Johnny leaned on Bruce’s shoulder and bent closer. “Seriously, c’mon.”
Bruce turned over, pushing him back. “Seriously, no. I do not want to help you water your plants, John. That’s what your plant people are for. I said I was going to sleep in and sleeping in,” he gestured to the bed, the room, “is what I am going to do.”
Johnny dropped down and pinned Bruce to the bed. “Please,” he whispered, then kissed his ear. “Please?”
Even through the sheet, the blanket, the comforter, he could feel the sharp angles of John’s hips, his chest. ‘That won’t work, baby, he wanted to say, but it already was. Partly because Johnny’s touch was still new enough that it always woke his body up, even if he didn’t want it to.
Mostly because Johnny was smiling; carefree and easy, the lines of pain and worry that usually bracketed his mouth and eyes gone for the moment. In the beginning, Bruce had always told himself that it was the healer in him that took such pleasure in seeing John so happy.
But it was never good to give in too soon, not with Johnny. Besides, it gave him a certain amount of leverage… “If I help water your plants— your five hundred thousand plants—will you come with me to that yoga class I was telling you about?”
Johnny paused, then rolled his eyes and made a face. Before he could complain, Bruce said sweetly, “Fair is fair, man.”
“All right,” Johnny grumbled, sliding off to stand up. He held his hand out. “But that means you have to get that viney thing behind the kumquat tree.”
Bruce let himself be tugged up. “No, way. That plant has it out for me.” He grabbed Johnny’s hips as he said it, pulled him down for a kiss and Johnny’s smile returned. “We’re going to leave it for the gardeners. The people who are paid to risk life and limb in order to keep all those unnecessary plants alive.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wouldn’t spend so much time in the conservatory if you hated them so much,” Johnny mumbled against Bruce’s lips. “And anyway, they were my mom’s.”
Bruce ignored the comment as Johnny kissed him again and again, plants, for the moment, forgotten.
Johnny was right, Bruce thought as he pushed back the leaves of a fern to get to its roots, he did like the conservatory. Full of peace, full of light, even though the sun was beginning to angle to the south like it did every fall. And he did spend a lot of time here, insisting Johnny do the same, at least a few hours a week. Being around growing things helped when Johnny had a bad spell or came up against a situation that taxed his body and mind. And there were more of those than ever, what with one thing and another.
Just last week a women had accosted John in the grocery store, pressing him up against one of the doors in the frozen food aisle. Bruce had been at the end of the aisle, too far away to hear her words, but he knew the gist. He’d hurried forward, but before he got there, she’d grabbed Johnny’s hand and begged him to tell her what had happened to her daughter, gone missing the year before. Johnny had looked wildly around for Bruce, but the vision got there first.
By the time Bruce reached them, Johnny was bent over, one hand to his throat, the other held up as if to ward off an attacker.
He came out just as quickly, told the women that her daughter had run off to some large city, had met up with a man in a bar and had died in an alley, her throat slit from side to side. He was pale and shaky and he wouldn’t let go of his neck. Bruce had gently pushed the shocked women aside and dragged Johnny out of the store, telling the wide-eyed clerk that he’d be back for their groceries later on.
For the next few days, Johnny refused to leave the property, saying his hip was acting up. Bruce couldn’t find it in his heart to call him on his lie, to make him take even a ride into town. As much as he hated it when Johnny became a hermit, he hated it even more when he became a target. By the end of the week, he was almost back to his old self, thanks to a little Bruce-applied TLC.
No hardship there, of course and he smiled as he finished with the fern and gave it a satisfied pat.
“It’s not a pet, you know.”
“I know.” He turned to find Johnny behind him, hose still in hand, watering the miniature lemon tree. “And you know, you’d probably save a lot of money and water if you’d just get some sort of automatic sprinkling system.”
“What, and give up all this?” Johnny gestured a little too enthusiastically, dousing Bruce’s shoes and the bottom half of his jeans.
“Sorry.” Johnny didn’t bother smothering his grin as he bent to turn off the water. “I didn’t mean—” He backed up, laughing, as Bruce stalked forward. “It was an accident!”
Bruce caught Johnny between the bromeliad stand and the big cast iron sink and pushed him up against the glass wall, his flushed face making his eyes all the bluer. You could package that blue up in a bottle and sell it for all the unhappy people out there, Bruce thought as he took a kiss, enjoying the familiar heady rush as John’s lips parted, then let him in.
He sighed and pulled him in tight. Sometimes this was all Johnny wanted, just to hold and be held. And Bruce knew what it meant, the underlying significance of the need—how much more intimate could one get, being allowed to touch a man who didn’t like to be touched?
Bruce sighed again and moved down to Johnny’s neck, trying to say without words what it meant, being the recipient of that kind of trust. Johnny responded like he always did—he pushed into Bruce like he couldn’t get enough, like they hadn’t spent most of the night making love.
But there was always tomorrow and Bruce maneuvered them around to the sink and over to the window seat because he didn’t want to wait and the big bed was too far away.
He was just leaning over to straighten the cushion when John pulled back. “Bruce…”
Bruce kissed his collarbone. “Yeah?”
“Can we…” Johnny gently straightened, holding Bruce back.
“Let’s go upstairs?”
It wasn’t an unusual request. They’d managed to make use of almost every room in the house, including the walled-off rose garden in the corner of the backyard, but mostly they used John’s bedroom. But it was Johnny’s look that gave Bruce pause. All within the space of a few seconds he’d gone from sexy need to something else entirely. He wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but he didn’t seem too happy either. “What do you mean? This is perfect.” He smiled and kissed Johnny only to be pushed back again, still gently.
“I don’t know. It’s just too open or something.”
“Huh. I didn’t hear you complaining last week when we were outside, supposedly washing the car.”
“Yeah, well last week isn’t this week. The neighbors—” He waved vaguely and tried to smile, not making a very good job of it.
Shame had never been a big part of Bruce's nature and there was no way in hell he was going to start playing that game this late in life, but John? That was a different story entirely. Growing up without a father, in a whiter than white neighborhood…
Bruce knew Johnny harbored a hidden resevoir of shame and guilt, but he thought things were getting better, thought he was helping John face those issues on his own two feet. As it were.
Johnny’s expression had changed again, becoming anxious and worried and that wasn’t what Bruce wanted at all. “Sure. Sure, John, c’mon.” He gave a reassuring smile and Johnny smiled back and tugged on his hand, leading him back into the dark house.
They spent the rest of the morning in bed and Bruce forgot all about the incident, sure that it was just one of those things, that it was nothing.
The next week was busy. Johnny ended up helping Walt with a minor vandalism case that turned out to be not so minor and kept him on the road for a couple days. Bruce spent the week re-negotiating his contract with the hospital, persuading the administration that working fewer hours for the same pay would benefit them both. They had little choice—he’d been turning down offers from other hospitals, other clinics, and they knew it.
He didn’t tell them that he would have settled for slightly less pay for the reduced hours. He was saving that as a last resort that he, luckily, hadn’t needed. His priorities had shifted in the last few months and fewer hours meant a few more outside clients, but mostly it meant more time with John.
Feeling pleased with his powers of persuasion, pleased that he was making progress on the life he wanted to lead, he’d shown up on Friday night and convinced Johnny that he if he was confused by the fifth season of the X-files, he’d really be confused by the sixth. They watched a horror movie that scared the hell out of them both and went to bed a little after ten.
The next morning, after they’d had their post-breakfast walk, Johnny went out to the backyard to undo all the gardener’s good work while Bruce sat down to try to make sense of the database Johnny had started the year before.
John’s idea had been to organize all the e-mail and letters he received each month, but when he found out he’d actually have to open up a manual and read a few instructions, he told Bruce his old system was fine and he’d stick with that. Bruce had rolled his eyes, reminded him that he was a science teacher and that science teachers were supposed to be computer geeks. Johnny had just smirked in reply and Bruce had promised himself that when he got the time he’d do it himself.
It wasn’t that difficult to figure out and he was finishing the templates, wondering how the hell he was going to get John to keep up with the program, when he heard the sound of the back door opening an closing—Johnny, coming in for a rest.
The day had been hot for late September and Johnny had taken off his sweatshirt. He was finally gaining back the weight he’d lost in the coma and he looked good. Really good, Bruce mused, as all thoughts of databases and schedules disappeared under the weight of his sudden lust.
It was crazy—that one glance at Johnny, downing a tall glass of water, jeans riding low below his raggedy t-shirt to show a thin, sweet line of pale skin was all it took. Bruce cleared his throat. “You done killing all the plants for the day?”
“Ha, ha, ha. You know, Bruce—” Bruce never found out what he should know because Johnny turned to look at him, then stopped dead, his eyes widening.
Bruce loved it when John got that deer in the headlights look—not passive or afraid, but somehow surprised, as if taken aback by either his own desire or maybe Bruce’s.
Whatever it was, it brought out some primal instinct to pounce, to have, and his mouth dried up as his imagination got busy.
Johnny lowered his head, looking up at Bruce and yeah, there was the other look Bruce loved, the look that got him every time. Mr. Vanilla, shamelessly flirting, challenging, daring.
A beat began to pound in Bruce’s temples, in his throat, and he carefully closed the laptop and stacked the file folders in a neat pile, drawing out the moment as long as he could. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Johnny just as carefully placing his glass on the countertop. Anticipation, he thought, anticipation was what it was all about.
Almost as soon as Bruce thought it, Johnny was off, out of the kitchen and down the hall as fast as he could. The first time he’d pulled that stunt—careening through the house—Bruce had, according to Johnny, reacted predictably: pissed off and scared that John would fuck up his hip.
It hadn’t been a serious argument and it was resolved when John convinced him that he had to be allowed, within limits, to behave like a regular guy and if he messed up his hip, he messed it up.
Bruce had stewed about it for a few days before he decided to give in, conceding that what it came down to was Johnny’s need to live as normal life as possible, both the physical and the mental. So, Bruce crossed his fingers, shut up about it, and let Johnny play.
Which meant giving him a few seconds head start, before chasing after. Bruce followed the sound of running steps, the laughter as he made his way through the hall and into the dark study. He caught up with Johnny outside the little sunroom. Grabbing the back of his t-shirt, he let momentum drive them into the door with a thump. Wrapped around him from behind, Bruce could feel Johnny’s chest heave as he panted and laughed at the same time.
Answering Johnny’s laughter with a low chuckle, he murmured, “Mmm, almost got away this time.” He pressed a little closer, nuzzling Johnny’s neck, loving the contradictory scent of fabric softener and sweat, loving the way John pushed back into his arms, like he’d been waiting for him, starved for him.
“Almost did. What’re you going do about it?” Johnny let go of the door and stroked his arms, pulling them tighter, eliminating the last bit of space between them.
“This?” Bruce softly ran his tongue along the long tendon that ran the length of Johnny’s neck and bit, not softly.
Arching back with a breathless moan, Johnny reached behind, one hand awkwardly slipping into Bruce’s sweats, the other angling to touch the side of his head. “I miss your hair,” Johnny whispered as Bruce rucked up his t-shirt to stroke over the bone and muscle of his rib cage.
“Yeah, well I don’t. I don’t miss you grabbing it right at that crucial moment.” Johnny stroked the blade of his hip, trying to delve as far as he could, driving Bruce into his own personal Johnny zone. “Sorta puts a guy off his game, you know?” He slid his hand down John’s belly to the waistband of his jeans.
“Have you… Oh…” as Bruce petted and stroked. “Have you thought about growing it out again?”
“What, and have you complaining because it gets in your mouth, your eyes, your—”
Bruce snorted and Johnny pushed back again, letting go to grind his ass into Bruce’s groin. Bruce’s smile died—he wanted to eat John up, wanted to fuck him so hard that they both forgot their own names.
He slid his hand in further, searching, finding. “John…” Always so silky, so hot, and Bruce whispered again, “Johnny…”
Pulling his hand free, Bruce spun him around. “I missed you.” And John would have questioned him because it had only been a week, but Bruce didn’t give him the chance. He pressed him into the door and kissed him hungrily, biting a line up his neck to the corner of his mouth.
Johnny waited him out, his head back, eyes half-lidded, watching his every move. Bruce loved it when John looked at him like that—a kind of holding back as if he was standing on the other side of some great divide that only he could see.
Bruce didn’t know what Johnny saw at those times. What Bruce saw made his chest hurt, his eyes sting—everything known, everything acknowledged. Like he and Johnny were in their own personal dead zone, reality frozen and it was just the two of them. It was the closest thing to a perfect synergy that Bruce had ever felt and it was a constant joy.
The moment passed as it always did; time resumed with a crash and Bruce once again felt the pulse of his own desire.
He leaned in and licked Johnny’s lips, teeth clashing as Johnny grabbed his head and forced him in, both moaning softly at the same time, on the same beat.
Feeling around for the doorknob, Bruce pulled the door open a crack.
Johnny drew back. “What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like? Baby, by my figuring, we still need to christen this room.” Bruce pulled again, leaning in for another kiss, but Johnny jerked his head back. Half in the room, half out, they stood there, breathing hard, still plastered together, momentarily stalled.
“Can’t we just go upstairs or use the couch over there?” Johnny nodded to the leather sofa that Bruce had sworn he would never fuck him on again because the last time they tried it the cushions kept sliding out from beneath them. They’d ended up on the floor, too close to coming to stop. Johnny’s good knee was wrenched in the fall and Bruce’s elbows were sore for a week so he put a moratorium on study-couch sex.
“Nope, you know how I feel about that couch, it’s got it in for us. Besides, that desk,” it was Bruce’s turn to nod, pointing out the desk in the sun room, “looks about the perfect height.” Smiling again, Bruce nuzzled Johnny’s neck but again, he was pushed back.
“Bruce, I think upstairs would be better.”
“What do you mean? It’s a great room, nice and sunny and it has a sofa that you never use. In other words, perfect.”
“I—” Johnny shook his head, and Bruce was surprised to see red blooming on his already flushed cheeks—even his ears were red.
Sighing with frustration, Bruce rested his forehead on Johnny’s shoulder. It was the conservatory all over again, only this time it was worse because Johnny was lying. There was a reason he didn’t want to make love in the sunroom. And it was pointless pushing the issue—his face and voice were resolute, the way he got when he absolutely would not, never, ever, ever, do something. “All right.” Bruce nodded. “Where?”
“Upstairs?” Bruce didn’t need to be a psychic to see that John was relieved but wanting to hide it.
Promising himself that he was going to ask questions and they were going to be answered, he curled his arm around Johnny’s waist and said, “The bedroom it is.”
Johnny pulled on the handle as they left, closing the door on the sunroom like he was closing the door on the entire subject.
The Sunroom incident, unlike the Conservatory incident, stayed at the back of Bruce’s mind for days. It was there when he went to bed at night, it was the first thing he thought about when he woke up the next morning.
Generally, Johnny was Mr. Truthful, but he was also an expert at ignoring what he wouldn’t or couldn’t face.
And Bruce couldn’t blame him. Johnny had spent the last few years opening himself up to things most people never had to experience once in their lifetime, much less on a weekly basis. And because of that, he’d had to learn how to keep himself from going crazy when he came in contact with the nutjobs that clamored for his attention. Luckily he had a few good people to watch out for him or who knew how he’d have turned out?
But self-preservation wasn’t the reason why John had lied and that was the issue that Bruce fretted over. During his hours at the hospital. When he was on the road to and from Portland for Loretta Kingsley’s PT session. On and on like a broken record and he didn’t know quite what to do about it.
Finally, after five days of back and forth, disgusted with his own uncertainties, Bruce decided that worrying the subject to death wasn’t going to solve anything. He’d simply do as he’d planned: ask Johnny what was up and go from there.
Or, at least, that was the plan.
When he pulled through the gates of John’s house, he was surprised to see a big, black stretch limo in the drive. Reverend Purdy.
Bruce sighed and debated a quick retreat. Johnny knew he and the Rev didn’t get along—he wouldn’t blame Bruce for running.
But no—he shrugged in irritation—he had to see what was going on. He parked the car and got out and hesitated before leaving his duffle bag behind.
As he walked by the limo, he bent and nodded to the shadowy figure in the front seat, then ran up the steps.
Raised voices guided him and he found them in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the counter. Johnny had been in the middle of something—there was a cookbook next to the sink and a pot of steaming water on the stove. Purdy was sitting on a barstool, his hands folded neatly.
Bruce looked between them. “Am I interrupting?”
Johnny shook his head. “No. ”
Purdy tightened his lips and said nothing, but it was clear Bruce had walked in on an argument or maybe just a heated discussion. Johnny picked up a dishcloth, wiped his hands, and tossed it back on the countertop. “Gene wants me to go on a Faith Heritage retreat with him.”
Before Bruce could answer, Purdy said firmly, as if he’d already said it a few times, “Johnny, it will do these kids a world of good. Most of them are doing poorly in all subjects, especially science. It will be only four days. Surely that’s more important than anything,” he waved vaguely around the room, “you’ll be doing here?”
Johnny laughed shortly and leaned back against the sink. “Four days playing keep-away in case any of them accidentally touches me? No thanks.”
“I thought you’d come to terms with that, my boy. It’s your destiny.”
Bruce disliked it when the Reverend spoke with that patient, understanding tone. He disliked it when he called John ‘my boy.’ But he hated it when Purdy talked about destiny. It was one thing when it was just between the two of them, but the Reverend was a whole different story. He knew Purdy would use Johnny any way he could to further his church’s agenda and he hated the hell out of that.
He walked around the island and stood next to Johnny, silently making his position clear.
Purdy glanced between them and sighed, his calm demeanor cracking slightly. “I know you don’t like that discussion so let’s forget that for now. Let’s talk instead about these children. They need someone to help them, to listen to them and to guide them. Nothing more.”
Johnny blinked and started to look at Bruce, then didn’t. He looked at the floor instead and in that brief second, Bruce knew he was going to give in. Bruce’s plans went up in smoke and a small spark of irritation burned his chest. He shook his head even as Johnny said, “Just guidance?”
Purdy smiled that Cheshire smile of his. “Just guidance.”
Johnny reached for his cane. “Did you need something?”
It took Bruce a split second to realize Johnny had meant him—like Bruce was a casual friend. Like he just happened by for no reason at all.
Bruce stuffed his hands in his pockets and shook his head as the irritation grew. All the things he wanted to say, he couldn’t; not with Purdy watching. “Nothing that can’t wait.”
Johnny still wouldn’t look at him. “Then I’ll see you over the weekend?”
“Sure.” Bruce didn’t bother saying anything more. He turned and left, all too conscious of the Reverend’s considering gaze.
Like the previous week, Bruce spent the weekend worrying. Not so much about the same thing, though. Johnny didn’t call and Bruce couldn’t help himself—he phoned twice, each time getting no answer and no return call.
On Monday, telling himself it wasn’t giving in, Bruce ran by Johnny’s on his way to work. He let himself in and headed for the kitchen. Johnny was at the kitchen table, writing a letter with a stack of books and a padded envelope at his elbow. He gave Bruce a distracted smile and went back to writing.
Bruce paused. “What’s up?”
“Writing a letter.”
Bruce kept the instant irritation at bay. “I can see that.” He went to stand by John, not commenting when Johnny hunched his shoulders and leaned away. “Who are you writing to?”
“My old pal, Conrad.” Johnny signed his name with a flourish and carefully folded the paper in thirds.
“How is Conrad these days? Still bored, waiting for his time to be up?” Bruce had gone with Johnny to Bolduc right after Conrad had begun his stint. He’d spent the entire time wondering how the hell such a naive and relatively harmless man was going to make it in prison, even one like Bolduc.
“Yeah, still bored. I’m sending him a couple books.” Johnny gestured to the stack. “We’ll see how long it takes him to get through those.”
Bruce picked up the top book—A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “Mark Twain? It’ll take him this year and most of next. And you’ll probably have to explain most of it to him.”
“Maybe.” Johnny grinned up at him. “Probably. Conrad wasn’t much for reading when he was on the outside.” He stuffed the paper and the books in the envelope and sealed it shut with packing tape. “And what can I do you for on this fine day.”
Usually they didn’t have to ask that question, and the fact that Johnny did put Bruce on the defensive before he could stop himself. “What do you—” He stopped and took a deep, calming breath. “Just came by to see how you’re doing.” He started to say, still in that calm, professional manner, that they needed to talk, but Johnny was looking at him, only he wasn’t looking at him. Again.
“Oh,” John got up and walked into the kitchen. “You know, same old, same old.”
“Uh, huh.” Bruce got up and followed. “So ‘same old, same old,’ means you don’t return my calls and you don’t call me.” So much for calm and professional. Bruce reached out but before he could, Johnny yanked his arm back of reach. Well and truly shocked, Bruce just stared.
And Johnny was shocked as well. He turned gripped his cane harder and said to the floor, “Sorry.”
“I thought you didn’t get visions off me anymore.”
“Were you afraid you’d see something?”
“Did something happen at the retreat?”
“Did Purdy say or do anything to freak you out.”
Bruce threw up his hands. “Dammit, John!”
Johnny straightened up, angry as well. “What do you want me to say? I’m sorry. I overreacted. I’ll never do it again.” His voice had risen and he’d retreated further, behind the island now. He couldn’t have been more clear if he’d taped a sign on his chest saying, Bruce, don’t touch me and while you’re at it, stop asking me questions.
Angry but also worried because this was going places he hadn’t expected, Bruce shook his head and stepped back, giving them both room to breath. There was an intensity to Johnny’s responses that was way over the top for the situation and he wondered if he’d been telling the truth when he said nothing had happened at the retreat. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
Johnny looked him dead on. “Nothing’s going on.”
“You’re lying to me.”
“I’m not,” Johnny lied again, desperation coloring his eyes, his cheeks. Bruce forced himself to look away. He’d backed Johnny into a metaphoric and literal corner and he needed to find a way around it. For both their sakes.
“Okay, okay, you’re not lying.” But you’re sure as hell aren’t telling the truth. “I think we need some down time. How ‘bout I call you in a few days and we’ll talk then.”
Johnny nodded a couple times and swallowed thickly. “Bruce—”
“Yeah, I know.” He tried to laugh. “Our first big fight.”
“Okay.” Bruce tapped the countertop with his fingers and left before he could say or do anything else. Out the door, into the crisp fall afternoon air, his anger and frustration propelling him across the drive and into his car. He didn’t look back to see if Johnny had come out to wave him off—he had that much control left.
It wasn’t until he got home and was in the shower, trying to wash away his anger that he wondered for the first time if he could handle this on his own, that he could handle Johnny on his own. Maybe there was something was seriously wrong and it was time to call in the troops.
By the time he got out and was dry, he’d calmed down and decided he’d overreacted.
By unspoken, hopefully mutual agreement, they left each other alone—Bruce didn’t call John and John didn’t call him. He picked up the phone several times, but immediately set it back down. He’d been the one to take the first step last time; Johnny could do his own walking this time.
He knew he was behaving childishly, but still, if it hadn’t been for their bi-weekly PT appointment, he wondered later who would have held out the longest. Probably Johnny.
He arrived on time and pulled up next to Johnny’s car and sat there for a moment. The sky was a mass of various shades of white. Halloween was two weeks away and he wondered if they’d have a first snow before than. Probably.
Johnny had told him stories about growing up in Maine. How the first snows always made everyone a little wild, a little crazy. At the time, Bruce had thought it sounded nostalgic and quaint. Now he thought it sounded ominous and a little creepy and couldn’t help his shiver as he stared up at the colorless sky.
Finally, he got his bag and closed the car door determinedly.
Because of the circumstances, he used the doorbell instead of his key. And waited, trying not to fidget. He gave the bell another twist and waited some more. He went back down the stairs to make sure, and yeah, there was John’s jeep, parked where it should be. Not that he ever took it out.
He went back to the door and hesitated. John was a lot of things, but he’d never leave someone out on the stoop—he was just too polite for that. So that meant…
Bruce didn’t know what it meant, and his familiar irritation transformed into a more familiar worry.
He let himself in and dropped his bag by the door. The house was profoundly quiet and when he walked into the hall, he practically tiptoed. “John?”
There was no answering shout, no other noise but a low drone. He followed the sound to the living room—the television was on, turned to the noon newscast.
He scanned the room. The French doors were closed so John wasn’t outside. It was possible he was in the bathroom, but he would have heard Bruce’s first call and anyway, Bruce would have heard some sort of noise by now, even if it were just the pipes. He picked up the remote and switched the TV off and the silence grew.
He turned and went into the kitchen. There was a newspaper open to the sports section on the table and a coffee cup nearby. He touched the cup. It was still warm.
Softer this time because the house felt wrong, Bruce called again, “Johnny?”
His call echoed weakly through the cavernous rooms and he reminded himself that there was no reason to be afraid. No reason for his heart to jerk and thump. Johnny was probably asleep. He’d been having a tough time—they’d both had, and he was probably asleep. That’s all.
Still, as Bruce made his way through the kitchen to the foot of the stairs, he couldn’t help but feel as if the air had thickened, that each step after step was like wading through something cloying and nasty and he had to force himself to grab hold of the railing, force himself to take the first step.
He climbed the stairs slowly. He knew Johnny was going through a mild depression, and that was more than normal. All of Bruce’s patients had dealt with depression, at one time or another.
It didn’t mean Johnny’d had enough. Didn’t mean that he was floating in the bathtub in a pool of bloody water or hanging from a hook in the ceiling, his face purple with bloat. Or maybe he’d gone the other route, gone crazy, living with all his memories and visions and Bruce remembered, ‘How many times do people have to die in my head before I go crazy?’ Said during another time when Johnny had holed himself up in his house and wouldn’t come out.
The third step from the top creaked like it always did and Bruce stumbled and clutched his heart. “Goddamnit!” he swore softly, his own voice muted against the blood pounding in his ears.
It was the house, that’s what it was. It was listening to Bruce as he made his way to the first floor, as he walked slowly to John’s bedroom.
The house, with its too many rooms, its too many nooks and crannies… It could be seriously creepy. It had seen its share of pain and death, and that kind of trauma tended soak into a home like blood soaked into a rug. A deep, dark stain that could never be completely removed, never be completely forgotten. But, that didn’t mean someone or some thing was up there, waiting with a knife or a rope. Waiting to creep up behind him and...
Bruce whirled around. There was no one behind him—it was just his imagination going into overdrive. He cleared his throat and whispered, “John?”
Again, there was no response, but he thought he heard a small sound from the bedroom, like a low moan of pain and the hair on the back of his neck raised in protest. He edged to the door and pushed it open with a shaking hand, prepared for anything.
The curtains were pulled shut and it took him a moment to see Johnny, a dark shadow in the dark room, standing by his mom’s rocking chair. He was staring down at it while he pushed it to and fro with the tip of his finger.
Bruce’s breath caught in his throat. Johnny didn’t look up, didn’t even seem to realize that he was there. “John?”
Fourth time was a charm. Johnny slowly glanced up, his blank eyes gleaming silver in the dim light and Bruce was reminded of a story he’d read when he was young, about a boy who’d wandered away from home and got lost in a forest of perpetual twilight. A forest filled with creatures like elves and goblins that kept to the darker shadows of the trees and whose eyes reflected the moon and the stars. Just like Johnny’s.
But Johnny wasn’t a goblin and he sure as hell wasn’t an elf. He was just a guy who was on the edge of something big and Bruce had to be there to catch him when he tripped because the fall was going to be a killer.
Wincing at his own thought, Bruce held out his hand. “Are you okay?”
Johnny said nothing for a moment, and then he drew a quick breath. As if he’d been underwater and was startled into coming up for air. “Bruce?” His voice was scratchy and faint.
“Yeah, it’s me.” Bruce held out his hand, like he would when approaching a strange dog, cautious, careful. He took a couple steps into the room. “You okay?”
“Yeah…” Johnny cleared his throat. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He walked over to switch on the light. He was limping heavily, leaning on the cane more than usual. He must have been standing still for some time, putting too much weight on the bad leg.
Knowing it would be futile, knowing he had to try anyway, Bruce asked, “What’s going on?”
Johnny straightened the lampshade that didn’t need straightening, and shrugged. “Oh, you know, nothing much.”
Uh, huh. Bruce walked over and placed a wary hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Have you eaten today?”
“Sure…” Johnny paused for a moment, then shook his head and laughed. Turning, he really looked at Bruce for the first time and his eyes were no longer silver, just the normal blue. “I can’t remember.”
“Okay, well I haven’t and I’m starved.” He touched the small of John’s back and gently pushed him to the door. “Let’s go see if you remembered to go to the store. And then we’ll see if you remembered to put away the groceries.” He was using the voice he kept for his trauma patients, but he couldn’t help it—he was still afraid.
Johnny didn’t notice, in any case. He gripped his cane and looked over his shoulder. The blank look was back. “I thought you were mad at me?”
John shrugged. “Okay.”
Bruce forced a smile as he pushed Johnny ahead of him, his neck stiff with the effort of keeping his eyes straight ahead so he wouldn’t turn in case he saw the chair rocking by itself, back and forth.
Bruce pressed his lips together and didn’t look up from Arthur Allen’s chart.
“Bruce, phone for you!”
He sighed. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” Sheila Parsons was standing by the desk, phone in hand. That woman had a mouth on her and no mistake. They should just get rid of their intercom system—the entire hospital had probably heard her shouting. He took the phone and moved as far away as the cord would let him. “This is Bruce Lewis.”
“Is this the famous Bruce Lewis? The Bruce Lewis with the magic hands?”
“Yeah, this is that Bruce.” He turned away from the desk and lowered his voice, making it harder for Sheila to eavesdrop. “And don’t forget the magic mouth and the magic fingers.”
Johnny snorted. “Oh, please.”
Bruce leaned against the desk, a smile breaking through his frown. For the first time in a long while Johnny actually sounded normal. “What’s up? I haven’t picked up the tickets, if that’s what you’re calling about.”
They’d had resolved nothing. After the Chair Incident, Bruce had swept his angry words under the carpet and stepped on them for good measure. It wasn’t what he wanted, but he wasn’t thinking anymore about what he wanted. The only thing that mattered was for John to be all right and not go crazy on him.
Johnny cleared his throat. “Well, that’s what I was calling about.”
Bruce’s smile died. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. I know we had plans, but this is the opening night and it’ll be packed. Why don’t we wait until the middle of next week and go during the day?”
Johnny was making an effort, but Bruce could hear the off note—he was lying again. Just par for the course, these days. “I might not have the time.” Which was mostly true—his schedule was tight.
“C’mon,” Johnny wheedled. “It’ll be more fun and the popcorn will be fresher.”
Which made no sense at all. Johnny never cared much about what he ate. “I don’t—”
“It’s just… I’m just really tired and I probably should go to bed early.”
“Am I invited over?” Bruce asked because Johnny would expect it—and he knew before John said anything, what the answer would be.
Bruce’s fist tightened on the phone and he pictured himself picking it up and throwing it across the nurse’s station. Everything in him was screaming to force the issue, to just make Johnny tell him what was going on. But that hadn’t worked before and it wouldn’t work now. He needed to talk to someone first. Someone who knew Johnny longer and better. “It’s okay. You’ve got something going on, I know.” He didn’t bother keeping the hurt and anger out of his voice.
“It’s not that. I’m not… It’s not someone… You know I would never…” Johnny stuttered to a halt. “I just need to be alone for a while.”
“Okay, okay. Listen, call tomorrow and let me know how you are, all right? Just so I know you’re still alive?”
Johnny sighed. “Sure. I’ll call in the morning.”
“Whatever.” Bruce hung up before he could say anything more, before Johnny could apologize again.
Sheila was watching out of the side of her eyes and Bruce felt another surge of anger.
He stared at her with a bitter, screw you, Sheila—like your life is any better, look. She made a face and returned to her paperwork and he turned to the doors. He stalked outside to sit in the park across the street, needing to find his center before his next appointment. He had about an hour and the way he was feeling, he’d need it. The state he was in, he’d cause more trauma than he’d heal. He found a bench and threw himself down, running his hand over his beard.
The day was almost sunny, but a cold breeze was winding its way through the trees and bushes, making the dying leaves chatter. He shivered slightly and rubbed the bare nape of his neck. It used to be he didn’t worry much about the cold—his hair always kept him warm. Maybe John was right, maybe he should let it grow again.
Still, the crisp air cleaned out the cobwebs and helped his mind focus and he crossed his arms around his chest and leaned back to look up at the trees.
Buddha said that holding onto anger with the intent of passing it on only hurt the self. He also said that doubt is the poison that broke up friendships, that destroyed relationships. And that could only be right, Bruce thought, because he could feel it, could almost see it, the progression of angry accusation and rebuttal that led to more anger, until all he and Johnny had left was the shell of something he had thought pure and solid and forever.
The Dalai Lama taught of the healing power of the clean sweep anger. How, through patience and care, anger could be unfolded and revealed to show the true path.
Not a dichotomy, Bruce realized because the one was the caution, the other, the transformative.
So he sat there, feeling the cold wind, hearing the world. And he let go of his anger, his worry, his fear, bit by bit. He remembered why he’d fallen for Johnny in the first place, why it felt so right to be by his side, why it felt so right to have Johnny by his. Completion and a bulwark, both in the same. For both of them.
Finally, when he was at peace, Bruce lay down on the bench and smiled up at the pale blue sky. When he got home, he’d call his mom and ask her opinion. And if that didn’t help, he’d call Sarah.
Bruce paced in front of the sliding glass door as him mother wound down. “And make sure you’re eating well, because I know you.”
“I am, ma, I am.”
“Uh, huh. I’ve heard that one before.”
“Hey ma? I gotta go.”
“And don’t go staying up all night, following your friend all over the place. I swear you two are like little boys, always getting into trouble.”
He’d never told his mother too much about Johnny’s cases, but that never stopped her from imagining the worst. “Ma, listen, I’m fine, Johnny’s fine, but I gotta go.”
“All right, son. You take care of yourself, hear?”
He stopped pacing because she was almost done. “You too, ma.”
“I love you, Bruce.”
“Love you too, ma. ’Bye”
He hung up and stretched his arms over his head. One minute into the conversation, he knew he was going to chicken out on telling her about the problems with Johnny. There was no way to explain his worry without explaining everything. And even though he and his mom and never had ‘the talk’ that didn’t mean she didn’t know the score.
He leaned against the balcony door and kicked the metal frame distractedly. Sometimes it seemed as if his mother was as strong a psychic as Johnny.
The last time they’d seen each other, when he and Johnny had gone back to Indianapolis for her birthday, his mother had delicately skated around the subject of Johnny, asking without really asking, what was going on. Bruce had known she didn’t really want to know, and even though it went against everything he believed in, he’d avoided responding truthfully to her pointed looks and subtle questions. Besides, his private life was now Johnny’s private life, and he was wary of giving out too much information, even to his own mother. One day he’d get the courage to tell her, but until then, he was thankful for the many miles between them.
But it was a measure of how screwed up he was about everything that he’d actually thought to go to her for romantic advice.
Shaking his head at his own idiocy, he sat on the couch and began scrolling through his address book. He’d stored Sarah’s phone number down a while ago, never really thinking to need it. He was getting ready to hit ‘send,’ when the doorbell rang.
He ignored it. It was probably Mr. Ellis, come to ask about the latest tenant meeting. The doorbell rang again, this time a couple buzzes in quick succession. Before the sound died, the someone began knocking. And no, that wasn’t Mr. Ellis. He was never that eager to find out about the outcome of the meetings, which was why he always missed them in the first place.
Bruce hurried to the door and pulled it open. “What the— Oh.” Sarah, the last person he expected to find at his door.
She waved her hand in a short arc and gave a nervous smile. “Hi.”
“Hey, Sarah. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah… I’m sorry for the interruption, but I couldn’t… Is Johnny here?“ She pushed a wing of dark hair behind her ear and peeked around Bruce to look into the apartment.
“Nope, John’s on his own tonight.”
Sarah nodded a couple times as if she’d expected nothing else. “Good. I mean, not good, but…” She looked up at him, beseeching, “can I come in?”
Bruce shook his head stepped back to let her in. “Sorry, Sarah. I was just surprised.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there before.”
“No, it’s not that.” Bruce closed the door behind her. She looked around, and he followed her, wondering what she thought of his place. He hadn’t been spending a lot of time here lately, but luckily the place was mostly clean. “I was just getting ready to call you.”
She turned, her eyes wide. “You were?”
“That’s not good.” And then, when Bruce raised his eyebrow, she added, “No, I don’t mean it like that. It’s just—” She took a deep breath and smiled ruefully. “Bruce, I don’t know what I mean.”
Bruce matched her smile and didn’t say, ‘welcome to the club’ as he waved her to the sofa. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Sarah sat down and pulled her purse to her lap. Like a shield. “I like this place; it’s pretty. And no, I can’t stay. I just needed to ask you…” She ran down again twisted the clasp on her purse, around and around.
Bruce sat on the arm of the chair. “About Johnny?”
“Yes.” She smiled up at him, but the worry was clear in her eyes. “You too?”
“Yeah, me too.”
Twisting the clasp again, she asked softly, “Are you guys fighting?”
Bruce crossed his arms over his chest. Like the situation with his mom, he and Sarah had never talked about Johnny, they’d never really had the chance. She knew, though.
The week after their first night together, after Johnny had told Bruce that he was in love with him and had been for some time, he also told Bruce that Sarah needed to know. Bruce hadn’t argued, hadn’t even thought about it—Johnny and Sarah were part of each other and he wasn’t the jealous type.
So Johnny had invited Sarah out to dinner, just the two of them.
Bruce was never sure how she’d taken it—he hadn’t asked and Johnny hadn’t offered. All he knew was that for the next couple weeks, Johnny walked around as if he was carrying a heavy load and Sarah stopped coming by unannounced. Eventually things changed again—Johnny’s mood lightened and Sarah began calling again.
And as far as Bruce was concerned, that was how it should be. There was an unspoken agreement between he and Sarah that any hurt they did each other, would transfer to Johnny in turn and they both loved him too much for that. Finally, because Sarah was waiting for his answer, Bruce shrugged and said, “No, not really. I mean…” It was his turn to falter and he ran his hands over his hair, wondering where to start.
Sarah choked out a laugh. “I know. He’s being ‘Johnny,’ isn’t he?” She leaned back, relaxing for the first time. “But this is something different, right? I’ve been calling for weeks, but every time he finds a reason not to get together. Even after…” She stopped and glanced away and Bruce knew she was thinking about the limits put on her after he and Johnny had hooked up. “He’s been so distant, lately, and I’m worried about him. I saw him at the store the other day and I swear Bruce, he didn’t recognize me and I—”
She swallowed hard. Bruce nodded. “Yeah, I’m worried, too.” And because she was the one to come to him, he gave her a bit extra. “I was hoping you could help me figure out what’s going on.”
He thought it would cheer her up, but instead she just frowned. “What happened?”
Bruce imagined telling her the subtle change in Johnny’s demeanor, all the times that he’d pulled away, his refusal to have sex in certain rooms… He choked back an awkward laugh and just said, “He’s just withdrawing. Into himself like he does.”
“Have you tried talking to him about it?”
“Of course I have, Sarah. He just says everything’s fine, that he’s fine.”
“And he’s anything but?”
The both were quiet for a moment. Then Sarah said slowly, “I’m not sure if this means anything, but I’ve been going over everything, and the only thing I can come up with is that his mom’s birthday is… Her birthday would’ve been in a few days. She would’ve been sixty this year.”
Bruce jerked his head up. He thought back to the last month, Johnny’s gradual shift from happiness to shame and he felt like slapping his forehead, like they did on TV. That had to be it and if he hadn’t been so freaked he would have known— “Did Johnny ever tell you he saw his mom. I mean, his mom’s ghost, a couple years ago?”
Sarah’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “I think he asked some questions about how she died. He thought Purdy had something to do with it. I just thought he was being paranoid. They never got on very well, anyway—”
She trailed off and Bruce added grimly, “He told me he saw a vision of the Rev covered in blood.”
“Poor Johnny. What did Purdy say?”
But Bruce couldn’t tell her that. Couldn’t tell her that Johnny’s mom had committed suicide because the loss of her only child had been too much for her. “I think I’d better let him tell you that, okay?”
“Okay,” Sarah said slowly, clearly not happy. “But what are you going to do?”
“You ever hear of Daniel, Sarah?”
“Just something about a den and some lions.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna beard the lion in his den—have it out with him, one way or another.”
“Good.” Sarah smiled again, a little stiff and creaky, but still, a smile. She leaned over and patted his knee and got up to go to the door.
He followed, already planning what he’d say to John when Sarah stopped abruptly, pausing by the shelves that held his keepsakes. She picked up a small quartz and held it up. “Johnny?”
Bruce paused then touched the stone. “Yeah, he gave it to me a while ago, said it would bring me luck.” And that was another thing he wasn’t going to tell her. She didn’t need to know that Johnny had found the rock on the beach where they’d gone to get away from it all. That they had only slept a few hours because they’d spent the night making love and they were both still in that morning-after daze when they went for a walk. Johnny had found the rock half buried in the sand and he’d picked it up, turning it over and over. With a glance that had burned Bruce’s heart, John had laid the stone in his hand without a word, pressing both their palms around the cold stone.
Bruce, knowing a talisman when he saw it, had brought the rock home and put it on the shelf next to the picture of his parents.
Sarah looked away as she said, “He gave me one a long time ago. I gave it to J.J. last year.” She placed it back on the shelf and jerked her head in a short nod. “Thanks.”
Not sure what she was thanking him for, he nodded back. She was almost to the door when he stopped her because he had to know… “Sarah?”
She didn’t turn around. “Yes?”
“You could have gone to him yourself. Could have helped him yourself.”
Sarah looked over her shoulder. “I could have, but I didn’t.” And there was a curious look in her eyes, an almost harsh pride, and Bruce was reminded that she could have made his place in John’s life very difficult. She stared at Bruce for a long moment, but then she smiled again as she shook her head sadly. “And he wouldn’t have wanted me to.”
And she was out the door without another word.
The sun was just setting as Bruce pulled into the Smith driveway. He got out of the car and he looked up, an atavistic thrill running down his spine. Like it had the last time he’d visited, the sky was heavy with white, but right at the horizon, the clouds gave way to a thin strip of open space and the sun darted through, an odd bright orange. It was beautiful and ominous and he refused to read anything into it. It was just a sunset, nothing more.
Reaching into the car, he grabbed the grocery bags and made his way to the front door. He knew Johnny pretty well by now, knew the value of food as a diversion. If John were going to fight him every inch of the way, it would be necessary to do a sleight of hand, as it were. Getting the grill ready, the food prepared would be a nice, everyday, no underhanded-plot-intended, diversion. And if the worst happened, if Johnny wouldn’t listen to reason, they could use the food to recharge all that energy they’d lose after they got done yelling at each other.
He rang the bell and waited, wondering if Johnny knew he was out there, and if he was going keep him waiting on purpose. They usually never played mind games with each other, not the hurtful kind, but Johnny had been so weird lately, who knew how he’d react to the unexpected visit?
Shaking his head, Bruce wondered if he should give it a few more days, maybe he was too jumpy to actually do this right. Maybe—
The door jerked open and Bruce stood there, his rehearsed speech forgotten. Johnny was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but he’d just shaved and was wearing his suit jacket. He never wore that unless he was going out.
Bruce smiled benignly. “Hey.”
Johnny raised one eyebrow. “I thought we cancelled.”
His tone was abrupt, almost rude, and that told Bruce that it was time to stop stalling and since there was no defense like a good offense— “Yeah, well I thought about it and decided to un-cancel.”
Johnny’s mouth tightened and his fair skin reddened. “And you didn’t think to ask me?” Good thing was, he didn’t slam the door shut; bad thing was, he didn’t open it any further. “Bruce—”
“Can I come in, or are we going to have this conversation out here?” Bruce gestured to the invisible neighbors. “I don’t mind. I know they’re dying to know what we talk about.”
Johnny gripped his cane and Bruce thought, ‘oh, shit,’ but with an irritated shake of his head, Johnny stepped back and Bruce slid in, careful not to touch any part of Johnny’s body as he led the way to the kitchen.
He looked around as he walked and breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had a sudden thought, while waiting to be rung up at the grocery store, that Johnny might take it in his head to celebrate his mom’s birthday all by himself. Not only would that be sad, but it would also be more than a little spooky, given the history of the house and the history of the Smiths. But things looked the same, no balloons or streamers or party music. Other than a scratchy tune that it took him a minute to recognize: This Little Light of Mine.
He sat the grocery bags on the countertop and turned around to lean back against the edge. His heart was starting to pound, but it was important that he keep control. “So, we gonna do this the easy way or the hard way?”
Johnny didn’t even try to pretend to play dumb. He propped one shoulder against the doorjamb and he stared at his cane while he thumbed the head. “The hard way.”
“Okay, I can do that.” Bruce nodded seriously, gave it a beat, then said baldly. “Sarah came to see me today.”
Johnny stilled and looked up. “Yeah?”
Bruce smiled, feeling a bit of the wolf around the edges—a clean sweep of anger—and said, “Yeah. Told me something you should have told me days ago. A little something about your mom.”
Johnny shook his head, his throat working. “It wasn’t any—” He shut his mouth on his words, which was good because at this point, Bruce wasn’t sure how he take it, being told that something in Johnny’s life wasn’t his business.
“Anyway, it got me thinking.”
Johnny edged into the room and walked around the island. “What about?”
“About you and me and why you’ve been avoiding me. Why you’re ashamed of me.” Bruce pointed his finger, letting his anger show. “And don’t lie to me. You know it, and I know it.”
“Bruce…” Johnny began and then shook his head again.
“John.” He walked around the island and stood as close to Johnny as he could without scaring him away. “Sometimes, with you, it’s like pulling teeth.”
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?” Johnny was still frowning at his cane, still running his thumb over the head and Bruce had to pull himself back from grabbing it and throwing it across the room. It wasn’t the cane’s fault that Johnny was pissing him off.
“It means I want to know why you didn’t tell me about your mom, why you haven’t been returning my calls, and how come,” he inched closer and reached out, gently stroking Johnny’s cheek, “how come, in your own house, the house you grew up in, some rooms are off limits to us?” He could feel Johnny’s muscles tense for flight and he pressed his hip against him, not caging, but letting him know that running wouldn’t work. Not this time.
Johnny tried to pull away, but Bruce wouldn’t let him, thinking that they were going to be chasing each other around the house pretty soon, and not in a good way.
“Bruce, that’s… There’s just some things I’m trying to work out and I don’t need a chorus chiming in every time I make a decision.”
Biting his tongue, literally, Bruce counted to ten as the anger blossomed through from belly to fingertips. It would be so easy to let the argument escalate to the point Johnny seemed to want, to hammer away with no thought for tomorrow. It would be too easy and he said softly, distinctly, “We are not a chorus, John. We just happen to care about you. We happed to be worried about you.”
“Well, if you cared so much, why don’t you just leave me alone?”
Bruce smiled grimly. “I tried doing that, and baby, it’s not working.”
“Don’t call me…” Johnny broke off, mouth open, eyes wide and blue.
Here we go. “‘Don’t call me,’ what, John?”
Bruce shook his head. “No, not this time. Finish what you were going to say.”
Johnny pressed his lips together, his expression changing from shock to something that looked a lot like fear.
Bruce held his glance, silently saying ‘trust me, trust me—trust what we have.’
Bruce stepped forward and this time Johnny didn’t retreat. “C’mon, man. You’re scaring me here. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I…” Johnny shrugged, and looked down at the floor. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about my mom and all this.”
Bruce didn’t have to be a psychic to know what Johnny meant by all this. “Yeah.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah. You and me.” He rubbed his hand across his forehead and drew a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking that maybe this wasn’t the life my mom had planned out for me.”
Bruce swallowed a couple times, choking back the words that wanted to rush out. ‘They’ hadn’t been in his game plan either, but the heart wanted what it wanted. Johnny loved him. Bruce knew that as surely as he knew God was in his heaven. “Go on.”
Johnny’s voice lowered, almost to a whisper—they were getting to the dead heart of the matter. “Do you remember that time I saw my mom?”
A shiver blew cold across the back of Bruce’s neck but he didn’t let Johnny see it. “You mean when you saw her ghost?”
“Yeah, that time.” He finally turned and looked at Bruce from under his lashes, his eyes intense, fey, like the week before when Bruce had caught him standing before his mom’s rocking chair. “I thought, maybe since it was her birthday…” He made a helpless gesture. “I’ve been waiting for her, Bruce, looking for her. But I can’t find her.”
Bruce’s breath caught in his chest and he told himself not to break, not now because even after all he and Johnny had been through, all he had seen, sometimes Johnny still scared the hell out of him.
Imagine, waiting in an empty house, listening for the sharp creak of a floorboard as someone stepped lightly across the room, or waiting to feel air shift as someone walked by, even though that someone was long dead…
A man could wait forever, growing cold in his own body, the hours turning into days, the days turning into weeks—
The music shut off and the sudden silence jerked Bruce out of his daze and he felt it again—the house was holding its breath, waiting for his next move.
Shaking off his fright, he told himself that Johnny didn’t need one more person being afraid of him. He’d had enough of that to last a lifetime. And that whatever he said next, it had to be the right thing, the perfect thing that would pull John back from the edge he was treading.
“So you’re thinking, what, that since you haven’t seen her, that she must be in ghost heaven, weeping and wailing because we’ve been going at it like bunnies?”
Johnny frowned at his levity and made to push away, but Bruce grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Listen to yourself, man! Your mom loved you!” He shook Johnny’s arm and repeated, quietly this time, “She loved you, John.”
He cautiously wrapped his arms around Johnny, using his body and his voice and his heart to soften the words he had to say. “You thought maybe if you were a good boy, maybe she’d come back?” He stroked a light hand up and down Johnny’s spine. “That you should do what you think she’d want and she’d come back to you, all happy that you were normal and straight?”
Johnny made some soft noise and turned his face away as far as he could, but no, no more running—Bruce gently forced his head back around, ducking a little so that Johnny had to look at him. “It doesn’t work that way, John, you know that. Your mom loved you—she loved all of you. And you know she wouldn’t care if you were screwing the queen of England if it meant you were happy.”
Johnny stared at him, eyes blue as ice, mouth working, gauging—Bruce knew—whether or not he actually meant what he said, whether or not he honestly believed.
Bruce kissed his temple, kissed his soft pale hair. “Baby, you were always her good boy. You always will be.”
“How do you know that? You never met her.”
Johnny’s voice was rusty, as if he’d been shouting, and Bruce kissed his temple again. “I don’t have to have met her, John. I know her son and anything—”
Johnny didn’t give him a chance to finish. He dropped his cane and pressed into Bruce, holding on so hard, so frantically that Bruce almost toppled backwards. But he didn’t; he straightened into John and held him back.
They stood there for what was probably only a few minutes, but seemed a lifetime, until John relaxed, muscle by muscle, until he was lying against Bruce, heavy and lax.
Bruce felt oddly light, as if he’d just jumped off a cliff that had seemed shallow but had ended up nightmarishly deep and he remembered his thought of the other day, how he’d thought he’d be the one doing all the catching. Not the case—the beauty of love was that one received the moment one gave.
The house creaked again, but this time it was the normal, everyday sounds of a house settling in for the night and he turned to look out the window.
The sun was gone and all he could make out was the soft silhouettes of the pines that bordered the property. That, and the reflection of the two of them, bound together and a fierce joy echoed through his body. They’d come so close to losing each other, but now…
Johnny shifted in Bruce’s arms. “What would I do without you?”
The question was rhetorical, no answer needed. Which was good because Bruce had to swallow around the lump in his throat as he remembered the borrowed vision from his father’s funeral. Remembered the Other Johnny, dying on a backstage floor, a bullet in his chest, confusion in his eyes.
Johnny had never asked about that vision and Bruce had never volunteers the details. The memory was still too real, too painful.
One day soon, though—he tightened his arms around Johnny—one day soon…
He’d tell Johnny how it was then that he first knew that their lives were so intertwined there was no use trying to separate them anymore. How even his own father had recognized what they were to each other. And that no matter the dark weight of it, Johnny’s need for him was a burden he’d gladly carry.
But for now, catharsis was a bitch and the best thing for the both of them was to cook up the steaks before they spoiled. And then… “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. How ‘bout we eat while we watch the X-files, then say a little prayer for your mom before bed?”
John sighed and rubbed his cheek against Bruce’s. He said nothing for a moment and then pulled away and ran a quick hand over his eyes. “I thought you said it got too confusing.”
“The X-files? We’ll watch one of the earlier episodes.”
“The carnival one?”
“Yeah, the carnival one.” Bruce let Johnny go and began to rifle through the grocery bags. “I don’t know why you like that one so much. Are you hungry? I got an extra steak, just in case.”
“Yeah, that sounds good. I can’t remember if I ate today.”
Bruce said nothing, just reached out to stroke John’s wrist, then went back to the food.
Shoulder to shoulder they cut and chopped and grated; all the things they’d done countless times before, only this time Bruce could feel the connection between them—clear and whole, so secure it might as well be made of titanium. Like they’d both walked through small inferno and come through slightly scathed, but stronger than when they’d gone in.
“You’re staying, right?” Johnny’s voice was hushed, but in the ‘I’ve just been through a rough time,’ way, not the ‘I’m hearing voices so shut up so I can listen to them,’ way.
“Well, that depends.” Bruce bumped his hip against Johnny’s and smiled.
Johnny grinned down at the green pepper he was slicing. “On?”
“On if you’ve changed the sheets in the last few weeks or so.”
“Bruce, I’m not a complete pig, you know.” Johnny gestured with the knife for emphasis. “I even remembered to use that softener you made me buy.”
Johnny rolled his eyes and gave a weak laugh. “I’ve missed you.”
Bruce bumped his hip again. “Me too.”
“So what do you say about doing a little christening tomorrow and take advantage of that desk in the sunroom?” Johnny didn’t look up from the peppers, but Bruce caught his smile all the same.
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll even try out that killer couch in the study again, just for you.”
This time Johnny’s laugh rang clear and true. “Well, jeez, Bruce, I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself, making all these big, romantic gestures. Now what are you going to do for Valentine’s Day?”
“Ha, ha,” Bruce piled the mushrooms onto the waiting plate. “I still have four months, I’ll figure something out.” He set his knife in the sink and reached for Johnny’s, laying it down as well. Then he pulled Johnny in, kissing him with a hunger that wasn’t for food, murmuring, “Yeah, I’ll figure it out real good.”
Bruce balanced on the love seat, trying to fit in the too-small space while Johnny slept. The sun had moved across the room as he’d watched, alternately hiding and revealing the ornate patterned rug that lay at his feet.
The room was feminine and pretty, full of little statues and mementos. A reflection, he supposed, of its previous owner. It also had a great aura—warm and welcoming. Even Johnny admitted that.
The love seat, though, wasn’t any more comfortable than the sofa in the study, but at least his elbows and John’s knee had survived. He rubbed his thigh where he had banged it against the desk an hour before. His response, when Johnny had wrapped his legs around his waist to pull him in had been a little too enthusiastic, a little too heartfelt.
He smiled at the memory and Johnny shifted rubbing his cheek against Bruce’s chest.
“We christened the sunroom,” Johnny whispered.
“Yep, we christened it all over the place.” Worked out a few issues, had a great time. Bruce smoothed Johnny’s hair where it was sticking up. “That only leaves the downstairs bathroom, the creepy basement and the conservatory.”
“What about the roof?” Johnny stretched and Bruce’s dick woke up.
“No way, man. There is no way we’re going to haul ass up there and do it in front of all your whiter than white neighbors. And no,” he added when Johnny rolled his eyes at him, “the rose garden doesn’t count ’cause only a giraffe could see over that part of the wall.”
Johnny shifted again and looked up at Bruce from under his lashes. Carefully, not breaking eye contact, he mouthed his way down Bruce’s chest.
The roof had a pitch of about forty-five degrees and was only accessible through two tiny attic windows. And even though there were a lot of nooks and crannies, it was as hot as hell up there, even in October. He combed his fingers through Johnny’s short hair, trying for purchase, and insisted, “I mean it, John. There is no way—”
Johnny smiled and pulled his head free. He scooted down to lick Bruce’s rib cage, to bite one of his floating ribs. Bruce closed his eyes and sighed as he got hard again. Shit.
He was so screwed.