“Those are some really awesome kids you have there.”
Ryan looks up from the sand castle he’s trying to build. A short guy with tons of tattoos and one of the biggest smiles Ryan’s ever seen is standing in front of him.
“Thanks,” he says, unable to help a proud little smile as Morgan drips wet sand to make a roof for the tower baby Shannon has managed to push together. “It’s their first time going to the beach. They’re pretty excited.”
“I can imagine,” the guy says. “First time in Mexico?”
“Second,” Ryan says. “My wife and I came here on our honeymoon. A friend gave us this trip for our anniversary.”
“That’s a pretty cool friend,” the guy says. “Congrats, man.”
“Thanks,” Ryan says again, reaching out just in time to stop a fistful of sand from ending up in Shannon’s mouth.
“You know, the sea is always best viewed from a boat,” the guy says, sitting down on his hunches. “I do these day-cruises to some of the islands nearby on my sailboat. Great snorkelling. Kids love it.”
Ryan sighs. It’s probably the fiftieth guy who’s tried to sell them some kind of ‘great Mexican experience’ since they arrived two days ago. “Thank you, but we’re not interested.”
“This isn’t just your average snorkelling trip,” the guy protests. “The Spencer Smith is one of the best boats around. I’ve had her almost four years now. Check out the flyer.”
Ryan feels himself stiffen. The guy hands him a colourful piece of paper, happily inviting him to ‘check out the awesome reefs on Peter Pan’s magical pirate ship’ in hot pink, curly letters.
“Here, I’ll make you a deal,” the guy says, pulling a sharpie out of his back pocket and leaning close, taking the flyer back. “Since your kids are cute and all.” He scribbles something on the back, folds it and hands it to Ryan, who opens it with shaky hands.
Hi, Ry, it reads at the top, in a different colour ink than tattoo-guy’s sharpie. The crazy guy is Pete. Please let him convince you to take a trip with his boat. Bring the family. I have someone I want you all to meet. /SS
Underneath, in what Ryan supposes is Pete’s handwriting, is added, What he said. Bring a few changes of clothes. :)
Ryan looks from the flyer to Pete, swallowing hard. The last time he talked to Spencer was a phone call the day before Christmas, almost four years ago. He looks at the note again. It looks like Spencer’s handwriting, but Ryan can't be absolutely sure. Spencer has a dangerous job. Someone could have made the connection to Ryan—unlikely as it seems—and followed them here to... something. Ryan doesn’t really know. Point is, it could be a trap.
But what if it’s not?
He looks at Morgan and Shannon playing in the sand. James and Hannah can’t be far away, probably gone to the ice-cream vendor again. If this Pete guy isn’t who he says he is and the note’s a fake—
“Here,” Pete says, pulling something small out of his pocket and handing it to him. “Smith said you’d be too smart to just take my word for it.”
Ryan looks at the object in his hand. It’s a beaded bracelet, old and worn to the point of almost falling apart. “I made this.”
“I figured as much,” Pete says. “He also told me to tell you that the snake is blue, and you’re a colourblind idiot. I’m guessing that means more to you than it does to me.”
Ryan feels his mouth twist into a small smile. “It does.” He carefully slides the bracelet over his hand, takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
Pete beams. “Awesome. How’s tomorrow at 8 AM?”
“I’m pretty sure my ten-year-old will complain about being dragged out of bed,” Ryan says, mind racing with things like what to pack and how to tell Z that he wants to drag their kids out on the ocean with a guy they don’t know to maybe get to see a guy she hasn’t even met. “But we’ll manage.”
“I’ll see you then,” Pete says, pushing himself to his feet. “The directions are on the flyer. Don’t be late.”
The first thing Ryan notices when they all get down to the marina is that there isn’t a boat named Spencer Smith in sight. Pete is there, though, coming up to them, all smiles, and leading them over to a beautiful vessel named Wendy.
“Don’t you think you’re taking the metaphor a little too far?” Ryan asks, after he and Z get all the kids safely on the boat and Pete decks them out in life vests and gives the three who are old enough to understand what he’s saying a speech about pirates and mermaids and making sure to keep their eyes and ears open for the evil Captain Hook.
“He always does. Can’t help himself,” a short guy with a cap on his head says, stepping on board with two big bags of groceries in his arms. “I’m Patrick. Nice to meet you all.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Pete grins. “This here is the real Wendy. Keeps me in check. Looks awesome in ringlets—what?”
Patrick mutters a few choice words under his breath and moves across the deck to fiddle with the main sail. They cut across the water quickly, to Pete’s shout of And away we go!, making for open sea. Ryan closes his eyes against the warm wind, tries to picture what it will be like, seeing Spencer again.
“So if you’re Peter Pan, and he’s Wendy,” Z says, breaking through Ryan’s thoughts, “what have you done with Tinkerbell?”
“Oh, he’ll show up,” Pete replies, grinning even more. “In—” he checks his watch “—roughly four hours if the wind is good. And the devilish crocodile hasn’t eaten him by the time we get there.”
For some reason, this last statement is hilarious. Ryan doesn’t think he wants to know.
They arrive at a small, inconspicuous island shortly before mid-day. Two men are standing on the beach, watching the boat approach. They’re both wearing loose white pants and t-shirts, the shorter guy holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes and waving enthusiastically. Ryan tries to make out their features and keeps getting the sun in his eyes.
“How long has it been?” Pete asks, suddenly beside him.
Ryan tries to add up the years in his head. It’s been four years since he last heard Spencer’s voice. Much longer since he saw him in person. Hannah’s ten, and it’s been longer than that. Twelve years, probably. Maybe thirteen.
Ryan wonders if they’ll even recognise each other.
They dock, and Pete helps everyone get off the boat while Patrick takes down sails and puts everything in order. Ryan takes Morgan, carries her down the dock, even though she’s more than old enough to walk, talking nonsense to her about fish in order not to feel the rhythm of his heart quite so clearly.
Ryan looks up and tries to speak, only to find his throat impossibly dry and unable to make any sound at all. Z steps close to him, transferring Morgan to her own arm and putting a hand at the small of Ryan’s back, shoving him helpfully forward.
Behind Spencer, the dark-haired guy who’s with him copies her, making Spencer practically stumble into Ryan. And then Spencer’s arms are around him—or maybe it’s Ryan’s arms pulling Spencer in—and they’re hugging each other tighter than Ryan remembers ever having hugged anyone before. It hurts, and Ryan is happy that it does, because it hurting means he’s not dreaming, impossible though it seems.
“Your hair got curly,” Spencer says, and Ryan laughs, raising a hand to wipe away the sudden wetness at the corner of his eyes.
“You grew a beard.”
“Makes me look manly,” Spencer says, blinking as well. “You gonna introduce me to the family?”
“Yeah,” Ryan says, shaking his head at himself. This is actually happening. “Of course. Spence, this is Z, and the beautiful girl on her arm is Morgan. And this is Hannah and James. And Pete’s back there with Shannon. She’s the youngest so far.”
Spencer says hello to each of them in turn, telling them how nice it is to finally meet them, and then reaches for the dark guy standing behind him.
“This is Brendon,” he says. “I told you about him last time we talked.”
The guy offers his hand with a nervous smile. Ryan takes it and uses it to pull Brendon into a tight hug. He remembers the call in question all too well.
“Thank you,” Ryan says, letting go of Brendon and grinning at the slightly shocked look on his face.
“Convincing Spencer to get a life,” Ryan says, holding his hand back out for Spencer to take. “Well done.”
“He’s a manipulative bastard,” Pete says, moving past them with Shannon bouncing on his hip. “He’s got a pout. It’s lethal. Just warning you now or you’ll be his slave forever just like poor Smith here.”
“Fuck you,” Spencer says amicably. Pete makes his eyes go wide and puts his free hand over Shannon’s ear.
“Oh come on, don’t be such a drama queen,” Patrick says, coming up to them to help Z and Ryan get all the kids down on the beach. “There’s such a thing as TV, you know. I’m sure the kids have heard of it.
“Always trying to corrupt my innocent, sunny world,” Pete sighs. “Okay, so who wants hot dogs?”
All four children approve of this plan, it seems, and soon, Pete is throwing around frisbees with them, huge smile on his face while Patrick sets up the grill and gets a fire going.
“Is that your place?” Ryan asks, nodding his head at a house standing a few hundred yards away, partly obscured by thick vegetation and palm trees.
“No, it’s just somewhere Pete found,” Spencer replies. “It’s been abandoned for ages. Our island is about five days’ sailing from here. We wanted to bring you there, but there wasn’t time, and in a way, it’s better if you don’t know where it is.”
Ryan nods. He and Spencer continue to walk along the beach, drifting away from the rest. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Z throwing her head back, laughing at something Brendon just said.
“So what happened?”
“Brendon happened,” Spencer says softly. “We weren’t supposed to get to know each other. Definitely not to the point of falling in love. It, um, we kind of really fucked up on the job because of it, to the point where it became too dangerous to stay. So we ran.”
“It’s okay,” Spencer says. “Could be a lot worse.”
“And there isn’t anything you could do? I don’t know, witness protection or something?”
Spencer shakes his head. “It’s safer out here. Pete helped us lay a false trail to Australia. Another one to Europe. Several in South America. So far so good.”
“Do you think someone’s still looking for you?”
“They’ll always look for us,” Spencer says. “But we’re learning to live with it. And you know, with every year, the compulsion to look over my shoulder lessens. We’re good. Getting there.”
Ryan processes the information. He wants to ask more; the story Spencer’s been telling him about working for the CIA doesn’t add up, never has. Especially not considering the huge sums of money getting transferred into Ryan’s account on a regular basis.
Then again, it’s Spencer. Ryan’s known him all his life, trusts him implicitly. Spencer having made some clearly problematic life choices isn’t going to change that.
“So what do you do all day?” he asks instead, turning around so that they’re walking back towards the rest of the group. “I imagine even lying on the beach gets old after a while.”
“I go fishing a lot,” Spencer says. “It’s nice. The calm of the sea, all that.”
“He’s an amazing cook,” Pete says, coming up to meet them with two plastic cups in his hands. “We’re trying to get him to publish a cook book, but he’s being kind of a stubborn bitch about it.”
“Pete’s ideas of inconspicuous pseudonyms aren’t exactly subtle,” Spencer says, rolling his eyes. “Besides, it’s not like we need the money.”
Ryan takes the cup Pete is handing him and sits down on one of the blankets that have been spread out over the sand. “What about you, Brendon? Do you go fishing as well?”
“Sometimes,” Brendon says, handing out paper plates. “But usually I make music. Mostly with Patrick, because we’re equally nerdy about it, but me and Spence write a bit just the two of us too. And sometimes Pete throws in a notebook full of scribbles and he and Patrick do a mind-meld and turn out a whole album’s worth in about a week. Or the four of us get together and jam. It’s nice.”
“What do you play?”
Spencer grins. “What doesn’t he play? Pete and I started this game last year, where we tried to find the most ridiculous instruments and see who would fail at playing them first, Patrick or Brendon. We haven’t found one yet.”
“To be fair, we never got hold of a bagpipe,” Pete says. “I’ve heard those are really tricky.”
“I mostly play the piano,” Brendon says. “Guitar sometimes. Me and Patrick switch for lead on guitar and vocals. Pete’s on bass. Spencer likes to drum. It works well on Rock Band too.”
“Now tell us about you,” Pete says, placing a huge plate of food in the middle of their little circle. Ryan does his best to recap his life while simultaneously stopping tiny fingers from getting burnt and too much sand making it into Shannon’s food.
“How did you guys meet?” Brendon asks, helping Ryan rescue a stray hot dog and handing it back to Morgan.
“She was in my English Lit class in college,” Ryan says, smiling at the memory. “I spent almost an entire semester just looking at her before I finally managed to ask her out. She turned me down. Five times.”
“Really? Then what?”
“Then he asked a sixth time and we went to a play,” Z says. “And I realised that he was a lot more fun to hang out with than I’d thought he’d be.”
“I was in a tortured poet phase,” Ryan says. “Once I stopped dressing like a gay pirate, things went a lot more smoothly.”
They stay up late, trading stories and drinking beer. Ryan feels peaceful in a way he hasn’t in a long time; around a campfire on a tropical beach, the regular world seems pretty far off. Ryan likes it.
Pete and Patrick beg off eventually, and Z goes with them. Shortly after that, Brendon declares he’s going to bed as well, pulling Spencer to his feet and leading him down to the water’s edge.
Ryan watches them from his spot by the fire, how Brendon leans in with a smile, kissing Spencer slow and sweet before whispering something in his ear and heading back to the ship.
“You two seem really happy together,” Ryan says when Spencer comes back, sitting down next to him and wrapping himself in the other end of Ryan’s blanket.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Spencer says, reaching for his beer. “I’m lucky.”
Ryan thinks he hears a ‘but’ in the tone of his voice. He takes a drink of his own beer, waits.
“Brendon wants kids,” Spencer says finally. “Like, an insane amount. Pete too. Total case of baby fever whenever they are together. Me and Patrick try to slow them down.”
“You don’t want that?”
“I do,” Spencer says, pulling a hand through his hair with a sigh. “It’s just. You know. Complicated.”
“Maybe you could adopt? I mean, not legally, obviously. But, you know...”
“I don’t know,” Spencer says. “Patrick’s looking into some things. There are lots of orphanages in Central America. Even right here in the Caribbean. Haiti. Cuba. Tricky thing is to find a place that’s willing to accept a generous donation and erase all records that’s not somehow connected to people who might know people we don’t want to run across. And then there’s the issue of raising kids on an island in the middle of nowhere. No hospitals or schools. Not to mention the fact that a kid would probably want to get off the island and become part of the real world at some point. If we all manage to stay alive for that long.” He takes another deep gulp of his beer.
“It’s hard,” he says, not really meeting Ryan’s eyes. “This whole—just being with Brendon’s bad enough. Like, if something happened to him, that’d be—fuck. I used to be pretty good about dying, but now it’s—I can’t die. It would kill him. He gave up his whole fucking life to be with me, and if we had a kid on top of that...”
“I’m terrified,” he admits quietly, just loud enough for Ryan to hear. Ryan reaches out tentatively, puts a hand on Spencer’s shoulder.
“I wasn’t there when Hannah was born,” he says. “I made up some lame, dickish excuse that I had to work, that there was some kind of emergency, because I just couldn’t be there. It was too huge, and I was scared as fuck. And then she was born, and there was this other thing. And it was good. I can’t really explain it.”
Spencer stares down at the sand between his feet. Ryan moves a little closer.
“Point is,” he says, pulling a little at Spencer’s shoulder until he turns around, until they’re face to face, “it doesn’t stop being scary. You’re scared shitless most of the time. But having them is worth it.”
Spencer looks at him seriously for about thirty seconds. Then he snorts into his beer and breaks out laughing.
“Didn’t you make an oath in high school that you would never, ever have kids?” he manages between wheezing breaths. “Like, I remember you giving entire speeches about over-population and the evils of procreation.”
Ryan feels his neck flush. He did do that. Then again, for more than a year in high school he was also dead set on running off to Paris and live la vie bohème.
“You wanted to be a professional ice-skater,” he tries, because they might not have seen each other for more than a decade, but that still leaves some fifteen years of accumulated black-mail material.
“Only on Thursdays,” Spencer replies. “Mondays were for fire fighting. Tuesdays and Wednesdays for taming lions.”
“I can’t believe you still remember that.”
Spencer shakes his head and raises the beer bottle back to his lips. They share a look, and Ryan remembers other things—stupid things like skateboarding together in the parking lot behind the supermarket and wearing each other’s shoes to school.
He moves a little closer on the blanket until they’re pressed together, side by side, and lets his body slump until he can put his head on Spencer’s shoulder and let it rest there as they sit in silence and look out across the water.
“You'll be a good dad,” Ryan says, knowing he’s right, just as he knows—somehow—that these few days hidden away on an island in the middle of nowhere won’t be the last time they see each other.
Spencer shrugs, but can't quite hide the small smile on his face. Ryan smiles back and pictures the two of them chasing their collective group of kids across the beach.
They leave after breakfast on day three. Spencer and Brendon wave them off, and Ryan spends a long time at the back of the vessel, watching as the silhouettes grow gradually smaller.
“How much trouble are they in?” he asks when Pete comes up to stand next to him.
“A lot,” Pete says simply. “But they’ll be fine.”
He turns and looks at Patrick when he says it, throwing him a kiss and laughing when Patrick makes a show of rolling his eyes.
“How did you get here, anyway?” Ryan asks, suddenly curious.
Pete grins and turns his face up to the sun, leaning back against the side of the boat. The way the sun hits the sprays of water that waft over them as the vessel cuts through the waves, Pete almost looks like he’s shimmering.
“What can I say,” he says, pushing himself back up and giving Ryan a hearty clap on the back. “Neverland got boring.”