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Swan Song (Part 1)

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In the glory days of Swan, the fans had always been trying to sort them into easy boxes: The Funny One, The Romantic One, The Rebellious One. It had become a joke with them, whenever anything happened. You must be The Hungry One, or You’re The Driving One.

 

Patrick, awkwardly positioned with one leg having fallen through a rotting floorboard on the upper porch of the house he’d bought, thought to himself: Right now you’re The Stubborn One.

 

“Dad,” said Kylie calmly, coming upon him, as if a father halfway through the floor was exactly what she had expected to encounter. “What are you doing?”

 

“Fixing the porch,” he replied.

 

Kylie pursed her mouth and lifted her eyebrows and settled all of her thirteen-year-old judgment heavily upon him. The weight of it should have been enough to send him crashing to the cement patio below him. She said laconically, “Huh.”

 

Patrick said, “Do not come out onto this porch to rescue me.”

 

“I wasn’t going to,” Kylie said.

 

“Good. Because it’s not safe.”

 

“Maybe Mrs. Honeycutt can help you when she brings Adam home.”

 

“No,” Patrick said. “No, definitely not. Mrs. Honeycutt already thinks I’m completely incompetent.”

 

“No, she doesn’t.”

 

“Yes, she does. When we met, she said, ‘You’re the one who thought he could sing.’”

 

“Dad. You are very touchy about your singing voice.”

 

“I’m not touchy,” Patrick said.

 

Hailey’s head poked around the doorframe. “What’s everyone doing?” she asked curiously.

 

“Nothing,” Patrick said.

 

“Dad thinks Mrs. Honeycutt doesn’t think he can sing.”

 

“Dad, you have to remember your mantra,” Hailey told him wisely.

 

“I wish we wouldn’t call it my mantra,” said Patrick.

 

Rolling Stone said your voice was…?” prompted Hailey.

 

Patrick sighed. “Like a wind-tossed ocean.”

 

“Exactly.” Hailey beamed at him. “Don’t you feel better?”

 

“I’ve done a bad job raising all of you,” Patrick said.

 

“You’re stuck in a porch,” said Miranda matter-of-factly, as she came to join in the fun. “Can’t do a good job raising us while stuck in a porch.”

 

“I have a porch-extraction plan,” said Patrick.

 

“What would that be?” asked Miranda. She was eating an apple with relish and surveying the scene with great interest.

 

“I think I can leverage myself this way…” Patrick leaned cautiously, which sent more of the rotten wood splintering down toward the patio below.

 

The girls shrieked and Kylie said, “Okay, maybe you really shouldn’t—” and Miranda said, “You’re leaning the wrong way, I think,” and through the new hole in his porch, Patrick looked down at Mrs. Honeycutt, standing with Adam on her hip.

 

Adam stuck his finger in his mouth and looked delighted to see him and babbled hello.

 

“Hi, Adam,” Patrick said, as if it were perfectly normal to be greeting one’s baby son through a hole in one’s porch that one’s leg was stuck in.

 

Mrs. Honeycutt said, “You look as if you need help.”

 

“I’m sure I’m fine,” said Patrick, with as much dignity as he could muster.

 

“Uh-huh,” said Mrs. Honeycutt dubiously, and headed into the house, doubtless to come to his aid.

 

Hailey said, “She definitely thinks you’re about as good at fixing up a house as you are at singing.”

 

“Thanks, Hailey,” Patrick said, and leaned in the other direction, the way Miranda had suggested, and managed to wriggle his way free.

 

He was crawling his way to safety when Mrs. Honeycutt arrived upstairs. Adam found this hilarious; Mrs. Honeycutt looked less amused.

 

“Hello,” Patrick said, taking Adam into his arms. “How was your day? Good?”

 

“You should really hire someone to do that work for you,” Mrs. Honeycutt said, rather than answering his question.

 

Patrick glanced toward the porch. The girls were now stringing yellow tape up across the doors leading onto the porch like it was a crime scene. Where had they gotten yellow tape?

 

Patrick said, “I’ve got it under control. All part of my master plan.”

 

Definitely The Stubborn One.

 

***

 

Evenings were rough-and-tumble adventures in multitasking, Patrick perched on the bathtub while Adam happily splashed, listening to Hailey read while he checked over Miranda’s math and fought with Kylie over the impossibility of Kylie never having homework. Kylie’s grades were always impeccable, so she must have been doing her homework somewhere, and he probably shouldn’t fight with her so much about it, but Patrick could sense the looming withdrawal of teenage years coming at him, and maybe he shouldn’t be resisting it but he was, starting with little things like why he never heard about Kylie’s homework anymore.

 

“It’s because she does it with Sam Rodriguez in study hall,” Miranda said.

 

“Shut up!” Kylie called from the living room. “No, I don’t!”

 

“Hmm,” said Patrick mildly, filing that bit of information away and ruffling Miranda’s hair as he handed her back her math. “That looks fine to me. Please don’t get any older because you have reached the limits of my mathematical knowledge.”

 

Miranda grinned at him and skipped out of the bathroom.

 

Patrick looked at Hailey. “You’ve stopped reading.”

 

“Sam’s nice, but he’s a boy,” Hailey told him.

 

“I bet your sister’s noticed that,” Patrick said. “Keep reading.”

 

Hailey rolled her eyes but resumed reading, and Patrick scooped Adam out of the tub and bundled him into a towel and dotted him with kisses just to make him giggle and he let Hailey stop reading to join in on the Adam-giggling fun, because that was irresistible.

 

By the time he had Adam in his crib, Hailey and Miranda were settled in front of the television raptly watching a nature documentary because that was all Miranda watched these days. Kylie wasn’t there, so Patrick knocked on her bedroom door.

 

“Come in!” she called. She was sprawled on her bed, headphones in, scrolling through her phone. She did do him the favor of pulling the headphones out as he sat on the floor and settled his back against her bed, tipping his head back so he could see her.

 

“Hailey tells me Sam is a boy.”

 

“They are both unable to keep a secret.”

 

“I pay them well,” Patrick said.

 

“Oh, I didn’t know we were talking cash, I’d tell you about Sam for cash,” said Kylie.

 

Patrick laughed, then said, “Sam would be fine with me if it were Samuel or Samantha. I don’t care.”

 

Dad,” said Kylie, specially appalled.

 

“I’m just saying, so that you don’t feel like you can’t tell me, that I’m fine with whatever.”

 

“You’re not fine when you think I’m not doing my homework.”

 

“That’s different. Homework is way more important than a boy or a girl.”

 

“Not what you sing about in your songs.”

 

“My songs are all a lie.”

 

“Shame on you,” said Kylie.

 

“Hey, something had to make us enough money to put food on the table for you gluttonous children.”

 

“And you definitely weren’t going to make that money renovating people’s houses.”

 

Patrick laughed again, and then said, “Definitely not. Just so you know: I planned the whole porch thing just for you girls’ amusement.”

 

“Sure you did,” said Kylie indulgently, and leaned over so she could kiss his cheek.

 

***

 

And then, after the rough-and-tumble multitasking of the evening, once the kids were in bed or at least deigning to pretend to be in bed, it was always so quiet. That was why Patrick had bought the house on the ocean in the first place, because at night, when it was quiet, the waves would rush in to fill the silent spaces, and that was better. He drew his hand along the piano as he walked out to the back patio. He sidestepped the girls’ yellow tape around the splintered floorboard detritus that had crumbled from above, chuckling, and sat on the top of the steps that led down to the dunes. The ocean crashed and the moon gleamed upon it and it was all very beautiful and this was why he’d bought a fixer-upper on the beach, absolutely. No better place, he'd thought when he’d seen the house, for a new start.

 

Maybe the verdict was still out on that one.

 

***

 

The girls were at school, and it was one of the days when he kept Adam home with him, so Adam was captive in his playpen happily banging a spoon against a pot, and Patrick was standing at the edge of the dunes with a phone to his ear, watching his very loud son and trying to hear the other end of the conversation. It was difficult, between Adam’s music-making not quite far enough away and the ocean crashing behind him. Especially because he was meant to be hearing a demo being played from some Swiss ski chalet that didn’t seem to get especially good reception.

 

Mario came back on the line. “Eh? Eh? What do you think?” he demanded. “It’s amazing, right?”

 

“What did you record that on?” Patrick asked, perplexed. “The sound quality was like eight-track.”

 

“You can’t do digital!” Mario exclaimed, and then repeated it to get his point across. “You can’t do digital! Digital is sterile, man! It’s just sterile! Cecilia, tell him.”

 

Cecilia, the third party on the call and Mario’s manager, said obediently, “Digital is sterile, Patrick.”

 

“It strips all the soul,” Mario said.

 

Patrick watched Adam and thought, Christ, how did he get himself involved in these things. Then again, he had four kids and a crumbling seaside home, which was definitely how he got himself involved in anything that paid him, including helping Mario craft his next hit. He said, “Okay, well, I guess stick your eight-tracks into a box and ship them off to me and I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“You’ll work your magic, Patrick,” Cecilia said, sounding bored.

 

“Uh-huh,” said Patrick.

 

“Patrick, it has so much soul,” said Mario. “When you hear it in person, it’s going to blow you away. It’s these stupid phones, stripping it of all of its soul. Technology, man.”

 

“Okay,” said Patrick. “Can’t wait to get it in the mail. Got to go. Ciao.” He thought it was possible Mario was still talking as he ended the call.

 

He stood for a second at the edge of the dunes, his back to the ocean, watching Adam and letting the sea breeze buffet him. It was a gray day, but sticky. The promise of summer heat seemed to be right around the corner.

 

A woman’s voice behind him said, “Excuse me.”

 

Patrick glanced over his shoulder automatically. The woman standing on the beach was dressed like she’d just come from a yoga class, only instead of holding a yoga mat she was holding a small, black, floppy-eared dog. “Hi,” Patrick said, and glanced quickly back toward Adam, still making as much noise as possible on the patio.

 

“Is this your dog?” the woman asked him, and held the dog toward him.

 

It was a young puppy, squirming eagerly in the woman’s hands, tail wagging madly, looking like it would like nothing better than to climb over into Patrick’s hands and add to the chaos in his life.

 

Patrick said, “No. That is definitely not my dog.”

 

The woman frowned thoughtfully, tucking the dog back up against her. She had an expressive mouth, cast in concern as she glanced down the beach. “I found her wandering on the beach yesterday all by herself. No collar. No chip. I’ve asked all up and down the beach and no one’s willing to claim her. I’m worried some tourists left her behind.”

 

“Well, if she belongs to tourists,” said Patrick, “they’ll probably come back for her.”

 

“That’s what I thought, too. So I want to make sure they’ll be able to find her. If you wouldn’t mind taking one of these?”

 

Patrick took the piece of paper she held out to him. It was a flyer, with a pretty adorable picture of the puppy and the words Is this your dog? Contact Rachel! And then it had a phone number.

 

“If you see any tourists wandering around looking for a dog, send them my way,” said Apparently-Rachel.

 

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed, although it seemed doubtful to him. He didn’t exactly spend a lot of his time hanging out on the beach. Although he had spent long enough to meet this woman with the lost puppy.

 

“Your house is cute,” said Rachel.

 

“My house is falling down,” said Patrick drily.

 

Rachel laughed. “Yeah, but it’s doing it gracefully, and that’s all any of us can ask for, right?”

 

“When you put it that way,” remarked Patrick.

 

“I’ll see you around,” said Rachel, her expressive mouth flipped from a frown to a smile.

 

“Yeah,” Patrick replied, and made a point not to watch her go. Instead he walked back over to Adam and picked him up out of the playpen and said, “Let’s go see what trouble we can get up to inside.”

 

***

 

The trouble they got up to inside did not become evident to Patrick until much later, when he was washing dishes for Hailey to dry, and Miranda came bursting into the kitchen with a triumphant, “What is this?”

 

“What?” Patrick asked absently, then realized Miranda was wielding the lost-puppy poster. “Oh,” he said hastily. “That’s nothing.”

 

“It is a lost puppy,” Miranda said.

 

Hailey gasped. “It’s what?”

 

Miranda brandished it for Hailey to see. “A lady is giving away a lost puppy.”

 

“No,” Patrick said. “No, no. That’s not what’s happening. She is looking for the puppy’s owner.”

 

“Uh-huh,” said Miranda.

 

“We are not the puppy’s owner,” Patrick pointed out.

 

“Not yet,” said Miranda.

 

“Nooooo,” said Patrick. “Not ever.”

 

Daddy,” Hailey shrieked, and he was only ever “Daddy” these days when the girls wanted something from him. “We would be such good puppy-owners.”

 

“We would be horrible puppy-owners,” said Patrick.

 

“We would love the puppy,” protested Miranda.

 

“We basically already have a puppy already,” added Hailey matter-of-factly, “because we have Adam.”

 

“Okay,” said Patrick, “your brother is not a puppy.”

 

Adam chose that moment to crawl enthusiastically into the kitchen. He did look a little bit like a puppy.

 

“This is all a moot point,” proclaimed Patrick, “because the puppy’s owners are going to come and get her.”

 

“What if they don’t?” asked Hailey.

 

“Would you just let the puppy die?” demanded Miranda.

 

“Who said anything about death?” asked Patrick, bewildered. “No one said anything about death. Who is letting the puppy die?”

 

Kylie, who normally spent all night locked in her bedroom, chose that moment to grace the room with her presence. “Is there a dying puppy?” she asked immediately.

 

No,” said Patrick.

 

“Where is this dying puppy?” was her response.

 

“There is no dying puppy,” insisted Patrick.

 

“Look.” Miranda thrust the paper at her older sister. “Some lady found a puppy and now she’s giving the puppy away.”

 

“That is not an accurate representation of the situation with the puppy,” said Patrick.

 

“Obviously we should get the puppy,” said Kylie.

 

“That is not obvious,” Patrick countered.

 

“We have Adam, he’s basically a puppy already,” said Kylie.

 

“See?” said Hailey triumphantly.

 

Your brother is not a puppy,” Patrick reiterated.

 

They all looked at Adam, who was sitting gnawing on one of his baby toys, and, again, he did kind of resemble a puppy.

 

“He is going to grow up to be a human,” Patrick promised.

 

“A human who needs canine companionship,” said Kylie.

 

“Uh-huh,” agreed Miranda, while Hailey nodded enthusiastically.

 

Patrick sighed. Patrick dried his hands with the towel Hailey had abandoned. Then he leaned back against the kitchen counter and folded his arms and regarded his daughters, their three ginger heads, their three sets of gray-green eyes, their smatterings of freckles over their noses, and their three stubbornly set mouths. Ashley had used to say she had been pointless in her motherhood, so strongly did all of their children match Patrick.

 

Patrick said, “I have four hell-raising brats and a falling-down house.” To dramatically illustrate his point, he reached out and pulled the knob off the cupboard that contained their glasses; it had fallen off earlier that day. “The last thing this house needs is a dog.”

 

His children, even Adam, looked unconvinced, and Patrick recalled sinkingly how much he had always been The Stubborn One. His children matched him that way, too.

 

***

 

His girls spent the following afternoon barricaded into Kylie’s room. When Patrick peeked his head in and said suspiciously, “What are all of you doing?” they giggled and said, “Nothing,” and bent their three red heads closer together over the something that they were definitely doing.

 

Patrick frowned thoughtfully at them. It was a Mrs. Honeycutt day, so Adam was off instead of underfoot, and Patrick ought to be productive and ought to be grateful for this brief reprieve during which the girls were uncharacteristically quiet.

 

He said, “I have to work.”

 

“Uh-huh,” they chorused, unconcerned, not even looking up at him.

 

“Hmm,” said Patrick, and closed the door and sat down at the piano and listened to the demo that Mario had overnighted to him. It had arrived in a box eighteen times the size of the cassette tape contained within it, which had been wrapped and wrapped again and then wrapped one last time for good measure in bubble-wrap, and Mario had scrawled Soul!!! onto a piece of paper that he had tossed into the box. Patrick had had to hunt down a cassette tape player. He had texted his agent, New contractual requirement: no cassette tapes. Brie had texted back, The river is calm until the waterfall, because that was how Brie communicated. Brie had been with him since the day Swan had broken up, and he loved her for it, and he had also by now realized that Brie’s aphorisms were meant to constantly deflect her clients until they were thoroughly discouraged from complaining. Probably he should have an agent who fawned over him more, but that was for someone more dedicated to their career than Patrick was.

 

The song wasn’t bad. Mario’s songs always had good bones to them, and by his third listen Patrick thought he had concrete notes for how it could be better. He tried out a couple of riffs on the piano, adjusted the tempo a little bit, and by then Mrs. Honeycutt was there with Adam.

 

“Is that a song you’re working on?” Mrs. Honeycutt asked.

 

“For someone else,” Patrick said.

 

“I guess you gave up on that whole solo artist thing, huh?” said Mrs. Honeycutt.

 

“A while ago,” Patrick replied, dodging Adam’s attempt to poke him in the eye.

 

“Probably for the best,” said Mrs. Honeycutt, which was the kind of soul-destroying-in-the-middle-of-the-night comment that Mrs. Honeycutt specialized in.

 

“Should we get you a new babysitter?” Patrick asked Adam after Mrs. Honeycutt had departed.

 

Adam clearly had an opinion on this but unfortunately Patrick didn’t speak enough Baby to know what it was.

 

It was Friday night, which was a treat night when they made pizzas and watched movies together, so Patrick let Adam crawl around his feet while he got the dough ready and assembled all the toppings. And then he stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled around them to get the girls to come.

 

They thundered into the room, chattering away, and Patrick was surprised by all of this noisy energy when they had been so quiet in Kylie’s room. Miranda put Adam in his highchair and pulled him up close to the counter so he could see the action, and each of the girls took turns telling Patrick highlights of their days, which usually Patrick had to work exceptionally hard for. He decided to milk it, though, and asked as many probing questions as possible while he had the opportunity, and by the time the pizzas were done and they were all sitting around the dining room table in what was eventually supposed to be the living room, Patrick was pleased with how very much he’d learned.

 

The girls sat wolfing down their pizza. Patrick gave Adam some crust to gnaw on and said to the girls, “Please show some table manners. I don’t want your brother growing up to be a wild animal.”

 

“We have something for you,” Hailey said, bouncing in her seat.

 

“It’s a dinner show,” said Kylie, very grown-up in the pronouncement.

 

Patrick lifted his eyebrows. “A dinner show?”

 

“Entertainment while you eat,” said Kylie.

 

“I know what a dinner show is,” Patrick told her. “I’m surprised you three are putting one on.”

 

“Why should you be surprised?” asked Kylie loftily. “We are very entertaining.”

 

“Good thing, too,” said Patrick, “or I’d kick you out.”

 

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show,” said Miranda eagerly, and then they all scurried into the hallway together.

 

“Should’ve made popcorn,” Patrick remarked to Adam.

 

Adam flung his piece of pizza crust to the floor.

 

Hailey hurried back out and tossed one of Patrick’s black socks to the floor.

 

“Don’t touch that,” she warned him. “It’s a prop.” Then she scurried back into the hallway.

 

Patrick sighed and wondered if he would ever find that sock’s mate.

 

All three girls came out, linked arm-in-arm.

 

“Why don’t we go pick seashells on the beach?” Kylie suggested, in a very loud voice. Apparently Kylie’s idea of acting was that she ought to shout.

 

“Oh, yes, let’s!” Miranda yelled back. “Picking seashells is my favorite thing!”

 

“I’m so glad our wonderful father moved us to live by the beach!” contributed Hailey.

 

Patrick bit down on his smile. His children were never going to win Oscars unless the Oscars added a category for Paternal Manipulation.

 

“He really is wonderful,” agreed Kylie gravely.

 

“And our house is the best,” Miranda chimed in. “I love that it’s falling down.”

 

“It has a lot of character,” Hailey parroted perfectly, looking straight at him, because that was how he had tried to sell them on the house a few months earlier when they’d moved in.

 

Abruptly all three of them stopped walking around the room. Adam, who had been transfixed by the performance, gave a babble of encouragement into their sudden silence.

 

Miranda pointed to the sock. “Oh, no! What is that!”

 

Kylie responded, “I think it’s a puppy!”

 

“Oh, no!” added Hailey. “A poor lost puppy!”

 

They all rushed at the sock. Adam, caught up in this dramatic climax, babbled excitedly.

 

Kylie sat on the floor and cuddled the sock and petted it. Patrick hoped it was a clean sock. Miranda and Hailey, cooing, leaned over her and did the same thing.

 

“Awww,” said Kylie. “Poor little puppy. All alone out here. Needing someone to take care of her.”

 

“Say,” said Hailey, an exclamation Patrick had never heard her use in his life. He bit harder on the inside of his cheek so he wouldn’t disturb the dinner show by laughing. “You know who’s good at taking care of people?”

 

They all three looked at him and said in careful unison, “Our father.”

 

“He is the best at taking care of things,” said Miranda. “He’d probably take really good care of this puppy, too.”

 

“And we would help,” Kylie added. “So he wouldn’t feel like it was all on him.”

 

“Golly,” said Hailey, another word Patrick had never heard her say before. “What a wonderful playmate this dog will make for Adam as he grows up.”

 

“They’ll be best friends,” Miranda confirmed.

 

“This dog will be a best friend for all of us,” said Kylie gravely. “And fill a gaping hole in our lives.”

 

The girls all looked solemnly at him.

 

“The end,” Hailey intoned, and then scrambled to her feet so she could curtsey.

 

Kylie and Miranda also got to their feet, bowing while he clapped and said, “Bravo!”

 

Adam, who had just added clapping to his repertoire, joined in, looking delighted.

 

“So can we get the dog?” asked Hailey excitedly.

 

“No,” said Patrick drily.

 

Daaaaaad,” they said with identical drama, collapsing onto the floor in their disappointment.

 

“Help me clean up before we pick a movie,” he said mildly, starting to clear the plates.

 

They obeyed but they did it while casting him murderous looks.

 

***

 

Patrick should have been sleeping, because Adam still wasn’t much for sleeping past dawn, and dawn was approaching, and Patrick should be stealing these precious silent moments. But his bedroom felt heavy and stifling, and he rolled out of bed and opened the window so he could hear the ocean more clearly.

 

It helped with the silence but it didn’t make him feel more tired, and he gave up and got out of bed. If he wasn’t going to sleep, he might as well do some work.

 

But he didn’t feel like doing work, either. He got downstairs and found himself instead outside, on the patio, contemplating the graying of the sky over the ocean, the sun announcing its impending appearance. Any minute now Adam would wake up, and the day would begin. They would go grocery-shopping together. He would take Hailey to dance and Miranda to karate and Kylie to art. He would try to get started on the laundry that piled up during the week. He would probably treat himself to a stop at a coffee shop with Adam, in between chauffeuring the girls.

 

Sometimes he couldn’t wait for Kylie to start driving, and other times he dreaded it.

 

For the moment, his day was quiet, and there was time to sit on the patio and look at the ocean and think about his girls cuddling a sock-puppy last night.

 

***

 

He dropped them off in ascending order because that happened to be how the schedule went, which meant he and Kylie were alone in the car, Adam sound asleep in the back, knocked out by all the driving. Kylie was searching through the radio into she found something she considered worth listening to.

 

He said, keeping his attention on the road, “Do you think our house has a gaping hole in it?”

 

“Yeah,” said Kylie. “You fell through it the other day, remember?”

 

“Not that gaping hole. The one you were talking about during your dinner show last night.”

 

Kylie stopped fiddling with the radio to look at him. He saw it out of the corner of his eye, although he kept himself riveted to his driving.

 

She said slowly, “That was… I mean… We have a dog-shaped hole.”

 

“What about a mom-shaped hole?” asked Patrick, striving for casualness and yet feeling the word get stuck in his mouth, like a foreign language he didn’t speak very often and couldn’t really shape.

 

Kylie didn’t speak. The radio she’d been fiddling with rushed in to fill the silence, the cars going in the opposite direction, the metronome of the turn signal when Patrick clicked it on. They almost never talked about Ashley, and that had not been a conscious choice so much as an inevitably necessary choice, at first. When she had stood up and walked out, he hadn’t wanted to revisit the topic, and he had always felt vague guilt that he was less forthcoming about it than he could have been, that he had bundled the kids up and moved them away and started over as if he could pretend they’d had no mother.

 

But, on the other hand, he had never wanted to sit them down and say, I begged and pleaded and offered up everything I had and she told me that this wasn’t a life she wanted to live anymore. He figured that the girls probably suspected something like that, since she had walked out and never come back, since she barely ever called, since she sent distracted postcards from glamorous vacations with platitudes on them and nothing more. Maybe they should talk about it, he thought, or maybe it just made it worse to have to hear the words as starkly as he’d had to hear them.

 

But the thing that Patrick felt he had realized, after Ashley had actually left, was that she’d really already been gone for years. He’d had an initial moment of panic at being responsible for all the kids on his own and then realized he’d been responsible for all the kids on his own most of the time anyway. So most of the time he didn’t think of their house as having a mom-shaped hole, because their house was largely the way it had always been. Ashley had been detached and absent most of the time; his kids had grown up with a mom-shaped hole without him even grasping it.

 

And Kylie had borne the brunt of that, another thing Patrick hadn’t realized until he was forced to. Now, having realized, he tried to be more careful about relying on Kylie. In a way, Ashley leaving had forced him to confront how much Kylie had been pushed into the maternal role instead of being a kid herself, and he was glad he’d caught the issue, even if he’d done it so late.

 

Kylie said finally, “It isn’t… We didn’t mean to make you worry about that. Sorry.”

 

“No,” said Patrick, and cursed himself for getting involved in this conversation while driving. He pulled into the parking lot they were passing and parked haphazardly and turned so he could face Kylie. “Don’t apologize. At all. Your job is to make me worry, it’s fine, it’s inevitable, I’m going to worry anyway, so hit me with it.”

 

Kylie’s eyes were luminous. She shook her head and said, “There are no holes, Dad. There’s no holes.”

 

“Kylie,” he said, unconvinced.

 

She didn’t make it better by leaning over to hug him tightly. Their seat belts were in the way and the hug was uncomfortable but it was fierce on Kylie’s part. She said, “We like it here, Dad. It’s good. We like the house and the beach and school. It’s all good.”

 

He sighed and brushed a kiss over her hair and decided to let it go, take her at face value. “It would just be better with a dog?”

 

Kylie pulled back a little and said gravely, “We know we’re loved and cherished, and that will help us thrive.”

 

“Where did you get that from?”

 

“Sometimes we watch talk shows when we get home from school and you’re still working.”

 

“You’re supposed to be doing homework.”

 

“Yeah, but the talk shows teach us important things like that.”

 

“I’ll let it go this one time,” Patrick said, “because you are loved and cherished.”

 

“We know. I’m going to be late for art class and that’s not cool because this class we’re doing nudes and I don’t want to miss a single second.”

 

“God help me,” murmured Patrick, falling back into the playful mode Kylie was initiating.

 

But he was still thinking about the conversation when Adam finally woke up, on their way to go pick up Hailey.

 

***

 

They had a lazy Sunday. Patrick looked forward to Sundays all week. They painted Miranda’s bedroom together her choice of color—a vibrant lime green—taking turns keeping Adam away from the project. Miranda was delighted with the color when they were done, which was a huge relief, since Patrick would never have chosen the color himself and he was worried it would be too much. But Miranda was in love with it and sprawled over the bed and said, “We should have painted the ceiling, too.”

 

“That might have been a bit much,” said Patrick, trying not to squint at how bright the color seemed to him. “How are you ever going to sleep in this room?”

 

“It’s going to be like sleeping in a neon sign,” said Miranda happily, like that was everything she’d ever wanted out of life.

 

Kylie said, “You’ve got to think about what color you want for your bedroom.”

 

“White is fine,” said Patrick.

 

“Dad,” said Kylie. “White?”

 

“Look,” said Patrick, “I am a grown-up, we’re boring, white is fine.”

 

“It’s not white, though,” said Miranda. “It’s, like, the color of notebook paper after a school bus runs it over.”

 

“That’s…very vivid,” said Patrick, “and not an accurate description of the color of my bedroom walls.”

 

“I was thinking it’s more like that time we found that old sock buried in the sand at the beach, remember?” said Kylie.

 

Miranda wrinkled her nose. “That was gross.”

 

“Yup. Like the walls in Dad’s room,” said Kylie.

 

“I am going to paint you both lime green,” Patrick decided. “It would go well with your hair.”

 

Kylie and Miranda grinned at him.

 

He made them all take showers and then they went for ice cream and Sam Rodriguez happened to be there and Kylie went shy and embarrassed—which Kylie never was—and Patrick shot Miranda his sternest look to get her to stop giggling. He was careful to just say, “Sam seems nice,” on the drive back home, and to shoot Miranda another warning look that she wasn’t to make a comment. Miranda seemed cowed, though, and Kylie said, “Thanks, he is nice,” so Patrick thought maybe that had gone okay.

 

Adam had one of his fussy nights that he periodically had, and Patrick, exhausted, finally just settled him into bed next to him. He hated to do that, because Adam thought it was happy fun playtime in Patrick’s bed, and he grabbed at his feet and told Patrick many stories in energetic baby speak and did not sleep at all.

 

Patrick tried to doze, while Adam talked at him, and finally gave up and said, “Adam. What do we think about Kylie and Sam? Are we handling it correctly? Do we need to make her talk about him more? Do we need to have a birds-and-bees speech? Or is that total overkill? What are your thoughts?”

 

Adam sucked on his fist, momentarily silent as he considered.

 

Patrick smiled at him, because even when he was a cranky baby who refused to sleep, he was cute, and smoothed a hand over his wispy red hair, and said, “Never mind. We can sleep on it.”

 

Adam babbled his evident relief.

 

“Are you actually going to sleep?” Patrick asked.

 

Adam tried to crawl off the bed in response, so Patrick supposed that was a no.

 

***

 

Patrick spent Monday trying to work on Mario’s song in between keeping Adam as entertained as possible and also contemplating fixing the upper porch. Not actually fixing it, but contemplating it pretty hard.

 

“I am an excellent contemplator,” he told Adam, who obviously agreed with him. “If only a house could be renovated through the sheer power of contemplation. We’d have the nicest house on the whole beach.” Adam obviously agreed with that as well.

 

“So,” Patrick said, abandoning his contemplation of the porch to go and sit on the floor with Adam, “another thing I’ve been contemplating is this puppy question.”

 

Adam crawled past Patrick to reach an apparently preferred toy.

 

“On the one hand,” Patrick said, “I do not think that we need any more chaos in this house. I think we have enough. I think I have plenty of things to be responsible for, both living and non-. Adding a dog to the mix would be utter madness.”

 

Adam, now evidently changing his mind about the toy, threw it the ground.

 

“On the other hand,” continued Patrick, “utter madness is kind of what I do these days. Buying this house was utter madness. Moving us to the other side of the country was utter madness. I’ve made utter madness a specialty of mine this year. So it’s not like utter madness is necessarily a point against getting the dog.”

 

Adam pulled himself up to standing at the coffee table, a trick he had recently perfected.

 

“And I don’t want any of you to feel like there’s anything you’re not getting because there’s only one of me. You know? I don’t want you to look back and think, ‘Well, Dad had so much on his plate, no wonder we never got a dog.’ Like, no, I don’t want any of you to sacrifice any more little bits of your childhood than you already have to.”

 

Adam got tired of standing and sat back down.

 

Patrick sighed. “I don’t know. I think maybe I’ve talked myself into us getting a dog. What do you think?”

 

Adam looked like he approved.

 

***

 

The poster for the found puppy was sitting on the kitchen counter. The girls had decorated it with hearts and arrows and stars. Clearly this was all supposed to be inspirational.

 

Patrick didn’t want to admit how much it had worked.

 

He dialed Rachel’s number and as the phone was ringing, he suddenly thought better of the entire proposal. What was he doing? They couldn’t get a puppy. But if he hung up now, she might call back, and then he’d have to admit that he’d changed his mind halfway through calling her, which seemed ridiculous—

 

And then she answered with a brisk, “This is Rachel.”

 

“…Oh,” he said, caught off-guard, because he’d assumed he’d get her voicemail.

 

“Hello?” she said queryingly.

 

He tried to recover. “Hi. Yeah. Sorry, didn’t expect you to answer.”

 

“You called my phone and didn’t expect me to answer it?”

 

“I thought you’d let it go to voicemail. Unknown number.”

 

“What can I do for you?” she asked. She sounded brusque and businesslike, like she was in the middle of a million things he was interrupting.

 

Get a grip, Patrick told himself sternly. “I’m calling about the puppy.”

 

“Oh.” Rachel’s voice noticeably brightened. “Does she belong to you?”

 

“No. Um. I’m kind of calling to see if she’s been claimed yet.”

 

“Why?” And now her voice was all suspicion. She had an expressive voice to go with the expressive mouth he’d witnessed.

 

“I… So I’m the guy on the beach you gave the flyer to. Actually, now that I think about it, you probably gave the flyer to lots of guys on the beach. So I’m one of the guys on the beach that you gave the flyer to. I’m the one with the falling-down house.” His house was usually the most memorable thing about his encounters these days.

 

“Gracefully,” she said, amusement now clear in her voice. “Your house is falling down gracefully.”

 

“Yes,” he said, surprised she remembered that detail. “It is.”

 

“And you’re calling about the puppy?” Rachel prompted.

 

“Yes. You see, my kids are… They were kind of taken with the picture of the puppy on the poster. I didn’t hide it in time.”

 

“You’ve got kids?” It was the first time he couldn’t read Rachel’s tone.

 

“I do, yes,” he confirmed. “And my kids would really like a puppy. And I didn’t know if your puppy was still available and if you were looking to find it a good home.”

 

“Yes to both of those,” said Rachel.

 

“Great. If you don’t mind the puppy living in a falling-down house, could I bring my kids by to meet her and see if she’ll suit us?”

 

There was a pause.

 

Patrick wondered if he’d misstepped, then realized it was probably presumptuous of him to just invite himself to this woman’s house. “Or,” he said, cursing himself for not having thought that through, “or you can bring the puppy here if you like.”

 

“No, no.” Rachel’s voice was back to being brisk and businesslike. “It’s fine. You can come here. I’ll text you the address.”

 

“It’ll have to be after my daughter’s soccer game. Does that work?”

 

“Sure,” said Rachel. “Any time really, I’ll be around all night.”

 

***

 

Patrick waited until after Kylie’s soccer game to mention anything about the puppy, because he hadn’t wanted to be haunted the entire afternoon. It was perfect timing, because Kylie’s team lost and she was a little dejected, and after he’d gotten everyone settled in the car he decided to relish the drama of the announcement. Seldom did he get to make such dramatically good announcements.

 

“So,” he said, “we could go home…”

 

“Or?” prompted Hailey.

 

“We could go look at the puppy that—”

 

He didn’t even get to get the rest of his sentence out, because the girls threw off seatbelts to leap toward the driver’s seat to launch themselves on top of him, with choruses of “Wait, what?” and “Really?” and “Shut up!”

 

“It’s a very good thing I’m not driving,” he remarked, laughing, trying to accept the chaotic hugs as well as he could.

 

“Oh, my God,” said Kylie. “Are we really getting a dog?”

 

“This is so great,” said Miranda. “I have to tell everybody.”

 

“Can we name the dog Rabbit?” asked Hailey. “I really want to name the dog Rabbit.”

 

“Why do you want to name the dog Rabbit?” asked Patrick quizzically.

 

“It’s a cute name,” said Hailey.

 

“We’re not naming the dog Rabbit,” said Miranda.

 

“Hey,” Patrick said. “The first rule is that we’re not getting the dog if people are going to fight over the dog.”

 

All three of them immediately shut up.

 

Adam, delighted by the sudden quiet, babbled his contribution to the conversation.

 

“The second rule,” continued Patrick, “is that we’re all going to help take care of this dog. The point of having a dog is to learn responsibility.”

 

“The point of having a dog is having a loyal companion,” Miranda corrected him.

 

“That is a secondary point,” said Patrick.

 

Hailey said, “Is Adam going to help take care of the dog, too?”

 

“When he gets a little older.”

 

“Adam totally gets away with everything,” Miranda complained.

 

“So did you when you were ten months old,” Patrick told her. “Are we accepting the rules of dog ownership?”

 

All three of them said yes many times and nodded their heads.

 

“Okay,” Patrick said. “Then let’s go see if we like the puppy.”

 

***

 

There was never any doubt that his kids were going to like the puppy. Patrick knew that with certainty. So what he was really worrying about when they got to Rachel’s address was that Rachel was very clearly rich. The driveway was blocked with a wrought-iron gate that connected to a high brick wall that stretched away in either direction. Through the gate, the driveway wound away from them, curving between manicured hedges.

 

There was literally nothing about Patrick’s house that he could describe as “manicured.”

 

Kylie said, “Wow.”

 

Hailey said, “How are we supposed to get in?”

 

Miranda said, “Are you sure you know somebody who lives here, Dad?”

 

He wasn’t sure about this at all, and felt even more ridiculous about the way he and Rachel had met, but he rolled down the window and grimly rang the little buzzer.

 

Someone who wasn’t Rachel answered with, “Yes?”

 

“Hi,” he said. “I’m here about the puppy.” He tried to say it authoritatively but he feared he heard the question in his own voice.

 

But the gate swung open immediately.

 

“Whoa,” said Hailey, sounding awestruck, and Patrick had really never been so grateful that he hadn’t raised his kids in an enclave like this. He wanted them to see that this was, frankly, a weird way to live.

 

The driveway led to an extremely modern house, all glass and steel and not Patrick’s style at all. In the twilight that was arriving, it was lit up from the inside, glowing like a lighthouse perched on the beach. This end of the street was all grand houses like this, expensive estates that were well cared for. It was not at all like the end of the beach that they lived on, and the girls had never seen anything like it up close.

 

“You can see right through the house to the ocean,” Hailey noted, as Patrick pulled Adam out of the car seat.

 

“Look at their basketball courts!” Miranda said. “Cool!”

 

“How do you know this person?” asked Kylie, sounding suspicious, like her father could never know anyone who lived like this.

 

Little did Kylie know, thought Patrick, suppressing a snort. Swan and their father’s music career was completely abstract to these children, who did zero thinking about the sort of houses he might have attended parties at in his younger days. With their mother, actually.

 

Patrick said, “I know lots of interesting people, you know.”

 

“You know no interesting people,” Kylie said. “You don’t talk to anyone but us and your clients. It’s unhealthy. You should have friends.”

 

“Wow,” Patrick said, caught off-guard. “Thank you, Dr. Freud.”

 

“Freud has been largely discredited,” Kylie informed him. “And Miranda and I talk about this a lot. We worry about you.”

 

“You…” This gave Patrick pause. “Please don’t. I don’t want you to worry about me.”

 

“But we didn’t think you’d get a friend who lives in a house like this,” continued Kylie.

 

“This friend is awesome,” Miranda enthused. “Keep this friend. I want to try out the basketball court.”

 

“This is just the person who has the puppy,” Patrick said. “I met her on the beach. She gave me the flyer.”

 

“Her?” said Kylie. “She?”

 

“Oh,” said Patrick, “good point, I never asked her for her preferred pronouns, I should clarify that. Let’s go, be good, don’t embarrass me, pretend that I am raising polite and civilized children.”

 

Hailey actually tugged at her shirt to straighten it and checked her ponytail, which he appreciated.

 

And then he walked up and rang the doorbell. He had half-expected the kids to argue about who would get to ring the doorbell but he supposed they were too cowed by the house.

 

The doors were a dark ebony wood, by far the heaviest thing about the whole house, and they were opened by a woman wearing an outfit that could have been silk pajamas or could have been the most fashionable thing to come out of the most recent Fashion Week. Patrick couldn’t decide. Whatever she was wearing, she was definitely not Rachel.

 

But she was welcoming, and smiled widely at him and his brood. “Look at all of you,” she said, clearly delighted.

 

“Hello,” said Patrick. “Say hello, kids.”

 

“Hello,” they chorused.

 

“I’m Carmen,” she said, talking to the kids now, “and it’s so nice to meet you, and I heard you want to meet our little puppy.”

 

The kids nodded.

 

Hailey said, “Yes, please.”

 

Carmen said, “Right this way. Come on in.” She tossed this over her shoulder as she walked further into the house. The girls followed her immediately. Patrick paused to close the door behind him.

 

There were a couple of steps down to a grand open space that was entirely windows looking out onto the darkening ocean, and in the middle of this was the small, floppy-eared puppy Patrick had met that day on the beach. Someone had put an enormous pink bow on top of her head, so large that it looked roughly the size of the entire puppy.

 

The girls made immediate-falling-in-love sounds and fell to the ground next to the puppy, and the puppy crawled all over them, and Carmen said things like, “Isn’t she just the sweetest?” and answered the girls’ questions, saying, “She doesn’t know any tricks yet, but I bet you could teach her,” to an inquiry from Hailey.

 

Patrick was watching them and thinking that they looked delighted, happy, joyful, and maybe getting this puppy was going to be a massive clusterfuck but it was going to be worth it for this moment of his kids being so bright-eyed and pleased, when Rachel’s voice from behind him said, “Hi. Sorry. I was tied up with a work thing. I’m Rachel.”

 

She was indeed dressed like she’d just come from work, flowing black pants and a cream-colored blouse. She was taller than she had been on the beach, so she must have had heels on, although they were hidden under the hem of her pants, and her dark hair, which had been in a ponytail on the beach, was now twisted up into a tight bun.

 

He shook the hand she offered and said, “Yes. Hi. We met on the beach.”

 

“We did yes, but you have never told me your name.” She smiled, and he had remembered her mouth as being expressive but he hadn’t remembered how attractive her smile was. It was one of those very knowing, very deliberate smiles that made you feel like you’d better live up to it.

 

And he’d never even told her his name. “Oh, my God, you’re right. Sorry. It’s Patrick.”

 

“Patrick. Nice to meet you. Welcome. And who’s this?” She looked at Adam in his arms.

 

“Adam,” he said. “And those are…” The girls and Carmen were now chasing the puppy around the living area. It looked like chaos. “You know what, there are too many of them to introduce.”

 

Rachel laughed. “So I think it’s going well. You think the puppy will suit?”

 

“It looks it. Are you sure you don’t want to keep her?”

 

“I don’t have time,” Rachel said.

 

“I’m not sure I do, either,” remarked Patrick ruefully.

 

Rachel laughed again. “Fair enough. But you’ll have lots of help.”

 

It was Patrick’s turn to laugh. “We can call it help only dubiously, I think.”

 

“Your wife won’t help?” asked Rachel.

 

“Oh. No wife,” said Patrick.

 

“Right. Sorry. Sorry. Oh, God, I sounded like I was prying.” Rachel looked honestly appalled.

 

“No, no,” said Patrick, who’d grown kind of used to this over the past few months. “I’m surrounded by children. A wife is a logical assumption.”

 

“Or a husband, I suppose,” suggested Rachel.

 

“I don’t have one of those, either.”

 

“Well,” said Rachel, and then, after a moment, “But soon you’ll have a puppy, and that’s way more exciting.”

 

Patrick laughed. “Actually very true. Do you play?” He nodded toward the grand piano at one end of the room, which of course was the first thing he’d noticed upon walking in. Patrick always noticed when he was in the presence of a piano. Especially that piano.

 

“Oh. Yes. A little.” Rachel looked wistfully at the piano.

 

“A little? That’s a Bosendorfer. A Bosendorfer. That’s an expensive piano for only playing it ‘a little.’” Patrick said it without thinking, and then, having finally thought, realized that probably Rachel had enough money to just buy a Bosendorfer without a second thought.

 

Rachel didn’t seem to take offense. “It is a gorgeous piano,” she said. “I love it dearly. I just don’t have time. Have you ever played one?”

 

“A piano?” said Patrick.

 

Rachel looked amused. “A Bosendorfer. It’s obvious from the way you’re drooling over it that you play the piano.”

 

“I… Once,” Patrick said. “Basically a lifetime ago.”

 

“You can give it a whirl if you want.”

 

Patrick looked from Rachel to the piano and then to the girls, still playing with the puppy, and then back to the piano. “I shouldn’t…”

 

“You should. You should see the look on your face. You definitely should.”

 

Patrick hesitated only a second longer, before making his way over to the piano. He walked around it before he sat, because a Bosendorfer should be admired.

 

“I’m going to take a wild guess that piano was your first love in high school,” remarked Rachel.

 

Patrick chuckled as he drew a gentle finger along the piano. “Earlier than that. But yes.”

 

“Me, too.” She said it confidingly.

 

“Is that a secret?” asked Patrick, dropping his voice to a whisper. “You have a Bosendorfer. It’s not much of a secret.”

 

“You shouldn’t be indiscreet with your love for Rachmaninoff,” Rachel rejoined.

 

“Rachmaninoff, huh?”

 

“Who stole your heart?”

 

“Lennon and McCartney.”

 

Rachel laughed. “Give it a try,” she urged, indicating the keyboard.

 

Patrick hesitated only a second before sitting on the bench, settling Adam on his lap. Adam reached for the keys but Patrick deftly intercepted him and played a simple chord and winced in tandem with Rachel.

 

“It’s out-of-tune,” he said, and he couldn’t help that his voice sounded accusatory.

 

“Sorry,” Rachel apologized, looking genuinely chagrined.

 

“It’s a Bosendorfer,” said Patrick, grinning at her horrified expression, “and it’s out-of-tune.”

 

“I told you that I don’t have as much time to play as I might like.”

 

“Rachmaninoff would weep,” said Patrick, enjoying the way Rachel was laughing now. He had to keep pulling Adam way from the keys, so he set him on the floor next to the bench, letting him cling to it to keep him upright, so it would free both his hands enough for him to start playing “Chopsticks.” “Maybe,” he said, “it’s good enough for—”

 

Chopsticks?” said Rachel. “You can play something better than that on here. Push over.”

 

He obediently made room for her on the piano bench, watching in amusement as she extended her arms, pressed her fingers onto the keys, and then winced, shaking her head and laughing.

 

“No. No. You’re right. I can’t do it. It’s a disaster—”

 

“Maybe if you did ‘Heart and Soul,’” suggested Patrick, just to watch Rachel wrinkle her nose.

 

“I’m not going to do ‘Heart and Soul,’” protested Rachel.

 

“Look, just a little…” Patrick demonstrated, but the notes sounded so terrible that he winced. “No, no. Never mind. You’re right. You have to have it tuned.”

 

“Do you know a piano tuner in the area?” interjected another voice, startling Patrick away from his focus on Rachel and the piano.

 

Carmen was the one who’d asked the question, but all of the girls were also ringed around the piano. Miranda was holding the puppy. All three of them had virtually identical lifted eyebrows as the finishing flourish on their virtually identical expressions of shock.

 

And Patrick knew why they were shocked, because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d forgotten to keep his undivided attention on his children.

 

“Oh,” he said quickly, grabbing for Adam before he could crawl under the piano and standing. “I don’t know. How’s the puppy?” he asked gregariously, trying to change the subject. “Will she do?”

 

“You know a piano tuner,” said Kylie, and looked past Patrick to Rachel. “We have a piano, too. He gets it tuned all the time.”

 

“He plays constantly,” added Hailey helpfully.

 

“Thank you, Hailey,” Patrick said ironically, and Hailey beamed unironically. He turned to Rachel and said, “I do know a piano tuner. I can give you her number.”

 

“Yeah,” Rachel said. “That would be great. Clearly I need to get this taken care of. It’s a tragedy.”

 

“Yes,” Patrick agreed.

 

Rachel looked at the girls and the puppy and said, “How’s the puppy?”

 

“She’s great!” Hailey said enthusiastically.

 

“If you want her, she’s yours,” said Rachel.

 

“We want her,” all three girls said immediately.

 

Patrick couldn’t help but smile at them. He glanced at Rachel and said, “You’re sure you won’t miss her?”

 

“I’ll be happy to have her in a good home,” Rachel said.

 

“Plus you can come visit her,” Kylie said, way too innocently.

 

Patrick lifted an eyebrow at her and she just blinked back.

 

Rachel said, “Oh. I… I mean… That’s true.”

 

Patrick glanced at her. She looked a little uncertain, like she was worried she might be overstepping.

 

And Kylie may have been acting out of ulterior motives, but, well, it was only polite.

 

Patrick said, “Anytime. You know our house: it’s the falling-down one.”

 

***

 

His kids should have been completely preoccupied with the brand new puppy hanging out in the backseat with them.

 

Instead, Kylie in the passenger seat said immediately, “Oh, my God,” and he knew it had nothing to do with the puppy.

 

He tried to pretend he didn’t. “Oh, my God, we have a brand new puppy?” said Patrick.

 

“Oh, my God, you liked her,” said Kylie.

 

Patrick winced. Put that way, it sounded very sixth grade. “I didn’t like her,” he protested.

 

“And you never like anyone,” added Miranda.

 

Which gave Patrick pause, as he waited for the gate to open for them and let them out. “I like people.”

 

“You like us,” said Kylie. “You never talk to anybody who’s not us.”

 

Patrick frowned. “That’s not true.”

 

“Clients don’t count,” said Kylie. “Brie doesn’t count.”

 

“Well, that’s not fair,” Patrick said. “You’re not counting any of the people I regularly talk to.”

 

“Those aren’t people you like,” Miranda said.

 

“I like Brie,” Patrick protested.

 

“You’re used to Brie,” said Kylie. “It’s totally different.”

 

“You have a nice laugh, Daddy,” said Hailey.

 

“Okay, you have definitely heard me laugh,” he said. “You’re just being dramatic.”

 

“Not like that,” Kylie said. “Not since I was little.”

 

That’s not true, Patrick wanted to say, but the truth was that maybe there was a possibility that the last time he’d laughed because of someone other than his kids had been…a while. The last few years with Ashley had been no barrel of laughs, and he hadn’t realized until…just now, really, sitting at the piano with Rachel and just having it be fun. That sort of fun hadn’t been part of his life for a while.

 

I’ve been busy, he wanted to say. Or maybe, I didn’t even know I was missing out. Or maybe, It doesn’t matter because I’m a past-his-prime D-list celeb with four kids.

 

But none of those things seemed like the right thing to say. He didn’t know what the right thing to say was.

 

Kylie took pity on him. Probably because she could clearly see that she’d gotten her point across. “What should we name the puppy?” she asked, changing the subject.

 

He listened to them squabbling about it good-naturedly and didn’t think of Rachel, the warmth of her close to his side, her fingers on piano keys and laughter in her eyes as she looked at him.

 

***

 

“Well,” said Carmen meaningfully, after the gates had swung closed on Patrick and his brood and their new puppy.

 

Rachel shot her a warning look. “‘Well’ what?”

 

“Nothing. Just…well.”

 

“If you have something to say, you could just say it.”

 

“I don’t have anything to say,” said Carmen, with infuriating innocence.

 

“It’s unclear to me why I’m friends with you,” said Rachel.

 

Carmen laughed. “He was cute.”

 

“Did you think so?” asked Rachel, with studied nonchalance.

 

Carmen didn’t look fooled for a second. “Yes. He had that casual bedhead thing going on, that cute-without-even-trying. It’s potent.”

 

Potent,” echoed Rachel. “Now that’s a bit much. He was maybe kind of good-looking, he wasn’t potent.”

 

“Plus he’s a redhead. I love redheads.”

 

“You’ve never once dated a redhead.”

 

“Ay,” said Carmen, “you don’t date redheads, chiquita.”

 

“You are being ridiculous,” said Rachel, “and I’m going to go back to work.”

 

“You know,” Carmen called after her, “the world doesn’t end if you admit you like someone.”

 

“At the moment, Carmen, I don’t even like you,” Rachel called back to her.

 

“Yeah, but you liked him. You were supposed to stay in your office, working, and instead you flirted with him over at that piano of yours. You liked him. The world doesn’t end. He seems like a nice guy. You could probably call him and see how the puppy’s doing and…be nice to him.”

 

Rachel had drawn to a halt in her office doorway. She didn’t know why she didn’t finish her retreat. Why was she still talking about Patrick? “He’s got four kids,” she said. “He has a baby. I’m bad with babies.”

 

“You don’t know anything about babies.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Setting that aside, I missed the part where I told you that you had to marry him and turn into the mother of his children. His kids already have a mom. That’s not your role.”

 

“Oh, you think he’s a good candidate for a little bit of harmless fun? With his four kids?”

 

“I think I haven’t seen you laugh like that in a while,” said Carmen. “I think you spent all of your young foolish years having a serious love affair with a piano, and that you’ve spent all the years since then trying to get over your serious love affair with the piano. You need a fling. You need something that’s not going anywhere. And he might actually be perfect for that, because he’s got four kids. You won’t get serious. You’ll just get a redhead out of your system.”

 

“I’m sure he’s busy,” Rachel said shortly, because this was ridiculous. She didn’t call men for booty calls.

 

“You made him laugh, too,” Carmen said simply. “I bet he’d make time.”

 

“Good night, Carmen,” Rachel said, and closed her office door and walked back over to her desk.

 

And she should have felt better as soon as she sank into her desk chair, because she always did, but instead she felt like she thrumming with distraction. The house seemed too quiet. She walked out onto the balcony that ran the whole length of the house and let the crashing waves fill in the sound and let it drown out Patrick playing Chopsticks on her Bosendorfer.

 

***

 

They settled on naming the puppy Bach. It was an homage to his musical background, and to the whole piano episode his kids were apparently never going to let him forget, and it was a play on words, since the local accent said the word bark similarly.

 

Bach was cute, but they had literally no puppy paraphernalia, since Patrick was a horribly irresponsible parent. He dragged all of them out to buy stuff. Adam was miserably tired and fussed the whole time in the store and all of the workers glared at him and Patrick couldn’t bring himself to care. They bought Bach everything they could think of and arrived back home to an accident. The best part about having a dilapidated house was there wasn’t much Bach could destroy. Patrick made the girls clean up after the puppy, thinking maybe it might make them change their mind about dog ownership, but they remained charmed. They were basically in love with Bach.

 

Patrick had to admit she was pretty cute.

 

There was a bit of a fight over where Bach would sleep, which Patrick won, because Bach simply had to sleep in a crate. He made Kylie bring her outside before bed, to try to instill good habits immediately, and he watched Kylie follow the puppy, scrolling through her phone, while he sat at his piano and made notations about Mario’s single.

 

Kylie came back in eventually, cradling Bach. Patrick didn’t think this puppy was ever going to walk, given how much the kids were holding her.

 

“Bedtime for you, kiddo,” Patrick informed her, testing a chord lightly so as not to wake the rest of the house up. “Do not spend the next few hours on your phone. I’ll check when I go to bed.”

 

“I’ll be sound asleep,” Kylie promised, and paused to deposit Bach in his lap and kiss his cheek. And then to say, “It wouldn’t bother us if you wanted to date someone.”

 

“Okay,” said Patrick. “You’re not supposed to be worrying about my love life. I’m supposed to be worrying about yours.”

 

Kylie rolled her eyes, saying, “Oh, my God.”

 

“Exactly,” Patrick agreed, letting Bach squirm her way to the ground.

 

“I just mean if you’re lonely,” Kylie said. “I didn’t really think about whether or not you were lonely. The rest of us have friends. Even Adam has Mrs. Honeycutt.”

 

“I don’t think Mrs. Honeycutt is Adam’s friend.”

 

“I’m just saying, if you want to date the rich girl, don’t not do it on our account. We’d be totally cool with you going out more and leaving us here unsupervised.”

 

She said it deadpan, but he knew she was teasing, and that she was teasing because of precisely how serious she was. “I bet you would,” he went along with it.

 

“You could go away on whole romantic weekends, we would be just fine here.”

 

“You’d burn the house down,” Patrick said.

 

“Would we even notice, given the current state of our house?”

 

“Brat,” Patrick said. And suddenly pulled Kylie to him to give her a tight hug. He wanted to say, I’m doing the best I can with this, and I’m sorry you probably feel like you have to be my best friend instead of my daughter, and I should fix that.

 

He settled for, “I love you very much.”

 

Kylie said, “I know. I love you, too. Thanks for Bach.”

 

“You’re welcome. Good night.”

 

“Good night, Bach,” Kylie said, giving her one last scratch behind her ears, and then waving as she headed off to her bedroom.

 

Patrick leaned forward until his forehead rested against his piano.

 

***

 

The following day was horrible because Patrick could not concentrate at all. It was a day when he had Adam, and he took Adam to the park, hoping it would distract him, and then he took Adam and Bach for a long walk, hoping that would be distracting, too, but he spent most of his time thinking about Rachel and whether he ought to contact her. It was kind of ridiculous. He’d liked her, yes, but they’d only talked for a few minutes, so he should have already moved on by this point. But he couldn’t shake what the girls had all pointed out: It had been a while since he had met someone he liked, someone he’d laughed with, someone he’d felt like an independent person with instead of just a dad.

 

But that was also what was causing him to hold back. Why would Rachel want to hear from him? Rachel in her sleek, absurdly beautiful house clearly didn’t need to be bothered by the likes of him. Talk about things that could make someone laugh. That idea was supremely laughable.

 

But when Adam and Bach were both napping, Patrick considered the balcony floor he was supposed to be fixing and thought, And yet. He thought of Rachel’s bright eyes and the way she grinned at him, the expressive turn of her mouth.

 

He had said he’d give her the number of a piano tuner.

 

Patrick found his piano tuner’s number and texted it to Rachel, with This is Gina. For your Bosendorfer. He didn’t think that was that creepy.

 

***

 

Rachel was sitting in her office having a hell of a day when the text came in. Her latest client was making her just about ready to jump off the cliff outside and Carmen had gone off to sunbathe on the beach, calling Rachel a workaholic when she wouldn’t join her, but Rachel had things to do, not least was figuring out how to market a recalcitrant person. Marketing. When had her life taken this turn?

 

The wall of windows in her office looked out over a stunning view that Rachel barely registered because she hardly ever spent any time looking out the window. Carmen had chosen the house, one of her quasi-personal-assistant things she did. Carmen was the first person Rachel had met when she had thrown her concert piano career out the window with both hands—figuratively speaking—and then stepped outside to the rainy Manhattan sidewalk—literally speaking—and Carmen had been on that same sidewalk, smoking, in a black velvet gown that was getting soaked, and she’d given Rachel a sideways glance and said, Hey, didn’t I just listen to you play that Chopin piece in there? And then Carmen had said, You look like you could use a drink. Carmen had saved Rachel’s life a little bit that night; Rachel had saved Carmen’s back when she had left her rich neglectful husband. And they’d been fast friends ever since, really.

 

But it was odd because Carmen had never known Rachel in her piano-playing life. Rachel thought of the Bosendorfer in the other room. Rachel demanded beautiful pianos wherever she went, but Rachel seldom played anymore. The piano was soothing to have nearby, familiar, like a security blanket. Rachel had thrown everything else out the window but she kept the piano near. But she didn’t play it. Hadn’t played in years. Until the moment the redhead with all the kids had drooled at it with a look she recognized and hadn’t thought about in so long, that look of musical yearning.

 

Rachel stood at the Bosendorfer, unsure when she had even wandered out over to it, but now she was standing beside it, staring down at it. She reached out slowly and pressed middle C. A dreadfully off-key middle C sounded through the house, bouncing off all of the hard surfaces. Rachel winced. It was a sin for her to have this instrument in this condition. Even if she was interested in the redhead with the kids—which she wasn’t—he would never be interested in her after realizing how horribly she treated her piano. He was clearly a man who appreciated a piano.

 

Rachel was standing there not thinking about the redhead when her phone buzzed in her pocket. Probably Corrie. Corrie was tremendously needy. Rachel had seldom before had such a needy client. She sighed as she dug her phone out, but she was surprised when it wasn’t Corrie at all.

 

It was the redhead. This is Gina. For your Bosendorfer.

 

***

 

It wasn’t like Patrick had expected a response from Rachel to his probably-creepy text. So he forced himself not to mope because he hadn’t gotten one. And, actually, after a couple of days it was easy to fall back into the frantic pattern of his household, with Bach adding an extra layer of chaos. The girls were only spasmodically devoted to things like housetraining, and Patrick spent a lot of time sternly reminding them of their responsibilities.

 

Mrs. Honeycutt, upon meeting Bach, shook her head. Her silence was worse than any words she could have said. It was, indeed, like he had finally shocked her enough that words failed her.

 

He had a contractor in to look at the downstairs bathroom that seemed to have a persistent leak under the floor. The contractor said to him, “What did you do?” and Patrick couldn’t even deny that he was probably the source of the problem.

 

He finished Mario’s song, which was sure to be a hit, and clicked his way through the other files Brie had sent him, finally settling on a younger pop star who was trying to avoid being a one-hit wonder. Patrick could afford to be reasonably choosy with the songs he chose to help out with, not because the Swan hits really earned him many royalties anymore but because he’d been successful with a string of hits when he’d first started songsmithing and that was funding a great deal of his lifestyle.

 

He sent Brie the information on which song he’d chosen and spent the afternoon fooling around with it and asking Adam for his opinion. Adam, feeding Goldfish to Bach because getting Adam not to feed Goldfish to Bach was a losing battle, didn’t seem to impressed with any of the songs.

 

When the kids got home from school, Miranda was now teasing Kylie about a Sean instead of a Sam.

 

Patrick said, “My, we move quickly.”

 

Kylie said, “Just because you don’t move at all.”

 

Patrick said, “Everyone gets to have cookies after dinner except for Kylie.”

 

Kylie stuck her tongue out at him.

 

Miranda said, “Can I cut my hair?”

 

Patrick said, “Fine.”

 

Hailey said, “Can we cut Bach’s hair?”

 

Patrick said, “No.”

 

***

 

Gina came to tune his piano and said, “Thanks for giving my name to the rich lady up on the hill. Her piano is gorgeous.”

 

“Oh,” said Patrick, who had never received a response from Rachel. “I’m glad she got in touch with you. It was in dismal shape.”

 

“Yeah. But she clearly felt terrible about it, so I wasn’t too hard on her. Meanwhile, your piano’s in excellent shape. Been doing any writing lately?” Gina wasn’t really a fan—Patrick didn’t really have fans at this point in his career—but she was one of those people who had been keenly interested in his aborted solo career.

 

“Not really,” Patrick said. “Not my own stuff.”

 

“That’s a shame,” said Gina.

 

“Mrs. Honeycutt disagrees with you.”

 

“Who’s Mrs. Honeycutt?” asked Gina.

 

“Adam’s babysitter.”

 

“Oh,” said Gina. “A musical authority then.”

 

“Off with you,” said Patrick.

 

He didn’t write a song but he sat down and played a piano version of Swan’s first hit, Wild Ride. It reminded him why he never played any of the Swan songs.

 

***

 

It was a warm day, and they went to the beach. The beach was growing progressively more crowded. Patrick was aware summer would be upon them before they knew it, even though the kids seemed to think school would never end.

 

Patrick said, watching Hailey play fetch with Bach and Miranda try to control her kite, “We should talk about what you’re going to do for summer vacation.”

 

Hailey, fighting to get the ball out of Bach’s mouth, said, “I thought we were going to go back to California to stay with Mom.”

 

That had been the plan at some point, Patrick knew. When the plan had also been weekly phone calls. Now contact with Ashley was sporadic. She called absently, when it occurred to her to check in from in between her global jet-setting lifestyle. She hadn’t brought up any of the kids spending any extended amount of time with her, and Patrick hadn’t raised it. He was loath to let any of the kids leave him for any period of time because he would miss them, but also he was reluctant to send them off to Ashley. In the wake of Ashley leaving, Patrick now admitted what he’d denied for a long time: that Ashley had never been the most attentive of parents; that Patrick had always done most of the work; and he was worried what could happen without his supervision.

 

“Would you like that?” he asked without thinking, and then realized what a stupid question that was. Of course Hailey would like that. Ashley was still her mom.

 

“For a little while,” Miranda said. “Not, like, all summer.”

 

“Are you coming, too?” Hailey asked, succeeding in grabbing the ball and then flinging it down the beach for Bach to chase.

 

Patrick glanced at Kylie, whose eyes were obscured behind her sunglasses but who was clearly looking directly at him. “I don’t know,” he admitted, because he didn’t. He hadn’t planned any of this. “To be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of a summer camp.”

 

“A summer camp?” Kylie said, sounding appalled.

 

“Well, you can’t hang around here all summer.”

 

“A summer camp would be awesome!” Miranda enthused. “Can I go to one with swimming?”

 

“If you want,” said Patrick. “We can look into all the different types.”

 

“Summer camps are ridiculous,” Kylie said.

 

“Oh, dear,” said Patrick. “From your lofty age of thirteen, can you even see the rest of us anymore?”

 

“I’m just saying,” said Kylie, “I shouldn’t have to go to summer camp. I can stay home and take care of Adam.”

 

Patrick shook his head. “You’re a kid. I’m not having you spend your entire summer break be a mom to your little siblings.” You already do enough of that, he added silently.

 

“We should go to California for a little while,” said Kylie. “We should make Mom be a mom for a little while.”

 

“Even if we go to California,” Patrick said, “we’re still doing summer camp. Don’t think you’re getting out of it.”

 

“Oh!” exclaimed Hailey suddenly. “Look who it is!”

 

“It’s the dog lady!” Miranda added.

 

Patrick, startled, looked up from Kylie’s challenging sulk, and there was indeed Rachel, dressed for running, but she’d paused because Bach was barking enthusiastically around her feet. Rachel was laughing, her dark ponytail swinging back and forth as she bounced along with Bach.

 

“Rachel,” Kylie corrected her sisters, quickly standing up. “Her name is Rachel. Hi, Rachel!” she shouted, waving enthusiastically.

 

Rachel glanced up from Bach and waved back, and then began jogging up the beach toward them.

 

“That wasn’t necessary,” Patrick hissed at Kylie.

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kylie said innocently, settling herself back on the blanket next to him.

 

“This little match-making stunt,” Patrick said.

 

“Maybe,” responded Kylie, “summer camp should be negotiable.”

 

Patrick frowned, but couldn’t say anything because Rachel had arrived at their blanket and was smiling down at them, that smile that Patrick thought he accurately remembered but was caught off-guard by every time he was exposed to it again.

 

“Hi,” Rachel said, shading her eyes against the sun as she looked down at them.

 

“Hi,” Patrick said, and then, not knowing what else to say, “How are you?”

 

“I’m good,” Rachel responded. “How are you?”

 

This was the most inane conversation, thought Patrick, despairing of himself. “Good.”

 

Kylie must have also been despairing of him. She said, “Wow, what great weather we’re having, huh? I think Adam needs to be changed, better go take care of him.” And then she grabbed Adam off the blanket and left them alone.

 

Now, thought Patrick, there was nothing else for it. He had to invite Rachel to sit.

 

“Have a seat,” he offered. “Enjoy the view.” He gestured toward the ocean in front of them.

 

Rachel’s smile was unwavering. She sat next to him and tugged at her ponytail and said, “It is a lovely day. Have you just been out here enjoying it?”

 

***

 

Gina came and tuned the Bosendorfer and still Rachel didn’t play. She walked past it many times, contemplating it, convinced that any minute now she was going to sit down and launch into a sonata, but taking that final step eluded her. She hadn’t touched a piano in so many years. What if she couldn’t remember what to do? What if the sounds she coaxed from it didn’t match what she had been capable of before? The one thing Rachel had always known about herself was that she was a talented pianist. Even though she had stopped playing, she had continued to cling to that truth about herself, that essential fact. But right now it was a Schrodinger’s fact. Sitting down to the piano could confirm that it was no longer true. And if that was so, then she would have to try to find something else about her identity that made herself her.

 

And that seemed exhausting, so she never sat at the piano.

 

Instead, she threw herself energetically into her work. Carmen didn’t approve, because Carmen never approved.

 

“You’re like the Americans say,” Carmen told her. “A workaholic. Do you know that’s a word that only exists in English? Workaholic? No other culture needs that word.”

 

“You don’t know that,” Rachel said. “You don’t know every language spoken on the planet.”

 

Carmen made a noncommittal sound in the direction of her toenails, which she was painting. Carmen went for regular pedicures but she also liked to paint her nails herself. She said it was an artistic outlet for her. Rachel had never met anyone who painted their nails so much. Rachel herself consented to let Carmen paint her toenails roughly once a year.

 

“You haven’t talked to that redhead with the kids and the dog in a long time,” Carmen pointed out.

 

Rachel hadn’t told Carmen of her time on the beach with Patrick. She thought Carmen would read way too much into that. “He’s got kids and a dog. It’s a lot of baggage. Anyway, I have a new client and I’ve got to figure out what to do with him.”

 

“Who’s your new client?”

 

“Matt Usher?” said Rachel, frowning at the dossier that had been sent over to her.

 

“The judge on Who Can Sing the Best?” said Carmen.

 

“Yeah. Although apparently before that he had a successful musical career.”

 

“He did. I’m sure you’ve heard his stuff. He was in some band, too.”

 

“I’m sure I haven’t heard his stuff,” said Rachel. “I spent those years fangirling Chopin. Anyway, I’m supposed to be finding him more ‘opportunities.’” She air-quoted the word. “I guess he wants to capitalize on the success of the show.”

 

“He’s cute,” said Carmen. “You could sleep with him.”

 

“I don’t sleep with clients.”

 

“You don’t sleep with anyone.”

 

“Because it’s not important to me,” said Rachel dismissively. “This Matt guy’s difficult to get in touch with. He’s kind of free-spirited.”

 

“He’s a musician,” said Carmen. “Most musicians are free-spirited.”

 

“Yeah,” said Rachel drily. “Look at me.”

 

“I said most,” said Carmen, grinning at her. “You, mi amiga, you’re a different sort of musician altogether.”

 

“Yeah,” agreed Rachel. “Lucky me.”

 

***

 

Rachel couldn’t pin Matt Usher down. It took many rounds of phone tag before she even got to talk to him, and when she said he sounded like he was in the middle of a nightclub.

 

She shouted that at him. “Are you in a nightclub?”

 

“What?” he shouted back. “Who’s this?”

 

Of all times to pick up his phone, thought Rachel with a sigh. If he’d pick it up in a nightclub, why wouldn’t he have picked it up all the other times?

 

“This is Rachel Rosen,” she shouted.

 

“Who?”

 

“Rachel! Rosen! Your manager hired me to—”

 

Matt said something into the phone and then hung up.

 

“Ugh,” said Rachel eloquently. Has-been rock stars were the worst.

 

Her phone vibrated with a text. From Matt Usher.

 

Now’s not a good time. Who is this?

 

She supposed texting was better than nothing. Rachel Rosen. Your manager asked me to get with you to talk about future opportunities.

 

The reply was, Right. I’ll be in touch.

 

Rachel stared at the phone, feeling both furious and impotent. What could she do other than what she’d already done? She could complain to Matt’s manager about him but that definitely wouldn’t win her any points, but if she couldn’t connect with Matt, Matt’s manager would be displeased about where her salary had gone.

 

“Dammit,” Rachel said, massaging at her temples. Usually her clients at least wanted to work with her. They were frequently terrible about doing what she said but they at least let her talk.

 

Rachel found herself looking down at the Bosendorfer. The house was otherwise empty. Who knew where Carmen was? Sometimes Carmen just took herself out on the town.

 

“Fuck this,” Rachel said out loud, which succinctly summed up her thoughts toward so much these days.

 

And then she spontaneously grabbed her keys and left the house.

 

***

 

“I don’t think this is a trick Bach can learn,” Patrick said, watching Hailey and Miranda demonstrate, over and over, how he should be able to walk on just his two hindlegs.

 

“I’ve seen other dogs do it,” Miranda insisted.

 

“Where have you seen other dogs do it?” Patrick asked.

 

“Online,” she replied.

 

“Okay,” said Patrick, “well, that’s hardly real life.”

 

“Circus dogs can do it,” Hailey said.

 

“Bach isn’t a circus dog,” said Patrick.

 

“She could be,” said Hailey. “And then she would earn us money instead of being just another mouth to fill.”

 

“Hmm,” said Patrick, regarding Hailey. Maybe he had hit that joke once too often. “We are not in danger of running out of food. You know that, right?”

 

“No, Bach, like this. Like this.” Miranda tried to get Bach to even sit still long enough so she could demonstrated what she wanted the puppy to do.

 

“You know,” Patrick remarked, “I would appreciate it if you two could demonstrate even half the patience you exhibit toward Bach in all other aspects of your life.”

 

“Bach is teaching us patience,” Hailey informed him solemnly.

 

Patrick looked at Adam, who was fascinated by everything happening around him. Adam was the easiest baby, because Adam was just endlessly entertained by his sisters’ very existence. Kylie had been a demanding baby, and Patrick could remember her wailing to be entertained, demanding to be played with. He was lucky that the baby he’d been abandoned to raise by himself was the easy one, with built-in entertainment.

 

Patrick said to him, “You and I should take a bath, and go to bed, and leave your sisters to their antics. What do you think?”

 

Adam wasn’t too excited about having to leave behind the far more interesting tableau of his sisters training their dog to walk on two paws instead of four. He cried in protest, but settled down once Patrick got him in the bath, because Adam loved his bath. Patrick surrounded him with his tiny aquarium of bath toys and called out the doorway, “Girls, ten minutes and then we must practice our reading, okay?”

 

He had expected Miranda and Hailey to show up protesting dramatically. Instead it was Kylie who appeared in the doorway.

 

“Hi,” he said, surprised. “Have you decided to grace us with your presence a little earlier than I ordinarily drag you out of your room?”

 

Kylie smiled at him, bouncing up and down on her toes in a smug excitement that made Patrick nervous. He retrieved a whale Adam had tossed out of the bath and said, “Uh-oh, what do you know that I don’t?”

 

“You have a visitor,” Kylie said gleefully.

 

“I have a… Who?” Patrick couldn’t imagine anyone visiting him was good news.

 

Rachel,” Kylie said, sing-songing her name.

 

Oh, Christ, thought Patrick, it was worse than being back in grade school, to be thrust abruptly back into this gossipy surveillance of his relationships. Not that whatever was going on with Rachel was a relationship. Which frankly made this worse. It would have been easier to choose a plan of attack with Rachel if he knew how to label what was going on. Instead he felt by turns rebuffed and encouraged. Not that he blamed Rachel. Deciding what to do about a man with four children couldn’t be easy.

 

“Oh,” said Patrick, a little blank, because he didn’t know what else to say.

 

“I’ll handle the rest of Adam’s bath,” Kylie said. “Go.” She gave him a little shove out of the bathroom.

 

Patrick should have protested Kylie once again assuming the maternal role but by then he’d already been pushed into the hallway, which gave him a clear view of Rachel standing in the living room, looking at whatever Miranda and Hailey were enthusiastically telling her.

 

Patrick could only imagine what they were telling her, so he hurried forward into the living room. He hadn’t dried his hands before Kylie had shoved him out of the bathroom, so he wiped them hastily on his jeans and decided that was good enough. It wasn’t like Rachel didn’t know already that he was a fairly disorganized mess.

 

“Hi,” he said to Rachel, and tried to read his own tone. Did he sound pleased enough to see her? Inconvenienced? Perplexed?

 

She sent him one of those dazzling smiles she had and said, “Hi. I’ve been hearing all about how Bach is now a circus dog.”

 

“Yeah, uh, not quite,” said Patrick, as Bach went skipping around the room on all four paws, joyful to have a guest.

 

“Can we talk for a second?” Rachel asked. “I know this is probably a bad time, but—”

 

“No.” Patrick shook his head. “Not at all. Let’s talk. Your sister is getting your brother out of his bath,” he said to Hailey and Miranda. “See if she need help, and then gather your books, it’s reading time.”

 

“Okay,” said Hailey and Miranda, although they also said, “Come on, Bach!” and took the delighted puppy down the hallway with them, so Patrick didn’t think they were going to be terribly focused about doing as he asked.

 

He stepped outside with Rachel, onto the patio. It was dark, so they could only hear the waves crashing against the beach instead of see them. The breeze coming off the ocean was brisk, but refreshing. Patrick had had the doors open to catch it. He closed them over most of the way, though, now.

 

“I hope you don’t mind my dropping by unannounced like this,” said Rachel.

 

“I said you were welcome to come and check on Bach anytime,” said Patrick, because he had, but also he did feel a little sideswiped by her just arriving at his house unannounced like this.

 

“What about if I wanted to come and check on things that were not Bach?” asked Rachel.

 

She looked serious, her eyes steady on Patrick, and Patrick paused to reassess his footing with Rachel again. Because this sounded as if maybe Rachel was interested in something more, after all. And if Rachel was interested in more, then…

 

Was Patrick interest in more?

 

He decided to say, slowly, making up his own mind about it, “That would also be encouraged.”

 

Rachel’s expressive mouth tilted back into a smile. “I can tell this is a bad time.”

 

“It isn’t a bad time so much as I don’t have good times,” said Patrick honestly. “I mean, you realize now that my life is a constant disastrous jumble of…whatever you might call it.”

 

“Yeah,” Rachel said. “I definitely have noticed that. I’ve thought a lot about it. And yet still. Here I am.”

 

“Here you are,” said Patrick, feeling a little tongue-tied. He was so out-of-practice with this. He hadn’t wooed anybody since Ashley, and he hadn’t had to woo Ashley: He’d been a rock star at the time, that did all the wooing for him.

 

“I have got a difficult client who’s giving me fits, and a Bosendorfer that for some reason I still can’t get myself to play, and Carmen thinks maybe what I need to do is just go out with someone not-for-work and have some fun conversation.”

 

Patrick lifted his eyebrows, because Carmen had given him the impression that talk wasn’t very high on her list of things that anybody needed, but he decided to allow Rachel to clean the suggestion up, because otherwise he was going to have to point out that he was the worst candidate for no-strings-attached sex in the history of time, which he didn’t want to point out, because, well, he did want to eventually have sex again in his life.

 

Rachel kept going, luckily saving him from any response at all. “So I guess what I’m saying is: How much notice do you need to find a babysitter?”

 

***

 

The girls supported everything about his going to dinner with Rachel.

 

“Dad has a date, a date, a date!” sang Hailey, skipping around the kitchen.

 

“I think that you should get your hair cut,” Kylie told him seriously, regarding him critically. “It’s abysmal.”

 

“Do you even remember how to go on dates?” asked Miranda frankly.

 

Patrick had been asking himself that same question. But he self-consciously smoothed down his hair and said, “There isn’t a trick to going on dates. You just go and be yourself and be nice.”

 

“Oh, my God, Dad,” said Kylie, giving him a hopeless look.

 

“Look, if Rachel wanted to go out with somebody smooth and suave with lots of good lines, she wouldn’t want to go out with me,” Patrick thought this was inarguable logic.

 

The girls looked less convinced.

 

“You had some good lines in your songs,” said Kylie. “Maybe we could mine your song for some ideas.”

 

“I am not feeing Rachel lines from my songs,” said Patrick.

 

“Why not?” asked Miranda frankly. “Didn’t it work on Mom?”

 

Yes, thought Patrick, and that didn’t exactly work out. Although it had gotten him these four children, and even on the worst days, his gratitude for his children drowned out everything else.

 

Patrick said firmly, “I can handle myself on this date, there is no need for you to worry about it. Now. It’s reading time.”

 

He made the pronouncement in the same confident tone he always used with his children when in fact he had no idea what the hell he was doing. He wasn’t sure if they fell for it or if they just pitied him so much when he used that tone that they did as he asked anyway. At any rate, they did reading time and then squabbled over something to watch and then eventually it was bedtime for everyone, including Patrick. He had songs to work on but his mind was too much of a jumble for him to think of dealing with music.

 

Even as he let himself collapse into his bed, he recognized the irony of this. There had been a time in his life when music was the only thing he turned to to sort through romantic confusion in his head. There had been a time in his life when it had fueled many songs that had in turn funded a great deal of his lifestyle. In the intervening years, though, he’d fallen out of the habit.

 

And anyway, everything with Rachel seemed oddly unlike how he remembered romantic confusion in his younger days. He remembered falling in love, and how heady and giddy and overwhelming it had felt, how his very skin cells had seemed to vibrate with compounding every precious recollected detail with the fever of anticipation of meeting again to collect more details. Whatever was going on with Rachel—and Patrick really still didn’t know—it didn’t feel like that.

 

But then again, maybe that was just how love felt when you were young. Maybe it wasn’t how love felt when you were middle-aged and a father of four.

 

And also, maybe, the thing with Rachel wasn’t love. He was an adult. He didn’t need to fall in love with Rachel in order to date her, have fun with her, take her to bed.

 

Although something seemed irresponsible to him about spending time away from his kids with someone he didn’t even love. It seemed selfish. Forgivable if he was serious about Rachel and she was serious about him and he wanted to make her part of his kids’ lives. But otherwise…pointless, in a life that didn’t afford him the luxurious space for pointless endeavors.

 

Patrick sighed and listened to the waves crashing outside his window, focusing on the rise and fall of them, clearing his brain of all the rest of it, letting them lull him to sleep. It was one date. He would see how it went and make decisions after that.

 

***

 

“I just can’t believe it,” Carmen said.

 

“Okay, you’ve said that, like, a million times now. You never expected me to leave this house ever. I get it.” Rachel, also for the millionth time, looked at her reflection again. She barely looked like herself.

 

“Because I didn’t,” replied Carmen. “You have a date. And you look hot.”

 

“Do I?” Rachel fussed with her hair a little bit.

 

“No.” Carmen reached out to grab her hands to forcibly restrain her. “Don’t touch it. It’s perfect.”

 

“It looks like I didn’t comb it,” Rachel fretted.

 

“Exactly. It’s sexy hair. Oh, no. Do I need to explain to you about sex?” Carmen looked genuinely distressed.

 

“I know about sex,” said Rachel, shaking Carmen’s hands off of her.

 

The doorbell rang.

 

Carmen squeaked with as much excitement as if she had a date. In fact, with more excitement. “He’s here!”

 

Rachel glanced at her watch, frowning. “He’s early.”

 

“He must be eager,” said Carmen, and gave Rachel a little nudge. “Well? Go answer it!”

 

Rachel took a deep breath. She had gone to see Patrick and had basically ordered him to take her out on a date. She had no one to blame but herself for the current situation.

 

But it was going to be fine. Patrick was a good guy who she liked and the date was going to be great and she wasn’t nervous at all.

 

Rachel plastered what she hoped was a date-appropriate smile on her face and opened the door…

 

…on somebody who decidedly was not Patrick.

 

It was a man probably about Patrick’s age, yes, but not Patrick. He was dressed in artfully ripped jeans and an untucked faded button-down and Rachel knew her designer clothes enough to know that the outfit was obscenely expensive in its state of artful deterioration. His hair was brown and as artfully unkempt as the rest of him. And he stood in her doorway and lifted his eyebrows at her, as if she had surprised him.

 

“Hello,” he said.

 

“Hi,” she managed. “You’re not… Who are you?”

 

He kept his eyebrows raised. “Who am I?”

 

“Yeah,” Rachel said impatiently. “How did you even get in the gate?”

 

“What gate?” he asked blankly.

 

“The…” Rachel closed her eyes briefly, then shouted behind her. “Carmen! Did you leave the gate open again?” It was electric, for fuck’s sake, all she had to was push a button to close it once she came in. Then she turned back to the strange man. “Okay, I don’t know who you are—”

 

“Sorry,” said the man. “It’s just that you called me so I assumed that you would know… And most people do know… I’m Matt Usher.”

 

Rachel stared at him, and now that he mentioned it, he did look like the photographs she’d been given. “You’re Matt Usher.”

 

“That’s me. And you’ve been trying for a very long time now to get in touch with me.”

 

“So you thought you’d just show up at my house? How’d you even get my address?”

 

“Lilah,” he said. “My manager. Remember?”

 

Rachel knew she was making a terrible impression on this fairly important client and wished she could fix it. “You’ve just caught me off-guard—”

 

“Yeah, I kind of make a habit of that,” said Matt Usher, with cheerful carelessness. “Can I come in?”

 

“What?” said Rachel. She wanted to say no, but she also couldn’t turn him away. “Yeah.” She stepped aside and forced her professional courtesy back to the forefront. “Of course. Absolutely. Welcome.”

 

Matt smiled at her and stepped past her and into the house. “Thank you.”

 

“I’m glad you’ve shown up, because I have been wanting to talk to you,” Rachel said, closing the door behind him and turning to follow him into the living area. “But this really isn’t the best—”

 

“Oooh, a Bosendorfer,” Matt said, going over to it. “Isn’t that impressive.”

 

Rachel blinked in surprise. “Do you play?”

 

Matt gave her a sardonic look over the expanse of the piano. “I’m a musician.”

 

God, she was making the worst impression. “Right. Yes. Of course.”

 

Carmen came out into the living area finally, holding a plate heaped with orange slices. “Were you shouting at me?” she said to Rachel. “I couldn’t hear you.”

 

Rachel gave her a tight-lipped smile and then said, “This is Matt Usher.” To Matt, who had now sat at her piano and was watching everything with dry amusement, she said, “This is Carmen.”

 

“Hello, Carmen,” he said. “Your orange looks delicious, and that isn’t even a euphemism.”

 

“Matt Usher,” Carmen said. “The ‘Who Can Sing the Best?’ host.”

 

“That’s me,” said Matt. “Among other things.”

 

“Carmen is going to keep you occupied for a few minutes,” Rachel announced, and because Matt and Carmen both shot her looks, she clarified, “Also not a euphemism. And I will be right back.”

 

Carmen said, “But what about—”

 

“Right back,” Rachel promised her, and went to go call Lilah.

 

“Can I play your Bosendorfer?” Matt called after her.

 

“Knock yourself out,” Rachel called back.

 

***

 

Patrick didn’t think he was nervous about the date.

 

No, wait, he was definitely nervous about the date.

 

But it wasn’t the sort of unbearable anticipatory glee he remembered from his younger days of dating, the flutter of joy over what could be beginning. It was more nerves that he would behave like an idiot who hadn’t been out on a date for too long and would be mocked.

 

“You’re going to be totally fine,” Kylie told him.  “But is that the shirt you’re wearing?”

 

Patrick looked down at his shirt. “Way to inspire confidence.”

 

“I’m just saying. But don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

 

Patrick went back to his bedroom to hunt through other shirt options, calling back, “The fact that you’re so worried about me is also not inspiring confidence!”

 

“I’m not worried about you!” Kylie shouted back at him.

 

Patrick appeared in the hallway with a different shirt in his hand for Kylie’s inspection.

 

Kylie nodded. “Better.”

 

Patrick nodded and ducked back into his bedroom, changed his shirt, and regarded his reflection one last time. Then he headed out into the living room, where all three girls were sitting the couch reading like model citizens, and Adam was sitting in the middle of a vast pile of toys that Bach all thought belonged to her.

 

“This is how I know you’re worried about me,” Patrick remarked. “I have never seen such well-behaved children. Certainly not my children.”

 

“Ha ha,” said Kylie.

 

“We’re always well behaved,” protested Hailey.

 

“No one’s even protesting the fact that I have hired a babysitter. Which is an indication of just how worried you are about me, that you don’t want to make me fight about the babysitter issue.”

 

“We just want you to have a good time tonight,” said Kylie. “But it is kind of ridiculous you hired someone to watch us who’s basically my age.”

 

“She’s several years older than you, and they are important years of great maturing.”

 

“Oh, yeah, as everyone knows, high school students are super-mature,” said Kylie.

 

“Has anyone ever told you you’re too smart for your own good?”

 

Kylie grinned at him. “You. A lot.”

 

“Anyway. Please all of you continue to be this angelic. Even you two babies of the family.” He directed his stern tone to Adam and Bach. Bach, assuming he was playing because Bach always assumed everyone is playing, came up to gambol around him. Adam said something long and complicated to him.

 

“Do you think Adam is speaking some other language?” Miranda asked. “Like, Mrs. Honeycutt is teaching him an entirely new language.”

 

“That Mrs. Honeycutt is suspicious,” said Patrick, just as the doorbell rang.

 

It was the babysitter, and Patrick gave her instructions and made sure she had his cell phone number.

 

“I shouldn’t be too late,” he told her, and then turned to the kids to kiss heads good-bye, moving from youngest to oldest.

 

“Be as late as you want,” Kylie said to him.

 

“I’ve got this covered,” he promised. “I’m excellent on dates. I used to be a rock star.”

 

All of his girls looked appropriately dubious, but he left with the sort of swagger in his step he’d perfected during Swan days, so that he would look good in the inevitable YouTube footage that would get uploaded.

 

And then he drove to Rachel’s mansion to spend the evening in hopefully not awkward conversation.

 

The gate was open to the driveway, which Patrick supposed was meant to be a gesture of welcome. He rang the doorbell, holding the bouquet of flowers he’d picked up on the way over and hoping it wasn’t too much.

 

Carmen answered the door, and Patrick smiled at her and was about to ask where Rachel was, when he heard the sound of the piano being played. That’s where Rachel was, apparently: playing for the piano for his arrival. There was something very charming about that, calling back to the bonding they’d done on their first meeting that way. Patrick began to relax and feel better about the impending date.

 

And then he recognized what she was playing: It was Kiss Me Last.

 

What were the odds, he thought, dazedly, that Rachel would be playing one of Swan’s hits. Unless she was doing it on purpose. They’d never discussed Swan but maybe she’d recognized him all along and this was her way of telling him.

 

Later, he would think that maybe he’d known it was Matt. That maybe there was something about the playing that said Matt to him. He also knew that was absurd, it wasn’t like Matt’s piano-playing was so unique that it would stand out to him, and also he hadn’t heard Matt’s piano-playing in fifteen fucking years. So, when he imagined later that he must have known, when he stepped in view of the piano, that it was going to Matt, he knew that he was wrong. He knew that he was sincerely and absolutely shocked when he stepped around the corner and it was Matt.

 

So shocked that he stood staring at him wordlessly for a few moments. It had been fifteen years but Matt looked annoyingly, predictably the same, as if Patrick had last seen him only minutes earlier. Patrick couldn’t comprehend it. Why would Matt be here? Maybe he was hallucinating, or having a stroke, or maybe he’d been in a car accident on the way over and this was his brain working through the trauma, and then he thought of what would happen to his kids if something happened to him, and he told himself sharply, No. That has to be Matt. He’s really there.

 

And then Matt looked up at him and his fingers literally slipped off the piano keys into a discordant jangle of notes. His face looked comically shocked, which was probably exactly how Patrick’s face looked, and it was comforting to know that Matt hadn’t set this up. You could never put anything past Matt, and even fifteen years on Patrick could recognize in himself the wariness of worrying about being the object of one of Matt’s schemes, but Matt had never been an especially good actor when it came to genuine shock. There was always a smug knowingness to Matt that made “shock” a challenge for him. This, Patrick thought, looking at the astonishment on Matt’s face, was what a shocked Matt looked like.

 

“Patrick,” Matt said.

 

“Matt,” said Patrick.

 

And Rachel said, “Oh, do you two know each other?”

 

***

 

Rachel’s question made both Matt and Patrick turn their heads to stare at her in disbelief.

 

And then Matt said, “You really have no idea who I am.”

 

“Oh, my God,” said Patrick. “Oh, my God. The appropriateness of that being the first sentence I’ve heard you say in fifteen years is poetic.”

 

Matt scowled at him and then said to Rachel, “I’m Matt Usher.”

 

“Yes, I know,” said Rachel, bewildered. “One of the judges of ‘Who Can Sing the Best?’”

 

Patrick’s lips twitched with what looked like a smile.

 

Matt must have caught it, too, because he glared at Patrick and commanded, “Not a word.”

 

Patrick, smiling openly now, said to Rachel, “He’s Matt Usher. He used to be in a band called Swan. And so, in my degenerate youth, was I.”

 

Rachel looked at Patrick and said, “You were in a band?” and couldn’t help the fact that she sounded shocked.

 

Matt snorted as he rose from the piano, the bench scraping backward. “He was. He was good, too.”

 

“Thanks for the condescension, Matt,” said Patrick drily.

 

“That was a compliment,” said Matt, sounding wounded, as he came around the piano.

 

“I know that you thought that it was,” Patrick replied, and he sounded…fond?

 

Rachel supposed that would make sense, since they had apparently been in some sort of band together. “How long were you in the band together for?” she asked, looking between them. Matt was studying Patrick intently; Patrick looked wry in the face of his examination.

 

At Rachel’s question, Matt looked at her with almost comical indignation. “Do you not know Swan?”

 

“Leave her alone,” Patrick said. “We were hardly the Beatles.”

 

“We were hardly nothing,” Matt retorted.

 

“Well, this has been such a wonderful reunion,” Patrick said. “It’s so nice to see you again, Matt. Rachel, maybe we could—”

 

“Oh! Yes!” exclaimed Rachel, feeling terrible. “And you brought me these beautiful flowers and everything. Let me just…put these in water, and then we can go.” Rachel grabbed the flowers and went to the kitchen in search of a vase.

 

Carmen followed after her. “Ay, do you see how many attractive men you have by your piano right now?” she hissed.

 

“Too many,” Rachel replied, feeling harried. Lilah had been of no help. Oh, did Matt just show up on your doorstep? He does things like that.

 

“Can I have one of them?” asked Carmen.

 

Rachel gave her a look. “They’re not items for me to give away. Behave yourself.”

 

Carmen sighed.

 

***

 

Patrick, his hands divested of the bouquet he’d been clinging to, didn’t know what to do. At a loss, he tucked his hands into his pockets and looked at Matt, who’d been studying him with a frank and open curiosity since his arrival. He’d forgotten that about Matt, how Matt, when he was interested in you, just showed that. Matt liked to think he could play coy, but Matt was the worst at playing coy.

 

What amazed Patrick, at finding Matt right in front of him again, was how little he’d forgotten, and how easy it was to fall back into all the terrible habits, smiling indulgently instead of telling him to go to hell.

 

“How are you here?” Matt asked.

 

“I actually live here now,” Patrick replied. “How are you here?”

 

“You live here with Rachel?” asked Matt.

 

“No,” said Patrick. “And you didn’t answer my question.”

 

“But you’re…dating Rachel,” concluded Matt. “Of course. Yes. That’s it. First date, probably. You would show up with flowers on the first date.”

 

“It’s polite,” said Patrick.

 

“A hearts-and-candies sort of love,” said Matt, quoting one of their songs at him.

 

“Okay,” said Patrick, “well, this has been such fun—”

 

“I’m one of Rachel’s clients,” Matt said. “To answer your question. And you look…great, actually. You look exactly the same.”

 

Patrick, who had been wondering exactly what Rachel did for a living, since he’d never asked, was completely thrown by the comment. He looked at Matt and blinked and managed to say, strangled, “Oh.”

 

Matt smiled at him, a curling trap of a smile, and, actually, Patrick had forgotten that smile, because Patrick had made himself forget that smile, because if Patrick had remembered that smile, he would never have been able to walk away from Matt. He never had been able to develop immunity to that smile. “You’re supposed to tell me how great I look in return,” said Matt, in a confiding tone, tipping his head closer to Patrick.

 

“You get told that all the time,” Patrick said stiffly.

 

Matt laughed. “Not as much these days.”

 

“Your life is doubtless very difficult,” said Patrick.

 

“Always,” said Matt, long-suffering, still with that fucking smile Patrick hated.

 

“Okay,” said Rachel, coming back over to them. “Flowers are cared for. Shall we be off?” She smiled brightly at Patrick.

 

And Patrick was about to say yes, of course, they should be off and this weird interlude with Matt Usher of all people would just be over with.

 

Which was when Matt said, “I should come along.”

 

“What?” said Patrick and Rachel at the same time, both turning to stare at him.

 

“I should come along,” Matt said, looking pleased with himself.

 

“You can’t,” said Patrick. “You can’t ‘come along.’ It’s a date.”

 

“Yes, but Rachel is working for me,” Matt said.

 

Patrick frowned at him. “Rachel is working for you, so that entitles you to crash her date?” This was the problem with Matt, Patrick was reminded. Patrick had always spent so much of his time charmed with Matt, and Matt had always, always managed to find a way to step over the line and ruin it.

 

“Look,” said Rachel, “we can get to work on whatever—”

 

“Hey,” Matt said to Carmen, who had been standing behind them. “Want to go out with me?”

 

“Yes, actually,” said Carmen.

 

“Great,” said Matt. “So that’s settled.”

 

***

 

Patrick was furious with him. Rachel was probably furious, too, but Rachel mattered less than Patrick, but everyone in the universe had always mattered less than Patrick, which, well, if Patrick was furious, Matt was furious to have discovered that was still true. It had been fifteen fucking years, and still Patrick had walked into a room and Matt had felt everyone else fade into insignificance. There was just Patrick, and a Patrick who was furious at him was, well, much better than a Patrick who was out on a date with somebody else.

 

“So,” Carmen said, when they were all settled at a table. “You were a rock star.” She was speaking to Patrick, a little coquettishly. “You could lead with that.”

 

“I led with that for years,” said Patrick. “It seemed ridiculous of me at a certain point.”

 

“Doesn’t seem to have stopped you,” said Carmen to Matt, with a wicked smile.

 

Matt laughed. He had no idea who this Carmen was but he liked her. “No, indeed, and I am fine with admitting it.” He lifted his glass, and Carmen, also laughing, tipped hers against his in a toast.

 

“Matt isn’t especially well acquainted with the phenomenon of shame,” said Patrick.

 

“It’s overrated,” said Matt cheerfully, just for the sardonic look that provoked out of Patrick, because Matt had missed Patrick’s sardonic looks. “Life’s too short.”

 

“I like him,” Carmen said to Rachel, as if delivering a verdict.

 

Matt laughed. “Thank you. I like you.”

 

“Okay,” said Rachel, sounding bewildered.

 

Matt looked at her. She seemed practical and level-headed and steady. “I like you, too,” Matt said. “You seem like exactly the right person for the job. Trust Lilah to know exactly who to choose for the task.”

 

“Are you still with Lilah?” Patrick asked.

 

“Yes. Lilah gets me. We are soulmates. In the way of manager and managee.”

 

“Matt has many soulmates,” Patrick told Rachel.

 

“Are you still with Brie?” Matt asked, and then explained, “We split them up in the divorce.”

 

“We didn’t get divorced,” said Patrick.

 

“No, it wasn’t nearly so tidy,” remarked Matt, and tried not to sound bitter about it. He probably succeeded.

 

Maybe not, because Patrick lifted his eyebrows at him, and then said to Rachel, deliberately turning from Matt, “So, we’ve actually never talked about this: What is it exactly that you do?”

 

“It’s kind of like marketing,” Rachel said. “Marketing for specific people.” Rachel looked at Matt. “Celebrities in trouble, for instance.”

 

Matt laughed. There was a little bit of spark that explained how Patrick had even come to be on a date with her. “Touche.”

 

“Are you in trouble?” Patrick asked him.

 

“Do you not follow every detail of my career with insatiable appetite?” asked Matt.

 

“No,” answered Patrick simply.

 

Matt grinned at him and took a sip of his gin and tonic and said, “Fair enough. I am not in trouble so much as, having gained a bit of momentum, seeking to maintain it.”

 

“Momentum?” echoed Patrick.

 

“He was a judge on ‘Who Can Sing the Best?’” Carmen told him.

 

Patrick said, “And that’s what? A reality show contest?”

 

Matt couldn’t help that he rolled his eyes. “Oh, my God, Patrick, really? Do you still not watch television? What do you do all day?”

 

“Work,” Patrick replied shortly.

 

Matt gave him a sardonic look, because Patrick didn’t have the market cornered on sardonic.

 

“And what is it that you do, exactly?” asked Rachel.

 

“He songsmiths,” Matt said. “Sometimes, every once in a great while, if you’re very special, he’ll write you a whole song, but mostly he produces, and fixes what you did wrong the first time around, and makes it a hit. He’s very good at it.”

 

Patrick looked legitimately surprised, which put a sour taste in Matt’s mouth, because apparently Patrick had walked out that day and really meant it and had never paid attention to a single thing Matt had done with his life, whereas Matt knew every time Patrick worked on a song, and not just because he could recognize Patrick’s distinctive handiwork on a song, but because he’d cared about it.

 

Patrick said, “Oh,” in that strangled tone he had when Matt managed to surprise him, which didn’t happen very often, and sometimes Matt reveled in that tone but now he was just annoyed.

 

Matt sent him a look over the table that said Fuck you, and he was pretty sure Patrick got the message, because he blushed a little bit, as if genuinely embarrassed, and then cleared his throat and said to Rachel, “He’s right. That’s what I do.”

 

“So Lennon and McCartney really were your first piano loves,” said Rachel.

 

“They really were,” Patrick affirmed, and turned back to Matt and said, “So this reality show thing you did, it was a hit?”

 

“It was a huge hit,” said Carmen.

 

“I really do like you the best,” Matt told her.

 

Carmen had the sort of smile that was a deal with the Devil waiting to be struck. Matt appreciated that sort of smile.

 

“Huh,” said Patrick. “So what did you do on the show?”

 

“I mentored,” Matt answered. “It turns out I’m an excellent mentor. Who knew?”

 

Patrick had a curious look on his face. “Actually,” he said slowly, “I could see that.”

 

Matt blinked, caught off-guard by that statement. It had been a long time since Patrick had said a nice thing about him.

 

“So you two were in, what, a boy band together?” asked Rachel.

 

“It wasn’t a boy band,” Matt denied automatically.

 

Patrick laughed, pure and genuine and devoid of any bitterness or sarcasm, and Matt had missed that fucking laugh, had missed it directed at him, had missed the way it could make Matt feel like he was witty and amusing and worthwhile. Matt suddenly didn’t know why he’d played this game and needled at Patrick through this dinner. He thought he’d wanted…something…and now he didn’t know what, and now he wanted to just crawl into a bed somewhere, anywhere, he didn’t care where, and just not…be…for a second.

 

“It wasn’t a boy band,” Patrick agreed genially. “We didn’t have enough choreography. Matt just kind of stood there and sang.” Patrick grinned at him. He clearly thought that Matt was about to jump in, about to engage in their usual witty repartee.

 

So Matt did. “You just sat behind the piano the whole time. He can play other instruments, he just liked to hide behind the piano,” Matt confided to Rachel.

 

“And you sang?” Rachel said to Matt.

 

“We both sang,” said Matt. “But it was mostly me.”

 

“And it was just the two of you?”

 

“No,” said Matt. “There was also Anna, who was our drummer, and David, who was our sax player.”

 

“Your band had a saxophone?” said Rachel.

 

“Matt had a saxophone obsession,” Patrick said.

 

“Songs are always better with saxophones. You don’t use them enough,” said Matt.

 

Patrick lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, which seemed like an acknowledgment of Matt’s point.

 

Rachel said, “And your band was called Swan? Like the animal?”

 

“Yes,” Patrick said. “And like the verb.” Patrick gave Matt a curious look. “Aren’t you going to treat her to your soliloquy on the verb ‘to swan’?”

 

Matt didn’t feel like it. Matt didn’t feel like keeping up his side of this fucking charade he’d started, and that was just like him, and he knew Patrick would say exactly that, which made him feel a little hysterical. He said, “I don’t do that soliloquy anymore. I’m out of practice with it. It’s been fifteen years.”

 

There was a moment of silence. Patrick looked at him with his gray-green eyes, that sort of assessing look he’d used to give him all the time, that what-is-Matt’s-mental-state-right-now look, and how much Matt could deal with that look depended on his mental state.

 

Patrick said, “Right. It has been. Sorry for assuming you’d still have it memorized.” Patrick paused a beat before saying, “I probably still have it memorized.”

 

“I still have all the lyrics memorized,” Matt replied.

 

“It’s hard to get music out of your head,” Rachel remarked, “once you’ve worked so hard to get it in there.”

 

“Yeah,” said Matt, and looked across at Patrick. “Music has fucking staying power.”

 

***

 

Anna and David had used to say that Patrick was most attuned to Matt, whenever Matt was in the room with him. They had said it with mocking affection, and had attributed it to a songwriting bond, or to the fact that when Patrick played piano to Matt’s vocals he was so focused on it that maybe it became habit that spilled over into every time he was near Matt.

 

But no: it was just the fact of Matt. Even after fifteen years, Patrick could tell that he was pitched toward him. He knew the moment when Matt seemed to deflate, seemed to lose the puckish energy that had been driving the evening. It had been an annoying stunt but Patrick knew it had been Matt’s idea of fun, until suddenly Matt had seemed just tired, answering questions in an even tone that probably didn’t register to anyone else as unusual but that Patrick knew in Matt meant a deep exhaustion. He thought of nights on the tour bus, Matt too tired to sleep, Patrick picking out notes on the guitar and waiting for Matt’s harsh breaths to even out. He had left in anger, and he had deliberately shut the door in his brain where Matt lived, and he hadn’t let himself open it, because if he did, he would have to wonder what Matt did on those nights when he just needed someone to cling to while he shook himself into pieces that could be put back together.

 

Patrick tried not to do this, tried not to fall back into these terrible bad habits that had driven him to leave in the first place. He was supposed to be on a date. With Rachel. But even though nothing about the evening was terrible, and the conversation at the table never fell into awkward silence, it was still very much not a date. But he couldn’t blame himself for that: It was hard to be on a date with two unexpected tagalongs.

 

He said that to Rachel, as he dropped her off at her door. Carmen at least immediately walked into the house to give them privacy, shouting over her shoulder to Matt, “Ciao! Thank you for a lovely evening!” and blowing him a kiss. But Matt seemed to be lingering near his car, and probably that was supposed to be so they could…what? After fifteen years of silence, suddenly clear the air?

 

So Patrick was a little distracted when he said to Rachel, “My plan for this evening wasn’t this.”

 

“I know,” said Rachel, and smiled at him. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll try again.” She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek and then stepped into the house and closed the door with a little wave.

 

Patrick, sighing, turned to find Matt fidgeting by his car, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. Matt prided himself on never being uncertain.

 

Which made Patrick remember that Matt seemed tired, and also made Patrick remember that he didn’t know Matt anymore, that Matt wasn’t his to read every mood of anymore.

 

Patrick walked to his own car and leaned back against it and folded his arms and looked at Matt at the next car over. “I don’t know,” he said.

 

“You don’t know what?” asked Matt.

 

“I don’t know what you think we’re supposed to say to each other right now.”

 

Matt left his car and walked over to stand in front of Patrick, and his face was mostly in shadow as he studied Patrick, and Patrick had no idea what he was about to say. And then he sighed heavily and stepped aside and leaned onto the car next to Patrick. “Nothing,” he said. “I don’t think we’re supposed to say anything.”

 

Which was not very Matt. Silence was never very Matt. Or maybe this was all a new Matt. Patrick looked at his profile, because Matt was looking off in the direction of the ocean they couldn’t see in the dark. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” Matt said. “I’m doing well.”

 

“I don’t mean, like, as a general life matter. I mean now. All the verve went out of you halfway through the night.”

 

“All the verve,” Matt repeated drily.

 

“You always had a lot of verve,” rejoined Patrick lightly.

 

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

 

“Oh.” Patrick blew out a breath and tipped his head back to look up at the stars. “With you I never know.” There was a moment of silence. Patrick could see, out of the corner of his eye, Matt studying his profile the way he’d just studied Matt’s. “This has been an unexpected evening.”

 

“Seriously,” agreed Matt.

 

“And I can’t tell if you’re exactly the same and I…”

 

“And you what?” asked Matt.

 

Patrick, after a moment, took a deep breath to gather enough courage to turn to look Matt in the eye. “And I should be worried that you seem deeply exhausted in that way that always used to worry me.”

 

There was a long moment of silence, and then Matt said coldly, “I’ve been fine without you worrying over me for fifteen years. There’s no need to start again now.”

 

Which was fair enough, Patrick thought.

 

Matt straightened away from the car. “It’s never going to work with you and Rachel.”

 

“Oh, do you do matchmaking services now?” asked Patrick sardonically.

 

“You’re too alike. You’re both pragmatic and level-headed and priding yourself on how much looking you do before you leap. You’re never going to get anywhere. You need unexpected. You’re better that way.”

 

“Maybe I’ve had enough unexpected to last a lifetime,” Patrick retorted, bristling, because Matt had always known exactly how to immediately push every single button, and maybe Matt had changed in the past fifteen years, but clearly Patrick hadn’t.

 

There was a long moment of silence. Matt kept looking at him, careful and close and completely inscrutable. Patrick wanted to shake him and ask him what he was thinking about for so long. Matt’s head could sometimes be a bewildering place.

 

Matt finally just said, “Maybe,” and walked away.

 

Patrick watched him get into his car and start it and drive off, and still he stood by his car. When the tail lights of Matt’s car had finally vanished out of the driveway, he said fervently out loud, “Fuck.”

 

***

 

The house was silent when he got home, except for Bach, who leaped around him happily. The babysitter said everyone was angelic and went to bed easily and Patrick paid her and, feeling dubious, checked on every one of his children. But no, to all appearances, they were all sound asleep. So he took Bach outside and let her sniff around. A chill seemed to have crept in since he had stood by the car with Matt, and when he went back inside he got Bach settled in her kennel and added an extra blanket for her.

 

Then he walked into the kitchen and hunted futilely through his cupboards. But he knew he didn’t have any alcohol. It just wasn’t something he usually stocked. Which was too bad, because he felt like he needed a drink. Really he just felt restless and jittery and like he needed something to do with his hands. He stood at the piano for a moment but decided against waking the entire household up. It was so seldom quiet like this.

 

So then he did an unwise thing. He went to bed with his phone and searched for videos of Matt as a reality television show judge.

 

It was both absurd and charming all at once. He would never have predicted it as a role for Matt but it actually played to all of Matt’s strength. It allowed him to feel judgmentally superior to many people, but simultaneously it let him display that rakish charm that had always been his bread-and-butter. Matt had always known the trick to insulting you as nicely as possible, and that was perfect for a reality show. And, when Matt really liked you… When Matt really liked you, Matt was incredible. Patrick knew that. Matt could run hot-and-cold but when he’d made up his mind on you, there was no better person to have in your corner.

 

Patrick missed him suddenly. It was like falling abruptly into a swimming pool when you’d only been intending to dip your toe in. He fucking missed him. Which was ridiculous, because he’d also left him, but he also knew he missed a version of Matt different from the version he’d left, the version that had always stood just to his left, as they took bows and faced the press and signed autographs. Patrick never missed performing, but he missed performing with Matt, with Matt right there, his guitar providing a counter-melody, his vocals joining in harmony. On the best Swan days, when everyone was working well together, it had been magic.

 

It was stupid to pretend that every day had been like that, when it had more often been furious quarrels and short tempers and the stress of a hit record and the what’s-next questions drowning them. But Patrick found himself down a YouTube rabbit hole of old Swan videos, of Matt, fifteen years younger, in the disheveled suits that had been his trademark style, singing at the camera and ducking his head to keep his eyes in shadow. Matt’s eyes betrayed his emotions more than he liked. Matt had always been trying to obscure them. He seemed to do it less now, whether because he’d grown used to them or because he’d learned to be dodgier, Patrick didn’t know.

 

He hit the wall of Swan official music videos and clicked into the fan video territories, of the grainy live concert footage of them, of edited-together moments from press encounters. It was like watching a slideshow of everything that had been right, which made it dangerously look like nothing had ever been wrong, which was why Patrick never did this.

 

He hesitated before he pressed “play” on Matt’s biggest solo hit. Kylie had been a baby when it had been big, and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it, and Patrick hated it. Patrick had actively hid from hearing anything about Matt’s career after it, because he had decided it wasn’t worth his mental health to follow along and torture himself that way with what-ifs.

 

But it was a beautiful song, the sort of song only Matt could pull together when he was in the zone instead of distracted. Patrick had never watched the official video before, as he’d heard quite enough of the song without having to seek it out. The video was Matt alone on a stage, just him and a microphone. They hadn’t even given him any sort of instrument to play, although Matt could play several and doubtless did on the song. He looked abandoned, which suited the tone of the song, the plaintive lift to its intricately melodic verses. He sang without looking at the camera, looking down and off-stage, until the pregnant pause he’d put in before kicking into the refrain, when he suddenly looked straight at the camera, and the light came up and gleamed off his dark eyes, and the refrain was as terrible as Patrick had remembered it, only worse, because he’d never before realized that the video was set up to make it seem like Matt was singing it right to you.

 

“And you,” sang Matt, “forever too good for me. And you, forever out of my league. And you, forever the risk not chosen. And you, forever on a pedestal…” Matt took his breath there, and Patrick found himself leaning forward for the frozen he knew was coming, and that’s when he shut off the video and scrubbed his hands over his face.

 

“Enough,” Patrick said to himself, and put the phone away. “Enough, enough, enough.” He looked up at the ceiling and listened to the ocean outside his window and said again, “Enough.”

 

***

 

Patrick woke to Adam calling Dada demandingly, and Patrick thought of the days when he couldn’t be called by name, and couldn’t decide if they were better or worse. He dragged himself out of bed, feeling sluggish and like he needed hours more time to sleep, and thought this was why he didn’t go out at night.

 

And also didn’t spend hours after getting home growing progressively maudlin over not being 21 anymore.

 

“Alright,” Patrick said to Adam, as he picked him up out of his crib. “I’m here. And I am ready to go back to real life.”

 

And it was nice. It was soothing, taking care of Adam, taking Bach out. It was real. It wasn’t that weird interlude with Matt that had come out of nowhere and now, in the harsh light of day, felt like a dream. Had he really seen Matt the night before? It seemed like maybe he’d made it all up.

 

Hailey and Miranda were usually up fairly early on Saturdays but Patrick ordinarily had to send them into Kylie’s room with spoons banging on pots to get her up on time for them to make all of their lessons. But Kylie appeared at the breakfast table with Hailey and Miranda before Patrick had even finished feeding Adam.

 

“Oh, my,” Patrick said, lifting his eyebrows, “to what do I owe all these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed daughters?”

 

“How was the date?” asked Kylie eagerly.

 

Patrick had known this interrogation was coming and had tried to plan out what he was going to say. “Good!” he said enthusiastically.

 

All three girls immediately drew their eyebrows together.

 

Jesus, thought Patrick, was he the world’s worst liar?

 

“That doesn’t sound good,” said Kylie.

 

“What?” Patrick said. “It went really well. What else do you want?”

 

“Dates aren’t supposed to go well,” said Kylie. “Dates are supposed to be spectacular.”

 

“And how do you know so much about dates?” asked Patrick.

 

“Disney,” answered Hailey, and the other girls nodded.

 

“I blame your mother for all the Disney movies when you were growing up,” Patrick said. “Just so you know, that’s a thing I’m blaming her for.”

 

“You were obsessed with Lady and the Tramp,” Miranda pointed out. “We watched that, like, every day when we were little.”

 

“That’s about dogs. It’s not about dating,” said Patrick.

 

“They totally go on a date,” Kylie said. “They spend that whole day together.”

 

“They eat the spaghetti,” Hailey reminded him.

 

“Oh, God, you’re right, they do,” said Patrick. “Oh, no, have I instilled in all of you dog standards for dates? And what does that even look like?”

 

“Did you share spaghetti with Rachel?” asked Hailey.

 

“No,” said Patrick. “That really only happens in the movies. Between dogs, basically.”

 

Hailey looked thoughtful at that.

 

Kylie said, “I just really had high hopes. I thought you’d come home really happy.”

 

“I am really happy,” Patrick said. “I am really happy here with all of you. Do I not seem it?”

 

“No, you do,” said Kylie, although she sounded dubious.

 

“Maybe we need to have a discussion about heteronormative society making everyone feel as if they need to be paired off with someone else in a romantic fashion in order to be happy. I am perfectly happy the way I am. In fact, I’m the luckiest person I know.”

 

The girls looked at him solemnly.

 

“Other than all of you,” he said, to lighten the mood. “You are definitely the luckiest people I know, because you have me to take care of all of you and chauffeur you to all of your lessons and make you a fabulous breakfast.”

 

“Are you going to make us a fabulous breakfast?” asked Hailey.

 

“Cereal. How’s that?” He shook the box of Froot Loops at them. “It’s unhealthy cereal, so that earns me extra points, right?”

 

“We’ll take it,” Miranda decided.

 

***

 

Matt periodically thought that he should be the sort of person who exercised. He wasn’t getting any younger, and he had the sort of public image where aging had to be performed in very particular ways, and so he sometimes got up in the morning and thought, I should go for a run or something. And then he got halfway down the block and changed his mind and went home.

 

Classic Matt, Patrick’s voice in his head would say to him. Unable to see anything through.

 

Patrick’s voice in his head had not been quite accurate, Matt had realized the previous evening. He was going to have to revise that.

 

Matt sat on the porch of the inn he was staying in. It was an incredibly precious place in that old-school East-Coast way, weathered-shingled and American-flagged, with Adirondack chairs set out. The rooftop bar had a view of the ocean but the porch had only a view of the bustling main street of this tiny town Patrick had apparently chosen to live in. Matt, feeling a little listless, tried to get himself interested in the town, but it was so transparent to him why Patrick was here. It had been transparent as soon as he’d learned that Ashley had left him and Patrick had packed up. Patrick’s instinct was to shut doors entirely. Moving to the other side of the country seemed quintessentially him. Trust Patrick not to be deterred even with four children in tow.

 

Matt was sure the town was quaint and charming and a great place to raise kids but Matt just wanted to not have to think about it, and unfortunately his brain had been thinking all night. He’d slept fitfully before finally giving up and going down and keeping himself in bloody Marys to try to ease the headache coming on. He was no longer young enough to pull all-nighters.

 

It had been much warmer in L.A., and Matt pulled the blazer he was wearing tighter around him and closed his eyes behind his sunglasses and thought maybe he could doze.

 

“You need a hoodie,” said Rachel’s voice. “You look miserable.”

 

So much for dozing. Matt opened his eyes and looked at her. She had a trench coat on, and, although it wasn’t raining, it looked chic and professional. She looked all dressed up for a business meeting.

 

“How many clients do you have at this inn?” Matt asked, around a yawn he couldn’t help.

 

“One,” Rachel said, sounding surprised.

 

“Oh,” Matt realized. “You’re here to see me? You didn’t have to get dressed up for that.”

 

“It’s professional,” Rachel said briskly, and sat down opposite him.

 

Matt was glad his sunglasses were hiding his bleary-eyed, bewildered stare in her direction. “Having an appointment is also professional,” he pointed out.

 

“I feel like we keep getting off on the wrong foot.”

 

Matt sighed and straightened a little in his Adirondack chair and gave up on the fantasy of a nap. “It’s my fault. Wrong-footed first meetings are a particular specialty of mine.”

 

“It’s no matter,” said Rachel. “Rule number one for my clients is if I’m going to capitalize on opportunities for you, then I need your cooperation. That means no partying all night and laying off the drugs. If you need assistance, I’m happy to help with that. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Rachel delivered this little speech with the calm matter-of-factness of the safety speech on an airplane.

 

“I don’t have a drug problem,” Matt said. “And I don’t really do any partying anymore.”

 

Rachel paused. “Well, you’re looking a little hungover for the number of drinks you had while crashing my date last night.”

 

Matt winced. “I didn’t sleep well last night. Jetlag and…” Matt waved his hand around. “Jetlag. Listen. I’m sorry I crashed your date.”

 

“Are you?” asked Rachel.

 

Matt seriously considered the question. “Actually, I don’t know if I am or not.” He’d wanted the extra time with Patrick, and it had been delicious to get that extra time, but Rachel was right, he felt hungover from it now, like he’d been on a bender the night before without realizing how much his tolerance had faded.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” said Rachel, with a bright smile. “I think we were all caught off-guard last night. Anyway, I’m wondering what your vision is for what you see in your future. Do you want to do more television?”

 

Matt had no vision for his future. Matt’s head was too full of his past. Matt had spent the entire night unable to sleep because he’d been too busy thinking how at one point, years ago, Patrick would never have stood next to him by the car like that, he would have tucked himself up against him and pressed his nose into the space behind Matt’s ear and breathed there and bantered directly into Matt’s skin. Matt didn’t want to discuss his future. Matt wanted to discuss what he’d fucked up in his past that his present looked like this, which was probably an issue for his therapist and not—

 

Matt, who had re-slumped into his chair, sat up straight all of a sudden.

 

Rachel looked alarmed by his sudden movement. “What?”

 

“I have an idea,” Matt said, “but can you give me a little while to make some calls and pull some things together?”

 

Rachel tipped her head at him. “But that’s my job.”

 

“Let me lay a little groundwork for you,” said Matt.

 

***

 

Kylie said, after they’d dropped Hailey off at ballet and Miranda off at karate, “I didn’t mean to push you into going on the date if you didn’t want to go on the date.”

 

Patrick, who had assumed the topic of the date wasn’t done yet, considered his response before saying, “You didn’t push me, Kylie. And I did want to go on the date. And you’re not wrong, it would be good for me to have friends and people I know outside of you kids.”

 

“We all get to make friends at school,” Kylie said. “It’s just harder for you.”

 

“I know,” Patrick said. “Welcome to adulthood. I’ll sort it out, though.”

 

“You look lonely,” Kylie blurted out.

 

Patrick was surprised. “Do I?” He honestly hadn’t thought of himself as lonely, not for years, even when he ha been effectively alone for a great deal of time.

 

“Not usually. But today you do. Like I…Like I made everything worse.”

 

Patrick sighed and kept his eyes on the road and said, “No. You didn’t. It’s not you.” It’s me being self-indulgent and weeping over stupid, starry-eyed moments of my youth.

 

Patrick glanced at Kylie, who looked skeptical.

 

Patrick tried again to convince her. “Look, maybe I just… I think I just… You’ve heard my songs. When you’re young, love is… Love is this thing that you can’t… You feel like it might kill you, it’s so intense and overwhelming and when you’re near the person it’s like you can barely breathe. When you’re young, that’s what love’s like.”

 

“Yeah,” Kylie agreed, and Patrick thought about being thirteen and just figuring that out for the first time.

 

“I’m not so sure it’s the way love is when you’re old,” Patrick said, “and I think this is all just me trying to process…being old, and what love’s supposed to look like, and feel like, and just…coming to terms with it not being the way that it was. Because there was something nice about being overwhelmed like that. There was something nice about losing your breath every time you saw the person you wanted.”

 

“You’re not old,” Kylie said. “And maybe it is supposed to still be like that, and Rachel’s just not the right one. There are plenty of other people out there. Hailey and Miranda and I can help.”

 

Patrick, thinking about people other than Rachel and the right one, was still startled into laughter. “And how would you help? Would you take applications?”

 

“Maybe,” said Kylie. “Maybe we’d just be adorable so that everyone will want to date you.”

 

“You don’t think I’m adorable enough on my own?” asked Patrick.

 

“I don’t know if I would use the word ‘adorable’ to describe you,” said Kylie.

 

“Harsh,” said Patrick. “This is a harsh crowd.” He looked at Adam in the back by way of the rearview mirror. “Adam, do you think I’m adorable?”

 

Adam smiled widely at being addressed and answered carefully in baby talk.

 

“He’s pointless,” sighed Kylie.

 

“He’s not pointless, he’s your little brother,” said Patrick.

 

“Yeah. And of course he thinks you’re adorable because he thinks you’re the best person to ever exist because you’re his dad.”

 

“Oh, and you disagree?” asked Patrick, as he pulled into the parking lot of the building where Kylie’s art lessons were held.

 

Kylie grinned at him. “No, I totally agree. I’m teasing. You’re super-adorable. I’ll get you a girlfriend.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek.

 

“Not necessary,” he said to her. “Please don’t.”

 

She got out of the car and turned back to him with a cheeky grin. “Or a boyfriend,” she said. “I don’t judge.” Then she stuck her tongue out at him and closed the door.

 

And Patrick knew she was just parroting his words back at him but he closed his eyes and could see Matt, inscrutable in the darkness, close enough to hear the whispers of his breaths.

 

***

 

Matt with a plan was an unstoppable Matt. And the fact that Rachel left him to his plan meant that Rachel really didn’t know him at all.

 

Which was good, thought Matt. Matt got more done with his plans when people stepped aside and let him get to it.

 

Matt texted Lilah first. Rachel is great! Had to make sure Lilah felt he appreciated her. Can you get me contact info for Anna and David?

 

Lilah had long since stopped questioning why Matt did anything, which was why Matt had stuck with Lilah. He had phone numbers for Anna and David almost immediately.

 

Matt started with Anna, because David would do what Anna decided to do, and because Anna had the more difficult schedule. Matt had kept up with all members of Swan—he was an equal opportunity stalker—and Anna was an extremely prolific and well-regarded documentary filmmaker who at any given moment could be filming anywhere on the planet.

 

So Matt was relieved when she answered.

 

“This is Anna Jin,” she said.

 

“Anna!” he said. “This is a voice from your past.”

 

“Matt,” she said, and she didn’t sound at all surprised.

 

“Aw,” he said, “I’m so flattered you recognized my voice right away.”

 

“Matt, you’re famous, you’ve been all over the place on this television show.”

 

“Do you watch it?” asked Matt, delighted.

 

“I do, yes,” Anna admitted. “I have a weakness for trashy TV.”

 

“I’m going to pretend you said ‘trashy’ like it’s a good thing,” said Matt.

 

“Of course you are,” said Anna. “So what you do you want?”

 

“To catch up with my good friend Anna,” said Matt.

 

“Matt,” Anna said. “I love you, kiddo. You made me a lot of money. But you’re not a friend independent of wanting things.”

 

“Well, that’s hurtful,” Matt said. “It’s not like you’ve ever called me to just chat, either.”

 

“We are cut from the same cloth,” said Anna. “That’s why you can’t pull one over on me. And it’s why we get along so well. So. What do you want?”

 

“What would you say to a little Swan reunion?”

 

Anna was silent for a moment. “Like…a dinner? Or…?”

 

Matt smiled. “Performing. Somehow. I don’t know what it would look like. I haven’t really explored options yet. It can look like whatever we want it to look like. But I want us to get together and play songs and—”

 

“What does Patrick say?”

 

“Well, I haven’t asked him yet,” said Matt innocently. “You were my first call because you know I think the world of you.”

 

Anna snorted. “Because you think it will be easier to manipulate Patrick into this if you’ve got the rest of us in line first. You’re depending on Patrick to go along with your fait accompli because he’s polite and he won’t want to disappoint everyone.”

 

“Look,” said Matt, “I think there’s every possibility Patrick would be incredibly excited about this opportunity.”

 

“Okay, well, you’re not fooling anyone, but I’m in, because anything that lets you and Patrick actually reach a fucking resolution instead of just hiding from each other for the rest of your lives is a good call. Also, performing again would be fun, if we can get it to work with my schedule.”

 

Matt wanted to point out that he was pretty sure Patrick thought he’d reached a resolution. Matt wanted to point out that Patrick had been adept, as usual, at closing the door and never looking back. But Matt just promised, “We will work with your schedule.”

 

“Are you called David next?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You can tell him I’m in, and tell him I love him.”

 

“Sure thing,” Matt agreed, and hung up and called David.

 

David answered with more cautious curiosity than Anna had. “Hello?”

 

“David!” exclaimed Matt jovially. “It’s Matt.”

 

There was a beat. “Matt Usher?” David said incredulously.

 

“David, how dare you replace me with another Matt?” said Matt good-naturedly.

 

David laughed. “Well, this is random. Given your recent resurgence, I was assuming you’d continue to forget your humble origins.”

 

“Oh, David, we were never humble.” There was a massive clatter in the background. Matt said, “Is this a bad time? It sounds loud there?”

 

“Nope, it’s all good. The cats knocked over a bunch of old mail but the kids will deal with it.”

 

Matt, still perched on the front porch of a quaint inn with a bloody Mary at his elbow, marveled at how different people’s lives could be. Matt said, “So I just got off the phone with your sister?”

 

“Anna? You got in touch with her? You must be magic. She’s always flitting all around the globe.”

 

“I am in fact magic, and I have an excellent trick up my sleeve to tell you about.” As soon as he said it, Matt wanted to bite his tongue, because Trick Up Your Sleeve had been a Swan hit, written exclusively by Patrick, and Matt had always hated up.

 

But David didn’t even seem to remember the song title. He said, “Oh, really? What’s that?”

 

“Do you want to be part of a rock band again for a little while?”

 

“Hang on,” said David. “Let me ask my wife. Cora? Do you want to be married to a rock star again?”

 

“Hell yes!” came a woman’s voice from the background.

 

“So I think this sounds like a go,” David reported calmly.

 

***

 

Matt went back to Rachel’s with a plan firmly in hand. He felt better as a result. He always felt better with a plan. His listless aimlessness of the morning felt like a lifetime ago.

 

Carmen answered the door for him with, “Matt! Mi amor!” and kissed him on both cheeks like they were old friends.

 

Matt could roll with being old friends with virtual strangers. It was basically his life.

 

“Hello, my favorite Carmen. Is Rachel around?”

 

“She’s working. She’s always working. I’ll get her.” Apparently Carmen’s way of getting Rachel was to shout over her shoulder, “Rachel!”

 

Matt rounded his way back around to the Bosendorfer, cracked his knuckles, and sat. “Rachel doesn’t play this piano enough.” He played a scale to warm up.

 

“And how do you know that?” asked Carmen, leaning on the piano.

 

“Don’t lean on the piano,” he said. “It’ll throw off the sound. And I know because if I lived with this piano I’d be playing it all the time. It helps with thinking.” Matt considered the keys and broke into Scheme, which was a lesser Swan hit but felt appropriate to the current moment.

 

Carmen said, “She used to play all the time. She was a concert pianist. She has a complicated relationship with the piano.”

 

Matt snorted. “Don’t we all.”

 

Rachel came into the room, looking surprised. “You seem much better.”

 

Matt waited a moment to play the notes for his lead-in so he could sing, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan, Just hold out your hand, I’ve got a dream, You, me, and a scheme.”

 

Rachel and Carmen both looked blank at him.

 

Matt stopped playing. “Really, you two are terrible for my ego, no wonder Patrick loves you.”

 

“I think that’s a coincidence,” said Rachel.

 

“No, it isn’t, Patrick is drawn to anyone who takes me down a peg, he knows it instinctively. Anyhow, I am much better because I have a plan, and I am better when there’s a plan, I am better when life has purpose and direction. Purpose and direction are important things to have.”

 

Rachel looked suspicious, which was exactly how Patrick would have looked in the face of this speech. Matt knew he was right, they were way too alike to ever work as a couple.

 

“Sometimes,” Carmen said wisely, “the best purpose is no purpose at all.”

 

“Excellent point,” Matt told her.

 

“What’s your plan?” asked Rachel impatiently.

 

“Look,” said Matt. “Regardless of what my reputation might be, I’m well aware that my star power is limited. People know who I am right now because I said a few clever things on a reality show. They’re not super-interested in me being a musician, even though I am a fucking good songwriter. But you were talking about television opportunities and television isn’t what I’m interested in. I write songs, and I sing songs, and that’s what I do.”

 

“So…do you want a new record deal?” asked Rachel, sounding bewildered.

 

“No,” said Matt. “I’m not especially relevant anymore. Nobody wants Matt Usher. That’s fine.”

 

“Not if my job is making people want Matt Usher,” Rachel frowned.

 

“It’s fine because I know what people want.” Matt grinned, relishing the moment of reveal. “They want Swan.”

 

Rachel blinked. “Swan? Your band?”

 

“Just me, putting on a show: who cares? But the nostalgia value of Swan, fifteen years after the last time we performed in public, playing a limited series of shows…” Matt waved his hand. “…somewhere, that people will pay for.”

 

“But…you’re my client,” said Rachel. “Not Swan.”

 

“I know.” Matt turned back to the piano to finish up Scheme. “So I did some work for you. Anna and David are both in, we just have to work out the scheduling with them.”

 

“Anna and David,” Rachel repeated.

 

“So,” said Matt sweetly, “that just leaves Patrick for you to work on.”

 

***

 

It was a typical Saturday, and Patrick started to feel less unsettled, less jittery, less like half of his head was living a life that was over with. Kids didn’t give you much time to feel that way, and so the kids were a wonderful tonic, loud and demanding and joyful. His kids loved him, and he loved them, and he relaxed into it, into the amazing wonder of them. If this was all the rest of his life was, he was happy with that. He’d always been happy with that.

 

And then Rachel showed up at the backdoor, knocking lightly and looking uncertain.

 

Bach barked at the intruder and the girls all made the most embarrassing little squeaks and squeals, and Patrick hissed, “Be good,” to them and thrust Adam into Kylie’s arms for safekeeping.

 

“Be romantic,” Kylie said to him.

 

“Oh, my God,” said Patrick, and tweaked at her earlobe fondly as he went to the door.

 

Bach darted out as soon as he opened it, tumbling head over paws onto the patio.

 

“Oops,” Rachel said, laughing.

 

“She’s still getting the hang of her legs,” said Patrick.

 

“I mean, it’s tricky,” said Rachel. “She’s got four of them.”

 

Patrick stood in front of her on the patio and tried to think of what he could say that wouldn’t be awkward. “Last night was…”

 

Rachel shook her head. “Weird,” she said.

 

“Weird,” he agreed fervently. “That’s the only thing I can come up with. I’m sorry. I haven’t seen him in fifteen years. I really didn’t expect to walk in and have him be…there.”

 

“I had no idea you were some kind of rock star.” Rachel said it wonderingly, like she still couldn’t believe it.

 

Patrick didn’t blame her. “I’m not. That was all a very long time ago. I’m not a rock star anymore.”

 

“Well.” Rachel tried a winning grin on for size on her expressive mouth. “Today might be your lucky day.”

 

“Why do you say that?” asked Patrick quizzically.

 

“Matt’s my client,” Rachel said.

 

“Yes, I gathered as much.”

 

“And my job for my clients is to find them the best opportunities out there. And Matt had this idea—and I wasn’t sure about it—but then I looked into it, and it turns out he’s right. I put a few exploratory feelers out there and, well…”

 

“Well?” said Patrick.

 

“You could get paid, a lot of money, to do a few Swan reunion shows.”

 

Patrick blinked at her for a moment. Then he said, “I’m sorry, what?”

 

“People are already trying to bid for exclusive rights. Apparently your breakup is one of the big unfinished stories of music, or something.”

 

“It’s not unfinished,” Patrick said. “It’s finished. It’s done. Where’s Matt staying?” He heard the way his voice got cold and harsh, and he could see it in the way Rachel took a little step back.

 

“What?” she said.

 

“This is Matt. It has Matt all over it. It’s a Matt scheme.”

 

“You, me, and a scheme,” said Rachel faintly.

 

“Christ,” said Patrick, “was he singing that today? Where’s he staying?”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because apparently I have to remind him that we’re finished. I’m not doing reunion shows.”

 

“Okay.” Rachel lifted her hands up in the air, in an I-wipe-my-hands-of-you gesture. “I don’t know what went down between the two of you fifteen years ago—”

 

Nothing went down,” said Patrick, in a tone of voice with a level of passion completely out of proportion to nothing having gone down between them, dammit.

 

“—and this might very well be a scheme, but he’s not making this up. There’s demand. People want you. You’d be paid a lot.”

 

“I’m already paid well. I have a career.”

 

“You’ve got four kids to put through college,” said Rachel.

 

“Wow,” said Patrick.

 

Rachel winced. “Yeah. That was terrible. Sorry. He’s my client and I go into this client mode where I just—God. Sorry. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to do it.”

 

And Patrick knew this was a victory. Patrick knew this was Rachel backing off. Patrick knew he could just go back in his house and call this over and finished again and not think about Matt again. So it made absolutely no sense that Patrick said, “Where’s he staying?”

 

And there must have been something in his face that made Rachel think the same thing, because she said guardedly, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

 

“You’re right,” Patrick agreed calmly. “At least give me his number then.”

 

Rachel hesitated.

 

“Rachel,” said Patrick. “You don’t know Matt, so let me tell you what just happened here: Matt went to an awful lot of trouble to get my attention. Give me his number. It’s what he wants, and he’ll leave you alone.”

 

“He’s my client,” Rachel said.

 

“He’ll leave you alone about this,” said Patrick.

 

Rachel, after a moment, pulled out her phone.

 

***

 

Matt was napping when his phone rang. It hadn’t been an intentional nap, more like an accidental correction of his all-nighter the night before.

 

He jumped, startled out of his sleep, and grabbed for the phone blindly, and mumbled into it, “’Lo?”

 

“Don’t worry,” said Patrick’s voice, “I’ve got a plan.”

 

For a moment, Matt thought maybe he was dreaming, that Patrick would call him to recite lyrics to him. But Patrick’s voice sounded dry and not in a fond way, so probably this was real. Matt sat up in bed, thinking what he should say. He took the easiest route and said, “Just hold out your hand.”

 

“What are you doing?” Patrick asked.

 

“I’m, uh, turning on a lamp,” said Matt, because he was, leaning over to flip on the bedside lamp, because it had gone dark in the room while he’d been sleeping.

 

“You sent Rachel here to ask me to do a reunion?”

 

“Did you tell her no?”

 

Matt,” said Patrick.

 

Matt closed his eyes and took a shaky breath and didn’t say, Fuck, I have missed you saying my name, even when you say it when you’re exasperated with me. He said, “Anna and David are in.”

 

“Oh, my God,” said Patrick. “You manipulative bastard.”

 

“Look,” said Matt, “I think you’re upset out of all proportion to—”

 

“You think I am disproportionately upset? That for fifteen years I have this incredibly organized, perfect, wonderful life and you show up in and in twenty-four hours you have managed to do all of this to it?”

 

Matt was silent for a second, because Patrick was betraying far more about his mental state than Matt thought he intended, and that was an unusual slip-up on Patrick’s part, and Matt needed a moment to think how to react. He finally said, “I haven’t done much of anything.”

 

“No, you’re just getting started which is just—Fuck.”

 

“Patrick, you were married to Ashley,” Matt said wryly. “There’s no fucking way your life was incredibly organized. She’s the least organized person in the universe, and I include myself in that.”

 

“First, you’re not allowed to comment on my marriage,” said Patrick.

 

“Second,” said Matt, “you don’t actually like organization, even though you never listen to me when I tell you that.”

 

“Can you stop dictating to me what I do and do not like? Do you think you could manage to do that as an enormous favor to me?”

 

“Yes,” said Matt. “Yes, I can do that. Where do you live?”

 

He must have thrown Patrick, because he could hear him thinking over the phone. “What? Why?”

 

“Because I can come by. I can bring pizza. We can talk like adults.”

 

“I have kids,” Patrick said.

 

“I know.”

 

“You can’t just come by and drag my kids into this.”

 

Matt had been given a nice room. His window looked out over the ocean a few streets away. He looked at it now, at the deep blue of it in the darkening twilight, and tried to feel…blank.

 

“Matt,” Patrick said eventually.

 

“I have never understood who I am in your head,” Matt said. “Sometimes I think you know me so well, you know me better than anyone ever knew me, and then you say something like that that makes me think that… First of all, I think it depends on what you mean by ‘this.’ I’m not going to use your kids in a scheme. I’m not a monster. But if by ‘this’ you just mean whatever the fuck you consider your relationship with your past to be, well, I can’t help that. The fact that you think you can avoid that indefinitely is…so, so you.”

 

“I just…” said Patrick. “I just…” He sighed.

 

Matt said, “‘Slow down,’ you said, with a furrowed brow, ‘you’re moving way too fast.’”

 

Matt could hear the shaky breath Patrick took on the other end of the phone. He didn’t quote the lyrics that followed, but Matt hadn’t expected him to, since the lyrics went “You don’t have to kiss me first,” I said, “just make sure you kiss me last.”

 

Patrick said, “I’m not doing a reunion.”

 

Matt said, “Can I come see you?”

 

Patrick was silent for a moment, before he said, “Yes.”

 

And Matt wrote down the address Patrick gave him and wondered if this was his in or if he was about to ruin everything once and for all.

 

***

 

Patrick hung up the phone and stared at the ocean with disbelieving eyes. What had he just done? Why he had just done that? He should call Matt back and tell him, no, don’t come. Not that Matt would listen. Or maybe Matt would listen. Or maybe…

 

Bach barked at him and scratched at the door to go back in, and Patrick moved into action.

 

“Okay,” he said, and walked over to pause the movie they’d been watching before Rachel had shown up.

 

“What happened with Rachel?” Kylie asked eagerly.

 

“What?” said Patrick, and suddenly realized that his kids still thought this was about Rachel. As if anything going on right now was about Rachel.

 

“Rachel,” Kylie repeated slowly, looking at him like he’d grown another head.

 

“Rachel’s fine,” Patrick said dismissively. “A really weird thing is happening right now.”

 

“Yeah, we know,” said Miranda pointedly.

 

“One of my bandmates is coming over.”

 

“One of your what?” said Miranda.

 

“Bandmates.”

 

“From Swan?” said Kylie.

 

“From Swan?” said Hailey.

 

And Patrick didn’t know if he should be surprised by how excited they looked or if that…made sense. Oh, God, it made sense. Swan was a near-mythical thing they never talked about. It was a part of his life they had no connection to. No wonder they would be curious about it. And they were going to be curious about it with Matt.

 

What the fuck had he done?

 

“Okay,” Patrick said. “So everyone is just going to be on their best behavior, and this is going to be fine.” He left his kids looking bewildered to go into his bedroom and change his shirt. Then he messed up his hair a little bit. Then he walked back into the living room, picking up dog toys and baby toys as he went.

 

Kylie said, “Did you just change your shirt?”

 

“What?” said Patrick self-consciously.

 

“What did you do to your hair?” asked Miranda.

 

“Look,” said Patrick, putting the toys in the right baskets. “I was a rock star the last time I saw this guy. That’s a lot of pressure.”

 

“Don’t worry, Dad,” Hailey said sincerely. “You’re still a rock star to us.”

 

“That is incredibly sweet,” Patrick said, genuinely touched.

 

“Even if Mrs. Honeycutt thinks you’re terrible,” continued Hailey.

 

“Okay, in the future, you can just leave the Mrs. Honeycutt bit off that statement,” said Patrick.

 

“Which member of Swan?” Kylie asked.

 

Patrick had been regarding the construction zone at the other end of the room and mourning the fact that he didn’t have time to quickly finish remodeling the entire house before Matt showed up. He looked at Kylie blankly and said, “What?”

 

“You said only one of them were coming over. There were three other members of Swan. So which one?”

 

“Matt,” said Patrick after a second, because it was unavoidable, they were about to meet him, after all. “Matt Usher. He was the lead singer.”

 

“Cool!” chirped Hailey cheerfully.

 

“So he’s a better singer than you?” Miranda asked.

 

“Dad’s not a bad singer,” Hailey said loyally. “Rolling Stone said—”

 

The doorbell rang, sending Bach into joyful conniptions of barking. Hailey cut herself off and fought with Miranda over which one of them pulled the door open first. They naturally beat Patrick there because they were young and running on young legs.

 

Matt looked at Hailey and Miranda. “Hello. You must be some of Patrick’s children.”

 

“You must be Matt,” said Miranda.

 

“That’s me,” said Matt. “And I brought pizza.”

 

“Dad didn’t say you were bringing pizza,” said Hailey. Matt was clearly already rising in her estimation.

 

“I am not above buying people’s love,” said Matt. “In fact, my usual technique is buying people’s love. What else can I buy you? Would you like some ice cream? I can go back and grab some ice cream.”

 

“Okay,” Patrick said good-naturedly, as Hailey giggled and looked dazzled like everyone who encountered Matt’s charm did. “That’s enough.”

 

“I would like ice cream,” Miranda said.

 

“Matt’s not getting you ice cream. It was nice enough of Matt to get you pizza. Say thank you.”

 

“Thank you,” they chorused in unison, as Matt handed over the pizza.

 

“Share with your sister,” Patrick said to them. “Don’t share with Bach.”

 

Miranda and Hailey went running into the house.

 

Matt said, “Bach?”

 

“The dog.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“You don’t have to buy their love.”

 

“No? You think my natural charm will work?”

 

Patrick wanted to ask why Matt wanted their love at all.

 

Except then Matt said, “Do I have to buy your love?”

 

Patrick said, “I seem to remember no, I should have made you buy me more.” It was an automatic response, because it was automatic to banter with Matt, and Patrick could see that Matt relaxed with the banter, felt himself on better ground. But also it was a true response. Patrick had never made Matt work very hard, for anything.

 

“Thank you for letting me come over,” Matt said, with as sincere and straightforward a smile as Matt ever had.

 

“So that you can bribe my children and thereby get me to agree to a reunion I don’t want to do,” said Patrick.

 

“Is that why I’m here?” asked Matt innocently.

 

“Actually,” said Patrick truthfully, “I’m not entirely sure why you’re here.” He didn’t understand how he’d gone from an ordinary Saturday evening to somehow inviting Matt Usher to his house. He just didn’t understand how this had happened. Which tended to be how he felt in the face of Matt’s stubborn hurricane of manipulation.

 

“That makes two of us,” said Matt.

 

Patrick shook his head. “I don’t believe you. You always know exactly what you’re doing. You’ve got some scheme going on in this head here.” Patrick leaned forward to tap his index finger against Matt’s temple. “You were singing about it to Rachel earlier today.”

 

“Oh, so that’s why you were reciting Scheme to me,” Matt realized.

 

“So somehow I played right into your hands and invited you to my house. What’s your next step? Do you have some sort of grand seduction planned?”

 

Matt stuck his hands into the pockets of the hoodie he was wearing. “Patrick. I brought your kids pizza. My next step is to watch your kids eat pizza and maybe get to know them a little bit and see this whole life you’ve got going on here and we can catch up like old friends.”

 

“Like old friends?” said Patrick.

 

Matt ignored him. “And then, I don’t know, yes, I guess then you think fondly of me and realize I’m not trying to ruin your life and you decide you would like to do a Swan reunion.”

 

“And what do you get out of a Swan reunion?” asked Patrick.

 

“A lot of money?” suggested Matt. “We both get a lot of money. And we get to hang out with Anna and David again.”

 

Patrick narrowed his eyes at Matt, thinking.

 

“Why do you want me to have some kind of ulterior motive?” Matt asked. “Can’t I just want to reconnect with all the people who were a major part of my life for so long? Can’t that be my ulterior motive?”

 

The problem, Patrick realized, was he wasn’t sure what he wanted. He wanted Matt to just want to have some concerts. He also wanted Matt to say, This is obviously just an excuse to get you to forgive me. Just because he wanted to say, I’m not going to forgive you. Or maybe…maybe he wanted to be convinced to forgive. Maybe he knew Matt could do it easily. Effortlessly. Maybe they had both always known that. Maybe that was why Patrick had avoided him all these years, and maybe that was why Matt had let him, and maybe Patrick had always resented him for that. Maybe Patrick’s resentment wasn’t for all the reasons he’d walked away from Matt, but because Matt had let him walk away. And maybe Patrick wanted Matt here fixing it.

 

And maybe he didn’t. Because Patrick had a life and his kids and he’d moved on. Hadn’t he moved on from this ridiculous agonized indecision?

 

Looking at Matt standing in his doorway, he didn’t feel as if he’d moved on. He felt like…He felt like he’d missed him, like he was undeniably happy to see him. Patrick had obviously invited Matt over because he’d wanted Matt to come over. Patrick couldn’t tell if Matt was scheming or not and it didn’t even matter because Matt was already winning because in Patrick’s book Matt always won.

 

And then Patrick noticed what Matt was wearing. A hoodie. With the name of the town branded across it.

 

Patrick’s lips twitched. He couldn’t help it. “Did you go sightseeing?”

 

Matt looked down at his hoodie. “It’s cold here,” he said petulantly. “I didn’t have anything warm enough with me.”

 

“It’s not cold,” said Patrick, smiling. “You’re California-spoiled.”

 

“Can we go inside and have pizza, or do you want to interrogate me some more?”

 

Patrick pretended to consider. “You’ll do. I don’t trust you, but you’ll do.”

 

He intended it lightly, and he thought Matt would take it as a joke, but as he turned to go into the house Matt said urgently, “Patrick.”

 

Patrick paused and turned back to him, surprised.

 

“I know you think I set this all up, somehow, and I know you don’t trust me, and you probably shouldn’t, I’m not usually described as ‘trustworthy,’ I get that, but I didn’t know you were living here, I mean, in this town, I knew this was your house because you told me, but I didn’t leave California to follow you here because I wanted to interfere with your life or something, this really wasn’t a scheme.”

 

A run-on sentence. Run-on sentences were Matt’s main tell. Run-on sentences were how Patrick knew Matt’s heart was involved. Patrick took a deep breath and looked at Matt’s earnest face and said, “I know.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Your surprise at that piano was absolutely genuine. And you’re talking in run-on sentences. You’ve never been as good an actor as you think.”

 

“With you, you mean,” said Matt.

 

And Patrick allowed that was probably true. He believed they had both been caught completely off-guard by being thrown into each other’s orbit. He was sure Matt had a scheme for what to do now, which was just like Matt, to have already made up his mind what it meant for their lives to have crossed paths and how they ought to react. Patrick always took longer to decide that, but he was realizing that tonight he was…open to suggestion. He wanted to tell Matt to take his reunion idea and go to hell but Matt was standing there in his hoodie and Patrick said, “Come inside.”

 

***

 

Patrick’s house was…extraordinary.

 

“Patrick, it’s beautiful,” Matt said, and he meant it. It was cozy, a home, full of squashy couches and baby toys and puppy toys and dirty dishes and children’s artwork and it still looked out over the ocean and it was just gorgeous.

 

“Okay,” said Patrick, “I let you in, you can ease off the charm now and come and have some pizza.”

 

“Were you not going to let him in?” asked one of the kids. “He brought pizza.”

 

“Hawaiian pizza,” said Patrick behind him, sounding surprised.

 

Matt was too busy studying the yellow tape around an apparent crime scene in the corner to really pay attention.

 

“Yeah, a bold choice,” said another of the children. The oldest one, Matt thought. She was the one who had looked at him with cool speculation when he had walked in, and Matt had thought there was something very Patrick about that look: I refuse to be impressed by you until you give me reason. And then Matt would make every sort of fool of himself trying to give them a reason. Matt knew how this went.

 

“Not so bold,” said Matt, poking at the tape. “Your dad loves Hawaiian pizza. It was a calculated risk.”

 

“Matt’s specialty,” said Patrick.

 

Matt glanced over his shoulder. All of the children were happily eating Hawaiian pizza. Good gamble, thought Matt, and winked at Patrick. Then he said, pointing at the yellow tape, “What is this?”

 

“Oh,” said one of the girls, the one with the short hair, gulping down her pizza. “Our house is a construction zone.”

 

“It’s an adventure,” said the other younger girl.

 

“We’re remodeling,” said the oldest.

 

Understanding dawned on Matt. “Wait, who’s remodeling?” He looked at Patrick. “Are you remodeling?”

 

“Okay,” said Patrick. “That’s enough. Come over here and I will pour you…a drink of milk, because I have nothing stronger than milk in this house.”

 

“Water is fine,” Matt said, absently patting Bach, because Bach was very excited about him being there. “Girls, let me tell you a story about your father.”

 

“No,” said Patrick, pulling a glass out of a cupboard. A cupboard without a knob. “No stories about me.”

 

“When we were on tour once, we were on this bus, and the shower door, like, broke. It came off the track. It was a mess. You couldn’t take a shower without soaking everything. It was terrible. And your father—”

 

“And Matt was sulking,” said Patrick, as he filled the glass with water. “Please don’t leave that part out. Matt was sulking. And Matt is a champion sulker. You girls have nothing on Matt. You girls can only aspire to Matt’s sulking talents.”

 

“I am happy to give lessons later,” Matt offered magnanimously.

 

“No, he’s not,” said Patrick, and his kids grinned and laughed, and he looked mock-stern, and for a moment Matt was caught, his hand clutching the water he’d just been handed, thinking how much all of this suited Patrick: his cozy house and his adoring children and his puppy. Patrick leaned down at that moment to pick up the baby, who’d been crawling around, and the picture of his comfortable sure-footedness was complete. Patrick was happy, thought Matt. Patrick hadn’t spent the past fifteen years pining stupidly. Patrick had found this incredible life and been happy.

 

Matt suddenly felt like an enormous loser, which was a feeling he hated, and which once upon a time was exactly the sort of feeling Patrick helped him with, made him feel better over.

 

“And what happened with the shower door?” prompted the oldest girl.

 

Matt had forgotten the story. “Oh,” he said. “Right. Sorry.” He pulled his gaze from the contemplation of Patrick with his children to focus on the girls. “Yes. So your father said he could fix the shower.”

 

“After much sulking. I just want to reiterate that, because that was the only reason I offered. Not because I thought I was some incredible shower fixer.”

 

“He managed to somehow cause the door to entirely crash to the floor and he simultaneously broke the shower faucet so that it was just this constant spray.” The girls were laughing and Matt found himself warming to this receptive audience. “And your father looked like a drowned rat when he came out of the bathroom, I mean, he was just sopping wet—”

 

“It wasn’t that funny,” sighed Patrick.

 

“It was hilarious,” said Matt, and he was laughing now, too, because it had been a while since he had thought of that whole debacle, “and I haven’t even gotten to the best part, which was what he said.” Matt had to pause to catch his breath from laughing.

 

“What did he say?” asked the oldest girl, looking eager for the dirt.

 

“He said…” Matt paused for dramatic effect, trying to put his Patrick impression on. “‘I don’t think I fixed the shower.’”

 

Matt had an excellent Patrick impression. Patrick’s kids dissolved into laughter.

 

Patrick said, “Why, when you do impressions of me, do I have a British accent?”

 

Matt ignored him and looked at the kids and said, “So tell me your names.”

 

“Oh, God,” said Patrick, “I never even introduced you. That’s Kylie, Miranda, Hailey, and this is Adam.”

 

“So tell me how the remodeling is going,” said Matt to the kids.

 

“Fine,” Patrick answered.

 

“Not long ago, he fell through the balcony floor,” said Hailey.

 

“I didn’t fall through it,” Patrick said.

 

“No, he was stuck in the middle of it,” said Kylie.

 

“Only one leg fell through,” added Miranda.

 

Matt looked at Patrick, grinning. “Patrick. Do not remodel things. It is not among your talents. You have other talents.”

 

“The remodeling is going fine,” said Patrick. “It’s a gradual process.”

 

“Uh-huh,” said Matt, enjoying Patrick’s grumpy look. Patrick was adorable grumpy.

 

“So what did you do in the band?” asked Hailey.

 

“I was the lead singer,” Matt replied.

 

“Does that mean you sang and Dad played the piano?” asked Miranda.

 

“Well,” said Matt, “not really. I mean, I also play the piano, although I didn’t do it much while we were performing because your dad always hogged that.”

 

“I didn’t hog it,” said Patrick. “You liked being the center of attention up in front of the microphone, don’t even pretend you didn’t.”

 

“I won’t. It’s awesome. If you get the chance to be the lead singer of a band, you should do it,” Matt told the kids.

 

“We’re probably not going to be rock stars,” said Miranda. “We don’t play any instruments.”

 

“No? None of you are musical?” said Matt, surprised, because Patrick had always loved his piano, passionately.

 

“I wanted them to find their own things,” Patrick said. “Music was mine, it didn’t have to be theirs.”

 

Which was just like Patrick.

 

“But Adam’s probably going to be musical,” Kylie said. “He’s obsessed with the piano.”

 

“And I bet he has innate talent,” said Matt, smiling at the baby, who smiled back at him happily, his fist in his mouth. Matt turned back to the girls. “So what are your things?”

 

“I’m an artist,” said Kylie. “Visual art. Mostly mixed media. I’m starting to get into graffiti. It speaks deeply about rebellion but also about the human need to find beauty wherever we can manage, to create beauty wherever we can.”

 

Kylie spoke with an earnest seriousness that was so very, very, painfully Patrick, Patrick who had labored over pop songs to make sure they spoke essential truths. Creating beauty wherever you could, could have been Patrick’s motto. Matt smiled. “That sounds lovely. I would love to see your stuff.”

 

“I’ll get some,” said Kylie, and immediately went running down to her bedroom.

 

“And I do karate,” said Miranda.

 

“Oh, excellent,” said Matt, “I’ve been looking for a new bodyguard. Some people might say you’re a little short for the job but that just means you’re agile and nimble.”

 

Miranda grinned at him.

 

“And I’m a ballerina,” said Hailey.

 

“Oooh,” said Matt. “I need demonstrations of all of this. Can I?” He looked at Patrick.

 

“Can you what?” asked Patrick blankly.

 

“Can I play your piano?”

 

“Oh.” Patrick blinked. “I mean. If you want. I guess.”

 

“Excellent.” Matt sat at the piano and played Kung-Fu Fighting for Miranda, who promptly launched into some moves for him, and then he transitioned into a bit of Tchaikovsky, and Hailey twirled and pirouetted.

 

Kylie, coming out to find him behind the piano, a binder tucked under her arm, said, sounding surprised, “You’re a good piano player.”

 

“Thank you,” Matt said, and played a few pointless arpeggios, and noticed the sheet music laid out on the piano. “What’s this?” he asked curiously, picking out the notes.

 

“Work,” said Patrick. “It’s a song for Nadia.”

 

“It’s not bad,” said Matt, playing through it. “It needs something, though.”

 

“Yes,” Patrick agreed. “That’s my job.”

 

“You need, like…” Matt shifted over on the piano bench and said, “Come play with me.”

 

“What?” said Patrick.

 

“Come play the song, I’m going to give you a countermelody.”

 

“Just play the countermelody,” said Patrick, “I can imagine—”

 

“Dad, play with him!” urged Hailey. “It’ll be like a concert.”

 

“Dad never puts on concerts,” said Miranda.

 

Matt chuckled and glanced up from the piano. “You should put on more concerts, Patrick.”

 

Patrick, sighing, came and perched on the other half of the piano bench. “Shut up,” he said under his breath.

 

“I didn’t even set that one up,” Matt replied softly, amused, and shifted his fingers. “Go ahead, play.”

 

Patrick started playing after a moment, and Matt waited, feeling out the rhythm, and then tapped out a countermelody, moving into playing it more and more confidently as he could sense it working, and it was like a thousand other times he had shared a piano with Patrick and they had made music together and Matt could feel the smile on his face. He had missed this so much.

 

Matt peered up toward Patrick’s end of the piano, to see the words scrawled on the sheet music, and sang along, softly at first and then more loudly as he saw his way to the runs and embellishments that the vocals should have.

 

“Up an octave there,” said Matt. “It should move up an octave.”

 

“I was thinking a key change,” said Patrick.

 

“Hmm,” Matt said thoughtfully. “Maybe. I could see it both ways. Maybe it depends on Nadia’s voice. I couldn’t push it up an octave.”

 

“No,” replied Patrick. “You couldn’t.”

 

Matt leaned into him in a gentle shove. “Shut up,” he said.

 

Patrick smiled and finished playing, and Matt finished his countermelody a half-second later, and then Patrick’s girls broke out into applause.

 

Patrick jumped, startled, and Matt knew he’d forgotten their audience the same way Matt himself had.

 

“That was so good!” Hailey enthused.

 

“You’re such a good singer!” said Miranda.

 

“Dad almost never sings,” said Hailey.

 

Matt, thrown, looked at Patrick. “You almost never sing?”

 

“I sing,” said Patrick, looking embarrassed.

 

“You sing, like, nursery rhymes,” Kylie said, rolling her eyes. “You never sing your songs to us like this.”

 

“I don’t want to bore you,” Patrick said, and stood from the piano, picking Adam up as he went. “You’re harsh critics. Did you bring your portfolio for Matt to see?”

 

It was an obvious distraction, because Patrick knew very well that Matt would be thinking about how Patrick used to sing all the time. Patrick arrived at melodies in the shower, Patrick hummed while getting dressed, Patrick used to climb into bed at night singing songs to Matt, singing them into Matt’s skin around laughter when Matt good-naturedly told him to stop singing for two seconds.

 

Kylie said, “Yeah, but Matt can write down the part of the song he wrote first, so you don’t forget it.”

 

Patrick looked over at Matt and then nodded. “Yes. If you could write it down, I’d appreciate it.”

 

Matt picked up the pencil conveniently on the piano to scribble down the notes, saying lightly, “I expect co-writing credit.”

 

Patrick said, “If I use it. Maybe I won’t use it. Maybe I’ll make it much better.”

 

Matt laughed, because Patrick had said it jokingly, and Matt knew he was trying to shift things away from the unexpected moment at the piano. And Matt knew Patrick would never believe this but Matt hadn’t actively planned for that, it was just that…Patrick, and a piano, and a song, and of course that was going to happen. Of course it was.

 

He probably shouldn’t have asked to play Patrick’s piano.

 

Contrite about that, he went over to look through Kylie’s portfolio, and she was good, her art was clever and funny and thoughtful, and Matt was no art expert but he thought she had promise.

 

By the time he was done looking through Kylie’s portfolio, the baby was fussy and Patrick said, “It’s Adam’s bedtime.”

 

Matt, awkward, looked at Patrick and said, “I should probably go.” He hadn’t actually gotten to talk to Patrick about the reunion at all, but that seemed out of place now, now that he had seen what Patrick’s life was like. Maybe Patrick was right and there shouldn’t be a reunion. Maybe Matt should back away from all of this. He couldn’t be friends with Patrick, this evening had made that clear to him, their effect on each other was too much to be brushed off into lightness, but he wasn’t sure he should try to be more with Patrick, if he should push for the reconciliation he’d wanted so badly. Matt had assumed Patrick had spent these years as miserable as Matt had been and he clearly hadn’t, and he didn’t need Matt showing up fucking up his life. He should probably go back to California and live the rest of his life, the way he had been doing.

 

“No, stay!” exclaimed Hailey. “You’re fun.”

 

“Am I?” asked Matt doubtfully, because he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had said that about him.

 

“And we never have visitors,” Hailey continued, which made her previous statement make more sense, their bar was probably very low. 

 

“We’re going to watch a documentary on dragonflies,” Miranda said. “Do you know anything about dragonflies?”

 

“Almost nothing,” said Matt.

 

“We can make popcorn,” said Miranda.

 

Hailey looked at Matt critically. “Do you know how to make popcorn?”

 

“I could probably manage it,” said Matt, and looked at Patrick. He…didn’t know what to do. He wanted to say out loud, I, Matt Usher, don’t know what to do. Tell me what you want, I can’t tell anymore. In fact, I think I was always terrible at telling.

 

Patrick hesitated, then said, “Stay. Yeah. Absolutely. You should stay. We haven’t even gotten a chance to talk yet about…everything.”

 

“Right,” Matt said. “You’re right.”

 

And then Patrick disappeared down the hallway with the baby.

 

“Okay,” said Hailey, “the popcorn’s over here.”

 

Matt followed her and made the popcorn absently, trying to figure out what it meant that Patrick wanted him to stay and talk about “everything.” What the fuck was “everything”?

 

Matt, waiting for the microwave, looked at Kylie, who was supervising because she clearly doubted his ability to make popcorn. Not that he blamed her for this assumption.

 

“How old are you?” Matt asked.

 

“Thirteen,” she answered.

 

“I seem to remember thirteen being an age of tremendous wisdom,” said Matt.

 

Kylie looked suspicious. “Is that sarcasm?”

 

“No,” said Matt. “I just want you to know that this is the most sense anybody in the universe will ever make to you. Everybody just gets more confusing from here.”

 

“But nobody makes any sense,” said Kylie.

 

Exactly,” said Matt.

 

“This hasn’t been a very uplifting conversation,” said Kylie.

 

“Sorry about that,” said Matt.

 

“No, no, I respect that,” said Kylie

 

The microwave beeped and Miranda called, “Hurry up! The dragonfly movie is starting!”

 

***

 

Two days ago Patrick’s life had been Matt-less, and now it wasn’t. Now Matt was here, in his house, playing his piano, making his kids laugh, smiling at him. Terrifyingly alluring. Illegally appealing.

 

Matt really needed to go, Patrick thought, with a rising, dry-mouthed panic, as he went through Adam’s bedtime routine. What was he doing with a Matt in his house?

 

But Matt had offered to leave. Matt had looked to him for guidance and offered to leave and…this was bad, thought Patrick.

 

Patrick felt as he so often did in the face of Matt: like Matt was just one enormous inevitability and who was he to fight against it? And there was no need to behave like this. He was a middle-aged father of four now. He wasn’t a starry-eyed kid anymore, getting all mixed up because he was writing too many romantic songs. He was thoroughly sensible. He had always been sensible when Matt wasn’t around muddling his brain.

 

But then there had been Matt, in his house, writing a romantic song with him.

 

“Oh, Adam,” Patrick said, as he rocked the baby. “This shouldn’t be difficult, right? I should just tell him to go. We’ve all done really well without him. Let’s face it, we’ve probably done better without him than we ever would have with him, right?”

 

Adam, in his arms, was sound asleep.

 

Patrick sighed and kissed his chubby cheek and whispered, “I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve missed him an awful lot and I’m happy to have him back even though I know I shouldn’t be.”

 

Then he put the baby to bed.

 

And then he stood at the edge of the hallway, mostly in shadow, and looked at his three girls, and Matt, sprawled on various sofas and chairs, with containers of popcorn scattered between them.

 

His three girls. And Matt.

 

“Look, look, first he’s going to pluck the wings off before he eats the head,” Miranda said enthusiastically.

 

“This is disgusting,” said Matt, sounding fascinated. “I can’t believe your father lets you watch these things.”

 

“He says it’s important we learn about the predatory nature of male creatures early in life,” said Kylie.

 

“Human males are hardly dragonflies,” Matt replied. “All of our predatory nature is learned, unfortunately.”

 

“Dad says that, too,” Hailey said approvingly.

 

“Toxic masculinity,” Miranda added.

 

“Well, your dad’s right about that,” said Matt.

 

“Dad would say he’s usually right,” said Kylie.

 

“And he’s usually right about that, too,” said Matt.

 

Patrick stood in darkness and thought of these two halves of his lives, his before and his after, colliding in this very particular way, and having every appearance of fitting, and he didn’t know what to make of it, didn’t know if he could even begin to comprehend it. It seemed as if it should be unreal, and yet it was happening.

 

He looked at Matt, sprawled out and lazily munching on popcorn, looking thoroughly engrossed in the documentary, and he tried to envision a life where he could go over and settle against Matt, and his children wouldn’t blink an eye because it would be normal. His children had never had that out of him. Not ever. He had never had a marriage like that, and in the time when he didn’t let himself think about Matt, there had seemed like there was nothing wrong with that. And now he knew why his children looked at him in such alarm when an adult made him laugh: because they’d never seen that before. He’d forgotten.

 

Maybe it could be better this time around, said a voice in Patrick’s head. Maybe Matt’s older. Maybe he’s changed. Maybe you can have your cake and eat it, too.

 

What a fucking idiotic and irresponsible thing to think, said a different voice in Patrick’s head, accusingly.

 

Patrick took a deep breath and walked into the living room and said, “Tell me what we’ve learned about dragonflies.”

 

“They can do this thing,” said Hailey, “called motion camouflage. Where they, like, look like they’re standing still but they’re really darting all around.”

 

“Huh,” said Patrick.

 

“And they eat things head first,” said Miranda.

 

“They’re kind of gross,” said Kylie.

 

“Kylie’s right,” said Matt. “They’re kind of gross. Who knew? I have learned so much tonight.”

 

“Yeah,” said Patrick, and Matt gave him a look, like he was being inscrutable, and Patrick knew he was.  

 

***

 

When the documentary was over, Patrick announced that it was bedtime, and the kids complained about having to go to bed while Matt was still over.

 

Patrick said, “Matt and I have business to discuss, so go to bed.”

 

“What kind of business?” asked Miranda with interest.

 

Matt wanted to second that question.

 

“I’m probably going to sell all of you to him,” Patrick said, “as long as the price is right. But he’s pretty rich. He had a whole successful solo career and now he’s some big television star and everything. So the price is probably going to be right.”

 

“Is he remodeling his house?” asked Kylie. “We might be moving up in the world.”

 

“Matt, I have to put my ungrateful brats to bed,” Patrick said, “can you wait?”

 

Matt stared at him and said, “Yes?” as if he had no idea whether or not he could wait.

 

“Ungrateful brats,” Patrick said to his kids, “tell Matt it was nice to meet him and thank him for the pizza and the popcorn.”

 

“And the concert!” said Hailey, skipping over to him. “Thank you for the concert! You’re the best!” He leaned down instinctively so she could fling her arms around his neck.

 

“Oh,” he said, taken aback, with no idea what to do. “Thanks. Thank you for sharing your ballerina skills.”

 

“You’re a good singer,” Miranda told him. “And now you know about dragonflies.” She shook his hand formally.

 

“Thank you,” said Matt. “And…yes. And I’ll get in touch with you about the bodyguard position.”

 

Both kids grinned at him.  

 

“Come on, you two,” Patrick said, waiting for them by the hallway.

 

Kylie stood in front of Matt and cocked her head while her sisters went running down the hallway toward Patrick.

 

“You’re a good artist,” Matt told her.

 

“Do you know anything about art?” asked Kylie.

 

“I’m not an expert, but I’m an artist myself and I have impeccable taste.”

 

Kylie gave him the sort of look Patrick liked to give him, amused in an eyerolling way. And then she said, startling him, “My dad likes you.”

 

Matt had no idea what to say in response to that. He said stupidly, “Do you think so?” like they were in high school.

 

“Yeah. He doesn’t invite people over the house, like, ever. I’ve never seen him do it. We’ve almost never seen him talk to a grown-up since Mom left. Other than Mrs. Honeycutt.”

 

“Who’s Mrs. Honeycutt?”

 

“Adam’s babysitter. And, of course, Rachel.”

 

“Right,” said Matt. “Rachel.” Who Patrick had been on a date with just the night before. “Rachel’s nice,” he said cautiously.

 

Kylie didn’t seem inclined to talk about Rachel. “Anyway, what I’m saying is.”

 

Matt waited, eyebrows raised.

 

“You’d better not be an idiot.”

 

“Oh, Christ,” said Matt. “There’s really no guarantee on that.”

 

Kylie looked unimpressed. “Yeah, I figured, but I would appreciate at least a little bit of effort on your part.”

 

How old are you?” Matt asked again.

 

Kylie actually laughed. “It was nice meeting you. He never talks about Swan days. This was fun.”

 

“Thanks,” Matt said. “Same. Kind of.”

 

And then Kylie also disappeared down the hallway and Matt stood in Patrick’s living room and panicked and ducked outside onto the patio, just for a second, just to let the fresh air settle his scattered thoughts a little.

 

***

 

Patrick, finding his living room empty, for a moment wondered if Matt had been cowardly enough to run, which Patrick supposed settled all of his inner turmoil, and he could stop wondering what he needed to do with Matt, because Matt would have made that decision for him.

 

And then he realized, from Back watching him rapturously through the window, that Matt was on the back patio.

 

Patrick opened the door and looked at him. He was leaning against one of the posts holding up the upper balcony, his hands deep in the pockets of his hoodie, looking at the ocean. He turned his head when he heard the door open, and his dark eyes caught the light from the house and gleamed at Patrick out of the darkness, and Patrick stood there and looked at him and felt like Matt had reached a fist into his chest and squeezed his heart.

 

And there it is, thought Patrick. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. It wasn’t that he was too old for it. It’s that he had been in front of the wrong person. It’s that it was apparently always, always, always for him going to be a Matt feeling.

 

Patrick stepped out onto the patio, nudging Bach back inside, and closed the door behind him.

 

Matt said, his voice hoarse, “Patrick. I feel like I should say…”

 

Patrick walked up to him, stood in front of him, and waited, but Matt didn’t say anything else. “Say what?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Matt helplessly. “Fifteen years and I feel like I should have had a scheme. I know you expected me to have a scheme. There should have been a scheme for you, but how was I supposed to… How am I supposed to… I don’t know, Patrick.”

 

“No trick up your sleeve?” asked Patrick, and tugged at the sleeve of Matt’s hoodie.

 

“Patrick,” said Matt, sounding both anguished and annoyed.

 

“Do you want me to write the lyrics for you?” asked Patrick.

 

“I want you to…” Matt opened and closed his mouth and then said, “Yes. I do. Sing me a song, Patrick.”  

 

Patrick considered. He knew he could end all of this right here, depending on which song he chose.

 

He took a step closer and ducked his head toward Matt’s ear and sang, “I want to shatter you into pieces and put you back together in my bed.”

 

Matt’s hands closed into the front of Patrick’s shirt to hold him close to him, as he sang the next line back to him. “And it goes both ways, darling, you make me lose my head.”

 

“Matt,” said Patrick, and put his nose in Matt’s hair, letting himself lean more fully into him.

 

“I missed you,” Matt said, turning himself into Patrick. “You went out and got yourself this great life and you’re so happy in this kid-filled, puppy-filled, falling-down house, and it’s so you, and it’s so great, and I did fucking nothing.”

 

Matt had these moods. Matt was harder on himself than anyone Patrick had ever met while seeming to have never demanded of himself. “Don’t say that,” Patrick said. “You’ve done amazing things. You’ve made a huge success out of yourself. You at least didn’t die of an overdose.”

 

“Jesus,” said Matt, “what a horribly low bar. Did you think I would?”

 

Patrick was silent for a long moment. He rested his lips in Matt’s hair and murmured, “No. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have walked away from you if I’d thought…if I’d thought I was going to kill you. I mean, obviously, Matt. I thought you’d be a huge success, and you have been. We both got what we wanted.”

 

“Did we?” asked Matt miserably.

 

“Didn’t we?” Patrick countered.

 

“I wrote you songs,” said Matt. “I wrote you so many songs. Every song. I wanted you so badly every single day, and you never even…Did you ever even listen to them?”

 

“No,” Patrick admitted. “I couldn’t. Not after Forever. I had to…not think about you.”

 

“And you can just do that,” said Matt harshly. “You can just stop thinking about me.”

 

“That isn’t a special feature particular to you,” said Patrick, and stepped away from him and sat on one of the patio chaise longues with a sigh. “It’s apparently a special talent I have. I just…”

 

“Compartmentalize,” said Matt, staying by the column, his hands, which had just been spread out over Patrick’s chest, shoved back into the pockets of his hoodie now. “It fucking sucks for those of us who love you.”

 

“What a fascinating thing for you to decide now,” said Patrick drily.

 

“Shut up,” Matt snapped. “I always loved you and you always knew that. That wasn’t a secret. I wrote a dozen fucking top ten hits about how much I loved you.”

 

“You think that you have it so rough,” recited Patrick, not even bothering to sing the lyrics. “Well, baby, I’m calling your bluff.”

 

“Okay,” said Matt, “but that was—You’d written a terrible song about me.”

 

“Had I?” demanded Patrick, who thought mostly he’d just written a true song.

 

“Yes. And I was…I called your bluff and it turned out not to be a bluff so I thought that you must have—I mean, I wrote so many amazing songs for you, and you got all upset because I wrote one that was a little angry?”

 

“No. No, that’s not why I was upset. I don’t get upset about pop songs,” Patrick snapped back. “Those songs weren’t really about me. Those were about fame and fortune and millions of girls thinking you were the most romantic person in the world.”

 

“Do you think I wasn’t romantic enough toward you?” Matt asked. “Is this about, like, how I didn’t bring you flowers?”

 

“Christ,” said Patrick, exhausted now, and leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “If you don’t know what it was about, now, after all this time, I don’t know how to explain it.”

 

“No,” Matt said, with a bite in his voice that made Patrick open his eyes and look at him in surprise. “That’s not fair. You don’t get to do that this time. With your cryptic statements about I don’t even fucking know what. If you don’t want me, then you don’t want me, and you need to just fucking tell me so I can…so I can…”

 

“So you can?” said Patrick.

 

Matt closed his eyes and shook his head and laughed without humor. “So I can nothing. It doesn’t matter. I have never been over you. I will never be over you. So I don’t know why I think I need to hear you say some particular magic thing that will stop me loving you. I love you and you don’t love me and that doesn’t—”

 

“That isn’t true,” said Patrick. “That’s never been true. Did you think that all this time? That I don’t love you?”

 

“It felt an awful lot like that, Patrick. And you weren’t exactly doing much to divest me of that notion. You were getting married, and having kids, and—I thought it was a hiccup. I thought you’d come back. You never came back.”

 

“Is that why you didn’t come after me?” asked Patrick.

 

“I didn’t come after you because you asked me not to.”

 

“Oh, and suddenly you listened to me? Suddenly, after years and years and years of doing whatever the fuck you felt like doing regardless of what I said, suddenly you decided to listen to me?”

 

“You were…” Matt faltered. “You seemed serious. You seemed…I didn’t recognize you. In that moment, on that day, I didn’t recognize you. Before I knew what you wanted, and it seemed…it seemed you didn’t want me. And you never even looked back, so that seemed…right.”

 

“I was waiting for you,” Patrick said. “I didn’t even realize how much I’ve been waiting for you until you were there, at Rachel’s, and I was just like, What took him so fucking long?”

 

Matt was silent for a long moment. The ocean crashed in the darkness behind him, and Bach whined at the door, and Matt stood silent.

 

And then he smiled. Patrick could see the flash of it.

 

Patrick shifted. “What’s that for?”

 

“What?” asked Matt, sounding smug.

 

“That smile.”

 

“Patrick,” said Matt, the tone of his voice drenched in the smile. “You just gave me permission to seduce you.”

 

Patrick looked at him and thought, Huh. I did. He thought, I think I only had one walk-away-from-Matt moment in my life, and I think I already used it up. He thought, Do it right this time. Just do it right.

 

Patrick took a deep breath and thought, You just told Matt Usher to seduce you. Maybe you should sit back and enjoy it.  

 

Patrick said, “That would appear to be true. So what do you plan to do with that permission?”

 

“Oh,” said Matt, and walked over to him slowly and leaned over him, caging him into the chair. Patrick’s breath caught in his throat, strangling him, as he stared into Matt’s intent eyes, unable to look away. This was another thing he’d forgotten: how Matt could reach inside and press just the right button with a single look. “I want to shatter you into pieces and put you back together in my bed,” sang Matt. Then he ducked his head to put his lips against Patrick’s ear to finish singing, “And it goes both ways, darling, you make me lose my head.”

 

Patrick closed his eyes and tried to breathe and let the deliciousness of Matt’s nearness make him a little dizzy. Matt was going to seduce him, and Patrick just wanted to enjoy it.

 

And then Matt pulled away.

 

Patrick blinked his eyes open, off-kilter, unpleasantly doused in cold water.

 

Matt grinned because Matt was an asshole and said, “Okay. So I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

“What?” said Patrick. “Tomorrow? What?”

 

“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Matt said, opening the door to the house. “I don’t want to use all my tricks at once. I want to make sure I leave some for later.”

 

“I know all your tricks,” Patrick reminded him, forcing himself to get up to follow Matt into the house.

 

“Which is why I have to go back to my hotel and try to come up with some new ones. I don’t want you to be bored while I’m seducing you.”

 

“What about me being annoyed while you’re seducing me?” asked Patrick sourly, wishing he wasn’t so fucking out-of-sorts over not being kissed. It was ridiculous of him.

 

Matt laughed as he reached the front door. “Oh, that is definitely me doing a good job of seducing you. You love being annoyed. You find it irresistibly hot.” Matt pulled the door open and stepped through it.

 

“No, I don’t,” Patrick denied, although it was a little hollow, because Matt maybe had a point that Patrick had always wanted to kiss that smirk off Matt’s face when he was being annoying.

 

“Patrick,” Matt said, a smile in his voice, and then he closed his hand into the front of Patrick’s shirt and tugged him sharply forward and kissed him.

 

Patrick hadn’t been expecting it, and it took him a second to register what was happening. And it was a soft, sweet kiss, not devoid of passion but more a carefully restrained version of it. Like Matt had given it careful thought and wanted to kiss him with a gentleness that Patrick couldn’t remember ever being in any other kiss Matt had ever given him. Matt had never been gentle. Matt had been a very conscious and deliberate raging storm of emotions at all time. Patrick was the gentle one. Patrick was the one who kissed to soothe, and to adore, and to reassure.

 

Matt pulled back and brushed his nose against Patrick’s. “I missed you so much,” he said. “I missed you every day. I don’t want to fuck it up this time around, I want to…I want to do such a good job seducing you, I want you to feel like the early days when all we wrote each other were love songs instead of angry songs and I want to make you believe me and trust me and I never want you to think that I don’t—that I wouldn’t be—”

 

“Shh,” Patrick said, keeping his eyes closed, because he wanted to cling to this fuzzy, dazed feeling forever, it was amazing. Normally Matt made him feel sharp and urgent and cutting, but Matt was making him feel now like he’d just crawled into a warm blanket and he could uncurl into the coziness. “It’s a run-on sentence.”

 

“What?” said Matt blankly.

 

Patrick smiled fondly. “Love is always a run-on sentence to you. It’s always been a run-on sentence. That’s always how you speak to me when you want to make sure I know you mean it.”

 

Matt was silent for a moment. Then he said uncertainly, “Is it?”

 

“Yes,” said Patrick, still smiling. “Yes.”

 

Matt leaned forward and kissed him again, fiercer this time. “I am going to be so good to you this time around,” he promised. “You’re not going to know what hit you.”

 

And Patrick had had promises out of Matt before. So many promises, over so many years. Patrick knew Matt’s promises. But he wanted this one. He wanted this one to be different. And it was dangerous and stupid, he ought to be too old to get his heart broken, but he let Matt kiss him again, up against the side of his ramshackle house, Matt kissing him slow and deep, his hands framing Patrick’s face with a reverence Patrick had never experienced out of him before, and Patrick thought: Maybe this time

 

Fifteen years seemed like overkill but maybe they’d needed it for this sudden slicing appreciation of how nothing in those intervening years had been anything like this, and maybe you got older and wiser and thought you shouldn’t let something like this go the second time around, and maybe, maybe, maybe…

 

I live my life in maybes

And I’ve got to tell you, baby,

It’s getting pretty old, thought Patrick.

 

But he didn’t sing it. He let Matt kiss him, and he kissed him back, and just when Patrick thought he was on the verge of saying, reckless and irresponsible, Stay, you should stay, Matt mumbled, “Go, I should go,” and forced a definite step away from Patrick. “I should go. I’ll never go if I don’t go now.”

 

He looked well-kissed and deliciously mussed and Patrick’s heart ached with the painful familiarity of him. He said, “You look ridiculous in that hoodie.”

 

Matt said, “I’m going to wear it for you all the time. I’m going to wear it on stage.”

 

“Go away,” said Patrick.

 

“I’m going to call you tomorrow,” Matt said, as he walked to his car.

 

“For what?” asked Patrick.

 

“Oh, darling,” said Matt, “like I’d spoil the surprise.”

 

***

 

Patrick fell into bed as if he was floating into it, and he thought he would never fall asleep, that surely his brain had so much to process from his odd forty-eight hours that he would be up for hours trying to make all of it make sense.

 

But he wasn’t. He fell asleep right away and slept better than he had in months, not waking until Adam started squawking his announcement that the sun was up and everyone else should get up as well.

 

And normally Patrick, upon hearing Adam’s call, rolled immediately out of his bed. But this morning, for just one split second, he opened his eyes and looked at the sun peeking though his window and smiled at it like a sunny morning was extraordinary.

 

And then he rolled out of bed and retrieved Adam.

 

Adam was in a good mood, or maybe he was picking up on Patrick’s good mood.

 

Patrick said, as he changed his diaper and dressed him, “We’ve had an enormously eventful weekend, and to be honest I’m not sure what to think of it. I know what I want to think about it, and on the other I know what the fifteen-years-younger me would remind me I know about Matt’s track record of dedication and devotion. But doesn’t it feel like the opposite of flighty that Matt spent fifteen years apparently still wanting me? Like, wouldn’t you have expected him to find someone else to write his romantic songs about?”

 

Adam didn’t seem to have any special wisdom about Matt. Or, if he did, he wasn’t sharing.

 

Patrick sighed and lifted Adam back into his arms. “He’s a puzzlement. He’s always been a puzzlement.”

 

Adam stuck his fingers into Patrick’s mouth.

 

“If that’s your way of telling me that it was Matt’s puzzle that always made him irresistible to me,” said Patrick, “you’re not wrong.”

 

Patrick put Adam in his high chair with a bottle that Adam sucked on happily, while Patrick made him cereal and let Bach out and considered if he should make a special breakfast. It felt like a day for a special breakfast. He mixed pancake batter between glances at the piano, at the sheet music Matt had left on top of it, with the notes of his countermelody.

 

Hailey and Miranda arrived in the kitchen as he was pouring the batter onto the griddle. They looked tired and grumpy until they saw the impending pancakes, and then they brightened.

 

“What should we do today?” Patrick asked them, sliding pancakes onto plates for them.

 

“Is Matt coming over?” asked Hailey.

 

“No,” Patrick said, even though he honestly didn’t know, because he never knew when it came to Matt, and now that Matt had suddenly arrived back in his life he was back to never knowing. “Why would Matt come over?”

 

“We could go to the beach,” said Hailey.

 

“I have honestly never seen Matt at the beach,” said Patrick thoughtfully. “I don’t even know if Matt likes the sun.”

 

“Matt said he lives in California,” Miranda said.

 

“He does,” said Patrick.

 

“Californians love sun, remember?” said Miranda. “We were Californians not long ago.”

 

“Not all Californians love sun,” said Patrick.

 

“If Matt didn’t like sun,” said Hailey, “he could live somewhere without sun. Like Newark.”

 

“Newark?” said Patrick, surprised. “Who told you Newark doesn’t have sun?”

 

“Ms. Norfolk,” said Hailey, referring to her teacher.

 

“Newark has sun,” said Patrick.

 

“It’s London that doesn’t have sun,” said Miranda.

 

“London also has sun,” said Patrick. “Although, admittedly, less sun than California.”

 

“Pancakes,” said Kylie.

 

Patrick looked up at her in surprise and made a show of checking his watch, because Sunday was really Kylie’s only day to sleep in and she usually took enthusiastic advantage of it. “And what are you doing up so early?”

 

“Why are you making pancakes?” asked Kylie.

 

“I make pancakes,” Patrick said. “Making pancakes isn’t unusual for me. I take excellent care of you, since I am in fact the best father in the universe.”

 

“Hmm,” said Kylie, as if he was behaving oddly.

 

“Do you want pancakes?” Patrick asked her. “Or do you want to be suspicious of the pancakes?”

 

“I’ll take the pancakes,” she said. “So where’s Matt?”

 

Patrick gave her a dry look. “I have no idea where Matt is.”

 

“He might be coming to the beach with us,” said Hailey.

 

“No,” said Patrick. “That’s not true.”

 

“Did you get to talk to him about whatever business you were supposed to talk about?” asked Kylie.

 

“I don’t know,” Patrick admitted, because they hadn’t talked at all about the Swan reunion, and Patrick wasn’t sure if he had any sense how serious Matt was about the idea of a reunion. Of their band. Or even of them. Patrick had been floating all morning but it suddenly seemed, putting it into concrete thoughts, absurd that Matt would show up out of nowhere and promise to seduce him. It seemed like a fairy tale he’d written just for himself.

 

Patrick looked at his girls and said, “Have things been weird around here lately?”

 

They gave him identically disbelieving looks and said in firm unison, “Yes.”

 

“In what way?” asked Patrick, wondering if they had the same sense of unreality.

 

“You went on a date,” Miranda said. “You’ve never done that before.”

 

“Okay, true,” Patrick allowed.

 

“And then we met one of your friends from Swan,” said Hailey. “And that’s never happened before.”

 

“You invited another grown-up into this house,” said Kylie. “That is unprecedented.”

 

Patrick considered.

 

“And we haven’t even talked about the concert,” said Hailey.

 

“Okay,” said Patrick, “that was a single song. That’s not amazing. I sing to you all the time.”

 

“You really don’t,” said Kylie.

 

“Not like that,” said Miranda.

 

“He just, like, sang,” said Hailey.

 

“Yeah,” said Patrick. “It was just singing. It wasn’t anything special. Matt’s a singer. It’s what he does.”

 

“Well, you asked us what was weird around here,” said Hailey frankly, “and it’s all of that.”

 

Patrick sat with his own plate of pancakes and said, “Do you like it? Or is it horrible?”

 

“It’s good,” said Kylie.

 

“It’s great,” said Miranda.

 

“Can Matt come give us more concerts?” asked Hailey.

 

Patrick said, “Look, let me tell you something about Matt.”

 

Hailey looked delighted to hear this tidbit. “What?”

 

“You can’t encourage him and tell him you liked his concert, because then you’ll never be able to shut him up.”

 

“Cool,” chirped Hailey, completely missing his point.

 

“Why don’t you ever sing any Swan songs?” asked Kylie. “You’ve got all these songs and you never, ever sing them.”

 

“Because,” said Patrick, “I’m not that person anymore. The me who was in Swan was a completely different person.”

 

“I don’t think Matt would agree,” said Kylie pointedly.

 

“You’re right,” Patrick said mildly. “And I’m not sure he would be right about that.”

 

Which was when the doorbell rang.

 

Bach went barking up the hallway, falling over her paws as usual, and Patrick wondered wildly if it might be Matt, and then told himself he was being idiotic.

 

“Do you think it’s Matt?” asked Hailey excitedly.

 

“Of course not,” Patrick said, even though he’d thought exactly that.

 

He stood and went to answer the door and found himself staring at an enormous bouquet of flowers.

 

“Are you Patrick?” asked the delivery person.

 

“Yes,” said Patrick.

 

“Good,” said the delivery person in obvious relief, and relinquished the bouquet to Patrick.

 

It was staggeringly heavy and ridiculously lush and Patrick both had no idea what to make of it and knew exactly what to make of it, thinking of Matt on the patio the night before: Is this about, like, how I didn’t bring you flowers?

 

Patrick carried his flowers into the kitchen, where they were definitely not going to help his girls’ impression of Matt’s place in his life.

 

“Oh, my gosh,” said Hailey, “look at them.”

 

Kylie lifted her eyebrows at him.

 

“There’s no card,” said Patrick, because there wasn’t. “I must have a secret admirer.”

 

“Secret,” said Kylie flatly. “How will we ever figure this secret out. It’s truly complex.”

 

Patrick gave her another look and said, “Let’s all get ready for the beach.”

 

Hailey and Miranda thundered back down the hallway to their room. Kylie looked unimpressed at him.

 

Patrick said, “You, too. Off you go. It’s too early in the morning for that interrogatorial look.”

 

“It is,” Kylie agreed, which was the only way he got off the hook.

 

Patrick looked at his flowers and pulled his phone over to him and looked at Matt’s name in his contact list and then texted him. Opening gambit?

 

Matt’s reply was almost instant:

 

I reflected on my strategy for hours

And decided the first move ought to be flowers

 

Patrick replied, I don’t know that one.

 

Matt responded, That’s a new one just for you.

 

“Fuck,” said Patrick to his phone, feeling the happy swoop in his stomach. And then he looked up in alarm at Adam and said, “Pretend you didn’t hear that.”

 

***

 

Matt was having the kind of morning he hadn’t had in years. It was a euphoric morning. He woke feeling heady and joyful and ordered Patrick flowers before he was even out of bed. Patrick, he thought. Ordering Patrick flowers.

 

Matt looked at the ceiling over his head and thought of Patrick the night before, taking a step closer so he could sing into Matt’s ear, nuzzle at his hair. Patrick had always been like that in private, affectionate in that touchy-feely way. Touch meant a great deal to Patrick, beyond sex, and Matt realized he’d never thought that through before. Patrick touched him so often, in soft soothing brushes that seemed instinctive, and he probably longed for that type of touch in return. No wonder Patrick had seemed so often dubious of Matt’s seriousness; they had been talking past each other the whole time. Patrick wanted to be loved the way Patrick loved, and Matt had done a terrible job of doing that.

 

He was going to be better. He’d meant what he said. He was going to be so impressive Patrick would be entirely unable to ever let him go. There was a piece of Matt that almost thought he made as much sense in the household as Bach the puppy, that Matt could just say, Look at this life, I fit in it just as beautifully.

 

Matt had a scheme, and his scheme was: No scheme from hereon out. The Swan reunion idea had done what he’d needed it do, more beautifully than he could ever have anticipated. He’d make sure the Swan reunion came to fruition and was amazing and everyone loved it, but beyond that he wasn’t going to scheme his way into Patrick’s best graces. He hadn’t schemed the first time. It had just happened, over love songs and tour buses and a lot of alcohol. He had fucked it up with schemes, or at least with Patrick’s suspicious belief, cultivated over lots of exposure to Matt, that Matt only cared about the things he schemed about, and then only as long as it took him to achieve the scheme. So this time around: no schemes. At least, Patrick wasn’t going to be a scheme. Matt knew better than to think he could quit schemes cold turkey.

 

Matt got ready to face his day, enjoying the buzz of pleasant anticipation that kept singing through his veins. Patrick texted him about the flowers just as Matt was finishing up breakfast on the inn’s front porch, and Matt smiled and flirted with him and then the phone rang in his hand and for a wild split second Matt thought maybe Patrick was already calling him and then the phone flashed Rachel.

 

Matt thought he should be a good client and a serious businessperson for at least a second, and answered.

 

“I have good news and bad news,” Rachel announced.

 

“You’re going to tell me both,” said Matt, “so I really don’t care what order you tell me in.”

 

“The good news is people are very interesting in a Swan reunion. You’ve got so many options.”

 

“Oh, good,” said Matt, because that was good news but it was hardly surprising or overly interesting to him. Certainly not as interesting as anything involving Patrick.

 

“The bad news is Patrick,” said Rachel.

 

“What?” said Matt, startled. “Why would Patrick be bad news?”

 

“Because everyone I’ve spoken to has been very clear that this is a no-go unless Patrick is part of the reunion, and Patrick was not happy about the idea of a Swan reunion. Patrick seems pretty mild-mannered but the mention of you seemed to make him furious.”

 

Matt’s reaction to this was to smile soppily because that was so perfectly him and Patrick. “Yes. I have that effect on people. Sometimes especially Patrick.”

 

“So I think the Patrick issue is all up to you,” Rachel said. “He wanted to talk directly to you anyway. Did he get in touch with you?”  

 

“Yes. You don’t have to worry about him. He’ll do the reunion.”

 

“He said that?” said Rachel, sounding suspicious.

 

“No. Not yet. But he will. I know him. I’ve got this.”

 

“Okay,” said Rachel slowly, still sounding dubious.

 

“The real issue is going to be that he’s definitely going to have conditions. I don’t know what sort yet, but definitely timing and location conditions. So we’ll have to work with him, and I also promised Anna and David that we would work around their schedules, too, so our options aren’t as limitless as you might have thought.”

 

“This sounds like a lot of coordination,” remarked Rachel.

 

“Hmm,” said Matt. “And I’m also under the impression that we’re paying you a lot of money, so…”

 

Rachel sighed.

 

***

 

Rachel found Carmen on the deck, soaking up sun. Rachel stepped onto the deck with her and said, “Ugh, it’s hot out here.”

 

“I think we’re going to have a storm,” said Carmen, unconcerned. “Where have you been all day?”

 

“Working,” said Rachel, and dropped onto a chair positioned in shade just for her.

 

“Surprise, surprise,” said Carmen.

 

“This Swan reunion business is a huge pain in the ass,” said Rachel. “This is why I don’t ordinarily work with bands. There’s four people’s schedules to coordinate. It’s annoying. And I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with Patrick’s side of things.”

 

“You’re supposed to give up on that,” said Carmen knowingly.

 

“Give up on it?” said Rachel with a frown. “Matt said he was handling it.”

 

“Oh,” said Carmen, “I have no doubt that Matt is handling that.”

 

Rachel tipped her head. “What does any of that mean?”

 

Carmen sighed. “Did you think your date with Patrick went well?”

 

“No,” said Rachel. “It went horribly.”

 

“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Because Patrick didn’t pay attention to anybody but Matt for the entirety of the evening. Do you know what that means?”

 

“That he was thrown off by this guy from his past showing up all of a sudden and then inviting himself along on our date?”

 

Carmen smirked. “And why did Matt invite himself on the date in the first place?”

 

Rachel considered. “Because he’s an asshole?”

 

Carmen gave her a look. “Because they have a history, Rachel. And before you talk about their band, they have a seeing-each-other-naked kind of history. Which means you need to find another person to get yourself laid, because I’ve got a feeling that those two have that covered between the two of them. They don’t even seem like they’d be into a threesome, they were so fiercely territorial around each other.”

 

“Oh, God,” said Rachel. “Really? This reunion is going to be a mess. I don’t feel like babysitting some kind of telenovela of a band.”

 

Carmen started laughing. “I think it’s going to be entertaining. And hot.”

 

Rachel sighed. It was just her luck that she’d finally go out on a date only to be shown up by a dramatic rock star ex.

 

***

 

It was a hot and sticky day and Adam was fussy by the sea, so Patrick sat with him in the shade on the patio and kept an eye on the girls as they played on the beach a few yards away. Hailey and Miranda were working very hard on a sandcastle. They had developed a scientific approach to sandcastles, and Patrick was impressed at how quickly they had taken to the architecture of the endeavor. Kylie had come to the conclusion that she was too old for sandcastles, and she sat next to them on a blanket reading a book and providing occasional wise words of guidance.

 

Patrick had corralled Adam and Bach on the patio together, and Bach was a little fretful at being separated from the girls but luckily Adam was able to distract her by flinging toys for her to retrieve and chew. Every time Bach retrieved a toy and commenced to chewing it, Adam cried, heartbroken.

 

“Adam,” Patrick said to him with exaggerated patience. “My love. This is the result you’re going to have if you continue to throw toys for Bach. Maybe we should stop throwing toys for Bach.”

 

Patrick dropped the newly retrieved toy into Adam’s lap and Adam immediately stopped crying and beamed with joy and promptly threw the toy again.

 

Patrick shook his head and sat stubbornly and said, “Go and get it,” to Adam when Adam looked to him for help. “You’re mobile. Crawl over there and retrieve it. Bach.” Patrick whistled, and Bach leapt onto the loveseat with him and enthusiastically licked his face. “Okay,” Patrick said. “Calm down. Must everyone in this family be so excitable?”

 

Bach did take his invitation to calm down, although her tail kept wagging happily as she watched Adam arrange all of his toys in a careful stack. On the beach, the girls were shrieking at a wave that had licked too close to their sandcastle. Patrick smiled and it was really almost like an ordinary day except for the fact that the enormous bouquet in the kitchen kept catching the corner of his eye, and then he would get distracted all over again by whatever Matt’s next play might be, and how he couldn’t even get upset because he had invited Matt to play this game with him.

 

Kylie came onto the patio, full of sand and a little damp, and said eloquently, “Ugh.”

 

“What happened?” Patrick asked.

 

“They don’t understand that every time they fling water up in the air, it goes all over me,” Kylie complained, and sat next to Patrick.

 

“Your life is very hard,” Patrick said.

 

“You’re not satisfying to complain to,” Kylie accused.

 

“And yet that never seems to stop any of you from complaining,” remarked Patrick.

 

Adam was now crawling over to say hello to Kylie, beyond pleased to have one of his older sisters in striking distance.

 

Kylie said, “Hi, Adam,” and waggled a sand-coated foot at him, and then said, “Matt hasn’t called?”

 

“Okay,” said Patrick, “let’s have it out.”

 

“Have what out?” asked Kylie, with all of the exaggerated innocence of her thirteen-year-old self.

 

“You clearly think that you know some kind of magnificent secret about Matt.”

 

“I know about Mattrick,” said Kylie, relishing it.

 

“That is hardly a secret,” said Patrick. “That is the easiest thing in the world to Google. We were in a band together—”

 

“And people thought you were together,” said Kylie.

 

“We spent almost all of our time together,” said Patrick. “Whenever we went out in public we were together. People were going to think whatever they wanted to think.” Patrick shrugged, because it was true. The public phenomenon of Mattrick had had nothing to do with Matt and Patrick themselves. To Patrick they were completely separate entities. Other than guessing correctly that they were emotionally involved with each other—which was hardly a difficult guess—the fans had routinely gotten everything else wrong. They often thought they were going through rough patches when things were going well, or were about to announce an engagement when they were fighting so much that they’d abandoned each other’s beds. Their relationship had simply had nothing to do with the public narrative the fans were writing for them, and Patrick had seldom given them a second thought.

 

Kylie said, “Mom mentioned him to me.”

 

And that startled Patrick far more than anything Kylie might think she’d found out online. “Your mother mentioned Matt?”

 

“Yeah. I mean, she only mentioned him once, and it was…it was right before she left so I wasn’t…”

 

Patrick filled in the blanks. The time right before Ashley had left had been horrible. The entire household had been drowning in the tension of Ashley lording over everyone whether or not she intended to stay. Patrick had been busy trying to keep the children’s heads above water and assuring them it had nothing to do with them and everything to do with him, and he hadn’t been paying attention to much of what Ashley said, because he’d already realized that nothing he could do in response would help the matter and so it was needless energy. Kylie had doubtless been doing the same thing, dismissing out-of-hand whatever drama her mother was trying to cook up. Kylie was unfailingly like Patrick that way, in her instinct to retreat as far into practicality as she could get in reaction to histrionics.

 

“What did she say?” asked Patrick.

 

“She said she didn’t know why she was bothering, because the only person whose opinion you ever cared about was Matt.”

 

Patrick opened and closed his mouth, because he wasn’t entirely sure what to say. He didn’t agree with the statement, but he also understood why Ashley might have felt that way, because being witness to the death throes of whatever had once been with Matt must certainly have felt like Patrick was unduly fixated on Matt.

 

Patrick finally said, “That’s not true.”

 

“A lot of what she said wasn’t true,” Kylie said frankly. “I didn’t even pay attention. It’s just interesting, now that I’ve met Matt, that he’s the one whose name came up in Mom’s imagination.”

 

“Matt eats up all the air in a room,” Patrick said. “People like that tend to dominate imaginations.”

 

“He seemed nice.”

 

“He was the lead singer of a rock band. He knows how to make sure everyone he meets likes him. It was his job description.”

 

“What was your job description?” asked Kylie.

 

“Backup,” said Patrick. “I was his backup.”

 

“Was it horrible?” asked Kylie.

 

“What?” said Patrick. “No, it wasn’t horrible.”

 

“You never talk about it,” said Kylie. “I think we all thought it was horrible.”

 

“It wasn’t horrible,” said Patrick. “It was just…over.”

 

“Maybe it’s not,” said Kylie, shrugging. “I don’t know.”

 

Patrick, after a moment, decided that maybe Kylie deserved the courtesy of the truth, such as it was. “Neither do I,” he admitted.

 

***

 

The girls were all deep into Sunday night homework, and Adam, exhausted from the day playing outside, went down to bed early, and Patrick sat and considered his piano. Matt’s melody was still resting on top of it, next to Patrick’s own notations on Nadia’s song. Patrick looked between them, then lifted his hands to the keys and played Matt’s composition, slowly while he got a feel for it.

 

It was a Matt melody, and there was no way Patrick was letting it get buried at the back of a Nadia song.

 

Patrick pushed the Nadia notes off to the side, working patiently on Matt’s melody, layering in a new set of chords, considering where Matt would have wanted the blast of brass, because Matt loved brass in his music. He considered what the bass line might sound like, how he’d phrase the drumbeat, and what would it all lead up to?

 

Patrick played a version of the original melody, ending it on a cliffhanger note instead of rounding it down the way Matt had done, and thought about what came next.

 

Matt said from behind him, “Well, that sounds much better than when I left here yesterday.”

 

Patrick jumped, startled, and turned on the piano bench. Matt was standing on the back patio, leaning against the column, obviously listening through the door Patrick had left standing open to catch the rising breeze off the ocean.

 

The girls immediately seized upon the distraction Matt’s appearance presented.

 

“Matt!” exclaimed Hailey. “I totally knew you were going to come by today.”

 

“Did you?” said Matt. “I didn’t even know I was coming by today.”

 

“Did you see the sandcastle out there?” asked Miranda. “We built that.”

 

Matt glanced over his shoulder. “That architectural marvel. Impossible to miss.”

 

“Hi, Matt,” said Kylie. “The flowers are beautiful.”

 

“Oh,” said Matt, eyes traveling to the flowers. “Did someone buy you flowers, Patrick? How lovely. What a beautiful bouquet. Your secret admirer seems like an incredible human being.”

 

“Uh-huh,” said Patrick drily. His heart was pounding in his chest like a ridiculous teenager but also Matt was just Matt and Patrick was still so very used to the grooves of their conversations. And also, Matt was so predictably ridiculous. “Were you just wandering the beach with an acoustic guitar flung over your back?”

 

“I was. Offering serenades. Do you want one?”

 

“No,” said Patrick.

 

“Yes!” said Hailey and Miranda.

 

Matt straightened away from the column and shifted his guitar in front of him and cleared his throat dramatically as he strummed across the strings.

 

And then he started singing Summer Nights from Grease.

 

“Oh, God,” said Patrick, “stop, please stop.”

 

“Tell me more, tell me more!” Hailey and Miranda shrieked in backup for Matt.

 

Patrick shook his head. “I’ll throw away this song I just fixed for you.”

 

Matt, grinning, stopped playing and said to Hailey and Miranda, “Your father plays dirty.”

 

“Yes,” Miranda agreed, and Hailey nodded.

 

Patrick rolled his eyes and stood and walked over to the door to slide the screen open to let Matt in.

 

Matt said, as he walked over to him, “Security at this house is lax.”

 

“I thought we had a guard dog,” Patrick said, glancing at Bach, who came over to wag her tail and definitely not raise any sort of alarm.

 

“Why would your guard dog protest me?” said Matt, smile wide and jaunty.

 

Patrick wanted to kiss him, back him up against the wall and kiss that smile off his face. Which he wasn’t going to do in front of his kids, but maybe he’d indicated his desire in his expression, because Matt grinned even harder.

 

So Patrick said, “Where’s your hoodie? I thought you were going to wear it for me all the time.”

 

Matt laughed, and Patrick wanted to kiss him more. “It was too hot for a hoodie. That’s going to have to be, like, an under-70-degrees treat for you.”

 

“Under 70 degrees?” said Patrick. “God, you are a California-spoiled baby.”

 

“When it’s under 70 degrees, it’s cold enough for a hoodie!” protested Matt. “And there’s, like, this breeze here, it’s always windy, it goes right through you.”

 

“You’re basically 87 years old,” said Patrick.

 

“Not quite,” said Matt.

 

Which was when Patrick happened to notice all three of his girls staring at them open-mouthed.

 

Patrick cleared his throat and said awkwardly, “Sunday is homework night. The girls are very busy.”

 

“Of course,” said Matt. “I can be quiet as a mouse.”

 

“You brought a guitar.”

 

“Because I thought you might like to write a song.”

 

It was the most dangerously intimate activity Matt could have suggested for them. He was, in effect, suggesting hours of foreplay. But, hey, Patrick had told him to seduce him, and Matt had promised to do it well, and so Patrick could hardly complain. Patrick didn’t want to complain at all, actually. Patrick had Matt and a piano and a guitar and Patrick had been so sure, not very long ago, he would never have this again in his life.

 

So Patrick said, “Sit and tell me where this song is going.”

 

“I don’t really know,” said Matt blandly. “But I’d love to find out.”

 

Patrick looked from Matt’s dark, glittering eyes to the piano, where he tapped a key and then called out, “Girls, back to work.”

 

***

 

Matt had spent his day restless. The euphoria of his morning had faded and he’d realized that he’d woken high on Patrick and now he needed another hit but he wasn’t entirely sure how to go about getting that hit. He didn’t want to scheme about it. He wanted to just call Patrick up and say, Hey, can I come over? And then he fretted that maybe Patrick would say no, which was not something Matt, in his growing-desperate state of craving, could actually handle.

 

Matt was the opposite of Patrick in a lot of ways, a lot of ways he had given a lot of thought to over the previous fifteen years, and one of them was that he couldn’t just compartmentalize things the way Patrick could. Matt couldn’t take things and lock them in a box and never think about them again. Matt thought about things until he gave himself a nervous breakdown over them, until his brain felt like it was trembling inside of his skull, until he wanted to break things around him because he couldn’t get the thinking to stop.

 

Matt spent his afternoon thinking of the way Patrick had left, of the last time he had seen Patrick when they had still been Swan, of Patrick’s fatal calmness, the evenness of his voice when he’d said, I’m done.

 

Matt hadn’t believed him. Matt hadn’t even tried to stop him. Matt had scoffed. And then Matt hadn’t seen Patrick again for fifteen fucking years. He couldn’t handle Patrick doing that to him again, which was why he had to make sure he didn’t. He had to make Patrick happy, as he’d failed to do before. But he’d been young, and stupid, and reckless, and he had failed to realize how vitally important Patrick was as a person. He wasn’t going to do that now, as long as Patrick let him.

 

It was the fear that Patrick might not let him, that Patrick might have mulled everything over and come to a different conclusion than Matt, a conclusion that protecting his heart meant shutting Matt out again, that kept Matt from calling. By the time Matt had the idea to walk along the beach by Patrick’s house, he had been practically shaking from the fever pitch of urgency he’d managed to build up around the Patrick question.

 

His initial plan had been to just walk along the beach and see what was happening around Patrick’s house. Maybe he would casually run into all of them. Maybe they would be on the patio. He brought the guitar along on a just-in-case whim. And then when he’d reached Patrick’s house, Patrick had been playing his reworked melody on the piano, and Matt had been inexorably drawn to it. Patrick playing, and his kids deep in their own endeavors, and their puppy sleeping, and Matt wanted to be allowed in.

 

And then Patrick allowed him in.

 

And then Patrick wrote a song with him.

 

Matt played notes dutifully, automatically, relying on muscle memory for what might sound pleasing or good or interesting. Mostly his focus was on Patrick: Patrick’s hands along the piano or making notations or absently tousling his own hair. Patrick’s hair was curling at the tips, as it had always tended to do by the end of the day, and he kept humming snatches of musical phrases as they worked their way through the song, and Matt was so giddy with glee he couldn’t concentrate on anything.

 

Patrick apparently was having no issues concentrating, because abruptly he announced, “Okay, homework check,” and stood and went over to the table.

 

Patrick leaned over something that Miranda was working on, and Hailey came over to Matt and sat on the piano bench and handed across a sheaf of papers.

 

“Oh,” said Matt, momentarily thrown, and then realizing that he shouldn’t be. Hailey had made up her mind to like him, it was transparently obvious, and there was something very Patrick about her devotion to that: She had decided she was on Matt’s side, and that was the end of the question.

 

“What do you know about the area of triangles?” asked Hailey.

 

“Oh, God,” said Matt, looking down at the math worksheets in his hands. “Like, basically nothing.”

 

“So it’s true that we’re never going to use this ever again in our lives,” said Hailey, with a dramatic sigh.

 

“Well, I think it depends. If you’re going to be an architect, then you’ll probably need to know it.”

 

“Do you think I’ll be an architect?” asked Hailey.

 

“Your sandcastle’s pretty great. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

 

Hailey shrugged. “I don’t know. Dad says that’s okay, I don’t have to know.”

 

“A wiser choice would be to just never grow up,” Matt told her.

 

“Okay,” Patrick said, coming over to them. “Don’t listen to Matt’s advice.”

 

“It’s excellent advice,” Matt assured her, and handed Patrick the homework. “It has to do with the area of triangles.”

 

“I know everything about that,” Patrick said. “I Googled it last week. I’ll look this over for you.”

 

“Matt,” said Miranda, skipping over to him. “I have a test tomorrow. Quiz me.” She thrust a piece of paper at him.

 

It was a map of South America. “Okay,” Matt said, with no idea what he was supposed to do.

 

“Ask me their capitals,” Miranda prompted him.

 

“Oh. That I can do.” And Matt found himself rattling off South American countries. Miranda knew every single capital, which was far better than Matt could ever have done. “You’ve got this,” he said. “That was amazing.”

 

Miranda beamed at him.

 

Patrick said, “Okay, good job, now let’s get ready for tonight’s documentary. Kylie, are you gracing us with your presence?”

 

“What’s it on?” asked Kylie.

 

“Ballroom dancing,” said Hailey rapturously.

 

“It’s Hailey’s pick,” Miranda complained.

 

Kylie made a face and said, “Probably not.”

 

“Then say good night to Matt,” prompted Patrick.

 

Kylie said, “Good to see you again, Matt,” with a wicked little smile that was really the first time any of the kids had reminded him of Ashley.

 

“Matt, do you want to stay to watch a documentary about ballroom dancing?” Hailey asked him.

 

“Passionately,” said Matt, who really did passionately want to stay there as long as they would let him.

 

Hailey stuck out her tongue at Miranda. “See, ballroom dancing is a good topic.”

 

“Okay, you two,” Patrick said, taking them by their shoulders to march them down the hallway. He threw over his shoulder, “We’ll be back.”  

 

Matt nodded dumbly, and looked around at Patrick’s cozy house that he never wanted to ever leave, and then, much as he had the night before, he fled onto the back patio.

 

***

 

Patrick left Miranda and Kylie to competitive teeth-brushing and knocked on Kylie’s door.

 

Kylie called, “Come in,” and even did him the favor of looking up from her phone.

 

“I wanted to make sure everything’s okay,” said Patrick.

 

“It’s fine,” said Kylie, sounding bewildered.

 

And it was true that Kylie didn’t always hang out for the documentaries, that Kylie was a teenager who Patrick was trying to give space. But Patrick still said, “Is it okay that Matt’s here?”

 

“Dad,” said Kylie. “If you’re okay with Matt being here, I’m okay with Matt being here.”

 

“I’m okay with him being here,” said Patrick. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t feel like he was…crashing our lives, like an uninvited guest.”

 

“Well,” replied Kylie, “apart from the fact that he has crashed our lives and is the very definition of an uninvited guest?”

 

Patrick considered, and then sighed. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, he’s done exactly that and is exactly that and that’s just Matt and I’m so used to that, even now, that I barely notice. And I’m sorry about that. I can—”

 

“No.” Kylie shook her head. “What I’m saying is you don’t need to. He’s not bad to have around. He’s nice. So far I think I like him, and I know that Hailey and Miranda do. And he makes you smile. He’s been around for two days and you’ve smiled more. So I’m cool with him. So far. I’ll let you know if that changes.”

 

Patrick regarded Kylie, taking a deep breath. It was one thing to have Matt hanging around. It was another thing entirely to say, But what if I start dating him? Everyone liked having Matt around when he was just a fun distraction, when he was singing playful songs and quizzing South American capitals. How would it change things if Patrick greeted Matt with kisses and settled into cuddles? What would his kids think? They kept staring at him in shock just for talking to Matt.

 

Patrick said, “Your mom thought the only person whose opinion I cared about was Matt, and that is not true. I care a lot about your opinion, and Hailey’s, and Miranda’s. A lot more than I care about Matt’s opinion.”

 

Kylie smiled at him and said, “I know.”

 

“Okay,” said Patrick. “Just making sure. How are we doing with Sean? Or is it back to Sam? Or is it someone new?”

 

“They were both being ridiculous,” said Kylie, rolling her eyes.

 

“It happens so often,” said Patrick sympathetically.

 

“So tonight Mara and I are just going to do makeup tutorials together over Facetime.”

 

“Have fun,” Patrick said, and left Kylie to it, and went to brea up a furious fight going on in the bathroom over who was the best at flossing. “Okay,” he said. “Seriously, I am delighted to have you fight over flossing, if you must fight over something, but do you want Matt to hear you behaving in this way?”

 

Which instantly put Hailey and Miranda on their best behavior.

 

Matt was much more useful to have around than Patrick had ever thought before.

 

And Matt had disappeared when they got back into the living room. Patrick, spotting him on the patio, settled the girls with the documentary and promised, “We’ll be right in,” and then went to the door. “Hey,” he said, causing Matt to turn in his direction, and it was a replay of the night before. Patrick couldn’t help but smile at him. “You like it out here, huh? I suppose it might be considered more structurally sound than the rest of the house. Are you ready for the documentary?”

 

“Patrick,” said Matt, stepping up to the door earnestly, and now that his face was no longer in shadow Patrick could see that he was deadly serious about something. “I feel like I need to apologize to you.”

 

Deadly serious about…apologizing?

 

Patrick stared at him. “What? Now?”

 

“I’m sorry I crashed your date with Rachel,” said Matt, “and I’m sorry that I just showed up here tonight instead of giving you proper warning. I’m sorry for a million other things I’ve done to you in the past that I know I owe you enormous apologies for. I’m sorry that I…that I do things that don’t occur to me to be bad until after I’ve done them, I’m not purposely setting out to do horrible, terrible things, I swear that I’m not, they just, like, happen, like, obviously I shouldn’t have bothered you on your date with Rachel, I just really wanted to talk to you and look at you and let you say my name and maybe make you laugh, and that’s why I showed up here today, and I keep doing that, without making sure it’s okay first, and that’s because I’m so terrified you’ll say it’s not okay and I don’t know if I can do that again with you, have you close the door on me again the way you did, and I’m sorry I was such a bad boyfriend, and that I didn’t touch you enough, and I’m going to be so much better to you this time, I promise, I am going to be better at everything.”

 

Matt finally, finally paused to take a breath.

 

Patrick called to Hailey and Miranda without taking his eyes off of Matt, “Give us a second, girls,” and then stepped out onto the patio with Matt. Matt looked miserable, fretful and exhausted, and Patrick thought, for really the first time, You broke his heart. He hadn’t ever let himself think that before, because he never let himself think about Matt, and because one of the things he’d left over was Matt’s refusal to commit to them as a team concept, and it was easy to tell himself that that meant Matt wouldn’t care very much that he’d left. But Patrick knew it hadn’t been as simple as that, and that Matt had loved him, probably more than Matt had realized, and that Patrick had broken Matt’s heart when he’d walked out every bit as much as Matt had broken Patrick’s by not asking him to stay.

 

“Matt,” he said, because he didn’t know what else to say, so instead he nudged Matt back into the shadows of the patio and then pulled him against him.

 

Matt clutched at handfuls of Patrick’s shirt and pressed his face into Patrick’s neck and breathed raggedly, trembling a little against him, like he was on the verge of vibrating himself into pieces. Patrick recognized this mood, even if he had never before been the cause of it, and wondered that he hadn’t noticed Matt’s deep, worried distraction during the songwriting.

 

“Okay,” he said, folding Matt in. “Shh. I’m right here.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” Matt said against him. “Please don’t ask me to go. I’ll go if you want me to go, but I really want you to want me to stay.”

 

“I want you to stay,” Patrick said. “I always wanted you to stay. I never wanted to leave.”

 

“I won’t fuck it up again,” Matt promised. “I’m going to be perfect this time.”

 

“But, Matt,” said Patrick, and forced his head up so he could see his face. It was dark where they were standing but Patrick didn’t need much light to be able to see all of Matt’s emotions written so nakedly on his features. “I never needed you to be perfect. That was never what I wanted. You’re an impossible, frustrating disaster who did at least one exasperating, infuriating thing every day and that was exactly what I wanted. You were exactly what I wanted, with your impulsiveness and your scheming and your larger-than-life-ness. That was what I fell in love with, and I didn’t want anything different. You were already perfect. I just needed you to meet me halfway. I just needed a commitment out of you to…to aspects of our lives being settled. I was the one whose life was getting turned upside-down, and I just needed sometimes for that to be you. I needed Mattrick to be a little less Matt in all caps and a little more me in there. I wanted a compromise. I wanted a relationship. I just wanted to be met halfway.”

 

“I know,” said Matt, and took a deep breath. He seemed calmer, which Patrick appreciated, like he’d come out the other side of his personality crisis and was regaining his sense of self. “I don’t know that I could ever have given you this life. You were probably right to leave, if this was what you wanted. I mean, it’s great, I can see how happy it’s made you, and I think I can—”

 

“I think maybe I’ve let you in,” Patrick interrupted him wryly, “because of how lopsided I’ve let this life of mine get. I’m trying to renovate a house. My children are shocked when I sing to them.”

 

“We’re out of balance,” said Matt. “We balance each other out.”

 

“We do when we meet each other halfway,” said Patrick.

 

Matt spread his hands over Patrick’s chest and nodded, and there was a moment of silence.

 

Patrick glanced over his shoulder, but the girls were apparently still engrossed in their documentary, so Patrick darted forward to press a kiss over Matt’s temple. “Okay?”

 

Matt said, “Mattrick. Fuck. There’s a term I haven’t heard in a while.”

 

“Kylie was Googling us,” Patrick said, smiling.

 

“God help her,” said Matt. “God help us.”

 

“Do you think you didn’t touch me enough before?” asked Patrick quizzically, because that had been the most confusing part of Matt’s speech to him.

 

“Not the way you wanted to be touched,” Matt said. “You wanted to be touched like this.” And Matt picked up the hand that Patrick hadn’t realized was settled against the back of Matt’s head. His thumb had been rubbing absent circles behind Matt’s ear. Patrick did these things without even thinking. “You have always touched me like that, all the time.”

 

“Because you like it,” Patrick said. “It makes you feel better. You always feel better when I do that.”

 

“Because it makes me feel loved,” Matt said. “And I never did that for you. That’s why you didn’t believe me, why you thought I didn’t care as much as you did: because I didn’t make you feel loved. You told me to seduce you, and I think that’s my plan: I’m going to just touch you in a thousand different ways, until you know you’re loved.”

 

Patrick was startled by how much he wanted that, now that it had been suggested to him. Matt’s hands, on him, just…just constantly. Seemed like a good idea. If somewhat impractical. Especially considering that he had children who probably shouldn’t be tormented by gross public displays of affection.

 

“That sounds like it’s probably going to be an effective method of seduction,” Patrick managed to say.

 

Matt uncurled his trap of a smile and said, “Darling, I know how to seduce you. Seducing you’s the easy part. It’s everything else I’ve got to figure out. My bar is so much higher than just seduction.”

 

Which was half-terrifying, in a deeply thrilling, toe-curling way.

 

***

 

Matt sat on one of the couches and decidedly did not watch the documentary on ballroom dancing. It was probably very interesting, but Matt wasn’t paying attention to it at all. Matt was thinking of Patrick, pulling him in close for comfort and telling him he was perfect. Matt knew he wasn’t—if he’d been perfect, Patrick wouldn’t have left—but he also thought he had a good idea where he’d gone wrong, and it was fixable. Patrick, open and willing to him, not asking him to leave: Patrick was giving him this golden opportunity to fix things, and Matt was going to excel brilliantly.

 

But first Matt was going to kiss him a lot. Matt knew he’d promised other sorts of touches, but Matt was kind of desperate to kiss Patrick. It was killing him that he hadn’t felt able to do it properly yet. He’d wanted to kiss him as soon as he’d seen him, and that desire was only growing. Matt watched Patrick’s profile on the other couch more than he watched the documentary, thinking of how much he wanted to kiss that hollow at the base of Patrick’s neck, and his dusting of freckles, and his fluttering eyelashes. He wanted to bite his lower lip, and his earlobe, and that patch of skin underneath his jaw.

 

This documentary was the longest documentary of all time, thought Matt uncharitably, watching the line of Patrick’s throat as he swallowed.

 

Patrick kept glancing back at him, his eyes hooded and dark, and every time Matt wanted to claw over to him and just devour him. Matt was really proud of their restraint, frankly.

 

Eventually the documentary finally ended, and Patrick said, “Time for bed.”

 

Matt thought the kids might protest. Matt seemed to remember always protesting bedtime. But instead Hailey and Miranda were both yawning as they wished him good night. Patrick didn’t even check to make sure Matt was staying. It must have been obvious that Matt was definitely staying.

 

Matt did not flee outside. Matt got up and moved to the bigger couch that Patrick and the girls had just vacated, and pulled the blanket off the back of it, draping it around his shoulders. It was a warm evening, and there was no need for a blanket, but Matt thought they could make use of it.

 

Eventually Patrick came back into the living room and looked at Matt on the couch and said, “I have a million things to do for tomorrow. I have to pack the girls’ lunches for school, and Adam’s lunch for his day with Mrs. Honeycutt.”

 

“Uh-huh,” said Matt. “Come sit on this couch with me.”

 

“Matt,” said Patrick, which was a half-hearted protest at best because he sat next to Matt on the couch. “My kids aren’t even sleeping yet.”

 

“I know,” said Matt. “Just give me one minute of making out.”

 

“Is this your idea of seduction?” asked Patrick. “Is this how the great Matt Usher seduces? This is so disappointing. I’m going to sell this disappointing story to TMZ.”

 

“Shut up,” said Matt, and straddled Patrick’s lap. “I’ve been seducing you all evening. I wrote a song with you, and then I eye-fucked you during the documentary.”

 

“That was completely inappropriate. This is completely inappropriate.”

 

“I got us a blanket,” Matt said, and pulled it up over their heads.

 

“And what’s that supposed to accomplish?” Patrick asked, sounding amused.

 

“Hide us,” said Matt.

 

“It’s not an invisibility cloak, you ridiculous human being,” said Patrick, the laughter thick in his voice now.

 

“Okay,” said Matt, “if you let me have just one kiss, I’ll help you make the kids’ lunches.”

 

“You’ll never stop at one,” said Patrick good-naturedly.

 

You’ll never stop at one,” countered Matt.

 

“Hang on,” said Patrick, and pulled the blanket off their heads.

 

“Well, there goes our invisibility cloak,” remarked Matt.

 

“I want to see you,” said Patrick, “and I couldn’t under there.”

 

Which made any rejoinder Matt may have had die on his lips. He looked down at Patrick and thought, He’s right. This is Patrick. A fact so extraordinary that he’d been having a minor meltdown about it all day. Patrick. With a few more laugh lines and with maybe a more receding hairline but still Patrick, his familiar gray-green eyes soft on him. Suddenly Matt didn’t want to kiss him. Suddenly Matt wanted to just catalogue him, to remember this moment, in the way he had never paused to do before, so that when Patrick had been gone he had just felt gone, and the mental snapshots had only existed in the music.

 

Matt brushed a thumb over Patrick’s mouth, dusted his fingertips over the constellation of freckles across Patrick’s cheeks, carded through Patrick’s red hair, letting his hands clench around handfuls of it. Patrick’s breathing under him was harsh, and his eyes were closed, and his head had tipped back to give Matt as much access as he wanted, and Matt leaned forward to kiss him and licked his lips and took his own shaky breath…

 

And then realized, “You’re right, we’ll never stop at one, I’ll help you with the kids’ lunches first.”

 

He really did have the noblest of intentions, he really hadn’t planned the whole thing, but as he went to rise up from Patrick’s lap, Patrick said thickly, “Fuck you,” and tugged him sharply back in and kissed him hard.

 

Matt, caught completely unprepared, couldn’t help the fact that he moaned helplessly into Patrick’s mouth, dizzy with the sudden onslaught, before getting his act together and kissing back. It was a frantic, desperate, biting kiss, full of teeth and tongue, wet and messy and one hundred percent inappropriate for getting caught in the middle of, but Matt felt like they’d just leapt off a cliff together and he was hanging on for dear life.

 

Patrick manhandled him deliciously back onto the couch so he could spread out over him. Matt pushed Patrick’s shirt up to get his hands onto skin, spreading along Patrick’s ribcage for a moment before letting himself tuck into the waistband of Patrick’s jeans so he could tug him closer. Patrick licked into Matt’s mouth and used a hand on Matt’s thigh to tilt him ever so slightly into better alignment for a long, slow, wicked thrust of friction Patrick made against him.

 

Matt tore his mouth away from Patrick’s to gasp for breath, panting, “Jesus,” as he hooked his leg around Patrick to keep him just there.

 

Patrick stayed where he was but stopped moving and stopped kissing Matt, dropping his head down, breathing hard against Matt’s neck.

 

“I didn’t mean to make you stop,” Matt managed, running his fingers through Patrick’s hair, because now that he’d started he couldn’t stop touching him. “I just needed to take a breath.” Matt tipped his head back against the arm of the couch behind him and said with feeling, “Christ,” when Patrick shifted above him.

 

“Matt,” Patrick said, and his voice was unsteady, which made Matt force himself to pull enough focus together to pay attention. “Stay,” was what Patrick said. “Stay here. Don’t go.”

 

“Patrick,” Matt said, because of course he was staying as long as Patrick wanted him to.

 

“I mean it,” said Patrick, breathless. “I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay.”

 

And Matt could think of nothing to say in response but the truth. “I will stay as long as you want me to stay. As long as you want.”

 

Patrick leaned his head down to press his face back into Matt’s neck and breathe.

 

Matt looked at the ceiling overhead and stroked through Patrick’s hair and thought of all the years he’d spend trying to hate Patrick for how easily Patrick had walked away, and thought now of how obviously it had not been easy. Matt thought, He might not be able to walk away from you a second time, and didn’t know if that made him feel better or worse about their predicament.

 

Matt let Patrick breathe against him, keeping his hands caught in Patrick’s hair, and closed his eyes and thought how he would let Patrick have as many of these moments as he needed. He hadn’t been that way the first time around, hadn’t even noticed that Patrick might have needed this. But he was determined to notice it now.

 

Patrick, after a moment, shifted. Matt, feeling his gaze, opened his eyes. Patrick was regarding him with frank inquisitiveness, his hair mussed all over his head from Matt’s fingers. He looked well-kissed, and Matt was pleased with the look.   

 

“What?” Matt asked.

 

“What are you thinking?” asked Patrick.

 

“I’m thinking you’re very out of practice with me. You know if you give me an opening like asking me to stay, I’m going to settle right in. Give me an inch, I always take a mile.”

 

It was a line from Patrick’s song about him, that angry one that Matt didn’t think he’d ever quoted because he hated that the song even existed.

 

Patrick paused for a long moment, his expression inscrutable as he studied Matt’s face. Then he said carefully the next line of the song. “With your practiced trickster smile.”

 

“But my center cannot hold,” Matt replied, which was the line after that.

 

“I had no idea you knew the words to that song,” Patrick said, sounding genuinely amazed.

 

Matt rolled his eyes. “Patrick, we couldn’t go fucking anywhere that summer without hearing that song, do you know how many times I heard you sing it? Did you really think I wasn’t paying attention?”

 

“Yes,” Patrick said. “I thought you were willfully not paying attention.”

 

There was another moment of silence. Matt heaved a deep breath, suddenly tired. “I was paying attention.” He looked back up at the ceiling instead of Patrick, because Patrick felt like suddenly too much.  

 

Patrick’s said eventually, “Do you want to help me get my kids’ lunches settled?”

 

Matt recognized the tremendous import of this question. This was Patrick, moving past his angry song, and past all the things that had destroyed them, and meeting him definitively on this very different other side, and letting him give this life a try.

 

Matt said, “That is the most amazing thing anyone has ever said to me with their hand on my inner thigh.”

 

Patrick laughed. “I do strive to be different than all the others.”

 

“There really was never any doubt, but this does take the cake.” Matt looked from the ceiling to Patrick.

 

Patrick was smiling at him, laugh lines Matt didn’t recognize crinkling around his eyes, laugh lines Matt was sad to have missed out on. He leaned down to kiss him again, lighter this time, sweeter, with that sort of fond amusement that Matt remembered with a shocking sudden clarity that made him shudder with how much he’d fucking missed it. This entire weekend had been a reintroduction to addictive feelings he’d managed to block out, and he was never going to be able to kick the habit of them again.

 

“Mmm,” Patrick said eventually, and pulled back, which was a testament to Patrick’s willpower. “Hold all those thoughts.” Patrick clambered off of him.

 

“You wish you knew what thoughts I was having,” said Matt, taking a moment to catch his breath and admiring the tousled look of Patrick as he walked over to the kitchen.

 

Patrick cast him a wry look, as he pulled bread out of a drawer. “I know that brain of yours.”

 

And Matt, even though it had been fifteen years since they had had any contact, knew he couldn’t protest that.

 

***

 

Matt in his kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was…nothing short of astonishing. Patrick kept stealing glances at him, and kept thinking, But he’s adorable. When did that happen? Because Matt had always been many things to Patrick but Patrick had never thought him adorable before.

 

It was dangerous, Patrick thought, because even now he recognized that he was in love with an old version of Matt that no longer existed, but he was primed and ready to fall in love with the new version of Matt that was here in his kitchen with him, and that might actually be worse.

 

“So tell me about the kids,” Matt said as he made the sandwiches. “What grades are they in? How old are they?”

 

“They are thirteen, twelve, and eleven, and they are in eighth, seventh, and fifth grade, and they are the oldest and wisest children in the entire universe and they have no use for me.”

 

Matt chuckled. “That is demonstrably not true, they fucking worship you.”

 

“That’s an act they put on for strangers,” rejoined Patrick jovially.

 

“Stop being self-deprecating,” replied Matt, “it definitely isn’t.” Matt slid a sandwich over to Patrick for slicing and continued, “Kylie told me not to be an idiot.”

 

“Wow, you can tell Kylie doesn’t know you,” remarked Patrick.

 

“Ha ha,” said Matt. “That’s actually exactly what I told her. So there.” Matt paused. “She says that you like me.”

 

“Kylie’s in eighth grade,” said Patrick calmly. “That’s how Kylie talks.”

 

Matt, done with the sandwiches, turned and leaned back against the kitchen counter, folding his arms and regarding Patrick with those unerringly steady dark eyes that always gave away too much. Once Matt had perpetually covered them up because of that but now, Patrick had noticed, he left them unshielded and it was worse, having them so unavoidable. “Do you like me?”

 

“Hmm,” said Patrick, pretending to consider, as he slid the sandwiches into their proper lunchboxes. “I don’t know. Pass me a note in biology and I’ll circle yes or no.”

 

“Oooh, biology,” said Matt. “I could do something with that. It could be a sexy note.”

 

“No, it wouldn’t be a sexy note,” said Patrick. “Eighth graders don’t pass sexy notes in biology.”

 

“Darling,” said Matt, “do you want to meet me behind the gym for a hands-on demonstration of human biology?”

 

“See,” said Patrick, pulling a piece of paper and pen over to him where they sat by the fridge, “that’s not sexy.” He began writing on the piece of paper.

 

“Are you writing me a sexy note?” asked Matt, sounding bright and excited by the prospect.

 

“No, I’m not writing you a sexy note. Although I could definitely write you a sexier note than ‘hands-on demonstration of human biology.’”

 

“It was because we were in biology class. Eight-grade you would have totally appreciated eighth-grade me.”

 

“Christ,” Patrick said, “I can’t even imagine.” Because he couldn’t. He showed Matt the note he’d written Miranda, wishing her luck on her geography test.

 

“Well, fuck,” said Matt feelingly, reading the note.

 

“What’s that for?” asked Patrick, slipping the note into Miranda’s lunchbox.

 

“You write your kids good-luck notes to tuck into their lunchboxes. It’s impossibly charming.”

 

Patrick was actually vaguely embarrassed. He didn’t usually think very hard about the things he did like that. There were times he just assumed all parents did things like that, although it was true that his parents never had. Patrick said, “I just… She worked hard on studying and I know she did. I don’t want them to think I don’t appreciate when they listen to me. I feel like that’s an invitation for them to…stop listening to me.”

 

Matt smiled at him, and then said, “Caracas,” and then moved to pin Patrick back against the counter.

 

“What’s this?” asked Patrick, not protesting at all.

 

“Brasilia,” said Matt, and drifted his fingers distractingly along the skin just above Patrick’s jeans.

 

“Are you seducing me with the names of the South American capitals?” Patrick asked. “Is that what’s happening right now?”

 

Matt grinned and leaned forward to nibble a path along Patrick’s neck, which Patrick tipped his head to give him access to. “Is this better than my biology note?”

 

“No,” said Patrick breathlessly, a hand in Matt’s hair, and his breath caught when Matt’s teeth scraped across his skin. “You’re fucking terrible at this.”

 

“Uh-huh,” said Matt, smug and knowing. “Buenos Aires.” He closed his teeth around Patrick’s earlobe.

 

Fuck, thought Patrick helplessly, and thought of how much he just wanted him, and how long it had been since he had wanted anyone with this single-minded targetedness with which he wanted Matt, this roaring demanding drumbeat thrumming in his blood and drowning out literally everything else. Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, said every nerve ending in his body, every nerve ending that had missed being touched by him and kissed by him and even at his most infuriating—especially at his most infuriating—it had always been like this, a flashpoint that was easily stoked, almost laughably easy to push past the breaking point.

 

Matt was caging him in but wasn’t really touching him, and Patrick used a hand at his belt to pull him in sharply up against him, enjoying the way Matt gasped as he pressed into him.

 

Matt said, his words ghosting over Patrick’s lips, “You really don’t want me to kiss you right now.”

 

“Why not?” asked Patrick, who wanted Matt to kiss him fucking badly.

 

“Because if I kiss you now, I’m not going to stop until I make you come, and I assume you have somewhere other than your kitchen where you’d rather I suck you off.”

 

Patrick hadn’t had concrete plans in mind for how he was going to handle the evening. Matt was going to stay, that was unquestionable. Orgasms were going to happen…somehow…Patrick had not thought through details. Patrick had known there would be something. But how they were getting from the living room to the bedroom had not been clear in Patrick’s mind. He hadn’t thought it would involve sandwich-making and South American cities but here they were, and Patrick couldn’t actually imagine it any other way.

 

***

 

“Your bedroom’s nice,” Matt said, pushing Patrick back up against the door. “I like it.”

 

“You haven’t even looked at it,” Patrick said, and let Matt devour his mouth in a kiss.

 

“Uh-huh,” said Matt, who was plainly beyond holding a conversation, which was fine with Patrick. Patrick was absolutely fine with the way Matt was pulling their clothes off of them, both determined and distracted all at once, and finding their way to the bed, and kissing him kissing him kissing him, Patrick wanted him never to stop kissing him, Patrick was fine with that, Patrick was busy wondering how he’d gone fifteen years being kissed by people who weren’t Matt, who didn’t kiss him the way Matt did, who didn’t do this to him, this disintegration into want.

 

They were half-dressed and half-not and Matt kept kissing him, his mouth and his neck and the line of his jaw, the jut of his collarbone, the flat of his breastbone.

 

“God, Patrick,” Matt mumbled into his skin, “just fuck,” and dragged his fingers down the side of Patrick’s ribcage with authority, like he was setting him into perfect position for Matt to stretch out over him and optimize Patrick’s sensory overload.

 

Patrick wanted to say something in reply but was failing to hold onto any coherent thoughts and really he was just thinking, Matt. This is Matt, and instead he just gasped, without thinking, “If I’ve been dreaming the past couple of days, I’d better not fucking wake up before the good part.”

 

Matt was laughing when he moved back up Patrick’s body, grinning when he captured his mouth in another kiss. He intertwined their fingers together and pressed them back to either side of Patrick’s head and tried to sing, although he didn’t have enough breath to pull it off, “You say to me, ‘Hey, want to fuck?’”

 

“We can’t believe our luck,” Patrick tried to sing back and was suddenly struck by it. It had been Swan’s biggest hit, and it had been their song, undeniably, their song about falling in love with each other. We can’t believe our luck, went the joyous final line, echoed through the end of the song, and Patrick find himself marveling the same thought. I still can’t believe our luck.

 

Matt was good at a long and lazy blowjob, or at least he had been in the old days and Patrick was sure he still was, but Matt could have pulled off no trick that would have made Patrick last more than a few minutes, and he didn’t seem interested in trying either. He went down on him with a sloppy gusto that Patrick couldn’t recall from before and also didn’t have brainpower to analyze, because all he could say was, “Oh, God, Matt, fuck,” because that was just the level he was at. They’d written each other more words than any two people should have over the course of their relationship, but in the end Patrick only had one word he wanted to say, and that was Matt’s name, just a grounding reminder.

 

And Matt, who liked foreplay and a slow build and could make a fuck last an entire afternoon through sheer stubborn willpower, was clumsily trying to get himself off and Patrick roused himself from his post-orgasm syrupy feeling to say, “Fuck, stop,” and knock Matt’s hand away and say, “I’m right here, I’m not going to let you use your hand,” and managed to roll Matt onto his back.

 

“Patrick,” said Matt, “Patrick,” as if he was on the edge of a babble, one of his run-on sentences, and Patrick said automatically, “Shh, shh, I’m right here,” the way he always had, the way he always did, the way he always was, and Matt sobbed into his mouth, and when Patrick made Matt come Matt was clinging, his hands so tight around clumps of Patrick’s hair that it was slightly painful, but Patrick was never going to complain, Patrick was going to let Matt cling for the rest of time.

 

***

 

Matt, his eyes closed, floated in post-orgasmic bliss and thought, Fuck, fuck, how did I ever have sex with anyone else, I’ve missed this so fucking much, and tried to catch hold of snatches of thoughts that he could say to Patrick that would be devastatingly charming and keep him forever. Matt seemed to recall finding the wherewithal to be charming after sex in the old days, instead of just sprawling there, filthy, exhausted, and more deliciously settled than he’d felt in so very long. He just wanted to sink into the mattress underneath him and let it hold him in just this particular buzzing state for the rest of time.

 

“What?” Matt forced his mouth to say.

 

“What?” said Patrick.

 

“I can feel your eyes on me,” said Matt blurrily, because he could, the skimming stroking sensation of Patrick’s gaze.

 

“Do you know what you look like like this?” Patrick asked. “I’ve missed what you look like like this?”

 

Matt managed a smile, feeling warm in the regard of the statement. Patrick had always had that talent, that ability to make him instantly feel special and adored and not just because he was a rock star, maybe not at all because he was a rock star, and Matt definitely hadn’t cherished that feeling enough at the time. He said, “I’ve missed what I feel like like this.”

 

Patrick’s finger skimmed along the line of Matt’s nose, surprising him and making it twitch, and then brushed over his eyebrows, and he said in a low voice, “I’m sorry.”

 

“I can’t imagine what you think you have to apologize for right now,” said Matt, practically vibrating into the strokes of Patrick’s fingertips along his skin.

 

“You were cataloging me before, on the couch, I could tell. And it made me think how…I never gave you that chance. I knew, the last time we… I mean, I was close enough to knowing, I knew how I felt and I knew how it felt like things were looming and I was going to close the door on you and I used to lay awake at night watching you sleep just so I could remember you later and I didn’t give you that chance in exchange, probably because I was angry with you and also maybe because I didn’t realize you would feel the lack of it, but you have and you did and I’m sorry.”

 

Matt was silent for a long moment, letting Patrick run his fingers through the mess of his hair, and then finally opened his eyes. It was dark in Patrick’s room. Apparently they had never turned on the light. Matt hadn’t even thought about it until now, not really being able to see him clearly. He said, “I want to talk about it, everything, how we went wrong and how I can make sure it doesn’t happen again, but right now I don’t want to. I just want to… I just want to be in your bed, where two days ago I didn’t think I’d ever see you again in my life and now you’re right here and your hands are on me and you’re looking at me like that and can we just let this go, just for a little while, I just want to… I just want to pretend that I just have you and it’s just that simple.”

 

“Fuck, Matt,” said Patrick thickly, “you had me all along.”

 

Matt tried to breathe steadily and evenly when he felt like his heart was being stampeded.

 

Patrick, who had been propped up on an elbow, shifted to lay his head on the pillow opposite Matt, with such an air of settling in to the fact of them in this situation that Matt found himself consciously relaxing into whatever Patrick was about to say.

 

Patrick said, “I didn’t expect you to play fair, but I’m not sure I expected you to play quite so dirty, either.”

 

“Well, that was foolish of you,” said Matt, “because obviously I never play fair when I can play dirty.”

 

“You show up here with your guitar and you write a song with me? You knew you’d get me in bed immediately. You knew I’d never be able to resist that.”

 

“You asked me to seduce you,” Matt said. “I thought of pulling out some kind of new trick, and then I thought the tried-and-true would work.”

 

“It worked. I wanted to kiss you honestly as soon I saw you on that patio.”

 

“You wanted me to kiss me as soon as you saw me at Rachel’s piano,” Matt countered, because he knew now this was true, that Patrick had felt the same helpless sweeping-away of fifteen years of stubborn denial all in one moment.

 

“I did,” Patrick admitted. “It’s why I let you crash that date.”

 

“It’s why I wanted to crash that date,” said Matt. “I was furiously jealous.”

 

“I could tell. Everyone could tell.”

 

“I should have played footsie with you under the table,” said Matt. “I was terrified you wouldn’t let me.”

 

“I probably would have let you. You make me feel reckless.”

 

“That’s my job with you.” Matt stretched luxuriously, feeling languorous and tired, and closed his eyes. “You need more recklessness in your life, Patrick.”

 

“Maybe just recklessness of a certain shape,” said Patrick thoughtfully.

 

Matt grinned. “My shape?”

 

“Matt,” said Patrick.

 

“Hmm?” said Matt.

 

“You’re falling asleep.”

 

“Mmm,” said Matt.

 

“You can’t sleep here. I don’t have people sleep here. I mean… My kids would…”

 

“Mmm,” Matt agreed, because he did understand that. “I’m going to get up in a second.”

 

“You don’t look like you are,” said Patrick doubtfully.

 

“Patrick,” said Matt.

 

“What?” asked Patrick.

 

“Nothing, just…Patrick.”

 

***

 

Matt fell asleep with a smile on his face, which was the only thing that explained why Patrick didn’t wake him up immediately. He should probably go fetch cold water or something and pour it over Matt’s head, shake him out of that lethargy. But Matt had said his name with such impossible fondness, such unmistakable affection, and such an obvious sense of relief, like it was the first time Matt had truly exhaled in yeas, and Patrick couldn’t bear to wake him and say, Go, get out of here, when Matt had clearly been floating in afterglow.

 

It was a look Patrick remembered, how Matt post-orgasmic could be practically incandescent in the wake of it, and Patrick couldn’t bring himself to destroy it. He watched Matt sleep, thinking this was such a mess but the most delightful sort of mess, which had always been how life with Matt was, and now he was already at life with Matt.

 

But it was impossible to pretend otherwise, and Patrick knew it. Any half-hearted assumptions he might have been making had been completely decimated by letting Matt make love to him, which Matt had undeniably done. Patrick had used up his walk-away-from-Matt card, it was clearly never going to happen again, and he was going to have to find a way for Matt to fit into his life. Into their lives. He was going to have to start with the kids. They were going to have to have a serious discussion about Matt and his role and how Patrick felt about him. That was the first thing they were going to have to do. Patrick hadn’t dated at all since Ashley had left, and he knew this was going zero to sixty on his kids, this thing with Matt, but he couldn’t help it. He really felt like he couldn’t help it.

 

Matt snuffled in his sleep and Patrick thought, I’ll give him ten more minutes, and then I’ll wake him up and we’ll talk logistics.

 

***

 

Matt woke with a start to light in Patrick’s room and Patrick sound asleep next to him and thought immediately, Fuck.

 

Which was annoying, because if Matt had ever written the script for this (which he had literally never dared to do), he would have wanted to wake in the morning and smile soppily at Patrick for a little while and then wake him up in some delightfully inappropriate manner that Patrick, sleep-befuddled and -clumsy, would mumble incoherent approval of, and they would get to start the day off right on the perfect sort of high.

 

And instead Matt stared at the time on the bedside clock and thought, Fuck, fuck, fuck, and rolled out of Patrick’s bed.

 

Patrick didn’t even stir. He was clearly dead to the world. Matt staggered into the en-suite, feeling uncoordinated, sex-hungover, and, with every intention of just turning on the sink to splash cold water onto his face, instead, yawning, stripped out of the rest of his clothes and exposed himself to a bracing blast of Patrick’s shower, as cold as he could stand it, until he felt awake enough to get himself out of the house and into his car without tripping over everything on his way.

 

He pulled his clothes back on, still yawning, and walked back into Patrick’s bedroom, where Patrick was still sound asleep on the bed, and he hesitated, looking at him, and then decided against touching him and waking him up, since he looked so peaceful. Instead Matt fished his cell phone out and texted Patrick, I can’t believe my luck, and then Call me, and Patrick’s phone dinged with the texts coming in somewhere in the heaped pile of Patrick’s clothing.

 

Matt slipped out of Patrick’s room and closed the door and had every intention of just leaving when Adam shouted from what Matt assumed was the direction of Adam’s room.

 

Matt acted instinctively, thinking that he just had to silence the source of the noise so he could make his escape, not thinking through that silencing the baby turned out to mean picking the baby up out of his crib, and now he was holding a baby in Patrick’s house, and the baby looked especially delighted to see him, cooing and smiling and trying to poke Matt’s eye out.

 

“Okay,” said Matt, with no idea what to do. He was fucking up this whole thing for Patrick, and he truly hadn’t meant to. “I don’t suppose you can just be left to your own devices in the living room, can you?” Matt asked Adam.

 

Adam looked like he would like nothing better, which probably meant Matt wasn’t supposed to do it.

 

“Okay,” Matt said, thinking. “What if I put you back in—” That made Adam start to cry, so Matt lifted him hastily out again. “Never mind. Would you like to go to your dad’s room?” But Matt found himself rethinking a decision to bring Adam into the bed where he’d just blown his father. “Also never mind that,” said Matt. “That’s another poor idea. Maybe what we could do is just…hang out?”

 

Adam looked delighted.

 

Matt, heart sinking, took him out into the living room. It wasn’t that Matt didn’t want to hang out with Adam, it was that he didn’t want Patrick to be angry to find him still here when he woke up.

 

Matt put Adam down and texted Patrick, I swear I meant to leave, Adam was crying, I didn’t know what to do. Bach came bounding over, excited to have visitors to the living room, and Adam laughed with glee.

 

Matt said to Bach, “You’re probably supposed to go outside,” and let Bach outside, watching closely that she didn’t bolt away from him, and then, once they came back in, they all sat on the floor and evaluated Adam’s toys with him.

 

Matt had been hopeful that maybe Patrick would wake up first but instead it was Hailey who appeared, and who seemed completely unconcerned to find Matt in her house.

 

“Hi,” she said brightly. “You’re still here.”

 

“I’m still here. Your brother was crying,” explained Matt nonsensically.

 

“He does that,” said Hailey. “Where’s my dad?”

 

“I think he’s still sleeping,” offered Matt, as casually as he could.

 

“Do you know how to braid hair?”

 

“Oh, God,” said Matt. “Probably not. Sorry, I’m useless.”

 

“It’s okay,” said Hailey. “I can ask Kylie to do it. What’s for breakfast?”

 

“Oh,” said Matt. “Breakfast.” He should probably go wake Patrick up, but now that he’d caused this disastrous situation he wanted to at least try to fix it. “Well. What would you like?”

 

“Oatmeal,” said Hailey decisively. “Do you know how to make oatmeal?”

 

“Sure,” said Matt, picking himself up from the floor, even though he did not and he was hoping there would be directions on the side of the box.

 

There were, and he was in the middle of making Hailey oatmeal and trying to keep up with her description of her dream when Miranda emerged.

 

“Hello,” he said jovially, as if this were not unusual at all. “All set to conquer geography tests?”

 

“Yes,” said Miranda slowly, her eyes thoughtfully narrowed on him.

 

“I am making your sister oatmeal,” said Matt. “Would you like some?”

 

“Okay,” agreed Miranda, and sat next to Hailey at the breakfast bar.

 

“Do you live here now?” asked Hailey frankly.

 

Matt dropped a spoon with a clatter and said, as he retrieved it, “Probably not,” which was a stupid response when the answer was no.

 

“Do you know anything about painting?” Miranda asked. “We’ve got a bunch of painting to do.”

 

“I can hire other people to paint,” Matt said.

 

“Dad says that’s cheating,” Hailey informed him.

 

“Your dad has weird ideas about things,” said Matt.

 

“Wow,” said Kylie as she entered the kitchen and stood blinking at Matt. “Good morning.”

 

“Good morning,” said Matt, and then for some stupid reason babbled, “I totally fell asleep on the couch watching another nature documentary.”

 

All three girls looked at the couch.

 

Kylie said, “Can we just not talk about where you slept?”

 

“Yes,” Matt said fervently. “Sorry. Do you want oatmeal?”

 

“Where’s Dad?” asked Kylie. “Did you kill him?”

 

Matt dropped two spoons this time. “What?”

 

“Kylie! Matt doesn’t kill people!” said Hailey, and then looked at Matt for confirmation. “Right?”

 

“No, I don’t kill people,” said Matt.

 

“Yeah, but how do we know that?” asked Kylie. “That’s what you’d say if you killed people.”

 

“If I wanted to kill people, I could have killed all of you last night.”

 

“That’s such a good point, Matt,” said Miranda approvingly.

 

“Relax,” said Kylie. “I’m kidding. I don’t think you’re a murderer. Adam’s diaper needs to be changed.”

 

“Oh, right,” said Matt. That made sense.

 

Kylie shook her head at him and picked Adam up and said on her way out of the kitchen, “Dad lets me drink coffee.”

 

Matt looked at Miranda and Hailey. “Is that true?”

 

They shook their heads solemnly.

 

***

 

Patrick could not remember the last time he’d woken up and felt so incredibly rested. He woke up thinking that today was going to be a good day before he even could parse out why that was. And then he thought, Matt, and smiled and stretched and it was so nice and luxurious and what time was it?

 

Patrick opened one eye, and it was brighter in the room than usual, which just showed how well he’d slept, and then he looked at the time and said out loud, “Wait, what?” and then bolted out of bed.

 

And tripped over his thicket of discarded clothing and said feelingly, “Fuck,” because he couldn’t face his children in the state he was in and so he grabbed clothes and gave himself a speed shower and stepped out into the hallway combing his fingers through his hair and with some sort of excuse for oversleeping all prepared in his head and then what he found was Matt in his kitchen, eating breakfast with all four of his kids.

 

Patrick drew to a halt in the doorway, staring.

 

“Santiago,” Miranda was saying.

 

“I think that’s right,” said Matt.

 

“That’s right,” said Kylie, feeding oatmeal to Adam.

 

Hailey said, “Why does anyone need to know geography?”

 

Matt said, “In case some day you are an international rock star and need to go on a world tour.”

 

Hailey looked thoughtfully persuaded by this.

 

Patrick stared and thought how he had never, in all his years of having children, had someone else feed them breakfast. That had always been his job. Ashley had never been interested in that particular routine of the household, and Patrick, in that mode he’d been in during the marriage, had never forced her to. He’d told himself that he liked the cozy time with the kids in the morning, before the day swept them away.

 

He was unprepared for how amazing it felt to be sharing it, to have slept a little later and been relieved of breakfast duties and let someone else do the last-minute quizzing.

 

“Good morning, Dad!” Hailey sing-songed enthusiastically, and Patrick had had his eyes on Matt so he saw Matt look up, startled, and say, “Hi.”

 

“Hi,” Patrick said to him in automatic response, and then dragged his eyes off of Matt, casual and comfortable in his kitchen, to look at his kids. “Hi. Good morning.”

 

“Hi,” all three of them said, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

 

Patrick walked down the line, dropping kisses on the top of their three red heads and then reaching Adam, who greeted him by trying to throw his bowl to the floor, where Bach was waiting.

 

Kylie said, “You slept late.”

 

“You make it look so appealing, I thought I’d give it a try,” Patrick rejoined, keeping his tone light as a nudge at Kylie’s pointedness.

 

“It’s true, Kylie,” Miranda said, “you’re always the last one up.”

 

“Today Matt was the first one up,” Hailey said.

 

“Actually it was Adam,” Matt said in defense.

 

Patrick had rounded around the kitchen island so that now he was standing on the same side as Matt, and Matt was…Matt, in his kitchen, tousled and rumpled and scruffy and inviting, and Patrick wanted to kiss him, kiss him through smiles, up against the kitchen counter, Patrick wanted it so much it took his breath away, and it was startling and delicious and Patrick wanted to feel just like this forever, so happy he was dizzy with it, he’d forgotten it was possible to be this happy, but Matt in his kitchen for breakfast with his kids…

 

Patrick supposed he was standing there staring at Matt with a sappy grin on his face and his girls were going to draw all sorts of conclusions from this but fuck, how much he wanted Matt just like this, in just this life, in this impossible way he’d never even thought to imagine.

 

Matt tipped his head, looking quizzical, like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do next.

 

Patrick knew he should say something, so he said, “Hi,” even though they’d already done this.

 

“Hi,” Matt said. “I made oatmeal.”

 

“That’s a thing you do now?” asked Patrick, surprised.

 

“Hailey’s request,” said Matt. “Do you want some?”

 

“It’s really good,” said Hailey enthusiastically.

 

“It could have more cinnamon,” said Miranda.

 

“Sorry,” said Matt. “You should have said.”

 

“Miranda just likes cinnamon,” said Kylie.

 

“It’s true,” said Patrick, putting the cinnamon shaker in front of Miranda and then turning back to Matt. “I would love some of your oatmeal.”

 

Matt spooned some into a bowl and handed it across to Patrick, as domestic as could be, and Patrick thought this was entirely lovely, and then there was a knock on the patio door. Patrick turned around just as Hailey said, “Oh, look, it’s Mrs. Honeycutt.”

 

“Oh, I forgot,” said Patrick.

 

“I’ll go get Adam’s bag,” Kylie offered, unusually proactive about being helpful, heading off down the hallway.

 

Patrick put his bowl of oatmeal down and went to retrieve Mrs. Honeycutt. “Kylie just ran to grab Adam’s bag, sorry, we’re running a little behind this morning—”

 

“Is that Matt Usher?” demanded Mrs. Honeycutt, looking past Patrick to Matt.

 

Matt, leaning against the kitchen counter with a bowl of oatmeal in his hands, was still unmistakably Matt Usher.

 

“I am a huge fan of yours,” Mrs. Honeycutt gushed, and Patrick had never thought Mrs. Honeycutt capable of gushing. Even Adam was staring at her.

 

Matt’s lips curved into a very Matt-Usher-rock-star smile, charm oozing out of every pore, and Patrick regarded him in amusement, marveling all over again at the fact that Matt’s charm was always overwhelming to Patrick except when he was in rock-star mode, a mode where Patrick always rolled his eyes but everyone else found Matt magnetic. He said, “Thank you so much, that’s so sweet of you.”

 

“Are you writing another album?” Mrs. Honeycutt asked eagerly. “Is Patrick helping you? Is that why you’re here?”

 

“I’m—” began Matt.

 

Patrick wanted to know what Matt’s answer was going to be but instead Hailey interrupted, “They wrote a song yesterday.”

 

“Oh, did you?” Mrs. Honeycutt looked enraptured.

 

“Not really,” Patrick said. “It’s very rough. It’s not at all done.”

 

“Can I get a preview?” Mrs. Honeycutt asked, and fixed Patrick with a look that might have been I take care of your baby all day, you’d better play this song for me.

 

Patrick said, “It’s really rough, it—”

 

“Sure,” Matt interjected cheerfully, and put his bowl of oatmeal in Patrick’s hands on his way past him, sending him a wink.

 

Patrick gave him an eyeroll, and Matt settled dramatically at the piano and then said, “Oh, wait, I wrote a bit in my head last night that never got added.”

 

Mrs. Honeycutt said gravely, “True artists can’t help when inspiration strikes.”

 

Patrick lifted a wry eyebrow at her, which went unnoticed, because at the piano Matt was scrawling underneath the notes they’d written the day before. Words. Matt had written words.

 

Matt began playing, and then he sang his new lyrics over it. “Darling, I know how to seduce you, How to stroke you hot like fire, But seduction’s not my aim, I’ve set my bar much higher.” Matt didn’t look at Patrick as he sang but he had never needed to; Patrick always knew every song was about him.

 

Matt stopped playing. “That’s all we have. It’s very much a work-in-progress.”

 

Mrs. Honeycutt applauded enthusiastically. “It’s wonderful. You’re going to work on it today?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Matt. “Maybe.”

 

“You should. I can’t wait to hear how much better it is when I come back with Adam later.” Mrs. Honeycutt turned to accept Adam from Patrick’s arms. “This is a better use of your time than carpentry.”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Honeycutt,” said Patrick, as Kylie handed her Adam’s bag.

 

“It’s just that that’s Matt Usher,” said Mrs. Honeycutt.

 

“I know,” said Patrick. “Trust me, so does he.”

 

At the piano, Matt beamed happily.

 

Patrick said to Adam, “Be very good for Mrs. Honeycutt, I’ll miss you, I’ll see you later,” and kissed his head.

 

Adam waved good-bye.

 

Then Patrick turned to the girls. “Okay, three little girls should probably grab their lunches and schoolbags and head for the car so we’re not late.”

 

All three of his girls just looked at him.

 

“Fine, fine,” he agreed with a sigh. “I have no little girls left, my two tween girls and my one teenager should do as requested.”

 

They all three grinned at him and retrieved their lunches and chorused good-byes to Matt, who came back to the kitchen from the piano and wished them good days at school with a special good luck to Miranda, and Patrick listened to the clatter of them down the hallway, gathering their things, and he knew it was risky and irresponsible and he really, really shouldn’t but he felt like he couldn’t believe it he hadn’t done it yet, and he turned and pushed Matt against the wall and kissed him.

 

He could feel the smile on Matt’s lips as he kissed back, mumbling, “Hi,” around the kiss.

 

“Hi,” Patrick mumbled back.

 

“Good morning,” said Matt into Patrick’s mouth, hands fisted in his collar to haul him in closer.

 

Patrick let him, for one brief glorious moment, pressed into Matt and licked into his mouth. Then he pulled back. “Thank you for my lyrics.”

 

“Did you like them?”

 

“I loved them. I have to take my kids to school.”

 

“I gathered,” said Matt.

 

“Stay right here,” said Patrick. “Don’t go anywhere.”

 

“Never,” said Matt.

 

Patrick smiled at him and then peeled himself away from him and was almost out the kitchen door when Matt said, “Patrick.”

 

Patrick glanced over his shoulder at him.

 

“Am I reading this situation correctly and we have the house to ourselves for the rest of the day?”

 

Patrick grinned at him.

 

***

 

“I’ve totally got this geography stuff down cold,” said Miranda happily, as they settled into the car.

 

“Well, for one continent at least. There are six others,” said Patrick.

 

“One at a time,” said Miranda.

 

“Are you going to hang out with Matt all day?” Hailey asked.

 

Patrick doubted, from the tone of Matt’s final question to him, that hanging out was an accurate description of what Matt planned to do all day, and Patrick knew that he’d opened himself up to these kinds of questions by being sloppy and he really, really needed to have a serious conversation about how he couldn’t keep his head when Matt Usher was in the same room as him. “Uh, I don’t know,” said Patrick.

 

“That’s not fair,” Hailey pouted. “You’re just going to have fun all day while we’re at school.”

 

“Um,” said Patrick, and wished desperately for some other topic of conversation, and knew that was cowardly of him. “We should talk about Matt.”

 

“What about him?” asked Miranda.

 

“We like him,” Kylie said immediately, very firmly. “Don’t we like him, Miranda? Hailey?”

 

“Yeah, he’s nice,” said Hailey.

 

“He’s not a serial killer,” said Miranda, “because he didn’t kill any of us last night.”

 

“God,” said Patrick, startled. “I will tell you all about Matt’s many faults if you want, but he’s not a killer.”

 

“Yeah, but we didn’t know that,” said Miranda, “but now I feel better with the evidence we have.”

 

Patrick looked at her in the rear-view mirror. “Do you seriously think I would bring a murderer into our house? Or anyone dangerous? I’d never jeopardize any of you, ever, you know that, right?”

 

Miranda looked surprised. “Yeah. Obviously. Sorry, Dad, I was only kidding.”

 

Patrick blew out a breath slowly, telling himself he was approaching this entire conversation the wrong way. “Right. Of course. But I just want to make sure that, you know, I told Kylie this last night, and if you don’t like Matt, it’s okay, it’s your house, too, and I’m not going to force anyone on you, ever.”

 

“We like him,” Kylie said again, insistently.

 

“Yeah,” said Miranda. “You sing when you’re around him.”

 

Which Patrick knew, he’d been told that before.

 

“You smile when you’re around him,” said Haylie.

 

Which Patrick also knew, he’d witnessed it plenty of times in endless amounts of video footage of them. And naturally his kids would have noticed it. Because it was remarkable to his kids to see their father smile for a reason that wasn’t them.

 

Patrick said, “He…” and didn’t know what else to say. Finally he decided to refocus on how his kids felt. “Okay, so that’s how he makes me feel. How does he make you feel?”

 

“He’s fun,” said Haylie simply.

 

“Yeah, he’s nice,” Miranda agreed.

 

Patrick looked at Kylie out of the corner of his eye. “Well?”

 

“I like him so much, Dad,” Kylie said, practically gushing. “He’s so great.”

 

“Okay,” Patrick said slowly, because that was a very un-Kylie-like response. “Is that…sarcasm?”

 

“No!” protested Kylie. “I really like him.”

 

“Well, good,” said Patrick. “That’s good. So it’s okay if he keeps spending time at the house?”

 

“Is he going to help with the renovations?” asked Hailey curiously.

 

“Probably not,” said Patrick. “That’s not really Matt’s thing. Than again, I wouldn’t have said that making oatmeal was Matt’s thing, so maybe he just needs you to ask him to help with the renovations and he’ll be all over it.”

 

“He said he’d just hire other people to do it,” said Miranda.

 

“He has no sense of adventure,” said Patrick.

 

“We told him you said that’s cheating,” said Hailey.

 

“Thank you for sticking up for me,” said Patrick, as they arrived at the school and he parked the car. “Now. Go and rock your school days and I’ll see you this afternoon.”

 

“Bye, Dad!” Hailey and Miranda both chorused as they tumbled out of the car.

 

“Bye!” he called after them. “Good luck, Miranda!” And then he turned to Kylie, who was still sitting in the car. “Okay,” he said. “Out with it. You’re acting oddly, so please, let’s just get this awkwardness out of the way. I’m sorry Matt was here in the morning with zero warning for the three of you to deal with all on your own. I’ll be better about—”

 

“Dad,” Kylie interjected, and Patrick stopped his babbling to actually look at her, and was surprised that she looked almost tearful.

 

“Kylie,” he said, astonished.

 

“Dad.” She spoke earnestly, leaning toward him. “I want you to stop worrying, okay? Stop worrying about it. He’s nice. I mean, what we know of him. And he makes you happy. It makes you happy to have him around. So it’s okay. We want you to be happy. It’s okay to let yourself be happy.”

 

“Kylie,” he said again, a little helplessly this time, and still astonished at the wonderfulness of this daughter of his.

 

“Hailey’s right,” said Kylie. “I’ve never seen you smile the way you smiled at him this morning. So it’s fine. We don’t know him that well, we just met him, I get that. You should have him around, so we can get to know him. He seems nice so far, and he makes you happy, and he’s nice to you, and it’s okay. Please stop worrying. Okay?”

 

Patrick took a deep breath. “When you’re a parent, I’m going to remind you that you once thought that a parent could ever stop worrying. But I take your point. And I want to say…” Patrick cupped his hand around her cheek. “Thank you. You’re an incredible daughter and I’m the luckiest father. I mean, all three of you are incredible, and I’m sure Adam will also be incredible once he can, you know, talk. But you got me through this last year and I will never forget that, Kylie. I don’t want you to think I haven’t noticed.”

 

Kylie smiled at him, more tremulous than her smiles usually were, but she also looked happy, and loved, and Patrick felt like he could go back to Matt and think, This is better than good, this might all be great.

 

***

 

Matt wasted no time taking all his clothes off and spread-eagling over Patrick’s bed. An entire day to themselves, Matt knew he could have taken his time, that there might not be any need for immediate nudity but Matt had fifteen years’ worth of wanting Patrick to work out of his system and the clothes were just an unnecessary prologue.

 

When Matt heard the door open and close, he propped himself up on his elbows and thought, for the first time, Oh. I hope that’s Patrick and no one else.

 

It was Patrick. He leaned on the doorjamb and lifted his eyebrows at Matt in his bed.

 

“Hi,” Matt said.

 

Patrick held up his hand, which Matt saw now was holding his cell phone, and thumbed his hand over the screen, taking his eyes off of Matt to do it. And then Matt’s phone, in the pocket of his discarded jeans at the foot of the bed, started ringing. Matt glanced toward it and then looked back at Patrick, who had now put his phone to his ear.

 

“Seriously?” Matt said.

 

Patrick tipped his head slightly toward Matt’s ringing phone.

 

“Christ,” muttered Matt, relenting and scrambling inelegantly over the bed so he could reach out and snag his jeans and pull the phone out. And then he obediently answered it. “Hello.”

 

“I got a text from you,” Patrick said, both into his phone across the room and into Matt’s ear, “asking me to call you.”

 

“Fuck,” Matt said, “really? That’s what this is about?”

 

“I didn’t want to ignore your request,” said Patrick, smiling.

 

“You’re an irritating asshole,” Matt informed him, still, for some reason, speaking into his phone.

 

“Not at all,” said Patrick. “I’m very charming.”

 

“Hang on,” Matt said, and ended the call, and then sent Patrick a text. Take off your clothes already.

 

Patrick’s phone chimed with the text, and Patrick looked at it and then walked into the room to put his phone on his bedside table and pull his shirt up over his head.

 

“You always take my texts so seriously,” said Matt.

 

Patrick grinned at him and dropped onto the bed with him.

 

***

 

Patrick woke from a nap to the sound of his piano being played in the other room and he stretched luxuriously and listened. He didn’t recognize the song, but it was lovely. Matt was usually a lovely piano player, and Patrick hadn’t heard him play in a very long time.

 

He forced himself out of bed and pulled enough clothing on to be presentable and staggered out into the living area.

 

Matt looked up from the piano briefly, not pausing in his playing. “Hello. Have you rested enough for me to wear you out with another round?”

 

“You’re dressed,” Patrick said, and sank onto the piano bench next to Matt, leaning heavily against him.

 

It threw off his ability to use that hand, but he adjusted his playing and said, “So are you, because this house is a glass box that anyone can see into.”

 

“Curtains are, like, on my to-do list,” said Patrick, yawning. “What are you doing?”

 

“I’m finishing our song for Mrs. Honeycutt,” said Matt.

 

“Our song for Mrs. Honeycutt?” said Patrick. “Your song about how skilled you are at seduction? That song is for Mrs. Honeycutt now?”

 

Matt chuckled. “It’s about how I want to be skilled at more than seduction.”

 

“Lucky for Mrs. Honeycutt,” said Patrick.

 

Matt stopped playing and leaned back against Patrick and said, “I write really good songs. She is very lucky.”

 

“Matt.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Are you fishing for compliments now? Have I not given you enough compliments for the day?”

 

“I always accept more compliments,” said Matt, and turned his head and caught Patrick’s mouth in a kiss. And then he said, “For instance. Are you happy right now?”

 

Patrick blinked, surprised. “What? Of course I’m happy. Can you not tell? My kids could tell.”

 

“I’m just checking,” said Matt.

 

“This isn’t fishing for compliments,” Patrick remarked slowly. “You really are checking to make sure I’m happy.”

 

“Just making sure,” said Matt, and started playing the piano again.

 

Patrick put his hand out onto Matt’s, stilling them on the keys. “Hang on. Don’t pretend you find it confusing to know when I’m happy. I was very blunt with you about how unhappy I was before. You weren’t listening to me.” He didn’t mean to sound accusatory but, well, it was true.

 

“I know. So I’m listening now. That’s why I asked.”

 

Matt sounded a little petulant, which was very like Matt, and Patrick regarded his profile thoughtfully. Then he said, “I’m happy right now. I missed you, I missed this, I missed us.”

 

Matt, after a moment, nodded and started playing the piano again, plunking random keys. “This wasn’t some grand scheme, my being here this morning. I was trying to sneak out, I really was, but the baby started making noise and I was trying to quiet him down and it was all downhill from there.”

 

“Yeah,” said Patrick. “So your text informed me. I was going to wake you up last night but I fell asleep instead, so it’s at least half my fault.”

 

“At least,” agreed Matt. “I just don’t want you to think I’m relying on my flippant insouciance, sufficient to rebut any given happenstance.”

 

It was a quote of Patrick’s lyrics about Matt. “You really do know the lyrics.”

 

“I told you: I’m listening now. We have different love languages, you know.”

 

Patrick was startled into laughter. “What?”

 

“We have different ways of communicating our love. That’s why you didn’t feel like I was as committed to our relationship as you were, and that’s why I didn’t understand how you could possibly feel that way. Different love languages.”

 

“Where did you come up with this?” asked Patrick, amused.

 

“Therapy,” said Matt. “Lots and lots and lots of therapy.”

 

“You needed therapy,” said Patrick frankly.

 

Matt laughed. “My therapist says all rock stars need therapy. You could probably use some, too.”

 

“I am hardly a rock star,” said Patrick. “I was barely a rock star, even in the Swan days. I was mostly your backup.”

 

Matt snorted. “That is not true. No one ever thought that but you. Is that why you don’t sing to your kids?”

 

Patrick considered. “No. I don’t know why I don’t sing to my kids. I fell out of the habit. I guess…I made music my job and so it stopped being…everything else.”

 

“Well, that makes me sad,” said Matt. “Thank God I’ve come to rescue you. Play for me.” Matt stopped playing and leaned away from the piano, giving Patrick room.

 

“What?” said Patrick, confused. “But you were just playing.”

 

“I hear me playing all the time. I want to hear you playing.” Matt stood and said encouragingly, “Go on,” and then walked away to drop back onto the couch, sprawling there and looking expectant.

 

Patrick looked at him and looked back at the piano, and then he took a deep breath, and then he played a chord, and then another, and then another. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Matt sit up slowly, recognizing the progression.

 

Patrick sang the opening lines of Forever, “There’s a screenshot on my phone of the last text you sent me, I keep thinking that I should delete it, but every time my thumb hovers over the right button, I decide that no, I still need it.” The song started simple, the piano chords bare under the lyrics. It really started with a drumbeat, and it was the drumbeat driving the song, but Patrick, with just a piano in front of him, was focused on the piano part.

 

The song picked up at the refrain, the piano picking up a counterpoint to the words being sung, and then into a complicated piano solo that Patrick had to really pay attention for, because he had never played this song very much and it had been years since he had last done it. He wasn’t entirely sure he was getting all of it right, but it was a close enough approximation.

 

Patrick was focused enough on making sure he played the song properly that he didn’t know Matt had moved until Matt said hoarsely, “Patrick,” from directly beside him.

 

Patrick looked up at him and sang, as his fingers introduced the refrain again, “And you, forever too good for me—”

 

He didn’t get the rest of the refrain out because Matt kissed him, half-falling clumsily into his lap, the piano keys crashing discordantly as they were jostled in Patrick trying to catch Matt up to him.

 

Matt drew back, gasping, to shove at Patrick’s shirt.

 

Patrick managed, “I was listening, too.”

 

“Fuck fuck fuck,” Matt said, unbuttoning Patrick’s jeans now. “Fuck. Why don’t you have fucking curtains?” Matt stood, impatient, waiting for Patrick to stand as well.

 

“They didn’t seem important before,” Patrick admitted, letting Matt lead him down the hall to his bedroom.

 

“They seem vitally important to me,” said Matt breathlessly, “I need to be able to get you off as soon as possible after you start singing my fucking song to me, what the fuck, Patrick.”

 

It was a rhetorical question, because Matt fell onto him, his mouth demanding.

 

“I’m glad you liked it,” Patrick panted around Matt’s onslaught.

 

“Let me show you,” said Matt, and did.

 

***

 

Matt was dozing, sprawled on his stomach, and Patrick’s hand was stroking thoughtfully up and down the length of his body, shoulder to ass and back again.

 

When he stopped Matt mumbled, “Don’t stop,” and Patrick started back up again.

 

“Matt,” said Patrick, a prelude to what sounded like it was going to be a long and serious conversation.

 

“Please don’t say my name like that,” Matt complained. “I hate when you say my name like that.”

 

“Like what?” asked Patrick, sounding genuinely confused.

 

“Like you’re going to say something very serious next.”

 

“So I can never say your name seriously?” Patrick’s voice held amusement.

 

“Here are the ways you’re allowed to say my name,” Matt announced, opening his eyes for this.

 

“Oh, God,” said Patrick. There was a smile twitching at his lips that Matt wanted to lean up and kiss.

 

“You can say, ‘Matt, you’re the best.’”

 

“Oh, can I?”

 

“‘A song-writing genius. A prince among men.’”

 

“This seems like something I’m unlikely to say.”

 

“Only because you’re mean. You can also say, ‘Matt, yes, yes, yes, you’re the best lover I’ve ever had.’”

 

“What about, ‘Matt, we’re out of milk, can you run to the store and get some?’ Am I allowed to say that?”

 

“You can say that but I’m unlikely to go to the store, I have people who do that for me,” Matt replied loftily.

 

Patrick laughed. “Can I say, ‘Matt, my kids really like you and I would like to formally invite you to dinner with us?’”

 

Matt was caught off-guard. “Oh,” he said, slightly strangled. “Yes. Okay. Yes, you can say that.”

 

Patrick smiled at him. “I mean, I know you’ve already had breakfast with us. But I think I’ve done a bad job introducing you as a potential suitor.”

 

Matt wrinkled his nose. “A potential suitor? What the fuck does that mean?”

 

“Someone who potentially suits me very well,” said Patrick.

 

“Well,” said Matt, “I think we know I suit you very well. Suiting each other well was never our problem.”

 

Patrick was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Should we talk abut what our problem was?”

 

“Not really,” said Matt. “I’m naked on your bed and just had an orgasm, I was working on a whole afterglow thing, I don’t want to have a love-language discussion.”

 

Patrick chuckled. “Fine. That’s fair enough. Did I ruin your afterglow asking you to have dinner with my kids tonight?”

 

“No,” Matt said quickly, and sat up, because this was important. “No, no. I’m really excited about that. I love your kids. What I know of them, I mean. They’re great. I want to come to dinner and get to know them better.”

 

“Good,” said Patrick. “I want that to happen. They’re going to be so excited, they all think you walk on water.”

 

“Oh, good,” said Matt. “No pressure.”

 

“No pressure,” said Patrick, and he said it reassuringly, and even though Matt knew there was a tremendous amount of pressure, that Patrick would never be with him if his kids didn’t like him, Patrick’s words were illogically soothing. Patrick leaned forward and kissed Matt gently and then nosed behind his ear, fond and cherishing. “I’ve had a really great day, Matt,” he murmured.

 

We could have a really great summer, Matt thought. We could do this indefinitely.

 

But he didn’t want to push things. One step at a time.

 

“Me, too,” he said.

 

***

 

Matt said goodbye to Patrick with a casual negligence, as if he had everything under control and was totally prepared for a dinner date with Patrick and his four children.

 

He was a mature and sophisticated adult, he assured himself, as he slid into his rental car and sent Patrick a cheerful little wave and drove off.

 

He turned onto the main road and said out loud, “Fuck fuck fuck what the fuck are you doing?”

 

Matt knew that he had very particular talents, and that his main one was being charming, and he would be confident of his ability to rely on that, except that Patrick hated his usual brand of charm. Patrick could always tell when he was being played, and yes, sometimes he laughed and smiled and shook his head fondly over it, but Patrick always found Matt at his most charming at moments when Matt would never have predicted it.

 

No. Wait. Patrick always found Matt at his most charming when Matt was being Matt.

 

But Matt was reluctant to think that such a strategy would work on Patrick’s kids. Matt didn’t even know what you were supposed to say to kids.

 

Matt got back to the charming little inn and pulled out his cell phone. There were half a dozen missed calls from Rachel that he ignored in favor of scrolling through every single one of his contacts in increasing annoyance.

 

He had no friends. Well. That wasn’t really true. He had friends he would have happily called up to join him for a night on the town. He didn’t have friends to call to ask what he should do with his new/old lover’s tween daughters and baby son.

 

“Fuck,” he said again, and collapsed backward onto his bed and looked up at the ceiling over his head. “What have you done with your life, Matthew Jonathan Usher?”

 

His phone rang, and he looked at it listlessly, because he doubted it was going to contain the answer to that question.

 

It was Rachel again.

 

He decided to answer, since he had nothing better to do but contemplate the possibility of fucking everything up tonight. “Hello.”

 

“Matt! I’ve been calling you all day.” Rachel sounded a bit accusatory.

 

“Yeah, I was busy,” said Matt, unapologetic, because he’d had a glorious day and would do it all over again. “Is there something wrong?”

 

“Not really, because everything’s very right. I’ve got venues lined up for the tour and they want it finalized tonight. I’ve been coordinating with Anna and David’s people and we’ve got dates that will work for everyone and I just want to make sure you’ve got everything squared away with Patrick.”

 

“Oh,” said Matt. “I mean…mostly?” Which was a lie, he had nothing squared away, he hadn’t even brought up the tour with Patrick yet.

 

“Matt, we need to get this done, like, tonight. Do you want me to talk to him?”

 

Matt was terrified of how delicate and fragile everything with Patrick seemed to him now that he was no longer in the same room as him, being reassured by the warmth in everything he did, the way he said Matt’s name, the way he looked at him, the way he touched him. With Patrick over him and under him and all around him, Matt had had no doubt that everything was going to work out spectacularly, and now he had no idea.

 

So he kind of wanted to just hand it off to Rachel, and at the same time he couldn’t imagine anyone other than him getting Patrick to agree to this reunion.

 

He almost regretted seizing upon the idea of the reunion. Sure, it had gotten Patrick to talk to him again, but now it was stirring up new complications. He half-wished he hadn’t gotten Anna and David to agree, and gotten Rachel to be so devastatingly efficient with arranging it.

 

“No, no,” Matt said. “I’ve got it covered. It’ll be fine.”

 

“Okay,” said Rachel after a moment.

 

“Thank you for being so frighteningly on top of all of this,” said Matt.

 

“It’s my job,” said Rachel brightly.

 

When Matt got off the phone with Rachel, he went back to frowning at his contacts list, and finally he called Anna because he couldn’t think of who else to call.

 

Anna answered with, “Uh-oh. Is this going to become a thing now, you calling me? We’re about to see a whole lot of each other, if I understand the state of things.”

 

“Do you know anything about kids?” Matt asked without preamble.

 

“I’ve got some nieces,” said Anna, “but you’d be better off talking to David, the one who actually has the kids. I’d say you could also talk to Patrick but I would imagine you’re asking about Patrick’s kids.”

 

“I’m going to dinner with them tonight,” said Matt.

 

“Wow,” said Anna.

 

“What’s that for?” asked Matt, unable to decipher it.

 

“Nothing. Just. Wow.”

 

“Wow?” echoed Matt. “Wow, you’re so amazing? Wow, you’re incredible? Wow, this is going to be a fucking nightmare?”

 

“Not the latter. Hopefully. Considering I just rearranged my schedule for us to do a reunion tour together.”

 

“Then wow what?”

 

“Wow, that was faster than I thought you’d pull it off.”

 

“Getting Patrick to forgive me?”

 

“Getting Patrick to invite you to meet his kids. Patrick forgave you ages ago, Matt. Patrick could never stay angry with you. He stayed angry long enough to leave, that’s it.” Anna sighed heavily. “Christ, I’d forgotten how much the two of you need a relationship whisperer. Is this going to be the whole tour?”

 

“No,” said Matt defensively. “We don’t need a relationship whisperer, I just, like, don’t hang out with kids much. And I’ve already met Patrick’s kids. They seem nice. The ones that talk, at least. They’re…They’re very, very him.”

 

“Awww, Matt, that’s sweet.”

 

“…What?” asked Matt, a bit suspicious.

 

“You’re already in love with them, and that’s sweet.”

 

“I’m not—I mean—They just remind me of him, that’s all,” said Matt, flustered.

 

“And you’re in love with him, so it’s a good thing. It’s lovely. You look at his kids and you don’t see annoyances that are in your way. You see Patrick.”

 

“I would never see annoyances that are in my way,” Matt protested. “Really, I don’t know why all of you seem to think that I would be so terrible with kids.”

 

“Sorry,” said Anna. “You’re right. I should never have thought that. Of course, you also called me up to ask me for help with them.”

 

“I thought you might have insight. Look. This is kind of like a date, with kids. I don’t do a lot of dating. I’ve never done any dating with kids.”

 

“Yeah, actually, I totally believe you have no idea what you’re supposed to do on a date. You should probably take Patrick out on an actual date at some point in your lives. I bet he’d love that.”

 

“He wouldn’t even know what to do with that,” said Matt, and that was true, but also Anna had a good point and he filed it away.

 

“No, it’s true, you’ve got him conditioned to accept the level of a quick handjob in the back of a tour bus.”

 

“Anna,” sighed Matt.

 

“I’m not saying this to be mean, Matt, I’m saying it because I love you and because my life is much easier when Patrick’s making you happy and Patrick deserves to be happy in return. Do you know why Patrick left?”

 

Matt had had fifteen years to think about why Patrick left. He said, “He didn’t realize how much I loved him.”

 

“Right,” Anna said. “Yes. Good job. So maybe you should stop being Matt Usher, Too Cool for School—”

 

Too cool for school?” Matt echoed, appalled.

 

“And fucking put some effort into romancing him. He’s a hearts-and-candies sort of guy, remember?”

 

***

 

Patrick sent Matt a cheerful little wave and pretended he had everything under control until Matt’s car disappeared down the street. And then he blew out a breath and said, “Fuck fuck fuck what the fuck are you doing?”

 

He was having Matt Usher over to dinner, with his children, like that was something he thought was a good idea.

 

And he didn’t even have plans for dinner.

 

“Oh, fuck,” he said again, and walked inside and opened his fridge and every single cupboard. He should have gone grocery shopping the day before. He’d been so busy freaking out about Matt, he’d completely forgotten, and now he’d invited him to dinner and there was no food in the house.

 

Patrick looked at Bach, who looked unimpressed at being ignored all day. “I have no idea what to do for dinner.”

 

Bach continued to look unimpressed.

 

Patrick texted Anna out of sheer utter panic, because Anna was the only person he knew who also knew Matt who might be helpful, because David never got involved in any of their drama, and Patrick clearly wasn’t texting his ex-wife about all of this. Hey, Anna, this is Patrick! Totally out of the blue! I hear we’re about to reunite! I’m glad things are going well, my kids and I love your documentaries!

 

Patrick put his cell phone on the kitchen counter and did an inventory of how many different types of cereal he had. Maybe he could just offer a cereal buffet.

 

His cell phone chimed with a text and Patrick fell on it eagerly, assuming it was either Anna or Matt.

 

It was Anna. That’s sweet of you. I’m looking forward to the reunion!

 

Patrick responded with, Yes, me, too. This is so totally random but do you remember any of Matt’s favorite foods?

 

Christ, thought Patrick. That was so smooth. Could he have made it any more obvious that he didn’t really care about catching up with Anna?

 

There was a pause, and then Anna said, Hey, don’t worry about it, Matt’s freaking out, too.

 

Patrick drew his eyebrows together and texted back, I’m not freaking out. And then he followed up with, Matt is freaking out?

 

You’ve always made Matt freak out more than you ever realized, Anna texted back, and then, Btw I’m sending you a bill for all of this.

 

Patrick rubbed at his temples and texted back, We’re the worst friends. We owe you so many drinks.

 

I’m looking forward to the reunion, came Anna’s text. Many reunions.

 

No, in all seriousness, I’m the worst. I can’t wait to catch up. I hope you’re doing so well.

 

I know. You’re not the worst. It’s just a lot. I can’t wait to meet your kids.

 

And then she added a smiley face.

 

Patrick re-read the text and said out loud, “It’s just a lot.” That was putting it mildly but it seemed right to him.

 

And before Patrick could help himself, he found himself texting Matt fresh new lyrics, written especially for this situation. It’s just a lot, The way you make me feel like we could have a shot, The way you’ve curled your way back into that same old spot.

 

“Idiot,” he mumbled out loud after he’d hit send, but it was too late to reconsider.

 

He should go to the store, he thought. He should come up with a plan of attack and go to the store.

 

His phone chimed with a reply from Matt, adding a new lyric. The way one look from you ties my insides into a knot.

 

Patrick smiled at the text, feeling sappy and fond and ridiculous, and tucked his phone into his pocket and went to the store.

 

And thought about Matt, and a Swan reunion, and Matt.

 

He needed to talk to his kids about all of this. All of this. It was a lot to spring on them all at once: a tour, and a boyfriend. And, aside from worrying about that, did Patrick even want to go out on tour? He liked this life he’d built with his kids. It had been hard to build it, and they’d done it on their own, together, and he didn’t want to fling it away just because Matt had shown up.

 

He wanted to fit Matt into it, which was possibly more dangerous. And also something Matt was unlikely to really want, even if he might pretend he did. Matt was fidgety and restless and…egocentric. He lived for adoration, for people making much of him. Patrick didn’t doubt Matt loved him, really, because Matt clearly did, but Patrick did doubt that they were actually compatible, that their very different desires in life could actually line up in a long-term way.

 

Maybe they were destined to just love each other with a passionate single-minded devotion that was utterly futile.

 

“Excuse me,” an old woman said to him in disgust, nudging him away so she could reach beyond him to the hamburger buns.

 

“Sorry,” Patrick said distantly, realizing he was standing in the middle of the supermarket getting maudlin about…everything. It was irritating. When he’d been in Matt’s presence, everything had seemed crystal clear, that everything would fall into place easily, effortlessly, that finally Patrick’s life had slid into the right track again and he remembered what it felt like to be fully and completely happy instead of always having a piece of himself missing the way Matt made him feel.

 

When Patrick was with Matt, Patrick felt like he could actually manage to have it all. Like that was possible. And he hadn’t realized until Matt had shown up how much Patrick really hadn’t thought that. Really hadn’t even thought he’d wanted it. Because he had his kids and enough money not to really worry and he was so lucky and it was ridiculous to want more.

 

Patrick took his cell phone out and looked at the lyrics they’d texted each other.

 

And then he looked at the time, and then he called Matt.

 

Matt answered quickly with “Hey.”

 

“Hey,” said Patrick. “Where are you?”

 

“I am at my hotel trying to think up something devastatingly romantic to do for you tonight.”

 

“Points for honesty.”

 

“I’m always honest,” Matt protested. “In a very charming way.”

 

“I’ve got an hour before Mrs. Honeycutt drops Adam off.”

 

“Are you asking me if I’m going to have my seduction song done by then?”

 

“I’m asking you if I can spend the next hour at your hotel with you.”

 

“Oh,” said Matt, and Patrick could envision perfectly the way his smile would be curling outward now. “I could probably squeeze you in.”

 

***

 

Matt had no idea what he expected from Patrick suddenly deciding he needed to show up at his hotel room. He was torn between thinking it was an excellent sign, that Patrick couldn’t bear to go more than an hour or so without him. And thinking it was a terrible sign, that Patrick had decided he owed it to him to disinvite him to dinner face-to-face.

 

Matt had showered and pulled on jeans and an old Swan t-shirt negligently, and he debated changing and then decided to leave it. When Patrick knocked on the door and Matt answered, he took in Matt’s shirt and his lips twitched and he cocked an ironic eyebrow at him and Matt though, Good sign. Patrick wouldn’t tease him before breaking his heart. Patrick was too decent a guy for that.

 

“Look at you,” said Patrick, “with a picture of yourself emblazoned on your chest.”

 

Matt looked down at the shirt. “You’re on it, too.”

 

“Can I come in?” asked Patrick.

 

“Yeah,” said Matt, opening the door wider. “Of course you can. I’m not going to make you stand in the hallway.”

 

Patrick stepped through the doorway and into the room, and Matt closed the door behind him and took a second to take a deep breath. He hadn’t fought for Patrick fifteen years ago, and he thought his failure to do so had confirmed Patrick’s mistaken belief that Matt hadn’t cared about their relationship. Matt was determined to fight this time around, if that’s what was necessary.

 

“Did you clean before I came over?” Patrick asked, sounding amused again.

 

Matt, caught off-guard by the question, couldn’t help but laugh. “Honestly, I haven’t spent enough time in this room to make a mess of it.”

 

“You used to make a mess of a room in ten minutes flat,” Patrick said. “Five if you were really inspired.”

 

“Those were rock star days. I had a reputation to maintain. Now I am very old and very dull and it takes me a good two hours at least to fuck up a room.”

 

Patrick said all in a rush, “Do you worry that our lives are essentially incompatible, no matter what we might try to do?”

 

Matt blinked, sideswiped. “Wow. Give a guy a little warning before you break his heart.”

 

“I’m not—That’s not what I mean. I just was standing in the supermarket and I was thinking that—”

 

“You were standing in the supermarket deciding we’re incompatible?” For some reason that detail made Matt furious, that Patrick would decide on their incompatibility while doing something so fucking boring. “What made you think that in the supermarket?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Patrick, and then, after a second, “It’s just a lot.”

 

Matt regarded him for a long moment. He looked helpless, and exhausted, and lost—not at all how he’d looked at any point during the day Matt had just spent with him. He looked like he wanted Matt to explain it all to him.

 

And Matt—Matt who had done a terrible job of respecting Patrick reaching his limits the first time around—Matt stepped toward him carefully. Patrick didn’t move, let him approach, watching him, until Matt reached him, and when Matt took another step, Patrick moved backward automatically, and Matt pressed, until he’d gotten Patrick up against the wall.

 

Matt put a hand on either side of Patrick, caging him in, and said, “The way I make you feel like we could have a shot?”

 

Patrick shuddered, the defensive wariness of his posture shifting as he let himself lean against the wall behind him.

 

Matt ducked in, feeling like he was chasing in the wake of his own effect. He needed Patrick with him. “The way I’ve curled my way back into the same old spot?”

 

Patrick met his eyes, his gaze dark and abruptly fearless, like he had regained his footing and wasn’t going to back down. “The way one look from you ties my insides into a knot,” he said, low and intent.  

 

“Patrick,” said Matt, saying it like a promise, just to watch the way Patrick’s eyes fluttered closed. He spread his hands across Patrick’s chest, feeling his heart pounding beneath his ribcage, and glanced down to verify, before saying, “I can make you hard just by looking at you the right way.”

 

“I’m not disputing,” Patrick managed, breathing hard, “our sexual compatibility.”

 

“Fuck,” said Matt, marveling at him, “I haven’t even kissed you yet.” He had no idea what was going on, but he felt like he was taking Patrick apart just by being there.

 

“I…” said Patrick. “I…”

 

“Fuck,” said Matt again, suddenly darkly annoyed in the face of how much Patrick obviously wanted him. He stepped forward, pinning Patrick to the wall with every inch of his body, and spoke directly into his ear, fierce and harsh, “I want you to listen to me. You’re so fucking mine. How could you have ever thought, for even one second, that this isn’t exactly where we’re meant to be?”

 

“Matt,” said Patrick, desperate, mouthing at the side of Matt’s jaw because it was all he could reach, and that was the moment when Matt realized he’d pinned Patrick’s hands when he’d pinned the rest of him. “I forgot what it was like. I forgot what you were like. Kiss me. Can you kiss me? Kiss me and make it clear, that we can do this, that we can—”

 

Matt kissed him, wet and filthy, and Patrick arched against him in tiny movements, all Matt’s weight against him was allowing him to make. It wasn’t this way, Matt thought dimly, really ever. It was never Patrick who was the one desperate to just shut everything off for a second. That had always been Matt’s role, always Matt clinging to Patrick and begging him to fucking overwhelm him.

 

So it didn’t go this way ordinarily but Matt absolutely understood what Patrick was asking him for. He shifted deliberately, just to get his thigh between Patrick’s leg, to give him room to ride the friction, an invitation Patrick took. And he said thickly, “Stop thinking,” and bit at Patrick’s collarbone, hard, sucking to leave a mark so Patrick could remember when Matt wasn’t standing right there in front of him, and Patrick gasped and thrust against his leg and came.

 

Matt stayed still, letting Patrick drape over him, his face pressed into Matt’s shoulder, his hair in sweaty spikes against Matt’s cheek. He was heavy like this, and Matt didn’t know how long he was going to be able to hold him up, but he was determined to give it a valiant effort.

 

“Matt,” Patrick said eventually, and nuzzled into Matt’s neck. “I should do something.”

 

“No, you shouldn’t,” said Matt. “Stay quiet. Keep your brain off-line.”

 

“Some kind of job,” Patrick mumbled. “What do you want?”

 

“Nothing,” said Matt, and nudged him over to the bed. “Stop it. I want you to stop worrying.”

 

Patrick sprawled bonelessly onto the bed, but not without dragging Matt down with him.

 

“Oof,” said Matt, landing inelegantly and shifting to accommodate Patrick against him.

 

“Matt,” Patrick murmured sleepily, rubbing his cheek against Matt’s Swan shirt.

 

“Shh,” Matt told him.

 

“Mmm,” said Patrick, and promptly fell asleep on top of him.

 

***

 

“Patrick,” Matt’s voice whispered in his ear.

 

Patrick shifted, turning his face into the pillow he was resting on. No. Into Matt. Matt. He was sleeping on Matt, that was Matt’s chest underneath him.

 

“Psst,” said Matt, and shrugged a little, obviously to make sure Patrick was awake.

 

Patrick yawned and stretched and settled against him again. “Hmm?”

 

“Do you have somewhere to be? I didn’t want to let you sleep too long. I had the impression you had somewhere to be.”

 

Patrick’s eyes flew open and he sat up. “Fuck.” Then he looked at his watch and said, “Oh, good,” and let himself fall back onto the mattress, closing his eyes again. “I’ve got ten minutes until I have to leave.”

 

“Okay,” said Matt, and placed his hand on Patrick’s chest, over his heart. “Can we talk?”

 

Which was fair, thought Patrick. Maybe they’d put off talking too long. So Patrick forced his eyes open and looked at Matt, propped up on an elbow, still in his ridiculous Swan t-shirt, with his hair a mess from air-drying against the bed.

 

Matt said, “You went to a supermarket and had a panic attack about our long-term compatibility?”

 

Patrick took a deep breath. “Matt, I am going to say things that are easy for me to say when we’re like this, and I want you to pay attention, and I want you to remember them, because I think you’re going to need them when I’m busy freaking out about how to fit our lives together when I have a very, very complicated life with a lot of people depending on me to worry about them.”

 

“I don’t ever want to imply that your kids aren’t the most important—” Matt began.

 

“No, let me say this, Matt. Really.”

 

Matt fell silent and nodded.

 

Patrick looked at him, still as familiar as the day Patrick had left, still with the familiar sensation that if Patrick looked at him too long, he would grow embarrassingly giddy, high on his adoration, on how much he would give Matt if Matt just asked for it. “I have always wanted you more than anything else on the planet,” Patrick said, and he knew it sounded flat, but it felt flat to him, like a fact of life he couldn’t avoid, like the capital of Argentina. “Always. I wanted you that way even when I was walking out on you. There was nothing I wanted more, ever. And maybe I fucked it all up, I don’t know. But you should know that. You should know that it was always you, every second. Ashley never said your name to me but hated you every moment of our marriage because you were always there. And I told myself you weren’t but you were. I missed you every second and it never really got better, I just got used to it. So you’re here now and I want to make this work, I’ve always wanted this to work. It frightens me how much I want this to work, because for many years now I haven’t allowed myself to think about wanting anything, I’ve just… I’m going to flail around and be a disaster.”

 

There was a long moment of silence. Matt looked at his hand, still resting over Patrick’s heart, and Patrick tried and failed to read his expression. Then Matt said with deliberate lightness, “Well, that’s very selfish of you, when you know that being a disaster is usually my role in our relationship.”

 

“Matt,” said Patrick.

 

“I’m kidding,” said Matt. “Jesus, I’m kidding. Patrick.” He leaned down and kissed Patrick, gentle and sweet, a press of their lips together. “I get it. Be a disaster. I can be the sure one this time. I’m going to make you sure of me. I don’t want you to have a second of doubt. I’m going to fight for you this time. I want you to know that the way you want me to know this. Don’t worry that I won’t wait through you flailing around. Because I will. I won’t call your bluff this time. I promise.”

 

“I want to do the tour,” Patrick blurted out, and he didn’t even know he’d made up his mind about it until he said it.

 

“We don’t have to,” said Matt. “It was just an idea.”

 

“It was a scheme,” Patrick corrected him. “To get to me. Don’t pretend you can hide that. But it’s okay, because I want to do it. I think it will be a good way of seeing how we work, with our lives colliding like this. And you love touring.”

 

“So do you,” said Matt knowingly, and gave him a look, because Patrick did love touring.

 

Patrick had just gotten in the habit of forgetting about the things he loved. All of them.

 

Patrick said, “It’s going to get complicated, when I leave this room, when it’s not just the two of us. But I want you to know that here, in this moment, I want to go out on this tour with you and I want to find a way that our lives come together, the things that you are now, and the things that I am now, I want that. And I want you to know that and remember that so you…have that.” He didn’t really know why he was doing this, other than it seemed vitally important to let Matt have this, since Matt was going to have to put up with so much of Patrick’s time and attention being divided.

 

“Thank you,” said Matt, sounding sincere. “But I don’t think you know, how very much being loved by you means that I never doubt how much you want me.”

 

“I made you doubt it,” Patrick reminded him, “at one point.”

 

“And I’ll never make that mistake again. Now.” Matt sat up and said brightly, “Do you want to borrow some of my underwear?”

 

Patrick, after a moment, laughed.

 

***

 

Patrick made it home in time to jump quickly in the shower before Mrs. Honeycutt arrived with Adam. Matt had offered the use of his shower at the hotel, and Patrick had thought that sounded too tempting to take him up on it. So he’d left him with a time for dinner, and before he’d slipped out the door Matt had pressed him against it and kissed him thoroughly, in that way Matt kissed, like he was tying velvet ropes around Patrick that bound them together, that Patrick would feel the shadow of when he left.

 

Still can’t believe my luck, he’d said before Patrick had stepped out the door.

 

Patrick was singing Luck in the shower, and still humming it when Mrs. Honeycutt arrived, dressed to the nines, with more jewelry than Patrick had ever seen her wear, and her hair in a style he’d never seen before, and sky-high heels. She looked around the room as Patrick took an enthusiastic Adam out of her arms and said, “But where’s Matt Usher?”

 

“Not here,” said Patrick, amused.

 

Mrs. Honeycutt gave him a severe look. “I thought you were working on a song together.”

 

“We are, I suppose,” Patrick agreed, because that probably described what was happening, although it was also far too simplistic.  

 

Mrs. Honeycutt said, “So, do you think he’ll be hanging around here from now on?”

 

“I honestly have no idea,” Patrick said. He was thinking about going back out on tour. He wasn’t sure if that meant Matt would be around there more or they would both be somewhere else entirely.  

 

“You should have him hang around more. He’s fun.”

 

That was always what people thought about Matt. “Yeah,” Patrick said. “I’ll tell him you said that.”

 

“Also, could you have him sign this for me?” Mrs. Honeycutt took out of Adam’s diaper bag an old Swan CD.

 

Patrick stared at it. “You know, I could have signed that CD for you any time.”

 

“Yeah, but,” said Mrs. Honeycutt, and shrugged.

 

Patrick laughed. He couldn’t help it. “Yes. I will have Matt sign this for you. How was Adam today?”

 

“He was wonderful,” Mrs. Honeycutt said, and beamed at Adam.

 

“Say bye to Mrs. Honeycutt,” Patrick said.

 

Adam lifted his hand in his infant farewell gesture.

 

Mrs. Honeycutt said, “See you Wednesday!”

 

Patrick looked at Adam and said, “Guess what. Because Matt Usher also reduces me to silly childishness, we have to go grocery shopping because I didn’t get it done while you were with Mrs. Honeycutt.”

 

Adam loved grocery shopping, so Adam was fine with this plan.

 

“What do you think of Matt?” Patrick asked him thoughtfully, as he pushed the shopping cart up and down the aisles and tried to construct a meal.

 

Adam decided to try to eat the side of the cart.

 

“Okay,” Patrick said, nudging him away from the cart. “I’m going to take that as a positive reaction, because why not? You didn’t start crying. And he got you up out of the crib today, right? That seemed to go well. You didn’t cry at him or anything. I don’t think he knows much about babies, but you’re going to grow up, so there’s that. Someday you’ll start talking and tell me all of your own opinions.” Patrick considered. “And hopefully we always agree on everything the way we do now.”

 

Adam smiled at him widely.

 

***

 

On the drive home from school, Miranda and Hailey were busy chattering about their days, and Kylie was busy flipping so quickly through music on her phone that Patrick didn’t even know what the point of doing it was.

 

“And how was your day?” Patrick asked her eventually.

 

“Fine,” she answered shortly.

 

“Okay,” Patrick said slowly. “It’s just that this seems like a very different mood than you had this morning.”

 

“I’m fine,” Kylie replied again.

 

Teenagers,” said Hailey.

 

“Shut up,” Kylie said to her.

 

“Hey,” Patrick said harshly. “That’s unnecessary. Apologize to your sister.”

 

“Dad,” Kylie protested.

 

“You apologize to your sister, or you tell me what’s going on. One or the other.”

 

“Boys are stupid,” Kylie said.

 

“Oh,” said Patrick. “Yes. Generally.”

 

“That’s it,” said Kylie. “Do we have to keep talking about it?”

 

Patrick considered. Then he said, “Well. No. Not really. Except for the fact that I was kind of hoping to have a boy over to dinner.”

 

Kylie looked over at him, which was really the first time she’d looked up from her phone.

 

Miranda said, “What boy?”  

 

Hailey said eagerly, “Oh, my God, is it Matt?”

 

Patrick, having reached the house, put the car in park and turned so that he could see all of his children at once. “I should have probably waited until we were in the house to have this conversation.”

 

“Is Matt coming to dinner?” Hailey squealed.

 

“Yes,” said Patrick. “He’s coming to dinner. I would actually like us to spend a lot more time with Matt. Is that okay?”

 

Miranda cocked her head. “Are you, like, dating Matt?”

 

Matt is the love of my life, Patrick wanted to say. Patrick wanted to keep things simpler than that, though. Simpler than the incredibly complex mess of falling in love with the person you kept writing love songs with, having a stormy, tempestuous, passionate love affair that disintegrated into angry accusations and finger-pointing, marrying a groupie because that seemed like a good idea at the time, and then falling back in love abruptly in the span of two days fifteen years later.

 

“How would you feel about that?” Patrick asked.

 

Miranda considered. “I mean, fine. I think. It’s not like you were ever going to get back together with Mom.”

 

Patrick winced at how bluntly that was said. “No. It’s true.”

 

“I mean, do you want to date him?” asked Hailey frankly. “Because I don’t think we care.”

 

Patrick smiled at her. “Yes, I want to date him. And I appreciate that sentiment. But I think you should care. I think…I think as long as you girls have been around, it’s been…it’s been just the four of us.” It was the first time Patrick had said this out loud, but it was the first time he’d seen it this clearly. It had always been him and the kids; Ashley had always been on the outside. He hadn’t done that intentionally, but it had happened, he could see that now. Matt was throwing him because Patrick had literally never felt anyone catching his attention but his kids since the kids had arrived on the scene. And his kids surely felt that. Ashley had walked out and left them all behind and his kids had just folded in on their family unit, doubled down on the four of them being all they needed.

 

“And then Adam came along,” Patrick continued, “so then it was the five of us. And I just… If Matt stays, the way I want Matt to stay, it would be the six of us. In a way that I’m not sure we’ve ever had before.”

 

There was a long moment, during which all of his girls looked at him seriously. Adam squawked, just to break the silence.

 

Kylie said finally, “We can do six, Dad. I bet we can do it so well.”

 

“It might be weird at first,” Miranda allowed, “having him around.”

 

“But he’s nice. It’ll be fun right now. Can you give us concerts?” asked Hailey.

 

“Concerts,” said Patrick, and thought, So many concerts in your future, kid, but then thought that maybe they should do one thing at a time. He didn’t want his kids’ opinion of Matt being around more to be linked to a decision about going out on tour. “Tell you what. I know Matt, and there is nothing Matt loves more than being asked to be the center of attention. If you want concerts, Matt will sing to you until you beg him to stop, and even that might not work.”

 

Hailey and Miranda laughed like that was adorable, and Patrick hated the fact that they were right, it was adorable.

 

Patrick looked at Kylie.

 

Kylie said, “I like him, Dad. I told you that already.”

 

“Even though he’s a boy?” said Patrick.

 

“He’s an older boy,” said Kylie. “That probably makes him better.”

 

“You want to think that,” said Patrick. “I won’t divest you of that notion at your delicate age.”

 

Kylie rolled her eyes.

 

“We’re going to talk about your boy issue at some point,” said Patrick.

 

“I mean, first we’re going to deal with your boy issue,” Kylie responded sweetly.

 

“I knew you’d capitalize on that,” said Patrick.

 

“Starting with, is that what you’re going to wear to dinner?”

 

“It’s tragic, Dad,” said Hailey.

 

“Do you ever even comb your hair?” asked Miranda.

 

“What have I gotten myself into?” Patrick asked Adam.

 

***

 

Matt showed up at Patrick’s door with a guitar, and a bouquet of flowers, and a box of chocolates, and a bottle of wine, and a guess-that-song board game that had been recommended by the woman at the tiny boutique toy store in town (who had not recognized Matt at all, just for the record).

 

When Patrick opened the door on him, Matt could barely see him through the forest of objects he was juggling.

 

“Wow,” said Patrick and reached out to grab something at random. It was the flowers and the chocolates, which gave Matt the ability to balance the rest of the stuff better. “What are you doing?”

 

“Being devastatingly romantic,” said Matt. “I think. I couldn’t decide on one path of devastating romance.”

 

“This is a lot,” said Patrick.

 

“Hearts-and-candies kind of love,” said Matt.

 

Patrick smiled at him, and Matt wanted to push him up against a wall and devour him.

 

He settled for saying, “You look great.”

 

“My kids dressed me. They’re very excited for our date.”

 

Matt had barely noticed what Patrick was wearing, and he still didn’t notice, because he was distracted by Patrick’s words. “Oh. So you…talked to them about us?”

 

“I said…” Patrick trailed off and looked suddenly serious, an intent look that made Matt feel breathless and exposed and so fucking in love, how could Patrick do that to him with just nothing? “I said, What if Matt Usher’s the love of my life?”

 

“Did you?” asked Matt, strangling on his lack of air.

 

“No. That seemed like a lot to lay on my kids. But I thought it in my head. And then I asked them if I could have you around. A lot.”

 

“What did they say?”

 

“Yes. But I’m going to make sure I keep revisiting it with them.”

 

“Yes,” said Matt. “I get it. So am I allowed to kiss you hello, then?”

 

“Depends on the kiss,” said Patrick.

 

Matt laughed and crowded Patrick back up against the foyer wall but didn’t kiss him at all. He said instead, “We are absolutely the love of each other’s lives, I can’t believe you’re asking yourself that question.” And then he let himself kiss the corner of Patrick’s mouth very lightly. And then he straightened and said, “Thanks for having me over,” and then he headed confidently into the back of the house.

 

The kids were all outside on the patio with Bach, and Patrick caught up to him and said, “We’re grilling. Is that okay? It was easy. I couldn’t wrap my mind around something more difficult.”

 

“I’m easy,” said Matt. “I still eat mostly pizza.”

 

“God,” said Patrick, and shook his head at Matt’s hopelessness, and then took the bottle of wine from him and looked at the game in his hands. “What’s that?”

 

“I thought maybe we might need an icebreaker,” said Matt, shrugging in vague embarrassment. “I don’t know. I live in fear of the awkward silence.”

 

“I know,” said Patrick, fondly amused. “My kids are going to love this. They want you to give them endless concerts.”

 

Matt immediately perked up. “Oh, excellent. That I can do.”

 

“I know. I told them. Kids?” Patrick leaned out the door to catch his kids’ attention. “Look what Matt brought.”

 

“Singing!” exclaimed Hailey. “A singing game.”

 

“And all of you are going down,” Matt said confidently, “because I am definitely the best singer here.”

 

“Dad’s a good singer,” said Hailey loyally.

 

“Thanks, Hailey,” said Patrick, from the grill.

 

“I mean, Mrs. Honeycutt doesn’t really think so,” said Miranda, “but Mrs. Honeycutt isn’t always right.”

 

“Speaking of Mrs. Honeycutt,” said Patrick, “do you think you could autograph the Swan CD over there for me? Special request. She is apparently a huge Matt Usher fan.”

 

“Well,” said Matt, sliding the CD off the coffee table, “who isn’t?” It was a greatest hits compilation, which made him smile. He turned it over and read the track listing and said, “Kids, have you ever listened to any Swan songs at all?” It was a shot in the dark, but he thought he had a pretty good idea that Patrick had not played them Swan songs, based on how eagerly curious the kids were about his Swan life.

 

The two younger girls said variations of “No, no, can we listen?” and Matt turned to Patrick with a smile.

 

Patrick sighed and said, “Put it on,” and gestured inside.

 

Matt, delighted, went through Patrick’s audio setup until he got the CD working. It started with Wild Ride, moving chronologically, and Matt turned it up.

 

“God,” said Patrick. “It’s embarrassing. Everyone on the beach is going to hear us listening to our own music.”

 

“It’s fantastic,” said Matt. “Are you kidding me? Why wouldn’t we listen to our own music? We wrote the best music.”

 

“Do you remember the words?” asked Hailey.

 

“Of course I remember the words,” said Matt. “And so does your father.”

 

“Nope,” said Patrick at the grill. “I’ve forgotten all of them. Every word. Oh, well.”

 

Matt grinned and sang along with the refrain, using the bottle of wine Patrick had left on the table as a microphone, “Wide-eyed, tongue-tied, stupefied,” and then, taking advantage of the beat of pause before the final line, hip-checked Patrick and leaned the wine bottle in his direction and said, “Take it away, Trick.”

 

And Patrick said, “Don’t even start with that again,” but then also obediently sang, “Brace yourself, baby, it’s gonna be a wild ride,” in his harmony.

 

Matt laughed at him, delighted, and Hailey and Miranda and Adam all clapped.

 

Matt looked at Kylie, on her phone, and said, “See, Patrick, you haven’t impressed Kylie yet, you have to sing the verses with me.”

 

He only meant to tease, because he was feeling suddenly confident enough to do that, with Patrick singing playfully into wine bottles with him, but Miranda replied immediately, “She’s upset because a boy is being stupid.”

 

Kylie said, “Miranda!” and looked furious and mortified and Matt felt horrible for having caused this whole thing.

 

Patrick said, “Miranda, leave your sister alone.”

 

Matt said, “Boys are stupid, I know because I was the stupidest and your father definitely spent a lot of time on his phone being angry with me.”

 

Patrick said, “Making anonymous Twitter accounts just so I could angrily reply to people saying, ‘Isn’t @MattUsher the sexiest?’”

 

Matt laughed. “I knew you did that.”

 

“Darling,” Patrick drawled at him, “I was the troll in every single fandom you had, I hate to break it to you.”

 

Matt shrugged. “Eh, it was deserved.”

 

“Most of the time,” said Patrick. “Yes. Not all of the time. I’m working on that.” Patrick smiled at him and flipped a hamburger.

 

And Matt thought how nice this was. How natural it seemed. The CD finished Wild Ride and moved on to Scheme and Matt sang to Patrick, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan,” and Patrick held out his hand for Matt to take before Matt even had to sing the next line.

 

Matt used Patrick’s hand to twirl himself and then settled on the couch with the kids and said, “Okay, so, tonight let us drink to boys being stupid and then coming to their senses.”

 

“My kids don’t drink,” said Patrick. “They’re under twenty-one.”

 

“Guys, your dad is such a killjoy,” Matt said in a stage whisper.

 

The kids laughed at him, even Kylie with a grudging grin, and Matt felt like he could do this. He was maybe performing a bit much, but performance was what he did, and Patrick was there, Patrick who was so good at catching him when he was done performing, and everything was going so well, and then Rachel said, “Oh. Oh, good, everyone’s together.”

 

Everyone blinked at her.

 

She stood at the edge of the walk that led over to the dunes to the beach and looked awkward. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to crash the party.”

 

“No,” said Patrick hastily, falling back into his customary politeness. “You’re not crashing it.”

 

“I just wanted to bring by these contracts for you, because they’ve got to be signed tonight.”

 

“Contracts?” Patrick echoed.

 

“Oh, no,” said Matt, and scrambled up from the outside couch. “Okay, I didn’t tell you.”

 

Patrick gave him an all-too-familiar look. “Didn’t tell me what?”

 

“I forgot. I honestly forgot. Really. It wasn’t a scheme. We’ve had a long day. It’s been a lot.” Matt put meaning into the words, to get Patrick thinking of their newest set of lyrics.

 

Patrick looked at Rachel and said drily, “He thinks I’m pre-angry, but I’m just clueless.”

 

“The contracts for the reunion tour this summer,” Rachel said. “We need to—”

 

“Wait, what?” said Kylie.

 

“A reunion tour?” said Hailey.

 

“Are we going out on tour?” asked Miranda.

 

They all three sounded honestly jubilant.

 

In the living room, Matt’s voice on the CD was promising everyone that you, me, and a scheme was going to work out just brilliantly, crooning the last few lines of the song out, and then there was the silence between tracks.

 

Patrick said, “Okay. So. Yeah. I didn’t mention this yet.”

 

“Oh, God,” said Rachel. “I didn’t know.” Then she looked at Matt accusingly. “You told me you had this under control.”

 

“I mean,” said Matt. “I really did. It was going really well.”

 

“Not whatever this is,” Rachel said, exasperated, indicating the entire patio. “This.” She held up her sheaf of legal papers.

 

“You could have mentioned we had a deadline,” Patrick remarked.

 

“It didn’t seem important,” Matt said. “Deadlines are suggestions.”

 

“This is why you need me in this band,” said Patrick.

 

“Yes,” said Matt fervently. “It is.”

 

Patrick looked at his kids and said, “Okay. So. They want Swan to reunite and go out on tour.”

 

“This summer?” said Miranda.

 

“You mean, we would get to spend this summer on tour with you instead of going to some stupid camp?” asked Kylie eagerly.

 

It was the happiest Matt had seen her look all evening.

 

Patrick said, “I don’t know, I might leave all of you behind with Mrs. Honeycutt and go relive my childless glory days.”

 

“Ha,” said Kylie.

 

“This is amazing,” said Miranda. “I’m going to want to film all of it, like a documentary.”

 

“Oh,” said Rachel. “Well, Anna Jin, the drummer, is going to be filming it.”

 

“What?” said Patrick and Matt in unison.

 

“She asked if she could, and I didn’t think you’d mind. She said she’d clear all the footage with you.”

 

“Wait, the real live documentary filmmaker Anna Jin?” said Miranda.

 

“Also Swan’s drummer,” Matt pointed out.

 

Amazing,” said Miranda.

 

Patrick looked at Hailey. “Well. You’re the only one who hasn’t spoken. Want to spend a summer touring and hearing these songs over and over and over and over?”

 

Hailey nodded like it was the best thing in the world she could imagine.

 

Matt, looking from Patrick’s kids to Patrick, knew exactly how she felt.