Machinations - 8. Arc 1, Chapter 8
Nathan paced in his apartment. Eric and Coral had gotten back just a couple days ago. While he’d been able to ignore it while they were away, Echo and Couronne were a looming threat. Sure, other people were also at risk, but most of the people he knew were his teammates and anyone who attacked his ma was more in danger than she was. Eric and Coral were the only ones without any kind of defense. More importantly, they didn’t even know they needed defense.
“What am I going to do about this?” he asked aloud.
“Eric and Coral?” Raph asked, looking up from his paperwork.
“Yeah. I’ve put them in danger.” He resumed pacing.
Raph shrugged. “What about telling them you’re a superhero?”
As much as he liked that idea, never having to tell them a lie again, he shook his head. “Then I’d have to tell Angelica about everything. Telling them without permission could get me fired. Or at least on probation again.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“Breaking up with Eric, I guess,” Nathan said. “But I don’t want to.”
“And it wouldn’t necessarily protect them, either. It’d just put them further out of the loop. So your options are to tell Angelica or stop worrying.”
“I can’t stop worrying.”
“Then tell Angelica. She can get them defended, too.”
Nathan groaned. “Fine. I’ll start the paperwork. Hopefully, she doesn’t have too many questions about this.”
“I have some questions about this,” Angelica said, looming over Nathan with his request paperwork in her hand. “You don’t need to be so worried,” she added, sitting down on her desk and somehow still looming over him.
“I don’t know why you’d think I’m worried,” Nathan said, trying to straighten up from where he’d shrunk down in the chair.
“Right. First question: why am I receiving a request regarding a security breach nearly a full month after said breach occurred?”
“To be fair, I had my pacemaker fried,” Nathan said. “Which also fried my brain. So.”
“I see,” Angelica said in the tone of voice that indicated that she saw more than Nathan wanted. “Second question. Why have I never heard of these civilians before?”
“Because they’re part of my personal life and I don’t need to divulge personal information.”
“You don’t have to. But you do. Birdwatching, for instance? I’ve heard plenty about that. Quite a bit about your relationship with Raph. And yet nothing about two civilians who are, quote, ‘potentially in danger due to visits once or twice a week’?” Angelica lowered the paperwork enough to look him in the eye. “I could see Raph keeping something like this a secret. He doesn’t talk much, after all. But given how chatty you are, I have to wonder why I’ve never heard anything about this before.”
Nathan squirmed in his seat. “Coulda sworn I talked about them before.”
Angelica set down the paperwork. “What is the nature of your relationship to them?”
“That should be on the paperwork, ma’am.”
“I know. I’ve read it. I want to hear it from you.”
Nathan bit his lip. “Friends. We’re friends.”
“Really?” Angelica stared him down.
“Yes. Really friends.”
Angelica stared at him a moment longer and then straightened up. “Very well. Request denied. And I want you to report to medical for a telepathic scan.”
“What?” Nathan stood up. “I’m not being controlled!”
“Think about how this looks. A month after a security breach, you come asking me to approve increased security clearance for two civilians I’ve never heard about before and dedicate resources to giving them extra protection. Either you’re lying to me about something or you’ve been influenced by someone with telepathy. In either case, I’m not approving the request.”
“But…” Nathan sighed. “Fine. I’m dating Eric.”
Angelica raised an eyebrow. “Does Raph know about this?”
“Yes. He’s the one who suggested it, actually.” Angelica did not look convinced. “Ask him about it if you want.”
“Fine.” Angelica picked up her phone. “Raph. I need to ask you something. Is Nathan dating a man by the name of Eric?” After a moment’s pause, she nodded and set the phone down. “How long has this been going on?”
“Almost three years,” Nathan said, sitting back down.
“And where does this Coral come in?”
“Coral is Eric’s partner. They also know about me dating him.”
“Hmm.” Angelica picked up the paperwork again. “You know that having an affair while dating a teammate is grounds for immediate transferal or dismissal.”
“Right, but I’m not having an affair. That implies I’m sneaking around, but I’m not. Raph knows about it and has approved it. The whole point of that clause is to let you get rid of people who cause problems with their partners. But this is completely consensual on everyone’s parts. Unless you’re going to fire me just for being polyamorous?”
“Polyamory isn’t a protected class,” Angelica said offhandedly.
“And you’re shorthanded enough as it is.”
“True.” Angelica set the paperwork back down. “Well, now that we’ve established that this is a lie, tell me about your relationship with them and why you think I should spend Corps resources on these two.”
“It’s not like we don’t have resources. I mean, we live in a glass building with plants everywhere. Not to mention the benefits--”
“Nathan. I’m giving you a chance here despite the fact that you lied to me.”
“Okay, okay.” Nathan took a deep breath. “I’m not a very good storyteller.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Fine. So, I guess I should start from the beginning. It started nearly three years ago…”
Nathan walked down the street. It wasn’t one he was familiar with, at least not by streetlamp. That was part of the point. He patrolled over the streets often enough and he’d lived in the Cove all his life, but there were still areas he’d just never explored. Could he really call himself a hero of the city if he didn’t truly know the city? Besides, since Raph didn’t feel up to hanging out, he might as well spend time out and about. He might also spot some interesting birds.
“Is this relevant?” Angelica asked.
“I’m getting to it. It’s, you know, storytelling flow.”
“It’s the mark of a good storyteller.”
“You said you weren’t a good storyteller.”
“I definitely won’t be if I can’t tell my story.”
Angelica sighed. “Carry on, then.”
He was starting to get hungry. Sure, he could go back home and get something there, but why not try a new place while he was out? He looked around for a place to eat. There was a small Asian restaurant nearby, judging by the characters on the roof sign. Not much signage other than that, but the building looked fairly old. He shrugged and went inside. The restaurant was fairly small, with red walls decorated with--
“How does the restaurant’s appearance relate to the story?” Angelica asked.
He was shown to a table right away. Next table over, there was a man complaining about something to one of the waitstaff, who was nodding sympathetically. Nathan really hoped he’d stop soon. In any case, though, he browsed the menu. After a while, though the complaining man had stopped complaining. Nathan glanced over at him. He’d pulled out a sketchbook and a pencil.
“I take it the complaining man was actually Eric?”
“I’m getting there!”
“Not very quickly.”
“I was just about to tell you that part.”
“Hey,” the man said. Nathan looked up from his menu. “Is this your first time here?”
“Yeah. I was just passing by,” Nathan said.
The man nodded. “Do you like garlic?”
“Yeah, definitely a favorite.”
“The number eleven is great for that.”
Nathan checked it out. “That does look pretty good. Thanks.”
Nathan nodded. Well, while there was a conversation going, he might as well keep it going, right? “What are you drawing?” he asked.
“Birds.” The man held up a drawing of two cardinals sitting closely together.
“Oh, that’s cute,” Nathan said.
“Thanks. I call them The Lovers.”
The birds were in black and white, but there was something a bit off. Both of them had masks that were the same size. Was this guy gay or ignorant of birds? That was the eternal question. Might as well ask. “Are they both meant to be male cardinals?”
“Why do you ask?”
That wasn’t a no. Nathan shrugged. “Well, it’s hard to tell without colors, but female cardinals have smaller masks than males, or even no masks. That and they’re usually gray and orange or pink, though you don’t have the colors. I have pictures if you’re curious.”
“Nah, you’re right. I meant them to both be male. Based on a nice couple I saw the other day, actually.” The man pulled out his phone and showed Nathan a picture of two male cardinals cuddling in much the same way.
“That’s adorable,” Nathan said. “So you’re also into birdwatching?”
“Yeah, but a little more for artistic purposes. I just like drawing birds.” He flipped over a page to show an angry seagull screaming at a loosely-drawn human who was protecting a bag of chips. Another human was pointing and laughing. “This is also based on a true story.”
“Who’s the other person?” Nathan asked.
“My partner. We went to the beach a few weeks ago.”
Partner, not girlfriend. Possible new gay friend? “I should go to the beach. My boyfriend and I haven’t been there in a while.”
“If you do, you should go soon. Tourist season starts in a couple weeks.”
Not even a blink at him having a boyfriend. Slightly more likely to be gay?
By the time the food arrived, Eric and Nathan were sitting at the same table, chatting about birds and sharing their pictures. “So,” Nathan asked over his noodles, “You seemed pretty upset earlier. What was that about?”
“Eh,” Eric said. “Partner troubles. We had a bit of a disagreement today.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“If you don’t mind hearing about it,” Eric said. “So my partner, Coral, was raised in a family that… wasn’t that good. So Coral has a lot of trouble expressing their feelings. Basically, they’re either passive-aggressively hiding stuff or exploding. Everything except emotions is fine, but not emotions. I tried encouraging them to express themselves when they went quiet and that turned into an explosion. I mean, I understand what’s going on and they are trying to stop it, but we’re still in some rough patches.”
“That sucks,” Nathan said. “Have you considered couples therapy?”
Eric groaned. “Is that really necessary? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with us.”
“Maybe, but it’d make the process smoother. And having someone to act as a mediator can make it easier to express emotions, which is what your partner has been having trouble with. In any case, it’s worth a try.”
“Maybe,” Eric said, poking through his rice. “I’ll have to see if Coral’s even willing to do that.”
“In any case, want to meet up soon? I was thinking of going birdwatching next week. Wouldn’t mind some company.”
“Sure. Coral isn’t that interested in it. They’re not really the type to sit still for long.”
“Great. I know this wetland area just outside of town. Lots of birds nest there. Plus, plenty of ducks and geese and even a few swans.”
“Sounds pretty nice,” Eric said. “I work Monday to Friday. Saturday work for you?”
“I’d prefer Sunday, actually.”
“Works for me.”
“So we met up for a few months. And then we decided it would be fun if we got together along with our partners. A double date sort of thing.”
“Does it involve fewer birds?”
“Uh, sort of?”
Angelica sighed. “Please keep it to a minimum.”
Nathan and Raph approached the booth where Eric was sitting with a woman. Or not exactly a woman: Eric said his partner was genderfluid, so it was entirely possible Coral wasn’t currently female. He and Raph slid into the booth opposite them. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Eric said. “This is Coral, my partner.”
“Hi,” Coral said, reaching out for a handshake. They had a yellow bracelet on. That meant they/them pronouns.
Nathan shook their hand. “And this is Raph, my handsome boyfriend.” Nathan nudged Raph.
“Nice to meet you,” Raph said, reaching out with a gloved hand.
Once everyone had shaken hands – Nathan and Eric even did so, just for kicks – they settled down. “So, Coral, you’re a nurse?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah. Sort of. I do some medical stuff, but it’s mostly just making sure the residents are comfortable and happy. And you’re a doctor?” They turned to Raph.
“Yeah. About a year through my residency.”
“So, any hobbies?” Nathan asked Coral.
“Well, I’ve been thinking of getting back into Judo, even though I’ll have to start over. I used to take it as a kid, but I got caught kissing a girl and then my parents pulled me out of it, since they thought it was masculinizing me into lesbianism.”
“That sucks,” Raph said.
“Yeah,” Nathan said. “Hey, Eric, I saw this funky-looking pelican the other day. It was--”
“This is important, I promise! But I guess I can speed things up a bit.”
Nathan got into the old discussion with Eric, birds they’d seen recently and ones they wanted to see. He noticed Coral tapping their fingernails on the table and Raph squirming beside him. They weren’t talking very much, but that was usual for Raph and he wasn’t sure about Coral. “SO,” Coral said, piercing his and Eric’s argument of whether a particular bird was a lesser nighthawk or common nighthawk. “Raph. Do you like any video or computer games?”
Raph perked up. That was unusual. “Yeah. Usually not long games, because I always forget what I was doing, but something that I can do in a few hours.”
“I have a few games like that. Party-style games or so. Think you’d be interested in coming over and playing sometime?”
“Sure,” Raph said.
“Great. Then maybe we’d actually get a chance to talk,” Coral said, glancing at Nathan. “Instead of being overrun by birds.”
“You could’ve just asked us to stop,” Eric said.
“I did,” Coral said, shrugging.
“No, I mean, with the words ‘I feel left out of the conversation’.” Eric sighed. “All right. So what’s something all of us can talk about?”
The conversation stalled for a moment, long enough to become uncomfortable. “Um,” Nathan said. They all turned to look at him. “All of you are bi. Is there any bi culture you have in common?”
“Is there a bi culture?” Raph asked.
“Of course,” Coral said. “Lemon bars, finger guns, swords, frogs, sitting weird…” Raph shifted in his seat to put both feet on the floor. “Oh, and never remembering whether the pink or blue is on top of the flag.”
There was another pause. “Is it blue?” Raph asked.
“I think it’s pink,” Eric said.
“Maybe it’s secretly purple and we’ve all just never noticed,” Coral said.
“I’ll be right back,” Nathan said, temporarily leaving the table. When he got back, they were still arguing.
“Okay, but hear me out,” Eric was saying. “Pink represents attraction to femme folk. With different genders, femme on top is hotter than masc on top. Therefore, pink is on top.”
“He has a point,” Coral said.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not the logic they used. Also, I thought it represented same-sex attraction, not femme attraction.”
“You know,” Nathan said, “we could just look it up.” He pulled out his phone.
“No! You’re oppressing our culture!” Coral waggled a finger at him.
Nathan ignored them. “It’s pink,” he said, showing the table.
“Well,” Eric said, “I guess this just leaves lemon bars, finger guns, and frogs.”
“Swords,” Coral hissed into Eric’s ear.
“Never had lemon bars before,” Raph said.
“Ooh, I got a recipe for them,” Eric said. “I can make some. Or just give them to you.”
“I’ll take the recipe. I like baking.”
“Is that where those came from?” Angelica asked.
“Yep. They’re delicious,” Nathan said.
Angelica leaned in. “I propose a conspiracy. Gays and lesbians must end bisexual tyranny over ownership of lemon bars.”
“I’ve already made steps by asking Raph to make some for the team. If he keeps doing it, we can easily recruit Rainbright, Iris, and Grapple into the conspiracy.”
“Excellent. Now, continue.”
Nathan felt a bit left out of the conversation. “Oh, Eric!” he said. “I forgot about this one bird I spotted a while ago…”
“Ugh,” Coral said, rolling their eyes and taking a drink.
Nathan felt annoyed. If Coral had a problem, then why didn’t they just leave?
Eric turned to Coral. “Do you have a problem?”
“Does it sound like I have a problem?”
“Yes. Spit it out.”
“Fine,” Coral said. “I thought this whole thing was so the four of us could meet each other and talk. Instead, it’s just been the two of you talking birds, not leaving any room for me or Raph to talk. And the moment we actually start talking, it becomes birds again. Like, why am I even here if you’re just going to ignore me the whole time? Why are we giving up a date night for this?”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Eric said. “But I don’t get to talk to Nathan that much.”
“You’ve been on the phone with him three times this week, each for several hours. And you forgot to make dinner on Thursday because you were talking to him. And you spent Friday night talking about him.”
“I said I was sorry!”
“And yet the problem continues!” Coral stood up as the waitress returned with a pitcher of water. “Hi. Can you move me to another table?”
“And me, too?” Raph asked. Coral looked at him in surprise. So did Nathan. “I feel ignored, too,” he said, glancing at Nathan.
“Sure, you can come along,” Coral said. The waitress showed them to another table across the restaurant.
Nathan looked at Eric. “Um. That was… unexpected,” Nathan said.
“This was a terrible idea,” Eric groaned.
“No, it was… Did you really miss out on a date night for this?” If he had, then Nathan was a little more sympathetic to Coral. Sometimes Raph was almost impossible to get a date with, and not entirely there when he did get one.
“No! Well, sort of. We were supposed to go out tonight. But we can do that any night. Coral just wanted to go tonight because it’s the only night they’re usually off…” Eric hung his head. “Okay, yeah. I did. But only because you said this was the only night you and Raph were available.”
“Well, yeah, because it’s not a date night! We could’ve found another day.”
“I’m going to need to apologize to Coral.” Eric glanced over at their new table. Coral and Raph were talking, both looking very interested in the conversation. “I’ll just let them talk now, though.”
“Do you think we’re too…” Nathan struggled with the ending of that sentence. Too involved with each other? Too interested in each other? “That we talk too much?”
“Coral seems to think so,” Eric muttered.
“Coral seems to be pretty jealous.”
“Which is weird. Normally we can talk about hot people all we like. We’ve even done some flirting with other people and they’ve been in a poly relationship before. They’re not usually jealous.”
“Huh.” The only thing he could think of that would be worse than flirting would be sleeping together, and he and Eric weren’t doing that. Well, Eric was pretty good-looking. If the two of them were single, he’d definitely go for it. But they weren’t, and he loved Raph too much to leave him, or worse cheat. It was a moot point anyway, since Eric might not even be into him.
“Well, since we’re on our own, why not continue our conversation?”
Nathan expected another complaint about the birds again, but instead got a crunch. “Where did you get that popcorn?” he asked. “We’ve been here the whole time!” It was even warm, judging by the steam and the warm buttery scent.
“Magic,” Angelica said, popping a kernel into her mouth.
“Can I have some, too?”
“No. You’re the entertainment. You can have some when you’re done. So hurry up.”
“Fine. So we talked to the end and then left.”
Nathan got a call from Eric the next day. “How did things go with Coral?” he asked.
“Well… Coral’s not happy with me. But yeah, I think you and her were both right. I have been ignoring her lately. How about you? Are you and Raph okay?”
“Yeah. Raph was just annoyed. Not working out any bigger issues. Honestly, I think I’m the one who gets ignored in my relationship.” Nathan sighed, which caused a loose strand of hair to puff out in front of him. “I keep trying to schedule dates with him, but it’s really dependent on how he’s feeling that day. I totally understand why, but…” He shrugged. A moment later, he realized that Eric couldn’t see it. Luckily, it didn’t seem to matter.
“Yeah. I understand why Coral is so passive-aggressive about her negative feelings, but it’s still pretty hard to deal with. And that’s something that can actually be worked on.”
“Yeah. I love him and it’s not a dealbreaker for me. But he gets frustrated that he can’t be there and I wish I had more of him.”
“That sounds like it sucks. For both of you.” Eric was quiet for a moment. “So, Coral thinks it might be a good idea for us to meet up or call once or twice a week at set times. She’d prefer once.”
“Us-us or you-and-her-us?”
“You and me. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my doing chores or my date nights with her.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Nathan said.
“So that’s what we ended up doing for a couple months. Then things kinda fell apart.”
“I need more popcorn for this,” Angelica said, cracking open a soda and texting on her phone. A few moments after she set it down, Hermes popped in and handed her a bowl of hot popcorn.
“Really?” Nathan asked. “You’re abusing Hermes’s powers for this?”
“Yes, I am,” Angelica said. “Since you’re eating up my snack break with your long story. So, how did you screw everything up?”
Nathan grumbled, but continued.
They’d chosen to meet up at a park near Eric’s apartment for some birdwatching. Coral and Raph wanted to hang out, so Nathan ended up driving Raph to the apartment. From there, they walked.
“Is there anywhere to eat nearby?” Nathan asked.
“There are usually some food carts there. They should have some stuff that’s kosher. Otherwise, there’s an Italian place not too far away. Never been there, but Coral says it’s good.”
“I think I’d like to check out the food carts. Nice to have a backup, though.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, swinging his arms.
If Nathan were walking like this with Raph, they would have held hands. Was that why he wanted to hold hands with Eric right now? Just out of sheer habit? Though if he did, then he’d be feeling Eric’s bare hand, not a glove. He felt his cheeks heating up at the thought of that.
They watched the birds for a while, Nathan looking through his binoculars and Eric pulling out his sketchbook for a few quick drawings. It was nice, like when Nathan and Raph were reading together on the couch. They got something to eat when they got hungry and sat on a bench together.
“Here,” Eric said, handing the trash over to Nathan. “Go throw that away and I’ll show you my drawings.”
“Yes, sir,” Nathan said with a small curtsey. Eric looked surprised, but Nathan turned away. That felt… oddly good. Like a joke? Not entirely, no.
Afterwards, Eric showed Nathan his sketches.
“I think the proportions are a little off there,” Nathan said, eyeing a bird with an open mouth bigger than the rest of its body.
“It’s metaphorical. It won’t shut up. I mean, they’re pretty, but you know.”
“Pretty bird or pretty song, pick one or pick none.”
“Exactly. And they hang out around my bedroom window and scream at times no human should be awake unless they’re paid to be.”
Nathan chuckled. “Pigeons are the only birds around my building. Though I think that’s more soothing than anything else.”
“I guess pigeons are an exception. They’re both pretty and have a nice coo.” Eric’s eyes lit up. “Hey, you know why most sounds bounce off walls, but a pigeon’s song doesn’t?”
Nathan frowned? “It doesn’t?”
“Nope. It stays on the wall. Because a coo sticks.”
It took him a moment. “I hate that,” he said, trying not to laugh.
“Hey, you’re laughing,” Eric said, nudging Nathan with his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Nathan said, smiling at him. He felt the urge to lean in, to touch Eric’s face, to kiss him. But that was fine, wasn’t it? It wasn’t like he was going to do it. It wasn’t like Eric would let him.
The smile faded from Eric’s face and he shifted uncomfortably. “Uh. Maybe we should wrap this up soon.”
“Why?” Nathan asked.
“It’s just… I keep thinking… that I’d really like to kiss you.”
“Oh,” Nathan said.
“And I don’t want to. I mean, I do, but I shouldn’t. And Coral wouldn’t be okay with it.”
“I want to kiss you, too. And Raph wouldn’t be okay with it.”
Eric took a deep breath. “Maybe we shouldn’t see each other.”
Part of Nathan wanted to protest. This felt like a breakup. And that was a problem, wasn’t it? When had Eric become this close to him? “Yeah. Let’s go back to them.”
The walk home was quiet, the air between them tense as a stone wall. Nathan kept his hands firmly in his pockets. Maybe, if he reached out, that would break it. Maybe that would break everything else, too. A line had already been crossed somewhere. Maybe he’d find it if he examined his life to the last detail, or had it been a gradual walk across a gradient of gray so smooth he’d never seen the black line? Whatever the case, now that he knew, he couldn’t risk going one step further. When the eternal walk ended, another eternity of walking up the stairs waited, and another of Eric fumbling for his keys. Innocent laughter hammered through the door as he unlocked it.
“You’re back early,” Coral said, not looking up from the game they were playing. “Gotcha!”
Raph groaned and began mashing buttons. “I hate that thing!”
“Don’t worry. You’d still lose without it,” Coral said with a smirk.
“As if!” More button-mashing ensued.
“Raph,” Nathan said, trying not to sound strangled. “We should go.”
“I’m in the middle of a round,” Raph said.
“We should really leave now!” Nathan said.
Both of them looked up at him, and then over at Eric. “What happened?” Coral asked, eyes narrowed at the two of them.
“Nothing happened,” Eric said. “Sort of. Let’s talk when they’re gone.”
“Did you two sleep together?” Raph asked.
“No!” Nathan said. “We didn’t even kiss!”
“So something did happen,” Coral said in a quiet voice.
“Look,” Eric said. “We realized that… we have feelings for each other.” He glanced at Nathan and then quickly looked back. “And as soon as we realized that, we came back here and decided not to see each other again.”
Raph and Coral were both quiet. After a few moments, Raph stood up and walked to the door, still not speaking. With a final look at Coral and Eric, Nathan followed him out. Back in the car, Raph sat there instead of getting the seatbelt on.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said. “I should have realized what was going on earlier.”
Raph took a deep breath. “I’m not happy about this.”
“Yeah. Not really surprised about that.”
“It could be worse, I guess? I mean, you didn’t try to hide it. Or go behind my back.”
“I wouldn’t do that.” Nathan turned to him. “I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I couldn’t hurt you like that.”
Raph slowly nodded, looking out the windshield. “Do you love him?”
Nathan took a moment to think about his answer. Raph valued honesty more than empty appeasement. “Sort of. I definitely feel things. But I couldn’t see myself living with Eric. Spending more than a day with him does get annoying. With you, I could be with you every day and only love you more. What we have is definitely love. With him, I don’t know.”
Raph bit his lower lip. “Okay. I think I can accept that.”
“And I’m staying away from him for a while. Maybe that’ll let things fade out.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Eric wanted to. I think Coral might want him to.”
“Maybe.” Raph looked up at the building. “I hope they’ll be all right.”
“Me too. Are you ready to go?”
Raph nodded and they set off back to headquarters.
Nathan looked up at Angelica, who was on her third bowl of popcorn. “I’m surprised you aren’t complaining more about my bad storytelling.”
“I think I’m getting emotionally invested now,” Angelica said. “Though I have to admit, it is a little hard hearing you talk about this.”
Nathan looked at her. “Mary?”
Angelica nodded. “Mary.”
“Yes. Not even trying to hide it.”
Angelica set down the bowl of popcorn. “I really don’t think there’s a happy ending left for us. But I assume something happened to you?”
Nathan nodded. “Raph was still in contact with Coral. Eric ended up staying with his mom for a few days. He and Coral weren’t doing as well as Raph and I were, I guess, so that’s why it was much harder on them. They were working things out in therapy, though. A couple weeks after that, well…”
Raph had told Nathan to meet him at a restaurant. That was a little surprising, but he went along with it. As soon as he entered, he spotted Raph there. Coral was sitting beside him, which made Nathan raise an eyebrow. Someone with black hair was sitting on the other side of the table, too. His heart skipped a beat.
“Hey,” he said as he approached the table.
Eric looked up. “I had nothing to do with this,” he said, hands up. “They tricked me.”
“We did,” Coral said cheerfully.
“Take a seat,” Raph said.
The only available seat was next to Eric. Nathan took a deep breath and sat down, trying not to touch Eric. He wasn’t sure how either of them would react if he did, let alone their partners. He smiled at Eric and then faced across the table. “So, what’s this about?”
“Well, we’ve been talking,” Coral said, “and there’s something we wanted to discuss with you.”
“We think we’d both be okay with a polyamorous relationship,” Raph said.
“As in, we’re all dating and sleeping together?” Eric asked.
“Definitely not,” Coral said, glancing at Nathan. “No. You date me, Nathan dates Raph, and then you and Nathan date. Nothing between me and those two or Raph and us two.”
Nathan barely dared to hope. Was this something he could actually do? Date two people at the same time? He looked over at Eric, who looked thoughtful, and then back at their partners. “Why, though?” Nathan asked. “Why are you okay with this?”
Raph and Coral glanced at each other, and then Coral took a deep breath and leaned forward. “Something Eric and I have been talking about in therapy is what we both want. One of the things I realized was that I wasn’t upset because he had feelings for someone else. It was because he got to do that when I wasn’t allowed to. I want to keep going out and looking for new people. I’ve done poly before and that worked pretty well for me. And, well, after he stopped ignoring me, him hanging out with you didn’t bother me. I was fine with that. So, as long as things are even and I get the chance to date other people, I’d be happy. Maybe happier than I’ve been so far, and I’ve mostly been happy.”
“So you want to be with other people,” Nathan said, glancing at Raph. “Is that the same for you?” He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, it would be perfectly fair to let Raph date someone else if he was doing that himself. It was also causing some physical no reactions.
To his relief, Raph shook his head. “It’s different for me. I’m happy with our relationship. It’s just… I feel like I want 100% of the relationship and you want 125%. Or maybe you want 100% and I want 80%. Either way, I love what’s there, but there’s a little too much of it. And I was happy when you were out with Eric. I felt, well, a little guilty, not being able to spend time with you. But when you were out with him, I felt better, since you were out having fun. There was someone there with you. So I’d be happy if you were out there with other people, but I feel like everything’s already there for me. Maybe that’ll change if I meet the right person, but right now, I’m fine.”
“What about me?” Eric asked. “Would I be allowed to be with people besides Nathan?”
Coral shrugged. “I have no problem with that. But if you’re dating Nathan, he also gets a say, though.” Coral gestured to Nathan.
That put him on the spot. “Uh. I don’t know how I feel about that,” he said. “Coral is one thing, but a bunch of people I don’t know is just… not okay for me.”
Eric was quiet for a moment, and then nodded. “I think I can live with that. I do want to talk more about this,” he said, gesturing to Coral, “but I think that’s more an us conversation than an all of us conversation.”
“So,” Raph asked, “we’re all in?”
Nathan and Eric looked at each other. “So,” Eric said, “I’d like to date you.”
It took Nathan a moment for his tongue to unlock. He nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
The whole thing was so shockingly smooth that it was hard to believe it really happened. They agreed that Nathan and Eric would date once a week, with a possible second date if Raph wasn’t feeling well and if Eric gave Coral some extra attention afterwards. Once a month, they would have a four-way meetup to do a checkup on everyone involved.
“And that’s actually held up for the past three years,” Nathan said. “I… don’t really think you want to hear any other details.”
“No, I think that’s sufficient,” Angelica said, setting aside her fourth bowl of popcorn. “I still want to do some checking on your story, but I will consider giving them extra protection.”
“Right. I think that’s the most I can ask for.” Nathan eyed the bowl. “So does this mean I can have some popcorn now?”
“I don’t know. Raph is coming in right after you and I might still need some.” Angelica nudged the bowl out of sight. “And you have a telepathic scan booked right now.”
Nathan sighed. “This is punishment for a long story, isn’t it?”
“No. If I wanted to punish you, I’d tell you to babysit my children while I finish up on all this paperwork. Which happens to be a week behind schedule. Or I’d make you do the paperwork.” She patted a stack of papers bigger than his head.
“Right. On to the scan.” Thankfully, it would only reveal whether his mind had been messed with, not expose his memories or emotions, so he didn’t have to do much preparation. Maybe there would be popcorn left afterwards.
“Dismissed,” Angelica said. Hermes popped in with a fifth bowl. Nathan suspected there wouldn’t be any popcorn left.
Outside the office, Nathan ran into Raph. “Hey,” he said, giving Raph a quick kiss. “So I told Angelica that I’m dating Eric because she thought I was being mind-controlled.”
“Ah. I was wondering about that,” Raph said. “About why you told her. I don’t think you’re being mind-controlled.”
“I got that. So yeah, I told her everything, so you don’t need to hold anything back. Except some of the more intimate details.”
“Okay,” Raph said, awkwardly squeezing Nathan’s shoulder.
“Also, as soon as I’m done, I’m going back home and making a ridiculous amount of popcorn.”
“Leave some for me,” Raph said, disappearing into Angelica’s office.
“No promises,” Nathan called after him.
Nathan peeked into the oven and quickly shut it. That told him exactly nothing, since he wasn’t the one with baking expertise, and he knew that it would just make it take longer, but he still felt the need to peek. The timer went off. Was that enough time? He opened the oven for a longer look, but he still had no idea what he was looking at.
The door opened. “I’m back,” Scope called, stripping off his uniform. “Any attacks?”
“Nope,” Nathan said. “Just patrolling. No major issues.”
“That’s good.” Raph was back down to his civvies. “Something smells sweet.”
“Yep.” Nathan carefully pulled the pan out of the oven. “I made cookies.”
“Oh,” Raph said, coming into the kitchen. “They look good.”
“Can’t wait to eat them. Except I should, since they just came out.” He scraped them onto the cooling rack and turned to the remaining dough. “Want to help me with the rest?”
They worked together, making the rest of the dough into cookies. Raph’s looked much better, but Raph was also eating some of the raw dough. “I know,” he said when he was caught, “but the dough tastes so much better.”
“Yeah, but it has eggs in it.”
“The flour is more of a risk than the eggs,” Raph grumbled, but stopped eating the dough, at least until they were done forming the cookies. Then he scraped the bowl clean and ate the rest.
Once they were done with the cookies, they put them on a plate and retreated to the couch. They both had fantasy books to read, though Nathan readily admitted that his tastes didn’t run to deep worldbuilding like Raph’s did. They sat leaning against each other, Nathan feeling Raph’s warmth against him, reading and eating cookies.
There was a knock on the door. Raph and Nathan looked at each other, silently having an argument, and Nathan got up to answer. “Hello,” Angelica said. “I’ve approved your request to tell Eric and Coral about your identity.”
Nathan let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said.
“Not a problem. But next time, if there is a next time, please let me know about potential issues before they come up.” Angelica walked away.
Nathan got back to the couch. “It’s been approved,” he said. “If you don’t have any problems with it, then I’m going to tell them.”
“No problems,” Raph said, settling back into place. “I’m kind of relieved. I didn’t really like lying about who we are.”
“Yeah, I don’t like it either,” Nathan said. “But we knew what this meant before we signed up.”
“Doesn’t make it any easier to live with sometimes.”
“Yeah.” Nathan opened up his book to where he’d left off. “I’m going to tell them tomorrow.”
“We need to make a decision soon,” Coral said that night in bed. “About Nathan, I mean.”
Eric groaned. “I know.” He sat up. “It’s been in the same loop for weeks. I should break up with him, but I don’t want to.”
Coral sat up beside him. “I have a question. Suppose you choose to stay with him. If you do, then you could still break up with him at any time. So if you did, then would you be able to let that decision go? Or would that prolong the decision? Turn every interaction you have with him into a choice of whether to stay or leave?”
Eric thought about it. Coral had a point. If he stayed, then he’d constantly be faced with the decision to break up. Could he really enjoy his time with Nathan if that was always in the back of his mind? The knowledge that Nathan wasn’t who Eric thought he was, and the fear of being found out? Sure, he loved Nathan… but could he really treat Nathan in a loving way now?
“You’re right,” he said. “I need to break up with him. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Thank you for reading!
Thank you for reading!
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