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Carnival Barker

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“I cannot believe this,” Billy said as he gazed up at the buzzing lights of the entrance of the National Exposition.

“Believe what?” An arm snaked around his waist, an incredible heat pressed against his back.

Billy leaned into the new weight on instinct. A large family bustled past pushing two empty strollers and trailing five actual children.

“I feel like I’ve lost a bet,” Billy said with a curl of his upper lip.

A little girl gazed up at him, a popsicle dripping over her fist, and a sticky ring of blue around her open mouth. Billy instinctively pulled away before she could get any ideas about grabbing his dry wash Japanese jeans.

There were children everywhere. And they hadn’t even gotten inside yet.

Frank pecked him on the cheek. “You’ll have fun,” he said. He made it sound like a prediction rather than an order, and Billy struggled with the sullen urge to prove him wrong.

Before he could say anything else, Frank grabbed his hand and led him towards the swarming crowds at the ticket boxes. The faint but obnoxious music Billy had been trying to ignore became less faint and a lot more obnoxious as they approached.

Frank had gotten it into his head that Billy needed to go on more dates. Of all the things he’d taken away from Billy’s sad personal history, this was the one area he’d fixated on the most. He was of the opinion that Billy had missed out. Billy played along because he liked eating in nice restaurants and he didn’t mind dancing. Or, rather, he didn’t mind making out with his sexy and ridiculous ‘boyfriend’ while base thumped up his spine and people shot him spitefully jealous looks.

(Even in his own head, Billy shied away from the labels Frank seemed to embrace without hesitation. Sure, they’d bought a house together, but boyfriends?? Billy Russo wasn’t anyone’s boyfriend. That was a word without fangs, without claws, and it never suited Billy. This wasn’t a relationship, exactly, because that would be silly and terrifying; this was a business arrangement that just happened to feature exclusive rights to his ass.)

“Look at all these kids,” Billy grumbled as they got in line. “Look at these teenagers. I can taste the frying oil and sugar from here.”

“Yeah,” Frank agreed happily.

“Two seconds in this carnival and my face will break out. I’m gonna develop diabetes.”

Frank hooked his arm around Billy’s waist. “You’ll be fine.”

“You’re gonna have to look after me,” Billy said as the line shuffled forward. He eyed a young couple in the crowd beside theirs; two girls who stood with an awkward foot of separation between them, each staring in any direction but at each other.

“This is a date spot for children,” Billy said.

“How would you know?” Frank challenged without heat.

They’d only been acquainted for six months, but Frank had somehow gotten used to Billy’s grumbling and snarling. He treated it like an endearing trait, which just made Billy grumble and snarl even more.

“I have eyes. And I’ve seen lame television shows about it. Pretty sure Boy Meets World had an episode at a carnival,” Billy said.

“But you’ve never been to one before,” Frank said.

Billy really hated that he wasn’t even asking. “So what?” he demanded while heat crawled up his neck.

Frank just pulled him close and gave him another kiss. His preferred method of calming Billy. Billy showed his teeth.

Trouble was, that was all he did. All of his teeth and all of his barbs, his sharp edges and his spikes… somehow it was all just for show. None of it ever hurt Frank. It puzzled Billy whenever he thought about it, usually in the aftermath of a date like this. When he lay awake in bed, watching the ceiling while Frank snoozed peacefully beside him. He used to be dangerous. A killer. People were terrified of him.

Frank flirted with the college kid at the booth while Billy contemplated making a break for it. As if he could sense it, Frank tightened his grip on Billy’s waist, curled his big hand around Billy’s hip. Billy sighed without a sound and leaned into Frank, resigning himself to at least two hours of noise and crowds and kids.

“You’ll have fun,” Frank said again as he led them past the turnstiles and into the entrance.

“We’ll see about that,” Billy muttered. Frank kissed him again.

“What do you want to do first? Rides or games?” Frank asked.

Billy could barely hear him. They were submerged in a sea of noise—children shrieking and calling out for each other, racing between stalls and adults while their parents or guardians yelled in their wake; barkers shouting the same, sing-songy phrases over and over from game booths; generic jock rock jams blasting from cheap speakers stacked up on poles; teenagers laughing and yelling as they staggered past, obviously drunk on smuggled rum coolers or whatever sugar garbage kids stole from their parents liquor cabinets these days. And more children, always more children. They were the smallest demographic in terms of size but they made up for it with their voices.

Billy thought longingly of his—their—home. His comfortable couch in front of the picture window, where he could curl up and fall asleep in the sun on a lazy afternoon. Frank slipped his thumb under the hem of Billy’s shirt and rubbed against the sharp ridge of his hip bone.

Billy sighed. “A game, I guess,” he said.

Frank let him pick, although it wasn’t much of a choice. There were only three types of games and they all looked rigged. Billy picked the one that let him shoot a BB gun at some tin ducks. Listening to the ping of his BB strike against a cartoon mallard gave him some satisfaction. Watching a whole line of targets fall, one right after another, felt even better.

“You’re pretty good at this,” some teen bystander said as the attendant went to count up Billy’s points on the board.

Billy sniffed and set the BB gun back onto the counter. He looked around for something to wipe his hands on.

“He’s the best,” Frank said, wrapping his arms around him from behind.

Billy rolled his eyes and bit the inside of his cheek before he could do something stupid, like smile. The attendant returned.

“You get a prize! You can pick out anything with a red sticker,” she said.

“What do you want?” Frank asked, his lips brushing against the nape of Billy’s neck.

Billy rocked back on his heels, letting his head tip back. “I don’t suppose they have a bottle of hand sanitizer,” he said. Frank nipped at his skin. Billy laughed. “I’ll take the biggest, dumbest thing you’ve got,” he said, raising his voice as he tugged Frank’s head back by his curls. “Seems like I’ll need a replacement boyfriend soon.”

He slipped out of Frank’s grip while the attendant pulled down a giant, purple gorilla from the chain-link that separated the stalls. Billy took it from her and cast a look over his shoulder at Frank, expecting to see him pouting the way he usually did when Billy teased him.

Instead, he found Frank grinning back at him like some kind of dope. Billy frowned.

“What are you smilin’ about?” he demanded. Frank shook his head.

“Nothin’. And you’re kiddin’ yourself if you think you can get rid of me that easily.” He closed the distance Billy had tried to put between them and kissed him. A drunk teen squealed.

Billy pulled away, took the gorilla from the longsuffering attendant, and shoved it into Frank’s arms.

“You carry this,” he said, already turning away.

“You wanna play some more games?” Frank asked, catching up easily.

“I’m gonna win every dumb stuffed animal in this hole,” Billy said, eyeing each stall for another shooting game. “And I’m gonna make you carry every single one.”

“Sounds good,” Frank said cheerfully.

Billy liked the games, although he’d sooner hang himself up by a hook and offer himself up as a top prize before he’d admit it. He liked them because they were just challenging enough. There was the game where he had to toss a bean bag into plastic buckets of varying sizes, all nailed by their bottoms to a wooden board. There was the game where he had aim a stream from a water gun into a horrifying clown’s mouth. There was whack-a-mole and skeeball, and a ‘game’ where a woman tried and failed to guess Billy’s weight.

“It’s the height,” Billy said smugly as the attendant pulled down a stuffed pink unicorn. “Nobody ever takes the height into account.”

There was a fishing game with little plastic fish in a pond filled with real water. There was a ring toss game that, after several failed attempts, Billy became convinced was rigged. Frank had to drag him away from that stall before he could use his lighter to set it on fire.

There were games of chance that Frank seemed to enjoy. Dropping coins down a vertical maze-like structure, or pulling a rubber duck from a line of them as they floated past in a moat. He won fewer prizes than Billy did, which served him right.

Billy continued to pick games based on the ugliest and most awkward prizes on offer, just to make Frank carry them. Frank still had the gorilla, strapped to his back like a child, but now he carried a stuffed purple jaguar with green spots, a sock monkey, a black kitten with massive plastic cartoon eyes pinned to its face, the purple unicorn, and a pointy-eared, doe-eyed terrier that Billy won from a skeeball game. He stuffed it in the reusable tote slung around Frank’s arm, along with the rest.

“Maybe I should start lookin’ at wearables,” Billy mused as he took Frank in. “Maybe a t-shirt with something stupid written on it. ‘I sucked Big Foot’s dick’ or whatever.”

“If you find a shirt like that, I would wear it,” Frank said earnestly.

Billy rolled his eyes and turned away. “One day I’m gonna find out where your shame is,” he said.

“Good luck with that, sweetheart,” Frank said.

But mostly, Billy liked the shooting games.

BB guns were toys for kids but Billy’s body remembered the shape and feel of a rifle, responding to the weight (lighter than the real thing, of course, and much flimsier, but still familiar) of it in his arms.

In his circuit, he’d amassed a small fan club of drunk teen girls. They hung on the periphery of his attention, playing with their hair, chewing their glossy, rum-slick lips and watching Billy as he won game after game. A few offered shy congratulations every time he won (which was very nearly always).

Frank eventually wandered away and left Billy to his admirers. He found himself a three-person bench with only two people on it—the best anyone could hope for in this crowd—and took the seat before some opportunistic granny could snipe it.

Of course if some granny had come along, he’d probably offer it to her. Billy shook his head and returned his attention to the game. Something intriguing had caught his eye on the prize wall and he knew what his next target would be.

Frank enjoyed his hard-won moment of peace. It was nice to get off his feet for a second. Nicer still to enjoy the view of his lean boyfriend with a toy gun in his arms, standing with his legs spread like a seasoned operative. Those expensive jeans of his clung to the curve of his ass and thighs, gifting everyone with a spectacular view. The group of drunk teen girls certainly appreciated it, even as they tried not to be uncool about it.

Alright, maybe the carnival was a bit of an immature date option for a pair of men in their 30s, but what the hell. It was fun, if crowded, and it gave them plenty of things to do. He had a feeling that Billy would enjoy it once he let himself relax a little and he was, as usual, right.  

The gal beside him inched away, giving him a sliver of space, while she and her partner split an elephant ear. It looked and smelled pretty appealling. He considered asking them where they got it when movement caught his eye.

A little girl in a pink windbreaker sidled up to the bag of stuffed animals. She couldn’t have been older than three. A quick look around confirmed that her mother was close, seated on a curb with a stroller and three older kids surrounding her. The little girl paused when Frank caught her eye and stuffed her fingers into her mouth.

“You want a toy?” Frank asked.

The little girl’s dark gaze flicked to the unicorn. He nudged the bag closer to the girl. “Go on,” he said. “It’s yours.”

The girl stared at it for another moment, sucking thoughtfully on her hand, before darting forward and snatching the unicorn. She turned away, the stuffed animal secured under her arm, her ponytail bouncing as she ran back to her family.

Frank watched her, feeling an odd stab of painful fondness, like nostalgia for something he’d never actually gotten to experience, before he looked away.

Billy was gone. Frank straightened in his seat, muscles tensing with a brief jolt of adrenaline. Billy was fine, he reminded himself. Their enemies were dead and everything was fine now. Frank stood up, heart knocking against his chest, ready to conduct a calm and thorough search when he felt something snap over the top of his head. A headband, by the feel of things, too-small and pinching at his temples.

He heard the ‘pfft’ of an laugh exhaled  from tight lips behind him. Frank turned and found Billy standing within arm’s reach, looking gleeful as he took Frank in.

“You look,” he began, a smile threatening to squeeze the bags under his eyes, “completely stupid.”

“What’d you put on me?” Frank tipped his head back and reached up. “A halo? Devil horns?” The band felt small, probably a size intended for children. Something soft and fuzzy brushed his fingers. “Animal ears?”

Billy held a straight face for another moment before it collapsed. He laughed at Frank, one hand fishing in his jeans pocket.

“Cat ears, I’m guessing,” Frank said dryly.

“We should take you to the face paintin’ booth next,” Billy said, holding his phone up and taking aim. “Get you some whiskers.” And then the tinny shutter click sound from something that had no shutter.

Ten years ago, Frank had broken a man’s nose because he’d spilled beer on Frank’s arm. Three years ago, Frank had smashed a glass into the back of a man’s head after he’d called him a bitch in front of a crowd. And that was when Frank had been feeling mellow.

Here and now, Billy put a child’s costume accessory on him and taken a picture, no doubt to post online, and all Frank could think, helplessly, was how goddamn cute Billy looked when he really smiled.

“Gotta get the right filter,” Billy muttered as he flicked his fingers over his screen. “This light’s all fucked up… Hey!” Frank took him in his arms and kissed him. Billy huffed a silent laugh against Frank’s lips, relaxing in his grip.

The drunk teens passed, the Greek choir in Uggs and stretchy yoga pants, giggling behind their hands.

“Still no shame, huh,” Billy murmured when they broke apart.

“None.” Frank’s nose bumped against Billy’s. “You’re having fun.”

Billy pushed a hard breath through his nose and looked away, his lips twitching, gifting Frank with the sight of his model-perfect profile.

“I’m hungry,” Billy said.

The international food court was all the way on the other end of the fairgrounds, which meant they had to struggle through crowds and past the flashing lights and rumbles of rides in action. Frank made note of the ones that looked big enough for them both, and which ones looked like they might offer a moment of privacy in the dark.

Each food stall was a small white building, plunked onto the ground like a child’s wooden block, one piece of a loose semi-circle that surrounded a mass of round standing tables. It would’ve been a depressing sight if it weren’t for the signs.

Massive and colourful, they stood high above the stalls, advertising the year’s most outrageous treats. Red velvet burgers with blood red buns, fried eggs and bacon; unicorn fraps with pastel blue and violet whipped cream, glittering pink and gold sprinkles; ice cream piled high in a thick, doughy pastry, topped with hot fudge and hot caramel; milkshakes in mason jars topped with slices of pie, with cookies, or brownies (red velvet or original chocolate); deep fried coke, deep fried butter, deep fried pickles, deep fried Oreos, deep fried Twinkies (“That’s you,” Frank said, nudging Billy. Billy punched him in the shoulder.). Everything deep fried, twice fried, golden fried. The first thing Frank noticed, upon entering the semi-circle of heart disease hell, was the scent of burnt sugar and frying oil.

“This is all just a bunch of garbage,” Billy complained as Frank led him by the hand through the crowds of families looking to buy small donuts and large fries. “I can’t even tell how you’re supposed to eat half of this stuff. How the hell are you supposed to drink a milkshake when it’s topped with a bacon hamburger? The meat would get into your chocolate ice cream. I’m sick just thinking about it.”

“You want one?” Frank asked.


“I was thinking we could share something,” Frank said, as he navigated through the crowd. It was mid-day which meant lunch time. People mobbed the stalls with the best looking food, while others stood five feet away holding food in front of their phones.

“That’s just a bloomin’ onion,” Billy said, head twisting as he tried to read the sign behind him. “That’s just some shit from the Outback Steakhouse. Do all these places sell crap from Chili’s or whatever?”

“I don’t know what they serve at Chili’s,” Frank said.

“No, I guess you wouldn’t,” Billy said. “Next time the jerks from the office try to drag me to one of those lame-ass family restaurants, I’m gonna make you come with me.”

Frank paused. “Really?”

“I wanna watch the hostess’ smile die when you come through the door with your neck tats and your dumb aviators,” Billy went on, too caught up in the fantasy to notice Frank’s softening look. “Watch those cubicle wage slaves squirm when you shake their hands.”

“Yeah?” They’d stopped now; the crowd butted against them, but it took a lot to move Frank when he didn’t want to be moved. “How would you introduce me to ‘em?”

Billy flushed, finally catching on to Frank’s mood. “Your name,” he snapped, flustered. “Or maybe just ‘dumb asshole with a great dick I sometimes sleep with’.”

“It is a pretty great dick, isn’t it?” Frank pulled Billy into his arms. A few people shot them annoyed looks he didn’t notice. “And you’ve slept with me every night for the last two months.”

In the master bedroom inside the house they’d bought together, on the bed Billy had purchased with his own money. Frank kissed him.

Billy sniffed when he pulled back. “So what. That’s still some times.”

 “I hope you invite me out next time.” He rubbed the pad of his fingers through the straight line of Billy’s hair.

Billy turned away, his gaze sliding up towards the loud signs. “I already said I would,” he muttered. His cheeks looked hot and red. “Are we sharin’ somethin’ or what?”

Frank took pity on his emotionally stunted boyfriend and let him go, content with the knowledge that Billy wouldn’t wander far. It felt like the universe had winked at him when Billy stayed by his side, slipped his hand into Frank’s.

“Do you want something sweet or savoury?” Frank asked, leading the way once more.

“Sweet, I guess,” Billy said, still gazing up at the signs.

“Do you want one of those chimney cones? The stacked milkshake? A unicorn thing? Or the black ice cream thing?” Frank asked.

“That barely looks like food,” Billy said. “How do they make it that black? It looks like printer ink.”

“I hear it tastes fine,” Frank said.

“This is just stuff you’re supposed to take pictures of. The unicorn thing looks awful,” Billy said. “Hey, wait.” He stopped, yanking Frank’s arm. “What happened to my unicorn?”

“Oh, uh.” Frank cast a glance down at the noticeably unicorn-free bag still clutched in his hand. “A kid stole it.”

Billy scowled. “Stole it? A kid? From you?”

Frank shrugged and tried to smile. “She was a child prodigy?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ.” Billy rolled his eyes. “You gave it away, you dumb asshole.”

“You should’ve seen her, Bill. She was amazing, quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. She’ll be robbing banks before she’s out of middle school,” Frank said as Billy started walking away. “We’ll be hearing about her on the news. This anecdote is something we’ll tell our—other people’s kids.”

The back of Billy’s neck turned pink. “Let’s just get something simple,” he said. “I don’t want to stand in line for two hours to take a picture of some mason jar with a cookie on it.”

They ended up splitting an elephant ear, topped with hot fudge, caramel, crushed peanuts, and served with two scoops of cheap vanilla ice cream. It was more sugar in one bite than Frank had consumed in the last month but it was good.

Billy found them a standing table that only had three other people surrounding it, who cast nervous looks at Frank as they took their spot. It was a testament to just how busy the place was that no one left. Billy scooped up large amounts of the melting ice cream and liquid fudge on his little plastic spoon, tearing through half of the ear before Frank could finish even a quarter.

It didn’t surprise Frank. Billy ate everything quickly, even if he didn’t like it. Frank found it endearing, because it was Billy and Frank was so stupid gone that everything Billy did was endearing, up to and including the way he slid a mag out of his pistol to check the ammo. And the way he took upwards of twenty minutes in the bathroom every morning to do his hair and trim his beard. (And the way he ironed his collared shirts before he put them on, the way he arranged his toiletries in order of daily use on the bathroom shelf, and the way he arranged the last bite of his food to be the best one, and the way he sometimes napped in the sun with Lola curled up at his side, and and and…)

Billy licked his spoon, eyeing the few bites remaining on Frank’s side.

That was endearing too, that he still thought of splitting things into separate sides. It would never even occur to Frank that they should have their own halves of something as silly as fried dough and ice cream.

“Be careful,” Frank said, even as he nudged the plate towards Billy. “We’re gonna go on rides later. You don’t want to get sick.”

“Rides?” Billy flicked his gaze at Frank’s face as he dug his spoon through the soft dough. “Aren’t they for kids?”

“They’re for anyone,” Frank said. “You ever been on ‘em? A tilt-a-whirl or a cyclone or a roller coaster?” he asked. Billy pulled the cardboard plate closer and hunched over his food. “Really?” Faint surprise coloured Frank’s tone. “What about a merry-go-round? A ferris wheel? You lived in New York. Haven’t you ever been to Coney Island?”

“Why would I go there?” Billy scooped ice cream into his mouth. “Coney is for tourists,” he said, his tongue flashing vanilla white in his mouth.

“The hell it is. I’ve been to Coney dozens of times.” With his parents when he was still too short for most of the fun rides, and then later with his friends and with Maria when he was finally big enough.

“Good for you,” Billy said, dragging his spoon through a line of caramel and fudge.

Frank enjoyed any piece of trivia he got out of Billy, unpeeling his history one layer at a time. He really did find it endearing. But, sometimes, he found it a little sad too. Who grew up in New York but never went to Coney?

“We have to go on the rides,” Frank said, slapping his hand lightly against the table, deciding for them both. “Half the fun of a fair is the rides.”

Billy scowled around his spoon. “What’s the other half?”

“You’ll enjoy it,” Frank promised.

“Those rides? They’re filled with kids.”

“Not all of ‘em,” Frank said.

“They look like they’re gonna fly apart,” Billy went on while Frank collected their garbage.

“They almost never do,” Frank said. “You don’t have to worry,” he went on cheerfully while Billy dialled up the intensity of his glare up a few degrees. “You’ve got a big, strong man looking out for you. You can just grip my bicep or my pecs if you’re feeling scared.”

“Jesus Christ,” Billy muttered as Frank took his hand and led him away. One of the circling, nomadic families took their spot the second they vacated the table, parking their SUV-sized stroller and collapsing over the sticky surface with apparent gratitude.

“You can pick the first ride,” Frank said as he tossed their trash into an over-flowing bin. “I’m game for whatever.”

“Fine,” Billy said. “That one.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder towards the spaceship that performed a full 360 degree loop.

Frank felt the warmth pull back from the skin of his face. “That one?”

As he watched, the spaceship completed its 180 degree turn, holding for several seconds while the patrons shrieked distantly.

“That a problem?” Billy asked, already pulling Frank towards the line.

“Nothing’s a problem,” Frank said, his eyes caught on the ride’s descent. “I told you I’m game for whatever.” He dismissed his momentary pause with a roll of his shoulders and shot Billy a grin. “I always mean what I say. Including that thing about you grabbing me.” He quirked one brow, tipped his head in what he knew was a filthy look.

Billy met it with a smile that could frost glass. “Glad to hear it.”

As it turned out, the rides weren’t terrible. They were pretty basic and it was hard to get overly excited about being thrown around in a spinning pod in a circle, or sitting in a fake rocket ship while it spun around, when Billy regularly handled live ammunition, but it was still kind of fun. Billy enjoyed the ramshackle feel of it. The lack of safety added to the small adrenaline rush. He really enjoyed the rides with no safety harnesses, because it let him crowd Frank without anything getting in the way. Frank seemed to enjoy those ones too.

At least, at first.

As the day wore on, seating became rare and valuable as sapphires in the moment. Billy found them a bench occupied by four likely looking marks. A quick smile and a purred please got two of them gone. Frank gratefully took their spot and Billy left him to find water.

He returned almost ten minutes later to find Frank with his head cradled in his hands, his elbows braced on his spread knees.

“You would not believe the lines in this place,” Billy said as he shifted the bag of stuffed toys aside. “The price for a bottle of water would make you sick. Sicker,” he added as he twisted the top and handed the bottle to Frank.

Frank accepted it with a mumbled thanks. Billy set his arm on the bench, set his hand flat on the curve of Frank’s spine.

“You didn’t tell me you get motion sick,” he said as he started to rub soothing circles.

“It was news to me too,” Frank said. “I never used to.”

“Guess you’re gettin’ old.”

Frank huffed. He sat up and knocked back half the bottle. “I used to be able to go on every janky, busted ride in these places. Twice. Upside down and backwards.”

“Kinky.” Billy slipped his hand up to the back of Frank’s neck as he lit up his phone.

“I once got kicked off a fake teacups ride because I got caught with M—a girl on my lap,” Frank said.

“You can say Maria.” Billy tapped his thumb across the screen. “How’re you feeling?”

Frank’s lips twisted as he looked down at the crumpled bottle in his hand. “Not great. God, am I really getting old?” He tugged at the collar of his black t-shirt, maybe trying to generate a little air flow, or maybe just trying to show off his chest.

“Probably,” Billy said, tapping a link on his browser. “Here, give me your hand.” He shoved his phone back into his jeans with one hand while he took Frank’s with the other. He wrapped his fingers around Frank’s wrist and pressed his thumb into the pulse point, hard enough to be a shade painful.

“Ouch,” Frank said.

Billy blew a soft breath out. “Don’t be a baby. I’m not even trying to hurt you.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“There’s a pressure point here,” Billy said, lifting his wrist. “It’s supposed to help with motion sickness.”

“How do you know that?” Frank asked.

Billy felt his face grow warm. “Everyone knows that.”

“Did you look it up on your phone just now?” Frank asked, grinning.

“No. Shut up. Is it helping or not?”

With the two strangers seated on the other side, there wasn’t much space available to Billy and Frank to spread out. Billy wasn’t even aware they had any bit of distance between them until he felt Frank close it.

“It’s helping,” Frank said. He pressed against Billy’s side, warm and smelling like fried dough and sweat, his cologne and deodorant long worn off after the day’s heat. The combination should’ve been revolting.

“Did you get any water for yourself?” Frank asked.

Billy huffed a short laugh. “I would’ve had to take out a second mortgage. No, no, you keep it,” he said, leaning away from Frank’s outstretched arm. “I don’t want your gross pre-vomit germs.”

Frank narrowed his eyes at Billy. He swayed close and kissed him before he could react, his lips cool and wet. Billy did what he always did when Frank kissed him out in public; he froze, and then just as quickly, he relaxed.

“There,” Frank said, satisfied. “Now we’ve shared all our germs.” He pushed the bottle into Billy’s free hand.

The noise of the fair was incredible, less a wall of sound than an ocean of it. Billy felt submerged, could barely hear himself think. Speakers crackled with bad, royalty- and lyric-free rock music. People shouted to be heard over each other. Kids just yelled. Babies screamed. At first, it’d been almost too much, but after the first hour had passed, Billy found he could relax into it. It was like falling asleep to a white noise machine. Eventually, he could just tune it out.

Frank put his head on Billy’s shoulder, sighed into the nape of his neck. Billy shifted Frank’s wrist to his other hand and wrapped his arm around Frank’s shoulders.

“If you throw up on my shirt, I will cut those jug ends you call ears right off,” Billy said as he wound his fingers through Frank’s hair. Frank hummed, clearly not paying him any mind. He never took Billy’s threats seriously.

The noise was troublesome and the scents were nauseating, but Billy kind of liked the way the carnival looked. He liked the flashing lights that surrounded the games, the faded signs that advertised each ride, the chipped, painted exterior of the haunted house with its name framed in red bulbs. The rides themselves, metallic blurs while in motion, and charmingly well-used while still. The late September wind felt cool, even as it worked its way around a thousand other bodies to get to Billy’s warm face. The sun had already started to set, the sky turning blue and peach.

“This is the last weekend,” Frank murmured, breath buzzing on Billy’s skin. “By Monday, all of this’ll be gone.”

“Hard to believe,” Billy said.

“I wanted to go with you before it finished,” Frank said. “I love the fair. Some of my favourite dates happened in places like this.”

“That would be the dates where you got kicked off of kiddie rides for bein’ inappropriate with your girl?” Billy asked. Frank buried his face in Billy’s neck. “So, this whole thing’s just been for you, is that what you’re sayin’?”

“Not just me,” Frank said, voice muffled. “I knew you’d enjoy it too. You’re having fun.”

Billy looked down at Frank, his short-cropped curls brushing his lips, his hand loose in Billy’s grip. The stretch of his broad shoulders and the curve of his neck, vulnerable under all that ugly ink. Just looking at him made Billy’s heart feel like a squeeze toy. He put his eyes elsewhere but it was too late and he knew it.

“Maybe,” he admitted. Frank pressed a brief kiss over his fluttering pulse. “What do you want to do next?” he asked, changing the subject quickly. “We can go home, if you’d like.”

“Not yet,” Frank said. “You still have to try the ferris wheel.”

The wheel dominated the sky, an icon for this and all fairs. Anytime Billy’s gaze was drawn southward, down towards the slope that would eventually lead to the river, he could see it. As the sun slunk from the sky, the lights that lined the spokes turned on and began flashing to a rhythm, a song Billy couldn’t hear.

The line-up was long, of course, and filled mostly with couples. Now that the sky had turned purple and the city outside of the grounds had started to light up, Billy saw fewer strollers and heard fewer shrieks.

But they weren’t all gone. A few spots ahead, Billy spotted a little girl slung limp in her mother’s arms, her fat cheek crushed against her parent’s shoulder, eyes shut and mouth open in a deep sleep. The sight of her, so comfortable, so safe and sound and cared for, stirred something deep in the cavern of Billy’s chest. He shifted on his feet and told himself it was just that elephant ear coming back to haunt him.

Frank had been gone for almost five minutes; he’d told Billy to hold their spot and then vanished to the front of the line. Billy was not a patient man in many, many respects, and there were few things he hated more than standing in line. He’d texted Frank after two minutes, threatening to leave if Frank didn’t return in the next 30 seconds. That was three minutes ago. Billy switched off his phone screen and pushed out a hard breath, crossed his arms and told himself that if Frank wasn’t back in the next 60 seconds he would definitely leave, for sure.

Two minutes later, Frank jogged back to Billy’s spot in line, grinning and flushed.

“What took you?” Billy demanded as Frank slung an arm around his shoulder.

“Sorry. Had to take care of something important,” he said.

Billy eyed him. The pink dusting his apple cheeks looked suspicious, although Billy had no idea what it could mean. If this were anyone else, Billy might’ve suspected infidelity, but this was Frank Castle.

“Did you finally throw up?” Billy asked.

“Nah, I feel much better,” Frank said. “I was cared for by a sexy nurse.”

“For the last time, I’m not wearin’ the outfit,” Billy said.

“I’m just sayin’, your legs would look amazing in fishnets,” Frank said.

“Of course they would,” Billy said dismissively.

They never watched their voices. A few heads swivelled their way as they spoke. A woman standing in front of them turned her head and glanced down at Billy’s legs. He caught her eye and smirked.

At the front of the line, Frank exchanged a loud and meaningful greeting with the attendant. Once again, Billy’s bullshit radar pinged but Frank ignored his glare.

“Hey,” Billy said as Frank took his arm. “Where the hell are my stuffed animals?”

“They had to be sacrificed for a good cause,” Frank said, ushering Billy onto the car.

“What cause?” Billy asked but Frank only shook his head, grinning like an idiot.

God. Ever since their first date, Frank had gotten it into his head that Billy liked surprises. If Frank had bothered to ask or even pay attention, he might’ve realised that Billy had lead the kind of life where surprises were often unpleasant and unwelcome.

There was enough space in their car for two more people but the attendant shut the door after Billy climbed in with Frank, barring access to the couple behind them.

“No room,” she grunted. The wheel lurched, lifting them from the ground.

Billy tried the glare again, which was never any use on Frank.

“You gave up my prizes for this?” he said as the load-in continued on the next car down.

Frank settled back, wrapped his arm once more around Billy’s narrow shoulders.

“It’s nice to sit, isn’t it?” Frank said. Billy rolled his eyes and relaxed into Frank’s hold. “And we’ll get a good view.”

“If you get sick again, I’ll never let you live it down,” Billy said. He stretched out his legs and set his feet on the opposite bench.

They rose by degrees as the attendant ushered in group after group, filling the cars one by one until the wheel was heavy and full. Billy worried about the structural stability of something that’d been assembled in a hurry but with Frank’s arm heavy around his shoulders, his heat pressing close, it was difficult to get too worked up over it.

The city spread out and opened up below, glittering like pebbles of gold at the bottom of a river as they climbed. The clatter grew distant and, removed from the immediacy of the noise and smells of the crowd, Billy could appreciate the charming ugliness of the fair more easily from high up above. The grounds looked like a giant slot machine, ripped open and spread across the landscape in a chaos of light and sound and metal.

Billy leaned over to get a better look at the haunted house. He felt a brush of lips at the base of his neck, a big hand sliding across his waist, fingers pushing at the hem of his shirt to find their way to warm skin.

He laughed quietly. “I thought we were supposed to appreciate the view,” he said.

“I am,” Frank said. He pulled the soft lobe of Billy’s ear between his lips, his hand flat and hot on Billy’s stomach.

Billy laughed again, a little more honestly, skin flinching under Frank’s feather-light touch. He turned away from the gaudy site below and into Frank’s needy embrace. Frank tugged him close, lips dragging over his throat, his throbbing pulse, and Billy tipped his head back and sighed as Frank found the spot on his neck that always made his toes curl.

“You lookin’ to get kicked off another ride, Frankie?” he asked as he slid onto Frank’s lap.

“You think that bribe was just to get us a car to ourselves?” Frank asked. He looked up as Billy pushed his fingers through his curls, his brown eyes gleaming with filthy intent. “You really think so little of me?”

“Maybe I do,” Billy said. He curled his hand around Frank’s big jaw and kissed his sweet, pink mouth.

The wheel began to turn in earnest as Billy’s fingers began working at Frank’s belt, Frank’s tongue in his mouth, Frank’s hand gripping his thigh, nails digging into the denim.

Miraculously, they didn’t get caught or thrown off. Although, they’d probably given the cars directly above and below them something real special to gawk at. Billy got a kick out of that thought.

 “Admit it, you had fun,” Frank said on the drive back.

Billy folded his legs and reclined his seat back a few degrees. “You gave away all my prizes,” he said, dodging.

“You didn’t seem to mind twenty minutes ago,” Frank said.

“I won those for you, Frank,” Billy said with mock severity. Frank just laughed, seeing through him with ease, as always.

“And I cashed ‘em in for the grand prize,” Frank said with a wink.

“Jesus Christ.”

“Who needs a bunch of stuffed animals anyway?” Frank went on, warming to the subject. “When I got the greatest prize of all?” he asked. Billy turned his head towards the window, put his hand over his mouth before Frank could see the twitching smile threatening to show. “When I’ve got the sexiest, the most beautiful guy in the whole world comin’ home with me?”

“You sound like such an asshole,” Billy said. His cheeks ached.

“Do you know how many people would kill to have what I have?” Frank went on passionately to an increasingly embarrassed audience of one. “How many people look their whole lives to get a sweetheart like you?”

Billy surrendered with a laugh. “Sweetheart? Jesus, what the fuck are you even talkin’ about? Sweetheart.”

“What’s wrong with sweetheart?” Frank asked mildly.

“Have you met me?” Billy stretched out, gestured down at the length of himself. “There’s nothin’ about me that’s sweet, sugar.”

Frank’s smile grew strange and soft. Its sight was familiar and always a foreshadowing to something embarrassing and stupid. Billy’s stomach gave a slow flip. He reached for the radio before Frank could say anything.

Lola was at the door when they got home. She bounced on her front paws, her skinny tail flailing against the hardwood as Frank knelt down and rubbed her head and ears, praising her for being good while they were gone. She wiggled with joy.

“I’m gonna take her on a w-a-l-k,” Frank said.

Billy stretched his arms above his head, smothered a yawn. “I’ll order dinner,” he said. “Thai or Indian?”

“Indian,” Frank said as he clipped Lola’s leash onto her collar.

“Chicken tikka masala or the goat curry?”

“Goat. You know how I like it.” Frank stood and kissed Billy on the cheek before opening the front door and disappearing back into the night. The door shut and locked automatically with a buzz and a cheerful chime.

The first thing Frank had done after getting the keys to their new place was changing the locks and installing a security system. Automatic locks, motion sensors, cameras, all connected to an app on each of their phones. Billy seldom checked his but Frank kept a keen eye on things. Lola too, Billy supposed, could be considered part of their security, although it was hard to imagine her mauling anything more threatening than her stuffed rabbit.

Billy placed the order on his phone and took a beer from the fridge. He drank it while a reality dating competition played on the television behind him. He stared out at their backyard, which was a DIY mess of churned up dirt. A pile of lumber sat in the corner, cut to proper size and just waiting for Frank to put together into a fence.

Frank had said he’d tackle it tomorrow and Billy believed him. He’d heard people complain about boyfriends and husbands who started projects and never finished them, leaving the house half-gutted and practically uninhabitable, but that wasn’t Frank. Frank finished everything he started, whether it was building a fence, or sanding and refinishing the deck, or taming and training a rabid puppy, or…

It was difficult to see much in the backyard now that the sky was fully dark. Billy could see his own ghostly reflection in the glass, half-obscured by the light. He looked good, he could admit. He always looked good, he’d looked good long before he even knew Frank Castle’s name, but… somehow, he looked better than he did before. A change had occurred and Billy, vain as Snow White’s mirror-gazing step-mother, had spent part of his morning routine just trying to pinpoint where. Something around his eyes, maybe. A brightness in his skin. A sleekness to his hair? Maybe there was something in the water here, even though it was the same water he’d been drinking and bathing in since he’d moved to the city. Maybe something in the pipes.

It was too absurd to even consider that it could’ve been something else. Billy had always looked good. Even when he was just some skinny sixteen year old in a prison jumpsuit, he’d looked good. There was no correlation between what he feelings and his appearance.

Their food arrived before Frank did and Billy tipped the cyclist who’d brought it to his doorstep. She gave him a shy, appreciative look from under the bill of her branded baseball cap, her cheeks flushing as she wished him a good night. He texted Frank and cracked open the clear plastic tubs, scooping himself a serving of channa masala and chicken vindaloo.

Frank and Lola arrived less than ten minutes later, just as the credits on the television started rolling, the pair of them panting lightly.

“Good, you didn’t wait for me,” Frank said as he hung up the leash.

“Was I supposed to?” Billy asked without looking away from the screen. Frank bent over the couch and planted a kiss behind Billy’s ear. Billy wrinkled his nose. He shoved blindly at Frank’s face. “Go shower, you Neanderthal.”

Frank laughed and snuck another kiss, the salt tang of his sweat making Billy growl and squirm. “Join me?”

“I’m still eating.” But Billy got to his feet, set his plate down out of Lola’s reach.

Billy wasn’t stupid, although he felt like maybe he sometimes was. He understood that he was just another one of Frank’s projects, just another task anyone else would’ve given up on after a few days. He understood that he was… lucky, in a way. That if Frank hadn’t decided he was worth pursuing, that if things had gone differently between them, then he would’ve missed out on… whatever it was he was currently swept up in. No matter what he said to Frank, no matter how many times he bared his teeth and his claws, he knew that if he didn’t have this—this home, this life, everything Frank seemed so eager to give him—he’d be poorer for it.

Billy knelt by the tub, stuck his hand under the stream, waiting for it to warm up while Frank stripped out of his sweat-damp clothes. Frank had plans for a reno; he’d bought the magazines, scrutinized pictures of scoop tubs and triangular jaccuzis with massaging jets, showed Billy sketches of tiled, glassed-off stalls with rainfall shower heads. He would pay someone to take care of the wiring and the plumbing but he talked a big game about doing his own installation.

Another project. Frank had dreams about a tub that would be big enough for the both of them, His and His sinks with full, back-lit counters, wall-to-wall mirrors, the works. Billy had never stepped foot in a house as nice as the one Frank wanted to build for him.

Frank was a quiet man when he wanted to be, but Billy had only survived this long by being able to tell when there was someone else in the room with him. He felt the shift in the air even before Frank knelt down behind him, wrapped his arms around his waist, and nuzzled at his neck.

“You still stink,” Billy said, letting the tension unwind from his frame.

Billy used to think he was so damn clever, even as a kid. He thought he had it all figured out, he thought he knew how to protect himself. Loneliness wasn’t a bad price to pay for safety. Lucas had been an aberration to the pattern he’d set out for his life, one that, when it inevitably went bad, Billy had used as a lesson. An exception that proved the rule.

Frank had to fight against not just Billy’s pride and ego, but the ugliest parts of himself that he never liked to acknowledge. That broken-toothed, semi-feral, barely vocal kid that no one had wanted and no one would touch with kindness. The old self, the eternal self, the void of childish want, of neediness. People like Billy didn’t grow up, not really; they grew out, grew layers like rings on a tree, grew scar tissue over old wounds, smothered their past at their core and then tried to pretend it didn’t exist. Buried it so deep it couldn’t ever be touched.

Water fell around them, between them, gurgling down the drain. Billy squeezed the back of Frank’s neck hard enough to bruise as Frank held him against the tiled wall. He kissed the edge of Frank’s brow, the curve of his orbital, while Frank panted against him, mouthed at his shoulder, rolling his hips. Billy groaned at the feel of him, the velvet slide of their cocks, held together in Frank’s big hand. Steam filled the room, hot enough that it was almost a struggle to breathe. He slid his hand down Frank’s back, rested his forehead against Frank’s shoulder.

“We’ll never get clean at this rate,” he murmured.

Frank’s laugh sprayed a few drops of water from his lips. “Guess we’ll just have to stay here.”

People like Billy didn’t grow up. He couldn’t discard his old selves like clothes he’d outgrown. The hallow-eyed, lean youth he’d been in the immediate aftermath of Lucas still lived on, buried deep, hungry and damaged and forever looking for the escape routes. That part whispered its insecurities to Billy at night, when Frank’s breathing grew deep and slow, and the only company Billy had were the memories of being cold, of being alone, unwanted, without. Lying in Frank’s bed, in Frank’s house (their bed, their house, Frank would insist) felt like a mistake the universe had made. Billy would lay awake, afraid that this might’ve been a dream he could wake up from, staring at the ceiling like he could see the sword dangling above his head. This was the good fortune he didn’t deserve. He waited, dread curdling his insides.

Frank gasped in his ear, curled his arm around his back, held him tight, held him up as his legs trembled and grew weak.

Frank scrubbed at his head with a towel, striding through their bedroom, flinging drops of water onto their hardwood floor. He yawned and stretched, careless as a lion stalking through his domain, while Billy fiddled with his lotions.

“You had fun today, right?” Frank asked as Billy approached, towel slung low around his hips.

“Aren’t you the smart guy who knows everything about me?” Billy squirted a quarter-sized amount of moisturizer into his palm and slapped Frank on the back, rubbing the lotion in.

“I do know.” Frank rocked back on his heels, listing towards Billy. “Maybe I just want to hear you say it.”

Billy rolled his eyes as he worked, but Frank persisted.

“C’mon, say it.” Frank turned and wrapped his arms around Billy. “Please, beautiful, please say: ‘My boyfriend took me out on a nice date and I had a good time.’”

Billy snorted as Frank nosed at his cheek. “Why would I talk about you in the third person?”

Frank glanced up, the lamplight caught in his gleaming eyes. “So, you admit it. I am your boyfriend.”

Billy laughed. He put his hand on Frank’s bare hip, leaned down and kissed the fat bridge of his oft-broken nose.

“Yeah, alright,” he said. “I had a nice time with my stupid, awful, embarrassing boyfriend.”

Frank grinned at him, his eyes bright and alive, like Billy had given him a great gift.

People like Billy didn’t grow up. They grew over, they grew anew. Billy could bury all the fears and weaknesses inside of him but that didn’t mean they would go away. They grew roots instead, sprouted into something else. Maybe, if Billy was feeling particularly self-indulgent, he could imagine them growing into something better.

Or maybe that was just stupid. Billy smiled against Frank’s mouth.