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∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

It’s well past two in the morning when Joey is startled awake by the abrupt bang of his bedroom door bursting open in a panic. Despite him being 75% asleep he knows it’s his father, Steve.

“Dad,” he mumbles, eyes still closed, limbs weak and unwilling to fully function.

His dad hugs him tight. His breathing is hard, skin clammy with sweat, hair damp with it, too.

“Dad, it’s okay,” he says. He wants to bring his arms around the broad-shouldered man, but drifting to ‘dreamland’ is so much more enticing than his dad’s monthly freakout.

He never tells the 13 year old what the dream’s about. Just that he has it and it obviously scares the shit out of him.

The last thing Joey recalls is his head feeling cushioned by something soft, fluffy and smells of his shampoo, then a gentle hand running through his dark brown hair.

∞∞∞

They obviously got in a fight. Joey heard the beginnings of it last night before he fell asleep. And now they’re ignoring one another, creating a gigantic chasm of noiseless stress they’re all choking on over their morning coffee. It’s weird. And it’s weird because it’s dishonest. Something that doesn’t normally take place in their house. His parents either solve their issue before bed, or openly snipe at each other until they’re caught kissing somewhere inappropriate because not having their hands all over each other was becoming far too much to bear.  But this is…new. The silent treatment is new.

Joey doesn’t like it. Meals are when the three of them are at their loudest and most talkative, but it’s been nothing but overwhelming tension since he trotted downstairs for breakfast.

His dad, Steve, is sitting at the breakfast nook, off to the side, reading something on his tablet, sipping black coffee while trying to pretend he isn’t sneaking quick glances at his other father, James, making breakfast at the stove.

James is singular focused when he cooks; his face in a frown as he thinks about everything he’s doing, from cracking an egg to searing foie gras . He moves effortlessly, and confidently, around the kitchen (any kitchen), one would  never guess the rapid stream of consciousness firing off in his brain was something occurring at the same time as he fries a pan of bacon. So Joey knows he doesn’t see the lovelorn glances Steve shoots his way.

Scrambled egg and roasted asparagus toast is placed in front of him.

Fuck. He’s getting fancy at breakfast. He only does that when something’s fucked up .

James keeps it simple at home: pancakes, French toast, egg in a basket (Joey’s favorite), but he’s cooking with mushrooms and chives and sea salt on a boring August morning.

“What are you guys fighting about,” Joey asks, biting into his toast.

James glances at Steve who returns his attention to his tablet. He scoffs, throws a pan angrily into the sink, and storms out of the room, snatching his mug of coffee off the island as he goes.

Steve rubs his eyes like they’re sore. “It's fine, Joe.”

“Doesn’t look fine.”

“I meant it will be fine.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. D is just a little mad at me. That’s all.”

“He looks more than ‘a little mad’ at you.”

Steve gives him a weak smile. “Yeah. Maybe.” He puts the tablet down. “What are your plans today?”

Joey rolls his eyes. “Your distraction techniques are feeble.”

“I know. Humor me anyway.”

Joey shrugs. No real plans per se. Anything even remotely planned out this summer has been by his fathers, like their beach house trip to the ocean on the fourth of July last month, and a short visit to his grandmother’s farm two weeks ago.

“Well, whatever you and the gang get up to today, try to stay out of trouble for me, huh?”

“Yeah, ‘cause that’s how we roll: always up to no good.”

Steve chokes on his coffee at the idea of his son and his fellow nerds stirring up controversy in their suburban neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts.

“Please contain yourself,” Joey quips.

“I’m trying to,” Steve chuckles. “But I just pictured all five of you on low-rider bikes wearing bandanas and Dickies.”

Joey is confused by the reference.

“And now I’m suddenly disappointed in myself for not having properly exposed you to 90s gangsta rap.”

Joey shrugs. “I’ll Google it.”

“Even sadder now,” Steve frowns.

They’re interrupted by the hard slam of the front door. They both break from their chairs and head for the front of the house. Joey opens the front door, standing dumbfounded on the porch as he watches James speed out of their driveway and down the street in his red-on-black Challenger. Joey hates that car, but for some reason Steve has more of an emotional attachment to it than James does.

He hurries back into the house. Steve is in the living room, staring out the front window as James’ car disappears from sight.

“He always says ‘goodbye’ when he leaves,” Joey reminds. “Even when he’s mad.”

“I know.”

“He didn’t this time,” Joey reiterates like a misdemeanor has been committed.

Steve sinks into an armchair, rubbing the bridge of his long nose with the pad of his thumb. “…I know.”

They don’t fight often, but when they do it’s typically Steve’s fault. He’s heard them go at it and his dad is stubborn, to put it mildly. He also has a tendency to get worked up and say the absolute wrong thing in the heat of the moment. And James can be condescending. Consequently, low blows aren’t habitual, but they aren’t uncommon either. But it’s apparent whatever happened is Steve’s mistake.

“And you’re okay with that,” Joey snaps.

Steve scowls at him; face hard, eyes narrow. “Of course not, Joe, but what do you want me to do? Chase after him like a German Shepard?”

Joey doesn’t get a breath to respond before his father stomps upstairs, slamming the door to the master bedroom shut, shaking the whole house.

“What the fuck?”

∞∞∞

“My dads don’t act like this. I’m telling you, Billy, this is a big fucking deal,” Joey laments.  “Like, they’ve gotten into fights before, I get it, that’s normal, but… My dad yelled at me and went upstairs like it was my fault. And D, he left the house without saying anything and then sped away like he robbed a goddamn bank!”

A middle-aged woman with short, curly hair and ugly square glasses shushes him.

“We’re at a dinosaur exhibit. News flash: they’re not real and can’t hear us. And if they could, I doubt they’d take issue with my tone,” he snaps at her.

The woman looks completely affronted and storms off.

“Please don’t get us kicked out of The Science Museum. I really like the planetarium and I want to come back for the Mars exhibit next year,” Billy pleads.

“You think my dads are getting a divorce and just don’t want to tell me?”

Billy shakes his head with a put-upon sigh. He’s used to his best friend’s dramatics, but it’s nonetheless annoying having to deal with them.

“Joey, your parents are the only parents I know that are happy. They’re not getting a divorce. It’s just a bad fight. And even if they were getting a divorce, it’s not so bad. Two Christmases and all, you know?”

Billy’s mom and dad split up three years ago. His dad lives close, in Boston.

“No offense, Bill, but I’m perfectly happy with my one Christmas.”

“Why do you do this? Why do you always go from zero to 100 all the time? I thought lawyers were supposed to be even-tempered. The calmer they are the better chance they have at winning their case.”

“I’m not overacting. And lawyers are just really good actors. But smart.”

“I suddenly feel really privileged that I want to be an engineer instead.”

“My dads would never cheat on each other, that I do know, so it’s totally something else.”

Billy groans. “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you should mind your business? It’s their fight and they’re adults; they don’t owe you a play-by-play of their arguments.”

“Two days. That’s the longest they’ve ever been mad at each other. They don’t make up in two days then I know we have a problem on our hands.”

“Again: there is no ‘our’. It’s their issue. It’s between them.”

“I should break into D’s emails to see if he’s complaining my aunt about it…”

“I wish you could hear yourself,” Billy says, brushing the fringe of his blonde hair from his forehead.

Billy and his brother, Tommy, are identical twins that would be hard to tell apart if it weren’t for the round, tortoise shell eyeglasses Billy’s constantly pushing up his button nose. And Tommy constantly shoveling food down his gullet. Presently, it’s a pair of Twizzlers as he and Cassie, another friend, approach the two of them. Joey’s constantly in wonder how Tommy doesn’t weigh as much as a Buick with how much he eats.

“You can’t eat in here, Tommy. I keep telling you that,” Billy admonishes. His counterpart merely shrugs in response, biting into his licorice. “I swear the only reason for the presence of you assholes in my life is to stave off loneliness.”

Joey kisses his cheek. “Don’t act like you don’t love us.”

Billy rolls his eyes. “Occasionally. Let’s get out of here. I think that lady you yelled at went to find a security guard.”

“You yelled at a lady,” Tommy asks, smirking. He kind of lives for Joey’s outbursts more than Billy feels irritated by them.

“I didn’t yell at her. I merely pointed out to her that dinosaurs are extinct; therefore, don’t give a damn about how loud I’m talking.”

Tommy laughs. “Classic Joey.” He offers him a Twizzler. Joey takes it and they file out of the dinosaur hall.

∞∞∞

The sun is setting by the time Joey makes it home. He, Billy, Tommy, and Cassie went to Van Horn Park and watched the black kids from Bay play 3-on-3 then headed to the river, wading in the water up to their ankles for a bit.

The sun was high and bright at the time; Joey’s favorite time of day, the middle of the afternoon. He hopped barefoot from tepid stepping stone to stepping stone until he reached the last one and tilted his head toward the cloudless sky, letting the sun tan his face for a long, shining moment. He loves summer. It’s warm and unguarded and lazy.

He likes sleeping with his window open at night. He likes the sound of katydids during the day and crickets at night. He likes snowcones and the beach. He likes girls in small bikinis and water balloon fights. He likes sweating under the air conditioner and sleeping in just his underwear. Summer’s always been good to him. Has been thus far. The balmy heat and taste of cold, Mint Chocolate Chip has even made him forget his parents are fighting for a while. Something he’s most grateful for.

He slips off his shoes as he comes into the house through the backdoor. He drops them and his dirty, white socks in front of the mudroom cabinet while trying to keep his ice cream cone from dripping down his forearm. When he looks up his dad is leaning against the doorframe watching him.

“You going to work,” he asks. Steve’s presently wearing blue hospital scrubs.

“Yeah. Got called in,” Steve says, sound remorseful. Joey knows how much he loves being home and hates when he gets called in on his day off. “Peggy called out. Hurricane near St. Thomas trapped them at the airport longer than she thought it would.”

“She okay?”

“Yeah. She and Angie are on their way to Miami now. They’ll be in Boston by morning.”

“Good.”

The seconds of a stilted silence ticks on between them with a noise like a drum. Joey can’t remember the last time they were this awkward around each other. He and Steve are so close. Words don’t really fall dead with the two of them.

Steve pushes off the wall and takes a seat on the bench. He motions for Joey to join him. He does. He offers his ice cream to Steve. Steve takes a bite and gives it back to his son.

“Who eats ice cream with their teeth? So weird, dad.”

“Not nearly as good as Butter Pecan.”

“You’re insane. And that’s an old lady ice cream flavor,” Joey protests.

Steve chuckles. “Well, I’m an old man, so it’s fitting, I guess.”

“You’re only thirty-six. You’re not old.”

“I know. Just fishing for compliments… Hey,” Steve says in that tone. The one that implies he needs Joey’s complete attention.

He doesn’t want to look up from his ice cream. But he does. “Yeah?”

“I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. I shouldn’t have snapped at you and run off like a fucking child. I’m mad at myself and I took it out on you. That’s not fair. Can I be forgiven?”

“Of course.” Joey doesn’t think he could never not forgive his father. About anything.

Steve pulls him close. He buries his nose in his hair and kisses the top of his head. “I don’t deserve you.”

“I know,” Joey teases.

Steve smiles into his scalp. “Asshole.”

“I know.”

“I bet you do.” Steve kisses his head again then stands.

“What time is D getting home?” Forgiveness or not, he can’t let his dad get away that easily.

Steve’s face falls. “I, uh… I don’t know. He’s not answering my text.”

“Maybe something’s wrong with your phone. Or he’s busy,” Joey tries. He doubts it though. It’s a Wednesday. And even though it’s the summer it’s still a weekday. Most restaurants are slow until Thursday night. James would have had more than enough time to reply to Steve’s text. He always does.

“Maybe,” Steve smiles weakly at his son’s attempt to ease his hurt. “Why don’t you try for me then? Just in case.”

“Should I be worried,” he asks outright.

“You’re going to be regardless, but no.” His father knows him all too well. “D and I will be fine. I promise. Just a bad fight, Joe.”

Doesn’t feel like it. It feels more than that to the young teen. It feels foreign and intimidating. Like never seeing snow before then suddenly dropped in the arctic.

“Cassie’s parents hate each other. Billy and Tommy’s mom and dad got divorced. And every other kid I know at school’s parents aren’t together—”

“That’s not us. Understand?” There’s a demanding seriousness in his father’s face. Something true and finite. He means it. With everything in him. “I love D more than I can put into words. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for the both of you. Nothing I wouldn’t give up. He feels the same way. We’re a family. That’s never going to end. I won’t let it.”

“You’re not easing my anxiety, pal.   The lady doth protest too much, methinks .”

Steve smirks. “ O, but she’ll keep her word ,” he replies. He runs a smooth hand through Joey’s soft hair. He does that when he’s trying to center his precocious son, trying to erase the crinkle between Joey’s brows with a connecting touch. “I text your dad and told him I was going into work. Try him at the restaurant and tell him you’re home and that I left. I’ll be back by six. Until your dad gets home—”

“Don’t leave the house, lock all the doors, keep the living room light on, and don’t let anyone in. And don’t tell anyone I’m here alone.”

“Thank you. Made you a salad. It’s in the fridge. Keep your phone close by.”

“I will.”

Steve pecks his head for a third time. “Love you.”

“Love you, too,” Joey tells him. He squeezes the hand still in his hair.

Steve slips out of the mudroom and Joey listens as his father shuffles around the house: grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge, along with his prepped dinner, taking his grey hoodie off the coat rack by the front door, snatching his keys and work badge from the key bowl, and finally wrapping his stethoscope around his neck as he slips his cellphone into his pants pocket.

He so obviously has a routine Joey has memorized.

The front door opens quietly and closes just the same.

His dad is right: he’s worried regardless. And now he’s worried about being worried.

Are most kids this laser focused about their parents’ marriage? He knows the answer to that but refuses to admit aloud or let it echo in his head.

If only I had a little brother, he thinks. He might be less distracted by whatever it is his dads are going through if there were another person present; he could be selfish and entirely oblivious. Probably wouldn’t even notice his parents were fighting at all if it weren’t just him…

He thinks about calling James. He’s clearly ignoring his dad’s text, but Joey knows if he called the restaurant and said he was here by himself, James would make it his mission to get home. They’d order a pizza and they’d stay up watching B horror movies until they passed out on the couch.

Yeah. Yeah, D hates when I’m left alone. He’ll come home and we’ll talk. He’ll tell me about his fight with dad.

Joey eagerly pushes off the bench and locks the backdoor like Steve told him to.

But it’s not until he steps into the kitchen that he realizes he’s still holding his ice cream cone, which has melted sticky green rivulets down his arm to his elbow.

∞∞∞

It’s been three days and they’re still fighting. Still shifting around the house avoiding each other, refusing to touch, to talk, with James only communicating through glares while Steve telegraphs wounded puppy pouts his way to no avail.

Joey knows Steve’s been sleeping on the couch in the den. There’s a folded duvet and pillow tucked into the corner behind it. It’s been there for the last two nights.

Steve catches him looking at it. “D snores,” he lies.

He’s become increasingly annoyed with his fathers’ openly lying to him these last few days. He’s decided to meet their bullshit with blatant sarcasm, boxing them into uncomfortable corners. “Since when,” he asks rhetorically, as he shoves a handful of popcorn into his mouth. He turns his attention back to Slumber Party Massacre, internally daring his dad to answer with a lie.

“How can you and D watch this shit?”

Avoidance. Awesome.

“It’s hilarious,” Joey defends. He and James love trash horror movies. They’ve watched over two dozen of them together, but Slumber Party Massacre holds a special place in his heart.

(There’s boobs in it)

“It’s stupid beyond words.”

“Exactly.”

A sweet melody interrupts them. Steve’s cellphone. Joey looks over. Maria Hill is calling. Suddenly the both of them are confused, noses scrunched up and brows furrowed. Joey can count on one hand the number of times she’s ever spoken to either of them outside his James’ restaurant, in person or on the phone.

“Hello…” Steve answers. Steve listens to her talk on the other end until his plump pink lips morph into an angry scowl. He glances at Joey, remembering he’s there, and climbs off the sofa, leaving the room. He slides the door closed behind him.

Joe mutes the TV, wanting to listen in. He gets close to the door but all he can make out is Steve’s muffled shouting, demanding to speak to James.

There’s a long beat of silence before:

“…Fine. But he better be home by morning.”

Joey scurries back to his spot on the sofa. Steve comes in and quietly returns to his seat, too. He grabs the remote control, unmutes the TV, and angrily tosses the controller on the coffee table.

Joey lets the silence linger for a moment. Just long enough for his dad to hope he won’t ask any questions. But he should know better than that. “…Where’s D?”

“Maria’s,” Steve answers, pretending to watch the horror movie onscreen.

“Why?”

Joey watches Steve’s jaw tighten with a click. “He’s sick.”

“He’s drunk, you mean.”

Steve’s eyes turn up at his son. Joey hates when they seem to forget that he’s an insightful little shit. “Yeah. He’s drunk,” he relents, not bothering to hide the disappointment.

“He’s not coming home?”

“No. He was too drunk to drive and… Maria said he was belligerent.”

“What’s ‘belligerent’ mean?”

“Obnoxious asshole,” Steve answers. He grabs the bowl of popcorn and picks at it.

“So…he’s just going to stay the night at Maria’s house?”

“He’ll come home in the morning, Joe. Come on, let’s watch the movie.”

“No! You told me not to worry and now D’s getting drunk and not coming home! I don’t want to watch a movie! I want D to come home now, and sober!”

“And that’s not going to happen, Joe…!” Steve takes a breath, trying to calm down. He doesn’t want to yell at his son for his husband’s mistakes. Not again. “He fucked up, but he’ll be home in the morning. He didn’t mean to hurt you by not being here.”

“I know he didn’t. He meant to hurt you .”

Joey jumps off the sofa and storms out. He ignores Steve calling after him and locks himself in his room.

Because fuck this and fuck them.

∞∞∞

Two weeks. Two goddamn weeks and Joey feels like the knots in his stomach are growing into an ulcer.

Yeah, other kids don’t lose their shit over their parents’ marriage like this.

He doesn’t care anymore about how the truth sounds aloud or in his head. Because no amount of trips to Six Flags is going to make him forget that his fathers are the worst actors on the planet. They’ve gotten the “bright” idea to just fake it, for Joey’s sake, and it’s somehow worse than their silent treatment. But Joey’s far too clever for it, so now they’ve turned to bribery and distraction as a tactic. Both are desperate moves and Joey refuses to see them as anything other than that.

His friends, on the other hand, are all smiles and laughs and excitement as they park the Steve’s car and sprint for the entrance gates. Joey lags behind as James pays at one of the booths.

“Where’s the bar,” he asks the minute he’s handed their tickets. The young blonde in the glass booth shows him on a park map where he can get alcohol and points off in the distance in its direction.

“James,” Steve says; he’s trying to put all of his aggravation into his tone while also trying to look even-keeled in front of a quartet of 13 year olds.

James slaps their tickets, wristbands, the goofy park map, and a wad of cash into Steve’s hand before heading for the Tiki bar the girl in the booth mentioned.

Joey and Steve catch each other’s eye and he knows he looks anything but happy to his father. But Steve puts on a phony smile anyway, big and wide, showing off his perfect teeth. “Alright, wristbands, guys.” He ties each of their wristbands on for them, avoiding Joey’s eyes when he does his last. “Okay, so all of you guys can get on every ride this year—”

“Even Joe,” quips Tommy.

Any other time he’d clap back at his friend over his lame short joke, but right now he’s far from being in the mood for a roast.

“You going to just take that, Joseph,” Steve playfully instigates. He’s met with silence and a hard glare in response. “Yes, all of you,” Steve replies, ignoring his son’s glower. “Which ride do you want to get on first?”

“Tomahawk,” Cassie pipes up first. Cassie’s the physical embodiment of the title character from Sarah, Plain and Tall . She’s not much to look at; gangly and taller than most boys her age, with unruly, reddish-brown hair, but she’s smart, headstrong, and tougher than her male counterparts by a mile.

“The Joker,” Tommy exclaims.

“The lady spoke up first, bud. Tomahawk it is,” Steve tells him. He consults the cartoon park map for the direction they should head in. “Okay. Looks like we’re going left, guys. All the way to the back of the park. There’s a bunch of food and drink stands everywhere and a couple restaurants. Let me know if you get hungry or something.”

“You getting on the rides, too, Mr. Rogers,” Billy asks.

“Of course! I love rollercoasters!”

At least that’s not bullshit , Joey thinks. His dad does love rollercoasters. Almost as much as he does.

“Is the other Mr. Rogers getting on rides, too,” Billy asks.

“Oh, uh…no. He-he doesn’t really do rides.”

And just like that we’re back to bullshit. D loves rollercoasters.

James took Joey on his first thrill ride when he was eight. Steve waited for them and took pictures. There’s a framed one of he and James, smiling stupidly as they exit the ride, sitting on Joey’s desk in his bedroom.

He hates this. So much.

“Can we just fucking go? We’re already going to stand in line for like and hour, in the heat, to get on a 45 second ride, so I’d like to at least get started and not waste any more time in this circle jerk,” Joey barks.

He doesn’t wait to see if he’s being followed. He knows he is. And the tall shadow casted over him tells him it’s his father that’s leading the pack.

∞∞∞

“Joe. Joey. Joe! Joseph!”

Joey finally stops. “What?!”

“First, don’t answer me like that! Otherwise, the liberty you’re given in what type of language you get to use quickly becomes limited. Second, your friends are trying to have a good time, and I’m sure it’s more than a little awkward attempting to do that with the way you’ve been acting.”

“They way I’ve been acting?!”

“Yes! And what did I just say about the pitch and degree of your voice directed at me! I’m the only one that gets to yell! Understand?”

He’s on the verge of tears but refuses— refuses — to cry. Not here. Not now. Not at fucking Six Flags with his friends staring at him like a crazy person.

“Third, where are you going,” Steve finishes.

“To find D,” he answers.

“He’s fine, Joey.”

He can’t help it. His eyes flood and his voice cracks. “No, he’s not. And the fact that you even said that lets me know this is a big fucking problem. Sorry about the degree of my voice,” he smarts.

He’s running off before even realizes he’s moving, dodging amusement park patrons as they meander about.

He bumps into a pimple-faced 19 year old wearing a walkie-talkie. “Where’s the Tiki bar place?”

“Where’s your parents, dude?”

“That’s not what I asked, Milhouse?”

The kid rolls his eyes. He points behind them. “Straight ahead. Next to Goliath.”

Joey pushes past the helpful park employee to the bar. He maneuvers between groups of enthusiastic friends taking selfies, exhausted parents with small kids, and young couples laughing as they hurry off to the next ride.

He reaches the bar. It’s just as uninspired and kitschy as he thought it’d be.

James is at the far left of the bartop, polishing off a plastic cup of beer.

Joey reaches out to tap his shoulder but freezes when he takes notice of James wiping tears from his face with the back of his hand.

“D…?”

James turns to find his son standing beside him with nothing but misery on his youthful face.

“Oh, shit.” James turns away trying to gain some composure. “What-what are you doing here? Where’s Steve?”

“I left him.” He takes a seat in the empty chair beside him.

James finally turns to him. His face is blotchy and eyes red. “W-why?”

“I wanted to be with you instead.”

“Your dad know you snuck off?”

“I didn’t sneak off. And you’re my dad, too. Can I not be with you, too?”

James gives him a sad smile with a wryly chuckle. It feels like a secret he’s unaware of.

“You should… You should be having a good time with your friends, Joe.”

It’s a dodge. It’s dismissive. And he’s sick to death of them doing it for the last 14 days.

“How am I supposed to have fun with you and Dad getting a divorce?” Fuck it. He’ll cry in the middle of a cheesy Tiki bar at Six Flags. What does it matter anymore?

“What? Is-is that what your dad said? Is that w-what Steve said?”

“No. But you guys are acting like you are. You’re drinking like you are. Just tell me the truth. Stop hiding things. Please,” he doesn’t mean to beg, but…

“Fuck. Fuck… I fucking told him… Goddamnit…” the drunken sorrow that plagued his father moments ago is replaced with something angry as his hands turn into fists atop the bar. He has the same finite look on his face as Steve did in the mudroom the first time Joey asked about their fight. “Look at me. I’m only going to say this once, so you get just one chance to hear it, understand it, and believe it— Your dad is being a gigantic asshole right now, and I am not handling it like the mature adult I’m supposed to be, but I swear to god the only thing on this Earth I love just as much as you is that insolent Ken doll. I love the two of you so much it fucking cripples me, Joey. It makes everything else in this world so goddamn small… I’m not going anywhere, kid. And neither is your dad. No one’s getting divorced. I’d kill him first.”

James always gives prettier speeches than Steve.

“I’m so sorry you’re in the middle of all this. I know we’re a lot more upfront with you than this, it’s just… Some fights, some things, need to stay between two adults. Or rather two people pretending to be adults.”

James puts on his dark sunglasses and slides off his bar stool. He drops a couple bucks on the bar top for his beers and motions for Joey to follow him. Joey climbs off his chair and exits into the blinding sun with James.

Steve is sitting on a bench right outside the Tiki bar.

“Where are the kids,” James asks.

“In line for Goliath,” Steve answers.

“Go join them,” James tells Joey. “I need to talk to your dad.”

“I’m not going to do this here, James—”

“I don’t care about what or where you want something right now. Our son just asked me when are we getting a divorce.”

Steve’s wide eyes turn to Joey. “Joe, I told you—”

“It apparently didn’t sink in. So Joey’s going to go join his friends and we’re going to talk. And we’ll start with you at last apologizing to me for what you said. If it’s a sincere one, I might even give you an ‘I’m sorry’, too. We can go in the Tiki bar if you want.”

“So you can drink your ass off at eleven in the morning,” Steve smarts.

“Already had 3 beers. I’m good.”

Joey can finally see why a big, nasty fight would last so long between his parents: Steve’s stubborn and James is a smart-ass.

Steve waffles, but ultimately agrees with a curt nod.

“Fucking fantastic.” James motions to the rollercoaster. “Go play,” he says to Joey. He hesitates a moment too long. “Joe. Now. Please.”

He backs away slowly, headed for the rollercoaster to meet his friends, as instructed. But he keeps turning his head at them, watching…

The last he sees is the two of them headed back into that tacky, Hawaiian-themed bar, before Cassie is dragging him by hand to their spot in line.

∞∞∞

His eyes are heavy and his stomach full with hot dogs, funnel cake, and Mountain Dew. His friends are already asleep around him and they’ve just barely left the parking lot, having been stuck in bumper-to-bumper congestion as they attempt to bid Six Flags ado.

They rode every single rollercoaster. Some of them twice. All the while, Steve and James remained at the Tiki bar hashing out their mysterious issue. And has thus remained mysterious, seeing as how each time Joey found them, in need of more money for food and souvenirs, his dads would go quiet, quickly hand him the cash, and dismiss him.

By the time he and his friends had finished their second go-‘round on the tea cups, Steve and James had emerged from the Tiki bar, meeting them at the ride’s exit. They looked good. Settled by whatever conclusion had been reached from their fight. They weren’t touching, however; keeping a comfortable three feet gap between one another with the residue of their argument still oozing between them.

That’s to be expected , Joey assumes. Fresh wounds and all…

But currently, they’re all in Steve’s car, headed back to Springfield.

Steve’s eyes catch Joey’s in the rearview mirror. “You have a good time, buddy?”

Joey yawns. “Yup.”

Steve smiles at the worn-out teen fighting sleep.

James turns around in his seat to Joey. “Why don’t you close your eyes for a bit, counselor?”

He loves when James calls him that. Has been for over a year now. Even named as such on James’ phone when he calls.

The curtains over his eyes come down a few times at the suggestion. The slow progression of colorful, blurry shadows and light then total darkness take hold until finally his eyes slip close as he sinks into his seat with Billy’s head resting on his shoulder.

But not before he catches Steve take James’ hand and entwine their fingers over the console. James turns his head to Steve and offers him a truce with a low, sweet smile.

Steve accepts his truce with a kiss to the back of James’ hand.

∞∞∞

“Have you ever had sex with a girl,” Joey asks.

Steve chuckles at the memory. “Yes. It was awful. I was awful.”

Joey stops poking at the campfire with his stick. His dad has his utter curiosity. “Why?”

“Because I had no clue as to what I was doing. And whatever it was, I didn’t want to be doing it. At least not with a girl. She was nice about it though… Lorraine was her name. She was gorgeous. She had long, blonde hair, and these big blue eyes that were the color of turquoise. Her mama played the organ at church and her uncle owned a hardware store in town.”

“Was that the first time you had sex?”

The night is clear and warm, but Steve drapes a flannel blanket over Joey’s shoulders anyway. “No. Just the first and last time I did it with a girl.”

“When was the first time you had sex then?”

Steve’s eyes squint a bit at his son, eyebrow raised and mouth turned half up; he’s deciding something. Debating. Wondering if he should divulge such a story to not only a 13 year old but one that’s also his own kid… But that’s why they’re here. That’s why they go on these camping trips at the end of the summer, just the two of them, spilling secrets and being brutally straightforward under the stars. It’s their promise to one another to always be honest.

“No,” he decides. “No, it wasn’t the first time I had sex.” He turns his snapback around and caps a bottle of Sam Adams as he leans back in his camping chair and zips up his hoodie.

“Well…”

Steve chuckles at his son’s curious desire for him to go into detail about his sexual history. He rests his beer into the cup holder and grabs the bag of marshmallows. “I was fourteen when I lost my virginity.” He presses two marshmallows onto a steel skewer and dips it into the fire.

“To who?”

“A friend of my dad’s…who paid me three hundred dollars to have sex with him.”

Joey’s jaw hits the ground, making Steve chuckle.

“Why… Why’d you do that? Why’d you say yes?”

Steve shrugs. “He offered, and I wanted to. Chester Phillips. He was an officer in the army. Gruff man, but…sweet when he needed to be.”

“How can you describe your rapist as ‘sweet’?”

“He wasn’t a rapist, Joe.”

“The law says different,” Joe counters.

“As do I,” Steve retorts. “He had my consent, and I never felt like I was talked into something I didn’t want to do.” He pulls the marshmallows from the fire and sits the sticky goop between two graham crackers and pieces of chocolate. He hands the s’more to Joey who gladly accepts it.

“Were you in love with him?” There’s melted marshmallow all over his mouth.

“God, no.” Steve presses two more marshmallows onto a skewer and into the fire. “He wasn’t an attractive man and I knew exactly what our ‘relationship’ was. To the both of us. Plus, he was married. To a woman.”

“Oh, my God, dad! Who are you?!”

Steve laughs outright at just how scandalized Joey seems.

Joey’s always understood his fathers are human beings with experiences and a past rife with stories of the people they used to be before him. Most kids don’t get that. Don’t see that. Don’t understand that they’re parents weren’t always their parents. But finding out his dad was paid for his virginity by a married army officer twice his age is nothing if not shocking.

Yet, also intriguing.

“Did you have sex with other people for money?”

“Yeah. For a few months.” Steve forgoes the graham cracker and chocolate and opts to pick at the gooey marshmallow with his fingers. “One guy paid me with a really expensive watch. Another guy gave me tickets to a football game. And another guy gave me cocaine.”

Joey literally gasps. “Did you do it?”

Steve nods.

“That’s the most un-like you thing ever.”

“At the time it wasn’t.”

He offers Joey his beer. Joey takes a sip. He grimaces and gags at the taste. Steve chuckles and takes his beer back. He’ll stick with his can of Pepsi.

“Why though? Why’d you do drugs and have sex for money?”

“I was kind of attracted to the wrong thing when I was your age. If it was something that I shouldn’t do then I did it. Wasn’t until I graduated high school that I started really taking care of myself… I was so lonely until I moved here. Guess that’s why I did the things I did.”

“Why were you lonely? I thought you had friends, and a girlfriend, the Lorraine girl.”

“Not that kind of lonely, buddy. I was… I couldn’t be myself. I didn’t feel like I could really be who I wanted to be. Except when middle-aged men secretly paid to have sex with me. But when I turned eighteen,” Steve whistles, “I was out of that place so quick… I stayed in Brooklyn for a little bit before I ended up in Boston.”

He hadn’t realized how important that part of his dad’s life has been for him. He scoots his own chair closer to Steve, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. “Is being out that important?”

“I think so. To most people anyway. It can hinge on everything for a lot of us. I certainly wasn’t happy until I was. Until you, and D. Until I left everything poisonous behind. I was a mess until I got to be who I needed to be.”

Joey watches his father stare off into the middle distance, over the fire and into the dark woods, silenced by memory.

He nudges him. “Where you at?”

A fond smile grows on Steve’s lips. “Here. With you.”

 

Chapter Text

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Steve pulls into the Drop-Off Zone for John Brown Middle School. The place is rampant with copious amounts of children in their brand new back-to-school clothes and their exhausted, but overly-involved parents.

Joey never gets that. He doesn’t really understand the overwhelming joy parents feel when their kids return to school every year. His dad always seems a little sad he won’t be hanging around the house as often, and D… Well, D hates when the school year starts because he’s (un)fortunately one of those overly-involved parents.

The crossing guard waves them ahead. Steve parks and all three of them clamor out of the car.

“I have an announcement to make,” Joey proclaims. “This is the last time you guys will pick me up and drop me off from school. From now on I’ll be taking the bus.”

“Excuse me,” James responds, appearing extremely affronted.

“Why don’t you want us to drop you off and pick you up,” Steve asks. “Most kids hate riding the bus.”

“I know. And it’s going to suck. But I can’t deal with the moms hitting on you guys all the time. I mean, look at Mrs. Wright and her flock of hens.”

They turn their attention to a gaggle of housewives in hideous sweaters and khaki pants staring at them and whispering. The woman in the center of their huddle, the assumed Mrs. Wright, has a foiled-covered baking dish of something in her hands.

“And the yoga moms are the worse.” Joey nods to a sextet of slender women in expensive fitness gear drinking smoothies. They too stare at Steve and James lustfully.

Steve and James snicker at the desperate display from each group of women.

“It’s not funny. I get it: you’re both really good-looking men, and younger than the old, fat bald dads here, but it’s gross and offensive the way they fawn all over you, and I’m sick of getting cornered by these maneaters asking about the two of you. So, please, let’s make this the last day for all that.”

“Fine. We will not drive you to school unless you need us to,” Steve complies.

“I don’t agree to this deal in the least,” James objects. “I will pick you up and drop you off whenever I want.”

Joey groans. “Dad, please talk some sense into him,” he pleads at Steve.

“James, come on. He’s thirteen.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to get at.”

Joey groans every louder at his father’s insolence.

“You sound like a dying hippo,” Tommy interrupts. He’s eating two Pop-Tarts. At the same time. Billy and their mom, Wanda, are with him.

“You’d wail like a weeping widow, too, if your dad chose to ignore your desperate pleas.”

“What’s going on,” Wanda asks.

“Joey wants us to no longer drive him to school,” Steve replies.

“Can I guess which one of you doesn’t like that idea,” she teases.

“I feel personally attacked,” James exaggerates. “By all of you.”

Wanda laughs. She’s a pretty woman with big, wide eyes and long, dirty-blonde hair she keeps in soft waves. She’s a bit of a hippie and dresses the part perfectly in her boho chic clothes paired with fedoras and sandals. Even during the chilly autumn.

Joey’s admittedly always found it interesting how involved she is at school given she owns a weird, little boutique that makes expensive purses out of recycled materials. The teen just assumed a woman with a sizeable amount of money and a somewhat flighty philosophy about life wouldn’t put much effort into being in the PTA.

Then again, no one expects James to be as involved in his education either.

“Moving on though, do you have your class schedule? Know where homeroom is,” James asks.

Joey fishes his schedule from his pocket. “I got homeroom in C wing with Mr. Kruger. Ugh. I can’t stand him. He’s such a dick.”

“The hot foreign language teacher,” James asks.

Steve gives James a chastising look he simply shrugs off.

“He’s fluent in four languages and one of them is German. Who the hell wants to learn German? No one,” Joey exclaims.

“Well, luckily you don’t have to take it. He’s just your homeroom teacher,” Steve tells him.

“No. He’s my Spanish teacher, too. 5th period.”

“I got Kruger for 5th period Spanish, too,” Billy adds.

“Thank god. A brother in arms,” Joey sighs, relieved.

“You’re so dramatic,” Billy shakes his head at his best friend.

“Good morning, friends,” shouts a familiar voice. They each turn to the friendly sound of Thor Odinson. Quite possibly the only man good-looking enough to give Steve and James a run for their money with the thirsty PTA moms. He’s a blonde-haired god made entirely of hard abs and tan skin. He’s only three inches taller than Steve but seems to tower over him and everyone else like a giant.

Joey can practically hear the collective gasps from the women (and men) around them as he approaches them at the Drop-Off Zone from the parking lot.

Thor and Steve do the annual carwash charity fundraiser each spring and it’s nothing short of a spectacle when the two men wind up shirtless and wet. Last year they raised five grand in just the first hour. Joey would be proud if he weren’t so mortified.

With Thor is his son, Mikko, another member of Joey’s studious tribe of close friends, and a fair-skinned black woman none of them have met before.

“Oh, shit, he’s with a woman,” James mumbles under his breath.

“Doesn’t he know how to just date anyone,” Wanda mumbles back.

“Clam down, guys. They could be just friends,” Steve offers.

He’s met in response with side eyes from everyone.

“Or…not?”

Thor, Mikko, and mystery woman reach their little clique. Warm ‘hellos’ and hugs are exchanged between the adults.

“Who’s the woman,” Joey whispers to Mikko.

“What for it,” he responds.

“Everyone. This is Valerie. My love. My soulmate. My fiancée,” Thor announces.

“Boom,” Mikko says dully.

The grown-ups feign excitement and congratulatory words for the happy couple while Joey, Billy, and Tommy give skeptical glances to Mikko.

“Third time’s the charm,” Joey smarts.

Mikko rolls his eyes. “She’s cool at least. And doesn’t try to ‘mom’ all over me. We keep it casual by remaining polite and respectful to one another. I’ve learned my lesson about getting too attached when Sif left.”

“Sounds like a brilliant working relationship,” Billy quips.

“Better than us being assholes to one another.”

“Touché.”

The chubby housewives and yoga moms make their move, pouncing on Steve, James, and Thor with giggling smiles, but why they really came over was to be nosy, getting a look-see at the new woman in Thor’s life. They fawn all over him, Steve, and James. Mrs. Wright gives Steve the baked dish she was holding. It’s her “world famous” tuna casserole that she “made especially for you.”

Steve made the mistake of complimenting the 7-layer dip she made at the first PTA meeting last year, along with her strawberry scones at the summer bake sale, and now she supplies him with food every chance she gets. Which is a bit insulting to a man married to a renowned chef. He takes it politely and exchanges judge-y glances with his son.

Thor is currently being felt-up by the yoga moms, squeezing his biceps and begging him to take over as the new self-defense instructor at the gym. Valerie looks on in abject shock. She can’t believe how openly brazen these sad, sad women are.

James has fantastic hair, like whipped chocolate atop his head, and slate-colored eyes tinted with azure. As so told to him by the moms in his presence. Every time they see him.

Joey finds it remarkable his dads aren’t as nearly offended by this sad, little show as he is. They’re gay. Something these women obviously ignore in favor of an awkward, blushing smile from the young, attractive dads within their parental circle.

He side-eyes Wanda who returns his look with an amused grin. She always finds “the swarm” entertaining.

“Who’s got 8th period gym,” Mikko asks.

They check their schedules.

“I do,” Tommy pipes up.

“Great. I’m stuck in P.E. with the only nerd in this group who’s actually good at sports. It’s going to be tragic in high school when you join the football team and abandon us.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not,” Tommy says.

“Me neither,” Mikko replies.

“Could our summer in Norway possibly be responsible for this sunny disposition,” Joey jokes.

“My grandparents refused to say a single word in English the minute the wheels hit the tarmac. I spent a cold summer in Oslo, speaking only Norwegian to two septuagenarians, and eating reindeer meat for dinner every other night. Wish you could have been there.”

Joey, Billy, and Tommy can’t help but to laugh. Their summer was, however, occupied by each other’s company eating ice cream, going swimming, and riding rollercoasters. They can’t imagine.

“Where’s Cassie,” Mikko asks.

Speak of the devil. A Toyota Yaris pulls up behind Steve’s car. It’s barely come to a stop before Cassie angrily flies out of the backseat heading toward her friends.

Her parents hadn’t even noticed; still viciously arguing with one another in the car.

“You okay, Cass,” Billy asks her.

“New episode of Desperate Housewives,” she nods at “the swarm.” She refuses to talk about her parents. And they always oblige her in ignoring it when she does.

“More like a repeat,” Joey retorts.

“Who’s got the first block of G & T,” she asks.

“I think we all have the first block. Thank god,” Joey says.

“Good. The last thing I want is to be stuck in G & T with Sam Alexander.”

“Ew. Who does,” Billy asks.

The crossing guard, a tubby, middle-aged woman with short, red hair, waves her stop sign at them. “Okay, parents, kiss the munchkins ‘goodbye’. You’ll see them at three o’clock. We got to keep the drop-zone moving, alright?”

The PTA moms say ‘goodbye’ to Steve, James, and Thor, having ignored their own spawn in favor of flirting relentlessly, and hurry off to their minivans. But the bustle of the first bell scramble is interrupted by the sudden roaring sound of a turbo engine and tires screeching on asphalt.

“Jesus Christ,” James moans with his eyes tight and head tilted to the sky. He already knows who it is that would be obnoxious enough to burn rubber through a 10mph school zone.

Joey knows, too. And he’s just as annoyed.

“Holy fuck. That’s a Ferrari F60 America. That car is 2.5 million dollars,” Tommy gapes.

“Oh, god. You’re going to be captain of the football team, aren’t you,” Mikko laments.

Pulling right up to the school, without a single care for the drop-off rules, is Tony Stark— billionaire, inventor, engineer, developer, philanthropist, and recovering alcoholic douche from what Joey hears from James.

With him is his (adoptive) daughter, Tess.

“I was really hoping she transferred schools…” Joey sighs.

“To where,” Cassie asks.

“Siberia.”

“Why doesn’t she go to a preppy private school like other rich kids? Massachusetts is full of them,” Billy complains.

“Because Tony went here,” James answers. “And ‘legacies’ are apparently important at public schools, too. Jesus, fuck. He’s heading over here.”

He is, with a stupid smile on his face, expensive sunglasses covering his eyes, and jaunty step in his walk.

Tess, on the other hand, gives their little group a sneer before joining the other popular kids on the front steps to the entrance. She’s tall, like Cassie, but not so lanky and awkward. She’s filled out and toned. Her long, thick black hair is done in loose curls. She has smooth skin the color of roasted pecans, with a smile that shows off her perfect teeth.

She’s pretty.

Joey hates her.

“Hey, counselor. Give me a hug. Quick. I want to scram before Stark gets over here,” James tells his son.

Joey hugs him and Steve. “I’ll take the bus to the restaurant after school.”

“Absolutely not. But nice try though.”

“You didn’t even try to back me up,” Joey chastises Steve.

Steve shrugs. “I forgot and you didn’t give me much of a heads up.”

Wanda hugs her boys. Mikko hugs and kisses his father and Valerie. Cassie rushes into the school as the late bell rings, ignoring her mother and father’s attempt to say ‘goodbye’ to her. They’ve slid from full-on meltdown to snide bickering, but Cassie’s already in the building by the time they’ve exited the car.

James turns to get into the car when Tony Stark calls out to him. Steve’s already behind the wheel when James slips into the passenger seat, but it’s too late to make an escape.

“Save yourselves.”

Thor and his new fiancée have already disappeared. Wanda power walks back to her car, avoiding all eye contact with Tony. She’s the PTA treasurer and doesn’t want to be caught in the billionaire’s crosshairs. And the Langs, Cassie’s parents, are sniping at one another as they return to their own car.

Tony manages to grab James’ door, pulling it open wide, before he can slam it shut. “Hey, chef. Glad I caught you. Listen, I want to talk to you about the Sadie Hawkins dance.”

James is an involved parent, but it’s nowhere near the level Tony and his husband, Loki, are actively involved in their kid’s school life. Speaking of which, James is oddly surprised Loki isn’t here on the first day, too.

“What? Tony, the Sadie Hawkins dance isn’t until April.”

“Yes, I know, but it’s my event this year and I want to get a jump on some stuff now so it’s not a problem then. I thought that might be the way to go, seeing as how we’re both co-presidents of the PTA. I also want to get your take on what to do about the science fair this year, too, because I have a few ideas that—”

“Yeah, just, uh, email me,” James says, trying to close his door. Tony’s still holding it open, preventing him from doing so.

Tony takes off his sunglasses; all business now. “James, look, I—”

“Why don’t you two discuss semantics when D comes to pick me up at the end of the day?” Joey smiles smugly at a glaring James. Steve is trying with everything in him not to burst into a fit of laughter at his devious son. “Anyway, I got to go. Going to be late. Love you guys.”

Joey runs off quickly into the school.

“Well, I think that’s an excellent idea,” Tony grins.

James sighs. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Great. I’ll be here by…two-thirty good for you?”

“I guess it will be.”

Tony finally lets go of James’ door. “Good.” He tapes the hood. “Cute car.” And it’s just as patronizing as it sounds.

James watches him slip on his sunglasses and walk back toward his sports car.

Steve snickers.

“I swear to god, Steven, I will leave you and that smelly tuna casserole on this curb,” James threatens. He closes his door and Steve pulls from the Drop-Off Zone.

∞∞∞

James and Joey enter through the back exit in the alley. Joey follows behind him as they make their way through the kitchen. He waves and says ‘hello’ to a few employees in the back prepping for the dinner shift. T’Challa spots him as he discusses something with Maria. He gives Joey a big, friendly wave. Maria acknowledges him with a curt nod, all business.

James stops in front of his office, fishing his keys out of his pocket.

“How was your talk with Mr. Stark about the Sadie Hawkins dance,” Joey grins.

“If you were not my child I’d feed you to wild dogs,” James retorts.

Joey shrugs. “Should’ve let me take the bus home. Now, every day, after school, Mr. Stark is going to be there, waiting for you.”

“Don’t remind me.” He opens the door. “In.”

It’s a decent-sized office given it being located in the backspace of a restaurant. It’s messy with paperwork, an outdated desktop, cork board announcements, and a rolling whiteboard enclosed by its brick walls.

James takes a seat in one of the beat up office chairs. Joey sits across from him on the brand new loveseat that looks so very out of place.

“Alright. Let me see it,” James motions at Joey’s backpack.

Joey huffs but nonetheless opens his bag. He pulls out a thick stack of colorful folders. James’ eyes go wide as Joey forks them over.

“For fuck’s sake, Joey!”

“There’s a lot of cool stuff going on this year!”

James flips through each folder. “Science Club, Debate Team, Model UN, Chess Club, Spanish Club, Book Club, Young Volunteers, GSA, Gifted & Talented Outreach, Quiz Bowl, Yearbook, Student Council, and Mock Trial— Jesus, Joseph. No. No, to all of this.”

“So, what? I just don’t go to Yale then?!”

“You can go to any school you want, you drama queen. I just don’t want to spend the next 5 years carting you back and forth to 20 different clubs you think will help you get into one overpriced university.”

“I need to join these clubs! I was on Debate Team last year and we got all the way to regionals. Book Club is actually reading something good this year, The Patrick Melrose series.”

“Those books are…way too mature for 8th graders. To put it mildly.”

“I can not sit around discussing something as uninspiring and tepid as My Friend Flicka. Or, The Prince and the Pauper. I refuse.”

“Why am I not surprised you’re the one who suggested those books?”

“Not to mention, I’m in Gifted & Talented, so I should really participate in the Outreach program at Springfield Elementary this year. And I was VP of the Gay/Straight Alliance last year, but now that Ellie Phimister is a Freshman in high school, there’s a good chance I’m going to be nominated as president, so I have to do GSA this year, too.”

“Pick two or join a sport,” James demands.

Mock Trial and Quiz Bowl.”

“Excellent.”

Joey glares at his father. A dirty play. They both know Joseph G. Rogers would gnaw off his own foot before taking up a sport. Or purpose anyway.

T’Challa appears in the open doorway, chuckling. “Now that is a look of scorn, my friend.”

“He’s earned it,” Joey tells the sous chef.

James smirks. “Payback. He made me talk to someone I was trying desperately to avoid.”

“He’s co-chair of the PTA with you. You going to have to interact with him. All the time. For the entire school year. Like last year.”

“But it didn’t have to be on the very first day is my complaint,” James informs his son. “Ah. Summer. How I miss you already. You’re like a faded dream now…”

“And I’m the drama queen?”

“T’Challa. Prevent my child from speaking to me momentarily, will you?”

“Maria is not a fan of the balsamic brown sugar lamb chops on the menu tonight. She says it’s more of a Saturday night dish. She wants to go with the duck.”

“And why is our oh-so-abrasive Maria Hill not here disagreeing with me vehemently instead?”

“She’s doing that thing you love.”

“Screaming at our vendors who fuck up royally?”

T’Challa nods.

“So sad I’m missing that. Just tell her what I always tell her: ‘She is the manager; a goddess who rescues us every night from the mistakes of others and the heinous ones we make ourselves. However, I am the chef, this is my restaurant, and I do what I want’.”

“You just like seeing that vein in her throat throb and her upper lip sweat, don’t you?”

“It’s my second favorite thing she does.”

T’Challa shakes his head. “You’re not even a troublemaker. You’re a brat.” He turns to leave when Joey calls after him.

“Is Kwezi still going to Howard University next year,” Joey asks of T’Challa’s nephew.

A sorrowful look takes hold of the dark-skinned man’s face. He quickly tries to masks it with a weak smile. “We’ll see,” is all he says. He heads off, looking for Maria.

Joey turns to his father for an answer to the sad look in his sous chef’s eyes.

“Kwezi’s…not doing so good right now. He’s a little unfocused.”

“What is that ‘adult speak’ for?”

“You’re irritatingly perceptive, counselor.”

So perceptive in fact, he knows no matter what James isn’t going to tell him what’s going on with Kwezi. Not because he doesn’t deserve to know, or he’s too young to be privy to the information, but because it’s not his business to tell. And T’Challa clearly doesn’t want it discussed.

Out of respect, Joey leaves it at that. He sets the folders for Mock Trial and Quiz Bowl aside and dumps the others into the overflowing wastebasket.

∞∞∞

Steve walks through the front door, drops his bag, and collapses to the hardwood floor.

James appears at the stairs with a mug of tea in his hand. “Rough shift?”

“I hate the 3 to 11 shift. So, so…so much.” He flops over onto his back, looking up at his husband. “I got poop throw at me by a homeless man who wouldn’t let me take a blood sample.”

James would laugh, but Steve’s a RN at a very busy and very underfunded hospital. Therefore, stories about poop being thrown his way are nothing new.

“Then I had to help the newbie find an Alzheimer patient that wandered off…naked. Not to mention, we were short staffed because Connie had to call out; her babysitter bailed at the last minute. The elevator on the third floor, X-rays, was ‘out-of-service’ for two and a half hours, and a patient we thought was dead— turns out he wasn’t.”

“Well, that’s fucking frightening.”

“Very. And the cherry on top? I had to call social services on an abusive parent.”

“Fuck, baby… I’m sorry.”

Steve’s eyes well with tears. “…Me, too.” He takes a deep breath fighting back a meltdown. “Tell me something good? How many clubs did Joey join?”

James takes a seat on the bottom step. His feet rest at Steve’s head. “Two.”

“Surprising.”

“Well, I had widdle him down from thirteen.”

Steve tilts his head awkwardly at James. “I expected at least twenty. He’s getting better. You threaten him with joining a sport,” Steve smiles.

“I swear he’d be great at tennis if he gave a shit.”

Steve laughs. “It’s not his thing.”

“It is not.”

Steve reaches a hand up to James. James takes it, holding it with an affectionate squeeze. “And that’s okay.”

James smiles brilliantly at his husband. “That’s more than okay.”

Steve brings James’ hand to his lips and kisses the back of it. “I missed you.”

“Missed you, too, baby.”

Steve rolls over and gets to his knees. He and James are at eye-level now.

“Hey, soldier,” Steve flirts.

“Hey.”

Steve leans in. They kiss. A deep, hungry kiss that could last for days if allowed. But the soft, ballad tap of bongos and piano overhead disrupts them, and the lovely voice of Bette Midler whispers in with a question: Do You Want To Dance?

They look up. Joey is leaning over the upstairs railing, holding a small, wireless speaker over their heads, with shoelaces, playing the gorgeous Bette Milder song.

James pushes himself off the steps. He extends his hand to Steve. Steve takes it, entwining their fingers, and they slow dance to their wedding song.

“Did you know our kid was a romantic,” James asks.

“Yes. He gets it from you, you know?”

James snorts at the joke. Joey may be theirs, but they both know biologically they have nothing to do with the boy wunderkind. So romantic saps or not, Joey’s inclination toward intimacy is all him.

“Laugh all you want James Barnes-Rogers, but we both know you’re a much more sappy individual than anyone else in this house.”

“If you say so…” It’s the utter truth. They both know it, but James likes the push back banter he gives Steve sometimes. He thinks Steve is adorable when he’s fighting against James’ willful antagonism.

James slowly spins Steve who giggles with the same big smile on his face he had at their wedding when James spun him around.

“See,” Steve says. “You’re just a big, lovestruck puppy.”

“…With you I am.”

“Me, too.”

James rests their foreheads together. “I love you,” he whispers.

“I love you.”

James smiles. He gently runs his nails through the short hairs at the back of Steve’s neck, making the blonde-haired man blush pink and shiver.

“Talk to me about something that won’t have me sporting an erection in front of our kid please.”

“Miss me so much you’re that easy, huh,” James teases.

“Told you I did.”

James runs his thumb long Steve’s jawline.

“James…”

He likes playing with Steve. He’s at his most vulnerable, his most submissive, at James’ mercy, when he’s trying not to be.

“Later,” he whispers in Steve’s ear. “Mock Trial and Quiz Bowl.”

“What?”

“That’s the two he picked.”

“I thought only high schoolers did Mock trial.” Steve tilts his head upward to their son, “I thought only high schoolers did Mock Trial.”

“They do,” Joey says with a wink. He pulls the speaker up and turns it off. The song ended a bit ago and was starting back up on repeat. Looks like his dads are done dancing anyway.

“You got on the team? The high school team? That’s amazing, Joey!”

Joey shrugs, trying to be cool about the whole thing.

James shakes his head knowing they both geeked-out in his office earlier when Joey explained how he managed to ‘lawyer’ his way onto the team with the permission from the vice principals of both John Brown Middle School and John Adams High.

“You’ve been talking about being a defense attorney non-stop for 3 years, about going to Yale law school, and you get on the Mock Trial team, while only in the 8th grade, as a great stepping stone toward that, and all you give me is a shrug?” Steve is bewildered, to say the least. He throws up his hands. “Unreal.”

“I’ll show you later the video of him squealing like a pig in shit when he found out they’ll officially let him on the team,” James goads.

“You promised not to show that to anyone!”

“Your dad doesn’t count."

“First, you won’t let me assert my independence by taking the bus, then you threaten me with an undesirable option, and now this: humiliation with video evidence. This could be determined as child abuse, or at the very least, child endangerment.”

“Nah. However, I think ‘abuse’ would be more along the lines of posting said video onto a public media platform, like YouTube.”

It’s an idle threat, but the idea of it is enough to crack James up and make Joey glower.

“I’m going to my room. With the door closed. And my headphones on. Turned all the way up,” the teen tells his fathers. “You’re welcome for the romantic interlude, by the way.”

“We are most grateful,” Steve tells him.

“We truly are, counselor. But get lost before you see something you can’t unsee,” James says.

Joey hurries to his room closing the door.

James snorts. “Teach him to pawn Tony Stark off on me...”

Steve smiles, shaking his head. “The two of you… I swear…”

James yanks Steve close. “Where were we?”

“Um, you were going to do things to me that our traumatized son could never unsee.”

“Oh. well, that sounds like a lot of fun.” James takes Steve hand and leads him upstairs to the master bedroom. Which is thankfully far across the hall from their son’s room.

∞∞∞

James slowly, torturously, drags his thick cock in and out of Steve.

“Oh, god, James, please,” Steve begs.

James pushes in deep, making Steve’s back arch as he presses directly on his prostate. His hands tighten around Steve’s wrists.

“You’re k-killing me,” Steve moans. “James, come on. Please.”

“You want it, baby,” James asks. He licks into Steve’s mouth. He keeps his wrists above his head, holding them with just one hand now. The other he runs smoothly along his hot neck, over his chest, and down his flank. James wraps his hand around Steve’s cock and tugs gently. Steve whimpers in response.

He has him right where he wants him.

He starts with an easy rhythm, sliding his cock in and out of Steve, letting him get used to the pleasant cadence. Though it’s really an excuse for James to hover over his husband and ogle.

Steve was made to be ogled. He’s gorgeous, and James has thought so since clapping eyes on him a decade ago. Yet, at this moment, James has never found him sexier, flushed red and drenched in sweat, full chest heaving as he moans and bites his bottom lip. He’d keep him like this forever if he could. Instead, he quickens his pace a bit. The bed bounces and squeaks as James drives into Steve with far less consideration than he had a minute ago.

“Kiss me,” Steve wants.

James leans down, keeping his stroke, as he obliges his husband with a filthy kiss; all tongue and fever.

He lets go of Steve’s wrists. Steve immediately wraps his arms around James’ back, pulling him closer, needing every point of their warm skin to touch.

James closes his hand around Steve’s cock again. Steve breaks their kiss to cry out. He’s obscenely wet, pulsing pre-cum all over his stomach and James’ hand.

“Fuck, Stevie…”

“I’m going to come.”

“Not yet.” James takes his hand off Steve’s dick and gets a disappointed whine in return. “Hang on, sweetheart.” James rolls them over, changing their position with Steve on top, straddling his lap. He pushes back into him with a hard snap of his hips making Steve dig his nails into James’ pecs.

James sits up, nibbling at Steve’s lips before kissing him. Steve moans into James’ mouth, deepening the kiss as he winds his arms around the brunet’s neck.

James grabs two handfuls of Steve’s ass, squeezing it hard while his husband rocks back and forth on his cock.

“You feel so good…”

“You, too,’ James says into the crook of Steve’s neck. He bites and sucks on his pulsepoint, sure to leave a purple bruise there Steve’ll complain about in the morning.

He leans back, out of Steve’s hold, with his head on the pillows. He guides Steve’s hands to the headboard. Steve gripes tight to the wood. He bounces, slow and easy, atop James with a noticeably slick slapping sound in between their lustful breaths.

James lifts his legs, planting his feet on the bed. He sits up, bracing a hand on the mattress, and another around Steve’s waist. Steve’s hands stay on the headboard as James takes over, rocking into him, hard and fast.

Steve is just as loud as the noisy bed they’re in, but neither of them care. As far as they know they’ve never woken Joey, and have never been caught by him either. The kid sleeps like the dead most of the time.

Steve’s knuckles pale as his hold on the wooden headboard creaks with his grip. “James, I’m—oh, god! Fuck!— I’m so close…”

James jerks Steve off, keeping his punishing stride, as he fucks into him. He’s wetter than before. Steve’s hands move to James’ hair, pulling it as he nears his orgasm.

“Shit, Stevie. Ten goddamn years and I still can’t get enough of you. I just want to keep you in this bed and make. You. Come. All. Night.”

He shoots long ropes cum all over James’ hand and stomach. James covers Steve’s mouth with his other hand, quieting the loud scream of his orgasm.

“Fuck, baby…”

Steve’s lips part. He sucks James’ thumb into his mouth and bites down hard on it. James comes inside Steve, stifling his cry into the crook of Steve’s neck.

He falls back onto their pillows. Steve comes with him, collapsing on James’ chest.

They listen to each breath for a long while. James plays with the damp strains of Steve’s hair as Steve listens to James’ heartbeat.

James glances at the clock on his nightstand. It’s only 10:17.

Steve rolls off James and onto his side of the bed. “I change my mind. I don’t want Joey taking the bus to school. It’s too dangerous.”

“He’s not going to like that you’re not in his corner anymore.”

“I know. It’s just… I don’t want to risk it. I know we can’t baby him forever, but—”

“Hey,” James playfully pinches Steve’s side. “I’m the last person you have to explain stuff like that to. I get it.”

Steve turns on his side, facing James. “Thanks.”

James leans over and kisses him sweetly. “We let him roam free all summer. We can shorten the leash a bit during the school year I think.”

“He’s definitely not going to see it that way,” Steve says. “We’re going to have to pour a little sugar in this wound.”

“New law books?”

“That might work. Maybe I’ll take him to the law library at Harvard next weekend I’m off.”

“He’s dead-set on Yale, Steve.”

“I’m not driving him to Connecticut just because we don’t want him to take the school bus. Besides, wouldn’t hurt for him to look around the halls of the competition before officially making a decision when the time comes.”

“You and I both know it's Yale or bust with that kid.”

Steve chuckles. James is right. Joey’s been talking about going to Yale just as long as he’s been talking about being a lawyer.

“How does that kid already have his whole career path mapped out? When I was fourteen I couldn’t even tell you what I wanted for breakfast, but our kid’s got a whole game plan?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not going to question it. Just means we’re doing something right, right?”

Steve rolls on top of James. He puts his ear to his chest again, listening to his steady, calming heartbeat. His eyes close. James gently drags his nails along the nape of Steve’s neck.

They’re both clammy and sticky and exhausted. Add the comfortable heat from the vents, and it becomes a little hard for them to do anything about it but stay exactly where they are.

Steve yawns. “Yeah.”

“Hmm?”

“Yeah. We’re doing something right,” Steve tells him.

It’s the last thing he remembers before drifting off to sleep.