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Set Me As A Seal Upon Your Heart

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Behold, I have engraved you upon the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:16)

Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. (Romans 12.1)

His mouth is sweetness itself: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem. (Song of Songs 5:16)

 

 

 

Cris can’t go into the church. Well, he hasn’t tried in years, but he’s pretty sure. The courtyard’s okay, and the outbuildings, but ten feet from the vestibule he starts to feel choked and sick, like he’s swallowed a pill wrong. Closer than that and he’s dizzy with nausea. Apparently when he was a baby his mom used to bring him along, but he’d scream through the whole service.

She tried to take him again when he was older, five or six maybe. He remembers mostly pain and terror, and how hard he tried to tear his hand out of hers to get away, and the blinding headache that made him puke neon green on the marble.

Anyway, so he doesn’t go to church any more than Marcelo does. Which means there’s no reason he’d have met the new priest. He tells Marcelo as much. “Obviously. What’s the big deal with this guy, anyway?”

Marcelo shrugs one shoulder as he lines up his shot. “I don’t know. He’s real earnest. Big plans for the neighborhood. I guess he’s pretty young.” The ball swishes neatly through the net and Marcelo shakes his fist in victory. “Heard he’s cute, too. You got a thing for the collar?”

Cris blows out air contemptuously. “Priests are too easy.”

“Everyone’s too easy for you, guey,” Marcelo points out, jogging to collect the ball. He scoops it up, passes it overhead to Cris -- a little high, but Cris catches it one-handed on a stretch.

“I dunno,” Pepe volunteers, unexpectedly. He’s sitting at the edge of the court with a Tecate, trying to find something good on the radio. It’s a chilly November Tuesday, dry leaves skittering around the concrete, but none of them are bothered too much by weather. “I like him.”

Marcelo glances over at him. “Oh yeah?”

“When were you meeting the clergy, hombre?” Cris demands, a little surprised. He spins the ball on his finger, catches it on his forehead like a Harlem Globetrotter and then drops it to the blacktop again, dribbling it casually from hand to hand.

“Ran into him at E&W. He was buying like, four packs of white tee-shirts.” El Zol is on one of its shitty reception days, apparently. A song buzzes in and out of the wash of static, but it won’t come clear. “Hey, ’Celo, come over here for a second.”

“Nah, man,” Marcelo says. “You know I don’t like doing it. It feels weird.”

“Come on, bro,” Pepe says, cajoling. He holds out a beer and waggles it enticingly. “It’s your boy Telo, I can hear it.”

Shi-it,” Marcelo says. “Fine.” He saunters over, making like he’s gonna slap Pepe’s head, but pulls the punch. He pops the top of the beer, reaches down to touch the radio with one hand. Immediately he gives a weird little shoulder crack, grimacing, but the music comes in strong and crystal-clear. It’s like even the speakers are suddenly better-quality.

“Heyyy!” Pepe crows in triumph, raising his hands over his head. He starts clapping along, dipping his shoulders to the music. Marcelo always looks a little gray around the edges after he does this stuff, but he loves this song. He starts bobbing his head immediately, grinning. “Nossa -- nossa -- assim você me mata--”

“How does it feel when you do that, man?” Cris asks, suddenly curious. “It doesn’t hurt or anything, right?”

“I dunno,” Marcelo says, squinting at the sky as if hunting for the words. “Nah. It’s just weird. It’s like, uh. You know when you get a static shock from your laundry or something? It’s kind of -- like imagine a cross between that and your foot falling asleep. Only your whole body.” He taps his braces. “It might not be so bad once I get these off. My teeth go numb.”

The three of them, they all have their things.

It’s easier for Cris to pass than Marcelo; Marcelo’s got slightly more on the physical manifestation side. Under the fro he cultivates so carefully, two twisted spikes jut out from his skull. They’re the grayish brown of a rhinoceros horn, curved, no more than inch long but unmistakeable. Cris thinks they’re awesome and, when Marcelo’s passed out, likes to stick things to them.

As for Pepe, behind his normal teeth he’s got a couple of extra rows, and they’re sharp. Which means back in high school, until Cris was friends with him, he’d heard Pepe speak maybe once, and never seen him smile. No one at school had. A lot of whispers went around about him: guys said he was MS-13, that he’d been a child soldier, that he’d clapped somebody by the time he was eleven. He played up to it, too -- shaving his head and everything, and that shark stare of his. He looked like he’d kill you for fun.

When Cris got to be close with him, it was almost disappointing what a fucking goof he turned out to be.

He likes to give Pepe a hard time about it. The kid always gets defensive and comes back with, like, the same two incidents -- “You saw me kick the shit out of that Eastside motherfucker, man!” -- like that proves he’s hard.

When in fact Cris was there, and yeah, it was pretty gruesome. But the part Pepe doesn’t mention is how he felt so terrible afterwards that he cried for real, and how like three months later he insisted on buying the guy’s sister’s groceries when he ran into her at La Unica.

The only visible thing Cris has, you have to be close up to see. You have to be close up at just the right moment. He’s only seen it once himself, just for an instant, when he tried jerking off in front of a mirror. It creeped him out. He tries not to think about it.

“So this priest guy, you like him?” Cris asks. Religious talk makes him jumpy, and everybody’s yapping about Father Whoever like he’s the second fucking coming.

Pepe shrugs. “Yeah, man, he seemed all right. I only met him for like, five seconds.”

“Chatting him up over the packaged t-shirts.” Cris takes what should be an easy shot, but it hits the rim. He swears, spits through his teeth into the scrubby late-autumn grass.

“We didn’t say shit to each other. He dropped his phone,” Pepe says. He’s still grooving a little to the Telo song. Marcelo’s doing a full-body sway, grinning stupidly; his eyes are closed, head leaned back. “I just picked it up for him. Fuckin, like, flip-case Nokia shit from 1997. But I had a feeling about this guy, I don’t know. I just like him.”

Pepe gets feelings sometimes. A couple years ago he bullied them into pooling most of their money on a horse he’d seen a photo of on the internet once. Despite being shaped basically like a peanut he came in six lengths ahead, and they spent the next week getting euphorically drunk and blowing their winnings on dumb shit. At least Cris knows he and Marcelo blew theirs; Pepe might still be living off his for all anyone knows.

“Yeah, well. People ‘just like’ me,” Cris points out. He gives Pepe his most predatory smile, with a hint of the Look. “Maybe he’s one of us.”

“Sure, maybe,” Pepe says, unimpressed. The Look doesn’t work on either of the guys. One time Cris tried turning it full-blast on Marcelo, because the asshole kept daring him to; he doesn’t know what they would have done if it had actually worked. It didn’t, luckily, but Marcelo complained about weird dreams for a couple weeks afterward.

*

It’s pure bad luck that he’s walking past the church just as the afterschool program’s letting out. The new padre is out on the playground crouched down on one knee, holding a pair of gloves between his teeth while he straightens a little boy’s jacket.

“Oh okay,” Cris hears him say, muffled by the gloves, “good for you, you don’t need a coat. You gotta wear it anyway.”

The kid mutters something inaudible. The priest takes the gloves out of his mouth and hands them over. “Because it’s cold and I’m smarter than you, that’s why,” he says, fond and unruffled. He pats the kid’s cheek, sketches a quick cross over his brow. “Now get lost. Christ be with you.”

The kid pokes his tongue out and yells, “Bye Father Ricky!” as he scampers off, doing a quick hopscotch over the painted lines on the blacktop.

The priest stands with his hands in his pockets for a minute, watching him go. Then he looks up and notices Cris. A smile breaks over his face, as sweet and genuine as if they’ve known each other forever. His dark eyes are so warm.

It almost hurts to look at him. Half-dazedly Cris thinks: he doesn’t want to look at anything else.

“Hi,” the padre calls cheerfully. He bends to brush the wrinkles out of his black pants. “Can I help you with something?”

Usually Cris is pretty quick with an answer to something like that. It’s just something he knows how to do, the same way he knows about the Look. He can tell what people want to hear, and then he says it.

But he doesn’t know what the priest wants him to say. He doesn’t know what he wants to say. Something that will make this guy keep looking at him like that. Like Cris is someone really worth seeing, even though Cris hasn’t done anything to make him think so.

“Nah,” he says finally. “I was just, uh.” He gestures vaguely. “Just heading home.” His face is hot.

“Oh, do you live around here?” He’s coming over, one hand extended. “I’m Father Ricardo. Ricky. I’m new to the neighborhood.”

“Cristiano Ronaldo,” Cris says. The padre’s hands are long and elegant, his grip strong. He’s even younger than Cris expected; Cris’s age, maybe, or barely older.

“Cristiano,” Father Ricky echoes. The way he says it makes the name sound like a benediction in a foreign language. “Good to meet you.”

Cris’s ears are burning too, now. He fixes his gaze on the flagpole behind the priest’s left shoulder, careful not to risk meeting Father Ricky’s eyes.

He won’t ever forget how Sam looked in those last months. The dazed, hunted look that never left his hollowed-out face. The awful fear that sometimes flashed into his eyes while he was begging Cris to fuck him: like he knew something had been done to him, like he knew somehow it was Cris’s fault, but not what it was. Not how to stop.

“Yeah,” Cris says, jerking his hand away.

“Cristiano,” Father Ricky says after a second, cautious, and if he says Cris’s name like that again, it’s not -- he can’t stand it. “Will you come inside? Have a cup of tea with me.” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “I could use all the friends I can get around here.”

Not this one, Cris thinks grimly. “I gotta go,” he says.

“Of course,” the priest says. There’s a little silence, and then he goes on, “Listen. If you need to get something off your chest, you can always -- I’d like it if -- what I mean is, I’m here to talk. If you could use someone.”

“You don’t even know me,” Cris says, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“Sure, yeah, but that’s kind of my job,” Father Ricky says gently. In the corner of Cris’s vision, the priest’s mouth tilts into a small, soft version of that glowing smile.

“I’m not religious,” Cris says, sharp.

“Okay,” Father Ricky says equably. He puts a hand on Cris’s arm, presses down over the damp windbreaker. Cris bites down on the inside of his cheek. “Look, any time. I mean it, any time, day, night. I live right there.” He motions at the tiny gray-brick building on the far side of the lot from the church, the one that used to be the Sunday schoolhouse back in the eighties.

Cris can’t help it: he steals a glance back at Father Ricky’s face. The priest is still watching him, with a new edge of unfairly intimate concern.

“I’m not trying to trick you into talking about Jesus,” he says after a second. “I promise.” His full mouth quirks again.

“Nice to meet you,” Cris says, and practically fucking runs.

*

When he wants an easy fix, he just goes to Exhale. It’s kind of unsatisfying, but at least it’s easy. Cris doesn’t have the brain space to put any effort in right now. The priest put him in a weird place.

There’s a man at the bar Cris thinks might do okay. Handsome, thinning hair, with the little belly and sagging chest of an athlete that no one pays attention to any more. His wedding band flashes dully as he lifts his glass.

Cris sidles up next to him at the bar. “Tonic and lime,” he tells the bartender -- some new kid in a sleeveless turtleneck, yikes. The gray-haired guy gives him a painfully long once-over: he’s out of practice, Cris thinks with satisfaction. Cris lets his eyes run lingeringly over the guy’s broad, once-impressive physique, catches his gaze for an instant, then looks back to the bartender as if he’s bored.

Later they’re making out against the window of a pawn shop. The guy keeps saying, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.” He’s rubbing himself through his jeans, staring at Cris with a disbelieving awe that might once have been gratifying.

“You can fuck me,” Cris breathes. “Where’s your place?”

For the first time, the guy’s hand stills under Cris’s shirt. For an instant Cris thinks regretfully of the wedding band. Should have realized this guy wasn’t in the habit of infidelity -- but by now Cris is starved for it, starting to get the dizzy headache that comes when he’s wound up and waits too long. He can’t take the time to find someone else.

“You do want to fuck me, don’t you?” he murmurs.

The guy nods so hard Cris thinks he might bite through his own tongue. He says, “Uh, but my -- my place is -- I mean, I can’t --”

Cris doesn’t push people all the way, not since Sam. But then. If it’s like, a moral thing -- if they obviously want it, they just don’t want to be responsible -- well, sure. In that case he’ll help them along. He’s used to being the bad guy.

He looks up through his lashes and watches with satisfaction as the guy’s pupils tighten, his lips part.

Then he’s pushing against Cris’s jeans again, fumbling at his skin with burning hands, saying “can’t we just, fuckin God, Cristiano, you’re so gorgeous, you make me so crazy, shit, please, please let me --”

Cris takes the guy to the Super 8 by the tramway, undoes his belt and sucks him off while he mewls and gasps out Cris’s name. About ten seconds after he comes he’s passed out in the cheap felted sheets, snoring through his open mouth. Cris pats his cheek absently, feeling a flash of something like pity or affection.

The guy’s underpants are still around his knees. Cris pulls them back up over his bare splayed legs, the purplish dick now curled limply between his thighs. When Cris brushes it with his fingertips it stirs feebly, like a hibernating animal.

The try-too-hard jeans are a little more of a struggle to get on, but with some heaving and grunting Cris manages to get them all the way up. The guy will wake up in the morning with no aftereffects worse than a bad hangover, and at least he’ll have all his clothes on. People tend to feel better that way.

Before he leaves Cris pulls out the guy’s wallet, rifles through it and pulls forty bucks. The wages of sin; homeboy’s shoes say he can afford it. Besides, it’s not like he had to buy Cris any drinks.

*

On the walk home he picks up a burger from a late-night Wendy’s. He’s always ravenous after sex; his head clears, his heart goes back to its normal speed, but he’s hungry as fuck and nothing tastes better than meat. He unwraps the paper and licks grease off his fingers as he walks.

The smell hits him from a solid ten yards outside his apartment building. For a second it wipes his mind clean. It can’t be. He has to be imagining things.

On the next breath, though, it’s clear he isn’t. The air has a sharp, sulphurous tang at the edges, with an unmistakeable rotten-flower sweetness underneath. He hasn’t gotten a hint of it since he was -- what, sixteen? Since he was a teenager, for sure. The burger turns to flavorless paste in his mouth. He stands frozen on the walkway for a long, long minute.

The smell is stronger inside, grows as he jogs downstairs. Outside his door there’s a broad, showy scorch mark in the hallway carpet.

Cris crouches down, already knowing with a sick lurch in his stomach what he’ll find. And there it is. A cigarette butt, soggy and crumpled, tooth marks in it. Black paper, with a narrow band of gold around the filter end.

His apartment is unlocked.

When he pushes the door open he can hear canned laughter. The smell is overwhelming now, an acrid miasma that reaches into his mouth and nose, almost making him gag. He doesn’t call out, but he waits for someone to say his name. Nobody does.

The TV is on in his bedroom. It’s playing a sitcom Cris has never watched, something with a bratty fat kid and his mean dad. I oughta take my belt to you, the dad says, and the audience rattles out its studio roar of approval.

There’s another flaky burn in his bed: the cigarette tossed in the middle of it is still smoking. The filter end is still damp with spit, but there’s no one there.

He pulls up the mattress immediately, a cold band of fear closing around his chest. He had the safe put into the bedframe. He twists the combination with a speed born of terror and yanks it open.

The money’s still in there. A quick count assures him nothing’s missing. He exhales shakily at the ceiling. He’s got to be more careful.

 

He’s been keeping the medal in the bathroom cabinet, swaddled in an old t-shirt; he got sloppy because it was fucking with his sleep. Still, better that than the alternative. He shakes the bundle out into the safe, holding it gingerly away from his body. The medal thunks into it reverse-side up, its inscription glowing faintly, like the numbers on a digital clock.

Cris stuffs the forty bucks from his mark earlier into the safe, re-locks it -- setting the dial carefully to zero -- and pushes the mattress back into place. He throws the cigarette in the toilet, cleans up the ashy residue on his sheets as best he can. He’s shivering as he unplugs the TV.

In his dreams he sees tornadoes, great black towers moving slow and soundless in the distance.

*

Pepe corners him after their game the next day as they’re packing up. “Hold up a sec, tio. My mom sent you something.”

“Oh yeah?” Cris says, warily. Pepe’s mom lives in the cold, oil-slick waters off Pier 7, on the east side of the river by the power plant. Every few weeks he or Marcelo goes down to the stinking waterfront with Pepe to drop some raw steak into the river for her; sometimes, though not often, she comes up to say hi. She’s agelessly beautiful, naked and black-eyed, you just want to look at her forever -- and then she speaks. And then you forget everything except the dark cavern of her mouth, the thick fringe of needle teeth and the unhinged jaw, like one of those deep-sea nightmare fish.

Sometimes she gives them gifts, stuff that just looks like junk, but Cris always keeps it. You never know.

“Yeah,” Pepe says. He unzips the smallest pocket of his backpack, pulls out something wrapped in a plastic takeout bag. Cris unwraps the bag and peers in, wincing at the stink. Inside is a lump of rusted metal, and when Cris pulls it out he realizes it’s a little bicycle bell. It’s still slimy, with strings of greenish-brown river crud hanging off. When he thumbs the tab it makes a hoarse, toneless little thrum, like the ringer’s clogged.

“She say anything?” he asks, twisting the bag back up and wiping his hands on his jeans. She doesn’t always, but when she does it tends to be important.

“It’s weird,” Pepe says. He catches Cris’s eyes. “You still wanna hear it?”

“Go ahead,” Cris says, ignoring the nervous stutter of his heart.

“She says be careful,” Pepe says softly. “Big stuff coming for you. She said that thing’ll keep you safe, but not from what you’re most afraid of.”

The small hairs on the back of his neck prickle. The smell in the hallway, the ashes in his bed. “So, clowns?” Cris says carelessly.

“Just be cool, okay?” Pepe says. There’s real concern in his eyes. “Keep it on you. You know Ma doesn’t just say shit for fun.”

 

When he goes home he puts the bell in the oven for a bit to dry it off, then strings a shoelace through it. It’s too heavy and unwieldy to wear around his neck, so he stuffs it into the bottom of his gym bag. He takes that bag everywhere. It’ll have to do.

*

As he’s walking by the church next afternoon, a soccer ball bounces over the fence. Automatically he stops it under his foot, glancing up. A bunch of noisy, grubby kids pile against the fence, yelling and pushing.

“Hey, mister, that’s our ball,” calls a girl whose hair is wrangled into two puffball pigtails.

“Can you throw it back please?” says a prim-looking white kid. “We’re trying to play.”

“Nah, compa, a nice ball like this needs to be treated better,” Cris says, grinning down at him. “Let me show you how it’s done.”

He flips the ball into the air, juggles it lightly from knee to knee, rolls it down his thigh and stops it on his heel; then kicks it nonchalantly overhead, catching it on his hairline. Rolls it over his left shoulder, smoothly across his collarbone onto the right, then shrugs it back down to an instep, and finally lifts it -- in a neat, gentle arc -- over the fence. It falls directly into the arms of a skinny kid in a huge Zidane jersey, who gapes down at it, then back up at him like he’s an alien.

There’s a gratifying eruption of amazement. Even the white kid lets out a startled, enthusiastic whoop.

“That was so cool,” Pigtails says, pressing a hand to her forehead and stumbling dramatically sideways. “Ahhhhhh.”

“Hey,” yells another kid, a cheerful little gordito with grass in his hair. “Hey, mister, you should come play with us!”

“Yeah!” Pigtails says. “Come on, will you come play? Anthony hurt his knee so we’ve been stuck with eight on seven.”

“Please,” Cris scoffs. He surveys them. They’re maybe nine, ten on average. He could take like...well, maybe not quite all of them all at once, but pretty close. “What are those odds? Tell you what, Pigtails, let’s go five of us against the rest of these jerks. You and me plus little Fatty,” indicating the grassy kid, who at the nickname looks indignant and resigned all at once, “and...Zizou over there,” to the kid with the ball, whose eyes bug out even more than before, “and--”

“And Trinity,” says Pigtails decisively, jerking a thumb in the direction of a lanky girl with the set jaw of a born enforcer. Cris eyes Pigtails with new respect.

“La Mister, huh?” he says. “Little Miss Manager?”

“Well, you don’t look like a center back,” says Pigtails frankly.

“Nah,” Cris says, grinning down at her. Besides, if he won the ball from any of them on a tackle it’d probably count as assault. “I’m your goal machine. Come on, mocosos, you scared or what?”

 

The great thing about kids is that they don’t give a shit. Of course, the annoying thing about kids is also that they don’t give a shit. They are, at bottom -- as Cris is discovering with a certain amount of enjoyment -- amoral little bastards with no sense of honor or personal responsibility.

“Excuse you,” Cris is saying now. Hands planted on hips, he leans down to a fox-faced kid with a dangerously jutting chin. “You’re how old?”

“Nine and three-quarters,” the kid says.

“So you’re like, almost ten? You’re pretty much in the double digits?”

“Yeah,” the kid says.

“Great. Then you’re old enough to understand what rules are. You know you were offside, bro, come on.” Cris points to the line where this little snotface clearly was when the play started. “You were practically humping the goalpost. Don’t bullshit me, man.”

“You’re just mad because you’re gonna lose,” says the kid, which -- given that his team would still be down by three goals even if this one counted -- is impressively nervy. “Your whole team is losers.”

“Oooo,” says someone, awed.

Tough guy. Cris leans in closer, narrowing his eyes to their most sinister and derisive. “You trying to step to me, ese?” he says. “You think because you’re in the fourth grade I won’t throw down?”

“Cristiano,” says a voice from behind them, a fond amused rebuke. “Violence doesn’t solve any problems.”

A pleasant shiver runs down Cris’s neck. He straightens. Father Ricky’s standing on the sidelines -- for how long, Cris doesn’t know -- shaking his head mock-disapprovingly. He’s wearing a sky-blue zip-up sweater with a white line across the chest, high-necked enough that it covers his dog collar. It’s kind of trendy. The sleeves are pulled halfway over his hands.

“He started it,” Cris says, which is the truth. “He was offside and he knows it and now he’s being a dick.”

He’s the dick,” Offsides says.

“You weren’t offside?” Ricky says.

“No,” Offsides says, virtuously. Little gremlin.

Ricky wrinkles his brow. “Well, which defender did you think was behind you?” he says. “You have to admit you were pretty close to the goal. I was standing right here, so --”

“Hah!” Cris says triumphantly.

“No fair!” says the kid, outraged. “You’re just on his side because you’re a grown-up.”

“I’m not on anybody’s side,” Ricky says primly. “But the truth is important. Anyway, I have to give Cristiano something, so--”

A cry of disappointment and protest goes up from Gordito, Zidane and Pigtails -- Luís, Isaac and Camila -- and, to Cris’s secret pleased surprise, from a lot of the other kids too. Even the impassive Trinity lets out an injured little yip.

“No way!” Offsides says. “He can’t quit the game, I wanna beat him!”

“Yeah, come on,” Cris says, grinning at Father Ricky. He feels good. The cold clean air has his cheeks stinging a little: his blood’s rushing from the exercise. It’s surprisingly difficult to dodge and dribble through a swarm of enthusiastic fourth-graders -- which isn’t to say he can’t or won’t do it. “Let him to try to beat me. And fail,” he adds to Offsides, who glares poisonously back.

“Hey, hey,” Ricky says, folding his arms implacably. “Don’t force me to give you a match ban.”

“Man, this reffing is totally amateur,” Cris says, throwing his hands up. He doesn’t know why he’s still smiling.

As he goes off he bumps the priest’s shoulder deliberately with his own, like he’s the big star throwing a tantrum. Even that brief touch sends a little thrill spider-walking over his nerves. Father Ricky smells deliciously clean, warm, wholesome: like laundry and dry-erase markers and, interestingly, apples. Cris breathes it in quickly, almost furtively. Then he saunters away, hands shoved nonchalantly into his pockets, the kids hooting and whistling behind him.

 

“Sorry,” Ricky says when they’re relaxing on the weathered bleachers together. On the field the aftercare kids are yelling and pointing and storming around dramatically, evidently trying to work out a fair seven-on-eight again.

He gives Cris a sidelong smile. ”I thought I should put the kids out of their misery. It was embarrassing. Pick on someone your own size.”

“Oh, I do that too,” Cris says cheerfully. “I’ll pick on anybody.”

Ricky laughs. His knuckles brush Cris’s elbow as he resettles himself.

“Anyway, I wasn’t beating them. They were losing to me.” Cris rests his arms on the higher bench and tilts his head back, getting as much of the weak, low November sun as he can. “That’s their problem, not mine.”

“You’re really good,” Ricky says: totally, disarmingly straightforward. “It’s fun to watch you.”

Cris isn’t sure what to say to that. He glances at Ricky, then looks awkwardly away again. He can’t remember the last time he felt so clumsy and self-conscious, but it isn’t unpleasant, exactly. “Yeah?” he says finally. “Well, you’re welcome.”

“I did actually want to give you something,” Ricky says. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out something that rattles. Cris opens his hand: Ricky drops a little orange pill bottle into it, the Walgreens kind with the weird cap.

“You hustling on the side now, padre?” Cris asks, lifting an eyebrow. “Little pro tip: don’t give out free samples.”

“I think they fell out of Dolores’s purse,” Ricky explains. “I don’t know where she lives yet. I haven’t exactly figured out Father Mauricio’s phone trees,” he adds sheepishly.

Cris looks at him for a second. Then he looks back down. It’s his mom’s painkillers, for the slight cold-weather arthritis she gets in her hands. Her name’s printed on the side. “These are my mom’s,” he says stupidly.

“Yeah,” Father Ricky says. His eyes are still on the kids. “I like her a lot.”

“How’d you know she’s my mom?”

Ricky shrugs. “She’s mentioned you. And I can see it.” He glances almost shyly at Cris. “You make the same expressions.”

“That’s so fucking weird, man,” Cris says. Any time his face wants to stop smiling idiotically, that’d be great. “What was this, like, a parent-teacher conference?”

“Will you just give your mom her medicine back?” Ricky says. A blush stains the tops of his cheekbones.

Cris pockets the little bottle. They watch the kids play for a while, not talking, their arms an inch apart. The wind ruffles Ricky’s hair around his forehead.

 

The game has to end by sunset, so injury time is out of the question.

“Let’s go, muchachos, let’s go!” Ricky calls, clapping his hands over the kids’ protestations. “Whoof, it’s cold. Who wants hot cider?” -- which explains the sweet autumnal smell of him. A ragged cheer goes up.

Out on the far touchline that little flaco Isaac is still stubbornly holding onto the ball, trying to imitate Cris’s dribbling from earlier. Left knee, right knee. The ball bounces off his nose instead of his forehead and he winces, claps a hand to his face, but in another second he’s squinting through his fingers to scramble after the ball. Cris gets there before he does.

Oye, Zizou,” he says, scooping the ball up into his elbow. “Padre says get inside, you better get inside.”

Isaac rubs his nose on the back of his wrist. “How you did that before?” he says. Cris doesn’t recognize his accent. West African, maybe.

“What, this?” Cris asks. He balances the ball on his knee, gives Isaac a very serious look and gently butts it down to his ankle, kicks it from foot to foot and then back up into his hands.

The kid nods. “How?”

“Practice,” Cris says. He tucks the ball into the crook of his elbow again. “You’re already better than me when I started, flaco. Me, I gave myself a black eye right up front.” He cups Zizou’s close-cropped skull in one hand, ducking the kid’s head forward affectionately. “Come on, let’s get some cider.”

Isaac wipes his nose again. As they head off the field he slips his chilly, snot-smeared little hand into Cris’s. It’s gross.

Ricky’s waiting for them, holding the door, his silhouette cut out from a square of warm yellow light. If he notices Isaac’s sticky hand in Cris’s, he doesn’t say anything about it.

 

“It’s not just the cold. I don’t like to leave them outside in the dark. Our floodlights are pretty junky,” Ricky explains when they’re inside, sipping cider out of tiny paper dixie cups. They’re perched on the primary-color kiddie chairs while the afterschoolers congregate noisily around a pile of broken crayons and mismatched paper. Father Ricky’s knees poke up above the low seat. He looks ridiculous.

“I know a guy who could maybe look at those lights for you,” Cris suggests, very casual. “He’s good with electrical stuff.”

Ricky smiles at him. “That’d be nice,” he says. “You should bring him around sometime.”

*

It happens after a late shift. He’s pulled another easy five hundred in tips -- the reason he doesn’t have to work more than a couple nights a week -- and he should be making a beeline for the safe under his bed. But instead, somehow, he’s here: standing at the priest’s door at one o’clock in the morning. He doesn’t remember making the decision to come, but he’s not exactly surprised.

When the door swings open and Father Ricky is actually standing there, though, that does surprise him. The priest is wearing thick-rimmed black glasses. His soft dark hair sticks up wildly on one side. Cris can see his nipples pricking through his cheap white t-shirt.

“Cristiano,” Father Ricky says. He rubs his cheek self-consciously and gives Cris a soft, dopey smile. “Hi. Hello. Hi.”

“Sorry,” Cris says. He takes a step backwards. “I shouldn’t have -- you were sleeping.”

“No,” Ricky says quickly. “No no no no. I’m awake.” He smears his hand down over his mouth and jaw. His feet are bare. “Yeah, no.”

“It’s okay,” Cris says, hanging back. “I didn’t mean to --”

“Shh, yeah,” Ricky says meaninglessly. “No. Come on. I mean, come in. I’m making...I’m gonna make tea.” He swings the door open and shuffles back into the little house, waving Cris in over his shoulder. After a moment, Cris follows.

There’s a wooden cross hung over the bookcase. Cris skirts it cautiously. He can feel the clench at the bottom of his throat, feels his sinews tense to run, but he doesn’t run.

Father Ricky’s walking ahead of him, scrubbing at his hair. When he leans to stretch one arm sleepily over his head, the long muscles of his back flex under his shirt.

The kitchen table is a circle of warm golden light. Cris hovers awkwardly in the doorway, watching Ricky move from counter to stovetop. He fills a red-enamel kettle from the tap, sets it down again over the tick-tick-tick of the gas lighter.

Cris watches the first flames lick the sides of the burners. He presses his fingers into the plaster grooves on the doorjamb.

"So," Ricky says. He holds up a blue and yellow box with a bear in a nightcap, shakes it. "It’s, uh, is chamomile okay? I think it’s all I’ve got."

"Sure," Cris says. He watches Ricky set out two mugs. A slender finger of steam rises from the kettle spout; Ricky takes it off the stove before it has a chance to whistle.

The hot water makes a soothing, musical sound as Ricky pours. He offers Cris the mug with daisies on it, and a bottle of honey in the shape of a bear.

“I hope you don’t take milk,” he says, with an embarrassed little shrug. “Sorry. I’m out.”

“That’s okay,” Cris says, and sniffs experimentally at the mug. He’s not sure he’s ever seen anyone really drink tea, outside of British people in commercials. He takes a cautious sip. It tastes like plants mostly.

“Sit down,” Ricky says, motioning at the table. “I’m glad you came.”

“No you’re not,” Cris says. He drizzles honey into his tea, and then to be safe drizzles a little more.

Ricky laughs. It’s goofy, a kid’s laugh. “Yeah, no, I am. I’m just, I’m getting used to it.” He slumps into one of the mismatched chairs and regards Cris thoughtfully. His hair is seriously ridiculous. Cris fights the urge to reach out and smooth it down, to feel it pull softly through his fingers.

He could do it. He could make Ricky offer himself up willingly, ecstatically even. With a look he could have the priest on his knees, Cris’s name on his lips like a prayer.

Instead he stares down at his own hands, wrapped around the daisy mug. He’s got a hangnail coming in on one thumb.

“So what were you doing up so late?” Ricky says. He takes a sip of his tea.

“Working,” Cris says.

Ricky gives him a slightly glazed look. “What -- what work?”

“At, uh, the Arcade,” Cris says. The startled look on Ricky’s face makes him say quickly, “The steakhouse, you know, on Seventh? Not the strip club, that’s Arcadia.”

“Ah,” Ricky says. His smile is crooked and a little sheepish.

“I wait tables. I used to cook.”

“It would be fine, by the way,” Ricky says, glancing at Cris over the top of his mug. “If you did work at the strip club.”

“Why did you invite me over?” Cris says abruptly.

Ricky blinks owlishly at him. “Well, I mean,” he says, “not that I’m not happy you’re here, but I didn’t specifically -- you kind of -- showed up.”

“No, not --” Cris says, waving impatiently. “I mean when I first met you. The other day.”

Ricky’s eyes are a little clearer now, and under their steady regard Cris feels peculiar. He can’t tell if the feeling is veering in the direction of panic or calm.

“I don’t know,” Ricky says thoughtfully, at length. “You looked like you needed to talk to someone. I just had that feeling about you, I guess. I thought maybe I could help.”

Cris’s heart sinks. “I don’t know. It’s about sex.”

Ricky kind of snort-laughs. “Cristiano. What do you think priests would have left, if we couldn’t give you counsel about sex? We’d have maybe three shoplifters in the confessional. Somebody who’s been eating his roommate’s food out of the fridge.”

Cris shakes his head once. He stares up at the ceiling. He wishes he’d never come.

“Just because I haven’t had sex doesn’t mean I don’t understand,” Ricky says softly. “I know.”

“You don’t know,” Cris says. “When you want someone so badly you can’t control yourself --”

“I know,” Ricky says again. “Of course I do. Everyone does.”

His teeth sink into his soft lower lip for a second. Cris’s hand closes into a fist under the table.

There’s a little silence, and then Ricky goes on lightly, “Sometimes I think -- when it comes to celibacy -- doing it isn’t the point, exactly.”

“Yeah?” Cris says. “Where are you getting that one from?”

“Corinthians,” Ricky says. “I want you to be free from earthly worries; for the unmarried man worries about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man worries about earthly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” He says the words without a lot of reverence, almost conversationally, like the scripture is just part of his everyday vocabulary. “I think it’s about focus.”

“Focus,” Cris repeats, dubiously.

“I’m not saying having sex doesn’t make a difference,” Ricky says. He taps his spoon meditatively against the side of his mug. “Of course it does. But what it does -- safe-sex stuff aside, you know, obviously -- what having sex really does is make you more vulnerable to the power of those feelings, the ones you’re talking about. The ones that make someone else the most important thing in the world -- more important than God. Those feelings are the dangerous things. They’re what we fear.” He smiles crookedly. “It’s self-defense, really, the whole vow-of-celibacy thing. You could say it’s the easy way out.”

“Plus God hates it when you slut around,” Cris adds to the ceiling.

“Oh, please,” Ricky says. “Like God gives a crap. You think Jesus cares how many people you sleep with? You think Mary Magdalene shows up on his doorstep and He’s like, ‘No thanks?’ Cris, come on.”

His easy, quiet confidence is infuriating. “No,” Cris says finally. “It’s not just -- it’s not normal. I’m not normal.”

That painfully compassionate smile. Ricky reaches across the kitchen table and takes Cris’s hand in both of his. His palm is warm and dry. One thumb skims lightly over Cris’s knuckles. “Everyone thinks that, Cris,” he says.

A burning rush of embarrassment sweeps Cris’s mind empty. “No,” he says. “No. I don’t mean it like that, I’m not going through puberty.” He casts around for some way to make Ricky understand.

Over Ricky’s collarbones gleams a thin silver chain, running down into the vee of his collar. His shirt’s so threadbare that Cris can see the outline of the cross traced beneath it.

Abruptly he reaches out, closes his fingers around the chain and tugs the pendant out from Ricky’s shirt. The priest’s eyes are steady on Cris’s face. Cris holds his left hand out like he’s going to do a magic trick. Nothing up my sleeve.

He lowers the cross into his open palm.

The brief, intense flare of pain makes him twitch instinctively, but he forces himself to squeeze his fingers tightly around the searing metal. Then the burnt, meaty smell: and then white smoke starts rising from his fist.

Ricky reacts fast. He snatches Cris’s hand, yanks the cross out of it, hauls Cris out of his chair and practically drags him to the kitchen sink. He’s saying something, words drowned out by the high sweet ringing that clouds up Cris’s ears when he touches a religious talisman.

Cool water is running over his throbbing hand, infinitely soothing.

“...completely insane?” Ricky’s saying, his voice sharp and a little high. “Why would you do that?” He turns Cris’s palm towards himself under the faucet and draws in a quick, sympathetic breath through his teeth. “Ahhh, Cris. It’s gonna blister.” A livid welt in the shape of the cross is already rising on Cris’s palm.

“I was trying to show you--”

“Be quiet,” Ricky commands. He gives Cris’s forearm a little shake. “What a stupid thing to do. Jesus, Cris, you didn’t have to hurt yourself.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to take the Lord’s name in vain,” Cris says, raising his eyebrows. He feels momentarily drunk with pain and adrenaline. It’s great.

Ricky gives him an exasperated look. He’s still holding Cris’s wrist.

“When I say I’m not normal,” Cris says. He grins, shows his teeth. “I mean I’m not human, Father.”

Ricky is silent. His gaze doesn’t waver.

“I can make people do whatever I want,” Cris goes on recklessly. “I can look at somebody and make them want me so badly they forget everything else. I could make you starve yourself to death or throw yourself off a building. I can -- I can make you dream about me, and they’re not always good dreams, you know. I can make you afraid to sleep. And it’s not just that I can. It’s not, like, theoretical. I mean I’ve done it. I wanted to do it.”

For a long time Ricky doesn’t say anything. The faucet spills noisily over Cris’s hand into the sink.

At last he says, “Don’t move, okay? Keep your hand under the water. I’ll be right back.”

Cris has already started to feel sick. He closes his free arm around his ribs.

Then Ricky presses his damp fingertips reassuringly to the inside of Cris’s elbow and Cris -- who should definitely be the one in charge of this situation -- shivers.

 

When Ricky returns with the first-aid kit, they sit next to each other under the warm yellow kitchen lamp. He smears some gel onto his fingers and cups Cris’s injured hand in one of his. The first wet sting makes Cris wince back a little, but Ricky just grips his hand more firmly. He rubs aloe into the wound in slow, gentle circles until cool numbness sets in.

“Tell me,” he says eventually.

“What do you want to know?”

Ricky shrugs one shoulder. “What have you got?” he says.

Cris looks down at their joined hands. His palm is puffy and inflamed around the burn, where blisters are rising already. The gel gives his skin a greasy shine.

“There was this guy who used to beat me up,” he says finally.

The guy’s name was Lee Bishop: a thuggish, thick-limbed kid who looked about a decade older than anyone else in the seventh grade, and called Cris “faggot” in a way that made the word sound even uglier than it already was. He liked to pin Cris to the bathroom floor, hold his mouth open and spit in it.

Some Tuesday after school was when it happened. Lee was slamming the side of his face into the tiles again and again, a slow, boring drumbeat of pain, and something had surged up like bile in Cris’s chest and lungs. Not the old helpless rage: something else, stronger and wilder than anything he’d felt before. It filled him, roared and sang in his ears, crowded the air out of his body. He could feel the brute physical heat of it.

“Get off,” he’d said, through the blood in his mouth.

“What’d you say to me, fag?” Lee said. He pulled Cris’s head back by the hair.

Cris met Lee’s piggish little eyes with the full, furious power of his anger -- and watched as they widened in a flash of horrified understanding. Then in an instant the pupil contracted to a tiny black point, almost swallowed in the wash of watery blue.

“Get off me,” Cris said, louder. His voice was adenoidal from the nosebleed and his mouth tasted like metal.

Lee’s grip on him had weakened to nothing. Cris jerked his wrist free and wiped his top lip. Lee just stood there staring at him, his stupid mouth hanging open.

Cris hit him across the face. It was weaker than he would have liked -- he was a little disoriented still and at an awkward angle -- but it made a meaty, satisfying noise. His hand left a rust-colored smear of his own blood across Lee’s cheekbone. Lee’s face went white, then red. He reached up to touch the place where Cris had hit him.

“You don’t ever mess with me again,” Cris said. He felt dizzy, elated.

He leaned in, took Lee’s face in one hand, squeezed his jaw open. Hocked deep in his throat and spat. A clot of pink foam hit the side of Lee’s mouth. It slid in a thick trail down his chin. Lee shuddered on a harsh inhalation, his eyes closing.

It wasn’t revulsion. There was something about the loosening of Lee’s muscles and the lost expression on his face: something dark and fascinating that sent an answering thrill down Cris’s spine.

Even then Cris barely knew, or barely let himself know, what he’d done.

Now Ricky says quietly, “You were a kid, Cris. You were scared. You didn’t know.”

Cris spits out a laugh. “You don’t understand anything.”

At first he could only do it when he was afraid or angry. It flashed out of him and gave him headaches. Lee wasn’t the only one watching him with burning eyes across the cafeteria; even people he’d never spoken to began to watch him strangely, hungrily, for a little too long. (That was when he’d started to get tight with Marcelo, who seemed unaffected by it, whatever it was. It was nice to hang out with somebody who didn’t look at you like that.)

Then one day, he’d woken up and realized that he needed something. It was as if he’d just discovered hunger or thirst: it felt as constant and agonizing and fundamental as that.

And Sam had been there.

Sam was in his bio lab at the time. He was tall and didn’t know he was good-looking, all sad eyes and a smile that made you think of those dancers in movies from the forties. A few days before he’d asked, shyly, if Cris ever played FIFA, if he wanted to come over some time.

That was the worst part. He hadn’t even needed to use the Look, he’d known that. He had more control over it by then; it wasn’t something he did by accident. He had thought about it, decided it was wrong, and then, deliberately, done it anyway.

“I wanted to fuck him, so I thought I’d make him like me,” Cris says. He gives Ricky a tight, mirthless smile. “Didn’t work out. Oh, I got him to like me all right. He liked me so much he couldn’t eat or sleep. I mean, literally, for weeks. I told you I can do that. He liked me so much he lost his mind.”

“Ah, Cris,” Ricky says softly. He clasps the back of Cris’s burned hand a little tighter for an instant.

The unbearable compassion of it. Cris wants to punch Ricky or kiss him or laugh in his face. “Are you even listening to me? We messed around for a while, and then I got bored of him. And he didn’t get bored of me.”

Sometimes Cris would be awakened by a strange instinct at two or three in the morning, and he’d peer out his window to see Sam standing motionless on his front lawn, a dark shadow under the streetlight. Sometimes he was crying. Sometimes he tried to get in, though mostly he just stood there watching the window. Sometimes Cris had someone else in his bed; at first it made him feel a kind of vicious triumph to let them see Sam there, let them see the power Cris had over him. It stopped being fun pretty fast, though.

He heard later that when Sam was in the hospital they’d had to strap him to the bed. He kept asking for Cris, wanting to know what he’d done wrong. He’d lost so much weight he looked like a corpse. And the police had said they were concerned about Cris’s safety.

A couple weeks after that Cris dropped out of school. He couldn’t be there. He felt like a criminal, showing up again and again to a house he’d already ransacked.

Ricky’s tearing the wrapper off of a non-stick pad with his teeth. He lays it carefully over the burn and picks up the roll of bandages.

“It was my fault,” Cris pushes. He wants Ricky to know exactly what kind of thing he is. He wants to shock the kindness out of the priest’s face.

“Okay,” Ricky says. He winds soft gauze around Cris’s palm twice between thumb and index finger, down to his wrist, then back up. There’s a little zzip as he rips off a piece of medical tape and secures it. “Make a fist for me.”

Cris makes a fist. The neat white bandage makes his hand look like a boxer’s. “I could do it to you,” he says to the top of Ricky’s head. “You’d never know.”

“Okay,” Ricky says again. “You can relax your fingers. Does it hurt? Your hand?”

“Not really,” Cris says.

Ricky looks up then, through his thick dark lashes and his thick dark hair. “Why haven’t you?” he asks.

“Why haven’t I what?”

“Hit me with it,” Ricky says patiently. “This thing you can do to people.”

“How do you know I haven’t?”

“I guess I don’t,” Ricky says. He pushes his glasses back up his nose. “But if you have, you’re going about this pretty badly. Like a James Bond villain. ‘Here’s my evil plan.’ I don’t know. I don’t buy it.”

Cris stares at him for a second. “You can’t buy that I’m a Bond villain, but you’re cool with me being -- that I’m a demon or whatever?”

“I don’t know what you are,” Ricky says. His voice is even. “But I know you’re a good person.”

“Come on,” Cris says, somewhere between exhaustion and annoyance and despair. “Neither of those things. Don’t be a sucker.”

He grazes the side of Ricky’s face with his bandaged knuckles, rubbing his thumb compulsively over the velvet curve of Ricky’s ear. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t help to touch him. The lonely distance between them -- between him and everyone, sure, but this is worse than ever -- is unbearable. Cris’s throat hurts.

Ricky takes his wrist in warm fingers. Gently but firmly he pulls Cris in so close that Cris’s mouth presses against his neck; he wraps his other arm around Cris’s back. Cris tries to tense away from him, but Ricky’s grip is sure and his heartbeat is steady through the threadbare t-shirt and Cris needs to be touched like this so badly, has needed it for so long.

Then Ricky’s palms are on either side of his face and he’s pulling back. His gaze meets Cris’s, open and fearless. Involuntarily Cris clutches at his t-shirt, bunching it between his fingers.

“You’re a good person,” Ricky says. He searches Cris’s eyes. “Listen to me. You’ve been fighting so hard for so long to do the right thing, and you’re doing it. You’re winning. But it’s no wonder you’re exhausted. I mean, come on.”

“I’m not--” Cris starts, but Ricky covers his mouth. Not hard. Just enough.

“Let it go for a second, Cris,” he says quietly. “You are loved. I swear to you. You’re more loved than you know.” It should sound so stupid.

He pulls Cris’s head down and presses a soft kiss to his brow. Cris lets out a shuddering breath into the priest’s throat.

For a moment they stay like that, Ricky’s hands on either side of Cris’s jaw, his lips brushing Cris’s hairline.

“Are you even listening to me?” Ricky says finally, releasing him. He gives Cris’s shoulder a little shake; there’s a painful laugh in the back of his voice. “You’re not a bad person. I promise. I promise, okay? You can trust me. I went to a very big-deal seminary and now I know everything.”

“That’s not funny,” Cris says, muffled. He breathes in Ricky’s rich clean scent.

“Who’s trying to be funny?” Ricky says. “It’s true.” He pulls back. Cris almost leans after him, helpless as a leashed puppy, but manages to hold himself still.

“You’re not freaking out?” he says stupidly.

“I’m glad you told me,” Ricky says -- and then yawns enormously, his eyes squinching shut. Too late, he tries to hide it behind his forearm. His hair’s still all fluffy on one side. It’s fucking cute.

“Shit, of course,” Cris says, instantly full of regret. “Jesus. What time is it?” He gets up, checking in his pocket for his keys and phone.

“No, wait,” Ricky protests. “I’m not tired. I’m just, it’s just an involuntary --”

“I gotta go anyway,” Cris says. He pauses. “Listen --”

“If you’re going to thank me, don’t.” Ricky gets to his feet.

“Okay,” Cris says. He offers up a lopsided smile. “I won’t.”

“I wish you’d stay,” Ricky says a little plaintively.

Cris crushes down hard on the eager longing that rises up in him. “I live right around the corner.”

Ricky nods. His mouth works for a second as he blinks, obviously fighting back another yawn. “Look, don’t -- can we talk again, some time? You did a brave thing, you know, coming here, I know it’s not your, uh--”

“If you’re gonna compliment me,” Cris says, “don’t. Well, you can, but save it for a better compliment.”

That smile curves Ricky’s mouth. “Okay,” he says.

 

He won’t let Cris leave in his shirt, even though it’s long-sleeved.

“I don’t get cold,” Cris protests.

“I’m cold just looking at you,” Ricky counters, “don’t move,” and half-jogs into the back of the house. He re-emerges a minute later with a dark gray sweater, well-worn, a little frayed. “Just put this on, okay? Do me a favor.”

Cris rolls his eyes, but he pulls the sweater on. It’s cheap but thick, worn to softness, and it smells like detergent and Ricky. “Happy now?”

“Sure,” Ricky says.

*

He’s so turned around over the whole thing -- over Ricky -- that he doesn’t even register the smell until he’s heading down the stairs to his apartment. And even then, he’s surprised to discover that he doesn’t feel afraid: just sort of resigned. It’s just another inconvenience he’s going to have to deal with.

When Cris pushes open the unlocked door, the smell hits him stronger than ever. There’s a curdled, sour note in it, too.

“Hello?” he calls, but there’s no answer. He wasn’t really expecting one.

This time it’s in the kitchen. The fridge is wide open and buzzing. A carton of milk is tipped over on the top shelf, dripping steadily onto the linoleum. A cigarette butt lies in it, soggy and disintegrating. Cris covers his nose with his hand. How can it smell this bad after only, what, a couple of hours?

Two squat, shining houseflies drone in ponderous circles around the kitchen. They’re huge. Their wings stutter and fizz. An involuntary shiver runs down Cris’s spine. He has to force himself not to run into the bedroom.

The mattress is shoved off the bed. The little safe is open.

Cris breathes in, then out. Then he steels himself and looks.

His money is undisturbed. The Saint Benedict medal lies on top of the neat green stacks, gleaming sullenly.

Oh, it’s beautiful; it must have pissed him off so much. Cris actually laughs, relief and triumph and something like hope winging up in his chest.

Vade fucking retro, asshole,” he says aloud. “Didn’t see that one coming, did you?”

He closes the safe, hoists the mattress back up -- the sheets are still on it and everything -- and takes Ricky’s sweater off. He folds it carefully, neatly, then goes to deal with the kitchen.

The faucet’s open, dribbling brackish water. Cris turns off the tap, drops a match into the disposal to disperse the smell of it, and rummages under the sink for cleaning fluid. The sound of the flies gets louder. Cris waits until one of them settles back into the puddle, then turns lightning fast and slaps it down with his bare hand. It squashes under his palm like a rotten grape. Stinking milk spatters everywhere.

The other one starts to aim its clumsy bulk out of the room, but Cris is faster. He hits it in the air with a couple of well timed sprays of 409 and it staggers in flight, made loopy by the fumes, and falls. Drags itself in a buzzing circle, hairy little legs seething.

Cris steps on it. It makes a horrible liquid pop under his shoe.

He goes through almost a whole roll of paper towels meticulously cleaning every corner of the kitchen, wiping down the counters and the floor and the fridge shelves. A couple of beers that Marcelo left in there are gone.

When the kitchen’s shining, he climbs onto the counter and tips down a box of sea salt from the highest cabinet. He pours it out along the windowsills and lays down a wide arc in front of the door, broad enough that he won’t disturb it by accident. An irritating whine cranks up in his ears when he gets too close to it, a buzz in the backs of his teeth, but he’ll just have to put up with that.

When he’s done he strips off his clothes, stuffs them in the trash, and turns on the hottest water he can stand. It sputters dark and thick out of the showerhead for a minute, but soon enough it’s running clear again.

Cris steps in and scrubs himself down until his skin stings and his eyes burn. He takes long, deep breaths. He thinks of the way Ricky said, You’re loved.

It’s almost coming light out by the time he towels off, and he can hear a bird starting its early whistle. He lies awake for a while, eyes fixed unseeing on the ceiling. His heart is still hammering in his ears, but it’s not because of the kitchen or the open safe. All that barely registers anymore; it’s just a hiccup.

Something else matters more. His skin still feels warm where Ricky touched it, glowing fingerprints on his wrist, the back of his neck, like the after-images of sunlight. He can feel the heat of the priest’s breath on his forehead.

Ricky’s eyes were so clear. He wasn’t afraid at all.

*

He’s walking by the field next day when Pigtails comes barrelling into the fence. “Hi Cris!” she shouts. “Hellooooo, Cristiano!” A couple of the other kids are trotting over too. “What happened to your hand?”

“You talking to me?” Cris says. He crouches down to her eye level. “None of your business is what happened, and that’s ‘Mister Ronaldo’ to you, peladita. Show some respect for your elders.”

“We’re gonna do five-on-eleven again, okay?” Pigtails says, ignoring him. “Theo wants to switch with Luís and be on our team this time and I said that’s okay but it means you gotta play on the left. You can do that, right?”

Cris arches his eyebrows. “First of all, obviously, and second, who says I even have time for this? I’m a busy guy, shorty, you can’t just--”

“Come on,” Pigtails says. “Please?”

She gazes up at him with unfairly huge, dark-lashed brown eyes. They’re, like, aglow with hope and pathos. It’s awful.

“Ahh,” Cris says in disgust, waving her off. “Fine, fine, fine. But--” forestalling her delighted exclamation, “I’m just doing this as a favor so you little monkeys can see some real soccer.”

This time he notices when Ricky comes out of the building. He’s listening very seriously to a little girl, who’s telling some story with a lot of intense hand gestures. The sun, behind him, limns his dark hair with gold.

When he sees Cris, Ricky lights up all over. For a second Cris doesn’t even realize that he’s lost the ball to a grimly motivated redhead.

“Keep your head in the game, Cristiano!” Ricky calls through cupped hands. He’s laughing.

“Who asked you?” Cris yells back. He wipes his mouth with the back of his wrist like he could push the smile off, but it stays.

 

He means to go find someone tonight -- generally he takes care of it every four or five days, just to be safe, though he can go a week or even two without any problem -- but after the kids go home, Ricky closes his breviary and says suddenly, “Hey, do you want to stay and have dinner? I never have an excuse to cook when it’s just me," and half to his own surprise, Cris hears himself say, “Sure.”

 

He tries to be a good guest, he really does. The thing is, Ricky doesn’t even know how to slice an onion. He’s sawing patiently away at it, tears streaming down his face. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so unnecessary.

“Mother of God, padre,” he says when he can’t take it anymore, sticking out a hand and snapping his fingers imperiously. “Come on, hand that over. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

Ricky gives it up without too much protest. “What’s the problem?” he asks, blinking his reddened eyes.

“Where to begin?” Cris says. He nips off the sprout, halves the onion in one neat lateral slice, strips the skin off and dices it with the swift neat economy he learned on the line, when he used to work back of the house. Even with his bandaged hand and the dull, flimsy blade slowing him down, it takes about thirty seconds. “First of all. When did you last sharpen this knife?”

“It came from Walmart,” Ricky explains. “I didn’t think it was really worth--”

“Oh, my God,” Cris says despairingly. “Why are you buying Walmart knives? You want to burn thirty bucks, take me to dinner sometime. Pass over that garlic.”

In the end he pretty much ends up cooking the whole thing. Ricky doesn’t seem to mind. He’s much more competent as a sous-chef anyway. It’s not much -- Ricky doesn’t have any tomato sauce or anything, so Cris just sautes the onions with garlic and bay leaf and basil and throws it all over some capellini Ricky found in the back of the cabinet -- but it tastes pretty decent.

Ricky sits up abruptly just as they’re about to settle in on the couch. “Oh, I meant to pick up -- I don’t have any beer in the house or anything.”

Tranqui, Father,” Cris says, flicking his knee. “I don’t drink, so.”

Ricky gives him a bemused look that could mean anything. Cris considers being offended, but instead he just offers Ricky a bowl and smacks him on the thigh with his spoon.

“Shut up and eat,” he says.

Ricky bows his head for a moment over his bowl, but he doesn’t make Cris do it or anything. They find a movie on TV, the tearjerky football one with Denzel in it.

“I think he should play me in the movie of me,” Cris says idly while Denzel urges his boys to step up and be men. “So few people have the charisma, you know?”

“Who’s gonna play me?” Ricky says. He’s kicked his shoes off. He has one foot up on the couch, his arms wrapped loosely around his knee.

Cris studies him for a second. He almost says, Who says you get a part?

“Eva Mendes,” he says instead, and is rewarded with a peal of absurdly endearing laughter.

Neither of them mentions the night before. It ought to feel awkward, but it doesn’t. It only lies peacefully between them, like a sleeping dog.

 

He’s on his way out when he sees the painting leaning against the bookshelf. It’s your standard-issue Jesus: white boy, smug blue eyes, glossy beard around a pursed little mouth. Over his cupped palm floats a flaming heart. Cris looks back at Ricky curiously.

“Are you ever gonna hang this creepy shit?”

Ricky shrugs, not offended. “I keep meaning to, but I can never figure out where it should go. I tried a couple of times – you can see where the nails were – but it looked so bad when I stepped back that I just gave up.”

“Here,” Cris instructs. He hoists the picture up. “Stay back there. I’ll hold it, and you say when it looks right.”

In Cris’s personal opinion, there is no right place for this sanctimonious-looking motherfucker to hang out. But it’s not his house, and Ricky seems so pleased when they settle on a spot about halfway up the blank side of the wall. So whatever. Ricky pencils in x’s roughly where the corners will go and stands back, looking ludicrously delighted.

“I bet you don’t even have wire or a level or anything,” Cris says.

“Nope,” Ricky agrees.

“I’ll come back tomorrow to hang it,” Cris says, heaving a long-suffering sigh.

“I’ll go buy a toolbox before you come,” Ricky says. He grins at Cris. “Teach a man to fish, you know.”

That’s how it starts.

*

“The fuck is even in these boxes?” Cris demands. He can bench-press three hundred pounds easy, but this is fucking absurd. He rests his load on the dusty steps of the rectory basement, swipes at his forehead with the back of his wrist.

“Here. Water,” Ricky says, appearing like a ministering angel with a Nalgene. “There’s some old hymnals, I think, and photographs, and some of it’s just Father Mauricio’s stuff, and -- I don’t know what’s in all of them. That’s why I wanted to bring them up. Do you want to take a break? You know,” carefully, “it’d maybe be easier if you didn’t try to carry them three at a time.”

“I gotta be straight with you, padre: if I take a break, you cannot make me get up and do this again,” Cris says, handing the water back and hoisting the boxes precariously up into his arms again. “Why don’t you just -- install better lighting in the basement? Then we could -- oof -- go through them down there.”

“You’re gonna go through them with me?” Ricky says, lighting up.

Fuck,” Cris says, with feeling, and drops the packages onto the kitchen floor. Not too hard. “I’m never promising you shit again.” Ricky just beams at him.

*

Another time he doesn’t get there until after dark, and from halfway down the block he can hear the strains of singing. He doesn’t know the song, but the sound’s full and enthusiastic, if a little wobbly around the sides. Not entirely young voices; there’s some serious bass in there.

“What’s the music?” he asks Ricky once he’s inside the rectory, dropping his jacket over the back of the sofa. Ricky must have ordered takeout; it smells great in here. There’s a fire in the little grate, and even though Cris doesn’t really get cold, he loves the coziness of it.

“Choir practice,” Ricky says. He glances at Cris over his shoulder. “Don’t they sound beautiful? Do you sing?”

“Not as well as I do everything else,” Cris admits. “They sound great. Since when are we big enough to have a choir?” We, he notices belatedly.

“Apparently --” Ricky vanishes into the kitchen, and there’s some metallic shuffling, “it’s -- do you know Saint Michael’s? They’re pretty small, too. A friend of mine from seminary, he’s visiting there for a couple of months, he wanted to put on a proper Lessons and Carols come December. So he and Mrs. Vega came to see me -- whoops!” A sizeable clatter. Cris pokes his head around the doorway to make sure Ricky’s okay.

“You’re cooking!”

“I don’t like how shocked you sound,” Ricky says, frowning at him. “I do cook, you know. I managed to feed myself before there was a pro always hanging around my kitchen.”

“It smells really good,” Cris says penitently. It does. Some kind of meat is sizzling in the skillet, with garlic and onions and something unexpected but good in there, like cinnamon.

Ricky gives him a significant look. “Don’t patronize me,” he says.

“It does!” Cris says. “So who’s this friend?”

“His name’s Pepe,” Ricky says. His mouth quirks into an interesting little secret smile, which Cris files away for further investigation. “He’s really funny. You’d like him.”

“Doubtful,” Cris says. “I know enough priests.”

“I’ll introduce you,” Ricky says. He holds out a wooden spoon, cupping it with his other hand. “Taste.”

Cris leans in. He blinks at Ricky, surprised and pleased. “That’s not bad.”

“Flatterer,” Ricky says, grinning at him.

“How long did it take you to chop the onions, though,” Cris says.

“It’s a process,” Ricky says. “I’m learning.”

*

“You probably shouldn’t come over,” Ricky says on the phone one Friday. His voice is stuffy and pained-sounding. “I’m not sick but I don’t feel that great, and I don’t want to...give you anything.”

“Of course you’re sick,” Cris says. He folds his cell under his chin, mouths Ginger ale? at the store clerk, who indicates the back cooler. “You spend all day with those little jerks wiping their snot all over you, it’d be crazy if you weren’t sick. I gotta stop off at my mom’s and then I’m coming over. Do you have Nyquil and stuff or should I pick some up?”

“I’m not sick,” Ricky says again. He coughs. It’s very pathetic.

“Lie down or else,” Cris commands, and hangs up.

 

The first thing Ricky says when he opens the door is, “I don’t get sick.” Then he sneezes, stands there for a moment looking vacant and unwell, and sneezes three more times in increasingly violent succession.

“I’m not sure where you’re getting that impression,” Cris says, handing him the box of Kleenex, kicking the door closed behind them and steering him to the couch. Ricky sniffs, a horrible wet sound. “Come on, you’re disgusting right now, padre. Lie down. My mom says hi; she sent you this.” He holds up the tupperware enticingly. “Galinha estufada. It’s crazy good. She also says to stay still and let me take care of you, by the way.”

“I don’t feel great,” Ricky admits. “But I just gotta...focus, I gotta read over …” His head sort of wobbles back, like he might sneeze again, but nothing happens and he wrinkles his nose up, blinks. “Uhh. The … thing I wrote.”

“The homily.” Cris breaks a can of ginger ale out of the plastic rings, pops the top and puts it in Ricky’s hand. Ricky drinks automatically, both pale hands wrapped around the can, with the unquestioning obedience of a good child and a good Catholic.

“You know what I mean. For Sunday. I haven’t missed a Mass in--”

“Yes,” Cris agrees. He heaves Ricky’s feet up onto the sofa. “You’re taking a nap now, though.”

“Are you using the thing on me?” Ricky asks, crankily.

“Is ‘the thing’ common goddamn sense?” Cris says, arranging the blanket around Ricky’s shoulders. “Here’s your phone, call your friend at Saint Michael’s and see if he can fill in for you tomorrow.”

“I’m gonna be fine by tomorrow,” Ricky protests, blowing his nose into a wad of tissues.

“Great, then you can cancel,” Cris says. He pokes Ricky in the collarbone. “I’m going to heat up some stew, and if you move while I’m gone you’re gonna be in trouble.”

“You’re being a pain,” Ricky calls after him, but he’s dialing the phone.

It’s barely five minutes by the time Cris comes back with a bowl of stew, but Ricky’s out like a light, lumped up against the arm of the sofa, his mouth hanging open. The can of soda is on the floor. His breathing is labored, with a loud fluid hock under it. There are dark circles under his eyes. He looks young.

Cris arranges himself nearby, clicks the TV on and idly spins through the channels with the volume off. He’ll be here when Ricky wakes up.

*

He’s not sure how it happens, but somehow he starts building his schedule around Ricky’s. Most schooldays, he drifts by around four to mess around with the kids. Sometimes he comes by later, if his shift ends before ten or so. They cook or watch movies or, one memorably dull Wednesday, enter three decades of baptism data into the new computerized registration system some asshole teenager set up.

Saturdays, or nights when there’s a church potluck or Ricky has to talk to the confirmation class or stop in at Bible study, Cris works eight-hour shifts at the restaurant and goes straight home to drop, exhausted, into unconsciousness.

Once or twice, it occurs to him that he ought to take care of the thing. But he’s either busy with Ricky or playing ball with Marcelo and Pepe or working or wiped the fuck out; it just never takes priority. It’s not like he’s ever had trouble finding someone. He can get to it later.

*

It’s a Thursday, and he’s lounging on the sofa with Ricky, and Ricky’s elbow is resting on his shoulder. The only things on are gameshow reruns, which aren’t exactly the most absorbing shit in the world. Cris is thinking mostly about whether he can rest his head on Ricky’s arm without being obvious. Probably not, but he might go for it anyway.

“There’s no way a popcorn machine costs that much, is there?” Ricky says. He glances sidelong at Cris -- and a strange expression flickers over his face. He masters it so fast it’s barely there.

“Cris,” he says. His whole tone’s kind of weird. “Is something -- do you feel okay?”

“Yeah,” Cris says. Ricky’s carefully blank expression cranks up a faint ping of alarm at the edge of his consciousness. “Why?”

“I’m not sure,” Ricky says --

-- and the terrible hunger smacks into him side-on like a wave.

It feels like he’s been thrown against a brick wall. White lights explode across his vision. He staggers off the couch to his feet. Ricky stares up at him, the TV light catching his wide eyes.

“I have to go,” Cris says. He steadies himself against the sofa. It physically hurts, a roiling, searing split between his heart and his lungs. “I, uh, I forgot something. I have to go get something.” What a fucking idiot! He knew this was going to happen, he knew the signs and he could have stopped it, but he had to keep putting it off, like maybe he was cured or something, bullshit, and now --

“Sit down,” Ricky says. He’s on his feet now too. “You should sit. You look --”

“No,” Cris says. He doesn’t dare look at Ricky. “I have -- I can’t be here, I have to take care of --”

“Are you crazy? No way I’m just letting you leave like this,” Ricky says. He grabs Cris’s wrist, and immediately lets go with a pained, shocked little breath. “Cris, you’re burning up.”

Cris pulls away and gropes for his jacket, but it’s not in reach. The floor pitches and yaws under his feet like the deck of a ship. Then Ricky’s interposed himself in front of the door, a vortex dragging Cris away from escape: his solid body, his smell like a drug.

“Why are you doing this?” Cris demands, voice cracking. He wraps his arms around himself to keep his hands off Ricky. “Please, just.”

“Where are you gonna go?” Ricky asks. “I’m not moving until you tell me.”

Cris opens his eyes.

“Get out of my way,” he says. The overtones of his own voice buzz in the roots of his teeth.

Ricky jerks out of Cris’s path, his limbs stiff as an automaton’s. It’s awful to watch. His back and wrists pin themselves to the wall and the breath goes out of him.

Cris brushes past. His coat is on the hall table. He shrugs it on. His hand is on the doorknob when Ricky says his name.

Against his better judgment Cris turns back. The game show is still playing tinnily across the room.

Ricky thunks his head against the wall in frustration. “Cris,” he says again, through his teeth. “Don’t. Please.”

“I’m so sorry,” Cris says painfully. He can’t help reaching out to brush Ricky’s hair back from his forehead. The soft strands actually lift away from his fingertips, as if stirred by wind or static.

Ricky sets his jaw. There’s a look of hard concentration stamped over his face. Then -- slowly, like he’s fighting through quicksand -- he moves one arm. The sinews of his wrist and elbow wire out against the skin. He can’t quite reach Cris, but his fingers graze Cris’s coat, and then he’s gripping the hem of it. He shouldn’t be able to do that.

“Just tell me what’s going on,” he says. His voice is tight with strain. “I won’t try to stop you. Just -- tell me where you’re going.”

Cris takes him in for a long moment. He knows what his chances are of seeing Ricky again, after this.

“I told you,” he says at last. “The other night. The thing I do. It’s -- I need it. If I don’t fuck, I get sick.” The brute sudden syllable feels like a weapon, something to hold between himself and Ricky. “I waited too long. I have to find someone. Are you happy now?”

Ricky makes a harsh, frustrated sound. “So -- what? You’re just going to go out and f--fuck somebody?” It’s like his mouth has trouble shaping the word: it comes out tender and strange. “Somebody you don’t even care about, just some guy?” His knuckles are white from clutching Cris’s jacket. “Don’t. Don’t. Please.”

“Oh, really?” Cris says. He’s this close to just giving up. “Well, what’s your plan? Are you gonna take care of me instead?”

He leans in close, into the clean fragrant warmth of Ricky’s throat, breathing in the melange of soap and cologne and sweat, and says quietly, “You want to fuck me, Father?”

Ricky draws in a quick, almost inaudible breath. His lips part.

“Yes,” he says.

It startles Cris so much that he drops the force holding the priest still. Ricky’s shoulders release, his hands lifting off the wall.

“What?” Cris says.

“I want you,” Ricky says. He cradles one wrist automatically, like he’s just been snapped out of handcuffs. “I -- I think I wanted it the first time I saw you. But I didn’t want it bad enough to hurt you, or to -- I still don’t, I couldn’t, but -- ”

“But you want me,” Cris says stupidly.

“Yes,” Ricky says, on a long sigh.

Then his fingers slide between Cris’s. Cris just has time to breathe in sharply before Ricky kisses him.

It’s slow, almost cautious. Ricky’s mouth is as soft as Cris has always thought it would be.

Cris pulls back first. He stares at Ricky. “You -- but you can’t --” Like maybe Ricky’s forgotten his vows. Like maybe his fucking vocation might have slipped his mind.

“You can’t really believe I haven’t prayed about this.” His fingers curl behind Cris’s ear; he lifts his chin to press another kiss to Cris’s left eyebrow, then his right. “I pray about you all the time.”

“And you think God wants you to fuck me?” His voice is treacherously uneven.

Ricky laughs unsteadily. “You think I know what God wants?” He bites his lip. “But I believe -- I don’t know. I believe God wants you to know that you’re loved. What you need doesn’t make you a bad person, and you don’t -- you don’t have to get it from someone you don’t even know. Like it’s a punishment.” His eyes are huge and dark, shining in the low light.

“Take me instead,” he says softly. “Use me.”

It’s insanely hot.

And at the same time it’s not what Cris wanted at all. This is not something he can do.

“Use you,” Cris echoes, flat disappointment sinking in his chest. The awful carousel headache is starting to spin up again.

“No,” Ricky says with surprising force, and tightens his fingers in Cris’s hair. “No. I said that wrong. I mean, I’m here. I want to show you that it’s not -- it doesn’t have to be bad, it doesn’t have to be something that makes you unhappy. Don’t go, okay? Please. Stay with me,” and then his mouth closes sweetly over Cris’s again.

Cris actually groans into the kiss. His knees are like water. In a second he won’t even be able to hold himself up. He wants to grip Ricky’s hair, pull his head back and kiss heated lines up the length of his throat; wants to shove him into the wall and suck him until his voice is raw from begging. What he should do instead is twist free and run.

“Stay with me,” Ricky repeats. He kisses Cris’s lower lip, the pulse point under his jaw. His lashes brush Cris’s cheekbone. “Stay.”

Cris’s body is wound so tight with desire he almost can’t breathe. The water’s rising over his head, the roar drowning everything out.

But he won’t be a monster. “No,” he manages, his voice sounding choked and almost unrecognizable. “You can’t. You think you know what you’re saying, but you -- you’ve never even done this.”

Ricky’s hand stills. “I mean, I think I can figure it out,” he says. His smile falters a little. “I don’t -- uh.” He bites his lip. “I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t -- I just, I guess I thought -- do you -- do you want me?”

Cris just stares at him for a second, incredulous. Then he yanks Ricky in by the belt and kisses him, his fingers cupping Ricky’s face. The heady scent rises off Ricky’s skin like a haze. Do you want me? What a stupid goddamn--

Ricky’s mouth opens under his. He takes an unsteady little breath. One hand slides up Cris’s spine to curl in his hair.

No, no. It’s not, it can’t -- Cris deepens the kiss, slips a shaking hand between Ricky’s legs to grope and push at him over his jeans. Ricky gasps into his mouth. Cris pulses his fingers, feels Ricky start to harden for him and Ricky says, “oh--” as all his muscles slacken for an instant, a long shiver running down his body.

Then Ricky’s fingers circle Cris’s wrist. He pulls back, just out of the kiss so his mouth is an inch from Cris’s. His eyes are dazed, liquid. “Cris -- come to bed?”

Cris would give Ricky what he’s asking for right here, pin him to the wall or tumble him down to the carpet and -- but before the words can even shape themselves he realizes that, no, of course he can’t. This is more important than that, because Ricky’s never slept with anybody before.

Ricky is a virgin.

He has to close his eyes. Ricky’s never been touched by anyone. Not like that. Not the way Cris wants to touch him, can touch him. It’s unbelievable.

“Yeah,” he says roughly.

Ricky guides him down the hallway with a hand on his wrist. In the bedroom he lets Cris press him up against the doorway and kiss him until they’re both panting. He lets Cris touch him, and keep touching him. He lets Cris ruck his jeans down and push his shirt up to his armpits, tongue the line of his neck, inhale that hot living smell of him. His underwear has holes around the waistband. Cris rests his cupped palm on the soft cotton, on Ricky’s dick pushing hotly beneath, and Ricky trembles under his hand, his skin prickling up.

“Wait,” Ricky says on a gasping laugh, but his hand on Cris’s cheek is shaking. “Not -- I can’t, I need to see you first. Please.”

Cris forces himself to breathe slowly in, then out. He draws back from Ricky, pulls his shirt over his head. He hears Ricky’s breath catch. He’s so clumsy with desire that he’s almost wobbles over trying to shuck his pants and underwear, but he manages it eventually, kicks them aside and stands back up. Unsure of what to do, he offers a lopsided smile, spreading his arms a little self-consciously.

Ricky doesn’t move for a second. Then he places a tentative hand on Cris’s chest. His touch sends waves of heat shimmering down Cris’s nerves, down to the core of him.

“Oh,” Ricky says, on a soft gust of air. His fingers trail down Cris’s chest, the line of his abdomen. Cris’s vision blurs.

Ricky backs them into the bed. When the mattress hits the back of Cris’s knees he trips onto it with an unceremonious thump. Then Ricky’s crawling into his lap, knees straddling Cris’s hips, pressing hard into Cris’s belly. Cris cradles his ass in one hand and his face in the other. (Jesus Christ, Ricky’s ass, firm and thick, rounding perfectly into the curve of Cris’s palm: should a priest be allowed to have an ass like that?) Ricky’s body is a little soft, it’s not like he works out or anything, but it’s a good softness. His muscles are solid under all that smooth skin. He’s perfect. He shifts on Cris’s lap, struggling out of his shirt, and Cris’s thumb presses into the flexing muscle on the inside of his thigh.

As he pulls the shirt over his head, his cross swings into the side of Cris’s chest. Cris jerks instinctively away, and Ricky grabs the chain in an instant and twists it around so it falls to his back.

“Sorry, sorry,” he murmurs. He bows his head to kiss the singed place, his tongue curling against Cris’s skin. He presses another kiss over Cris’s heart, another to the curve of his neck and shoulder.

Cris gasps, knotting his fingers in Ricky’s hair. “Fuck, Ricky,” he says helplessly.

Ricky runs his fingertips experimentally up Cris’s ribs: his touch is cool, but his mouth is hot against Cris’s shoulder. Cris pulls him even closer, buries a kiss in the soft, thick hair behind Ricky’s ear. He circles one nipple with his thumb and rolls his hips up into Ricky’s, achingly slow. Ricky’s beautiful mouth falls open. His lashes are a dark smear over his cheekbones. Cris does it again, harder, like a promise, bending to draw Ricky’s tightened nipple into his mouth. Ricky makes a sweet little uhh low in his throat and clutches at Cris’s hair, pulling him back up into a rough, clumsy kiss.

Cris cups Ricky’s face in the palm of one hand, strokes the rim of his ear. Exhales into Ricky’s temple and thrusts against him again.

“God,” Ricky says dazedly, grinding down on him. “Oh, God, I --”

Cris rolls his hips, rubs his thumb hard down the cloth stretched across the cleft of Ricky’s ass. Ricky makes a sudden gutted sound and buckles like he’s been punched. And Cris feels it.

Trails of color streak across his vision. The feeling punches through him, floods him inside and out with fierce, unbearable light. It leaves him reeling.

Ricky’s still shuddering in his arms, panting between his teeth, face pressed tight to Cris’s neck. He rocks mindlessly into Cris again, smearing damp warmth on Cris’s belly. Cris grips his ass tight in both hands, letting him move. He’s still hard. He doesn’t even care.

Ricky’s saying something into his neck. Cris strokes up his spine, his sharp tense shoulderblades. He kisses the sweaty jut of Ricky’s cheekbone and the corner of his eye, which are all he can reach.

“That’s it, baby,” he murmurs. “You feel good?”

“Yeah,” Ricky says. “Uh -- yeah.” His voice is threaded with exhaustion and something like wonder; he butts his nose against the underside of Cris’s jaw.

Cris pushes a strand of Ricky’s sweat-matted hair aside, gently. He wants to press him on the question, but then Ricky frowns, like he’s just noticing something. He rocks himself down a little onto Cris. Cris almost swallows his own tongue at the bright flash of friction. “You didn’t--”

“It’s all right,” Cris says truthfully, recovering. “I don’t care.”

“But don’t you have to,” Ricky starts. For the first time, absurdly, he looks shy. Warm pink tinges the swell of his cheekbones. “Um. Won’t you get sick --”

“No, it’s about you,” Cris says. He folds his arm tighter around Ricky’s bare shoulders. “I make you come, then I feel better. Like, I feel great right now. Pretty sweet deal, huh?”

Ricky looks down, bites his lip again. Then he looks back up, dark eyes meeting Cris’s. He reaches down between their bodies, lower lip still caught between his teeth, and curls his fingers around Cris’s dick.

“Shit.” Cris jerks up into him. “You don’t have to, it’s not -- ahh --”

Ricky’s breathy laugh is sort of fond and exasperated all at once. “It’s not an either-or,” he says. “I want to. Will it -- will it feel bad if I do this?” The back-and-forth slide of his hand is electrifying.

“Will it feel bad?” Cris actually laughs disbelievingly at that, letting his head fall back. “Oh, God.”

“Or,” Ricky says. He hesitates, then says recklessly, “If you want to -- to be with me.”

Cris’s head swoops.

He tightens his grip on Ricky’s waist and swings them around, dropping him on the bed. Ricky’s laughing as he thumps back onto the pillows. He tries to reach for Cris, but Cris pulls away, and for a second hurt confusion clouds his eyes. “What--”

“Just let me look at you for a second.” Cris says roughly.

Ricky’s face softens; his arms fall over his head, arching his spine a little. All that skin. The virgin’s blush searing his high cheekbones, his throat. His chest rising and falling. The light from the hallway curves over his face. He flexes his fingers, flashes an awkward little smile. “Is that a second?”

Cris shakes his head. He can’t tear his eyes away. “I don’t know,” he says.

He bends forward and hooks his fingers into Ricky’s underwear, slowly draws them down. Ricky’s stomach hollows for a second as he breathes in. His dick is still half-hard, shining in the low light with his own come.

“Don’t look at me like that.” The side of Ricky’s mouth quirks ruefully; he’s trying to keep his voice light, jokey, but Cris isn’t an idiot. “Stop it, come on.”

Cris’s laugh comes out a little shaky. “How am I supposed to stop? Ricky, do you even know -- ” He runs out of words. He wants to say something about God. He makes a helpless little motion with one hand.

“Will you come here,” Ricky says, “please,” a smile edging up under the words like water.

Cris doesn’t wait to be asked twice. He falls to his hands and climbs up Ricky’s warm body: kisses his hip, his belly, his chest, his full mouth. Ricky curves up into him, arms closing around his shoulders. His bare leg hitches up behind Cris’s waist.

“That’s good,” Cris whispers against his lips. He reaches between them and starts to jerk Ricky again, easier now, his hand gliding over the skin. He smooths two fingers back, under the swell of Ricky’s balls and up to his ass, and rubs his fingers experimentally over the dip of muscle there. Ricky shudders and arches, one hand covering his mouth. Cris gently pulls his wrist aside.

“No, honey,” he says. “I get to see your face.”

“nnh,” Ricky says unclearly, as Cris bears down a little harder. His lashes flutter.

“Do you want,” Cris says, and has to clear his throat. “Do you want me to --”

Ricky nods. His lower lip is swollen and shining.

Cris sucks two fingers into his mouth. He strokes Ricky in a slow, easy rhythm, until Ricky’s bucking helplessly into him again; then he moves down, presses into Ricky’s ass. Ricky breathes out shakily. He’s tense, too tight for even the first finger.

“Relax,” Cris murmurs. “It’s all right.”

“I know,” Ricky says, breathless and annoyed. He pushes his hips up, swallows hard. His dark eyes are fixed on the ceiling. Cris presses an experimental fingertip at a different angle, but it’s obvious; Ricky likes it, or could, but he can’t let go.

“Hey,” Cris says. He palms a slow, soothing circle over Ricky’s belly, and the fine hairs there prickle into his touch. “That’s okay. We’ll save that one.” He kisses the sharp dip of Ricky’s hipbone, the taut sinew inside his thigh. The smell of Ricky’s skin is so heady here, his soap and that underlay of sweat.

Before he can get Ricky’s cock in his mouth, though, fingers tug sharply in his hair, pulling him up to meet Ricky’s dark, dilated gaze.

“Not yet,” Ricky says hoarsely. “Not now, okay.”

“Okay,” Cris says, his mouth curving with fondness. He settles his elbows on either side of Ricky’s body, palming both sides of his ribcage, and rests his head sideways on the warm rise of his belly. “What now, then?”

Ricky makes a small, frustrated noise. His hand drags up Cris’s back. “I wanted to be closer than that. I wanted to -- ” He exhales through his nose, as if determined to get through something grotesquely embarrassing. “To make love, you know. I do, I still do, I don’t know why I can’t...”

Cris lets out a sound that’s either a sob or a laugh and turns his face into Ricky’s stomach. “Meu bem,” he says, muffled. “You think I can’t make love to you?” Ricky’s salt skin shivers minutely under his tongue. “You got some limited-ass ideas about what making love means.”

He nudges Ricky’s legs apart with one knee and crawls up to take his mouth. When Ricky’s hand lifts to cup his jaw, Cris laces their fingers together and pushes his arm firmly back down to the bed.

“Hmm,” he says. He tilts his head, considering his options. Ricky’s lovely mouth quirks a little in response.

“Here,” Cris says softly. He rests his fingers behind Ricky’s ear and kisses him, soft at first and then hungrier; curls his tongue in Ricky’s mouth and leans all his weight onto Ricky’s body to crush him full-length into the mattress. Ricky’s lips part. Cris rests his teeth on that soft lower lip and grinds his hips down, and Ricky gasps, shoves back up to him. His cock is slick and hard against Cris’s belly. His leg tightens around Cris’s hip, heel digging sharply into the back of his calf.

Cris rocks down into him again. Ricky shudders; his free hand slides over Cris’s ass, pulling him in even closer, his hips jerking up helplessly. When Cris rubs Ricky’s palm with the pad of his thumb and presses a kiss to the tender, feverish skin under his jaw, Ricky makes a ragged noise. Cris doesn’t register until an instant later that it’s his name.

If they fucked -- he almost can’t think. If they were fucking he’d go slow, he’d find the places inside Ricky’s body that would make him forget everything. He wouldn’t come until he’d taken Ricky apart. He rubs against the hollow of Ricky’s hip, slides their dicks together in a long, delicious push that makes Ricky’s spine curve underneath him. He wouldn’t let himself go fast if they were fucking.

“Cris,” Ricky says again. His voice is strained, and his wrist flexes in Cris’s grip. There’s sweat caught in his long lashes. He palms Cris’s ass down to the curve of his thigh, grip firm and warm, and rocks their hips together. “It’s okay.” His voice cracks a little on the word. “Take it. You can take it.”

Cris touches his cheekbone with shaking fingers. He grips Ricky’s hand tighter, his grip hot and sweat-slick: kisses the corner of Ricky’s mouth and rolls into the heat between their bodies again and again, rutting against him. Ricky’s fingers clench and unclench on his hand with each movement. The bedframe rattles on the wall.

When Ricky breathes out sharp and spills between them, that’s it. Cris crashes almost instantly after him, comes hard and sweet, in shuddering jerks.

Ricky tightens his free arm around Cris’s shoulderblades as he finishes, holding the back of Cris’s neck; and when Cris cries out, all his muscles loosening to liquid, Ricky’s fingers slide out of his. He palms Cris’s face. His dark, luminous eyes take in everything.

A soft final sound drags out of Cris’s throat. He buries his face for a moment in Ricky’s shoulder. Ricky’s lips brush his ear. His leg slips from Cris’s waist to twine around Cris’s, foot sliding down Cris’s calf.

“Ah, God,” Ricky says, rough. “Thank you.”

Cris doesn’t have anything left. He crushes himself into Ricky, cradles the back of his head. He feels weightless. The only thing tethering him to the earth is Ricky’s yielding solidity beneath him, his heat, his smell made thicker and sharper by sex. He nuzzles into Cris’s hair; Cris can feel the curve of his smile against his temple. Then Cris turns his head and they’re kissing again, Ricky’s mouth soft under his, his breath damp and sweet.

They lie together for a long time. Cris can’t bear even to think of moving. For a while he sways in and out a half-dream where Ricky stands on the edge of a river, sunlight in his hair, knee-deep in the clear water.

Come here, Ricky says in the dream, come home, and when Cris reaches out to take his hand, he’s aware of Ricky’s living warmth against him in the bed, Ricky’s hand tangled languidly in his hair.

At some point he feels a sudden breath of cool air. When he forces his eyes open the bed’s empty. He puts a hand stupidly on the rumpled sheet, where there’s still a glow of heat, and rolls over.

Ricky’s in the bathroom doorway, backlit in warm white. His smile is soft. “Hi,” he says, flicking the light off.

“I thought you left,” Cris says, a little more pathetically than he’d like.

“No,” Ricky says simply. He comes back to the bed, rests a hand on Cris’s collarbone and bends down to kiss Cris’s brow. Then he presses something soft and warm to Cris’s belly -- a washcloth, Cris realizes.

He bathes Cris’s skin in soothing, deliberate strokes. Touches his stomach, his dick, between his thighs, all with the same fearless tenderness. Cris hardly breathes. He watches Ricky hungrily, hardly blinking, not wanting to miss an instant: the warm concentration in every line of Ricky’s face, his soft mouth, the thick lashes shading his eyes.

When Ricky’s done he drops the cloth in the hamper, leans in and presses a long kiss to Cris’s hip, his fingers closing on Cris’s waist. Cris closes his eyes.

“Can I stay?” he asks.

Ricky’s laugh is soft in the darkness. “Yes,” he says. He yawns. “I love you, too. You know that, right?”

Cris swallows. He pulls Ricky down to him, rests his chin on the thick-silk hair. Ricky’s heartbeat is slow and strong.

Come on, Ricky says again in the dream, his smile broadening, and Cris goes to him.

*

It turns out, to Cris’s fascinated delight, that Ricky’s even more of a mess in the mornings than he was that first time Cris came to his house in the middle of the night. When his alarm goes off -- just before six -- he groans and burrows under the pillow, a sullen lump under the blankets with only one limp pale arm visible.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Cris says, grinning uncontrollably down at him.

“Nuh,” Ricky says indistinctly. Cris kisses his long fingers, the tender underside of his wrist; Ricky gropes at Cris’s face, makes a noise more cranky than pleased and peers blearily out from beneath the pillow. “What.”

“It’s a new day, baby,” Cris says. He gets a strand of Ricky’s hair between his fingers and tugs it gently. “Rise and shine.”

“No,” Ricky says again, but he lets Cris kiss him, stubbly and bitter-breathed, before he rolls upright to sit hunched on the edge of the bed. The pillow’s left pink crease marks all over one side of his face. He’s blinking narrowly, his eyes squinched into puffy little lines. It’s maybe the cutest fucking thing Cris has ever seen.

Eventually he unfolds himself and shuffles to the bathroom, scratching the back of his head. His hair is actually insane. Cris grins foolishly after him for a while. When the shower hisses on he kicks away the sheets and goes to find coffee.

 

Ricky looks a little more human when he comes into the kitchen, fastening his high collar. There’s still a slight, endearing bleariness around his eyes, though. His damp hair smells clean and fruity and his mouth has a minty sweetness that makes Cris smile into the kiss.

“Are those pancakes?” Ricky asks, peering at the stove. He nestles his chin into the crook of Cris’s shoulder. “How are you making pancakes?” He sounds genuinely awed. “I don’t even have mix.”

“You’re cute,” Cris tells him, because it’s true. He hooks his arm around Ricky’s neck and kisses his freshly-shaved cheek. “Are you -- do you feel okay?” He’s not sure even why -- it’s not like Ricky would honestly say No -- but the softness in Ricky’s eyes at the question makes it worth asking. He slips his arms around Cris’s waist and rests his head on Cris’s shoulder again, that guileless kid’s hug.

“Thanks,” is all he says.

 

Before they eat Ricky takes both of Cris’s hands and bows his head. Cris watches the shining whorl of hair at the top of his head, the way his mouth moves to shape the silent words.

 

Ricky’s got morning prayer with the parishioners at seven. “Are you sure you won’t stay?” he asks, but it’s not accusatory or anything.

“I can’t,” Cris says. He shrugs awkwardly. “But -- can I come back tonight? Just,” he adds hastily, “not to -- not for anything, just to see you.”

“You can come back whenever you want,” Ricky says. His kiss is gentle, unhurried, and Cris steps out into the pale November sunrise with his head singing. Everything in the world feels like a gift: the thin strings of high white cloud, the birds shifting their wings on the telephone wires, the sound of far-off traffic, the leaves drifting over the pitted sidewalk.

*

When he gets home there’s a Post-It stuck to the door of his apartment, written in cramped block letters.

KIDDO - IN TOWN TRYING GET IN TOUCH
SEE YOU SOON -

There’s a sigil scrawled on the back, safer not to look at.

Cris is more annoyed now than anything else. This stuff is a fucking buzzkill.

He can’t take the note inside, obviously. In the end he scrapes it cautiously off the door with a butter knife and burns it outside, in a trash can with some brittle old sage twigs -- best he can do for the moment -- and takes a long, dreamless nap.

*

Pepe greets him with an admiring whistle when he steps onto the court that afternoon. “That is the glow of a satisfied man,” he calls. “Get some last night, papi?”

Cris feels himself redden. “Nah,” he says, which is a lie so painfully obvious that even Pepe gives him a pitying look.

“Suddenly we’re a gentleman?” Marcelo teases. Then he gets a better look at Cris’s face and his eyes widen. “Oh, no way. You catch feelings?

“No way,” agrees Pepe. He regards Cris with new interest. “Really?”

“Nah, it’s whatever,” Cris says, going even hotter. “I don’t know.”

“When did you have time to get feelings?” Marcelo demands. “Who do you even hang out with? Is it one of us? It’s not me. Is it him?”

“Shit, son, it’s not the new padre,” Pepe says. “Is it?”

“Fucking stop,” Cris says. “Do you wanna bullshit, or do you wanna play ball?”

Pepe and Marcelo give each other pointed looks, but Marcelo bounces the ball over to him without further protest.

He’s not sure why he’s getting so defensive. He wants Ricky to be his, that’s all. Not something he has to share, or something anybody else gets to have an opinion about. Even Marcelo and Pepe, who are closer to him than anyone in the world besides his mom. It’s nobody’s business but his and Ricky’s.

*

“Shit, I meant to tell you,” Marcelo says abruptly, later. “Officer Fuckin Krupke stopped by earlier. He’s pressed about something.”

“Casillas? He’s always pressed about something,” Cris says.

“Yeah, but,” Marcelo says. He looks sideways at Pepe, who’s pointedly drinking his beer and not getting involved. “Anyway, he might get on you about it, I don’t know. Fair warning. Hey, listen, everything’s cool with you, right?”

“I said it’s cool, didn’t I?” But the worried furrow doesn’t leave Marcelo’s brow. “Seriously, ’mano, I promise, it’s okay. Get off my ass.”

“And what a fine ass it is,” Marcelo says, grinning a little more normally. “Who could blame me, right?” He reaches out for the waistband of Cris’s shorts, but Cris twists expertly aside, used to dodging Marcelo’s pantsing.

Rico, guapo, y gran culo,” Pepe says, fluttering his eyelashes. Cris gives him the finger. Jesus, you talk shit one time in front of these assholes, they never let you forget it. “He’s got it all.”

Whatever. “I do,” Cris agrees loftily. It’s sort of true right now, anyway.

*

There’s no one out on the field. For a second Cris feels an anxious lurch in his stomach, like maybe the whole show just packed up and vanished in the middle of the day. Like it was never there at all. He’s almost afraid to knock.

But when the door opens at last Ricky’s right there, rumpled and aglow, and it takes every ounce of willpower in Cris’s body not to kiss him right there in the doorway. He contents himself with taking the soft cuff of Ricky’s coffee-colored sweater between his fingers, his knuckles grazing Ricky’s wrist.

“Hi,” Ricky says. His smile is enormous.

“Hi,” Cris says, grinning helplessly back. “Where are the kids?”

“All-school field trip, apparently,” Ricky says. He ducks his head. “I was hoping you’d come.”

“Of course I came,” Cris says. He pulls Ricky’s hand closer and rests it just under his sternum, against his heart. Ricky flattens his fingers there.

“Come in,” Ricky says. The moment the door closes he’s in Cris’s arms, humming contentedly into Cris’s mouth. His arms slide around Cris’s waist, a little hesitantly at first, but then Cris deepens the kiss and Ricky’s fist crumples the back of Cris’s shirt. He tastes like spiced cider.

When Cris draws back, Ricky lets out a breath that sounds like he’s been holding it for hours and drops his head to Cris’s shoulder. Cris folds his arm tighter around Ricky’s back, cards his fingers through Ricky’s disheveled hair.

“Are you doing okay?” Cris asks, his voice a little muffled. He means, Are you sorry?

“I thought about you all day,” Ricky says, the smile still audible in his voice. He lifts his head up to press his mouth to Cris’s again, and for a while Cris just surrenders to Ricky and his enveloping scent and his slow-burn kisses. Finally he leans back against the wall with a thump, pulling Ricky after him.

“I thought about you, too,” he says. He thumbs the corner of Ricky’s mouth. “Obviously.”

“Obviously?” Ricky echoes. A dimple creases in his cheek.

“Don’t make fun of me,” Cris says, nipping reproachfully at Ricky’s kiss-swollen lower lip, then nuzzling that irresistible dimple. The radio’s on in the kitchen, something choral and joyous. Ricky takes his hand.

“There’s leftover pasta in the fridge,” he says. “Come eat.”

 

They eat it cold, straight out of the tupperware. Afterwards Ricky rests his bare feet in Cris’s lap. The soles are a little dusty; Cris strokes one absently with his thumb for a while.

“Hey, how did you know?” he asks, suddenly. “Yesterday, when I started to -- lose it, it seemed like you already knew. Before I did, even.”

Ricky doesn’t say anything for a minute. Finally he says, “Your eyes changed.”

The back of Cris’s head goes cold and blank: embarrassment, probably, but so savage it feels like fear. The one time he watched himself come, he’d seen it. The creeping darkness that bloomed out from his pupils like ink in water, that filled the whites of his eyes until his gaze was as blank and shining as polished stone.

He covers his face with both hands. “Fuck.”

“No,” Ricky says sharply, touching the inside of Cris’s kneecap. “Don’t. I know what you’re thinking. You couldn’t do anything to scare me, do you understand?”

“I’m not saying you were scared, it’s fucking gross.” God, and Ricky’s seen it twice now; he wasn’t even thinking, yesterday -- wasn’t thinking about anything -- and Ricky’s eyes were on him the whole time.

“Gross?” Ricky says, sounding incredulous. He pulls one of Cris’s hands down, and when Cris grunts in protest and tries to shrug him off he says, laughing a little, “Hey, no. I get to see your face, remember?”

A shiver of remembered sensation buzzes down Cris’s spine. He’s not soothed. “Don’t try to tell me it’s beautiful in God’s eyes or some shit.”

Ricky doesn’t answer for a second. He pushes up on his elbows, looking at Cris curiously. Then he says, “Not everything you are has to be beautiful all the time.”

“I know that.”

“I don’t think you do,” Ricky says. He’s smiling with one side of his mouth but he sounds a little sad, which makes Cris need to kiss him.

 

Some time later -- warm and quiescent beneath him, his shirt undone to the collarbone -- Ricky says, low, “Do you want to -- go to bed?”

Cris stills. He traces slow circles over Ricky’s sternum with his fingertips, hunting for the words.

“I want to,” he says eventually. “I always -- but listen, I -- I don’t ever expect anything from you. You did something for me, I know it -- it wasn’t easy for you, but I can forget it, okay? If that’s what you want. And we can pretend it never happened.”

“Can we?” Ricky says softly. “I can’t.”

Cris makes a painful, helpless sound. He kisses Ricky’s mouth, soft at first and then more insistently, and Ricky’s lips part under his.

“Come to bed with me,” Cris says roughly.

Ricky smiles, his eyes low-lidded. “Good,” he says.

 

Naked in Ricky’s white-sheeted bed, Cris pushes Ricky down to the mattress, then again -- harder -- as Ricky tries to rise up on one elbow. Ricky subsides. His eyes flick down to Cris’s mouth, then trustingly back up.

Cris sits back on his heels, deftly uncaps the lube with his thumb and coats his fingers. He reaches back, holding Ricky’s gaze.

He doesn’t mean to, but when he breaches himself he hears the little noise -- half strain, half relief -- pulled out of his throat. Ricky bites down on his lip so hard it goes white. His eyes are depthless, all pupil. He doesn’t speak, but his hands tighten insistently on Cris’s hips.

Cris smiles down at him. He sits back on his fingers, widening them at just the angle he likes, and shivers involuntarily. Ricky’s throat moves as he swallows.

“Good, good,” Cris murmurs, meaninglessly. He works himself a little deeper: when he presses that spot his muscles go so tight and shivery with pleasure that he almost swoons back. Ricky seizes his wrist to anchor him. His fingers twine into Cris’s.

Cris levers himself up, widening his thighs. He reaches back to take Ricky in hand -- and Ricky’s got such a beautiful cock, slender and pale like his hands, flushed, slick at the tip -- slides him back and forth down the crease of his ass, agonizingly slow. Ricky gasps, fingers vising on Cris’s.

“Cris,” he says tightly. His chest rises fast and shallow, like he’s been running.

Cris touches his face, his thumb resting at the tender skin under Ricky’s jaw. “I’ve got you,” he murmurs. “Here.”

He tears into the condom with the sides of his teeth, smooths it down fast over Ricky’s dick. Then he grips Ricky at the base to hold him still, guides him to the right angle and sinks down on him.

Ricky lets out a shattered ahh! as Cris pushes through that first sweet roughness; then Cris sighs and takes him the rest of the way, rocks down slowly until they’re pressed hard and perfect together. Ricky fills him completely. It feels so good Cris can’t think. Ricky’s head falls back, baring his pale throat. Cris bends over him, rests his forehead against Ricky’s so their mouths almost brush. It isn’t quite a kiss. He curves his spine and rises, taking the weight on his thighs as he settles again.

A fever blush mottles Ricky’s face, his neck. His hands rub convulsively over Cris’s thighs. He lets out a short desperate huff of air, his eyes wide and unseeing. “God,” he says, and Cris loves that word in his mouth, the devotion in it. “I can’t, it’s too -- Cris -- I’m gonna --”

“Go on, baby,” Cris says quietly. He kisses Ricky’s knuckles where their hands are joined. “Go ahead. I’m yours.” He catches Ricky’s lower lip, licks into the dark heat of his mouth.

Ricky makes a sound into Cris’s mouth when he comes. He squeezes Cris’s hand crushingly tight, the muscles in his belly trembling. And it’s like the first time: when Ricky loses it, the flood drags Cris under again. Heat washes up his spine, singing fiercely through his blood.

Ricky’s saying something into his shoulder. Cris hopes to God it’s not an apology. He tips Ricky’s chin up so their eyes meet, rolling his hips one more time. Ricky’s eyes fall closed, his brows draw together; he lets out a last little groan through his teeth. Cris palms the back of his skull, soothing, letting the strands sift through his fingers. He realizes belatedly that he came when Ricky did. The strings of it lie thick and shining over Ricky’s belly.

“Oh, God,” Ricky says. His voice is thready, wrecked.

“The first time, you know, it goes fast,” Cris says. His own voice isn’t so steady either. “I can make it better for you, I swear.” Ricky’s still pressed deep inside him, softer now. Cris isn’t ready to let him go.

“No,” Ricky says, “I, no. It’s -- oh,” as Cris grins down at him, pushing their hips together. He says, “I love you, I -- Cris. Please. Kiss me.”

His mouth is wet and bitter. Cris kisses him with his whole body, rests his palm on the side of Ricky’s face and breathes him in.

Cris has to fight the feeling of strange, visceral loneliness as Ricky finally pulls out. He gets rid of the condom as quickly as he can. He wishes he could plaster over the seedier parts of sex for Ricky, all the discomfort and fluids and mess. Someone like Ricky should just get to feel good, without having to worry about that stuff.

Ricky seems to feel okay, though, mess and all. When Cris climbs back into bed, he mumbles something and tugs Cris’s arms around his neck and his waist, winding his way into Cris’s embrace.

Cris nuzzles into the damp, flushed nape of Ricky’s neck. “I gotta shower,” he murmurs, not really in protest.

“Mm,” Ricky says. Cris can hear the sleepy smile in his voice. “ ’kay.”

“Well, you have to let go of my arms.” He presses himself to Ricky’s long, bare spine, lays a kiss to one shoulderblade.

“Uh-huh,” Ricky says, curling closer to him. “In a minute.”

Cris showers in the morning.

*

When he gets back to his apartment building, Iker Casillas is waiting for him in the hallway.

“Is that a new plaid shirt?” Cris says, swinging his keys around one finger in a jingling loop. He saunters forward. “Oh, babe, you didn’t have to dress up for me.”

“I don’t have time for this,” Casillas says. He’s pretty hot when he’s pissed. He’s actually pretty hot all the time, but fortunately boring and cranky enough not to pose any real threat to Cris’s equilibrium. “What do you want with Ricky?”

Cris lifts his eyebrows. “You know him?”

You know him?” Casillas counters.

For a second Cris has a warm, shivering full-body flashback to Ricky’s mouth on his neck, the sounds he made when Cris was taking him in. He doesn’t know what expression he’s making. “Yeah,” he says eventually. “I know him.”

“What do you want with him?”

It’s actually an interesting question. “I don’t know yet,” Cris says.

“I know what you get up to,” Casillas says sharply. “You think I’m stupid? Guys find themselves in a hotel room with no memory and all their cash gone--”

Cris regards him pityingly. “Yeah, you nailed me,” he says. “I’m responsible for every hangover in this city. Jesus Christ, this must be a really slow week for you.” He fits his key into the lock. He doesn’t really want Casillas seeing the wards on his apartment, but if that’s what it takes to make him go away, that’s what it takes.

“You’ve been on the edge of every shitty mess I’ve ever had to clean up,” Casillas says. “Just because I haven’t pinned you to it --”

“Because I haven’t done anything,” Cris says. He doesn’t feel like flirting with Casillas right now. He’s too tired and his key’s stuck. “I stay straight ninety percent of the time, and the other ten no one cares about, except you.” He smiles thinly. “Speaking of things that are right on the edge of legal, how’s that cute little Francesc of yours?”

Casillas isn’t going to be baited. He grabs Cris’s arm. Cris looks at his hand, then wearily back up at his face. “Really?”

“I like Ricky,” Casillas says, low. “He’s a good person and I don’t want your kind fucking with him.”

“I’m not fucking with him,” Cris says shortly. He pulls his arm away. He wants to say, You have no idea what a good person he is. “I like him too, you know.”

Casillas gives a contemptuous snort of a laugh.

Cris’s face goes hot. He says -- sharper than he means -- “I do.”

“Yeah, okay,” Casillas says, lip curling.

Cris feels himself flushing hotter. “I don’t care if you believe me.” His key still won’t turn. He rattles it uselessly in the lock, his frustration mounting. “It’s none of your goddamn business.”

“It was my business as soon as you started messing with my friends,” Casillas says.

“I’m not messing with him,” Cris says tiredly. He turns to stare Casillas down. He doesn’t even want to joke about it anymore. “Look, why are you even here? What do you want me to say? You’re gonna think whatever you think, I can’t do anything about that.”

Casillas makes a disgusted sound and finally lets go of his arm. “I’ll be watching you,” he calls over his shoulder.

“Lucky you,” Cris says, finally jamming the key to one side and shouldering his door open.

*

Eventually he gives in and gets Marcelo over to help with the floodlights. It’s getting dark earlier and earlier, and the kids get raucous and cranky if they have to spend too much time inside.

“I mean, bro, these are ancient, they’re for shit,” Marcelo says, squinting up at the looming, rusted panels while Ricky watches him anxiously and chews on his lower lip. Cris feels unaccountably jittery, just seeing the two of them together; it’s disorienting. “What you need is like, a full-on new installation.”

“We can’t yet,” Ricky says, sounding genuinely pained. “I’d love to, and -- when we’re in a better position for fundraising -- but it’s, just at the moment --”

“Well, I can fix the bulbs for a holdover, I guess,” Marcelo says, shoving his hands into his pockets. “What’ve you got up there, four-hundred-watt halide?” He tilts his head contemplatively to one side. “Yeah, those babies’ll run you two, three hundred-per, not including cost of labor of course.”

Ricky’s face falls. He says, “Oh, we -- I didn’t realize --”

“I’m kidding, Father,” Marcelo says cheerfully, slapping Ricky between the shoulderblades. “This one’s on the house. You got a ladder?”

He looks a little surprised, but not displeased, when Ricky gives him a sudden fierce hug, and he gives Cris a pointed, approving look over his shoulder as he follows Ricky into the supply shed. Cris ignores him.

*

One day Ricky has this great idea about making homemade Christmas ornaments with the afterschoolers.

Cris is outside haggling with the contractors over redoing the fence where it’s fallen down; he doesn’t get done until the kids have already left. He finds Ricky in the little bathroom in the rectory, trying to wash the long streaks of glue and glitter off his hands.

“It’s in your hair,” Cris says, amazed and delighted. He leans against the wall. Ricky’s stripped his shirt off, presumably to stop the spread of glitter. His bare shoulders are smooth, freckled with gleams of silver.

“I know,” Ricky says helplessly. Laughter is still bubbling out of him in little hiccups. “It’s actually everywhere. I feel like it’s in my teeth. We should have just stuck to finger paints.”

Cris moves behind Ricky’s body, rests his chin on Ricky’s shoulder and catches his eyes in the mirror. Ricky’s smile is soft and mischievous. His eyes fall closed as Cris tongues his earlobe, presses his mouth to the hot skin of his throat, his jaw. Cris bumps their hips together and slides one hand over the front of his pants, and Ricky catches his lip in his teeth and reaches out to steady himself, one palm pressed flat to the mirror.

“Don’t,” he says, still smiling. “I have to clean up.”

“You don’t want help?” Cris murmurs into his neck.

“Hmm,” Ricky says. He laces his fingers into Cris’s, turns to kiss his mouth. “Not yet,” he says.

 

Not to be deterred, Cris lurks in the bedroom until Ricky emerges -- flushed and warm and damp, smelling unbearably good. He’s pulled his underwear on and a towel is slung around his neck.

“I thought I was getting dressed,” he half-protests, and laughs low in his throat as Cris pushes the towel off, backs him inexorably into the mattress and falls over him, breathing him in.

“Nope,” Cris mumbles against his skin, and kisses the bow of Ricky’s upper lip.

He deepens the kiss and slips his hand into Ricky’s briefs, palms the smooth high curve of his ass. Ricky groans into his mouth; he’s hard, his hips jerking helplessly against Cris’s thigh. He reaches back, covering Cris’s hand with his own, and helps him push the underwear down. Cris rolls him back, still kissing him, lacing their fingers together. The damp tip of Ricky’s cock nudges against his hip. The heavy scent of his arousal is everywhere, wound up with the clean soap on his skin.

Cris lets himself grope at Ricky’s ass a little harder, a little more possessive, getting a solid handful of that firm, warm flesh -- and when he slides two fingers experimentally into the crease, Ricky breathes in sharp but doesn’t move away. He pushes against Cris’s body, cupping Cris’s face, and twines one long leg around Cris’s to keep him close.

Cris can’t help smiling against Ricky’s mouth. He kisses Ricky’s neck, his shoulder, one tight nipple; sucks heat into Ricky’s skin, moving slowly down his chest and stomach. Ricky’s fingers curl in his hair. He arches under Cris’s mouth, his skin gone electric with goosebumps. Cris pauses an instant at the vee of his hips. Then he raises his eyes to Ricky’s and presses a long, slow kiss to the head of his dick.

Ricky stares back, eyes wide and dazed, mouth falling open. His face is soft, flushed. Cris bows his head to taste him -- bitter, clean, Ricky -- and he can feel every sinew in Ricky’s body shudder for an instant.

They’ll come back to that. Cris dips lower, kisses the skin behind his balls, and Ricky edges out a little whine through his teeth. He clutches at Cris’s hair like he doesn’t know whether to pull him off or push him closer. Cris lets him do it. He wraps an arm around Ricky’s thigh and presses his leg back til his knee is resting on his chest. His muscles tense a little under Cris’s hand, but he’s easy now.

One thumb against him. Not quite inside, not yet. Ricky’s breath is ragged; when Cris rubs a slow circle over him, he makes a sound and turns his face into the pillow. Cris tightens his arm around Ricky’s thigh.

When he flattens his tongue -- convex, slow -- over the pucker of muscle, Ricky’s whole body jerks. His hands fist convulsively as Cris licks over him, savoring the salt of him, the flesh, the intimate bodily taste. He hooks one finger gently into Ricky to open him and when he presses his tongue inside, Ricky makes a desperate noise. He’s leaking against his belly. Cris rubs himself into the bed, aching for relief. He drags the wet inside of his lower lip over Ricky’s ass, licks short strokes into Ricky’s heat until Ricky’s thighs are shining with spit and sweat, til he’s shaking under Cris’s hands.

“God in heaven,” Ricky says hoarsely.

He’s open entirely now, and when Cris gives him a second slicked-up finger a long, liquid tremor runs down his spine, but that’s all. He doesn’t clench or fight, not even by instinct. His head’s fallen back, a trail of sweat sheening down his throat into the dip of his collarbone. Cris rubs his dick urgently against the mattress again, biting at his lip. He wants --

Ricky’s touching his hair, saying something.

“Cris,” he says roughly. Light catches a bead of moisture at the corner of his lashes. “I want you. I want this.” He tugs on Cris’s shoulder and Cris lets himself be pulled up.

Cris braces himself on one arm, gazes down at Ricky. “What do you want?” he says. He almost doesn’t recognize his own voice.

“You,” Ricky says. He licks his lips and Cris has to kiss him again. The inside of his mouth is hot.

“You have me,” Cris says, muffled against his lips. He fucks his fingers deep into Ricky again, hungry for that barely-audible sound he makes. “I’m all yours, you know that. What else? What do you want to do with me, sweetheart?”

“Please,” Ricky says. He’s shaking. “I can’t --”

He can’t say it. Cris murmurs it for him. “Want me inside you?”

“Yes,” Ricky says again. His eyes close. “Yes.”

At Cris’s first cautious push against him, Ricky’s muscles seize up helplessly; and then Cris breathes out shudderingly through his teeth and pushes in. Ricky’s eyes open too wide; a wire of muscle stands out in his throat. He clutches the sheets, knuckles going white as he takes the flared head of Cris’s dick -- and then Cris slides full and slow into the hot silken clench of him.

Ricky says, “oh Christ,” so quietly it’s almost just a sigh. Cris buries his face in the sweat-damp warmth where Ricky’s neck meets his shoulder, trying to steady himself.

“God,” he whispers. His breath rebounds hot on his own lips.

Ricky makes a little noise. The fingers of one hand drag hard up Cris’s spine, sinking into his shoulderblades. With the other he’s gripping himself, fingers curled. He’s harder than Cris has ever seen him.

Cris fucks deeper into him, short strokes that drive maddening, desperate little sounds out of Ricky’s throat. He covers Ricky’s hand with his own to jerk him off, touching the hard hot flesh through the gaps in his fingers. He’s leaking, skin slick with precome and Cris’s spit. His heel digs hard into Cris’s back. Cris drags out of him slowly, watches Ricky’s face change as he pushes back in.

“Tell me,” he says, the words cracking a little, “if it hurts, if you -- don’t feel good, tell me and I’ll stop --”

“No,” Ricky says. His voice is thick. “Don’t stop, it’s. It’s good.”

He comes fast like that, Cris deep inside him, his hand tight on his own dick, and while he’s still shaking through the aftershocks Cris pulls out, curls his tongue around Ricky’s cock and licks him clean. Ricky’s belly shivers convulsively under his hand. Cris sucks him in deep, still holding him open with three fingers. Ricky’s petting his hair, his jaw, the curve of his ear; he’s making sweet, painful noises with every breath, and his cock twitches against Cris’s tongue. Cris pulls off him, savoring out the wet sound of it, and Ricky almost sobs.

“Cris. I can’t, it’s...”

“I bet you can,” Cris whispers. He kisses the thin, velvet skin just inside the curve of Ricky’s ass and Ricky jerks back on him, his fingers closing on air.

All he can say is “God -- God!” as he comes the second time, hips twisting sideways.

When Cris crawls back up his body, bends his knee back to fuck him again, he’s boneless, dreamy, his eyes huge on Cris’s. He cradles the side of Cris’s face in his hand.

Cris doesn’t last long. When he comes, that gorgeous smile spreads achingly slow over Ricky’s face and Cris squeezes his eyes shut, kisses the tilted corner of his mouth, kisses him for so long he starts to get lightheaded.

Ricky’s arms are so tight around him; his chest heaves under Cris’s. Cris can’t stand to pull out of him, not yet.

“All right, baby,” Cris says softly. He strokes Ricky’s damp hair back from his brow. “You’re all right. You okay?”

“No -- I mean, I didn’t know,” Ricky says hoarsely, raising his head. “I didn’t -- Cris.

The wonder in his voice, the look in his eyes. It makes Cris want to say something insane.

Ricky’s laughing, sort of helplessly. “I mean, I thought I knew what God was telling me to do, I thought I understood, but --” He butts his sweaty forehead into Cris’s shoulder. “But I didn’t,” he says. He sounds exhausted.

“Well, okay,” Cris says, laughing too in spite of himself. “Is that a good thing, or --”

“It’s good,” Ricky says, emphatically. “No. It’s good. It’s just -- more.” He shakes his head, frustrated. “When you’re -- I never thought about -- sharing my body with someone, like that. I don’t know. It’s different.”

“Yeah, it is,” Cris says. He touches Ricky’s face, traces down the line of his jaw with one fingertip. “It is.”

*

Ricky doesn’t say anything in the morning, but he’s walking carefully, and when he sits down for breakfast he winces almost imperceptibly. Cris’s brief shudder of arousal at the thought -- that Ricky can still feel him inside, that he’s still aching from what they’ve done -- is, obviously, a bad thing and he feels bad about it.

“You look smug,” Ricky says accusingly, and pokes him hard in the leg. His fingers rest a few seconds too long on Cris’s kneecap.

“No I don’t,” Cris says, hiding behind his coffee cup.

*

Advent’s busy. Ricky’s all over the place, running trips to old-folks’ homes and homeless shelters, writing what seems like endless sermons, constantly grabbing his breviary in alarm when it occurs to him he’s missed a prayer. He’s not too busy for Cris, though; somehow he never is. Cris tries to be helpful and stay out of the way, stringing up fairy lights in the courtyard or putting stamps on Ricky’s Christmas cards or whatever. Only then Ricky will close his laptop and give Cris a hot, purposeful look; or he’ll appear suddenly behind him, hands rubbing down Cris’s chest, mouth in his hair.

“I’m very busy,” Cris says, leaning back to grin up at him with his tongue between his teeth. “Can’t you see how busy I am?”

“Mm-hm, I see that,” Ricky murmurs, plucking the unstamped envelopes out of his hand, tossing them to the table.

*

On Christmas, it snows. Cris spends the holiday at his mom’s, being tackled into snowbanks by about a million little nieces and nephews and cousins, while Ricky gives three masses and has dinner with one of the congregant families. At the rectory afterwards they poke up a fire and watch the kids’ Christmas pageant on tape, drinking mulled cider. (“There is booze in here, Father,” Cris said, shocked, and Ricky said defensively, “It’s Christmas!”)

The pageant is hilarious. One of the angels is stashing a bag of Fun-Yuns under her robe. Isaac, as Joseph, is wearing a huge beard that makes it impossible to understand anything he says. Whenever Trinity, as Mary, isn’t talking, she’s staring into the middle distance, face set in her customary look of weary middle-aged disdain. At one point Offsides David trips over his shepherd’s crook and falls on his face, and Cris laughs so hard he gets cider on Ricky’s shirt.

Ricky gives him a huge, glitter-shedding paper snowflake the kids made for him, with MERRY CHRISTMAS CRISTIANO and all their names written on it.

“You told them to do this?” Cris says, gaping at him.

“I would have bought you something nice,” Ricky says, pulling a little face. “It just wasn’t … but next time, though.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Cris says, and kisses him, long and slow. “It’s great.”

He wrapped Ricky’s gift himself, so obviously it’s a fucking mess. “It’s dumb. I didn’t know what to get you,” Cris says, shrugging helplessly. “I mean, I wanted to get you everything. Anyway, I kept the tag, so you can take it back.” Ricky’s ignoring him, tearing into the paper like a little kid, and the way his face lights up when he opens the box -- how he stares up at Cris like he can’t even comprehend how he got so lucky -- is so fucking precious Cris wants to die.

“Cris!” he says.

“You like them?”

Ricky fishes the earmuffs out of the box and jams them on, looking completely thrilled. His hair sticks up on both sides of the headband. From the open, delighted, ridiculous look on his face you’d think Cris gave him a puppy or something.

“My ears are always cold,” he says, too loud.

“I know,” Cris says. He reaches out to pat Ricky’s hair down, rubbing his thumb over the fuzz on the earmuffs. “Merry Christmas,” he says, and Ricky slides a hand into his hair and kisses him again. Outside the sky is purple velvet, the snow drifting down in fat, soft, silent flakes.

*

He could live like this forever, Cris thinks, and it almost makes him laugh. This isn’t a life he could have conceived of in a million years: cold afternoons collecting old coats for donation, or teaching the kids how to curve a free kick. Or driving himself fucking insane trying to replace the brake pads in the church’s piece-of-shit van, using instructions he printed out from the internet.

For some reason now -- even though he’s not turning it on -- he’s getting tipped better than he ever has before. People smile at him all the time, even the regulars who are always sullen. The little safe under his mattress is crammed almost full. It’s not like he’s spending it on anything.

Work, and his friends, and his family, and these long, luxurious nights in a priest’s bed. It’s just funny. He never would have guessed.

*

“That’s the thing about it,” Cris calls into the bathroom. He’s lying tangled in Ricky’s sheets, too well-fucked and comfortable to move. “I understand the cross and the angel, even the skull on his fist thing, I’m like, sure. But the twelve? You know why, he tells me, because it’s his birthday. I’m like, hombre, are you gonna forget?

Ricky’s laugh is muffled through the half-closed door. The sink whooshes on and off, then he’s in the doorway again.

“I don’t hate them particularly or anything,” he says, wiping his hands absently across his belly. “I just don’t want you to get one.”

Cris wrinkles his nose expressively.

“Good,” Ricky says, smiling down at him. His eyes are hot and sleepy. “You’re perfect just the way you’re made.”

“I’d get your name tattooed on my ass, though,” Cris says.

“Cris.” The laugh under his voice is low and promising.

“I would. Like, right --” Cris rolls over and strokes the lowest part of his own back, trailing his fingers over the base of his spine. He grins over his shoulder at Ricky. “Those big old-school letters, you know. And a heart.”

“Don’t,” Ricky says, pulling a face. “Yuck.” Then he bends down, making the sheets rustle, and his breath is warm on Cris’s lowest vertebra where Cris’s fingers were. Every hair on his body lifts at that breath, at Ricky’s hand curving possessively around his waist. “But it’s true, I -- I like the idea that -- I don’t know.”

“What?” Cris says.

“That you’d be mine,” Ricky says softly. He kisses the small of Cris’s back. They showered earlier, and his damp hair brushes against Cris’s spine. “That you’d be -- just mine, and everyone would know.”

“Stupid,” Cris says lazily. He pushes his ass back into Ricky’s body, arching his spine in a long feline stretch. “I am. They do.”

“Kiss me,” Ricky says, quiet, and Cris rises to him, already done for.

*

It’s a Wednesday when everything starts to go wrong.

“Father Ricky’s inside talking to some guy,” Pigtails informs him when he arrives on the field, her distaste obvious. “Some old guy. Not from around here. He should be watching us instead,” virtuously. “What if somebody got hurt?”

“What old guy?” Cris asks, looking curiously back at the fire door.

She shrugs. “I told you, he’s not from here. He called me ‘my child,’” she adds with frank disgust.
“I ain his child.

“Don’t say ain’t,” Cris says automatically. “Where your gloves at, dumbass? It’s February, you wanna get hypothermia or what?”

Pigtails looks sideways, then beckons him downward. Cris leans in, assuming she wants to whisper something -- but instead she sticks one ice-cold fist down the back of his shirt. Cris yelps in shocked betrayal as she scampers off, cackling like a banshee.

“Yeah, you better run!” Cris calls after her. He rubs the back of his neck ruefully. Rookie mistake.

He hears the heavy push-bar thunk of the basement door and turns. Ricky’s there, leaning against the door. Cris doesn’t know the guy he’s talking to, some saintly-looking codger wearing full-on robes. He’s smiling, touching Ricky’s shoulder. Ricky’s smiling back, but when he looks away for a second Cris sees unfamiliar lines of strain at the sides of his mouth.

The guy shakes Ricky’s hand, then pulls him into a hug and says something else into his ear, and Ricky bows his head again, as if in acknowledgement. Cris is watching uncertainly -- wondering if he should call Ricky’s attention or if it’s better to back off -- when the guy turns and walks briskly in Cris’s direction, and Ricky looks up to see him for the first time. An expression too quick to identify flickers over his face: then there’s nothing but his old warm smile.

The man raises a hand in greeting to Cris as they pass. “Benedicite,” he says. He has an open, friendly face, but Cris isn’t in favor of anyone who makes Ricky look like that. He doesn’t answer, just gives the guy a brief, unsmiling nod.

“Who was that?” he asks Ricky. He rests a protective hand low on Ricky’s back.

“Brother Jerome,” Ricky says. “He was my favorite teacher at seminary. Moral Theology. I forgot he was going to come out and see me.”

“He say something to you?”

Ricky’s eyes are fixed on the friar, climbing now into his little two-door at the far side of the lot. “He was telling me how proud he is. He said I was always his most promising student. Apparently I’m exceeding all expectations.” He lifts his brows at Cris like he’s jokey-bragging, but his smile is hard and strange. “So.”

Cris watches Ricky’s face, his concern mounting. “Are you okay?”

Ricky tilts up one side of his mouth; he must mean it to be reassuring, but it comes out like a grimace and he won’t meet Cris’s eyes. “Of course,” he says. “I’m fine.”

*

He’s not fine, though. It’s nothing big, but Cris knows him so intimately now that the signs are impossible to miss. He’s quieter, more often absent from conversation. His sentences trail off. He’s never short with the kids, but he doesn’t let them wrap him up in their games, he doesn’t tease them as much. He’s just different. There’s a new hesitation when Cris touches him, an instant of tension that flares through his body before he’ll move into Cris’s arms, before he’ll kiss back.

*

Late one night Cris struggles out of a clinging sleep to the glow of Ricky’s laptop, the quiet, hesitant tapping of keys.

“Sorry,” Ricky whispers, glancing down at him. He has his glasses on, and he looks exhausted. “I haven’t finished -- for tomorrow.”

Cris’s vision is still blurry with sleep, but he can tell there are no more than three lines up on the screen. It’s Ash Wednesday tomorrow, and as sketchy as Cris’s understanding of religion is, he knows the Masses around this time of year are a pretty big deal. Cris has never seen Ricky finish a draft sermon later than three days before, even when he was knocked out by that cold.

“Go back to sleep,” Ricky says. He smiles a little, rests his hand briefly in Cris’s hair.

*

The next day Ricky’s wrapped up in church stuff, and Cris needs to check on his place anyway; it’s been at least a week. Maybe longer. In front of the building he drops his duffel to the ground, and he’s going through his pockets for his keys when he sees the dark shadow detach itself from the corner of the courtyard. For a moment his irritation is the old familiar one: fucking Casillas, won’t leave him alone.

Then he realizes. Then he would give anything to have it be Iker Casillas waiting for him.

“Hey, big guy,” his father says. He reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket for a crumpled packet of smokes. “What are you, trying to avoid me?”

Cris’s hand closes into a fist. His mind is blank.

“Look at you,” his dad says admiringly. He whistles through his teeth, looking Cris up and down. “You grew up fast, huh? My, my, my.”

“What do you want?” Cris says. It’s only the after-taste of his father’s smell that sticks and goes foul in the teeth and hair. Up close, alive, it’s sulfurous and enticing, like spiced smoke or a struck match. There’s just a hint of that putrefying sweetness underneath, only there if you know to look for it.

“Just what any dad wants,” his father says, wounded. “Just to see my boy. Talk to him a little, see how he’s doing.”

“That’s new,” Cris says, and regrets it instantly. It sounds pathetic. “I’m not your boy. I’ve got nothing to do with you.” Worse and worse: pathetic and defensive. He shuts his mouth hard, a muscle twitching painfully in his cheek.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” his father says softly. He bends his head to light his cigarette, saying through his teeth, “Well. I guess I can’t blame you for being pissed. I know I haven’t always been the perfect dad.”

Cris spits out a laugh. “You were doing pretty well as long as you stayed gone.” Now that the instinctive haze of panic is clearing he’s able to see what he couldn’t, as a kid: that there’s something off about his father’s looks. Out of the corner of your eye he’s handsome, striking even – built along Cris’s lines, tall and broad-shouldered, narrow at the waist. But straight-on it’s wrong. Something about his posture hints at a strange internal slackness, like a mascot in a too-big zip-up costume. Even the graying stubble over his jaw has a spackled-on quality.

And none of it has changed -- not one greased-down hair -- since Cris was fourteen.

His father just smiles around the red ember of his cigarette. “I was gonna stop by Silver Bullet, get a steak and egg. Why don’t you come with me?”

“No fucking way,” Cris says. “Thanks.”

The smile doesn’t waver. It’s too wide for Cris’s dad’s narrow face, like the open mouth of a mask.

“Well, I could invite your mom instead,” he says silkily. “But I’ll tell you something, buddy, I’m not in the mood to eat alone tonight.”

Cris goes with him.

 

The Silver Bullet’s a filthy little dive on Marshall, south of the river. The pretty, bored waitress isn’t thrilled to see them, but when he orders Cris’s father gives her a smile that sinks Cris’s heart.

His father gets a steak -- burnt at the edges, bloody in the middle -- and two gelatinous fried eggs that make nausea rise in Cris’s throat. Cris gets coffee and doesn’t drink it.

For a long time they sit in silence. Cris’s dad eats with relish, sawing through the charred fat on his steak and shoving it into his mouth gristle and all. His plate is smeared with grease and yellow mucilage. Cris watches him, knuckles white around his coffee.

Finally his father mops at his mouth with a paper napkin and sighs contentedly. “So don’t you wanna know why I’m here?”

“No.”

“It’s about that friend of yours. Your padrecito. What’s his name? Ricardo? Has to do with Pretty Ricky.”

Cris doesn’t say anything. He looks his father full in the face, expressionless. After a long moment, his father is the first to look away, arching his brows and glancing deliberately over Cris’s head.

Well,” he says, with exaggerated astonishment. “Who knew you had it in you?”

“You don’t talk about him,” Cris says evenly. “You don’t say his name ever.”

“You two must have something special,” his father says, showing the scraps of meat in his teeth.

Cris doesn’t answer.

“It’s not too often someone of our persuasion gets that close with a man of God,” his father goes on, chewing meditatively. “And you know, that Ri -- oh, excuse me, your friend,” he corrects himself ostentatiously, “is no minor player himself.” He finally looks back at Cris, his eyes hard over that half-smile. “It takes serious power to overcome that kind of piety. The kind of power that draws attention.”

“I didn’t overcome shit,” Cris says, unable to stay quiet.

His father tilts his head. “Didn’t you?” His brow wrinkles, all false showy sympathy. “Uh-oh. You’re not calling it love, are you?”

Cris bites down hard on the inside of his cheek.

“Oh, kiddo, don’t be naive,” his dad says softly. “You think it’s real because you didn’t give him the evil eye? You think you didn’t put the whammy on him?” There’s genuine pity in his voice. “You are the whammy, sport.”

If only Ricky were here. If he could look over and see those dark eyes on him, trusting and clear and luminously calm.

His father’s still speaking, low but relentless. “Come on, you don’t need me to tell you that. You know that.”

“More coffee?” the waitress asks, reappearing. She puts her hand on Cris’s father’s shoulder with perfect familiarity, and he slips a proprietary arm around her waist.

He doesn’t take his eyes off Cris. “Sure, honey, I’ll have another cup.”

She turns her gaze to him. Her eyes are blank, milky blue, washed with a gauzy cataract whiteness.

“No,” Cris says. It comes out a croak.

“Now, don’t be rude, Cristiano,” his father says. “Tough day,” he murmurs to the waitress, conspiratorially. As she goes, his eyes drop to her ass; he watches her all the way to the kitchen.

When she’s vanished, he leans his elbows confidingly on the table. “If you want to know, I’ve had a few harsh words come my way on your account. All that potential, and I let you grow up without any guidance. Well, like I told them, I didn’t have any way to know how you’d turn out. Half-breeds are tricky. Not all of you get any talent. But when you do -- well, you blow us old-fashioned types right out of the water. There are wards we can’t break, barriers we can’t cross. But you can.” He lowers his voice. “You could do big things, kid.”

“Oh, okay,” Cris says, finding refuge in sarcasm. His voice comes out barely steadier than he feels. “Great. I could live like you do? Creep around like a rat, fucking my way through the population? Gee whiz, Pops, could I really?”

“Don’t play dumb with me,” his father says, dangerous. “It’s not about fucking. It’s about control. Think about it. How many people on the planet can say no to you?”

“Not you, apparently,” Cris says shortly.

“Get over it,” his father says. He’s dropped the Ward Cleaver thing now, and his eyes have a cold glitter. “You’re not a child. You think I’m such a bad guy? Wait until you see the other people who want to get their hands on you. I made you, Cris. I know you. I’m the only one who can give you what you want.”

“I don’t want anything you can give,” Cris says. He pushes his untouched coffee away and fishes in his pocket for cash; it’s not worth it to hear his dad lie about having left his wallet at home. “Except for you to stay the fuck away from me.”

“Don’t you?” his father says. He watches Cris. “What about the truth?”

“Yeah, the truth’s always been one of your strengths,” Cris says. “Are you finished?”

“Whether he loves you or not,” his father says. “I could tell you. I could show him just exactly what you are, and then we could see if he still feels the same way. Don’t you want to know?”

“He does,” Cris says. “I don’t need you to tell me that and it’s none of your fucking business.”

“He certainly thinks so.” Cris’s father is still smiling, like he forgot to turn the expression off. “They do think that, don’t they? What was that prieto you had in high school? Samuel.” He tastes the name like a sweet. “He was just crazy about you.”

Cris doesn’t say anything. He can’t.

His dad reaches one long hand to take Cris’s arm: and then suddenly he jerks back like he’s been burned.

His hard dark eyes fly to Cris’s face. “What do you have?” he says. There’s an ugly, bubbling whine under his voice, harsh and inhuman.

Cris remembers, with a rush, the bicycle bell Pepe’s mom gave him. Still in the bottom of his bag, like it always has been. And the bag is right there, tucked against his feet.

It’s not the look on his dad’s face that does it, not even how wonderfully, stupidly confused he looks, his hand hovering in midair. It’s what Pepe told him all that time ago: it can’t protect you from what you’re most afraid of. Which means that’s not his dad. Not anymore. Maybe not for a long time.

He should feel relieved. Instead he feels tired and sick.

“I’m done talking to you,” Cris says. He drops his napkin onto the table, grabs his bag and stands. “If you ever come near me or the people I love again, I’ll end you. I want to be clear.”

His father doesn’t move. “You’re making a mistake,” he says.

Cris shrugs one shoulder. “It’s not the first time.”

His father calls his name once as he turns his back. Cris ignores him. It’s not worth it. Letting his dad get to him: his dad, who’s never been worth believing in Cris’s entire life. Why start now?

He knows why. He won’t let himself think it, not in words. But he knows.

At the door he passes the waitress at the cash register. Her nametag says Agnes. “Good night,” she says, raising her eyes to give him a perfunctory smile. Now that she’s out of his dad’s radius, they’re clear brown again.

“That guy in the booth,” Cris says. “Don’t go near him. Send somebody else -- a guy if you can. He’ll leave in a few minutes.”

Her eyes widen. “Is he --”

“Just don’t,” Cris says shortly. He lets the overtones creep into his voice, to be sure she’ll believe him, but he leaves without waiting to make sure.

*

It’s almost like the first time, showing up at Ricky’s door in the middle of the night, confusion and fear and unhappiness closing his throat. Only this time when Ricky opens the door, his familiar shadow against the bright inside of the house, Cris can’t say anything. He takes Ricky’s face between his hands and captures his mouth too hard, swallows whatever Ricky would have said in the kiss, Ricky’s teeth slick against his tongue, and Ricky lets him do it, lets him inside, lets him take what he needs, and it doesn’t help anything.

*

“What happened?” Ricky asks after. He’s still wearing his t-shirt, shoved up around his armpits, and he starts to pull it down over his belly. Cris can hardly look at him.

“I had a bad night,” Cris says. He draws his palms down hard over his face. “I can’t talk about it.”

“Okay.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Cris says, out of nowhere. “Look, I can tell, all right? It’s not okay. That guy who came the other day, Brother Whoever. You’re -- I bet you wish you’d never met me.”

“Don’t,” Ricky says. He shakes his head, one quick jerk. “Just don’t.”

“You’re sorry,” Cris says. He hates himself for starting this; he hates that he can’t stop. “I can tell.”

“Leave it, Cris,” Ricky says. He finds his underwear at the bottom of the bed, pulls it on. “I’m too tired. I already said I don’t regret it.”

“But you obviously do,” Cris says.

“Look,” Ricky says. He runs his fingers through his hair. “I can’t pretend -- things used to be easier for me, that’s all. I knew I was giving something up; I knew it that first night, and I did it anyway. I decided. It’s not on you.”

But it is. If Cris hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened. His dad’s right: once Cris enters the picture, the element of choice doesn’t apply.

Then, unexpectedly, Ricky’s speaking again. He sounds far away. “In my parents’ house we had one of those books of the saints, you know, the giant one with the paintings? The paper was so thin, and they had -- I don’t know if it was real gold, but they were so beautiful and solemn and the colors were so...rich, and I just -- that was all I wanted. My friends wanted to be astronauts or have kids or whatever, but I just wanted to be perfect for God. I wanted to live and die for Him.”

He’s silent for a minute.

“That’s my biggest sin, probably. Pride. I never had any doubt that I could live perfectly according to His word. You know, I prayed every day to be a martyr. It wouldn’t even have been a sacrifice for me, it was just death and then heaven, right? And there was nothing else that important in my life. Do you know how easy it is to give up sex, compared to giving up that idea of myself? Of the person I thought I was?” He laughs, but it’s not a good sound. “Chastity’s a piece of cake. No, I gave up the blue ribbon. I was the A-plus student. And then that night, with you...”

Cris waits.

“I thought you were a sign,” Ricky says. He sounds exhausted. “I thought I was being told that there were more important things. Than being, you know, the hall monitor for God. Teacher’s pet.” His eyes are fixed on the ceiling. He says, “But yes. Yes. It was easier when there was nothing else.”

“That’s what you gave up for me? Sainthood?”

“I didn’t say I was a saint,” Ricky says, sharp. “Don’t you dare make fun of me, not about this.”

“I’m not,” Cris says helplessly.

“It wasn’t just because I wanted to help you, or I wanted -- you,” Ricky says shortly. “I -- I did, but there were other … I thought I was being called to serve in a different way. And I thought, if I was wrong, I could be forgiven. Or that’s what I told myself. I don’t know now.” He’s still staring upwards, his white-knuckled hands twined together in his lap. “Lately I talk to God and I --” He shrugs one shoulder, a twisted, painful-looking movement. “I can’t hear Him.”

Cris’s chest hurts. He doesn’t have anything to say.

“It’s like my best friend is gone,” Ricky says to the ceiling. “Do you understand, that’s what it feels like. It feels like He died.”

Cris starts to touch him, but then he doesn’t. His hand falls uselessly to his lap.

“I love you,” Ricky says. His voice is tight. “But I hate this so much.”

For a long time neither of them says anything. The radiator ticks.

It takes Cris too long to take Ricky’s hand in his, and he only does it because he’s lost for anything else. He wants to kiss Ricky’s fingertips, but it seems like the wrong thing to do; in the end he just brushes Ricky’s knuckles awkwardly against his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“I know you are,” Ricky says. He rests his forehead briefly on Cris’s shoulder, as if to take back a little of the sting. “I’m going to sleep.”

“Do you want me to stay?”

“Stay if you think you should,” Ricky says. He rolls over, clicks the light off. Cris stares at the ceiling. He doesn’t think he should. He just doesn’t know how to leave.

 

In his sleep Ricky rolls into him automatically, blindly seeking out Cris’s warmth. He makes a small, contented noise, gets his leg wound around Cris’s, his soft hair brushing Cris’s mouth. If he wakes up, Cris knows, he’ll be embarrassed, maybe even angry.

Cris holds him tentatively, willing himself not to move or make a sound. He lies so motionless his neck starts to ache.

 

He’s still awake, in a half-trance, when the alarm starts to buzz. Ricky pushes his nose into Cris’s shoulder like he always does, mumbling something.

“I’m gonna go,” Cris whispers into Ricky’s hair.

“Yhh?” Ricky says, muffled. There’s a long pillow crease down one side of his face and dark circles are worn deep under his eyes. He blinks.

“Yeah,” Cris says. He kisses Ricky’s brow. “I love you.”

“Nh-hm,” Ricky says, and burrows back under the pillows, presumably waiting for the snooze to go off. The same as always. The sheets have slipped off his back and his sharp, lovely shoulderblades, and an ache of hopeless, miserable adoration swells in Cris’s throat.

He gives himself to the count of five. Then he grabs his jacket off the couch and leaves as quietly as he can.

*

Outside, it’s still dark. The streets are empty except for a couple of bundled-up construction workers, smoking their first cigarettes on their way in to work.

It starts to snow on the way home. Cris feels the tiny prickles of cold against his cheeks, the back of his neck. He turns his collar up.

*

The apartment smells stale and closed-up, no surprise there. He’s struck by how much stuff there is in here: stuff he hasn’t touched in weeks, hasn’t missed. What does he need, really? He throws a couple of pairs of jeans onto his bed, some t-shirts, an old hoodie. All his underwear, obviously, he’s not a savage.

When he’s feeling around under his bed for his extra sneakers, his fingers unexpectedly encounter something soft and thick. He pulls it out. It’s Ricky’s gray sweater, the one he lent to Cris that first night.

For a long moment Cris just stands there, the sweater cradled in his hands. Then he presses it almost furtively to his mouth and nose.

Ricky’s smell is still there under the dust: soap and clean sweat, lingering richly in the wool.

*

He’s got a spare key to Marcelo and Pepe’s, and when he opens the studio door he finds them both there: Marcelo face-down on the futon, snoring magnificently, and Pepe on the bed, awake, hands folded across his chest. He’s dressed, even.

“Thought you might stop by, tío,” he says softly. His gaze is unreadable.

“Yeah, figured you might know already,” Cris returns.

Marcelo makes a noise and flops over on his back; Pepe glances at him, then back to Cris. “Talk outside,” he says, swinging his legs off the bed.

 

“So you knew?” Cris says in the hallway.

“Nah,” Pepe says. He scratches the back of his head. “I just had a feeling. I can guess, though. I was right, wasn’t I? It’s the padre.”

“I fucked up,” Cris says. It’s such an understatement, he could laugh.

“You’re telling me,” Pepe agrees, but his hand on Cris’s arm is gentle. “You don’t have to leave, bro.”

“Nnn, I do though,” Cris says. “I just, uh, I didn’t wanna go without telling you, and -- I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“I’ll look out for him,” Pepe says. “And for your mom. And the kids, too, we both will. Til you come back.”

Cris coughs out a laugh. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Just until then.”

“Marcelo’s gonna be pissed you didn’t say goodbye.”

“I could wake him up,” Cris suggests.

“Oh, yeah, great plan,” Pepe says. “Then he’ll be more pissed.”

Cris grins at him, with a little effort. Pepe smiles back, but his eyes are serious.

“Any advice?” Cris says, shifting uncomfortably under the weight of that look. “Your ma got any more bicycle bells? Mad useful, by the way, remind me to tell you about that sometime.”

“Advice?” Pepe says, lifting his eyebrows. “Sorry. I got nothing.”

“Okay,” Cris says. He breathes out. Then Pepe’s hugging him, a tight quick clasp around his shoulders. He smells familiar, all Speed Stick and gasoline.

“I’ll miss you, huh,” he says.

“You too, man,” Cris says. He coughs. “Check on Zizoucito especially for me, yeah? He gets, uh. He could use the attention, I feel like.”

Pepe nods. Then -- to Cris’s astonishment -- he leans in and kisses his temple, a hard ritual kiss like some warrior’s benediction.

“Later,” he says.

“Later,” Cris says.

He’s almost halfway down the hallway when Pepe calls out, “Cris! I got something -- some advice for you after all.” He laughs a little, embarrassed, determined. “Listen: don’t be scared, okay. That’s my advice. Don’t be scared, and -- don’t forget.”

After a second, Cris nods. Then he turns his back and keeps walking.

*

His mom’s house is aglow, a cozy little refuge in the bleak gray of the early morning. Snow is starting to collect on the windowsills. With the door opening comes a delicious waft of vanilla, and then she’s enveloping him in a warm, spiced hug.

“Carinho!” She sounds pleased and surprised. “What are you doing here so early?”

“Hey, mama,” Cris says. He kisses her dry, powdery-smelling cheek, smiles into her eyes. “I know, you were gonna sleep late, right?” As far as he knows his mom’s never been up later than seven in her entire life.

She rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “Don’t track snow in the house,” is all she says.

 

“I can’t stay long,” Cris says when they’re inside. The place has barely changed since he was a kid; a pair of muddy kids’ sneakers by the door suggest that one niece or another is staying in the guest bedroom. Someone usually is. He drops his bag onto the tiles. “Smells great in here.”

“Bread pudding for Elma’s oldest,” his mom says, heading into the kitchen. “You know I can’t stand to see a skinny kid. You’re going to have breakfast with us?”

“No, I can’t,” Cris says awkwardly. He coughs. “Listen, I wanted to give you something.” He pulls the envelope out of his jacket pocket, slides it across the kitchen counter. His mother looks down at it, then back at him. Her mouth pulls sideways.

“What’s this?”

“Don’t make a thing about it, Ma, okay,” Cris says. His ears are hot. “I want you to do something for me, will you just -- figure out how much it’ll take to get that field out by the church cleaned up? Real lights put in, and all that junk in the grass cleared out and whatever, and just give that much to Father Ricky. You keep the rest.”

“Cristiano,” his mother says softly.

“Please. I promise I’ve got plenty, this is just leftovers. I’m just -- I’m going out of town for a minute, and I won’t have time --”

“Don’t you lie to me,” his mom says. She folds her arms, implacable. “A minute? How many minutes?”

Cris runs a hand through his hair. “Ma, don’t.”

“You in trouble?” She turns around abruptly, starts scrubbing at the dirty dishes that fill the sink. Cris feels horrible.

“No. Let it go, Mom, I didn’t -- nothing’s wrong, I’m fine, I just -- I’m trying to do the right thing, okay?”

“And the right thing is just to run away?” his mom says, her voice climbing up. “I know you didn’t learn that from me.” She bangs a handful of spoons into the dishwasher.

“Mom!” He lets out a short, irritated breath. He’s not getting into this. “Cut it out. I’m not seven, all right, I -- look, I love you, but I didn’t ask for your advice about this, I already decided.”

She turns back to him, hands on hips, face flushed, and raises an eyebrow. It’s true, he’s not a kid, and he really doesn’t owe her an explanation.

He puts his hand over hers. “I hurt somebody,” he says quietly. “I didn’t mean to, and it’s nobody’s fault, but even me just being around is making it worse, and I can’t keep doing that to -- this person. I know it doesn’t sound good, but if I leave, they can maybe -- go back to normal. That’s all.”

His mom turns her hand palm-up, closes her fingers around his. “Cris,” she says gently. “That is normal. That’s normal life, getting hurt.”

Cris shakes his head tightly. “Not like this.”

She’s silent for a second. Then she says, “Can I tell you something about your father?”

That startles him enough to look at her. She never talks about his dad.

“Your father hurt me more than anything in the world,” she says. “What he did to me -- what he made me feel, you know -- I can’t tell you how bad it was. And when you were a baby, it hurt so much. Sometimes I got confused, with loving you so much and hurting so much; I started to think they were the same.”

He can’t figure out why she’s telling him this. “Shit. God, Mom. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not telling you to make you sorry,” she says with asperity. “I am telling you. And don’t you swear in my house.”

Cris can’t help smiling. His mom, Jesus. “You gonna say it was all worth it or something?”

She doesn’t smile back. “It doesn’t work like that,” she says. “Bad things don’t happen to make the good things worth it. But they have to happen. All that stuff with your father doesn’t happen, I don’t get you -- the man you are now. You don’t save your friend by leaving. All you do is leave him alone with it.” She touches his cheek. “You don’t ever get to skip the ugly parts, Cristiano. I didn’t, you don’t, and your friend can’t either. That’s life.”

He tries to laugh, but it comes out weird. “Yeah?” he says. “Well, it sucks.”

“Sometimes,” his mother says. She leans her forehead against his for a second; when she pulls back her eyes are wet.

“I just don’t want to be selfish,” he tries to explain. He tries touching her hand again. “Ma. Hey. I’m gonna be fine. I love you.”

“I’m so proud of you, lindo menino,” she says randomly, and squeezes his hand crushingly tight for a minute before releasing it to wipe her eyes with her wrist, batting her hands in a rapid up and down flutter like she’s fanning her feelings away. “You better call me, mister, you understand? You better call so I know you’re not sleeping in a bus station tonight.”

“Okay,” Cris says. He stands, wraps her in a hug. She’s so much shorter than he is that he has to bend a little to rest his chin on her hair. “I promise.”

She pats his arm a little unsteadily and sniffs. “You better,” she says again.

*

Avondale, Wellcome, Corner City; a long stream of gray highway and gray field spooling away out the bus’s tinted window. Snow flicking across the glass, leaving wet trails. Shell stations, tattered billboards for political candidates who lost months ago.

He eats three packets of mini chocolate donuts and stares out the window. He thinks of Ricky, smiling at him across the parking lot, flushed and radiant in the sheets, bleary in the pale light of early morning. The way he touched Cris, the way his hair fell in his eyes, the sweet burn of his cross on Cris’s collarbone. The warm smell of him in that secret place under his jaw and the rhythm of his pulse against Cris’s mouth.

Cris burrows down into the comforting warmth of his own misery like a blanket, hunching up against the cold plastic window. He doesn’t think about what happens next.

*

There are nice things about living somewhere new. It’s warmer, for one thing. He finds a sublet uptown, an English basement under a fortysomething divorcée who plays Chopin nocturnes on the piano all day. That’s all right, though; Julia’s not a bad musician, and her cats are friendly. The job thing can wait a few weeks, he’s got money enough. He can’t quite stomach the idea of wandering into a pickup ball game without Pepe and Marcelo, but he goes for long night runs, forcing himself on until his muscles are screaming, until every breath tears at his lungs.

It helps too that there are more people here. Pretty black-eyed boys who don’t require any nudge to come home with him, that’s a bonus. If it isn’t always easy to wake up with them -- a new smell in the bed, an arm shoved uncomfortably under his neck -- that can’t be helped. He tries to be fair about it, tries not to lie or creep away while they’re sleeping or, generally, make anyone feel like shit.

Once he wanders idly by the church in his neighborhood, just to check it out. There’s a soccer game happening but the kids on the (pristine, well-clipped) pitch are wearing tidy red uniforms, coached by a solid citizen in khakis, with plastic sunglasses and a whistle on a chain around his neck. There are huge banners everywhere, pictures of smiling families printed with the church’s name and its website, and Cris can’t imagine being useful to them at all.

*

There’s just one entrance to the house, so Julia upstairs always has to call down to him when he has a visitor. Usually it’s only the landlord, or missionaries, or kids with petitions or whatever. Julia lets everyone in.

When he wanders into the foyer and sees the guy, a sick wave of hope and shock and self-pity almost knocks him over. The way that dark hair sweeps back, the long angle of his neck and the pink tip of his ear, it could almost --

--But then it’s not surprising. After all he’s been dwelling morosely on Ricky’s face for weeks, in whatever pathetic teenage slump he’s in right now. It would be weird if he weren’t seeing Ricky in every stranger, if the smooth curve of a similar cheekbone didn’t make his heart leap into his throat.

Then the guy looks up, and he’s Ricky.

Cris’s fingers go numb. Blood roars in his ears. He thinks his face is probably doing something.

Ricky’s on his feet in an instant. Then his arms are tight around Cris’s back and the smell of his hair fills Cris’s nostrils and the tip of his nose is pressed into Cris’s throat, and Cris doesn’t know how to think or move, how to do anything but stand there, too amazed to understand. His hands hover an inch from Ricky’s waist, the warmth of Ricky’s body buzzing on his palms.

Ricky pulls back and says fiercely, “What the -- what the hell, Cris?”

Cris says, ridiculously, “You’re here.” He wants to touch Ricky’s face but he can’t: all he can do is stare fixedly at him, grinning like a chump.

“You just left,” Ricky says. His face is radiant with anger. “You didn’t even leave me a note or anything! You think, you think some money would make up for, I can’t believe you, nobody knew where you were, it was awful, we would never have found you except your friend Pepe took me down to the river and made me ask this fish-woman where you were, which was terrifying by the way, and I had to spent this whole stupid day driving after you, in your other friend’s horrible car --”

“You drove Marcelo’s car?” Cris says, horrified.

“I couldn’t exactly drive the church van!” Ricky says. “That thing barely makes 45 miles an hour, it would have taken days!” He lets out an infuriated little breath. “Do you understand how angry I am?”

“I’m so happy to see you, I don’t really understand anything,” Cris says honestly. He cups Ricky’s cheek in his palm.

Ricky says something and drags him outside. Cris lets him. He almost trips over his own feet. He feels lightheaded.

Ricky whirls on him on the sidewalk. It’s warm, nearly April; the evening sky is pink and gold, threaded with rosy clouds. “What were you thinking?”

“I wanted to help you,” Cris says, and now he feels his own anger kindle up in his chest and he almost wants to laugh, it’s such an insane relief, this whole thing is so -- “I was trying to help. You said it yourself, you said --”

“I didn’t say I wanted you to leave! I said things used to be easier!” To his utter shock, Ricky hits him awkwardly in the ribcage with the side of his fist. Cris gapes at him. “Did you know I’ve never had doubts before? About anything? I’m almost thirty, I decided to give my life to God when I was six, and I never once wondered if I’d made the right choice. Don’t you think that’s insane?” He pokes Cris in the sternum, hard. “It was going to happen, Cris! If it wasn’t -- if it wasn’t you, it would have been -- oh, there are a million things since I started this job. How about Elena coming in every day with cigarette burns up her arm? I know you’ve seen them. She won’t tell you anything about that, will she?”

Cris shakes his head mutely.

“She won’t tell me, either. Only she doesn’t have to, you know why? Because I take confession from the person who gives them to her. And that person gets to leave the church with a clear conscience. So the next week they can go do it again. Is that messed up or what? What am I supposed to think about a God who makes me sit there and tell him -- them, this person -- tell them to say paternosters and ‘Don’t do that again’ -- that’s sadistic, isn’t it?” He waits for a long, expectant moment, long enough to make it clear the question isn’t rhetorical.

“I don’t know,” Cris says idiotically.

“Well, neither do I! That’s the point!” Ricky’s eyes are bright: his cheekbones are flushed with anger and the bite of the wind. “That’s what happens to faith, it goes through -- peaks and valleys, and it’s so -- you’re so self-absorbed it’s insane, thinking you could fix it or that it’s your fault -- ”

Cris says incredulously, “It’s -- I’m insane? You -- you know what I can do, what I did to you -- I was just trying to leave you in peace! I was just trying to maybe not fuck up your life any more than it already is!”

“What you did to me?” Ricky echoes, incredulous.

“I made you think -- I made you feel like -- I made you think you loved me, I didn’t mean to but it’s just --”

Ricky actually lets out a wordless yell of frustration at the sky, his fists balling up at his sides. Cris thinks -- astonished and pissed and delighted by it all at once -- that he might try to land another punch.

“This thing you’re so hung up on, that you’ve done to people,” Ricky says at last. “What, it makes them think you’re perfect? And then they act crazy, right? They act crazy and then you have sex with them and it’s, whatever, it’s like hypnosis or something?” His stare is belligerent.

“I guess,” Cris says, sullen.

“Okay,” Ricky says. He takes a deep breath. “Well, I don’t think you’re perfect. You’re -- you’re incredibly arrogant, for one thing. You take too much responsibility on yourself and you don’t know how to lose, you’re no better than the kids about that, and you -- take forever to do your hair, and you think you know what’s good for everyone better than they do, and you won’t try, you know, you have so much potential and you’re happy to just wait tables and, and mess around all day and that drives me nuts. And you act like a jerk all the time, you let people think you’re this asshole, I mean, it’s ridiculous, when you’re not. And you don’t trust people. You don’t trust me.”

“I--” Cris starts.

“Shut up,” Ricky says. “I’m not done. Do you know why I like you? I like -- I like that you’re kind. I like that you'll do anything to take care of the people you love. I like the way you are with the kids -- how you slow down a little for Anthony because of his leg, but how you also don't just let him have the ball. How patient you are with Isaac, I mean, that kid worships you. I like how when you put your mind to something you won’t let anything stop you. And yes, okay, yes, I like making love to you.” He says it so matter-of-factly Cris almost doesn’t register it, and then he does and heat washes over his whole body. “That wasn’t part of my plan, but there it is. I like the way you hold on to me. I like the way you make me feel calm.” A crooked, reluctant smile tilts his mouth. “I like how -- sometimes I touch you and you just, you smile. It’s goofy.”

“I don’t look goofy,” Cris says. It’s the only thing he can get the breath to say.

“No, you do,” Ricky says decidedly. “You look so happy. I like making you happy.”

Cris just watches him for a long moment. Ricky stares back, not backing down an inch.

“How do you know,” Cris says finally. “How do you know it’s not something I did to you, something I tricked you into --”

“I don’t, stupid,” Ricky says, coloring again. “I don’t have to, because that’s what faith is, it’s -- how you live with not knowing everything. I love you, and so does God, the God I serve, the God who is love, you dumbass, and that means I have faith that God gave us to each other for a reason and -- you know, it’s like you’re not even listening.”

Cris takes Ricky’s face between his palms and kisses him. Ricky’s lips are chapped and the inside of his mouth is hot and bittersweet. One hand cups the back of Cris’s skull.

“I can’t believe you brought my hair into this,” Cris says at last, pulling back. He thumbs the sweep of Ricky’s cheekbone.

Ricky cracks out a weird laugh. He rests his head on Cris’s shoulder, turns his face into Cris’s neck.

“Well, you take forever,” he says, muffled. “Sometimes I need to use that bathroom.”

“So just use it,” Cris says, sliding his arms tighter around Ricky’s shoulders. “Just come in and use it next time, okay, Jesus. I love you.” He kisses the translucent shell of Ricky’s ear. "I love you," he says again.

Ricky pulls back then. That smile, God. “Get your stuff,” he says, touching his thumb gently to Cris’s chin. “Come home.”

*


Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you: for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge: your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16)