Cate corners him as he's coming back from the bathroom. "Okay, Jensen's so high that his feet are barely touching the ground and you, on the other hand, look like someone beat your dog. What is it, Jeff?"
Jeff sags back against the wall and scrapes a hand through his hair. "Jesus, Cate, do we really need to go through this now?"
Cate leans against the opposite wall and hugs her shoulder, regarding him way too shrewdly. "No," she says. "We don't have to go through this now. I just know you. How you bottle things up." The corner of her lips tucks and she picks at the elbow of her shirt absently. "I just thought you might want to unbottle, before things get serious out there."
Jeff shrugs, tucking his hands in his pockets and scuffing his boots against the carpet. "I slept with him. Everyone's happy. Don't know what else there is to say about it."
"This is happy?" Cate scoffs.
The thick sludge in Jeff's chest stirs, a winter bear. "What do you want me to say?" he asks, barely biting it back as a growl. "What do you want, Cate? I had sex with him. And it was wonderful. It was…Jesus." Jeff hunches his shoulders. "I loved making love to him. Except…you can't really call it making love, can you? Because he's a slave. And I'm an owner. And I feel like a guy who's proved nothing about myself except that I'm willing to compromise my morality when it becomes inconvenient."
"Jeff—" Cate chews her lower lip, plucking at the ribbed edging of her elbow-length sleeve again. "You and I… You know I don't believe in the same kind of…of absolute morality that you do. Everything is situational. You can't… People just aren't black and white that way." She spreads her hands. "That being said… You don't have to do this, Jeff. If loving Jensen isn't enough, if you're going to just flagellate yourself about it, then maybe you have to consider something else."
"What else?" Jeff scrapes his scalp again, hangnail snagging on hairs he probably can't afford to lose. "What else? I can't…" The words choke up in his throat, the slow jalapeno burn of anger and a colder, darker bleakness he doesn't want to put a name to. He tries to sigh it out, long and drawn out, but it barely budges. Calmly, gritting out each word through it, he says, "I don't want to lose him, Cate. I…I can't do that. I'm not that good a man." He takes a breath, swallowing that bitter truth. "But forgive me for having a hard time realizing I'm not the person I tried so goddamned hard to be." He feels shredded even having said that much and he rips his gaze away from hers, focusing on the carpet between her feet. "Just…back off me, huh? Can you do that? I'll figure it out. Just give me some space to do it in."
"Yeah, Jeff. Of course." Cate puts her hand on his shoulder briefly and drags it down his arm, fingers tangling briefly together at the end. "I'm not trying to push you in to anything." She ducks her head and twists to look him in the eye. "You know that, yeah?"
Jeff nods but before he can say anything, Jeremy pokes his head into the hallway. "If you guys are done making out, can we get down to the serious business of getting Jeff-boy here hitched?"
"Oh, fuck off, Merton!" The words come automatically and easily and Jeremy rewards them with his big squint-nosed grin before he vanishes back into the dining room.
"It's good that he's smiling," Cate observes, caressing her jawline lightly with her knuckles.
"It is." Jeff nods. "I think Misha's good for him."
"And how's that working out for you?"
She raises her hands. "Sorry. Sorry. Reflex. Clearly, I have not had nearly enough of that lovely honey wine. Allow me to rectify that situation right now." She brushes past him.
Jeff grabs the back of his neck and cracks it back, stretches his shoulders. Jensen is happy, he reminds himself. Jensen's been more than happy; he's been absolutely radiant, making it extremely difficult to even let him out of the bed that morning, let alone keep from pinning him against every wall or bending him over every table they'd come across.
Jeff can't even lie to himself and say it's not a consolation. That he's not happy seeing Jensen happy, that he doesn't feel a deep and proprietary pride in having put that glow on Jensen's face.
Jensen's happy, Jeff thinks again. He rolls his shoulders one more time and heads back.
Ethiopian was Jensen's idea, a way to keep slaves and owners on a level without drawing attention and given the impossibility of having this little confab at home. Jensen smiles at him when Jeff reappears in the doorway of the rented room and Jeff can't help but grin back, helpless, enchanted.
"Hey," he says inanely as he settles next to Jensen on the cushions grouped around the low table.
"Hi," Jensen murmurs back, relenting from his regulation-straight kneel to press his shoulder against Jeff's.
Jeff breathes out and wraps one arm around Jensen's chest, tugging him sideways, closer, pressing his face to the feathery tickle of Jensen's short-cropped hair and feeling Jensen's heart beat under his palm.
It feels so new-shiny, even though Jeff knows he has to have felt this before, though it had to have felt like this every time… It feels like the first time.
"How're you doing?" Jeff murmurs into Jensen's ear before lipping across the soft ridge.
"Fine." Jensen glances up at him, eyes crinkling with his smile. "I'm good."
When Jeff sits back, his gaze snags on Jeremy, seated on the other side of the table from them. Jeremy's watching them and he's got the funny, crooked smile on that could mean anything, from 'aw, they're cute' to contemplating stabbing Jeff in the face with a fork—if there'd been any utensils on the table. With Jeremy, things can always go either way.
Before either of them can make anything of it, though, Ever taps on her glass with her nails, bell-like sound disrupting conversations all along the table. "So, not that this wasn't a great meal, because it was, it was a truly great meal. But we flew in for this and I'm tired. We all know the score, right? Thanks to Jeff's mom, we're now on a clock: if Jeff's going to get married, it needs to be someone we know, someone we trust."
"Someone who won't fuck things up," Jeremy adds.
Jeff is a little surprised that Jeremy brought Misha with him. Though he's definitely made a rebound since Jeff saw him last—and, his words to Cate aside, Jeff isn't sure how much of that is attributable to Misha as much as Jeremy needs someone—but the fact is still that he hasn't had Misha for very long.
"Since Jeff's doing a good enough job of that on his own, you mean?" Kane had skipped the tej for beer, pint glass raised halfway to his mouth as he drawls the words out.
"Chris," Sam says quellingly. She looks annoyed. Jeff can't blame her. He feels pretty annoyed himself, the disaster of his love-life not much fun to discuss at the best of times, let alone opening it up to committee. Still, and as Sam pointedly reminded him beforehand, this is what he signed up for, when he involved all of them in The Trust. If they hang, they'll all hang together and, right now, with things as they stand, Jeff is the weakest link.
"Okay, here's the thing I don't understand," Jared says, looking only slightly nervous at his inclusion. Though he's known about The Trust his whole life, it's his first time being included in the decision-making aspect. "Why get married at all? Okay, yeah, it'll piss your mom off something fierce, and I'd be lying if I said your mom doesn't scare me, but… You've got your own place, your own money. Does it really make that big a difference in the scheme of things if she's pissed at you?"
"It makes a difference because I can't have her—or anyone else—asking questions about why I don't want to get married," Jeff explains, conscious again of Jensen in his arms, warm and solid. "We can't afford to have anyone asking questions at all."
"Jeff's right." Cate contemplates the piece of injera between her fingers, the doughy bread soaked through with sauce like blood. She's been picking at the the platter closest to her, the edges of the injera underneath scalloped like a doily. "A lot of our protection comes from looking normal enough, harmless enough, that no one wants or needs to look any closer. And if people start to talk… Even the rumor that Jeff is too attached to his slaves, too emotional…" She shakes her head. "It wouldn't be good for any of us."
From the corner of his eye, Jeff sees Misha tap Jeremy's knee and sign some inquiry at him. Jeremy shakes his head and Jeff resolves to ask Jensen about it later. If Misha's sticking around, he's really going to have to consider picking up ASL.
"And it's been way too long since you've been seen socially with anyone, Jeff," Zach points out.
"I go out," Jeff protests. "You guys make it sound like I'm a hermit."
"You go out with us." Zach shakes his head. "You skulk around with Cate, but that's not where anyone can see you. You have meetings with Wendy, but that's business. But dating? Actually having a night on the town? You haven't really done that in…"
"Since Robin." Kane volunteers, looking across the table at Jeff with a look he can't read.
Jeff hasn't really thought about it and it startles him to think that it's been that long. To be fair, he's been pretty damn busy getting both The Trust and his overarching businesses onto solid ground, but it's a shocker, nonetheless. Robin was almost four years ago.
"Okay, I got it," Jeff says slowly. "Even if I don't get married, I clearly need to have a better social life. Duly noted."
He thinks about mentioning his tentative coffee date with Anne Hathaway, but there's only so much sharing he's up to for today.
"Jeff—" Sam begins, and then cuts off as the two servers come in to clear the demolished platters of food and another comes in with a copper pan of roasting coffee beans, scorched richness that fills up the space like cleansing incense.
This isn't their first time around this particular block; they break apart into conversational groups. Misha climbs awkwardly into Jeremy's lap, to Jeff's surprise—and Jeremy's, by the look on his face before Misha's head blocks Jeff's view. Jeff looks aside.
"You okay?" Jeff murmurs in Jensen's ear.
"Sure." Jensen nods and turns his head, craning to see Jeff's face. "Why wouldn't I be?"
The question sounds sincere, faintly confused, making Jeff smile despite himself. "No reason."
The hostess with the coffee pan circles around to them, extending the beans for them to see them roasting, inhale the bitterly aromatic smoke.
"Okay," Sam says briskly, once the coffee, chai and other forms of liquid refreshment have been dispensed. "Let's cut to brass tacks, here. Are we talking about actually getting you married, or just finding someone to play girlfriend long enough to get your mom off your back?"
Jeff blinks. "I…hadn't really thought that far."
Sam rolls her eyes. "Of course you hadn't."
"That's what he has us for," Ever says cheerfully, looping her arms around her neck and half strangling him.
"The thing is," Jeff says hesitantly, untangling Ever's arms, "my mom's not totally wrong. Much as it pains me to admit it. I'm not getting any younger and…and it's just me. I mean…there's Javier, of course…"
There's a kind of collective snort all along the table.
"Look, you know what I mean," Jeff says. A part of him wants to defend Javier—or maybe just be able to defend Javier—but there's nothing he can really say. They know his family as well—or maybe better—than he does. "Bottom line is that we can't—I can't—leave everything my family's worked for in Javier's hands. And there's two things we, as a collective, would want from Morgan International: money, and Laborist cred." Jeff lifts the hand he's got spread across Jensen's chest helplessly. "And that's something we can really fucking use."
"So, we're talking wife, then?" Sam questions, eyebrows raised.
"Yeah. Sure." Jeff shrugs uncomfortably and Jensen leans back into him a little harder, offering simple, wordless comfort with his usual scary prescience.
"So the way I see it, we've got two choices: you marry within the existing group, or we find someone from the outside we think we can trust and bring them in."
"The more people we bring into this, the more dangerous it gets for everyone," Zach points out unnecessarily, unusually quiet. Of course, Jeff guesses there's not much usual for any of them tonight, based on how this is all going. "I… I got a kid. We signed up for this, me and Wendy. Ryzer didn't."
"That mean you're volunteering, Wendy?"
"No," Jeff says at the same moment Wendy does. Their eyes meet across the table; Jeff's the first to look away.
"Too low class," Wendy offers, dully honest. "And I've got a kid out of wedlock."
Jeff grimaces, pained. The rigmarole that Wendy—and Zach—have had to go through to protect Ryzer—including declaring to the world that she doesn't know who Ryzer's father is—is horrific enough without salt being poured on the wound on his behalf.
Jensen cuddles back against Jeff subtly, doubtless feeling how Jeff tensed up. Jeff pats him in equally quiet reassurance. He glances across at Wendy again; her lips flick in a not-quite smile, her hand covering Zach's on her knee.
"You would think that'd be a point in her favor," Brent says, looping an arm around either of his kilted up knees. "Proven fertility. The point is to get whoever this is knocked up, right, spread the mighty Morgan seed?" He'd come without Nina, nearly as big a surprise as Jeremy showing up with Misha.
"Can we avoid any and all mentions of my seed, thank you?" Jeff says, and Ever giggles. "And, no. Sorry Wendy. It wouldn't fly with my mom."
"No offense, Jeff…and for as happy as it would make my mom…but I'm not sorry for not having to marry you. I got a man. I don't need another one."
Jeremy hehs sharply under his breath, too low for most of the others at the table to catch but Jeff hears it, the quiet sound shearing through his heart in different directions. He doesn't look at Jeremy though, not wanting to draw attention to it or Jeremy.
"What about you, Ev?"
"It's not a bad idea," Ever muses, turning her head to eye him thoughtfully.
"Wouldn't work." Jeff shakes his head. "Yeah, we're only cousins by marriage, but, to her, it counts. We're too close. She'll never go for it."
"Hmmm, true. Too bad, though." Ever bites her lip, tugging at a strand of her hair. "It could've been kind of ideal. And it would get my dad off my back. He's becoming a real pill. 'Now, you're not getting any younger, Ever…' Bleh." She makes a face.
"I have to say, I'm a little bothered by the idea of pairing one of us off with Jeff like breeding stock just to satisfy your mother," Cate says. "I understand the necessity, I understand the need to have someone we trust or that we'll be able to trust…I'm just not sure that this is the way to go about it. And, before anyone asks, no. I love you madly, darling, but I'm don't want to be married to anyone, right now. Not even for a good cause."
Jeff shrugs. "I'm not thrilled by this myself," he admits, stiff heat still radiating through his chest. "I started this, I got all of you involved in it and…" His jaw works, chewing over a mass of words he can't articulate. "It's your lives if we get caught. But this…it's my life no matter what."
"We started this," Jeremy corrects, emphatic, but without the anger Jeff would expect. He doesn't see it, either, when he glances across at Jeremy, which eases a knot inside that Jeff didn't know was there until it slacked. "We started this," Jeremy repeats, quieter. "And none of this affects only you."
"Fine, then," Jeff says, sounding hoarser than he means to and entirely too conscious of how still Jensen's holding himself. "Who do you want me to marry, Jer?"
Abruptly, Jeremy grins at him. "You could always marry me. I'm young enough. Rich, devilishly attractive…"
The table laughs, Jeff right along with them, before he says, "Conception might be a problem."
"We don't have to tell your mother that."
"So, I think the upshot of all this is that we're still not any closer to solving the problem, yeah?" Sam looks around the table.
Cate waves her fingers briefly in the intention to speak. "I think that Jeff makes a good point, though. Yes, this concerns all of us, but it's his life. Whoever it is, he's the one that has to marry her, he's the one who'll have to live with her. So, I think we all need to be involved, but ultimately…it needs to be his choice."
"And to hell with the rest of us?" Kane asks roughly.
"Are you dumb?" Jensen asks, speaking up for the first time, leaning out of Jeff's loose embrace. "Or just that big an asshole?"
"Jensen," Jeff says quietly.
"No." Jensen shakes his head, craning to look at Jeff, frustration stamping his face. "You fight so hard for them, to…to be kind, to make all of this work." Jensen turns back to Kane. "If you don't trust him, if you don't think Jeff's going to drive himself six kinds of crazy trying to find somebody that's going to make everyone else happy…"
"Jensen, it's okay," Jeff says again, tugging Jensen back against him.
What Jeff can see of Jensen's face says plainly that it's not okay, but he clamps his mouth shut with visible effort, settling back stiffly.
"Look, I didn't mean it like that," Kane says. "Marry whoever the fuck you want. I just want to make sure we're being careful. That we're all being careful." He looks pointedly at Jeff—or maybe Jensen—and then over at Jeremy and Misha.
So Jeff's not the only one that's bothered by Misha's quick inclusion in their ranks.
"O-kay." Ever slaps her hand down on the table, making Jeff jump slightly. "And…on that note, I think we're leaving."
Jeff sighs. Meeting adjourned.