“You don’t have to do that,” said Harriet, but they both knew Howard wanted to. He cupped her hips between his hands and rubbed his scruffy cheek along her inner thigh, drawing a low moan from her throat. When he took her cock into his mouth, he felt like he was home. The voices faded to whispers.
Howard dreamed about a turtle shell rising from the ocean. It opened, and Harriet emerged as Venus, the surf foaming about her feet. When he reached for her, she sank back into the sea. He was left with fists full of sea foam and an aching hard-on.
When he woke up in the tiny loft above the diner, Harriet was gone again.
Act 1: Desire
“Your aura is clouded today,” Pepper observed. His floppy auburn hair was held at bay with an orange silk scarf, and his necklace bristled with crystal points. He drained a pot of black beans over the sink. “What’s bothering you, Howard?”
“You already know,” Howard muttered, stirring the rice. “It doesn’t take an aura reader to notice when Harriet’s gone on one of her walkabouts.”
“Have you had any visions lately?”
Howard sighed and glanced at Priest, but she only shrugged and turned back to the vegetables she was chopping. “Not really? I had a dream, though…”
He excused himself before Pepper could ask him about it, setting plates and silverware out along the buffet. “Ugh, who even invited her to the party?!” shrieked an indignant voice. Howard nearly dropped the tray of spoons he was carrying. He scuttled back into the kitchen.
“Drama’s already starting,” he snickered. Priest rolled her eyes. “Man, that’s exactly what I don’t need right now. I’m just gonna take it easy tonight, have a couple beers.”
“I think I’ll go enjoy the party, too. After dinner cleanup, of course,” Priest said. She smoothed her hands over her magenta dress, better suited for dancing than dishes, but when did any of them have time to change?
“Oh, you’ll love it! Mr. T throws the best parties. The drag show is lots of fun; those queens know how to have a good time.”
“As long as you’re both back in time to help me with the green drink,” Pepper reminded them.
“That weird shit the hippies make?” Howard whined, “Why can’t they serve it themselves?”
“They’re using our glasses, and it’s what Mr. T is paying us for. Just be back by a quarter to midnight, okay?”
A tall man dressed all in black leather, from the harness criss-crossing his bare chest to the tight-fitting pants, came through the kitchen just then. “Hey, Pepper, good to see you. When’s dinner?”
“Hi there, Andrew. Seven o’clock. Have you met Priest and Howard?”
Priest waved the hand holding the chopping knife, and Howard wiped a hand on his apron to offer it for a shake.
“Nice to meet you. And, uh, nice… leather.”
Andrew gave Howard a firm handshake, then looked him over in a way that made Howard’s face feel hot. He drew Howard in by the hand and planted a kiss on each cheek. “A pleasure,” he murmured. Then, he exited the kitchen, and Howard stared after him.
“Is he European or something?” Howard asked when his mouth worked again.
“I think he likes you,” teased Priest.
“You should talk to him some more,” suggested Pepper. “You might have fun.”
Howard’s face flushed crimson. “I have a girlfriend!” he snapped. “And I’m not gay!”
Pepper and Priest exchanged a look that made Howard growl in frustration. He grabbed a beer from the concessions stand and popped the tab. “Just for that, I’m starting now,” he announced, chugging back nearly half the can in one go.
Bret poked his blond head into the kitchen. “Hey, guys! You doing okay without me?”
Howard brightened immediately. Bret had been helping out as a dishwasher on evenings and weekends at the diner, and he was always good company. Also he was cute as hell, not that Howard had noticed or anything. “Hey, Bret, my dude! Yeah, we’re good. Burrito bar is easy. You just enjoy the party.”
“That was the plan,” Bret laughed. “No offense, Pepper, I’m grateful for the job but I don’t want to see a single dirty dish tonight.”
Pepper inclined his head. Then, Pepper froze, and a very un-zen-like expression crossed his face.
“Oh, great,” he muttered. Howard peered around the kitchen door and spotted Ruben, with another young man on his arm. Howard felt an odd flutter behind his breastbone; Ruben had taken him fast and dirty behind the kitchen three years ago, and sure knew how to make a man feel like heaven. Howard hadn’t realized at the time that Ruben was Pepper’s brother, however, and Ruben didn’t seem to remember the encounter at all. That was all before Harriet, of course.
“Did you know he sent me a card for my birthday? With a twenty in it?” Pepper sounded completely affronted. “He can’t buy my affection.”
“Why don’t you just talk to him?” asked Priest. “He obviously cares about you.”
“Yeah, and hey, twenty dollars isn’t anything to sneeze at. You could buy a new pair of shoes.” Howard looked down at his own worn sneakers with longing.
“My shoes are fine. And it’s beside the point,” Pepper sniffed. “He’s a capitalist, corporate shill and he doesn’t even care! He used to have such a beautiful aura, but now… I don’t understand how he can live like that.”
“Pretty comfortably?” Priest offered. Pepper glowered.
After dinner was served and dishes were cleaned, Howard glanced up from wiping down kitchen surfaces to see another familiar face: Steven, Bret’s uncle and another guy who liked to wear a lot of black leather. His gray hair was kept in a severe, short cut. “Oh, hey, Steven. Can I help you?”
“Actually, yes. I was looking for a scissors or a knife or something that will cut rope.”
Pepper would kill Howard for lending out his good kitchen knives. “Uh, actually, I have a pocket knife back in my cabin. You want me to go get it for you?”
“That’ll work. Bring it by the Dark Room by nine tonight, won’t you? We’re having a rope-tying demonstration.”
“Oh, yeah? Like, as a game?”
“No, more for bondage.”
Howard laughed nervously. “Heh. Of course. Yeah, okay, I’ll bring it by, no problem.”
As Howard headed off in the direction of the cabins, where he and everyone else at the party had bunks for the night, he paused outside the lit windows of the main lodge. Diane, who was friends with everyone and a regular at the diner, was applying makeup to a beautiful young man. The Club Diamond drag queens were getting ready for their performance. Howard looked on with fascination as the soft brush swept over closed eyelids, cheekbones, like a lover’s caresses. The makeup transformed the masculine into the feminine as he watched. He hadn’t realized he was visible until someone chuckled and called from the shadows, “Howard, nobody likes a peeping Tom!”
“I wasn’t doing anything!” he blurted, and dashed off to his cabin, laughter chasing at his heels.
It wasn’t until he reached his bunk that he paused to wonder if it had been a real person or just a voice in his head. They liked to do that, play little tricks on him, make him think someone was talking to him when they weren’t. Usually he could ignore them and they didn’t cause too much trouble. He’d had a lot of practice, after all.
He found his knife and stuck it in his pocket, then checked the time. It was nearly nine! He jogged across the campground to the cabin that had been designated the Dark Room, only to find a sizable crowd gathered outside already. Steven was standing at the front, measuring out lengths of nylon rope. Howard wriggled through the onlookers and handed over the knife.
“Thank you, son,” Steven said, and Howard tried not to look too pleased. He faded back into the crowd and considered leaving, but the demonstration was starting. Sheer curiosity planted him where he stood.
The demo was mainly about how to safely and comfortably tie up a partner’s wrists with rope. Another man approached Howard to ask to be his demo partner, but Howard declined.
“Come on, I’m the odd one out,” he complained.
“Well… okay, but go easy on me?” Howard laughed nervously.
He needn’t have worried, however, as the leather daddies ran out of rope by the time they reached Howard and his would-be partner. The other guy looked put out, but Howard was mostly relieved.
“Who knew, it’s not just for Boy Scouts,” Howard intoned, trying to cheer him up and earning a chuckle.
Then the flogging started. As the red welts rose on Walter’s flesh, Howard paled and ran back towards the main lodge.
What are you doing? Go back and watch!
It’s so dirty! You like it, don’t you?
It’s sinful! Run!
You wish you were the one being tied up and beaten, don’t you?
What would Harriet think of you?
Howard clutched at his head, muttering, “Shut up, shut up!” He began beating rhythmically on the back and sides of his head in a futile attempt to dislodge the voices. His legs carried him away from the Dark Room, then towards, then away again. He slumped against a tree and peered around it as morbid curiosity got the better of him. Now there were two women, one tied up on the rack outside the Dark Room, the other— oh. Oh! Howard hadn’t realized you could get your entire hand up inside someone like that.
Not wanting anyone to see him, he skirted around the cabins and hid in the shadows until the crowd had dispersed. When the coast was clear, he made his way to the front door.
What are you doing?
Just one look…
This is wrong!
You just need to see what they’re doing in there…
Howard ascended the steps and was through the door before he realized what was happening. The cabin was dark, lit with eerie red and blue lights. Pornography played on a television in the corner. Howard tore his eyes away from the writhing, moaning bodies on screen only to find the real deal playing out right in front of him. Howard froze. Steven had Walter’s legs hitched up over his shoulders and was fucking him as Walter dangled from leather cuffs.
Howard began to back away slowly, quietly, so as not to disturb them. He ran into something. Someone. He turned to face Ruben and a very bemused Ike, the young man that Ruben had been seen with earlier.
“I didn’t expect to see you here, Howard. You a frequent visitor?” Ruben asked, quirking a grin at him.
“N-no! I was just… dropping off something for Steven! Just running an errand!” Howard stammered.
Ruben took a step into the room, and Howard stepped back. He was getting closer to Steven and Walter again. Not good. “Is that so? Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
Ike, at least, took pity on Howard. “Would you like us to let you through, Howard?”
“Yes, please,” Howard squeaked. Ike moved aside, and Howard was off like a shot out the door. Ruben’s rich laughter echoed behind him.
The drag show hadn’t started yet, but Howard could see Pepper already sitting in the audience. He joined Pepper, shaking a little and rubbing at the back of his head.
“Are you all right, Howard?”
“Fine! Fine. Just fine. Didn’t see anything weird. Nope. Just a normal night. Perfect night for a drag show, yeah? Nice, sane fun.”
“Howard, did something happen to you?” Now Pepper looked concerned. “Did someone—”
“No! Nobody did anything. Not to me. Not that I was looking. I was just running an errand. I didn’t see anything.”
Bret sat down on Howard’s other side and grinned. “What ‘didn’t’ you see?”
Great, he was getting tag-teamed now. He groaned. “Look, I don’t want to talk about it. It was… weird. I was running an errand for Steven at the Dark Room. I sort of walked in on… stuff.”
Bret’s face twisted in disgust. “Aww, nasty! Never mind, I don’t want to know what my uncle does in there.”
“Are you sure you didn’t enjoy it?” Pepper asked slyly.
“What? No!” Howard frowned. “I have Harriet! I’m not interested in… that sort of thing!”
“You are so repressed,” snickered Bret.
“He really is,” agreed Pepper.
“I’m not repressed or whatever! Look, I’m just a little freaked out. Pepper, can you give me something useful to do? Anything at all?”
“I am not going to enable your avoidance,” said Pepper loftily. “You should deal with your feelings head-on.”
“Come on, Pepper.”
Howard felt the fury rise up in him out of nowhere. “Fine, then! I’ll go find something to do myself!”
He stormed off to the kitchen.
Howard beat a rhythm against his skull with his fists. At several points, people drifted in and out of the kitchen for drinks and asked him if he was all right, and he rambled some response that he couldn’t remember. He wasn’t sure if he was speaking or if the voices were anymore.
When he glanced out the kitchen door to see if the show had started yet, he met Andrew’s gaze from across the lodge. Face flaring red, he ducked back into the kitchen and pressed his back to the wall. Stealing another peek, he was horrified to find that Andrew was still staring in his direction. He hid in the kitchen again. Andrew entered a moment later.
“Oh, hey, Andrew! Cool party, right? Cool. Cool cool cool.” Howard rubbed a hand through his hair, making it stand out at wild angles.
“You seem a little agitated,” Andrew observed, moving into Howard’s space. “Something I can help you with?”
The smell of leather, sweat, and something profoundly masculine assaulted Howard’s senses as he inhaled deeply. “Y-yeah,” he breathed. He swallowed. “Just… tell me what to do? Not here, though.”
He led Andrew to the pantry, out of sight of the main kitchen doors. Andrew grabbed him by both wrists and guided Howard’s hands to the doorway of the pantry. “Hold on here. Don’t move your hands.”
The simple order filled Howard with an immediate sense of calm and stillness. He complied. Andrew was touching him, smoothing hands down his arms, his spine, his ass. “I’m going to hit you now, and I want you to count with me.”
Howard trembled. “Okay.”
“Can you move your hands?”
Howard moved his hands slightly, but Andrew pinned them in place and answered his own question, breath hot on Howard’s ear. “No, you can’t. You can’t move your hands because I put them there. They’re mine now.”
There was a faint pressure against his ass, then a flicker of almost-pain. Howard gasped. “That’s how it’ll feel, but harder. You know the stoplight colors?”
“Red for stop, yellow for slow down, green for go,” Howard recited. He was paying attention at the rope demo.
“Very good. Count with me.”
“Three! Ahh, oh god…”
“Green. Very green.”
“That was four.”
“Shit. Sorry. Four.”
“It’s all right. We’re going to count backwards now.”
Howard’s voice cracked on the last word into a near sob, and Andrew gripped him by the hair.
“On your knees.”
Howard dropped to his knees on the pantry floor, the pain giving way to blissful inner silence. The other man freed his cock from his leather pants and shoved it into Howard’s face.
Howard opened his mouth gratefully, sucking the hard flesh in as far as it would go without choking. Andrew grunted appreciatively and maintained his grip in Howard’s short, curly hair, fucking Howard’s face with little care for Howard’s comfort. Howard didn’t mind. He sucked and licked and moaned around the cock in his mouth as though he were the one being pleasured. When he pulled off after one long suck, Andrew grunted again and came all over his face in hot streaks.
Howard caught his breath with heavy pants and stared up at Andrew, glassy-eyed and cock aching for release. “Please, fuck me.”
Andrew tucked himself back into his pants, gave Howard an inscrutable look, and left Howard kneeling in the pantry.
Howard stayed put for a moment, confused, but then he realized Andrew wasn’t coming back. With a stifled whimper, he got to his feet and stumbled to the bathroom to clean up. He reeked of sex and desperation. What had he done? Oh, god, what had he done?
Once he was more or less presentable, Howard picked his way carefully out to where the drag show was finally starting. He focused on the familiar auburn mop belonging to Pepper and sat down gingerly. Pepper eyed him disapprovingly as he winced and hissed with pain.
“I see Andrew didn’t go easy on you,” Pepper said.
Howard’s blood turned to ice. “Wh-what?”
“I saw you, Howard. I wasn’t the only one, either.”
“Shit. Shit shit shit.” Howard buried his face in his hands. “You can’t tell Harriet. Please.”
“One of us should.” Pepper’s tone strongly implied that it should be Howard.
“She’ll hate me. Oh god, what am I even doing?” Howard’s voice rose in a high-pitched whine. He was losing his grip.
“Also, Andrew is seeing Bret, just so you’re aware.”
That was even worse. “So I’m not just cheating on Harriet, I made Andrew cheat on his boyfriend? Fuck. That’s just… fuck. Wonderful.”
As much as Howard enjoyed the drag show in previous years, he just couldn’t focus on it at the moment. He needed to find Bret. Bret deserved to know.
Harriet deserves to know.
It’s not cheating if it’s with men! They don’t mean anything!
You’re a cheating bastard and you don’t deserve her.
In for a penny, in for a pound. Just go get your brains fucked out until it stops hurting.
You were never really boyfriend material, anyway.
How could you ever truly love her when all you ever wanted was a dick in your—
“Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up…” Howard muttered and slapped at his head as he ducked back into the kitchen, a place that used to be his safe haven from the noise and the bustle of the party, but now he couldn’t even look at the pantry without choking.
A familiar lanky blond boy made his way through the kitchen, and Howard swallowed. “Bret? Hey, dude, can I talk to you for a sec?”
They stood outside the back door of the kitchen, away from the cacophony of the drag show and its appreciative audience.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Bret scoffed when Howard spilled the beans. “We fool around, yeah, but it’s not like, serious.”
“Oh. Oh, okay. That’s… good? Yeah.” Howard scrubbed his fingers through his hair. “I thought I’d fucked this up even more than I already did.”
“What happened?” Bret asked, concerned.
A shaky exhale, and then Howard was telling Bret everything, from the way Andrew had used him to the way he just walked away without a word. “I mean, did I do something wrong, do you think? Fuck, the counting. I messed up the counting. He must have been disgusted.”
Howard wasn’t sure when he’d started crying but Bret had a hand on his shoulder and the world was blurry through his tears. “No, no, that’s probably not it,” Bret tried to reassure him, obviously uncomfortable with this display of emotion. “I mean, it’s not my thing, but those guys in the Cruisers Club… they’re into that whole punishment and humiliation stuff. It’s part of their game.”
“Really?” Howard hadn’t considered that. “So… that was just… normal?”
“Yeah. Probably.” Bret shrugged. He didn’t look too convinced himself, but it was a good enough explanation for Howard, who latched onto it like a lifeboat.
“Oh man. I’ve been freaking out for no reason.” Howard laughed brokenly. “Wow. Thanks, dude, that’s a relief.”
“Yeah, no problem.” Bret gave him another pat on the shoulder. “You gonna be all right?”
“I think so. But, uh, Bret? Be careful. With Andrew. I mean,” Howard fumbled for the words. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“I can take care of myself, Howard,” said Bret, but his smile was warm.
“I know, I know, just… you’re so nice, and so… cute…”
Howard wasn’t sure who started kissing whom, but he could taste the malty tang of beer on Bret’s tongue. They half-tripped over each other trying to find stable ground and wound up leaning against a wall. Howard dipped his head down to lick at Bret’s throat and was rewarded with a breathy moan. They made out like teenagers— which, technically, Bret still was, and Howard still young enough to remember. Howard’s hand found its way down the front of Bret’s jeans. Howard’s world narrowed to hot breaths, warm flesh against his palm, the particular scent of Bret’s fabric softener and sweat and beer all combining into its own new, exciting aroma. It was hot and desperate and brief, but there was also a gentleness to it that had been absent with Andrew.
“That was… nice,” Howard said when it was over. He still hadn’t come himself, but it bothered him less this time. The static that filled his brain was a welcome respite from the voices.
Yep. He definitely needed to talk to Harriet.
Three more beers in, Howard had the brilliant idea of talking to Andrew again.
He found Andrew in the crowd after the drag show, chatting with similarly leather-clad men who gave Howard appraising glances. Howard was beyond nerves and embarrassment. “Can we talk?”
Andrew’s eyes darted around. “Uh. Now?”
“Well, I’ve got my people here. Can’t you just say what you’re going to say in front of them?”
“I just want to talk to you. Alone. Just for a minute.” Howard’s courage flagged as all of those eyes stayed trained on him. “Please?”
Reluctantly, Andrew left the group and walked outside with Howard. It wasn’t exactly private, but at least it wasn’t in the middle of a crowd. “What?”
“I just wanted to let you know that I understand. I figured it out. Well, Bret explained it, and—” Howard took a deep breath and composed his thoughts, which was hard to do while his brain was swimming in alcohol. “I get it. The whole walking away without a word thing. It’s part of the game for you, right? Punishment and humiliation. I was kinda freaked out before, but now I know it’s all good.”
Andrew’s face twisted as though he were either trying not to laugh, or he’d smelled something bad. He pinched the bridge of his nose which made Howard think maybe it was the latter. “No, Howard, you… no. What I did was not okay. I should have stayed and talked to you, made sure you were all right. But I didn’t. That’s just how it is sometimes with men, you know? Sorry. It’s nothing personal.”
Andrew’s voice was coming from very far away, it seemed. Howard struggled to make his mouth work, and when he did, all he could say was, “Oh.”
Andrew left. Again. Howard didn’t really notice.
He needed another drink.
The bonfire was lit, and so were most of the folks at the party. Howard hung back in the shadows, sipping at a drink that was decidedly not beer but he couldn’t recall what its name was. It burned when it went down and left him feeling pleasantly numb. The voices were loud again, but he couldn’t make out the words, so at least that was a nice change. Maybe the voices were drunk, too. The thought made him laugh.
A man wearing the sparkliest purple shirt Howard had ever seen sauntered over with a sly grin. “Hey, you catch my act?”
Howard dredged his memory for a name and came up with one that seemed right. “Uh, yeah, Leon. It was great. You still got it.”
Leon all but preened. “Damn right, I do.”
He leaned in close, and Howard could smell his cologne. Leon traced a path with his hand down Howard’s neck, chest, belly, and paused at the waistband of Howard’s shorts. Howard, who had been half-hard ever since his encounter with Bret, inhaled sharply as his body was called to attention.
“I could give you a private performance.”
The line could have come off as cheesy, but Howard was sold. “Yeah,” he breathed, taking Leon by the hand. “Not here, though.”
They moved far enough away that the firelight couldn’t touch them, only the shadow of the forest. Once Howard was sure that nobody was watching (he’d learned his lesson), he drew Leon in for a hot, messy kiss. The mustache didn’t even give him pause.
“Please, fuck me,” begged Howard.
Even in the dark, Howard could see the way Leon’s eyes widened. He nodded, and his hands were astoundingly gentle as he turned Howard around to face the broad trunk of an oak tree. Howard braced against the tree automatically, shuddering a little as echoes of his incident with Andrew crawled along his skin. But Leon was attentive in all the ways Andrew wasn’t, giving in all the ways that Bret hadn’t been, and as he pressed his hips up behind Howard’s his hands were working over Howard’s body with strokes and squeezes. Howard bit his lower lip to stifle a moan as the cool night air prickled against his bare skin.
“Yeah, you like this, don’t you?” purred Leon. “You want me.”
“Yes,” whimpered Howard. “I want you. Please.”
There was a wet sound, and Howard jerked a little at the touch of something slippery against sensitive skin, but Leon shushed and gentled him like an easily startled animal. Howard calmed at the warm, sure caresses against his back and hips. There was pressure, an intrusion, but then… oh. Oh it was so good. Leon’s fingers were inside him, taking him apart one stroke at a time, and Howard’s knees were jelly. He held onto the tree for dear life as Leon did things that Howard would never admit he’d experienced before, and anyway it had been years. Before Harriet.
Stop thinking about her!
But you love her.
But she’ll hate you.
Fuck, this is good.
“Please,” Howard whispered, voice breaking. “I want you. Just take me. Fuck me.”
Leon groaned and leaned in until he was pressed full length along Howard, sternum to spine, and kissed the back of Howard’s neck tenderly. He pulled his fingers away and Howard felt a sense of loss, but it was short lived as something thicker and hotter pressed into him to replace them. All the air left him at once. He could see sparks of light when he closed his eyes.
Someone was talking, and Howard realized it was him. Chanting, more like. “Please, please, please…”
Leon picked up the pace as Howard’s ‘pleases’ increased in volume. Then, he took a half step back and pulled Howard’s hips closer, and the change in angle sparked a whole new world of sensations in Howard that made him scrabble at the tree, clawing chunks of bark loose as he gasped and panted. His orgasm took him hard and unexpectedly, cock untouched, and he uttered a sort of choked wail. Leon grunted as well and gave a few more hard thrusts before pulling out and shuddering. Howard leaned against the oak as though it were the only thing keeping him upright. His face was wet with tears he hadn’t realized he’d been shedding.
Shame never left Howard alone long enough to let him enjoy this sort of thing afterward. He forced his leaden legs to support him as he dragged his shorts back up and straightened out his shirt. He knew he was going to be sore in the morning. Turning to face Leon, he was struck with a surge of gratitude and affection. He leaned in for one more, almost chaste kiss.
Leon blinked at Howard as though he’d started speaking a foreign language. Then, his expression softened and he pulled Howard in for a tight hug.
“Enjoy life,” Leon said. “It goes by faster than you’ll know.”
The next morning, Howard had shaved and showered, removing every last particle of sex-stink from his body.
It’s not enough.
You need to tell her before someone else does.
“I know, I know,” Howard muttered, slapping at the back of his head. “I will.”
Breakfast was fine. Howard flipped pancakes with practiced ease and loaded up the warming pans as quickly as they were emptied. Pepper remarked on his freshly-shaved look and Priest laughingly rubbed her knuckles across his bare cheek. It was like any other morning at the diner, except of course they weren’t at the diner.
Leon’s warm glance made Howard blush. He flirted shamelessly with Diane, who called him “sugar” and was the entire reason Pepper kept grits on the menu. He shared a shy smile and a high-five with Bret. When Andrew came through the line, they avoided eye contact.
“Good pancakes,” Andrew said when he returned his plate. Howard gave him a cool stare.
“Just remember,” Howard said, “that despite whatever happened between us, I still made you breakfast.”
He walked away with the stack of dirty plates.