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Lee Marchais

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About Lee Marchais

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  1. Happy Birthday!

  2. Lee Marchais

    Epilogue

    Two sets of imploring eyes stared at Josh. He blinked and looked again, realizing it wasn’t the type of imploring eyes his fantasy world had created. No, these were canine and rough-looking. “Uh, Chris?” “Oh, Josh! I’m sorry. I should’ve called or texted you, but my mobile went dead.” “Okay… who are they?” Josh turned to look at Chris, who had started to approach him. “Strays. I couldn’t very well leave them.” Josh stood for a moment, looking at the pair of untidy dogs. “I was just about to give them a bath,” Chris said. “Yeah, looks like they need it.” Chris gave him a look that read ‘how can you expect me not take care of them?’ “I get it. I suppose our little family could take two more.” Chris looked relieved. “Thank you.” “Of course, it’s my pleasure.” Chris smiled. “I can think of a few things not involving them that are pleasurable.” Josh chuckled. “So can I.” “Hold that thought.” Chris kissed Josh with a promise of more to come, then whistled shrilly. The two imploring faces staring at Josh followed Chris along to the backyard. *** On a very cold, windy day, Josh came home to find Chris in the kitchen with a strange expression on his face and a hurried look about him. There was a bag on the floor of the living room with dirty clothes sticking out of it. “Chris… is there…? What is that smell?” Chris came around to the living room, flanked by happy dogs. “What? What’s wrong?” Josh asked. “Ah. Yes… I realize that, in retrospect I should probably have spoken to you first. Well, I haven’t brought another dog home.” He tried to be mollifying, but now Josh was worried. “Okay…” “His name is Jason, but he tries to introduce himself as Big J. He’s having a shower, and he’s eaten most of what was going to be dinner. Duke and Fenton found him under a bush.” “Under a bush…? This is a kid?” Josh was confused and didn’t know what was going on. Had Chris decided to take in a child, now, like he did with the dogs? “He’s fifteen. He’ll try to tell you that’s he’s eighteen, but he isn’t.” “And you’ve brought him home?” Josh looked at the bag of stuff on the floor and tried not to flinch. It smelled like days-old soup and socks. “Well, I didn’t like to take him to the police. Besides, he threatened to stab me if I tried to.” “He did what?” Josh demanded, ready to strangle this kid. He hadn’t even met him and already this was a bad idea. “He didn’t actually have anything capable of getting through my coat, and I pointed out that I’d knock his block off—if the dogs didn’t shred him first. He was frightened.” “Okay, so we have a young man in the shower. To what end?” “Well, initially to clean him up. He smelled appalling.” “Yeah, I think I have an idea.” Josh looked at the bag again. “Yes, I promised not to go poking through his ‘shit’.” Chris sounded like he was quoting the kid, and Josh couldn’t help chuckling. Chris never cursed. “I thought he could stay. Just for a few days. Until we can contact his Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil. They live in Bel Air, apparently.” Josh laughed, knowing this would confuse Chris. This kid. Already lying. “Chris, Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv are from a television show called The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Red suffused Chris’s face and his expression changed. “Well, really.” “This kid is full of shit,” Josh said. “He’s scared and alone.” “And what are we supposed to do about it if he keeps lying?”’ “What reason does he have not to? Trust has to be earned, Josh. And I daresay he’s learned not to take strangers at face value.” “I’m sure he has, but how can we trust him?” “It has to start somewhere, and we’re in a stronger position to take the risk. Besides, I didn’t get… He seems a decent sort, basically. He’s young, and he’s frightened, and he’s had some awful experiences.” Josh pulled a face. “How much of it has he made up to get your sympathy, is the question.” “I don’t think he’s bright enough to invent all of it. And it rang true.” Josh sighed. “Alright. Alright. I’ll follow your lead on this one.” Josh knew after the dogs Chris had brought home that there was no way he would get out of this one. Once Chris made his mind up about something, he dug his heels in and didn’t back down. Though there had only been a few strays adopted into the fold, Josh knew that this young man was in for Chris’s altruism like a hammer to the head. “Thank you.” Josh kissed Chris. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” “Oh, I’m fine. Really, Josh, you know I don’t get intimidated by thugs.” “So I need to make some more dinner?” “I’ve ordered a takeaway.” “Pizza?” Josh asked hopefully. “From the place with those wings you like.” “Excellent.” Josh smiled. Chris knew him so well. He kissed Chris again with a little more intensity. Chris smiled. “I think he’d enjoy playing Halo with you.” “Probably.” “And I think he might be amenable to going to school.” “Getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? He has parents, I’m sure.” “He won’t talk to me about them. Just keeping saying I don’t know shit about it.” “Hmm. Maybe he’ll talk about it.” “I thought you could give it a go.” “Remember that conversation we had about me not exactly being father material?” “Vividly. I didn’t believe you then, either.” Josh scrunched his face. “How do you reckon?” “You’re a good person. That’s half the battle.” “Yeah, but I don’t like being lied to, and I don’t like bullshit, either.” “Which is at least another ten percent.” “If you say so. Does he know you’re gay?” “Well, I alluded to a husband, so I imagine that was a hint.” “Husband, eh?” They’d never had a conversation about marriage, just kids. “Thought we weren’t there yet.” Chris was mildly exasperated. “Josh, I left England for you. I have dogs with you. I have a house with you. There’s a hint there.” Josh smiled softly. Pleased. “I reckon so, yeah.” Footsteps from down the hall quickly made it to the kitchen. Jason was damp around the edges, tall for his age, with dark brown hair and deep-set blue eyes. It looked like he’d shaved, and he wore some of Josh’s clothes. He was scrawny but seemed determined. “You must be Jason.” Josh eyed the boy for a moment and decided if Chris wanted to do this, he reckoned he could as well. Even though he had no idea how to be a father. “Yeah, who are you, bruh?” “Jason, settle down. This is Josh. I told you about him.” “Oh, yeah. Your ‘husband’.” “Or thereabouts, yes.” Chris scooped up the Papillon and handed her to Jason. “I understand that you probably don’t have an Aunt Viv in Bel Air.” Josh watched Jason pet the tiny dog. “Um, um. Yeah. Aunt Viv, she… uh…” “Is a character on a television program, apparently.” “Cut the crap, kid. I know the Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” Josh added. He didn’t know if he was being too tough on the kid or not tough enough. “Do you have any family? Here?” Chris started getting plates out of the cabinets and beers for him and Josh. The kid didn’t reply. He just kept petting Daisy. “Why don’t you have a chat with Josh about it while you go through your shit and determine what is fit to go in the washing machine and what just needs replacing?” “Oh, um, yeah…” Jason set the dog down, and Daisy sniffled at his ankles. He then went through his bag. Most of the clothes looked old, by at least a few years. A few of the dogs decided the bag was a new place to sit and once it was empty, piled on and curled up in it. “Looks like you need some new clothes,” Josh said. “Man, just shu—!” The kid sighed. “Yeah.” Fenton the Labrador tried to climb into Jason’s lap. “Well, the dogs like you. That’s a good sign.” “Yeah? Well, I like dogs.” Jason tickled Fenton. “What’s this one’s name?” “Fenton.” “We can get you some new clothes tomorrow. The mall closes at eight. Until then, you can wear some of our stuff.” The doorbell rang, and Chris went to answer it. He remembered to tip the driver this time, Josh noticed, and brought the food into the living room. The dogs barked happily, sniffing the air and jumping over each other to get to Chris. “So… where are you parents?” Josh asked Jason. “I don’t know. They left me at the shelter two years ago.” “What’s your last name?” “Rogers.” “Have any idea where your parents went?” “Probably out west. Family out there.” “Are you in school?” Chris asked. “Hell, nah.” “Okay. Well, you need to do something. Would you be willing to go to school?” Chris looked at Josh. “You should be,” he added firmly. Jason puffed up his chest and set his expression. “Don’t need school.” “Everybody needs school.” “What for? I’ve already learned all I need to know on the streets.” “That would be more convincing if you hadn’t backed down when I told you to put the penknife away.” Chris pointed out reasonably, studying Jason. “I would’ve stabbed you,” Jason mumbled. “No, you would have yelled your head off when I broke your arm.” Chris maintained a firm gaze at the young man. This was his teacher mode, if anything, Josh realized. Chris clearly had no intention to joke or play games with the boy and heaven help him if he tried. “If you’re going to live here, you’re going to go to school,” Josh said firmly. “Live here? Who says I want to live here?” Jason pet the dog in his lap. Fenton seemed to keep him calm. “You’d rather live under a bush? It looks atrocious on the CV if you haven’t finished school, however boring it is,” Chris said. “What’s a CV?” Jason asked, pulling the dog’s ears. Fenton wagged blissfully. “A resume. I’m English. The vocabulary is different.” “So you two want me to live here? I don’t do nothing funny with men. That’s just gross.” “No one said anything about that, Jason,” Chris said with absolute patience. “You’re underage and not my type. Or his.” “Definitely not,” Josh said. “And do you really think that girls will be more interested in a scruffy drifter who lives under a bush?” Chris asked. Jason contemplated for a moment. “No,” he mumbled. “No, you have no family here, you clearly can’t couch-surf; this is your best option. Therefore, you will go to school until you can legally leave. Preferably having first acquired some sort of recognized qualification,” Chris said. “What was the last grade you finished?” Josh asked. “Eighth,” Jason answered. “Okay, so you have four years left of school, and you can probably do credit recovery after school to catch you up to your proper grade.” “I have no idea what that means,” Chris said. “His first year of high school,” Josh clarified. “What were your grades like?” he asked Jason. “Mostly As and Cs.” “That’s not bad. It’s passing.” Josh took a bite from his plate of wings. “Do you want to go to college or anything?” “I don’t know. I did.” “What did you want to do?” Josh asked. “I wanted to be in business.” “Good. You still can, I imagine.” Chris thought for a moment. “They offer that at my place, don’t they?” he asked Josh. “Yeah. And that’s what I did. I have my MBA. Chris teaches at a college in Salisbury.” “Music, mostly. Sideline in mathematics.” “I wasn’t never any good at math.” “I can help you with that,” Chris said. “It’s rules and patterns; I’m sure you can master it.” Josh listened for a moment and knew he would regret saying this, but he took a breath and took a chance. “You could go to college for free, if we adopted you.” “Really?” Chris asked, intrigued. “Yeah. Ask the Human Resources person. I’m sure he can explain everything. But your kids get to go to college for free, with you working there.” “Hmm. Interesting.” Chris smiled. “Yeah. Most colleges do that sort of thing for employees.” “I’ll think about it,” Jason said. Josh nodded. “Good. Now, just relax and eat something. Tomorrow, we’ll go shopping.” “I’ll go make up the spare room.” Chris looked at Jason. “I don’t recommend letting Fenton sleep in your room. He’s appallingly flatulent at night.” Josh fed some of the bones from his chicken to Duke, who sat beside Josh on the floor. He laughed. “He is. Awful.” “Not those, Josh; they’re a choking hazard, remember?” “He just chews them.” Chris took the bones away from Duke, and the dog huffed his annoyance. “There’s a beef knuckle in the pantry.” “Oh, he’ll like that.” Josh got up and went to the pantry. He found the beef knuckle in the front and pulled it out. The rest of the dogs would yap if he didn’t bring something for them, too, so he grabbed treats from the cabinet and took them back to the living room. Chris wasn’t gone long. The bedroom was already made up; it just needed to be freshened up a little. No one had been in there yet. “Wander around the house. Get to know it. You may be here for a while.” Chris smiled. Jason nodded and ate a little more. It was probably the first real meal he’d had in ages. Josh watched him, wondering what he was thinking. Was he happy or confused? Was he going to cause problems? Josh had no idea what to expect from this kid and had no idea how he was supposed to be a father. But he would do as he promised and let Chris take the lead on this because it was the type of man Chris was: a helper, a fixer. If it wasn’t the stray dogs, it was his students. Chris couldn’t help himself. It was one of the things Josh loved about him. He had no idea what to expect right now, though, and it was scary. This kid could make or break things, and Josh didn’t want him to break things. Not now. Not when things were going so well with him and Chris. They had a strong relationship. They were building a life together in their new home. It was everything Josh had ever wanted and needed. Now, he felt off-balance, unsure what to do. This kid needed something that he didn’t know if he could offer, despite what Chris had said about him being a good person. Kids needed more than just a good person. And what if he failed miserably and just made the situation worse? He couldn’t stomach making a kid’s life worse. He had no idea how to tell Chris all of that without sounding discouraging. He knew it was what Chris wanted to do, and he had no issue with that. He just worried about himself and his own ability to take on the role of a father to a fifteen-year-old boy who had some major trust issues and possibly more problems than Josh could cope with.990ooo It was bad enough he barely knew what to do for his own father, but when a kid was added to the mix, he had no idea what he was supposed to do. He was lost at sea. He had so many questions to ask and so many things he felt like he needed to know. He wanted a plan to approach this situation, much like he had at work. He knew what to expect from work and Chris, but this kid and his dad… he wished he had an idea of what he was supposed to do. The right thing to do was to give the kid a stable home to live in, if he could ever trust Josh or Chris. It would be wrong to turn him away, especially when he clearly needed the help they were in a position to offer. Josh sighed. He checked his watch and realized he needed to be at his parents’ house to check on his dad and do some things for his mother, so he finished eating and watched as Jason wandered around their very large, very homely house. The dogs followed the boy like ducklings, Fenton being the main culprit. Josh had to trust in Chris and his intuition. They could work out the details tomorrow, or however long it took to make things work, but right now, he had other things to do. So he put his plate in the kitchen and took Duke and a few of the other dogs with him to his parents’ house to check on things there. It was only a few houses away from the one he and Chris had bought together. Josh’s mother was in a good mood when he arrived. She only needed a few things taken care of and his dad seemed to be having one of his better days. The doctor had said they had caught it early, so there were options and time, but Josh didn’t want to take any of that for granted. He loved his father, and his father finally accepted him wholly. Ever since Chris had come to live there, things had been much better. There were no longer any random dates with women; there were nights when his father asked him to stay later and watch a movie with him; there were nights when his father just cried in silence and let Josh comfort him with an arm around his shoulders. Those were the hardest times for Josh. He didn’t know how to do anything more than what he was doing. He wasn’t a doctor or a specialist; he had no idea if the crying was from the MS or just because his father might be depressed. The doctor had warned him about Pseudo Bulbar Affect and how it would cause manic laughter and tears at times, but Josh still didn’t know if there was more to his dad’s moods than just PBA. He needed to get his dad back to the specialist or something to make sure he wasn’t depressed. He could only imagine how he would feel if his life changed suddenly and he had no control over certain reactions, especially when he had always been such a stoic man. He didn’t tell his mother about every small thing that happened to keep her sane, and he did his best to provide the support his father needed now that he was sick. Chris had called Josh his husband to Jason, and now that he thought about it, he wanted that to be true. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought about it before, but it seemed more appropriate now. There was more at stake. They’d been together for almost a year, but it had felt like longer. It felt like they had been together forever. The ease in which they got along and managed to overcome their obstacles was like breathing fresh air after a fire. Chris got along with his family, and Josh, though he hadn’t met them, still spoke to them on video chat when Chris took the time to do so at home. Chris’s mother was a lovely woman and she seemed to like Josh well enough. Chris’s father was harder to peg down, but he wasn’t negative about Josh, which was nice. By the time Josh got home, it was dark and the dogs were snuffling in the cold air. Chris was grading some papers on the sofa in the living room and Josh went and sat next to him, as usual. Jason was nowhere to be seen and his bag had disappeared from the living room. The washing machine was running, and all traces of dinner had disappeared. Josh went and checked the spare room, and Jason was out cold with Fenton sleeping at the foot of the bed, farting happily. He came back to sit with Chris and smiled. “I couldn’t leave him there.” “I understand,” Josh said, taking Chris’s hand. “I doubt I would’ve been able to, either. He’s certainly got spirit.” “I know. But the right sort, I think.” Josh nodded. “Not surprised he’s already asleep. Can’t imagine the last time he’s slept in a real bed.” “Months probably.” “I didn’t say anything to my parents yet.” “They know I bring strays home.” “This is a lot bigger than a dog, though.” “I don’t know, Cullen’s quite a size. He probably weighs more, at least.” Josh chuckled. “And one of the dogs has already claimed him.” “Oh, at least three of them. They have an instinct for who needs them most.” Nodding, Josh said, “He needs quite a bit. You think he really hustled?” “Ran cons?” “No, sex for money.” Chris considered for a moment. “Probably not.” “Wonder how much we’ll have to figure out and how much he’ll tell us.” “I’m sure he’ll confide eventually.” “Mm.” Josh thought for a moment. He loved Chris. He wanted to be with him for the rest of his life. He took a breath and said, “So, we’ve done the time. Might as well do the crime. Will you marry me?” “It’d be silly not to, wouldn’t it?” Josh smiled broadly and kissed Chris. He was glad they were on the same page. “You know, I have no idea how to be a dad…” “No new father ever does.” “And you think he’ll like being here? He’s already shown his distaste for gay men.” “He shows distaste for everything, Josh. Even pizza and Coke. Appreciation is a weakness; he’ll settle down.” Josh nodded. “So… big wedding or small wedding?” “Small. And ideally on a beach in the Caribbean.” Chris smiled self-deprecatingly. “I may have given this some thought from time to time.” Josh chuckled. It was the first time he realized that Chris had thought about marriage before now. “That’s good to know.” Josh smiled. “In all seriousness, most of my family will struggle to get here; I wouldn’t want them to feel excluded. If neither side is particularly well-represented, it feels… fairer, I suppose.” “Mm. I agree. I don’t mind it just being us. My dad probably isn’t in any shape to travel anyway.” “And if we arrange webcams, it can all be streamed or Skyped or Facetimed, or whatever it is that people do these days.” Josh smiled again, deeply. “All of the above.” *** “Yeah, yeah. No, I understand. Thanks. I’ll call you back.” Josh sighed and hung up the phone. He looked at Jason and wondered how he was going to take the news. “They say you have to go back to the family you ran away from. Just for now. Chris and I don’t have a license for fostering, so the best we can do is start taking the classes they recommend and you can come see us still.” Jason frowned. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he sighed. “I don’t like that family.” “I know. I know. But this is how it has to be. You can’t just stay here.” “Why not?” “Because that’s not how the law works. The social worker said it could take months.” “This is so fuc—” “Hey, watch your language.” Josh sighed. He didn’t know what to do to comfort the kid other than give him a hug, so he did that. “It’ll be alright. We’ll do whatever we have to do.” “It’s not fair,” Jason said into Josh’s shoulder. “I know.” Josh patted Jason’s back and pulled away. He didn’t know how Chris was going to take the news, either. There wasn’t much they could do but follow the rules. The kid wasn’t a lost dog. With a dog, Chris could just bring it home and start training it. With a kid, there were laws, and they weren’t in a position to do anything for him legally. Josh wanted to do more. “Hey. You can still come and see us. Any time. Okay?” Jason nodded. “So I go back to them… the Harpers. And I can come see you and Chris?” “Yeah. For now. Once we get our license, we’ll see what we can do about getting you full time.” “Okay. Okay.” Jason gave a half-smile. Josh smiled. “I know you don’t know me or Chris very well, but we make promises and keep them. This isn’t going away for us.” “Yeah. Whatever.” “Jason, seriously. This is all we can do right now. I need you to trust me. Trust us.” “Like I did with the Harpers?” “Yes. No. Like you’re going to do with us. Give us time. Nothing happens overnight. Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong with the Harpers?” Jason stilled. “They don’t want me. They just want the money.” “How do you know that?” “I heard her. Maria said they were just keeping me for the money.” “Are you sure that’s what she said?” “Damn it! Yes! She said they needed the money, even if they didn’t like it.” “I’m sure it’s not—” “Look, you don’t get it! They just want the money. They don’t care about me.” “Well, Chris and I do, so like it or not, you’re going to have to stay there until we can figure all of this out.” Jason got up from the sofa and paced the room. Josh was trying his best to reassure the kid that he and Chris would be there for him, but he had no idea how to do that. It was just words, as far as Josh could tell, and words weren’t going to get through to this kid. Jason probably overheard a conversation that had nothing to do with him but was jumping to conclusions to keep himself from getting hurt. “I know this sucks, but we’re going to do everything we can. I promise.” Josh wanted to do more, wanted to say more, but all he could do was follow through with his promise and do whatever it took to make sure this kid ended up with them. They didn’t need the money from fostering Jason in the same way the Harpers did. The money they got, if Josh had any say, would go straight to Jason and to teaching him how to handle money. When Jason calmed down, he would tell him, but at the moment, Josh could tell he wouldn’t be listening. Not when he thought the only reason someone wanted him was for the money he would bring them. Like Chris had said, his trust had to be earned. Josh decided then that he would do anything he had to do to earn that trust. He wanted Jason to be happy and healthy and to have a home like he had growing up, with two loving parents. He was certain that Chris would fight tooth and nail to maintain custody of Jason. The Harpers were in for a rude awakening when they met Chris. *** Four months later, Jason moved in with Josh and Chris. The Harpers were gone from Jason’s life and Josh and Chris had kept their promise to Jason despite Josh’s initial reservations about taking on the young man. He was doing well in school, even liking some of his classes and making friends. His best friend Eric spent a lot of time at the house with them, which Josh appreciated; Jason needed someone his own age to talk to and hang out with. The adoption was in process, now, and Jason wasn’t going anywhere if Chris had anything to say about it. Even though he still doubted his ability to be a father, Josh continued to take Chris’s lead with Jason. Jason’s passport had come in the mail a few days ago for their upcoming trip to England, after the wedding in St. Croix. Josh packed his bags and carefully selected something nice but appropriate for the wedding. Jason was allowed to wear shorts and a t-shirt. Josh had bought white linen trousers and a shirt from online. He had no idea what Chris was going to wear, and didn’t care so long as he showed up and they got married. In a few days, they would be on the beach, getting married, and however long it took, Jason would be their son legally. Things were going well, as far as Josh was concerned. It was the perfect way to start their new lives together as a family. Josh was at peace with his life and appreciated every moment he spent with Jason and Chris. Without them, he didn’t know what he would do. Going back to what he had before them would make his life incomplete. Without them, he would just be caring for his father and selling books. Now, he had a family of his own to take care of and no one could take that away from him. He wouldn’t let them. The End
  3. The epilogue will be posted later. :)

     

  4. Thanks so much! Yeah, it's just a little novella love story. Thanks. Glad you're enjoying it.
  5. Yes, another date coming. It will be their place on the ship. hehe
  6. Yeah, Josh is good a lot of things, but he’s not the sort to be able to give all his time to caring for his father, or mother, for that matter. He has been in need of a life for a long time.
  7. There is still an epilogue to come! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. We appreciate
  8. There is still an epilogue to come! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. We appreciate it
  9. There's still an epilogue to come. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.
  10. Josh didn’t want to get out of bed. It felt too nice to have Chris’s legs tucked between his akimbo. He sighed, though, and opened his eyes anyway. Stretching would dislodge the strange way Chris had his legs wrapped around Josh’s, so he didn’t move, just kissed Chris and made sure he put more behind it than a “you’re amazing, and I love you”; it was more like “I want you so much my body’s aching.” Cruel, Josh knew, to wake him up, but they really couldn’t spend all day in bed. When Chris responded, he moaned, satisfied to the core. “Ready to wake up? Isn’t it swimming today?” “Mm. Yes.” Josh smiled. “Good. Let’s get dressed, then.” “Dressed” meant showers, only God knew why, when they were about to spend the morning at the pool. Josh didn’t bother asking, especially when Chris joined him and gave him a spectacular blowjob. Legless and clean, Josh put on his swimsuit and got a towel he’d bought from one of the gift shops on board the boat. It didn’t take long to discover a few things that Chris didn’t like about water. And that he wasn’t a great swimmer. Josh decided that maybe a lie in the sun would be a better. After some swimming around, Josh convinced Chris to join him on the loungers as long as he had SPF50 sunblock. Josh didn’t bother with sunblock; he needed the sun. *** The terminal in Miami was like an over-stocked fish tank. There were people everywhere, pushing through to their destinations without watching where they were going. He brushed his hand against Chris’s; their last night together had been great, their plan for keeping in contact settled, but after three weeks in their own private world, Josh wasn’t ready to let go. Their terminals were in different directions, departures at separate times… Josh knew it would only be a few hours before he was home. His sister Sabrina was picking him up at the Greensboro airport; his brother was with their parents, apparently. It was hard to think of anything to say to Chris. ‘Goodbye’ felt too permanent, but ‘see you soon’ just wouldn’t be true. At least, they’d talk soon. Josh’s flight was announced over the PA and as much as he wanted to kiss Chris, he left it at a half-smile and squeezing his hand. They’d talk soon. He knew that. Nothing he said would change the current outcome. He took a few steps and stopped. He wanted to say something. Nothing came to him, nothing useful anyway. Finally, he headed to the gate, hoping for the best. *** Sabrina was at baggage claim, already holding his things when Josh managed to make it through the throng. She smiled, and waved him over. The crowd here didn’t move as fast as it had in Miami, but there were plenty of people pushing and pulling to get to their destinations. Josh sighed, for the first time not wanting to reach his. It was just home, but he’d left a lot behind when he boarded his plane. Sabrina chattered the whole way home, asking him questions he wasn’t ready to answer; he did anyway, just to make the ride home go a little faster. She dropped him at his place reluctantly, only on condition that he promised to go by and see his parents as soon as he had taken care of a few things in his apartment. Sabrina gave him a look, but he just smiled and promised again; he had an email to send. Dear Chris, If this flight is anything like the one you took over here, I’m sure you’ll be jetlagged and tired when you get home. I just wanted to let you know that I’m home, and clearly already thinking about you. I hope you have a few days to settle in before going back to work. I can honestly say I’m missing the tropical climate. There’s snow and rain. Every idiot with the license is on the road. I’m glad I don’t have to go far to work. I’ll try to call in a few days. Josh Josh closed his laptop and went out the back, where his truck waited. He drove to his parents’ house, met by Duke barking and scrabbling at the door. He let himself in and greeted his blissful dog, resigned to being shed and drooled on while he told his parents about his trip. Selected highlights only; he was deliberately vague about Chris. He didn’t want to deal with expectations before he had a clue about how the long-distance relationship would work out. After dinner, he went home with Duke, who sat on his feet and gazed at him adoringly while he read his mail and caught up on telephone messages. He looked at his laptop and eventually gave in to checking his email, but there was nothing. He didn’t get a reply from Chris for a few days. He’d half-expected that, but was immensely pleased when he saw Chris’s name at the top of his inbox. He clicked it and read. Dear Josh, I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to reply sooner; things have been rather busy here and, yes, I did have monstrous jet lag. Most of the snow has cleared, fortunately, but there is plenty of fog and rain. The dogs were very pleased to see me. I’ve attached a video from the first walk after I got back. How is your father? Chris Josh smiled and clicked on the video Chris had attached. His pack looked like a family of friends, diverse and full of personality. The view of Chris’s neighborhood was also educational. Everything seemed small, compact, like the little displays at Ikea: made to fit as much as possible in the little space available. He hit reply as soon as the video ended. Hey, I’m glad everything’s okay. Loved the video. They’re quite the crowd, aren’t they? Dad’s all right. He seems to be feeling better, anyway. He doesn’t tend to tell me about these things and Mom sugar-coats everything. The store has been slow. I’m sure it’ll pick up soon. Here’re some photos from around the house and Duke with me at my parents’. Oh, and my siblings. Josh Even after only one set of email exchanges, Josh guessed there would always be a few-day gap in replies. Chris’s life was busy; he worked hard, and that had shown on him from the moment they’d met. When Josh hadn’t heard from Chris in over a week, he called and left a message, hoping to hear his voice. Chris didn’t have a personal message, though; it was just the generic robotic greeting of a woman with an English accent and a beep. Josh sighed as he hung up. Part of him wondered if the last month had just been a dream. If it had been, his mind had a cruel sense of humor. A few days later, he woke up to his phone showing a missed call from Chris. There was a voicemail, but it didn’t last long: Chris spoke a hurried, harried greeting and about half a sentence more before what had to be a student howled ‘Sir!’ and the call ended. It was nice to hear Chris’s voice, though. He stopped thinking the cruise had been a dream. Morning. I got your message, well, what was there before the ‘Sir!’ in the background. I haven’t heard from you in a while, so I’d hoped to catch you on the phone. Are you running yourself ragged? Josh Josh closed his laptop. It would be a while before he got a response. He went to his parents’ house and made dinner for them. His dad had been having a few strange days. Josh caught him crying in the garage while he looked into a toolbox. Sabrina told him their dad had been too tired to go fishing with his buddies over the weekend, and his brother had told him their dad didn’t remember calling him earlier that day to talk about his grandchildren. Josh knew something was wrong, but he was helpless. Their mother saw it, and she attributed it to age. Josh wasn’t a medical expert, but he also knew this was more than his dad’s time of life. It worried him. Slowly, his evenings at his apartment became evenings at his parents’ house. He wished he could talk to Chris. He felt stupid sending another email before he got a reply from the last one, so he restrained the urge and focused instead on his family, striving to control the growing worry. His dad had good days and bad days in phases, and Josh found himself starting to wonder whether it was something viral, or his blood sugar, or something equally simple. Relieved of that worry, his mind turned to Chris and his sporadic emails again. He should’ve told him how he felt before he’d left Miami; he knew that now. Things might have played out differently if he had. He still had time to make up for not saying anything, though. He opened a search engine and began looking for deals for flights to London. They weren’t all as exorbitantly priced as he’d thought they might be; it created a real possibility. Next time he heard from Chris, he’d see what he thought about it. An email came in a week later. Good evening, Josh, I’m afraid my phone is usually off, silent, or dead because I’ve failed to charge it recently. I’ve been rather busy lately, but I’m not running myself ragged. I have half a dozen very promising boys in my current crop - two of them are working towards Bishop’s Chorister, and of course I’m having to work very hard on my cellist, since it really isn’t my instrument; I’ve been doing private tuition, so my evenings seem to have disappeared, such as they were. Is it dreadful of me to say that I rather miss the leisure of the piano lounge? Chris Josh didn’t think before he hit reply. He missed Chris, too, more and more each day. Chris, No, I miss the piano lounge, too. I have quite a few fond memories of being there. Definitely you. I miss our nights together. I knew this would be hard, but to be honest, I didn’t realize how hard. My dad’s sick again. Seems like the flu, but I’m no doctor. Mom’s beside herself. They’re running some tests, but there’s nothing definitive yet. I was thinking about taking a trip soon. Before or after Easter. Would that be good for your schedule? Josh A couple of days later, Josh had a response waiting. Josh I’m sorry to hear that your father’s unwell. Has he heard from the doctor yet? I hope it’s just viral. I miss you. It would be lovely to see you whenever suits you - before Easter would be marginally easier, but, really, I will do everything I can to work around you. Chris Josh smiled and said he’d give Chris the details as soon as he had them worked out. He got up and looked out the window facing the town square and imagined seeing Chris again, being with Chris again, feeling Chris again. He was glad he hadn’t been alone in missing Chris. Knowing it was reciprocated made him even more determined to get the details worked out to go to England as soon as possible. He couldn’t wait anymore. Winter had turned into spring; going without Chris any longer, he thought he might go insane. There had been so much to do, so much on his shoulders that he wanted to fall into being at Chris’s mercy—the guest and not the one making all the decisions. He investigated flights and taxis, dates and times, the requirements for taking Duke with him to meet Chris’s pack, and the thousands of details involved in crossing the planet; Chris helped with information about the England end of the flight where he could, and Josh braced himself to tell his parents that he planned to visit the man he’d met on the cruise. “Mom, Dad.” His parents looked up from their respective books, their eyebrows up and lips pursed. “I bought a ticket to go to England.” Josh smiled. “I’m going to see Chris.” “Oh, sweetie, that’s wonderful.” His mom looked at him misty-eyed and hopeful in a way that he’d seen often enough to know that she held out hope of him settling down with someone. “What ’cha gon’ do with Duke and that cat?” his dad asked, folding his hand between the pages of his book. “I’m taking Duke with me. Sabrina is going to watch the store, so she’ll check on the cat, too.” For a moment, his dad looked at him, then nodded with a grunt. He returned to the pages of his book, not even a glance at Josh’s mother. That was about all Josh was going to get from the old man: Robert Matheson was a man of few words, when he could help it. The most Josh had ever heard him say at once was when he talked about the old days, talked religion or politics, baseball and football, or when he gave toasts at his siblings’ weddings. The embarrassing stories had always been funnier when Dad had told them. “Oh, I know you’re feeling better, but don’t forget your appointment tomorrow.” Josh waited for his dad to acknowledge him. It finally came, and Josh disappeared to the room he grew up in to do some more planning for his trip. After he’d spent hours going through places and things he wanted to see while he was with Chris, Josh stretched and scratched his stomach. He had a solid plan. Even if he didn’t get to see everything, he was going to see the most important thing—person—he was going to England for. Someone knocked on his door. “Yeah?” “Josh, are you decent?” “Yeah, come on in, Mom.” The door widened enough for her to see him through the crack and lean on the door knob. “Honey, will you drive us to Doctor Pritchett’s office tomorrow?” Josh frowned. “Yeah, I can do that. Everything okay?” Pritchett wasn’t his dad’s usual doctor. Is he going to a specialist? He didn’t bother asking; his parents just didn’t talk about certain things: illness, sex, his orientation… “Of course, dear.” She smiled wanly and patted the doorknob like it was a cherished pet. “Yes. Everything’s fine. Thank you.” “Yeah, no problem.” She closed the door after saying goodnight, and Josh had a strange jolt in his stomach, like she knew something no one else did or was afraid. Josh didn’t think about it too much. He didn’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill when it could just be as simple as his dad’s regular doctor being sick. He checked his phone for what felt like the fiftieth time that day. Nothing, but that didn’t mean Chris wasn’t thinking about him at least. He got up and switched off the overhead light with a quick snap of his thumb and used his phone to light the way back to the bed. He pulled off his t-shirt and jeans and got in bed, thinking of Chris. *** The waiting area was finally empty-ish and the only distraction around was the TV in the corner with the local news. Josh was tapping out an email to Chris when his dad came out of the treatment area, his mom behind him. He sighed and clicked the button to lock his phone and followed his parents to their car. He spent the entire drive home as he had on the way there: going ten miles below the 70 mile-an-hour speed limit because his mother thought they were going too fast. Josh let her complain and had slowed down as she’d asked. Cars along I-85 honked and sped past them until he exited in Lexington. Back home, he switched cars and went to the bookstore. He couldn’t leave it closed all the time, and his sister hadn’t been willing to open for him. He was glad his dad’s appointment had been so early; he would actually get there by ten to open on time. When he got there, after the usual opening routine, he clicked his phone, only to find his email to Chris eaten. *** The test results came in on a Monday afternoon. Josh was at the counter, taking a customer’s debit card when the phone rang. He thanked the woman and answered, swiping the card at the computer. His stomach plummeted. He couldn’t do anything with the store open so he made the decision to close early. Writing the apology for the door was difficult with his hands shaking; the letters were barely better-shaped than a twelve-year-old’s. He managed to finish and taped the sign to the door. His hands were still shaking when he got to the car. The keys tinkled against each other. Josh clamped his hand around the noise, demanding silence for just a moment. But there was no silence. Just the buzz in his head that his dad was seriously ill and that his life was about to change in more than one way. Had he even remembered to lock the store? He looked out of the windshield and saw the cat in his apartment window and Duke’s nose pressed against the glass of the shop door. It was like they knew something was wrong and didn’t want him to leave. He only had one place to go, though. He started his truck and shifted into drive. He barely pressed the gas pedal, creeping forward just a bit before turning the wheel and merging into the roadway. At the stop sign, he watched the perfectly-paced traffic keep him from going anywhere. His turn signal blinked and clicked, blinked and clicked; he changed the signal to turn right and merged into traffic when there was an opening. Chris never left his thoughts, but things became hectic far sooner than he’d thought possible. Abandoned by his siblings with the excuse that they all had families to look after and were busy with work, he moved into his parents’ house. Appointments, prescriptions, and being therapist to his mother came before everything else. His life sank into overwhelmed carer for his father. A few days before he’d planned to leave, he pulled out his laptop. He didn’t want to have to write what was coming, but he had no choice. He sat for a moment and let the madness of it all take over. His loss—Chris, his father’s sickness, having to take on so much, without help. This wasn’t how he wanted things to be. A pack of cigarettes sat on the corner of his parents’ kitchen divider. Josh looked at it, knowing he never should have bought them. It would be so easy to tear the cellophane open, pull the foil and spark a lighter while inhaling. He’d feel the rush of it for a few minutes before it died and he tried to find it again. It was so tempting to throw away all of his hard work in quitting. To hell with it. He tossed the pack in the garbage. He collected himself and composed the email. This time I should apologize for not writing sooner. We know what’s wrong with Dad now. He has multiple sclerosis. I won’t be able to take that trip after all. The one thing in the world I want to do, and I can’t. My brother and sisters are saying that because I don’t have a family, I’m better suited to help mom and dad. I’ll be moving into their house. I’ll leave you the new address. It feels like the world is against us. *** His father was falling apart. Josh couldn't do anything to stop it. Watching it happen didn't make it any less difficult to cope with. The meds were still kicking in and his mother wasn't coping well with the mood swings. His father was a different man a lot of the time. No one knew it more than Josh and his mother. Josh took care of the fallout every time his dad had a hysterical fit of laughter at inappropriate moments. He dealt with it when the crying started and his dad yelled at him to go away. He didn't understand but he could only imagine how it must feel for his father to be losing his mind and body at the same time. Maybe Josh did know. Since Chris had been gone, all he could do was think about him, missing him. But there hadn't been any promises. Not promises that usually meant rings and vows, for normal people. Chris had his own busy life and students to handle. Josh didn’t dare subject him to this, too. And it wasn't like Chris had said he loved Josh or given any indication that he knew how deep Josh’s attachment to Chris went into his bones. It was like he'd lost a piece of himself. He'd given and taken his time and found real love, the one person he would do anything for and that person was on another continent. He couldn’t just drop in. Not now. Not with his father’s illness and his mother’s inability to cope with certain aspects of the sickness. She apologized all the time to Josh, like that somehow made the hurt of her emotional abandonment easier to accept. Josh didn’t think she did it on purpose. He didn’t think she set out to make things harder. They were all a little lost and she probably most of all, if he thought about it. The man she’d loved and been with her whole life was only the same man sometimes. When he was, it was a strange combination of the illness and him, but Josh saw him trying. Sometimes he even caught his dad crying naturally, with the TV on and cup of coffee beside him. “Dad?” His dad cleared his throat. “Son.” “You okay?” There was a long silence, so heavy that Josh thought it might be better to walk away, but he waited. “I’m worried about your mom.” “Why?” His dad wiped his face. “I can’t be her husband like this.” Faced with such a blunt reason, Josh paused, then took a seat on the sofa. “Dad, I think… I think as long as you don’t forget about her, she’ll be okay. You know?” His father shook his head, Josh had seen that a handful of times, this motion of ‘you don’t understand and can never understand’ in his whole bearing. “I know I’m not married and don’t have kids but… I reckon I’d feel the same way, Dad.” His dad looked at him, tears still streaming down his face. He looked like he wanted to ask a question, but he just nodded at Josh and said nothing. Josh wanted to beg him to say what was on his mind, but there was no point; his dad never said what didn’t need to be said. After living with it his whole life, Josh reckoned it wouldn’t change now. Despite his illness and his age, Josh’s dad cared for his children and his wife, but he never had to say the words. He showed them all by helping where he could, by being a great grandfather to his grandchildren, by being a rock for others when they needed advice. Josh wanted to ask for advice about Chris, hoping his father might have some insight into things, but he just sat with him for a while. The Braves were playing a pre-season game on television. His dad’s favorite team. Instead of leaving like he normally would, Josh offered to get his dad a drink and joined him for the game with a beer for himself and a diet coke for his dad. Every now and then, his dad would comment on a player and how he was going to do. The tears were gone and it seemed like everything was back to ‘normal’ for now. His mother came in to say goodnight. Something shifted in the air when she kissed her husband and went to bed. Josh glanced at his father and knew he was about to say something. “Son, that boy cares about you. It’ll work out.” “You—uh… Wow.” Josh just about choked. “Thanks, Dad.” His dad cleared his throat and looked at Josh with a penetrating gaze. “Love don’t come along every day. You gotta take hold of it when you have it.” He nodded, absolute, then reached out and took Josh’s hand, his own shaking just a little. “Go after him.” Josh squeezed his father’s hand and nodded. If only he knew how difficult it was to go after Chris. They lived in different worlds, led different lives, and seemed to have different ideas of love. He’d wanted advice. Somehow his father had known, and with his knowledge, he’d given his approval of Josh and his choice, not knowing how much it meant to Josh. Or perhaps he did, and felt the need to let him know now, before anything bad happened. Josh could only hold his father’s hand in appreciation, but he knew he couldn’t just leave. Not now. Not with the risk of things getting worse. Someone had to run the bookstore and help his parents, get his dad to the doctor, and be there for his mother. It was an impossible situation. Josh’s dad let go of his hand. “Get some rest, Josh. Your mother needs you.” “I know,” he whispered like a child. “Good. You’re a good boy.” Josh nodded, missing the touch of his father’s hand. He was scared, too. Scared for his father, for his mother, for his siblings. Death took no holidays, and even though the doctors were positive, Josh knew this disease would eat away at his father until there was nothing left, especially at his age. No one else could be there the way he could. Hospice wasn’t involved, which was a small relief, but no one knew how long that would last. Josh stood and touched his dad’s shoulder before heading off to bed. He couldn’t process any more for that night. Tomorrow, he’d contemplate what to do about Chris and how that future might work. *** Josh sat at his laptop in his old bedroom and began writing: Dear Chris, I hope this finds you well. Had an interesting talk with Dad last night. I won’t go into the details, but he finally accepted that I wasn’t going to be settling down with a young woman. It was a relief, honestly. For the first time in my adult life, I felt like he actually saw me for who I am. I didn’t sleep well, but it was mostly worry. Seeing him cry is still surreal and painful; he thinks he can’t be a husband to mom any more, which I tried to explain was silly, but I have no idea if he listened or not. One thing he did tell me is that I should “go after you.” I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy and relieved I didn’t know what to do with myself. It’s not every day that he says “I accept you, Son.” Which that felt like what he was doing. Mom is still a mess. She has no idea what to do with herself and nothing I suggest or do helps. Being helpless is not a situation I’m used to, except where it comes to us. But that’s different, you know? We have an ocean separating us and lives in our countries. I would give it all up, though. If even it meant we could say we tried. Not trying seems ridiculous. I don’t know. I’m rambling. I hope all is well there. Hope to talk to you soon. Josh *** Josh looked at his inbox. There had been a few sporadic emails from Chris after the sympathetic response about his father’s diagnosis, but the gaps had grown in their correspondence. Their one attempt at the web-cam thing had been an unmitigated disaster: Chris apparently lived in an area of poor network coverage and his internet connection was flaky at the best of times. Josh felt defeated. The last email he’d received had been two months ago. Josh clicked on it and replied again. He kept it simple and hoped that Chris would understand. Heartbreak and dealing with his father weren’t two things he could handle together. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Chris, I had a great time. I’m glad I met you. Josh *** August rolled in with the heat of lava on its tail. Josh was certain if the door of the book store was open too long, he’d find out that 451 degrees was just a random number and that the books would in fact burn themselves to ash in the 109 degree heat. The air conditioning was on sixty-five, but the swelter rippling through the city was enough to steal the breath from his lungs if he took a step outside. That morning, the news had a warning for sexagenarians and older and asthmatics to take frequent breaks in the shade and to drink lots of water if they were planning to go out before dark. Really the warning applied to everyone. Damned news station always singled out one group or another every broadcast, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise that senior citizens were the target that day. The store was slow. Summer sapped everyone of their energy; sensible people stayed home with the air conditioning and online shopping. Only a brave or foolhardy few made it through the doors. One of Josh’s regulars browsed the New Releases section, muttering his disapproval of the unusual volumes Josh had selected and his disdain for the current Bestsellers. He really did think the store needed some changes. Maybe setting up a delivery service would increase customers… Something butted his leg. Josh didn’t need to look to recognize a dog’s head, but it was too low to belong to Duke and he frowned, eyes drifting downwards. It was a Labrador. A naggingly familiar Labrador. “Hey, what the hell? Who let all these damn dogs in here?” That was his customer, Mr. Bradley. Dogs… Josh turned toward the door. “Chris?” The book in Josh’s hands tipped forward and fell the floor in slow motion. It hit the floor and flipped, its pages wrinkling. “Mr. Bradley, I’m sorry. The book’s on me. If you don’t mind.” The words left his mouth without conscious volition; he was dimly aware of Mr. Bradley’s grunted, cussed acceptance, but his attention was fixed on the doorway and the man standing in it. It was hot, impossibly, unhealthily hot; it was possible he was imagining things. Duke, however, was sniffing a Greyhound, the Labrador was inspecting Josh’s shoes, and there was definitely a Papillon prancing around the bestseller display. “I was going to take them to the house, but I couldn’t bear to leave them. The flight was dreadful.” Chris looked a little guilty and apologetic, just as he had more than once during the cruise. Josh decided that if it was a hallucination, he’d kill the person who tried to make him see the real world. “House?” Josh stepped down from behind the counter. “They had to travel in the cargo hold.” This was a bad thing, Josh could tell. His brain wasn’t engaging just yet, though, and Chris was rambling. “The house is on a road called Sawgrass Lane; it’s the high school music teacher’s.” He smiled nervously. “We’ve job-swapped for a while.” Noise erupted from everywhere without warning, the dogs having apparently decided that introductions were over and playtime had begun. Josh couldn’t think, and barely registered the chaos breaking out around him. ‘Job-swap’ echoed around his skull, the concept so enormous as to be almost meaningless. Maybe the heat had melted his brain. He stared at Chris. Job-swap meant that for at least a term, maybe even a school year, Chris would be there, with Josh. Chris was there with Josh. Josh closed the distance between him and Chris. He reached out and pulled Chris against him, melting into him. He found Chris’s lips and kissed him, pouring his sorrow, loss, confusion, love into the contact. Everything became a haze. “I thought I’d lost you.” Josh slumped against Chris. “No. I just had a lot to do, to get this arranged by the end of term. I didn’t want to tell you in case I couldn’t pull it off.” “So that’s why you stopped emailing?” “I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about.” The apology was in his voice and the brush of his fingertips over Josh’s jaw. ”I’m not a natural liar; I couldn’t come up with a reason for not being around. I’m sorry. I… took the bit between my teeth, really, and got rather blinkered.” Josh kissed him again. “I’m glad you’re here.” Relief flooded Chris’s smile. “So am I. And I’m glad you haven’t just told me where to stick it.” The idea was almost laughable. “Hardly. I love you.” Chris rested his forehead against Josh’s. “You’d still be well within your rights to be furious.” “No. I mean, yeah. But I’d rather appreciate knowing it all worked out than push you away.” “It’s a bit soon to say, isn’t it? I mean, that’s why I’m here. This isn’t just a month-long thing; I’ve got a year. That should give us time.” Josh couldn’t stop smiling. “Only time will tell.” He kissed Chris again, thankful and overwhelmed. “Definitely willing to take the time, though.” *** Josh pulled up outside his parents’ Tudor-style home with Chris, and the dogs in the back of his Chevy Silverado. “You see that oval-outcropping?” “Mm.” “My parents used to read to me on the bench, and I used to hide there for hours with a book when I was a kid.” Chris smiled. A lovely sight, no matter the occasion. Josh parked and admired Chris for a moment. It was stiflingly hot and Josh hoped that his parents didn’t have the air conditioner set on Purgatory. Somehow, Chris still managed to wear pants and a shirt, even though Josh was sweating in his shorts and t-shirt. Fireflies danced like glitter in the air, their bulbs flashing in quick sequence on the hill where Josh’s parents’ house stood. “Ready?” Josh asked, worried that his parents might embarrass him or try to talk about the first time he had brought a boyfriend home. He didn’t want those memories to hang around Chris. Chris was different, and Josh had been a less wise man in those days; careless, even, to the point of introducing his family to someone who— No, now that Josh thought about it, that relationship had failed because of his own mistakes, and he wasn’t prepared to repeat them. He knew he’d been angry through college and his first job outside of the bookstore. It had taken losing a dear friend to make him understand how bad it really had been. When he stormed off from the bar that night, he never thought it would be the last time he would talk to Chase. But he’d made an ass of himself for the last time, and that had been part of the reason he had decided to move back home. He had needed less stress in his life and working for SAS wasn’t helping. The hours had been long and the expectations high. Josh has been good at both, but it affected him badly to the point that no one had wanted to work with him, let alone date him. “Of course.” Josh led Chris and the dogs up the front steps into the house and let them in with his key. “We’re here!” he called out and his mother came out of the kitchen in an apron and Sunday dress. “Oh, Josh…” his mother smiled and gave him a hug. “And this must be Chris.” She started to give him a hug, but Chris extended his hand. Thrown, she stopped and accepted it. “I’m Grace, dear. Robert is in the dining room with Nate and Sabrina.” Chris nodded and Josh showed him through to the dining room. Duke wandered around the house, as usual, sniffing anything that seemed new and the other dogs followed him. Josh’s parents knew Chris had a lot of dogs, so they weren’t surprised by the pack of them following them around the house. Josh shook his dad’s hand and introduced Chris. They shook hands and then the rounds continued to Nate and Sabrina. Josh’s mom was busy in the kitchen. He went to see if she needed any help as Chris took a seat at the table. “Oh, no, dear. I’ve got everything under control. Go sit.” “Alright.” Josh took a seat next to Chris and listened to the light conversation that had started. Chris mostly listened, as it was about baseball. Josh wished he could spare him from having to listen to any more and was grateful when his mother came in with a tray of meats and cheeses and set it down on the table. “So, Chris, what part of England are you from?” Josh’s mom asked. “Robert and I have been to London many times.” “Nowhere you'll have heard of I'm afraid. The village is called Broadwell; it's in the Cotswolds.” ”Oh, okay. And what about siblings? Josh said your parents are still there.” ”Yes; I've been very fortunate in that sense. I have an elder brother, Matthew. He's a barrister, and he's married with children. I've never been under the least pressure to be a high flier or settle down to carry on the family line, which is just as well, really.” ”Yes, Josh did mention how busy you tend to be. You mustn't work too hard or you'll have no time for anything else. And where does Matthew live?” ”He lives in London with Helen. The children are away at school; the boys are at Gordonstoun and Sarah is at Roedean. Helen does a lot for charity.” ”Oh, that's lovely. Are you and Matthew close?” ”We speak three or four times a week.” ”Perhaps Josh could learn something from you about that. He rarely talks to Nate.” Josh’s mother looked between Josh and Nate with an expectant expression. “And you teach music. What ages?” ”My teaching certificate is for secondary school, so eleven and up. But I teach all ages privately; my youngest piano student was three. I'm also qualified to teach mathematics. I occasionally cover colleagues.” ”Goodness. That's quite the range. You're a very accomplished young man. Where did you attend university?” ”I was at Magdalen. Oxford.” ”Oxford I've heard of.” She chuckled. “It's a good institution from what I understand. How did you find it?” ”It's the only one I've attended, so I don't have much basis for comparison. It doesn't bear much resemblance to the, ah, college here.” ”No, I can't imagine it would. Now, if you were to go to one of the UNC schools, it might be more familiar in terms of size. Are you enjoying the job exchange so far?” ”Yes, thank you. It's very interesting.” She smiled. “I'm pleased to hear it. And Josh is taking care of you, isn't he?” Josh huffed. ”I prefer to think that we take care of one another.” ”Just as well. That's how it should be.” She smiled gently at both of them. “And how are you faring with our summer heat? I don't believe it gets nearly as hot in England.” ”No, it doesn't. I think I'm bearing up reasonably well.” ”Josh has a bad habit of messing with the air conditioner. Robert and I end up freezing and he says he's still hot.” She shook her head. “It's good that you're doing well, though. I know it must be a bit of a culture shock. Especially driving.” ”I'd driven on the continent several times; it wasn't entirely unfamiliar.” ”Oh, whereabouts?” ”France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Holland.” ”Quite well-travelled. Was that all music-related?” ”Oh, no. Some of it was just holidays.” ”That's what we'd call a vacation, right?” ”Yes,” Chris said. Josh’s mother nodded. “Now, would you like turkey or ham, or both?” ”What do you recommend?” ”A little of both is always good. I can't imagine you'd like American cheese, so there's some cheddar, provolone and Muenster.” Josh’s mom got up and went to the kitchen and returned with bread, mayonnaise and mustard. “Josh, you can make your own,” she said with a smile. ”Mayonnaise and mustard?” ”I'm sure that will be delicious, thank you.” ”Is there anything we can do to make your transition here easier?” Josh’s mom began gathering everything for a sandwich. The chips were already on the table. ”You're very kind to offer, but I think I'm coping quite well, on balance, thank you.” ”I'm glad to hear it. What would you like to drink? We have a little bit of everything.” ”Lemonade would be lovely, thank you.” ”I think we can manage that.” She smiled and continued to compile the sandwich. “Have you always enjoyed music or did you discover it later in life?” ”I started playing the piano when I was six, and joined the church choir at eight.” ”Oh, really? That's wonderful. You're just full of surprises. Did you ever play any sports?” ”Only at school, I'm afraid.” ”Did Josh tell you he played baseball in high school?” ”Yes, he did. I've even seen the yearbook photographs.” She nodded and brought the sandwich, along with a glass of lemonade to Chris. “Here you are. I hope you enjoy it. It's a bit hot for a cookout, or we'd have something more substantial.” ”I'm sure it will be more than enough, thank you; Josh can tell you that I've never been a big eater.” ”I suppose the portion sizes are another big difference from England. “ Chris hummed while Josh started putting together two sandwiches with turkey, ham, and cheese. ”How do you like the high school?” ”It's considerably bigger than the school I was teaching in, and of course that was just boys. I seem to be handling it reasonably well, though, and it's certainly no harder.” ”That's a relief. I'm glad you're adjusting well. And you and Josh seem to be doing well. Oh! I almost forgot about the dogs. What do they like to eat?” ”Please don't worry about them; they've had their breakfast.” ”If you're certain... Duke will eat anything. Any time. But you've probably seen that already.” Josh’s mom laughed. “I do hope you're happy here. I've never seen my son like this. It makes us happy. He had such a rough time there for a while.” ”Mom!” Josh didn’t need his mother telling Chris the worst of him, especially when it was in the past. ”What? It's true. You were quite angry all the time when you lived in Raleigh. It's nice that you've met someone who's kind and can keep you centered.” She patted Josh’s hand. ”You're going to stay for a while, aren't you?” ”That's really up to Josh; he did the driving.” ”Oh, stay for the game, Josh. It'll be like old times.” Josh felt cornered for a moment; he still liked to watch a game every now and then, but he knew how seriously his dad took the game, especially when the Braves were playing the Nationals. He didn’t want Chris to have to deal with it, too. It was unfortunately a hazard of bonding with his father. ”Yeah, I reckon we can stay for the game. But we'll have to leave before it's over. We both have work tomorrow.” “I know, dear. We just want to get to know Chris a little better. You've had him all to yourself since he arrived.” ”I was trying to let him get settled in before all hell broke loose.” ”Josh. Watch your tone. And I know that. Come. Let's go to the living room and we can continue talking.” Chris had to put up with religion as a topic of conversation as much as anyone else who dealt with Josh’s mother. She was a devout woman, and it seemed that all of his years of being an organist gave him a unique perspective on maintaining a conversation about religion. Josh tried to steer away from it as a topic as much as possible. When they managed to get away from religion, Josh’s dad decided to regale Chris with his superior knowledge of baseball and the intricacies of the game. Josh knew it was an accident, but his dad didn’t seem to get that Chris saying he wasn’t familiar with the game wasn’t an invitation to tell him all about it. To Josh’s knowledge, Chris wasn’t keen on sports in general. Josh only watched with his dad and brother, usually, and then it was baseball and football. Overall, though, the evening went well. Josh was grateful that no one embarrassed him by telling too many old stories or harping on the past. He was a different man, now, and Chris was part of his future. *** Josh watched his sister with their dad. It was the first time in weeks she had come over to be with him and Josh wasn’t on the hook for being carer. Frowning, Josh tried to tamp down on his anger. He was trying to build a life with Chris and yet his family was expecting him to work and pick up the slack where their father was concerned. Nate rarely came around, and when he did, it was only for a few hours. He didn’t live that far away. Same with Sabrina. She may have a family, but that didn’t make her immune to helping out. Chris had asked Josh to move in with him, but he couldn’t, not yet. All because his brother and sister didn’t want to help more. Josh was expected to spend all day and all evening with his father. Their shared silence did nothing but make the tension higher. Josh wanted to be with Chris. He felt like he had earned his turn to start his life, finally. Sabrina looked at Josh and waved him over. He went, not liking the look on her face. “I’ve got to go, Josh. The kids need me.” Josh stared at her for a moment. “Yeah. So does dad.” “Don’t. You can’t understand what it’s like to have a family and deal with this, too.” “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize Chris wasn’t part of my life, now.” “It’s not the same and you know it, Josh.” Josh turned toward his dad, trying not to yell at his sister. “He asked me to move in with him. I can’t because I always have to be here. I had to hire people to work at the store, and we’re all treating him like he’s going to fall apart if we’re not here 24-7,” Josh said and stopped himself. He was raising his voice and his dad was giving him an unforgiving look. “He’s not helpless.” “I know he’s not!” Sabrina snapped. She frowned and her eyebrows lowered. “You just don’t get it, Josh. You and Nate aren’t married with two kids. I have homework to do, laundry, my own job—” “I didn’t make you have kids.” Josh stared his sister down. She cracked a little. Her expression going from anger to frustration. “Just admit that you don’t want to be here. I deserve my life, too. Nate’s single, has no kids. But no… Josh is the one who has to take care of everything because he’s the gay one. I have someone, now. Someone who loves me and wants to be with me. And instead of living my life with him like I should be, I’m losing days and nights with him because you and Nate won’t step up.” “Josh—” “No! I’m tired of this. I love you guys, but you’re selfish as hell!” Sabrina stood up, her brow furrowed and lips tight. “I have to go.” She kissed their dad’s temple. “I love you, dad.” “You, too, sweetheart.” Josh watched her leave the living room in disbelief. His father hadn’t said a word, hadn’t agreed with Josh or anything. He had just sat there like a turtle in the sun, quiet and ignoring the fact that Josh had given up everything for his parents. He was afraid that he was going to end up losing Chris if things didn’t change soon. It didn’t matter if he had to leave and never come back. He was tired of being taken for granted by his family. Josh just wanted his relationship to be as important to his family as theirs were to them. He wanted them to understand that he was in love and he wanted to be with Chris for the rest of his life. Throwing a tantrum wouldn’t achieve anything, though. Josh just balled his hand up tightly and sat down again. His father confused him. First, he told Josh to go after Chris. Now, he wouldn’t even intervene when Josh and Sabrina were fighting over the amount of time she spent there versus her own home. If anyone had a reason to be pissed off at the world, it was Josh. He wasn’t pissed off, but he wasn’t resigned, either. He expected some respect from his family and for his relationship, even if he had to fight tooth and nail for it. His father didn’t say a word. Josh looked at him with his jaw clenched, but he didn’t complain. He wanted to yell and scream and hit something, maybe throw something, but doing any of that wouldn’t change their views on his relationship or their own selfishness. Josh checked his watch and got up. Chris would be home soon, and Josh was ready to see him, have a few drinks and just have his turn at being happy. Even if it only lasted a little while. He’d pack a bag, just in case Chris asked him to spend the night. He would happily accept and keep the incident to himself. He didn’t need to stress Chris out by complaining about his brother and sister; he couldn’t do anything. Unless he really did cut his family ties, but he knew that would make him the selfish one. In spite of that, Josh thought he had earned his own happiness and chance to build his life with Chris. It was his turn, damn it. A few days later, Sabrina came in with the kids and rested her hand on Josh’s shoulder. Josh looked at her in confusion, but when he heard his mother talking to Mark, Sabrina’s husband, he thought he understood that she had taken to heart what he’d said about them helping a little more. He didn’t waste any time. He loaded up his black Chevy with Duke and a bag and hoped that Chris would let him spend the night. *** “Josh, can you come down here for a moment?” Josh grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute.” It was early, too early, and Josh just wanted to shave in peace. His mother seemed to need him for everything these days, and he had known it would be difficult when he moved back in with them, but he wasn’t prepared for it. Not fully. He quickly shaved and got dressed and went down to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. His mother was sitting at the table, and his father was beside her, reading the paper. “Good morning, Josh.” “Morning, Mom.” Josh went and kissed her temple. “What did you need?” “To talk to you.” “Oh?” “Your father and I have been talking. You and Sabrina the other day…” Josh sighed. “I know. I was rude,” he said and sank into a chair. “Let me finish, young man.” Suitably chastised, Josh waited for his mother to finish. “You and Sabrina the other day were upsetting. To both of us. You moved back in to help us, we understand that. But we did not mean for you to give up your life.” Josh stared. “Chris moved here to be with you. We both know that you want to help, and that you’re trying to do the right thing, but you are going to lose that boy if you don’t stop acting like this.” “But…” “No. Nate and Sabrina have promised to help more. Why didn’t you tell us that Chris had asked you to move in?” Uncertain, Josh looked at both his parents. “You both needed me.” And a perilous thought that he needed their permission to make such a huge life decision crept into his mind. “Josh.” “What?” “Don’t be a fool,” his father said. “Chris left his home to be with you. I’m not helpless. You don’t have to live here to help us.” “But—” “No, Josh, listen to your father. No one ever said you had to give up your life for us. Especially when you have an opportunity to be happy. We’re not selfish or blind. You’re in love,” his mother said. Josh sighed. “But you need help.” “Not so much that you have to you live here. Move in with him. Be with him.” Josh’s mother put her hand on his. “I know you’ve been struggling for a long time to be a better person, but this is just being pig-headed. You’re not the same young man you were when you lived in Raleigh. It’s time for you to start your life. You’ve already taken over the shop. Coming over every now and again will be fine. We can handle this. Together.” “I don’t know what to say.” “Apologize to your sister and talk to your brother. I know you two don’t always get along, but it’s time to put all that petty stuff aside and act like an adult.” “Mom, he starts it with me.” “You both start it. Don’t be afraid to get to know him. I know you don’t see eye to eye sometimes, but he’s your brother. Accept each other.” “Yes, ma’am.” Josh felt overwhelmed and pleased, but also guilty. “But what about appointments and things that need done around here?” “You can help when you have the time. We’ll make a plan with your brother and sister. Robert and I just want you to be happy. Do you understand that?” “Yeah, I do, but what if something happens?” “What if something doesn’t happen, Josh?” “Mom—” “No, Josh. Stop making excuses. We can hire someone to take care of the yard and mowing. I’m not helpless, either. I can still cook. Not that you’re very good at it, anyway,” she said with a smile. “You don’t have to feel guilty. You’re a good son.” Josh didn’t have any more arguments. He felt like he should have something to say, but his mother and father had given him permission to live his life and still help them. He didn’t know if that was what he wanted, but it seemed to help. He would make it work, somehow. He had staff at the bookstore, and it wasn’t just him running things any more. He could split his time more evenly between work and family. If he had known that Chris was going to give up his life and move to North Carolina… well, he didn’t know what he would’ve done. Just because he lived there, now, didn’t mean that Josh was invited to live with him. Except now he had been, and with the assurances of his parents, he didn’t feel as guilty about wanting to do it. *** “Are you ready for your first Thanksgiving?” Josh asked. He knew he was ready for it, but after the last time Chris had had to deal with his family, he wasn’t sure if Chris was ready or not. He didn’t know what to expect from his family, ever since Josh had confronted his sister about how selfish she had been. “Slightly perplexed by it, to be honest. What am I supposed to be giving thanks for, particularly?” “Anything. Like I'm thankful for you and my family. I dunno. It's whatever you want it to be.” “But doesn't one do that every time one prays?” “I wouldn't know. I don't pray any more. Haven't for a long time.” It wasn’t that Josh had stopped believing in God or anything. He just hadn’t had any reason to pray in so long that he didn’t know if he still could. It was just a one-sided conversation, in reverence and meditation, but Josh didn’t think prayer was for him any more. He’d spent such a large part of his life being told he was one thing because he was gay that he didn’t feel beholden to any religious institution. Even when he was a teenager and went to church with his parents, he felt a sense of betrayal from the church. “... then who are you thanking?” “You know, that's a good question. I've always just thanked my family and left it at that.” “Isn't that the purpose of mother's day and father's day and so forth?” “Yeah, but Thanksgiving is a little different. It's meant to be when you're grateful for a good harvest. There are some religious ties to it, but I haven't followed that stuff since I was a teenager.” “We always had a harvest festival at school, but that was rather earlier in the year. And at church, of course.” “I reckon it's the same thing. We just happen to have a big family dinner and give thanks for whatever. It's a day off work. That's another thing I'm thankful for.” Josh laughed. “Well, I daresay it'll be educational, if nothing else,” Chis said amiably. “You'll be fine. It's just a big meal and family.” “I trust we can take the dogs.” “Of course. They get to eat, too. The dogs are always welcome at my parents'.” “They're good people,” Chris said. “I think it's as close as they will get to grandchildren from us.” Chris chuckled. “I'd be a shit dad anyway. I'm too selfish. I like having you all to myself.” “Selfish is hardly the word I'd use to describe you, Josh. I do wish you wouldn't say that sort of thing.” “I'm just calling it how I see it.” Josh kissed Chris. “Do you want to take anything special to mom and dad's for Thanksgiving?” “Such as?” “I don't know. Didn't know if you had a craving for something from home. There's gonna be turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce. Gravy. Ham. Green beans.” Chris was faintly amused. “This is a specifically American cultural event. Why on earth would I suddenly be afflicted with the desire to take something English to it?” “Because it's your family now, too. And they respect that you're not American.” “More so this week than they do any other time I go?” Chris wore an expression of utter amusement. “Stop giving me hell.” Josh gave a half-smile. “I just want you to be happy.” “I have successfully—or at least reasonably successfully—navigated several months of American-ness so far without needing a special diet on account of my Englishness; I think I can manage.” “I know that. But I'm sure you miss something from home.” “No more so this week than at any other time.” “As long as you're sure. Mom's a great cook. She cooks the turkey in a paper bag in the oven and it makes it so juicy. It's delicious.” Chris laughed heartily. “I have eaten some excellent roast turkeys, Josh. I have a reasonably good idea what to expect from one. The fact that they have generally been in December rather than November really doesn't faze me.” “Oh, we'll have one in December, too. Can't forget Christmas dinner. And you'll get to meet Maddie and Shaun. Sabrina didn't want them to overwhelm you last time.” “Do Americans presume all English people are delicate flowers, or am I just special?” “That's not... No. She knew it'd be weird meeting them and my parents and didn't want to add to it. That's why Mark kept the kids that night. They were just being respectful. Didn't think you'd want to meet the entire family all at once. That's all. Tried to keep it simple. Apparently, Nate has a girlfriend, now and he's bringing her.” “I begin to get the distinct feeling that your family think of me as some strange exotic animal that followed you home,” “No. Not at all. They had good intentions. My sister didn't know you worked with kids until you told her.” Chris smiled. “Well, I will do my very best not to appear fragile in the face of the horde at dinner.” “They know you're not fragile. Jesus, Chris. They hardly think that.” Chris crossed the room and kissed Josh. “I am teasing you.” Josh kissed him again, trying to take things a little further. “You do that just by being here.” Josh didn’t want to remove his hands from Chris’s hips. Dinner was in less than an hour, though. There was no time to have sex the way Josh wanted to do it. “You're incorrigible.” “Only for you.” Chris laughed and continued to get dressed. “You'll be fine. They like you. Maddie and Shaun are fun. A little hyper, but they're good kids. Sabrina's a good mother.” Josh would rather be in bed with Chris, naked, but he got dressed, too. There was always later. All day he’d wanted Chris like a bad habit, but he’d been working at the store for a while to give his new staff some time with their families and hadn’t had a chance to initiate anything. Oh, there’s always later. On their way home from dinner, Josh asked, “So, how was it?” “It was fine. Just like every other family gathering.” “At least you didn't have to watch football the entire time.” Josh thought that was a good trade-off. Chris had no interest in sports. “Do you want me to spend the night?” “I keep asking you to move in; doesn't that imply a standing invitation?” Josh worried his lip for a moment. Now that he had staff and his dad was stable, he thought he could finally do what he wanted to do rather than what he had to do out of obligation. Josh thought he was selfish for wanting to spend all of his time with Chris. As much as Chris hadn’t wanted to jump into things, it was now Josh’s turn to make the right decision about their relationship. He loved this man and he was damned if anything was going to take that away from him. He had options. His sister had finally stepped up a little and their dad was growing more and more stable as the time went by. Josh no longer felt beholden to his family and their will, just his own. Chris loved him and wanted to be with him, and Josh couldn’t believe he’d let it go so long without taking up the offer already. It had partly been deference to Chris’s own life and adjustment period, but also Josh’s family. There was so much more going on than he could’ve anticipated, but with Chris by his side, he felt like he could conquer anything. “Alright. I’ll move in.” Josh pulled in the driveway at Chris’s house and decided he wouldn’t dwell on his family right then. “I love you. I want to be with you. And not just when we have time.” He wanted something from Chris that he’d been desiring for long enough that he was obsessed now with being fucked. It was all he thought about through dinner, through work. They got the dogs into the house and Josh realized he had nearly forgotten about his cat. “I reckon Chester will have to stay with mom and dad. I don’t think she’d handle all the dogs as well as she handles Duke.” “Possibly not, no, but surely she can stay at the shop. She practically lives in it; does she really need to be uprooted, the poor soul?” “I hadn't really thought about it that way. Yeah, I reckon so. That’s a good idea.” Chris smiled. “I’ll move in this weekend, if that’s okay with you.” “Of course it is,” Chris said matter-of-factly. Josh crossed to where Chris stood in the kitchen and rested his hands on his hips. He kissed Chris gently. “You’re incredible, you know that?” “I appreciate the compliment, but I don't see what I've done to deserve it this time.” “Just being you.” Chris looked mildly amused. “You made a huge decision coming here, and I know it couldn't have been easy to leave everything behind. I'm glad you're here.” “I thought it was worth a shot.” Josh smiled. “I really didn't go on the cruise to meet someone. You just happened.” “You know, the more often you say that, the less plausible I find it,” Chris teased. Josh laughed. “Hey, I didn't put your luggage in my room. I can't help that from the first time I saw you I was taken.” Chris then kissed Josh. “Mm. Do that again. It's giving me ideas.” Chris chuckled. “You laugh, but I have ten bucks that says you'll happily not resist the opportunity to…” Josh lowered his voice and looked at Chris deeply, “…fuck me.” “I have no intention at all of resisting the opportunity.” Josh grinned. “Then what are you waiting for?” “Absolutely nothing.” *** Josh let himself into the house Chris borrowed from the Rosses. He stooped and picked up the bags of groceries and carried them through to the kitchen. Chris wasn’t home yet; Josh imagined it would be a few hours yet, but he wanted to do something special. It wasn’t an anniversary or anything, but he thought a night in. making dinner and having drinks would be nice. Even if it was just to take the stress of the day away for a little while. They hadn’t talked much about how school was going. Josh selfishly turned to his family at the moment as a topic of conversation, but he promised tonight that he would keep the Mathesons far from the topic of conversation. He knew his way around the kitchen well enough by now. He set the groceries on the marble countertop and began unpacking everything he needed: beef, potatoes, corn, carrots, peas, and a gravy sauce, from what he understood. He was making Chris a shepherd’s pie, give him a little taste of home. “Welcome home.” Josh poured the martini he’d just made and took it to Chris. “Thank you,” he said and accepted a kiss from Josh. “How was work?” “It was fine, thank you. How are your parents?” “Fine. We'll leave it at that. Tonight is all about you. I hope you like shepherd's pie. I found a recipe and everything. Seemed like it would be filling on such a cool evening. I already took the dogs out.” “Shepherd's pie?” “Yeah. Thought you might like something English, since we mostly eat American food. I had been thinking about it all day, and starting looking through cookbooks at work.” “I'm not sure that Americans have a particular monopoly on everything we've been eating, but that's very thoughtful of you. May I ask who wrote the cookery books?” “No idea. I copied the recipe and went to the grocery store to pick everything up. Lisa’s at the shop.” “That was very thorough of you. Josh, you know that I'm perfectly happy to cook, don't you?” “I wanted to do something for you. It's only been a few weeks. You're still adjusting.” “I will admit that I'm still getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road, and biscuits being some sort of savory scone, and gravy being white sauce, and grits being... well, awful, frankly, but I promise faithfully that I am having no trouble at all with steak and chips for dinner.” Josh laughed. “I know. I just needed to do something for you. You've done so much for me. It's small and nothing like what you did, but it's still from the heart.” ”Well, I appreciate the gesture. It's very nice of you. Would you be awfully offended if I took Fenton out? I do quite enjoy walking the dogs.” ”No. This still has about forty minutes to bake, and I need to clean up.” ”Alright. Thank you. I shouldn't be that long.” ”I'll have another drink waiting for you. And a beef knuckle for Fenton and Duke.” Chris deposited his messenger bag and changed shoes before taking the pack out for another walk. While he was gone, Josh cleaned up the prep mess in the kitchen. He made another martini and put it in the fridge so it was nice and cool when Chris returned. There were treats ready for the dogs as well. Josh didn’t want to leave anyone out. It took Josh a while to clean up. He had never been much of a cook, let alone a clean one, so he took extra care in making sure the kitchen was spotless for Chris. Chris was gone almost the entire time it took for the shepherd’s pie to bake. When he came back in, he went to the kitchen and washed his hands. ”I apologize in advance if it tastes nothing like what you're used to. I added a little extra to it. It seemed a little bland on its own.” ”Extra what?” ”Just some salt and pepper. Touch of garlic powder.” ”Nothing exotic.” Josh chuckled and watched Chris take his martini and a beer to the table. The timer on the oven went off about the time Chris sat down. Josh pulled it out of the oven and rested it on a trivet before spooning a portion out for each of them. Chris still ate like a bird, so Josh kept it small on his plate. “It smells good.” ”Is that sweetcorn?” ”Yeah. Is that wrong?” Josh worried his bottom lip, hoping that it wasn’t. ”I... imagine some people put it in a shepherd's pie, but I can't stand the stuff, myself” ”Damn.” Josh shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can make something else.” ”No, no; it's alright. I'll just pick it out.” Josh looked at Chris seriously. “Are you sure? I don't mind starting over.” ”Yes, I'm sure. Thank you.” ”Anything else I should know not to cook?” Josh asked lightly. ”Kippers.” Josh nodded and took a bite. “I don't think that would be a problem. Did you enjoy your walk?” ”Yes, thank you. It's a pleasantly mild evening.” Josh smiled. “Good. I can imagine needing a minute after work, when it's with kids.” ”They're decent enough.” ”Is there a George Richardson in this lot?” ”No, mercifully.” Josh chuckled and took a bite of his dinner. “Give it time.” He stretched. “Another drink?” ”No, thank you; I have quite a lot of marking to do” ”Oh, okay. Do you mind if I join you? I'll be quiet.” Chris smiled. “You're always welcome.” Josh nodded. “How was it? Except for the sweetcorn?” ”Very filling, thank you” Josh was pleased. He had never been much of a cook, but he didn’t mind doing something for Chris, especially if it meant he didn’t have to be stressed out by how many hours he filled his day with. “My pleasure. Maybe next time you can show me how you'd do it. Have you made any friends with the other staff members?” ”You sound like my mother asking whether I'm settling in well at university. I get on with my colleagues perfectly well, thank you. We have some common interests, and are able to chat easily during breaks, but I don't feel any need to join clubs or go bowling with them.” ”I just want you to be happy here.” Chris smiled. “It's very sweet of you, Josh. I am perfectly content, I assure you.” Josh nodded. When they finished eating, he took the plates to the kitchen and washed them. He didn’t want to leave a mess for Chris. Josh finished up in the kitchen and brought the dogs’ treats, which they snuffled happily and ate with enthusiasm. Duke and Fenton had their beef knuckles, now, and were happily gnawing on them. Josh joined Chris on the sofa. He’d already started his work, so Josh sat quietly and didn’t bother him. He did just want Chris to be happy. Even if it was a meal from home or giving up the time he could’ve spent with him while he’d been with the dogs. Josh had no idea how long Chris would be working, but he didn’t care. He rested his hand on Chris’s thigh and swiped his thumb across the fabric, just enjoying their time together. *** The house smelled like pine and cinnamon. Josh closed the door of the borrowed house behind him and went to the kitchen. If Chris didn’t already have a Martini, he wouldn’t turn one down, and Josh needed a moment to change gears from care-taker to boyfriend. The step-by-step of it was comforting: order in the midst the chaos his dad’s illness had caused. He knew it was no fault of his father’s; he didn’t blame him. It was just life. He had Chris and his health; that was enough. When he finished mixing the drink, he took it through to the living room with his own beer. Chris sat on the sofa, his usual composed self, with a red pen in one hand, a student’s textbook in the other, and a contemplative look on his face. The dogs lay around in the lazy warmth of the house, one big pile of canine love, their numbers augmented by the Irish Setter Chris had brought home within weeks of starting his job. Duke looked at Josh when he sat down beside Chris, and Josh had to quell a weird urge to apologize to the dog for letting Chris oust him from his accustomed place. Duke had been used to lying across the sofa with Josh, but Chris didn’t like them on the furniture, which was reasonable enough given their numbers and size. Chris’s dogs were happy, but disciplined: Duke’s bad habits had slowly disappeared in the six months he’d had Chris as a second master. Chris smiled and accepted the Martini. “You’ve had a rough day.” “Yeah.” Josh sighed, grateful Chris knew him well enough to see it without having to be told. “At least it’s Christmas. Sabrina and her brood are there now.” He shifted, never really sure if Chris wanted to hear the details. If he explained what was going on, there was never a complaint, which went a long way to easing Josh’s nerves; Chris didn’t say much about it, but he listened sympathetically, and that was support in itself. “He started laughing at absolutely nothing today. Then cried for an hour.” Chris clasped Josh’s wrist, a gesture that made him feel like he had a new foundation to stand on. Chris sipped his drink. There was more that Josh could say, but nodding and settling closer to Chris said more than any words. “You’ve got something on your mind, too.” Chris laughed. “I have. Probably not in the way you’re thinking, though.” He gave a wry smile. “What would you say to being stuck with me for a little longer?” “I’d say it’d be the best news I’ve heard for a while.” A year had never felt like long enough, but Josh hadn’t planned to complain: He was grateful for any time they had together. “I’ve been offered a job. A permanent one, not just an exchange.” “Yeah?” Josh sat up a little more and looked at Chris, smiling. “At a university in Salisbury.” “What did you tell them?” He was almost, almost certain that he knew. Chris wouldn’t have raised if he’d turned it down, surely... “That I’d be pleased to accept.” A weight Josh had felt since Chris had arrived on a trial basis lifted. “That’s the best Christmas present I think you could’ve given me.” Chris gave him one of those rare, dizzying smiles, but his ingrained practicality wouldn’t let him let it lie there. “I’m going to have to find a house. The Rosses will need this one back.” Josh leaned against Chris. “What if we found a house?” He was rewarded with a deep, lingering kiss. “I was hoping that you’d say that.” Josh smiled. “Any ideas yet?” “There’s a couple a few doors down from your parents who have family in Vermont. They’re thinking of selling up.” The world swam giddily for a moment. ”You really want to live that close to my parents?” “You don’t?” “It’s not that. That means you’re in it for the long haul.” Chris nodded. “I am.” As if Josh shouldn’t even have needed to wonder. Josh leaned in and kissed him. Chris had done the research already, accepted the job, made his commitment to Josh. “I love you. Thank you.” Chris looked back at him, face softened in one of his rare moments of complete openness, and Josh didn’t need the words: Chris loved him. “Do you like that house?” Chris shrugged lightly, settling back into his usual tranquility. “It has a suitable number of walls and apertures and so forth. I’m really more interested in the company.” Josh smiled. “We can make it ours.” He paused for a moment. “I’m glad you’re staying. It honestly takes some of the stress away.” “Good.” And Josh knew—knew—Chris meant it. It was a feeling bone-deep and that blossomed in his chest like nothing he’d ever felt before. He settled against Chris’s side and watched the fire while the man he loved resumed his grading. The Christmas tree they’d bought and decorated together twinkled gently in the corner by the window, and their dogs stretched, snuffled and snored contentedly. The last few months had been as good as the evenings in the piano lounge, but this was better. He had everything he wanted. Chris might have been the reluctant one at first, but he’d uprooted his whole life for Josh, and Josh couldn’t have wished for anything more. It was perfect. The fire crackled every now and then, a familiar and comfortable sound that would always mean Chris in his mind. He looked forward to their own house, their new lives together. Josh closed his eyes and drifted, knowing he had exactly what he needed. ***
  11. I know! I need wheels on my luggage, too. Especially since I travel a lot more now. And the Piano Bar becomes a favorite location for the pair. And they even talk about it later in the story. Thanks for reading and commenting.
  12. So glad you guys are enjoying thr story. Yeah, Chris thought it was just him with sn attraction, so he definitely surprised Josh when he led the charge on sexual encounters. Lol. Josh didn’t really know what hit him. Thanks for reading and commenting.
  13. Thank you, guys, for your comments. They mean a lot to my co-author and I. Yeah, there will be a solution, I promise. I happy one. I am doing some editing on the last few chapters right now, but will still get the next one posted by Saturday.
  14. The bed was warm and comfortable. Josh lie there stroking Chris’s chest with his fingertips. “You don’t get weird about talking and a little cuddling after sex, do you?” “…No. Should I?” “Some guys do.” Josh kissed Chris’s chest and wrapped an arm around him. Chris smiled. “I can’t imagine why.” “You’d be surprised. Macho types and all that. I had one ex that refused to let me touch him after we had sex.” “I’m not surprised you dumped him.” Chris’s skin was soft and damp. “Yeah, didn’t take long. So, tell me more about this oral sex during Songs of Praise.” He laughed. “What were you doing and how did you manage to concentrate?” “I was playing the organ. Just one of the congregational hymns, but nonetheless. They’d taken the camera out of the organ loft, fortunately.” Josh chuckled and inhaled the scent of Chris post-orgasm. It was a sweet, musky scent that was not unenjoyable to smell. “Daring man.” “And my page turner was clearly bored.” “Ah, so that’s who it was.” Chris raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t think I was going to say a choirboy?” he asked teasingly. “I hardly think you’re attracted to men who are under 18. Otherwise, you’d have nothing to do with me.” Chris chuckled. “He’d been a year behind me at university. Bit a daredevil there, too.” “I think one of the most daring thing I did at college was blew one of the seniors in the stacks one night after going over Business Law with him. He was terrible at it, but he was determined I could help. I think he mostly wanted the blowjob.” Chris snorted. “Very likely, yes.” “Everyone knew I was gay. Raleigh was pretty open and you didn’t have to hide. Lexington, on the other hand, was never quite as forgiving. But I think I mentioned that before.” “Mm. University was fairly permissive, I suppose. More so than the real world.” “Definitely. One thing I miss about it. And classes. There were others I wanted to take that I thought would help me more with business. But since I only did that for seven years, I guess it doesn’t really matter now.” “Seven years is a long time.” “Yeah, but it wasn’t worth it. The pay was great, but the hours were hellish. I’d be on call right now if I still worked for them.” “I can’t imagine you as a high-powered businessman.” Josh laughed. “I was. But I’ve mellowed out since taking over the bookstore. It’s a good thing, too. I think I ran off three boyfriends when I was working there. Was such an asshole.” “I can’t imagine that, either.” “It’s true. Sadly. But I was just a cocky son of a bitch, and expected everything to be my way. Now, I’m grateful for a slow day or two.” Chris smiled. “That’s why I guess I keep getting on you about always being available for work. I did that. I didn’t like the person it made me.” “I don’t think it has that effect on me. It just makes me… extremely busy.” “Yeah. And forgetful. Lose track of time and have to apologize for it. One date here, another date there. Pretty soon you forget it all because you’re so busy.” Guilt clouded Chris’s expression. Josh wasn’t trying to make him feel guilty; he just wanted to point out that staying so busy eventually wears on a person and relationships. “I haven’t exactly been dating a great deal,” Chris said. “I haven’t either, but that’s definitely one thing I learned about working all the time.” Josh kissed Chris’s chest again. “So, you never dated the page-turner?” “In university, yes. That was some time ago, though.” Chris got up and went to the mini-bar to rummage through its contents. “I can imagine. I haven’t seriously dated anyone for years. Do you want any food?” Chris inspected the bar. “I can offer you… peanuts, crisps, or a small selection of chocolate bars.” “Peanuts and crisps, did you say? Not going to kick me out of bed for eating in it, are you?” “Hardly.” “Good. What are you drinking?” “An overpriced and slightly suspect gin and tonic. I presumed you’d want beer, but there is whiskey.” “That works for me.” Chris brought the bottle over to Josh, along with the crisps and peanuts. “Thanks. So, when was the last time you dated someone?” Chris thought for a moment. “More than once or twice? University.” “Wow. We’re the same age, I reckon, thirty… so it’s been what, ten years?” “And doesn’t that sound depressing?” “Not depressing,” Josh said sympathetically. “Just wonder how you can go without for so long when you obviously enjoy sex.” “I have two perfectly functional hands,” Chris said mildly. “Yeah, but it’s not the same.” “No, it isn’t, but it does the job. And ten inches of silicone can be quite satisfying in their own way.” Josh’s eyes widened. “Please don’t tell me now that you’re a size queen. I can’t compete with ten inches.” Chris laughed. “Josh, I think I might pass out if someone tried sticking a ten inch dildo up my arse!” Amused, Josh grinned. “You had me worried for a moment.” He took a long swig of the whiskey and set the bottle on the nightstand. Chris grimaced as he took a drink of his concoction. “I always find that an ounce of technique is worth a pound of raw size.” “Well, yeah. So, you like my technique, then?” Josh grinned. “Did you hear me complaining?” “Not at all.” “There you go, then.” Chris downed his drink. “No complaints here, either.” “I should hope not.” “Mm. It’s too bad we can’t take this on deck somewhere.” Josh reached for the phone and dialed room service for a few martinis, since Chris clearly hadn’t enjoyed his drink. “I’m not sure that our fellow passengers would appreciate a live show of this nature.” “That’s a shame.” “Mm.” “I bet you’d look fantastic under the stars.” “And that’s enough booze for you.” *** Josh looked at his phone and sighed. The screen flashed with No Caller ID. “Hello?” “What’s happened?” Chris asked. Relief flooded Josh. “Hey. My sister. She’s having a conniption over my parents. Dad fell down and she’s worried about mom worrying about him. If that made any sense. “You’d be amazed by how often I hear the same sort of thing from the ladies in the village.” It sounded like Chris leaned against something. “I don’t need to point out the irony here, do I?” “No.” Josh sighed. “Sabrina expects me to do something right now, and I can’t.” “Of course you can’t. You’re hundreds of miles away.” “Doesn’t stop her from expecting the impossible.” Josh sighed again. “No more than it stops Fiona from thinking that I can miraculously correct her double-tonguing from the opposite side of the planet,” Chris said sympathetically. “Yeah. So, you stopped and interrupted your island time to call me.” “I was slightly alarmed when you weren’t on the boat. And then rather more alarmed when it turned out that you hadn’t been on the other one, either. So I thought I’d better make sure you were alright.” “Yeah. Just tired, now, and realizing that home is closer than I want it to be.” Chris made a sympathetic noise. “It’ll be alright. Nothing I can do right now, anyway. We can talk more when you get back. I don’t want you to waste the last shore trip talking to me on a payphone.” “Just another five minutes. Brenda may have given up hope by then.” “Brenda?” “The predatory widow with the oddly-colored hair. She’s hovering.” “Oh,” Josh laughed. “I didn’t know her name. You certainly have a way with the older woman,” he teased. “It’s not a way I want,” Chris said emphatically. “I know. Well, maybe I can take your mind off it for a few minutes, at least. I could tell you about what I want to do to you when you get back, but I’d rather let your imagination handle that one.” “Oh, God. It will, believe me.” Josh chuckled. “I hate that I missed the boat. I’d rather be there with you. If I’d gotten out a few minutes sooner, my phone would’ve been here and I would’ve been there.” “Such is life, sadly. What do you plan to do instead?” “I thought I might go bowling. Have a few drinks.” “Maybe you could book a couple of places for us on the sky deck to do some stargazing this evening.” “Yeah, I can do that.” Josh smiled. “That’ll be nice.” “I have a telescope at home. I used to enjoy a little astronomy. I did electives in astrophysics my first and second years.” Josh laughed. “As electives? Are you crazy?” Chris laughed, too. “I thought it sounded interesting.” Josh liked hearing Chris laugh. It was warm and inviting. Full of life. “It’s a good thing you’re adventurous.” And Chris gave any easy laugh in response. “Not the trait you’d expect to be dominant in a church organist, is it? I had a sheltered childhood, but a wild youth. And then the elderly ladies got their hands on me.” “Not really, no. And you definitely had a wilder youth than I did. How’s Brenda holding up?” “Looking fidgety. I think she thinks she’s missing something with Irene and Margaret. I give her three and a half minutes. I shall have to find you a tacky souvenir from the island. What do you most despise in gimcrackery?” “Snow globes and magnets.” “I’m sure I’ll be able to find a magnet.” “One I’ll definitely keep on my fridge.” Chris chuckled. “What else would you like to do tonight, other than stargaze?” “There’s a film I rather fancy watching.” “Sounds good. As long as you’re in bed and at least somewhat naked.” “I thought that went without saying.” “Hey, some people have this weird idea that being in bed means more clothes.” “I’m fairly certain I don’t want to become entangled with them.” “No, definitely not. All kidding aside, I thought it would be nice to hold you for a bit.” “…I wasn’t planning to shag through the film, Josh.” “I didn’t think you did. I was just saying how… never mind. What movie is it?” “It’s called Deadpool. I’ve been looking forward to it, and I’ve heard good things.” “Mm. So have I.” “Do you stock comic books?” “And graphic novels and Manga.” Chris sighed happily. “A fan of all three?” “Well, I like to know they’re there.” “Oh, yeah. I have a gaggle of middle school girls who love the manga, the ‘geeks’ who love the graphic novels, and of course all ages buy the comics.” “I always enjoyed Marvel.” “I like them and Vertigo.” “The Sandman changed my life. I can never think of Death as a skeleton, now; Death is a perky goth.” Josh chuckled. “I liked those, too.” Chris laughed suddenly. “I was fifteen seconds adrift.” “Oh, has she finally gone?” “She has. Early, no less. I shall let you get on with your day, then. The boat is back at six; shall we have an early dinner then?” “Sounds good to me.” Josh smiled. “See you then.” Chris hummed, and Josh listened as the receiver clicked into place. He lowered his arm and set his phone on the bed. Scratching his face, he sat back and looked around. Chris’s cell phone sat on the nightstand, off, and all alone. Josh sighed. Now, he had a day to kill alone. *** The early screening of Deadpool on the boat turned out to be the funniest two hours Josh and Chris had spent together. Or Josh’s face when Chris had brought him back a god-awful fridge magnet that was about as bright pink as a neon sign in a gay bar and as ugly as a hobo. Josh loved it, though. It was something from Chris and that was all that mattered. Just looking at the hideous thing made him smile, which he caught himself doing a lot of during the evening after Chris had brought it back. There was, however, and ever-present tick-tock, tick-tock of the end of the cruise coming. Josh tried not to think about it as he watched Chris sleep, but it stood out like a whale in a fish tank. He wrapped his arms around Chris, inhaled the lingering scent of sweat after they’d made love. His cheeks were still slightly flushed, but Josh reckoned that was from all the sun he’d had walking around the island that day. Josh sighed happily and turned the bedside lamp off and settled down. God, how he loved this man. If he never had another chance in the world to be with him, at least he had had these moments that had taken his breath away. It was the kind of story he would be able to tell his family someday—the romance that knocked him off his feet like a child jumping rope and stumbling. He grinned and kissed Chris’s shoulder. Chris only stirred slightly, turning his head toward Josh. Seeking Josh out, he hoped. He wondered if Chris did the same thing when he was asleep: taking a moment to admire and appreciate this little bubble they had for the time being. If anything, Josh hoped he caught Chris doing it, at least once. Chris wasn’t one to linger, though, so likely not easily caught doing anything that could be taken as high regard as Chris had easily described his feelings. Whatever that meant, Josh hoped it meant he felt as strongly for him as Josh did for Chris. It had to be a British thing, either way. He wasn’t complaining. There was nothing sexier than an allusion to a thing than saying the words. Josh wasn’t as good with words as Chris, so he had to say what he meant every time or face confusion. Dancing around a subject for him had always caused more misfires than he could remember, so he’d taken to being blunt with everything. Not that it hadn’t had its disadvantages, too, but he remembered one thing: an honest man was a better man. Josh kissed Chris on the lips this time, an automatic response coming in return. He smiled. There were so many things about this man and this life he could get used to. But time wasn’t on their side. He sighed again, just as he felt the thrill of Chris’s fingers roll across his arm. An involuntary reaction, Josh was certain, but a nice one, just the same. He closed his eyes and kissed Chris again. Tomorrow was another day. ***
  15. It didn’t take long, a few days at most, for the awkwardness of a new relationship to fade, at least for Josh. What would happen after the cruise ended was still up in the air, but Josh tried not to think about it too much. He wanted to make the most of the time he had left with Chris, which wasn’t much. They’d spent most of the time between Chris’s cabin, no sex, just some kissing and sleeping that ended up with Josh wrapped around Chris a little too tightly for Chris’s comfort, though Chris was quick to reassure him that the problem was only the unfamiliarity of someone sharing his bed, and that he would get used to it soon enough. He tried to loosen up some. The problem was he was comfortable; comfort meant he was happy for Chris to know he wanted to hold him close. Chris was too easy going—or polite—to object to things Josh seemed to like, like his easy physical affection, so he just hoped that now that they were together, and would be for the rest of the cruise, and somehow after, he would ease up on his own. Sometimes it was better not to complicate things; they were learning about each other, after all. It had left Josh raw when Chris had admitted his own long-standing attraction, since Josh never really saw it or felt it. It was just Chris’s way, though: He kept himself in check. Josh suspected that part of Chris would always exist and would be something he’d have to learn to understand wasn’t a personal insult. His reserve and his manners were two of his defining features—even when they acted to his detriment. On Christmas Day, Chris’s cell phone had simply never stopped: when it wasn’t beeping with a text message, it was ringing, and he seemed to feel obliged to respond. Every other thing out of his mouth had been an apology to Josh for taking the call or checking the message, but he had seemed horrified when Josh suggested that he just ignore it for a while. After the ninth elderly lady had bored Chris witless with the same account of Mrs. Pinsentt’s unsatisfactory performance at Eucharist, Josh had persuaded one of the staff to remove and hide the offending object for the sake of Chris’s sanity. Chris had only freaked out briefly after its ‘disappearance’, and when Josh returned it that evening, he would have sworn that Chris was as grateful to him for having made it disappear as he was for him giving it back. He needed protection from his own courtesy, and Josh was happy to provide it. However reserved Chris remained in public, though, he was definitely loosening up in private. The urgency of that first time against the door never quite reappeared, but Josh could not bring himself to be disappointed with the range of affection and sensuality that replaced it; he was tactile in a way that thrilled Josh to the core. Disinclination to be cuddled tightly all night notwithstanding, he didn’t seem to be able to be within reach of Josh without touching him, whether by a brush of elbows or tap of knees, or by pressing Josh into the couch and playing him like the instruments he spent his life handling. Every day was a discovery, and each seemed to go by quicker than the last. Josh wasn’t ready for their time together to end. *** It was sunny and bright on the island. They walked down the busy street, through the market. Josh took hold of Chris’s hand; their fingers slotted together and they continued on toward the church. Josh wanted to feel connected to Chris. Josh felt the need to be close, since these moments were precious in their rarity. The church had been Chris’s idea, among other things more salacious than just walking and looking. Josh had agreed, as long as they went to the art studio, too. The brochure on the boat was vibrant and full of ideas. The church was typical on the outside: A façade of brownstone and a belfry rose behind the building. Inside, it looked like the sun had drenched the walls: orange paint colored the inside of the church. There were stained-glass windows and murals of Jesus, and a priest with green and orange accents. Josh thought it was interesting and wondered what it must be like to have mass in such a place, so full of life and teeming with color. The church he’d attended throughout his youth and teenage years had been full of stained-glass windows and white walls, nothing like feeling like being inside the sun. He took some photos and watched locals mix with the tourists. A few people sat in prayer. Josh had a feeling that Chris was hoping to get his hands on the organ, but there wasn’t anyone about to ask. It seemed the staff and priest were tending to their flock. Chris didn’t seem to mind that he didn’t get to play. He also didn’t seem to mind his hand laced with Josh’s as they moved about the church, for which Josh was grateful. In private was one thing, but public was different. Chris had reacted poorly to a kiss in public, but it seemed that hand-holding was safe enough. Even if some of the looks they got were less than supportive. After the church, they took a taxi to the edge of the island to an art studio. Josh had been curious about the process of working with wood ever since he read the pamphlet about the popular art on the island. His hobbies were more reading and playing cards than crafting something with his hands, but he recognized talent when he saw it. He took Chris’s hand again once inside the estate grounds, wanting to remember every second of their last moments on the cruise together. They were a couple, now, and Josh wanted that to last as long as he could. The days were growing shorter and shorter, it seemed, and even though there was time left, there wasn’t enough. He hadn’t started out wanting to meet someone, but Chris had just been there. It was like fate had intervened, or if Josh were still religious, he might he thanking God for meeting Chris. He thought for a moment and wished he had thanked God while they were at the church. If someone hadn’t screwed up with the luggage, they may have never crossed paths or even spoken more than a few words in passing, and now they toured a gallery with a bunch of strangers with their fingers intertwined. Josh couldn’t be happier. He looked around at the art and admired a few pieces. He’d never been terribly creative, not like this. He’d taken the requisite English classes in college and high school, but never anything so hands on. They watched from the back of the pack of tourists as a man carved something into a block of wood. It wasn’t clear what the artist was trying to create, but his effort and heart were in the soul of the piece already. There were a lot of pieces that Josh couldn’t afford, but there were plenty of interesting pieces that he didn’t have a problem spending money on. He settled on a small carving of what looked like two people embracing. In his imagination, it was him and Chris together. *** Josh got out of the shower and peered into the room he and Chris had taken to sharing. His now-tanned skin stood out against the bedding, which was folded down to his waist as it always was: He couldn’t sleep muffled up to the neck. Taking a moment to appreciate the view, Josh was glad Chris had started sleeping without the t-shirt. He must have been on the cusp of sleep; his breathing wasn’t deep yet and he was still supine instead of on his side. Josh felt the familiar stirring of arousal as he watched the man breathe, drinking in the picture he presented. All the lingering soreness from their frantic sex against the wall was now gone; it had been for days, and he wasn’t sure what had kept them from moving beyond making out like teenagers. It wasn’t lack of inclination on either part. He dropped the towel when he was done drying off, heading straight to the bed. So much of Chris was exposed—Josh wanted to have his hands and mouth everywhere, from his exposed sternum and biceps to the thighs and groin hidden beneath the sheets. His knees hit the mattress first, and it dipped slightly under his weight. The sheets gathered up under his palms, became a straight line when he slid closer. He stopped beside Chris and just looked at his body. Though he’d seen it a few times already, this was the best view. He looked peaceful, utterly relaxed, the lines of his torso racehorse-slim and only lightly muscled but undeniably masculine. He had tanned to a golden honey shade that Josh itched to taste. Josh leaned over Chris and balanced with one hand beside his body; Chris didn’t stir. He reached out with the other and traced Chris’s hipbone, just stroking the curvature from his front to back with the tips of his fingers, a stroke here, a caress up toward his ribs there. Chris grew warmer, more color rising at his neck, around his shoulders. Even his chest looked daubed pink; it was starting to match his nipples. Josh repositioned and lowered himself to be closer to Chris’s mouth, his throat. Chris wasn’t beautiful—was he? Could men be beautiful?—but he was the most incredible person Josh had ever seen. Being able to touch him, watch his body react and know that he wanted it just as much as Josh took Josh’s breath away. Josh leaned forward and pressed his lips to Chris’s, a now-familiar feeling of comfort and pleasure. Everything about Chris was intoxicating. This was what he’d wanted against the door, the touch of skin without the harsh friction of cotton and wool. He wanted to look, see how Chris reacted to his cock or earlobe being sucked, or if he liked a nip to his neck or preferred the gentle swipe of tongue... there was so much still to learn. Chris shifted, moaning; Josh stopped and watched him. He blinked a few times, eyes widening. “You okay?” “Mm.” Sleep-heavy, he sounded even sexier. Josh smiled. “Good.” He kissed Chris deep and firm. The response was immediate. A little slow, sleepy, but still interested—a lazy slide of tongues and warmth between them. Josh shifted the comforter and sheet aside, moving to settle between Chris’s legs, which parted easily to cradle him. Josh slid his erection against Chris’s groin and was pleased by the answering interest; Chris wasn’t hard, but he wasn’t far from it. He looked awake now, his eyes dark and the flush on his chest and neck deepening. Bracing himself on his knees, Josh ran his hand from Chris’s groin, which earned him a sound of appreciation, up over his pelvis and stomach, then down again. Feeling the gradual change from interest to full-blown desire, Josh buried his face in Chris’s chest, kissing the edge of his pectorals, saturated with the heat of his rising arousal. Skilled fingers moved through his hair, and Josh rolled his hips, pressing down against the soft swell of Chris’s balls. He made a sound that shot down Josh’s spine, lit him up from the inside out. Chris’s fingers clamped down, pulled Josh up by the hair, until their lips and tongues were together, echoing the slide of cock against cock, only with no barriers to the touch. Chris met and answered every movement, matching the rhythm Josh set. It felt too good too soon. His body remembered the last time they were flush, rubbing so hard he’d been sore for days. Sore in the best ways. But he didn’t want frantic and a dull ache—at least, not that dull ache. Skilled hands found their way to his ass, kneading and guiding him into a surging grind that made fireworks burst behind his eyes. It was too much and nowhere near enough. He gripped Chris’s thigh, clenched around his hip, and slid his hand down. Chris shifted his leg higher, opening himself to Josh’s probing touch, and Josh’s head swam at the sudden possibilities. Then he remembered. “Shit. Shit. Okay, don’t move. I’ll be right back. I need to get some condoms.” Josh ran his lips across Chris’s jaw. “I promise I won’t be long.” Josh untangled himself and dug out some clothes from his suitcase beside the bed. Damn stupid idea to start sex and not have the necessary materials. He cursed and pulled on his jeans and a t-shirt and shoved his feet into his sandals. He exhaled, tucking his leaking cock carefully into his jeans, unable to contain the groan at the pressure when he forced the fly to fasten. Chris looked too good to leave. The upside was he’d get to finish what he’d started as soon as he returned. Finding condoms and lube took long enough that Chris was on his stomach and breathing calmly by the time Josh got back; when the door closed, he slanted a look like nothing Josh had ever seen on his face before over his shoulder—it wasn’t so much a come-on as a challenge. Josh pressed the heel of his hand hard against the base of his cock to cut off his reaction before it could bring the event to an early close and tossed the box and tube onto the bed, freeing his hands to strip faster than he ever had before. Chris propped himself on an elbow to watch, openly appreciative. Josh moved the sheets tangled around Chris’s legs and took a moment to admire the view. Chris began to shift. Before he could turn, Josh moved; he lay his chest against the length of Chris’s back and kissed his straight hairline at his nape. Chris pushed back against his mouth and made a noise that shot down Josh’s spine, twisting as he reached back to capture a handful of Josh’s hair and draw him into another searing kiss. The sharp edge of lust that had dissipated while Josh was seeking supplies flashed back into pulsating life. His heart was beating so fast it was like he’d run the length of the ship to get back to Chris, back to this moment. The way Chris commanded the direction of their kiss had him breathing hard enough that he was light-headed and half drunk on the man under him. He ran his hand through Chris’s hair, his other arm quaking from holding himself up. “How do you like it?” Josh rubbed his cock against Chris’s warm skin, aching for an answer. “What?” His voice sounded as wrecked as Josh’s felt, heavy and husky with arousal. “Sex. How do you like it?” “Mmm.” Chris arched upwards to reach Josh’s mouth and kissed him, his shoulder against Josh’s chest. It was an awkward angle, but Chris pushed, hungry and demanding even though he had to strain. He was gorgeous; it was one of the most incredible things Josh had ever seen. He committed every line and curve to memory, so that when this was an island in his mind, there would be a grain of sand devoted to this moment. “How do you like it?” Chris laughed. “I like it good.” Josh pushed himself up and ran his fingers down Chris’s spine. “So do I. Okay, so do you top or bottom?” “As long as it’s good, I don’t really have a preference.” His shoulder twitched in a half-shrug. “There’s a degree to which it depends who I’m with.” “Okay.” Josh ran his hands down Chris’s flank, balanced on his knees. “What’s your preference?” “Top, but I’m not against trying new things.” Josh kissed his way down to the dip of Chris’s ass. Every bit of him smelled good. Tasted better. “Good. I don’t think I’d want to give that up entirely.” “Mm. I’m not a stereotype. I hope.” There wasn’t anything he could think of that he wouldn’t do with Chris; that scared and surprised him in a way that tangled up in his mind and sat in the middle of his chest like a knot. Josh reached for the lube and flipped the cap open. The gel was cold on his fingers; he ran his thumb through it, trying to warm it before he touched Chris. He bit lightly down on Chris’s fabulous ass and slid his fingers down until he could feel the whorl of Chris’s asshole; it twitched and fluttered under his fingertips. Little by little, he felt Chris relax. He pushed two fingers in, felt Chris loosen then clamp around him. Then there was just inside Chris. The slow grip and slide of his fingers as he thrust, spreading as much of the lube as he could. There was no such thing as too much lube, and Josh wouldn’t be that guy who hurt his lover because he couldn’t be patient for a few more minutes. Chris was already trusting him with this, with his body, and Josh wasn’t going to do anything to show that trust was misplaced. Time lost its meaning while Josh worked on opening Chris. His body was warm and softly clinging, and so close to ready that Josh’s cock ached at the thought. He pressed against Chris and rubbed in a similar rhythm to the in-out of his fingers. When Chris was finally moaning and his breath hitched, Josh pulled his fingers out and wiped them on his discarded t-shirt. The lube had turned on its side, a little pouring out onto the bed, like the pre-come glistening on Chris’s thigh and ass. He picked it up and fumbled with the box of condoms. He ripped the packet open with his teeth and rolled it down his cock, trying not to fumble under Chris’s heated gaze. More lube, down the length, a few strokes, and he lined up. He knew it was going to be tight—not just because of how long it had been for Chris, but because Chris’s thighs were between his. This position, straddling from behind, was more intimate than Chris with his ass in the air. This way, he could go slow, or fast, and he still had access to Chris’s mouth, his shoulders… He angled his hips and guided his cock into Chris, moaning as he slipped inside. Chris echoed him, his hips rising to meet Josh. He rocked, squirmed, but Josh steadied himself and kept his movements slow. Finding a rhythm was easy, as easy as breathing. He thrust with a roll of hips, barely pulling back, moving only enough to feel the clutch of Chris around him. He panted against Chris’s shoulder, his name, how good it felt, moans of appreciation and pleasure. Chris responded in his own way, moving against Josh, like it just wasn’t enough. Josh knew the feeling. It felt good, but something was missing. He stopped and withdrew, panting. “Turn over.” His voice broke, but the sight was something to behold: Chris was panting and reaching for Josh, his legs opening in invitation, fingers gripping at his arms and skin. This was nothing like the usual Chris, tightly reserved and slow to warm up. Josh knew then that this was not something given lightly; it was more than just sex. It was reciprocated trust, him when the walls were down and he didn’t have to think; he could act on instinct and desire. Josh lowered himself to kiss Chris and felt the other man’s fingers close around him, guiding him back inside. Josh thrust only to stay seated where he was; Chris was moving again, shifting his legs around Josh’s hips and using his own leverage to make Josh move. He didn’t have to say a word. Josh understood; he was sex, pure and simple. His cock was red and soft against his abdomen, and he didn’t touch himself. But the way he moved and the sounds he made told Josh it wasn’t a requirement for his pleasure. Still, Josh couldn’t resist; reaching down, he took hold of Chris’s cock and stroked, alternating his hip thrusts with the pump of his arm. That seemed to be perfect. Chris arched and moaned, his body shaking beneath Josh. He hardened in Josh’s hand, leaving a sticky trail across his skin. Chris unraveled a little more with each stroke and thrust. His face looked like a manifestation of ecstasy, it struck to Josh’s core and set light to something in his bones. He wiped sweat from his brow and moved faster, deeper until he felt Chris tighten around him: legs, ass, grip on his arms. His whole body clenched and the sound he made struck Josh in the balls, hot and electric, ripping through him like lightning. Josh jerked, groaned, pleasure sweeping through him in a dizzying rush. He felt lighter than air and barely heard the tangled litany of awe and praise that tumbled from Chris’s lips. There was an endless moment of rapture while Chris panted, lax under him, and he slumped, collapsing onto Chris’s chest. He had no idea how long he stayed there, boneless and spread out over the other man. He was aware, as his senses returned, that he didn’t want to separate from Chris yet, but practicality and willpower prevailed: He took hold of the base of the condom and withdrew. He recognized a twinge of arousal at the sight of Chris’s hole going from loose enough to take him to a tiny, twitching furl. Chris looked drunk and satisfied; Josh felt wobbly, as if reality had taken a cruise of its own. He lay down next to Chris and pulled him in for a lazy, sloppy kiss. There were things he wanted to say but couldn’t; the words escaped him, and even if he could find them, Chris wouldn’t be ready to hear them. Instead, he showed his care with a warm, damp washcloth. The bed was a mess, but Josh had a feeling they’d only be sharing a portion of it. He let Chris get up without complaint, when he was ready to freshen up. When the room was dark and Chris was sleeping deeply, his arm lying along the line of Josh’s wrapped around his waist, Josh whispered against his ear. “I love you.” *** Time was not on their side. Josh knew that, but he tried not to let it bother him. There were only a few excursions left before the boat returned to port and their normal lives resumed. They sat at one of the cafés and had a drink after lunch: a sweet and refreshing orange juice popular on the island. Josh rested his hand just over Chris’s, content. “Is there anything special you want to do before we get back to port?” “Well, I’d quite like to pop back to the church. The verger said that she’d get the key to the organ loft, and I did promise that I’d play for you properly.” “You did.” There was a lull. As his mind wandered, Josh started to frown. “I’ve been thinking about what happens after the cruise. I haven’t come up with anything that doesn’t mean one of us relocating. There isn’t, really, I guess. Do we just email and text until we either lose interest or find a solution? I really like you. I wouldn’t want to ruin something potentially worthwhile because of distance.” Chris picked up the change in subject without comment. “I don’t think it would be entirely reasonable for either of us to uproot completely and travel halfway across the planet at this stage.” “I know.” Realistically, Josh did know. The impulsive romantic in him wanted that, though, on some level. “I’m not asking you to.” “And nor would I ask you to.” Always practical. Sometimes it got in the way, but Josh knew this wasn’t a game that he could press reset on if he screwed up; a relationship involved both of them and had to work by consent. It would never work otherwise. “I think we should give us a chance, though. I’m patient.” “You can stop trying to sell your good points, you know. I’m well aware of them.” He was amused, but Josh had just felt the need to remind Chris that he was quite happy to wait… and wait some more, if it meant these feelings he had for Chris weren’t going to end up in both of their hearts broken. Josh saw it for the deflection it was; his face went hot and he chuckled. “Sorry. I mean, there’s webcam chat and other things. I know you stay pretty busy. Email will probably have to be our primary contact. I guess. I’m rambling.” He swept his thumb across Chris’s knuckles. In a few days, he wouldn’t be able to do this anymore, unless it was in his dreams. They went to the church and Josh sat and watched Chris play the organ. The music was amazing, but the process took Josh’s breath away. He had expected deft work at the keyboard; he hadn’t expected four keyboards stacked on top of each other, and another laid out as pedals, and the dozens of knobs that changed the sounds made by the pipes. It looked chaotic and bewildering, but at the heart of it all, Chris was a study in focus and skill, drawing melody from the machine. Josh listened and watched. He had to commit this and every moment with Chris to memory. It could be a long time before he saw him again. ***
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