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It took just under a week after the truck-washing incident for things to come out in the open.  Twitchell was back for his weekly check-in, and the suggestion came from him.  “This isn’t the kind of secret you people need to keep,” he insisted when he found out that no one had said anything.  “Not from each other, trust me on this.”

Nancy looked unsure, and Jodi made a face.  “But Burt is so private…”

“That’s why you need it out in the open,” the agent insisted, rolling his eyes when he saw that she still didn’t understand.  “Okay, I’ll spell it out:  someday someone else is going to figure it out and peg those two as a couple of garden-variety homos, and if you’re really unlucky that person is going to take it upon themselves to…show them the error of their ways, if you know what I mean.”

“Gay bashing,” Nancy said flatly.

“Hate crime,” Twitchell corrected.  “And I know Gummer can take care of himself, but you’re setting yourselves up for a bad situation if he’s not only got to watch himself and Reed but they’ve also got to hide what’s going on from the rest of you, get it?”  He pointed at Nancy.  “You bring this out now, while there’s nothing else going on, so everyone can deal with it and get it out of the way.  Because the middle of some life-or-death mutation emergency is not the best time to pop the two of them out of the closet.”

“He’s right.”  Jodi didn’t like it – because she knew Burt wasn’t going to like it – but she knew Twitchell’s point was a good one.  “We never know what might happen around here, or when.  Maybe it would be better to get it all out in the open.”

“I’m still not sure it’s a good idea.”  Nancy was shaking her head, frowning.  “Not because of Burt,” she added quickly, before Twitchell or Jodi could open their mouths.  “But you two seem to be forgetting this isn’t just about Burt.  Does anyone know how Tyler is going to react to being ‘outed’?”

Jodi dropped down into the chair across from Nancy.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Twitchell put in.  “It’s got to be done, and the sooner the better.”

Something in his voice…Nancy raised an eyebrow.  “You know something, don’t you?” she accused, leaning toward him, her suspicion confirmed when he immediately drew back and adopted a very guarded expression.  “Oh no you don’t, spill it!” she demanded.  “You said everyone needed to know…”

“I can’t.”  When she started to protest he held up a hand.  “No, I mean it, I can’t,” he told her seriously.  “You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it really will be better, safer, for everyone in the long run if you get this thing out in the open now instead of putting it off.  And if Gummer knows…what I know, he’ll be one-hundred percent in agreement with me.”

Nancy raised the eyebrow again.  “And if he doesn’t ‘know what you know’?”

“Then he’ll figure it out pretty quick from Reed’s reaction,” Twitchell shot back at her.  He deflated slightly, slouching back in his chair.  “But I’m pretty sure he knows…most of it, at least.  Just trust me, okay?  It’s not only the worm I’m out here to protect.”

“True.”  Nancy gave him another considering look, and then she nodded decisively.  “Okay, Burt should be coming in any time now, let’s just make up our minds to do it and get it over with.”  Another look, this one more of a question.  “And then…we can let him bring Tyler into it?”

Twitchell just smiled.  “Good idea,” Jodi agreed.  “But shouldn’t Rosalita be here too?”

“No.”  Nancy’s answer was quick and flat, and when Jodi raised an eyebrow at her she shook her head.  “No, that…wouldn’t make this any easier.  You know how she feels about Tyler.”

“He doesn’t feel that way about her, though…”

“She doesn’t know that.”  Nancy cut the younger woman off before she could say anything else.  “We’ll tell her later, or I’ll tell her.  And she was supposed to go to Bixby today anyway, so she probably won’t show back up here until tomorrow at the earliest.” 

 

Burt showed up at the store half an hour later and found Nancy and Jodi talking music with Twitchell, who was happily bragging about his new twelve-string.  “I damn near blew one of my amps the first time I tried Stairway to Heaven on her,” he was telling them, beaming.  “But let me tell you, before I had to back it down…oh hey, Gummer.”

“Our government dollars at work today, Twitchell?” Burt wanted to know.  He was smiling slightly, though – it was a tease, nothing more.  He collected a cup of coffee and joined them, although he didn’t sit down.  “So is anything going on I should know about?”

Nancy smiled too.  “You’re awfully mellow today.  Where’s your better half?”

“He’s been working on the truck all morning…”  Burt suddenly realized what he’d just responded to and froze, his fingers tightening dangerously around the coffee cup.  “My what?”

“Better half.”  Jodi kept her voice even.  They’d agreed to play this casual instead of outright confronting the touchy survivalist with what they knew.  “Your partner, you know?  I couldn’t picture you calling him your soul mate, it just isn’t you.”

“And I doubt you’d call him your lover in front of us,” Nancy said, reaching up to take the coffee away from him and set it safely on the table.  “And he is, right Burt?  Tyler is your lover…and maybe even more than that?”

“We saw you watching him last week while he was washing his truck,” Jodi added when the survivalist didn’t answer.  “It was kind of obvious.”

“Can’t say I blame you, even,” Twitchell told him, leaning back in his chair.  “I don’t lean that way myself, but the women here were flat-out drooling with jealousy when he bent over to wash that rim.”  He ducked the mock blow Nancy aimed at him.  “Hey, it’s true.”

Burt was having to work very hard to maintain his calm, collected demeanor – much harder than anyone presently looking at him would have guessed.  He cocked an apparently unconcerned eyebrow.  “And the point of this wild speculation and invasion of my privacy would be…?”

Tyler had the bad timing to walk in right then; he took one look at the serious faces around the table and immediately went on the alert.  “What’s goin’ on, guys?  We have a problem?”

Jodi turned toward him, the frown meant for Burt’s evasiveness still on her face.  “We know about you and Burt,” she said.

Tyler’s blue eyes widened…and then rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the ground before anyone could move to catch him.  Burt reached his side first, looking stricken.  He checked his lover’s pulse and then, surprisingly, pulled Tyler into his arms and held him close.  “He fainted?” Nancy said disbelievingly.  “Just because…”

“There’s no ‘just’ about it,” Burt ground out, not taking his eyes off his lover’s pale face.  “It’s his worst nightmare come to life.  And he hasn’t been feeling well the last couple of days, either.”  He did look up then, at Twitchell.  “You know.”

“Yeah, I checked it out a while back,” the agent admitted, looking relieved – that was one secret he hadn’t liked keeping.  “Didn’t find much, they hushed it up good.  But I got enough to know that if the kid wasn’t one hell of a driver he’d be charcoal right now.  And the guy who started it isn’t in the business any more.  He’s not too happy about it either; the circuit blackballed him, he’ll never work in the pits again and he blames it all on the boy wonder there.”  Twitchell grimaced.  “Now that it’s no big secret any more I’ll bring out what I’ve got on him, you’ll probably want to keep an eye out in case he shows up looking for trouble.  It’s not like it’s a secret that Reed’s out here.”

Burt muttered something under his breath about introducing the bastard to El Blanco, but Tyler was starting to stir in his arms and he quickly switched gears.  “It’s all right, Tyler,” he said softly, patting his lover’s stubbled cheek.  “Come on, come back to me, it’s all right.”

Blue eyes blinked open, startled.  It took a moment for the situation to register, and then Tyler struggled to separate himself from Burt’s hold.  When Burt wouldn’t release him he finally gave up.  “Burt?”

“They know, but they’re all right with it,” the older man reassured him.  Nancy moved in to help, and the two of them pulled Tyler to his feet and over to the nearest chair – the one Twitchell had just vacated for him.  “Like I said, everything’s all right.”  Burt ran his fingers through his lover’s long hair, massaging the spot where his head had impacted the wooden floor.  “This isn’t the circuit, Tyler.  The worst that’s going to happen here is getting picked on by a bunch of jealous women.”

Color was starting to seep back into Tyler’s face.  “J-jealous?”

“They saw you out washing your truck last week,” Twitchell informed him, smirking.  “They’re jealous of Gummer.”  He laughed when the returning color became a blush.  “And before you ask – this is the twenty-first century and I’m a federal agent charged with the safety of a giant man-eating mutant worm, I don’t give a rat’s ass who’s sleeping with who out here just as long as the worm isn’t involved.”  Everyone in the room gave him the same disgusted look and he laughed again, reaching for his coffee.  “Hey, it could happen – you’d be surprised the weirdoes that are out there.  The save-the-whales people have that problem all the time.”

Everyone looked to Nancy, who immediately looked offended.  “Hey, I never…I mean, it’s not like that, they mostly just want to swim with them.  It’s spiritual.”

Burt winked at Tyler, mindful of the trembling he could still feel in the younger man under his protective arm.  “If they try that with El Blanco, I’m afraid you’d have to amend that to edible.”

 

They kept talking until well past lunchtime, at which point Burt took Tyler with him to run a patrol and Twitchell went back to civilization.  He seemed surprised by the hug Nancy gave him before he left.  “What was that for?”

“For being smarter than we gave you credit for,” the sculptor told him.  “You’ve known the whole time?”

“Since he moved out here,” the agent admitted with a shrug.  “Why’d you think I let him stay, anyway?  That tour is nothing but a huge pain in my ass…but the kid didn’t really have anyplace else to go.”  He waved a hand in the general direction of Nancy’s house.  “Kind of like the one that moved in on you.”

Nancy smiled slightly.  “He did that, all right.  So you know about…”

“Owen, yeah.”  Twitchell grimaced when he said the name.  “Damn shame, that was – from college grad to potted plant in one night and not a witness to be found.  Where is your little houseguest, anyway?”

“Some convention, he said – he’ll be back tonight, no doubt loaded down with bags of treasure.”  The smile that had disappeared with Twitchell’s own grimace came back.  “I sent some of my models with him; Larry had me make a few minor changes and sign them, he said the collectors would pay ten times what I get here at the store.”

“Probably,” the agent agreed.  “People pay big bucks for originals.  You’ll fill him in when he gets back, then?”  He did not mention Rosalita; he and Nancy had discussed that earlier while they were waiting for Burt to show up and it wasn’t something he wanted to rehash.  “You think it’ll cause him problems, to know about Gummer and his sidekick?”

“I think he already knows.”  Nancy’s smile widened.  “We tend to underestimate Larry the same way we do you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Twitchell told her wryly, rolling his eyes.  He slid into his car and started it.  “I’ll be back next week unless something happens – hopefully it won’t.  You people call me if something hits the fan, okay?  I don’t need to find out about this stuff from the nightly news.”

“We’ll call you if anything goes wrong,” Nancy assured him.  “Tell your wife I said hello.”

“Will do.”  And with that he drove off, the white car kicking up a cloud of dust in its wake, leaving a peaceful Perfection behind.

 

Peace wasn’t something that lasted long in Perfection, though –two days later things went straight to hell.  Or maybe not so straight, if you wanted to be ironic about it.

The day was hot, like most days in Perfection were hot, but this particular day had a sort of oppressive stillness about it that had everyone on edge, like the feeling of a storm about to break just over the horizon but still out of sight.  Burt and Tyler had interpreted the feeling as a warning that a new mutation might be about to surface and had taken off scouting for trouble someplace west of town.  Nancy was cleaning out her kiln, or so she said, and Jodi had felt unsettled enough to let Larry putter around in the store with her just to hear someone talk.  Larry was good for that even on a normal day, but the weird feeling in the air today had him all but bouncing off the walls.  Jodi just nodded or ‘um hmm’d at the appropriate places and let him ramble while she sat behind her counter and sipped an iced Grabuccino, idly watching him fuss over product placement on the shelves.  He was, she had to admit to herself, pretty good at that too.  Definitely Wal-Mart’s loss and her gain there.

The sound of an approaching car barely stirred the small Asian woman from her almost meditative train of thought, and any stirring she might have felt subsided when a glimpse of the vehicle showed her it wasn’t a tourist.  A car door slammed, and a few seconds later Rosalita stalked into the store, fuming and swearing in Spanish.  Jodi just rolled her eyes; it was always something.  She’d wait until the other woman switched to English before she asked.  Larry wasn’t so patient.  “Hey Rosalita what’s wrong?” he called out, bouncing up from behind the shelves he’d been working on.  “Is there a new monster out there, should we call Burt and Tyler?”

She spat something else at him in Spanish that widened his eyes and put exasperated hands on her hips.  “I wouldn’t call that lying bastard if there was a whole herd of Ass-Blasters charging down the road!” she snapped.  “I was just over borrowing a post-hole digger from the Angelos, and Mary said all those stories about the women he’s been with, none of them are true!  She said she was talking to Renee, and Renee said that Tyler’s never even been out to her place but she heard a few weeks ago that they’d been together for a whole weekend.   He’s been making it all up, all of it, spreading rumors all over the place, lying to everyone…”

Jodi gave her a considering look as she sputtered off into Spanish again.  She had really, really hoped that Nancy would have been the one to confront this.  “You know how people around here gossip, he might not be the one spreading the rumors.”  He was, Jodi knew, but indirectly; Tyler mostly let innuendo take care of things for him, he didn’t like to lie.  “Or maybe he has a reason,” she offered weakly when she saw the other woman wasn’t buying the truth.  Maybe Rosalita would just leave it alone…

No such luck.  The Latino woman snorted.  “Like what, like when I confront him with it he’ll say that he’s gay or something?”

Oh dear, there it was.  It looked like she was going to have to handle this on her own whether she wanted to or not.  Lying just wasn’t an option, it would only make things worse in the long run.  “But Rosalita,” Jodi said carefully, unsure of the reaction she was going to get.  “Tyler is gay.”

Rosalita froze, and Jodi didn’t like the look that appeared in her dark eyes.  “Does Burt know?”

“Well of course he knows, they’re a couple!” Larry thrust in happily; he’d been drawing closer and closer, although he’d stayed well outside of Rosalita’s personal space.  Jodi winced when Rosalita’s mouth fell open, but Larry didn’t appear to notice.  “They’ve been together for a while now, they were when I moved out here.  You mean you didn’t know?”

The Latino woman took a breath, let it out, and then found her voice.  “Burt isn’t gay,” she said decisively.

“No, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for him,” Jodi replied wryly, moving slowly around the side of the counter.  “They really are a couple, Rosalita, they have been since that water-eating cloud monster incident.”  She shook her head.  “I thought you would have figured it out, you’re from the city.”

“People like that don’t last long where I’m from,” the other woman snapped.

“People like that?”  Larry’s voice squeaked a little on the last word, but the humor had drained out of his voice and the look on his face was one Jodi hadn’t seen before.  And that gave her a bad feeling.  You can’t be sure about people, Burt kept telling them, because no one is just what they appear to be on the surface; she wondered suddenly if there was some reason besides comic relief and inexplicable luck that the survivalist let Larry tag around after he and Tyler all the time.  Larry wasn’t paying attention to her, though, his whole attention was fixed on Rosalita.  “Somebody’s sexual orientation is a problem for you?”

“He lied to me!”  Rosalita’s original grievance hadn’t gone away, it had just changed focus.  “He’s been lying to everybody!  That…”

“It’s called being in the closet,” Larry interrupted evenly.  Too evenly, far too calmly.  Jodi edged closer to the radio and flipped it on, hoping Nancy had the frequency open – and hoping against all good sense that Burt and Tyler didn’t.  “It’s not lying, it’s survival.”  He took a step closer to her.  “You should be aware of that, Rosalita.  Especially if ‘people like that’ don’t last long where you’re from.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Rosalita snapped back.  “There are…there are places for juotos like that, where they can all be together and do…decorating or whatever.  If they want to hang around normal people they have to take the consequences!”

Larry stiffened all over, and Jodi’s eyes widened when she saw his fists clench and unclench at his sides, but he didn’t move from where he was standing.  “My mom and dad,” he said slowly, “raised me to believe you never, ever hit a woman.  And I won’t…but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to or you don’t deserve it.  Maybe you should…leave now, before I do something I regret.”

Jodi stepped around him, careful not to touch or to get between them.  “I think you’d better go, Rosalita.”

The Latino woman flounced contemptuously.  “I’m not going anywhere just because this cullero tells me to,” she hissed.

“No, I think you’ll go because Jodi asked you to,” Nancy said through the door, startling her.  The older woman walked in cautiously, but her expression said she meant business.  “Go home and cool off, Rosalita.  We can talk about this later.”

Rosalita’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “You too?!”

“I don’t have a problem with it – they’re good for each other,” Nancy told her flatly, advancing right into the personal space Larry had avoided.  “I know what this is, Rosalita,” she said in a lower voice, locking eyes with the angry younger woman.  “This has nothing to do with them or their relationship and everything to do with what you thought.  And what you thought is not Tyler’s fault.”

Rosalita just looked at her…and then she pushed past her to run out of the store.  Moments later her car gunned down the road in a cloud of dust.

Nancy blew out a frustrated breath, shaking her head, and turned her attention to the young man still standing stiffly in the center of the floor.  She approached him more carefully, but unlike Jodi she wasn’t afraid to touch.  “Larry?”  She shook him lightly, gently.  “Larry, you need to snap out of it.  This isn’t like before, and Tyler isn’t Owen.”

Jodi, still hanging back, edged slightly closer.  “Owen?”

Larry’s jaw unclenched.  “M-my brother,” he answered. The hard façade he’d been wearing started to crack as he looked up into Nancy’s sympathetic blue eyes.  “That…word she called Tyler…Owen repeated it over and over for weeks, even in his sleep.  Over and over again, beating his head against the w-wall…”

He didn’t resist when Nancy pulled him into a hard hug, and the slight, rhythmic trembling of his shoulders was the only sign he was crying.  Nancy nodded to Jodi.  “Get Burt and Tyler down here, we’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to fix this.”  She stroked Larry’s hair much the way she would have stroked her daughter’s, murmuring soothingly to him.  “A lot of work.”

 

Burt and Tyler were already on the way when Jodi called – they’d had the radio on, they’d heard it all.  Tyler was a little pale but otherwise showed no sign of what he must be feeling.  That didn’t stop Nancy from seeing it anyway, though; she just grabbed his arm and shoved him into the chair next to Larry, who was cradling a cup of coffee but not drinking it.  Burt hooked a chair of his own over to the table but didn’t sit.  “Nancy?”

The sculptor shrugged tiredly.  Jodi had shut just about everything down and driven out to talk to Mary Angelo, leaving the keys with Nancy so they could lock up once they were done.  She’d been trying to calm Larry down ever since.  “She’s not homophobic, not really, she just…had the wrong impression.  It wasn’t Tyler’s fault.”

“Was, kind of,” Tyler contradicted, and shook his head at his lover when Burt would have protested.  “No, Burt,” he continued.  “Like I told you in the truck, I knew that with my reputation she’d see me not tryin’ to climb right into bed with her as a sign of respect, not as a sign that I wasn’t interested.  So part of it is my fault, because I knew and I played her anyway.”

“Being in the closet isn’t something you just throw off because of someone else’s ‘feelings’,” Larry said dully, light blue eyes meeting and locking with Tyler’s darker ones.  “Owen made that mistake.  He p-paid for it.”

“That’s not pay for a mistake,” Burt corrected.  Now he did sit down so he could look Larry in the eye.  “You know better than that, Larry, I know you do because of what you told Rosalita.  And because if you’re right now, that means Tyler deserved to have someone try to kill him by sabotaging his car at the track.  And you don’t think that’s right, do you?”

“It isn’t right,” Larry told him, sniffing.  “It’s…it’s just what happens.” 

“Only when stupid people are involved,” Tyler countered.  “And I ain’t sayin’ Rosalita’s stupid, but it sounds like she’s spent a lot of time around a bunch of people that are and…well, stuff rubs off on a person, you know?”

“I’ll talk to Rosalita once she’s had some time to cool off,” Nancy said.  “She’ll come around, and then she’ll apologize to you.”

Burt snorted.  “I’ll believe that when I see it, if you don’t mind.”

Tyler made a face at him.  “Burt…”

Larry looked at Burt, then at Tyler, shook his head and sniffed again.  “Why don’t you go over to the house and watch some movies, Larry?” Nancy suggested gently.  He shot her a wounded, suspicious look and she patted his head.  “No, not so we can talk without you, so you can relax and calm down a little more.”  She cocked her head and smiled at him.  “It’s been a while since I saw Phantom Menace, maybe I’ll come home and watch it with you in a little bit.”

He sniffed once more, but a small smile was trying to break through.  “I t-told you it would grow on you.  Do you want me to m-make popcorn?”

“That would be great,” Nancy told him warmly.  “You go get everything set up, I’ll be over in a few minutes, okay?”

“O…okay.”

Nancy watched the young man make his way across the dusty street and go into her house, and then she dropped into his vacated chair with a sigh.  “Oh, this is going to be a long night – he can’t watch one without watching them all.”  She answered the question before anyone could ask it.  “He told me one night after he came back from visiting his family.  I was up late working on a new action figure design.  I could see he’d been crying, so I asked him what was wrong and…and he told me.”  Nancy sighed again.  “Larry moved out here after his brother was attacked, that’s why his parents were making over their basement.  It didn’t have anything to do with them wanting him out of the house; they actually wanted him to stay, even needed him to stay.  It had to do with him not being able to stay there and face the…aftermath of what happened day in and day out.”

“Can’t fault him for that,” Burt said quietly, covering Tyler’s hand with his own.  “He’s mentioned Owen before.”

“He talks like they were close, real close,” Tyler added, bleakness in his wide blue eyes as he looked at her.  “We always thought Owen was dead, Larry talks about him like he was.”  His head dropped, hair falling forward to brush his jaw.  “Guess that ‘aftermath’ must be pretty close to it, though.”

“Irreversible brain damage.”  Nancy answered the question neither of them had asked.  They needed to know anyway; Twitchell was right, Perfection just wasn’t a safe place to keep these kinds of secrets.  “The way I understand it, he should have died, but by some miracle he survived it.”

“Not sure I’d call it a miracle, from the sound of things.”  Burt grimaced.  “That feeing in the air today…I was hoping for a monster.”

 “I’d say we found one,” Tyler said, making a face of his own.  “Just wasn’t the kind we can take care of with a gun.” 

“Yep.”  The survivalist traded a look with his lover.  “If you don’t mind, Nancy, I think Tyler and I would like to see The Phantom Menace right about now too.”

“I’ve never had the pleasure,” Tyler agreed innocently.

Nancy had to hand it to him, he had the innocent look down almost as well as her daughter did – and she might have believed it if she didn’t remember very clearly hearing him tell Jody once that he’d seen the movie and hated it.  But she was also tired and hot and she was going to have to deal with Rosalita later and she really didn’t want to watch Larry’s Star Wars marathon without the benefit of some other adult company in the house.  Still, though… “I thought you two were monster hunting today.”

Burt shrugged and stood up, and so did Tyler.  “If there’s a monster out there, I’m sure it’ll come and find us – they always do.  And we were calling it a day anyway when Jody called us in.”

It wasn’t like Burt to call anything a day if he thought there was something out there he needed to find, and Nancy contemplated Tyler’s slightly pale complexion again with new eyes; he must still not be feeling well, which would be reason enough for Burt to call off their hunt.  “Are you still sick?” she demanded of the younger man.  “Tyler, it’s been almost a week…”

“I’m fine.”  He brushed aside her concern with a smile that showed his dimples, and Nancy wondered if his mother ever fell for it…and then realized that she didn’t know anything about Tyler’s mother.  Or his father, for that matter.  This wasn’t the time to get into it, though, they’d done enough for one week.  “You want us to bring some snacks?” Tyler was asking her, sounding just like he was contemplating an evening of fun.  “We’ve got some stuff up at Burt’s, we could run up and get it.”

 Well, at least if he was at her house she could keep an eye on him.  Maybe he’d fall asleep on the couch, since he hated the movie anyway, and the rest would probably do him good.  “No lizard jerky or cactus chips,” she warned; it wasn’t a joke, Burt had made both of those once and it hadn’t been pretty.  Nancy saw the grin the two men exchanged, witnessed the little pat Burt gave his lover, and shook an admonishing finger at them.  “And I know exactly how long it takes you to get from here to Burt’s and back, so no fooling around.”

Burt gave her a look that said he hadn’t had any such thing on his mind, but Tyler just grinned.  “We’ll be to your place in twenty minutes,” he promised, already heading for the door, catching Burt’s arm and pulling him along as well.  Nancy had to grin herself when she heard him whisper to his lover, caught the word ‘quickie’ and saw Burt chuckle under his breath.  They were just so cute together.

Her grin faded almost as quickly as it had appeared; she hoped she could convince Rosalita to see Burt and Tyler’s relationship that way.  Unfortunately, that was one problem Nancy knew she wasn’t going to be able to fix with Star Wars, popcorn and a soft couch.