Her name is Gina and she's missing. Chris wants to believe she's gone shopping, but not many people take all their belongings when they go shopping. Obviously Chris has to phone the agency and inform them he has lost another au pair and listen to the cranky woman over the phone chew him out over how they're running out of people they can send.
“Come on,” Chris says. “There's got to be someone.”
There is someone and he turns up an hour later dressed in a black and white striped top and black jeans. Chris can see his car parked in the street from the window. Or at least a convertible something that might have been a car once, before the dents and rust.
“Sorry, can I help?” Chris asks when he meets him, holding onto the door to make sure the man doesn't come in.
“I'm Zach?” the man says. What kind of adult introduces himself with a first name only?
Zach sighs and slumps. “I'm from the agency. Betty sent me.”
Chris stares for a whole five minutes before he frowns and says, "I think there's been a mistake."
Zach rolls his eyes and drops his big rucksack on the floor. "You wanted a nanny, right?"
Chris fidgets for a moment. "Well, yeah... it's just that... well, Nicky's more comfortable with Gina."
“Gina's dead,” Zach says flatly.
“Oh my God,” Chris says, horrified. “What happened?”
“Nothing happened. She just said if you asked, to tell you she's dead.”
Chris is sure he looks as appalled as he feels. This is when Nicky runs out from under his arm, using an apron as a cape and asks, "Are you a mime?"
"Nicky!" Chris snaps, horrified.
Zach frowns at the kid and then his own shirt. "No. Are you?" he asks smoothly.
Nicky thinks on this and as Chris expects, he starts pretending to be in a box before shuffling back into the house in his pretend box, shouting silent words the whole time.
Zach is staring with a delighted grin. He looks back at Chris and scrunches up his face. "Interesting."
Chris glares. "He's ten. You're allowed to be interesting when you're ten."
Zach frowns. "Ten? What, did you like have him when you were twelve?" Then he thinks on the questions and says, "Because, if so, high-five, man." he lifts up his hand.
Chris looks at the hand and shakes his head. "This isn't going to work."
"Hey, look, quit your worrying, okay? I don't like kids enough to make them my special naked friends and I don't hate them enough to smack the shit out of them. Your kid's perfectly fine with me."
Chris does not know how to answer this, which is good because it gives Nicky enough time to arrive inside his invisible box of silence. He looks down at his son who is miming something at him. Something completely and utterly incomprehensible.
"Here, let me," Zach says.
He digs out his keys from his pocket and uses one to unlock an invisible door on Nicky's invisible box, opening and winking at Nicky.
"I said," Nicky says, "I think someone broke the blender."
Chris glares. Zach helpfully locks the invisible door again before turning to Chris with a grin.
Chris sighs and says, “So... did you bring references?”
“A man? You hired a man to look after your ten year old son? He could be some kind of deviant. Have you thought about that?”
Chris isn't listening anymore. He's typing away at his computer as the voice at the end of the line continues to point out the flaws in his parenting skills.
“Are you listening to me? I'm talking to you about my grandson here.”
“Yeah, well, he's my son, Vivian,” Chris says. “And I think I know what's best for him.”
“A strange man living in your house is best for him? Maggie would never have--”
“Well, she's not here,” Chris says. “She doesn't get to decide.”
“That's not fair,” Vivian says. “If you knew--”
“Well, I don't know,” Chris says. “I don't know anything because she hasn't told me. I'm only letting you know because you said you want to be a part of Nicky's life.”
Chris leans back in his chair and peers into the living room from the kitchen. Zach is making a mess of playing Guitar Hero while Nicky is laughing at him as if this is the funniest thing ever.
“Hey, you wait until I get a hang of this. You'll be sorry,” Zach promises Nicky before making a face at the TV screen. “Crap!”
Nicky's face seems to brighten and he grins, as if seeing a grown man shout 'crap!' with such wild abandon is the best thing ever. Chris frowns and wonders if he should go in there and tell Zach to tone down the cursing in front of his impressionable ten year old.
“Are you listening, Christopher?” Vivian snaps Chris's attention back to her. “What do you know about this man?”
“Oh, oh, oh! I got it! I got it!” Zach is saying, bopping his head and hitting the notes. “Oh, dude, you are toast now.”
“No way!” Nicky insists. Chris smiles a little. Nicky doesn't get this animated often.
Chris sighs and says, “Nothing. I don't know a damn thing about this guy. Except he has the worst résumé ever.” It's true. Chris has never seen one written in pen on a piece of paper torn from a legal pad before. “And Nicky likes him.”
“He's a child. He doesn't know any better.”
Chris nods. “Yeah. But he likes him.” For now this seems enough.
"So, you lived here long?" Zach asks over breakfast.
"About a year," is the answer.
"You like it?"
"Any nice places to hang out? I'm pretty new around here," Zach says digging into his grapefruit.
"There's a park. And the mall. And an ice cream parlor. Can you drive?"
"Like the wind," Zach answers.
"You should totally check out the ice cream parlor. I can show you where it is."
Zach nods. "Where'd'you go to meet people around here?"
"Yeah. Of the cute guy variety please."
There's a long pause and then, "All the girls in my class like Mr. Peterson. They think he's cute."
Zach frowns. "What does he look like?"
"Spiderman," Nicky answers, digging into his half a grapefruit.
Zach thinks about it for a moment. "Pray continue."
Chris walks in looking tired and bleary-eyed, hair a mess and face flushed. Zach watches him as he eyes Nicky and Zach suspiciously. "What are you guys talking about?"
"Do you think Spiderman's cute, Dad?" Nicky asks as Chris stares at him and Zach and the grapefruits.
Zach tilts his head at Chris and rather than offering the explanation Chris is clearly expecting, he simply says, "Well, do you?"
When Chris gets home the first thing he doesn't expect is for Zach to jump in front of him before he can walk into the living room and declare, "Okay, don't freak out."
Chris stares. "Oh my God?"
"Okay, bad choice of words. What I mean to say is, it's not as bad as it looks and go easy on him."
Chris stares some more, quite terrified by how Zach is using all the words Chris doesn't want to hear. He shoves Zach out of the way and storms into the living room to find Nicky on the couch with a black eye and busted lip, happily watching TV.
"Oh my God," Chris croaks.
Nicky sees him and grins. "Hey, Dad."
Chris musters a smile and says, "Hey."
Then he grabs Zach by the arm and drags him into the kitchen. When they stop, Zach frowns at the hand gripping his arm and says, "Not that I don't appreciate being handled in such a Neanderthal manner, because--" he smiles cheekily, "I do." But then he's completely serious again. "But what the hell, man?"
Chris lets go and uses the same hand to point in Zach's face. "You are supposed to be taking care of him."
"Hey, I'd gladly shadow him twenty-four hours a day, but I'm pretty sure I'm too old to be in his classes. And don't think I haven't tried. Mr. Peterson is some hot piece of ass."
Chris is about to quickly analyze why Zach looking at hot asses bothers him so much, but luckily Nicky walks in looking worried. He looks at Zach and Chris. "Are you guys fighting?"
Zach slings an arm around Chris's shoulders and kisses his cheek. "Of course not."
Chris lightly shoves Zach out of the way and goes to kneel in front of Nicky, reaching out towards the bruises and then settling his hand on Nicky's shoulder instead. "You want to tell me who did this, buddy?” He peers at Nicky's face. “That looks like a nasty bruise, maybe we should go to the hospital or something."
"We already went," Nicky says happily. "The doctor said I don't even have a concussion."
"And I said that's because thick skulls run in the family," Zach supplies. Chris glares at him. "Look, he's fine. Frankly we should all be more embarrassed about your kid falling on his own head."
"It was a tactical decision," Nicky says, scrunching his face at Zach.
Chris stands up, feeling like one big tense muscle. "Someone tell me what happened. Right now."
"Dad, I had to do something," Nicky says earnestly. "Billy was saying all these means things about me and then he started saying mean things about you and then he said Zach's hair was a wig so I popped him one."
Chris stares at Nicky and wonders if he just imagined Nicky making that little fist and throwing a punch. "You... popped him one?"
"Dude, the guy was trash-talking my hair. Like, what the hell?" Zach says, sounding utterly offended.
"You... you... started the fight?" Chris asks, bewildered.
"His arm won't always be broken," Nicky says quietly.
"You broke someone's arm?"
"That happened when I kind of fell on my head," Nicky says, fidgeting.
Chris turns to Zach and mumbles, "He started a fight?"
Zach is giving Chris a long look. "Yeah. Why aren't you mad?"
"Don't remind him to be mad, you fool!" Nicky hisses at Zach and Chris thinks he really needs to have the theatrics in the house toned down a bit.
"But he's not mad," Zach says, ridiculously talking from the corner of his mouth. "Run while you can."
Nicky promptly runs out and Chris can hear him escaping up the stairs and slamming the door to his room shut. The other thump he hears is probably Nicky jumping under the covers on his bed.
"So," Zach says quietly. "Why aren't you mad? I'd be getting my ear twisted off about now if I smacked some kid in the face and started a fight."
Chris blinks and swallows, feeling a little embarrassed. "It's just... Nicky's a real sensitive kid. He doesn't start fights. And shy and... small." Chris shakes his head and suddenly laughs. "My kid totally broke someone's arm."
Zach is grinning at him. "It's a great day."
Chris looks at Zach. Something is happening here, in this usually subdued house. It has something to do with Zach and Chris doesn't know what to say or how to say thanks without sounding crazy. He ends up just staring.
Zach being Zach grins a little wider and gives Chris a big hug. A full-bodied warm and strong hug which makes Chris realise what exactly it is that troubles him about Zach's quest for hot pieces of ass.
"What was that for?" Chris asks when Zach pulls away.
Zach smiles, poking him in the arm. "You totally wanted it. I could tell."
Chris feels his face warm and shakes his head, going towards the door. "Whatever."
"Where are you going?"
"I think I should at least fake tell him off," Chris says, proud of how reasonable and grown up he is.
Zach nods. "Okay. You might want to stop looking like you won the lottery then."
Chris smiles and nods. "Maybe I'll do it later then."
"Coffee?" Zach says.
Chris pulls up a chair and sits down at the table with nod. "Thanks."
He watches Zach move around the kitchen, wearing a colorful hoodie with tight jeans and sneakers. He's talking about something, but Chris realises he's not hearing a word because there's something comforting about watching Zach be so at home in this kitchen. And then a thought occurs to Chris.
"So, he hit that kid over your hair?" Chris asks with a scowl.
Zach turns and looks at him with an expression that says 'duh!'. "Well, it wasn't going to be over your hair."
It's Sunday morning and Chris's intention is to sleep late. He knows Nicky won't be dragged out from under his Transformers bedsheets for a while yet. What he doesn't expect is to see the digital clock telling him it's only eight in the morning, and to hear the thump of music. It's a constant thud thud sound with Beyonce's sassy voice delivering it's own parallel beat to the music.
Chris groans, unsure of when his neighbors started listening to music so loudly. He rolls out of bed, squinting to force his eyes open while his brain screams 'sleeeeeep'. As he makes his way downstairs, the music gets louder until it feels as though the room is shaking.
The source of the noise becomes apparent when he pushes open the door to the living room and sees Beyonce on the television screen against the opposite wall. He also sees the couch has been pushed back to accommodate Zach and Nicky's dance routine in the middle of the room. He stares at Nicky for a moment who is dressed in black pants and sweatshirt that has black and white stripes across it. It is of course a replica of exactly what Zach is wearing.
Chris stands on the threshold of the room and watches both Zach and Nicky do some complicated move, Zach's movements much tighter, Nicky's... well, the kid's between flailing and skipping and Chris can't help watch and grin. And while Chris is just grinning and enjoying whatever the hell this new ZachandNickything is, they both turn around and Zach arches a brow right at Chris, his face all flushed as he grins and mouths 'say I'm the one you want'.
After that Chris can't quite concentrate. He's only just vaguely aware of Zach being too competent at this dance and Nicky having decided to just add his own moves for the hell of it. And like he's in some crappy cheesy movie all Chris can hear is Beyonce singing in his head 'say I'm the one you waaaaaaaaaaaant' while Zach flips his sweat drenched hair back in a way that redefines the meaning of pornography.
Thankfully the song ends (Chris certainly cannot take anymore of Zach competently popping out tight poses in the middle of his living room).
Nicky is jumping up and insisting, "Again!"
Zach groans and doubles over. "Everything chafes."
"We have to keep doing it until we're good enough to be Youtube famous, Zach," Nicky insists.
"Can't you just make fart noises with your mouth like other kids on Youtube?" Zach asks, straightening up and grinning at Chris.
"Just once more! Please!" Nicky says. "And we'll get Dad to turn the lights on and off."
Zach stares at Nicky. "Genius."
"Why thank you, sir," Nicky says in an oddly high-pitched voice before he gives Zach a little flourish and bow. Clearly the theatrics in this house are on the increase despite Chris telling Nicky that yes it is kind of weird when he wants to walk around pretending to be a French aristocrat in seventeenth century France, one with a Laurence Olivier accent.
"Ah, de rien, monsieur," Zach says returning the bow and making Chris shake his head.
Zach and Nicky turn to Chris then and smile hopefully. Chris sighs and says, "Fine. But, seriously, no more Glee for you two.”
It's Zach's day off. which means he's gone off somewhere to buy organic beans or curd or something and more unattractive hats, one of which Nicky is wearing at breakfast. He's even wearing a pair of glasses without lens, thick black frames that look familiar and next to his bowl of cereal is a Transformers novelization, which he is reading. Chris wouldn't have thought Nicky could be any more Nicky than he already is, but Zach's presence has opened up a whole new layer of Nicky that sometimes confuses Chris, but mostly just delights him to no end.
"Cool hat," Chris says with a smile, filling in another line on his crossword.
Nicky pulls it down and nods. "Zach gave it to me because I explained I look cool when I wear it and he looks old and grumpy. He said he hated me, but I'm pretty sure he didn't mean it."
Chris grins. "Nick... that's not nice. It's true, but not nice."
"Zach doesn't mind. We're like, totally in sync," Nicky says, explaining with the use of his interlocked fingers.
That's the trouble, Chris thinks, they're too in sync. Painfully so. Chris sighs and says, "Look, buddy, I know you really like Zach, but you know he's not going to be around here forever."
Nicky nods. "I know. Zach and I established the parameters and potential of our relationship a long time ago."
Chris stares. "Excuse me?"
Nicky takes a spoon of cereal and munches, while pushing up the glasses, which come to think of it might belong to Chris. "Zach says people have to leave sometimes, it's nobody's fault, you know? You just have to move on and that."
Chris frowns. "You do?"
Nicky nods emphatically. "For reals, babe."
"Sorry, Daddy," Nicky quickly amends.
Chris shakes his head, but still can't help asking, "So, you'd be okay if Zach had to go?"
Nicky stills and yep, there he is, ten years old under all those layers of newly found bravado. "Is Zach leaving?" he asks, voice small.
Chris hates himself because Nicky hasn't used that voice in a while. "No, of course not. I just... I'm just proud of how grown up you are."
Nicky nods, placated, but the ugly seed of doubt is there, Chris can see it in the way Nicky's mouth is unhappily downturned as he pokes his spoon at his cereal. "Maybe I'd be pretty sad."
"Yeah?" Chris asks quietly.
"But Zach says it's okay to be sad and cry when people go away or you miss them."
Chris nods. "Why was he telling you that?" Nicky shrugs wordlessly. Chris knows that's all he's going to get on the topic now, not that it takes a genius to figure out who it is Nicky's missing. Since he's pretty much ruined breakfast, Chris tells Nicky, "I'd miss him too."
Nicky looks up with wide round eyes and says, "If he leaves... can we put a tracking device on him?"
He looks so hopeful. Chris smiles at Nicky and gently tells him, "Sure, buddy. Just don't tell Zach I said that."
Chris is about to go to bed when he realises something is odd in the living room. Namely something between the window and drapes that doesn't belong there. Chris looks up the stairs and is baffled by how Nicky has managed this stealthy move. He is simultaneously impressed and annoyed.
"Nicky, get out from behind there, now," Chris says, using the DAD VOICE. The lump goes very quiet and still. "Nicky, I can see you hiding."
Still nothing. Chris huffs and stalks over to the window. He pulls away the drapes to see Nicky dressed in black from head to toe, complete with beret. He has binoculars up against the window and a pair of headphones over his ears. When he notices movement next to him, he slowly turns to look up at Chris through his binoculars. Chris waves and then pulls off the headphones.
"Explanation. Now. And please make it as not-crazy as possible."
"I'm trying to lip read what Zach and his date are saying and the headphones help," Nicky explains.
Funnily, this is the least crazy explanation Chris has ever gotten from Nicky about anything, yet at the same time, it's also the most nuts. But then something more important occurs to Chris.
"Zach's on a date?"
"His name's Tad and he's a dancer and he's really limber," Nicky says.
"And you know this because?"
"My ear accidentally fell on the phone when Zach was talking to him... when I tripped?" Chris stares at his son. "So I was spying on him. Sue me," Nicky says throwing up his hands. "I was only looking out for him, Dad."
"You and I are having a very long conversation about privacy very soon," Chris says.
He looks out of the window to see Zach and this Tad person at the bottom of the stone steps. They're both standing close, their bodies idly leaning or swinging side to side towards each other with comfortable casual ease. Then Zach takes Tad's hand, his fingers curling around it as he says something and they both laugh.
"Oh no!" Nicky says, giving Chris a stricken look. "This is terrible, Dad, terrible."
It is terrible. Terribly terrible, but Chris says, "I think maybe you're overreacting."
"He's touching Zach's hand, Dad! Who knows what he'll touch next. You have no idea what could happen!"
"And you do?" Chris asks flatly.
"I know people. I hear things," Nicky says looking and sounding too ten for that to be true.
Chris holds out a hand. "Binoculars. And to bed, now."
Nicky scowls up at Chris, handing over the binoculars. Of course, just as he does this, Chris sees Zach and Tad embrace and kiss. Nicky obviously notices his face and turns towards the window and sees the whole face sucking episode.
Chris hears the gasp before the melodramatic shriek that's going to accompany it. So he does the only thing he can, which is to clamp a hand over Nicky's mouth. Nicky makes a muffled sound of protest and then continues to speak into Chris's hand, sounding quite devastated. Chris sighs and takes his hand away.
"You okay, buddy?"
"No," Nicky pouts. "Tad's a stupid name."
Chris nods, pulling Nicky into a hug. "It's a pretty dumb name. Chris kneels down then and looks up at Nicky with a smile. "Look, I know you really like Zach, but he has his own life too and we have to respect that. Okay? So no saying mean stuff about Tad to Zach."
Nicky nods, bottom lip stuck in a sad pout. "Can I tell you mean things about Tad?"
"Sure you can," Chris says, nudging Nicky's chin with his knuckle. "In fact, I insist."
Nicky nods again. "I think he's a goober."
Chris nods. "Probably because he looks like one."
Nicky throws his arms around Chris's neck and then gives him a little pat on the back before he pulls away and says, "Don't worry, Dad. I'll think of something."
Chris narrows his eyes at Nicky. "That's what I'm afraid of."
Operation 'get rid of Tad' is never meant to succeed considering Nicky's tactics revolve around forcing Chris to get more fashion magazines so he can pick on what Tad is doing wrong and then point it out to Zach. This works until Zach starts helping Tad shop.
When Chris looks out of the window and sees Tad and Zach at the bottom of the steps again, looking very fashionable and very down each other's throats, he can't help but look at Nicky and say, “Foiled again, huh?”
Nicky simply replies, “If I had better assistants this would never happen!”
He stomps off to bed as Chris calls out after him, “I told you before. I'm not going to the mafia about this!”
The next step, according to the 'getting rid of Tad' notebook under Nicky's bed, is 'slander'. On one hand, Chris is happy that his ten year old has a grasp of what slander entails, on the other hand, this could get messy. It begins with things suddenly going missing after Tad visits and Nicky then doing his pretend search before announcing 'that's strange, I'm sure I put my Nintendo right here.'
One day, when Zach and Chris are just sprawled back on the couch and talking about some movie, Nicky seems to have had enough and storms into the living room, standing in front of them.
“Tad is totally stealing my stuff,” he says.
Chris closes his eyes and wants to die. Then he hears Zach's voice which is soft and warm and like having someone throw a blanket over you on an icy night. He opens his eyes and sees a gentle smile on Zach's face.
“You know, I don't think Tad would do that because he really likes you. And he knows how much I like you too. But, because you're like totally important to me, like, you know, my wing man and all, I'll talk to him about it. Even if it's some kind of mistake. Okay?”
Nicky looks at Chris and it's a look of defeat. Chris nods to him. If the universe loves any of them, maybe Tad is as stupid as his name and will accidentally mail himself to Alaska.
Nicky slumps a little. “Okay.”
“You want some ice cream?” Zach asks, playfully poking Nicky's knee with his toe.
Nicky makes a face, but then he nods and says, “Yeah.”
“Attaboy,” Zach says, getting up and turning Nicky around, guiding him towards the kitchen by his shoulders. Then he stops and turns back to smile at Chris.
“What about you, Christopher? Want some ice cream?”
Chris smiles at Zach and nods. “Yeah.”
Zach's mouth is pursed into a sweeter smile than before he says, “Attaboy.”
Chris stands in the doorway to Nicky's bedroom, watching him sleep in his shrine to those robots in disguise, the mighty Transformers. Nicky's a healthy young boy with interests that are definitely varied for his age group. He's happy and energetic. Yet, watching him, for some reason Chris feels an odd ache well up inside of him.
“You look sad.”
Chris snaps his head around to see Zach in the hall, leaning against the wall outside Nicky's bedroom. “Nah man, I'm fine.”
Zach grins. “Bullshit. Come on, you can tell me. I mean, we're friends, right?”
Chris looks at Zach who's been here a few months now. He looks so at home, like he's always been here and when Nicky's not even around, Zach is there to laugh and talk with about everything, no matter how inane the subject.
“Of course,” Chris says.
Zach reaches for Chris, pulling him away from Nicky's room by his sleeve. He shoves Chris to sit down when they reach the stairs, taking a seat next to him. “Okay, what's with the face?”
Chris laughs. “There's no face, I was just thinking.”
“Jeez,” Chris says, rubbing a hand over his mouth. “Just, about Nicky.”
Zach knocks his shoulder against Chris's. “And?”
Chris sighs and looks at Zach, finding earnest dark eyes watching him. “Nicky's been a little restless lately.”
“He hates Tad. I know this,” Zach says with an amused smile. “And I get it.”
Chris frowns at him. “You do?”
“He's my little bud. We're tight. He feels threatened,” Zach says. “I think it's sweet.”
“He told me he wished the President would accidentally press the red button and drop a nuke on Tad,” Chris says, trying not to smile.
Zach's brows climb up high as he says, “Wow.”
Chris smiles. “Look, he's just... you know, crazy about you. He's jealous that Tad is taking up all the time I don't pay you to be here.”
Zach smiles. “Poor, baby,” he says quietly.
Chris ends up staring at Zach who is sitting there reading Chris with his intelligent eyes. “He misses you when you're not around.”
“He does?” Zach asks quietly.
“More than he expected to, I think,” Chris says. Then he swallows and says, “Did I mention how insanely jealous of Tad he is? Because he is, he really is.”
Zach's face is flushed and he seems a little closer than before when he whispers, “I wish he could just tell me these things.”
And Chris feels heavier too, suddenly falling towards Zach.
They both jerk back at Nicky's cry and Chris is up on his feet in a second. He's by Nicky's side in no time, waking his son up gently, holding him when he's awake and soothing him away from the nightmare.
“Hey, it's okay, you're okay,” Chris says as Nicky clings to him, sniffing into his shirt. Chris murmurs all the assurances he can think of as he holds Nicky close.
When he looks up, Zach is standing in the doorway, a dark silhouette against the brightness in the corridor. “Need some help?” Zach asks quietly.
Chris shakes his head, pressing his cheek against Nicky's hair. “No. I got this. Thanks,” he says.
Zach nods and disappears. Chris wonders if this is what Nicky's bad dreams look like.
“Why are you so cranky today?”
Zach scowls most crankily. “Am not.”
“C3PO am not,” Zach says flatly. He reaches for some chocolate chip cookies from the shelf and tosses them into the shopping cart.
“Is it because Tad's not sexing you?”
Zach makes a face. “Dude, seriously, come on.”
“Dude, I'm not a baby. I know stuff.”
“Only because your dad doesn't know how often you sneak down to watch TV when you shouldn't,” Zach says. “Not that I have any knowledge of this activity.”
Nicky sniffs and picks up the pack of cookies. Sitting at the end of the shopping cart, he proceeds to read the ingredients. “Dude! These have like all the E numbers and stuff! Did you break up with Tad?”
Zach narrows his eyes at the hopeful gleam in Nicky's eyes. “No.”
Nicky frowns. “Oh. So what's with the normal food?”
“What's with all the questions, Nickolean?” Zach asks, pushing the cart around the corner and into the next aisle.
“I'm ten,” Nicky says with a shrug.
Zach snorts. “That's your answer to everything.”
“I said you could borrow it,” Nicky says, building a small fort of tin cans at his feet.
“Somehow I do not think it would be believable, my good man,”
“You're wearing my t-shirt,” Nicky says, throwing up his hands.
Zach rolls his eyes. “Because your father buys everything too many sizes too large or too small.”
Zach eyes the rice and pasta before him, but his mind is drifting to Chris who sometimes seems at a loss around Nicky, frustrated maybe, as if he's still coming to terms with fatherhood. Zach has questions, but they're all the kind that make Nicky quiet and sad and Zach figures he'd rather leave the questions unanswered.
“Are you thinking about Tad?”
Zach frowns, turning to look at Nicky who is staring up at him with inquisitive blue eyes under a mop of straight brown hair. “Um... no? Why?”
“You look all goofy. Like Emily does when she talks to Mr. Peterson.”
Zach stares, mouth open but no sound coming out. Then he frowns and says, “Why are you noticing Emily watching Mr. Peterson?”
“R2 totally D2.”
“Shut up, Zach!” Nicky says.
Zach laughs. “Oh my God. Seriously?”
Nicky pouts. “I hope these cookies make you fat.”
Zach gasps. “That's cold, man.” Then he grins and receives a pack of cookies to the face.
“This is child labor,” Nicky complains as they reach the door.
Zach shakes his head, putting down some bags as he opens the door. “Nicky, quit whining, I'm holding way more stuff than you.”
Nicky stands fidgeting at the door, holding two bags in each hand. “If this stunts my growth, it's totally your fault.”
Zach groans and opens the door, picking up his bags as Nicky rushes past into the hall and straight towards the kitchen. Zach follows, putting the bags on the kitchen table as Nicky immediately rifles through them for items relevant to his interests.
“Honey, we're home,” Zach calls out lazily.
“Don't call him honey,” Nicky says.
“I can if I want to,” Zach says, snatching a box of Oreos from Nicky.
“What if Tad gets jealous?” Nicky asks before proceeding to close his eyes and make kissy noises while wiggling his fingers either side of his face.
Zach folds his arms across his chest and says, “Hmm, that reminds me, I was going to arrange a visit to see this Emily person--”
“Shut up!” Nicky says, rushing towards Zach and throwing lazy punches as Zach laughs and tussles with him.
That's when Chris walks in. Zach immediately stills. Chris's face says it all. Something is wrong.
“Hey,” he says. “Listen, there's a little situation--” Nicky breaks away from Zach and runs off. Chris immediately makes a grab for him. “Nicky!” Nicky is gone and Chris is left staring at the door, rubbing a hand over his face. “Shit.”
Zach lays a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, what's going on? You look like crap.”
“Mom!” comes the yell from the living room.
Chris's eyes seem to sharpen, the lines around his mouth tightening at the sound. Zach just looks at the door and back at Chris. Zach has no idea what he can say and Chris looks as though there is nothing he wants to explain right now.
It's Nicky who breaks the tension by pulling a woman into the kitchen, his hand wrapped tight around hers. He's grinning and glowing and his mother has the same smile as him, despite the nerves and tension apparent in her eyes.
“Mom, this is Zach,” Nicky says looking at her as though he's waiting for her to approve.
She nods at Zach with a smile. “Hello.”
“Hey,” Zach says with an awkward smile.
The woman in front seems a few years older than Chris. Nicky appears to have inherited the sincerity of her smile, not to mention the same dimpled chin. She's a good looking woman, almost as tall as Chris and dressed impeccably in labels from head to toe, her mousy brown hair falling around her shoulders.
“This is Maggie,” Chris says quietly. “Nicky's mom.” Zach nods as Chris looks at Maggie, not quite meeting her eyes. “Zach helps out around here.” Chris pauses for a moment, looking at Nicky and smiling when he sees his grinning son. “He's a good friend too. We're lucky to have him around.”
When Chris looks back at Maggie, she appears uncomfortable, but offers a small smile. “I'm sorry. I should have called first.”
Chris nods. “Yes. You should have.”
Nicky is looking at Maggie and Chris with open worry. Like an idiot, Zach claps his hands together and says “But you're here so you should probably stay for dinner. Catch up with the little Tsar here.”
Nicky nods with a bright smile. Maggie shakes her head and says, “Nicky honey, maybe another time.”
Chris seems to bristle at that. “How about you give him more than five minutes of your time before you leave again?”
Zach tries not to grimace, but the tension is suffocating. Maggie seems prepared to smile through it though. She gives a slight nod and then smiles without restraint at Nicky. “I would love to stay for dinner.”
Nicky wraps his arms around her waist and looks at Chris. “Can I show Mom my room?”
Chris nods, quietly telling Nicky, “Yeah. Go ahead.”
Chris doesn't turn to watch them leave while Zach nods at Maggie over Chris's shoulder. As soon as Maggie and Nicky are gone, Zach faces Chris. “Don't kill me, okay? I couldn't stand the look on Nicky's face and I just blurted it out, I'm sorry.”
Chris gives Zach a bland look which soon crumbles to tiredness. “Stay for dinner.”
Zach makes a face. “Are you sure, man? This is... it's none of my business.”
Chris gives Zach a long assessing look. “You care about Nicky, right?”
“You know I love that kid,” Zach says quietly.
Chris's tongue flicks out to lick his bottom lip. He's nervous, Zach knows this particular tell. “Care about me?” he asks, voice hushed.
Zach nods slowly. “You know I do.”
Chris nods back. “Then it's your business.”
Zach swallows, nodding. Chris turns and walks out into the hall, his eyes going up the stairs towards Nicky's excited voice and Maggie's laughter. Looking away, he sticks his hands in his pockets and disappears into the living room as Zach gets out his phone and cancels his date.
Zach quickly runs upstairs to change into something more suited to being ruined during the dinner cooking process and then stops outside Nicky's room when he hears the quiet talk inside and the way his name just happens to pop up.
“He doesn't talk to me like I'm stupid,” Nicky is saying, sounding sullen. “He says if people can't be bothered to take the time to notice how smart I am, then it's okay not to give a crap.”
“Nicky!” Maggie laughs and gasps as Zach grimaces. After a while she says, “But he's right about you being smart. And the not giving a crap, but don't quote me on that, okay?”
“Okay,” Nicky says and Zach leans against the wall, arms folded across his chest and a small smile on his face.
“Mom... why did you go?” Maggie is silent for a very long time. “Were you mad at me?”
Zach presses the side of his head against the wall, smile fading.
“God... no. I could never be mad you,” Maggie says and it's a fool who can't hear the regret and sadness in her reply. “I was just... I wasn't well. And I... I couldn't tell anyone. But I knew I had to get better and that I couldn't look after you the way I was.”
“I could've looked after you,” Nicky points out.
“I don't doubt that for a second,” Maggie says and Zach can hear her smile. “I just thought it was best you stay with your dad while I fixed things. I hope you behaved.” Silence. “Nicky?”
“We maybe got off to a rocky start,” Nicky says and Zach has to bite his lip in case he laughs.
“Oh, Nicky,” Maggie says,
“I'm a complicated guy!” Nicky says.
Maggie laughs and then with fondness in her voice she says, “Look at you. Where's my shy little guy?”
Nicky doesn't answer. Zach imagines he's probably doing that bottom-lip pout and shrug when he's not going to answer a question. After a while, he asks, “Are you going to leave again?”
Maggie is quiet for a while, possibly choosing her words and Zach feels his heart begin to race. He's not sure what he's worried about. “I... I don't want to. I have a new house. It's not too far away. I was thinking I could stay close by and you could visit?”
“Like I used to visit Dad?”
“Yeah,” Maggie's voice sounds thick. “You could visit me like that.”
“Don't you want me to come and live with you?” Nicky sounds more curious than hurt.
“There's nothing I want more than that,” Maggie says. “But... I...”
“Is it because you were sick?” Nicky asks.
“Yes,” Maggie says after a while. Then she asks,“Do you like it here?” No answer, but Zach knows Maggie is receiving a vigorous nod. “Did your dad ever say anything about me?” Maggie asks, sounding a little nervous.
Some more head-shaking silence and then, “Dad doesn't talk about stuff. Zach says it's because he's a clam. He says I'm a clam too, but I'm at a ripe age for positive change and should embrace opening up emotionally before I get gassy like uptight adults.”
Maggie bursts into laughter as Zach squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces. Damn that kid's ability for parroting anything he hears.
“It's true,” Nicky says, his voice sounding muffled. “And I never feel gassy.”
“Oh, honey, I missed you so much,” Maggie says, sounding happy. After a moment she says, “Zach sounds like a nice guy.”
“He is, but he has this boyfriend? His name's Tad and he's a jerk.”
“Why?” Maggie asks.
“I dunno,” Nicky says and Zach knows he's obstinately shrugging here.
“Nicky,” Maggie urges with a stern voice.
“They're always hanging out together. I liked it better when it was just me, Dad and Zach. Dad hates Tad too, it's not just me!”
“Oh?” Maggie sounds too interested, not that Zach doesn't have his ear glued to the door now.
“He always looks sad when Tad comes over. And he's happy when Zach's around.”
“Oh,” Maggie says with way too much understanding. “You know, I'm beginning to see how this Tad is a jerk.”
Zach decides he should probably leave around now, before Nicky divulges any more secrets that might make him want to lie to Tad about moving to another country so he can just stay inside this house and make Chris happy all day.
Only, when he turns around, Chris is standing on the top step of the stairs, looking flushed and his eyes are on Nicky's bedroom door. Zach stands rooted to the spot until Chris turns his head and looks at Zach, somewhat embarrassed perhaps.
“There's a phone call for you,” he says. “Tad.”
Zach nods. “Thanks. I'll get it from my room.”
Zach watches Chris turn and leave. The thing about clams, Zach thinks, is that no matter how annoying they can be, the result of prying them open can be quite satisfying.
So dinner isn't a disaster. Chris spends the evening sending Maggie strange looks. He looks concerned, but no longer as angry as he did. Maggie seems to notice there's a change in the air and has a gentle look in her eyes when they meet Chris's gaze. Nicky is filled with inappropriate information he has picked up from every person he has ever met in his short life. It has Maggie laughing, Chris turning red and Zach groaning.
And then Nicky, who lives to make life interesting says, “Can Mom sleepover tonight?”
Maggie shakes her head, “No, I don't think that's a good idea, honey.”
“Please?” Nicky implores. “You can take me to school in the morning.”
“Nicky,” Maggie says firmly.
“Just for the night,” Chris says quietly. “You can have my bed. I'll take the couch.”
“I insist,” Chris says. “Besides, it's getting pretty late.”
Maggie's staring at him but then she smiles and nods. “Thanks.”
And Zach decides if it wasn't for his snooping ways, maybe right now someone would totally be shouting at someone else and Nicky wouldn't be grinning like he's won the lottery.
Zach is in the bathroom when he hears the voices outside. He opens the door a crack and sees Chris standing in the hallway with a pillow under his arm, dressed in a faded gray t-shirt and black sweatpants. Maggie is in the doorway to Chris's bedroom, both of them in quiet conversation.
“I wish you'd said something,” Chris says. “I would have helped. I'm not as big an asshole as you think.”
Maggie smiles. “I know. It's why I left Nicky with you.”
“He's my son. I wasn't going to turn him away,” Chris says.
Maggie nods. “I know that too.”
Chris looks away from her and then sighs. “Are you--”
“I'm not here to take him away from you,” Maggie says quietly. “I'm not in a place where I could take care of me and Nicky.”
Chris shakes his head. “No, that's not what I was going to ask.”
“Are you okay?” Chris asked quietly. “I mean, better... I dunno what I mean.”
“I'm better than I was eighteen months ago. It takes a handful of pills to keep me that way, but I can live with that,” Maggie says.
Chris just stands there and Zach knows there's a gamut of emotions causing a storm behind his eyes, but he won't say a word of what's troubling him. You stupid clam, Zach thinks.
“So,” Maggie says after a while, a small smile on her lips. “Nicky's been telling me about Zach.”
“Goodnight,” Chris says, swiftly turning and leaving, amusement playing on the corners of his mouth as Maggie laughs.
Zach just narrows his eyes at Chris, watching him beat his hasty retreat.
When Zach can't sleep, he makes his way downstairs to find Chris sitting on the couch and watching TV. The unused pillow is on the armchair and Chris has the corner of a blanket draped half-way across himself.
“Why aren't you asleep?” Zach asks with a frown.
“Realised this couch doesn't actually fold out,” Chris says flatly. “You?”
“I dunno,” Zach says, dropping next to Chris. “Just couldn't.”
“Hey, sorry you had to blow off your plans with Tad,” Chris says. “But I appreciate it.”
“Sure you do,” Zach says. “You think the guy's a jerk.” Chris turns to look at Zach, his eyes ridiculously blue from the light of the TV. “You're not even denying it.”
Chris nods, looking away. “What do you see in him anyway? I'm pretty sure he doesn't understand half of the things that come out of your big mouth.”
Zach laughs, giving Chris a light kick. “He's cute. I like him.”
The corner of Chris's mouth lifts in amusement, but his eyes stay fixed on the TV. Zach wants to tell him that cuteness aside, Tad zeroed in on him at his loneliest and it's nice being a part of something that's only happening between two people. For some reason the words never make it out.
“Maggie's nice. I always figured Tad's mom would be some total bitch,” Zach says.
Chris frowns at him. “You did?”
“Well, yeah. I mean you guys never talk about her.” Zach said with a shrug.
Chris nodded. “I didn't know if Nicky would want to. Welcome to lame parenting 101.”
“Hey,” Zach says, placing his hand on Chris's shoulder. “You're not a lame parent. That kid's nuts about you. He loves you, man.” Chris's head drops so he's staring at his hands. Zach sees him swallow, push something down so doesn't have to talk about it. “What?” Zach asks quietly.
Chris is shaking his head, but after a moment he says, “I was so relieved when Maggie said she wasn't well enough to take Nicky away. How fucked up is that?”
“You don't want to become part-time dad again. How is that fucked up?”
Chris laughs shakily and looks up at Zach, eyes looking a little bright. “You have an answer for everything?”
Zach pretends to think it through and says, “Yes. Yes I do.” Zach gets up and grabs Chris's pillow. “Come on. Let's go.”
“Where?” Chris asks.
“You can't sleep here, you'll look like the hunchback of Notre Dame in the morning. You're bunking with me,” Zach says.
Chris stares at him for a while. “I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
“Chris,” Zach says firmly. “I'm not taking your issues to bed. I'm just giving my friend a place to sleep. Now fucking move already.”
“You don't care that I'm your boss, do you?” Chris asks with an arched brow.
“Like I told you before, I work for candy, not for you,” Zach says before he throws the pillow at Chris.
Twenty minutes later Zach sighs into his pillow and can't help saying, “Try not to watch me sleep, I know it's tempting.”
Laughing, Chris kicks him and calls him an asshole.
Later, when Chris is asleep and his face has inched its way onto Zach's pillow, Zach doesn't think twice about giving into temptation and holds off sleep as long as possible, just so he can watch.
“Hey, sleepy head.”
Chris moans in objection before relinquishing the hold on his pillow and turning onto his back to see Zach looming over him. “What did he break?”
Zach shakes his head. “Just letting you know we're about to get going.”
Chris thinks about what the hell Zach's talking about and then remembers it's the weekend and Nicky's staying with Maggie. He sits up slowly and has his daily angst of 'it's too soon'. Then he nods slowly. “Okay.”
He starts to move, but Zach pushes him back gently and says. “You think this is a good idea?”
Chris glares. “I'm fine, I'm sure I can say bye without having a breakdown.”
“Dad, I can't breathe,” Nicky says.
Chris wonders how long he's been hugging the kid. He lets go and clears his throat, ruffling Nicky's hair. “Well, have a nice weekend. And be good. Do what your mom tells you and try to keep the whole talking in tongues thing to a minimum,” Chris says firmly as Nicky nods.
Zach nods towards the street and tells Nicky, “To the dude mobile.”
Chris ignores the odd pressure in his chest as Nicky runs down the stone steps and out to the car. He considers himself too young and too cool to be missing Nicky already. The pain is probably just gas. He stops thinking about it when Zach suddenly throws his arms open and then envelopes Chris in a tight hug and shake.
Chris just blinks at him when he's let go of and Zach says, “Looked like you needed it.”
“Have fun hiking with Tad,” Chris says with a sweet smile, while he hopes Tad might fall into a quarry.
The car horn honks several times and Zach says, “Ah, Master Nicholas calls. I better go before he has me pelted with Skittles. Again.”
Chris can't help but let a genuine smile escape. “Get outta here.”
Zach gives him a playful wink and runs off. Before long he and Nicky are gone and Chris has the whole place to himself and no idea what to do with it.
It takes him precisely twenty minutes to ruin the weekend by tripping on a skateboard and breaking his arm.
The way Zach's explained it is like this. His mom would be so happy to have him around, Nicky could probably pretty much get away with anything all weekend. Minimal homework, late to bed, slight increase in sugar consumption and maybe a new Optimus Prime.
“Really?” Nicky had asked with enthusiasm.
“Totally. Trust me, I used to be a kid,” Zach had said, before asking, “Now, Optimus Prime, you sure that's a toy for kids?”
Nicky's totally sure and looking forward to procuring another Optimus Prime for his collection. Only, when he gets inside his mother's house, there's someone else there.
And then suddenly he's in the embrace of his grandmother. Nicky isn't really sure what uptight means, but he's pretty sure that Zach would use that word about Grandma, because she seems to fit the profile. Whatever that means.
“Look at you! You've grown!” she says, holding him by his shoulders while he wonders if she's just shrunk. He thinks about asking her, but this seems like the kind of question his dad always says is better left unasked.
“Oh, honey, we are going to have so much fun,” his grandmother promises.
Nicky looks back at the front door and glares at Zach's betrayal for leaving him there while he goes off to do hiking with Tad the jerk.
“Isn't this beautiful, Zach? I'm so glad we could do this.”
Tad is walking on ahead while Zach seems to step in some of nature's beauty, ruining his hiking boots with stupid hiking. “Tad, slow down, I'm not a mountain goat,” Zach calls after his boyfriend.
Tad laughs and turns around. He looks all in sync with stupid nature. The blue of the sky is bright in his pretty eyes, the sun is gleaming off his bright smile and his hair is being ruffled by a delicate breeze. Zach remembers why he said yes to this expedition now. Tad is hard to refuse when he's all that and naked on top of it.
Tad grins. “What?”
Zach shrugs. “I dunno. What?”
“You've got that look about you, Zach.”
Zach smiles and looks at their surroundings. There's pretty much no one here, but them. He gives Tad what he knows is a wolfish smile, before depositing his rucksack on the ground. Tad rolls his eyes, but a glint of his teeth says he's on board. Smiling, Zach does his 'sex on legs' walk towards Tad.
Only stupid nature puts a rock in his path, making his foot slip, as well as a ridiculous yelp from his mouth. Before he knows it, he's rolling down the not-mountain and Tad is running after him telling him to avoid hitting more rocks on the way down.
This has been the worst weekend ever, Nicky thinks, and its not even lunchtime. Being around his mom is great, but his grandmother just has too many opinions. For instance, Nicky's hair is too long. She wants to know if it has something to do with that man who lives with them.
Nicky nods and says, “Zach lets me use his conditioners.”
His grandmother frowns and then complains about other stuff, like how everything used to be better in the old days.
“Zach says Hitler was in the old days so maybe when people say the old days were better they mean they like Hitler,” Nicky explains.
For some reason his mom spits out the coffee she's drinking and then rushes into the kitchen. It sounds like she's laughing in there, he can't be sure. Because his grandmother is looking pretty annoyed.
After a while she complains about other stuff and then gives him a present. Finally! Nicky shakes the soft package first. It doesn't feel like an Optimus Prime. He opens it regardless and finds a green knitted sweater with a white sheep on it. It makes no sense at all. Why would someone do this? Why?
His mom appears and she looks nervous, like maybe something terrible is about to happen. But Nicky remembers Zach clearly telling him that sometimes people give you stuff you don't want, but you can't hurt their feelings so you better just shut the hell up and keep the crap, or have a pretty good excuse to say no.
Nicky smiles and says, “This is fabulous, Grandma!”
His mother says, “It is? I mean, of course it is!”
“Didn't I tell you he'd like it,” his grandma says.
“I love it, but I can't accept this,” Nicky says in a very grown up manner. “If I take this and wear it I would feel really bad because Dad doesn't have one and neither does Zach and everyone should have one because it's really nice?”
His grandma looks rather pleased and says, “Oh, honey.”
His grandmother is holding the sweater in her hands. She looks at it and then she smiles and says. “You know what? I would do just about anything for you. You take that sweater. Don't you worry about your dad or Zach.”
Then she's suddenly gone and Nicky still has the sweater. He looks at his mother and frowns. “What does that mean?”
His mother is looking at the door and nodding. “It means Chris is never going to let me see you again.”
It's two in the afternoon when the doorbell rings. When he opens the door, Zach is standing there dirty, scratched and bruised.
“I thought you were going hiking,” Chris says slowly, floating in a haze of painkillers.
Zach's eyes flick down to Chris's arm and he says, “I won't ask if you don't.”
Chris thinks it over. No man should know of another man's humiliation. Especially if he thinks about that man in naked situations. So Chris nods and steps out of Zach's way, letting him inside before shutting the door.
Zach stomps off up the stairs. Chris says, “Hey, you want to watch Towering Inferno?”
Zach stops, seems to think about it and then says, “We'll need alcohol.”
“Ponies,” Nicky insists. “Pink ones!”
His grandmother looks as though she might not believe him. “Darling, are you sure your father and Zach want pink ponies on their sweaters?”
Nicky smiles and nods. “My Little Pony ponies.”
His grandmother frowns and then sighs, shaking her head. “Well, if you're sure.”
She leaves the room to fetch more knitting stuff and Nicky's mother steps in front of him, arms folded across her chest and an arched brow. “Nicky?”
Nicky blinks. “They said mean things about you!”
“Nicholas,” his mother says firmly.
“Okay, I lied about that. But they're totally going to make fun out of my sweater, Mom!” Nicky explains, pointing at the fluffy sheep displayed across his chest.
His mother looks at the sheep and Nicky can't tell, but maybe she's trying not to laugh. She clears her throat and says, “You make a valid point. I'll help Mother.”
When Chris wakes, he finds his face is mashed into a cushion and his left arm feels heavier than usual. He blinks several times and wakes to find himself awkwardly lying on the world's most uncomfortable couch. His legs feel higher than the rest of him and it takes a moment to register that they're in someone's lap, a warm hand curled around his ankle, the heat welcome through the bunched up material of his sock.
Chris slowly turns onto his back. The movement jolts his arm and yep, there it is. The whole thing comes back to him vividly. The short walk into Nicky's room, the skateboard, the lurch forward and the crack of his arm breaking.
“Oh god, that really happened,” Chris rasps, waking up all too quickly now.
He looks down at the end of the couch and sees Zach staring back with bemusement. He still has a hand around Chris's ankle. He also has a raw looking scrape that curls around his chin and some scratches high on his cheek and above his left eyebrow. He's looking at Chris like he wants to smack him.
“What?” Chris asks, his voice thick with sleep.
“You've been out like a light since I got here. How many pills did you take?”
Chris pulls his legs away from Zach, sitting up slowly, only to slump back in a new position. “Just enough.”
“Enough? I had to check your breathing,” Zach says. Then he sniffs and says, “That's why it doesn't count as kissing.”
Chris pulls a face at Zach. “What?”
Zach bats his eyelashes and smiles sweetly. “Just kidding. Actually, I pinched you and you politely told me to fuck off, which I took a sign of your continued existence.”
Chris frowns and says, “I thought that was a dream.”
Zach picks up the TV remote and starts flicking through the channels, looking disgruntled with all of them. “You hungry?”
Chris shakes his head, holding his arm close as he tries not to wince, blowing out a breath instead. “No. I'm good. You?”
Zach shakes his head. “I'm good too.”
Chris's head flops to the side as he tries to ignore the constant throb of his arm. He focuses on Zach instead, watching him idly scratching his neck as he continues to channel surf. “So, what happened with Tad?” Chris asks quietly.
Zach makes a face. “We are not talking about that.”
“Come on, sure we are,” Chris says. “I'll tell you what happened if you tell me.”
“Please,” Zach snorts. “You've totally suffered a Nicky related incident. I told him to put that damn skateboard away. Still, how the hell did you end up breaking your arm?”
“Well, it was either that or break my head,” Chris says.
Zach laughs. “You fell on your head?”
Chris grins and shakes his head. “No, because I fell on my arm instead. It was a tactical decision actually.”
Zach's looking at Chris, laughing a little. “It was? I'm surrounded by geniuses.” Chris looks away, laughing too. Eventually the laugh tapers off into a tired sigh-half-groan “Does it hurt?”
“Like a bitch,” Chris says slowly. “Tell me what happened with you and Tad.”
Zach makes a noise like an annoyed grunt. “I fell down a hiking trail. There were fucking rocks everywhere.” Chris turns his head and stares until Zach bursts out laughing. “Whatever.”
“How does someone fall down a hiking trail? Did you go for a hike in a cartoon?” Chris asks with a grin.
Zach laughs at him and says, “It was like a mountain. There are probably goats who wouldn't go up there.”
“So, what, are you guys not talking to each other now?”
Zach shrugs. “I dunno. He was saying some pretty stupid stuff.”
Chris frowns. “Yeah?”
Zach nods. “He figures I sabotaged our weekend.”
Chris is still frowning. “Why?”
Zach sighs and looks at Chris. “Because he's an asshole.”
“If he's an asshole, why are you with him?” Chris asks, genuinely interested in this.
“Because, Christopher, sometimes I am an asshole too and when the planets are aligned just right, we both manage to have a good time,” Zach says. He's smiling, but Chris has never seen such a fake smile in his life.
Chris snorts. “Bullshit.”
“It's not bullshit,” Zach says. “It's a mutually beneficial adult relationship.”
Chris scrunches up his face and stares. “Seriously? Jesus, there are diseases that sound more fun than that. I mean, do you actually even like this guy?”
“Dude, he's hotter than the sun,” Zach says, and Chris has to laugh, despite wanting to send Tad to the sun.
“Do you both have similar interests?”
Zach thinks about it. “Yeah. We both think he's really hot.”
Chris laughs. “Okay. Fine. I'll keep a six pack ready for you when it all goes down the toilet.”
Zach arches a brow at Chris's stomach. “You have a six pack?”
Chris rolls his eyes and says, “Put on a movie. There's nothing on.”
Nicky's grandmother stops knitting and sighs. “Now I'm just confused. You're saying you don't like this Tad person because he's not nice, but you haven't explain why.”
Nicky sighs at both his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are knitting. “Grandma, it's in his eyes. His beady eyes! He always looks at Dad all funny.”
“Well, maybe he has designs on your father, Nicholas,” his grandmother says, knitting away.
Nicky's not sure what that means. “I don't get it.”
“Well, dear, some men having a roving eye. They can't help themselves. Your grandfather, God rest his soul, was the same. I had to start telling people he had a glass eye.”
Nicky frowns and looks at his mother. She smiles and tells him, “This is where I tell you insanity runs in the family.”
The afternoon seems to move tortuously slow. Zach can't move without turning ten shades of pain and Chris doesn't want to do anything that reminds him he has a broken arm. Around five the weather turns and the wind howls before the rain starts coming down. Not that anyone is actually feeling mobile enough to go out this Saturday night.
“Wanna order a pizza?” Chris asks around seven.
Zach is taking up half the couch, lying curled up on his side with two cushions under his head. He's watching the TV through slow blinking eyes. “Nah,” he says slowly. “I don't want some guy delivering pizza in this weather.”
Chris looks at him from where he's sitting sprawled at the other end of the couch. “Seriously?”
“Trust me. That's a job that can suck all by itself. You don't want to be the guy asking someone to deliver food in crappy weather,” Zach says as he readjusts his cushion and proceeds to close his eyes. “You're asking for bad karma.”
“And how do you know this?” Chris asks, turning the volume of the TV down.
“One of many crappy jobs,” Zach says. Chris frowns at Zach, watching him for a while. After a few minutes Zach opens his eyes and peers at Chris. “What?”
“Why this?” Chris asks. “You're too smart to be looking after people's kids for a living. You should be... I dunno, educating them or something.”
Zach laughs lazily. “Sure.”
“I'm serious,” Chris says, shifting his position a little, slipping further down so he's almost lying back on the couch rather than sitting. “You're good with kids. They listen to you.” Zach doesn't say anything. His face twists a little, as if he's thinking about the possibility. “How'd you get into all this anyway?”
“I have no idea,” Zach says with a sigh. “One minute I'm leaving art school with hopes and dreams and a collection of nude sketches and the next minute it's been almost ten years of one dead end job after the other. Before I know it, I'm looking after people's kids.”
Chris stares at Zach. “You went to art school?”
“Yeah,” Zach said. “Pity I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left. Well, besides produce derivative art no one would hang in a gallery.”
Chris smiles, not entirely sure why this tickles him in an odd yet warm way. “I was going to write the great American novel. Ended up writing copy instead.”
Zach looks up at him with a grin. “Seriously?”
Chris nods. “Seriously.”
“What happened? You forget the alphabet?” Zach asks, looking all flushed and mussed over there at the end of the couch.
Chris shrugs. “I don't know... stuff.”
Zach sighs melodramatically. “Oh, Christopher. So complex.”
Chris laughs. “Says the artist nanny.”
Zach just smiles and turns his attention back to the TV. “Steve McQueen or Paul Newman?”
Chris watches the screen and snorts. “That's easy. McQueen.”
“Are you kidding me?” Zach asks. “Newman had so much more charisma. Energy. Heat.”
“Sure, but look at McQueen. He doesn't have to say a word. It's all in the eyes, his face, the way he moves. Subtlety.”
Zach smiles and says, “Figures you'd have a crush on him.”
“It's not a crush,” Chris says. “It's just an appreciation of the way a man excels at his... okay, maybe it's a crush.”
Zach laughs and pokes Chris's thigh with his foot. Chris turns back to The Magnificent Seven, trying not to find the sound of rain beating on the windows so soothing he falls asleep. Again.
“You missing Nicky?” Zach asks, too gentle when he should just go ahead and tease and flirt and make everything feel normal and right.
Chris keeps his eyes fixed on the TV. “Yeah.”
Zach is quiet. It's a blessing in disguise because if Zach offers any comfort right now, it's likely to just make him miss the kid even more.
Zach doesn't offer any comfort though. He just tightens his hold on the cushions and says, “Let's watch Towering Inferno again.”
Maggie watches Nicky from the doorway. He's sleeping soundly, pleased with his room and all the Transformers paraphernalia that came with it.
“Robots in disguise,” her mother says. “What will they think of next?”
Maggie just smiles because all she can think of is the way Nicky's smiles and grins and his strange little flails of glee at the things he loves. It should always be this way, she thinks. He should always be this happy. Maggie feels her mother's hand on her back and then see's her warm smile.
“I missed almost two years of this,” Maggie says, her eyes stinging. “I missed my baby growing up.”
Her mother chuckles. “Darling, he still has a lot of growing to do. And you're going to see all of it.”
Maggie swallows the lump in her throat. “Won't be the same. Not like before.”
Her mother's nodding. “I know. But you have to think about what's best for him and as much as I hate to say it, Chris has done... well.”
Maggie laughs. “Okay, Mother, don't get too excited.”
Her mother's nostrils flare as she looks disgruntled. “He's turning out to be quite the good father.”
Maggie nods, smiling. “Yeah. He is.”
“Although I would like an explanation as to why Nicholas spent an hour today speaking in butchered Italian.”
Maggie shrugs. “I don't know, but Chris told me only to worry if he switches to anything but European languages.”
Maggie's mother frowns at her in confusion, but Maggie can't stop smiling.
Chris jerks awake just in time to see the movie ending. Yawning, he looks at the other occupant of the couch. Zach has fallen asleep, curled up in the not so large space he's occupying. Chis frowns at the couch and thinks he really needs one that's bigger.
He stands with a quiet groan, body complaining from the morning's fall. There's a blanket on the armchair, which Chris drapes over Zach, only stopping briefly to watch the sleeping man. Silly thoughts rush through his head, so he turns the TV off and makes his way to bed. Or at least that's the plan until his feet take him to Nicky's room. He just ends up sitting on the bed, scowling at a Transformer whose body has been painted with black and white stripes. Chris blinks at it and puts it back on the pillow.
Zach doesn't make a noise, but somehow Chris knows he's there, watching. When he turns his face, he sees Zach in the doorway, idly scratching his stomach and blinking as if he's not quite awake.
“He's coming back, you know,” Zach says sleepily.
Chris smiles and nods. “I know. I was just thinking.”
“About?” Zach asks.
Chris looks around the room, the toys, the posters, the Nickyness of it all. “Not so long ago I was freaking out because I was sure my life couldn't accommodate a kid I only saw on the weekends. And now the idea of going back to how things were... I can't imagine it.”
Zach is nodding. “It would suck. But do you think Maggie might pay me more?”
Chris stares at Zach, watching the small smile creep over the faux serious question. Chris smiles and says, “Thanks, asshole.”
“I must be where Master Nicholas wishes me to be,” Zach says in an overly deep voice and bad British accent.
Chris gets up, still smiling. “Goodnight, Jeeves.”
Just as he's about to pass through the doorway that Zach is half-blocking, Zach puts a hand on his chest and stops him in his tracks. “For what it's worth, I don't think things could ever go back to the way they were,” Zach says quietly.
Chris's clever response is, “Huh?” until he realises Zach is talking about Nicky. “You don't?”
Zach nods. “I don't. Maggie wants what's best for Nicky, and right now, it's being here with you.”
And you, Chris thinks, too much of a coward to say the words. Averting Zach's dark eyes, Chris just nods, missing the warmth of the hand on his chest when it's gone.
He says, “Better sleep. Three in the morning.” Zach nods as they both step into the hall and towards their own bedrooms. “Any plans for tomorrow?”
“Nah,” Zach says before grinning and adding, “Think I'll nurse my wounds.”
Chris smiles, nodding. “Sounds like a good idea. Sleep well.”
“You too,” Zach says before disappearing into his bedroom.
As Chris gets into bed, he mulls over Zach's words. Zach's right. Whatever happens now, things will never be the same, and it's not only because Maggie is back.
“Rise and shine, porcupine!”
Maggie sits up in bed, shocked awake. She blinks until she realises that Nicky is sitting on the bed wearing a black and white striped sweatshirt and black sweats. He looks eager about something. She looks at him and grins. “What did you just say?”
“Rise and shine!” Nicky says, before spreading out his arms. “Porcupine!”
Maggie laughs. “That's an interesting way to say good morning.”
“It's my thing and that,” Nicky says with a shrug. It makes Maggie laugh because whoever it is Nicky's impersonating, it just makes him look even more ten.
Maggie nods, feeling around her hair. Predictably, one side is completely flat and the other side is doing some Flock of Seagulls thing. She pats it down without much success before glancing at the bedside clock.
“Honey, it's seven in the morning. You know you don't have to be up this early on a Sunday, right?” she asks, because she doesn't want to be up this early on a Sunday.
“But I have to do my yoga to keep my chakras from falling out,” Nicky explains. “And then I have to do my crunches to get my six packs.”
Maggie nods and then very intelligently says, “What?” Nicky grabs Maggie's arms and proceeds to encourage her out of bed. “Okay, I'm no expert, but it sounds to me like you're suggesting I exercise.”
Nicky nods. “Uh huh. It's good for you and maybe it'll keep me quiet for a few minutes.”
Maggie laughs, following Nicky out of the bedroom. “You just keep talking, Nicky. Talk all you like.”
When Chris wakes, he stills feels a little doped up from the day before. He lies in bed listening to the heavy rain and disgruntled gurgling of the sky. When his alarm goes off and music fills the quiet of his bedroom, he continues to lie in bed, just listening to both rain and song.
It's just him and Zach in the house, he thinks, no Nicky acting as a safeguard. It's true he feels a little frightened of just him and Zach here, frightened of the careless things that pop into his head sometimes. If he walked across the hall and just crawled into bed next to Zach, what would happen?
“You'd need a new manny, asshole,” Chris mutters to himself.
Chris sits up and looks at the clock. It's too early to feel this awake. Chris leaves the radio on, getting up and very slowly pulling off his T-shirt. He finds a plastic bag to wrap around the cast on his arm and heads off to take a shower, leaving the radio on so the music tinkles behind him as he steps into the hall.
He's almost halfway to the bathroom, but as he steps past Zach's bedroom he sees the door is open and Zach is standing there facing the window. He's balanced on one foot, the other one at an impossible right angle, nestled right up against the juncture of his groin and thigh. His arms are stretched above his head, palms flat against each other. Chris stands in the middle of the hall, just watching Zach in his cocoon of stillness, his sweats dangerously low on his hips, the rest of his bare body showing bruised blotches from yesterday's fall.
Chris's treacherous feet move closer to Zach's room, stopping in the doorway. He can still hear the rain and the radio, but it's almost as if his eyes are perceiving something louder, something that blocks out all other noise. All he can hear is Zach taking a deep long breath. He brings his arms down by his sides and both feet are planted firm on the ground. He stands with a slightly wider stance and then brings his arms up until they a form a horizontal line. In another universe maybe Chris would poke fun at Zach, call the move a cosmic hug or something, but right here... he has to take a breath.
Outside the rain subsides for the millionth time this weekend, a mournful piano taking it's place in Chris's bedroom. Meanwhile, Zach exhales and as the rain stops outside, the sun seems to come out from behind the clouds, its light slowly creeping into Zach's bedroom until the warmth and light stops right at Chris's feet. Zach's arm's lose some of their taut posture before Zach tilts his head at the window and laughs a little, as if there's some humor in the change of weather.
The minute something deep in Chris's chest suggests that its just like Zach to make the sun come out, Chris's brain berates him and shoves him towards the bathroom and into a cold shower.
“I like this,” Maggie says, putting another pancake on her plate. “Exercise with a side of maple syrup. It's good. I think I could get used to this exercise thing.”
Nicky nods and says, “May I have another pancake please?”
Maggie strokes his head, getting up and putting another pancake in his plate. She sees her own mother watching with incredibly soft eyes. In the spirit of the moment, she puts a pancake on her mother's plate too.
“Knitting is kind of like exercise,” Maggie says with a smile.
Nicky pretends to knit with his knife and fork, nodding in agreement before tucking into his breakfast again.
“Well, when in Rome,” Maggie's mother says, draping a napkin over her lap and then holding out her hand. “Now, quit hogging all that syrup.”
By the time Chris emerges from the shower, Zach has finished his yoga (thankfully). He is also no longer alone. Half-way down the stairs Chris can hear Tad's voice. Both men are in the kitchen, Zach sounding a little sullen, Tad sounding apologetic. Chris can't help roll his eyes out of habit.
“Look, I said I was sorry,” Tad says quietly. “Quit being mad at me, will you?”
“You accused me of nearly breaking my neck to sabotage our weekend,” Zach says slowly. “I'd love to quit being mad at you, but I can't help thinking of that wonderful time when I was lying on the ground seeing two of you being an asshole.”
Chris smiles so hard it hurts his face. He sits down on the bottom step, peering around the stairs to look at the kitchen door. He can just about make out Zach standing by the fridge, arms folded across his chest. Tad ruins the scene by going right up into Zach's space, forcing his arms down so he can place his hands on Zach's waist. He's now blocking Zach's face with his stupid wavy hair.
“You're right. I was an asshole,” Tad says. “But, I was so happy we were going to have two whole days to ourselves. Away from your job and your employer.”
Chris tries not to scowl at that.
“Tad, Chris doesn't have a problem with you coming over here. I told you that before.”
This time Chris tries not to barf.
“Sure, that's what he says, but it's pretty obvious the guy doesn't like me. Him and that weird kid of his,” Tad says.
“Hey,” Zach says quietly. “He's a good kid. Don't talk about him that way.”
Tad seems to tense and steps back from Zach. Chris tries not to go in there and knock him out with his cast.
Tad sighs. “He's not your kid, you know.”
Zach laughs and shakes his head. “Well... yeah. Not without a miracle.”
“I mean,” Tad says firmly, “You care about him too much. That's going to smart when you leave, Zach, because eventually you will have to leave.”
Chris wishes he didn't have to see the look on Zach's face. He looks as though he's going for his usual laugh or grin, but it never quite appears. “I know,” he says. “You think I don't know?”
“Then why are you letting it happen? Why are you letting yourself get so close to this kid? Jesus, Zach. And it's not just him.” Zach rolls his eyes and looks ready to storm out, but Tad grabs his arm hard and pulls him back so he's standing against the fridge again, looking particularly resentful. “I've seen the way your boss looks at me. And the way he looks at you,” Tad says quietly.
Zach is just staring at Tad. “If you're trying to say I'm cheating--”
“Of course you're not,” Tad says. “He hasn't given you the opportunity yet.”
It's hard to tell what's going through Zach's mind. Chris can see hurt on his face, but he doesn't know if he's to blame or Tad. Tad leans forward and it looks as though he's kissing Zach, though Zach just stays where he is, unmoving. When Tad moves away again, he's stroking Zach's arm. It's all nauseously intimate.
“Come back to my place,” Tad says. “We still have the rest of the day.”
Zach's hand comes up and though Tad is blocking his actions, Chris knows he's placing a hand on Tad's chest. Then Tad steps back.
“No thanks,” Zach says, his voice not as firm as it usually is. “Think I'll stick around here and wait for one of those opportunities to turn up. You know where the door is.”
They both seem stuck where they're standing for a moment and then Tad turns away. Chris's eyes widen when he realises he's still sitting there eavesdropping. As fast as he can without making a noise, Chris runs back up the stairs, just in time for Tad to arrive and struggle with opening the door for a minute or two before he finally opens it and walks out, slamming it shut behind him.
Chris wonders what he should do. Go downstairs and comfort or stay up here and hide like a coward? The second option does seem easier, he nods to himself. The choice is made for him when he hears Zach's footsteps approach the stairs. Chris runs into his bedroom, switches on the TV and then pretty much flies at the bed, landing on his arm.
“Gagh,” he tries not to grunt as he turns onto his back, holding his arm close.
Zach sticks his head into the room at exactly that point. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I'm good,” Chris says, trying not to look like a complete moron.
Zach nods, walking further into the room and seeing the TV is on. He looks at Chris again. “You look all flushed. Sure you're okay?”
Chris nods and then shrugs. “I... I fell asleep on my arm.”
“Ow.” Zach grimaces. “Why did you go back to bed?”
Chris tries to think of something. Then he just goes with, “I guess I still feel pretty crappy after yesterday.”
Zach sighs and plops down on the bed, sitting up against the headboard. “Dude, you should have said something. You need some painkillers or anything?”
“I'm good,” Chris says. “So, I heard someone downstairs.”
“Tad,” Zach says. “Dropped by to brighten up my day.”
Chris stares at Zach, but Zach is adamantly not looking at him, watching the TV instead, knowing that Chris is seeking to catch his gaze. “Doesn't seem to have worked.”
Zach nods slowly. “I guess it's just that kind of day.”
What Chris wants to say is 'Tad is an asshole and you should drop him like a disease even though he is correct in noticing that I hate his guts'. What he says is slightly more lame. “I feel like pancakes.”
Zach aims an amused look at him. “It's my day off.”
Chris says with a nod, “I know, but I'm not asking you as your employer. I'm insisting as your friend.”
Zach laughs, breaking into a genuine grin. “You're insisting I make you pancakes? Forget it, princess.”
Chris nods. “Okay. Fine. I guess I'll just see what I can do with one arm. I mean, how hard can it be?”
“Oh my God.” Zach is still laughing, shaking his head. He sighs and gets up. “Fine, I'll make you your stupid pancakes.”
Chris smiles sweetly. “Your concern touches me greatly.” Zach walks off, still smiling with clear amusement. “Hey,” Chris calls out.
“What?” Zach asks. “Let me guess, you're going to insist on a foot massage too?”
Chris shakes his head. “Nope. I was just going to say, you're a good friend. That's all.”
Zach's face goes all soft, before he probably remembers that he and Chris are building a relationship based on mockery. He rolls his eyes, but needs to clear his throat as he says, “That's all?”
Chris nods. “That's all.” And because something about the strange sadness that lingers at the corners of Zach's eyes causes a stinging pain in Chris's chest, he adds, “Blueberry pancakes. They're my favorite kind.”
Zach nods, the corner of his mouth lifting in amusement as he leaves and tells Chris, “Shut up before I break your other arm.”
You love me really, Chris wants to jokingly call after Zach. But he doesn't. Instead he wonders why that collection of words is suddenly off limits as a joke.
“Mom, Grandma says Grandpa threatened to shoot Dad with his gun once, is that true?”
Maggie stills where she's standing preparing lunch. She thinks this over slowly and thoroughly. “Well, honey, it's not really a threat to shoot if the gun's not loaded.”
Nicky nods. “Can I see the gun?”
Maggie shakes her head. “No. I think your grandma traded it in for a stole.”
That's when Nicky's grandma walks in and laughs. “Oh I remember that. Then he threatened to shoot me and I said, 'With what? My stole?'” She laughs again. “Oh. I miss him.”
Nicky grins up at Maggie. “Grandma's funny.”
“Baby, Grandma's drunk,” Maggie says, eying the all too loose smile on her mother's face.
“It's medicinal,” Nicky says, looking quite proud of the information he's imparting.
Maggie blinks, frowns and then nods. “Nicky, we're going to have to have a little talk about all the things you probably shouldn't tell your dad when you get back.”
Nicky nods. “Okay. But my silence isn't cheap.”
Maggie stares. “I don't know whether to be afraid or proud.”
Nicky frowns at Maggie. “Dad says that too sometimes.”
A late breakfast means a later lunch and suddenly it's four in the afternoon and not only has the day flown by, the rain has returned with its glum disposition. Chris looks at the window from his armchair, frowning as the rain hits the glass in angry splatters. After a moment of pondering the strange weekend weather, he goes back to the book he's been reading for the last forty minutes. At least he tries to go back to it, but all his ears want to do is listen to the quiet noises upstairs, the padding of feet, the opening and closing of doors the small snap of 'shit!' when Zach drops something.
For some reason, even while he's enjoying Zach's presence, he hears Tad say, eventually you will have to leave. It's a thought that's crossed Chris's mind before. Too many times. Sure, he and Nicky were fine before Zach came along. But if he left... no, they wouldn't be fine, would they? Not for a long time.
“Uh oh.” Chris looks up to see Zach walk in before falling back on the couch. “There's that look again.”
“What look” Chris says, closing his book.
“The 'someone stole my lunch money' look,” Zach says.
“Ah,” Chris says. “Actually, I was thinking about how crazy the weather's been this weekend.”
“Global warning, man,” Zach says. “We're all doomed, which is actually a blessing for those of us still paying off huge credit card bills.”
Chris laughs. If Zach is cracking his awful jokes again, it means he's mostly over his morning mood. “You realise all we've done this weekend is eat, sleep and watch TV?”
Zach frowns. “You mean that wasn't the plan?”
“Well, not a big part of it,” Chris says.
Zach shrugs. “I thought it was fun.”
“Yeah?” Chris says.
Zach nods. “Yep.”
Chris thinks about this. It has been fun. Just sitting around talking, sleeping and eating has proven to be lots of fun. Okay, so maybe if all these things hadn't been done with Zach, this could be the dullest weekend ever, but it's been fun. Chris holds up his book and pulls a face. “ Can you believe Hemingway got a Nobel Prize for this?”
Zach rolls his eyes. “It's a little presumptuous of you to think I've read that, isn't it?”
“Sure,” Chris says. “But I stole this from your pile of books. Look, it has your name in it.”
Zach sits up and stares open-mouthed. “Oh my God, that is mine! Boundaries, dude.”
Chris just goes on. “But seriously, Nobel prize?”
“Chris, you do not want me to get started on Hemingway. Seriously.”
“Seriously?” Chris grins. “I do.”
Tomorrow Maggie will drive Nicky to school, but she won't be picking him up. Until the next time she can have him, all she'll have is this weekend. This small but perfect weekend. Nicky seems oblivious, happy to sit there reading his book on werewolves. She hates herself for it, but she wishes she could see that he'll miss her.
She calls Chris, as planned, trying hard to not sigh because of how tired this makes her feel. “So, you sure you or Zach'll pick him up from school? I can do it if you want.”
“No,” Chris says a little too quickly. “I'll be there.”
They're both quiet for a long time. “So thanks for not calling up every five minutes to check if I'd flown off to Mexico with our son,” Maggie says.
There's a short quiet breathy laugh in Maggie's ear. “Zach said I wasn't allowed to touch the phone.”
“I'll have to thank him then,” Maggie says. Chris doesn't seem talkative. Knowing him, he's probably choosing silence over saying the wrong thing. “Hey. You there?”
“For making this easy. You didn't have to, I know that,” Maggie says.
Chris is quiet for a long time. “I know how much you love him.”
Maggie laughs, unable to stop the tears in her eyes from falling. “When did you get so grown up?”
Chris laughs quietly. “I dunno. I don't feel like I am. Sometimes I look at Nicky and I feel out of my depth.”
Maggie clears her throat. “Well, I'm here now. Phone call away and all.”
“You don't have to wait for the phone to ring,” Chris says so casually that Maggie kind of wants to start bawling in a very embarrassing fashion.
But she doesn't, she just smiles and says. “I love you.”
The way Chris says, “I know,” she knows only a corner of his mouth is lifting up, yet showing the gleam of a bright boyish smile.
So, the weekend is over, but things will go on and Maggie's heart doesn't feel so heavy.
The weekend is over, Chris thinks. Tomorrow he'll pick Nicky up from school and try not to embarrass them both by crushing him in a manly bear hug. And things will be normal again, Nicky the buffer zone back in between Chris and Zach.
Zach is across the hall, probably doing stretchy things again in his bedroom. Chris can't help but close his eyes and try to recall what he saw this morning. Okay, so maybe his imagination is being a little too generous with the bright aura and halo surrounding Zach's stretching form, but mostly it's just Zach. The same one and only Zach.
Zach who makes Chris embrace danger for a moment and sit up in bed, slowly pushing away the covers and going to the bedroom door. Opening it as quietly as possible and padding barefoot across the hall to where Zach's bedroom door is open and he is there, he is right there, stretching and breathing and pulling Chris in with some silent siren song. It'll end badly, a rocky demise, Chris knows this, but off he goes, just floating until he's standing behind Zach.
He reaches out and his fingers just barely touch the warm skin of Zach's shoulder before they become daring and his palm is smoothing over the skin, moving down his arm. Chris moves forward and presses his slightly open mouth to the shoulder, closing his eyes. It should be this easy, he thinks, why can't it just be this easy?
“Hello!” Chris sits up, almost giving himself whiplash in the process, eyes snapping open to see Zach in his doorway. “Yeah.”
“Oh. Sorry, did I wake you? I heard the TV on,” Zach says, pointing at said TV.
“I must have drifted off. What's up?” Chris asks.
Zach holds up his earphones and makes a face. “Predictably these have stopped working exactly when I need them. I was wondering if I could borrow yours. Don't worry, I have excellent ear health.”
Chris makes a face. “They're downstairs. Next to the computer. What does that mean anyway? Excellent ear health?”
“It means I have excellent hearing,” Zach says with a smile before disappearing.
Chris resentfully stares at the space vacated by Zach. The guy could have the contents of a sewer oozing out of his ears and Chris is pretty sure he'd still lend Zach his earphones.
Just when Chris sighs and decides to go to sleep, Zach is back with headphones and iPod. He holds both of them up and says, “Okay, best fucking song ever.”
Chris gives Zach a skeptical look. “You said that last time. I'm still trying to bleach my brain.”
Zach leaps onto the bed, straight into a cross-legged sitting position. He holds out the earphones as if they're sacred. “Prepare to eat your misconceptions with a side order of awe and amazement.”
“Could I also get a diet shut the hell up and let me hear the song already with that, please?” Chris says with a flutter of his eyelashes.
Zach snorts and holds out one earphone, sticking the other in his ear before he plays the song. Chris is filled with awe and amazement, but mostly at how awful this music is. Kind of like cats wailing and someone banging trash cans to make them go away. Still, he's listening to it with Zach and and he's listening with his eyes, watching Zach grin and smile and it's kind of the best music ever.
Even though it's pretty damn bad.
“Dad, I can't breathe,” Nicky says.
Chris is nodding, “Okay. One second, I'm almost done.”
Chris holds Nicky a little tighter for a second, enough to traumatize him without the need for therapy one day, and then he lets go and nods in a nonchalant manner as if he has any dignity left to retain.
“Is your arm broken?” Nicky asks, frowning at the cast.
Chris looks at the cast which has some ridiculous infantile drawings all courtesy of Zach. “Yes, it is, because a certain someone left their skateboard in the middle of their room?”
Nicky's mouth falls open and he looks quite ecstatic. “You mean it worked?”
“Worked?” Chris asks. “What worked.”
“My anti-spy device in case someone comes snooping around in my room.” Nicky frowns. “Were you snooping?”
Chris pulls a face. “No. Why? Are you up to something?”
“I'm ten,” Nicky says seriously. “I'm always up to something.”
Chris frowns. “Oh, well, next time I'll just send Zach in first.”
“Did you set off my Indiana Jones darts too?” Nicky asks as he gets into the car.
Chris's frown deepens and he looks at Nicky through the window. “What darts?”
Nicky looks straight ahead. “Never mind.”
Chris gives Nicky a brief look of stern warning, but as he's walking around the car to get into the driver's seat, out of sight he grins so wide he thinks his jaw might just crack
Chris takes a box of detergent off the shelf, peers at it for a long time and then sighs. “Is this any good?”
Maggie gives the box a look and then points to the top shelf, “I always get that one.”
“Is it better?” Chris is already reaching for it.
“I like the box. It's pretty and cheerful,” Maggie says with a smile.
Chris thinks about it. “I'll take pretty and cheerful.”
They resume their course down the aisle. Maggie looks at Chris. “How'd you break your arm again?”
Chris clears his throat. “Basketball. Didn't I tell you already?”
Maggie nods. “You did. But you're a big fat liar and I'm trying to trip you up.”
Chris grins. “Keep trying.”
“Don't be a smart ass,” Maggie says. “Remember who has two wheel-steering arms.” She waggles her hands at Chris. “I'm surprised you didn't just ask Zach though.”
Chris nods. “I could have, but I thought it would be nice to spend time with you.”
Maggie nods and smiles. “It was my mother, wasn't it?”
Chris smiles. “She said it's the least I could do, considering I ruined your life.” Maggie laughs. “It's not funny. She's scary and mean. She also asked me for some measurements, which was... weird.”
“I wouldn't worry. Not unless she asks to meet you at high noon,” Maggie says with a smile. “And just so we're clear, you did not ruin my life.” Chris doesn't say anything. He just concedes with a nod. Maggie sighs and rolls her eyes. “Okay, fine. Your magic penis changed the course of my life. Thank God I know now. I can stop seeing my therapist.”
Chris smiles at Maggie. “Is it scary that you're becoming just as mean as your mother?”
Maggie gasps, placing a hand over her chest. “You play dirty.” She smiles. “I like it.”
“You have to admit it though,” Chris says. “If things had been different, you'd be one doctorate better off.”
Maggie nods. “Sure. But there are other things that would still have gone wrong. Also, I pick having Nicky over everything. Ever. Even that time I ran into Tom Selleck and got a hug and autograph out of him.” Chris laughs.
Just as they reach the end of the aisle, still laughing, they hear a loud crash and then see a wave of tins roll past them. Seconds later, Chris can hear someone breathing hard behind him. He turns to see Nicky who looks a little flushed and a lot guilty.
“I had nothing to do with this,” Nicky says before anyone can even ask. Chris gives him a hard look. “Okay maybe I did, but I can explain.”
At home, Chris slowly puts the groceries away, while Maggie makes some coffee and Nicky watches TV in the next room.
“So, where's Zach tonight?” Maggie asks, rummaging around for some cups.
“Said he was seeing some friends,” Chris says, while he pulls a face at Zach's non-dairy dairy products before shoving them in the fridge.
“Not Tad?” Maggie asks.
“I have no idea. He hasn't said a word about Tad for a week,” Chris says absently, frowning at something red and blue at the back of the fridge. He reaches for it and pulls it out with a shake of the head, closing the fridge door and turning to frown at Maggie. “You think maybe they broke up?”
Maggie shrugs. “I don't know how it works with the gay guys.” Chris frowns. “Don't pretend like you don't know.”
Chris rolls his eyes as Maggie just gives him a grin. He says, “You're not funny. Nicky! Could you come in here please?” He looks at Maggie again. “He hasn't been calling either come to think of it. Usually every time the phone rings it's Tad.”
Nicky runs into the kitchen like he runs everywhere and notices what's in Chris's hand. “You found my Spiderman! Thanks, Dad!”
He grabs Spiderman and runs back out as Chris is still saying, “No, wait! Ah... screw it. Maybe he had a good reason.”
Maggie places their coffee cups on the table and sits down, opening a pack of new cookies, grinning at Nicky's quick exit. Chris tiredly falls into a chair opposite her, pulling his cup off coffee towards himself.
“Chris and Zach. Sitting in a tree,” Maggie says smoothly and beautifully enough to make it sound poetic rather than a tease. Chris just looks at her silently, seeing her smiling at him. “You are an idiot.”
“You've got it all wrong,” Chris says, putting no effort into the lie whatsoever.
“Sure,” Maggie says. “I can see how much you just love Tad.”
“Zach's my friend. I think he can do better is all,” Chris says.
“You think he should do you,” Maggie says with a nod.
Chris tries to glare, but ends up laughing. Smiling he shakes his head and says, “I don't think that.”
Maggie gives him a long assessing look. “Are you in love with him?”
Chris almost jerks back, blinking and frowning. He lets out a somewhat confused laugh. “What?”
“I think you're in love with him,” Maggie says with a shrug.
He's shaking his head. “No. Why? Why would you think that?”
“It's the only reason I can think of which makes you act like an idiot,” she says simply. “So. Are you?”
Chris is smiling and it's making his face hurt. Shaking his head he says, “You're insane.”
She shrugs and says. “I have pills for that. What are you taking?”
“I didn't mean it like that--”
“I know you didn't,” she says firmly. “But I'm serious. You don't look happy, Chris. You look like... like... I dunno. Not happy.”
“Like someone stole my lunch money?” Chris offers.
She laughs quietly. “Actually, that works, absurdly enough. Yes, you look like someone stole your lunch money.”
“So, I'll go without lunch,” he says with a shrug.
“Every day?” Maggie asks, unafraid to run with weak metaphors. ”Until you starve?”
He smiles at that. “I think this conversation has come to its natural end.”
Maggie shakes her head. She sighs and sits back before reaching into the pack before her. She holds out a peace offering with a smile and says. “Starve later. Have a cookie.”
The lightly spitting rain has turned to something a bit more heavy and angry. Zach can see his bus in the distance and stands ready to get on. Only something on the other side of the street catches his eye. It's two guys coming out of a restaurant, huddling together in the rain, one of them hailing a taxi. One of them is awfully familiar. Zach watches him plant a kiss on his companion's mouth, pulling away with a laugh just before a cab pulls over for them.
The companion gets in first and it's only as Tad is about to get in too that he sees Zach on the other side. He stills and stares, clearly surprised. At least he has enough decency to look as though Zach's being there bothers him. He stands there staring at Zach for the longest time, looking regretful, but adamant. He looks away, shaking his head and then he joins his friend inside the cab.
Zach is still standing there staring when the bus stops right in front of him and the doors open. He's vaguely aware of people stepping off and pushing past him.
“Hey, buddy, you getting on?” the bus driver asks.
Zach nods mutely and gets on. There's pretty much only one place he wants to be right now.
He walks in and the first thing he hears is laughter. When he stops on the threshold of the living room he sees Chris, Maggie and Nicky, one little happy family, laughing over Guitar Hero. Probably laughing at Chris who's usually good at this, but is one arm down at the moment. Zach decides to leave them to have fun and turns towards the stairs, but Nicky just has to notice him and call out.
“Zach! You have to help me!” Nicky says, running to him and grabbing him by the wrist, pulling him into the room.
“Wait a second,” Maggie says. “You're on your dad's team. Doesn't that mean Zach gets to be my partner?”
Nicky looks up at Zach and hisses. “Help me! Dad's killing me, dude!”
Zach musters a smile and says, “I'll have to take a rain check, Nick. I'm kind of beat.”
Nicky looks completely put upon and sighs. Traitorously he lets go of Zach and says, “Mom, can I be on your team?”
Maggie beams. “Of course, honey. Come sit next to mommy.”
“I have a broken arm,” Chris tells them. “I am playing with a broken arm. Surely you can't consider yourselves winners when you beat a man with a broken arm.”
Zach discreetly steps out, listening to Maggie laughing and Nicky starting up a new track. He can hear them laughing all the way up the stairs and even when he's closed the door to his bedroom. He undresses quickly, throwing his rain drenched clothes into a pile at the foot of the bed. He sits at the end of his bed for a moment, wondering why he's so baffled by Tad's betrayal. This was never serious, was it? Or maybe it just sucks being alone again, with Chris being so Chris all the time, right in front of him day in day out.
So close and always so out of reach.
Zach berates himself for a moment and then pulls on a pair of sweats. He's just reaching for a t-shirt when his cellphone rings. When he picks it up the display shows it's Tad calling. Zach answers the phone with a tired, “What?”
“I'm sorry,” Tad says. “I should have told you.” Zach listens. He really doesn't have much to say. “I... can't compete with some of the people in your life.”
Zach rolls his eyes at that. He's being ditched because Tad's jealous. What a lame-assed reason to be dumped.
“Damn it. Zach, say something,” Tad pleads.
“Shouldn't you be getting back to your new boyfriend?” Zach asks.
“He's not my boyfriend,” Tad says.
“Whatever,” Zach says. “I'm just glad we cleared one thing up.”
“What?” Tad says.
“The person waiting for an opportunity to jump third party bones was evidently not me,” Zach says and then hangs up on Tad before deleting his number for good.
Twenty minutes later Zach is halfheartedly looking at the contents of the fridge to decide if he's hungry, while the coffee pot is beginning to quietly bubble. He pushes the door shut just as Chris walks in mid-grin. Zach smiles at him, but Chris's smile fades a little and his eyes take on a concerned look.
“Hey,” he says.
Chris puts an empty glass on the table and says, “You all right?”
Zach nods, making himself busy by washing some of the dishes in the sink. “Yeah, I'm cool. Just tired. You know how my boss is. Runs me ragged.”
Chris smiles. “Guy's a total jerk.”
“Well, I wouldn't go that far,” Zach says with a small smile. Chris is quietly watching him and after a while, when the dishes are clean, the only noise in the kitchen is the coffee bubbling. “Want some?”
Chris shakes his head. “No thanks.”
Zach looks at the coffee pot and nods. “Me neither.”
Chris says, “Hold on.” Then he goes to the fridge and takes out two bottles of beer. He holds them out in front of Zach until Zach takes one, frowning.
Chris nods to the back door and walks off. Zach follows with a small groan. He's not sure how beer drinking and manly bonding is going to make him feel less crappy. Unless Chris is going to take his shirt off. That would actually help a bit.
Outside, they stand on the deck, under the cover of a canopy, but still not avoiding all the rain. It's freezing cold and miserable, but the moon is feverishly bright in the night sky and the sound of rain is almost musically soothing. Zach ends up standing there drinking and watching, after he's removed the cap from Chris's beer.
“It's going to be a cold winter, man,” Chris says, shaking his head. “I can feel it.”
“I like snow,” Zach says. “I love the way snow can cover anything and make it look awesome. Winter's little black dress.”
Chris laughs, nodding approvingly. And then in the manner of ripping off a band aid, he says, “You and Tad. It's over, right?”
Zach nods. “I saw him sucking some guy's face while I was waiting for the bus. Then he called me up and explained how this is pretty much all my fault,” Zach says, taking a long swig of cold beer.
Zach is aware of Chris's strange conflicted, but careful look. “Sorry, man.”
Zach shrugs. “It's okay. It was never going to work. I mean, he's a Leo and I don't believe in all that crap.”
Chris laughs. “Don't you mean, he's a Leo and your a liar?” Zach tries not to laugh as he drinks. “Nicky'll be happy. He's been complaining he's not getting his candy's worth.”
Zach smiles, finishing off the bottle. He lifts the bottle and says. “Thanks. Needed that.”
Chris lifts his bottle. “Anytime.”
Zach leans against the wall, still under Chris's watchful gaze. He can't figure out if all this rain is making him miserable or if he's making the rain seem miserable. He says, “Know what else I hate about Hemingway?”
“No.” Chris shakes his head. “What?”
“He ruined the rain,” Zach says, reaching out to catch some in his palm.
Chris seems to think about it and then nods. “Farewell to Arms. Good movie though.”
“Rock Hudson or Gary Cooper?” Zach asks.
“Gary Cooper,” Chris says.
Zach laughs. “You're so predictable.”
Chris laughs too, his face looking a little flushed. As he stares out into the dark, watching the rain and the moon, everything seems to reflect back in his eyes. Zach ends up ignoring everything and just watching Chris. Chris turns to look at him, noticing he's being watched.
“Want to go thrash those pretenders?” Zach asks quietly.
“You sure you can betray Nicky like that?”
Zach shrugs. “Depends on how much candy you offer.”
“Name your price,” Chris says faux serious, like some movie villain.
“That bakery, with the awesome muffins and the really mean guy who makes them.”
“The muffin Grinch, yes,” Chris says with a nod.
Zach says, “You will go there and get muffins. You will face the muffin Grinch for me.”
Very seriously, Chris says, “I accept the terms of this agreement.”
“Then we have a deal,” Zach says. “Come, let the thrashing begin.”
A moment later, they both walk into the living room and Zach points at Nicky and says, “Guess who's back, losers.”
Later, when Maggie is gone and Nicky's in bed, Zach and Chris sit semi-sprawled on the uncomfortable couch, watching Arsenic and Old Lace, both chuckling every now and then.
“I can't believe Maggie beat you,” Chris says.
“She has many hidden talents,” Zach concedes. “And great hair on top of that. Oh well, goodbye awesome muffins.”
They chuckle a little more at the movie and after while Chris says, “I'll get you some anyway.”
Zach turns to look at Chris who continues watching the movie. “Now why would you do such a thing?” Chris remains obstinately silent, so Zach returns to watching the movie too. He says, “Blueberry. Those are my favorite.”
After a while, Chris very quietly says, “I know.”
Zach feels a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “Nothing weird about knowing that at all.”
From the corner of his eye he can see Chris smile as he says, “Shut up and watch the movie.”
Chris is going to be late from work, which leaves Zach and Nicky free to entertain themselves. After dinner they end up in Chris's bedroom. Nicky sits cross-legged on the bed, trying to work Zach's ancient Rubix cube. Zach is rifling through Chris's closet, having noticed a few garments recently that could have been laid to rest a long time ago. Okay, and maybe some new things that should be laid on Zach.
Zach pulls on a faded soft t-shirt and looks in the mirror. Quite conversationally, he says, “How come your dad doesn't date?”
Nicky, never taking his eyes off the task at hand, shrugs and mumbles, “I dunno.”
Zach frowns at his reflection. “Well, when was the last time he went out on a date?”
“I dunno,” Nicky says, before looking up and appearing weary. “Dude, this is impossible. Is it why you still have it?”
“I have it because it has sentimental value,” Zach says, folding Chris's t-shirt neatly before reaching for a dark sweater. “Niiiice.”
“What does that mean?” Nicky asks.
“It means you keep something because you have some kind of emotional attachment to it. For instance, I stole that from my brother and he didn't realise until ten years later. There were many emotions. Anger, betrayal, humiliation. That was all him. I on the other hand felt totally good about myself and now when I look at that cube, I remember how awesome I am. End of lesson. Hey! Are you peeling the stickers off?”
Nicky stills, a red sticker stuck on his thumb. “No?”
“Well, stop. There's not a lot of glue left after so many years of re-sticking,” Zach says. “Play properly, or don't play at all.” He narrows his eyes at his reflection. “God. I totally sound like my mother.”
He pulls on Chris's sweater. It's oddly loose/tight, but incredible warm and soft and Zach wonders how inappropriate it would be to steal it and keep it under his pillow. He shakes his head and quickly takes it off.
“Do you want to date Dad?” Nicky asks, playing with the cube again.
Zach freezes, dropping a jacket on the floor. “Why do you ask?”
Nicky shrugs. “I dunno. You used to date Tad, and now you don't. And Dad's a guy. And you're asking about him dating and stuff. Do you?”
“Wow,” Zach says slowly. “This must be where the beginning of heterosexual reasoning takes place. It takes more than two guys being gay for them to want to date, dude. I mean, it's like you and Emily. You like her for more reasons than her being a girl, right?”
Nicky nods. “I guess. Do you like Dad?”
Zach shrugs nonchalantly. “Sure. He has an overly macho taste in movies, authors and actors, but he's very smart and good looking.”
Nicky frowns. “Huh?”
“Yes, Nicholas, I like your father a great deal,” Zach says, slipping on an extremely comfortable and warm hoody.
“Do you like him like I like Emily, or do you like him like I like Peter?”
Zach frowns. “Who's Peter?”
“Peter's my friend and we both like all the same stuff, and we hang out and stuff and we both don't like Miss Beaver,” Nicky says twisting the cube again.
Zach nods and says, “I'm not a big fan of Miss Beaver myself.”
“I like Emily because she's different to all the other girls,” Nicky says. “I don't always get what she's talking about, but I like it when she's around. And she doesn't look at me like I'm a total dork, like the other kids. When she was sick and didn't come to school, it totally sucked.”
Zach swallows down a lump in his throat and looks at Nicky who is now engrossed in solving the cube via the originally intended methodology and not conventional way.
“Why do you think your dad doesn't date?” Zach asks quietly, closing the closet door.
Nicky shrugs. “I dunno. Maybe he just likes it the two of us.” Nicky stops with the cube and frowns. “Maybe he just likes it the three of us.”
Zach stares at Nicky, frowning until his head hurts. He decides further investigation is needed and goes back to trying on Chris's stuff.
“Is it because you're afraid of my raw sexuality?” Zach says that night as he and Chris sit on the uncomfortable sofa, watching the original King Kong.
A moment later Chris turns to look at him and says, “Excuse me?”
Zach shrugs nonchalantly, eating popcorn. “The reason you look, but don't touch.”
Chris rolls his eyes. “Yes, that's it. It's because of your raw sexuality, Zach. You do realise you have a piece of popcorn in your hair, right?”
Zach pats his hair down with a pout, finds the offending piece and swats it out of his hair. “Whatever.”
“Do you think he dated before you came to live with him?” Zach asks, biting into his sandwich.
Nicky shrugs. “I dunno.
“I thought you said your friend was interesting.”
Zach frowns at the pale skinned, black-haired girl next to Nicky. Her hair is straight and sleek, an almost razor sharp fringe across her forehead. She's very serious for her age.
“He's going through a phase,” Nicky explains to her. Emily nods and primly takes a bite of her sandwich. “He's trying to get Dad to like like him.”
Emily frowns at Zach. “How do you know he doesn't already like like you?”
Zach sighs. “Well, I think he does, but he's keeping it a secret. Really badly though. And I want it to stop being a secret.”
“Dude, you never told me that!” Nicky protests.
“Dude, I can't talk to you about your dad like that,” Zach replies. “It's weird. This is why you need friends your own age. It's why I need friends my own age.”
“When my dad wants Mom to notice him, he wears the clothes she likes best,” Emily says. “I noticed there was a pattern.”
Zach gives her a long assessing look. He leans and says, “That how you got Nicky to notice you?”
Emily leans in and whispers, “My special edition Transformers rucksack.”
Zach is impressed. “Sweet.”
Zach hears the moment Chris comes up the stairs and quickly runs out of the bedroom, poised to button up his black shirt. Predictably, as planned, he collides with Chris in the hall. The detailed plan, which took an afternoon to conjure, is to let the low-rise jeans and black shirt work their magic with minimum effort from Zach.
The plan does not include colliding so hard that he and Chris end up entangled on the floor, the hard cast on Chris's arm jabbing Zach in the rib. After a while Chris steadies himself on one arm, but they're still pretty much joined at the hip. Chris is breathing hard and looking down at Zach and Zach is too busy being bowled over by how his body seems to crave the weight on top of him.
“H... hi,” Zach manages.
Chris nods. “Hey.”
Zach swallows, noting that Chris is looking between them, down Zach's chest and stomach, following the trail of hair into his jeans. Zach feels quite foolish lying there with his unbuttoned shirt now.
“Uh, wait,” Chris says quietly, rolling to one side and getting up stiffly, holding the broken arm close. With a grimace he holds out a hand and pulls Zach to his feet, his eyes flicking to the shirt.
Zach starts to button it up, on the verge of stammering when he says. “Sorry, you just came out of nowhere.”
Chris looks Zach up and down. “You going out?”
“No, I spilled something on my shirt and had to change it,” Zach says, face feeling incredibly warm. He almost feels as if this has backfired on him somehow.”
“Oh,” Chris says with a nod. “It's just that... you always wear that when you're going out somewhere special.”
Zach slowly buttons the last button and says, “Yeah.” Chris's mouth twitches a little. Zach narrows his eyes at him and says, “Not weird that you noticed at all.”
Chris turns towards his bedroom, face flushed pink, while Zach waits for the door to shut before he covers his own face with his hands and squeezes his eyes shut.
“I'm not sure falling over counts as seductive,” Maggie says.
Zach hides his face again. “I hate you all so much.”
“And I can't really see the sense of taking advice from a ten year old,” Maggie's mother says, looking up from whatever hideous green thing she's knitting.
Zach smiles at her sweetly. “Thank you, Vivian.” He frowns at Maggie, “Seriously, how did he manage to impregnate you? Was it done long distance?”
Maggie smiles at Zach. “It was rather impressive actually.”
“Oh, dear God,” Vivian says, making a face.
“I second that emotion,” Zach says. Then he sighs and says, “Life sucks.”
“Honestly, why don't you just tell him you love him, you silly boy,” Vivian says.
Zach laughs, stutters and then just stares. “Love him? I don't. I never said... I just, you know, he's kind of-- I mean, we never even...” Zach stops and then just frowns at his herbal tea.
Maggie starts to laugh, reaching over to stroke Zach's head. “Oh, honey. You're such idiots.”
“Your father was an idiot,” Vivian says to Maggie. “Took him eight months to tell me he 'kinda liked' me and then eight years later he told me if I had turned him down, it would have broken his heart into a million pieces.” Vivian sniffs a little. “Silly man. I would have been out my mind to turn down that beautiful boy.”
Zach feels his whole face turn down at the soft look in Vivian eyes. If she wasn't blinding him with that horrible green thing she was knitting, he'd probably be moved by her story.
As it is, he's just trying to figure out when this all became a love thing.
The love thing is complicated.
He can't stop watching Chris. And it's not like before. It's not that same appreciation of the tight t-shirt or the fitting jeans. It's ridiculous things like, gee what a nice laugh Chris has, or what an honest and true smile. Who even thinks like that? Not even Vivian most likely. Zach keeps feeling as though his chest might cave in when he opens the fridge and finds Chris has stocked it with his favorites, unprompted.
He wants to pout his way into oblivion when Chris stops in front of him, frowns at the hoody Zach stole from the drier and then pulls the sleeve with a smile and says, “Stop stealing my stuff,” not meaning it at all. Zach stands there watching Chris walk into the living room, eyes on a folded copy of some book as he scratches the back of his neck. Zach feels a little dizzying rush to the head and realises things are serious.
Comforting as ever, Nicky says, “Zach, I think broke something important.”
“What's happened to you, Zachary?” Vivian says with a sigh. “You used to be so perky.”
“The father of your grandson has ruined my life,” Zach says, eating one of the cookies Vivian has placed in front of him. They're still warm and deliciously sugary. Maybe he should marry Vivian.
Vivian gives him a resigned nod. “It's a talent he has.”
“Don't say that,” Zach says with a frown, accepting the glass of milk Vivian passes him. “He's... he's actually pretty cool.”
Vivian shakes her head. “I remember when Maggie said that. She was pregnant a year later.”
Zach smiles. “I don't think I'll have that problem.”
Vivian bites into a cookie and smiles. “Well, you say that now.”
Zach laughs. “Okay. You're a crazy old lady, you do know that, don't you?”
“Honey, I'm not that old,” she says, leaning close and pinching his cheek. “Here, have another cookie.”
Zach nods. “Yes, because this trim body is obviously the problem here.”
“Just eat the damn thing, will you?” Vivian says sternly. “Oh, and then I need to measure your arms.”
Days later, Maggie pushes a paper towards Zach. They've both been having a pleasant chat and coffee. It's somehow turned into a ritual.
He frowns at the paper and realises Maggie's circled something. “It's a job at the local community college.”
“Art classes. They're looking and I said I knew someone,” Maggie says, raising her brows at him.
Zach makes a face. “I already have a job.”
Maggie nods. “Sure. For how long? Until you can't stand to be around Chris anymore or until Nicky's all grown up and they don't need you anymore?”
Zach stares. He hasn't considered the possibility of Nicky and Chris no longer needing him. Hearing it is like having someone slash him across his chest with a sharp knife. Maggie can see it's hurt him and she reaches to touch his hand. Zach pulls back and musters a smile.
“Why don't you just say what you mean?” he jokes. “Stop being all vague and stuff.”
“Zach, you know I'm right about this,” Maggie says being too reasonable for her own good.
“I know.” Zach swallows, clenching his jaw, staring at the newspaper. He manages to smile and say, “I just don't want to.”
Maggie smiles at him. “You can't keep dancing around each other like this.”
“And what about Nicky?” Zach says. “He won't forgive me for this.”
Maggie nods. “Maybe. But at the very least you'll find out where you stand with Chris.”
“Your friend looks sad.”
Nicky looks at Emily who is swinging back and forth on the swing next to his, her eyes on Zach who is over on the next set of swings. His swing isn't moving much. He's kind of sitting there looking like he's trying to remember where he left his lunch money.
“Maybe he's just thinking,” Nicky says.
Emily looks at Nicky and says, “Mom says men don't think. She says they hide things and they lie and they cheat, but they don't think.”
Nicky frowns. “I don't get it.”
Emily nods. “Mom says it'll all make sense when I'm older and I've suffered my own disappointments.”
“That doesn't sound good,” Nicky says scrunching up his face.
Emily shrugs. “Grown ups.”
A week later, Zach is sitting on the floor of his bedroom. He stopped his yoga almost minutes after he started it. Instead he sits there with his arms resting on his knees, staring off into space for the umpteenth time this week.
There's a knock at the door and he knows it's Chris because Nicky would just run in uninvited and torpedo himself onto Zach's bed. Zach turns and looks up at Chris who has a soft smile on his face.
“Hey,” Zach says.
“Can I come in?” Chris asks. Zach nods, watching Chris walk in and sit down on the end of the bed.
Zach turns to face Chris. “What's up?”
“I was talking to Nicky,” Chris says, leaning forward a littler. “He said, and I quote, 'Zach's sad', end quote.” Zach smiles, a small chuckle slipping out. Chris smiles too and then says, “Is he right? Is Zach sad?”
Zach looks at Chris for a moment. He wants to do something impulsive like reach up and kiss him. Instead he sighs and gets up, going to the dresser and opening the top drawer. He pulls out a letter that's been bugging him for days. He goes to Chris and hands it to him.
Chris frowns, still smiling at Zach. “What is it?”
Zach doesn't say anything. He just watches as Chris takes Zach's silence as the cue to open the envelope. He unfolds the letter and reads and Zach can see the exact moment Chris realises what's happening. His smile fades and he's left reading the letter with a completely blank expression. When he's finished, he schools his expression into something that resembles a smile.
“You got offered a job? I didn't even know you were looking,” he says quietly.
“It happened pretty quickly,” Zach says. “I've been meaning to tell you.”
Chris nods, frowning as if he's asking a million silent questions. He stands up and hands Zach the letter. “You're moving out?”
Zach nods. “Only moved in because it was part of the job, remember?”
“Yeah, of course,” Chris says. “Stupid question.”
Zach watches Chris as Chris seems to look at everything but Zach. It prompts Zach to say, “That it? You've got nothing else to say?”
Chris's head snaps up to look at Zach. Then he smiles a bullshitty fake smile and says, “God, of course. Congratulations, man. You deserve this.” Then he gives Zach a quick one-armed hug before pulling away.
“Thanks,” Zach says flatly. He sullenly drops the letter on the bed and starts to walk away.
“Where are you going?” Chris asks. As if he gives a shit.
“I still have one more person to tell,” Zach says.
Chris looks a little worried. “Zach. Maybe you should let me.”
Zach shakes his head. “No. I'm the one who's leaving. I don't need you to cover for me.”
In many ways, breaking the news to Nicky is better and worse than telling Chris. Better because Nicky doesn't bother hiding the fact that he'd rather Zach stay here, forever, chained to this house. Worse because... Nicky doesn't bother hiding the fact that he'd rather Zach stay here, forever, chained to this house. They're both sitting in Nicky's room, cross-legged and leaning against the side of his bed, hidden and out of sight, side by side.
“I'm sorry, dude,” Zach says.
“Why do you have to go?” Nicky asks, not looking at Zach and concentrating hard on his Optimus Prime. “Are you mad at me?”
Zach blinks back treacherous tears. “Jesus, no. You make me wish I didn't have to go.”
Nicky looks up at Zach, heartbreak written all over his ten year old face. “Then don't go.”
Zach puts his hand on Nicky's head and leans closer. “It's one of those crappy adult things, Nicholas. Remember?”
“You gotta do what you gotta do?” Nicky asks, remembering despite being miserable.
Zach nods. “That's the one.” Nicky looks away and sniffs, angrily swatting a hand at his face. “You crying, buddy?”
“No?” Nicky says, clearly crying.
Zach puts an arm around him and pulls him close. “Dude, it's okay to cry.”
“You're not crying,” Nicky accuses Zach with a sniff.
“Trust me, I'm right behind you. Just give me another minute,” Zach says, miserably letting his chin drop on Nicky's head.
A minute and stinging eyes later, Zach steps out of Nicky's room to see Chris sitting outside, leaning against the wall. He looks up at Zach and interestingly he has the exact look of betrayal on his face that Nicky had just moments ago.
“You should go talk to him now,” Zach says.
“You never told me,” Chris says quietly. “Why is Zach sad?”
Zach crouches down in front of Chris. Chris watches him in a sullen and blank fashion. It irks Zach because he has no right to be sullen about this. Zach wonders if he should tell Chris that he's disgustingly in love with him. But there's a part of Zach that suspects Chris knows this.
Zach leans forward and presses his lips to the corner of Chris's mouth in some imitation of a kiss. “Bye.”
He gets up, taking only one look at that expression he's seen on Chris's face so many times, the one Chris always explains away as something mundane. Then he goes to his bedroom and packs.
Nicky and Chris sit together, side by side, legs drawn up. Chris's eyes are on the bedroom door, Nicky's are on his Optimus Prime. Chris reaches out and strokes Nicky's head, letting his hand rest at the base of his neck.
“You okay, buddy?” Nicky shakes his head, Chris hopes he's not back to his pre-Zach form of communication. Shrugs and shakes of his head over words.
Nicky sniffs and says, “Zach said you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Yeah?” Nicky nods. “You're okay with that?”
Nicky shrugs, which means no, but he's dealing with it. Then he looks up at Chris and says, “Why can't you make him stay?”
“It's not my decision,” Chris says. “I can't make him do something he doesn't want to.”
“But he likes you,” Nicky reasons. “He like likes you. The way I like Emily. He would listen to you,”
“How do you know he like likes me?” Chris asks. “Did he tell you that?”
Nicky stares at Chris for a moment. “He tells everyone!”
Chris is blank for a moment. Zach's never been the most subtlest of people and on occasion it's been difficult pretending to be oblivious.
“Don't you like him?” Nicky asks quietly. Chris nods. “Do you like him like I like Emily, or do you like him like I like Peter?”
Chris has encountered this particular theme before. Frankly he's surprised he still remembers all the attached meanings. He shrugs and says, “I... I like him the way you like Peter. But I like him the way you like Emily too.” Nicky's blinking up at him with a frown. “Sometimes you can like the same person in a lot of different ways.”
“Then why don't you stop him from going, Dad? Why don't you tell him?”
Chris doesn't want to tell his son that maybe Chris is too late and is also a colossal moron of some sort. So he says, “What if he's mad at me?”
Nicky throws up his hands and says, “What are you? Nine?”
“Nicky, it's not so simple. Adults are... well, we're idiots and we do dumb things,” Chris says pathetically. “And... he's probably pretty mad at me.”
That's when they hear the front door slam shut. Moments later they can hear Zach's crappy car starting up with mini exhaust explosions and then he's driving way.
“Dad!” Nicky says, looking stricken.
And obviously now that Zach is out of the house and leaving them, this when Chris's heart as the appropriate panic response. He jumps to his feet and runs out and into Zach's bedroom. There's got to be a way to find out where's he gone.
“Are we going to bring him back?” Nicky's asking as Chris rifles through the things Zach hasn't taken.
“Yes,” Chris says. “There's no way I'm eating all that crappy health food in the fridge. Not on my own anyway.”
Maggie opens the door to find Zach, drenched by rain and misery. He has a rucksack slung over his shoulder and a slightly accusing look in his eyes.
“Dear God,” Vivian says. “I told you not to listen to Maggie. Her plans are worse than, than... that dog in those cartoons.”
“Scooby?” Maggie asks with a frown.
“No, the one who's always chasing the bird,” Vivian says with a frown.
“That's Sylvester,” Maggie says with a nod.
“Number one,” Zach says roughly. “Sylvester is a cat and the dog you're thinking about is a fucking coyote called Wile E. Coyote. Number two, do you mind leaving the pop trivia until after my life stops being a wreck?”
Maggie offers a smile, feeling utterly guilty about this all. She closes the door, just as the phone starts to ring.
“I'll get that,” Vivian says, disappearing down the hall very quickly.
Maggie lays a hand on Zach's wet shoulder. “I take it things went badly.”
Zach gives Maggie a look. “No, everything went great. He congratulated me and said I deserved it. True love conquered all.”
“Oh... Zach,” Maggie says.
Zach holds up a hand. “I just... I just need to take a shot shower and sleep.”
Maggie nods towards the stairs. “The guest bedroom's first on the left.”
“Thanks,” Zach says tiredly and trudges up the stairs as Maggie watches.
A moment later her mother's by her side, giving her a most disapproving look. “That was Christopher again. He wants you to call him if Zachary gets in touch with you. You didn't tell him he was staying with us?”
Maggie blinks innocently. “Of course not. It's not part of the plan. Now we just let Chris think he's lost the love of his life for about an hour and then we call him and then he turns up filled with desperation and appreciation. It's a truly magnificent plan.”
Vivian sighs. “I need a drink.”
An hour or so later.
Zach looks up from the book he's been trying to read for the last hour. Chris is standing in the doorway, looking tired and rumpled as his clothes. Zach sits up, pushing the book aside. He sits there on the bed, cross-legged, hands gripping his own ankles. “Hey. How did you--”
“Maggie called me. Mind if I come in?” Chris asks. Zach shakes his head. “Thanks,” Chris says, closing the door with a quiet click.
Chris looks unsure, a little out of his depth as he seems to wander about the room for a moment. Zach tries not to feel too irritated. “What is it?”
Chris stills and frowns at Zach. “How did I end up hurting you?”
Zach stares. “I never said you did.”
Chris nods, “I know. I just... I did, though, didn't I?”
Zach sighs, rubbing a sore throbbing area right above his eye. The whole night has been a whammy of a headache. “No. I dunno.” He rubs his fingers into his temple, squinting at Chris. “You probably didn't do it on purpose.”
Chis sits down in front of Zach, his hand flat on the bed covers, right next Zach's leg. “I didn't. I wouldn't.”
Zach nods. “I know,” he says quietly. “I know you wouldn't.”
Chris smiles tentatively. “How would you know that?”
Zach looks straight into Chris's bright eyes. “I just do.”
Chris nods. “Please come home,” he says so quietly that Maggie and Vivian who are probably listening at the door will have missed it.
Zach ignores the stinging in his eyes. “Nicky'll get over it. Trust me, he's a tough kid. Tougher than you think.”
Chris is nodding again, his eyes avoiding Zach's gaze. His tongue darts out to lick his bottom lip. Then he looks at Zach finally and asks with a scratchy voice, “What about me?”
“What about you, Chris?” Zach asks.
“I won't get over you,” Chris says. “And I don't really want to.”
Zach gives Chris a sullen look. “You sure as hell could have tried more to be under me.” Chris pulls a face, but then smiles. Zach shakes his head. “I really hate you.”
“I hate you too,” Chris whispers and then like it's always been this easy, he moves forward and reaches for Zach's face, pressing his lips to Zach's surprised mouth.
Zach mumbles some nonsense against the mouth kissing him, his eyes still wide open, but then Chris is even closer, on his knees and wrapping around Zach and Zach's eyes drift shut and he's kissing back, tasting warmth and sweetness in Chris's mouth. Zach finally brings his own arms up, wrapping them around Chris's waist, feeling Chris's embrace tighten around his shoulders.
Zach feels overwhelmed, his brain shouting out a litany of 'oh my God, this is Chris, and this is his mouth and his tongue, and those are his hands in my hair and those are his arms and more more more...'
When Chris pulls his mouth away a million years later, and a million years too soon, his face is flushed, his mouth pink and wet and his eyes are a little dazed. His hands drift to Zach's shoulders and Zach can feel the slightest of tremors in his hold.
“I...” Chris seems to struggle with something.
Zach strokes his arm and encourages him to go on. “What?”
“I thought I'd screw it up and you'd end up leaving. I was going with the whole if it ain't broken, don't fix it method, but obviously being a special kind of idiot, I still managed to break it anyway. I still screwed up and you still left.”
Zach pulls a face. “Well, it's not like I went very far.”
“Actually, I was relying on your laziness,” Chris says with a smile.
“Hey,” Zach objects before tightening his hold and wrestling Chris down until he lands flat on his back with a loud 'oof!'.
This all feels so new, being able to touch, and yet the old craving makes it addictive very quickly. Zach looks at the way his hands end up linking with Chris's, the way Chris lies beneath him so serenely. “This is weird.”
Chris laughs. “It is.”
Zach grins before closing his eyes and breathing in Chris's scent, pressing his cheek against Chris's jaw. He smells of aftershave, a faint lingering of soap, of rain and sweat. Zach swallows, blindly finding Chris's mouth, tilting his head and tasting a slow lick, tasting soft lips, feeling Chris's hands move against his.
“Let's go home,” Zach whispers into the next kiss.
Maggie and Vivian are seated on the couch when Chris and Zach come downstairs. Nicky is the one who jumps up from an armchair and looks at both of them with wide expectant eyes.
“Is Zach coming back?” he asks eagerly. Chris nods with a smile.
Nicky runs at Zach and throws his arms around his waist, doing a little jump. After a moment Chris gently pulls Nicky off, guiding him back towards Maggie and Vivian.
“Um, think you can keep him for the night?” Chris asks Maggie, looking just a tad bashful.
Maggie holds back an obvious smile. “Sure. I mean, it's Friday tomorrow anyway.”
Nicky turns and looks at Chris with a frown. “Where are you guys going?”
Chris looks as though he's trying to conjure up a lie and failing. Zach steps up next to him and says, “Your dad's about to give me a really big present. We could be out a while.”
“Can I see what it is?” Nicky asks with a hopeful smile.
Chris goes bright red and says, “I'll be in the car.”
“I'll be right behind you,” Zach says to Chris, with a discreet wink. Chris shakes his head and beats a hasty retreat. Zach points at Nicky. “Hey, we're not bailing on you. Your dad and I just have some stuff to work out, okay?”
Nicky nods. “Okay. I hope you like your present.”
Maggie seems to splutter and then cough loudly next to Nicky and Vivian rolls her eyes and says, “Oh for goodness sake, Margaret, you're a grown woman.”
Years from now, Chris and Zach won't remember much of this moment, except that they kept laughing and Chris had to keep stopping to tell Zach how everything was so weird. There will be a vague memory of running up the stairs and not bothering to close the door to Chris's bedroom. They will have forgotten most of the in between moments of discarding clothes, but something Chris will remember is slowly unbuttoning Zach's shirt, his fingers trailing down Zach's chest, learning his body from up close, and Zach watching Chris look as though he never allowed himself to imagine this moment.
They will almost completely forget the long stretches of silence where there was only the sound of their harsh breathing. They will almost forget the heat of hunger and want, the way their skin was slick with sweat. Though, Zach will remember Chris's face, his eyes half-shut and his mouth opening to gasp for air and Chris will remember the wanton sounds Zach made, the way they pushed Chris over the edge and straight into Zach's arms with much relief.
Later, Zach lies in bed, sleepily blinking at the TV and watching Cary Grant holding a glass of too bright milk. Lying with his back against Zach's chest, Chris is quiet and appears to have fallen asleep.
“Love this scene,” Chris says sleepily.
Zach tightens his hold on Chris. “I heard they put a light bulb in the glass to make the milk glow like that.”
“Yeah.” Chris murmurs. “I read that somewhere.”
“I bet it's like one of those urban legends though. Probably not true,” Zach says, idly stroking Chris's arm.
“Like the ucipital mapilary?” Chris asks.
Zach frowns. “The what?”
Chris turns over in Zach's arms and grins up at him. “The ucipital,” he says with a smile before he dips down to kiss the indentation between Zach's collarbones. “Mapilary.”
Zach grins. “Those are not even real words, Christopher.”
Chris nods. “Sure. Doesn't mean they don't mean something.”
Zach cards his fingers through Chris's hair, leaning close to whisper in his ear, “What do they mean?”
Chris's reply is to close as much distance as physically possible before covering Zach's mouth with a kiss.
Months later, Chris and Zach receive two packages in the mail. Both are identical in their greenness and in their pink poniness. Chris's sweater meets with a tragic accident soon after. Zach likes to wear his sweater to take Nicky to school.
This is the beginning of the ten year sweater war. These are not people who learn lessons easily.
- the end -