"I won't ever forgive you for this," Rudy said, really fighting to keep his voice as expressionless as ever. "I don't do camp."
His parents exchanged looks. Rudy struggled to keep a frown off his face. Summer camp. Him. What were they thinking? What could possibly have made them think this was a good idea? It was such a terrible, wrong, bad idea, it was like they'd been exchanged with alien replicas of his parents who'd never met him before this moment.
He paused for a moment, but then discarded this idea.
"Why can't I go to camp?" Jeffrey whined. Rudy winced internally. The only thing worse than camp would be camp with an annoying little brother in tow.
"You're too young still, sweetie," Rudy's mom said.
Jeffrey pouted. "Am not."
"Sorry, kiddo, I know you'd love to go. Most kids would love to go. All the sports, and the fun, and a chance to get to know loads of new friends, and the sports," said Rudy's dad. He ruffled Jeffrey's hair, glancing at Rudy as he did so.
Rudy just stared at them. It sounded like hell. "You said sports twice," he said, after a long awkward silence.
"There's a lot of them. You'll enjoy it," Rudy's dad told him.
"I won't. I won't be there," Rudy said, decisively. Sometimes that worked with his parents: if he sounded certain enough, they would just back down.
"You will," said Rudy's mom, and Rudy recognized that tone of voice. This was not one of the times where being certain was going to work.
"I won't stay," Rudy said. "You can take me there, but I won't stay."
His parents exchanged looks over his head, as if he wouldn't notice and understand. "You will," his mom said, even more firmly. "You'll go, and you'll enjoy it once you get there. You'll have fun, I know you will."
"I won't," said Rudy.
He and his mom stared at each other.
"Here's the list of things you're supposed to take," she said, picking a piece of paper from the table. "Tell me if you need anything new and we'll go shopping."
She held out the piece of paper, and Rudy stared at it. He could just make out the words Camp Algonkian Island at the top of the page. "Rudy," she said, after a moment of silence. Jeffrey and his dad were watching wide-eyed. "Take it."
Rudy took the paper.
"All right then," his mom said. Everyone seemed to breathe out a sigh of relief. "Why don't we go out for pizza? Jeff, go get your shoes on."
Jeffrey cheered, and ran from the room. Rudy's dad glanced between them and picked up his car keys, leaving the room quickly.
Rudy just stood in the kitchen, holding the piece of paper. Part of him wanted to screw it up and throw it at someone. Part of him wanted to beg his mom not to send him away to camp.
"Oh Rudy," his mom said, after a minute. She reached out like she was going to hug him, but then stopped. "You'll see. You'll enjoy it. You might make some new friends. Now, come on, we'll go to that place with the dessert you like, okay?"
Jeffrey called out to her from outside the room. "Mom, where are my shoes? Come help me, I can't find them."
Rudy's mom smiled at him. "You'll see. You'll thank me one day," she said, and left the room to help Jeffrey.
Rudy looked down at the piece of paper. "I won't," he said, to nobody. Methodically he folded up the paper and put it in his back pocket.
Saying good-bye to Mike had been awkward, mainly because Rudy's parents were standing there watching with smug smiles on their faces. Mike had sort of looked like he wanted to hug him, but had settled for grinning hugely and asking Rudy five times whether he had Mike's phone number and promised to call and come hang out some time.
Rudy didn't tell him he didn't need the piece of paper Mike had given him. He'd copied Mike's address and phone number from his file when they had the run of the Warden's office.
"Your friend seemed very nice," said Rudy's mom as they drove away from the visitor's parking lot on the mainland. "Mark, was it? I don't suppose he's local is he?"
"Mike," Rudy said.
"Mike, yes," his mom said. "Where does he live? Maybe you two can get together again. Or, I suppose it's too much to hope he's at your school."
Rudy looked down at the slip of paper Mike had pressed into his hand and read out the address, as if he hadn't already memorized it. His mother sighed. "All the way across the city," she said, disappointed. "I was hoping... Well, never mind."
She half turned around in her seat and smiled at him. "Maybe with a good summer at camp behind you you'll enjoy school more."
Rudy said nothing. His mother sat back, and she and his father exchanged a look.
"You know," Rudy's father said, with studied nonchalance. "I think there's a junior track meet over that side of town next weekend. They have a club for younger runners, their coach called me to ask if you'd be interested. He saw you in one of your games here, apparently, thinks you have what it takes to do endurance running."
"Running," Rudy said flatly.
His dad nodded, and made eye contact briefly with Rudy in the rearview mirror. "You could maybe ask Mark..."
"Mike," Rudy interrupted.
"Sorry. Mike," his dad said. "Maybe you could call Mike and ask him if he wants to meet you for pizza afterward."
Rudy stared out the side window. They were driving along the shoreline still, and there was nothing to see but water and trees.
"You might enjoy it," Rudy's mother said, and just for that remark alone he wanted to tell her I don't run. "Running is really just about you and the clock. Did I ever tell you I used to run in high school and in college? Mainly the longer distances."
Rudy looked at her, hiding his surprise. They'd heard everything there was to hear about his dad's short-but-glorious sporting career, but this was the first he'd heard about his mom. "Five thousand metres?" he asked, interested in spite of himself.
"And ten thousand in college," she said.
Rudy looked out the window some more, and pretended not to see the look his parents exchanged. "I could maybe run," he said, finally. "If there was pizza afterwards."
"Can I run?" asked Jeffrey, who'd been playing with his Transformer, cheerfully oblivious to everything around him. "I like pizza too."
"All evidence suggests that no, you can't run," said Rudy. "At least, not without falling over."
"Awww," said Jeffrey, his lower lip threatening to pout.
"It's the same day as Young Scientists, anyway," Rudy's father told Jeffrey. "Which, by the way, you got into this year again."
"Yay!" said Jeffrey, and Rudy couldn't stop himself from wincing at his brother's high pitched squeal. "This year is the physics of explosions!"
If Rudy had been any other kid, and if he hadn't passed his limit for emotional displays for the day, he would have laughed himself sick at the expressions that passed over his parents' faces at this remark.
"Did I ever say thank you?" Rudy asked his mother, as she fixed his tie. They were standing in front of the mirror in the bedroom he normally shared with Mike.
"No," said his mom, briskly. "Not for anything, ever. I assumed it wasn't in your vocabulary. It's a wonder your boys have any manners at all and that Mike hasn't left you yet."
Rudy eyed her.
She grinned at him. "What was this sudden outpouring of gratitude for?" she asked.
"No, obviously the shock to your system would be too great. I couldn't possibly risk it," Rudy told her, raising an eyebrow. He smoothed down his jacket unnecessarily and adjusted his cuffs, stroking a finger over the cufflinks Mike had given him yesterday.
"I'll get my smelling salts ready," she said, tartly.
Rudy paused and looked at her. It wasn't like he wanted to do this, but today of all days, he could afford to be generous. "Thank you," he said.
"For....?" His mother said, invitingly.
Rudy stared at her. She smirked at him, before reaching up pat his cheek. "I'm your mother," she said. "It's no part of my life's mission to make your life easy."
"For making me go to camp." Rudy said, reluctantly.
His mother burst out laughing. "If only you hadn't chased David and his video camera out of here," she lamented. "I could have watched that over and over and over..."
"I take it back," said Rudy, turning away to look out of the window. Outside, Jeffrey's sons were very seriously ushering people to seats in the backyard, and multiple small, excited reunions were taking place.
"... and over!" his mother continued, undaunted.
Rudy sighed. Some days it was very hard to be related to anyone in his family.
"If only I'd known that all it took to get you to behave more like a human being was getting you a boyfriend," his mother was saying now. "I'd have been holding auditions for months before we sent you to camp."
Rudy swung back around to face her. "I... What?" he said. He forced himself to calm down and reassume his poker face. "I'm not sure whether to be insulted or gratified that you think we were that precocious. Mike and I didn't get together until the summer we worked at camp, as you know very well."
Rudy's mother was still chuckling. "Oh, I'm sure Mike thinks that," she agreed. "But as I said: I'm your mother. You can't possibly think I missed just how determined you were to hang on to him. You thought it was coincidence that you stayed in the running club that was all the way over that side of town? Oh honey. We were just protecting you from a conviction for stalking."
She patted his cheek. Rudy gave serious consideration to biting her hand, but then dismissed it as undignified.
"Mike wouldn't have pressed charges," he said, wincing inwardly at this weak defence. Still, he'd never pretended that Mike wasn't the love of his life. Not that he'd ever admitted that either, except in a couple of moments of extreme duress at Mike's hands in this bedroom.
His mother was going to rupture something if she kept laughing like that. "No," she gasped. "He wouldn't. You wouldn't believe some of the conversations I had to have with his mother though. Luckily, she saw the funny side of it too."
Rudy turned away to look out of the window again, appalled at this revelation. Outside, Mike's father was holding Vicky's very young daughter carefully while Mike's mother was talking with Vicky herself. Mike looked enough like his dad that for a second it was like a window into the future, at least until David tumbled into view, half-wrestling with one of Jeffrey's boys.
His mother came up to stand beside him. "You're welcome though," she said, finally serious, though a smile lurked about the corners of her mouth. Rudy half-turned to look at her. She leaned up to kiss his cheek and he let her fold him into her arms.
"Thank you," he said again, whispering it into her hair.
Her arms squeezed tighter for a moment. "Oh," she said, happily. Then her tone changed. "Oh. Oh dear. Jeff just poured something into the punch."
"I thought you said there was nothing in the world that could ever convince you to go back to summer camp," Jeff said, critically, from where he was leaning against the door to Rudy's room.
Rudy just shrugged and didn't pause in his final packing. Years of training camps and travelling to running meets meant he had the process down to a fine art, even though he was rarely away on those trips as long as he would be this summer.
"I mean, I suppose if Mike's going to be there, it makes more sense," Jeff was saying now, apparently unconcerned that Rudy was paying him no attention. "Not that I can see how you guys can be doing the wild thing with like, twenty kids in the next room. Unless you're into the whole outdoor sex thing, in which case: take calamine, because I remember Mike's ability to find the only poison ivy plant in twenty miles and sit on it even if you don't."
"He's mostly grown out of that," Rudy said, stuffing socks in his bag. Normally he would just be silent until Jeff got the hint and went to talk someone else's ear off, but he never had been able to leave Mike undefended.
"Uh-huh," said Jeff, sceptically. He made a face and said, in a stupid, sugary sweet voice: "Because you check the ground before he sits down, I bet."
Rudy could have protested, but actually, yes, he did try to make sure Mike didn't sit on any more poison ivy. Poison ivy made Mike red and blotchy and miserable, and none of those were looks that Rudy liked on Mike. It was only self-interest that caused him to steer Mike to less vegetatively perilous seats.
"Seriously, though," Jeff was saying now in a more normal voice. Normal for Jeff, anyway. "Why are you two going to camp? There's got to be a better way for you guys to spend the summer together. Hell, he could move in here and Mom and Dad probably wouldn't even say anything. Did you know I heard Mom call Mike your 'saving grace' once?"
Jeff sighed. "I wish Mom thought my girlfriend was my saving grace and let her stay over in my room," he said.
"You don't have a girlfriend," said Rudy, opening another drawer and beginning to count out t-shirts. "You have an ever changing rota of girls who are, totally inexplicably, willing to spend time with you even though you've been known to get their names wrong."
Jeff snorted. "Not all of us can meet the love of our life before puberty, you know," he said. "Not that I even want to."
Rudy said nothing, just stuffed a couple of t-shirts into his bag with more force than was strictly necessary. His brother's unassailable certainty that he and Mike were in love and had been dating for years was something he'd learned to live with and exploit when he could. There were times though that it grated on his nerves.
Not that he admitted to having nerves.
"Is there any reason why you're bothering me instead of blowing things up as usual?" Rudy asked.
Jeff came further into the room. "I can't want to talk to my brother before he leaves?" he said. "I missed you this year while you were away, and now you're going to be gone most of the summer too."
Rudy stopped packing and turned to look at him. Jeff had too much experience of Rudy's silent stares to be as unnerved as most people, but after a long moment he cracked. "I can't believe you're leaving your car in a parking lot while you're over at camp," Jeff burst out, finally. "I could come with you and drive it back and, you know, keep it running for you while you're away."
"No," said Rudy, simply, and turned back to his drawers.
"Rudy," Jeff whined.
"No," Rudy said again.
"Fine, be like that," Jeff said, and Rudy almost smirked at how much Jeff sounded like his eight year old self at that moment. "It's not like you're even trying to impress anyone with it. Mike thought you were amazing when all you had was a BMX. In fact, he doesn't even really like fast cars. I'm amazed you have one."
"I don't make my decisions based on what Mike likes," Rudy said. He closed his drawers and drew the zipper across his bag.
Jeff stared at him for a moment, and then started laughing. "You-- You--" he sputtered. "You can actually say that with a straight face when you're packing for summer camp? Seriously?"
"Shut up, Jeff," said Rudy.
Jeff just laughed harder. Rudy sighed, picked his bag up, and started to leave the room, hiding a wince as a sharp burst of pain reminded him of his knee injury.
"No, no, wait," said Jeff, still red-faced from laughter. He reached out and wrapped his arms around Rudy in a brief hug. "I was actually serious before. I barely got to see you after the school year, and now you're leaving again."
Rudy let Jeff hug him, and then looked at him closely when he stepped back. Despite everything -- the explosions, Jeff's endless, fruitless quest for perfect hair and the bottles of crap that littered their shared bathroom as a result, the non-stop drama of Jeff's social life -- he'd found himself missing his little brother while he was away at McGill. Still: "That would be so much more convincing if you hadn't just lifted my car keys from my pocket," he told Jeff, reaching out to grab his brother's wrist and take his keys back.
Jeff just laughed. "It was worth a shot," he said, shrugging. "Say hi to Mike for me, yeah? Tell him thanks for sending me his geometry notes from high school, they really saved my ass this year."
Rudy tamped down his curiosity -- he hadn't even been aware that Jeff and Mike were in independent contact -- and nodded.
"He's a good guy," Jeff was saying now. He grinned suddenly. "Well, you're going back to summer camp. He must be more than good."
Sighing, Rudy punched Jeff on the arm, and shouldered his bag. "Good-bye, Jeff," he said, and walked away to the sound of Jeff's laughter.
It hadn't taken long for Mike, Rudy and the campers to come up with a kind of schedule. Mike got the hellions up and off to breakfast since he was, and always had been, obnoxiously cheerful first thing in a morning. Rudy preferred a slower start, and, although he hadn't said as much to Mike, he needed some extra time to deal with his knee. He was only wearing a light bandage now, but he had to check the incisions and run through the early morning exercises his physiotherapist had given him to get his knee moving. Plus, it gave him a chance to shower in usually undisturbed peace while the majority of the campers and clones were at breakfast. He could count on Mike to save him a piece of toast for his own meal.
He made his way to the shower block now, gritting his teeth at the stiffness and pain in his knee after his exercises. There was, mercifully, nobody around when Rudy stepped into the tiled concrete block, moving carefully to avoid slipping on the wet floor. He massaged his thigh once he was under the pathetic spray of water that the camp called a shower. His knee was better, he knew it was. He already had more range of pain-free movement, and he was able to walk further without pain and do more. It was just so frustratingly slow. If only he hadn't fallen, if only he'd seen--
He stopped. If he hadn't fallen, he reminded himself, he wouldn't be here. On the one hand, since here was the god-forsaken summer camp that he'd sworn never to set foot in again, that would be really quite desirable. But here also meant he was with Mike, all day, every day, and while there were the distractions of campers and sports and campfires, not to mention the assorted twits who'd made the profoundly unwise life decision to try to make Mike's life difficult, it was still more time with Mike than Rudy would otherwise have had this summer. He'd have been on the road, at the Championships, running and training. He'd half planned on Mike coming to some of his events, but there would still have been handlers and the coaching team around, not to mention the pressure of the competition.
No, the only good thing to come out of falling in that hole was this summer of nothing but time with Mike: eating with him; working with him; hanging around with him in the evening and toasting marshmallows; sleeping in the bed next to him.
Rudy scrubbed shampoo through his hair, and then stood letting the drizzle of water wash it away.
Mike always slept quietly, half-curled up on his side facing Rudy's bed. He didn't move much in the night, but his eyebrows and lips twitched when he was dreaming, and sometimes he'd sigh and mutter a couple of words of nonsense. Rudy had caught his own name once, and he'd been watching ever since, hoping for more. Mike smiled more than he frowned in his sleep and he got turned on by his dreams pretty regularly too, though Mike would die of embarrassment if he knew that Rudy was aware of that. Mike would probably die of embarrassment about half of the things Rudy had catalogued in his brain about him. Rudy knew how Mike liked his marshmallow toasted, and which kind of peanut butter Mike liked, and never to even show him a can of sardines because they made Mike turn green. He knew what Mike looked like when he was sleeping, when he was thinking seriously about something, and when he was jacking off, although Mike really couldn't ever know Rudy had seen that. He knew how many freckles Mike had on his shoulders and that he always wore a belt cinched to the third-to-last hole to hold his jeans up over his skinny hips. Rudy just knew Mike like he knew nobody else. What he didn't know yet was how Mike would kiss him and what noises Mike would make with Rudy's hands on him and what Mike liked in bed, though years of observation helped his imagination fill in the blanks in his fantasies.
The door to the shower block slammed open just as Rudy's hands slipped downwards, and he sighed and leaned his head against the wall. The lack of privacy was like a bucket of cold water, even though the door opened again almost immediately and a kid's voice rang out: "Found it! I left it in the shower--" before cutting off as the door swung shut again.
He rinsed the soap off himself before going through the motions of getting dried off and dressed, allowing himself one grimace of pain as he pulled his uniform shorts up over his bandaged knee. He glanced indifferently at himself in the mirror before he left, running his fingers through his hair to coax it into damp waves, and headed out to the mess hall.
The campers seemed mostly to be behaving themselves when he arrived, although Rudy sent a quelling stare Davis' way to ensure a brief period of good behaviour. Mike was sitting at the end of the table, a seat very obviously left open for Rudy across from him, while Sam and Bob sat at the end of the adjacent table with their campers.
Mike was waving a piece of toast around. "I kind of want to be a paediatrician," he was telling Sam and Bob. "But medicine in general is such a competitive field, and paediatrics is one of the hardest of all to get into. I mean, my grades are good, but a lot of people have good grades."
Sam nodded sympathetically. "My dad wants me to go into graphic design," he said. "I don't know though, I'm more into more traditional media. There's no real jobs though, not unless you can sell your work."
Bob nodded to Rudy as he slid into his seat opposite Mike. "Miller," he said.
Rudy nodded back, and stared coolly at Sam. He'd put up with Sam's evident interest in Mike for a while, but he'd decided his patience with Sam was over. If Sam hadn't got the message by now he would just have to be more explicit about--
He stopped, and looked more closely Sam's face, and then let his eyes drop to the faintest of marks on Sam's neck. He allowed his right eyebrow to twitch. Colour flooded Sam's face, and he sent an involuntary look Bob's way, his hand reaching up to catch at the collar of his shirt.
Rudy's eyebrow rose another fraction of an inch. Only two days ago Sam had still been sending lingering looks in Mike's direction, so this was entirely new.
"Accountant," Bob said, laconically, in answer to Mike's question, though he was obviously more interested in the silent exchange going on between Sam and Rudy. "I like math."
Mike hummed thoughtfully, and turned away to butter some more toast, leaving Rudy, Sam and Bob to exchange one more look. Bob's dark skin tone hid any blush, but he did shift his shoulders uncomfortably, before sending Rudy a questioning look and glancing over at Mike, who was exchanging a few words with one of the campers.
Rudy stared back blandly, giving nothing away, and Bob shrugged and went back to his eggs. Rudy admired his bravery if nothing else, as he'd never yet been prepared to risk the foodstuff the kitchens here called eggs.
Mike turned back to frown at Rudy. "Don't steal my toast," he said. "I just have to go see what Jase has gotten himself into."
Rudy waited until Mike was at least three steps away before helping himself to the toast Mike had just buttered.
"I really don't know why he puts up with you," Sam said.
"You don't?" Rudy said, silkily. He bit down into Mike's toast and watched as Mike separated two squabbling campers by the doors.
"He talks about you a lot," said Sam. His tone was challenging. "More than you probably know."
"I know all about Mike," said Rudy, inwardly cursing whatever quality Mike had that brought out the protective streak in the most unlikely people. "And I came to work at summer camp with him."
Mike came back to the table, interrupting their stand-off, and smiled sunnily at all of them before scowling at Rudy. "Why can't you eat your own damn toast?" he asked, hands on his hips. "Never mind, why am I even asking. Sam, by the way, I finished that book you were interested in, do you want me to bring it by the campfire tonight?"
Rudy wondered if Mike was really as oblivious as he seemed. Did he not know that Sam and Bob had just discovered better ways to spend their evenings than reading? The change in their relationship was written all over their faces, in the way they sat, legs bumping under the table, and, faintly, on Sam's pale skin.
"Sure," said Sam easily, smiling at Mike. "Are your guys doing lacrosse this morning with ours? I'm going to walk my kids over there now if you want to head over."
"Oh, yeah, sure," said Mike. "Rudy, you'll catch up with us? The kids want you to show them that trick with the lacrosse stick and I nearly gave myself concussion last time I tried it."
Rudy nodded, his mouth full of toast, and Mike smiled and left to gather up their campers.
Bob wasn't the talkative type, so they sat in silence for a while, finishing breakfast and keeping order among the campers still lingering at their tables mainly through silent glares.
Finally, the last camper safely out the door, Bob cleared his throat. "He's why you're here, then?" he asked. "I wondered. I know who you are."
Rudy raised his eyebrow fully this time. Bob shrugged. "Friend from the gym throws shot-put," he said. "Jim Franks. He's mentioned you."
Rudy nodded. He knew Jim, and liked him as much he liked anyone among the crowd the coaching teams called the junior hopefuls in track and field.
"He was surprised you were here when I e-mailed him. You've got endorsements, you don't need the money," Bob said. "But if it's about Mike..."
He trailed off, and Rudy just looked at him. Bob stared back. Finally, Rudy nodded again.
Bob grinned, and Rudy could see what Sam might see in him, although he couldn't imagine giving up Mike for Bob any time ever. "That makes more sense than any of the explanations Chuck is coming up with," Bob said, jerking his chin at Chuck across the room. "Lot of trouble for a skinny white boy."
"Mike," said Rudy, smoothly. "Or Sam?"
Bob laughed, and, clapping Rudy on the back hard enough to rattle his bones, stood up. "Sam's a different kind of trouble," he said, and walked away whistling.
Rudy looked at the table full of breakfast detritus and allowed his lip to curl very slightly in disgust. "I wouldn't," he told a random camper who'd come over to their table to grab a bottle of ketchup. "It looks like ketchup, but heaven only knows what's really in there."
The camper looked alarmed and dropped the bottle, just as someone in the kitchen bellowed: "Shut up, Miller!"
"Ah, camp," said Rudy, coming up to his feet and flexing his knee carefully. "You owe me for this, Michael Webster."
Xav slipped into the room when Rudy's mother left to wreak unspecified retribution on Jeff for spiking the punch. Xav's face was pale and he looked worried, but then, Xav spent half his life looking pale and worried, which in turn worried Mike. Rudy knew they'd never know if that was just who Xav was, or if it was the mark the time between losing his parents and being found by Mike had left on him. He knew Mike wished it was neither.
"Are you ready?" he asked now, coming over to where Rudy was still standing in front of the mirror. "Mike's freaking out."
He looked Rudy over appraisingly. "You look nice," he said, sounding unflatteringly surprised, and then wandered off to look around the room.
"Thank you," said Rudy, drily. "Why is Mike freaking out?"
Xav shrugged. He picked up a book from Mike's nightstand and glanced at the description on the back. Rudy took a moment to hope that Xav wouldn't idly open the drawers beneath the table. Today wasn't the day for what he feared would be Xav's inevitable crisis about his sexuality. "Jeff was in with him, you know how he gets Mike going," Xav said, after a minute, laying the book down. "Something about toenails? I don't know."
"Jeff," said Rudy, ominously. "He seems to be the source of all woes today."
Xav shrugged again. "I guess," he said.
Rudy looked at his youngest son. "Come here," he said, motioning Xav over. Xav looked puzzled, but came to stand in front of him. Rudy turned him around to stand in front of Rudy, facing the mirror. "Mike dislikes ties, so I don't have a lot of practice at this," he said, reaching down to retie Xav's tie. "It's hard to fix someone's tie when they're facing you if you mostly fix your own."
Xav watched his hands in the mirror. "Mike thinks they look like a leash and says he isn't a dog to be led around by the neck," Xav said, obviously repeating what he'd heard.
Rudy almost smirked. "Did he say that today?" he asked, and actually did smirk, just a little, when Xav nodded. "Does he look good?"
Xav's smile lit up his pale, rather narrow face. "He does," he said. "He looks beautiful."
"Did you tell him that?" said Rudy. Really, children were the hardest test to his poker face he'd ever faced, even after all these years.
"I thought he would catch on fire, he turned so red," Xav reported. He met Rudy's eyes in the reflection. "Has he always been? Beautiful, I mean."
Rudy looked down at him. Maybe Xav's crisis was less inevitable than he thought. "He was so beautiful, I went back to camp for him," he said, slowly.
Xav looked quizzical. "To Camp Algonkian Island?" he asked.
"Yes, as a clone. I could have done anything that summer," Rudy said. "And instead I went back to camp, which I'd sworn I'd never do."
"You do that a lot though," said Xav. "Swear you'll never do things, and then do them anyway."
"Mike is a terrible, terrible influence," Rudy told him solemnly.
Xav laughed. "He just said exactly the same thing about you," he said, grinning. "Word for word."
They stood for a moment, Rudy's hands on Xav's shoulders, Xav smiling at him in the mirror. After a moment though, Xav turned around, and his smile slipped from his face. "Today doesn't change anything, right?" he asked. They'd had this conversation before, and Rudy thought only time would show Xav that everything would be okay. "You and Mike are just... it'll be the same, won't it?"
"Nothing will change," said Rudy. He sat down on the edge of the armchair nearby, bringing him down to Xav's eye level. "It will be just the same, I promise."
Xav nodded, and they stared at each other for a moment. "I'm going to go see what everyone's doing outside," Xav said, finally, and Rudy nodded. He stood up again and turned back to the mirror.
"Oh," said Xav, from the door. "Mike said to give you a message. He said: tell Rudy I can't wait and see you soon."
Xav slipped from the room, and Rudy stared at himself in the mirror. Minutes later he heard the back door bang shut, and outside he could hear laughter and someone, he thought it was Sam, calling Xav's name in greeting.
If Rudy had to compile a sexual history it would be very, very short. Mike was his first and only for almost everything, but he wasn't Rudy's first kiss.
The first person Rudy kissed was called Ann-Marie Jones, and she had red hair and very large teeth that reminded Rudy irresistibly of summer camp and caused him to avoid her at all costs. The teeth notwithstanding, she was the most popular girl in his class, and it seemed like every locker room conversation Rudy had ever been forced to listen to at school was about her and her breasts and how likely it was that some guy or other would be the one to finally get her out of her panties. The consensus seemed to be that Ann-Marie was waiting for Mr Right and not very interested in making do with Mr Right Now in the meantime, but that wasn't stopping the guys at school from talking about her, and occasionally asking her out and griping when she said no. The week that Rudy kissed her, she had become the focus of attention for one of the more idiotic knuckle-draggers of the locker room, a hockey player who Rudy not-at-all-affectionately nicknamed Chief Moron in conversations with Mike.
Rudy had spoken to her no more than twice before they were shoved into a closet together at a party Rudy had not really wanted to come to, at the house the Chief Moron, who he didn't like, on a night when he should have been hanging out with Mike, if only Mike hadn't suddenly decided to go out with a girl on a date.
Ann-Marie spent the first thirty seconds of their incarceration beating on the door and yelling imprecations at the morons outside, and the next thirty seconds kicking things. Rudy politely moved out of her way to avoid being kicked himself.
"I have already tried all of that," he said, when she seemed to wind down. "Well, with the exception of the toe-stubbing and screeching section of your performance. I believe the morons had a specific time period in mind for our imprisonment. It seemed easier to wait them out."
"Ugh," Ann-Marie said. "Bastards. Can you see anything?"
Rudy reached up and pulled the cord on the light above his head. "Yes," he said, as harsh light from a single bulb flooded the room.
Ann-Marie blinked at him in the sudden light. "You're Rudy Miller, right?" she said.
Rudy inclined his head slightly.
"I'm Ann-Marie. We have Biology together," she said. She looked around the room. "Do you think we'll be in here long?"
"Ten minutes," said Rudy, expressionlessly. "Or so I believe the Chief Moron--"
"Anthony," said Ann-Marie.
Rudy nodded. "So the Chief Moron said," he said. "His time-keeping is rather suspect though, as I'm not sure he can count that high."
"Great," said Ann-Marie, sourly. "And you're in here with me rather than one of the other morons because...?"
"I told them I didn't play asinine games for overly hormonal teenagers, but that if I did, I would win. And you are in here because I believe you have turned down the Chief Moron and his gorilla-like friends on several occasions, and they have chosen to interpret this as your disinterest in all things male, rather than evidence of at least a minimum of taste and discernment," Rudy said. He looked around. "There were a number of innocent bystanders, which is the only reason I am in a coat closet right now and they are walking around whole. "
Ann-Marie stared at him. "Anthony and his friends play hockey. You're... I forget what sport you do, but it's not one where you pound people into the wall a lot."
"I run," said Rudy.
She looked at him, and Rudy could see her calculating how one relatively lean runner stacked up against several large bulky hockey players. He was obviously on the losing side in her mind. "I don't start fights," Rudy told her coolly, his pride pricked in spite of himself. "But I know how to finish them."
She scoffed. "Secretly a ninja," she said. "I'm sure."
Rudy just looked away.
There was an awkward pause. "I haven't see you at a party before," Ann-Marie said, finally. "Did I just not see you, or do you not get out much?"
Rudy turned back from his contemplation of what he assumed was the Chief Moron's family's collection of winter coats. "I don't go to parties," he said.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Why not?"
He looked around the closet again and then raised an eyebrow fractionally at her. "I can hardly imagine how I cope with missing out on the spectacular entertainment available at what passes for a social occasion among our peers," he told her, deadpan.
Seemingly in spite of herself, she snorted. "You're so weird. What do you do then?" she asked.
Rudy looked at her silently. "We're stuck in here for at least five more minutes. At least make polite conversation," she said.
"I don't do polite conversation," he told her, and this time she laughed, and poked him in the arm with a pointy fingernail.
"Now you've got to tell me, what do you do?" she said.
Rudy sighed, and dropped to sit on the floor. She sat down too after a moment, carefully folding her short, ruffled skirt over her legs for modesty. Rudy stared at her shoes, which had incomprehensibly tall heels. "I run," he said.
"You said," Ann-Marie said, with a grin. "What else?"
"I go to school, you'll be familiar with it, it's the big brick building we are incarcerated in every day," Rudy said. "Ostensibly, I learn things there. I go to training sessions. I do homework. Occasionally I intervene in my little brother's attempts to blow the house up. I watch terrible movies and worse television with my unfortunately taste-impaired--"
He stopped. He'd spent the day feeling angry, and it was making him say things he didn't need to say to this stranger with whom he was stuck in a coat closet.
Ann-Marie was staring at him. "With?" she said.
"With my brother," Rudy said.
"Mmm, no, I don't think so, he's busy blowing the house up," Ann-Marie said. In any other situation, Rudy might have admired her tenacity, and her deductive skills. "With your... girlfriend? Mom? Grandmother? Cat?"
Rudy raised an eyebrow at her.
"Boyfriend?" she guessed, after a moment. "You have a boyfriend? With bad taste in movies?"
"No, I have a taste-impaired best friend," Rudy conceded, after a moment. "We usually meet Fridays, but he's on a date."
"Oh," said Ann-Marie. She stared down her legs at her shoes. "First date?"
Rudy shrugged. "It would seem so," he said, as if he hadn't scrambled to find out as much as could about Mike's date tonight, including some snooping that he wasn't proud of, to the point that it made his stomach hurt to remember doing it now. That was why he was here tonight, stuck in a closet full of coats with the most popular girl in his class. He'd needed to not be at home, stewing over Mike's defection from his starring role as Rudy's personal, private discovery that he never had to share with anyone else. In a moment of madness, the spectacularly bad idea to go to this party had come to him.
Ann-Marie leaned forward to stare at him. He wondered what she expected to see on his face. "She has curly hair," Rudy heard himself say. "She told him he was cute and asked him out, and he said yes."
She snorted. "If only you had known he was that easy," she said. She opened her bag and pulled out a lip balm, slicking the pink stuff onto her lips casually.
Rudy said nothing.
"Stand up," Ann-Marie said, and then held up her hands when he obeyed. "Help me up, these shoes are killer for getting up off the floor."
Rudy looked down at her shoes as he pulled her upright. "And everything else, including walking," he said. "I don't---"
She pulled the cord above their heads, plunging them into darkness, and a moment later, her lips, sticky with lip balm, pressed against his. At first he did nothing, but she was insistent, hands coming up to frame his jaw and adjust his position slightly, mouth demanding against his. He let his eyes close and kissed her, deliberately not thinking about anything.
They were still kissing when the door swung open. The Chief Moron, who was clearly too stupid to breathe the same oxygen as Rudy or any other sentient being, roared something in disapproval. Ann-Marie stopped kissing Rudy, stepped back, put her nose in the air and sauntered out of the closet. "Hello Anthony," she said, breathlessly. Her lips, Rudy noticed, were pink and puffy, and he put his hand up to his own mouth to find it smeared with her lip balm.
"You kissed him!" the Chief Moron was gobbling.
"That was why you put us in the closet, wasn't it?" Ann-Marie asked, and then she idly checked her nails over. Rudy admired her sang-froid, even as he sized up Anthony. Large and knuckle-dragging and angry, but stupid. He shifted his position very slightly.
"But, but," said the Chief Moron, before apparently running out of words.
He turned to glare at Rudy. "I win, I believe," Rudy said, blandly.
Roaring again, Anthony rushed him, and the next few moments were a blur of action (Rudy), bad co-ordination (Anthony), and pain (also Anthony). It ended with the Chief Moron on the floor half-in, half-out of the closet, moaning, and Rudy casually inspecting his own nails for damage.
"Secret ninja?" Ann-Marie said, smirking at him.
"Three black belts, one brown," Rudy told her, stepping away from the Chief Moron.
"Not four black?" she asked. "I'm disappointed."
"I take the test next week," he said. "I must have missed my martial arts classes off my list of my daily activities."
He paused while she laughed, and then looked around at the party. "Can I offer you a ride home?" he asked, allowing his lip to curl a little at the mess. Apparently the party had peaked and then gone over the top during their enforced closet time, and it was now a disaster area.
"Sure," she said, and he ushered her out to his car politely, watched by the Chief Moron's gaping friends and several tittering girls.
Once in the car, Ann-Marie sighed and kicked off her shoes before giving him her address. "Well, that was fun," she said. "I've been wishing someone would hand Anthony his ass for weeks."
Rudy glanced at her, and then took a left at the end of the Chief Moron's street. Ann-Marie only lived a few blocks away. The lights on the outside of her house were all lit. "My parents," she said. "They wait up no matter what I say."
She turned to smile at him. "Thank you, Rudy. You're weird, but you're a good guy," she said, and she smiled at him with the first genuine warmth he had seen from her all evening. He was suddenly less surprised that she was the most popular girl in class.
"You're welcome," was all he said though, as bland as ever.
Ann-Marie looked at him. "Are you less weird with your boyfr-- your best friend?" she said.
Rudy looked straight ahead for a moment, down the dimly lit road. "It doesn't seem to matter to him," he said.
She was smiling again when he turned to look at her, and then she leaned in to kiss him again. "I don't---" he started, but she stopped him with a finger against his mouth.
"That was for Anthony and his goons," she said. "This is for me."
She kissed him, and it was softer this time, her fingers stroking the nape of his neck. After a minute or two, she sat back. "My girlfriend and I just broke up," she said. "Last week. She hated that I wouldn't come out as bi at school."
She paused. "You're a good kisser," she said.
"I don't do public displays of affection," he told her. "I think they're tacky. And I won't be your beard."
She laughed at him. "I don't want one," she said. "And I don't even know you, and I know you're way too into him not to want everyone in the world to see he's yours once you have him."
"I won't," he told her.
She just shrugged at him, and put her shoes on. "Thank you, Rudy," she said, as she got out of the car. "I'll see you in Biology."
The car door slammed, and he watched her walk up the path and up the steps to her front door, waiting until she'd turned to wave and had gone inside.
"I won't," he told the seat where she'd been sitting, and he turned the key in the ignition.
The drive from the parking lot for Camp Algonkian Island and Montreal was on the long side, even at the speed at which Rudy habitually drove. Mike talked for a while at first, but then fell silent. When Rudy glanced over, he was asleep, body curved in his seat as if he'd moved so he could watch Rudy drive. He was breathing softly, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheekbones as he dreamed.
Rudy forced his attention back to the road, torn between putting his foot down hard to get them to Montreal as fast as humanly possible and to hell with the speeding tickets, pulling in at the next motel sign he saw, and driving as gently as he could to keep Mike cocooned in sleep on their way to their destination. In the end, he eased his foot down on the accelerator, sending the car charging smoothly forward, and concentrated fiercely on the road. He spent an hour like that, stealing glances at Mike's sleeping face as he drove, before Mike began to wake up.
Mike woke in stages, first sighing in his sleep and curling up a little tighter, then sighing again as the seatbelt restricted his movement. Then his eyes blinked open, and he yawned and stretched hugely, arms behind his head, body curving away from the seat, t-shirt rising and jeans dipping to flash a few square inches of flesh to Rudy's fascinated gaze. Finally, he sat down in his seat again, rubbing his fingers through his hair and blinking sleepily at first Rudy and then the road ahead.
"Wow, how long as I out?" he asked, his voice husk.
"An hour," Rudy said. "A little longer, maybe. I didn't notice exactly when you dropped off."
When he glanced over, Mike's cheekbones were tinged with pink. "Sorry," Mike said. "I didn't mean to be such bad company. And it's not like you got any more sleep-- I mean. We didn't sleep much, last night."
"We did a lot, last night," said Rudy, smoothly, enjoying the flush of colour darkening on Mike's face. "But not much of it included sleeping, no."
Mike looked mortified, not sure where to look. He seemed to decide that staring out of the window at the scenery they were passing was safest. "I'm kind of hungry," he said, after a while. "Can we stop somewhere?"
"Fifteen minutes," said Rudy. He glanced over at Mike again. "I need gas anyway."
Mike nodded, and kept on looking out the window at the trees flashing past, the glimpses of water as they rushed along the road beside the St. Lawrence.
"Where are we staying in Montreal?" Mike asked. "You said house-sitting?"
Rudy nodded. "You remember Andrej from the McGill team? You met him when you came to stay," he said. "His said I could use his place until the lease runs out at the end of the month. He's gone home to Serbia now he's finished his degree."
Mike looked at him suspiciously. "I thought you and Andrej didn't like each other," he said.
Rudy shrugged. There was no need for Mike to know exactly how he got the keys for Andrej's empty, furnished apartment.
If anything, Mike looked more suspicious than ever at Rudy's silence. "You had this planned all along?" he said. "I mean, this." He waved a hand vaguely between them. "You had an apartment lined up in Montreal."
"It has a big sofa and a bedroom," said Rudy. He glanced over at Mike, who was watching him closely. "I... hoped we wouldn't need both."
Rudy had been steeling himself for this conversation from the beginning. Though Mike was still the most oblivious person he knew, he wasn't actually stupid. Rudy wouldn't want him so badly if he were. He'd known there was always going to be a moment of reckoning when Mike started to connect up the dots with things Rudy had done and said over the years. He had been hoping though to get a few days alone with Mike before they had to talk about any of it.
What Rudy hadn't quite planned on were the several incriminating things he'd found himself saying last night. He hadn't been prepared for what it would do to his brain to finally get what he wanted, and now it seemed he'd brought that conversation much closer.
Mike was still staring at him, and Rudy found himself wanting to shift uncomfortably in his seat. He tried hard not to even twitch.
"Okay," said Mike, finally, and he curled up against the door again so he could watch Rudy drive. "Do you think you could find a place with burgers when we stop? I've been craving one for days and those things they call burgers at camp were just too gross to even think about eating."
Rudy allowed himself one blink of surprise. "That's it?" he asked, stunned into speaking.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Mike asked.
"No," said Rudy, decisively. "I can find you a burger."
An hour later, Mike stumbled out of the restaurant Rudy had found by the simple expedient of asking the gas station attendant where the best place for a burger was while Mike was in the restroom. "That was so good," Mike said, rubbing his stomach and squinting into the sunlight. "Actual real food. The last time I had real food was the day we went out with Jeff."
Rudy caught Mike by the elbow and steered him around a huge pothole in the parking lot and towards his car. "Are you going to go into a food coma now and sleep all the way to Montreal?" he asked, resignedly.
Mike looked guilty. "Probably," he said. "Did you want me to drive for a while?"
Rudy looked at him.
"I'm a good driver!" Mike protested. "Do I have to remind you which of us put a huge dent in a car? Because, oh yes, it wasn't me."
"Do I have to remind you which of us had to be told in driver's ed two weeks running that driving too slowly and not making sufficient progress on the road was a driving offence?" Rudy asked. "Because oh yes, that wasn't me. So, no, you won't be driving. I'd actually like to get to Montreal today."
Mike pouted, and Rudy sucked in a breath. Mike looked surprised, and then amused, and then something else that Rudy hadn't really seen before and didn't have a word for yet. It was... disconcerting, that it was turning out that there were things about Mike that Rudy didn't know yet, that things between them were the same as they had always been and totally new and different in about equal parts.
They reached Rudy's car, and he let go of Mike's arm. He'd parked in the shade, some distance from the other cars in the parking lot, and they were half-hidden from the highway by a large tree. Anyone in the restaurant could see them though, as well as people coming and going down the side road that ran along the side of the building. These calculations all passed through his mind in the split second before Mike crowded him back against his car. He looked almost as uncertain as Rudy suddenly felt, and for a moment they just looked at each other.
"I don't think you realize how often you grab onto me and hold on," Mike said. "Or how long you've been doing it."
"Oh," said Rudy, finding himself lost for words.
"Or how much I like it," Mike said, his face turning red as he rushed the words out.
It was stupid that when Mike leaned in to kiss him, it was tentative, almost clumsy, just a brush of his lips against Rudy's. They'd kissed for hours last night, unable to get enough of each other. Now Mike pressed his mouth almost shyly to Rudy's, as if it was all new again. It felt like it would be all new every time. Mike's fingers stroked down his arm and twined with his fingers, and Rudy closed his eyes and kissed Mike again softly. When they broke apart to breathe, they barely moved, Mike resting his forehead against Rudy's. Rudy felt more of the unwise words he'd found himself saying last right rise up in his mind, but before they could spill out of his mouth, Mike just whispered his name and kissed him again.
It was a car door slamming that finally stopped them. Mike looked dazed when he stepped back, and Rudy held onto his hand to keep him steady on his feet, even as he glanced over to where the noise had come from. A couple, not much older than Rudy and Mike, were getting out of a car not too far away. The guy just glanced at them incuriously and then looked back at his cellphone, but the girl grinned at them and winked when Rudy caught her eye.
Rudy felt his face warm up, and he looked away hurriedly. Mike seemed to have recovered, but he hadn't let go of Rudy's hand.
"Um," Mike said. "I guess this is kind of public."
He was flushed too, and Rudy could see he was still breathing pretty hard.
"I don't mind," he said.
Mike blinked at him a few times. "Um," he said. "Should we...?"
He looked down to where their hands were still joined, and slowly, reluctantly, Rudy let him go.
"We've got a week in Montreal?" Mike asked as he skirted around the front of the car to the passenger door.
"I'm there for three," Rudy said, getting in to his seat. "But after the first week I'm back in training."
Mike slid into the car and slammed the door shut. "A week," Mike said. He leaned back in his seat and let out a long breath, before turning to grin, a little wickedly, at Rudy. "That might not be long enough."
Rudy's fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Too public, he reminded himself. Too public, too public. "Then let's get there," he said, and started the car.
"Oh shit," Mike said, as if he suddenly realized what he'd done. "Oh, jeez, Rudy, watch out for that-- oh my god, too fast, too fast."
Jeff poked his head around the bedroom door next. Rudy contemplated throwing something at him, but Jeff was much too good at ducking.
"Ready?" Jeff said. "Mike's heading down right now."
Rudy turned back to the mirror one more time. He adjusted his shirt cuffs, stroking a finger one last time over the cufflinks Mike had given him. He didn't even want to know how long Mike had been looking for cufflinks in the shape of a beaver, or where he had found them in the end.
"Are you going to stop trying to create mayhem?" Rudy asked, blandly. "I thought your job today was to make my life easier, not harder."
Jeff came to stand by his shoulder so that the mirror reflected them both. They were more like alike as adults than they'd ever been as kids. Jeff's hair had darkened to the same shade as his somewhere in his twenties, and their heights had levelled out as well. For a while, Jeff had carried more weight than Rudy, but then his active kids and Rudy's post-competition lifestyle changed them both. Rudy could still see more of his father in Jeff than himself, and, strangely, more still in Jeff's boys, the youngest of whom had hardly been born when their grandfather died. Rudy had found more common ground with his father than he'd ever expected before he died, and his absence today was a small but gnawing ache.
"I guess I just can't believe that it's taken this long for this to happen," Jeff was saying, with a smirk. "You guys are so slow."
Rudy shrugged, and Jeff turned away to look around. "I've never been in your bedroom in this house," Jeff said. "I like the windows."
"You've never been invited," Rudy said, pointedly. "In fact, I don't remember inviting you in now."
Jeff just laughed. "Believe me, I've never wanted to come in," he said, making a face. "Not that avoiding your bedroom has stopped me seeing way more of you and Mike together than I have ever, ever wanted to."
Rudy sighed. "If you will walk into private rooms unannounced--" he began.
"You were in the living room at mom and dad's house the first time," Jeff said, talking over him loudly. "And then the next time, you were in your room but with the door open, and then there were all the million times you were outside, in public, with other people. And that's before I mention that time when you were in my apartment when I was living in Ottawa."
Rudy stared at him. "I don't remember that one," he admitted, after a moment.
"I don't think you saw me," Jeff said, smirking evilly. "You weren't exactly in a good position to see anything. Mike did though. He couldn't make eye contact with me for a week."
Rudy looked down at his tie once more to hide the edges of a smile. "That seems to happen a lot to Mike," he said.
"That's because you're ridiculous and can't keep your hands off him. It would be easier if you just made him wear a sign: Property of Rudy Miller," Jeff said. "You're just lucky that aside from occasional embarrassment, Mike doesn't seem to mind."
Rudy checked his pockets one last time, fingering the box he was keeping there. "He's had long enough to get used to it," he said, keeping to himself the fact that at least half of the times Jeff had walked in on them, it was Mike who'd started it. Maybe he should offer to wear a Property of Mike Webster sign.
Jeff laughed. "Crazy to think we're all here because you met him at summer camp when you were little kids and he's been around ever since," Jeff said. "It's been kind of like having two brothers most of my life. You were always a weird amalgam of Rudy'nMike. You never even dated anyone else. Well, why would you, I guess."
Rudy sighed. "I thought Mike had disabused you of the notion that he and I were romantically involved when we were children," Rudy said.
"Uh-huh," said Jeff, peering out the window. "Well, he tried, but I lived with you before and after camp. I think I know better. He's outside, by the way. He looks great, though he's kind of buried in kids right now."
Rudy turned away from the window before he could be tempted to look. Jeff grinned at him, and came over to grasp his shoulder. "Ready to do this?" he asked.
Rudy stared at him. "Yes," he said, baldly.
Jeff laughed. "Then let's go."
They left the room together.
"When you have teenagers," Rudy's mother said, staring at her Rudy with her hands on her hips. She and Rudy's father had come home unexpectedly early from a weekend trip and she had started in on Rudy before he had a chance to say anything at all. His dad had already slunk off to the kitchen to start dinner after a pitying glance at Rudy. "When you have teenagers, you will come to me and say things like 'they won't clean up', 'they won't do their homework', 'what am I going to do, Mom?' and I will just laugh at you."
"I'm almost twenty-one," Rudy said.
"That doesn't make it better," she said, trenchantly. She nudged a pizza box that had found its way onto the floor with a toe, her lip curling at the piles of textbooks, obviously unopened, scattered on the table, the TV flickering in the corner, the blankets and crumbs liberally spread on the sofa.
"Also, you've met my boyfriend," Rudy said, putting slight emphasis on the word 'boy'. "You may not have realized that as a couple, we lack the equipment to provide you with your hypothetical teenage tearaway grandchildren."
"Why, yes, Rudy, I have met your boyfriend," his mom said, drily. "That would be your paediatrician-wannabe, babysits-for-half-his-neighbours, kid-magnet, every-mom-on-the-block-loves-him-and-wants-to-hire-him-as-a-nanny boyfriend, wouldn't it? Whatever could I be thinking that you might one day make a family together, what with gay adoption being totally legal and everything these days?"
Despite himself, Rudy could feel his eyes widening and his face contorting into a facial expression that was entirely unfamiliar to him. His mother smirked. "Hadn't thought about that, now had you?" she said, triumphantly. "Clean this place up, please."
She was about to sweep out of the room flush from her most recent victory over Rudy's equanimity, when Mike came into the room, looking worse, if possible, than when he'd left it to use the bathroom. His face was pale, the bruises and grazes standing out against his skin, and he looked tired and wan, like he was in pain. His arm was in a cast, and he was limping a little.
"Mrs Miller!" he said, looking horrified, having obviously caught her last words. He looked around the room, and two spots of red burned in his pale cheeks. "I'm so sorry about the mess."
Rudy's mom stared at him. "Mike! What on earth happened to you?"
Mike glanced at Rudy and then licked his lips. "Um, there was a car accident?" he said, and his colour paled until he looked almost grey.
Rudy's mom swung around to glare at Rudy, and Rudy held his hands up immediately. "Your observation skills need improvement," he said. "My car is in one piece on the driveway and I'm without a scratch. I wasn't even there."
Rudy's mom narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously, and then turned back to Mike. He was almost swaying on his feet, but he was obviously trying to neaten up some of the things on the coffee table. "Leave that alone," she scolded him. "You should sit down."
Mike subsided gratefully onto the sofa next to Rudy, and allowed Rudy to cover him in a blanket with only one soft protest. Soon he was re-established where he'd spent most of the day, pressed up close to Rudy in a welter of blankets on the sofa. Rudy stared at his mother. "It happened last night," he said. "His car was in the multi-car wreck on the highway, the one with the schoolbus. You might have heard about it on the news."
She made a little wordless noise of sympathy and sat down on the coffee table. She patted Mike's blanket covered knee carefully.
"He was helping keep the uninjured kids calm and providing first aid, and like a moron, he didn't tell anyone he was hurt," Rudy said. Mike mumbled something against his shoulder, but Rudy ignored him. He stared at his mom's face, seeing how she too had gone pale.
"My car was pretty beaten up," Mike said, emerging from his blankets a little when it seemed like Rudy was done with explaining. "Rudy came to get me when they'd set my arm and we came here and..."
He trailed off, and Rudy's mom rubbed circles on his knee again. After a minute Mike continued: "I'm sorry we made such a mess. We were going to clean up before you came home."
"I was going to clean up," Rudy corrected him. "You were going to go up to bed and take a pill."
"Don't like them," Mike murmured rebelliously.
"And yet you are still going to take one," Rudy said, smoothly. He exchanged a look with his mother, and then gently encouraged Mike, still complaining, to stand up and head towards the stairs. He argued the whole way, but by the time he got into bed he looked exceptionally relieved to be there, and allowed Rudy and his mother to give him a pill and a drink of water without comment. Rudy dared his mother to say anything with a look, and then bent to kiss Mike gently and pull the blankets up to cover his shoulders.
They left the room silently, and were downstairs again before Rudy's mom spoke. "Do his parents know?" she asked, when they reached the family room. She began straightening the room up automatically, and Rudy moved to help her.
"He called them when we got here," he said. "They came right over, but he was almost asleep so we agreed to just put him to bed here, especially since they had to work today and I could stay home with him. His dad is going to figure out what to do about Mike's car. I think." He cleared his throat. "I think it might be past saving."
"From what I heard, the scene was carnage," his mom asked, after a moment. "Did he see much? Is he coping?"
Rudy made a sort of non-committal noise. "I don't know. I think he was mostly just with the children," he said. "I've been with him all day except for an hour this morning, and he hasn't talked about it. Vicky came over this morning with a bag for him. She stayed with him while I ran, but he was asleep the whole time she said."
His mom nodded, and Rudy folded a blanket, remembering leaving Mike curled up under it while he gritted his teeth through a truncated work out, running through the rain trying to find his rhythm, most of his attention was still at home.
"I'm surprised they let him out of the hospital looking like that," his mom was saying as she stacked Mike's textbooks up in a pile. Vicky had, despite Rudy's frown in her direction, brought over a bag full of Mike's books, as if he was in any shape to concentrate on schoolwork.
"They were busy, he wasn't badly hurt compared to most," said Rudy. "And..."
He stopped. His mother paused, Mike's human biology textbook in her hand. "And you insisted?" she said, starting to smile. "Forcefully?"
"Something like that," Rudy said, with difficulty. His mom laughed at him.
"You tell yourself," she said. "You see people all the time in schools, and hospitals, whatever, and they are absolutely losing it over their family member, yelling at some poor teacher or nurse or security guy at the mall because their kid is lost or their wife is sick and somebody, somewhere, must be doing something wrong because it hasn't been fixed yet and everything isn't okay again. You think to yourself, I will never be that person. If I am ever in that terrible situation I will be calm, and polite, and I will remember that person not able to answer my questions is not being deliberately difficult, they are just doing their job and they deserve my consideration and respect too. And then..."
She shook out a blanket briskly. "Do you remember your dad finding Jeff unconscious in the garden that time? You'd have been about, I don't know, nine, to his seven?"
Rudy half shook his head, and then paused. "Was that when he was trying to figure out how Superman flew by jumping out of a tree?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't know, he never said what he was doing up that tree in the first place to fall out of it hard enough to knock himself out."
Rudy held his hands up again. "Your suspicions wound me. I've never encouraged Jeff to jump out of a tree and I didn't know why he did it until a couple of years ago."
His mom looked at him. "No, you wouldn't," she agreed at last. "He'd have cried for a week over the way you put a stop to it, but you never actually let him damage himself too severely."
She sighed. "Anyway, your dad found him, and when we got to the hospital, he lost it at the nurse, completely, and I was right behind him. We were both acting like crazy people, and you were reading National Geographic in the waiting room pretending not to be related to us, and Jeff woke up and wanted pizza and to know why everyone was yelling, and that was when I realized. I was exactly one of those people, and everyone who had never lived through it in the waiting room was thinking exactly what I had always thought about people haranguing the nurses."
Rudy looked down at the book he was holding. "I may have enquired whether the doctor treating Mike was related to a large aquatic mammal, specifically a walrus," he admitted. "Mike made me send her flowers and an apology this morning."
His mom started laughing. "It will be even worse when you have kids," she told him. "You just add more names to the list of people who you will happily commit mayhem for, unfortunately."
"If, not when," Rudy reminded her. He thought about the way his stomach had dropped into his shoes and then tried to choke him when he'd picked up the phone to Mike's incoherent plea to pick him up from the hospital. He wasn't sure he could take any more shocks like that about Mike, let alone anyone else. "I think I'll pass on that one."
"We'll see," his mom replied, surely the most irritating statement that a parent could make. "We'll see."
He was expecting the worst when he walked back through the doors of his home, and he got it. In the normal run of things, Tuesdays were pretty good days. It was Mike's short day at the clinic and therefore his night to cook, the kids particularly liked their Tuesday extra-curriculars and Rudy was usually able to leave work before the rush hour traffic so he could pick everyone up after soccer practice and science club and band practice and still get dessert on the way home. He normally liked Tuesdays.
This was clearly not a good Tuesday, and the fact he'd just spent endless hours cramped up in a terrible last minute seat on a horribly delayed flight home from Japan was just the start of it. The three boys were huddled together on the sofa in the family room when he came in, and they all looked pale and unhappy; there was no sign of Mike; and there was the distinct smell of burning from the kitchen, a smell that Rudy automatically associated with his de facto mother-in-law.
"Rudy," Xav whispered, when he caught sight of him in the door. "You came home."
He ran over, and wrapped himself around Rudy's leg. Surprised, Rudy reached down to stroke Xav's hair gently. This wasn't something they did. Xav was often limpet-like in his attachment to the few people he trusted, though his insecurities had been easing lately, but it was usually Mike he clung to like this, not Rudy. This was an unnerving start. He looked over at the other two. David looked like he would do anything to be able to emulate Xav, but didn't feel like he could, and Andy... Rudy sighed inwardly. Andy had assumed the stoic expression that had broken Mike's heart over and over in the first months after the boys came to live with them, the one that meant that he'd forgotten again that he was just a little kid and that it wasn't his job, or even within his capability, to fix everything that had gone wrong for his younger brothers. They both made a visible effort, though, and smiled at him a little bit, and said hi.
Rudy detached Xav from his leg and picked him up, letting Xav wrap his legs around his waist and hide his face in Rudy's neck. "Is your Grandma Webster here?" he asked, giving Mike's mother the title she'd insisted on despite all their protests, and receiving miserable nods in return. Rudy hugged Xav a little tighter for a moment and then set him down on the sofa next to Andy. "Stay here for a minute," he said.
The kitchen was full of smoke, and Val Webster's mouth was set in a hard line as she scrubbed at a pan in the sink. "I'm back," Rudy said, from the door.
"About time," she said, flatly. She turned around to face him, raking him with a look from head to toe.
Rudy bit back the reply he'd have liked to make. He knew Mike wouldn't thank him for re-opening hostilities with his mother right now, even if Rudy was jet-lagged to hell and back, and he knew he ought to be grateful for her flying out to help Mike out when everything went wrong while he was stuck in Japan. "How are things?" he said.
"The boys are in the family room," she told him, side-stepping the question. "Mike is in bed, sleeping, and you shouldn't disturb him. Dinner will be at least an hour."
"I thought we might order in," Rudy said, without inflection, not even deigning to respond to her comment about Mike. "The boys looked hungry when I looked in on them."
She looked at him sharply, but then she nodded. "It's up to you," she said, finally.
Rudy moved over to the phone in the kitchen, consulting her briefly before phoning in their regular order to the Chinese place a few blocks away. "Twenty minutes," he said, once he'd put the phone down. "Mike's asleep, you said?"
"He is," she said, and then added, with apparent reluctance: "He said he wanted you to wake him up when you got here."
Rudy looked at her. "I'll wait until the food gets here to go up to him," he said, to appease her. "Perhaps he'll want something to eat."
"No need, I heard you come in," said Mike, hoarsely, from behind him. Rudy turned, and, ignoring Mike's mother's presence, went straight over to put his arms around him. Mike felt skinny in his arms, thinner than just a few days of flu could explain, and he felt his eyes narrowing. "I'm so glad you're back," Mike whispered, close to his ear, and he sounded... he sounded so lost and un-Mike-like, Rudy had to close his eyes against the pointless, undirected rage that swept over him.
"I'll go let the boys know about dinner and keep an eye on them," Mike's mom said, obviously deciding they needed a moment. "They're very quiet in there, and quiet kids are never a good sign."
Rudy wanted to tell her they were quiet not because they were working up to some kind of explosive chaos, which he and Mike would have actually preferred, but because they were scared and hungry and as lost as Mike looked and Rudy felt right now, but he didn't in case it delayed her departure from the room. Once she was gone, Rudy ducked his head to kiss Mike, ignoring Mike's faint protest about being contagious, and pulled him closer into his arms to keep him warm.
"Tell me," Rudy commanded, but Mike just snuggled closer. After a moment and one more kiss, though, he sighed and started to talk, obviously soothed by Rudy's hand stroking down his spine under his bathrobe. He had to stop for breath a couple of times in his rambling explanation of David's school problems, Xav's latest issues and Andy's regression to parenting his brothers, the recent spate of horrors among the kids at the clinic, and something, not very coherent but instantly comprehensible to Rudy, about Mike's co-worker Nick, which had provided a very specific direction for some of Rudy's formless rage. Another target, it rapidly became clear, was going to be their former housekeeper, who it seemed hadn't limited her crimes to running off to Alaska and leaving Mike in the lurch. She'd also taken the credit card she'd been trusted with for the household and run up a huge bill in Alaska before Mike realized what was happening and cut her off, and now Xav had said some things that suggested that in the last few weeks she hadn't really been taking care of the boys when she was supposed to, leaving Andy to try to fill in for her. Mike, it was clear, was not just sick with flu, but also with exhaustion and guilt and grief. It was no wonder he felt thin and ragged in Rudy's arms.
They were still in the kitchen, Mike's voice wearing thin, when the doorbell rang and their food arrived. Rudy didn't let go of Mike, even when the boys trooped into the room with the bag of Chinese food and Mike's mother in tow, even though Mike had subsided and was now just leaning sleepily against him.
Andy and Xav sat at the table and stared at them with wide eyes, but David started piling food on his plate and chewing steadily in a way that suggested a missed meal to Rudy's eyes. He sighed into Mike's shoulder.
"Dinner, Mike," Mike's mother said, sharply, when it didn't look like they were letting go of one another.
"Not hungry," Mike said, but his arms loosened around Rudy. After another moment, he let go entirely and went to sit at the table next to Xav.
"I ordered soup for you," said Rudy, implacably, and set it down in front of him as Mike took a seat. "Here, take a spoon."
Meekly, Mike took the spoon, and dipped it into the soup.
"Are you better?" whispered Xav to Mike, watching as Rudy filled a plate for him.
"I'm almost better," Mike told him. "It's just the flu, kiddo, just like you had. You remember how yucky you felt the first couple of days afterward."
"I don't think Xav is all the way better now," Mike's mom said, looking at Xav critically. "But he said he was fine and he didn't want to stay at home today. Andy and David are absolutely fine though."
Xav shook his head. "I was okay, and I like Tuesdays," he said, pushing a fork into the pile of rice Rudy had put on his plate. "And Andy said..."
He stopped, and Rudy pretended not to see Andy shaking his head violently at his brother.
"What did Andy say?" Rudy asked, ladling more rice onto his own plate. If it had been up to him, they would have had dinner before they started to untangle this mess, but he couldn't let this go now, not when Andy would try to convince Xav to clam up if he was given time alone with them. Andy wasn't trying to work against them, but he hadn't fully learned to trust them yet and often ended up tying himself and his brothers into even tighter knots of confusion.
"He said we should stay together," Xav said. "Just in case. So we would be together if we needed to run away. We don't have to, do we?"
Mike, who'd begun to get some colour back as he made his way through his soup, went pale again at that and set his spoon down.
"No," said Rudy, calmly. "I think I've told you before that there is no need to ever run away."
"That's what I thought," said Xav, anxiously. "But Andy said--"
"Xav!" Andy burst out.
"What? That's what you said!" Xav protested, and Andy glared at him.
"If Andy hadn't said that, would you have stayed home today?" asked Rudy, as if this by-play hadn't gone on.
Xav looked down at his plate. "I didn't feel too good today at school, even though it was a Tuesday," he confessed. He looked sideways at David. "And Davy keeps getting sick at lunch and I can't find him. But when I told Andy he said..."
He trailed off, catching sight of Andy's face.
Mike's mother looked stricken, but Mike shook his head at her when she started to speak. "I know you think telling Andy is enough," he told Xav. "But if you're sick, or if David or Andy is sick, I'd like you to tell me too, okay? Helping sick kids is what I'm best at, and it makes me sad if you don't feel well and you don't let me help. Will you try to remember to tell me or Rudy too?"
Xav nodded, looking miserable at the thought of making Mike sad, and when Rudy looked at him pointedly, David did the same. Andy sobbed and jumped up from the table, running out of the kitchen and, from the sound of his footsteps, up the stairs.
"I'll go," said Mike, getting up from the table, and Rudy nodded, reluctantly. He would go if he could to spare Mike, but it was Mike that Andy needed right now.
David was still eating, though tears were pouring silently down his face. Xav was just pushing rice around his plate. "Andy said," he said again, in a whisper. "I didn't know what to do, and he said..."
He paused, and he looked uncertainly up at Rudy. "I didn't want to run away," he said. "I don't think Andy did either."
"Good," said Rudy. "Let me know if that changes."
Mike's mother looked over at Rudy, obviously disapproving of his tone, but Xav just nodded and poked at his rice again.
"I think maybe everyone should stay home from school tomorrow," Rudy said next, and noted the looks of relief on the faces of both boys.
"Andy isn't sick," Xav said immediately, having obviously taken Mike's request about health reporting very seriously. "He got better fastest."
Rudy glanced at David, who seemed to have stopped crying. He passed him a kleenex, knowing that was as much attention as David wanted drawn to his tears. "I think maybe Andy needs a break too," said Rudy. "And I think he would feel better if you were all together at home, don't you?"
Xav and David nodded fervently, which made Rudy wonder how many of the latest problems that had cropped up at school while he was away were about Andy's fears and not Xav or David's own issues.
"I think maybe we're done with dinner, too," said Mike's mother. "Why don't you go put pyjamas on and get ready for bed, and I'll make cocoa?"
The boys nodded again, and headed upstairs.
"I had no idea," Mike's mother said once they were gone, sounding deeply unhappy herself. She moved to the cupboard and began to take out cups. "I had no idea they still had the flu."
"Xav hasn't shaken it off yet, but he always takes longest to get over everything," said Rudy. "David's hiding something and he's lying to his brother about where he is at lunchtime."
She swung around to stare at him. "What do you mean?"
Rudy shrugged. "He's disappearing at lunchtime, but not because of the flu. Xav believes him because he really is sick," he said. "Something else is going on with David and he's not telling Xav, which means it's something he doesn't want me to know, and that, unfortunately for David, means it is something I definitely want to know."
She just looked at him in confusion. "My mother would tell you that the great advantage I have as a parent is that I was myself an utterly revolting child," Rudy said, blandly. "David and Andy are amateurs compared to me at their age. And Xav is their weak spot, always. The slightest pressure on him, and it all spills out, as you saw. If they need to keep a secret, they can't tell him, but their problem is that the three of them are too close to keep secrets from each other most of the time. Xav is basically the worst possible brother they could have, from their perspective, and the best possible from mine. My parents didn't even have that leverage."
"Don't you have a younger brother, too?" she asked.
"I do. Unfortunately for my parents, Jeff is only marginally less diabolical than me, at least according to my mother," said Rudy. He reached over her head for the jar of cocoa. He knew he was talking too much, but the jet lag was hitting him hard now. "Pressure on Jeff only resulted in him babbling about whatever wild imaginings were going on in his brain at the time. You might as well interrogate the cat for answers. Not even Mike becoming my best friend helped them, really, except that they could threaten to withhold time with him as punishment for my crimes. But that just meant I worked harder on not getting caught."
"Mike?" she asked, faintly.
"Ah, Mike," said Rudy, as he measured chocolate powder into cups. "Mike, who I convinced to run away with me from summer camp within hours of our first meeting, and repeatedly all summer thereafter. Never exactly a check on my morals."
Her mouth formed a perfect O as she gaped at him.
"If you're quite done trying to convince my mother that you'd corrupted me beyond redemption before I even started high school," Mike said drily, from the doorway. He was holding hands with Andy, who was tear-stained and trembling, huddled up close to Mike. "I think the three of us should talk."
Mike's mother nodded. "Yes, go on," she said, seeming to recover a little, though she cast another wary glance at Rudy as he crossed he room to Mike and Andy. "I'll bring you some hot chocolate after I take some up to the twins."
Rudy nodded to her, and led Andy and Mike to the living room.
Twenty-four hours later, he settled into the same armchair as he'd taken the night before to talk to Andy and Mike, and contemplated a long, productive day. A series of calls before anyone else got up in the morning, and Rudy had had his household fully organized. The search for a new housekeeper had been speeded up, and an acquaintance in Anchorage was looking into what could be done about their former housekeeper. Rudy had lied and intimidated and frankly terrified his way past a series of secretaries and underlings to set up an immediate appointment with all the relevant people at the boys' school, and then he'd torn through the web of incompetence and idiocy there to get to some kind of working solution for David in under an hour. Xav had spent most of the day tucked up in a blanket on the same sofa as Mike, with a book to read and, though Rudy for some reason was not supposed to know about it, Mike's old and love-worn teddy bear to keep him company through frequent naps, while his Grandma Webster waited on him hand and foot. He looked significantly better for the rest and the relief from his fear he would be made to run away. David and Andy's immediate problems weren't as easy to solve, and though David had perked up a little, Andy was still hovering near meltdown. Rudy at least now had an idea what was going on with David though, and Mike's gentle persistence and a little outside help would probably pay off in the end with Andy. Rudy had convinced (possibly more forcefully that Mike would have allowed, if he'd known) the therapist who worked with the boys that she could squeeze in emergency sessions with each of the boys, most urgently with Andy, despite her already overflowing appointment book. Mike himself had spent the day sleeping almost as much as Xav, and he too looked better for it, and for spending the night wrapped around Rudy rather than a moth-eaten teddy bear.
Most satisfying of all though had been his meeting with young Dr. Nick Crown, who'd emerged from his morning clinic to find Rudy leaning on the fender of his car. Mike wouldn't thank him if he found out that Rudy had intervened in that situation, but Mike was far too nice to people who didn't deserve it and Rudy needed to make sure certain messages were delivered and fully understood.
"You're looking smug," Mike accused, still sounding kind of hoarse, as he wandered into the room. He'd graduated from pyjamas to ancient ratty sweats and a McGill sweater he'd stolen from Rudy a very long time ago, and his colour was better, but he still looked thin and weary and, just now, resigned. "How many people will I have to send apologies and flowers to tomorrow?"
Rudy reached out a hand, and Mike, soft-hearted as he was, immediately came over to take it, letting Rudy pull him down beside him in the armchair. "Tomorrow, you get to spend another day on the sofa fending off your mother's well-meaning assistance," Rudy said. "And possibly reading the occasional story to Xav."
Mike frowned. "I don't know if I can take another day off," he said. "With this flu going around we were stretched really thin at work."
"Since everybody else had the common sense to take time off before they became so ill that they almost collapsed at the office, they have all returned to work," said Rudy. "You are presently the only one on the sick list."
"Oh," said Mike. "Wait, you went in to the clinic?" His cheeks flamed. "You know it takes weeks for everyone to stop everyone either laughing at me or running away at the sight of me when you do that, right?"
Rudy raised an eyebrow. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it would achieve the desired effect," he pointed out.
Mike covered his face with his hands and sighed heavily. "There are times when I have no idea what I did to deserve you in my life," Mike said.
Rudy's lips twitched. "I'm flattered that you think I'm some kind of cosmic reward," he said, biting down on the smile that threatened to erupt when Mike stared at him disbelievingly. "David and Andy will go to school tomorrow, and then after school I will take Andy to a session with Elizabeth."
Mike looked troubled. "You're asking a lot of Andy to send him to school without Xav," he said.
Rudy shrugged. "Xav needs at least another day at home, and Andy needs to be shown that nothing bad will happen other than Xav being given too much ice cream by your doting mother. His teachers know to call me if it looks like he's going to fall apart, but I think he should at least try," he said. He resumed his description of his plan for the week. "Somehow we will get through to the weekend, put your mother on a flight home Friday night, interview housekeepers on Saturday, spend Sunday as a family, and some form of normality will resume on Monday."
Mike's brow was still creased in a small frown, and Rudy knew that he was thinking that normality wasn't quite as easy to restore as Rudy was claiming. The reality was that sometimes they seemed to spend all of their time limping from crisis to crisis with the boys and fighting all the people who wanted to screw up what the five of them had just started to build. Rudy had never before spent so much of his time explaining to morons how they should do their jobs and repressing his urge to enquire into their parentage, professional qualifications, and mental acuity in disparaging terms.
However: "You could choose to see this as progress," Rudy informed Mike. "Xav was actively resisting Andy's plan to run away because he didn't want to leave you, and while that piled the stress on Andy, it is a step forward from where we have been before with him."
"Us," said Mike, his face finally softening into a smile. "Xav didn't want to leave us. He knows who his fiercest protector is. We all do."
Rudy thought about the constant battle it had been to get the boys, to keep them, to give them the childhood they deserved and wanted but couldn't seem to understand was being offered to them. "Everyone needs a hobby," he told Mike, finally.
Mike just smiled at him.
Andy was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, grinning widely. "Mike's so freaked out," he said, when Rudy reached the bottom step.
"And you let him tie your tie in that state?" he said, looking Andy over. "Surely you have learned by now that a distracted Mike is not a Mike that can be trusted with his clothing choices."
Andy laughed. "He once did an entire night-time round with his patients wearing stripy pyjamas because Rudy distracted him while he was dressing," he told Jeff, as Jeff rapidly untied and then retied the offending garment. "Luckily, nobody cares if Mike turns up in pyjamas for night-time rounds so long as he shows up."
Jeff laughed. "Didn't anybody say anything to him?" he asked, patting Andy's clothes into place and then turning him around to show him off to Rudy.
Andy shrugged. "Only when one of the kids asked if he was sleeping over and offered to share his teddy bear."
"If only I'd known that story before I wrote my speech," Jeff lamented. He glanced at Rudy. "Does he suit your ideas of sartorial elegance now?"
Rudy looked at his adopted son. Andy at seventeen was the absolute double of photographs Rudy had seen of Adam Heath at the same age, the man who'd fathered him and loved him for as long as he could. Rudy had never met him, had only ever seen him in the photos that he and Mike had taken great care to scatter through the boys' bedrooms and in albums given to them to treasure and look at whenever they wanted. As Andy grew up, though, Rudy found Adam looking back at him through Andy's grey eyes more every day, hints of his character creeping through in how Andy moved through the world. Even though Xav had in many ways been the most obviously troubled child of the three when they'd come to live with Mike and Rudy, and David had been the one who had acted out and acted up and generally made his own life more difficult than it needed to be, Rudy often thought it was Andy who had had the hardest road back to happiness. Andy had understood far better than his brothers what they'd lost, and how much more they had to lose. It was to Adam's credit, as much as his or Mike's, that Andy had ever found his way home.
Today, though, he was lit up with happiness and a hint of mischief, and though nobody would ever mistake him for Mike's biological son, he'd learned enough of Mike's mannerisms over the years to almost stop Rudy's heart when he was like this. Mike, of course, said the same about the two of them.
"Very pretty," was all he said though, and ignored the face that Andy made.
"Don't you start," he said. "Xav keeps saying how beautiful I look."
"It's his favourite word today," said Rudy. "Though I notice he only told me that I looked 'nice'."
Andy laughed at him, and then sobered. "He's kind of worried about you two going away later," he said, seriously.
Rudy reached out to straighten Andy's collar. "I know," he said. "And I also know?"
He raised an eyebrow at Andy. "That it's not my job to fix it," Andy recited obediently, rolling his eyes. "I know that, but I'm allowed to just say it, right?"
"You are," Rudy told him. "And I am just going to say that I know, and Xav knows that I know, and we have talked about it, and even though he doesn't realize it yet, he will be absolutely fine for three days with you, and David, and Jeff and Diana and their horde of little monsters, and all of our fifty million friends and relatives who are sticking around to spoil you three in our absence over the long weekend."
"My kids aren't little monsters," Jeff interjected, indignantly. He paused thoughtfully. "They're more like velociraptors."
Andy laughed delightedly. Outside, music suddenly started up. "That's your cue," he told Rudy. "Are you ready?"
His palms were slippery with sweat, and his heart was pounding like it was going to beat out of his chest, and he'd honestly felt less nervous the day he'd stepped onto the track for his first Olympic medal race, but he just raised a cool eyebrow at his son. "When am I anything else?"
"You got married?" Sam said, in stunned disbelief. People all over the bar turned to look at them, and Sam's cheeks turned pink.
"Talk a little louder, Sam," said Rudy, blandly. "I think some people in Alaska might not have heard you."
"Of course we didn't get married," Mike said, at the same time. "It's a figure of speech."
He glanced at Rudy sideways, though, as if he was just checking that they weren't married, and Rudy almost laughed. "I didn't secretly marry you while you weren't looking," he told Mike, as if he would never do that, when in reality now that the idea had come up it was starting to sound like a really good plan.
"I know that," Mike said, sounding irritable. "I was just... it's a weird figure of speech, to say we were on honeymoon this week."
Rudy shrugged, and took a sip of his beer. He hadn't really intended to say that, but it was how he'd been thinking of this week in Montreal, before life intruded again, and it had slipped out in conversation by mistake.
"Well, whatever," Mike said. "We've just been kind of hanging out."
Rudy could see from the expression on Sam's face that he thought "honeymoon" was probably a more accurate description, though there had actually been more sight-seeing and going outdoors than Rudy had strictly speaking been in favour of over the course of the week. Luckily, Sam was too nice a guy, and liked Mike too much, to embarrass him by enquiring more deeply into what "hanging out" had consisted of. Instead, he changed the subject to talk about the upcoming school year, which Mike happily chattered on about, apparently unaware of Rudy's rising irritation. Finally, Rudy stood up abruptly to get another drink, and Bob stood with him, accompanying him over the the bar even though Rudy told him rather coldly that he could easily carry four drinks.
Rudy ordered in fluent French at the bar, while Bob leaned back against the bar to watch Sam and Mike talking.
"You're thinking something crazy," Bob said, after a moment's silence while Rudy waited for his drinks to be served. "You're thinking something like: if you and Mike really were married, he wouldn't be going back to university a day's drive away from you in a couple of weeks, and you wouldn't be stuck on your own with all these people you couldn't give a fuck about. And by the way, why the hell is he so happy about going back to the university a day away from you anyway."
Rudy just looked at him. "Stick to being the strong, silent type, Bob," he said.
Bob just snorted. "You think I'm not thinking the same?" he asked. "At least your boyfriend isn't going back to, I don't even know what, orgies, probably, at art school."
Rudy actually blinked at him. "You really think Sam is involved in orgies?" he said, unable to stop the note of disbelief from creeping into his voice.
"Well, how would I know what goes on in art school?" said Bob, sounding exasperated.
"I'd think you would know that Sam is probably not having orgies, art school or not. His life is not actually a nineteen-seventies porn movie," Rudy told him. "Even if his moustache suggests otherwise."
Bob crossed his arms and scowled in the direction of their table, where Mike and Sam were laughing about something. "It had better not be," he said.
Rudy paid for the drinks and then looked at Bob. It wasn't like him, but he had to ask: "You two are serious then?" he asked.
Bob shrugged. "I am," he said, simply. "I'm all in."
He looked sideways at Rudy. "I know I don't even need to ask about you and Mike," he said. "Honeymoon? Not a figure of speech."
Rudy said nothing, just collected up his drink and Mike's. Bob stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Do me a favour," he said. "Sam desperately needs another model for a portrait. See if you can get Mike to do it for him, will you?"
He smirked. "I'll give the painting to you as a wedding present," he said.
"There won't be a wedding," Rudy said, and picked up their drinks.
It took a while after the boys left to restore themselves to any kind of coherence. It was as though the floodgates had opened in Mike after the tension of the last week or two. He couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted to talk or kiss, and at first he seemed to want to try to do both. Finally Rudy backed him into the little space of wall between the fridge and the kitchen table and gave him little option but to concentrate on the kissing part.
What felt like several aeons later, they came up for air and Rudy dragged Mike, still looking bewildered and now more ruffled than ever, off to the living room. Rudy pulled Mike to sit down on the loveseat with him, and took his hands. Since Mike seemed to be at a loss for words after his big dramatic marriage proposal scene -- and later, Rudy would be working on finding out how long Mike had been planning that -- so Rudy started:
"It isn't true, you know," Rudy said. "You know how I feel about drugs in sport, the rules we have at the academy, how carefully everyone who works with the athletes is vetted. I might have believed that one of the kids was taking performance enhancers without my knowledge, two maybe, if were Scott and Jackie, because where Jackie leads, Scott will follow. But seven? No. Couldn't happen. And I would never give those kids drugs. Never."
"I know," said Mike, looking startled. "Rudy, of course I know you would never-- Have you been thinking I believed all those stories?"
Rudy sat back to look at him. "No," he said.
"Then I just don't understand," Mike said, looking indignant. "Why have you been creeping out the house at dawn? Going to mysterious appointments and not coming home to dinner until late! I'm not even sure if you came to bed last night at all. The kids are going out of their minds with worry, hell, I'm going out of mine--"
Rudy reached out and put a finger over Mike's lips. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry."
Mike's jaw dropped. "What?" he said.
Rudy just looked at him.
Mike blinked at him some more, and then suddenly started to grin. "You're such a twit," he told Rudy. "I swear you only ever say that for the shock value when you want me to shut up."
Rudy raised an eyebrow. "It's a useful secondary effect," he said, blandly, and then dodged as Mike tried to elbow him. "Ouch. It's no wonder our sons are almost savages."
"What did you do with the boys, by the way?" Mike said, looking around vaguely as if they might pop up from behind the furniture.
Rudy shrugged. "I gave them money and your car keys and told them to come back much later," he said.
"You gave them my car keys?" Mike said, working himself back up to outrage. "Why my keys?"
Rudy just looked at him, and Mike subsided. "You're deliberately prolonging the sports car phase of your life for all eternity, aren't you?" he asked Rudy, with a frown.
"Definitely through the period where the boys are old enough to want to drive our cars but not wise enough to do so," Rudy agreed.
"Wise enough!" Mike said, and Rudy swiftly leaned forward to kiss him again before they could get back into the question of exactly how wise Rudy's driving skills made him.
This time when they came up for air, they were curled up together on the sofa.
"To get back on topic," said Rudy, aware they had strayed far from the point. "As to why I wasn't really around this week, I was helping the police and investigators figure out what the hell is going on in my academy, and I couldn't tell you, because they asked me not to."
Mike blinked at him. "They asked you not to tell me?" he asked. "Why, what did they think I was going to do, tell everyone else?"
Rudy shook his head. "I wasn't supposed to tell anyone," he clarified. "They had reason to believe that the person who tampered with all the tests was about to run, and they didn't want anyone to breathe even one word that might send the guy running."
Mike leaned back against him. "And the vanishing act you've pulled?"
"Mostly spent at the academy with investigators," Rudy said.
"They made the arrest this morning," Rudy said. "And no, I didn't sleep last night. I spent most of it awake. I did watch you sleep for a while. You're very restful to watch."
"You know," said Mike, digesting this, "You're really kind of creepy sometimes."
Rudy shrugged unconcernedly. He had never been any different, and if Mike was suddenly going to pretend he was bothered by it, that was his problem."So, we're getting married?" he asked.
Mike paused, searching his face, and then smiled. "We're getting married," he said.
The walk from the house to the back yard had never seemed so long, ever. "Remind me again why I have to play the role of the bride," Rudy asked his brother irritably.
"Because Mike asked you to marry him, and because we all think it's safer if Mike is corralled up front where he can't wander off and get into any trouble before the ceremony starts," said Jeff, for at least the third time.
Rudy half-smirked at the second part of the explanation, which he was fairly certain hadn't been explained to Mike that way. The door to the back of the house had a ribbon on the handle, and when he stepped outside he could hear music playing. There were seats set out informally all over the garden, although most people had drifted in to those closest to where the marriage ceremony itself was going to take place. Rudy took a deep breath, and locked his eyes on Mike, who was smiling down at something David was saying to him. He walked forward, and people began to fall silent.
The seats he passed were full of friends and family in a melee of people that Rudy had never imagined meeting one another, as if all the parts of his life were suddenly, and potentially disastrously, colliding in one place. Mike's parents were looking askance at the people next to them, who were admittedly a lot more colourful than their average guests. Gabe and his brother Luc both had still had crazy dyed spiked hair and still crazier outfits, kind of a Hollywood eccentric take on formal wear, only in orange and lime green. Rudy could almost see Mike's mother thinking that if they'd had the conventional wedding she'd pushed Mike for, they'd have been safely away from her on Rudy's side of the aisle. But she was wrong, Rudy wanted to tell her. It was Mike who kept in touch with people, Mike who sent Christmas cards and wrote letters and sent gifts for weddings and births and special occasions. It was Mike who invited people to dinner or to stay at their house when they were visiting Vancouver, Mike who asked questions and was asked for advice and who encouraged and supported all sorts of people, Mike who cuddled babies and bandaged bruises and saved lives. It was Mike who, in the mists of time, had suggested to Gabe that of course there were fun things to do as a grown-up if he wanted to work in hair and make-up. It was Mike who had suggested that they clutter up the house at weekends when their fledgling company was asked to work on their first movie, co-incidentally filmed in Vancouver. And it was Mike who had been thanked, both times, by Gabe and Luc when they went up to collect their Oscars in the Make-up category in the years since. It was Mike who made their lives full, and rich.
As Rudy looked around the crowded garden, though, he could see faces of people who knew weren't connected to Mike, except insofar as there was nobody who knew Rudy who hadn't heard about Mike. Vicky's baby was gazing raptly at a young runner that Rudy had trained, who looked thoroughly unnerved by the experience. Some of the kids from the current crop of juniors at his athletics academy were sitting near Jeff's wife and kids. There were even a few famous faces scattered here and there -- people he'd run with, competed against, trained, worked with at the sports network, all of them people he'd at least thought were tolerable and who had made the effort to come here today and sit and smile at him. Mike's doing. Again.
Most importantly, though, there was Mike, watching him from where he was standing by their celebrant Richard, a young man who'd once come to Mike in trouble and who had since gone into the ministry. He wasn't there in a religious capacity, but Mike had wanted him to perform a ceremony, and so Rudy had arranged it.
Andy had darted off down to where Mike was standing with David and Xav, the latter holding on tight to Mike's hand, although Rudy couldn't tell from this distance whether that was for Xav's benefit, as he was looking uncomfortable and nervous being in front of so many people, or for Mike's, who didn't look very much happier. Someone had fixed Mike's tie for him, Rudy decided, as he came nearer. "Thanks for his tie," he said to Jeff as they walked closer.
"I thought it would be better if he didn't accidentally strangle himself on his wedding day," Jeff said, out of the corner of his mouth, though obviously not quietly enough as a couple of people they were passing, people from Mike's clinic, laughed as they heard him.
The walk seemed to take a very long time, but finally they reached the place where Mike and their boys were lined up, all of them smiling by now. Rudy nodded to the boys, who grinned wider and scampered off to find seats, Xav hugging Mike one last time before they went. Mike's own face was still tense and nervous, and the hand he held out to Rudy was colder than usual and shaking very slightly.
They turned together to look at Richard, who beamed at them and then the audience impartially, and cleared his throat.
"Anybody who celebrates marriages knows that you tend to end up with a few set speeches that you give at the beginning of the service," Richard said. "But of course, not every celebrant gets the honour of marrying Rudy and Mike, and I'm sure those of you who know the couple well will know this created some very specific challenges."
Here he looked at Rudy meaningfully and the crowd laughed. Rudy stared back icily. This was not in the script, and he really didn't approve of Richard suddenly becoming a comedian. Unfortunately, Richard did not look all dismayed by Rudy's response.
"Of course Rudy asked me for the details of what I planned to say, and I told him. I said, I often start with a little joke, saying something about how very often couples getting married have a moment, in the midst of their preparations, where they ask themselves what on earth they are doing and why they are doing it," Richard continued. "Rudy was not very impressed. He said," and here Richard cleared his throat and began what Rudy supposed was meant to be an impression of him, "'I know exactly what I am doing, and I know exactly why I am doing it.'"
Judging by the laughter the crowd was more impressed with his impression of Rudy than Rudy was himself, but that didn't really penetrate his mind. He stiffened, and his hand closed tighter around Mike's. Mike looked over at him curiously, twining their fingers together and giving his hand a squeeze back, obviously thinking him in need of encouragement, rather than that he was repressing the urge to tell Richard to shut up.
Richard meanwhile, was carrying on, oblivious to Rudy's tension. "So I asked him, why are you doing this? And he said, very simply,'for the love of Mike'."
There were awwws from the audience at this, but more importantly for Rudy, Mike swung around fully to look at him, his nervousness seeming to melt away, his face re-arranging itself into some confused state of bewildered happiness. "Rudy," he whispered, and unable to stop himself, Rudy lifted their joined hands to his lips. The audience cooed again, a minor irritation now on the edge of Rudy's awareness. Richard was still talking, something about why everyone else was here to celebrate with them, but Rudy wasn't listening, not really. He just stood and stared at Mike, their hands still locked together. He answered by rote when Richard finally got onto the part where they got married, and he heard Mike do the same. Mike was flushed and pale in turns, barely looking away from Rudy's eyes, even while he fumbled with the rings.
"You may kiss!" Richard finally announced, and there was a roar of approval from the crowd. Rudy looked at Mike, who had not moved. His mind flashed back in a millisecond over their years together, from that first kiss in a rickety cabin on a godforsaken summer camp island and the pre-emptive honeymoon that followed, through all their years together: kisses at moments of triumph and moments of disaster; kisses of happiness, of grief; kisses after fights and before fights and even during fights; kisses interrupted by phone calls and kids and chaos; long lazy kisses that lasted all morning; casual kisses to say goodnight. He closed his eyes when Mike's lips touched his softly, like it had been back in the beginning, shy and certain, familiar and new all over again. When he opened his eyes again Mike was smiling at him, and it was, for just an instant, a perfect moment.
And then someone threw rice which immediately went down Rudy's shirt collar, and someone else took a photo, and Jeff set off a firework that made half a dozen people shriek in surprise and startled three small children so badly that they started to cry in unison, and David was heard to say very loudly "Thank god that's over, where's the food?" and Mike inevitably started to laugh and soon had everyone joining in. Rudy looked around at his garden being trampled by the hordes, the guests laughing carelessly, the children careening around getting their wedding outfits dirty and the teenagers huddling together making plans that Rudy thought boded ill for the people watching over his sons in his absence, and for an instant, let a smile curl his lips.
"Only for the love of you," he whispered to Mike, who turned, still laughing, and hugged him tight.