins. “CJ?” “I like it. That’s not ceramic, is it?” “Nope. Marble. And figures you’d pick the most expensive one.” He handed the sample over and retrieved the other two. One was a herringbone pattern, also in white, and the other one a black and white mosaic. “The one you like is a one-inch hexagonal Calacatta Gold Italian Marble.” “Yeah, I really like it. It has an old-school vibe. What about it, Oz? Do the same on the other two floors?” “That’s fine. It’ll tie everything together instead of having a crazy look with different stuff everywhere.” “Then I suggest a similar marble for the shower.” Gray handed them a small, square, stone piece. “This isn’t the shape or size we would use. The actual ones would be one-foot by two. We can mount them in whatever direction you choose. They didn’t send a sample, but your cousins suggested using a contrasting color stone for the inside of the niches we’re putting in to hold shampoo and shit like that. Randy says it should be purple marble.” “Fuck that shit! No way! Nothing too trendy. Oz, what do you think of black, so it’ll match the tub’s exterior?” “Works for me, mate. Definitely not purple.” By the time they left, tile had been chosen for all the bathrooms and the kitchen backsplash. They postponed the decision on kitchen countertops until they made a visit to a stone supplier. “I looked at the timetable and Gray’s right. You should be moving in around Independence Day.” Brett reached for the bottle of Orange County, Virginia, 2015 Viognier; they were waiting for Ritchie to return from the Chinese restaurant with Sunday dinner. “Ozzie and I were talking about that, dads.” CJ accepted the bottle, filled his glass, and passed it to his husband. “We wanted to move Aba into the apartment next to ours, but we’re reconsidering it.” “What? After all the shit you gave us to convert it after we moved our offices out?” César rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Jarhead. We were moving to the second floor no matter what. Don’t give them crap. What’s on your mind, CJ?” “If Aba’s moving up to DC at the beginning of April, it means she’d be there for something like three months only. Wouldn’t you guys like to rent the place out to some GU student and have them sign a year’s lease?” “That would be smart. What do you propose to do with your grandmother instead? Move her into the second room in your apartment?” “Not a chance. That would be a pain for her and for us.” Owen tasted the wine before passing judgment. “This is good, Captain. You did a good job picking this one out.” “Since it’s only for a short time, we thought she could move into our old room in the basement.” Hearing no objections from his fathers, CJ felt encouraged. “It would also mean Ritchie gets to have her around until he moves to Colorado.” “Either CJ or I could drop off the baby in the morning and pick her up at night.” Brett was definitely surprised. “HER?! You’re having a girl? That’s fucking awesome!” “Dammit, Oz.” “Ooops…” Owen did not appear overly bothered. “Honest slip. But I see neither Brett nor César are upset about it.” “Why the hell would we be upset? As long as the kid’s healthy…” “Brett has it right, guys. As long as our grandchild’s healthy, that’s all we care about. So what’s her name gonna be?” “Shut the fuck up, Ozzie. Let’s at least keep that under wraps until she’s born.” “Well, at least I know what to buy you guys as a present. I’m gonna have to figure out what brand of shotgun is best for deterring teenaged suitors.” Brett’s humor did not amuse Owen. “Suitors? Quarter word, Captain. And for the record, no shotguns. You know what I think of guns. Bad enough Lola’s part of the household.” The sound of someone kicking the kitchen door meant Ritchie was back, and his hands were full of food containers. CJ almost stumbled when his brother pushed past him. “What took you so fucking long to answer, bro? It’s freezing out here.” Ritchie shivered and his teeth clattered when he spoke. CJ tried not to laugh. “Ummm, Ritchie? Maybe you shouldn’t run out of the house in sweats and a tee in the middle of winter?” “Yeah, well, if you and Ozzie hadn’t blocked the way, I would have parked in the garage and the cold wouldn’t have been an issue. But nooo, you had to—” “Shut the fuck up and get the food in here, Ritchie. I’m starving.” Brett had a way of getting to the core of any issue. “Fuck you too, Captain. What am I? Like the errand boy around here?” “Yes!” The response came from all four men. “Hey, errand boy, have you made plans for spring break?” CJ held a finger to his lips not wanting the fathers to reveal what they had already discussed. “Fuck you too, CJ. And no, I haven’t made any plans. It’s not like the dads are gonna let me fly off somewhere by myself.” “Oh, that’s such crap.” César tried to sound offended and failed. “Like you haven’t flown to Miami by yourself before.” “That doesn’t count.” CJ decided to tease his brother some more. “Does that mean you don’t want to go to Miami then? Ozzie and I thought you could go down, stay with the abuelos, borrow their car, and visit any old friends you wanted to.” “Really?” Ritchie looked excited and apprehensive. “What’s the catch?” “You suspicious, little shit!” Brett’s laughter made his youngest son cock an eyebrow. “Fine, there’s a catch. Ozzie and I discussed it with the dads, and we think we can trust you. We’d like you to help coordinate Aba’s move to Washington.” ---911 Bad AF Call Me--- “I wonder what crawled up his ass.” CJ was reviewing class notes when Chipper’s cryptic text message came through. Owen dropped his ass on the couch. “Call him. Let’s find out.” Chipper must have been waiting because he answered on the first ring. “Damn, that was fast. Thanks for calling me. I need help.” “What’s wrong, mate?” Owen sat next to CJ so they could both be heard. “What do you need help with?” “Shit, this is a pain. I need to borrow the apartment in New York.” “Why are you asking, Chipper?” CJ was confused, his friend had a key to the place and knew he could use it any time he wanted. “You know you don’t have to.” “Not for me, bro. For my sister. I want her in a safe place until I can get to New York.” “What’s wrong with Cristina?” CJ’s alarmed tone reflected his concern. “Damien raped her last night.”
  32. 67 points
    Soft jazz emanating from the speakers was the only sound in the apartment as CJ stared at his brother. Owen moved toward his husband with a glass of wine, and Ritchie squirmed in his chair before downing the remainder of whatever was in his. He met his brother’s eyes, but a moment later dropped his sight to the empty goblet. “Ozzie? Could I have a little more?” Owen nodded, fetched the bottle from the kitchen, and topped off the teen’s glass. “CJ? Are you going to say anything?” Ritchie’s voiced cracked the way it had not since puberty. Ritchie’s facial expression reflected the internal battle CJ assumed raged inside. Should he confront or console the kid? He wanted to scream. He also wanted to hug the seventeen-year-old and tell him everything would be fine. “I will in a second. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll change and be right back. Oz, maybe you should leave the bottle out here?” He bought himself a few minutes to think. If Ritchie was in the apartment, he suspected the fathers did not know about the situation. He had to tread carefully; whatever he said or did could have repercussions affecting more than his younger brother. Above all, CJ did not want to overreact the way César and Brett had at times. Everything he was wearing ended on the floor, replaced by gym shorts and a t-shirt. He was glad Owen had the temperature higher than they usually did. Considering the seriousness of the situation, he was glad they would at least be comfortable. Back in the main living area, Owen had taken a seat on the couch, and CJ dropped next to him. “Okay, bro. How about you give us details.” “There’s none! Lucy missed her period. She took a pregnancy test, and it came back positive.” Ritchie sounded calm, but the fidgeting was a good sign he was anything but. “Who else knows?” “NOBODY!” He nearly jumped out of the chair when he shouted. “Sorry… SHIT! I can’t believe this. She’s been on the pill in like forever. We’re not sure how it happened.” “I can tell you how it happened.” CJ decided a little humor might help calm his brother. “You stuck your hard dick inside her pussy, moved it around—” “CJ!” Owen delivered a hard slap to his husband’s bare thigh. “Ouch! Hey, he said he didn’t know what happened. I was trying to help him remember.” “Asshole.” The smirk on Owen’s face matched the diminutive one on Ritchie’s. “Okay, bro. What do you need from us?” “I… She… We… FUCK!” Ritchie placed the wine atop the coffee table, leaned forward, and covered his face with both hands. He shook his head, and CJ thought he was crying. Dry eyes and a resolute face emerged when he looked at the two older men again. “Neither one of us is ready for a kid. She wants an abortion. I told her I would go with her, and I’d pay for it. We checked online. She doesn’t need permission from her parents or anything like that. We want to do this as soon as possible. Maybe even—“ “Damn! Slow down, bro.” CJ was happy to see his brother’s decisiveness once he surmounted the fear of telling. “Let me repeat my question. What do you need from us?” “I want to borrow some money. I don’t want Mr. A to see a big expense on my credit card or a withdrawal from the bank account.” “Done. CJ and I keep a couple thousand dollars in cash. It’s yours.” Owen’s response earned him a hand squeeze from his husband. “It won’t be that much. We checked at Planned Parenthood.” “Whatever it takes, bro. Do you want me to call them? I know the local director from attending fundraisers.” “No! I’m sure they won’t say anything, but this is one time I’m glad we have different last names. I know the dads also support that place, and I wouldn’t want anyone to slip next time they bump into Mr. A or the captain. But we’d like to borrow your apartment for afterward. So we can come here and… I don’t know. I just don’t want her being on her own. And if she went home, I wouldn’t be able to take care of her without her parents wondering what’s going on.” “And Lucy’s certain this is what she wants?” “Yeah. She’s headed to MIT in the fall when I go to Colorado Springs. Neither one of us’ ready for a baby.” Owen poured the remainder of the bottle into Ritchie’s glass. “When do you need our place? CJ and I will plan on doing something.” “Tomorrow? They’re open on Saturdays, and we want to get it done as soon as possible.” “Actually, that works well for us.” CJ and Owen exchanged a quick glance. “We wanted to do a walk-through at the house. We promised Lincoln lunch and a calm tour.” “Is that the FBI agent?” “Yeah, you’ll like him when you meet him. Nice guy. How about we give you the apartment starting around noon tomorrow? We won’t return until you text us and tell us it’s cool.” CJ appraised his brother, seeing him in a new light. The kid was acting in a mature, calm, and informed way considering the situation. “You’re awfully calm right now, bro. I’m impressed.” “Yeah, right. If you could see my insides, you’d realize they’re all twisted and knotted. Look, Lucy and I are not your run-of-the-mill, uneducated people you hear about having kids while in high school. Thiago’s a young father, but hell, he’s already a college graduate. And the two of you are having a baby while still young, but that’s by design. Lucy and I are smart. This is not like something we’re making light of, but shit happens. We’re trying to follow your advice. I keep hearing you say it’s not worth wasting time worrying about the past. You always say if there’s a problem, we should deal with it and move forward. Why waste time agonizing over something instead of tackling it and finding a solution?” “I hope you realize you used a few quarter words in that little speech, bro.” “Fuck you, CJ!” Ritchie did smile this time. “Anyway, we’re both responsible for the pregnancy. That’s why I’m standing by her.” Mr. Henry’s, a corner pub with a gay-friendly vibe serving burgers and craft beers, was the chosen meeting spot. The restaurant was a two-minute walk from the Eastern Market Metro station and a ten-minute stroll from the house. “Thanks for inviting me to lunch, guys.” Lincoln lived across the Maryland border, near the Silver Springs station, and rode the train in for the meeting. “I’m glad we get to keep in touch.” “Dude, the way you dealt with the crooked inspector was dope. We owe you and wanted to thank you.” CJ signed the credit card slip and stood. “Plus, we liked you. We’re always up for making new friends.” “Come on, mate. Let’s go check the place out and see if they’ve made any progress.” On the way to the house, Owen again made a pitch for the FBI agent to come to a Scandals practice, and he agreed to check out the next one. “You said you played football in high school, Lincoln. I think you’d be good at rugby. When I moved to Washington, my dads used to play with friends now and then. Nothing formal. When the gay club was organized, they decided not to join due to time demands. Owen did as soon as he moved from Australia. I don’t play, but I know all the guys. They’re a good bunch.” “CJ’s gone with me to the last two Bingham Cup—“ “What’s that?” “It’s an international tournament held every two years. Last one was in Amsterdam and the one before in Nashville. It’s named after Mark Bingham. He was a San Francisco Fog player aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. We can’t go this year, but you might be interested. It’s in Ottawa this time around.” The dumpster parked at the curb was a sign of progress; workers had begun removing the existing roof, preparing for the installation of solar tiles. The door and several windows were open, and the beat of a Salvadoran cumbia filled the air. Lincoln looked surprised. “They’re working on a Saturday?” “Yeah, there’s so much to be done, CJ and I agreed to pay overtime now and then to speed the project up.” One of the workers was someone CJ had met before. “Hola, Roberto. ¿Como estás?” “Bien, patrón. Bien. Trabajando duro.” “Eso es bueno. Le voy a mostrar la casa a nuestro amigo.” “Bien, bien.” Owen tried not to laugh at Lincoln’s confused expression. “Not used to rapid-fire Spanish? CJ knows the guy, asked him how he was doing, and told him we wanted to show you the house.” “What was that word he used? Patrón? Isn’t that a tequila brand?” “A man after our own heart, Oz.” CJ clasped the FBI agent’s arm. “Glad to see your knowledge of Spanish covers the essentials. Booze! Patrón is kind of a respectful way of addressing someone. It literally means boss. Come on. Let’s give you the nickel tour.” The place had been swept clean after the lead and asbestos abatement, but dust once again covered most surfaces. The door to the front room had been removed, the opening enlarged, and the new rear wall was framed awaiting drywall. “So, we told you we were keeping separate spaces here instead of a full open-floor plan.” CJ pointed at the new partition. “By moving the wall, we get a larger dining room. This front space won’t get much use, but Ozzie and I wanted to retain some of the original character.” “One of the first things CJ mentioned when we toured the place was he wanted a big Christmas tree framed by the window. Something people could see while walking or driving by. I don’t think we’ll use the space much except during the holidays.” “So, you guys will have a formal living room and a formal dining room. Surprising. I don’t get a stuffed-shirt vibe from either one of you.” “We’re not! But I sit on a few boards, and at times we’ll have to entertain. I don’t think inviting a bunch of rich people over to watch a football game and drink beer’s gonna work if I want to ask them for money.” “Let’s not forget the political side. CJ’s stayed away after the 2016 election, but I’m sure we’ll be hosting receptions for candidates in the future.” Owen moved further into the house and stopped in front of the expanded dining space. “Although we’re keeping separate rooms, we still want to give the house an airier feel. It’s why we expanded the opening to the first room. Here, we’re installing pocket doors with glass inserts. This is one room we actually have an idea of what we’ll have furniture-wise.” CJ’s excitement at the reference bubbled to the surface. “Wait ’til you see what we’re getting, Lincoln. Are you familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright? We ordered replicas of the table and chairs he designed for the Robie House in Chicago. They’re sick.” While Owen rolled his eyes, Lincoln chuckled. “I’ll take your word for it. I’ll google it later to see what you’re talking about.” “You don’t need to do that. Screw later. Here, let me show you.” CJ’s phone was full of inspiration pictures. “Wright’s my favorite architect ever, and Ozzie’s letting me have some of his design touches. Even though they’re not from the same period the house was built.” “I actually like it too. Some of it will fit in well, some of it won’t. But we’ve compromised on other areas, and this is a good place for this style furniture. Anyway, there’ll be two swinging doors leading from this room to the kitchen right behind it. It’ll make it easier for servers to come in and out with food.” “What are you guys doing there?” Lincoln nodded toward the area behind the framed door openings. “Obviously starting from scratch.” CJ led the way to the largest space in the house. “This used to be the kitchen, a large pantry, a maid’s quarters, and a small room we think was used for sewing.” “So it’s gonna be all one space now?” “Yeah, a huge kitchen with a large island with seating and then a family room. We’re still deciding on fixtures and finishes. We agreed on a farm sink and at least some glass-fronted cabinets but haven’t settled on other stuff. Owen wants quartz counters since they don’t require maintenance. I want granite.” “Let me know who wins that one. What’s that small space in the back?” “That’ll be a powder room. We have to relocate plumbing for it, but since we’re changing all the pipes to copper, it’s not that big a deal.” By the time they reached the top floor, Lincoln appeared as excited about the remodeling as the owners. “This all sounds awesome, guys. I hope I get invited over once it’s done.” “You will. In the meantime”—Owen opened his backpack and retrieved a bottle of wine—“this is a present from us to say thanks.” “Oh, man. You two are something else.” Lincoln ran a finger over the label. “Liston… So this is from your family’s winery?” “You got it, son.” CJ clasped the man’s shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. “That there’s a bottle of 2017 Liston Shiraz. You can’t buy it in the States, but we have connections.” CJ’s wink and Owen’s headshake elicited a chuckle from the FBI agent. “Mate, make sure you let it breathe before drinking it. I’d suggest a big, juicy piece of meat with it.” CJ smacked his husband’s arm. “Stop propositioning him! At least wait until he agrees to join the Scandals.” “So what are we going to do about Lincoln?” Owen absentmindedly twirled clumps of CJ’s chest hair between his thumb and index finger. “What do you mean?” “Oh, the fact that man got a hardon when you were flirting with him today.” CJ adjusted the pillow under his head as he did countless times each night. “I did no such thing!” “Maybe not by our standards with our friends… I got the feeling he wouldn’t mind getting naked and jumping in bed with us.” “Yeah, well, he’ll realize that’s not in the cards if he starts hanging out with us. Although—” “Although what, wanker?” “He’s definitely the type I wouldn’t mind fucking with. If we were into that shit.” Owen snorted a chuckle. “Yeah, you definitely have a thing for tall, burly boys.” “Fell for you, didn’t I?” “That you did! Mate, I can’t wait until the house’s done and we can move in. We’ll finally have our home for real.” “Don’t know about that, Oz.” CJ tugged at his husband until the blond lay sprawled atop him. “When you use my body for your bed, and I get to keep you warm throughout the night, that’s enough for me. Wherever we’re together, that’s my home.”
  33. 67 points
    Following Arlene’s directions, Jenny Gillespie’s studio sat tucked away in the centre of Royal Tunbridge Wells, above a travel agent on the main high street. Jaymes—his Rover now back in action—eventually found parking a few streets away on the third floor of a municipal car park. As the engine died, in the gloom of the building, Nathan felt Jaymes’ gaze come to rest on him. Insightful as always, he knew exactly what Nathan was thinking, which is why he’d kept the conversation light and diverting on the drive over. Truth be told, Nathan appreciated his presence, because he knew only too well how nervous he’d have been if he’d come alone. Still, it wasn’t every day you got to take your clothes off for a photographer and showcase your skin and bones, even if not your crown jewels. As though hearing the doubting voice in his head, a warm hand landed on his thigh and squeezed. “You know you’re going to rock this, don’t you?” “Not sure about that.” Nathan mourned the loss of heat when Jaymes removed his hand, but almost immediately the warmth transferred to around Nathan’s neck and shoulders, pulling him into Jaymes’ body. Nestled against him, Jaymes kissed the side of Nathan’s face and whispered in his ear. “I’m going to be with you, Nate. All the way.” Since Sunday—except for working hours—they had spent every waking and sleeping moment together. After visiting the solicitor, they enjoyed a light brunch inside a trendy brasserie overlooking the stormy Eastbourne seafront, and had a long chat about the implications of the will. Jaymes quelled any worries Nathan might have, reasoning that if Nathan, a relative his uncle had met only once, had left him so much money, then his true next of kin would surely have been left a hell of a lot more, making him a very wealthy man. After lunch, they agreed to drive straight to Polly’s. Instead of dessert, Jaymes had stoked Nathan’s ardour by promising him another unhurried session in the bedroom when they got home. Nathan drove barely under the speed limit and arrived at Polly’s at three-thirty. When Nathan explained the plan to set Jaymes up in Nathan’s spare room, Polly became pensive. If she suspected anything between them, he couldn’t tell. And even though Nathan cited the good sense of the plan, about them keeping very different work hours, about having the spare room available and being able to keep an eye on her cousin, she gave him a quizzical frown as they watched Jaymes load his things into the van. On his way past them, Jaymes deftly changed the subject, asking about her dinner date the night before with her girlfriends. Brilliant ploy, too, because a flustered Polly soon went on the defensive. “Girlfriends? She told me you had a dinner date with somebody, and it definitely wasn’t the girls. You had a date with Benny Osmond, didn’t you, Polly?” asked Nathan, his arms folded. “What? No!” said Polly, aghast. “Why would you think that?” “Because you two were thick as thieves the other night down the pub.” “He’s a child.” “Told you,” said Jaymes, tilting his head at Nathan as he carried another box to the van. “So who, then? We know it wasn’t the girls.” “None of your beeswax.” “You know he’s going to keep guessing, Poll,” called Jaymes. “May as well fess up now.” Polly looked between the two of them, before ramming her hands onto her hips. “Fine. I had dinner with Katherine Osmond, Benny’s mum.” “Oh. Oh?” said Nathan, raising his eyebrows. “For goodness’ sake, nothing like that. I called her to find out what she knew about Arlene and, as she wasn’t busy on Saturday night, suggested we have a drink and a bite to eat. Appeal to her journalistic curiosity, so to speak. Apparently she doesn’t trust her either. So now I’ve got her on the case to find out more.” “My goodness, you are one tenacious little private detective, aren’t you?” said Nathan. “Hang on. Were you going to keep this a secret?” “I wanted to surprise you. She may not come up with anything.” “Polly,” said Nathan, mock frowning. “You know we don’t keep secrets from each other.” Behind Polly’s left shoulder, Jaymes stopped moving, caught his eye, and pulled a face. Catching on, Nathan felt his cheeks colour. Fortunately Polly didn’t notice. “If I find anything out, you’ll be the first to know, okay? So are you boys coming in for a drink?” Jaymes beat Nathan to the reply. “Would love to, Poll, but I really need to get back and unpack my stuff in the spare room. And if Nathan doesn’t mind me using his ironing board, I should get some clothes ready for tomorrow morning.” “Knock yourself out.” “Fine, I’ll come to you then,” said Polly, not letting up. “I’ve been marking homework all morning and my brain is ready to implode. Need a dose of adult company along with my favourite tipple. I also want to hear what your solicitor had to say.” Nathan and Jaymes exchanged a panicked glance. “Sure,” said Nathan, shrugging defeat, noticing Jaymes rub a hand over his eyebrows. “How about you give us an hour to get Jaymes settled and then come over. Text me when you’re near. Maybe we can order some take-out—” “No, I’ll cook,” said Jaymes, a little abruptly, slapping Nathan on the shoulder. “Enough with the bloody take-outs. But can we stop off at the supermarket on the way back?” “Ooh,” said Polly, clapping her hands together. “Jaymes is going to cook. Bonus. He has a proper oven now. He cooks really well, Nathan. Wait until you’ve been wowed by one of his recipes.” Nathan knew Polly managed to feed herself with only a microwave, a toaster, and piles of take-out menus. How Jaymes survived so long, heaven only knew. “Can’t wait.” Fortunately, Polly left early. After Jaymes amazed them both with tenderloin steaks, red wine jus, fried onions, button mushrooms, green beans and sautéed potatoes, together with Polly’s bottle of full bodied red Italian Amarone, they fell onto the sofa—Polly in between Jaymes and Nathan—and discussed the trip to the solicitors. Polly agreed with Jaymes, about the warning being unnecessary, that his first cousin already had a life in Australia, maybe even a family of his own, and probably a huge windfall from his late father. Why would he want to endure the miserable weather of England and be chained to a bakery? By eight, knowing Nathan had to rise early, noticing him yawning a couple of times, Polly left. Nathan and Jaymes both waved her off from the front stoop. As soon as Nathan stepped inside and closed the front door behind them, Jaymes pulled him into an embrace, eagerly seeking out his mouth, his hands cupping and squeezing Nathan’s backside. An involuntary moan escaped Nathan, as he moulded himself into Jaymes’ body, his own passion burning with anticipation. Until Jaymes broke the kiss and whispered into Nathan’s ear. “Come on. Let’s rinse the dirty dishes and load the dishwasher.” “Mr Fischer, you have a strange sense of foreplay.” “I’m thinking bed, but maybe we ought to sleep. You have to be up early tomorrow.” Nathan pulled away and stared incredulous at Jaymes. “There is absolutely no way I’m going to be able to sleep. Not until I’ve expended a good deal of energy. Any suggestions?” “Want to go for a run?” said Jaymes, smirking playfully. “I’m thinking more along the lines of a blow job,” said Nathan, rubbing his erection against Jaymes’. With a growl, Jaymes lifted Nathan off the floor, threw him over his shoulder, and swiftly clumped up the stairs. In the bedroom, he carefully unloaded him onto the mattress and proceeded to climb on top. Face to face, unhurriedly now, they began to undress each other, helping one another by shifting their body weight to allow an item of clothing to be fully removed. Eventually, when both lay naked alongside each other, Jaymes kissed him deeply, before letting his mouth and hands explore Nathan’s body. Without pausing for breath, Jaymes swallowed Nathan’s cock, his tongue working him hard, while a hand squeezed his balls before sliding around to his backside, a finger stroking around his crack. Nathan already felt his orgasm building, but when Jaymes pulled his mouth away and instead focused his tongue’s attention on his backside, spreading the cheeks wide with his hands, Nathan felt his control slip away. At the first swipe, Nathan surrendered to the sensation, but when Jaymes face buried into him, his tongue working wildly, rabidly, a fierce climax ripped out of him. Jaymes seemed as surprised as Nathan, because, after a brief chuckle, he stopped what he was doing and concentrated on the head of Nathan’s cock, drinking as much as Nathan had left to give him. “I think somebody needed that,” said Jaymes, giving Nathan a salty kiss. “You have no idea. But what about you?” “Hmm. I’m looking forward to being inside you.” “Then what the hell are you waiting for?” This time, a usually energetic, enthusiastic, Jaymes took his time preparing and fucking Nathan. When he finally began the erratic to-and-fro thrust for home, Nathan’s erection had returned and he came a second time moments after Jaymes. “It’s almost ten. We need to sleep.” Nathan reluctantly agreed, relaxing against Jaymes’ body. Jaymes was right, of course, Nathan would need to rise in just over three hours to get things ready for Arthur and his son. Nevertheless, he breathed out an irritated sigh. “Your cousin is a total passion killer, you know that?” “She wasn’t to know. Are you annoyed?” “Not really. There’ll be plenty of other times. Simply looking forward to having you in my bed.” “Ditto. Breakfast at five-thirty? I’ve bought blueberries, yogurt, and oatmeal.” “Are you sure? You can stay in bed, if you want.” “Nope. We breakfast together. New home, new rule. Now let’s sleep.“ Which is what they did. Nathan rose just before one on Monday morning, sliding carefully out of bed so as not to wake Jaymes. However, this time, once he’d done his usual routines and made sure Arthur and his son had everything they needed, he slipped back upstairs, set his alarm for five, and climbed back into bed. As promised, they shared breakfast together, the first in a line of concessions. ++++ At seven on Monday evening, Nathan heard the door slam downstairs. He’d just emerged from the bathroom after a customary shower, a towel wrapped around his waist. “Honey, I’m home,” came the now-familiar voice, from below stairs. Nathan chuckled to himself. Jaymes’ slow, deliberate footsteps clomping on the stairs halted him, a moment of delicious anticipation at seeing the man he shared a bed with, a man he was allowed to touch and kiss and savour, a man he had been thinking about all day. As Jaymes’ entered the room, he slowed, his smile slipping, his eyes widening, taking in Nathan’s state of undress. Nathan’s pulse raced at the instantaneous reaction. Dropping the bag from his shoulder and absently throwing papers onto the table, Jaymes strode over to Nathan and almost knocked him off his feet, crushing him into an embrace. “Fuck! I’ve been thinking about you naked all day. And here you are, like an unexpected Christmas present. Do you always shower after your day in the shop?” “Most always.” “Then I am well and truly fucked. I’m not normally a creature of habit, but this I could get used to.” “Hmm,” said Nathan, nuzzling Jaymes’ neck but jumping as a hand crept beneath the rim of his towel and softly squeezed his balls. After letting out a gentle sigh, Nathan inhaled Jaymes’ body scent of leaf, and earth, and manual work. Yes, thought Nathan, he could definitely get used to making a habit of this kind of stress relief at the end of a busy day. +++++ Tuesday evening, as Nathan stood under the shower, he thought he heard the front door slam, and reduced the water pressure so he could listen better. Confirming his suspicions, he heard the sound of running footsteps on the stairs, punctuated by a sudden crash, a string of expletives in Jaymes’ distinctive voice, followed by more hastened footsteps. When the door to the bathroom burst open, Jaymes had already removed his boots, shirt, most of his jeans, and hopped on one foot trying to remove a thick woollen sock. “You started without me!” he said, in a mock petulant voice, “Only just begun, Jay,” said Nathan, setting the water to full throttle again. “Getting myself washed and ready and prepped to give you a good time. But do you really want to start in here? In my—what was it you called it—phone booth shower? I mean, is it safe, bearing in mind you can barely navigate the stairs?” Unheeding, Jaymes--completely naked now--wrenched open the cubicle door and squeezed in with Nathan. Instantly, his arms snaked around Nathan, their slick bodies crushing together, Jaymes’ already hard cock rubbing against Nathan’s, their mouths finding each other with new familiarity. After satisfying himself, Jaymes pulled away, then pushed his nose gently into Nathan’s ear. “Let’s find out, shall we?” +++++ Wednesday afternoon, and both Jaymes and Nathan had taken a few hours off work. Traditionally, Wednesdays tended to be less busy than the rest of the week and old hand Molly could always call him with any problems. Jaymes, having worked nonstop since he had arrived in town, kept his own hours and simply took the time off. Nathan found himself getting calmer on the stroll from the carpark to the studio. Jaymes walked alongside in companionable silence, their shoulders occasionally bumping together. In only a few days, they had settled into a comfortable existence of careful, companionable distance in public, and full throttle, no holds barred action in the bedroom. For the moment, at least, Nathan relished the arrangement. At the top of a narrow staircase, a smiling Jenny met them at the front door to the studio. After shaking hands with Nathan she peered quizzically at Jaymes. “This is Jaymes. He’s a friend. Here for moral support,” said Nathan, clocking the appraising looks Jenny cast Jaymes. “He’s not a member of the football team, if that’s what you’re thinking.” “Shame,” said Jenny, giving Jaymes an appreciative once-over. “Come on in, both of you.” Inside what was probably once a largish flat of two or three bedrooms, the structure been knocked into a substantial wooden floor-panelled workspace. Two doors led off into what Nathan assumed to be a bathroom and a kitchen. Three couches stood arranged against one of the walls, one of them beneath the shuttered windows and the others either side, somewhere for the subject matter to relax when they weren’t being photographed. Someone had decorated a corner of the studio to look like a miniature baker’s shop. Shelves housing trays of assorted glazed bread loaves, buns and colourful cakes, together with a wooden butcher’s block lit by bright spotlights filled the space. Nathan walked over and squeezed one of the loaves but found them to be solid. “They’re plastic” said a laughing Jenny. “Well, a couple of the props are real. But a friend works in West End theatre as a set designer, and loaned them to me.” “Apart from the smell—or lack of—I’d never have known. So where do you want me?” “Let’s sit down, have a cup of tea and a chat first. Then I can tell you what I have in mind.” Jenny’s ploy, clearly meant to get Nathan relaxed, worked up to a point. Apart from soothing pop songs playing in the background, and a lavender infuser lightly tainting the air of the room, they reclined on one of the comfortable sofas. Jenny ran through her ideas, of having him in a variety of poses and his groin being covered each time by various props. For each idea, she continuously asked his opinion and purposely included Jaymes. To compliment the glaze of the loaves, she suggested Nathan oil his entire body with baby oil, and have him naked except for his football socks, either shoved down the ankles—as though he’d just played a game—or neatly pulled up to the knee. For his part, she wanted some photographs with him looking directly at the camera, and some where he picked a spot off-camera and held the gaze of someone. “You’re probably thinking this is all about the body, but remember that people always zero in on the face first. A good-looking face like yours with an interesting expression will trump a sexy body any day. And remember I’m a static camera photographer—no Annie Leibovitz—so don’t worry about me hopping about or crouching down in front of you. I’ll be seated on a small stool all the time, but if you get the impulse to move about, don’t worry, just go with your instinct. The camera’s on a swivel and I’ll follow your lead.” An hour after they’d arrived, she suggested he head to the bathroom to get oiled up and put on his white robe, while she played with her light meter and adjusted her camera with trial snaps at the empty backdrop. Jaymes began to offer to help, but Nathan waved him off, knew if Jaymes started to rub him down with oil, they would never leave the bathroom. Just as Nathan began to stand, Jaymes put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him back down to sitting. Without removing his hand, he began to massage the shoulder. “Are you okay, Nate?,” whispered Jaymes. “You’re wound tighter than the first lady.” “I’m fine.” Jaymes reached another hand out and tidied a lock of hair over Nathan’s ear, before massaging the other shoulder. Nathan closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation. “You want me to cook you dinner when we get home?” Nathan opened his eyes and rolled them, but smiled into Jaymes’ warm gaze. “You’re always cooking for me. It’s not fair to you.” “Do you hear me complain? Besides, it’s part of our rental agreement. And I’m hoping that maybe you’ll get naked for me again later tonight.” Jaymes reached out and smoothed his thumb slowly across Nathan’s lips, a little idiosyncrasy of Jaymes that Nathan had begun to enjoy. “I’ve been naked for you every night since Saturday.” “And your point being…?” Nathan chuckled and felt some of his anxiety fade. But the soft clicking of the camera brought him back to himself, and he began to stand. Before leaving, he leant in, held Jaymes’ chin in one hand, and a pecked a quick kiss on his lips. Freezing suddenly, he realised what he had done, and quickly cast a glance at Jenny, but noticed her already immersed in her work. “Oops, sorry. Come on. Let me get this over with.” Unlike the rest of the studio, the small pink bathroom appeared original with its cracked sink, scratched perspex shower cubicle, short but deep bath—all in pink, of course—and pink toilet. Only the floor-to-ceiling mirror with lightbulbs all around appeared new. Nathan undressed, grabbed the giant sized bottle of baby oil and started to smother himself. After ten minutes, Nathan poked his head out of the door and called Jaymes in, to check he had covered himself evenly. Satisfied, Nathan tied his robe and pushed Jaymes back out into the studio. “Okay, Nathan. For the first couple of minutes, leave your robe on, and just find a spot and a pose that feels natural and where you feel at ease.” “Local pub?” offered Nathan. At least Jenny had the decency to laugh at his lame joke. “I’m not sure the elderly patrons at the Duke’s Head are ready for a semi-naked baker.” After five minutes of self-conscious posing, Jenny suggested he drop the robe. Jaymes obliged by coming over and collecting the garment from him. Even when he eventually got used to the blinding spotlights, Nathan felt as stiff as a board—and not in a good way. Following Jenny’s choreography, he moved around the set, at one point holding a wholemeal loaf in front of him, or kneeling down sidelong to place bread into a basket, his outside knee raised and hiding anything but a sprinkling of pubic hair. On a couple of occasions, Jaymes told him to relax, but the coaxing seemed to have the reverse effect. An occasionally murmured ‘good’ from Jenny seemed far from adequate, but fifteen minutes into the shoot, and Nathan felt ‘good’ was going to be as much as he had to offer. “Relax, Nathan,” said Jaymes, again. “I am trying to bloody relax. You constantly telling me is not helping.” At that point, Nathan noticed Jaymes—standing a good stride behind Jenny—lean forward and whisper something into her ear. Without turning, Jenny stopped shooting and nodded. “Nathan,” she said, her eyes focused on him. “Let’s have you up on the butcher’s block, facing the camera, lying on your side. Use the football to cover your groin.” “Seriously?” said Nathan, clambering up onto the surface and laying out flat. The coldness of the countertop raised gooseflesh as first, but the studio lights soon helped to provide warmth. Comfortable at last, he looked over to see Jaymes standing behind Jenny’s right shoulder, watching and grinning, while Jenny snapped away. “Try to relax a little more,” said Jenny, which succeeded in making him roll his eyes and tense up even more. As he lay on his side, matching the pose Jaymes had adopted in the Mosswold lodge—no coincidence there, clearly what Jaymes had suggested to Jenny—Jaymes caught his eye. Grinning mischievously, Jaymes smoothed a hand down from his tight tee-clad chest, passing over his stomach, and stopping at the fly to his jeans. Without hesitating, he popped the top button, unzipped himself and then thrust a hand behind the waistband of his briefs. With Nathan watching mesmerised, he grabbed at his package, slowly squeezing and readjusting. Nathan’s eyes became saucers and instant lust filled him. “Good. Good!” said Jenny. “Nice. Hold that expression.” Not difficult for Nathan. Except the good intentions began to have another effect on Nathan, and he felt blood pounding south. With one hand cradling his chin, the other draped on top of the football of black and white regular pentagonal patches, he felt his cock begin to rise to the occasion. Embarrassed, he rolled onto his stomach but in doing so, his hip knocked the ball away from himself and off the bench. All the time he could hear the click, click, click of Jenny’s camera mingled with the rhythmic smack, smack, smack of the football bouncing across the floor. Totally exposed now, stretched out with his backside on full display, he crossed his long legs at the socked ankles, raised his upper torso on his elbows and glared over at Jaymes. “Brilliant!” said Jenny, snapping her camera furiously. “Keep that look!” Jaymes, of course, simply grinned back at the glare, and Nathan couldn’t help the wicked grin that joined in with his angry glare. “No idea what you’re doing behind me, Jaymes, but keep doing it. And as for you, Nathan. Amazing. You’re a natural,” said Jenny, the excitement clear in her voice. Five minutes later—probably fifteen minutes earlier than expected, Jenny called time. “Already?” said Jaymes, astonished. He handed a relieved Nathan his robe which he donned instantly. “Trust me. I’ve got everything I need. Unless you want to get naked, Jaymes.” “Maybe another time, thanks.” “Good. Then I think we’re done here.” “Can we take a look?” Jenny beckoned them both over and used the small viewer on the back of her camera to show a couple of the better shots. Although Nathan couldn’t see the full details in the miniature screen, he was impressed with the quality. “I said you’d rock this,” murmured Jaymes, grinning at Nathan. "And, as usual, I was right.” “They’ll need cropping and editing,” said Jenny. “Not sure if they’d be better in full colour or monochrome. We’ll see. I promised I’d let Arlene see them all before we choose the final shot. My one small concession to her. Hope that’s okay with you?” “Fine by me,” said Nathan. “Good then,” said Jenny, smiling. “I think you’ve set the bench quite high today, Nathan. Sometimes I snap hundreds of shots and never get the one. From what I can tell, at least ten of these are beauties. Unless one of the other players pulls something out of the hat, I think we may well have our calendar centrefold.” Nathan gulped, while Jaymes beamed triumphantly. “And?” asked Jaymes, a smug look on his face, waiting for Nathan to tell him he was right. “And, I’m going to take a hot shower to get this oil off me. And then, you’re taking me for a drink.” “Duke’s Head?” “Fine, but fully clothed.”
  34. 67 points
    Chapter 14 To Everything There Is A Season We were flying to St. John’s, Newfoundland on December 21, which was Friday. Our flight left at 3pm, so Max would only be in school a half-day. The day before, Thursday, December 20, we were driving the horses to a stable we’d used a few times now. The people on staff there were good, professional and worth every penny. We could leave our animals, knowing they were in good hands for the two weeks we’d be away. They also posted pictures of the horses in their care on their webpage daily so you could get a glimpse of your darling if you were worried. Okay, I did check the page! It just made me feel better. On Wednesday we had gotten up and took the horses out for a long ride. Taro seemed so miserable when we left him behind, as Max was in school. I took Taro out for an hour after we’d returned with the other two. We’d visited with Miriam, Doug and the kids on the Saturday before. James understood why we wouldn’t be around on Christmas Day, but Millie got rather upset. She was even more heartbroken when James teased her. “Don’t be such a baby, Millie,” James said. “I want Unc Louis and Don on Chrismiss Day.” She stomped away when her Dad told her she was being difficult. “Not diffit, Daddy!” Miriam picked her up and carried to her room. Don quickly glanced at me, before saying, “Geez, I’m really sorry. I had no idea this would upset her like it has.” Doug smiled. “Her favourite uncle won’t be there for her favourite day.” He grinned. “I think all the rest of us could disappear as long as Louis was here.” I think my mouth fell open. “You must have noticed, Louis. She hangs off of you.” I’d noticed she seemed to like me. “No, I hadn’t. At least not to that extent.” Miriam returned and sat next to Doug. She was such a different person now. Having Doug and her family seemed to have mellowed her somehow. “Yeah, she’s not happy you guys will be away. And taking Max too, her new cousin.” Miriam sipped a glass of eggnog. “But, we need to learn, and she will.” Max seemed taken with this new part of his foster family. He and James had moved closer to the TV and Xbox, and were playing a watery-looking racing game. There was much good-natured joking and laughter. I’d been watching them when Miriam whispered, “So, are you thinking about adoption?” Frankly, it had never entered my head, but it made sense. I blinked at Don, just as the same lightbulb went off in his head. He appeared as surprised as I felt. He answered his sister, “No. Well, not until this moment. It seems like the logical step, if it’s something Maxy would want.” Don reached for my hand. “I guess we need to talk.” Returning his squeeze, I said, “Actually, Don, I really don’t think we need to talk at all. Not in this case.” There were tears in his eyes as he nodded. “No, I guess we don’t, babe.” Doug was smiling, and Miriam clapped her hands silently. “That would be wonderful for all of you!” “Yeah, well, Lous and I may not need to talk, but we certainly need to talk with Maxy. And we will.” At that moment, Millie came back and stood beside us. She clambered up onto my knee and threw her arms around me. “Unc Louis, I will miss you on Chrismiss Day.” I hugged the sweet little girl. “Aw, I’ll miss you too, Buttercup.” I stroked her yellow curls. “How about if I send a special text to you?” She nodded into my chest. “Yes, please.” “Okay, we will send you one and a couple of pictures too.” “Okay.” Max had rolled over to join us, followed by James. “You know what, Millie? There’s a new horse over at our place. Maybe you could come and ride on him if you want. Once we get back home.” Millie gazed at Max. “New one?” “Yup, his name is Taro. Hold on ….” Max pulled out his phone. “Here’s a picture of him.” Millie got down and went over to Max to look. “He is pretty. I can ride on him?” “Sure, why not?” Max smiled at the little girl. “But you need to be good over Christmas time, okay?” The kid’s a natural! I sat back and watched all the interactions around me. Maybe I’d get used to this family thing after all. The rest of the afternoon went off perfectly. We all had a wonderful time. ~~ Once Max had gone to school for his half-day, everything fell into place. I liked to plan but often things still slipped by, or something would come up. Luggage was piled by the front door. The stable was checked over and locked up. I checked all the taps were off; lights off. I’d made sure the car was put away and that the van’s tank was full. I carried all the luggage out to the van. I’d sent Max to school dressed in comfy travelling clothes so we would pick him up there in a couple of hours. In the kitchen I sat down with a cup of coffee and was going over all of my lists when Don joined me. “You’re organized, as usual.” He grinned. “Anything I can do?” “I don’t think so, unless you want to finish the milk off.” He laughed. “You want me to drink a glass of milk? You’re sure you don’t need it?” “Ha, smartass. No, I don’t need it and it will just go down the drain if you don’t finish it.” Don rolled over to the fridge and pulled out the carton. He came back to the table. Still smiling, he opened the carton and drank from it. “Mmm, the only time you can drink from the carton and not get in shit.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Will you ever stop being ten?” Don gazed at me with a smile. “Lous, I have to say that is very unlikely, however, I’m sure you agree, there are times I am much, much older than ten.” “Yeah, okay. There are times you are, I’ll admit.” Don was silent for a moment. He put the carton of milk to his lips, tipped back his head and finished the contents. He closed the container with care and put it on the table. “Louis?” “Mmm, yeah, babe?” I checked off a couple more things from the list before me. “Lous … I know we said we didn’t need to talk but, tell me what you think about us talking to Maxy about us adopting him?” I sat back in my chair for a moment. What did I think exactly? “I think we need to talk to Max about it. Until the second Miriam said it, I’d never even given adoption a thought.” “Do you think it’s too soon?” “Shit, Donny, I don’t know. I mean he seems happy here. But will he feel it’s one more permanent nail in the memory of his parents? I don’t know.” “I never want that … for him to forget his parents.” “No, I know that. But will he feel that’s what he’s doing if he goes along with us adopting him.” Don sighed. “Well, I guess there is only one way to find out, isn’t there?” I laid down my pencil. “Yes, there is. But let’s wait; play it by ear. I think we’ll know when the right moment has arrived.” “Yeah, okay. Makes sense.” Don picked up the carton and put it back down. “Is this all too soon?” “You’ve said that, Don. Are you having second thoughts?” Don’s eyes widened. “No! No, of course not. I’ve just never done this before, Louis. We haven’t. I don’t want any of us to get hurt.” Don dropped his eyes to the table top. Those amber eyes met mine again when he whispered, “I don’t know how I’d handle it if he says no.” “You’ve fallen in love with him, haven’t you?” Don swallowed and sighed. “Yes. I love having him here. Love all of us being a family.” My heart hitched and tears sat in my eyes as I watched my husband struggle with these new emotions. “I love this too, Don. I want it as badly as you. That’s why I think we should wait a little before we broach this topic.” “Okay … okay, Lous. We should let some more time to pass.” “I think it’s for the best.” Silently, Don reached for my hand. We sat that way, each lost in our own thoughts. Yet we were united in our desire for our small family. After a final cleanup in the kitchen, I got Don into the van, ran around and did one final check. I took pictures of the stove to prove to myself in a week everything was switched off. I’d unplugged all the small appliances, other than the fridge. Then I got into the van and we drove over to school to pick up Max. It was lunchtime, so there were a bunch of kids around when we arrived. Max was chatting to a few kids, which I was happy to see, when we pulled in. I turned to Don, who had noticed as well and was smiling. “I like seeing that, Louis.” “Yeah, me too.” “Lous, when did we become, like, parents?” “When? I think the day we took Max for pizza. I don’t think we’ve looked back from that day.” I took off my seatbelt and opened the door. “I like it, Donny. I like it a lot.” He was smiling when I shut my door, after jumping out of the vehicle. Max had noticed us, and I waved at him as I went around to open the backdoor and pulled down the ramp. A couple of the kids came with Max as he joined me. “Louis, this is Leigh and Jack, my friends from Art at Four.” “Hi, nice to meet you both.” I smiled at the kids. “Louis is one of my foster-dads.” Leigh was a pretty brunette; she smiled and said, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr.?” “It’s Taylor, but call me Louis, please. You too, Jack.” Jack had light brown hair, and was a bit on the skinny side. “Um, thanks, Mr. Taylor.” “Yep. You ready, Max?” “Yes, Louis.” Max pivoted back to his friends. “Okay, so you guys have a good Christmas! I’ll keep in touch. I think they have the internet there ….” He glanced at me; I nodded. “Yeah, they do, so we can talk and stuff.” Jack gave Max a high-five and a fist-bump. “See you, man. Merry Christmas, Mr. Taylor.” “Thank you, Jack. All the best to you and your family.” I waited for Max. He moved around to face me—with a friendly glare—until I realized he wanted a moment alone. I moved quietly up to the passenger side and knocked on Don’s window. “Hey, what’s the hold up?” I gave him the same look I’d just gotten. Don glanced in the side mirror, then to me. “Max and that girl?” “I guess so.” Don grinned happily. “Oh, that’s so sweet!” “That’s Leigh, the one he talks about from Art at Four.” “I see. Well that’s nice for them.” He glanced in the mirror again. “I think they are done.” “Good, because we need to get moving.” I twisted slightly in time to see Leigh bending down and kissing Max’s cheek. He smiled at her and squeezed her hand. My watch was telling me we did have to get moving. I gave Don a kiss and peered toward Max. “Maxy, we gotta go.” “Right, okay, Louis.” He smiled once more at the girl. “Bye Leigh, I’ll text you. Merry Christmas.” “Same to you, Max. Talk soon.” She smiled at me. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Taylor. Merry Christmas.” “And you, Leigh. Merry Christmas to you and your family.” “Thanks. Bye.” She walked away but spun around once to wave. I grasped the handles on his chair and pushed Max up the ramp. “She seems very nice.” “Yes, she is. I like her a lot.” I maneuvered Max into place and locked his chair in. “Are you gonna tell me I’m too young now?” Once I straightened up, I replied, “No, I hadn’t planned on it.” “Oh.” I grinned at him. “I liked people when I was your age, so why can’t you?” “I just thought ….” “Max, you may be too young for marriage, but you can like people. Be friends first, is my only advice.” I patted him on the knee and left the van. I pushed the ramp back into place and closed the back doors. Once I’d climbed in and put on my seatbelt, I started the engine and we moved out of the school parking lot. I headed over to the main highway and went south. I wanted to get on the 401 which would take us across the city to the airport. Don knew I didn’t like talking a whole lot while driving, especially on the highway, so it was a quiet trip. We parked in the Park ‘n Fly lot and then got a special transport van over to Departures. We unloaded the luggage and I found a luggage cart. We were a couple of hours early for our flight and Max and Don said they were hungry. So we found a Tim Hortons, had a hot chocolate, and a doughnut each. After our snack we went to check in and moved through to our gate to wait for our flight to be called to pre-board. I got the pair of them to use the washroom. We then had to wait for Max’s special aisle chair to arrive. Don decided he’d walk with his crutches and his chair would be stored, along with Max’s. The airplane had an aisle chair accessible toilet; however, they were hard to use, so we hoped Max wouldn’t need the bathroom during the flight. But I’d help him if necessary. A steward brought the chair for Max, and we moved him easily. He was getting very good at moving himself. The steward led us through to the plane, and we boarded. Don left his chair at the last moment and used his crutches to walk to his seat. I’d booked ours in the bulkhead section. The steward, Andrew, got us settled. “Um, sir, would you mind coming forward with me for a moment.” He was speaking to me. “Sure.” I followed him into the first-class section. “Thanks. I just wasn’t sure about bringing this up in front of your son,” he was saying, “But for me to seat you there, you need to be able to get the bulkhead door open. Are you able to, if necessary?” I smiled at him. “Yes, not a problem. If I can’t, my husband can.” “Your husband? He’s on crutches ….” “Yeah, trust me, he will open that door. Nothing will stop him.” Andrew stared at me for a moment. When he had determined I was telling the truth, he nodded. “Okay, fair enough. Thank you.” “No problem. Thanks, Andrew.” The steward smiled and returned me to my seat. He then went on with his duties. The flight and landing were uneventful. Max enjoyed the trip, and we were off-boarded first. I went to await our luggage, while Don and Max waited for assistance with their wheelchairs. Once we were all together again, we left the gate and went to find Laura. I spotted her red hair right away. With her was Ma, who was waving furiously. Don rolled forward, but Max was slower. I went and walked with him. “You okay, Max?” “Yeah … you know, Louis.” “I do. These are my family. They talk funny, but they are wonderful people.” Max glanced up at me. “Talk funny?” “Yes b’y. Dontcha know us Newfoundlanders got us a way all our own?” He grinned. “Sort of ….” “You’ll pick it up, don’t worry.” Ma ran over to hug me. She hugged Don and waited for introductions to Max. She shook his hand. “It’s lovely to meet ya, Max. Call me Doreen.” “Hello … it’s nice to meet you.” Laura was joking with Don after she’d said hello to me. Then it was her turn to say hello to Max. “Whatta y’at, Max?” Poor Max! What did that mean? He glanced at me, his eyes begging for help. “That means, how are you or what are you doing?” I’d bent to whisper in his ear. I gave him a response. Grinning, he repeated it. “Best kind, b’y.” With his eyes again on me, he said, “What does that mean?” Everyone laughed. Ma put her hand on Max’s shoulder. “Best kind means good, and b’y, well it’s just something we say ta everyone. Get me, b’y?” Max laughed. “I get ya!” Laura led the way out of the airport to her vehicle. “Best get a move on. Maureen will have the ol’ slut on.” I said to Max, “Maureen will have the kettle on.” Max just grinned and shook his head. We stopped by the Airbnb to accept the keys and leave our luggage. I’d known we’d have to go to Ma’s or Laura’s first thing for a scoff. No way you’d come ‘ome and not go to yer family for a cuppa. Once at Laura’s, we managed to get everyone inside. We settled in the spacious kitchen and watched as Maureen and Laura set out food and a huge pot of tea. Ma took Max through to the big living room to check out the Christmas tree. I went to the doorway when I thought I heard Max upset. My mother sat beside our foster child with a box of tissues on her knee and her hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, ya know, Max. Yer whole life you’ll miss ‘em. Days, like this one, Christmas, will always bring memories of yer parents an’ family.” Max accepted a tissue and wiped his eyes. He gazed intently at my mother. “I’m sorry. I really don’t feel right about calling you by your first name.” She laughed. “Tis all right, b’y. D’ya tink you can call me Gran? Just please not Mrs. Taylor.” “Yeah, Gran. That works.” Max smiled at her. “You know, Louis lent me some of … your husband’s … Grandad’s books. He was a really good photographer ….” Smiling, I left them to talk together. Don was laughing in the kitchen with Maureen and Laura. If the table hadn’t been oak, it would have collapsed under all the food set out on it. I sat down beside my husband. “Laura, are ya feedin’ the five thousand?” I asked her. “Hush, b’y and get stuck inta the food.” Maureen went to collect Ma and Max. We all sat down to eat and drink mugs of hot, creamy tea. After thirty minutes or so of eating and laughing, Maureen exclaimed, “I’m stogged!” We’d just finished eating wonderful cream cakes and tea. “Me too,” I said. I didn’t think I could fit another bite in. Max was still enjoying the cake. “What does that mean?” Maureen smiled. “It means I’m full to burstin’, me duck.” “Okay ….” Max grinned. “I like how people talk here.” “Lucky dat, b’y,” Laura said. “Seein’ yer stuck ‘ere nearon two week.” “Yes, I guess yer right b’y,” Max stammered out. Don was laughing. “You don’t even have to try and talk like them. If you’re here long enough it just starts to happen.” “Y’be right dere, Don.” Ma was smiling. It was good to see her smile. I was glad everyone was getting on, but I wondered why I had worried about it in the first place. “Down at my place, Max, I’ve got several more books by Gavin. Some I ‘ave a couple of copies of. Yer welcome ta them if you’d like. ‘Ave a look when you come by.” “Thanks, Gran. I’d like that a lot.” Don glanced at me, and I shrugged. He knew that meant I’d explain later. It had been a nice meal but we still had things to sort out at our home base. So, we said our good nights. Our Airbnb apartment was on the ground floor and easy to access for the wheelchairs. We just made sure we dried the wheels since there was snow on the ground here. Luckily, not too much at the moment. It was a roomy comfortable place. Max and Don seemed to have little trouble maneuvering around it. We got inside and removed boots and hung up coats. In the living room was a four-foot decorated Christmas tree, along with a nice flat screen tv and stereo. The guys went to watch TV while I took in the kitchen. In the fridge was a small carton of milk and a covered pan, that said: Heat Me on 350F for dinner. I pulled out the food and peered under the foil. Lasagna! I silently thanked our very generous landlord once more. Don rolled into the kitchen, which was much smaller than our own. “Everything okay, Lous?” “Yeah, the Proctors left us a pint of milk and a lasagna!” “Wow, that’s very kind. We don’t need to eat tonight anyway.” Don swiveled around to gaze out the window. “I can help you unpack, baby.” “Yeah, let’s do that. Make sure we can brush our teeth and sleep.” Max said he could handle his own room. “I’ll yell if I need help.” “Okay, Maxy.” Don grinned and followed me into our bedroom. We got everything unpacked and put away. I’d brought a bottle of wine with us and root beer for Max in my luggage. They both went into the fridge. Tomorrow I would have to drive to the grocery store. I found the internet log-on instructions in the information package the landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Proctor, had left. I gave those to Max. “Thanks, Louis. I got everything put away.” Max sat at the small desk in his room. “This is a very nice place.” “It is. Very nice.” I smiled at him. Max stopped to stared at me. “It’s weird, you know, in some ways I feel like I’ve lived with you guys for ages. That’s a good thing, right?” I sat on the edge of his bed. “It’s a good thing if you feel it’s right.” “It does feel right.” I got up and gave him a hug. Over the next few days we went shopping and spent time with my mother. We all had a good time, but there seemed something special between her and Max. They shared a lot of time together. Maybe an unconscious understanding of the loss each of them had suffered. We rented a passenger van with a lift. We got everyone in and drove out to experience the Atlantic Ocean. Ma asked if we could drive to Witless Bay, so Max could see it there. I’d reviewed the weather for the 23rd, and with any luck we’d not run into any snow. It was cold, and most of the roads were clear. But here, that can change in a heartbeat. There were chains in the back, and the van had good winter tires. I made sure we had an emergency kit as well. There was a lot of lonely highway between us and Witless Bay, and you could easily become stuck. If it changed while we were away, well, we’d just have to find a hotel to holdup in. Max brought his camera and sketch pad. He was happy and excited to be out. We got to Witless Bay and drove down to so he could see the ocean. The wind was raw, and pushing his chair was rough, but worth it, to see his face. The spray was icy cold, and we couldn’t stay long before we were chilled to the bone. He took pictures. “Wow, man, it’s amazing, Louis. It’s so beautiful here.” I squatted beside him. “Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” “Yeah. Thanks for bringing me, Louis.” “You’re welcome. Maybe we’ll come back when it’s warmer.” I got to my feet and rubbed my hands together. “You got what you need?” He turned to me then, his eyes bright, and he smiled with a happiness I’d not seen before. His voice was soft when he replied, “Yes, Louis. I have everything I need.” I nodded. I moved behind him and grabbed the handles on his chair. I pushed him back up to the parking lot. Ma and Don had stayed inside the van out of the wind and cold. Once we got Max back into the van, and the wheelchair stored, we drove around to find a place to buy coffee and sandwiches. Ma and I went inside; the weather seemed to be getting worse. As we waited for our order, I asked, “What do you think, Ma? Think we should head back?” “Yes, me duck. I think we’ll need to get a move on.” I glanced at her. “Better to bed down?” “No, Louis. Get on the highway and let’s get back to town. It looks like we may get a lot of it. I rather not be stuck here.” “Okay, Ma. Let’s get out of here then.” We settled our bill and carried our food and hot drinks out to the van. When everyone was happily munching, I started the van and got us back on the road. The snow was falling steadily now. It wasn’t too long a drive but the snow was starting to fall faster. By the time we reached St. John’s, about two inches of snow had fallen. I dropped Ma at her apartment and then drove us home. We did have reserved parking, which was a good thing. The driveway had been cleared as had been the front walk. I silently thanked the owner once more as I first got Don out and then Max. Don has the upper body strength to get himself through the bit of snow on the ground. I hovered behind Max as he pushed himself and gave him a hand when he seemed to tire a little. In the morning on Christmas Eve, I went shopping. We then spent a quiet day together. Later we wrapped up warmly and went with the others to watch the Mummers Parade. “What are Mummers?” Max asked Ma. “Well, it’s usually friends or family who disguise themselves. At Christmas they visit neighbours’ houses. You invite them in, and they sing or recite something; maybe dance. The host must guess who is visiting them before they offer refreshments. Once they are known, they remove their disguises and spend a bit of time talking and sharing a drink before they move on to the next house.” “Oh, thanks Gran. Sounds kinda fun really.” “It is, b’y. Simple pleasures.” ~~ Chapter 15 A Time To Gather Stones Together Christmas morning was quiet. We were all tired from the previous afternoon, plus the evening at the parade, and then we’d joined Ma at church for a Christmas Eve Service. We didn’t get up until nearly ten. Don and I made love quietly, our gift to each other. “Mmm, Lous, I love you. Merry Christmas.” I lay a-top him where I’d collapsed, just enjoying the scent of him and his arms around me. “Merry Christmas, Don.” Suddenly I was just overcome, and Don held me tighter. “Hey, what’s this? Lous, why the tears?” “I don’t know, just everything, Pa, Max … being here. You.” He said nothing, just kissed my forehead and held me. I heard his voice and realized I’d been asleep. “Lous, I’m just gonna move you off me, baby.” “Yeah, sorry. I … I guess I fell asleep.” “Not only you. But right now, I gotta go.” We got up, and Max was out in the living room watching TV. I’d been for a few supplies the previous morning and went to the kitchen to make coffee. I’d gone to a local bakery to purchase a fruit loaf to have for breakfast. I’d found some nice old cheddar at the store which I put out as well. I carried it all out to the living room, along with a carton of chocolate milk for Max. Don poured coffee, and finally, we each sat with our breakfast. There were carols being sung on some television program. We sat quietly eating and watching. The Christmas tree twinkled. Once I’d eaten, I took a few pictures of us and the tree and texted them to Millie, as promised. Don phoned his sister’s, and we all spoke a few moments to say Merry Christmas. Though it’s a happy time, there is always a part of me that is a bit melancholy at this time of year. Perhaps it’s because we often slow down, and spend time with the people who really matter in our lives. I mourn the rest of the year when we often don’t have time. I sat watching Don and Max, and I realized my fear of looking after another person had been foolish. All of this had made my life richer. Max was not a burden. Don, I knew, had his eye on me. “You all right, Lous?” I grinned. “Yes, I’m fine. Let’s open a couple of gifts.” A perpetual child, Don laughed. “Excellent. I love presents!” Max smiled throughout our little exchange. His eyes told me what he was thinking. “I left my stuff in my room. I’ll be right back.” We watched him go. “You think he’s okay, Louis.” I took Don’s hand and leaned toward him for a kiss. “Yeah, I do. He’s dealing with things. Like we all have to when someone dies.” “Yeah. It’s not an easy thing, taking what life hands you.” “Do you still ask yourself, what if, Donny?” “You mean what if I’d listened to you and not taken up motorcycle racing?” “Well … yeah, I guess.” “Sometimes. But Lous, life is too fucking short to live in the past, or regret things you cannot change. Life is to be lived, and that’s what I’ve always done. And legs, or no fucking legs, it’s what I’m going to do.” Max had rolled back into the living room. He’d heard Don’s passionate speech. On his knee were some carefully wrapped packages. His eyes were on Don’s as he moved closer. I got up to help him. “Thanks, Louis. This is for Gran, and this for Maureen and Laura.” I took the gifts and put them with the ones we’d take with us later. “This one is for you and Don. It’s just one; I hope you both like it.” Max handed the gift to Don. I sat next to Don, and we opened it carefully. Inside was a painting. Don gasped a little. “Max, this is wonderful. Wow. Thank you.” It was a picture of the three of us, riding together up our favourite dirt road. It was early morning and the sun was just over the horizon. It was a wonderfully captured moment. “Thank you, Max,” I said. “It’s perfect; it really is.” “I’m glad you like it.” Max grinned. Don handed Max a gift. “Something from us.” Inside was the latest smartwatch thing it seemed every kid on earth wanted. “Wow!” Max tore off the paper. “This is excellent. Whoa! Thanks, you guys!” Don gave me a little box, which held a hand-written note. It said: I owe you one special birthday trip! I grinned. “Thanks, babe. I love it!” And I did. Don took the thick red envelope I handed him. He opened it; his eyes wide. “Are you serious?” “Yeah. I am.” Max was craning his neck. “What is it?” “It’s an afternoon on a race track with various cars that are set up for disabled drivers. I’ve read about them. They can’t be driven as fast but they go!” Don leaned over to kiss me. “Thanks, Lous. I love it.” We sat drinking coffee and chocolate milk, talking about what Max’s new watch could do, and where we’d go on my birthday trip. It was a good morning, filled with laughter. We were to be at Ma’s for dinner about 1:30pm. Traditionally, Christmas Dinner would be just after 3pm. It was cold but clear, and we decided to walk up to Ma’s. It wasn’t far and if it snowed too much, I could always come and pick up the van. We bundled up for the walk. Don went ahead on the narrow sidewalk. I followed pushing Max, who held a pile of gifts. “Um … so, I’ve been checking things out online,” Max said as we walked. Don glanced back briefly. “Yeah? What things?” “So, schools really.” I watched the vapour we breathed out dispel. “Schools? What schools, Maxy?” “Here. I thought I’d apply for college here. One of the schools has a really good visual arts program.” “No reason you can’t do that.” I smiled as I pushed. “Nope, no reason at all. You like it here?” “Yes, Louis. I do ….” Don interrupted. “This is the house, right?” “Yes … let’s get inside.” It was warm and smelled delicious inside Ma’s flat. Turkey, sage stuffing and cloves and cinnamon filled the air. “God, it smells great in here, Doreen.” Don breathed in deeply. “Thanks, Don.” Ma grabbed our coats. “Let’s get everyone inside.” Don used his crutches as Ma’s place was a bit small for two wheelchairs, and Max had to remain in his mostly. We settled in the living room. We had a boozy eggnog, not Max however, and we opened gifts Ma gave us. We gave her a few small items, things she enjoyed, like Laura Secord Chocolate Mints. Once all else was open, we gave her the painting Max had done. She sat with it on her knee, still wrapped. “Tis by you, is it b’y?” She looked up into Max’s eyes. “I painted it, but it’s from all of us, Gran.” She pulled the paper off. “Oh … my.” Time seemed to have stopped for a moment as my mother looked at the scene she loved, now in oils. Tears ran down her face as she held it up. “Oh, Max, it’s perfect … beautiful. It’s my very favourite picture of Gavin’s. I’ll cherish this every day, b’y.” “I’m so glad you like it.” Max was smiling and struggling to hold on to his emotions. Ma got up and went to hug him. We decided to wait for Maureen and Laura before finishing off the gift-giving, and so settled down to talk. “Max, on the way over, you were talking about college …” I said. Max grinned and put down his eggnog. “Yeah, I really think I’d like to come out here for school.” Ma sat up a bit straighter. “Would you?” “Yes, I would. Memorial University has a great-looking four-year course.” Max glanced at Don and me. “I guess I’d be an adult by then, and I could do what I like …” I didn’t know what to say; I’d been staring at Don when Ma spoke. “Well, you’ll be a real family by then, won’t you? I’m sure Louis and Don would support their son.” Max turned to us. “What?” I said, “Ma, we haven’t even ….” Don called for silence. “Okay, enough. Everyone take a breath. I’ll explain everything.” We all were quiet. Don sat forward, hands on his knees. “Max, we’ve only just been thinking—” “I’m sorry. I talked to Miriam this morning, she said to me about you and Louis—” Ma looked upset. “Doreen, it’s fine. Don’t worry.” Don continued, “Max, simply, Louis and I wanted to speak with you and see how you feel about us … well … adopting you.” Max looked as if he were trapped. I just could say nothing. This is not how I’d planned we’d bring up this topic, and not on such an emotional day. “Max, there is zero pressure from any of us,” Don said. “It wouldn’t change much other than to give you a place to start some new roots. You’d belong somewhere, that’s all.” Max was visibly upset. “I would just like a little time to think about all of this. I’m not saying no.” My mother, who was distraught and in tears, ran from the room. “Ma!” I sighed. I started after her, but Max interrupted. “Let me, please, Louis.” I stole a glance at Don, who nodded. “Okay, Max … just a sec and I’ll move the table so you can get by.” Max rolled himself out of the living room and down the hall. “Gran, it’s me. May I come in?” He disappeared inside when the door opened. I returned to the sofa and fell into Don’s arms. “Shit, Donny.” “Mmm. Yeah. Not exactly what I was expecting today. Poor Max, talk about pressure.” “My stomach dropped when he said he wanted to come here for school.” “Yeah, I think of him as ours. We just got him, and now he’s thinking about leaving.” “Well, we can’t force him to do anything, can we?” “Nope, baby. We can’t. I hope everyone just calms down so we can just enjoy the day.” Max and Ma were gone a good while. I basted the turkey twice and then paced. Don finally said, “Lous, for heaven’s sake sit down or make me a drink.” I made him another eggnog. Returning to my seat beside him, I fiddled with a napkin. “What are they doing?” “I don’t know, baby. Talking it out. They seem to get on very well.” “They do, don’t they?” Those words had only just left my lips when there were voices in the hall. Max rolled back in, followed by Ma. “Louis, Don, I’m so sorry for spilling the beans like I did. I didn’t—” “Doreen, please. Don’t beat yourself up about it.” Don reached out to take her hand. “Let’s all just sit down and relax. It’s Christmas Day.” Ma smiled at her son-in-law. “Thanks, b’y.” I smiled at her, and then at our foster son. “You okay, Max?” “Yes, I’m fine. Let’s just do like Don says and relax.” There was noise at the front door just then. “Hello? Lord tunderin’ Jeasus, is dare a party goin’ awn in ‘ere or wha? Quiet as a tomb. Are we in da right place, b’y?” Max laughed, followed by the rest of us, as Laura and Maureen came in and joined us. “Is dis a sewin’ circle or a Christmas Party? Put some music on!” Needless to say, the rest of the afternoon and evening were filled with laughter, talk and good food. At about midnight, Max said he was tired. Don did not look ready to leave, so I was going to take Max home by myself. Ma stopped us. “There’s a spare room, if Max would like to sleep here.” “Can I, Louis? Then you don’t have take me, and well, you and Don can have a bit of time alone.” Max was a bright kid, and I think he wanted some alone time as well. “Well, sure if you think you’ll be okay.” “I will be. I have my transfer board, and I’d like to just go and lie down.” Ma was smiling. I think she was looking forward to the next day when she’d have Max all to herself for a while. It was sweet how they liked each other so much. So, we got Max settled. I think he was asleep in minutes. After playing a few hands of Spit-in-the-Ocean, another couple of drinks and a turkey sandwich, we said goodnight. I hugged and kissed my mum. She apologized again. “Ma, please don’t worry. It will be okay. You get some rest. We’ll come up and see you for a turkey sandwich or two in the afternoon. But call me if you need me to come earlier or anything.” We hugged and kissed her and left. All in all, it had been a good Christmas. Outside, the night was clear. St. John’s was peaceful. Stars glittered above us as we started toward home. I pushed Don’s chair, while he held onto a stack of gifts. We didn’t talk much on the way back to our accommodation. Laughter and music spilled out of houses, and calls of Merry Christmas rang out now and again as people left to go on elsewhere. I unlocked the door, and we went inside. I took the gifts and put them on the kitchen table. Don got out of his jacket. I hung up both. Don was in the living room. He’d turned on the TV and was surfing. “Do you want anything, babe?” I stood in the doorway which led to the kitchen. “Maybe a glass of water, please, Lous.” “Good idea.” I returned with one for each of us. I sat on the sofa. “Thanks,” Don said. He sipped the clear cold fluid. “It was a nice Christmas. Lord, your aunt knows how to wake up a party!” I laughed. “Yes, she is something else.” “Well, she’s got perfect timing.” Don swallowed another mouthful of water. “I’m sorry Doreen was so upset. It was an honest error.” “Yeah. I’m just worried about Max. But he seemed okay during the evening.” “He did.” Don caught my eye. “Babe, don’t fret about this. Let Max have some time to think about things. Don’t push it.” I nodded. Not pushing, not asking how he felt, would be hard for me. I fret, I worry, I push and usually end up regretting it. I swore to myself I wouldn’t; not this time. After our water we went to bed. It felt good to lie down, and we kissed for a while but in the end just went to sleep. Donny hugged me and said goodnight. “But … I will be waking you up sometime. No squealing.” He snuggled into my back, and I giggled. “Mmmm, yes, Sir.” We didn’t hear from Max or Ma, so I called them about 11am the next day. “Hey, Ma, it’s me.” “Who?” Was she joking? “Me, Ma, your son. Your only child.” “How d’ya know yer me only one, b’y? There may be a love child in me past.” I think I rolled my eyes while I laughed. “Ma, you were with Pa since you were sixteen!” “Aye, well, still, I ‘ad a couple o’good year before yer Pa!” “Ma!” “Oh, shocked are ya?” She was laughing now. “I do love ya, Louis. You and Don come on over for a scoff, will ya?” “Yes, we’ll be over shortly. I love you too, Ma.” ~~ The next few days were fun; we travelled a bit more, since the weather allowed it, but all too soon it was time to return home. We’d be back just before New Years Eve. We’d planned a get-together for dinner for all the family we’d missed seeing over Christmas. At the airport, we said goodbye to everyone. My heart was a little heavy with leaving Ma. I’d been back to Newfoundland several times over the years, but this time, leaving The Rock was hard. This time it felt like I was leaving home. The flight back was quiet and uneventful. Don had arranged to have the horses boarded until January 3rd. It would give us a small break. I’d miss them but I was grateful at the same time. We arrived home on December 29th, in the morning. In the afternoon, Don had started the laundry. I’d made a list I needed to shop for that afternoon. Max said he’d like to come with me. Around 2pm, I made a pot of tea and put out some Christmas Cake and old cheddar. We all sat down together. We were quiet, but it was comfortable. That was until Max spoke. “So, I … um … was looking at the perquisites for the Visual Arts Degree I want to take at Memorial University.” Don looked up. “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah, seems I’m on track to have all I need.” “That’s good, Maxy. I’m glad you found something you want to take.” I was listening and said, “We’ll miss you, when you go.” It was stupid, but it felt like he was going already. “I’ll miss you guys too.” Max reached for my arm and gave me a pat. “It’ll be okay though.” It was a sweet gesture and I patted his arm. “Sure, of course it will be.” “No … really. It will be okay because even if I’m away at school, well, I’ll be with you.” Don and I glanced at each other. “I mean, because by then you’ll be my dads, right?” I gasped, and Don said, “Do you mean that? Are you sure, Maxy? It’s a big thing. But we’d love it.” Max nodded. His gray eyes were serious as he said, “So would I ...you guys have been great, and well, I had a dream about my folks the other night. They said to grab on with both hands and to not let go. So, yeah, I mean it.” I put my hand over my mouth, and even closing my eyes couldn’t hold back the joy that dripped from them. ~The End~ Epilogue I finally redeemed my I.O.U. for my missed birthday trip after Max left for University. However, it wasn’t my birthday, it was our twentieth anniversary. I sat on the hotel balcony in the early morning hours with a pot of coffee I’d ordered from room service. The morning sun was glorious. Don was still in bed, and I had time to reflect on the last few years. While we all wanted his adoption, we didn’t move too quickly, but our adoption of Max was finalized a couple of years after he’d come to stay with us. It was few months before this trip that Don had finished writing his book. It was with his editor at Red Ball Publications. I was happy for him. And lastly, Don had just bought a new Honda and started to drive again. He was very happy and enjoyed his returned freedom. His opening the balcony door broke into my reverie, and returned me to the present. “Ah, Lous, baby … life is good, isn’t it?” I looked at my husband, older now, but still the same wonderful man I’d chosen to share my life with, and said, “Yeah, it is.” He moved next to me and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Happy?” I smiled at him and nodded. “Yes, perfectly.” “I’m sorry this took so long, Lous. You deserved your gift a long time before now.” He pulled something from his pocket, and looked into my eyes for a long moment. “You know, I still see you as that teenager sitting on the wall outside the pub, nursing that Coke. And I remember the first time we were together. When you said it for the first time; I love you.” He held up a hand when I opened my mouth. “No … let me finish. I am a demanding and pretty selfish guy, I know that. I have lived my life my way and dragged you with me. You have hung in there when others would have walked away. I want you to know that I love you, Lous. You are all I ever wanted.” Don reached for my left hand. He touched my ring and smiled. “Remember shopping for these? We got the thinnest ones. They were all we could afford once upon a time.” “I remember.” “So, if I asked you again, and you knew nothing at all would be different, would you say yes again?” I nodded. “Yes.” He took my hand and slid a ring onto my finger. The slim band of white joined the gold one. “Happy anniversary, baby.” He reached for me and I leaned forward to kiss him, his kisses still electric. “I love you, Donny.” “And I love you, Marie.” I snorted. Don put his head back and laughed. “You are such a shit, Don McPhee!” “And you love every single minute of it.” Don swallowed his remaining coffee. “Now, Mr. Taylor, I think I would like the pleasure of your company in bed. I have a few things to show you.” “Is that right?” “Yeah, it is.” Don moved back inside the room. I looked over the balcony, at my new ring, and I smiled. Life hadn’t always been easy. It’s what we have and we can choose to live it or watch it go by. I know I’ve done both. Changes are part of life; we cannot protect ourselves from them. Don’s voice interrupted my reverie. “Come on, Louis.” “Okay, babe. On my way.” “I got a hot salami here for ya.” “Ya do?” I walked into the bedroom and quietly closed the door. “Aye, b’y!” My husband waited for me on the king-sized bed. “Don! That is a whole Hungarian salami!” “Yeah, what were you expecting? My dick?” Our love and laughter continue. And no, I wouldn’t change a thing. ~~
  35. 66 points
    During Nathan’s Friday morning exercise—his morning runs now confined to Tuesdays and Fridays—he raked over the appearance of fifty-nine year old Fingal Finnegan during the week. Apart from having to listen carefully to understand everything the man said—the Irish brogue very different to local accents—he really liked Fingal, found the man down to earth and probably more knowledgeable than Nathan would ever be about their profession. He reminded Nathan of his grandfather, the light in his eyes sparkling when he talked about his love of his calling. Another huge thing in his favour; he and Arthur Meade got on like old friends, talking about the trials and tribulations of using the now-considered obsolete ovens. If he was going to be absolutely honest with himself, he knew Fingal to be capable of being left in charge for the long weekend, knew the man would know exactly what to do. Which is why he texted Martin back and agreed to drive over and stay for the weekend, driving back Sunday night. But, however irrational the emotion, deep down inside the mere thought of not being there, of being away from the shop for even a whole working day—especially his two busiest days—made his mouth dry, and sent a shiver of cold dread through him. Despite a few curious questions from Jaymes, he hadn’t shared his terror with anyone, had even given an enthusiastic Fingal the spare set of shop keys for the weekend duty. But even as he handed them over, he felt removed from his body, as though someone else performed the treacherous deed. Fingal had spent each day since Monday in the shop shadowing him or Arthur or Molly, going through each simple routine including opening the store, dealing with invoices, and closing and cashing up in the evening. Fingal even suggested a couple of improvements, simple things Nathan had never considered. Just after ten, having stayed to help through the morning rush, Nathan tossed his overnight bag into the back of Jaymes’ Rover. At breakfast, Jaymes explained his need for a diversion on the trip, to drop off files to a colleague in the South Downs National Park, so their route would take them south, a little out of their way. They agreed to stop off for lunch in Winchester, which would get them to Oxford mid-afternoon. After Nathan had texted Martin, and everything was set, they managed to get as far as the end of the high street before Nathan breathing became erratic and he demanded Jaymes pull the car over. “I can’t do it, Jaymes. I can’t leave the shop unsupervised.” “It’s not unsupervised, Nate. Fingal is more than capable—” “I know. I know,” said Nathan, putting his head into his hands and scrubbing at his hair, his heart pounding. “In theory, he is. I know that better than anyone. But I just have this feeling that if I leave, something bad will happen. Don’t ask me how, but I just know.” “Okay, Nate. Now you’re sounding unreasonable. Nothing’s going to happen—” “How do you know?” said Nathan, looking up and glaring at Jaymes, hearing himself getting hysterical. “You don’t. Nobody does. Shit happens. Shit none of us can predict.” “Nate, Nate,” said Jaymes, switching off the engine, and pulling Nathan’s body into his arms. “Christ, you’re shaking, baby. Calm down.” Jaymes’ body heat began to work its magic almost immediately, as he held tight and, with one hand, stroked slow, calming circles into Nathan’s back. “Okay, look. I’m no psychiatrist, but my guess is your worry comes from you feeling as though you’re about to abandon the shop. And, yes, I use the word abandon deliberately. On two occasions when you’ve left in the past—to go to school, or for a run—you’ve returned to find someone’s left you for good. Your mother and your father. Even Clifton. I get it, Nate. I do. But those were other people. Your mother had a choice, your father’s time was simply up. In each case, they left you and there was nothing you could have done. Not really. This time, you’re in control. This time the choice is yours and you’re coming back. You’re not abandoning anyone or anything, are you?” Unbidden, Nathan’s eyes had moistened. Everything Jaymes said, he knew already, had told himself the same thing time and time again. But nobody had ever reflected those words back to him. “I hate this fucking village. I do. And I hate my fucking life here. Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t I have a normal life, like everyone else in the world?” “You think everyone else has it better? Sorry to piss on your pity party, Nate, but that is simply not the case. One of Polly’s teacher colleagues, a single parent, is bringing up a young son with cerebral palsy. And do you know what terrifies her most, what keeps her awake at night? Not the act of living up to the actual caring, which she does brilliantly, but the thought of what’s going to him happen when she’s too old to do so. More people than you could ever imagine are dealing with their own nightmares, just trying to get through each day.” Still held by Jaymes, Nathan quietened for a moment, hearing their hearts beating in tandem. “Look, if you really don’t want to go,” said Jaymes, “we turn around and head back now. But remember that Polly’s going to be stopping over in the flat the whole weekend and she’ll call instantly if there’s a problem. Molly, Arthur and Fingal all have your contact number. And we’re about a two and a half hour’s drive away, in the unlikely event we need to get back urgently. More importantly, you deserve this time away, Nate. You’ve earned it. So what do you want to do? Just say the word.” Nathan straightened up and, without looking at Jaymes, swiped at his eyes with the palms of his hands. “Did you ever see that film The Forgotten?” asked Nathan, trying to make light of his meltdown. “With Julianne Moore. About aliens abducting kids and then observing the parents to see how long it took them to forget about their own offspring.” “I can safely say I’ve never seen the movie.” “There’s a bit where the aliens can just ping a person into the sky, rip them from the earth and whip them straight up into space. I wish that would happen to me right now.” “Really? One movie definitely not to watch. What do you want to do, Nate?” Nathan took a deep calming breath and pushed a hand through his hair. Despite feeling the remains of nausea in his stomach, the undercurrent of his dark thoughts, the moment had passed. “Drive on, Jay. Let’s do this thing.” “Good man,” said Jaymes, starting up the engine again. For the next ten minutes, they travelled in silence, and Nathan simply breathed. If anything, he felt embarrassed about his breakdown, but also found starting up a conversation again difficult. Did Jaymes think less of him because of his show of weakness? Eventually he found some common ground. “His name’s Billy, by the way,” said Nathan. “Sorry?” “The kid with CP you mentioned. Billy Corrigan. Jemma Corrigan’s boy, Polly’s colleague. He goes to St Joseph’s. Absolutely lovely kid. Played in the school football team against us. Has a bit of trouble balancing and staying upright all the time, but the lad has so much enthusiasm and the most amazing laugh.” Without saying a word, Jaymes’ hand reached across and landed on Nathan’s upper thigh. Nathan peered at him, sniffed back the remains of his tears, and smiled at Jaymes’ own grin as he concentrated on driving. And right then, his heart gave a tug and he felt a feeling waken inside him, as though lifting this head to witness the most spectacular sunrise. As inconvenient as the emotion might be—considering Jaymes would be gone in June—he realised something unquestionable in that brief, blindingly obvious moment. Nathan had fallen in love with Jaymes. “Paper tissues are in the glove compartment,” said Jaymes, no judgement, just a statement of fact. When Nathan pulled open the drawer, glad to have something to do, he found a pair of thick leather gloves on top of an untidy mess of other items buried beneath, including sunglasses, letters, paper documents, and packets of unopened tissues. “You must be one of the few people I know who actually keeps gloves in his glove compartment.” “In my line of work, those babies are a life saver. You can wear them if your hands are cold.” “Nah, I’m fine.” Nathan pulled out a few items before getting to a pack of tissues. As he began to replace the documents, he noticed one from somewhere called the Bangor Medical Centre. “It’s okay. It’s just the results of a regular health check,” said Jaymes, noticing Nathan’s attention drawn to the document. “Have a look if you want. FC has me taking medicals annually. That one’s from just before I arrived here. A condition of our medical insurance.” “So I take it you’re fine?” “Fit as a butcher’s dog,” said Jaymes, before a moment of hesitation had him glancing at Nathan. “Goes with the territory, Nate. I don’t have a choice in the matter in my line of work.” “Heavens, Jaymes. I’m not criticising. I’d be the last one on the planet to do that. Since as long as I can remember, my father made me and him have bi-annual medical check-ups together. Ironically, he was obsessive about health, despite being a closet smoker. My last one was in January. And I, too, am in good shape.” “You most certainly are.” Jaymes waggled his eyebrows, before winking at Nathan. Jaymes’ habit of catching his eye, or winking, or smirking had suddenly taken on new meaning, and Nathan found himself blushing. “Are you okay?” asked Jaymes, who missed nothing. “I’m—I’m fine. Sorry, a bit hot in here.” Jaymes did not seem be buying Nathan’s excuse and after staring at him a couple of times, his eyes were drawn to the now-closed glove compartment. “Come on, Nate. Spit it out.” “No I—I just wanted to say thank you. For being a good friend. And not kicking me out of the car.” Jaymes snorted and shook his head, and even though he said no more, Nathan could tell he hadn’t completely believed Nathan. Using the GPS navigation app on Nathan’s phone—after completing Jaymes’ chore and having a leisurely lunch—they pulled up outside Martin and Gallagher’s house just before three. On the outskirts of Oxford, the two men’s character converted farmhouse sat in its own grounds. All original features or updates matching them, with mature trees, well-tended bushes and other colourful flora out front, the building couldn’t have been more different to Clifton’s grandparent’s new-build. A familiar Tesla sat in the driveway—Clifton’s car—next to a Range Rover, an older, more traditional design in racing green. Jaymes smiled and grunted his approval, parking alongside. “Nice to see somebody else in this world has taste.” “I didn’t realise Clifton would be here,” said Nathan. “Truly. I thought it was just us.” “Aren’t they filming the series using this house? Isn’t that the whole point of you being here?” “Yes, I—I suppose so.” “Then, of course Clifton’s going to be here.” Martin must have heard them pull up, because as they collected their bags from the back of the Land Rover, he appeared at the front door. Decked out in mustard corduroy trousers and an oatmeal crew neck sweater he looked as welcoming and comfortable as his home. “All morning Gallagher’s been asking me when the real people are going to arrive. And here you are. Thank goodness. You can get him off my back about this whole arrangement. Come through.” Martin led the way through the house, down dark, oak-panelled hallways with intricately patterned rugs on the floor, past beautiful rooms with exotic wall hangings, walls lined with ornate wooden cabinets, bookcases, or hung with antique paintings, past a long bevelled mirror with a polished wooden frame, beautiful blue and white Chinese plant holders—nothing cluttered, but carefully positioned to make the most of both the house’s character and the eye-catching artefacts. “Love your house, Martin,” said Jaymes. “Thank you. You should have seen the state she was in when we bought her. Took a lot of love and care, and hard earned cash to get her looking like this.” “I can image. What kind of acreage so you have?” “Just over eleven. The previous owner sold off a lot of the land to another farmer. But we have enough surrounding us to make sure we’re not encroached upon by developers or other ventures. The field at the back of the house is ours and leads down to the Grendle River. We’ll take a walk there tomorrow morning.” Enjoying Nathan’s or Jaymes’ attention, Martin stopped from time to time to explain one piece or another, citing approximate time periods, countries or origin and, in some cases, even the designer of the piece: painter, craftsman or sculptor. When they reached four huge studio lights, modern and standing in a row and wildly out of place, stored against one wall of what Nathan assumed to be the living room, Martin stopped and heaved out a deep sigh. “Happily, the whole film crew doesn’t descend on us until Sunday morning first thing so we have a day and a half of respite before the show begins, or the shit-show as Gallagher calls it. Although at Giorgio’s request—Clifton’s, more like—we’re hosting drinks for members of the cast tomorrow night. Hope that’s okay by you chaps? Drop your bags here and come through to the conservatory. I know it’s a lovely day, but it’s a bit too cold to sit in the garden. So our sacred pavilion is the next best thing.” Bright light shone from the end of the house where a conservatory built of glass and timber brought natural sunlight into the interior. Lined all around with verdant plants of various shapes and sizes, the humid space felt like a greenhouse, except the stone floor had been laid with a wonderful circular rug of terracotta silk, and the centre of the semi-circular space was filled with comfortable cream-coloured settees and a large oak coffee table. White china containers of milk and brown sugar sat on a large steel tray amid matching cups and saucers, and elegantly designed pots of coffee and tea. The first to catch his attention, Raul looked up and smiled as Nathan entered behind Martin. Clifton sat next to him, talking urgently into his mobile phone, but looked up and waved on seeing their arrival. “Told you I heard a car engine,” said Martin. “Nathan and Jaymes have arrived. Come and get some coffee, boys.” Jaymes entered behind Nathan and squeezed up against his back, a hand draped over one shoulder, his chin resting on the other. When Nathan turned quizzically to him, he pecked a kiss on his lips, before turning to raise a palm in greeting to Raul and Clifton. So much for keeping their physical contact on the down low. Raul grinned broadly and rose to meet them. “Where’s Gallagher?” asked Nathan, after taking turns to give Raul a hug, and then taking a seat with Jaymes around the table. “In the garden on his phone, checking in with staff,” said Martin, pouring them both coffee. “Ever since he stepped out of the rat race, six months ago, he’s been helping run the shops. Probably a hangover from his frenetic life in the corporate world, but he thinks things will fall apart without him there for a day or two.” Nathan felt Jaymes squeeze his shoulder. “Sound familiar?” said Jaymes, to Nathan, and then to Martin. “Nathan’s having similar concerns about leaving his shop for the long weekend.” Martin gave Nathan a grim smile and a sympathetic nod. “I do understand. When we had only one shop, I used to be there all the time. Someone once likened the experience to the one new mothers and fathers have when they leave their kid in the care of someone else for the first time. Feels almost like a betrayal. And they spend the whole time either staring at their phones, waiting for a call or a message, to hear the worst, or phoning and checking in far too often.” “I promise not to do that,” said Nathan, mainly to Jaymes. “Lord knows what Gallagher’s going to be like when the television crew turn up and start clumping through the house, moving furniture around. Thank goodness he’s temporarily moving out.” “He won’t be here?” said Nathan, horrified. “What if they break anything?” “I’ll be here to keep an eye on things. And moreover, everything’s covered by their insurance. I’ve already had the more precious items moved into storage. Not taking any chances. But they’re talking about starting at the crack of dawn and doing a couple of late night shoots. Being isolated here, we’re not disturbing any neighbours. But Gallagher’s a light enough sleeper at the best of times. So he’s moving into the flat above our high street shop for the month until they’re finished.” “You know, maybe allowing them to use my place is not such a good idea,” said Nathan, to Jaymes. “Martin and Gallagher’s house is going to be used as my character’s home, and features in a lot of episodes—eight in total,” said Clifton, who had finished his call, and finally joined their conversation. “Whereas your place will only be used in one, and then only briefly. As the location of one of the witnesses. You won’t get anywhere near the same disturbance or upheaval as Martin, and if what I heard is correct, the shot will be done and dusted in a day—on a Sunday. Don’t worry Nate, there’s no way Giorgio would have agreed to let them interfere during business hours. Because he knows if he did, I’d be looking for a new manager.” While Clifton had been talking, Gallagher walked through the conservatory doors and bent to give Jaymes a hug. After doing the same to Nathan, he thumped himself down next to Marin and glanced around quizzically. “What did I miss?” “Nothing, dear,” said Martin, patting his partner on the thigh. “How are they doing back at the shop? Not burnt the place down yet, I take it.” “On the contrary. This very morning they’ve sold the Victorian dining table, the extendable one.” “Goodness me. We’ve had that piece hanging around for, what, eighteen months? How much did they discount?” asked Marin, clearly impressed. “Nope. Full price,” said Gallagher. “Two and a half grand.” “For one table?” asked Nathan. “I’m guessing it’s not just any old dining table,” said Jaymes. “You’re absolutely right, old man. This one’s a showpiece. Built around the end of the eighteenth century, this beauty extends into a twelve feet table, but unlike modern contemporaries, has amazing workmanship; moulded edge, canted corners together with a winding handle and mechanism, and removable leaves used for the extended table. The Victorians loved to entertain, but they also liked to save space when they could.” “At some point, I’d love to come and have a look around your shop,” said Jaymes. “Looking for something in particular?” asked Martin. “Just interested,” said Jaymes, and Nathan felt sure he was the only one to notice the slight colouring in his cheeks. “I don’t have my own place. Tend to be more of a nomad with my job. But I’d certainly be interested in seeing some of the types of furniture craftsmen have created.” “Maybe we can do that Sunday,” said Martin. “Once everything’s been settled here. Now, back to today. We’re having a barbecue this evening, even though the weather’s a little cold. Nice and informal. Gallagher’s never happier than when he’s conducting his symphony over the barbecue, waving tongs around like the true maestro he is. We’ve been prepping all morning. We also have these amazing free-standing gas heaters, tall aluminium and stylish, too, we can set up on the patio to keep everyone warm. Raul and Clifton are in charge of the drinks trolley and I’ll be playing fetch for them all.” “What about us?” asked Nathan. “You, my dear boys, are here to relax, have a good time, and let us spoil you,” said Gallagher, before casting a brief smirk at Jaymes. “Oh, and you’re on washing up duty later. But don’t worry too much. We’ve just had a brand new dishwasher installed.” “In the meantime,” said Martin, glancing at his watch. “It’s almost three. Did you have lunch yet?” “We did. On the way here.” “In which case, once you’ve finished your coffee, why don’t I show you up to your room, let you have some personal space to rest and freshen up. That’ll give us time to get things started down here. And then we’ll all meet in the garden at six for drinks. How does that sound?” “Sounds perfect.” Martin dropped Clifton and Raul off first, and then led Nathan and Jaymes to a small, cosy bedroom overlooking the garden. With yellow and grey themed walls, a steel framed bed housed a thick double mattress, covered in a simple grey quilt patterned with lemon yellow embroidered flowers. “It’s a little on the small side, but this one has a beautiful view and its own bathroom off the door in the corner. There’s a jug of drinking water on the sideboard and towels in the bathroom. Make yourselves at home.” Once Martin had left them, and after Nathan had used the bathroom, he emerged to find an amused Jaymes in socked feet stretched out in the bed. “Come and try the bed out.” Nathan prised off his shoes and jumped onto the bed next to Jaymes causing the mattress to bounce and recoil deeply, the springs groaning and wheezing loudly like a braying donkey. Both of them laughed aloud. “Unless you want us to wake the whole house, I think sex is off the menu this weekend,” said Nathan, after leaning in and kissing Jaymes. “Aw,” said Jaymes. “We could be quiet.” “When are you ever quiet? And besides, this bed can’t help itself.” After chuckling softly, they both lay still for a moment, staring up at the ceiling. “On the way down,” said Jaymes. “When you found my health check, were you going to ask if we could ditch the condoms?” “What?” said Nathan, rolling onto his side to look at Jaymes, shock registering on his face. He most definitely had not put that particular two and two together. “No, Jaymes. I wouldn’t do that to you. I know you’ve been hurt before and would never push you into doing anything you didn’t want to do. Most of all, I want you to feel safe, to be able to trust me.” “I do trust you, Nate. That’s the point.” Jaymes turned to take in Nathan. “And you know how much I hate the damned things.” Nathan hesitated. More than anyone he had ever met, he trusted Jaymes. But conceding on the condoms would take their relationship to a new level, a relationship already doomed to end. “Let’s have this conversation again when we get back to Crumbington, shall we?” Which is what they agreed to before Jaymes pulled Nathan over, kissed him and gathered him into a hug. Before long, both had fallen asleep and Nathan roused first to late afternoon light through the window and a faint smell of food cooking. Checking his watch, he saw the time as five-thirty. Rousing Jaymes, they took turns to shower quickly and changed into warm clothes, before joining the others already in the garden. Martin and Gallagher had set up comfortable cushioned rattan furniture just beyond the conservatory, four tall pyramid-type heaters on a low setting arranged behind the chairs, and casting heat and light over them all. Soft music played through a Bluetooth speaker on the low table, the only sound disturbing the peaceful evening in the backwoods. Clifton already sat there, looking fresh and ready for his close-up, legs crossed elegantly at the knee, a tall aquamarine cocktail in one hand, an arm slung over the back of the settee. As promised, Gallagher held court over the huge barbecue, a white chef’s hat worn largely for decoration, while Martin stood beside him, a tall glass of something opaque in one hand, frowning down critically at the grilling fare. “What is your poison?” called Raul, who had just handed Gallagher a bottle of beer, and headed back to the drinks trolley. “I’ll have whatever Gallagher’s drinking. How about you, Nate?” said Jaymes. “I can’t believe you let him call you Nate. You used to hate that,” said Clifton, taking a sip from his drink. “He can call me anything he wants,” said Nathan, placing a hand on the back of Jaymes’ neck. “As long as he cooks me breakfast every so often—among other things.” “He’ll have a beer, too,” said Jaymes, wisely not getting dragged into the conversation. While they sat together—Raul and Martin eventually joining them, leaving Gallagher to the cooking—Clifton explained how the film crew would set up, where they would be stationed and exactly how intrusive the whole intervention could be. He also did a great job of selling the excitement surrounding the experience, and by the end, Nathan had relaxed about the idea. Afterwards, he announced the good news about the pilot being warmly received by the network and not only commissioning the full series of eight episodes, but fully expecting to have a second season. Casting had worked furiously to get all the characters posts filled. Giorgio, he explained, had invited many of them for the drinks party on Saturday evening, something even Clifton had no idea about. Just as Gallagher brought over the first platter piled with barbecued food, at around six-thirty, Nathan’s phone chimed in his pocket. “Fingal,” he said with an anxious glance at Jaymes. “He wants to FaceTime.” “Don’t worry, Nate. He’s probably just checking in.” Without another word, Nathan jumped up and marched into the centre of the darkening garden to take the call. Fingal’s laughing face filled the frame. “Bumper day today, Mr Fresher. We’ve all been fairly rushed off our feet. Couple of customers asked after you, so I told them you’d taken a well-deserved break. Seriously though, Nathan, you’ve got a nice little outfit going on here. Although you’re missing a trick or two, could do with tightening up a few loose ends, so to speak. We’ll have a little chat when you come back next week. I’m doing some other work Monday and Tuesday, but I’ll drop by and see you Wednesday, if that’s okay?” “Of course it’s okay,” said Nathan, Wednesday being a quieter day, they would have more time to talk. But right then, something else had caught his attention. “Is that Arthur in the background? What happened? Is there something wrong with the ovens?” “No, nothing’s wrong. I’m taking him and Molly out for a drink and a bite to eat.” Nathan felt his face flush with guilt. In all the years the two of them had worked for him, he’d never thought to invite them out for a drink or a meal. Yes, he’d given them generous bonuses over Christmas and for their holidays, but he’d never considered taking them out and socialising with them. Already Fingal was proving the better man, the better boss. “Save the receipt from the first round and I’ll reimburse you Wednesday. And tell them both I’m grateful for all their hard work.” “They already know that, Nathan, but thanks for the drink. We’ll be sure to toast your health. How are things there? It seems pretty dark.” “Oh no, we’re having a barbecue in the garden, so I stepped away from the conversation. Sun’s almost gone now. But it’s going really well here. And thanks again, Fingal.” “Any time, my boy. Any time.” “Let me guess,” said Jaymes, as Nathan sat back next to him. In his absence, Gallagher had piled the small table with ribs, burgers, steaks, sausages, baked potatoes, and an assortment of salads. “Nobody died. Everything worked out fine.” “Fingal says they had a really good day,” said Nathan, taking his bottle of beer back from Jaymes. “He’s taking the team out for drinks.” “And how does that make you feel?” “Surplus to requirements.” “Come on, Nate. Don’t beat yourself up. Anyone can shine for a day or two. You seem to manage the same fifty-two weeks of the year. Fingal has someone like you who understands and appreciates his efforts. Who do you have? Give yourself a break, baby.” Once again Jaymes had nailed Nathan’s mood, and he sighed deeply before leaning into Jaymes’ body heat. How many busy Fridays and Saturdays had Nathan managed over the past years? Hundreds. Instead of dwelling on the thought, he took a good tug on his bottled beer and helped himself to food. Throughout the evening, everyone took turns to tell stories. After a certain amount of coaxing from Gallagher, Clifton let on about the storyline of the pilot of his television show, but not before swearing them all to secrecy. Afterwards, Raul talked briefly about his upcoming schedule, but then began to grill Jaymes and Nathan about their individual work. Eventually Martin and Gallagher took over the reins. “I’m really enjoying this,” whispered Jaymes, later on, as Gallagher told another comical story from his days living out of a suitcase while working in the corporate world. “Nice to think of Martin and Gallagher as our friends.” Strangely enough, Nathan’s attention snagged on the word ‘our’ and he stiffened for a moment. “What’s the matter?” “It just—makes me sad when I’m reminded of how little time we have. Would be nice if we could build more things together, but you’ll be off in June, and I’ll be back to my usual solitary day-to-day.” “I’m only in Malaysia, Nate. Not on Mars. And I’m sure to be back from time to time.” “I know. I suppose it’s just my usual over-dramatic way of saying I’m going to miss you.” This time it was Jaymes’ turn to fall silent, staring off into the night. Nathan felt bad then, and joined in the banter with Gallagher until Jaymes’ attention drifted back. Later on, noticing him yawn a couple of times, he pulled Jaymes’ head down onto his shoulder, and wrapped an arm around him, getting a rumbled growl of approval from Jaymes in return. Tonight, sitting there surrounded by friends, with Jaymes glued to his side, Nathan felt like the luckiest person in the world. Enjoy the time you have, he told himself. Tomorrow can wait.
  36. 66 points
    The next morning Nathan woke alone. Testament to Jaymes having been there, the pillow next to him still held the indent of his head, but the side of the bed had been tidied neatly. Momentary sadness caught him, but he brushed the feeling away. As quality of sleep went, last night’s had been nothing short of wonderful. And this morning, despite a thick head from too much alcohol the night before, he felt incredible. Waking more fully, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Certain parts of his anatomy still bore a delicious soreness. If he was going to be brutally honest, he still felt an echo of disappointment at waking alone. But Jaymes being Jaymes, he would have got up and left. Of course he would. They’d had a roll in the hay, nothing more. Absently, he curled onto his side and rubbed his eyes, but then stopped. Something faint but unmistakable caught his attention. Was that the smell of fresh coffee brewing? And bacon frying? And the sound of music playing? Sitting up now, he moved to the side of the bed and went to reach for his dressing gown kept on the back of the door, only to find the garment missing. Instead, he fished out track suit bottoms and a baggy tee from the wardrobe, and hurried to the bathroom. First things first. Once finished, and after splashing cold water onto his face and drying quickly, he headed to the front room. Laid with a simple white tablecloth, placemats, cutlery, condiments, butter, and preserves; marmalade, blackberry jam, and Marmite—where the hell had he found that?—a small bowl of apples, as well as cartons of orange and grapefruit juice, Nathan’s small and barely functional dining table had been given an Impressionist’s makeover. Jaymes had even collected the Sundays from the front mat and arranged them on his place setting. “You didn’t have to do that,” said Nathan, brightening at the sight. On the wall above the table, the kitchen clock read nine-fifteen. “Morning, sexy,” said Jaymes, turning from the stove and grinning. Sexy himself, he wore Nathan’s navy blue dressing gown. “Told you I love cooking, especially when I’ve got something to cook with and someone to cook for. And I found all I needed in your fridge and freezer. Sit yourself down. How do you take your coffee?” “Milk with one, please.” “Sacrilege. Some things should remain pure and untainted.” Jaymes side-stepped to the coffee machine where a mug already sat, and confidently pressed buttons. “I take it you like your coffee without. I’m impressed you managed to work the damn thing. I had to read the manual three times before I figured out what buttons to press.” “I’ll resist the temptation to answer that comment with a sexual innuendo, and simply say that where there’s a will, there’s a way. But as we’re on the subject of pushing buttons, how are you feeling? Sore?” Okay, thought Nathan, so we are going there. Jaymes moved back to the stove and continued cooking breakfast, his back to Nathan. “A little. But absolutely no regrets. Feels nice, actually. And I slept like the dead.” “You were out cold when I woke. Looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to wake you. I’m guessing you don’t get to sleep in very often.” Toast popped up from the toaster right then. Jaymes reached over and plucked the slices out, dropping them on a plate he’d already prepared. Nathan marvelled at how well he found his way around the kitchen. “Can I do anything?” “Yes,” said Jaymes, taking the frying pan off the flame and turning to Nathan. “If you’re not going to sit down as I asked, you can come over here.” Nathan approached Jaymes, ready to be handed things to take to the table, only to be pulled into a fierce hug. “I’m sorry,” Jaymes whispered into Nathan’s ear. “What for?” “For not following through.” Nathan didn’t know what he meant. Had he missed something the night before? “Following through with what?” “My evil plan to snap on a condom and have my wicked way with you this morning.” Nathan laughed out loud until Jaymes shut him off by bringing their mouths together. Grateful to have no weirdness between them Nathan wallowed in the embrace. When he realised Jaymes’ tongue tasted of spearmint, he pulled away. “Ugh, not fair. You’ve brushed. I still have morning breath.” “Who cares?” “I do.” “Well, I don’t. And after we’ve both had toast and coffee, it won’t matter either way. Let me enjoy this now, before I serve you the best breakfast of your life.” Nathan gave in without a fight, not too much of a hardship either, and soon his heart began to speed up. Before they went too far, he lifted his mouth away, nipping Jaymes’ bottom lip. “Looks who’s woken up,” said Jaymes, smirking and pointing the tip of his forefinger to the floor. Nathan spotted Jaymes’ erection poking out from between the folds of Nathan’s dressing gown. “My new best friend,” said Nathan, grabbing a handful, which had Jaymes laughing and pulling his hips away but going in for another deep kiss. Once again, they parted, this time with Jaymes sighing deeply before leaning in and sucking on Nathan’s earlobe. “Last night was amazing. I could get used to this, Nate,” he whispered, his breath tickling Nathan’s ear. “Me too.” Jaymes pulled back then, a mix of sadness and cautiousness in his eyes. “Except I’m only here until June. Got the call this weekend to confirm. They need me in Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia. Probably until the end of the year.” Nathan understood what he was saying. Originally, he told them he’d be in Mosswold until the end of the year. Despite a moment of hesitation, Nathan made up his mind to look on the positive side. But his hesitation must have registered because Jaymes started speaking again. “I didn’t plan this. It’s just—we have a reciprocal arrangement with other forestries around the world and it seems as though I’m in demand. There’s also talk about me going to Waipoua Forest in New Zealand early next year. They’re in the southern hemisphere so it’ll be summer there, when they need me—” Nathan realised Jaymes had begun to ramble nervously, and cut him off with a kiss. “And?” said Nathan, after pulling away. “And?” echoed Jaymes, hesitating again, an eyebrow raised. “And are you going to be okay with that?” “Four months with you, as opposed to what? Nothing? Not a difficult question to answer, Jaymes.” “But—” “No buts. Well, maybe in the bedroom. This way we both know the score going in. We’ll keep things physical, on-the-level. And, even though you’re clearly adorable, I promise not to fall in love. Because I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want this to be a one-off.” Even as the words left his mouth, Nathan knew he would have a hard time trying to keep his heart out of the equation. But the response seemed to mollify Jaymes, who smiled affectionately, before taking a deep breath and shaking his head. “Nathan Fresher, you are full of surprises. Go and sit down. Let me serve you breakfast.” Over plates of poached eggs on Fresher homemade toasted ciabatta, with Mikey’s Lincolnshire sausages and back bacon, with mushroom and onion compote and grilled tomatoes, Nathan and Jaymes sat enjoying the morning. Jaymes believed in starting the day right. Nathan had rarely enjoyed his living space so much, usually spent Sunday mornings sitting in bed poring over a Sunday newspaper, with coffee and a plate of buttered toast. Jaymes provided effortless company, laughing easily and filling the pauses with talk about his work or reading something aloud from a newspaper. At first, Nathan wondered where the music came from but then noticed Jaymes had placed his phone upright against the fruit bowl, letting soft jazz music accompany the morning fare. “Aren’t you playing footy today?” asked Jaymes. “No. The other team cancelled Friday. Too late to organise another team for a friendly.” Each Sunday, when a football match was due, Nathan usually forwent his daily run. If none had been planned, he would still hit the streets. This morning, he happily sacrificed his daily dose of exercise for time with Jaymes. “Just as well, really, we’re heading down to Eastbourne today.” “Oh shit. My Rover.” “We’ll take the van. If you still want to come.” “Of course I want to come. Dying to find out what the big mystery is. What time do we need to be there?” “Appointment’s at eleven-thirty. I’ve dug out my birth certificate and some other papers they’ve asked to see. It’s only around forty minutes but we should leave an hour clear, in case of weekend traffic, and so I can find parking. And after cooking breakfast—along with everything else—I think it’s only fair I buy you lunch while we’re down there. I know a great little spot.” “Lunch date, huh?” said Jaymes, grinning playfully. Nathan smiled back, but then at the word date, something surfaced in his memory, the text message from Clifton on Tuesday night. “Actually.” Nathan smoothed a hand over his napkin. “Cliff—ton sent me a text last week.” “Oh yes?” Nathan felt Jaymes’ eyes narrow in on him. “Wanted to know if me and my—uh—friend wanted to have dinner with him and his husband.” “I see. Where?” “Some place called Benedetti’s in London.” “Back of Soho. Figures. Place will be full of posers; thespians, as well as models, managers, casting agents and rent boys. Inside has huge mirrors on every wall so the narcissists can admire themselves while they eat. Make sure not a hair’s out of place. What did you tell him?” “I didn’t. Not yet.” “Then tell him yes.” “Really?” “Fuck yes. As long as he’s paying. Tell him next Saturday, so you can let your hair down. You okay with that?” Nathan’s grin almost hurt his face as he nodded, but he also had a niggle of worry about how Jaymes might behave. Later on he would text Clifton and accept his invitation. “Excellent. What with that and the photoshoot on Wednesday afternoon, and my social calendar is filling up nicely.” Nathan had forgotten he’d invited Jaymes to come along for moral support. “You know you called me Jay last night?” Possibly Jaymes had picked up on Nathan’s concern and changed the subject. “Did I? I can’t remember. I was somewhat distracted with you pounding my prostate. Is that a problem?” “Not at all. To be honest, I liked it.” Nathan felt his cheeks flush, and went into deflection mode himself. “Hey, I’ve a notion Polly went out with Benny last night.” In the process of popping a corner of buttered toast into his mouth, Jaymes froze. “Footballer? From the pub?” “The same.” Crunching loudly on the bread, Jaymes vehemently shook his head. “Not in a million years.” “Really? Why do you say that?” “He’s not her type.” “Oh, so she does have a type. And what exactly is that?” “Almost the same as mine,” said Jaymes, peering across the table at Nathan. After a second, a bare foot landed softly on top of his under the table. “Dark hair, green eyes, handsome, nice smile, lean, and takes care of himself. Looks almost exactly like the owner of the local village bakery. Oh, and for her, definitely older. By at least a handful of years. She has enough teaching young kids at school. She doesn’t want to have to provide instruction in the bedroom.” Nathan stared at Jaymes then, wondering if getting together might cause problems. “Are we going to have to tread carefully around Polly?” “How do you mean?” “Well, if she warned you off me, do we have to keep our distance? You know, be discreet?” “Nate, forgive me if I’ve read this wrong, but we’ve just agreed to become fuck buddies. Other than that, nothing has changed. I’m not going to be holding your hand or touching you intimately in public, or kissing you on the street. So if we both stick to that, Polly should be none the wiser.” “I know, I know. I just don’t want to be the cause of any friction between the two of you.” Jaymes picked up his coffee and grinned at Nathan over the rim. “No wonder she likes you so much. Always looking out for her.” Soft strains of a female jazz singer oozed from the phone, and another comfortable silence fell over the table. When Nathan observed Jaymes from across the table, cup in one hand, newspaper in the other, he felt a wave of affection hit him. “Are you still searching for somewhere to live?” Jaymes frowned and shook his head, staring out through the front window. “You’d have thought it would be easy. I’ve tried as far as Collingwood, but nothing. I thought someone somewhere would have a spare room, at the very least. Even though she hasn’t said anything, I know I’m starting to get under Polly’s feet.” “Perfect solution, then.” “What is?” “I have a spare room. You need a spare room.” Jaymes’ eyes grew wide as his gaze flicked to the bedroom corridor, then came back to Nathan’s. A touch of hesitation, of guardedness, tempered otherwise enthusiasm “Are you absolutely sure?” “I’ve got a spare room, Jaymes. Nobody ever uses it.” “So I’d have my own room and my own bed?” “Yes, but you’re not using that. I want you in mine.” “How much?” “I’ve never wanted anything more,” answered Nathan, in all honesty. Jaymes snorted and grinned at Nathan. “How much for the room, dingbat.” “Oh, well— Home cooked meals every now and again, and...” “And?” “Plenty of sex on demand.” “I need to pay you something, Nathan.” “Why? The place is bought and paid for. And as you said, you’re only here until June.” Jaymes went quiet and thoughtful for a moment, before a full smile blossomed in his face. “This is turning out to be one incredible weekend. All these sweet deals.” “My thoughts entirely.” “Okay,” said Jaymes, starting to collect up plates. “Even though I’d love to head back to bed, it’s ten already, so I’m going to clear up here. I would have suggested we shower together—to save time and water—but your shower cubicle is smaller than a Hobbit’s phone booth, and knowing I would not be able to restrain myself, I fear two men our size in that thing doing what I have in my mind, are likely to end up in casualty. So I suggest you go shower and change, out of temptation’s way, while I tidy up.” “Spoilsport.” “Do you want to phone and delay the appointment?” “No.” “Then move your arse. We have all afternoon and evening, now that I’m living here.” Nathan’s heart filled with pleasure on hearing those words. “So you’re moving in? You never said yes.” “Hell, yes,” said Jaymes. “Apart from finally sleeping on a mattress instead of a sofa, I’ll have you next to me. I can think of nothing better. Can we swing by Polly’s place later, pick up my suitcase and boxes? Maybe even find out what she got up to last night.” For the next thirty minutes, the apartment became a hive of activity, Jaymes and Nathan never missing an opportunity as they passed each other to touch or kiss, albeit briefly. By exactly ten thirty, they were on the road in the baker’s van, on the way to Eastbourne. They found parking on the same road as the solicitors, in Moon Lane, two roads back from the seafront. One of a row of Edwardian houses, each with three storeys and a basement, the one announcing Miller, Price and Cawthorn had been elegantly decorated in shades of cream and white, the sky blue plaque announcing the name of the partnership an eye catching addition. Unlike others with their more gaudy pastel shades of greens, blues, yellow and pinks, the solicitor’s appeared almost regal. “Who are we seeing?” asked Jaymes. Nathan already warmed at hearing Jaymes use the ‘we’ word, which oddly made him feel less alone in the world, like have am arm slung around his shoulders. He had loaned Jaymes one of his baggier white button-down shirts, baggier for Nathan anyway. Jaymes’ shoulders and chest had filled out the material to the full, the buttons down the front straining to keep everything in. Nathan’s mouth watered when he thought about undoing those buttons later in the afternoon. “Ms Philippa Cawthorn. She’s been appointed by Flynn & Fox to handle things this end.” Inside the offices, decorated elegantly and continuing the Edwardian theme with antique furnishings and brown leather Chesterfield settees, Nathan found the air oppressively hot and humid. Ms Cawthorn herself met them at the otherwise empty reception, clearly working with minimal staffing on Sunday. An unsmiling woman in her forties, she did not seem amused to have to work on the Sabbath. Dressed immaculately in a plain but stylish black pant suit, white silk blouse and black heels, she epitomised middle-class insouciance. “And you are ?” she asked Jaymes, after shaking Nathan’s hand. “A friend. Here to lend moral support.” “Is that correct? Mr Fresher, are you sure you’re happy for your—friend—to hear these private matters?” “I am, yes. Jaymes is my best friend.” “As you wish. Please come this way.” As she led them away, Jaymes turned to Nathan and pulled a face, which had Nathan smirking. After his father’s death, he’d had a number of visits to solicitor’s offices, so they no longer daunted him. In a small but plush conference room along the corridor, papers had already been laid out carefully along the oak table, with Day-Glo tabs indicating places for signatures. Nathan knew the drill well. “If possible, I would like to get this matter over and done with as soon as possible.” Nathan had the impression she was not asking permission, merely warning him not to make waves. “My husband’s taken the children to his parent's for lunch and I have a car waiting to take me to there straight after this meeting. Now, before we begin, do you have the documents I asked you to bring?” Nathan handed over the papers; birth certificate, utility bills, passport, and his father’s will. After a cursory once-over, Ms Cawthorn left the room and returned around fifteen minutes later. Placing copies into a file, she handed the originals back and got straight down to business. “Mr Nathaniel Collier Brooks died on the fifteenth of December in Melbourne. He is survived by an only son, Mr Grant Collier Brooks, but in a strange turn of events, it appears that you are also a relative. Mr Brooks was a property developer in Melbourne, but sold the business eight years ago. He left most of his estate to his son, but also wanted to bequeath a sum of money to you. The amount is detailed here.” Ms Cawthorn twisted a sheet of paper around and tapped a pencil at a figure written part way down. “Two hundred and fifty thousand Australian dollars? How much is that?” said Nathan, shocked, and turning to Jaymes. “Given the current exchange rate,” said Ms Cawthorn. “it’s around one hundred and thirty thousand pounds. A tidy sum.” “But hang on. Are you sure about this?” “From our end, and our counterparts in Melbourne, yes, everything is in order,” she said, before drawing a letter from out of her file. “But I think you might want to read this letter, Mr Fresher. I understand this may help to clarify things. Would you like some time alone in private? To read the details?” “No, I’m fine. I’m happy for everyone to stay.” Nathan was surprised at how pristine the envelope appeared, and respectfully untucked the sealed pouch. Inside, the words were written in neat handwriting, using a ballpoint pen. Dearest Nathan, First of all, I want to let you know we met in person eight years ago. My son, Grant, and I visited your shop in Crumbington. Not that you would remember. But my son had a long chat with your father. Funnily enough, he placed our accents exactly. My father, Jeremy Brooks, had passed the same year, which is what prompted my visit. During his final days, he told me the truth about my birth family. Something that our elders took to the grave with them. I was born in 1938. According to my Australian birth certificate, my birthplace is Melbourne, where I’ve lived my whole life. However, on the official certificate my father gave me before he died, one he had kept hidden all these years, I was actually born in Crumbington, delivered at home by local midwife, to John and Mary Fresher. I am not sure how familiar you are with history, but 1939 was the outbreak of World War II, and the British government had made the tough decision to evacuate children—Operation Pied Piper, it was called—from urban areas to the countryside, or seaside towns, where the risk of bombing raids was much lower. Some children, particularly those with relatives in the colonies, were shipped to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. According to my grandfather, I was brought to Australia by my birth mother’s sister, Emily. Her and her husband, Jeremy Brooks, could not have children of their own, and with uncertainty in Europe, they were asked to adopt me. Nathan, I have had a long and wonderful life, loved and nurtured by my mother and father, married a wonderful woman and had Grant later in life, someone who has been a source of endless joy for both me and my late wife. And I know I could go quietly to my grave now, and keep this hidden forever. Believe me when I say I have been conflicted about what to do. But like my father, I feel people deserve to know the truth, especially you and my son. As Thomas Jefferson once said, half a truth is often a great lie. And I will not die being a party to a half truth. I didn’t get to know my real father and mother, or my brother. I half suspect my real father, your great grandfather, had some influence in the choosing of your name, so similar to my own. My son is learning about this at the same time. He is not that much older than you, so I hope the two of you have a chance to meet one day. I’ve told him the same thing. And although I’m leaving most of my wealth to my son, I’ve left you something as a way of apologising for not saying hello to you and your father when I had the chance, because at the time, I lacked the courage. Have a beautiful life, Nathan. Yours warmly, Great Uncle Nathaniel. When Nathan finishes, he sat back stunned. A warm hand landed on his shoulder and rubbed gently there. “Are you okay, buddy?” he asked. Nathan peered across at Ms Cawthorn. “Do you know the content of this?” said Nathan, holding the letter up. “I do,” said Ms Cawthorn, “Nathaniel Brooks provided copies of all letters for the solicitors, Flynn & Fox. They’re paying all our fees.” “So you know I have a cousin?” “Yes, Grant Collier Brooks. He’s your first cousin once removed. Son of Nathaniel Collier Brooks, your great uncle. Grant is around thirty-seven now.” “I have family.” Nathan said, to Jaymes, stunned still. Whether because of her professional vocation or just her general bearing, Ms Cawthorn hadn’t once smiled, despite Nathan being a hundred thousand pounds better off. Eventually, after Nathan had signed the necessary papers and given bank details, she sat back and softened a little. “Before you head off, Mr Fresher, I believe it’s my duty to warn you. This windfall, this familial development comes with a potential complication. Which is why I asked you to bring those particular documents.” “How so?” “According to the copy of your father’s will, and a clause insisted upon by both your father and his father before him, it states that upon their respective deaths, the business and everything associated with it, including the premises, should be bequeathed to the oldest surviving heir of the Fresher family.” “That’s correct.” “Technically, Mr Fresher, that’s no longer you.”
  37. 66 points
    I’d been separated from everyone. The Elites didn’t look at me, didn’t talk to me. Shivers wracked me as I was hauled away, my hands bound behind my back with strong shackles. I wanted to vomit up that last meal we’d had, or cry, or drop to my knees and not move. But none of that would help me. None of that would help the others. Years of experience suppressing my emotions helped me stay on my feet and kept me from panicking. I squeezed my hands together behind my back. A wand was shoved between my hands, zapping my fingers. I cursed, my hands now completely numb while painful shocks burned up the nerves in my arms. The synthgar shivered against my neck. I held my breath, hoping it would stay still. They’d take it and kill it. I was back in the same hell as before, even if it was on a planet instead of a sterile space station. They were already starting to isolate me from sensory input. Not talking to me, not letting me even hold my own hands. It was sickening. Worse, I could feel some of that numbness beckoning me. It’d be easier, safer, than the fear and anger. The scent of the flowers was gone, the warm breeze tempered to a cool stillness, and turn and after turn led to windowless corridors. I nearly walked into the back of the guard in front of me, and only barely stopped before his wand slammed into my stomach. I sucked in a sharp breath, arching away from the glowing tip. A door opened on my right, and I went inside. Pick my battles, fight when it made sense. Play docile while you have to. I kept my back to guards. My hands and wrists were so numb I didn’t feel the cuffs disengage, but I had to bite back a cry when my arms fell useless to my sides. Above all, never, ever, let them see you cry. I blinked back the tears, swallowing past the thick lump in my throat. The bed was different and boasted a thin mattress and a pillow. A pillow; I hadn’t had one of those before. The space was rectangular instead of a square box that matched sides perfectly four strides one direction and four the other. My mind latched onto the small details even as I was left alone. I paced the cell. I sat on the bed. I ignored the pillow in case they came and took it from me. Mealtimes came and went without any trays. Darkness had to have fallen outside, right? Even if we’d arrived early in their morning, I’d been locked in this cell for hours. I couldn’t touch anything, not even myself. Sitting still and touching nothing was more exhausting than I remembered. This wasn’t like my cell from before, though. I could hear outside my cell, which helped the waiting. Night fell and the lights dimmed. I crawled onto my bunk facing the door. The sounds of activity faded and soon just the tread of booted feet and the thump and squeak of what must be the guards was left. Silently, I slipped out of bed and crept to the door. I cursed the numbness in my fingers. It was going to hamper my escape, but I was done in this cell. Time to find Anyas. I traced my fingers to the left of the cell door. Stiffening them as best I could, I drilled them into the metal, punching holes into the wall. Holding my breath, I waited for an alarm. Nothing. Either no one was watching me, or they hadn’t noticed what I was doing yet. Security wasn’t what I had lived under before, which is something I’d been hoping for. I curled my fingers and the metal squealed, bending and breaking. Success! The hole exposed the electronics for the lock. Now came the part I wasn’t sure of. Freska had given me a tiny chip to conceal in my clothes. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to lose the feeling in my hands when I tried to use it. That made it infinitely harder to carefully place the tiny green plastic shard that was about to free me. Biting my lip, I cursed under my breath, but I finally manipulated it into place. Click. The door opened a fraction. A wicked grin crossed my face. Something was going my way; it was about damn time. I pried open the door, peeking out. The footsteps were faint, on the far edge of the patrol pattern. Slinking out, I started to follow the sounds. First, neutralize the guards. Second, find the others. Third, get Anyas. Fourth, take over this compound. Fifth, let Freska and Danie do their thing. Sixth, take these fuckers down. Probably not that simple, but my body itched to take care of the first order of business and the second. I needed Captain. He needed me. We were better together. I made my way to a corner, then flattened along the wall. My senses would help me, my strength an asset. Footsteps. Boots. The swish of fabric. The second the profile of the guard came into view, I was on him. I’d held back before, acting like their constructed bodies were too strong for me. This time I held back nothing. Stiffening my hand into a flat blade, I slammed the edge into his neck. There went his ability to shout out. Jumping, I clapped my hands over his ears. No more ability to hear the others. He choked on his cry when I kicked his kneecap and blew it out backward. He dropped to one knee, and then I used my elbow to drive his head sideways, slamming into his jaw and knocking him unconscious. One guard down. I wasn’t even breathing hard. These fuckers were about to pay for a lifetime of abuse, and I was just the guy to dish it out.
  38. 65 points
    A banging noise on his bedroom door startled Tyler out of a dead sleep and sent him rolling and tumbling onto the floor. “Tyler! You need to get up or you’ll be late for your first day!” The urgency in the voice helped the fog in his mind clear faster than it usually would. He stared up at his alarm clock. Just past six in the morning. He’s supposed to be there in less than an hour. Rubbing his eyes to force himself awake, he stumbled to his feet. The pounding on his door became more frantic as the woman’s voice nearly screamed his name. “I’m up, Ma, I’m up,” he said just loud enough to get the pounding to stop. He turned to the small dresser in his room and pulled out a blue pair of briefs. He always felt that blue was his lucky color and today he figured he’d need all the luck he could get. He pulled them up his legs and made sure he shifted everything inside, so he’d stay comfortable. It was late Spring, and the weather was probably going to get warmer as the day progressed. Despite that, he grabbed a pair of comfortable jeans and a white t-shirt. After pulling on a pair of socks, he was all set for the first day of his new job. He unlocked his door and went into the tiny bathroom to brush his teeth. He hated this trailer. Ever since his parents divorced, when he was a child, he and his mom were forced to live in this crappy mobile home in this crappy small town that had less than ten thousand people in it. The only time he didn’t actively hate living here was when he was in high school and the walk to and from the trailer park was bearable. But high school ended two years ago and since then he was struggling to find a job to make ends meet. His mom worked, but he wanted more. He wanted to have his own place and have his own dreams. Two months short of twenty-one, it seemed like nothing has worked out the way he had hoped. He didn’t get the baseball scholarship he hoped for after graduation. They had next to no money and he couldn’t see himself taking out loans just to go to college when he didn’t have a car to get there. And his father didn’t seem to care about any of it since he hadn’t heard from him in a couple years and only got a crappy twenty bucks in a Christmas card since he got out of high school. He checked himself out in the mirror. Still trim from years playing baseball. He had a little scruff on his face but decided to keep it, so he didn’t look like he was still a little kid with his freckled cheeks and tanned skin. When he shaves, people have commented that he still looks like he’s seventeen. His eyes were hazel with a little green in them. The girls in school always thought he was handsome. He never much cared what they thought, though. He had kept mostly to himself with the exception of a couple close friends to hang out with, but he still kept his secrets to himself. Now, all those friends are gone off to college and he was left behind. He kept up with them online over Facebook, but he noticed the longer they were away the more interested they were in their studies and the new friends they were making. After two years, messages back and forth became less and less frequent. After all this time, he took the hint that their friendships were pretty much over. Pushing those thoughts aside, he left the bathroom and stopped in the little kitchen to make some toast so he wouldn’t be hungry all day. His mom was already dressed for her job at WalMart. Her dyed blonde hair was short and straight as usual. She had a few more wrinkles around the eyes and mouth than she used to when he was in high school. But living on the edge of poverty for years hadn’t robbed her of her smile or her compassion for her son. “You nervous,” she asked as she drank her coffee at the small counter. “A little,” he replied while he waited. “Not sure how good I’m gonna be working a construction job.” “Mr. Adams is a nice man,” she said. “Always willing to help someone who needs it. That’s why he told me he’d hire you on the spot, once I told him all about you. Just be polite and do what you’re asked to do.” He sighed and frowned. “Think I can make enough in a couple months to get wheels of my own?” She shrugged. “I dunno, hun. Only one way to find out. This’ll pay better than that gas station job though.” He remembered how humiliated he felt watching people he used to go to school with stop into that gas station. The looks of recognition when they saw him standing there, wondering why he was working a shitty job when they were living it up. They weren’t rude really, just… the pity in their eyes annoyed him. It was worse when one of the guys he used to secretly have a crush on came in. No way would they ever be interested in him, seeing where he ended up after high school. Not that it mattered. They were all straight anyway. “Well, we’ll see. Maybe I can make enough to take a couple classes at the junior college up in Butler.” The toast popped up and he slathered some peanut butter on it, letting it melt slightly before he ate it up. Coleen watched her son, feeling bad about his life and having a father who practically ignore him his entire life. Even as bad as things were money wise, she was always proud of her son and loved him. She did everything she could to keep him on the right track and she was rewarded with a polite son who was never disrespectful to her or anyone. She was grateful she’d gotten old Sam to give Tyler a chance. “Don’t be late on your first day, sweetheart.” She gave him a small smile that lit up her eyes as she watched him shove the last bits of toast into his mouth. “I won’t.” He went to grab his boots and wallet before he gave her a peck on the cheek. “Love ya, Ma.” “Love you too. Relax and just be yourself,” she called after him as he stepped out the door. Tyler walked at a brisk pace out of the trailer park and onto the street, making sure he kept moving but not tire himself out as he walked the ten blocks to the Adams Construction Company building. He was thankful it wasn’t hot already so he wouldn’t show up already sweating. He ran a hand through his close-cropped, dirty blonde hair, thankful he kept it short since it was nearly impossible to manage any longer than it was now unless he wanted to have a completely unmanageable cowlick sticking up from the back of his head. As he made his way down the street, he kept his head tilted down to avoid any unwanted attention or stares. It had become a sort of survival routine of his. The embarrassment of being the only kid in his class living in a rusted-out trailer park felt like a constant burden to him. He also was doing it unconsciously to avoid checking out any guys he walked past. He wished he didn’t do it, but he was twenty and his hormones were still churning. That and he was still a virgin which was another point of embarrassment to him. Checking the time, he picked up his pace, wanting to try and get there a little early to hopefully make a good impression. He never met Mr. Adams when his mother mentioned him for the job. She just knew him as a nice guy from the area she occasionally had conversations with when she was working at WalMart. She mentioned her son to him and after a few minutes he told Colleen the boy could start work the following Monday if he wanted. And there he was, early Monday morning standing in front of Adams Construction Company with seven minutes to spare. He noticed a couple trucks parked near the back and saw some lights on, so he decided to go in and see if Mr. Adams meant what he said to his mother. As he stepped inside, he heard some muffled laughter coming from down a narrow hallway that lead to the back of the building. The reception desk near the entrance had a blonde woman who looked a little older than himself, though it was difficult to discern with the amount of makeup she had on. She looked him over and awarded his appearance with a professional smile. “How can I help you,” she asked with a pleasant voice. “Good morning,” he replied. “I was told to start today. But I’m not sure…” he trailed off, suddenly realizing he had no idea what to say or do. The woman seemed unphased, as if this happened often. “Did you talk to Sam or Troy?” “Oh, ah, Sam. I guess… It was more like my mom talked to Sam, really.” “What’s your name, kid?” “Ah, Brewer. Tyler Brewer.” he felt his palms sweating a little. He was getting a bad feeling about this. “Alright.” She opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and put it on a clipboard before she held it out towards him. “Fill this out and I’ll go find one of the boys.” He took the clipboard with a nod of thanks and sat down. Looking it over, he realized it was an application. His movement halted as he came to understand that he was just now applying for the job. Wasn’t he supposed to start today instead of just apply? He was about to ask when he heard the woman walk towards the back of the office out of sight. Left with no choice, he began to slowly fill out the employment application, feeling his chest tightening. Had he known he was just applying for the job he wouldn’t have already quit his last job. Now, he had to wait for interviews and background checks and probably a drug test to before he started working. All of which could take weeks. He wondered if he could call and get his old job back while he waited but figured he already burned that bridge when he just suddenly quit without giving them a notice. All he wanted was to be able to make a better living. He wasn’t lazy or dirty or a drug user. He just wanted an honest chance in life. So what if he’s gay? He doesn’t act any different than anyone else his age and no one in school ever suspected watching him play shortstop on the high school varsity team. He looked just like anyone else and he knew he could do good things if someone just gave him a chance. Tyler filled out the application slowly. Being so young, there wasn’t much to tell beyond his name, address and the last place he worked. The woman hadn’t come back yet so he stood up and placed the clipboard on her desk and went back to sit and wait while trying to ignore the feeling that he had made the worst decision of his life. A minute or two later the woman walked back down the hall again. “Sam isn’t in the office today,” she said as she picked up the clipboard he left on her desk. “But Troy will be with you in just a minute.” “Thank you,” Tyler replied. He did his best to not appear disappointed, but he lowered his head to stare at the floor. He wasn’t getting the job today. Probably never was. Sam was probably just being polite to his mom. Now, he had no job and no prospects. Pride was the only thing keeping his tears at bay. There was no way he was ever getting out of this town. “Tyler?” A man’s voice broke him out of his thoughts, and he looked up at a tall man with short brown hair and kind eyes. When he saw Tyler’s face he smiled politely and waved his hand. “Come on back.” He turned to the receptionist and said absently, “thanks, Stacy.” The woman at the desk nodded her head and went back to what she had been doing as Tyler was led down the same narrow hallway. He could hear some banter of what sounded like a group of men towards the back but before they got that far, Troy stopped at a door and opened it, leading Tyler into a small office. Once the door was closed, Troy went around the desk in the room, motioning for the young man to take a seat as he plopped down and looked at the paper in front of him. “Brewer, huh?” “Yes, sir.” He sat up straight and tried to look professional despite his appearance. “Well, you finished high school,” he muttered as he scanned the paper. “That’s better than most of the other guys who work here.” The man was silent for a few moments as he read the sheet, giving Tyler a chance to look around the room. It was mostly file cabinets with one small window facing the parking lot. The desk had a few pictures on it and a few more were stuck against the cabinet behind Troy with magnets. Mostly pictures of what appeared to be his family. Wife and two kids. Both boys. One of them seemed almost a baby in the pictures. There were other pictures too. A bunch of guys in caps and gowns. One of them looked like the guy sitting at the desk only much younger than he looked now. “I might have misunderstood Mr. Adams, sir. Or at least maybe my mom did when she talked to him.” “Misunderstood how,” the man asked, looking up at him. “Well,” he faltered, not wanting to sound ungrateful for the interview. “I guess we figured I was already hired.” “Yeah,” Troy said casually. “You are. But we still have to do all the paperwork and stuff. So, you need an application and have to fill out tax forms and other stuff. I also need to know I can trust you and that you can pass a drug test. That’s about our only real requirement here. You’ll be working in situations where it’s not a good idea to be high or drunk. You might slip and fall God only knows how far.” “Oh! So, all this...” Tyler could feel a little sliver of hope return. “Just formalities.” Troy grinned at the boy’s face as it brightened up. “I had to call my dad first just to double check and make sure you were who we were expecting. Do you go by Tyler or Ty?” “Tyler, sir, if you don’t mind.” “Fine by me as long as you call me Troy.” He kept his tone pleasant. From the looks of him, Troy figured the kid was a little uneasy. “We’re not all that interested here in who’s in charge, Tyler. We just want you to do the job you’re assigned, be safe and be mindful of everyone else around you.” Tyler nodded. “I understand, s-... Troy.” He blushed a little and looked down at the floor. Troy noted his reaction and politely didn’t laugh. This kid definitely seemed to scare easy. “What I’m gonna have you do today is tag along with a team who’re replacing the siding on a house here in town so you’re not going to be far from home. You’re gonna watch and stick close to the guy in charge and keep the area clear of any clutter. When we work on someone’s house, we want to leave it better than the way we found it. So, no nails or pieces of metal are to be left on the ground. Got it?” Tyler nodded again. “Got it.” “Alright. I’m gonna get a swab of your mouth and send it to a lab for drug testing, though I’m pretty sure you’ll pass that fine. I’ll introduce you to your team and then we’ll go from there. Oh,” he suddenly remembered as he stood up. “You have a driver’s license. Do you have a car or truck?” Tyler blushed slightly. “N-no. Not yet.” Troy suddenly stopped as he was pulling something out of a cabinet and looked at him curiously. “How’d you get here then?” “I walked, sir.” “You walked? From where?” He hated this question more than any other question he gets asked. “Grand Oaks park.” It was neither grand nor did it have any oak trees. Tyler always thought someone named it that as some sort of cruel joke. Troy pulled a drug kit from the cabinet. “Oh… Your parents live there?” That was his second most hated question. “My mom and I live there, sir.” He could tell he hit a nerve. “Nothing wrong with that. One of my best friends used to live there.” He went over to the young man and opened the pack. “Where’s your dad?” “He lives in Trenton. He left us when I was six.” Troy held up a stick with a cotton tip. “Open your mouth, please.” Troy carefully rubbed the cotton tip against the inside of Tyler’s cheek before removing it and sealing it in a small sterile bag. “All done. Let’s go meet your new fri