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Something About You

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Summer

Moving to this part of Maple Bay was both the best and worst decision that I have ever made.

            I have a decent house, I have people that I can call friends, and I somehow managed to secure a fantastic job that gets me through the worst of my piling bills. My daughter got herself into the college she has been looking at for as long as I can remember and now she is off chasing her wildest dreams, becoming the woman her mother always knew she would be. Craig, my old buddy from college and current best friend, and I go on runs together every morning even if those runs are sometimes against my will. Mat Sella is probably the best damn boss I could ever ask for and he understands why I need to put in the amount of work hours that I do. Life is good… except for one minor thing that clouds my thoughts on nights in which all I can do is think instead of sleep.

            I’m pretty sure Robert hates my guys. Anyone with eyes could see that. I made a huge mistake and although I accepted what happened months ago, I still deeply regret how it all went down. All our problems started because I told him yes. All of this started because I kept telling him yes. I was addicted to the feeling of having another body against mine. I was addicted to him and the quirks that make him who he is. We used each other repeatedly with no end in sight and in the process, I let what could have started out as a wonderful relationship turn into something sour and regrettable. All I had to do was tell him no. And now? Now that a year has gone by and I still can’t get him out of my head? Everything is ruined.

            I see him a lot, of course. He’s not only my neighbor, but we always end up running into each other in the most unpredictable scenarios. It’s almost as if something out there in the world is trying to force us together. Maybe Mary, perhaps, with her hidden stash of voodoo dolls. I see him when I go on walks around town, we bump into each other in the grocery store (usually when I happen to have the most obscure object in my hands), and I am forced into seeing him any time Joseph throws one of his ‘famous’ backyard parties. Robert never misses a single party and part of me wonders why that is when he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would enjoy cheesy backyard parties. As much as I would like to, avoiding him seems to be next to impossible. Random freak chances keep landing us in the same room together and I’m losing my damn mind. Is this karma for something I did in a past life?

            If I had the chance to, I would fix what I broke between us. It’s horrific and awkward and it makes me want to tear my insides out every time I have to look at him. I’m more than willing to start over with him, but I’m so sure he would rather see me get run over by a car than speak one word to me. There’s just something about the way he looks at me that makes me want to cower and hide behind my couch until the apocalypse comes. I know deep down that I’m being insanely foolish. We were both in the wrong and I know he knows it somewhere in that head of his. I have thought about the many nights I spent with him over and over again. Did he ask because he was hoping I would say no? Was it just some dumb test that I failed because I was lonely?

            Whatever it was or whatever it could have been, it constantly hangs in the back of my head like an annoying scar that I can’t get rid of no matter how hard I try. I wish I could let go of all of it and forget about it. I would love to push it all out of my head and just live my life. However, my mind has other plans. Maybe there’s a piece to all of this that I’m missing or maybe I’m just stuck in an endless loop of thinking about Robert Small? Is it wrong of me to care this much about it? I have no idea. What I do know is it’s eating me alive and I think I might snap one day if I don’t do something about it.

            I’ll have to see Robert tomorrow at the 4th of July party tomorrow at the Christensen’s house. Joseph is hosting yet another BBQ party and the entire cul-de-sac is expected to come without any protests. He plastered it all over Dadbook and harangued everyone into agreeing to come whether any of us had plans or not. I’m not sure what it is about him, but Joseph seems to have this charm – or an ability – that makes it hard to turn him down. He always gets his way and I’m jealous of the way he can keep that stupid grin on his face without a care in the world. I wonder how he would react if he knew just how much time Mary spends with Robert?

            Other than that slight issue, my life is pretty good. I help Joseph with his overzealous bake sales, I work at the Coffee Spoon, and I occasionally hang out with Craig when I catch the chance. I wouldn’t dare tell him, but it’s my way of making sure he takes a break every now and then. Taking care of three kids, twins and a little baby, is no easy feat. It was hard enough for me to raise one. I love living in Maple Bay. Despite all of the bad, it has become my home and I could never see myself leaving. Yes, I hate what happened with Robert because I’m so sure something wonderful would have happened between us if it hadn’t been slaughtered before it could take flight, but dwelling on it won’t help anyone. It certainly won’t help him and it’s only running me into the ground.

            Things have been moving slowly for the past year. I feel like when Amanda left home, she took a huge part of me with her. I think it’s extremely cliché to think like that, but I’m an artist so that has to earn me some kind of free pass to say shit like that, right? That’s what I tell myself, at least. I’m not used to living on my own like this. I have always had somebody by my side and while I do have my friends, I still cannot shake the dreadful feeling of being hopelessly alone. The feeling is draining and it’s always there, watching every move that I make.

            Amanda is completely aware of how lonely I am – against what I would have preferred – and it’s because of that I got fish back into the fish tank. I bought six of them and I, so far, enjoy their presence. It feels good to look after something again and they make the living room feel complete for once. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I bought the fish on a completely random impulse when I walked into the pet store one day and it took me a long while to accept that I had only bought them because I’m so lonely and thought fish was an acceptable way to compensate for it.

My name is Cody Prescott and I am the most pathetic person in Maple Bay.

              

            I am not a drinker. Drinking is simply not in my range of talents and I have very little interest in it. Though somehow, I get one text from Mary and suddenly I’m sitting in a booth at Jim and Kim’s with a glass of something amber in my hands. Mary sits in front of me and she’s slamming down shot after shot, burping occasionally as the alcohol bubbles in her stomach. I honestly have no idea why she brought me out here tonight. The two of us only talk when she needs to borrow eggs or when we’re at one of Joseph’s parties. As far as I know, we’re nothing more than friendly neighbors. I’m sure as hell not her drinking buddy. In fact, I’m almost certain that’s Robert’s job.

            “Come on, kid,” Mary provokes as she slams down another shot with ease. “Your drinking game is extremely weak. I’m getting depressed just looking at you.”

            I crack a grin and shamelessly take one of her shots, knocking it back with a sour expression on my face. “Some of us have very little drinking experience. This is the first time I’ve been out drinking in months,” I remind her.

            Mary rolls her eyes and flags Neil down for another round of shots. “How are you so boring? Even Damien is more exciting than you and I can never get him to come here with me,” she asks, shoving a whiskey my way.

            I look down at the whiskey and laugh quietly under my breath as I twirl it around. “Being a single parent may have had something to do with it. I couldn’t go out partying every night when I had a little one waiting for me at home.”

            Neil comes by with the new drinks and he quickly takes the old ones off of our table for us. I thank him as he goes, not really looking away from my drink. Mary instantly slides me half of the twelve shots and gives me a confidence look. I’m starting to feel afraid for my life. Is that normal? How much does she expect me to drink tonight?

            “I bet you can do it,” she says with a grin. “Drink through all of those and you’ll be on your way to becoming a seasoned drinker in no time.”

            I scoff and grab for my first shot. The alcohol burns as it goes down my throat, but it’s somehow also energizing. “Has it ever crossed your mind that I maybe don’t want to be a drinker?” I ask.

            Mary laughs and downs one shortly after the other with almost no breaks. Shouldn’t she be drinking water? That absolutely cannot be healthy. Actually, I don’t think anything about this is healthy. For fucks sake… I’m starting to sound exactly like Craig.

            “What’s so wrong about being a drinker?” Mary asks. “It gives you something to do other than sit around in your house and mope like a brokenhearted teenager.”

            Following her example, I do two more shots and push the empty glasses away from me. “I would love to have a functioning liver by the time I’m fifty. And, I don’t mope around my house.”

            It appears that we have now engaged in some sort of drinking race. Mary keeps her eyes on me as she takes another shot and while she does that, she flags Neil down for yet another round. I think she’s trying to kill me or, at the very least, get me piss drunk. We’ve already been here for an hour and as much as I hate it, I’m already well on my way to becoming just that.

            “So, tell me, Coconuts,” Mary says, squinting her eyes slightly. “When are you going to get yourself a boyfriend or girlfriend? You gotta be interested in getting one at some point before you die.”

            I take another shot even though I know I should stop and I have to close my eyes for a minute to allow my body to catch up with the amount I’m drinking. “Since when do you give a damn about my love life? All you do is take my eggs and put me at the butt end of every single one of your jokes.”

            “I care about everything that happens in the cul-de-sac and that includes your love life. Let’s hear it,” she says.

            The alcohol is catching up with me now. I can feel myself loosening up more and more by the minute. Was this her true intention? To get me so drunk that I would stop caring about what comes out of my mouth? At this point, I know I should really force myself to stop, but I reach for another shot anyways. If I’m going down tonight, then I might as well go down hard. Who cares if I have obligations tomorrow? It’ll be like I’m back in college again.

            “I have no interest in dating right now. I haven’t been in the mood for it,” I explain honestly.

            Mary slides me another shot and I take it without question. Where did my sense of caution go? And why is Mary not drinking anymore? She’s always drinking, even when she probably shouldn’t be.

            “You’re not in the mood for it because you’re still hung up on Robert, aren’t you?” She pries, already somehow knowing the answer. “It’s obvious you have feelings for him. I can see it in the way you look at him when he’s not paying attention to you.”

            I gulp with minimal worry, unsure of how she could possibly know something like that. Even if she catches me looking about him, that doesn’t necessarily add up to me having feelings for him… even though I so clearly do. Mindlessly, I go for more shots and let the alcohol cloud my mind. Is it even socially acceptable to still be hung up on somebody after a year when there was barely anything in the relationship to begin with?

            “You would be so good for him if he would just stop being so stubborn about it. You guys only fucked a few times. Who gives a damn?” Mary says mostly to herself.

            “Robert gives a damn,” I mumble as I slam down the whiskey that she slid over to me earlier. I could care less if that basically confirms her suspicions. I don’t care about anything right now.

            I am safely on my way to becoming completely smashed. In fact, I’m well beyond drunk at this point. This is what I get for being a complete lightweight. I cannot handle alcohol like Mary and the fact that she’s no longer drinking really adds to my belief that she only dragged me out here tonight to get information out of me. Unsure of what else to do, I take two more shots and groan at the way it feels in my stomach. Fuck me. I think I lost all of my self-control four shots ago. I need to drink water.

            “Robert cares, but he’s also the one who started all of this by baiting you,” Mary says with a tired sigh. “How are you doing, Coconuts? You’re looking a little… drunk off your ass.”

            I have the urge to take more shots, but I’m already so far past my limit. Clearly out of my mind, I start giggling and lean forward on the table. “Oh, I don’t even think I can move from my spot,” I laugh. “Why did you let me drink so much?”

            Mary smiles and scoots the rest of the drinks out of my reach and part of me wants to her for it. “I needed an excuse to make a phone call,” she says as she pulls her phone from her purse. The last shred inside of me that is still sober wants to run and hide because this surely cannot lead up to anything good, but the rest of me cannot produce a single ounce of energy to care. She can do whatever the hell she wants.

            “Robert? Hey, I need a favor from you… is there any way you can come to Jim and Kim’s? I need some extra muscle… If I tell you, you won’t come… Well it’s either you come or I stop taking Betsy to the adoption center for free grooming… Thank you, Robert. I owe you one.”

            Except that. Mary puts her phone back into her bag and she slides out of the booth with an expression on her face that would suggest she is proud of herself. She looks at me as if she expects me to follow and as soon as I get onto my feet, I feel as if the entire room is spinning. I nearly collapse onto the ground, but the table manages to save me just in time. Mary, acting like she has done this a thousand times over, throws my arm over her shoulders and guides me outside where she leans me against the building. I groan and trying to see straight, but everything is spinning still. Nothing about being drunk is enjoyable. I think I actually hate it with every fiber in my body… but it sure does feel nice to not feel the suffocating emotions I have been carrying around for months.

            After a few long minutes that seem to go on forever in my state, I see a figure headed this way from out of the corner of my eye. I know who it is, but I have no desire to look because looking would mean having to see him and I want to enjoy my last thirty seconds of non-embarrassing peace. Originally, I didn't care that Mary called Robert... Now I want to run away and hide before he figures out why Mary asked him to come here. Why is she using both of us like we’re pawns in some board game tonight?

            “Jesus, Mary. What the hell did you do to the kid?” Robert asks when he’s close enough to us. “You know he’s a complete lightweight.”

            Robert comes into my field of vision and I feel my cheeks heat up for absolutely no reason. Mary is an extremely clever woman. She planned this all out thoroughly to ensure it wouldn’t fail. If I remember anything about this tomorrow, I’m going to find a way to get her back. This is unreasonable. Robert sees me enough already as it is. He definitely doesn’t need to be seeing me drunk outside of the bar and he certainly doesn’t need Mary tricking him into coming here so he can help her get my sorry ass home.

            “I got some alcohol into his system because I wanted a few answers to some questions I had,” Mary admits with next to no shame. “He never stopped drinking, so this is entirely on him.”

            “She’s an evil woman and I am never drinking with her again,” I groan, pinching the bridge of my nose. I’m going to hate myself in the morning.

            Robert rolls his eyes, visibly irritated that Mary dragged him out here for something he would much rather not deal with. Of course, as she said, the fault lies on me as well. I could have stopped drinking and I never did. I think the unaddressed and unresolved problems inside of my mind are starting to take control. I should probably get around to fixing some of the things in my life before I wind up like this again and have to call Robert once more.

            "I would walk him home myself, but he can hardly walk as it is and I can't make it there with his weight on me. Especially if he trips. He’ll probably wind up sleeping on a sidewalk if I try. So, if you would be so kind, I would like it if you could get him home for me," Mary explains.

           I look at Robert, who is now looking at me with curiosity and irritation. Wordlessly, he grabs my arm and throws it over his shoulders and then holds onto my hand to keep it secure. He securely wraps his other arm around my waist and starts walking as I stumble along. It feels strange to have Robert be this close to me. It feels... right and he smells so good. This feels like an entirely different form of intoxication. I could never get tired of smelling him or being close to him. I need to stop.

            With ease, Robert somehow manages to get me to my front door in eight minutes flat. I lean against the door-frame as he starts to dig around in my pockets for my keys, agitated by the fact I’m much too drunk to do it myself. How could I be this stupid? There’s a party tomorrow and… fuck. Robert eventually finds my house key through the vigorous fumbling of his hands in my pockets and as he unlocks my front door, I start to wonder where Mary went. She was behind us one minute and now she is nowhere to be seen. Though, I don't get to think about it for too long because Robert drags me into my house before I can ask about it.

            Stumbling through the dark hallway that is crowded with a full laundry basket and a couple of Amanda’s boxes, I guide the two of us back to my bedroom. Robert shifts me so I lean more against his chest as he opens the door and as soon as it's open, he's pulling me to my bed. I remember the last time we were beside a bed and the thought makes me blush, but I force myself to shove it aside. We were using each other back then. There was nothing passionate about it. We were there just to have sex, not to enjoy each other or to experience love. Just... sex. I hate it. I hate that I made that mistake.

            “Cody, if I’m going to sit you down, you have to let go of me,” Robert points out stiffly. He places his hand over mine that I keep latched to his hip and shirt. I’m not entirely sure when I decided to do that, but I am and I feel like my hand is stuck there.

            “I’m sorry, Robert,” I slur as I release him slowly.

            He sighs and lowers me down so I sit on the edge of my bed, picking me up again when I try to slump over to my side. “You’re drunk off of your pretty ass, kid. Don’t worry about it.”

            I shake my head slowly and Robert responds with a look of pure confusion. He’s having a lot of trouble trying to understand what I’m going on about and, honestly, so am I. While my brain is working at a sluggish rate, it is also somehow managing to work faster than I can keep up with. I have no control over what’s coming and what I say next is anything but expected.

            “No, not that… I’m sorry for everything. It was… It was my fault,” I say and honestly, that is the clearest thing I have said since getting wasted. It's almost sobering. “I know you don’t want to hear anything about, but I wish… things could be different between us.”

            Robert stares at me for a long time, his features highlighted by the moonlight that comes in from my open curtain. I have no regret for what I said just now, though I suspect that I will probably start to regret it tomorrow morning. I almost always regret my drunken actions the following morning.

            “Don’t get yourself worked up. I don’t deserve it. Just… get some rest, Cody. You’re going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow,” he finally says.

            He doesn’t deserve it? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? That is probably the dumbest thing I have ever heard him say and he has said a lot of dumb things. With a scowl frozen on my face, I start to fumble with the zipper of my hoodie. I fail time and time again, feeling extremely stupid for not being able to unzip my own zipper. My hands are way too clumsy for this. Thankfully, Robert ends my embarrassment by batting my hands away. He, with his sober hands, stands me up and unzips my hoodie for me. It drops to the floor and I know I should pick it up, but bending over might make me puke.

            Lazily, I kick off my shoes and fall back onto my mattress. I don’t want Robert to go, but I know I can’t ask him to stay either. Asking him to stay would fuck things up even more and I don’t have it in me to do that anymore. My drunken mind seems to be doing more for me than my sober one has in months. I’m fucking talking to him about what happened… I never thought this would happen.

            “You’re full of shit, Robert,” I grumble.

            Robert once again delivers a look of bewilderment. If he wanted to leave, he would have left by now. I’m safe in my own house and I’m at least on my bed. He's staying here for some reason. Logically, he may be staying here just to make sure I don't throw up and potentially kill myself by doing so. Illogically, he's staying here because he wants to.

            “Care to fill me in?” He asks with a hint of irritation in his voice. “I can’t read your mind, Codes.”

            While fumbling with the belt on my pants, I sit up and look up at him. "You said you don't deserve an apology, but you do. You deserve so much and you’re a dumbass for thinking otherwise," I explain and I’m not entirely sure where the hostility came from.

            Robert scoffs and eyes my belt as if it's the most annoying thing on the planet for him. It’s almost as if he wants to help me, but he doesn't want to overstep and take my pants off for me. "You don't know what you're saying, Cody. You're drunk and you won't mean any of this tomorrow morning," he says with a sigh.

            I glare at him and give up on my belt, letting my hands rest in my lap. "Fuck you, Robert,” I snap without thinking, "I mean everything. I had no intention of seeing you tonight, no intention of letting Mary get me this drunk just so she could ask me about my empty love life because you left it empty, and I sure as hell didn't plan on saying these things to you, but here I am. You have no idea how much I wish I could go back to that first night and stop myself. To stop myself from fucking up and just tell you no."

            Robert looks nothing short of emotionally distressed. His entire appearance has changed and it’s my fault. He looks pissed off and irritated with my inability to shut the hell up, but he also has a look of longing in his eyes. I have no idea what any of that means and it makes my head spin to even try and decipher it right now.

            “Do you hate me, Robert?” I ask quietly, fear creeping up my spine. My hands find their way to my belt again in an attempt to get them to cooperate long enough to get my belt undone. It's a simple task, so why I am struggling with it so much? It's like I have never had hands before.

            “No, Cody. I don’t hate you,” he admits, dragging a hand down his face.

            “Then why are you so cold to me?” I challenge, growing angry.

            Robert searches for an answer in silence and he seems to be struggling. I meet his gaze and feel butterflies in my stomach, unable to look away from him. The look in his eyes is familiar and it sparks memories in my cloudy mind from the first night we met. I remember this look. How could I forget it? It was this look that drew me in and it’s the same look that makes it impossible for me to walk away. This is how he looked at me before I ruined everything.

            “Stand up, Cody,” he orders calmly.

            Doing as I’m told, I unsteady get to my feet and give up on my belt once more. There’s no use in trying to unfasten it when I know I’m not going to get anywhere reasonable with it. How I’m going to be able to survive the fireworks tomorrow is beyond me. Robert manages to regain my attention by clearing his throat nervously. I snap my eyes back to him and wait patiently, swaying back and forth as I do. Suddenly, he pulls me dangerously close to his body by my belt loops. I probably smell like a liquor store, but he shows no indication of caring. We’re close enough for our noses to bump against each other and our hips clash together, grinding almost as I continue to sway. He brushes his lips against mine a couple of times, but does not kiss me. His lips are so soft...

           "Is this what you want, Cody?" He asks in a low voice.

           My heart is hammering against my chest and I'm pretty sure he can feel it against his. "I want you, Robert," I reply, feeling my voice waver just slightly.

           This is the closest I have ever emotionally got to him. I'm kicking myself for being drunk. After a whole damn year of awkward encounters, accidental run-ins, and what I thought to be hatred... this is where things have come to? Suddenly, my pants drop to the floor and I look down in wonder. For a brief second, I assume that I managed to undo my belt subconsciously, but then I see Robert's hands retract. He points to my bed with a solemn expression, which I reluctantly shuffle to.

            "Go to sleep, Cody. I'll see you tomorrow." Robert says as he leaves my room, but not before he gives me one last glance.

            What did I just do?

Chapter Text

Sunlight pours in through my cracked curtains, drawing me from my deep sleep.

            I squint in the light and slowly sit up against my headboard, groaning as a pounding headache suddenly makes itself present. My entire body feels sluggish and my stomach is queasy, begging for water. Out of all of the ways I would have preferred to start my day, this is not one of them. If I had been smart, I would have stayed home last and remained far away from the bar at all costs. This hangover is probably the worst one I have ever had and even though I would love to stay and hide in my bed, the day is not going to stop just because I feel like crap. Things are still going to happen and I need to get myself to a moderately presentable point before I can even think about making a public appearance. 

            I know what happened last night. Everything that happened at the bar is a bit fuzzy, but the things that happened with Robert are crystal clear in my clouded memories. He was here, he was in my room… and I said things to him I swore I would never openly admit. Regardless of what I said, he never ran out of the room or yelled at me. He had every opportunity to run, but he chose to stay and he got close to me. He doesn’t hate me, which is still leaving me in a small state of mild confusion. Mary most likely knows more about it than I do and I could ask her if time permits, but I’m also a little pissed with her for her actions. She purposefully meddled with my love life knowing something would come out of me being too drunk to stop myself from talking. She planned it all and I have a feeling she’s not done yet. That was only the start of a bigger plan.

            Accepting that there is nothing I can do about it now, I slide myself out of my warm bed and stumble into my master bathroom. I only turn on one set of lights in fear of making the headache worse and I flinch when I see my reflection in the mirror. I look like I took a road trip to hell and only managed to come back with half of my soul. Half of my hair is sticking up in about fifty different directions while the rest of it has been smooshed to lie so flat that it looks unhealthy. My eyes are bloodshot and the bags under them don’t leave a whole lot to be desired for. From my medicine cabinet, I take out two painkillers and dry swallow them even though I know I should be taking them with water. I deserve this hangover… or at least I think I do. I let it happen, I had multiple opportunities to stop drinking and I continued without hesitation.

            Stumbling clumsily to the shower, I strip away my clothes and climb under the started water before it has a chance to get warm. Today is the Fourth of July party, which means I will have to see everyone in the cul-de-sac. That, unfortunately, means that I will have to see Robert there too. Normally, I would be okay with that. I knew what to expect before last night, but now I have no idea what to expect. Will he go back to being angry and towards me? Or will there be an effort to fix things? Robert doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to willingly scream his emotions from the rooftops and, unfortunately, that means I will be left in the dark if he doesn't make the first move. 

            Mat wanted me to come into work today if I found it convenient. On any other given day, I would immediately get my ass to the Coffee Spoon for an extra shift because I can always use the extra cash, but I think there has to be an exception today. I’m almost positive that showing up to work hungover and emotionally conflicted will offset Mat. I love my job and I’m not about to screw it up because I had a bad night. I owe it to Mat to stay home today. He’s given me so much and has done what he can to make sure I keep a steady paycheck. Staying home is better for both of us. 

            I don’t stay in the shower for a long time. As soon as I’m out of there, I dry off my body with a large towel and go off to find suitable clothes for the day. In the back of my head, I know I should call Amanda later to wish her a happy Fourth and to remind her to be safe tonight. It has been a couple of days since she called last and I know she’s probably being safe and responsible, but it’s the old dad instinct in me that wants to constantly worry about my little girl even though my little girl is nineteen years old and is working her way through college. When did she get so big?

            My mind wanders back to Robert. It’s strange how one night of drinking turned everything upside down. Did Robert go home last night hating himself for helping me out? Was Mary proud of what she did even though it was kind of fucked up? If she wanted to know about my love life, she could have gone about it in another way that didn’t involve the concerning amounts of alcohol. I’m not sure how different it would have played out if I was sober, but I would, at the very least, feel less used. No matter what angle I look at it from, it all comes back around to confusion. Half of the things I said to him were not planned or thought out in advance. I had no idea I felt so strongly about what happened and I had absolutely no idea my feelings are as strong for him as they are.

            A loud knock on my front door manages to startle me, making me jump in surprise. I groan as my head begins to pound painfully in protest. I really need to get water into my system. I’m not expecting any visitors today and if I had to guess, I would assume it’s probably one of the kids coming by to ask if they can get a ball out of my backyard again. As the knocking continues, growing louder and louder by the minute, I dash out of my room with my shirt in hand and slide to a stop at my front door. Fumbling with the lock, I am surprised to find no children on my doorstep. Instead, Robert and Mary stand in front of me wearing dull and impatient expressions.

            “Oh, good. He’s alive. Get a shirt on and get your stuff together,” Mary says blandly. “Joseph is sending us on an errand and we need to get going sometime this century.”

            My eyes flicker anxiously to Robert. He seems to be doing everything he can to not look at me and it occurs to me that my bareness might be bothering him a little. Embarrassed, I throw on the shirt in my hand and return my focus to Mary. Things just became a little more awkward.

            “Why am I being dragged on this?” I ask, irritation find its way into my voice. “So you can get me drunk and pry around for answers?”

            Mary raises an eyebrow as if hearing a bad tone from me sounds like a foreign language. "You're mad about that? I did you a favor, Coconuts. Yes, you have to come. I know you and Robert are having a hissy fight, but you two can suck it up for a few hours. We have to go pick up illegal fireworks out of state," she says.

            Groaning under my breath, I retreat back to my room to finish getting ready without closing the front door. She's doing this on purpose. I doubt Robert told her what happened last night, but she knows something happened. Anyone with eyes could see that just be the way I look at him and the way he tries to avoid looking at me. Cursing under my breath now, I quickly shove my feet into the first pair of Converse I see and grab my phone, wallet, and keys from the jeans I wore yesterday. Mary and Robert are still on my doorstep when I come back out and once again, Robert and I make eye contact. My heart skips a beat.

            “Whose car are we taking?” I ask tiredly, cracking open the water bottle I swiped from my fridge.

            Mary gestures to her car parked in front of my house. "We'll take mine, but you and Robert have to sit in the back. Brian's dog pissed in the passenger seat and the upholstery is getting replaced."

            Robert narrows his eyes at the woman beside him and heatedly turns around. "For fucks sake, Mary. Stop while you're ahead," He grumbles as he walks towards the car.

            I slowly step out of my house and lock up behind me as I go. If the scowl on my face didn’t make it clear enough to her, I’m more than a little annoyed with Mary. Here she is, trying to play matchmaker with two people who will not fit together… He and I are like a bad puzzle. I don’t know what her aim is or what goal she is after, but I do know Robert has a strong distaste for it and I don’t care much for it either. Hastily, I climb into the right side of the car while Robert claims the left, never looking at me as we buckle our seat belts.

            “Robert, how long did you say it would take to get there?” Mary asks as she pulls away from the curb, glancing at him in the rear-view mirror.

            Robert sighs and pulls how phone out from his pocket to check something. “Two hours if you break a law or two,” he replies with a light shrug.

            “Better get comfortable, then. It may not be a bad idea for you two to have a real conversation for once. I'm not going to deal with the awkward silence between the two of you. It’s ridiculous,” Mary says sternly.

            Robert scoffs and flips her off in the rear-view mirror. "Maybe you should have thought about that before you got it into your head that you should be messing with things you know nothing about," he snaps.

            Alright, so maybe Robert does hate me and everything he said last night was a figment of my drunken imagination. Sighing, I relax into my seat and try not to focus on the man beside me. However, when I start to hear the sound of carving, I have to look back over to him to make sure I’m hearing things correctly. Shockingly, Robert is sitting there with a knife and a small block of wood in his hands. In the light, I can see the many scars that decorate his hands and I start to wonder if those scars came from this activity?

            “Robert, you better not be carving in my car,” Mary snaps threateningly.

            A smile appears on Robert’s face and I nearly allow my jaw to drop in shock. That’s a real smile on his face. A real, genuine smile and it looks so good on him. I wish I could see him smile more often.

            “I’m totally carving in your car,” he confirms proudly.

            Mary groans and I stifle a bubbling laugh, which Robert notices. Instantly, all of my amusement melts away as if it had never been there. For a moment, our eyes lock and I feel myself getting lost in his eyes. He is so easy to look at and I wish I had an excuse to look at him any time I want without it being weird. However, things are not how I wish they could be and before too long, I force myself to look away from him. Is the entire drive going to be like this? I have no idea why I agreed to go anyways. There’s no reason for me to be here other than to make Robert and myself insanely uncomfortable. Then again, that might be exactly why I agreed to go. Robert’s here and if I declined and stayed home, then I would look like I was running away and I won’t run from him. I can’t let myself do that… not after last night.

            “Goddamn it, you two. Talk. Stop being so stupid,” Mary snaps, briefly turning around in her seat to glare at us. "This isn't high school. People fuck each other all the time and the world keeps turning."

            Neither Robert nor I open our mouths. In fact, we both keep our mouths sealed shut. However, we do manage to exchange looks with each other and it makes my heart flutter. He’s clearly enjoying every second of Mary’s frustration. The look in his eyes is something of amusement and joy, not the hate and dread that I usually see in his eyes.

            “You two suck ass. I'll start taking detours until you guys have at least one conversation. I don’t care if we miss the party. Joseph will throw fifty more just like it,” Mary threatens.

            Robert rolls his eyes and turns to face me. “Fine, whatever. How are you handling your hangover from Mary, Cody?”

            I gulp and my eyes widen. Holy shit… I’m pathetic. “It sucks,” I say, nervously tapping my figures against my water bottle.

            “I thought so,” he replies simply. “There, Mary. Are you happy now?”

            Mary grips the steering-wheel and glares at Robert in the rear-view mirror, flipping him off just like he did to her not too long ago. “You are so immature. There is nothing wrong with having a conversation with somebody,” Mary grumbles.

            “There is when the conversation is forced because somebody is fucking with things she shouldn't be. What if I had plans to talk to him in my own time?” Robert snaps.

            “It’s been a year, Robert. If you were going to talk to me, you would have done it by now. Instead, all you do is glare and make me feel like I’m at fault for something we both did,” I clarify sadly.

            What I said strikes him in a way I didn’t expect. Instead of saying something cold or rude, Robert gives me a look of regret and hurt. Not knowing what else to do, I sigh and glance up to the roof of the car. This is going to be a very long trip for me, I can already tell. Once he’s sure the silence is going to stick around, Robert starts carving, or much rather whittling, again and I end up watching him as he does this. His movements are so careful and calculated; the way he moves his hands is mesmerizing to watch. I could watch this for hours if he let me. He seems so calm and distracted, like nothing is weighing on him anymore and all he can think about is the task in his hands.

            “Well, if Robert won’t talk to you because he’s being a child, then I will,” Mary starts bitterly with a scowl on her face. “How are your runs going with Craig, Coconuts?”

            I clear my throat anxiously, uncertain of where she could be taking this. “They’re going good. We run every other morning and we sometimes go to the gym when the weather is bad or something. Craig is in amazing shape so it’s a piece of cake for him, but I’m slowly catching up,” I explain, no longer paying attention to Robert.

            Mary snickers and turns on the turning signal for the car as we get close to a turn we’re supposed to make. “So, what about Craig, then? Have you ever thought about trying with him? You guys get along great. Maybe you should give it a shot,” she suggests.

            My cheeks heat up with embarrassment. “Uh… I have never really thought about it. Craig has always been my best friend and yeah, he’s attractive and we get along… but he’s also my best friend and I don’t think either of us would want to push that,” I say honestly.

            Robert’s carving pauses for a fraction of a second. I can feel his eyes on me as I look directly forward and it’s making it really hard for me to ditch the blush on my face. I wish he knew just how much he affects me.

            “Alright, I get that. What about Mat? Mat’s a great guy and I can see some chemistry brewing between you two,” Mary pries. And I think that was a pun.

            She has moved onto the tactic of jealously. The more she talks about dating options for me, the more jealous she hopes Robert will become. That seems like a pretty pointless plan to me considering I’m pretty sure Robert feels nothing towards me. Hell, I hardly even knew I had feelings for him until last night. I have spent the past year dwelling on how different things could have been and never once did I stop to evaluate my own developed feelings for him.

            “Mat is kind of my boss and he’s not really… Uh… my type,” I mumble as the deepening embarrassment crawls up my spine. This conversation is rapidly becoming uncomfortable, even more than what it already was.

            “Ah, so you do have a type. What is it?” Mary asks, already knowing what my answer would be. “You won’t date Craig and you won’t date Mat…”

            Instinctively, my eyes flicker to Robert and I regret it as soon as I do because he’s already looking at me with a scowl on his face and a fire burning in his eyes. He holds my gaze for longer than I should let him, but it’s so hard to look away when all I want to do is reach over there and kiss him. Is he plotting to kill me? Probably.

            “Can I plead the fifth?” I ask, feeling as if my stomach is in my throat when I finally tear my eyes from the man beside me.

            Mary sighs and lets the conversation drop, giving me my freedom for the time being. Never again will I willingly talk about such things in front of Robert like this. It’s hard to tell if he’s glaring at me because Mary’s plan worked or because he’s genuinely annoyed with me for talking. Uncomfortable with being under a microscope, I shift how I’m sitting to face the window in hopes he’ll take his eyes off of me. That’s the thing with Robert. No matter where we are or happen to be, I always manage to catch him glaring or staring with an agitated expression on his face. He only really does it when he knows nobody is paying attention, but I seem to catch him every single time.

              

            I sit in a lawn chair with a red solo cup in my hands and my phone on my lap. The kids of the cul-de-sac run across the yard, chasing each other with water guns and gross looking bugs. Joseph, as usual, is manning the grill as Brian helps him with whatever he needs. Craig is sitting beside the kitty pool, watching River splash about and giggle loudly. Hugo and Damien are sitting beside the fire pit, even though no fire is currently lit, and they seem to be sharing a conversation they are both deeply invested in. I have no idea where Robert is, but I suspect he’s close by because he always seems to be.

            Amanda called me not too long ago. It was good to hear her voice and to know she’s still having the time of her life at college. We talked for several minutes about her schooling and social life before she flipped it around to ask about my life. I had to carefully navigate through my person messes to avoid saying something to her that would make her worried or even more curious about my life than she already is. She’s having such a good time at college that the last thing I want to do is burden her with my problems. She’s my daughter for crying out loud. I could never do that to her. I’m the one who is supposed to take on her problems and guide her through life, not the other way around.

            “I think it’s time for some fireworks!” Joseph announces as he shuts off the grill. “Everybody, go to the front yard while Mary and I set things up.”

            Slowly, I push myself up from my chair and follow the small hoard of people out through the back gate and around to the front yard. I can hear fireworks going off in every direction and more than half of them sound like they’re illegal. Maple Bay is as rebellious as ever. In all of my life, I never paid much attention to the fourth of July. Though, now that I have people to spend it with, it’s not as boring for me as it usually is. In fact, this reminds me of Amanda’s first Fourth of July when Craig and I helped Alex steal fireworks from the jock's frat house. They kind of deserved it; the jocks were all assholes with money.

            Mary and Robert emerge from the house with their arms full of fireworks, both illegal and mildly legal. The kids all huddle together, with the exception of Lucien and Ernest, and wait eagerly for the ‘show’ to start. Joseph soon comes out of the house with a lighter in his hands and a bucket full of water. He tosses the lighter to Robert when Robert has his hands free again, who then catches it in one hand effortlessly. How does he make everything he does seem so effortless and cool like that?

            I stand on the sidewalk and look down at my hands, wondering where my drink went. Did I leave it in the backyard? I’m sure Mary and Joseph won’t having to clean up an extra cup, but I do wish I brought it out here with me. Moving on from the pointless thought, I watch Robert as he lights the first firework and as he dashes out of the way before it can go off in his face. He then passes the lighter to Mary and winds up standing next to Brian with his arms crossed.

            Firework after Firework, the night carries on. People have since scrambled where they’re standing and because I had become so lost in my own head, I failed to notice how close Joseph has become until I look over and see him standing just inches away from me. His hand brushes against mine and my hand automatically flinch away from the contact. I hope that was an accident, but I will be the first to admit that Joseph and his motives around me have always been questionable. Feeling a little unsure of what he’s doing, I cross my arms and shift my weight off to the other side.

            “I’m glad you’re here tonight, Cody. I know social interactions are not your most favorite thing,” Joseph says as he places his hand against the small of my back.

            My body freezes instantly at his unusual touch. I always thought Joseph was just a touchy-feely kinda guy, but this is beyond that. The way his thumb moves against my spine and the way he’s smiling… this is flirting.

            “Oh… yeah. I don’t mind hanging out with everybody in the cul-de-sac. It’s more or less strangers that I feel awkward around,” I explain, though it is hard to ignore the way my heart is hammering against my chest because of the nerves and alarm pumping through my body. I should step away from this.

            Joseph smiles deeply and I awkwardly shift my gaze to the next firework Mary is setting off. Everything is fine until I notice that the firework is not sitting flat on the ground and when the fuse is up, it falls over in my direction. The firework launches nevertheless and as it comes straight for my head, I find myself unable to move as the panic renders me useless. Then, something very hard - something very fast - tackles me to the ground and instead of hitting my head, the fireworks bumps into one of the windows on the house and falls to the ground, no longer able to go off.

            I gaze up at Robert with shock and for a single moment, we are the only two people on the lawn. He looks down on me with a simultaneously angry and worried look in his eyes and I realize then just how right it feels to have him this close to me. It has nothing to do with the fact that he’s on top of me with his body in between my legs. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m drowning in his scent. Much rather, it has everything to do with the fact that we fit together perfectly. I know he can feel it too, he has to. My heart is racing, pounding hard against my chest. It would be so easy to pull him into a kiss, but I resist the urge.  

            “T-Thanks…” I stutter, gulping past the knot in my throat that became a byproduct of being panicked.

            Robert shakes his head and the look in his eyes is fading. It has been replaced with the same old look I’m used to getting, cold and unloving.  “Don’t fucking mention it,” he growls as he climbs off of me and starts to walk in the direction of his house.

            I push myself up on my elbows and accept the hand Craig offers me to pull myself up. There is a deafening silence amongst the group of people and even Mary is in a state of shock. Though I have a feeling it’s more about the quick and oddly intimate moment Robert and I just shared rather than me nearly losing my head to a firework. I'm sure everybody is cooking up their own little theories in their heads. 

            “I think that’s enough fireworks for tonight. It’s getting pretty late anyways,” Joseph announces and everyone instantly agrees.

            Wordlessly, I shuffle off to my house and I do not think twice about turning around. Once safely inside of my own house, I go straight to my bed and collapse onto it. My hand itches for my phone, but I know if I reach for it, I’ll end up going on Dadbook to message Robert. He’s been acting weird all day and I’m willing to put all of my money on to bet that it has everything to do with last night.

            Emotionally exhausted, I kick my shoes off and bury my face into my pillow. I want all of this to stop. For a year I have dealt with the guilt and regret. I have no idea what’s going on between us anymore, everything I thought I knew has been turned inside out. I can only hope that it will sort itself out with time. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to feel so alone anymore.

Chapter Text

Amanda has been hounding me about getting out of the house, so here I am. Out of the house.

            It has occurred to me that I could have stayed home anyway because there’s not much Amanda can do while she is fourteen hours away from Maple Bay, but I figured she probably has spies all over town watching me to make sure I don’t become a complete hermit in her absence. I mean it when I say Amanda takes after her mom. I’ve never met another child who is so determined to make sure that I live my life and have a little fun doing it. Even when she was little, she would encourage her mother and me to leave her with the baby sitter so we could go out on a date or two. She always put us before herself and when her mother died, all of that went to me. It was a constant battle between us as she grew up because I was the one who was supposed to be taking care of her, but she would always turn around and try to do the same for me. It took a long while before we came up with a system that worked for both of us.

            And so, because I am slightly terrified of my child, I currently sit in a chair near the table, trying to keep myself at a safe distance away from the loud commotion and bickering. It’s only a matter of time before they drag me in and I’m still not sure how I’m going to explain myself when that happens. Am I good at poker? Hell no. But am I sitting in Joseph’s back yard during poker night? Yes, I am. Almost twiddling my thumbs, I watch as Craig stares intently at Brian’s face and I smile a little when an outburst of laughter breaks out all over the table. Craig proudly scoops up his winnings, adding it all over to his side. It has been years since I’ve played poker with Craig, but even I know to never underestimate that man. I’ve lost many valuables and cash to him and I certainly learned my lesson when he one the last Red Bull of our finals season.

            For a brief moment, my eyes flicker over to Robert. I had no idea he would also be here tonight when Mat talked me into coming here tonight while we were at work. The guy totally blindsided me and asked me if I wanted to come and I couldn’t tell the guy no because it’s Mat, so I agreed. He told me only a few of the dads would be here tonight and for some reason, I didn’t expect Robert to be one of those dads. It’s driving me crazy. I have no idea how I’m supposed to act around him. Not since the Fourth of July, at least. Do I act nice? Do I try to talk to him? Do I ignore him altogether? He’s making my head spin and I think I might throw up.

            Sighing, Brian stands up and drops his deck onto the table in a fashion that would suggest he’s not happy about whatever just happened at the table. Oh no. Please no. Brian is folding. He has nothing left to bet for the night. He’s dipping out of the game before he can go bankrupt. Don’t do this to me, Brian. There’s hardly any of his snacks left on the table. Why would he stay in the game if there are no good snacks? I’m begging you, Brian. Craig looks away from his cars and grins brightly as his eyes land on me. I shake my head, trying to tell him that I’m no good at this game but it flies right over his head. Back in our college days, we were damn near telepathic. We always knew what each other was thinking and we always knew what the other wanted to eat. Why couldn’t that link have survived us becoming dads and spending years apart? I’m doomed. Goddanm it, Brian.

            “Bro! Come join us!” Craig calls excitedly, waving me over and pointing to the spot at the table that Brian left wide open for me.

            Why did it have to be Brian of all people who had to fold? I thought he was the most competitive out of all of us? I glance at the empty seat and then over at Robert who sits right beside it. Shit. Okay, I can do this. I can be a man. There’s nothing wrong with sitting next to the guy, right? That’s what acquaintances or friends do. Except I’m pretty sure Robert thinks about nothing but burying my body in his backyard anytime I’m within eye-shot. Trying to keep my face calm, I rise from the lawn chair and slowly make my way around the table to take my new spot. Right away, I can feel Robert’s prying eyes on me and it’s taking every ounce of strength in me to not look at him. I can do this. It’s not like this is the first time we’re around each other at one of the social interactions that seem to always take place in this damned cul-de-sac.

            “Please tell me you’ve gotten better at this since college?” Craig asks, nudging me with his shoulder.

            In all honesty, I haven’t played a ton of poker since college. Amanda went through a short phase where she wanted to learn how to play and I figured I was good enough to beat a new-player teen, but she won every single time. “Totally. I’ve completely mastered poker.”

            Craig makes a doubtful face, reaching out to poke at my cheek. “You still need to work on your poker face, bro,” he laughs. “You’re gonna do just fine. Everyone has their tells.”

            “You don’t understand,” I reiterate. “The last time I played, Amanda won herself pizza for a week and she robbed me blind.”

            “There’s no way you’re as bad as Joseph,” Robert says.

            I almost jump at the sound of his voice. Did he actually speak to me or am I hearing things? I look at him – and yes, he did, in fact, speak to me – and then I look at Joseph who shrugs innocently. Clearly, he doesn’t feel the need to come to his own defense. He knows he’s terrible at poker. At least I won’t be the worst one at the table. I still have a chance to come out of this with my dignity. Then again, I should know better than to speak so soon.

            “Wait… You figured out all of their tells?” I then ask Craig, a little surprised. How long has poker night been a thing for the dads of the cul-de-sac? A month? Years? I need to start engaging in these social interactions more. I might actually get better at poker if I played more than once every three years. Great. Am I actually enjoying this?

            “Oh, yeah. Brian adjusts his pants, Mat scratches his ear, and Joseph basically can't tell a lie to save his life," Craig reveals smoothly. I will never be able to understand how this man is just so naturally good at poker. It’s like he was born with a gene that made him a master since birth. Maybe that’s why I can never get away with lying to him? It’s like the guy can just look at someone and he knows all of their dirty little secrets. Or maybe we’re all terrible liars.

            “At least I have the lord on my side,” Joseph says kindly.

            Craig laughs and points at him as if he just made his point. “See, you can’t even say that with a straight face,” he says.

            “What about Robert?” Mat asks, gesturing to the brooding man beside me.

            Craig’s once confidence slowly twists into deep thought as he looks at Robert, a man whom he has known for years, and struggles to come up with an answer. “Robert is an enigma.”

            Robert raises his glass of whiskey, almost saluting at us. Of course, he knows how mysterious and closed off he is. He practically lives just to keep us all on the edge of our seats. I’ve heard so many different stories about him that I’ve stopped caring about which ones are real and which ones are fake. I’m never going to know, so why bother trying?

            “I’m fairly certain he could wipe the floor with all of us if he actually tried,” Craig goes on to say. “He hardly puts in an effort.”

            With a shrug, Robert sips from his whiskey. “I’m just here because I enjoy the company.”

            “Well, there’s gotta be something that can get you to give a damn,” Brian says from where he stands at the opposite end of the table.

            “Do you really want to unleash the beast?” Robert asks and there’s a fire in his eyes that makes me twist around in my seat nervously. So much for this round being easy. Somehow, I feel like I just broke my bank and I haven’t even put anything on the table yet.

            From the backdoor of Joseph’s house, stands Mary and she’s watching her friend very carefully. “Well, now we’re all curious,” she adds on. Her eyes fall on me suspiciously, surprised that I actually showed up to poker night for a change instead of hiding out in my house. What’s shocking her even more is how Robert and I got ourselves landed next to each other and she didn’t even have to lift a single finger to get it done. Maybe the universe is in her favor after all?

            “I got a long history of being a gambling man. But I’ll only do it if you make it interesting. None of this penny chip nonsense,” Robert finally agrees.

            I glance over at Craig, nervously awaiting to see what kind of trouble I’ve gotten myself into by agreeing to come here tonight. As long as he doesn’t put anything up of substantial value on the table, I’m safe. However, the look on his face has a rock dropping into my stomach. He knows he has to put something up that Robert will like in order to get him to really play for once. Whatever it is, it has to be good. The stakes just went through the roof. I’m done for. I’m gonna have to move out of the country and change my name.

            “I got Lilley’s 18-year single blend sitting in my closet at home right now," he offers. "I was going to save it for when River turns twenty-one, but I'm willing to put it up as collateral."

            Robert nods, thoroughly intrigued by the stakes. "Now you're talking my language," he says. From his pocket, he extracts the keys to his truck and he tosses them onto the table. "She's seen better days but she can still pull a tree trunk out of the ground."

            “I got an old vinyl collection sitting in my garage. Probably worth a few hundred,” Mat offers, leaning back in his chair. I’m surprised he didn’t fold the minute Robert agreed to do this. Maybe he’s staying in because I’m staying in? At least Joseph was smart enough to fold out while he still had the chance.

            I stare at the keys in bewilderment, unsure of how far this is going to go. There’s easily a couple-grand up for grabs right now. Is Robert really going to bet his only vehicle off like this? Suddenly, all eyes are on me. Oh no. I’m supposed to put something up there. Oh shit. Racking my brain, I try to find something that I wouldn’t mind parting with. Everything that I have of high value either belonged to Alex or is Amanda’s and I won’t give any of that up. I don’t drink much, so all I have is beer in the fridge and I’m pretty sure I have the smallest house in the cul-de-sac. So, what do I have of sentimental value? Then it dawns on me. I only have one item in my house with enough value to keep this game going. Sighing, I reach into the pocket of my jeans and extract a single guitar pick. I toss it onto the table, landing it right beside Robert’s keys. Everyone stares at it with curiosity, unsure of how a guitar pick could be worth much but I hold off their questions.

            “I got a fender guitar sitting at home right now. I’ve owned it since I was eighteen. It’s in near perfect condition. It’s not a bottle of whiskey, but it’s the best I’ve got,” I explain.

            Craig drops his jaw a bit, surprised I put something like that on the table. "Cody... That was your first real guitar. Are you sure you want to give that up? You and Alex played the hell out of it in college."

            I nod, unsure of what the hell I am doing. “Gotta live a little, right?”

            Still a little surprised, Craig makes a face and turns to Mat. “Wanna deal the cards out?”

            Mat grabs for the deck and smoothly deals out our hands, his eyes carefully focused on Robert. Nobody knows what the hell to expect. Is he going to pull out some seriously insane skills and make us all cry? Is he going to slaughter us all in cold blood and smile while doing it? Anxiously, I take my hand and stare at what I’ve been given. Just as I thought it would be, it’s nothing good and it’s definitely nothing that will win me this round. I’ll be packing up my guitar by midnight.

            “Let’s make this interesting,” Robert then says, getting ready to up the stakes even more. Robert please no. I can’t handle this. From the inside of his leather jacket, he produces the deed to his house. He tosses it onto the pile and somehow manages to keep his face perfectly calm. “All I have and all I am. Are you prepared to go the distance?”

            Did he seriously have the deed to his house in his jacket, waiting to be bet away? How is this man even real? Anxiously, Craig wipes the sweat away from his forehead. He’s watching Robert so closely, looking for any sort of tell that he can use to call his bluff. I can feel my palms itching with anticipation of my for sure doomed fate. Robert casually sips on his whiskey again, keeping himself completely calm and illegible. Craig’s face changes then and I start screaming internally. Craig, you’re my only hope. Cracking under the pressure, Craig hands his head in defeat. He’s not even going to risk it. He doesn’t want to be the man to take away all of Robert’s possessions and, honestly, neither do I.

            “I fold,” Craig says. And with his folding goes the only chance I had at keeping my guitar. “The whiskey is yours, Robert.”

            “I’m out too,” I say, shoving my cards together in a nice stack. I feel like I got conned for some reason.

            “Make that three,” Mat calls, tossing his cards down.

            Still not showing any shred of emotion, Robert slides the small pile over to his spot. “And that’s why you don’t dance with the devil, fellas.”

            I shoot a side glance at the guitar pick that I gave away, unsure of why I thought there was any chance of keeping it. I’m horrible at poker. I would have lost it no matter how hard I played to keep it. And, thinking back, Robert has probably been waiting for ages to lay down that kind of scheme. He knew none of us would be prepared to actually play for his house. I have to give him credit, though. He’s incredibly smart. Although Craig may have everyone’s tells memorized, Robert has all of our fears and everything else in between down by heart.

            “Well, what do you say, Cody?” Mat asks. “Will we be seeing you again for poker night?”

            “As long as I don’t have to give up one of my kidneys, I’ll probably come back,” I say with shaking confidence. I already gave up the one thing in my house that held the most value to both me and the market. Anything more and I’ll be on the streets with Larry the guy with a pet goose.

            Soon, everyone begins to disperse to go home and after the next hour ticks by, I think it’s time for me to gather my things and pack it out too. I’m not sure when I should pack up my guitar and deliver it, but I’ll save it for tomorrow. I’m already too exhausted to think about much else tonight. Walking out through the back gate, I cut across the Christensen’s front yard with my hands in my pockets. When I’m about halfway to my house, I feel a hand grab my shoulder gently and it forces me to stop walking. Slowly, I turn around expecting to be Mat or maybe Joseph, but instead, I find Robert. Has he come to stab me? Swiftly, he takes my hand and holds my palm up and from his jacket pocket, he pulls out the guitar pick.

            “Keep it,” he says, pressing the pick into my hand.

            I stare at the pick and at the way he holds onto my hand in a surprisingly gentle way, feeling my brain stutter. “You won it fair and square,” I remind him, unable to think of anything else to say that would sound remotely intelligent.

            “It holds too much sentimental value. I’m not going to be the guy to take that away from you,” he explains after a long pause. “Craig mentioned an Alex and I get the feeling they were important to you.”

            I smile slightly, looking away from the pick to finally meet his eyes. “She was my wife, Amanda’s mom,” I reveal. “She and I would play together for hours. It helped Amanda sleep when she was little and helped her cope after…” I falter a little, unsure of why I’m bringing this up. I doubt he cares much about my past.

            Robert’s face falls for a fraction of a second, picking up on what I stopped myself from saying. I can tell he had no idea I was even married once, but I got Amanda from somewhere and Alex was it. “You had guts to put it up for grabs, then. I can admire that,” he says. “I’ll catch you around.”

            Did I hit my head at some point today or fall into some sort of an alternate reality where Robert is nice to me? Before I can thank him for doing this to me, he’s pulling his hand away and walking off to his own house, the very same house he betted on. I stand in the middle of the street for a moment, trying to decipher the exchange between us. Is there some kind of hidden meaning behind it that I missed? He could have kept the guitar, but he decided to give it back to me based on a hunch that the ‘Alex’ who Craig mentioned was important to me. He said no snarky comments, he gave me no glares, and he certainly didn’t have to grab my hand like that to give it back to me. His hand was gentle and it was soft… and it was the last thing I could expected from him. With legs that have turned to jelly, I walk myself the rest of the way back home and close the door firmly behind me. I think I just need to go to sleep after all of that.

            As I got to turn down the hallway, I catch sight of the guitar that I almost lost tonight and stop dead in my tracks. The moonlight that comes in from my window bounces off of it and I lightly reach out to touch it, feeling the wood against my skin. It has been a long while since I played it and, okay, maybe bettering this guitar was one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever had. Craig was right about what he said. Alex and I would play this thing for hours together when we didn’t have class. She had the most beautiful voice when she sang and Amanda loved it. Every now and then, I would sing with her too but it was so hard to when all I wanted to do was listen to my wife. She was perfect in every way imaginable.

              

            Eggs. I need more eggs in the house. Wandering off to the eggs section in the grocery store, I grab for a two-dozen pack and place them in my cart. I feel like I’ve been at the store for an hour now, but I had no food in my house and it was either go shopping like a responsible adult or order another pizza for the third time this week. Naturally, I went with the grocery option because I’m pretty sure if Craig saw another pizza delivery car drive up to my house, he would have busted down my door and as nice as it is to have Craig around, that is not a scenario I want to find myself in. It would have involved a headlock and those are one of the few positions I try to avoid getting into. Moving onto the next aisle, I encounter someone I would rather not talk to right now. Trying to be stealthy, I quickly turn around, but I know I'm too late. Mary calls after me and I shamefully stop and turn back around, putting on a false face of happiness to see her.

            "Oh hey, Mary," I say. "Didn't think I'd see anyone here today."

            "Don't play dumb. I know you were trying to run off just now," she says pointedly, putting a hand on her hips.

            In defeat, I sigh. "Can you blame me? Almost every time I run into you, you're trying to pair me up with Robert," I say.

            Mary throws a loaf of bread into her basket and she shrugs her shoulders lightly. "Just doing you two a favor. He's warming up to you, now isn't he?"

            "No. Yes... No," I say, shaking my head. "Maybe. I don't know. I feel like I'm getting whiplash from him. I'm pretty sure he hates my guts."

            Mary hums and goes for a roll of bagels, tossing them to join the bread in her basket. "Trust me, Robert's hatred has nothing to do with you."

            "What's that supposed to mean?" I ask, grabbing for the loaf of bread I came down this aisle for. I will not let this woman make me leave without my bread. I basically live off of sandwiches right now as it is and sandwiches without bread is just sad.

"It means he doesn't actually hate you. That's just what it looks like because he wants to hate you," she says, gesturing for me to join her down to the next aisle.

            Following along with her, I try to wrap my head around what she's saying. "How can you possibly know that for sure? Have you seen the way he looks at me? He wants to run me over."

            "Tell me something," she says, eyeing a box of cereal. "He gave you back the guitar pick last night, didn’t he? He gave it back because he couldn't take it from you?"

            I pause, unsure of how she figured that one out. Was she watching us from her window last night? "Yeah, he did."

            Making a gesture, Mary rolls her eyes. "If he really hated you, do you really think he would have given that back to you?"

            I contemplate that for a moment and think for a long while about what Robert said to me. His entire mood seemed to shift once I mentioned my wife and basically told him she died. He wasn't cold towards me then and it seemed like he genuinely cared about my wellbeing. But the weeks before? How angry he was after saving me from the firework? How frustrated he was that Mary called him to come to take care of me after she got me drunk? That doesn't add up in my head. I can hardly make sense of him most of the time, but it has been a lot worse recently.

            "That's circumstantial. I still don't see how you know he doesn't hate me," I say, sidetracking my thoughts for a moment.

            Mary sighs and turns to face me, her expression almost emotionless. "Listen to me, kid. Robert hates letting people in. I've known him for a long time and I know why he keeps himself so closed off. Think about it. Maybe he's trying to hate you because he knows what you could do to him if he left you in," she offers.

            I feel like my head is spinning. I gotta get away from this conversation before I fall over. "I... I don't even know what to say."

            "Well, that's not my problem," Mary says, grabbing for another cereal. "Just think about. He'll come around eventually. I'll make sure of it."            

            Without another word, she's walking off and leaving me along with my thoughts in the middle of the breakfast aisle. Was any of what she said true? Is that one of the real reasons behind why Robert hates me? I can hardly breathe right now. Pushing my cart, I go to the first available check stand and start loading my things onto the belt. When did my life become so complicated? I miss the times when I would go on runs with Craig in the morning and go into my day knowing my day was going to be just fine. Now? Now I feel like I'm walking in a minefield. There is a lot to Robert that I don't know and maybe I will never know him, but I've gotta try. If any of what Mary said was true, then there's still a chance for me to fix this. I can't pass that up.

Chapter Text

Adrenaline courses through my veins as sweat drips down my face.

            Craig is right beside me, but he’s gaining speed faster than what I can safely keep up with. I breathe through the burning in my calves and force myself to move faster, only managing to get marginally ahead of him. Craig is putting everything he has into this. I lack the energy in my body to see through but for the sake of my pride, I must keep going. There’s not much time left and within the last few seconds, I throw everything I have left into my moving my legs and by some miracle, it’s me who crosses the finish line just before Craig does.

            Exhausted, I plop down on the nearby park bench and throw my firsts up into the air as I pant heavily. “I still got it!” I exclaim tiredly. I’m not even sure if my legs are going to work within the next hour. I may have just killed them.

            Craig laughs and wipes the sweat from his forehead away with his shirt. “I let you win, bro. I had that race in the bag. No doubt.”

            I scoff and jab a finger in his direction vigorously. “Yeah, right. I had you beat and you know it. You have only beaten me in a race three times before. Just admit that I’m faster than you, even now. Even when you’re all big and muscley.”

            Laughing and grinning, Craig shakes his head in a brutal dismissal of my request. “No way, bro. These muscles mean everything. Do you see the shape I’m in? This is nothing compared to college. My stamina is through the roof.”

            Still refusing to believe such lies, I glare at Craig. “Alright, fine. We’ll schedule a rematch. I’m going to beat you and you’re going to kiss my ass with shame.”

            Craig cracks a wide grind. “You would be so lucky,” he teases. “Deal. We’ll test your theory as soon as you’re ready for it, bro.”

            Confident in the deal, I stand up and we shake on it. We then start walking at a slow pace back to the cul-de-sac because I’m certain that if I were to move any faster, I’d turn into a pile of dust right on the spot. Craig and I talk the entire way back, deciding if there should be some sort of a bet placed before the race or not. We ultimately decided that the loser has to buy the winner whatever drink they want from the Coffee Spoon for a week. I’m certain I can beat him again, but I have also learned to not underestimate Craig and his overall strength and speed. Just last week, he was able to do several push-ups with all three of his daughters on his back and then proceeded to go out for a nearly six-minute mile. I’m not sure what happened to Craig after college, but I have serious doubts that he’s still human. Maybe he’s been a robot this entire time and nobody has noticed because he moved far away from anyone who knew him.

            Respectively, we branch apart and say goodbye to each other when we reach our own houses. I’m absolutely disgusting right now and smell only of pure sweat, so I go straight for my master bathroom. Without Amanda here, the bathroom in front of her bedroom hardly gets any use. The only time it gets used is when I have people over or when I can’t make it to my ensuite in my room.

            As the shower water heats up, I peel my soaked shirt off of my body and throw it into the hamper with the intention to do a load of laundry later. In the mirror, I catch my reflection and wind up looking at myself. Growing up, I never had problems with my weight. I always ate right and made sure I was healthy, but I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t a little soft in the belly and thighs. Since I started working out with Craig, I have built up muscle in the places where I was once soft. I’m not the kind of person to brag, but I have grown to really appreciate how I’m looking and for all intents and purposes, I’m just an average guy with decent muscle.

            Disgusted by the drying sweat on my body, I ditch the rest of my clothes and jump into the shower. The warm water is rejuvenating and, thankfully, loosens up the knot that formed in my right shoulder. In the back of my mind, I know I should go see a chiropractor. It would do me a lot of good, but I can never find the time to sit down and schedule an appointment. It would certainly help me sleep better at night because after I’m realigned, I won’t have to constantly roll around to find a comfortable position for my spine and neck.

            Overall, the past couple of weeks have been really great for me. Mary is still trying her best to play matchmaker, but I haven’t seen much of Robert since poker night. I have also made careful precautions to avoid Joseph as much as possible. I mean no harm by doing so, but I need to put some distance between us before he starts to get the wrong idea. The last thing I want to do is get myself tangled up in something I want no part of. I can’t hurt Mary like that and I’m almost positive that Robert would never talk to me again if I did something like that behind his back. It would only solidify his theory that I put sex before relationships.

            As for the other dads in the cul-de-sac… I recently had Brian stop by my house because of the electrical problems I was having in my living room. He, of course, talked for hours about his own house, but I mostly tuned him out and focused myself on cleaning until he left. Two days ago, I borrowed a few books from Hugo or, much rather, was given books to read from Hugo because he thought I could use the entertainment. I’m still not sure if I should be offended by that or not. As for Damien, I hung out with him for a few hours at the pet shelter yesterday and I always see Mat at work. But Robert? I do wonder where he has been.

            My daily routine takes a little longer than normal, so as soon as I gather my things, I’m flying out of my front door and sprinting my way to work. A couple of strangers give me a weird look as I zip past them, but I don’t stop to explain myself. Instead, I return their stares with obnoxiously friendly waves for the sake of my own humor. Right on the dot, I burst in through the door of the Coffee Spoon and slow my pace to a walk as I slip behind the counter and enter the back room.

            “And here I thought you were going to be late today,” Mat jokes, his hands busy with kneading bread dough.

            “Me? Late? Never. I only had to book here to make it on time,” I joke as I try to calm down my loud breathing.

            Mat laughs and as soon as I grab my apron from the hooks, I head right back out to the main counter. There’s not a whole lot of foot traffic going on, which seems odd given the time. It’s supposed to be morning rush hour. Shrugging, I lower myself down into a squat and busy myself with reorganizing the display case for the fifth time this week. This job has been so ridiculously good to me. Mat pays me more than I think he should be and he never complains when I take a day off… probably because of the insane amount of overtime I put it. By far, this is the best job I have ever had and I can never really see myself leaving this place. This beats all of the jobs I had in college when all I had to do was make pizzas and put them in the freezer.

            The bell above the door rings and because my arm is so deeply shoved in the display case to move around a slice of carrot cake, I cannot see who walked through the door. I should get up to check to see if it’s a customer, but I stay lowered in my squat. This is the last piece that I have to move around. However, as soon as I see Robert staring down on me with an amused expression, I jump in shock and hit my head hard enough on the counter to send stars into my vision. That was not my smoothest move.

            “Son of a bitch,” I curse through my clenched teeth, rubbing the back of my head. A bump will develop there later, I just know it. Slowly, I come to my feet and shuffle over to the cash register with a pained expression on my face. I place both hands on the counter and lean forward a bit, doing what I can to ignore the throbbing going on in my head. I wasn’t planning on getting a concussion today, but there’s a first for everything.

            “Good morning, Robert,” I greet attentively as I try to remember the last time I saw him in the shop within the last year. “What can I get for you?”

            “Medium black coffee. Leave out the poison,” he replies immediately, eyes locked with mine.

            There’s something in the way that he’s looking at me that would suggest he’s struggling to decide something and because I have come to learn that Robert is an endless stream of mysteries, I can’t even begin to wonder what it could possibly be. I hold his gaze for what feels like forever, not caring much about what other people may think. I’m lost in his eyes, swimming in the familiar feelings of confusion and longing. To feel so strongly for someone who may not feel the same way is heartbreaking, but I know there is something there with him. There’s no way I’m projecting this. He has to feel something for me somewhere in that heart of his. Why else would he hate me for this long? Why else would Mary tell me all that she did at the store?

            “Well, you’re in luck. We ran out of poison yesterday morning,” I joke lightly. “Can I get you anything else? Be quick before May realizes you’re here and starts shoving food at you. I have no idea what he’s making back there, but he’s making a lot of it.”

            Robert stifles a laugh and shakes his head, giving me the green light to start making his drink for him. Thankfully, Mat already had a brew going, so it only takes me a handful of seconds to get Robert’s drink together. Turning back to him, I lightly touch the back of my head and curse under my breath. If I hit it any harder than I did, I probably would have made my head bleed. Before I set the coffee down, I slip it into a cup sleeve so he won’t burn himself. Just because he hates me doesn’t mean I can’t still take care of the guy. Knowing him, he’d probably just take the hot cup without showing any signs of it burning him while he screams internally to keep up with his image.

            “Card or cash?” I ask as I slide him his drink.

            “Cash.”

            “That’ll be two dollars.”

            Robert pulls out his wallet from his back pocket and opens it up, pulling out two one-dollar bills. He hands then to me and I transfer the bills into the cash register in a single flow of movement. It’s a little strange having Robert here, but it’s even more so to have him be here and be nice to me for a change. There’s no hatred or dread in his eyes. This is Robert just being Robert and it’s a nice change of pace.

            “You should ice your head for a few minutes. It’ll help with the headache,” Robert suggests as he picks up his coffee. “I speak from experience.”

            A little surprised he didn’t just run out the door after getting his drink, I lean up against the counter and smile ever so slightly. “I’ll have to see what we have in back. I’m pretty sure Mat fire me if I use the drinking ice. Something about sanitation.”

            Robert snorts and I laugh quietly. I’m trying to understand why he’s sticking around because the last time I checked, he wanted nothing to do with me. This interaction almost feels normal and… Did Mary have something to do with this? She probably did. I quickly scan the shop to make sure she’s not standing around, watching me act like a dumbass.

            “You never really let me thank you for knocking me out of the way of the firework,” I say, testing the waters a bit. “So, uh… Thank you for saving my clearly stunning face from being set on fire.”

            Robert nods and shifts his weight over to his right side casually. “Yeah, well if you weren’t so distracted by Joseph, you may have been able to move in time.”

            Jealousy. “Hey, I was not distracted by Joseph. I was more or less trying to figure out why the hell he kept touching me and then I panicked and couldn’t move. It’s not like I have the hots for Joseph, Robert,” I defend, a little offended he would even think like that. “You know where my interests lie.”

            Robert squints his eyes as if he’s trying to decide if I’m telling the truth. “Alright, you got me. Just be careful around him, Cody. He’s not a good guy,” he warns as he turns to walk out.

            “Hey, Robert?” I call after him. He stops and turns around with a raised eyebrow. I have to ask one question just to get me through the day. He can probably handle that, right? “Why did you come in today? You’re never here when I’m on the clock,” I ask curiously.

            The faintest smile toys at the corners of his lips and I feel my heart swell. “I heard from a friend there was a cute barista on the clock today. Turns out, she was right. Head hitting and all.”

            My eyes widen and without another word, Robert exits the shop. Holy shit… What was that about?

            “Aw, man,” Mat says from the doorway to the back room. “You’re in for a wild ride.”

            I spin around to face him and it’s clear he saw everything that just happened with Robert. “Mat, help me. I’m too young to die. What do I do?”

            “Nope. I’m so not getting involved,” he laughs. “You got yourself into that mess. If it makes you feel any better, Robert isn’t as tough as he makes himself out to be. He bought a raspberry hot chocolate last week.”

            I groan and drag a hand down my face. I’m not sure what’s going on with Robert, but I do know that I managed to get myself tangled up in something tricky. Whatever it is or wherever it goes, I’m in it for the long run. This is it for me. I’m done for.

              

            I stretch out on my couch as Long Haul Paranormal Ice Road Ghost Truckers plays endlessly on my TV. I have lost count of what episode I’m on as it has been playing for the past several hours without stopping. I’m not ashamed of my binge-watching, but I do wish I could have chosen to do something mildly productive with my time besides blasting through a TV show that makes no logical sense. Amanda would be proud of me, which I suppose is the perfect excuse to never stop watching. If it makes my daughter proud, then how terrible could it really be for me?

 

From Mary:
Get cleaned up and come to Jim and Kim’s

To Mary:
The last time I listened to you, you got me
drunk and used me for answers.

From Mary:
Quit being grumpy about that. I promise not
to do it again. Just get cleaned up and come to
the bar.

To Mary:
You owe me for this

From Mary:
No, I’m pretty sure you’ll owe me.

            What the hell does that even mean? Groaning loudly, I shut off the TV and shuffle my way to my bedroom. I grab the cleanest pair of jeans I can find from within my dresser and find a decent shirt in my closet, not caring about the little wrinkle on the left arm sleeve. The last thing I want to do right now is going to the bar, but I know what kind of a woman Mary is and I know she’ll only complain at me to death if I choose to ignore her. From my nightstand, I grab my wallet and keys, shoving them vigorously into my pockets. Lastly, I shove my feet into the pair of converses I left by the bathroom door. They’re bright red and stick out against my grey shirt, but I really cannot bring myself to care. 

            As I walk out of my house, I try to shove out my negative emotions and try to find the silver lining in this situation. I do like to walk around at night during summer. It’s often no longer hot and if I get lucky enough, there’s usually nobody out on the streets. Actually, I like walking around at night period. I’ll do it when I can’t sleep or have something on my mind and I suppose I find it to be calming. I used to do it all of the time with Amanda when she was little and having a rough night. I did whatever I could to make the grieving easier on her, even if it meant that I had to suffer for a little while longer.

            Less than excited to be anywhere near here, I walk through the door of Jim and Kim’s. As expected, I am greeted with the scent of alcohol and deep-fried food in the air. Sitting at the counter, I spot Mary… and I also spot Robert. How did I not see this coming? Hell, the answer is so simple. I’m the biggest fucking idiot in Maple Bay.

            “Mary, for fuck's sake,” I mutter under my breath.

            As if the woman heard me, Mary turns around and raises her wine glass to me cheerfully. “There he is!” She exclaims enthusiastically. “What do you want to get started with?”

            “Orange juice. No alcohol, just the juice,” I say a little too sternly, making Neil laugh from behind the counter.

            “You’re not going to drink?” Mary asks, clearly astonished. “Well, then you might as well keep Robert company while I go to the lady’s room. Wine goes right through me.”

            Reluctantly, I take Mary’s spot and scoot her glass down to where I would have sat had she had stuck around.  Neil swings by with my glass of orange juice and he pops a red and white striped paper straw into it as he goes. Robert eyes the drink with a crooked smile on his face, clearly finding it to be a little amusing.

            “Mary means well. I can assure you she won’t try and get you drunk again,” Robert says with some confidence. “She’s just trying to play matchmaker again. I can almost guarantee you she won’t be coming out of that bathroom for at least ten minutes.”

            I take a quick drink of my juice, watching Robert carefully as I do. “Is that why you’re suddenly talking to me now? To shut Mary up?” I ask, growing suspicious of his motives.

            Robert shrugs innocently and flags Neil down for another drink. “Not necessarily. If I start talking to you, she will shut up for a while, but I’m mostly doing it for my own sanity,” he reveals. “Not talking to you seems to leave you as an open target for certain people. That and I’m growing tired of acting the same way towards you. That’s why I stopped by the Coffee Spoon for a coffee that I didn’t need today.”

            “I see. So, it’s a jealousy thing. You don’t want that ‘certain person’ to try and suck my dick so you see it best to resume communication to scare him off. Oddly enough, I feel like a chew tow,” I state bluntly. I have no idea where the bitterness came from, but it feels good to talk this way with him out in the open.

            Robert chokes on his drink a little, turning a glare over to me. “Or, maybe I’m talking to you because not talking to you is driving me insane. And yeah, so what if I’m jealous? It happens. People get jealous,” he defends.

            “You’re the one who rejected me in the first place based on ass-backward accusations,” I mutter. “I made a mistake and suddenly I’m never to be trusted?”

            As if what I said offended him deeply, Robert swivels on his bar-stool to face me full on threateningly. “And what accusations did I make exactly?”

            “That I put sex before relationships. That I used you to get laid, that you mean absolutely nothing to me. But, let’s not skip over the bigger problem here. You started it. You baited me and yes, I was a dumbass for taking it, but you mean a lot more to me than you think. I don’t see you as some object I can use to get myself fucked,” I snap angrily.

            Neil wanders off to another part of the bar to give Robert and me the room to talk as privately as we can in a public bar. There are not many people in here tonight and for that, I am grateful. I’m pretty sure I would forever be mortified if Craig or Mat walked through the door right now.

            “Alright, so I started it. That didn’t stop you from continuing with it,” Robert continues on. “How many times did we have sex? Never once did you show interest in something else.”

            “That’s a bullshit argument and you know it. You threw me out every morning and never gave me the chance to tell you what I wanted. I was trying to show you that maybe I would like to try for something, but you cut me down each time. I can see right through you, Robert. These defenses are bullshit.”

            Mary comes out of the bathroom, but she immediately turns around when she sees the fuming expression on my face and how hostile Robert appears to be. I don’t think it was her intention for us to start arguing in the middle of the bar. Then again, I’m not sure what she expected. This was bound to happen eventually given her relentless need to poke at us.

            “Prove it, then. What do you see? What kind of person am I?” He inquires harshly.

            I would feel so much more manlier if I wasn’t drinking orange juice while talking about this stuff. “You’re afraid to be loved. You won’t let anyone get close to you because you’re afraid they’ll reject you once they see who you really are. You carry so much guilt and self-hatred on your shoulders that it blinds you from what’s right in front of you. You act like we’re so different, Robert. That’s not the case.”

            Robert’s eyes widen briefly and he falls silent. Judging by his reaction, I was probably spot on with my guess. I can see him for who he really is and I doubt a lot of people can. He keeps himself so locked up and hidden away that it would be hard for anyone to know anything about him.

            “I fucked up, but you did too,” I continue on, feeling my heart sink low in my chest. “It was a team effort and it’s not fair that you put all of the blame on me because I was the one who accidentally developed feelings for you. I have been kicking myself for it for the past year, trying to stop myself from feeling something for you, but I can’t do it. I hate you for that, but I can’t stop and I won’t stop just because you want to be an insufferable dick.”

            Frustrated, I grab my orange juice and start drinking on it slowly. That’s it, then. That’s all I have ever wanted to say to him since the graduation party and now that it’s all out in the open, I don’t know what to do with myself. All of the built-up anger and aggression is simply gone now, all that’s left is my inconvenient feelings for him. I never thought I would get this far. I would always think I would take these emotions to the grave. I never thought that I would get the chance to speak my piece.

            “You’re right, kid. I am an insufferable dick, which is why I’m not good for you,” Robert finally says after a deafening pause.

            I slam my juice down and manage to spill some on the counter. “Is that seriously all that you got out of what I said? For the sake of fucking hell, Robert. Please don’t be that thick,” I snap.

            Robert sighs and drags a hand down his face tiredly. When was the last time he slept? “I heard what you said, Codes. I’m just… I’m trying to tell you that I’m a waste of time. I’m not good for you. All I’m gonna do is ruin and hurt you. You’re too good for that,” he explains desperately.

            “Why don’t you let me figure that you for myself?” I spar angrily.

            “Look, I know you think you can–”

            “–You know what? I can’t do this right now.”

            I release my juice and stand from the bar-stool, turning to leave the bar. I get about a single step away from my arm is being grabbed and held onto.

            “Cody, don’t,” Robert says. “Don’t go.”

            I freeze in my place, unsure of what I should do. Do I walk out and give up for the night? Do I turn back around and stay? I hardly get the time to make a decision because Robert begins to pull me right back to my seat before I even get the chance to say something. Reluctantly, I sit back down and grab for my orange juice, feeling unusually stiff and awkward. Robert sits beside me in silence and it’s taking everything in me to not open my mouth and say something. Just when I think we’re going to sit here in silence for the rest of the night, Robert uses his foot to swivel my seat around to face him. I stare wide-eyed with the orange juice still in my hand and the straw in my mouth. He's either going to kill me or yell at me and I think I would be okay with either right now.

            “Do you want to fuck around with Mary?” He asks seriously, pushing our previous topic to the side for a moment.

            "As in get her back for messing with us? Yes, I would like to do that very much," I agree instantly.

            “Cool, I need you to punch me.”

            “You need me to what?”

            “Punch me. Come on, don’t be a baby about it.”

            “Why would I punch you? Are you okay?”

            “Cody, punch me or I’m punching you. Either way, one of us is getting punched.”

            Why does anyone need to be punched? Moving slowly, I raise my fist and lightly tap Robert’s cheek. He gives me a deadpan look and pulls my fist from his face, holding it in his hand. “I will give you my phone number if you give me a good swing,” he begs in a monotone voice.

            “I’m not sure you want me to do that,” I warn.

            “Cody, so help you–”

            “–Alright!”

            Unsure of where he is going to take this, I bring my arm back and apologize before striking Robert across the face, nailing him somewhere between his cheekbone and jaw. He grunts and covers the spot where I hit him, smiling almost.

            “Jesus Christ,” he complains, licking his bottom lip.

            “You told me to do it!” I protest.

            “You could have warned me you took boxing classes,” he grumbles bitterly.

            “I tried. You didn’t give me much time to tell you,” I explain hurriedly. “Craig and I took two semesters of it.”

            Robert sighs and pokes his cheek with his tongue, tasting where I must have busted him open. “It’ll do. Let’s mess with Mary a bit,” he then says. “I’ll go get her. Follow my lead.”

            Robert gets up and storms to the bathrooms and I remain in my seat feeling extremely confused. Surely, we could have done this without hitting him? From here, I can hear Robert knocking on the woman’s bathroom door and yelling for Mary. Then I hear something that sounds like Robert saying I got angry at him and Mary being surprised. The two of them come out and Mary seems genuinely surprised. Suddenly, his plan makes a little more sense now.

            “I said to keep him company,” Mary exclaims. “Did you really punch him?”

            I shrug casually and grab my orange juice from the counter. “He’s a fucking asshole. He deserved to get hit.”

            Robert glares at me, looking like he would rather tear my head off than speak to me again. “Oh, right. I’m the asshole,” he starts with a clenched jaw. His cheekbone is started to swell now. It will be only a matter of time before a bruise starts to develop. “Mary, I don’t know why you keep trying. This isn’t going to work. I'm pretty sure he hates me now and I could care less about him. Am I allowed to go home now or are you going to hold me captive?"

            When Mary says nothing because of the honest shock she is, Robert takes that as his answer and leaves the bar. Ignoring Mary when she tries to ask me questions, I slap a five-dollar bill on the counter and storm right out the bar. Outside, I spot Robert walking up ahead and I jog to catch up with him, looking at him in wonder.

            “I think we could have done all of that without really punching you,” I say, a little concerned for what I did to his face.

            Robert smiles but quickly realizes that was a mistake. He immediately hides it and winces, briefly touching his cheek. “It wasn’t one of my brightest ideas, but it worked. As long as she thinks we hate each other, she’ll get off of our backs about it. I’ll just have to remember to never let you punch me again.”

            “So… What do we do now?” I ask anxiously.

            I was so vague about it, but Robert seems to understand what I’m asking about. “Now we… Now we figure things out. I think holding a grudge against you for a year is long enough even though it wasn’t exactly fair and, uh… maybe it’s time to handle our problem.”

            I draw my eyebrows together as I try to understand what he’s telling me. “And that is?”

            "I never jump into relationships, Cody. I wanted to take some time to get my shit together before getting in one again. The past few weeks… You’ve been rocking my world and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to fall back into our old patterns. Last time, I felt all sorts of wrong using you. It didn't feel right with you and I think that was the first clue that maybe we should be doing something other than fucking each other just to get laid. You need to get to know me and I need to know you," he explains as we enter the cul-de-sac.

            We both stop walking in front of my house and I look up to him with hope in my eyes. "Do you want to come in? I think I have more than tap water in my house to offer you." I ask eagerly.

            Robert gives a wary look at my house and sighs. "Unfortunately, I have to get home and make sure my dog is doing alright. She's fighting kennel cough and it's time for her medicine."

            I nod and after a quick goodbye, Robert walks off. Tonight didn’t go the way I planned, but it's a start for something better. I'm not sure what any of this means or if it means anything at all, but I’m happy right now and, even if things change tomorrow, I can at least have this moment to remember. Things are finally starting to change and although I’m so excited, I can’t help but worry that something bigger is coming to knock me down. My luck has never been the best, so what makes me think that moving in this direction is the best idea? What if we jump right into this and it blows up in our faces later? I exhale slowly, shaking my head. I won’t let myself dwell on it. Things are okay right now and I can, at the very least, allow myself to enjoy that.

Chapter Text

I have not seen or heard from him for two weeks.

            On four separate occasions, Mary showed up to my house to ‘hang out’ and, even though she was doing her best to be discreet about it, I could tell she was trying to sniff something out. I’ve done my best to go on with my life and I’ve tried to set aside what happened at the bar, but trying to not think about him has got to be one of the most counterproductive things I have ever put myself through. We haven’t seen each other, we haven’t talked, and we have made no effort to continue with what may have been started that night. I’m torn about it. I want to go see him, but I’m afraid I’ll be crossing an invisible boundary if I do. In the wise words of a horrible cliché, my heart is fighting a battle and it’s losing rapidly.

            Today is supposed to be extremely hot in Maple Bay, as it usually is during summer. According to the weatherman, the high for today is supposed to be a few degrees over 100 and to make the situation even better – cue drum roll – my air conditioning went down last week. Brian is supposed to come over tomorrow to fix it, but I have to survive today first. I’m dressed in the lightest clothes I own and I’m ready for anything today decides t throw at me. If I were a smarter man, I would have made plans with a friend so I could go leach off of their air conditioning. I’ve signed myself up to become a human soup and I’m perfectly okay with it.

            That is until I hear a knock on my front door. Lazily, I lumber to the entryway and open up to find Joseph standing on my doorstep. He’s wearing his ever-present smile and he stares at me almost like he’s expected something, but I’m at a complete loss. For as long as I have been here, I have never seen that man with something other than a smile. How can one person smile that much and not have sore cheekbones? Does he even have cheekbones? Is Joseph actually an undercover robot?

            “Cody! I’m glad you’re home. As I’m sure you know, today is supposed to be a real scorcher and I wanted to let you know that I will be hosting a backyard water party. Everyone will be there and I can assure you that you will stay cool if you decide to come. It beats staying inside all day with nothing to do.”

            What is with this guy and throwing parties? And what if I actually did have plans? I could have easily had plans… “Oh, um… Yeah, okay. I’ll be there,” I regretfully agree. “When does it start? Do I have to bring anything?”

            “It starts in about an hour. Wear a swimsuit, but don’t worry about a towel. Mary and I will have plenty for everyone,” he says with a wink. “I look forward to seeing you there, Cody.”

            Joseph turns on his heel and starts to walk back to his own house, leaving me standing in my doorway. I robotically shut my front door and wander back to my bedroom where I kick the door closed behind me. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I woke up today. As much as I know the social interaction would be good for me, and as much as Amanda would want me to do it, I would rather sit in my house and sweat to death. Sighing, I open my closet doors and begin the hunt for my trunks. I haven’t worn them for years, but they’ve gotta be around in here somewhere. Digging through several boxes, I finally find them and hold them up out in front of me. I think they’re going to be tight on my ass judging by the size of them. All of the work Craig has been making me do is going to make this interesting.

            Hesitantly, I replace my lightweight shorts with the trunks and I do a few stretches to see if they’re going to tear on me. Somehow, they hold up and now I really have zero excuses. I have to go to the party. There's a voodoo doll of me somewhere, I swear on it with my life. Somebody is getting a kick out of watching me suffer on a daily basis. If I ever find the person responsible, there will be hell to pay.

            Joseph said everyone is going to be at this water party. Does the imply Robert is going to be there too? Shit. Now I’m nervous. I could text him to find out but, somehow, I feel like my phone might light on fire if I try. What if he wants nothing to do with me again? What if we have gone back to how things were before I yelled at him and punched him at his favorite bar? Back to him hating me and me secretly having feelings for him? I'm being ridiculous. No, I'm acting like a kid in high school. I am not a teenager and this relationship, for whatever it is, will work itself out. Robert probably got busy and he may have forgotten to get in touch with me.

            I won’t let myself dwell on it. I spent the past year thinking about everything I did wrong and how I feel about him… and I won’t do it anymore. At least not for the next few hours. All it ever did for me was suck all of the colors out of my life and now that I’m finally starting to get it back, I don’t want to let it go. Jumping to conclusions usually makes me run in circles and, honestly, I’m too exhausted for that. So, instead, I'm going to walk out to my kitchen and eat more of the fruit salad Craig keeps giving me.

            I appreciate that he gives stuff like this to me because then it’s harder for me to go for the junk food that I keep stocked in my pantry. I wish he would tell me the recipe for it because there’s something else going on in this bowl that goes beyond the fruit. In fact, I would love it if I could get my hands on all of his recipes. Craig has become a great chef since our college days. The guy who drank marinara sauce straight from the jar is no longer around. I am, without any doubt, impressed with how he flipped his entire life around.

            I glance at the clock. It’s getting awfully close to when the party is set to start. On any other given day, I would usually show up to a party early so I might as well tag ten more minutes on and head over there now. If Joseph throws one more party this month, I might actually have a coronary. Sighing, I grab my phone and keys and head out into the dry, still, heat. I can already hear the commotion going on from the backyard, which means everybody else is already there. Somehow, I’m fashionably late even though I’m early. Where’s the logic in that math?

            Going in through the back gate, I enter the backyard and am shocked by what I find. There’s a Slip N’ Slide, an above ground pool, several tubs full of water balloons, and a sprinkler that is currently shut off. Navigating through the kids, I make it to the folding table where everyone’s valuables are stored in ziplock backs. I grab for an empty one and store my things in it, not looking to break my phone or drown my keys today. I can hardly afford to keep my own phone going as it is with my bills and with what I contribute to Amanda’s tuition.

            “Bro, why don’t you show a little skin? I know what you got going under there. I don’t make you do all of those planks and crunches for nothing.”

            I whirl around to find a shirtless Craig walking up to me. Of course, Craig is shirtless today. He’s here to make all of the other days envy his ripped body. I glance around the backyard and take it into account that Hugo and Joseph are also shirtless. Mat technically is too, with his open flannel and no undershirt. I wouldn’t mind joining in on the expose-the-skin fun, but I'm also white as hell and burn easily. The sun is my enemy and I am certain that it’s out to get me.

            “Ah, maybe a little later. I’m white and you know how that goes for me,” I point out sheepishly, shrugging. “Remember how burnt I got when we went on that road trip to the beach with Amanda and Alex during college?"

            “Of course, I remember! I had to help Alex coat you in Aloe Vera cream after we got back,” Craig reminds me happily. “Damien feels your pain, bro. The poor guy practically sizzles in the sun if he’s in it for more than two minutes. I think the only person here who hasn’t broken a sweat yet is Robert. He’s been in the sun since he got here.”

            “Robert’s here?” I ask a little too excitedly. Could I be any more obvious?

            “He’s standing by the drinks table with my twins,” Craig says as he gestures to the other end of the yard.

            I follow where Craig is pointing and land my eyes on Robert. Craig’s twins are excitedly talking to him about something and Robert seems to be intrigued by whatever it is. My eyes manage to linger on him for a moment too long and he makes eye contact with me, grinning bout whatever the twins just told him. Panicked, I shift my gaze back to Craig and try to distract myself.

            “I give him props. He’s gotta be warm-blooded,” I say with a casual laugh. “My air conditioning broke so I guess this party kind of saved me.”

            Craig nods and gestures for me to follow him. He leads me over to the drinks table where his twins are still talking to Robert. Now that I’m closer, I can hear that they are informing him about different kinds of frogs and which ones to stay away from because they’re poisonous. Looking to keep myself busy, I pour myself a cup of Mat’s famous iced tea. Hopefully, Robert didn’t think too much of my staring.

            “Alright, my little bros. Why don’t you go get River from Mary and see if she wants to go into the kiddie pool? You can finish talking off Robert’s ears later,” Craig requests.

            Briar and Hazel pout, but they do as they’re told without complaining. Robert watches them as they scurry off and I notice the faint smile he has on his cheeks.

            “Your girls are very smart,” he says to Craig.

            Appreciative of the compliment, Craig perks up a bit. “My girls make me proud, bro. They’re turning out better than I could ever hope for. They’ve been in this weird frog phase for a month now and I’m pretty sure they could write a book on all they know.”

            Robert crosses his arms and examines the yard mindlessly. “I remember when Val had her dinosaur phase. She made me take her to the library three times a week so she could check out new books.”

            Craig and I exchange a look of shock. Robert never willingly talks about things from his past and for him to openly say something about his daughter is strange. Nobody knows what happened between them. Hell, I didn’t even know Robert had a kid until Mary let it slip.

            “I think if my girls mention one more fact about frogs my brain is going to implode from knowledge overload, bro. I love them to death, but one human being can only handle so many frog facts,” Craig jokes with a grin.

            “Hey, did you know that tree frogs spend a major portion of their lives in trees?” Robert asks spitefully in a joking manner.

            “I will put you in a headlock,” Craig threatens lightly.

            Robert smirks, looking at Craig with that devilish look in his eyes. “Is that a threat or a promise?” He asks wisely.

            Craig rolls his eyes and starts laughing, but he is cut short when he hears his toddler crying. Rushing off, he leaves me alone with Robert. This is my chance to talk to him. Looking up from my drink, I am surprised to find Robert’s eyes already on me.

            “I haven’t seen you lately,” I say smoothly.

            Robert narrows his eyes and I unexpectedly have the urge to run away before he can say anything to me that would make this worse. “I had some personal things come up. Plus, Mary has been breathing down my neck. She still thinks there’s a chance,” he says blandly

            My heart sinks a little low. “Is there? A chance I mean?”

            Robert and I hold eye contact for a little longer than any pair of platonic people should. He’s always been easy for me to look at and I get so stupidly lost in his eyes. I want him more than I thought and, somehow, punching him at the bar made me realize that. I would give anything to see what it would be like with him.

            “Cody… I… I’m not good with this kind of stuff. I went from wanting to hate your guts to being in this weird position we’re currently in. Now that all of the crap is out of the way and now that you have made yourself perfectly clear, I have to figure out what that actually means,” He says slowly and quietly so no one, A.K.A. Marry, will hear him.

            “Robert I’m sorry I–”

            “–No, let me finish,” he cuts in, “You and I got off on a really bad foot. I do have feelings for you, ones that are turning out to be stronger than I thought. You are not the person I took you for and I am not the person you take me for. I’m trying to… Cody, I’m trying to keep you at a distance because if you get too close to me again, I won’t be able to stop myself. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

            I nod slowly and turn my gaze down to the drink in my hand. I’m burning up and sweating in this heat, but my feet are glued to the ground. Robert is perfectly fine and in his red T-shirt and jeans. By some miracle, he still hasn’t broken a sweat. Craig was right. Maybe Robert is actually a lizard in disguise?

            “Robert, no matter what, I will never regret getting everything off of my chest and telling you how I actually feel. Why can’t we start over? Let me show you that things will be okay if you just let it happen,” I say quietly with hurt in my voice. “We don’t have to be like this. We can be friends or-or whatever. I don’t care. I’m just tired of denying what I want.”

            He shifts his weight to his right him and his eyes soften a bit, no longer prying into me. Why is he trying so hard to keep me away from him? “Start over? And do what?”

            “Let me take you somewhere. I can’t promise that it will be your ideal night out, but I want to get you away from the neighborhood and away from match-making Mary,” I explain with a hint of hope.

            Robert sighs heavily and glances in the general direction of Mary who is watching us like a hawk. That woman never misses anything. She’s waiting for either one of us to move, waiting for anything she can use against us in her plan to pair us up.

            “If you’re trying to ask me out, kid, just say it,” Robert says after a pause.

            Okay, so that’s how it’s going to go. Standing a little taller, I look him dead in the eyes. “Robert, would you please let me take you out on a date? It doesn’t even have to be a date. It can be a hangout.”

            “Alright, fine. We can do something. I’ll stop by around eight tomorrow night and we’ll see how things go,” Robert says slowly with a stressed expression on his face.

            Even though I want to smile, I bite it back. Mary cannot know what’s going on between us or else punching Robert would have been for nothing. It’s a bit immature to run a working relationship behind her back, but this is what she gets for messing with us in the first place.

            “Cody, bro! Come get in the pool with us!” Craig calls loudly over the screams and laughs from the children.

            I set my drink down and give Robert one last look before peeling my shirt off from my sweaty skin. I know he’s still looking at me and I know it’s probably pissing him off, but I don’t care. Somewhere in my crowded mind, I want him to look at me. I kick off my low top converse soon after and move it all under the table for safekeeping. Taking off, I slide through the sea of children and awkwardly climb into the pool with Craig. The water only comes up to my waist, but it’s cold and gets the job done.

            “River wanted to try the big kid's pool so I thought I would give her what she wants for now,” Craig says as he bobs the toddler in and out of the water. Her little life-jacket keeps her above the water but as any dad would, Craig is keeping a very careful eye on her.

            “She’s getting big. Doesn’t she start preschool in a couple of years?” I ask with a warm smile as River splashes about.

            Craig nods and picks his little girl up into his arms. “Just about, bro. She’s growing up big and strong just like her daddy,” he laughs as he spins around with her in his arms.

            Mat and Joseph join into the pool next. I press myself against the wall as far as I can go and pretend to be interested in River and her babbling.

            “Cody, are you coming into work tomorrow?” Mat asks as he wades over to me.  “I forgot to check the schedule before leaving today.”

            “Yeah, but I can’t take the double shift like I was going to. Something came up and I can only take the nine to six,” I say, knowing exactly what I’ll be getting up to tomorrow.

            Mat gives a look of disbelief. “The nine to six? That’s nearly nine hours, man. I won’t even let Pablo work that much in one day. It’s a coffee shop, not a factory.”

            “Yet you’re working ten to eight tomorrow. That’s ten hours,” I remind him with a grin.

            “Hey, I close the shop for an hour at two. Carmensita has a sleepover thing tomorrow and it beats staying at the house all day,” Mat defends.

            Out of nowhere, water is being splashed towards us and soaks the other half of my body. I jump in shock and dart my wide eyes over to Joseph who holds his hands up innocently. Sneaky bastard.

            “Low blow, man,” Mat says as he splashes Joseph right back.

            River seems to have left the pool and returned to her sisters, which means the pool is open for roughhousing. Normally, I wouldn’t mind roughhousing a bit because wresting with Craig is always fun – or at least it was before he could pop my head like a grape with his thighs –but Joseph is also in here and I’m not sure how I feel about that. He’s been a great guy and he’s kind to me, but lately, he seems to be getting a little too kind.

            “Oh, it’s on,” Craig laughs, clapping and rubbing his hands together.

            Before I know, I’m being tackled and I yelp as I climb onto Craig. My body is completely submerged underwater and I burst out laughing when I force myself back up to the service, shoving Craig back as hard as I can. Mat starts to act as an official referee as Craig and I go toe to toe, Joseph keeps a save distance away from us at the edge. I feel like I’m back in college again. He and I would always do this kind of shit when we were kids and more often than not, it forces to go to the emergency room.

            “You gonna chicken out, Matthew?” Craig asks, pulling out my middle name.

            I gape at him and vigorously point at him. “You swore to never call me after I won that bet over the goldfish crackers!”

            “I won that bet!” Craig laughs.

            Suddenly, he’s charging at me and I have nowhere to run. Doing my best to dodge him, I duck down and fall right into his trap. With his strong arms, he grabs me by the shoulder, steps behind me, and effortlessly puts me in a headlock. I struggle against him for a solid five seconds before I realize I’m doomed. There’s no way I’m getting out of this without breaking my neck.

            “Alright! I tap out,” I call out, defeated.

            Craig makes a sound of victory and he gives Mat a high five who offers it. I may be faster than Craig, but I have never been able to beat that man I man in a good wrestle. Laughing, I look over my shoulder to catch sight of Robert watching us from across the yard. My eyes linger for a little too long, but I do eventually force myself to look away.

            “I’m about to get the grill going,” Joseph them announces. “Do you want to help me out, Cody?”

            “Oh, uh… my grill skills are pretty lame. I’d rather leave the job to somebody who knows what they’re doing,” I reject kindly.

            Truth be told, my grilling skills are not up to par with some of the other dads around here. I’m sure Robert’s skills have me twice beat over and I haven’t seen him grill a single thing since I’ve moved to Maple Bay.

            “If that’s that you want,” Joseph says. “Mat, can you give me a hand?”

            Joseph and Mat leave the pool, soon followed by Craig, which leaves me standing in it all alone. Sighing quietly, I climb out and grab one of the offered towels from the table. Crossing the yard, I seek out my shoes. As I’m putting on my socks, a shadow cascades down on me from above and I peek up to find Mary. She’s giving that look, which means I’m probably in trouble. I would not want to see this woman angry.

            “What were you and Robert talking about earlier?” She asks, planting her hands firmly onto her hips.

            I gulp with fear. I figured she would catch up to one of us eventually. “Nothing that concerns you. Last time I checked, you’re neither me or Robert.”

            “Cut the crap, Coconuts. What’s going on between you two? You went from punching him at the bar to having secret little conversations in my backyard,” she pries.

            I think it was a mutual agreement that we would keep Mary in the dark for as long as possible, so I have to keep playing the game. “Look, Mary, it’s not that big of a deal. I had a question and Robert was there to answer it. End of story. We still hate each other and I don’t want anything to do with him.”

            “So, is that why you always stare at him?” Mary asks, backing me into a figurative corner. “Is that why every time he’s near you, you get all freaked out and can’t think straight?”

            Damn it. She’s good at this. “It’s complicated,” I then cop-out.

            When Mary chooses not to respond, I walk away and forget about my shirt completely. Hopefully, she’ll get off of my case for a little while.

              

            The blistering day carries on and slowly melts into the much cooler evening. At one point in the afternoon, Craig noticed that I was starting to fry under the sun. He, being the best friend that he is, did me a solid by spraying me down with sunscreen to save my white ass. Tanning has always been insanely impossible for me. I always go straight for the burn. The only time I was able to do it was back in college and even that was a complete freak miracle. I haven’t ever been able to achieve it since that day.

            All of the kids have blown through the majority of the water balloons and in the chaos of it all, I managed to squeeze out some time to call my daughter. She was excited to hear from me, as she always seems to be. Her school schedule is keeping her insanely busy and she’s hardly had time to catch a break in the past few weeks. I miss having her around, even if it’s just to vent. She’s set to come home during Thanksgiving, but even that is four or so months away. Maybe I should consider getting another pet to keep me company.

            I sit at the fire pit in a lawn chair beside Damien. Now that the sun has gone down, he has emerged from the shadows to join us cul-de-sac folk. I think I’m on my sixth round of iced tea and I don’t think I’m going to be stopping any time soon because Joseph has been coming around with refills like a mad man. Not that I mind much. Mat makes some killer iced and because I’m lucky enough to work at the Coffee Spoon, I know exactly how it’s made.

            “Damien, do you have any puppies up for adoption at the pet center right now?” I ask seemingly out of nowhere.

            The mention of dogs makes Damien perk up a bit. “Oh, yes. We have a select few. We have two Great Danes, three Dobermanns, two Basset Hounds, four Akitas, and one German Shepherd,” he lists for me.

            “How old is the German Shepherd?” I curiously ask.

            “She’s about a month old. The poor thing was left on the side of the road. Mary found her and brought her in,” Damien says with a frown.

            I think I’m going to adopt a dog… “Can you put a hold on her for me? I’ll come by on Sunday to look at her.” 

            Damien nods and smiles broadly. “Certainly. I can already tell you’ll be bringing her home with you. She’s quite the angel and loves to give affection. She’ll fit right in with you and with Amanda when she comes home for her visits.”

            Before I can ask any more questions, Robert is plopping down in the open lawn chair beside me. Our eyes meet and my cheeks flush red like they always seem to do when he looks at me. Why can’t I control my face?

“How is Betsy’s kennel cough, Robert? I have not heard any news about it. Mary does not always translate very well,” Damien inquires kindly.

            Robert sets his cup on the arm of the chair and adjusts how he’s sitting so my knee touches his. I freeze unnaturally in my place and stare directly at the fire. I hate him, I think.

            “It cleared up pretty okay. She slept a lot and she hated taking her medicine, but she’s right as rain now. I just have to stop giving her whiskey every night,” Robert explains.

            I want to laugh, but I’m unsure if Robert is joking or not. Damien makes the same face of uncertainty as I am and we both glance at each other.

            “I’m joking, for chrissake. Betsy is on a very healthy, whiskey free, diet,” Robert clarifies with a shake of his head in disappointment. I forgot he carries a special kind of humor.

            Damien and I laugh nervously, shrugging off the discomfort from our shoulders. Out of nowhere, my shirt lands on my head and falls into my lap and I barely catch the sight of Craig as he runs off. Stiffly, I pull the shirt over my head and rest back into my chair. I can feel Robert’s eyes on me again and because I have next to zero self-control when I’m around him, I look over to meet his warm gaze.

            “Where’s Mary?” I ask, trying to keep my heart steady and level.

            “Mary is inside the house getting dinner ready for all of us hooligans. She went in about a minute ago, which is why I’m here,” he explains.

            My lips turn into a slight frown. “So, we can only be around each other when Mary is not around? That’s a little dumb.”

            Robert nods along, but counters my point of view. “I agree, it is very dumb. Though, it beats having a pissed off Mary after us. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her pissed off, but it’s terrifying. We’re pulling her leg with this hating each other shit, but we’re doing it to give us space to breathe and move at our own pace. It’s a win/lose situation,” he summarizes.

            Sighing quietly, I lean back into my chair once more. We’re definitely back in high school. “So, in theory, when would you tell her about… us? Is there even an us?” I ask, finding the entire situation to be muddy.

            Robert shifts in his place again and he drops his hand off the side of his chair, brushing it against mine that also dangles off the chair. I tense up at the contact and Robert grins knowingly.

            “Oh, you’re so smitten,” he points out in a teasing, yet playful, manner. “Let’s see how tomorrow goes and then we can decide if we want to go further or not. I still don’t know how to go about all of this… It has been a pretty difficult change for me. I went from one way of thinking to another.”

            I glance over at him and brush our hands together again, testing the waters before reaching out further to hold it. “You know, I really should hate you.”

            Robert looks down at our held hands that hang loosely in between our chairs. “Which is why I don’t understand why you want me so badly. I used you, I treated you horribly, I made you think that I hate your guts, I was cold… I left you in the dark. Why would anyone in their right mind want somebody after they did that to them for over a year?”

            I scan his face and see the confusion and self-hatred weighing him down. Something feels right about him and I have to put my finger on it, but I know it right down to my core. I’m not only attracted to him for his looks, there’s more to it that I need to discover with time.

            “Have you ever considered that I’m not in my right mind?” I ask, speaking the truth. Maybe I am really just clinically insane. It then dawns on me that Damien is sitting relatively close to us, but he seems plenty distracted by River who wandered over here.  

            “You barely know a thing about me and yet you seem so sure about me,” Robert says in a quiet voice, trying to understand me.

            “Nobody knows anything about you, Robert.” I squeeze his hand to bring him the comfort I know that he needs. “I’ll tell you what I think. You have been through some stuff in your life. Anyone could see that if they look for it. Maybe you could have done more to stop the things that went wrong and maybe you could work on your bad habits to improve yourself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person. I’m speaking from the outside because I know very little about your past, but I don’t believe you’re a bad person, Robert. You’re just troubled and need some help getting back on your feet.”

            Robert lets my words sink in for a while and tries to see things from my perspective. Eventually, he goes to say something, but he is cut off by screaming children that make a mad dash for the food Mary just put out on the folding tables. Unwillingly, I release Robert’s hand and stare into the fire to distract myself. Even though things are starting to make sense, I have never been more confused in my life.

Chapter Text

I rush around the coffee shop as quickly as possible, dropping off drinks at each table I pass.

            For some unidentified reason, everyone in Maple Bay apparently felt the need to come to the Coffee Spoon tonight. There’s a line at the counter and there are several people currently sitting at the tables and chairs that I am scrambling to serve. Even though it can be a little stressful, getting a giant rush of people into the shop is always fun. I get to see a bunch of new faces all while greeting the regulars. I’m admittedly socially awkward as hell and I deal with more anxiety than I know what to do with, but I never fail to get excited about meeting new customers. I know enough people on this side of town to start an army if I ever wanted to. A coffee-loving army, that is.

            As I mark a sharp turn to head back to the counter, my foot catches on the leg of a table and I crash down hard to the ground suddenly and violently. I bite back all of the curses that I feel compelled to scream and I graciously accept the hand of an elderly woman who helps to pull me up. Thankfully, luck was mostly on my side because I wasn’t carrying anything other than a platter in my hands which apparently took flight and went straight for Mat’s head because he holds it in his hands with wide, panicked eyes.

            “Thanks, Mrs. Peters,” I thank the old woman, smiling kindly at her. She has always been a nice lady and I’m pretty sure she has a crush on me. Something about her pinching my butt last week kind of drew me to that conclusion.

            “Not to worry, Cody,” she says. “I don’t mind helping you at all.”

            “Uh, Cody?” Mat calls then. “You were supposed to be out of here an hour ago. I was about to tell you before you decided to do a gravity check,” he says, gesturing to the clock.

            “Oh shit. I’m going to be late!” I curse, running frantically to the backroom to drop off my apron. I only have an hour now to take a shower and get ready to go. Why wasn’t I paying attention to the time? Fuck.

            Flying out of the Coffee Spoon, I start myself in a sprint – holy shit… my ankle hurts – and make it to the cul-de-sac in record-breaking time. I burst through my front door and shed my clothes as I limp to the shower in a rush, not caring where the clothes land. I’ll just have to clean them up later. The water is still cold when I jump into my shower, but the sooner I get and get myself dry the better. The last thing I need is for Robert to show up while I’m still wet and undressed… no matter how enticing the idea is.

            I have no idea if I should treat this as a date or not. From what I understand, this is meant to gauge if we’re good for each other or not. However, with all of the chemistry and emotions shared between us… I want to treat this like a date. Sighing, I wash my hair and rinse away the suds from my body. I should probably consider shaving when I get out. I never have liked the way I look with facial hair.

            By the time I’m done in the bathroom, I only have ten minutes left and they’re going by fast. I stare into my closet and pull out the first shirt my hands land on which happens to be my old Green Day shirt from when I was in my early twenties. Shrugging, I pull the shirt on and grab a pair of my newest jeans that fit a hell of a lot better than my old ones. Finally, I yank on my lightweight, zip-up dark grey hoodie. At my feet, I look down at the five pairs of Converse I own and pick the less damaged pair of low tops that I have. I dress like a god damn teenager and Amanda always teases me for it.

            I have thought about buying a new wardrobe. Most of my T-shirts are either blank or have some band on them, while the rest are long-sleeved and boring. I have more zip-up hoodies than any one person should own and I refuse to give up my Converse. Amanda and I tried to shake things up once and we bought a few outfits for me that now live in the depths of the garage. I suppose dressing like a teenager is my only option in life. I blame my early childhood traumas.

            Five solid minutes after eight, a knock on my front door has me hobbling to the entryway to answer it. Robert stands before me with his ever-present leather jacket on and a dark grey shirt underneath it. As I examine his face, I notice that he showered and cleaned up his facial hair. The man actually shaved and he did a really good job. My heart is pounding hard for no reason. This is not the first time I have seen him like this. But goddamn it… he looks so good.

            “Are we going to stare at each other for the whole night or are we going to do something? Because if we’re going to stare, we might as well do it inside where we can sit,” Robert asks sarcastically. “Act fast. I’m pretty sure Mary is hiding in a bush with a pair of binoculars.”

            Blushing nervously, I grab my keys, phone, and wallet from the door-side table. Robert steps off of the doorstep to give me some room to lock up my house for the night. My hands are shaking so nervously and I fumble clumsily with the key and lock, which is only made worse when I notice Robert is watching me like a hawk.

            “You seem to be a little nervous… or anxious,” he comments lightly as he briefly touches my hand to get my attention back down to planet earth.

            “It’s a little bit of both,” I mumble as I step away from my door and walk as smoothly as I can to my car.

            Robert follows and climbs into the passenger side of my Jeep with difficulty because the last person who sat in my passenger seat was Amanda and she’s much shorter than Robert. Once he’s situated, I pull out of my driveway and drive slowly out of the neighborhood. Driving is good for me when I’m like this. It keeps me distracted and gives my brain something to think about other than the man beside me who, on several occasions, I feel the need to kiss and smother with love whether he wants it or not. And, sure. That might make me clinically insane because of how we’ve treated each other for the past year.

            “So, am I allowed to know where you’re taking me or do I have to play a guessing game?” Robert asks as he relaxes into the seat.

            “You’re allowed to know,” I say slowly with a nervous expression. “We’re going to go throw plates at walls for an hour and then we’re going to a spot Amanda and her friends found before she left for college.”

            Robert nods and gently rests his hand on my shoulder, making me clench up further. He rolls his eyes and leans slightly closer to me, making my hands squeeze the steering wheel tighter. “I can literally feel your nerves radiating off of you. Take a deep breath and relax,” he says calmly. “Why are you so nervous tonight? This is the most wound up I have seen you.”

            I sigh and relax into my seat while keeping my eyes on the road. “I don’t know. I just… I get nervous around you sometimes.”

            “Is it because I’m intimidating?” He questions in a low voice and judging by how he asked the question, I think he expects me to say yes. He may wear a leather jacket and carry the demeanor of somebody who could totally fuck me up, but I see right past that. Most of the time.

            “No, it’s because I find you extremely attractive and I’m very excited for this and don’t want to screw it up… and I’m about to go throw plates at a wall to relieve inner aggression that I have had inside of me since I was a teenager.”

            Robert laughs and moves his hand away from my shoulder. As I pull into the parking lot for the plate throwing place, I breathe in and out slowly from my nose to calm myself down. I really need to stop getting so worked up. Exiting my car, I wait for Robert before I start walking up to the building. Stepping on slightly uneven ground, I hiss in pain quietly and drop my eyes down to my ankle. We continue walking, but not limping is starting to get really hard and I’m pretty sure it’s only making me look like I have a stick shoved up my ass.

            “Okay, you’re killing me, kid. What the hell did you do to your ankle?” Robert then asks, seeing right through my act.

            I sigh and give up, resuming my limping. “My foot got caught on the leg of a table at work. I tripped.”

            “You… tripped,” Robert states.

            “I’m a professional at being clumsy,” I clarify. “Just ask Amanda. She’s had to patch me up dozens of times. Or Craig. He had to patch up my wrist once.”

            Robert looks down at how I’m walking, a slight frown on his face. “You shouldn’t be on it if it’s hurting that bad.”

            “Okay, Craig,” I tease with a light laugh. “Trust me, I’m fine. I’ve busted my ankle up enough to know when I need to be off of it.” And, in the back of the head, I know I really shouldn’t be on it right now.

            Entering the building, I am surprised by the lack of people that are here. It’s Friday night and this place is usually bumping. At the counter, we’re greeted by a teenage girl who smiles big and waves at both of us.

            “Hello! Welcome to Smash Management,” she says brightly. “What can I do for you two tonight?”

I limp up to the counter and pull my wallet out from my back pocket. “Can we please book a room for an hour?”

            The girl smiles and nods her head. “Sure thing! That’ll be forty bucks even. How would you like to pay?”

            I pull out my debit card and pass it over to her. Robert is standing close enough to me for me to feel his body heat coming off of him and it’s making it very hard to concentrate on what I’m doing. He’s either trying to see my debit card information so he can rob me blind, or he’s lost his sense of boundaries. Then, his hand discreetly rests on my hip and I tried not to press into it, I really did, but my body did what it wanted and suddenly I’m leaning into his touch. When my card goes through, the girl hands it back followed by two sets of protective goggles.

            “Alrighty! You two are going to be in room three, two doors on your left. Please remember to follow the safety guidelines provided in the room and do not, under any circumstances, remove the goggles until you are out of the room. If you are injured, press the red help button and a trained medical professional will be sent into your room for assistance.”

            Robert and I nod and leave without another word. I probably should have said thank you, it was unlike me not to, but I have never met a more energetic teenager in my life and that’s saying something when I raised a girl like Amanda. Scurrying to the room, I shove the third door open and wait for Robert to enter before putting on my goggles.

            “Have you ever done this before?” I ask with a grin. Robert shakes his head and I eagerly grab a plate from the rack. I’m glad I found something he hasn’t done before. “Basically, you talk the plate and you,” I step up to the red line and throw the plate against the wall, “throw it at the wall.”

            Robert scratches the back of his head and picks up one of the plates. He stares at it for a moment as if he’s trying to decide how to throw it. Then, like a Frisbee, he chucks it at the wall and it shatters into tiny pieces.

            “That is considerably more fun than I thought it would be,” he says with a laugh and grabs for another plate.

            I watch him throw three more plates in awe. This is the real Robert, the one that likes to have fun and the one who smiles. Before he notices me staring, I grab a plate of my own and throw it at the wall with both hands. It shatters and sends shards all over the place behind the barrier and for some reason, I laugh. Robert looks at me and starts laughing quietly too. This is the most fun I have had in a long time.

            Plate after plate, time passes us by. We went through the first rack within minutes and have since gone through three more. It cost me a little more money to blow through that many plates, but Robert stepped in at that point and started covering the extra costs to spare my bank account. I would like to say that I have been managing myself better around him, but I find it nearly impossible not to stare at him. Watching him as he throws plates at walls and to see him laughing is damn near sexy.

            “How did you find this place?” Robert asks as he twirls a plate around in his hands effortlessly.

            “Amanda was going through a lot of stress before she graduated, so I drove up and down Maple Bay looking for something to take her and I found this place. It wasn’t until after I found this place that I realized I could have looked on Yelp instead of driving for three hours all over town,” I explain to him with an unamused expression on my face. 

            Robert nods and looks down at his plate withdrawn eyebrows. “You’re a good father to her. She’s lucky to have you.”

            I can feel something off about his mood, so I take a step closer to him and lightly touch his arm. He leans into my touch and closes his eyes for a brief moment. In this private bubble, we’re the only two people in the world. It’s just me and him… and these plates.

            “Do you want to leave? Our hour is almost up anyway.” I ask warmly.

            Robert looks at me and frowns. “That was an hour?”

            “Time flies when you’re throwing plates at the wall. Come on. Let’s go before they come in here to drag us out,” I suggest with a grin. “I got one more place to take you. Amanda found it a while ago and it’s really cool.”

            Robert chucks the last plate at the wall over his shoulder and follows me out the door. We drop out goggles off at the front desk and walk out into the surprisingly warm night. I’m not sure what happened to Robert’s mood back there, but it seems that talking about kids is a sensitive topic for him. For whatever reason he may have, it’s ultimately his decision to tell me about it if he wants to and I’m not going to force it out of him. I need him to trust me and that means respecting boundaries. Robert is very secretive and mysterious and if I ever want him to talk to me, things have to be treated with care.

            After getting out of the heart of town, I drive freely on one of the backroads that go near the forests as well as the bay. Robert watches the roads for any clues that will tell him where we’re going and he gets visibly frustrated when he can’t find anything. I suspect Robert is the kind of person who has covered every square inch of Maple Bay and I believe that my daughter has found the one place he has not been to.

            Slowing down, I make a sharp right into an overgrown and run-down trail head. Robert stares at it curiously and I start to smile as I climb out of my Jeep. From the back, I pull out a small backpack and two flashlights. I hand one to Robert and keep the other for myself, twisting my ankle around to see if it’s up for this walk. Before we pack it out, I lock the Jeep and give Robert a hopeful glance. He’s gotta like this.

            The tail is much more overgrown now, which means not many people have been through here this summer. Guiding Robert, I take him through several turns and at one point, we leave the trail to walk down to the forest floor. Amanda had to make me three maps in order to help me learn how to get to this place and she had to walk me through it at least twice before it finally sunk in. I haven’t been down here since summer started, but I’m glad I’m finally getting the chance to go again. This place really is something special.

            For what’s left of our walk, I shut off my flashlight and Robert hesitantly does the same when I gesture for him to do it as well. At the end of the makeshift, nonexistent trail, there’s a small opening in the trees. I excitedly walk towards it and when we finally do reach the destination, I watch as Robert’s face melts from confusion into mild shock. My plan was a success.

            Lined with several giant boulders and logs that extend in all different directions is a large pond created by the river when the water is running high in winter. The moonlight pours in through the thinned trees, providing more than enough light to see without the flashlights. Bubbling with happiness, I climb up onto one of the large boulders and cross my legs. Robert climbs up to sit beside me and unlike I thought he would, he sits very close to me; close enough that our legs touch. Seeing this side of him has been eye-opening.

            “How did Amanda manage to find a place like this?” Robert asks, genuinely curious. “We went off the trail at least three times.”

            “My daughter likes to explore. She found it on luck and it took a lot of work for me to remember how to get here,” I explain.

            Robert nods and looks up at the clear sky. I want to look up as well, but my eyes refuse to move from Robert’s face. I think I’m well beyond the ‘head over heels’ phase, even if I’m reluctant to admit it to myself.

            “I really hate small talk,” Robert suddenly says. “Any other time, I would prefer to sit in silence, but… We’re starting over. Which means you need to tell me about yourself.”

            Oh, jeez. This may or may not be interesting. “Um, well… I was married once and had Amanda when I was eighteen.”

            Surprised, Robert raises an eyebrow. “What happened to your wife?” He asks, recalling what I told him the night after poker.

             “She and I, like I said, had Amanda at eighteen and we wound up having to go to college with her while she was still pregnant. Craig was a huge help once Amanda was born. He took care of her so I could get some rest while my wife was in class. We got married not too long after graduation and moved in together immediately after. A couple of days before our anniversary, she got into a horrible car accident and died a few days later. It was hard on Amanda and me. I had to give up my life to make sure she could live a good one,” I explain.

            “What was she like?” He asks innocently, clearly having a hard time with the subject manner.

            “She was full of life. She loved to wear skater dresses and jean jackets… and she had this smile that won me over at first sight. My parents hated her and her dad wanted to kill me more than half of the time, but we were in love. Craig and her got into so much trouble and when she gave birth, she became an incredible mother. Amanda turned out to be a lot like her, actually,” I recall, smiling. “She was my rock and then she was gone. It still hurts from time to time, but it’s been ten years…”

            “I’m sorry you lost her,” Robert says after a long pause.

            I briefly look over at him, suddenly feeling very nervous. There’s something I have to tell him, but I’m really not sure how he’s going to take it. “And um… There’s really no way for me to say this, but I… I know you had a wife too. Mary got drunk once and started telling me a bunch of things I shouldn’t know. I’m sorry if that bothers you…” I confess.

            Robert rolls his eyes and throws a stick into the pond. “It doesn’t bother me that you know. It just bothers me that Mary is a blabbermouth. It is what it is… Yeah, I was married. Her name was Marilyn and she passed like Alex did. I was a god-awful husband to her. She deserved more than I what I gave her. She probably died hating me.”

            “Is… Is that why you keep yourself so closed off?” I ask hesitantly. Why is he being so open with me?  I know Robert is the kind of guy that hates talking about this stuff. Does he trust me? Is he trying to make an effort so I know him better and know what I’m getting myself into? My head is spinning. “You don’t want to screw up and you don’t feel like you deserve a second shot?”

            Robert picks up another stick and whirls it into the pond just like he did the previous one. “I suppose so. Besides wrecking my marriage, I was an even worse father so I simply do not deserve anything. I deserve to be the broken old man that I am...”

            “What happened with your daughter?” I ask hesitantly, unsure if this is a bridge he wants to cross with me right now.

            Robert takes a deep breath and lets it all go in one puff. This is really hard for him to talk about and I don’t want to push him into talking about things he doesn’t want to, but he seems to trust me for some reason. Did Mary say something to him?

            “I got distracted. I was distracted by the money, my failing marriage, the drinking… After Marilyn died, I lost Val too. My wife was the only thing keeping us together until she passed. Val went off to college wanting nothing to do with me and now she’s twenty-four and living back home in Brooklyn making buckets. She contacted me last year to try and patch things up, but I… I fucked that up to. Instead of doing what I should have, I told her that I needed more time to get my shit together. She was pissed, naturally, and it really put a dent in things. She told me to contact her if and when I ever felt ready for it. I still haven’t and don’t know if I ever can. I failed at raising her and I’m pretty sure I’m going to fuck up fixing things. I just… my life is a wreck. And then you plopped into my life and I was baffled. I fucked that up too and I tried to blame you for it.”

            That’s the answer, then. He’s being open with me because he’s full of regret. He has had enough of feeling like garbage. What happened between us was nasty and he already told me he hated using me. We both felt it and neither of us knew what to do with it. He’s talking to me because he wants to change and for whatever reason, he’s coming to me to do it. The feeling that is burning inside of me finds its way into my heart and if I didn’t have to be so strong right now, I would start crying. I had no idea he’s been going through stuff like that. God, Robert. I let the silence settle in between us to give him a small break. He has held all of this in for so long, I can feel the way he hates himself for everything that went wrong. It’s an impossible situation, especially when your own demons catch up with you.

            “Nothing is going to change unless you do,” I say softly, not realizing I spoke until after Robert looks at me. This is where things can be placed on the path to recovery, I may not be able to do much, but I can say what he needs to hear and maybe, just maybe, that will be enough.

            “Things in your life have been hard, that much is clear. Everything in your life has led you to here, to this very moment. Val left the offer open, Robert. She’s your daughter; she loves you even though you see that to be impossible. You have everything in your power to make things better, to be the father you never got to be for her. Yes, she’s an adult now and living on her own, but it’s never too late to make the effort,” I continue on as kindly as I can. “You can change everything just by deciding to do so. Clean up the house, start drinking less… maybe kick the smoking habit… You can do these things. There are people in your life who want to and can help you, Robert. You are not alone in this. Even if it’s hard to see right now, I can promise you that things will be okay. It will all be okay.”

            Robert sniffles and when I meet his eyes, I see the tears welling up. My words hit him harder than I thought they would. Has nobody told him it would be okay before? Jesus Christ… he’s been alone for too long. Without any question, I pull him into my arms and allow him to nestle into the crook my neck. He securely wraps his arms around me and presses his hands against my back as he clings onto me.

            "I don't deserve this... Thank you... For not, for not running off," he mumbles against my shoulder.

            I weave my fingers into his hair and kiss the top of his head, allowing my lips to linger there for a moment. He needs to know that it's still possible to be loved even though he feels like the worst man on the planet. He needs to know that while his life may be broken and a mess, there's time to clean it up and make it right. He's young enough to fix everything before it's too late. And I'll be damned if I let him go. This has nothing to do with wanting to fix him or wanting to be the therapist I cannot be. This, whatever this is, starred out on an unhealthy note, but we have since moved passed that. We have put in the effort to move away from the toxic relationship to get to a place where we can be honest and open with each other. Did I plan for the skeletons to come out of the closet tonight? No. But... I'm glad they did because now I know. I know him for who he is.

            "You have me, Robert. You will always have me. I'll do whatever I can to help you if you want me to," I reassure him. “You don’t have to be so alone anymore. I’ll be whatever you need me to be.”

            Robert pulls away just enough to look at me. His eyes are teary and his cheeks are red, but this is the most real I have ever seen him. He's being human, not that emotionless façade that he puts up for everyone to see.

            "You're a lunatic for wanting to deal with my problems. Mary won't even go near them," he says in disbelief.

            "Mary is Mary and she's your best friend, but this is me. I care about you in ways she can't. I'm not asking to just be with you, Robert. I'm asking you to let me help you, to let me take care of you when you need it. You may have the love from your puppy, but you're lacking the love from another human," I say as I gently cup the right side of his face.

            Robert sucks in a breath and nestles against the warm touch of my hand. "I should be telling you no. I should tell you to stay away from me until I get some of my shit together, but I did that to Val and it broke her heart and I don't think I can have another broken heart on my conscious. I'm going to start making things right, even if that means I have to start with you. I warned you that if you got close to me again, I wouldn't be able to stop myself, Codes. And you're really fucking close right now..."

            I wipe a tear away from his face with my thumb and rest my free hand onto one of his that rests comfortably on his thigh. He’s a beautiful mess, but I don’t care about that. I care about him and the problems are just an extension of that. I don’t know where we’re going to land in a year or even in a few weeks, but this is where we are now. I know why he feels broken and I know why he’s so scared of trusting me.

            "We can figure out the little details later. For now, let's get back home before we piss off some wild animals. It's getting late and I'm sure Betsy misses her human daddy," I advise warmly.

            Robert nods, but before either of us move, I lean forward and press an uneven kiss to the corner of his mouth. Slowly, I peel myself up from the boulder and jump down with half-asleep legs. Robert jumps down beside me and together, we walk hand in hand back to the Jeep. I'm not sure where we stand now, but for all that it's worth, things are finally heading in the right direction. Life is tricky and sometimes people get dealt really shitty cards. Maybe in a few weeks, we’ll find our way to each other and maybe in a few months we’ll hit a speed bump or two, but I don’t care. I feel so strongly about this. I need him just as much as he needs me. Love is never easy, especially when it’s new. How do you go from trying to hate someone to loving them more than anything in the universe? It’s never a choice. It just happens.

              

            And in the next few months of my life, things are going to start changing. There are things that I’m going to have to deal with that will tear me apart on the inside and in the mess of it all, I’m going to lose more than one person in my life. Relationships are never easy to balance when pressure is put on them and, whether I like it or not, I’m going to lean that the hard way. My life is going to start taking turns now that I never could have prepared for.

Chapter Text

I lie awake in my bed, unable to sleep.

            My eyes burn from my draining exhaustion and I want nothing more than to close my eyes and drift off, but nothing I do works. I have tried everything from drinking tea to taking melatonin and I always come to the same conclusion. I am perpetually cursed with the inability to get rest. Everything from A to Z fails miserably, even Craig’s relaxation tips. In the back of my mind, buried somewhere I don’t want to go… I know what the real problem is. The issue has been around for months now whether I want to accept that or not. Sleeping in my bed alone has grown to be significantly harder over the years and I know how childish that sounds. I’m not afraid of the dark or have sleep apnea, it all simply comes down to being lonely. And forcing myself to accept that? I can’t. It only makes me feel worse.

            When Alex was around, I always had her by my side. We slept together on our lumpy bed, we were raising our daughter, and we had a good life together while it lasted. When she died, I felt the same feeling of loneliness that I’m feeling now. Over the years of coping, it became manageable because I had Amanda to keep me grounded. I remember the times when she would spend all night crying because she missed her mother and the only way I could get her to sleep is if I brought her into my bed. She was so little then and it stopped happening as she grew older and learned how to handle the grief. But now Amanda is gone and I have nobody.

            Sometimes, I feel like a baby for complaining about my loneliness. Some people are alone in their lives for decades and here I am, drowning in it when I have friends in my life and people who I care about all around me. Regardless, I know there’s no way I can escape my lonely heart. I want somebody who also wants me, but we have yet to establish what we are to each other. We haven’t fought since the bar. We haven’t had a touching moment since the night at the pond. The only thing that makes this all worth it is that smile that appears on his face whenever we see each other and the way my heart goes insane every time I touch him. That’s what makes all of it worth it. I’ll suffer for as long as I have to if it means I can keep him in my life for a little while longer.

            It’s three in the morning now. I have to be up in four hours to get ready for work and then I have to go visit the adoption center to see if want to adopt a puppy. As unhealthy as it is, I have grown used to going through my days with exhaustion and sleep deprivation pouring down on me on a regular basis. I miss him even though he’s a door down from me. As the cliché line goes, he’s so close… yet so ridiculously far away. Just close your eyes and sleep… Just go to sleep…

              

            Max wags her tail excitedly as she tries to wedge her body underneath my couch. Laughing happily, I grab the little puppy and move her back to the center of the living room where she started. She wanders off to her food dish and starts chowing down on the food I set out for her three hours ago. I’m happy to see that she’s finally brave enough to eat. Since I brought her home, she has been sniffing her way around the house to get the lay of the land and familiar with her new home. She appears to be happy and she already found a spot in the living room to claim as her own, which is exactly where I decided to place her bed. This little bundle of furry joy owns me now and I’ve already accepted she will be my new best friend.

            After I went to see her a few Sundays ago, I fell in love with her upon first sight. I adopted her right away, but I had to wait three weeks before I could bring her home. Damien wanted to get her potty trained for me and I needed to take the time to get my house ready for a little four-legged addition. It took quite a lot of money to cover all of the expenses that came with buying dog beds, dishes, toys, and food, but I say it was damn worth it. I kind of feel like I brought home a newborn from the hospital. She certainly acts like a newborn and I suppose this makes me a dog dad now. Amanda is gonna go ballistic once she checks her messages.

            I have only owned one dog in my enter life. Craig and I once smuggled a dog into our dorm room for a full semester and we spent the entire time trying to convince people we had a third roommate who had a terrible cough that sounded like a dog bark. And the best part? Everyone bought the story. For a while, at least. A surprise dorm inspection from campus security put a wrench in the plans and Carl, our dog, was discovered. It was bad enough I was already taking care of a baby in my dorm and I suppose having a dog too was crossing the line. Ultimately, Craig made the call to give Carl away so I could stay in the dorms to take care of my baby. He ended up giving Carl to his uncle who, I think, still looks after the old guy to this day. Alex was in on the entire gig and she was heartbroken when we had to get rid of him.

            Putting Carl aside, Max is my dog for real. There will be no surprise house inspections and nobody is going to tell me that I can’t have her. I’m going to have to learn how to be a proper dog-dad now. Damien already walked me through all of the basics, but I can’t help but feel like I’m forgetting to do something. Brian came over yesterday to install a doggy door into my sliding back door, which Max absolutely loves and has used multiple times since I brought her home. For being as small as she is, she is incredibly smart. Deciding to call in the reinforcements, I grab my phone off of the coffee table and type up a quick message to the first person who comes to mind that would have any idea on how to take care of a small puppy.

 

To Robert:
Hey... I haven’t seen you for a little while.
If you're not busy, I could use your help.
Just come in. The door is unlocked.

            I set my phone down on the coffee table and get down onto my knees, eventually dropping down to lie flat on my stomach with my chin resting on my folded hands. Max also decides to lay on her stomach too in front of me and we stare at each other, waiting for the other to do something. She is the most innocent dog I have ever laid eyes on besides Betsy. Max is small and clumsy with her big paws, which has been thoroughly entertaining at times. My house is probably too small for a dog that will eventually be close to three or four times her current size, but I can make it work. If it can fit my teenage daughter into this place, I can for sure fit a growing puppy.

            From behind me, the front door opens and closes. Neither Max nor I move, we simply stay in place and keep staring at each other. Is this some kind of doggy staring contest of some kind? What have I gotten myself into? What happens if I look away?

            “Well, this isn’t exactly what I pictured when you said you needed my help,” Robert says as he gets down on his knees beside me. “Who’s the little one?”

            “That’s Max. She’s about a month and some weeks old. She’s been here for three hours,” I explain simply.

            Max starts to wag her tail and suddenly bounds towards Robert. She yelps happily and paws at him, begging him to pay attention to her. With a soft smile, Robert pets Max and laughs when she flops over onto her back for belly rubs.

            “She’s got the same energy as Betsy does. What made you get a dog?” He asks.

            Max trots away to go lie down on her over-sized bet. I smile at her and push myself onto my knees. “I think I needed something other than fish to keep me company. It gets pretty lonely around here with Amanda around,” I reply with a shrug.

            Robert frowns and shifts to sit on the floor uncomfortably. “You’ve been lonely?” He questions as if me being lonely surprises him.

            “Well, yeah. I see Craig in the mornings and go to work with Mat, but then I come home to an empty house because Amanda is away at college and I don’t always hear from you so… I adopted a puppy,” I explain.

            “I’m sorry for falling off the face of the earth. I got busy and time flew by. I didn’t mean to leave you in the dark like that,” he apologizes.

            I provide a warm half-smile and look over at him. “It is what it is. People get busy and that’s alright.”

            Robert shakes his head and scoots closer to me. “That’s not the point. I shouldn’t be leaving you like that. I don’t want to make you wait, Cody. It has been a really crazy summer and I keep thinking about that night by the pond…”

            I take his hand into my lap and mindlessly trace the scars that live there with my fingertips. “What do you think about?”

            “How I felt like everything was going to be okay. You did that. You gave me that comfort and I... I can’t wrap my mind around that,” he says slowly as he searches my face. “Things started out really bad for us and yet you’re still willing to try even though I treated you like crap? What did you even see in me that made you want to hang on for so long?”

            I look up at Robert and smile wide. Out of nowhere, I push myself up from my spot and throw my arms around him. Having not expected my sudden weight, Robert grunts and falls back onto the carpet with a thud. I look down at him and I have to try really hard not to start blushing. I remember the last time I was on top of him like this…

            “I saw several things, Robert. It’s really hard to explain,” I say honestly. “I just felt right with you. And yeah, getting treated like crap sucked, but I’m not mad or upset because that wasn’t really you. That was who you were forcing yourself to be. Who I’m talking to now is who you really are. I’m crazy, sure, but if being crazy means I get to have you, then I’ll be crazy for as long as I can,” I attempt to explain.

            Robert’s eyes lock with mine. He goes to say something to me, but he is long cut off by Max wiggling her way in between us. I laugh and slide off of Robert, watching as Max desperately tries to lick his face. She paws and scratches at him, making all sorts of noises. Robert laughs and I stare in disbelief. It is hard to get Robert to laugh and it… It’s so wonderful. I could listen to his laugh all day without ever getting tired of it.

            “Your dog is trying to kill me,” Robert laughs jokingly, watching as Max nudges her way into his leather jacket and under his arm.

            “She’s trying to get to know you,” I say with a grin. “She wants to know who this mysterious guy is her daddy is crushing on.”

            Robert turns his head and flashes a wide grin that rivals mine. “You got a crush on me, eh?”

            “I said nothing of the sort. You have no evidence and I cannot be prosecuted,” I defend almost seriously.

            When Max finally gives up on trying to lick Robert to death, he stands up and offers me a hand to help me up as well. I accept the help and unsteadily get to my feet, suddenly realizing that I can’t seem to let go of Robert’s hand. It’s surprising so soft and it’s calloused, sure, but… is it bad that I have missed his hands? Just let go of him, Cody…

            “Yeah, you’re not crushing on me or anything,” Robert scoffs with a laugh.

            “I’m sorry, Robert. I only want to be with you because of your hands. They’re the prettiest hands I have ever seen. I could marry a man with hands like yours,” I joke.

            Robert rolls his eyes and squeezes the hand he holds. “Right… my hands. We’ll see about that,” he says doubtfully. “Do you want to get out of here for a little while?”

            I nod and release his hand to perform my duties as a doggy dad. Even though she makes a sound of protest, I lift Max up and put her into her crate. Robert hands me a treat from the bag on the coffee table and I give it to her so she can chew on it while we sneak out of the house. Moving quickly, I grab my things and lock the front door behind us as we evacuate the room. Damien claims that Max doesn’t mind being left alone, but I doubt she’s going to enjoy being left in her crate for a little while. Until I’m sure she’ll be fine on her own in my house, I don’t want to risk letting her getting into something she’s not supposed to while I’m away.

            Following Robert’s lead, we cut across to his house and climb into his old beat-up truck together. I stare at the stickers on his dashboard and for a brief moment, I wonder if it was Val who put them there when she was little. Now that I’ve been paying more attention to it, I have noticed little hints of Val scattered around Robert’s life. For me, my kid is all over the place in a lively way. But for Robert, it seems like Val is a ghost. These stickers, the photos he has of her in his house, and the photo that I know he has of her and Marilyn in his wallet… they all feel like traces of a long-forgotten memory. It hurts me to acknowledge that. I wish there’s something I could do to help him, but until I know more, there’s not much I can do. There’s a lot of damage in between them and I know it has been killing him since Val took off.

            Since the night at the pond, Robert and I have been stuck in a really rough impasse. I have only seen him twice in the past three weeks and both times were exceptionally brief. Things are much better between us now that we’ve cleared the air and talked about some things we probably should have been talked about at the beginning of our mess of a relationship. There’s a bubble around us now and when I’m with him, I feel like we’re the only two people on the road. And as Robert drives to his mystery location, I find myself unable to look away from him.

            Needed to do something with my hands, I start to fidget anxiously and I try to focus on other things for a little while. As Robert turns to look at me for a second, I shift my gaze out the window and I force myself to focus on the blurring trees. I think we’re moving at a slight incline, but I’m not entirely sure. Robert lights a cigarette and cracks the window for my sake and I wonder if I should mention my asthma, but I bite my tongue. It’s a stupid move, but it’s one I can afford to make right now. Robert likes his silence. Maybe I’ll mention it later tonight…

            Eventually, we back into the destination and Robert shuts off the truck. He hastily exits and I curiously follow him, closing my door behind me as gentle as I can. I’m afraid the door may fall off if I try to close it any harder. Much to my surprise, we seem to be at some kind of viewpoint that overlooks the entire city. In awe, I look over at Robert and raise both of my eyebrows. There’s gotta be a story behind this place.

            “I have brought you here to harvest your organs. I need some money to pay off the mafia and the black market is the fastest way to do that.” Robert says almost seriously.

            I want to laugh and smile, but I decide to play along. “Oh, so you think you have caught me off guard? Well, I’m here to tell you that you are wrong, Small. As it turns out, I run the mafia and I’m here to harvest your organs.”

            Robert starts to giggle and then turns to the tailgate of his truck, popping it open. He pulls a black duffel bag towards him and from it, he pulls a thick checkerboard blanket from it. He then spreads the blanket out on the bed of the truck and gestures for me to climb up on it with him. Smiling like a complete dork, I get up on the tailgate and scoot myself back onto the blanket. Thankfully, I remembered to grab my jacket from the couch before leaving because there’s a slight chill in the air tonight.

            “I come up here to think a lot. I usually come up here in the middle of the night, but I figured I should take you at a normal time like the normal person I am,” Robert says, breaking the silence.

            “Have you taken anyone else up here?” I ask innocently.

            Robert shakes his head and leans back onto his hands. “I used to take Marilyn way back when, but never anybody since.”

            I feel oddly flattered. This is the place he took his wife and now he’s taking me. That’s more than what I ever expected from him. This place is special to him and for whatever reason, he decided to show it to me.

            “It’s a bit strange being up here with someone else,” Robert says, “I brought you up here because we gotta talk, Cody. The past few weeks have been messing with my head.”

            Worried, I frown. “What’s wrong?”

            “Nothing is… wrong. There’s just…” he pauses, struggling to figure out how he wants to go about whatever is eating away at his mind. “I’m not gonna lie and say that I don’t like you, kid. I’ve had a thing for you since I spotted you at the Coffee Spoon for the first time. Things got ruined for us for a long time, but they’re not ruined anymore and I… I’m going crazy, I think. You’re such an innocent person and I don’t want to ruin that, but I’m having a hard time staying away from you.”

            He stops talking and makes a frustrated face. Talking about this stuff is hard on him, that much is clear. I think I understand where he is going with this, but I want to give him the opportunity to say everything he needs to before jumping to conclusions. Talking is good for him and I’m not going to cut into it.

            “There’s no time limit, Robert. Take your time,” I encourage.

            He rolls his eyes and sits up straight to make himself seem more put together. “I’m not a good guy, Cody. All I’m gonna do is ruin you and for some damned reason, you don’t care about that. You’re still here after everything I told you at the pond. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing anymore, but I know that you’re special to me and… I want us, Cody. My life is a complete disaster, but I do… I can't ignore that anymore. Even when I was trying to hate, I still cared and it took me a long while to understand what that meant.”

            My heart leaps forward. I haven’t felt butterflies in my stomach for years, but I’m feeling them now. “I want us to, Robert. You have no idea how badly.”

            “But aren’t you worried? It’s too soon, Cody. I should be telling you no. I should be telling you to wait until I’m sorted, but… I’m honestly stuck. I don’t know if I can wait that long.”

            “Of course I’m worried, but we’re never going to figure anything out if we don’t take the first step forward,” I say, getting serious. “We both went through the trauma of losing our wives. I don’t want to go about my life without having known what it would have been like with you. I don’t know where we’ll be in a few months, but I know where we are now. This is right. I know it is.”

            Robert and I look at each other. There are so many silent words being exchanged between us, words that we’re too afraid to say out loud. I slide my hand over to his and he rests his own on top of it, feeling my skin against his. My stomach is doing somersaults and my heart is slamming against my chest. Everything I have ever felt for him is coming out in this one moment. Needing to be closer to him, I scoot as close as I can to him without sitting on his lap. His body is pressed against mine and I can feel how hard his heart is beating now. He’s nervous and so am I. I extend my hand and grab onto his hip that is the farthest away from me. Robert gently presses his hand to the small of my back and cups the side of my face as he runs his thumb along my cheekbone slowly. His eyes search mine while I become absolutely lost in his.

            “You haven’t been sleeping,” he mumbles.

            I lean closer to him and feel the smile that twitches at the corner of my lips. “That’s because a certain boy keeps me up at night. That and I’m pretty sure I have severe insomnia.”

            “Who’s this certain boy? Can I kick his ass?” He asks jokingly as he fondly nudges his nose with mine.

            “Oh, baby… you’d be kicking yourself in the ass,” I say as I slip my hand into his soft hair.

            I close the gap small gap that had been in between us and presses our waiting lips together. Robert sighs into the kiss and I melt against him, allowing myself to really feel his body against mine. We kiss each other slowly, enjoying the way we taste together. I’m not sure if I can ever get enough of this now that I have it again. His lips are so soft and they fit so perfectly with mine… I’m drunk off of him. Carefully, Robert lies back on the bed of the truck, pulling me along with him. I lean against his chest and kiss him with everything I got. After a while, our kisses become sloppy and uncoordinated, but only because we've become so invested in each other that placement hardly matters. What matters is being close with each other and feeling things we have been craving for so long. I never knew I could feel this way with him or get this worked up over a kiss, but it's absolutely perfect.

            With some careful skill, I roll onto my back and pull Robert on top of me. He groans in protest because the movement pulled us apart, but he silences when I slip my tongue into his mouth to mix with his own. He reaches down and pulls my leg up to his hip, holding there securely. I hum with contentment and breathe in Robert’s perfect scent, feeling that all too familiar intoxication that I fall under when I’m too close to him. Robert slips a hand underneath my shirt and he feels around my body, settling against my side. He grips me and pulls himself down against me, forcing me to stifle a moan. Something hard starts to stab me in the thigh as he shifts around and I open my eyes, squinting in confusion. It's way too hard to be his dick and, honestly, too small... So, what the hell is it?

            “Robert,” I say, pulling away from him, “what is stabbing me in the thigh?” I ask, pressing my thigh against the object to emphasize what I’m talking about.

            Robert frowns and reaches down to feel around in his pockets. “Uh… Probably my knife. Sorry.”

            “Why… Why do you have a knife? Actually, no. Don’t answer that.”

            “I always have at least four knives on me at all times. For safety and other reasons.”

            That has got to be the most Robert response I have ever heard. Of course, he carries multiple knives on him. Unable to say anything else on the matter, I reach up and light cup the side of his face. He presses into my touch and part of me feels sad when he does it. There’s no telling how long he went without feeling genuine affection from another person.  

            "It’s not too late, you know. You can still tell me no and we can go back to how things were," Robert says quietly.

            I sigh and shake my head, gently pulling Robert down into a much-needed hug. "I'm not running from you, not now. Do you realize how long I have wanted to kiss you like that? To have it be real and to do it knowing you feel something for me? You're the crazy one if you think I'm leaving you now. You're stuck with me," I say as I slip my hand under his leather jacket to rub his back.

            Robert laughs quietly and turns his head to leave a wet kiss on my cheek. "Alright, alright... So now we're dating, huh? Dating means dates... Wanna catch a movie on Wednesday?"

            I laugh and nod my head even though he's pressed up against my neck and can't see it. "I would love to. I have to race Craig that day, but I'll save some of my energy for you."

            Robert rolls off of me and lies flat on his back, looking up at the sky. “Why the hell are you racing Craig? That’s how innocent men die from acute exhaustion.”

            “Well, you see… My stamina has increased significantly over the past year and I’m naturally a fast person. Craig has only beaten me three times in a race before and those were all freak accidents,” I explain with a proud smile.

            Robert laughs and pulls his pack of cigarettes from within his jacket. I eye the box with a grim expression and decide that I gotta say something. Amanda would skin me alive if she found out I was ignoring my condition like this. Stiffly, I take the pack out of his hands. "Ah sorry, Small. You can't smoke these around me anymore," I say vaguely.

            Robert makes a face. “Uh, alright?”

            I nervously laugh and clear my throat, preparing myself for a lecture. "It's not because I have a problem with it. It's because I'm asthmatic. It hardly acts up anymore, but I still try to stay away from the usual triggers."

            Robert narrows his eyes and takes the box out of my hands. “And you’re just now telling me? Jesus, kid,” he says in disbelief.

            “It never really crossed my mind until tonight. Like I said, it hardly bothers me anymore. I just have to be careful around some things,” I explain.

            Robert nods and stuffs the pack into his inner jacket pocket. “I should cut back on smoking anyways… and the drinking.”

            With a dumb smile on my face, I roll over to lie partially on Robert’s chest. “I’ll miss the smells and tastes, but a healthy you is better than a not healthy you,” I say as my eyes travel between his lips and eyes shamelessly.

            “So, you like the way I taste, do you? Why don’t you come here and you can get a little more before it’s gone?” Robert says flirtatiously.

            Grinning, I lean down and press my lips to his. For the rest of the time that we spend together at the overlook, we kiss each other and grow completely lost in our feelings for each other. It took many hours, but we did eventually return home and it was hard to let him go. I wanted him to stay, I wanted him to know that I really care about it, and even though I was so close to asking him to stay with me... I let him go. We’re new and I didn’t want to rush things even faster than we already have. And for the first time in a long time, I was able to go to sleep with a happy heart.

            Though, as I was drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help but think about what Robert said. Shouldn’t I be more worried about what we’ve done? Robert is just now getting around to fixing himself and I have a lot of errors in my life that need to be corrected. He should have told me no and I know I should have put my foot down, but we’ve already fallen so hard for each other. How could we tell each other no? Things can be happy for a while and I know they will be, but how long can that last before something pops up and takes it away from us? I have feelings for him, I want to be with him… but I also want us to be happy.

Chapter Text

My hands shake as I nervously type his number into my phone.

            I woke up today thinking about him even though he hasn’t crossed my mind for what feels like months. I’m not sure what brought him into my mind but just the thought of him today brought on the heavy blanket of guilt over myself. I still blame myself for what happened between my brother and I. Everything that happened only occurred because I was too idiotic to see what was really happening when it was all right in front of me. Things would have been better if I didn’t get so angry. If I had just taken the time to see what he was really doing, I would have seen that it was for me and maybe, just maybe, he would be in my life today. Anxiously, I press the green call button and hold the phone against my ear.

            The call goes straight to voicemail. I’m not sure what I expected, to be completely honest. We haven’t said a single word to each other for years, so why would he answer the phone now after all this time? As I listen to the automated voice, I take a deep breath and squeeze my eyes shut. I can do this.

            “Hey, Tyler. I know it’s been a long time, but I was thinking about you today and I thought I should give you a call. If you have the time, give me a call back. I want to hear from you. I hope things are going well for you and Olivia. Bye.”

            I end the call and set my phone down on my lap. I have no idea if my brother will decide to call me back or not. Deep down, I want to fix our relationship. It all went to shit over a stupid argument, one that tore us apart like cotton candy. We were as close as we could be growing up and when the stress I was dealing with finally got to me, I let it all go on him. I said some things I could never take back. My entire family is broken. My father was cold and withdrawn, my mother has always been pretentious and arrogant, and my brother probably hates my guts for the things I said to him.

            Craig pokes his head in from the front door, glancing around the room until he finds me on the couch. I finish tying my running shoes and rise to my feet, putting on my best phony smile I can.

            “You’re going down, Cahn,” I taunt him as we walk out onto the street.

            “Whatever helps you sleep at night, bro,” Craig teases. “As you can see, our lovely neighbors have all gathered to be witnesses to our race.”

            I glance at the cluster of people standing at the finish line and my heart flutters when I see Robert leaning against a lamppost way down the street. I can’t fail now. He won’t let me hear the end of it.

            “Alright, on the count of three,” I say as we stand directly in front of a stick that we set on the street to determine the start line.

            I get down into a proper pose and take a steady deep breath. I have no idea if I can actually win this thing. While I may be really fast, Craig still has plenty of advantages. Our race at the park may have been a fluke. Oh god. Now is not the time for cold feet.

            “One…” I say.

            “Two…” Craig yells with a smile.

            “Three!” We say in unison.

            Surging forward, I focus on the sound my shoes make when they hit the pavement. Everything around me turns into a dull blur as I breathe in from the nose and out my mouth. I can hear Craig beside me. He’s gaining speed with each second like the absolute beast he is. I will not let him win. I need to do this for my pride and my wallet. Using every ounce of energy I have in my body, I move my legs quicker and as the finish line draws nearer, I can only think about how exhausted I’m going to be when I hit that finish line.

            With only a few seconds left in the race, I push myself as hard as I can physically go. Craig is right beside me and he is putting everything he has into this. He’s not holding back… he’s not trying to throw the race for me. Cracking a smile, I zero in on the finish line. We’re neck and neck. He’s gaining speed. I’m running as fast as I can. Our neighbors are yelling for their preferred winner. And by some freak miracle, it is my feet that crosses the finish line first.

            Exhausted, I stumble to the curb and plop down with a huge sigh. People are cheering around me and I burst out laughing, unsure of how I could have possibly beat Craig once again.

            “Well, I’ll be damned, bro. You’re still as fast as you were in college,” Craig says as he enthusiastically tosses me a water bottle from Mat.

I accept the water and get back up to my feet, still amazed that I won. “You got the muscles, but I got the speed. Forget the bet. I’m just happy that I won.”

            Buzzing with joy and a slight runner’s high, I accept the congratulations that I get from my neighbors and as we all disperse, I hang back a bit. Mary is off working at the pet shelter today and I’m starting to really wonder why Robert and I are still trying to hide our relationship with her. I suppose we both enjoy how frustrated she gets when we’re by each other, but if she doesn’t know now, then somebody is bound to tell her eventually. Secrets don’t last very long in this cul-de-sac. I learned that the hard way not too long ago when suddenly everyone here knew about my brief ska days. 

            “I’m surprised, Codes. I was rooting for you, but I thought you were insane for trying to race Craig. Congratulations,” Robert says with a sheepish smile.

            I beam at him and lazily lean against him as we walk back into the cul-de-sac. “Have some faith in me, will you? I don’t see you going up against Craig,” I say playfully.

            Robert rolls his eyes and follows me into my house. Max runs around the living room excitedly when she sees us, but I’m too distracted by my ringing phone to pay attention to her. It’s my brother. Cursing, I hurriedly grab my phone and fall back onto the couch.

            “Tyler? Hey, sorry. I was outside and didn’t have my phone by me,” I say as soon as I answer the call.

            “No worries. Sorry I didn’t answer your call. I was at the grocery store and Olivia was nagging me. What’s going on, little bro? I listened to your voicemail.”

            Robert sits happily on my floor and plays with my puppy. I fight the smile that threatens to appear on my face and force myself to pay attention to my brother.

            “I have no clue how to say this without saying it directly, Ty. I feel awful about how things left off with us before you left. Mom sure was pissed and I’m pretty sure she still is… But uh, I want to fix it. I want my daughter to know her uncle and I want us to be in touch again. Do you think that’s possible?”

            My brother is silent for a while as he thinks over what I said. I know Robert is listening in on what I’m saying even though he tries not to show it. He was going to find out about my brother eventually.

            “Look, what happened was such a long time ago. You were only eighteen and I was about to enlist. You have always been my little brother, even if we weren’t talking. I just got back after being away for two years, why don’t you come home for a few days? Bring Amanda if you want.”

            “Amanda is actually away at college right now. My little girl grew up, Ty.”

            “What? How is she that old already? Jeez. Well… are you in a relationship right now? Bring them. I wanna see what my little brother has been up to.”

            My eyes lock with Robert’s. He is losing his mind with curiosity.  “I’ll see if he’s interested. I’ll double-check with my work schedule, but I can take some time off work and I could probably be out there in two weeks. Are you sure about this, Tyler?”

            “Of course, man. It was just a silly argument. I’ll text you my address and you can find a hotel close by. I doubt you want to stay with mom. Let me know when you get it all settled. Olivia hates it when I spring plans onto her out of nowhere.”

            “Alright, yeah. I’ll get it all figured it out. Thank you, Tyler. This means a lot to me.”

            “Any time, little bro. I’ll catch you later.”

            “Bye.”

            “Bye, man.”

            As soon as I end the call, Robert is clumsily throwing himself on the couch with curious eyes. He’s oddly adorable when he’s bursting with curiosity. I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing him like this.

            “That was my brother. We stopped talking for a long time because of a dumb argument that happened when I was eighteen. We’re going to try and patch things up. Though he wants me to go back home for a few days and he wants me to bring you. Is that something you’d want to do? I know it’s a little soon to be introducing you to family, but it’s… Tyler. He just wants to see how my life is going,” I explain in a short summary.

            Robert raises both eyebrows and sinks into the couch. “I mean… I have nothing going on any time soon. I’ll go if it means that much to you. Besides, it’ll be fun to leave Mary hanging.”

            I smile and lean over to give him a quick kiss. “Thank you. I have to bring Max, which means I’ll have to find a pet-friendly hotel. You could bring Betsy.”

            Robert nods and I pull myself from the couch and stretch my arms a bit. My legs feel like jelly after running as fast and hard as I did. “I have to take a quick shower. You can hang around here until I get out if you want. I’ll be ten minutes tops. You can, uh… stay out here or wait in my room. Whatever,” I say.

            Robert rises from the couch and with my little puppy trotting along behind us, I lead my makeshift family back to my bedroom. While Max and Robert take up residence on my bed, I go into the bathroom and close the door behind me. I don’t want to spend a ton of time in here and so, as soon as possible, I’m turning on the water and stripping out of my clothes. I feel a little dirty knowing that Robert is right outside the door, but I shove the thought aside and turn on the fan. Once the water is warm enough, I get under it and start scrubbing away at my body. While I'm in here, I do decide to take my time a bit. Robert and I have a date tonight and I want to make sure that I stay smelling good and looking good for the sake of both of us.

            Things have been really good between us. And I don’t want to say I’m surprised, but I am a little. We’re taking things slow to test the waters and to see where our boundaries lie. I’m happy with where we are right now. It took so long to get us to where we are and now that we’re actually doing this, I don’t want to let it go. For a long while, he was only seeing me in the way he needed to in order to shut me out. Now, he’s seeing me for who I really am and although he’s a real closed book, I’m getting snippets of who he really is too. Our relationship, my emotions, his feelings… it’s all okay now. We’re happy.

            Eventually, I get out and dry off with the towel before wrapping it around my waist. I probably should have grabbed my clothes before coming in here because now that I think about it, I have to go back into my room with nothing but a towel on and Robert is sitting on my bed with my puppy. Holding my breath, I open the door and bolt straight for my dresser and closet. It takes me more time than I would like it to find a shirt, but once I have everything, I turn around and freeze in my place. Robert is looking at me with lust blown eyes and I feel the blush as it crawls onto my face. I have seen those eyes before, but never like this.

            “I meant to grab my clothes first,” I apologize anxiously. “Sorry.”

            Robert shakes his head and he clearly has no shame in the way his eyes roam over my exposed torso and hips. “No worries. I’m kind of enjoying the fresh out of the shower look you have. It’s really hot.”

            Blushing furiously, I scurry to the bathroom and kick the door closed behind me long enough to throw my clothes on. My shirt clings to my body because I failed to do a better job with drying off, but I have my clothes on and that's all that matters. Upon opening the door again, I find Robert lying on my bed as opposed to sitting on it. I walk over to him and sit down on the edge, petting Max as she nudges my hand.

            “I have a couple of errands to run before we can go tonight. I’ll swing by later to get you,” Robert says with a soft smile.

            I reach out and trace my fingers along his collarbone, finding the way that it sticks out to be attractive. “So… I’ll finally get to see what a date with Robert Small looks like,” I say with a hopeful look in my eye.

            “You are so sappy. It’s not a fancy date, it’s just a movie. I want to ease us into this kind of thing before we start doing the ‘extravagant’ stuff. I’m sorry if I’m going too slowly for you,” Robert says with a slight frown.

            I shake my head and trail my fingers down his torso. I can feel his muscles underneath the fabric and when I look back up to Robert, he’s biting his lower lip. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to bite that lip for him. How is he so effortlessly attractive?

            “Don’t worry about me, Robert. I know why we’re going slow. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy, okay?” I say, trying to reassure him. “All of the things we’re holding off on can wait a while. I’m happy enough to just have you.”

            Robert sits up and captures my lips, cupping the side of my face. I kiss him back with the same enthusiasm that he uses on me and I find myself melting against his perfect body. Everything about him just lures me closer. His kisses, his scent, his surprisingly gentle hands…

            “I should really get going,” he says against my lips. I can tell that he doesn’t want to leave me right now.

            I smile and give him one last kiss before pulling back. “Then get out of here. I can keep myself occupied. Max needs a bath anyways.”

            Robert sighs and forces himself off of my bed, leaving me to sit on it alone with Max as she desperately tries to get herself underneath my comforter. As he looks around the room, Robert smirks and crosses his arms over his chest.

            “The last time I was in your room, you were drunk off your ass and you kept calling me names,” he recalls fondly.

            “To be completely fair, you were being a dumbass,” I say with a proud grin. “All I wanted was to fix what happened, I never expected to actually get a relationship out of it all. That was a huge bonus.”

            Robert scoffs, but he fails to keep his smile away. With one last glance, he walks out of my room and my house. Max crawls onto my lap and paws on my chest eagerly. I lovingly pet her and take her collar off to get her ready for the bath.

            “Your other daddy is a grumpy ass,” I coo at her. “Are you ready for your bath? I know you don’t want to do it, but I have to keep you clean so you can be happy and healthy.”

            Max, of course, doesn’t respond and with a laugh, I pick her up into my arms and take her over to the other bathroom in the house. With adopting her, I finally gave myself an excuse to use this bathroom. My master bathroom doesn’t have a bathtub and I’m not about to try and wash my puppy in the shower. After I shut the door, I get the water going and pull all of Max’s bath stuff over to me. She watches me from the entrance and wags her tail, making me grin. She’s the happiest little pup I have ever seen before.

                         

 

 

 

To Tyler:
Plans are all set. I found a pet friendly hotel
nearby and got a flight. We’ll stay for five
days. I’ll be bringing my boyfriend. He’s a
little intimidating, but I promise he’s a giant
dork.

From Tyler:
Great! I look forward to meeting him.
Olivia told mom that you’re coming. I
tried to hide it from her, I really did. She
wants to see you. She’s not entirely thrilled
that you have a boyfriend. Then again, she
wasn’t entirely thrilled when you had a
girlfriend either. I’ll see if we can ditch her.

To Tyler:
It is what it is. I’m an adult and there’s
nothing she can say that will change
anything.  Ditch her if you can. If not, I
guess I’ll be seeing our mother while I’m
there.

            I shove my phone back into my back pocket and grab my zip-up hoodie from the back of my bedroom door. I know I have no reason to be, but I’m a little nervous about this date. It has been… years since I was on my last date. I doubled up on my deodorant and I made sure to wash my face so I at least appear to look put together. My hair never wants to cooperate no matter what I do to it or what I put it in it, so I’ve left it alone. Robert seems to appreciate it this way anyways. Unless he just hasn’t said anything. Oh, god. What has Amanda done to me? I’m worrying about my hair for crying out loud…

            Max is already in her crate when I walk out to the living room. I made sure to put a nice and comfortable bed in there for her that will be big enough for her for when she is grown and so far, she appears to love it. I kneel down in front of the crate and pet her little head before latching the gate closed. To hopefully eliminate bathroom accidents, I let her outside twice and made sure she went both times. For being such a small puppy, she sure does have to go a lot. I love her, though. She has only been here for a short while and I’m already attached to her like I am with Amanda.

            Right on the dot, Robert knocks on my front door and I get up to answer it. He stands in front of me wearing a tight-fitting grey T-shirt with a V-neck, a pair of beat-up boots, and a pair of jeans that almost seem like they’re new. His leather jacket is held in his hand and, from what I can tell, he showered and shaved. He looks great… he looks good. This is very dangerous for me. How am I supposed to concentrate on anything when he looks like that?

            “I was half expecting you to wear a band T-shirt,” he comments as I lock my front door.

            I glance down at my plain baby blue shirt and laugh a little. “I almost grabbed one, but I figured I should wear something else. I just have a lot of them from growing up and college. Craig’s grandmother sent us a bunch.”

            Robert leads me over to his truck and I clumsily get into the passenger seat that makes a creaking sound when I put my weight on it. He hands me his leather jacket to hold and I’m surprised by the weight of it when I set it into my lap. As Robert drives, I find myself distracted by the jacket. He always has this thing on, I hardly ever see him without it. In fact, I can hardly remember the last time he had it off for this long. Curiously, I flip it around to snoop on the inside contents. Oh... Oh no. It smells just like him. I’m not surprised when I find two different knives, but I am a little surprised to find a small baggy of suckers. It then dawns on me that with Robert cutting back on cigarettes, he may be looking for an alternative until he can kick the habit. It’s strange… my mother used to do the same thing…

            Moving on, I put the suckers and knives back into the pockets they came from and pull out his wallet. Inside, I find several cards for random things and the photo of Val he showed me before. Though, stashed behind a hidden flap is, of all things, a condom. As my cheeks start to burn a brilliant red, I snap the wallet shut and shove it back into the jacket as if nothing happened. However, when Robert starts to laugh quietly, I know he saw what I found. He really doesn’t miss anything, does he?

            “Shut up,” I mumble with a false grumpy expression.

            “If it makes you feel better, it’s only there for emergency purposes. I haven’t slept with anyone since… fuck. I haven’t slept with anyone since you. Maybe one or two to try and shove you out of my mind, but none that I remember,” Robert admits, finding it to be a little shocking.

            I want to ask him why he hasn’t slept with anyone for the past year, but I bite it back. “Please define emergency purposes.”

            Robert grins and pulls into the parking lot of the movie theater. “Strictly speaking in examples, an emergency would be if you and I got a little carried away or if we decided to have some fun up at the viewpoint. You know… emergency purposes.”

            Laughing, I unbuckle my seat-belt and climb out of the truck when he parks. I wait for Robert to come to my side before walking towards the entrance and I pass him his leather jacket when he asks for it. I have no idea what movie we’re seating and I don’t think Robert knows either. There are several movies playing right now, all of which I would be okay with seeing. As Robert and I enter the theater, I spot several couples and several groups of teenagers all mingling about. We navigate through the small clusters of people and find ourselves at the front desk.

            The woman behind the counter smiles at Robert and ignores my existence altogether. I don’t miss the way her eyes scan over his appearance or her obvious attempt to get him to look at her boobs as Robert gets the tickets.

            “Is there anything else I can get you tonight?” She asks him sweetly, winking almost.

            Robert shifts uncomfortably and leans against me, silently asking me for help. Without hesitation, I wrap my arm around his waist and ask her for a bottle of water. The woman gives me an annoyed look, but it immediately disappears when she notices how Robert and I are standing together.

            Laughing to ourselves as we walk away, I let Robert guide me to the correct auditorium. He and I go to the very back row of seats and claim a spot close to the steps so we can get out faster. There are not many people in here, only two or three couples down in the front rows and one group of people in the middle rows. I relax back into my seat and place my water bottle into the cup holder. Robert plops down beside me and lifts up the cup holder that resides in between us. Not realizing that Robert moved the arm, I go to rest my arm on it and wind up falling over and shoving my elbow into Robert’s stomach.

            “Easy there, kid,” he teases with a low laugh.

            I awkwardly push myself off of him and look away in embarrassment. That wasn’t one of my smoothest moves. Regardless, I did kind of enjoy being up against him like that. As the film begins to start, I relax into my seat and stiffly rest my hands into my lap. I’m not sure what to do with them. Do I reach out for his hand? Do I stay still and do my best not to move? Nervously, I slide my hand over to him inch by inch until I bump into his thigh. He looks down at my hand and gently moves it so it sits on his upper thigh. He then rests his hand on top of mine and starts running his thumb against my skin. The feeling makes me smile.

            Minutes go by and eventually those minutes turn into an hour. I managed to focus on the movie up until now and the only reason why I cannot anymore is because of Robert. He and I have grown significantly close in the past hour. At one point, I shifted in my seat and that resulted in Robert having me lie down on him. My legs are now in my seat while I sit on his lap and rest my head on the arm of the chair while my hoodie acts as a pillow. I was perfectly fine with that until Robert started running his hand up and down my inner thigh. Each time he makes the movement he gets gradually closer to a dangerous spot. It’s taking everything in me to not press myself against it.

            Not only that, but his other hand has been preoccupied with playing with the hem of my shirt and within the past two minutes, he has been ‘accidentally’ running his fingers along my midriff. I’m trying to ignore it, but the combination of the two sensations makes for a dangerous combination. Tearing my eyes from the movie, I look up at Robert in hopes he’ll notice, but he doesn’t and he keeps himself focused on the movie. When the credits start to roll, I go to get off of Robert, but his hands suddenly yank me back into place with surprising force. I always forget that Robert is actually very strong.

            “Hundreds of people worked to put this film together and you are going to stay here and appreciate all of them,” he says in a quiet voice.

            “Sorry,” I squeak.

            Robert releases the death grip he has on me and I remain tense. So… Robert is a movie enthusiast. That would explain all of the shelves and shelves of DVDs he has. The thought makes me smile a little bit. Robert always seems like the most aloof person ever, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He cares about things and one of those things seems to be the art of cinema. I’ll have to ask him about it sometime. I would love to sit down with him and just listen to him talk about it. He’s heard me blab plenty of times and I think it’s time he blabs for a change.

            At the end of the credits, I climb off of him and unsteadily get to my feet. I offer him my hand and he willingly takes it with a bland expression on his face. Feeling happy, I lead him out to his truck and waste no time getting into my seat. I feel oddly blissful and content. As Robert drives us back home, I notice how quiet he is and I wonder if he’s thinking about the date or if he’s just enjoying the silence. As insecure as he gets, it wouldn’t surprise me if he thinks I didn’t enjoy myself. He puts so much pressure on himself and I wish he could see that he doesn’t have to with me.

            In his driveway, Robert kills the engine and starts to fidget anxiously with his keys. Gingerly, I unbuckle my seat belt and lean over to turn his face to mine. I can see the worry in his eyes that he’s trying so hard to not show and without a single thought or worry, I kiss him slowly. I’ll just have to show him how I feel, then. Right on cue, my heart starts to race against my chest and I grab Robert's hand to press it against my overactive heart. He draws back in wonder, unsure of why I’m making him feel this.

            “Don’t you ever think I didn’t enjoy myself when I’m still head over heels for you. If you can make my heart beat this hard with little effort, you’re doing something right,” I say to him as kindly, yet sternly, as I can.

            I let go of my hold on Robert’s hand, but he doesn’t move it away from my chest. Instead, he kisses me again and again and clumsily climbs out of his seat to straddle my thighs. I’m a little surprised that he willingly got on top of me like this, but it begins to make a little more sense when he pulls the lever to my seat and suddenly, I’m leaning back. Hungrily, I grab Robert by his jacket and pull him down on me, desperately searching for his mouth in the dark.

            “Robert?” I pant when I catch a moment of separation.

            He draws back long enough to let me know that I have his attention before going right back to attacking my neck.

            “This is probably a really awful time to ask, but why haven’t you slept with anyone else since me?” I ask nervously. “You’ve had several opportunities.”

            Robert laughs and the way his facial hair tickles my neck makes me squirm. He notices my response and decides to save the information for later. That’ll bite me in the ass someday, I’m sure. “I suppose I was too distracted by you to want that. After the graduation party, I was pissed because I wanted to hate you, but I couldn’t. You left me extremely confused and in the mess of it all, I just stopped,” he explains simply as I nod along, but he’s not quite done talking. “Besides, why would I want somebody else when I could get with a body like yours? I know you inside and out, Codes.”

            I grin and feel a little mischief brew inside of me. “I’m willing to argue that.”

            Robert, wanting to prove his point, latches onto the spot on my neck that he knows gets me going. He grazes his teeth along is and with some quick work, manages to make me sigh as I fight off the moan that burns inside of me. I press my hips upwards against him involuntarily and I clutch onto his jacket to stop myself from touching him in areas I know I shouldn’t.

            “Don’t I?” He asks confidently.

            “I’m not saying you don’t know my body – you probably have my natural responses memorized – but you never learned about my emotional responses. Don’t you think having sex would be different now that there are feelings? Call me cliché, but I think there would be a certain level of passion that neither of us has felt with each other,” I argue knowingly.

            Robert thinks over what I said before ultimately deciding that I’m right. He runs his thumbs over my cheekbones and gets really close to my lips. “I promise you, Cody… we’re going to have some hot and passionate sex one day and it’s going to leave you sore for a week.”

            Because my body is absolutely relentless, my cheeks turn red. Wordlessly, Robert opens the door and climbs off of me. With stiff movements, I follow him out and feel oddly unstable on my feet. Robert walks me to my house and before he turns to leave, we share one more kiss to put the cap on clichés for the night. Watching him go is always a little difficult, but I feel better knowing that he’s only a couple of doors away from me.

            In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking Robert with me to meet my family and in those five days, he’s going to see another side of me, another side of my history, that I never wanted to anyone to see. I’m not sure how to wrap my head around it all. There’s a reason why I left my family behind.

Chapter Text

Calloused and scarred hands shake my shoulder to jaw me from my sleep.

            My eyes snap out and I launch myself forward, but a strong arm forces me back down onto the throw pillow I had been leaning against. I breathe heavily and glance around my living room, trying to remember my surroundings and where I am. Cold sweat has accumulated on my forehead and my heart pounds against my chest as the anxiety courses through my body. After going without them for close to two months, I finally had another nightmare. I take the necessary deep breaths to calm down and look up at Robert who looks down on me with worry. This is not how I originally planned for this day to start. In fact, I had no intention of napping this long. What time is it?

            “Sorry… I had a nightmare,” I explain, rubbing my eyes. “I uh… I meant to get up before you got here. My alarm didn’t go off.

            Robert releases the hold he has on my shoulders and searches my eyes for any indication that I’m okay. “Do you always get nightmares?” He asks warily.

            I shake my head and slowly sit up, swinging my legs off the side of the couch. “No. The last one I had was about two months ago. They stem from my anxiety. It’s not a big deal.”

            He gives me a look of disbelief and lightly cups the side of my face to bring me comfort. “It seems like a big deal to you, but I won’t fight you on it. You can take a moment to get situated again, but we have to get going if we want to make the flight.”

            I slide off the couch and glance down at my shirt. For as hard as my heart was hammering, I didn’t sweat as much as I thought I did. Still, I pull my shirt up and over my head and walk back to my room to go find a new one – and I definitely do my best to ignore the way Robert’s eyes scan my exposed skin. While I’m back there, I wash my face and reapply my deodorant, trying to find my composure again. I take in a deep breath, setting aside the lingering emotions from my nightmare that insist on weighing me down. I’ve dealt with these nightmares for many years now. There’s nothing new or exciting about them, but they still come with the same amount of terror as they always do. What gets me the most is the fact I never remember what I dream about.

            Robert is in my kitchen with Max in his arms when I come back out. He’s talking to her, but it’s too quiet for me to understand what he’s saying. Smiling, I go to my fridge and pull out the large to-go cup of Mat’s French Vanilla cold brew coffee. He came by this morning and dropped it off for me before going to work because he knew I would need the energy today with all of the traveling I’m doing. Mat, in a few words, is one of the greatest friends I have ever had. After downing a few sips of the coffee for myself, I offer some to Robert and he gladly takes a few drinks. I knew he liked the sweet drinks from the Coffee Spoon.

            “If you would rather not meet my family and stay in Maple Bay, it’s not too late to back out of the plants,” I remind him, still unsure of why he chose to go. “My family is awful.”

            That’s a lie… he told me why he wants to go. He said he would if it meant that much to me, but that does not necessarily mean that he wants to go. For all I know, he’s doing this for my benefit and not for his own.  In the back of my mind, I know my worrying is pointless. We’re together now and we’re supposed to do things like this every now and then. My only worry is not knowing if this is too soon or if we’re moving too fast. What’s he going to think when he meets my mother? Fuck… what is she going to do to him? What if they try to kill each other?

            “You would think that after me telling you fifty times that I want to go you would believe me. I hardly get out of the house as it is. Plus, it’ll be good for us to spend some time together.” Robert says as he puts Max in her travel kennel.

            “Sorry… I’m just trying to make sure you’re not doing this solely for my benefit. This is kind of a big thing and I would understand if you wanted to back out,” I explain as I grab Max’s drugged treat from the counter and put it into my pocket.

            Robert leaves the house briefly to load my things up in the Jeep and, as he’s doing that, I busy myself with going back to my room to make my bed. It’s absolutely pointless because nobody will be here while I’m gone and I’m certainly not going to be using my bed, but leaving behind a dirty house has always been a pet peeve of mine. Coming home to a chore-free house is always better than coming home to a monstrosity and possible mutated dirty dishes. Suddenly, as I’m bent over to straighten my comforter, two hands latch onto my waist and push me down on my bed. I roll onto my back in confusion and find a smiling Robert standing in front of me. Seductively, he climbs on top of me and starts to kiss me heatedly.

            I automatically melt against him, sighing against his lips. Eager, I pull on his shirt and bring him as close to me as he can physically get. I love the way his body feels against mine and I love being able to drown in his scent like this. Although I would love to stay here like this with him forever, although I would rather not say anything at all, we do have a plane to catch.

            “Don’t we… have a plane… to catch?” I ask in between wet kisses and soft grinds of his hips that make me want to moan.

            Robert, realizing I’m right, groans and slides off of me. He offers me his hand to pull me up, smiling when I pop up a little too close to him. Flushing, I turn back around to finish making my bed like I had intended to do when I came in here. After I finish, I bump right back into Robert and I try not to make a confused face, but I can’t help it. He’s… hovering. His sudden change in mood is a little odd, but I do find it a little enlightening. It’s good to see him act happy and be a giant dork. I don’t get to see it enough.

            “Have I ever told you why I find you attractive?” Robert asks out of nowhere. I shake my head stiffly and a flirty grin spreads onto his cheeks. “I suppose I’ll have to tell you all about it when we have a moment to ourselves, then.”

            I want to ask him what he means by that but I never get the chance to because suddenly he’s taking my hand and dragging me out of my house. He’s really trying to kill me, isn’t he? Though some work, I only manage to stop him twice to grab my phone from the counter and to lock my front door. I think our brief make-out session put us more behind schedule than I thought it did. Hustling, I hand Robert my keys and climb into the passenger side of my car. Both of our dogs are kenneled in the back seat and for being as young as she is, Max seems to be handling all of the commotion really well. Damien was right when he told me she is both intelligent and adaptable.

            “I know you told me not to, but I cut into your plans a bit and scheduled a rental car,” Robert says as he drives. “I figured it was cheaper and easier than having to call an Uber every time we need to go somewhere.”

            I glare at him, but I know no amount of arguing is going to get me anywhere reasonable. “Alright, fine. But you really should have put it on my card. You’re doing more than enough just by coming with me so I don’t have to tolerate my family alone.”

            Robert rolls his eyes and takes the next exit on the highway. “You’re hysterical, Cody. Really. You should be a comedian.”

            “And here I thought you were just dating me for my awkward good looks,” I joke mindlessly.

            Robert grimaces and pulls into the car lot of the airport. I always forget how close we live to it. “Look, I know you were joking, but I hope you know that’s not the case,” he clarifies.

            I sigh, resting my head back onto my seat. “You’ve been complimenting me a lot today,” I point out suspiciously. “Are you planning to kill me? Are you sick? Did Mary slip you a pot brownie again?”

            Robert shoots me a side glance and he doesn’t bother responding until we’re pulling into the parking lot for the airport. “You really think Mary is gonna try and get me high before I have to go through TSA?” He asks, deflecting.

            I look at him with drawn eyebrows, trying to understand this shift in him. “You’re not going to answer my question, are you?” I ask, crossing my arms.

            Backing into a parking space, Robert kills the engine and passes me my keys. “I’m trying something new, alright? I’m not a hard-ass all the time.”

            We both hop out of my Jeep and go around to the back for our dogs and bags. I take my time, though, because I’m not entirely done with this conversation. There’s something he’s not telling me.

            “Look, I like that you’re trying, but there’s gotta be a reason why,” I push, watching him carefully. “Is everything alright?”

            Robert shrugs simply and peers into Betsy’s kennel to make sure she’s still doing alright. “I’ve been thinking about Val lately,” he finally admits. “I had the shot at patching things up with her last year and I blew it off because I was so paranoid I was going to fuck up again. I’m just… Look, I hate labels, but you’re my partner and I need to try to get out of my own head so I can be better for you. I’m just trying to work up the courage to reach out to my daughter and I’m trying to be better for you.”

            I squint a little, navigating my way through everything he said. His thoughts seem unorganized and completely smashed together, but I think I understand. After all of the time I spent with him, I’m starting to speak his messy language. “So… we’re officially partners?” I ask as we begin to walk to the entrance of the airport.

            Robert rolls his eyes and carefully transfers Betsy to his other hand so he can sling his bag over his shoulder. “I’ve been horrible at it, but I figured I made that pretty clear when I told you I wanted there to be an ‘us’ up at the viewpoint.”

            “You’re not as bad as you think you are,” I say honestly. “We’re both a little rough around the edges, but that’s okay. And I think it’s good that you’re thinking of Val. When the time is right, you should reach out to her again. You still have time to make it up to her.”

            Robert grumbles under his breath and I smile a little, gently bumping his shoulder with mine. As we get in line for check-in, Robert turns slightly to face me and swoops in to kiss me warmly on the lips. “I told you a while ago that I couldn’t stand to have another broken heart on my conscious so I’m going to try really hard not to break yours. But I don’t want to make any promises. I’m still going to fuck up and… and I’m sorry about that. I’m not as perfect as I would like to be.”

            I listen carefully to what he’s saying to me, really taking it to heart. He wants to try hard for this relationship, harder than he has been in the last few weeks. Since we started this relationship, I have been nothing but happy but even I can admit that having him coming and going in my life has been a little hard to handle. It means a lot to me that he wants to really work for us. I just can’t help but wonder if we can survive the gaps of silences and the adjustments we’re both making to our lives right now.

            “…And when those fuck-ups show up, we’ll go through them together and make it work. For now, let’s try to see each other more and work on being a gross couple,” I say as I push my suitcase up to the check-in desk with Robert behind me.

            Robert, my officially declared boyfriend, agrees and as we check-in for our flight and check our suitcases, I find that it is harder than what it should be to look away from him.

              

            We stumble into the hotel room, completely and utterly exhausted after a long and tedious day of traveling around. I flip on the light switch as I pass by it and set Max’s kennel on the ground by the wall. Not wanting to keep her in there for much longer, I unlatch the door and let my little puppy come out. She’s still drowsy from the sedative but has no problem with walking around the room to sniff everything she can get her nose close too. Betsy is soon released too and with the two of them out and about, I flop back on one of the two full-sized beds and groan.

            “I really feel like I should take a shower, but I’m so fucking tired,” I state out into the open, not really looking for an answer.

            “I won’t hate you if you don’t,” Robert says with a cute yawn. “I’m going to wait until the morning. I can barely feel my legs. I’m not even sure if they’re still there.”

            I prop myself up onto my elbows and watch as Robert slowly slides off his leather jacket. He tosses it onto his bed and kicks off his boots, clearly too tired to bend down all of the way to untie them first. There’s something so surreal about watching Robert wind down into relaxation. Before I forget to do it, I get up and lay a puppy pee pad out for Max and pull all of her items out of her go-bag. I place her travel bed beside Betsy’s and place her food and water by the door. Afterward, I too tiredly kick off my shoes and take off my zip-up hoodie. I never thought it was possible to be as tired as I am. I’m both physically and mentally exhausted and it is not a pleasant combination.

            Yawning, I pull a pair of sweatpants out from the suitcase and clumsily unbuckle my belt. Robert is getting changed behind me and although I desperately want to turn around and watch him, I keep my place. I bend down to pull my sweatpants on and when I do, I feel two strong hands latch onto my hips from behind. Shocked, I freeze with my sweatpants pulled to my mid-thighs. Of course, he would be the one to turn around and break the unspoken ‘no looking’ rule we had. Or did I just make it up because I wasn’t brave enough to look at him myself?

            “Cody, I’m not the kind of person to state the obvious, but you do realize we’re a functioning couple, right?” He asks, reaching down slowly to pull my pants the rest of the way up for me when I fail to it myself. “Didn’t we officially establish that at the airport?”

            Defrosting slightly, I look down at the hands that hold my hips and realize how much I like them there. “That was a real conversation?” I ask in a joking voice.

            I can’t see it, but I know he just rolled his eyes at me. Grinning to myself, I press my body against his and I am surprised to feel him shirtless against me. Does he normally sleep without a shirt? Or did he ditch the shirt for the sake of showing off? I really can’t spend too much time thinking about that. But when he lightly presses his lips against my neck, it’s suddenly all I can think about. How is his skin so soft?

            “I’m pretty sure everything we have done with each other in the past couple of months has made that perfectly clear,” he says. “You are mine. I am yours. It’s simple math. The conversation took place. We’re partners. Boyfriends. We’re whatever the hell you want to call it.”

            I glance over at the sleeping puppies and see that they have both decided to use Max’s bed. Why are the dogs three steps ahead of us? Gulping, I try really hard to not pay attention to my racing heart. How my body reacts to Robert almost makes it seem as if I have never been in a relationship before. I’ve had sex with him before for crying out loud…

            “Alright, we’re officially boyfriends.  It’s officially official even though we made it official earlier. What exactly… are you getting at??” I ask with uncertainty.

            Robert’s lips ghost on my neck and with one movement, he turns me around to face him. “So, if we’re dating, if we’re comfortable with each other and have feelings for each other… why would you fork out the money to pay for a room that has two beds when all we really need is one?”

            The question surprises me and not because I never expected him to ask about it, but much rather because he’s openly saying he would rather share a bed with me inside of sleeping across the room from me in his own bed. Unexpected. Welcome… but unexpected.

            “I uh… I didn’t know if that was a boundary thing with you or not. I thought it would be easier to get a room with two beds instead of arguing about who sleeps on the floor,” I explain anxiously.

            Robert shakes his head and uses his index finger to angle my head upwards so I have to look at him. “You have no reason to be so anxious around me all of the time, kid. I’m exhausted, you’re exhausted… let’s just get into the bed like a normal couple and sleep. Even our dogs are two steps ahead of us,” he says in a low, sincere voice.

            As I look deeply into his eyes, I pick up on something that he’s trying hard to hide away. I pride myself on being able to read Robert’s emotions, but I never enjoy it when it’s something so buried behind fake confidence.  “You’re nervous,” I conclude with a slight tilt to my head.

            Robert shrugs and glances around the room. “Truth be told, last time we were in a bed together we were having some serious sex. I don’t usually just… sleep… with people. I mean, we slept together, but not… Are you understanding what I’m saying or do I sound crazy to you?”

            “I think I understand. You never do it just to do it. The only times you have are after you’ve been with someone and that hardly counts because you, well… I’m assuming you have been anti-love and relationships for a while now.”

            Robert nods and I realize that I’m experiencing the same kind of nervousness that he is. Since Alex, I have been on my own. I know Robert has been with other people, he had his wife and he had whatever happened with Joseph.

            “I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous too, but it’s not like we’re getting married or having sex, Robert. We really don’t have any reason to be so hesitant about this. It’s just sharing a bed and sleeping. The most that I will do is probably accidentally kick you in my sleep.”

            Robert laughs and gently traces my collarbone. “I can handle kicking as long as you’re not kicking me in my manly hood. Kinda want to keep that intact for later…”

            I take the necessary one step to press our bodies together and stare longingly into his eyes. Very slowly, I lean forward until our lips are just centimeters apart. He wants to kiss me, I can feel the want coming off of him. However, I have other plans.

            “Drop the nerves, Robert Small. We’re getting into that bed and we’re going to sleep because I’m tired as shit.”

            I step back with a smile on my face and leave Robert hanging as he giggles helplessly. I climb into the bed and take up residence beside the wall, leaving the other side open for Robert. This is only a full-sized mattress, but there seems to be just enough room for the both of us. I’m still surprised he asked to do this, actually. I never asked him because I thought he would say no because, normally, he’s very tentative when it comes to doing couple-y or intimate things. I expected him to sleep in his own bed and that would be the end of it until who knows when. Maybe he’s looking for comfort in the area he has long since been alone in and I’m more than happy to provide that comfort. Hell, I could use that comfort myself.

            I know some people, if they knew the whole story, would judge and disapprove of our relationship. From an outsider’s point of view, I’m crazy for developing feelings and sticking by them for over a year even though I was getting nothing but the cold shoulder from him. I’m crazy for putting up with it, I’m crazy for trusting him, and I’m crazy for being in this relationship even though we started it by using each other for sex. Though, while some of that may be true, I saw something in Robert that first night at the bar that kept me going. I saw him for who he really was and I think I explained that well enough to myself by now. Now that things are on their way to being okay for the both of us, I can move past the year I spent in the dark and I can now focus on the future… as cliché as that sounds.

            “So how are we going to do this?” Robert asks as he comes to stand at the edge of the bed.

            “Well first, you have to get in,” I deadpan. “You have no problem when it comes to sex, yet you see sleeping as something that is very problematic?”

            “Yeah, well. I know what I want during sex. What we’re doing now is crossing into a territory I have not been in for several years,” he complains as he sits down and swings his legs onto the bed.

            I throw the comforter over him and push him back on the pillow beside mine. I look down on him and scan his expression, looking for any indication that he’s thinking about going to his own bed. “Tomorrow night, after we’re done seeing my brother and possibly my mother, we’ll come back here and relax with the dogs. We can order room service and talk about whatever you want to. Let’s just take a night to relax and be with each other. We haven’t had a night like that for a long time,” I suggest with uncertainty and a hint of sadness in my voice.

            Robert nods and moves to get more comfortable. “I’m sorry if I have been distant lately. I’ve been getting into moods lately and they make it hard to focus on the things that are important to me.”

            I smile and take notice of how tired he seems to have gotten in the past ten minutes. He’s much more tired than what he was when we got here. “Alright, it’s settled then. Go to sleep, Robert. I can tell you’re exhausted.”

            Robert cracks a grin and I slide down onto my pillow. Both of us lie shoulder to shoulder with our eyes open wide. I try for several minutes to relax and sleep, but all of my attempts fail. I glace over at Robert and see that he’s wearing an expression of frustration. It seems that neither of us can fall asleep and I’m willing to bet that it has everything to do with how we’re going about it. On one hand, I know for a fact that I cannot fall asleep on my back unless I’m already knocked out or drunk off of my ass. On the other hand, I have no idea how Robert normally sleeps. I always fell asleep before him when we were having the fling back then.

            “You’re not comfortable,” I state bluntly.

            “No, I’m not,” he agrees.

            As my heart begins to hammer anxiously, I slowly scoot myself closer to him and roll onto my side. Robert glances at me and I freeze my movements, trying to gauge where he’s at. He doesn’t say anything or makes any sound of disapproval, so I inch myself closer until I’m pressed against him. Much to my surprise, Robert opens his arm to me and pulls me close until my head is resting on his chest. He hugs me close and at an awfully slow pace, I bring a leg up to hitch on his hips. Robert hums softly with contentment and he sleepily draws patterns on my back with his fingertips.

            This is another side to Robert that I have never met before. This is the gentle Robert, the one that likes to cuddle, and the one who sleeps the best when he has somebody he cares for in the bed with him. He’s such a tough, emotionless bastard on the outside… he wants to be seen as his façade and nothing more. I’m so fortunate and happy that he’s letting me see him this way. I have seen him vulnerable and exposed, but this is another kind of vulnerability. This is the part of him that needs love and the part of him that wants to love. With time, his hold on me becomes more secure and very slowly, I move my hand to cover his on top of his stomach. As his breathing steadies out, I try to focus hard on the task of falling asleep. But against my better judgment, my mind has other plans. There is one burning question bounding around my head and I need the answer to it before I can sleep.

            “Robert?”

            “Hmph?” He responds groggily.

            At least he’s still awake. Barely, but awake. “What made you want to share a bed tonight?”

            “I’m trying something new,” he slurs.

            With that, I close my eyes and finally allow myself to drift off to sleep. Tomorrow is going to be insane for the both of us.

Chapter Text

Growing up in the house that I did was difficult.

            I would never say that my life was the hardest because one tiny search on the internet could bust my life’s story up in a million pieces and make it look like a charity case. I lived in the stereotypical wealthy household with parents that were less than loving and I spent most of my days there dreaming about getting as far away from home as possible. It’s a bit frustrating that I live across the country and I still often feel like I’m not far enough away from them. No matter where on earth I go, I will always feel like my family is waiting for me in my back yard. My only two allies in life were my brother and Alex, until I met lost my brother and met Craig. Soon, I lost Alex and after graduating from college, all I really had left was Amanda.

            My father was a proud man. He always knew what he wanted for his two boys and he always treated Tyler like his most prized possession that would never betray or harm him. My brother was the star athlete in any sport that he tried and he always passed his classes with flying colors. I, on the other hand, had and have no interest in sports and was mostly a ‘B’ average student. The only places I really excelled was in the arts and in English, where I had the highest grades possible and above. It displeased my father because, in his eyes, I was tainting the Prescott's name by being simply better in places he found to be undesirable. It was a big shock for him when word got out that I am bisexual. We essentially stopped speaking after he found out and when Alex became pregnant, I was disowned. He suffered a heart attack not too long ago and I wish I could say that I grieved his death, but there was nothing for me to grieve. He gave me nothing to hang onto. He gave me nothing pleasant to remember him by.

            My mother has always been a terrible woman, for lack of a better word. As my father did, she always put Tyler first and she absolutely hated every decision I made in my life. She hated Alex and grew to hate both of us when it came out that Alex was pregnant. My mother never does anything unless it favors her in some way and I suppose that's how she got her wealth. If I had to choose back when I was still a kid, I would have taken my father over her any day. My mother is vile, condescending, and is blind to the world around her. She says things without thinking about how it could affect the other person and when she is thinking, she says the things she does because she knows how deeply it would hurt them. I’m still recovering from all that she said to me from the time I was able to understand her words to the time I moved out for college years ago. Eighteen years of basic hell.

            I stare at myself in the mirror and sigh deeply, feeling my self-confidence slip away from me by the second. There are reasons why I left my family behind. My mother was pissed when I decided to move far away from her, but she failed to see the reason why. I lost Alex and it was doing my daughter no good to stay in the house that only reminded her of her mother. Growing up, my anxiety and depression didn’t just randomly show up. They were developed because of the life I lived. For years, I had to hide myself and pretend to be somebody I wasn’t. It made me unhappy and, eventually, that unhappiness drove me to the mental state I still struggle with. On most days, I don’t let it slow me down. I can still function and live my life, but there is always the dark cloud that looms behind me, waiting for the day it can rain on me.

            To my left, Robert slides the bathroom door open to find me leaning against the counter with my head hanging low in borderline shame. He comes to my side and jumps up to sit on the white tile countertop effortlessly and I can feel him watching me. Hesitantly, I look up at him and instantly feel my heart sink when I see the way he's looking at me. He's worried and, most likely, irritated with how I’m letting today bother me. Without saying a word, he spreads his legs apart and forces me to stand in between them. Then, he lifts my head up with his thumb and forefinger and scans my eyes. It’s almost as if he’s trying to see what I’m really thinking about. He's being attentive with me and it feels nice, but I know he’s just doing it to make sure I haven’t lost my mind yet.

            "From what you told me on the plane, your family sucks ass," he starts bluntly. "However, you had the balls to call your brother after years of silence. That makes you so much braver than what you are giving yourself credit for. Now, I'm not one for comfort or words of wisdom, but I don’t want you standing in here thinkin’ you're less than what you are. Get through today and tonight will be nothing but relaxation and some good lovin'."

            I try not to let it, but the smile still spreads on my face. Even through his difficulty to provide comfort, he always finds a way to make things a little bit easier. "Can you describe this good lovin' stuff to me? I think I need some clarification to fully understand what you mean," I tease playfully, hopeful that he will provide.

            Robert, still holding onto my chin, leans in and gives me the sweetest kiss I have ever shared with him. He’s gentle, slow, and his lips are so soft. Sighing, I press myself up against him and wrap my arms around his neck with a burning need to be closer to him. Then, just when I thought the kiss was over, he glides his tongue along my bottom lip to ask for permission to be let in. More than happy to, I part my lips and my knees nearly buckle when I get my first taste of him. I could be in this bathroom with him forever. I can smell the cologne he put on a few minutes ago and he’s so… warm.

            I'm kissing him harder and his kisses are getting wetter and it all comes to a boiling point when he slips his hand down from my chin, all the way to my crotch. I gasp in surprise when he touches me there and I automatically press against his palm, having not felt him down there is so long. He rubs against me and I think I might die from acute heart failure. I want him more now than I have in weeks and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me right now. Though, before either of us get too far into it, he disconnects the kiss for our own good. We cannot let ourselves get held up in here when we’re expected to show up elsewhere. I stare at him with wide lust blown and passionate eyes and my mouth from a small O. Robert grins and pulls his hand from resting over my crotch. Suddenly, my jeans feel a little tighter.

            “That’s what I meant and I look forward to it, but we have obligations,” Robert says, cupping the side of my flushed face. “The dogs are already taken care of down the street at the puppy daycare."

            "Since when are you the responsible one?” I ask as I draw back a bit and fight off the growing arousal in my pants. Robert smirks when he notices the discreet attempts at readjusting myself in my pants. “I literally had to pin you down this morning to get you to eat an orange.”

            "I am only showing my mature and loving side to you because I know this is hard for you –no pun intended. I know there is a possibility of seeing your mother today, but I want you to know that while I'm the absolute worst when it comes to comfort, I will always have your back. Even if your mother tries to spit venom at me. Both figuratively and possibly literally," he explains with a deadpan look.

            I feel the compulsion to cringe every time we call my mother 'my mother'. For all intents and purposes, I stopped seeing her as my mother when she drove me to the point of hating myself for who I grew up to be. She lost that title a long time ago. "Can we call her Julia? Calling her my mother doesn't seem right anymore."

            Robert nods in agreement and hops down from the counter. "Alright, if Julia turns out to be a bitch today or whatever day we see her and if you need my help, I'll be right beside you. I’ll even help you bury her body if it gets to that point. Hell, we can probably get Craig and Amanda to help."

            He steps away and walks out of the bathroom with me on his tail. "I hope you know she already hates you because you're a guy and not a female."

            Robert stops abruptly and turns around with the most serious face I have seen him wear. "What? You don't think I can't throw on a dress and pass as a girl?" He challenges me.

            I snort and sit on the edge of the bed to put on my shoes. "Robert, the day I see you in a dress will be the day I die from laughing too hard. While I'm sure you can pull off a dress - and I would support you if you ever did - I highly suggest that you stick to the leather jacket."

            “They make leather dresses,” Robert says seriously.

            “I’m not even going to ask why you know that.”

            Robert laughs quietly and playfully shoves me out the door as we walk out it. Because I want to avoid the ‘who is the better driver' argument, I allow Robert to take the responsibility of driving. Neither of us really knows where my brother's house is off the top of our heads, so I spend five minutes scrolling through our texts to find it from when he sent me the address. On the way to the destination, I sit uncomfortably still and keep my hands flat against my thighs. I have no idea if Julia will show up today and neither does Tyler. All we know for sure is she knows I'm here and that she will, eventually, make an appearance whether I want her to or not. There is no possibility of me escaping it.

            "You're freaking me out being all still like that. I appreciate the silence, but you gotta breathe or something so I know you're still alive, Cody," Robert says as he shoots a glance my way.

            I look over at his face and examine how concentrated he is on the road. "Can I uh... tell you something?" I blurt, ignoring what he said completely.

            "You can tell me anything that you need to, Codes."

            "Okay, well I'm sure you noticed that I have an anxiety problem and it really all started because of Julia. So, if we happen to see her while we're here and if it gets bad..."

            Robert follows along with what I'm saying and slowly begins to understand what I'm implying. "Cody, if you have a panic attack or anything of the sort, I don’t want you to worry about what I’ll think. You know, I'm not going to preach about how great I am with comfort because I already told you how bad I am at it, but I'll do what I can to get you through it if it happens. Just breathe and stop worrying. I'll be there every step of the way."

            I bury my face in my hands and groan. "I'm sorry, Robert. This is not the side of me that I wanted you to see. I'm handful right now, I know, but I appreciate that you're still sticking by me. This is not easy for me in any aspect."

            "It's the least I can do for you for not running off on me when I told you about my daughter and wife. Besides, you'll probably see me at some of my low points too," he says calmly, showing no signs of irritation or disappointment.

            “Yeah, but… You know what? Never mind. I’m going to suck it all up and be brave about this. I doubt Julia will show up today anyways. I’m here for my brother and my brother only,” I say mostly confidently.

            Robert chuckles and for the rest of the drive, I distract myself by listening to the quiet music that plays on the radio. Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead plays softly and as I tune all of my focus onto it, it seems to grow louder until it’s all I can hear. Music has always been my outlet for when things get tough or for when I need to escape my mind for a while. With time, I find myself relaxing in my seat and thinking about only Robert and my brother. Today, they’re all I need to think about. I do not have to worry about Julia and her evil ways, I do not have to worry about my anxiety… I only need to worry about the people that I love and care about. I can do this.

            Fondly, I think back to a time when my brother and I were younger and were having the time of our lives… or the rebellious time of our lives. It was the middle of winter and there was a fresh layer of snow on the ground as more of it fell from the sky. He was eighteen, I was sixteen, and we were out of our minds. We snuck out one night to catch a cab to the heart of Portland as we lived just outside of the city at the time. We had no real destination in mind; we only wanted to get out of the house to explore the city we grew up by. Not only that, but Tyler knew I needed out of the house for once. We were losing our minds.

            I remember him and I running up and down Hawthorne Boulevard, checking out every single shop and restaurant we came across. People looked at us weird and, sometimes, people would try and talk us into buying things we really didn’t need. We spent the entire night exploring any place we could and when we got back home, our parents were pissed. They yelled at us for more than an hour, but there was no way they could take away my happy mood. That was, at that point in time, the happiest I had ever been in that house and it was only made possible because of Tyler. He always did everything he could to make sure I was having fun and getting out of the house every now and then. Not to mention, he’s the real reason why I got the courage to speak to Alex in the first place.

            Robert parks the car in front of the massive house and stares at it with wide eyes. I warned him that while I may not live the most luxurious life, the rest of my family does. My father did really well with buying and selling stocks and my mother was the founder of Prescott Enterprises, which is the largest products manufacturing company in the Pacific North West. Their money trickled down to us when we became teenagers and I always made sure to save every penny, which is why I can afford to do some of the things I do. However, I decided to break off the allowance when I needed the distance between my family and myself. I wanted nothing to do with them and that included their money. Tyler, on the other hand, clearly still gets his allowance. I think this house has five or six bedrooms in it alone.

            Nervously, we climb out of the car and Robert stands behind me as I knock on the mahogany front door with beautiful frosted glass. From the other side, I hear thumping and quiet curses as Tyler rushes to the door from upstairs. As it opens, I hold my breath and brace myself for whatever is about to happen. Tyler smiles broadly at me and takes a moment to look me over before saying anything. I’m sure I have changed since my skinny teenage days. Craig has made sure to pack more muscle on me and I stopped wearing earrings.

            “And you must be Robert. Cody has told me quite a bit about you,” Tyler says as he sticks his hand out for a welcoming handshake. Robert complies and shakes my brother’s hand to be polite. Tyler makes a surprised face, caught off guard by how strong Robert’s grip is. Hell, even I’m excited about it.

            “You two look a lot alike,” Robert comments, looking between us.

            I sigh, looking down at the ground. “You have no idea how much we heard that growing up,” I groan.

            “Well, come on in. Olivia is upstairs, but she will be down in a few minutes. You will be happy to know that I convinced mom to not come today to give you some time to adjust to being here again,” Tyler laughs as he ushers us in.

            As I glance around the entryway, Tyler tells us not to worry about our shoes and pulls us along to the grand living room. Robert sits relatively close to me for, what I assume is, the sake of my own comfort, but I’m too distracted by how nice everything in this room is to notice right away. I would have to work for three years straight just to afford the TV that hangs on their wall. It’s amazing what wealth can do for a person. Tyler never has to worry about anything because our mother will always take care of him no matter what situation he’s in. Now, if it was me… Julia couldn’t even bat an eye when Alex died. In fact, I’m pretty sure she celebrated.

            “It’s good to see you, Cody. Tell me everything. I need to know what my little brother has been up to for the past several years,” Tyler encourages with a wide smile as he plops down on the couch in front of us.

            My eyes widen a bit with momentary shock. I figured I would have to talk about my life for a little bit but I, for some reason, didn’t think I would have to pull out my entire life story right here and now. I guess I should have prepared a list for this last night. Where do I even start? I haven’t seen Tyler since he went off to join the military.

            “Well uh… not too long after college, Alex passed away. It happened out of nowhere and I had a hard time adjusting to it. Eventually, I decided it would be best for Amanda and me to move. That’s when we came out to Maple Bay and we have been living there for a while now. Amanda is off at college right now studying to get a degree in photography. She grew up to be pretty amazing. She has a lot of Alex in her,” I bluntly summarize. “I’m working in a coffee shop right now. It pays good and I’m able to support my kid. I wouldn’t trade that job for anything in the world. The shop owner is really cool. He lives in the cul-de-sac Robert and I live in.”

            Tyler nods along and smiles when I finish. “And how did the two of you meet? There must be some sort of story there. I doubt my brother’s dating skills have improved by much,” he pries, gesturing between the two of us.

            Oh, fuck. Robert and I never came up with a story to tell people. Panicked, I look over to Robert and hope he can spin something off the top of his head like he usually does when he’s telling one of his imaginative and clearly fake stories. He, showing no fear, clears his throat and speaks up before I can say something and put my foot in my mouth. I’m grateful because the last thing I want right now is to be caught in a lie and or say something that could potentially offend Robert.

            “We met at the local bar not too long after he moved to my end of Maple Bay. He got kicked out of the house by his kid and I was there watching The Game and having a drink,” he starts with a fond smirk. “He was awkward as hell and his flirting definitely left a mark, but he caught my attention pretty quick. Then, life kind of got in the way for a year. We hit it off three months ago in July and have been together ever since. Or, at the very least, have been working on being together.”

            My brother grins and gives me a thumbs up in approval. I was so worried he would disapprove of Robert. “I’m glad to hear that. I knew he needed somebody after Alex and I’m glad to see he finally did with you. I gotta know, though… Is he still as awkward about relationships as I remember?” Tyler pushes, eager to hear more about my love life. I put my head in my hands.

            Robert laughs quietly and gives me an apologetic look before speaking when I peak up to look at him. “Cody is, from what I can tell, a giant dork and tends to blab about random things when he’s nervous or excited, but I love that about him. I wouldn’t say he’s awkward about relationships per se, he was the one that pushed for us to be together in the first place. It kind of took me by surprise. I’m glad we’re together, though. He’s a good person and deserves a lot more than what I could ever give him. I’m lucky.”

            Tyler seems surprised by Robert’s response. Hell, even I’m surprised by it. It’s not often he speaks so freely like that and it’s rare to get him to open up about our relationship, even if I’m the one that’s in it. Amused, I shuffle through all of what Robert said and roll it over in my mind. I had no idea that he felt that way about our relationship. Because things have been pretty busy in our lives, we haven’t had the time to be a normal couple. If he’s glad that we’re together and appreciates my blabbing, then I must be doing something right, at least. Then again, what if he’s just saying all of this to please my brother so we can get in and out without complication?

            Olivia bounds down the stairs with a broad grin on her face. I met her several times when she and Tyler started dating right around the time he turned eighteen. Nobody thought they would last, but here they are… married and apparently happy. She’s a small girl and has light brown hair and pretty green eyes, but I don’t trust her for a single minute. I know it’s probably wrong to judge her now that it has been several years, but I still feel the same resentment towards her that I felt at the beginning of their relationship. I will never forgive her for what she did.

            “Cody! It’s so good to see you. When Tyler told me you were coming down to visit, I spent a week getting the house clean. I’m glad you made it. Too bad Julia couldn’t come today,” Olivia says excitedly as she bends down to give me a brief hug.

            She pauses briefly to wave to Robert before plopping down beside her husband. Her eyes watch me carefully and I suddenly start to feel sick to my stomach under her watch. I should be used to this. Tyler has always been oblivious to what Olivia does behind his back, so she always gets away with looking at me like she wants to tear my clothes off with her teeth. If my family could be any more stereotypical, I would be surprised. It can’t get any worse than what it already is. Olivia is the girl who has the hots for her husband’s brother, Julia is the wealthy mother with cruel intentions, my brother is the jock that does well in every corner of his life, and I’m the boy who grew up to rebel against his family.

            Robert soon notices the distinct flirty and hopeful eye contact Olivia is trying to make with me and he furrows his eyebrows. I never told him about Olivia and how she acts, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s starting to pick up on that now. Muttering something under his breath, Robert leans back on the cushions less than comfortably and crosses his arms over his chest. I anxiously peek over at him as I following along with what Tyler’s saying and see that Robert is fighting a scowl on his face. He, for sure, can see right through Olivia. Unwillingly, I look back at my brother's wife and find her biting her lip lustfully and looking directly at me with unspoken intent. 

            By the time dinner rolls around, I’m literally sitting on the edge of my seat and I’m pretty sure I look constipated to everyone at the table. Robert sits beside me and Olivia sits in front of me, beside Tyler. I push an olive around on my plate with my fork, trying to keep myself busy so I don’t lose my shit and run out of the house. Robert’s hand is discreetly on my thigh, almost as if he’s reminding me that I’m okay. Taking a deep breath, I focus back in on what Tyler’s talking about. Whatever it is, it has Robert interested. Or, kinda interested… I really can’t tell where his mood is at anymore. He simply refuses to look at Olivia now.

            “And that was that. I packed up my shit and called it quits the next day,” Tyler laughs. “I have never met a woman so intimidating before. Do you know anyone like that?”

            Robert nods, laughing a bit. “Cody and I are friends with this woman named Mary. She a character,” he says.  

            Tyler nods, taking another bite from his salmon. “But anyways. That’s why I’ll never work in another bookstore again,” he finishes. “I’m gonna go grab the dessert from the kitchen. I think the maid made some kind of cake. It smelt amazing, so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

            When Tyler dips out of the dining room, my eyes unwilling shift over to Olivia and she’s staring right at me. I clear my throat awkwardly and grab for my wine glass, looking to distract myself. Robert looks between us, trying to figure out if he should say something or not.

            “It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other, Cody,” she says, laughing playfully. “How have you been?”

            “Oh… uh… Good. I’ve been good,” I reply stiffly, unable to think under her prying gaze.

            Olivia hums lightly and leans forward on the table in an attempt to show off her cleavage. I swallow thickly and look down at my plate. I would love to be anywhere than here right now. Slowly, I begin to feel something nudging against my foot and I narrow my eyes, knowing exactly what. Olivia slides her foot up slowly, stopping at my knee. I stiffen and sit unnaturally still… I’m not even sure if I’m breathing right now. For once, I think she’s going to stop there but she doesn’t and the second she goes further, I am jolting away from the table furiously. With cheeks that blaze red, I clear my throat and shift my gaze to Robert, silently pleading him with my eyes. He looks back at me and I know he’s asking me if I want to leave, but then Tyler comes back into the room carrying the cake and I can’t force myself to say anything.

            Trying to find some form of comfort, I grab the hand Robert has on my thigh and interlace our fingers together. He squeezes my hand and I know he can feel how clammy I am, but he doesn’t make any indication that he cares much. Fuck, he can probably feel my pulse going a million miles per hour at my fingertips. Then, just when I think he couldn’t do more for me, he’s using his thumb to gently draw mindless patterns onto my skin. I focus really hard on the feeling and with time, I feel myself easing up a bit. This is him reminding me that I’ll be okay. He’s not going to let me suffer through this alone and for that, I am grateful. I’m not sure what I would have done if he wasn’t here with me. Actually, I do. I would have packed up my bags and left by now. He’s the only reason why I’m keeping a brave face on.

            “Did anything exciting happen while I was gone?” Tyler asks jokingly, laughing. “You guys are too calm.”

            Olivia smiles innocently and lightly touches her husband’s back. “Oh, Cody and I were chatting a bit. You know he’s quiet, Ty.”

            Tyler looks between the three of us, frowning a bit. “I think we need something stronger than wine. You like whiskey, Robert?”

            Robert awkwardly clears his throat, rubbing the back of his neck. He knows Olivia is full of shit. In fact, he probably knows what she was trying to do to me under the table moments ago. “I practically live off of the stuff,” he says seriously, but the others take it a joke. If only they knew how much he drinks. Or… drank? I think he’s trying to cut back.  

            Tyler grins. “Oh, you are about to be amazed, then. I got some really nice stuff back in the bar. I’ll bring it out in a sec. Gotta dish this cake out first.”

            “You should show him, Tyler! You have the biggest collection I’ve ever seen,” Olivia suggests, laughing.

            “You’re right. Can you dish up the cake for me?” Tyler agrees, passing her the knife.

            Olivia smiles and I gulp in fear. Robert doesn’t want to leave my side, but he can’t exactly decline without making it seem weird. When he gets up to leave, I look back at Olivia and watch as she bites her lower lip. I think this trip is doomed. I’m so, so fucked…

Chapter Text

Fall

I feel like my head is going to explode.

            Tired from the overbearing emotional influence that is my brother and his lying wife, I stumble into the hotel room and shed my jacket immediately. The dogs run right through my legs and they chase each other all over the room, yelping with excitement. Normally, I would try and get them to be quieter for the sake of the people in the rooms around us, but the dogs have spent all day at the daycare and I know their energy will burn out eventually. Robert kicks off his boots and neatly hangs his leather jacket up on the coat hanger beside the bathroom door with a heavy yawn. He appears to be unaffected by today’s adventures and part of me wonders how that can be when I feel so emotionally drained. He glances at me as I pull the wine bottles that he bought from the brown paper bag and put them on the counter beside the mini-fridge. White Zinfandel?

            “Robert, don’t get me wrong… but more than half of the time, you’re drinking whiskey,” I say, laughing a little. “Since when do you willingly drink something like this?”

            Robert rolls his eyes and walks over with a package of red solo cups in his hands. “I’m in the process of slowing down on the harder stuff. Don’t judge me for my wine tastes. I’ll have you know that White Zinfandel is delicious. Not to mention, it’s light and fruity.”

            “Well, I’m open for anything. I don’t care what it is as long as it tastes good and takes my mind off of today,” I say as I walk over to the bed and plop down on it. I lazily kick my shoes off and scratch the back of my neck sheepishly.

            Robert pops the cork off of one of the bottles and he pours us each a hearty cup of wine. I take mine eagerly and thank him for it, swirling it around a little as I examine it. When was the last time I had white zinfandel? He then goes to the TV and throws on whatever movie he can find first, which happens to be a cheesy movie on the Hallmark channel. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he chose this channel on purpose. However, I do know better and I know he hates these movies. Maybe it was the only thing that was on…

            “Today wasn’t so bad, was it? Your brother seems pretty alright and Olivia is very… uh… She’s a character,” Robert questions as he sits down beside me. “I think that woman wants to eat you alive.”

            I take a few unnecessarily big drinks of the wine before setting my cup down on the table that sits a few feet away from the bed. Robert puts his cup in between his legs and uses his free hand to grab one of mine to hold. I’m to hear that I wasn’t completely insane and Robert did notice Olivia’s actions. Sometimes I feel crazy for seeing how she acts when, apparently, nobody else can. She’s good at what she does. A perfect liar. I wish I could get her to stop but it seems like no matter what I do, she’s still going to pursue me. It was so bad when we were teenagers. She got me cornered one time and started kissing me, but I never wanted it. I never wanted her. I remember the day I had to tell Alex about it and she about lost her damn mind over it and not because she was upset with me, but because she wanted to rip Olivia a new one. We always hated her and everything about her.

            “Seeing my brother wasn’t bad, no. I just spent the entire morning psyching myself out and then I spent the entire day talking about my life and how boring I am. Not to mention Olivia could not shut up about Julia,” I explain as I lean against Robert tiredly.

            Like he has done it a thousand times, Robert surprisingly downs the rest of his wine and tosses his empty cup to rest by mine on the table. “Well, you wanted to spend tonight being with each other and I promised you relaxing and some good lovin, so what do you want to start off with?” He asks with a quirky smile on his lips.

            I look up to meet his eyes and feel my cheeks heat up for no particular reason. When he’s this close to me and is looking at me in the way that he is, I find it very hard to think straight. No pun intended. “I look up to meet his eyes and feel my cheeks heat up for no particular reason. When he’s this close to me and is looking at me in the way that he is, I find it to be very hard to think straight. No pun intended. “I actually have a question I want to ask you,” I state weakly.  Robert nods, giving me his attention, and he briefly glances at the sleeping dogs on Max’s bed. “Did you mean all of what you said to my brother when you were talking about me and our relationship?” I ask softly, unsure if I want to hear the answer.

            Robert raises his eyebrows and plasters a brief grin on his face. I love his smile. “Yeah, I meant it, Codes. There are a lot of things that I like about you and I’m glad that we’re together. I’m thankful you knocked some sense into me because if you didn’t, I would have missed out on something really great and I’m sorry that I haven’t been around as much as I should. I’m going to try and fix that. You and repairing my relationship with my daughter are my priorities.”

            Overcome with emotions that I was unaware I could feel in my tired state, I seize the moment to kiss him in a single, cliché move. He laughs against my lips and with some crafty movements, he pulls me over to straddle his lap. He tastes just like the wine and he smells so incredibly good, luring me effortlessly into intoxication. Gently, he bites down on my lower lip and I let out a shaky sigh, letting go of all of the stress from the day. I’m safe with him here. I can let it all go…

            Abruptly, Robert stands effortlessly with his arms wrapped securely around my lower back and he walks us over to the other side of the bed as I hang onto him as tightly as I can with my legs around his waist. He lies me down gently so my head rests on the pillows and then he’s climbing on top of me, hovering above my body comfortably. I look up at him with wonder and I feel my heart as it starts to pound hard against my chest. There’s a look in his eyes that is so familiar, but I haven’t seen it quite like this before. I wish I knew what this look meant and what is so different about it now. It’s so gentle and endearing.

            “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you want to take the good lovin option first?” He asks, a warm expression on his face.

            I nod and slowly reach up to cup the side of his face. “I want to be with you tonight, Robert,” I say in a hushed voice, a little afraid. “I’m don’t want to wait anymore.”

            I didn’t say it out loud, but he seems to have picked up on what I’m implying. Wanting him has nothing to do with the stress and the pressure that I was put under today. This has been shaky territory for both of us since July. He’s terrified that we’ll go back to how we were with each other when we first met and I’m scared he will never give it to me because of that. Regardless, I learned today that I will never get anywhere if I continue to let fear guide my life. That’s something we both have to understand and start living by for our own sanity. Fear is dangerous and I don’t want our lives to go by without ever really trying the things we want.

            Robert sighs and presses into my touch, closing his eyes for a short second. “I know you do… Believe me, I know. But are we ready for that?” He asks, running his fingertips along my collarbone.

            “It won’t be like last time, Robert. I promise. I know you’re scared of that and I’m scared too, but how long are we going to let it drive our relationship?” I say, looking deeply into his eyes. “We’re both adults. It’s not like someone else is in control. We make the decisions and we make them together.”

            Robert nods and turns his face to leave a light kiss against my palm. “You’re right,” he agrees. “It’s time.”

            Moving swiftly, he climbs off of me and walks over to his bag. I prop myself up on my elbows and watch as he shuffles through his things until he pulls out a bottle of lube and a small pack of condoms. I blush deeply when I see them, surprised that he packed those things. Was he planning on doing this while we’re here or was it just out of precaution? After tossing the items onto the nightstand and dimming the lights, Robert pulls his shirt off and looks down on me with soft eyes. I scan his torso from the waistline and up, amazed by what he keeps hidden under clothes. He then pulls his belt off and climbs on top of me to straddle my thighs. For some reason, I have become incredibly nervous all of a sudden. I must be doing a terrible job of hiding my nerves because he smiles a bit. He lightly grabs my hand and his face gets serious, as if he’s looking to get something off of his chest.

            “You have no idea how many times I have thought about doing this differently with you,” he says with a somber tone in his voice. “I was never gentle with you and I never let you learn my body. I want those things now. I want you to know me, to feel me... I need those things. And I want to feel you too. I need to know what it's like to really feel you and I want to learn all of those emotional responses you mentioned. I want to do this right," he admits, pouring his heart out to me.

            If there is anything that I have learned about Robert in our time together, it’s that he’s always reluctant to talk about anything too serious. He doesn’t like to be vulnerable and he hates opening up, no matter how close I am to him. It’s usually so hard to get him to let down his walls, but this? This was more than I ever expected out of him so soon. This is rare. What have I done to Robert? Feeling my heart swell, I gently pull him down and bring his lips to mine once again. He’s softer and slower this time, savoring every moment as if he’s taking mental notes of how this feels. I let my hands travel down from his shoulders to his chest and I loop one of my hands around to his back. He’s soft and his body is warm, so warm that I can feel it coming off of him. He’s perfect.

            I push myself up and Robert grabs the hem of my shirt to pull it up and over my head, making my hair a little messier than usual. His eyes roam the bare skin as I lie back down and with a light touch, he brushes his fingertips along my waistline. Craving my lips, he comes back down and breathes into a slightly aggressive kiss. Mindlessly, my fingers find the button of his jeans and without looking, I unbutton them and unzip the fly. He laughs quietly and kicks away the fabric as I pull them down for him. With Robert only in his briefs now, I anxiously slide my hand down his back until I bump into the waistband. Robert senses my hesitation and draws back from my mouth. I knew I wouldn’t be able to conceal my nerves for long.

            “Quit being afraid to touch me, dipshit,” he whispers playfully and roughly as he reaches back to guide my hand down past the waistband.

            Picking up where he left off, his mouth finds my neck and he gradually moves to the spot where he knows I’m the most sensitive. He brushes his lips against it while he takes my pants off with a careful, but meaningful, pace. I kick my jeans away and, catching me off guard, he grazes his teeth against the spot he had been lightly kissing just a second before. I gasp quietly and bring a hand into his hair while the other dig my fingers into his back. Robert soothes the spot with his tongue and latches on to leave behind a love bite. He’s marking his territory, making sure that I’m his. I push my hips against him, not realizing that by doing so, I would also be pressing against his erection. He groans against the crook of my neck and firmly grabs my right sides in reaction, his fingers digging into me. He looks up to meet my gaze with lovingly lust blown eyes and slowly moves his hand down from my waist to what's pressing up against my briefs. He feels my arousal through the fabric and smiles when I breathe out a moan and press myself into his touch.

            “Are you sure this is what you want?” Robert asks calmly, pulling his hand away from me.

            I look up at him with parted lips and resist the urge to kiss him so I can speak. “Quit being afraid to make love to me, dipshit,” I state blandly, throwing his own words back at him.

            Robert nods with a laugh and pulls away from me so he can take off my briefs for me. He rests his hands on my upper thighs, running his thumbs against my skin. "I'm gonna treat you right," he promises seriously.

            Pushing himself onto his knees, Robert pulls down and tosses his briefs to join the rest of our clothes that have been scattered carelessly on the floor. I helplessly stare at him, finally seeing his body in the light. He has scars, he has muscles, and he's perfect in every way even though he would argue with me on that if I ever dared to say it out loud. He has no idea how perfect he truly is and I wish I could make him understand that.

            Robert reaches over to the nightstand and scoops up the lube and a condom while maintaining eye contact with me. I can feel my heart pounding with anticipation as I bend my knees and spread my legs for him, unsure of what route we're going to take. Robert half-smiles fondly and stations himself in between my legs comfortably. His hands lightly ghost on my thighs and I swear I can feel my heartbeat in my fingertips. Deciding on a filthy course of action, he moves to hover above me and crashes our lips together

            Slowly, he slides his hand down my side until he’s just inches from where I want to be touched the most. I try to press against him, but he only grins against my lips and holds me in place to frustrate me in the kindest way possible. Edging closer, he brushes against my erection and gently grabs it at the base. I sigh at the contact. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to last if he didn’t touch me soon. As he works effortlessly on my lips, he gradually starts to pump me. I move my hips along with him and thrust into his hand, completely lost in how great this feels. He knows just how much I liked to be touched and how much I need it. However, he forces me to stop moving before I get too far along. He wants this to last… he needs it to last.

            Robert pulls his lips from mine and moves to my ear to say something to me. “Do you want me to suck you off? I remember how much you liked that…” He asks as he starts to move his hand faster in a teasing manner.

            A moan slips past my lips and before he can notice my embarrassment, I eagerly agree. “Please, yes… Robert…”

            He gives me one last lingering kiss before sliding down my body and lining himself up with my dick. He grins before putting my tip past his lips and I groan, suddenly recalling when he did this to me the first time. Robert swirls his tongue and hums softly, knowing just what it will do to me. He’s filthy and he knows it. Who am I kidding? I’m just as filthy as he is and he likes it. But, oh fuck… I can’t even see straight anymore. He feels so good on me.

            As I become a moaning and panting mess, I latch my hands onto the sheets and pull against them with all of the strength I can provide. I keep myself as still as I can as he works on me, afraid of choking him if I start thrusting into his mouth too hard. Robert eventually bottoms out and grasps at my hips, looking for something to grab onto other than my thighs that will for sure develop light bruises tomorrow. With him sucking and working his mouth in ways I was unaware that he could, I do not last much longer. Within the next painstakingly long minute, I am gasping and unloading into his mouth in ecstasy. Robert takes all of it and only pulls away when he knows I’m done. How could I forget that he swallows?

            “You are so sexy like that,” Robert compliments as he scoops the lube bottle up. “Orgasm looks really good on you.”

            As he eases me open, he starts to scissor his fingers and occasionally draws them out just to put them back in. I ride it along with him and eventually, I pick up the condom and press it against his chest to let him know I’m ready. Robert gives me a flirtatious look and picks it up, but he doesn’t put it on right away like I had intended for him too. Instead, he guides my hand to his dick and nearly collapses when I grab on gently. While I have been getting all of the attention, Robert has been left with none and he is very needy.

            I start moving my hand up and down to feel his length and how ready he is to be inside me. Robert, while I'm doing this, brings our lips together and I part my lips to let him in. At some point, before he can cum, he stops me and slides the condom onto himself while exploring my mouth with his tongue effortlessly. I pull away and watch eagerly as he rolls the condom onto his dick, completely lost in the feelings of lust, pleasure, and love. Why did we wait so long to do this?

            Robert lines himself up with my entrance and gives me a look of worry. He still wants to make sure that this is something that I want. Smiling softly, I cup the side of his face and nod. There’s no reason for him to worry this much. Without asking for any more permission, he pushes himself in and I groan deeply. My back arches slightly as I push my head into the pillow, breathing through the initial burning. The lube helps significantly, but Robert has not been down there in such a long time... Nobody has.

            “Look at me…” Robert quietly requests, cupping the side of my face as I struggle to force air through my lungs.

            I shift my gaze from the ceiling to him and very slowly, he starts to move. For every grimace and draw in of sharp breath, he watches me. He watches me until those grimaces melt into relaxed looks of pleasure and my sharp intakes of breath become moans and sighs. I dig my fingers into his back and hike one of my legs up to his hip to deepen his thrusts, which he securely grabs onto as he starts to rock faster. It's already so soon after my first orgasm, but I'm unrealistically hard again and I need to be touched, so I slip one of my hands in between us and start to jack myself off in rhythm with Robert as he nails my prostate over and over again. It’s almost painful, but god do I need this. He shouldn’t be able to make me this hard so soon after my first orgasm. This is like a fantasy.

            Anytime he moans or says my name, I melt and blaze with a blush. It's me making him feel that way, it's my body. We're doing this together and, right now, this is the closest I have been with him. He's letting me see his body, letting me hear all of his sounds, and he's allowing me to touch him in any way I may desire to. Robert curses and moans deeply when he reaches his climax and I follow minutes after shamelessly. I cup myself to stop the creation of a mess and let the sticky hand fall off to the side. Robert collapses onto me, tired from holding himself up for the majority of all that we shared together. Now, in a haze, we kiss each other slowly and I let my clean hand explore his body, feeling every curve and scar I can. I want to memorize him.

            "We should clean up before things start to dry in places we don't want it to dry," Robert muses darkly with a grin against my lips.

            He draws away to tie off the condom and he tosses it into the little bedside garbage can. To be more discreet, he piles a couple of tissues on top of it and stands up. He looks down on me as I ease myself up, now becoming aware of the soreness I feel. On the way to the bathroom, we're a sloppy mess of kisses and as we clean up, those kisses do not stop. He kisses me anywhere he can, showering me with affection as a part of his post-sex mood that I never experienced before. He's gentle and attentive, making me feel loved and appreciated. When we come out in pajamas, we stare at the bed we used with amused expressions. I suddenly feel sorry for the maids that will have to see and clean these sheets.

            "I think, for tonight, we will use the other bed," I say, eyeing the mess we made.

            Nodding in agreement, Robert grabs my hand and guides me to the bed beside the wall. He lets me crawl in first and only climbs after he checks on the dogs that still sleep soundly in one bed. Robert laughs quietly and shuts off all of the lights in the room. The city lights shine through the cracked curtains and I glance at them as Robert covers himself under the thick blanket. His eyes examine my face and from beneath the comforter, his hand finds my body. I welcome the touch and feel the patterns of his palm with my fingers. For being as scarred and calloused as they are, I will never get over how soft he is.

            “You’re quiet,” he observes.

            I nudge for him to get closer to me and he does, resting his head on my pillow now. Using the term beautiful for men always has some weird stigma on it. I have had people tell me that to call a man beautiful is to say they look gay or that it makes me gay. I hate that. There is nothing about Robert that looks gay or bi or whatever the hell people want to call it. The stigma is insanely pointless. Robert looks like he could kick my ass and have fun while doing it and truth be told, he probably would if he hated me as much as he hated people who leave before the credits are done at the theater. Beautiful is just an adjective and right now, with his sex hair, his slightly swollen lips from where I kissed him too many times, and the adoring expression on his face, he's simply beautiful.

            "I'm just thinking about you and how happy I am," I finally reply, keeping my true thoughts to myself. I could never tell him any of what just crossed through my mind.

            Robert's fingers brush against the love bite on my neck and with care, he presses a kiss to my forehead. "You're a sap," he comments with a smile.

            I respond with a light kick to his shin and he kicks me right back. Before a war can ensue, he engulfs me in his muscular arms and holds me close to his warm body. I listen to his heartbeat and draw lazy patterns on his chest, thinking about how different things are compared to where this all started. We never spoke to each other unless we had to. Any time I ran into him out in public, I was so afraid and awkward. Back home, Mary has got to be wondering where both of us are. She still has no idea what we’re up to behind her back.

            "So... Did I do alright, then? Please tell me I still know how to have sex?" Robert asks in a mostly joking manner, but I know the first portion was meant to be serious. He wanted to take care of me and he did. He didn’t go to fast and he didn’t do anything to hurt me. For the first time, he was really paying attention and he genuinely cared. I can still feel his hands on my body and I can feel where his fingers gripped my hips.

            I prop myself up on my elbow to look at him through the dull glow of the city lights. He seems to be afraid of what I’m going to say. "The sex was very good. I was well taken care of and I'm stuck in an impossibly happy mood," I say confidently.

            Robert nods and runs a hand through my messy hair. "You were right about it being different. Having sex with you now that I know how I feel about you... It made the whole experience... better. It was like… we fit together. We weren’t using each other this time."

            I grin and lightly tap on his chest. "Robert, I believe you are secretly a sappy romantic," I point out, having no doubt in what I'm saying.

            Robert rolls his eyes and pushes me off of him with a laugh. I fall back onto my side of the bed with a dull thud and join in on the laughter, not caring that it's late and people are probably sleeping. He makes me so happy. There’s something that I feel in my chest anytime I’m near him and I’ve only felt it once before with Alex. It’s like something is pulling me to be close to him and it’s because of that pull that I never gave up on him. I need to be near him, I need to be with him in any way I can. I belong right here with him. As our giggles die down, Robert rolls on his side to face me and gently rests a hand on my hip.

            "Put your back towards me," he requests in a soft voice.

            I roll to face the wall and feel my breath hitch in my throat as Robert presses his body against mine. His arm slips around my waist and I rest my hand on top of his. He feels so right with me. How did we let things start off so badly? We could have had this… we could have been friends and living life together. We missed so much. Where would our lives have taken us if I told him no the first night? Would we be together? Would we happy? Fuck… would he be happier? No relationship is ever perfect, but I know this is right. I feel it in my gut.

            “Robert?” I say in a near whisper.

            “Hmph?”

            I freeze momentarily before speaking, unsure of how to phrase what I want to say. “I know you already explained it, but why have you been so open with me lately? This is the most romantic and close we have been with each other and I’m just curious because I don’t want you to do anything that you’re uncom–”

            Robert clamps a hand over my mouth to stop my rambling before I can go off on a tangent and he gently kisses the back of my neck. “I’m trying something new. There will be rough patches where I may not be as inclined to talk, but I’m trying. I want us to be happy, I need us to be. Don’t worry about it, Codes. Just get some rest. We got a busy day tomorrow.”

            Now that he says it, I realize that I am, in fact, exhausted. Seeing my brother today was enough to wear me out for a week, but I really pushed it over the edge by going through all that I did on the other bed. Robert removes his hand from my mouth and returns it to my lower stomach while I press up against him and close my eyes. For the next few days, we’ll be together. We will be here and we will be in a perfect bubble of happiness. Things could not be better between us.

            Unfortunately, returning home will bring on more tragedy than I’m prepared to handle.

Chapter Text

I should have paid much more attention last night.

            My fingertips brush over the three hickeys that decorate my neck and the one that has started to make an appearance just above my collarbone. I’m horrified, to say the least. Not because I have them, not because of who put them there last night, but because today is not the best day to be flaunting them around. In fact, today might be the worst day out of my entire life to be sporting hickeys from my male lover. To my left, Robert enters our shared hotel room with a small plastic bag in his hand from the drug store. He was only out to drop off the dogs at daycare, but it would seem that he also made a put stop on the way back. I stare at the bag curiously but, of course, get no immediate response from Robert. What could he have possibly bought?

            “I have a solution. You can thank our daughters for it later,” he says, gesturing for me to follow him into the bathroom. “Come sit on the counter.”

            “Our daughters? Why am I thanking our daughters?” I ask, frowning a little.

            “Because they wear makeup,” he responds as if the reason behind this turn of events was meant to be obvious. "Hell, you can even thank Mary." 

            Although I’m not positive where this is going, I do as am I’m told and hop myself up onto the bathroom counter beside the sink. Robert pulls a small out of the bag and I think I know what it is. Is that a small bottle of makeup? Foundation, I think. I’ve seen Amanda wear this stuff before and I’m certain I’ve bought it for her before. Growing curious, I tilt my head to the side and stare at Robert with slightly squinted eyes. Is he going to do what I think he’s going to do?

            “Do the math, Codes. I can cover up your makes with the foundation.

            “Do the math, Codes. I can cover up your marks with the foundation. It should hold up as long as you don’t rub on it or get it wet. I bought the closest one I could find to your skin color,” he summarizes. “I suppose I could have been more careful last night.”

            “I guess it’s worth a shot,” I say, still a little wary of this plan.

            Robert unscrews the lid and shakes a little onto his finger by covering the opening. He then tilts my head to the side to expose the hickeys to the bright lights above me. With perfectly steady hands, he begins to apply the goop gently in a way that won’t make my skin even redder than it already is. If he’s right about this, then all evidence of what happened between us last night should be hidden away. I sit perfectly still as he does this, not wanting to mess him up. I’ve never seen him stare my neck with so much focus before. I really hope this works. His idea could end up saving my ass.

            “I’m no makeup artist, but that should do it,” he says proudly. “Nobody will know the hickeys are there except for me.

            I hop down from the counter and examine his handiwork in the mirror. For being a drug store brand, it did an excellent job of covering up the dirty little secret of last night. I turn to Robert and lightly touch the spot on his neck where I marked him. He, laughing, puts his hands on my hips and leans in to kiss me.

            “I’m not gonna cover mine. The drug store didn’t have a shade dark enough for me, which makes me realize why Val always complained about never being able to find the right shade when she was a teenager,” he rambles a bit. “Anyway, I doubt anyone will notice. If they ask, I’ll have a story ready.”

            I lean up against him and sigh nervously, careful to not smudge the makeup onto his clothes. "I have no idea why Tyler is insisting we go to a bar. Julia hates bars," I mumble.

            Robert laughs and guides us out to the main room. He grabs my jacket from the coat rack and offers it to me. "Maybe that's exactly why we're going to the bar. If Julia hates them, then maybe Tyler is hoping she'll leave earlier for your sake."

            I think about what he said for a moment, realizing he could very well be right. "Even after all this time, Tyler is still looking out for me," I say mostly to myself. "If that's the case, I doubt she'll want to leave. I have been careful to avoid her for years and she hasn't seen me for a long time. This is her one chance to pry into my life and nitpick at everything.”

            Robert grimaces. “Julia sounds like my aunt,” he says with disgust.

            I laugh and lazily kiss him, reeling in how nice it feels to have him to do this after over a year of painful pining. “We should get going if we want to show up on time,” I encourage as I hand Robert the keys from my zip-up jacket.

            “You’re right. If we stay in here any longer, I’m defiantly gonna shove you up against the wall and we won’t be going anywhere for the next three hours,” he teases provocatively.

            I roll my eyes and move towards the door, only to be grabbed by Robert. He then spins me around and pushes me against the door roughly. My breath hitches in my throat uneasily as I look into his prying eyes, breathing strictly out of my mouth.

            “I suppose we can be a few minutes late…” I mumble as I tangle my hands into his hair and push him back to the bed.

              

            All around us, people chatter and laugh loudly, having the time of their lives in a downtown Portland bar during what most people would call dinner time. I suppose things haven’t changed much since I was here last. God… when was I here last? Alex’s funeral? I have no idea. We sit in a large booth big enough to accompany five people, regardless if the fifth person decides to show up, and I mindlessly watch as the rain hammers against the large window we sit beside. There's a conversation going on with the people I sit with, but I have since grown distracted and find the rain to be a little more entertaining. I have almost no interest in sports. The only time I showed mild interest in it was when I went off to Jim and Kim’s to watch The Game and met Robert Small. Unless going to Homecoming games was a sign of interest…? For fuck's sake… How is it possible that I still find a way to ramble in my own head?

            Robert and Tyler seem to get along great. With Robert’s endless knowledge on seemingly everything and Tyler’s thirst to learn, they make a good team. And, honestly, that might be a litter dangerous for me. But, in a strange way, that makes me happy. I don’t have to worry about Tyler judging me for who I chose to be with, unlike Julia and Olivia. He was always supportive of me, no matter what choices I made. In fact, he was the first person to suspect that I might be into males just as much as I’m into females. He was eager to learn about my ‘lifestyle’ and when it came down to it, he helped me learn how to be safe. It was nice to know that I had at least one person to count on until I met Alex and then Craig.

            “Little bro, you in there?”

            I snap my attention back to the conversation and stare wide-eyed at Tyler, trying to figure out what was said to me. Was something even said to me? “Sorry… What?”

            My brother laughs and takes a quick sip from his beer. “Still a complete space cadet,” he muses with a broad grin. “I asked how your artwork and music is going? Do you even still do that stuff anymore? Robert claims he had no idea you could draw or sing. But he knew about the guitar playing so… What’s up?”

            I lean up against the leather seat and am startled when Robert slips his hand behind me just in time to rest it on the small of my back. He’s not one for PDA, but he knows when I need the extra comfort. “Oh um… Yeah. I still play from time to time and drawing happens whenever it happens. The past year has been really hard on me. Artistic blocks keep getting in the way and some other pointless stuff,” I reply with a shrug once my head is clear.

            Tyler makes a surprised face, raising both of his eyebrows in mild shock. “The little brother I knew would draw and play for hours. Hell, I would sneak into your bedroom in the middle of the night to find you drawing in that little sketchbook of yours when you were supposed to be sleeping. You should get back into it, don't let that talent go to waste. Play or draw for Robert sometime. I'm sure he'd dig it."

            Robert perks up slightly and playfully nudges me with his shoulder. “Yeah, Cody. You could show everyone back at home. Your brother speaks pretty highly of you,” he encourages.

            Before the blush can show up on my cheeks, I grab my drink and knock back the alcohol as fast as possible. At the entrance of the bar, the bell rings above the door to signal the arrival of another customer. A woman with graying hair, a dark purple raincoat, and a black Prada bag struts her way to our table with confidence. Her Burberry ankle boots snap on the floor, making everyone who was once in her path steer clear. She pulls her unnecessary Chanel sunglasses from her face and smiles broadly at all of us, making the wrinkles around her eyes noticeably present. This is Julia Anne Prescott… my mother and CEO of Prescott Enterprises.

            “Nice to see you, my darlings. I apologize that I’m late. The traffic was just awful with this weather and I had to stop by the bank before it closed to put in a check for the maids. I’m sure you can understand,” Julia announces.

            She slides into the open spot beside Tyler, forcing Olivia to scoot down until she’s directly in front of me. Julia takes a second to situate herself before turning the gaze to me and smiling as if I’m a stranger. Feeling no compulsion to return the favor, I provide a quick wave and snub her off. It was a childish move, I’ll admit it, but this woman has never been motherly towards me. I have always been a pawn in her empire that is her life.

            “It has been quite a while, Cody,” Julia says with a glint in her eyes. “Why don’t you be a gentleman and introduce me to your friend here?”

            It is taking everything in me to not roll my eyes. She knows damn well who Robert is and she knows he is not just my friend. Olivia made it her goal to inform my mother of my scandalous ‘boy fucking’ before I even got here. "This is Robert, he's my boyfriend. Robert, this is Julia. She's my mother."

            Julia’s eyes narrow at the term boyfriend. Was she hoping the gossip from Olivia was false? That I straightened myself out and got another wife? Annoyed, I scoff and take a big sip of my whiskey. I'm not sure when I got whiskey, but it's here and I need it in my body. Robert raises an eyebrow at me and I suddenly realize that I am, in fact, drinking Robert’s drink. Oh well.

            "Boyfriend... Well, it's nice to meet you, Robert. I'm sure you're a lovely man," Julia says curtly, "Cody, dear, I know I just got here, but I cannot stay for the entire time and I wanted to talk to you about moving back home."

            I set my empty glass down on the table and stare at Julia with coldness in my eyes. She has been here for less than three minutes and she’s already trying to throw a giant wrench into my life. I feel like that has to be some kind of new record for her. Back when I was trying to go to college, she was desperately getting school officials to reject me so I could go to someplace like Harvard until I got myself emancipated and far away from her.

            “No. Whatever you have to say, I’m saying no,” I say sternly. “I’m happy in Maple Bay and I am staying in Maple Bay.”

            Julia sighs and the waiter comes by with more rounds of our drinks of choice plus a glass of red wine for my mother. Robert discreetly rubs my back as he can feel the tension on me. When I got to the bar, I decided I would try to give Julia another chance. Hating her for almost my entire life has, without a doubt, grown tiring, but she destroyed that shot at a second chance by attempting to obstruct my life right off the bat. I can understand a mother wanting all of her kids nearby because I am a father who wishes to have my daughter near me. However, this is not what she’s making it out to be. She wants me to move back home so she can have all of the Prescott name carriers within her reach. She would find a way to use me if I came back here and I will not let that happen. Not when I have Amanda to worry about, not when I have my entire life in Maple Bay.

            “Cody, I want you back home. We all do. Tyler was so happy when you called him. We all just want you here with us where you belong,” she presses. “Was it really so bad here? You used to be so happy.”

            I’m having a hard time believing that she just asked me that kind of question. How could she possibly think asking that question would be a good idea after everything that has happened and after everything that she did to me growing up?

            “You have a funny definition of happy if you think me crying in my room almost every night because my parents hated me for who I was is considered to be enjoyable,” I snap bitterly. “Or, let’s not forget all of the times you thought it would be funny to send me to therapy because I like guys and women like Alex.”

            Julia flinches at the harshness in my voice and uncomfortably shifts in her seat. Somewhere in that head of hers, she knows I’m right. “Cody, I know things were hard growing up. Your father and I were not the best parents, but I’m over that now and want you home. That’s all we want. Your family misses you,” she attempts to coax.

            Robert is being unusually quiet for the duration of this conversation. His hand is still on my back, but he seems to be frozen in his place like he’s glitched out. I hope this is not scaring him off in any way. I’m not particularly fond of having this conversation out in the open like this. Actually… I’m not exactly enjoying having this conversation in any form of context.

            “Right, so if you’re over it does that mean I can sleep with all of the men I want without getting criticized for liking it? Can I continue with my pursuit of the arts without you trying to interfere? Or, how about this? Can I, as dad would put it, continue to trash the Prescott name with my compulsions to be queer and lazy?” I question, knowing damn well what her answer is going to be.

            Julia takes a long sip of her wine to adjust to the new tone of the conversation. I can tell she didn’t expect me to be so upfront with my questions. “Cody, we love you no matter what. Yes, we may try to steer you to a better way of life, but we’re willing to make exceptions if it means you can come home to us,” she says kindly through her clenching jaw.

            “You just don’t get it, do you?” I ask heatedly. “I don’t want to come back. I don’t care how much you beg or ask me. I’m not going to pack up all of my things and come back to the town where I buried my wife and grew up with the constant fear of being hated for who I was and am. So, no. Don't even ask. I'm staying in Maple Bay."

            Everyone at the table is speechless. Tyler, however, gives me a look of approval. He always knew it was the best thing for me to get the hell away from this place. Though, unlike Tyler, Olivia seems blatantly disgusted and so does my mother. If I didn’t know any better, I'd say those two are carbon copies of each other. I suppose that’s why Julia paired Tyler up with Olivia in the first place. She was, to her, the only girl in the city worthy of dating and being with my brother.

            “I see… I understand you’re upset, Cody. That poor Alex of yours filled your head with so many false hopes for life. It hurts me to see you like this,” Julia says sadly.

            I slam my glass down on the table and stare at Julia with a cold expression full of hatred and anger. Robert’s eyes widen with shock and I can tell he’s angry now. He’s fuming and fighting every urge to say something. Tyler turns to face Julia with disbelief written all over his face. We’ve both always know how terrible our mother is, but even that was a new level of awful. She knew saying that would hurt me.  

            “Mom, what the fuck? Why would you even bring up Alex?” He asks furiously.

            “Tyler, that is your mother. Don’t talk to her like that!” Olivia cuts in.

            Tyler turns furiously in his place to stare directly at his wife. “Don’t say a word, Olivia. She has no right to bring up Alex. Alex has nothing to do with this and I am tired of you sticking up for my mother every time she does something wrong. Alex was Cody’s wife and she died, why can’t you wrap your mind around that?” He spats venomously.

            Olivia’s face falls and she shoots me an empty side glance. I scoff and before Julia can say anything on the matter, I turn to Robert and he seems to read my mind because he slides out from the booth to let me out. I follow him towards the exit and zip up my jacket to protect myself from the falling rain. I knew agreeing to come tonight would result in an ending like this. I left home for a reason. Everything that just happened in the bar proves that. She has never loved me and I want nothing to do with her. I’m the kid that grew up with parental issues and it left a dark spot in my life. I want to so desperately move on from it. I never want to see Julia again if I can help it. I’m done with her.

            Robert slows down his pace when we are a safe distance away from the bar. He gently grabs my arm to get me to stop walking and turns me to face him. The anger is still present in his eyes, but he’s soft with his touch. “This may be a dumb question, but are you alright?” He asks.

            I shake my head and wipe the rainwater from my face. “No, Robert. I’m not alright,” I snap. “She has been that way for my entire life and I have done what I can to tolerate it up until now… But bringing up Alex… She does not have the fucking right to do that to me. She had no right to bring Alex up…”

            My hands clench up into fists as the anger and unresolved hatred courses through my veins. I am angry… this is the worst I have been in years. I never let myself get angry, yet I’m standing here on a random street in downtown Portland with a burning rage. I cannot handle this. Robert grabs my hands and forces them to unwind even though I resist. We’re getting soaked in the rain, but doesn’t seem to care much. All he can focus on is me.

            “You’re angry. You have every right to be. If I were you and she brought up Marilyn like that, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my temper in check like you are,” he says slowly as he measures my emotions. “I said I would be there for you, so I’m being there for you. However, standing in the middle of a sidewalk as it pours down rain isn’t helping anyone. Let’s get the dogs and go back to the hotel room. We’ll put what happened in the bar behind us and move forward.”

            I let out a long-held shaky breath and look up at the man I have chosen to be with. I can push through this anger. I can push past Julia. I can do it.

              

            I pull my shirt up and over my head and toss it onto the counter to pack up in my suitcase later. My head pounds with what is bound to be a migraine and I wince when I bend down to drop my jeans and briefs. I spent way too much time dwelling on the argument with Julia and now I’m paying the price through chronic brain pain. I don’t know why I let myself get so wound up. It’s completely out of character for me. Sighing quietly, I open the glass door to the shower and step under the waiting warm water. This trip started out as well as it could have and it all turned into a sour mistake. I never shoulder have come here when I knew Julia was going to be around. It would have been smarter to just fly Tyler out to Maple Bay.

            Of course, I don’t regret coming out to see Tyler. While I still have a couple of days to be here, I’m not sure if I have the energy in me to see Olivia or Julia ever again. There is a reason why I made sure Amanda never had a relationship with my family. I came here for Tyler, not the miserable anger my mother tends to make me feel. Julia wants me to move back home and I have no real desire to. I love the city, I love being here… but I don’t love some of the people that live here. If I were to come back, it would only be for my brother. I have a life in Maple Bay. I have friends, I have Robert… I have a life that I am not willing to give up. There are things keeping me there. There is no reason why I should walk away from that.

            Two hands slide around my waist and stomach, forcing my eyes to finally open up again. I look down at those hands and realize they’re Robert’s big, scarred hands. His lips gently press to the back of my neck and I find my eyes closing again as I try to focus hard on how nice his touch is. He's such an intimidating guy and he can be intimidating with me, but... then he has moments like this where he's gentle. 

            “Things are going to change when we get home, aren’t they?” I ask quietly, not really wanting to hear the inevitable answer. It breaks my heart just to think about it.

            Robert takes in a slow inhale and hugs me closer to his bare body. “You’re getting that feeling too, huh?”

            I nod my hand and rest my hands over his, feeling a sense of security with him. I feel safe and... warm. I could stay here like this forever if given the chance. “How could I not? We’ll be going back to our lives and our problems. We won’t be like this when we go back. We’ve been in our own little bubble here, Robert…”

            “We’ll go where life takes us,” Robert says calmly and I can hear the soft smile in his voice. “Maybe I’ll just kidnap you and keep you in my basement.”

            “Do you even have a basement?” I ask, giggling.

            “Want me to kidnap you and let you find out? I might have some chloroform in my bag.”

            I roll my eyes, knowing that he most likely doesn’t have a basement at all... I think. But the chloroform? That wouldn't surprise me at all. “How romantic.”

            “I blame the bubble,” he deadpans.

            I snort and he laughs and drops his hands a little lower to rest evenly on my hip bones. I turn around and wrap my arms around his middle, blown away by how good he looks in a shower. I could get used to this. I could get used to the way he looks with the water turning his hair into a wet mess, the way he looks completely stripped down and open to me…

            “I don’t want to think about home just yet, okay? I actually have something that I need to do before we go…”

            “What’s that?”

            Taking in an inhale, I try to find the words to say it, but nothing feels right. “I want to go visit Alex. She’s not too far away from here,” I say unevenly.

            Robert is silent for a moment, a little caught off guard by my heavy topic change. “That’s fine. You should go see her while you’re here.”

            “I want you to come with me,” I then add on. “I just want to show her that I’m doing okay. She would have liked you.”

            “Grumpy old me?”

            “Yes, grumpy old you. She would have thought you were cool. She was always getting into trouble and living her life as close to the edge as she could get,” I explain with a laugh.

            Robert nods and together, we exit the shower. We dry off with the big, white fuzzy towels and slip back into day clothes, getting ready to head back out into the rain. As I’m pulling on my shirt, there’s a light knock on the door and I struggle to get my arm through the sleeve as I go to answer it. Anxiously standing in front of me is my brother, who wears a facial expression of regret.

            “Hey, Tyler…” I say, unsure of how else to greet him after what happened today.

            “I promise, Julia is nowhere near here. I came alone to talk to you for a minute,” he replies sincerely and I believe him.

            Stepping aside, I let him into the room and he eases himself down onto one of the chairs at the small dining table. I sit in the chair across from his and Robert minds his own business on the floor beside the dogs who eagerly want to investigate Tyler. It doesn’t slip my notice how much Robert dotes over Betsy and Max.

            “Mom crossed the line today. I’m so sorry, Cody. I wish I could take it all back,” Tyler apologizes.

            I sigh and lean back against the chair, feeling my previous feelings of agitation come crawling back. “Please tell me you didn’t come to apologize on her behalf?” I ask, knowing it wouldn’t be the first time.

            “No, of course not. I just… Are you going back home, Cody?”

            In all honesty, I hadn’t given it much thought yet. However, I know my answer is certain. Being here brings back too many memories and emotions that I’ve worked so hard to move on from. “I think so. I can’t be here anymore, Tyler. It too much, you know? And there’s no point in staying when the main reason I came back fell through,” I explain tiredly. “I got a daughter now and I’m happy in Maple Bay. I need to stay there.”

            My brother nods, but I can tell he’s hurt by my answer. All he’s ever wanted to do was look out for me and it’s obvious he feels like he failed again. “I get it. I’ll see you around, Cody. Don’t be a stranger. I would like to meet Amanda one day if you’ll let me.”

            Before I can reply or think of anything to say to make this easier on Tyler, he flees the room and leaves Robert and I alone with our dogs. I sigh and cover my face with my hands, unwilling to fight the things inside of me anymore. This is the way my family has always been and it will never change. I know that now. There’s nothing to be done about it and there’s nothing I can do to change it. All I can do is move on and hope that the bubble Robert and I have will follow us home. I’m not ready to give up this happiness with him. I will never be ready.

              

            I walk beside him with the flowers held tightly in my hands. I can hardly remember the last time I was here. After college, the three of us moved far away from my family and we ended up in Maple Bay. After she died, it was stated in her will that she wanted to be buried at home and I did everything I could to make it happen. Since she has been here, I think I’ve only been able to see her once or twice. Somehow, that makes me a terrible husband. In respect to her, I should be coming to visit her more often. With numb legs, I push myself the last of the way there until we come up on her grave under a beautiful tree that stands a little taller now.

            “You picked a good spot for her,” Robert says, clearly unsure if he should have said anything at all.

            “She loved trees,” I say, smiling a bit as I recall the many times when she and I would hang out at the park together. It was our spot to just be ourselves. Nobody could tell us what to do, nobody could control us… It was just her and me. I think about those days a lot.

            Walking up to the headstone, I kneel down and lay the flowers on the top. With the sleeve of my jacket, I wipe her name clean and lightly touch it with my fingertips, feeling closer to her somehow. Alexandria Drew Matthews. Loving mother, Wife, and Sister. Not caring that the ground is damp and maybe a little muddy from the rain, I plop down and stare at the headstone, trying to find the right words to say to her. There’s so much that she needs to know, so much that I have to tell her…

            “Hey, Alex…” I start weakly. “It’s been a long time. I’m sorry I haven’t made many attempts to come to see you. Amanda is off at college now. She got into that university you took her to once when she was little and she’s having the time of her life. She’s such a strong and independent woman now, Alex. I’m so proud of who she has become and I know you would be too. She has a lot of you in her. Sometimes I’ll look at her and all I see is you. It messes with my head. She’s got your smile, your laugh...”

            I hear Robert shuffle behind me and I look back at him, gesturing for him to take a seat beside me. He does reluctantly and he watches my face carefully, remaining silent. I turn back to the headstone and try to gather my train of thought of again. Doing this kind of thing has always been hard. I feel like everything I felt when she died is just waiting to come back out, but I fight it. I won’t let it slip out now. I need to be strong for her, for Robert, and for myself.

            “I’ve been doing pretty alright. Things were hard for a while and I made a lot of mistakes,” I continue on. “Sometimes I still feel like I’m standing on shaky ground or that I’m going to wake up and everything will be gone, but I’m happy right now. In the last letter you wrote to me, the one that came in your will, you told me you wanted me to find someone else. You told me that you didn’t want me to be alone and that you wanted me to find love. I stayed so far away from love for so long, but I met someone. He’s with me now. You would like him, Alex. He broods more than your brother did and he’s got more stories than I know what to do with. He's… He’s something special.”

            I glance at Robert to check to see how he’s doing. His eyes are fixed on her name and he sits still, almost as if he’s afraid to move. I reach out to touch his hand lightly and he jumps, tearing his eyes away from the headstone to look at me. My words are bouncing around in his head, I’m sure. And as I look back to her headstone, I feel a little more confident about talking to her than I did before. This is good for us and together, for a little while longer, we stay at her grave and I tell her all about my little adventures.

Chapter Text

Things between us were amazing. We were as happy as we could have been…

            I clamp my hand over my mouth quickly before the whiskey can spit out in a painful burst of intense laughter. Robert giggles helplessly in front of me, barely keeping it together as I lose the only grip I had left on my composure. Breathing raggedly, I swallow what little amount of my drink I can and slump against the seat as my eyes begin to water. Robert doubles over onto the table, laughing harder than I have ever seen before. I can feel my cheekbones as they begin to ache and as I burst out laughing once more, I start to feel that ache in my abs. I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard. This feels good.

            “Cody, has anyone ever told you how big of a fucking idiot you are?” Robert asks with a voice that has grown hoarse from laughing so much in such a short amount of time. “I mean… seriously. You’re the biggest goof I have ever met.”

            I grin and wipe away the tears that had formed in my eyes, breathing out another round of light laughter. “Once or twice, probably. Why? Got something to say, Robert?” I ask, smiling like the fool I absolutely am.

            Robert playfully kicks my shin from under the table and I reciprocate by trapping his foot with both of my own. “I think that’s the hardest I have ever seen you laugh,” he observes and there’s a look of endearment in his eyes that makes butterflies flutter in my stomach.

            “You’re one to talk,” I respond with a giggle. “I barely see you laugh. Or smile, for that matter. It’s like you have some kind of quota.”

            Robert shrugs his shoulders and gestures to me with a vague wave of his hand. “You are probably one of the five people left on earth who can me do it. Apparently, I find you choking on whiskey to be hilarious.”

            I snort and look up at him with a coy smile. “I bet you like it when I choke on other things too,” I tease right as he is about to take a drink.

            Practically eating his own words, Robert chokes and sets his glass down with more force than he probably meant to. The two of us erupt in laughter and find ourselves right back to where we were no more than a couple of minutes ago. This is where I am the happiest. This is where I know I belong. As I look at Robert now, I see a future that I never thought was possible. After starting our relationship like we did, I never thought I would be sitting here now as he laughs until tears are in his eyes because of something I said. I never thought that even though things are so ugly around us, we can still find happiness together. He puts my mind at ease.

            “You’re lucky I don’t take you home right now and test that theory of yours,” Robert says when he finally gets his breath back.

            “As tempting as that sounds, we do have a movie to catch,” I remind him with a wide smile.

            Obviously, Robert forgot about the movie because he suddenly jolts upwards and checks the time on his phone. “Shit, yeah. We better get going,” he says.

            Robert and I both leave cash on the table for Neil and head out by each other’s sides into the cold night. However, instead of going towards the theater like I thought we would, Robert drags me by the collar of my jacket to the darkened alleyway. As soon as my back hits the brick wall, he is on me and I let him. He kisses me hard with a passion I haven’t felt since we went to visit my family and I grasp desperately onto his clothes, looking for anything to hang onto. He tastes like the whiskey and god does it taste so good.  

            “R-Robert… we… the movie…” I attempt in between kisses and invasions of his tongue.

            Robert laughs against my neck and he breathes in deeply as if to memorize my scent. My heart flutters. “I know, I just wanted to remind you of how you constantly make me feel,” he says darkly, leaving several wet kisses on my neck.

            I blush deeply and I half expect him to keep going, but he gets a grip on himself and takes my hand with a shameless fever. He would never miss a movie… Especially when I’m with him because then he gets to talk about all of the cool things he knows. I glance down at our hands as we walk and find a smile growing on my face, one that has made itself present over and over again tonight. I’m at my happiest when I am with him. I know, deep down, we belong together no matter how cliché and overly romantic that may seem. I blame it entirely on being an artist. Since being with him, I’ve been more connected with my art and playing music feels different again. It’s good and it’s almost liberating. I haven’t felt any kind of Artist’s block for weeks.

            “Do I dare ask what is bouncing around in that head of yours?” Robert asks in a calm voice that features overtones of fake annoyance.

            “Would it be too romantically cliché if I said I was thinking about how we belong together?” I ask in return.

            “Yes. That’s sickening.”

            I laugh quietly and nudge Robert’s side affectionately. “Then I am not thinking about how happy you make me and I am not thinking about how lucky I am to be with someone so gentle when they look like they could kick my ass,” I reply joyfully.

            Robert leans his head back briefly to groan. He’s so much lighter when he’s buzzed. “You are disgusting,” he says with a dull smile.

            I look over at his smile and feel my heart flutter at the sight of it. Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous how someone can make me feel this way, but somehow Robert makes it all okay.

              

The fact that we were right about how things would be when we returned home has been a hard pill to swallow…

            We knew things would be hard, we had been preparing for it in silence before we actually discussed it.

            Not too long after we returned, I went back to work and Robert went back to doing whatever Robert does when I’m not around. It was good for a while… it was so good. He was laughing, I was smiling… and then something shifted.

            Craig and I started working out again, Mary started having me help out with bake sales left and right, and Amanda has been calling multiple times a day to let me know that she is okay and is doing just fine at college.

            What I wasn’t prepared for was the distance and silence.

            It’s not his fault, I know. Robert has a tendency to fall off the face of the earth without warning, that’s just something he does and I have come to accept it. Even when he’s doing good, he still disappears. Robert is a weird, mysterious guy and staying connected isn’t exactly his forte and I know it has everything to do with his trust in people.

              

            Deep down, locked in a place I swore I would never let anyone visit, I know where this is headed. It’s like a freight train headed straight for a wall and there are no brakes to stop it. I’ve denied it and denied it for a couple of weeks now, hoping that everything would be okay. Alex promised me it would be okay after she left, so it’s gotta be, right? I keep hoping I’ll go to bed and wake up to find that everything is as it should be. And, god… I want nothing more than to be with him. Neither of us meant for it to get like this. Hell, neither of us could have predicted how it would be when we came home. For a little while, it was so good. He seemed happy. We took our bubble for granted and even though we were aware of its presence, neither of us was willing to accept that time is always moving forward and whether we liked it or not, we would eventually have to say goodbye to that bubble.

              

 

To Robert:
Hey, Mary said she hasn’t seen you around lately
Are you doing okay? Let me know.
-12:48 PM

To Robert:
Robert?

-3:15PM

To Robert:
I get things can be difficult, but let me help you.
Please don’t shut me out. I haven’t seen you for
days.

-11:30 PM

To Robert:
Okay, I’ll give you space. You know where to
find me when you’re ready to stop hiding out.
I would come over, but Mary said she tried that
and had no luck. I’m here for you. I will always
be there for you.

-10:05 AM      

              

            I’m not sure where we stand now. It has been a week since we really saw each other last. Three weeks since we’ve been home. Halloween is right around the corner. I let myself get consumed with work and somehow, time got away from me. I wish I could get through to him. Mary is worried, I’m worried… but there is only so much that can be done. It’s all falling apart and for a while, I was trying to collect the pieces and put them back together to stop the inevitable downfall from it all. However, no matter how hard I tried… everything still shattered like glass. I let the pieces fall and now I’m unsure of where to step or of what I should do about it. Should I try to put it all back together? Should I let it stay broken where it is and see if it will fix itself? It all comes back to one simple answer. I have no idea what to do. All I really know is I have to reach out to him. I won’t let him suffer or go through whatever he is alone. He needs me.

              

            Not knowing is going to kill me. I’ve already let this mess go on for way too long. I promised I would help and what have I been doing? Working. Ignoring it. Waiting for him. I’ve done nothing of substantial value. Shoving my feet into the first pair of Converse I come across, I grab Max and fly out of my door, cutting straight across the yards to get to his house. I could care less that it’s the middle of the night. The bastard doesn’t sleep anyways. I take his porch steps two at a time and knock on his door, loud enough for him to hear me no matter where he is in the house. When I get no response, I peek over my shoulder to make sure his truck is, in fact, there. So, he’s home. Knocking again, I wait for a moment and get no response. Okay, Plan B: The House Key.

            I think what I’m about to do is technically illegal in all fifty states, but I’m past the point of caring. In an attempt to continue on with her matchmaking, Mary slipped me a copy of Robert’s house key. I have no idea why she has it or how she got it, but I really couldn’t care less right now. Entering his home, I let Max run free and I struggle to see anything in the darkness as there are no lights on. I don’t see anyone in the living room and wherever Betsy is, she’s not down here. Closing and locking the door behind me, I walk over to the kitchen and find no one there either. The house is unusually dark for this hour, so I’m starting to wonder if he really is asleep at a normal time after all. Drawing my eyebrows together, I turn to the stairs and try to take them as silently as possible. If he’s awake, the last thing I want to do is freak him out. He’d probably stab me with something thinking I’m a cryptid. Creeping through the dark, I come to his closed bedroom door and I stand outside of it silently to listen for any clues. Just barely, I can hear his steady breathing. Taking my chances, I crack the door open and poke my head inside.

            Robert is fast asleep in his bed, sleeping on his stomach. He only wears his briefs and has a very small corner of the comforter draped over him as Betsy appears to be hogging the rest of it by sleeping right in the middle. His love for that dog reaches no end. All over his room are empty bottles of whiskey and beer and on various surfaces, I spot empty packs of cigarettes. Breathing in deeply, I can still smell the smoke from them. Leaving the door open behind me, I cross his room to his bed and gently take a seat on the edge he sleeps on. Betsy lazily lifts her head to look at me, her little tail beginning to wag with excitement. I hold my finger against my lips, trying to tell her to remain quiet. Thankfully, she lowers her head back down and goes right back to sleep. Turning my attention back to Robert, I lightly place my hand on his shoulder and nudge it.

            “Robert,” I call, not wanting to be too loud. When he doesn’t stir, I try again and manage to get his legs to move. “Robert, wake up.”

            Slowly, he cracks his eyes open and turns them up to me. He stares – or much rather, glares – at me for a long while before lifting his head up to check the time on his wall clock. Three in the morning. Confused, he looks back at me and flops back down onto his pillow. This is not a normal time for me to be awake, let alone in his house. I doubt he knows why I’m here. Hell, I barely do. Breaking into his house wasn’t exactly on my list of things to do tonight.

            “I’m not sure what I should ask you first. How the hell did you get into my house? Or why are you in my room in the middle of the night?” He asks, groggy.

            “Would curiosity suffice as a good enough answer?” I ask in return, hoping I didn’t just piss himself.

            Robert sighs and rolls over, tucking an arm behind his head. How can he still look so attractive while he’s half-awake and probably buzzed off his ass? “Well, I’m not dumb enough to believe you’re just here to pay me a visit…”

            “I needed to make sure you were okay, Robert,” I say honestly. “You disappeared on me. You won’t text me back. You haven’t even been talking to Mary. She’s worried and so am I.”

            Reaching to his nightstand, Robert goes for a glass half-full of amber liquid and he almost makes it to his mouth, but I intercept quickly to snatch it away. I don’t trust that cup. I don’t trust this amber liquid. He rolls his eyes and lets his hand drop to his chest, giving up on his mission for a drink for now. I taste it for myself, not surprised when I discover that it’s whiskey.

            “At three in the morning?” I ask. “Really, Robert?”

            “Shoulda saw me an hour ago, sweetheart,” he grumbles almost sarcastically.

            Putting the glass back onto the nightstand, I look at him expectantly. “Where are you at, Robert? It’s been weeks since we’ve really been around each other. The movie we went to was the last time. It’s been a week since we’ve actually spoke. I’ve been worried about you.”

            Trying to ditch the conversation, Robert rolls to put his back to me. Getting the sense that she won’t be getting much sleep here anymore, Betsy hops down from the bed and trots out of the room. I, on the other hand, kick my shoes off and force Robert to roll over again to face me. He’s glaring now, clearly wanting to do anything but have a conversation about this. He’s trying to hide himself away and I get it, I do… but I can’t let him. I have to get some information so I can try to help him.

            “What’s going on?” I ask again, refusing to be kicked out.

            Robert makes a face and directs his eyes up to the ceiling, unwilling to look at me. “I’ve been in a mood. I got things going on.”

            “I’m not looking for you to dump all of your feelings on me right now, Robert. I just need to know that you’re okay. I miss you and I’m worried,” I say, searching his tired eyes.

            Moving suddenly fast, Robert grabs me by the shoulders and rolls over so I’m pressed into his bed and he’s hovering above me. I look up at him with my lips parted, a little dazed by the maneuver. He dips down and kisses me, making every thought I had going in my head slam together into one jumbled mess. I kiss him back and I can taste the whiskey on his tongue, the alcohol almost burns my lips. Pushing him back slightly, we part and he looks down on me sadly. He’s barely awake right now, but I know what he’s looking for.

            “Don’t use me,” I say seriously and although I kept myself vague, he understands what I mean. I won’t let him use me like we’ve used each other in the past. He’s smarter than this. I know he is. “Let me help you.”

            “Then help me feel something,” he says and it absolutely breaks my heart.

            He crashes down on me again and I let him even though I should fight him on it. He doesn’t kiss me fast or aggressively like I expected. Instead, he’s slow and he’s gentle and I know that no matter what state he’s in right now, this is real. He’s not going to use me. Our lips work together in tandem, mixing perfectly together. I open up to him and allow his tongue to find mine, sighing with something that merges frustration and needs together effortlessly. His hands unzip my hoodie and he pushes it off of me the best he can, taking this slow. When I reach up to cup the side of his face, I feel something against my palm that feels a lot like warm tears. Drawing back, I look at him through the darkness and try to understand what’s happening.

            “Robert…” I start, feeling my voice get stuck in my throat.

            Shaking his head, he pulls me to sit up and he grabs the hem of my shirt, pulling it up and over his head. Before he can do anything more, I seize him and pull him into my arms, holding him as securely as I can. He needs to know I care. His body hesitates and his hands latch onto my back, his fingers almost digging into my skin. He shudders against me and sloppily finds my mouth again, kissing me now with more intensity. I can feel the hurt he’s going through and it’s killing me. Whatever is going on with him is tearing him apart, so much so that he feels numb. Neither of us wants to use each other, but he’s so far gone that he needs to be reminded of what it’s like to feel something again. To feel love. I need to do this for him, but I need to do it right. Taking control, I roll us over and press him against the mattress. He surprisingly allows it and soon, my pants and briefs disappear into the sheets. Bringing my lips back to his, my hand travels down his side, past his navel, beyond his hips, and lands underneath the fabric of his briefs where he is hard and wanting attention. I grab him and pump slowly, drawing this out for as long as I can.

            He shudders an exhale and presses his head back against his pillows, his lips parted. From his nightstand, I fish out the lube and a condom. He eyes the objects with a soft hunger and he goes to take them from me, but he stops halfway. He doesn’t want to do the work tonight. Instead, he wants me to. He has given me complete control for the first time and it makes my heart lurch forward. Grabbing the elastic band on his briefs, I pull them down and he lifts his hips to free them. I can hardly see a thing in his room, but I can feel my way around. Kissing down his body at an antagonizing pace, I latch myself onto his hip and make sure to leave behind a mark or two. Grabbing him once again, I take his tip into my mouth and listen carefully to the way he moans so quietly.

            I take more of him in and as quickly as I can, I grab the lube for my fingers. He’s hardly prepared for when I press them into him, I can tell by the way he grips the sheets and sighs out my name. Before he can cum, I pull my mouth off of him and work my way back up to be level with him. His eyes meet mine for a fraction of a second, still tortured. Scissoring my fingers now, he grunts and digs his fingers into my lower back, pulling me against him roughly. When I feel that he’s ready, I rip open the condom and slip it onto myself as I continue to watch his facial expressions. I’m unsure of when the last time Robert was a bottom, so before doing anything I make sure that I’m thoroughly lubed up. I look at him and wait for him to meet my gaze, wanting his full attention.  

            “Focus on me,” I tell him, reaching to hold the side of his face in my hand. I can hardly see but, somehow, that works to my overall advantage. I don’t want him to see me right now. I want him to feel me and I want him to know that I’m here. He doesn’t have to see me for that. He just has to know.

            Kissing him slowly, I begin to press myself in and he groans into my mouth. He breaks away from me and goes to kiss at my neck, kissing me anywhere he can reach comfortably to work through the initial burning. In the place where my shoulder and neck meet, he bites down and I moan into it, taking that as an encouragement to rock my hips a little faster as gently as I can. Bringing a hand back down, I grab ahold of his cock and feel his length all the way through only to bring it back down. In sync with my thrusts, I jerk him off and he can hardly control the sounds coming out of his mouth. I’ve never heard him quite like this. When I kiss him again, I feel those damned tears against my face again and with our foreheads pressed together, I know I need to reach him.

            “Don’t think. Just feel… I’m right here. I’m… here,” I pant, feeling the sweat start to form on my body. “I’m here, baby…”

            His hands grip onto me, clinging onto me tightly. And as he moans deeply from somewhere in his chest, he reaches his climax and releases into my hand. I rub him through it and quicken my own pace, trying to find my own release. Going in deeper, I rock in and out of him and gasp into his shoulder when I find it. For a second I lay there, breathing heavily as I try to gather my thoughts up again. It has been so long since I’ve been a top for anyone. Needing to feel him, I find his lips and kiss him so deeply that even I eventually forget where I am. He’s so gentle and curious with his hands as they travel all over my body. He’s trying to learn my body still and I know he needs this. He needs to touch me, to hear me, to be here with me like this while we’re vulnerable and tangled. This is a private space for him.

            When we’ve cleaned ourselves off, Robert lies so still in his bed that I worry he may have turned into a statue. I crawl into the space next to him, pulling my briefs back up to where they’re supposed to be. With a gentle hand, I turn his face so he has no choice but to look at me. The look in his eyes is almost hollow, almost as if he’s not really there. It’s killing me to see him this way but forcing the reason why out of him won’t get us anywhere. I have to help him through it in any way that he needs me. And right now? That’s my presence. It’s my body being close to his, my kisses on his skin, and my heart beating alongside his.

            “Are you going to stay with me tonight?” He asks, finally speaking again after being silent for so long.

            “I’m going anywhere,” I reply back, hoping he’ll understand the double meaning.

            Robert finds my hand against his stomach and he engulfs it in his, feeling the softness of my skin against his own. “I didn’t mean to leave you like that,” he admits. “Time got away from me and I know it got away from you too.”

            “You're working on your relationship with existence. It's okay," I reassure lightly.

            “Don't tell me it's okay. It's not," he argues.

            It's late at night, he probably has enough alcohol in his system to kill a horse, and he's emotionally drained. Getting anywhere with him right now is going to be impossible. Moving, I roll him on top of me with my legs bent on either side of him. He nestles into my neck and wraps his arms around me, turning us into a perfect tangle. My hand finds its way into his hair and my other runs up and down his back, comforting him in the ways I know he appreciates the most. I force myself to stay awake until I hear his breathing even out, until I know he has gone back to sleep. I reach forward and grab the blanket, throwing it over us.

              

            Waking up, I glance over at the wall clock and am less than surprised when I see that it’s well past ten in the morning. Robert still sleeps on top of me, completely wrapped around my body in every way possible. I don’t want to wake him because we really wore ourselves out last night, but we also can’t sleep all day no matter how appealing it sounds. Shifting around slightly, I run my hand through his hair and trace it down his spine, working my way back up when I reach the bottom. I press a kiss to the top of his head and when he stirs awake, the way he pokes his head up to look at me is enough to make me smile. His hair is an absolute wreck after what we did last night. I really did a number on him.

            “Morning, sleepyhead,” I say quietly.

            He blinks his eyes a couple of times before rolling off of me, wincing slightly. "I could easily sleep for the next three days," he mutters, dragging a hand down his face. “What do I gotta do to get you to let me and join in on the fun?”

            I laugh a little, rolling onto my side so I can look at him comfortably. “I’m inclined to take you up on that offer, but you need to get water and probably a gallon of aspirin into your system," I say. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be tasting whiskey for a month."

            Robert turns his head to look at me, a dark look in his eyes. "I'm sorry about last night. I just needed... you, I guess."

            "Well after almost three weeks, I can't blame you,” I reply and I hadn’t meant to sound so sad, but I did and now he’s frowning.

            He searches for my hand under the blanket and when he finds it, he’s interlacing our fingers together and running his thumb against my skin. “I know it’s not really your style, but you can be mad at me if you need to be, Codes,” he says.

            I shake my head and lean over to kiss his lips. “I’m not going to get mad at you. Instead, I’m going to force you out of bed and we’re gonna go take a shower together, okay?”

            Robert sighs and nods his head, throwing the blanket off of us. “You gonna baby me to death?” He asks, forcing himself to sit up.

            “No, but I’ll take care of you to death if that’s what it takes,” I reply, following him to his master bathroom.

            I think this is the first time I have been in his bathroom and it’s oddly clean, except for a few random mismatched socks and a pair of jeans lying lazily beside the hamper instead of in the hamper. I lean up against the counter and watch him as he gets the water going, blushing furiously when he catches me.

            “There’s a spare toothbrush you can use in the medicine cabinet. Hasn’t been used,” he says, gesturing vaguely as he grabs for his own toothbrush.

            Opening the cabinet, I snatch the toothbrush and take the toothpaste when he offers it to me after he’s used it. “Do you frequently keep spare toothbrushes in your cabinet?” I ask dumbly, looking to make light conversation with him. What kind of question is that? Even I keep a spare toothbrush.

            Robert rolls his eyes, taking my toothbrush when I’m done with it and he sticks it beside his in the holder. “Betsy got a hold of my last one somehow and chewed it up to hell. I keep a spare in case of mishaps like that. And, generally, since you’ve been around, I keep a few spares of everything.”

            I find that oddly heartwarming. Taking the necessary step to be closer to him, I throw my arms around him and kiss his waiting lips with a smile on my cheeks. “Drop the briefs, Small. I wanna shower with you.”

            Grumbling, Robert takes off his clothes and I try not to look, I really do… but I end up doing it anyway. My cheeks blaze red again because I know I’ve been caught when he laughs. Trying to get away from the embarrassment, I bolt straight for the shower and leave the glass door open for him to walk through. Once in there together, the atmosphere around us changes dramatically. He pushes me up against the wall, making the water fall on my chest, and he crowds into my space, his hands on my hips securely.

            “I marked you up good last night,” he assesses, brushing his fingertips against my shoulder. A smile creeps up on his face and it’s so silly. He really does like seeing me this way. He likes knowing it was his hands on my hips, his mouth on my neck…

            I make a face and shake my head, craning to look at the marks. “I look like I’m back in college,” I laugh, recalling my days as a freshman with my pregnant girlfriend.

            “You’re not the only one. Look at what the hell you did to my waistline and thighs,” Robert says, take a half step back.

            I look down and notice the little marks I hadn’t paid much attention to before. He’s got them all over his hips and on his inner tights, evidence of where I was last night. Even on his neck, he’s got a mark or two. Normally, I would feel bad about having done such a thing but given how much he likes to bite and pull on me… I’m not even going to worry about it.

            “Point made,” I say after a while.

            Robert hums lightly and buries himself against me. I let him and wrap my arms around to his back, holding him as the warm water dumps on me. He’s struggling with something, I know. I’ve given him some time to adjust to me being here and it’s time that I dig around a little.

            “You know you got me, right?” I ask, kissing the top of his head. “You can always talk to me, even if it’s hard and it’s ugly. I’m not going to run off screaming or hate you for anything you have to say.”

            Robert doesn’t move much. The only movement he makes is to turn his head so he can speak. “I know, Codes… I get it. I was on my own for a long while before you plopped into my life and I’m trying to adjust,” he says honestly. “What you did for me last night… I needed that. I’m a disaster and sometimes I just need to be reminded that I got you in my life. I’m picking myself up right now and yeah, last night was hard. I messed up. I let time get away from me and I let myself fall back into my thoughts. It’s not… easy.”

            I nod my head even though he can’t see it. “You don’t have to go through this alone, Robert. You can always message me if you’re having a bad night or need to be by someone. You can talk to me.”

            “I’ve been thinking about Val and how badly I messed up. I should have contacted her when she wanted to fix things,” he admits weakly. “I’m a horrible father, Cody. I don’t know how to make it right.”

            Kind of forgetting about the shower for right now, I lift his head so he has to look at me. “I don’t know Val personally, but I know you, Robert. If she’s anything like you, she’ll forgive you when the time is right. If I were you, I’d work on myself for a little while and then reach out to her. She needs to know that you’re really trying.”

            Not wanting to get himself worked up, he nods and reaches for the body wash on the shelf. He pops the cap open and takes my hand, giving me some of the soap so I can clean up. "Are you gonna tell me how you broke into my house?"

            I make a slight face of discomfort. “You’re gonna have to take that one up with Mary. I guess she made a copy of your house key and she gave it to me not to long ago. She’s still trying to pair us together.”

            Robert’s face goes suddenly blank and he stares at me for a long time. “I knew she was up to something when she needed to ‘borrow’ my truck for a couple hours,” he mutters, rolling his eyes.

            “I can give you the key back if you don’t want me to have it…?” I offer, rubbing suds into my skin.

            “No, you can keep it. It’s probably a good thing, anyways. I needed you last night and I doubt I would have bothered to let you in…”

            I want to say more to him but I don’t want to overwhelm him right now, so I let the topic drop. We’re on difficult grounds right now, I know that. Neither of us is quite sure of what we’re doing and somehow, someway, we’ll find out footing again. I care about him so much and the thought of abandoning him when he needs me is the last thing I want to do. I don’t even want that thought to come across my mind. How we started our relationship doesn’t even matter anymore. We’re beyond that now. Being used, getting used, doing the using… it’s all in the past. He’s stuck with me and we’re going to make it work.

            I hope.

Chapter Text

I stare at my reflection in the mirror.

            So, it’s going to be one of those nights, then. I shouldn’t let myself get like this, I know. However, it’s not always a conscious decision. Just by the bags that are forming under my eyes, I can tell that I haven’t been sleeping very well. Between working and trying to make sure things are okay in every corner of my life, I’m wearing myself unbearably thin. It’s a rookie mistake. I’m an adult and I don’t get breaks. I don’t get to press pause and take a few minutes for myself. No, I get to keep going until I can’t take it anymore. That’s how my life is and that’s how it’s going to stay unless things start changing. Amanda would kick me in the shins right now if she heard me thinking like this. Since her mom died, she has made it her personal goal to make sure I keep a positive outlook on life and don’t stretch myself too far out. Now that she’s gone, I don’t have that little balance beam anymore. All I got is some bad judgment and a couple of sandwiches in the fridge from Craig.

            But, of course, I have to ask myself one little question. Do I really have much of a choice? Maybe I do and I’m just not seeing it. I can’t take time off work right now, not after all the money I spent on the trip last month. So, I have to just keep trudging along. Something will give eventually… it has to. That was one of the many lessons I picked up from Alex. Life is shit and you don’t always get what you want, but something always gives eventually. That’s actually how she and I fell in love with each other. We both kept pushing for it until something snapped and we had a beautiful daughter and a marriage out of it. Still, I wish things weren’t so hard.

            Loud banging on my front door has me running from my bedroom to answer it. It’s late at night and most people would be sleeping at this hour, but that never seems to be the case in this funny little cul-de-sac. I unlock the deadbolt and pull the door open to find Mary standing on my tiny porch with tears running down her face. At her feet, there is a bag full of clothes and, I think, toiletries. I’m taken aback by her worn-down appearance, unsure of what to say or do. All I can do is stare with shock. I’ve never seen her like this before. Mary Christensen is usually one of the most composed and well put together people I know. This is shocking to see firsthand and it’s certainly not what I expected to find when I opened my door.

            “Cody, I have to ask you something and you have to tell me the truth or I will never speak to you again,” Mary forces out through her clenched jaw. She’s trying so hard to keep herself together. It’s breaking my heart to just look at her right now. What happened?

            Baffled and concerned, I frown. “Sure, Mary,” I agree. “What’s going on?”

            “Do you have feelings for my husband or have you been having any sort of a relationship with him behind my back?”

            “Mary, what are you–”

            “–Are you having an affair with my husband? Yes or no?”

            The question catches me off guard, making me subtly flinch. Where did that come from? I know there have been moments over the course of summer – and maybe before – that may have suggested something was going on, but there’s not and there never has been. I have never tried to go after Joseph and I can’t see myself doing that when I’m not interested in the guy. He’s not my type and he’s married to the woman in front of me. Mary waits for me to formulate a sentence but when I fail to do so in a timely manner, she takes my strangled silence as my answer. She scoffs in disappointment, believing that I truly have been having an affair with Joseph. As she grabs her bag and turns to leave, I grab onto her arm to stop her from moving.

            “Mary, wait. Hang on a minute,” I say as I pull her back. “Your question just caught me off guard. I’m sorry.”

            Mary looks at me expectantly, growing more upset with me by the second. Her heart is broken and while I don’t know why for sure, I cannot let her leave thinking that something happened between me and her husband. I can’t do that to her and I would never. She may be a royal pain my ass sometimes, but she’s a royal pain my ass who is also my friend. Sleeping with her husband behind her back? No. I wouldn’t. I’m not like that and can’t be like that. It would go against all of my morals as a person.

            “Look, kid, I don’t have it in me to be lied to anymore. So, if you’ve been fucking my husband–”

            “–Jesus, Mary. I’m with Robert!” I blurt.

            Mary falls silent immediately. She stares at me for a long time, almost as if she’s expecting me to laugh because I told a joke but I’m not joking and I’m not going to laugh. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that? Because to me, it sounded like you said you’re with Robert and the last time I checked, you two claimed to hate each other. In fact, Robert won’t even let me talk about you when I’m with him without glaring me to death.”

            I sigh and drag a hand down my face tiredly. I suppose that secret was due to come out anyways. It has been getting a little hard to avoid her and there’s really no point in hiding it anymore when there’s barely anything to hide in the first place. “We are… Or were… I don’t know. Things have been really difficult and hard lately.”

            Mary uses both of her hands to wipe her tears from her face, but more fall soon after. I then notice the lack of a wedding ring on her hand and slowly connect the dots. Oh no. She’s not here to pry into me about her husband. She’s not here in some elaborate attempt to get Robert and me together. She’s here because she’s running from her home and wanted to make sure I wasn’t a backstabber. Suddenly, the bag at her feet makes much more sense. Why am I such a world-class dumbass sometimes?

            “Mary… Do you need a place to stay tonight?” I ask hesitantly.

            Wordlessly, Mary nods and I step aside to let her into my house. For as strong as she is all of the time, she seems to broken and out of her element now. I’m not completely sure what’s going on, but the missing wedding ring seems to be a strong indication that a divorce has been put onto the table. I know very little about Mary and Joseph’s relationship, but I do know they haven’t been happy for a long time. The two can hardly be considered a couple when all they do is argue behind closed doors and make a fuss out of little things that won’t matter tomorrow. Regardless of what happened or what may be happening, I don’t like seeing her this way. It isn’t right and every bone in my body wants to help her.

            “I’m willing to give up my bed if you want it or there’s a couch out here,” I offer kindly. “I have a lot of extra bedding and there’s food in the kitchen if you’re hungry.”

            Mary shakes her head and moves to sit on the couch. “I’ll sleep out here, Coconuts. No need to adjust everything just for me,” she says quietly, her voice broken. She can’t even bring herself to look at me.

            I nod and go off to the linen closet to grab a couple of blankets and spare pillows for her. When I come back out to the living room, she has completely fallen apart again. She’s quietly sobbing into her hands and her shoulders shake with her uneven and shaky breaths. I drop the stuff onto the armchair and ease myself down beside her slowly. Uncertain if she wants to be touched, I lightly rest my hand on her back and she drops her hands away to reveal a tear-stained, makeup smudged face full of nothing but heartbreak. This is killing me. She deserves better than this.

            Without another thought about it, I pull her tightly into my arms and allow her to cry onto me instead. It’s clear that she needs somebody tonight – someone who isn’t her husband – and needs comforting instead of lecturing. As the emotions that I suspect have been held in for a long time pour out, I lean back against the cushions. I pull her along with me and rub her back in an easy rhythm, trying to make her feel safe. I’m not going to turn her away or tell her that she should be stronger than this because I know this is exactly how I would be if I were in her shoes. What she needs is a shoulder to cry on and a friend and I’m more than happy to be both because, in some messed up situation, I know she would be willing to do this for me.

            “You can stay here for as long as you need. You don’t have to worry about anything,” I say gently. “If you want, you can use the guest bathroom to clean up or take a shower. There are towels in there.”

            Mary draws back from my shoulder and pushes herself unsteadily onto her feet. Before walking off, she turns to me one more time and grabs her bag from the floor. “Thanks, kid… You got a good head on your shoulders. Don’t forget that.”

            When I hear the guest bathroom door close, I decide to get the couch ready for her. I wish I knew what happened, but this is not my place to pry and dig for answers to questions I shouldn’t be asking. If Mary wants me to know, she will tell me in her own time. While I’m alone, my thoughts drift over to Robert. He’s not exactly who I want to think about right now because I know what it does to me when I do, but it’s pointless to try and fight it. He will always find his way back to me eventually. It’s so hard to not think about the person you care about when you know they’re going through difficult things on their own.

            I feel confused and I feel like I’m losing a battle that I didn’t know I was fighting in the first place. He and I… we have been trying so hard to keep it all together. Despite our strong attempts to be better, our lives still continue to get in the way and we find that we’re unable to function. It’s hurting me so deeply because I know he’s the one I want to be with. Since I lost Alex, he is the only person I have come across who I genuinely have feelings for and want to spend with my life with. Something snapped in me when I met him, even if that makes me sound crazy. I fell so hard and so fast and now I’m feeling the repercussions from it. He can be a prick and he can be grumpy, but I know there is much more to him than the brooding he puts on display for everyone to see.

            I know because I have seen it before. He can be so incredibly gentle with me and there are sides to him that I’ve seen that still baffle me. The man likes to whittle, he listens to Tom Waits, and he enjoys white zinfandel wine. He has a laugh that sends butterflies through my stomach and when he kisses me, I feel like I’m safe or… or like I’m at peace. He cares more about his dog than his own wellbeing and when I need him to be, he’s the rock that keeps me stable when I’m so close to flying off the edge. When we are sleeping by each other, it’s he who engages in cuddling first. When we’re saying goodbye for the night, he kisses me first. There are many sides to him and although I know I have just scratched the surface, I’ve already fallen for him. It’s too late for me and that’s why I’m hurting so bad. I don’t want to lose him to our lives and to our individual problems.

            Groaning under my breath as I drag a hand down my tired face, I wander over to the kitchen and pour myself a glass of orange juice. I drank entirely way too much on my trip back home and even though I want nothing more than a real drink to take the edge off, I’m trying to cut back. If I allow myself to start drinking now, I’ll for sure slip back into my old patterns of helpless depression. Right now, that is the last thing I need in my life. Still, I can’t ignore the way things are right now. Whether I like it or not, things are simply getting hard again. My daughter has been so busy that she hardly calls, my evil witch of a mother wants me to move back home, Robert and I are on the rocks, and I’m certain that when this all finally lifts up, I will find myself running in tiresome circles.

            “You are the only person I know who drinks orange juice when they’re stressed,” Mary laughs. “Don’t you have anything stronger?”

            I turn around to find Mary standing in the entrance of my kitchen with her arms crossed over her chest. She wears a light gray sweater and a pair of baby blue sweatpants, clothes that I’m not familiar with seeing her in. “I’m trying to avoid alcohol. Drinking will basically mean that my life has gone to shit and I’m not ready to start wallowing yet,” I explain, a tone of resentment in my voice. “You seem a lot better, though.”

            Mary nods and goes to take a seat on the edge of the couch. She runs her fingers along the soft sheets, appreciating what I did for her. “The shower helped a bit,” she admits warily.

            I walk out to the living room soon after and take a seat on the armchair with my glass of orange juice still held tightly in my hands. Now that Mary has her composure again, I have no idea what to say or do. She has always been friendly with me and I like to think she’s one of my closest friends, but I hardly know enough about her to hold a decent conversation. Does she even want to talk right now? Or is she like Robert and prefers the silence?

            “So… This thing you’ve got with Rob,” Mary bridges, looking to get her mind off of her husband. “What’s going on there? You made it seem like you guys hate each other’s guts?”

            I take in a deep breath and begin to feel myself growing anxious. It’s time to come out with the truth. “We kind of… lied. After the fight at the bar, Robert decided to change his attitude towards me and we decided to try for something not too long after that. He had me punch him to make it look like things got out of control. He was trying to get you back for messing with us.”

            Mary stares at me as if she wants to be surprised, but cannot find the energy for it. “I have half a mind to slap you both upside your heads,” she mutters, stirring around in her place. “Tell me, what’s the problem between the two of you? What’s Robert doing now?”

            “I don’t know if Robert’s doing anything. It’s a long story, but we were doing really good and then we went to go visit my family. We were so happy in that hotel room and then we came back and it all fell apart. I hardly hear from him and when I do, he’s like… disconnected,” I explain. “And then there’s me. I’ve been working insane hours and trying to make sure Amanda’s supported even though she hardly calls right now. She’s supposed to be coming home for Thanksgiving next month… I just… I don’t know, Mary. Something is wrong.”

            Nodding along, Mary sighs. “He’s falling back into his patterns,” she states sadly.

            “What patterns?” I ask.

            “Happiness freaks him out, Cody,” Mary reveals. “He gets himself so psyched out that he starts to believe that whatever he’s got going in his life isn’t going to last. He doesn’t trust it and before too long, he usually tries to push himself away from it whether he means it or not. He doesn’t realize what he’s doing until it’s too late. The poor guy has been like this since Marilyn died and Val took off for college. The shit with my husband certainly didn’t help either. He’s busted and just doesn’t know how to act anymore. He doesn’t trust himself when he’s happy.”

            “I need to help him, Mary,” I say after a long pause. “I can’t let him go through his alone. I’ll hate myself if I don’t.”

            “You and me both, kid. I’ve been looking after him for years. Rob is already a silent guy, but then there’s the other kind of silent that’s dangerous. I saw it on him last week when he dragged himself to the grocery store. I didn’t know what it was, but now it’s making more sense. He’s been stressing out about his life and what he has with you,” she says.

            “What can I do?” I ask. “There’s gotta be something we can do. We’re… We’re the only people right now who have his back… and… I can’t…” I struggle.

            “There’s only one thing we can do, Coconuts. We have to be there for him, but it’s better if it’s mostly you,” Mary explains. “Your relationship with him hit the rocks because his own fears caught up with him and it’s going to be really ugly for a while, but you have to show him that life isn’t so bad once you find that person who makes it okay. Do you really want to help him? Do that. Be there for him. And it might not be a bad idea to get him to call Val. He misses her more than he will ever openly admit. Her leaving really messed him up.”

            I groan and drop my head into my hands. “Of course…” I say, feeling like the world’s biggest idiot again. How am I so stupidly blind all of the time?

            “Don’t beat yourself up over it, Cody. Love is a tricky thing. You’re going to miss him and it’s going to hurt, but it’s what needs to be done. If you’re serious about him, you’ll help him through this. Robert isn’t big on accepting help, but I have a feeling you’ve already weaseled your way into his heart,” she goes onto say. “Go talk to him.”

            I lift my head up slowly, meeting her puffy eyes. “Are you sure?”

            Mary nods confidently. “I’ll be okay here, Coconuts. I’ll make some popcorn and pop in a movie. Don’t sweat it. Go make sure your boyfriend has drank himself to death. Just rip off the band-aid. It’ll be alright.”

            Stiffly, I stand from the chair and thank her. Almost flying out the front door, I pull my shoes on as I go and all but run clumsily to his house. I don’t even know what time it is any more or what I look like, but I don’t care. Practically jumping up the steps, I bring my first to the door and knock loudly. On the other side, I can hear thumping, cursing, and what sounds Betsy barking from the backyard. After a minute, the deadbolt is unlocked and Robert opens the door wearing a pair of pants he clearly just put on with a glass of whiskey held in his hand. He stares at me for a long minute before I’m surging forward and throwing my arms around him. He stumbles back and only just barely manages to thrust the door closed as I continue to walk him backward.

            “Chrissake, kid,” he says, setting his glass down on the bar. “Are you alright?”

            “I should be asking you that question,” I say against his chest.

            Robert doesn’t say anything and when I pull back, his eyes drop down to my shirt. “Why are you covered in smudged makeup?” He asks and I’m really curious to know how he knows what kind of smudges on my shirt.

            I look down and sigh, briefly touching the marks. “Mary… She came over to my house a little while ago. She was crying and I think she’s going to be staying with me for a while.”

            “Mary is gonna be staying with you?” Robert reiterates.

            “It’s a long story, but I’m not here to talk about Mary,” I explain. “I’m here to talk about you. About us. We’ve been dodging around it for a while but we can’t do that anymore.”

            I think he knew this conversation would be coming our way because he doesn’t make a face of surprise or say anything snarky to me for bringing it up like this. Instead, he nods his head and takes me by the hand to lead me back to the couch beside the windows. Uneasily, we sit down and I suddenly feel so nervous. I don’t want to have this conversation. I want to avoid it at all costs and just pretend that things are okay. I know where it’s going to take us, but we have to go there. As Mary said, I have to do this for him. If I truly care about him, I’ll do this. If this is what it takes to help him get better and to help me get better too, then I’m prepared to go to any distance I have to. This is how we fix what’s been broken down.

            “Robert… What’s wrong with us?”

            The question is so simple, but answering would mean tearing everything we have apart just to find the source of our burning troubles. Robert sighs and looks down at his lap, trying to find it within himself to be vulnerable. For all that has happened between us, neither of us thought to slow down for a while. We were so caught up in this new thing that we found that we didn’t make sure it was actually the right time for it. A stupid mistake. I should have known or I should have paid more attention… Things weren’t supposed to get like this between us.

            “We… We fell hard for each other and…” he pauses, feeling out of his element.  He has never enjoyed these kinds of talks. He doesn’t enjoy talking much as it is. “And we’re right for each other, but the timing is wrong for us. I need to sort myself out and you… You need to figure out what you’re doing.”

            It hurts to hear it said out loud. It fucking hurts to have it out in the open. Sitting next to me is the man I have fallen so hard for and it appears I will have to be saying goodbye to him for our own good. Why is this hurting as much as it is? I know it’ll be okay… I know I’ll be just fine… but it… It fucking hurts.

            “So, we stop… We…” I struggle, finding it difficult to speak past the knot that has started to swell in my throat. I don’t want to do this, but what other choice do we have? We can’t keep going like this. If we do, we’ll both burn out.

            Robert sags his shoulders, broken up by what’s happening between us right now. “I don’t want us to break up or stop what we have… but until I’m better and until you’re sorted out, this has to happen. You’ve been so good to me and damn it, Cody… I don’t want to see you walk out that door, but we… I need to get my head right. You deserve someone who is better than the man I am right now. I have to get better.”

            I hate that I’m letting myself get so emotional over this. I need to be strong for him, but it’s so hard when my own heart is breaking all over again. “Robert… I, uh… Is there a chance for us? Later, I mean. After some time?”

            “Don’t think that this will last forever, Codes. A few months at most. We’ll still see each other and hang out as much as we can, but… I can’t be trusted with you when I can barely handle myself,” he says with a wavering voice. “We have to look at how we started. It was all wrong and I only got over my pointless grudge because Mary got you drunk and you called me a dumbass.”

            “So, that’s it then,” I breathe, unable to speak louder.

            I stand up slowly, but Robert is quick to grab my hand. “Cody, don’t go,” he says, not looking at me. “Not yet.”

            I ease myself back down and watch him carefully, waiting for him to say or do something more. And when he does, it’s in a rush. He pulls me against him and brings our lips together, kissing me so fast, but so gently at the same time. I let him because I need him to and I try to ignore the way my tears slip down my face. His arms wrap securely around me and I press against him, wanting to take him upstairs so we can forget about all of this. I slide my hand into his hair and grasp at his back, pulling him as close to me as he can get. We’re both crying and that’s okay. We’re feeling, we’re going through this together.

            I’m not going to forget about how his lips feel against mine. I’m not going to forget how safe I feel in his arms and how warm he is. I’m not going to forget about those times when I wake up and he’s right there beside me, poking at my sides so I’ll get up and join him on whatever little adventure he wants to go on in the middle of the night. All of those small things, they mean so much to me and saying goodbye to them is breaking me down on the inside. Things weren’t supposed to get this way. Why did everything fall apart? When we separate, I see the pain in his eyes. Neither of us wants to let go, but what else can we do? If we stay together, we'll only hurt ourselves. This is for the best.

            I stumble into my house and kick off my shoes, sniffling away my tears. I don’t want to feel like this and when I turn back to Mary, it all falls apart. Everything I had been holding in for his sake just slips right out and I can’t stop it. I don’t want to stop it. These feelings are so human and real and I have no idea what to do with them. Do I ignore them? Do I let myself explode?

            “I care about him, Mary,” I admit, feeling my knees grow weak.

            She nods her head and pats the spot beside her. “I know you do. I could see it in you months ago.”

            I shouldn’t be crying. She needs me right now… But I just… I can’t… “Why does this hurt so bad?” I ask stupidly, furiously wiping my tears away.

            “Because somewhere in that big heart of yours, you know what he is to you,” Mary says simply, grabbing the bowl of popcorn form the table. I guess she wasn’t kidding. “You’re gonna be alright, kid. I’ll help you through it.”

            I look to her with tears running down my cheeks and I want to laugh because this is all so stupid, but I can’t. “Shouldn’t I be helping you? You’re the one who came to my house crying.”

            “Alright, we’ll help each other. Look, I know it sucks. But when you guys get back together, it’s going to feel so good, okay? Just hang onto that and help him.”

            I relax into the cushions and rub my eyes tiredly as she presses play on whatever movie she found to watch. My head is spinning and I feel like I’m going in an endless circle. I had no idea that moving to this cul-de-sac would open so many doors in my life. Before I moved here, I had no plans on falling for someone. But, of course, that’s exactly when it happens. It always finds you when you’re not looking for it and that’s when it strikes the hardest. It rips the rug out from underneath you, it brings a new color to your life, and it changes your entire attitude. Did I see myself falling for Robert when I met him? I’m not sure. He was so mysterious and so out of my league… and yet, here we are.

            He’s at his house and I’m at mine. We’re separated when we should be together. There’s just something about him that has kept me on the edge of my seat. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there and I felt it with Alex. He pulls me in and he shows me another side of life that I had no idea even existed. And I suppose, there’s the answer I’ve been looking for. There is a reason why this hurts so bad. There is a reason why I feel like I walked away from something I’m supposed to stay with forever. And as I do my best to focus on Mary and the movie, I realize that all of these emotions are saddening thoughts could only mean one thing. I’ve fallen so deeply in love with him and I’m realizing it too late.

Chapter Text

Amanda giggles as she watches me pull my costume out from my closet.

            I turn to shoot a glance at my phone, which I have carefully balanced against the lamp on my nightstand. She stares back at me with a broad smile and there are almost tears in her eyes. “What are you laughing at?” I ask her.

            Amanda shrugs, trying to keep herself looking innocent. “Nothing, pops. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            “Okay, first of all… You’re lying,” I point out, grinning. “Second of all, I raised you. I know what that laugh means. You don’t think my costume is cool enough?”

            Amanda sets down her makeup brush that she had been using to apply her own costume makeup with and her face twists up into another devious smile. “Aren’t vampires a little overdone?” She asks.

            “Oh, come on. Vampires are cool!” I defend, but when Amanda gives me the same look of doubt, I hang my head in defeat. “Okay, Mary set the theme for the party tonight. She wanted Monsters of the Night.”

            “So, you went with a vampire?” My daughter pries, giggling up a storm.

            “Vampires are the monsters of the night. They’re one of the first,” I explain, refusing to allow my daughter to destroy my Halloween vibe.

            “And they’re also completely overdone in the mass media and have been turned into glittery disappointments,” Amanda tags on. “I’ll make an exception for some of the televised versions.”

            I laugh and if I had the pictures on me right now, I’d be showing them to her. “Oh, I seem to recall you having a huge crush on Edward the glittery disappointment. Besides, what are you dressing up as? An elf?”

            Amanda scoffs, playfully disappointed that I didn’t recognize what her costume is. “I’m obviously a forest fairy, dad. The university is hosting a party tonight. The theme is Mythical Wonderland.”

            I plop down on the edge of my bed and scoop my phone up, scowling a bit. “And a forest fairy isn’t overdone?”

            “Not when I make it cool,” she clarifies. “I got this really retro David Bowie shirt and black shorts. I’m going total punk with it.”

            “I was unaware Bowie was punk, but I’ll trust you on it,” I laugh.

            Amanda beams and seems to glance at something across the room, her face falls a little bit. “Ah, sorry, pops. I have to dip out. I have a class in about an hour.”

            Although I would love to stay and talk to her, I nod. “Okay, Panda. Be safe and don’t have too much fun tonight. I love you.”

            “I love you too, pops.”

            Amanda ends the video call and I slump over a bit, no longer knowing what to do with my time. The party isn’t for another few hours and I’ll have to start getting ready in a few minutes, but I have some extra time to kill right now. Wandering aimlessly into the living room, I find Mary struggling with the zipper to her costume. I rush over to her and zip it up for her, trying to figure out what monster of the night she decided to dress up as.

            “Thanks, kid,” she says, turning around.

            “What are you dressed up as?” I ask curiously, eying her up and down. “Are you wearing a torn-up wedding dress?”

            Mary scoffs and grabs the bouquet of flowers from my coffee table. She poses with it and winks, dropping the act entirely when I still don’t get the hints. “Jesus, Cody. I’m a zombie bride. Or, I will be after I do my makeup.”

            I hold my hands up in surrender, admitting to my defeat. “Alright, alright. I already got harangued by Amanda for my costume. Clearly, I need to update my knowledge on what’s cool for Halloween. I seem to be lacking.”

            “Please tell me you’re not going as a vampire?”

            I groan, hanging my head back as I go off into the kitchen for an energy drink like a teenager. In fact, I seem to recall Amanda doing this very thing many times before. “There is nothing wrong with being a vampire for Halloween.”

            “Come on, kid,” Mary complains. “That was the best you could do? I thought you were the creative one of all of us.”

            I turn around with my energy drink in hand, pointing vigorously to her. “Not another word about it, Mary. I’m going as a vampire and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve been preparing for this night my entire life. Nobody will suspect a thing.”

            Mary makes a face, rolling her eyes a moment later. She has heard that kind of tone before. We both have. “Cody, you really need to take a break from Robert. You’re starting to talk exactly like him.”

            Sighing, I look down. “Thought I already was?” I ask, shaking my head.

            Mary opens her mouth to apologize to me for being so careless, but I wave her off and walk tiredly back to my room. Closing the door behind me, I make sure to lock it for the sake of my own privacy. I then lean back against it and close my eyes, breathing in deeply for a moment. I’m so on edge today, but I have to survive this party. Granted, the party is only being held in Robert’s favorite bar and I’m positive, whether he actually wants to or not, he’s going to end up making an appearance there. Pushing away from the door, I expel all of the air out from my lungs and go into my bathroom to start getting ready. I would like to have fun tonight, but I know it’s going to be nothing short of emotionally draining. To be in love with someone you can’t have right now? That’s easily one of the most painful ‘joys’ of this wonderful thing called life. Not to mention, I’m almost certain that this party is going to be crowded and as much as I hate this about me, I don’t do well in crowds.

            Turning to my shower, I get the water going and flick on the fan so I don’t pass out in the heated steam. I strip down to nothing and as I go to toss my clothes into the hamper, I find myself freezing. With stiff legs, I walk over to it and unearth a red long-sleeved shirt from the growing pile. This isn’t mine… It’s Robert’s. I frown a little and dig further into the hamper, pulling three more shirts and a pair of jeans that also don’t belong to me. How did this stuff end up in here? Did I accidentally sweep them up with my clothes? Did he put them in here on one of the nights he slept over? Sighing, I drop all of the clothes back into the hamper and turn to my waiting shower. I need to distract myself for a while. I’m not going to let his clothes get to me.

            Stepping under the water, I take a deep breath and bring my hands up to my shoulders. I’m extremely tense for a guy who is supposed to be relatively calm. Working out the knots, I turn around to allow the warm water to fall down my back. The past couple of weeks have been going by slowly. I’ve slipped back into my normal patterns of working until I can’t stand and when I’m not doing that, I’m looking out for Mary or answering my daughter’s frequent phone calls. Robert and I haven’t really seen each other since we broke up and I’m willing to be it’s because we’re perpetually stuck in an awkward impasse. So much has happened in between us in the last few months that it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it all. How did we go from enemies to lovers to where we are now in seemingly the snap of someone’s fingers?

            Taking in another deep breath, I force myself to focus on something else. I can’t spend all of my time thinking about Robert or I’m going to run myself into the ground. Shutting off the shower, I open the glass door and reach for one of my large towels. The mirror is foggy now and the room is full of steam, telling me that, once again, my shower was probably a little too hot. Shrugging, I step out into my bedroom and grab for a new pair of briefs and my white dress shirt that goes with my costume. Although my daughter and Mary both have similar opinions on vampires, I did spend a lot of time thinking this costume through. I didn’t want to do something modern, but I didn’t necessarily want to do a classic one either. So, I compromised and found a suit that would do just fine.

            Buttoning up my shirt, I head back into my bathroom again and grab for the fake blood that I bought yesterday. With a cotton swap, I delicately paint on blood draining down from the corners of my mouth and I put some on my neck for good measure. The makeup is incredibly basic, but it’ll do for tonight. This just means I’ll have less to take off when I come tonight. Slipping into the rest of my costume, I decided last minute to unbutton the top three buttons on my shirt. I think it was Alex who once told me that there’s nothing wrong with showing off a little bit of skin and I’m going to live by that tonight.

            With my dress shoes in hand, I run into Mary in the hallway who looks considerably more horrific than she did earlier. She checks me out from head to toe a couple of times, smiling as if she likes what she sees.

            “I gotta say, Coconuts,” she says, smiling a bit, “you make a damn good vampire. Nice touch with the leaving some of your buttons open. It’s kinda hot.”

            I flush and slide right past her, going to put on my shoes. It appears Mary already took care of Max so when she comes out of the hallway, I’m all ready to go. As we leave, I am sure to lock up and light the candles in the pumpkins that we carved last week. I take a second to admire them, appreciating the amount of work that I put into mine. Pumpkin carving was a skill I mastered early in life and it certainly helped Craig and me when we accidentally enrolled ourselves in the pumpkin carving contest at our university. Craig was panicking for days until I showed him what I could do. We won the top prize that night and I’m still proud.

            Silently, I shove my hands into my pockets as Mary and I walk side by side down the sidewalk. She keeps give me side glances when she thinks I’m not looking, but I manage to catch her every single time. I know she’s worried about me, but she also knows that bringing up what happened won’t help me either. She was right when she said I needed to do what I did. Obviously, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt and it definitely doesn’t mean that I don’t miss him. Everything is just so complicated and I hate it. Trudging along, I scold myself for thinking about him again. I wish I could just put him on mute. Things would be so much easier if I could.

            “So, do you plan on drinking tonight?” Mary asks, cutting the silence.

            I look over at her and shrug lightly. “I might have a drink or two. It depends on my mood. Is Craig going to be there?”

            “Last time I checked, everyone will be coming at one point or another tonight. Except for Damien,” she says. “I heard Craig was going to be dressed up as his college self.”

            I actually have to laugh. “Are you serious? I gotta see that.”

            “I don’t really see how it fits the theme, but I didn’t feel like arguing with the guy,” Mary then says, twirling her bouquet of flowers around.

            “Trust me, College Craig fits right in with the Monsters of the Night,” I giggle. “The guy was constantly running on Red Bull and crap food. He once stayed up for two days straight because Amanda caught a stomach bug and he didn’t want to leave her alone. It was horrific.”

            Mary shakes her head and as Jim and Kim’s comes into my vision, I struggle to recognize the building for what I remember it as. It seems the street has been blocked off for this event as there are tables and games set up in every direction, but the building itself has been completely tricked out with heavy decorations. I gawk at it, unsure of what alternate reality I’ve walked into.

            “You and Neil did all of this?” I ask.

            Mary nods her head. “Turns out going through a divorce gives you a lot of time to kill. Neil always throws parties here, but I figured we could jazz it up this time around.”

            “Mary, this is amazing,” I exclaim, ducking under some fake spider webs as we enter the bar.

            Inside, the usual atmosphere has completely changed. There’s a fog machine that cascades a thick layer of fog on the ground, all of the tables and booths have been moved elsewhere, black lights hang from the ceiling, and there’s actual Halloween themed music being played over the sound system. I smile nearly from ear to ear, pleased with the festivities. It has been a long time since I have celebrated Halloween right.

            “Oh, I just thought of something we could do to your costume,” Mary says, setting her bouquet down on the bar counter. Before I can ask, she’s turning me to face her and taking her hands to my hair. I stand abnormally still as she runs her hands through it and works it into several different directions and when she is done, she stands back with a proud smile. “Now that is much better.”

            Curiously, I grab my phone and use the black screen as a mirror. “You gave me… sex hair?” I ask, laughing.

            “Hell yeah, kid. I don’t know what it is, but you’ve totally got this sexy vampire thing going on and I think the hair is the cherry on top,” she says. “With those open buttons, you look like you got a little frisky with someone in the alleyway if you know what I mean. You’re the show stopper tonight for sure.”

            “I have no idea how to respond to that,” I admit, laughing.

            Mary shrugs, almost smiling proudly. “You got the looks, Coconuts.”

            Shaking my head, I turn to Neil – who is aptly dressed as a dead version of himself – and he passes me a menu. I’m a little confused at first because normally he doesn’t do menus, but then I see that he’s offering a whole different batch of drinks tonight and all of them are Halloween themed. I scan through the list, trying to figure out what sounds good. The teenager inside of me wants to try them all, but I don’t feel like dying tonight. The idea is to enjoy the holiday, not spend all of it puking my guts out in the bathroom.

            “Can I get a Jekyll & Gin?” I ask, my curiosity getting the best of me.

            Neil nods and he gets to work on making my drink, focusing entirely on his hands. When it’s done, he hands me this blue drink that almost glows. I take it excitedly and thank him, turning to show Mary but she’s no longer standing beside me. Instead, she’s all the way across the room chatting up Brian who showed up as a werewolf. As much as I love the guy, I find it kind of ironic that he dressed up as what is supposed to be my mortal enemy. Snickering to myself, I taste my drink and am pleased to find that it’s actually really good.

            “Bro, look at you!”

            I snap my head to the left, I immediately burst out in laughter at the sight of Craig. He really did show up as the college version of himself. He’s wearing the stained and torn university shirt, the same old pair of jeans that hardly fit him anymore, and his old pair of Nikes. He got every single detail right, right down to his old hairstyle. “Holy crap. You nailed it, Craig,” I compliment, grinning.

            Craig nods and poses for me, making me laugh harder. “Bro, I found my box of old college stuff and I just knew it would make the perfect costume for tonight. Nobody has seen me like this besides you. I feel like I should be going to Math 111 right now or something.”

            “All you need is the really bad hangover and about fifty Red Bulls,” I snort, finishing off my drink.

            Craig reaches into his back pocket and produces a Red Bull, holding it up proudly. “You mean this stuff? I went all out, bro. When I dropped the kids off with Smashley, she did a double-take.”

            “Don’t get me wrong, but I kinda missed this version of you,” I say, leaning back. “The college version of you did some really questionable stuff.”

            “Like the marinara jar?” He asks, flagging Neil down.

            “Exactly like the marinara jar,” I agree.

            “I’m certainly not the only one who went all out,” Craig points out once he puts his order in for a Purple People Eater Cocktail. “Have you looked at yourself? I’m totally digging the sex hair thing you got going on. Didn’t know you had it in you to be a sexy vampire.”

            I laugh nervously and gesture to Mary who is now talking to Mat who is dressed up as some dead musical artist. “That was a contribution from Mary. Everything else was from me.”

            Craig sips on his drink and laughs, reaching out to ruffle my hair up a bit more. “Looks good on you. Reminds me of that time we had to rush to our Chem final after staying up all night to help Alex with her photography final. She had us working as models for hours.”

            I groan at the memory, remembering just how awful it was. “Don’t remind me. I’ve gone to great lengths to block that specific night out of my memory. One person can only pose naked for so long.”

            Craig giggles and looks over his shoulder, catching sight of Mat who eagerly gestures for him. “Ah, looks my presence is needed elsewhere. But I’ll catch you later, bro.”

            I nod and Craig scurries off, walking uncomfortably as the jeans he wears squeezes his ass in ways they definitely didn’t do years ago. Laughing, I turn to put in another order in for a boozy apple cider. I ease myself down on the bar-stool then, needing to sit down for a little while. There are a lot of people crammed in here tonight and the last thing I want to do is psych myself out before it’s even midnight. From my pocket, I pull my phone out and shoot a text over to Amanda. I know she and I spoke earlier today, but it’s the dad in me that needs to make sure she’s having a good time.

            Drumming my fingers on the counter-top, I accept my drink when Neil comes by with it and I take the time to appreciate the little decorations he put on it. There are cotton candy spider webs, a little plastic sword piercing into two apple slices, and the glass is painted to look like a pumpkin. And, whatever he did to make this, it’s really good. I’ve had a lot of apple ciders in my life, but this is just perfect. There are cinnamon and the right amount of apple… I could drink this for the entire night if I was still dumb enough to do something like that. If there’s anything I have learned from college, it’s that drinking cider all night long will result in one hell of a hangover the next day. The headaches I got after those nights still haunt me to this day. I always say my migraines are bad, but those hangovers reached a new level of pain that I hardly knew existed. 

            Spinning on the bar-stool to face the growing party with a smile on my face, my heart instantly skips a beat at the sight of someone coming in through the front doors. His eyes fall on mine immediately and he pauses midway in the entrance, caught off guard by my appearance. I feel like time just stopped for some reason. Is that normal? From what I can tell, he seems shocked and maybe blown away by what he’s seeing, but I can’t understand why. Uncomfortably, I force myself to walk away before he can come over to me. I slip into the suffocating crowd, getting pushed around quite a bit, and cut across to the station in the back where another bartender is serving glowing cocktails. I gladly accept one, looking to burn a literal distraction in me. Turning around, I all but run into him and damn near choke on the drink, looking up to meet his eyes with traces of fear in my own. Why did I think hiding from him would actually work?

            “Trying to hide from me?” Robert asks, eyeing me up and down slowly.

            My face flushes red and I’m grateful that he cannot see it through the barely lit bar. “Why would I be hiding from you?” I ask weakly, sipping on my cocktail. “What makes you think that?”

            Robert snags my cocktail from me and tastes it for himself, passing it back a second later when he decides it’s not the kind of drink he’s looking for. “Oh, I don’t know. You dipping out as fast as humanly possible as soon as you saw me might have something to do with it.”

            I gulp and unwillingly meet his eyes again, trying to maintain my footing. I told myself that I could survive this party and I’m not going to let my stupid heart mess that up. “I think you’re seeing things. Do you need glasses? I got a really good optometrist.”

            Making an annoyed face, Robert sighs and gestures to my costume. “A vampire? Really?”

            I groan and casually glance around, subconsciously checking to see how much the party has grown. I need to put some distance between me and the people. Stomping off, I go to the edge of the bar with Robert hot on my trail. “Please, not you too. Amanda and Mary both already gave me shit about it. I get it. A vampire is overdone and totally not cool.”

            “Hey, I didn’t say anything,” Robert argues irritably as he stands close to me. Why do I suddenly feel so small? “I was going to say you look really good.”

            “Thank you,” I reply stiffly.

            He then reaches up to my hair like Craig did earlier, moving it around a bit. “Gotta say, the sex hair is kinda hot,” he says, suddenly stepping even closer. He then drops down to my ear and I can sense feel the smile he’s wearing. “Did you do that to yourself or did you get some help?”

            So much for not thinking about him. Swallowing thickly, I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind and it’s nowhere near the sexy comment I had imagined myself saying. “Mary did it.”

            Robert draws back with a crooked grin, his eyebrows raised. “Mary gave you sex hair?”

            That could not have come out in a worse fashion. “No, I mean… I mean, yes, she did but it’s not what it sounds like. She just… messed my hair up and–”

            “–Breathe, Cody. You’re gonna blow a gasket. I get it.”

            I huff out a breath and look up at him again, struggling to find the right words to say. "So... you look good... but you look... normal."

            Robert looks down at his clothes and shrugs, not able to disagree with me. The only real difference to his appearance is the light orange shirt that hugs him a little too tightly for my own sanity. "That would be because I didn't dress up. I figured my entire personality fits the theme well enough and I could probably spin off a few stories off the top of my head that would make some people here cry."

            "Don't let Mary see you. She explicitly sent us all messages saying costumes are mandatory," I warn, glancing over his shoulder to look for the zombie bride.

            "Mary is the least of my concerns right now," he says and there's something in his voice that sounds like agitation.

            Frowning, I decide not to push it. Whatever it is, I'm sure he would tell me if it was important enough. Starting to feel incredibly anxious, I begin to fidget with the hem of my suit coat as a way to keep myself occupied. Robert eyes my hands and he reaches out to cover them, stopping my actions before I can drive myself crazy. I freeze and meet his prying gaze, unsure of what to say or do. Opening mouth, I promptly close it when things in the bar begin to change. The music gets louder and the lights change, turning the place into a haunted dance club. I look around and frown a little, unsure of what to do now. I wasn't exactly planning on dancing tonight.

            In fact, I wasn’t planning on dealing with this many people tonight either. It seems with the shift in the mood, more people are cramming in here now and we’re running out of space to stand around. My heart is starting to beat faster, my vision is beginning to sway. There goes my chance for survival. It’s just people… I should be able to handle this, right? Out of nowhere, someone accidentally rams into my back pretty hard and I’m knocked forward, slamming right into Robert. They apologize and run off quickly, clearly a little embarrassed. With touches of anger in his eyes, Robert stabilizes me by pushing me back onto my feet carefully. My head feels like it has been shoved underwater now. No, come on… don’t do this to me now… Needing to act quickly, I force myself to take in a deep breath. Now is not the time for this. Is it the stress that’s finally making me crack? The claustrophobia? I can’t think. Robert knows something is wrong, he can see it written all over my face. He’s concerned now and I can’t say that I blame him. I ball my hands into fists and try to find something for me to focus on, but everything is moving too fast. I can’t… fuck…

            "When was the last time you were at a dance party, kid?" Robert asks, leaning closer so I can hear him.

            "Would you believe me if I said college?" I ask in return, feeling ashamed as my voice squeaks with my nerves. I can’t breathe.

            Robert gives me a blank stare. "Cody, that doesn't even begin to surprise me in the slightest," he deadpans.

            "You're the one who asked," I reply back, almost defensively as my tunnel vision starts to kick in. "All of you should know by now I didn't get out much after college. I was busy getting married and raising my kid."

            Robert cups the side of my face and angels me up so I have to look at him. This is the most worried I have seen him in a long time. “Are you alright, kid?”

            Tears are brimming my eyes now. Why am I crying? It’s just a crowd… It’s just people… I’m okay… “Robert… I-I…” I pause, struggling to talk. Why am I like this?

            Suddenly understanding what’s happening to me, Robert grabs my hand and starts to pull me out of the bar. I knew coming here tonight may warrant for some concern, but I thought I could handle it. It’s been years… I’m okay… I’m fine… Nothing is going to happen to me. Robert keeps pulling me until I can hardly hear the music from the bar and we’re far away from the crowds. He stops then and turns to me, checking my face to make sure I’m still doing okay.

            “Come on, kid,” he urges. “Breathe. You’re okay.”

            I shake my head, feeling embarrassed. I take a half step back and lean against the brick wall of the building we stand near. I force a deep breath through my lungs and with time, my vision eases back to normal. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually… I just… sorry.”

            Robert has yet to let go of my hand. He squeezes it to reassure me, not willing to part with it just yet. “Don’t be sorry. Just breathe. You’re alright.”

            Frustrated, I look over to meet his worried eyes. “I’ve been dealing with this since I was a teen. You’d think I’d have a better grip on it by now.”

            Robert, with gentle movement, adjusts my shirt for me and flattens out my coat to make it how it looked before we rushed out. “No one is perfect. If you ever get like that again, you let me know, alright? I’m not going to have you panicking like that on your own.”

            I nod, feeling appreciative that he’s not roasting me for freaking out like that or not walking away from me to let me handle it on my own. My anxiety is finicky and it never gives me many warnings before it creeps up and takes over. I always feel bad about it when I think about it, but Amanda had to help me through a few rough panic attacks after her mom passed and Craig was always there to help me through it during our college days. When it came to Amanda helping me, I always felt like a failed parent. She shouldn’t have had to go through that. I hate that I still have to go through this to this day, but it’s a part of who I am and every day it gets a little easier to manage.

            "I didn't even pay my tab yet," I say with an expelled breath, feeling a bit guilty. 

            Robert laughs low, getting the sense that I’m okay now. Still, I can tell he's worried about me. “Don’t worry about it. Neil is a good guy. He’ll understand.”

            “Well… What do we do now?” I then ask, looking up and down the street as people run from every direction wearing costumes. "It's not even midnight." 

            Robert looks both ways down the street as if he’s deciding on which course of action to take. It’s pretty dark out now and judging by the number of people wearing costumes that keep going by, I think it’s safe to assume people are either out Trick or Treating, they’re out partying, or they’re out enjoying the night. Robert hums a bit and I wait for him to choose something, shoving my hands deep into my pockets to keep them warm. Robert knows Maple Bay better than anyone I know if anyone is going to know what the best thing to do on Halloween is around here, it’s going to be him. Sometimes, he completely surprises me with his knowledge of this town.

            “I got it. Follow me,” he says, gesturing with his head.

            I think not explaining his plans is just a part of his mysterious personality. He wants to keep me and everyone around him on the edge of our seats at all times. Pushing away from the place I had been standing so oddly still in, I follow him as he takes off down the sidewalks at a steady pace. He keeps his eyes locked forward and when I know he won’t notice me, I steal glances at him in an attempt to try and figure out how I should act around him. How do we be friends? I suppose the concept is simple enough. I have friends and I know how to act around them. He and I don’t get to kiss or touch, and we certainly don’t get to take each other to bed whether it’s to make each other feel good or sleep. Instead, we get to… do what we’re doing now? I clear the thought from my mind. If I think about it for too long, I’m just going to end up making myself confused. Beings friends with him is easy. It has to be, right? I consider him to be one of my best friends now.

            “Cody, you look like you’re going to pop,” Robert points out, looking at me.

            My eyes flicker to his and I frown. Damn it. “Sorry. I’m thinking.”

            “Thinking about us being friends now?” He asks, already knowing the answer and it would appear he had been thinking about it too. “I get it. It’s a weird adjustment for both of us.”

            I look down to my feet as we walk, only narrowly missing a child that zips right past my legs. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s just… we never did the friends bit. I’m so used to touching you whenever I want and kissing you that it doesn’t feel right not to.”

            “If we were smarter about it in the beginning, we would have done the friends thing first before jumping into a relationship,” Robert admits.

            I’m about to say more on the subject, but my words fall impressively silent when we walk around the corner and are welcomed to a large field that has been filled with several Halloween themed activities. I look to Robert with excitement and a large, happy smile spreads on my cheeks. The anxiety and panic I felt earlier is almost non-existent now. He laughs at me and rolls his eyes, gesturing to the haunted corn maze before us.

            “How’s your sense of navigation?” He asks, rummaging around in his pockets for his wallet.

            “Oh, it’s terrible, but I love a good corn maze,” I say enthusiastically.

            Almost like a kid, I grab Robert by the arm and start dragging him towards the maze with a flare in my eyes that hadn’t been there before. At the entrance, a kind woman dressed as a run-over Alice from Alice in Wonderland takes our money and she stamps our hands, telling us the brief list of rules before pulling the blocking rope away so we can enter. Happily, I cross the line and look between the two paths in front of us. This is where my horrible sense of direction really starts to take root. Which path will lead us to the correct end?

            “What’s it going to be?” Robert asks, shoving his hands into his pockets.

            I glance suspiciously at the right path, deciding to avoid that one at all costs. “I don’t trust the right. Let’s take the left.”

            Robert nods and starts walking towards the left with me following right alongside him. The stalks of corn tower high above our heads, making it a little darker and a little creepier than it had been before we entered. Looking down at my feet, I realize I can no longer see them as they have been covered in a thick layer of fog. They must have a smoke machine going somewhere. It’s a nice touch and it’s a touch that probably would have made Amanda start bawling if she were still the eight-year-old girl I remember from eleven years ago. I smile a little at the thought, recalling the last time I did one of these with her. If my memory serves me right, I ended up screaming so loudly that I actually terrified the hell out of the guy who was supposed to be doing the scaring with his fake chain saw and blood. It was a fun night.

            Coming up on another turn, I look to Robert and wait for him to choose. There’s no way I’m going to be responsible for every path we take. If we split the choices between us, then I can at least put some of the blame onto him if we get lost.

            “Right,” he says, gesturing.

            Nodding, we move along and as we take the path, I begin to feel a creeping feeling running up my spine. Why do I feel like we’re being watched? Subconsciously, I glue myself to Robert’s bubble of personal space and he looks at me with a smirk, picking up on my fear. I would say something in my defense, but I know nothing I can say will help my case. Robert is probably so used to this kind of thing from his hunts that a haunted maze is probably child’s play for him. Still, I stand by it. There’s nothing wrong with a grown man getting the heebie-jeebies.

            “Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask, looking to make a little conversation. Talking might help me be a little braver.

            Robert shrugs his shoulders and peers around the next corner, checking for any killer clowns or screaming women covered in blood. “I don’t see why not.”

            “Wouldn’t tonight be a good night for cryptid hunting?”

            “Depends on the cryptid.”

            I fall painfully silent. I can tell he’s entirely focused on getting through this maze. Once Robert gets focused on something, it’s incredibly hard to get him unfocused. One time, he was so hell-bent on getting through a movie marathon that he said only four words to me through an entire seven hours. For a little while more, we walk in silence until the corn stalks to my left begin to violently shake. The sound of a man screaming cuts through the chilly air and I yelp loudly, slamming right against Robert’s side. He grunts and looks at me, watching me as I grab onto his arm and hug it close to my chest like a security measure. We walk faster now, taking several turns without really thinking about where we’re actually going. Five jump scares and a scarecrow with an ax later, we somehow manage to make it to the end and I let out a long breath of relief. I’m not sure why I let myself go through those things.

            “Cody, you’re cutting off the circulation to my arm,” Robert says, laughing. “Detach yourself or loosen the grip there."

            Looking down at my arms that squeeze around his helpless one, I automatically pull away and give him back his limb. “Sorry. I’m a chicken.”

            “It was cute,” he comments, taking an abrupt left towards the food stands.

            While butterflies flutter in my stomach, I begin to pick up on the familiar scents of pumpkin pie and warm apple cider. Now that I’m no longer fearing for my life, that excited glimmer returns to my eyes and I find myself smiling again. It’s almost like I have never been to one of these Halloween events before. Eagerly, I go to one of the stands that is offering apple cider and I order two to go, flexing my hands a couple of times to bring warmth back to them. When did it get so cold?

            “Would you like to add whiskey in for an extra dollar?” The man asks, smiling a little.

            I glance over my shoulder to Robert who is shamelessly getting some kind of snack for us at one of the stands, thinking about how much he loves whiskey. I know he would probably jump at the chance to spike his drink, but I also know what the smarter choice is here. A sober Halloween for him is probably a better one and it might do him some good to not wake up with a hangover for once. “Ah, better not,” I decline, smiling.

            Nodding, the man pours two to-go cups full of the hot cider and he puts two drinking lids on them before passing them to me. I smile kindly again with a nod before turning on my heel, almost running into Robert’s chest. I gasp loudly, stumbling a half step back.

            “Would you stop doing that?” I snap, passing him one of the drinks. “I could have burned both of us.”

            “It’s not my fault you didn’t hear me,” he complains, taking the drink as he passes me a small bag full of warmed Harvest Hash Chex Mix.

            I peer into the bag and feel myself getting a little giddy inside, appreciating the pieces of candy corn that has been mixed in there. “You’re forgiven.”

            Robert snorts, shaking his head with that stupid smirk of his on his lips. “You really do love Halloween, don’t you?”

            I nod my head, taking a sip from my cider. The warmth feels good and it’s heating up my insides, making my chest and stomach feel warm. “Oh, yeah. Right next to Christmas, but Halloween is my number one.”

            Robert nods and when he doesn’t say anything more, I look over at him and find myself staring. I can’t look away from him, I’m completely mesmerized. There’s just something about the way he looks right now that is helplessly tugging on my heartstrings. His nose and cheeks are a little red from the chill in the air, his hair a little messier than usual, and he’s so focused on the festivities around us that he’s hardly paying any attention to me. He’s… fuck… He’s perfect. When he catches me staring, I quickly turn away and start blushing furiously, trying to occupy myself with the Chex Mix in my hand.

            “What?” He asks, confused.

            “N-Nothing,” I lie, not wanting to explain myself.

            “You are a horrible liar.”

            Sighing, I glance back over at him and shrug my shoulders innocently. “You just… you look kinda… cute… right now. Sorry.”

            Robert raises his eyebrows and I know the embarrassment is washing over my face now. It has to be. “I’ve barely slept for three days and you think I’m cute right now?”

            Okay, now I know he’s just fucking with me. “You can tease me about it all you want, but I stand by it. You’re an attractive guy, damn it.”

            Giggling a little, Robert nudges me and playfully throws his arm around my shoulders without spilling or dropping his drink. “Whatever you say, kid.”

            Yeah, this Halloween didn’t exactly turn out how I would have liked, but everything went just as it was supposed to. I still got to have fun, I still got to see the people I care about, and Robert’s little shift in the plans turned out to be so much better than I could have ever hoped for. Taking me to the Maple Bay Halloween Fright Night Events? That was probably the best thing to happen to me within the last few weeks. He managed to take my mind off of things for a little while and somewhere in that head of his, I know that was his intention because, at the end of the day, we care about each other. And, I suppose, that is exactly how we’re going to carry each other through this break-up of ours. Day by day, it’ll get a little easier.

Chapter Text

I pull the muffins out from the oven, carefully setting them on the counter.

            Life has been slow. It has been twenty days since Halloween and I still can’t get all that happened out of my head. There was something different about him that night. He was having fun and his face lit up so many times that I started to wonder when the last time he did something like that was. After we got our drinks, we hung around for a little while longer and then we eventually forced ourselves to go home. It was one of the best nights of my life and, yeah… we’ve seen each other since then. Only twice have we hung out and each one of those nights come with their own special memory. For instance, the little pink scar on my thumb.

            He took me up to the viewpoint a week and a half ago and he tried his damndest to teach me how to whittle. I knew he was good at it, but I was still blown away by the things he could do. When it came time for me to try, I was doing good. That was the case until I got distracted and ended up staring at him while I still had my knife in my hand and a stick in the other. It was only a matter of time before I slipped. The knife slid right into my thumb, cutting me pretty good, and he patched me up. It’s such a dumb memory, but I can’t shake it. There was just something about how careful he was when he was cleaning my cut and how calculated his movements were. He took care of me. It’s a little dumb, I know. Hell, if I ever explained this to anyone else, they’d probably say I sound like a little schoolboy who has a crush. And, in a way, I guess I do. I have a crush. By now, it has turned into something much deeper than that, but it is what it is.

            I haven’t seen him since that night. I think we just needed some distance from each other. I know I must have said it before, but it’s not easy to be away from the one you love so much. He doesn’t even know that I love him and that just makes it hurt so much more. He has no idea how much I care about him and now that we’re separated? It’s a mess. I can say, though, he does seem happier. I can see the progress he’s making even if the changes are small. According to Mary, he hasn’t been to the bar for at least a week. That alone makes my heart feel so happy. There’s certainly nothing wrong with going to the bar, but I know he’s been trying to cut back on how much he’s drinking and, until he gets to where he wants to be, the bar probably isn’t the best place to hang out. Still, though… I miss him. I keep looking for dumb excuses to see him and I always come around to the same answer. Distance might be good for us.

            “You alright, man?”

            I snap out of my thoughts and look across the counter to Mat, who has paused his bread-making to talk to me. I smile a little and nod, trying to seem casual. “I’m good.”

            “You just seem a little distracted, that’s all,” he says.

            “Honestly, I haven’t been sleeping much. I got a lot on my plate right now, I guess.”

            Mat nods, totally understanding where I’m coming from. “You’re a tough guy. I don’t know how you keep yourself so balanced. Isn’t Mary still living with you?”

            “Yeah, she is. She’s only going to be there for a couple of weeks more and then she’s going to move back out to her house. I guess Joseph is taking his time moving his things to the yacht.”

            Mat frowns, looking back down at his bread dough. “I feel so bad for them. They’ve been sticking it out for so long and with four kids? I can’t imagine.”

            “I don’t know how Joseph is doing, but I know Mary is pulling along,” I say honestly. “Thanksgiving is in a few days and I really just want to have a good time.”

            Laughing, Mat seems to agree with my statement. “Oh, yeah. It’ll be good to have your kid around for a few days. She’s such a ball of energy.”

            “I’m pretty sure she got that from her mother. She and Alex are like duplicates of each other,” I joke, but I’m also completely serious. It trips me out sometimes.

            “I dunno,” Mat says mysteriously. “She’s got a lot of you in her. Before she packed it out to college, she’d hang around here a lot and sometimes she would pop off so many jokes in a row that I’d actually start to wonder if she were you in a disguise.”

            I feel a sense of pride in that. Although my jokes can be painfully awful, I still know I trained my child to be a little comedian whether I actually meant to or not. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if her brain mutated or something during the first four years of her life. Getting raised in a college dorm? That’s gotta be bad on development.”

            Mat starts laughing and he pushes his glasses back up his nose with the back of his hand, taking another break from making the bread he’s been working on for the past hour. “I don’t know how you did that. Handling my kiddo in a house is hard enough. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like in a tiny college dorm.”

            I'm getting flashbacks now. I remember the nights Amanda would be up all night screaming, the times Craig and I would be trying to study and we’d get distracted because she was doing something cute, the juggling Alex and I had to do so we could both see her. “It wasn’t easy. When Alex found out she was pregnant a few months before we left, it scared us because we didn’t know if we could do it. But, we did and it turned out okay. Craig was a huge help and to this day, he is still the best baby sitter she has ever had.”

            “I’ve heard a lot of the stories from Craig at parties. Didn’t you guys have a dog for an entire term too? And party a lot?”

            “We were dumb kids,” I explain with a light laugh. “When Amanda was with Alex, Craig and I went out and had fun. And vice versa. Sometimes, we’d get Alex’s brother to look after Amanda so we could all go out and do something. After graduation, things changed and life got a little better for us. At least until Alex died and things changed again. I had no idea how to raise a kid on my own. Somehow, I pulled through and she turned out amazing. I’m so proud of her.”

            Mat takes a second to appreciate my life’s story for what it is. It’s been a little easier to talk about it all out in the open like this and it might mostly be because I’ve grown to really like Mat. He’s such a good guy and I know he wouldn’t ever judge me for how I raised my troublemaker daughter. I always put her needs first, no matter how badly I wanted to get out and have some fun. I had to grow up a lot earlier than I should have had to, but that’s fine by me. I got an amazing daughter out of it and, for a short while, I had a beautiful wife too. My life was a mess, but it was perfect. And now? It’s not as perfect and it’s still a little messy, but I’m okay with it.

            “I think you and Robert had your kids around the same time,” Mat then goes onto say mindlessly. “He doesn’t talk too much about it, of course. I think he was sixteen or seventeen when they found out.”

            The mention of Robert takes me by surprise. I smile a bit, looking back down at the muffins I’ve been trying to pull from the pan. “Uh, yeah. He did. I think he was seventeen or eighteen, though. Not too sure.”

            “Oh, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring him up like that,” Mat quickly says, trying to make me feel better.

            “It’s fine. It’s not like he and I aren’t still friends,” I say, shrugging it off.

            From the front of the shop, someone rings the bell on the counter and I dust my hands off on my waist apron, abandoning my duties as muffin-puller. As I walk out of the backroom, I stop in the doorway abruptly as surprise overcomes me. What is she doing here so early? When she notices me staring, she smiles brightly, nearly ear to ear, and I find that her smile ends up making me smile as well. I’m bursting with more excitement than what my poor, old body can handle. Are dads allowed to get this excited?

            “AMANDA!” I yell happily. “I was just talking about you!”

            Instead of going through the exit like a normal person would, I instead scale over the counter and drop down to my feet beside her with surprising grace and accuracy. In a rush, I pull her into a tight bear hug and squeeze her as tightly as I can without breaking her. I can’t believe she’s finally here. It feels like it has been years since I’ve seen her in person when I know it’s only actually been one. And, oh my god… She’s already grown so much. She laughs and hugs me back, clearly happy to finally be home.

            “What are you doing here, Panda?” I ask, pulling back from her. “You weren’t supposed to be here for another couple days?”

            “Craig helped me book an earlier flight. We thought I could surprise you!”

            Being the dad that I am, I plant a kiss on the top of her head and turn excitedly to Mat who watches us with a fond smile on his face. He leans up against the door-frame to the back room and I can just tell that by the way he’s looking at us, he’s not as innocent as he may seem. “Did you know about this?” I ask, finding that smile to be a little suspicious.

            “Definitely. Amanda messaged me on Dadbook last night,” he reveals. “Go on, get out of here. Take your vacation time early. I got Pablo coming in later to fill your spot.”

            Excitedly, I thank Mat and usher my daughter back out onto the streets with the widest and dumbest smile on my face. I never truly realize how much I miss her until she calls me or, obviously, when she decided to book an earlier flight and surprises me at my place of work. This silly little human is a part of me and I’m never quite ready to let her go.

            “You’re lucky I remembered to finish washing your sheets last night. Otherwise, you’d be sleeping on the ground,” I joke lightly as we walk back to our house.

            “Well, there’s always the couch, pops,” she reminds me.

            Scrunching my face up, I realize that I may have failed to mention one slightly important detail when she called me last. “Actually, Mary is on the couch.”

            Freezing, Amanda puts her hands on her hips and stares at me with squinting, suspicious eyes. “Mary Christensen? She’s sleeping on our couch?”

            I nod my head, gesturing for her to keep walking before people on bikes try to kill us. “It’s not what it sounds like, I promise,” I say with a nervous laugh. “She and Joseph decided to divorce and she needed a place to stay until Joseph moves his things out to the yacht.”

            “Oh, wow. That’s heavy. Is she okay?”

            “She’s doing fine as far as I can tell. She drank through all of the wine that I had and she bought us the biggest turkey I have ever seen yesterday. I think she’s pulling through,” I try to explain. “Robert and I were trying to get her out of the house for a little while, but I think she wants to take it at her own pace. She wouldn’t even come to the bar with us. It’s odd.”

            Amanda squints her eyes again, finding little flaws in my story all over the place. “Now, what does Mr. Small have to do with you? I thought you said, and I quote, he wants to tear your guts out and bury you in his backyard?”

            I guess it really has been a long time since I updated Amanda on my life. I make a struggling face as I try to find the right words to say and I’m not really sure if there are any right words to explain it all. How do I even begin to explain all that happened? Do I even bother to try? Is this even an acceptable conversation to be having with my nineteen year old daughter?

            “Dad, your silence is speaking louder than your words,” Amanda says excitedly. “You two got together while I was away, didn’t you?”

            I sigh and hang my head, failing as the responsible and respectable father that I try to be. “Panda, you really don’t want to hear about my love life. It’s a mess.”

            Pouting a bit, Amanda crosses her arms over her chest as we walk into the cul-de-sac. “As if I don’t hear all of the cul-de-sac drama from the other kids.”

            Shocked, I draw my eyebrows together. That is probably the last thing I expected her to say. “You hear what from who now?”

            Amanda giggles and uses the key around her neck to unlock our front door. “Come on, pops. You dads always forget that the kids are around at all times. Briar and Hazel keep tabs on all of the love going on and Ernest keeps up on the drama. It’s how I stay connected. There’s an entire group chat. I just haven’t heard anything for a while.”

            I make a grim face and wave to Mary as I march straight to the kitchen. I’m pretty sure this entire conversation is making me lose what little Cool-Dad points I’ve managed to accumulate over the years, but I know my daughter better than anyone and I know she won’t drop this until I give her something to work with. “Okay, fine. Robert and I were together for a little while, but we decided to take a pause to sort some stuff out. We’re friends right now.”

            “I knew it!” Amanda says, plopping down onto one of the bar-stools at the breakfast bar. She rests her chin in her hands and stares at me expectantly, waiting for more information. “Well, do you like him? Like really like him?”

            Internally, I’m groaning loudly. Externally, I’m also groaning loudly. “You really want to hear about how much your old dad really likes another old dad? Doesn’t that gross you out?” I ask and when she shakes her head, I sigh. “Why aren’t you a normal child? Ernest would be running for the hills if he heard how much Hugo likes his boyfriend.”

            Slamming her hand down on the counter dramatically, she points a finger at me with a wide grin. “You do really like him!”

            “I gotta give it to her, sailor,” Mary says as she saunters into the kitchen with a vague expression on her face. “Your kid has fantastic investigating skills.”

            “I’m going to stick my head into the oven,” I say as I drag a hand down my face. My own daughter bamboozled me. She definitely got that from her mother. That was her inner Alex coming out of her. I have to be careful or I might end up confessing to all of my dirty little secrets. What if she asks me if I love him? What if she asks me if I see a future with him? I can’t tell her that. That’s too deep for right now.

            Hearing all of the commotion taking place in the kitchen, Max comes trotting out of my bedroom and she instantly pounces for the fresh meat. My daughter makes a delighted, inhuman noise and drops down to her knees to give the puppy all of the attention that she so clearly deserves. I watch with a small smile on my cheeks, enjoying the way both her and Max flop on the floor and wrestle with each other a bit. Maybe I should have gotten a dog years ago? This would have been an easy way to get Amanda to do her chores.

            “I’m never going back to college,” Amanda announces, giving Max all of the tummy rubs that she has to offer. “Max has won me over. It’s too late. I’m throwing in the towel.”

            Before too long, Max runs out through the doggy door to explore the backyard. Amanda picks herself up from the floor and pokes her head up from behind the bar, eyeing me suspiciously. Oh no. I know that look. I’ve seen it many times before on the face of her mother and it would seem that Amanda inherited this particular gene from her. Is it too late to lock myself away in my bedroom and slip out through the window? Is it too late to move to some foreign country and change my name to something vaguely familiar? I’m doomed.

            “So, what are you and Robert going to do for Thanksgiving?” She asks, freakishly staring me down. “It’s a big day. Lots of food. Probably a food coma or two. I hear dads these days are into that kind of thing.

            “Panda, we’re friends,” I remind her. “It’s not like I can turn the holiday into some kind of date with him. There’s not much to do.”

            Mary sips on the tea that she pulled from my fridge, suddenly making a face that would suggest she just hatched some sort of idea and I don’t think I’m going to like it. “Hang on there, Coconuts. I think Amanda is onto something here,” she says, supporting the brewing plans they’re cooking up. “Rob is gonna be on his own for the holiday. Him and Val aren’t speaking and I know the man well enough to know he’s not going to haul his ass all the way over there. Plus, he really loves to cook. He’s amazing at it. Amanda’s idea isn’t all that terrible.”

            “You have to invite him over!” Amanda almost begs brightly. “You said Mary bought a big turkey. It could be amazing, dad.”

            I’m not sure why, but I’m starting to feel like I’m being ganged up on by two of the most powerful women in my life. I know that if I try to back out of this in any way, they will each grab one of my ears and drag me to his house to themselves. There’s no way out of this and, honestly, I know they have a point. Robert will be celebrating on his own and I don’t want that. I don’t want it at all. I owe it to him to make sure he’s going to be okay and if I have to invite him over to do that? Then I’m going to. Hanging my head in defeat, I surrender.

            “Alright, fine. I’ll go invite him over,” I agree, holding my hands up almost dramatically.

            Amanda does a fist bump in the air and Mary gives her a high five. Clearly, both of them feel accomplished and proud of themselves. I shake my head and leave the house before they can change the plans any more than they already have, hugging my jacket around myself as the chill in the air makes me shiver. It’s probably almost nine o'clock now and I’m hoping Robert didn’t decide to go somewhere tonight. It wouldn’t be the first time he has decided to leave the house at odd hours. Dashing up the porch steps, I begin to hear music playing faintly from within his living room. I go to knock, but my hand pauses. What do I even say to him? Scolding myself, I force my first against the wood and wait patiently for him to come to answer it. A few minutes go by and he doesn’t come.

            After the third attempt at knocking, I come to the probable conclusion that he can’t hear me. Damn him. Rummaging in my pocket, I extract my keys and find the one that I still have to his house. Again, I feel like I’m seriously breaking in but if I don’t get an answer from him tonight, I’m almost certain Mary will turn me into the turkey for Thanksgiving. Poking my head inside quietly, I spot Robert laying on his stomach on the couch with Betsy curled up underneath his arm. He seems to be asleep, but I honestly can’t tell. Edging inside, I scoop the remote up from the coffee table and pause the music, to which he opens his eyes to and lifts his head up from the throw pillow. His eyes immediately land on me and he sighs tiredly, plopping back down.

            “I could call the cops on you,” he says groggily.

            “You could, but you won’t do it,” I say with a light shrug as I take my jacket off. “And, to be fair, I did try to knock a few times. I don’t think you could hear me.”

            “Oh, I heard you. I just figured you were Joseph coming over to try and get me to go to some stupid Thanksgiving party.”

            I make a face and ease down on the edge of the coffee table, unsure of what kind of response I’m going to get out of him now. Does he not like to celebrate? “Actually, that’s kind of why I’m here…”

            Robert sighs and pushes himself up to a seated position, spreading his legs wide for comfort. Betsy hops down and runs to some other part of the house, bothered her dad took away her warmth. “And what makes you think I want to do that?”

            “It’s not what you think. Joseph has no hand in this,” I quickly explain. “Look, Amanda came home today and I got Mary living in my house right now. They both suggested that I should invite you over and, honestly, I wouldn’t mind having you around. I actually want you there.”

            I can tell the invitation throws him through some kind of a loop. I would like to believe that it’s because he was genuinely not planning on doing anything for the holiday, but I know, in the back of my mind, that it really has more to do with the fact someone actually thought of him for once. How many holidays has he spent on his own before I came around? When was the last time he had Thanksgiving with Val? His tired face softens after a while and he finally meets my waiting eyes.

            “Are you sure you want me around?” He asks almost innocently.

            “Robert, I always want you around,” I remind him. “But I’m also pretty sure Amanda would try to bring Thanksgiving to you if you didn’t show up.”

            “I guess I’ll be there,” he agrees, rubbing the back of his neck. “Do you need me to bring anything over? I’m sure I got something laying around.”

            I smile fondly, glad that he so easily decided to come. I know I told him Amanda would have tried to bring Thanksgiving to him, but I know I would have had a hand in it too. I wouldn’t have been able to go through the day without thinking about him and I probably would have tried to bring him some food. “I’m not requiring anything but you. You can even bring Betsy. I think Max misses her friend.”

            Robert nods and when the plans are set and are ready to go, I get up to start making my way out even though I’d much rather stay. In fact, not a single shred of me wants to leave. I feel like with all of these weeks passing us by, it’s getting a little harder each time to just walk away from him. And it’s not even just my conscious mind that wants to be by him. My body feels magnetized to his and I can hardly remember the last time I touched him the ways I know I want to or in the ways I know he needs. Still, though, I force myself to walk. I can’t have what I want right now. This agreement that we have is for the both of us and even though being separated hurts, it’s better than hurting each other because we’re both so busy trying to balance our lives. As fucked up as it is, this is the best for us.

            I barely get the front door open before a hand is reaching over my shoulder to press it back closed. I freeze in my place, feeling his warmth coming off of him. His hands are hovering above my hips and his lips are ghosting on my neck, not quite touching me. Slowly, I turn around and come face to face with him. He immediately crowds into my space, almost looking down on me as I press my back up against the door. He’s got that look in his eye now, the very same one I haven’t seen for almost two months now. It’s hot and It’s something that I love seeing. He can pull this look off better than anyone. There’s just something about it that completely hypnotizes me. When was the last time we were this close?

            With a hand that trembles lightly, I reach up and run my hand through his thick hair and settle it against the back of his neck. He presses into my touch and leans in dangerously close to me, his lips only hovering centimeters above mine. My heart is beginning to pound harder now against my chest with a lustful craving and my head feels like it’s starting to spin. I need him so badly, but at what cost? He’s blanketing me in his presence and I want to so badly cave in. All I would have to do is lean forward, kiss him like I’ve been dying to, and push him back to the couch. We could take off our clothes, we could make each other forget about our worlds for a little while. The burning tension we have straining in between us could be relieved, but… I just…

            “W-We… we can’t. You know we can’t,” I force out, struggling to think straight through his scent and touch. He’s so soft and smells so fucking good…

            He skims his lips against mine and I sigh quietly, knowing this is wrong for us. I want to kiss him. I need to let him do whatever the hell he wants to me but I know it would take away from everything we’re trying to do for each other. He feels so right with me and I know I fucking love him… Ignoring myself for a second, I let my eyes droop closed and when his hands drop down into my back pockets to squeeze my ass, I press against him. His hands feel so good on my body. He always knows what exactly to do to me. He knows all of the places where I liked to be touched and all of the places to touch me that push me over the edge. I need to get away from this before it’s too late…

            “Robert,” I try again, my breaths uneven. “We’re friends… now…”

            “Can I renegotiate for friends with benefits?” He asks in a low voice, pressing me further against the door until I’m completely sandwiched between him and the wood.

            I can feel him getting hard against my thigh and god do I want it. And, fuck… I’m getting that way too. How can I not? He’s attractive and he wants me in this way. “We’ve been there before,” I remind him. “It didn’t work for us. You know that.”

            Because we both know I’m right, Robert respects the relationship we have in place and draws back a bit with an uneven smile on his face. The hunger in his eyes is killing me and I’m pretty sure the way he’s looking at me right now is going to haunt me until I die. Maybe even past the point of death. His smile turns into a sloppy grin and he presses a gentle kiss against the corner of my mouth, letting his lips linger there for a moment.

            “See you in a few days, Cody,” he says, pulling his hands from my back pockets.

            When he steps back to let me go, I see my one opportunity to bolt and I take it. I have to get myself out before I decide to stay. I fly out the front door and all but run back to my house, only realizing when I get to my little porch that I still have my apron on from work. I’m sure he found that so sexy. Taking a deep breath, I force myself into calming down. So, that’s it then. Robert will be joining us for Thanksgiving. I’m sure the entire experience is going to be weird on both of us, but I know this is good for him. He won’t have to be alone and, hopefully, he’ll end up having some fun with the three of us and the dogs. Still, though, a huge part of me want to run back to his house and cave into my burning cravings. Shaking the thought, I open my door and take in the bombarding questions. Things are going to be okay.

Chapter Text

I stare at my reflection in the mirror, trying to prepare myself for what I’m about to go through today.

            I want to believe nothing bad will happen, but I’m about to have Robert, Mary, and my daughter all under one roof for the majority of the night. If not all of it. Mary and my daughter together are already bad enough, but throwing Robert into the mix? I’m basically a dead man walking. I’ll be put at the end of every joke. I won’t be able to stop myself from staring at Robert. It’s like a Soap Opera waiting to happen and I’m the main focus. Exhaling slowly, I pull on one of my better shirts and slide into some decent jeans like the brave man that I totally am. I can do this, right? There’s nothing wrong with sharing a holiday with my ex-boyfriend. Robert and I are good friends and this is completely manageable. Oh, god… someone send me some help. Before I can be pulled out of my room by my ear, I head out and nearly run into Amanda as she lugs a dining chair in from the garage.

            “Need some help there, kiddo?” I ask, offering my capable hands.

            Amanda pauses and huffs in exhaustion, shaking her head. “I got it, pops,” she declines. “Just promise me you’ll buy some lighter chairs next time?”

            “They were on sale,” I say blandly, realizing that they are a bit much to deal with.

            Amanda laughs and she heaves the chair again, dropping it off by the table that she must have also dragged in from the garage. No wonder she’s worn out. Turning to the woman in the kitchen, I spot Mary standing at the sink with a large, dead, thawed out bird in her hands. I want to ask her what she’s going to do to the poor turkey, but I don’t think I have the stomach for it. Going to the Bluetooth speaker, I turn it on and connect my phone. The first song that starts playing is an old one, not that I expected anything different. About half of the music on my phone is older than Amanda and I combined.

            “Jesus, Coconuts,” Mary complains. “Led Zeppelin at Thanksgiving?”

            “There is absolutely nothing wrong with the classics. I will die fighting you about it.”

            Amanda comes back into the room, carrying a nice stack of place-mats for the table. “The classics are a staple in my life. Don’t hate.”

            I smile proudly at my daughter, seeing that I have raised her right, and turn back to Mary with a smug expression. “The classics win this round. Besides, you knew it was Led Zeppelin within seconds of it playing. What does that say about you Mary, huh? That’s pretty suspect.”

            Mary groans loudly, suddenly regretting her decision to say anything at all. I laugh in the wake of my triumphant victory, rushing around the counter to start pulling stuff out of the fridge before it can get too late in the afternoon. Back when Amanda was little, I always made sure I went above and beyond for her when it came to the holidays. Judging by the amount of food I bought for tonight, it’s clear that I have no intention of stopping that habit any time soon. Some people may judge my decision to let my daughter pick out five different pies for tonight, but that’s okay. At least I know she’s happy. Rummaging around, I pull out a tub full of hard-boiled eggs that I made last night and I set them on the part of the counter that hasn’t been completely taken over by Mary. I’m about to get started on cracking and peeling them when a heavy fist pounds on the front door over the music. Amanda immediately bolts towards it, guessing who it must be, but I chase after her in a clumsy rush and wrestle with her to get ahead.

            “Cheater!” She yells in complaint as I lift her and toss her onto the couch with my strong dad arms.

            Unlocking the deadbolt, I answer the door to find Robert standing on the other side awkwardly. In one arm, he holds a bottle of whiskey and in the other, he holds a dish full of… something? He also holds onto Betsy’s leash handle, who is wiggling furiously at his feet with excitement.

            “And here I thought you’d try to bail out last minute,” I say, smiling sheepishly.

            “Well, I figured it was either show up or have my ass dragged out… so,” he says. He then holds up the dish in his hand a little proudly. “Extra dessert. Amanda requested that I make something a couple of nights ago.”

            I snap my head over to my daughter, feeling slightly betrayed. “You messaged Robert?”

            Amanda grins proudly, peeling herself off of the couch. “Can’t stop, won’t stop. He and I are best friends now. We talk about arson and knives.”

            Shaking my head, I turn my attention back to Robert who, I think, is staring at me. Today, he wears newer jeans and a dark red, almost like wine, long sleeve under his leather jacket. He seems to have showered before coming here and he cleaned himself up pretty good. If I got closer to him, I suspect I would be able to smell that cologne I love so much. He looks good. Really good. “There’s probably some room left for it in the fridge. Come on in.”

            Stepping aside, I let Robert in and he makes a confused face at the Bluetooth speaker. “Depeche Mode… Not what I expected,” he says as he passes the dessert over to Amanda. He then bends down to set Betsy free before she can break her harness.

            “Mary already tried roasting me over it,” I say in a warning tone. “I’ll fight you about it too if I have to.”

            “No, I think it’s great, actually,” he clarifies, passing me the bottle of whiskey.

            I look at the label on the bottle and read it twice to make sure I’m processing it right. Holy shit. “Robert, this is top-shelf stuff. How did you get this? I haven’t even seen this stuff at the liquor store.”

            “I have a lot of whiskeys, Cody,” he says in a flat, obvious tone.

            I guess I should have expected that. What a stupid question. Turning, I set it on the counter and shuffle back into the kitchen that is slowly becoming overcrowded. Of course, he has expensive whiskey laying around. The man drinks it like it’s water. Shaking my head, I laugh and grab for the first egg out of the bowl. It’s time to get cracking. Ha. Puns…

            “Nice to see you, Mary,” Robert says, joining into the mess of a kitchen apprehensively. He looks at all of what’s happening with an amused expression.

            Mary glances over to him as she’s putting the turkey into the oven. “It’s good seeing you be social for once,” she says. “Go help Cody with the eggs. He made a lot last night.”

            My hand freezes momentarily. Great. I think I’m starting to realize the other reason why both Mary and my daughter insisted that I invite Robert over for tonight. Why didn’t I pick up on it sooner? It’s so painfully obvious and I’m an idiot. Resuming my work, I crack the egg in my hand against the countertop and start peeing off its shell into another bowl. When I see Robert standing beside me out of the corner of my eye, I pass him an egg and I try hard to not pay attention to the way he deliberately touches my hand. This is just egg cracking. There’s nothing more too it and it’s definitely not romantic. That would be silly.

            “Is there something specific we’re doing with these?” He asks, tossing the egg up and down in his hand as if it were a baseball.

            “After we peel them all, we need to split them in half and scoop the yolks out,” I explain. “After that, we put the eggs in the bowl and mix some stuff into them…”

            Robert raises an eyebrow. “So… Deviled Eggs?”

            Oh, good. I’ve gone back to my nervous habit of rambling to him to fill the air. Glad that’s still around. Laughing a little anxiously, I nod. “Basically. If you have any tips, please feel free to share. Amanda likes bacon in them.”

            “A good sprinkle of Paprika is always good on them. Might wanna try an olive slice on it too,” he suggests simply.

            I look at him, a little surprised. Maybe what Mary said was right after all. “Hey, Amanda, can you grab the Paprika, the mayo, and the–”

            “–I got it all right here,” she says, thrusting a bowl full of stuff in between us.

            I grab it and look over my shoulder, getting the feeling that she has been watching Robert and me very closely since he arrived. She’s analyzing everything, watching my every action around him. She wants the dirt on us. Wordlessly, I turn back around and set the bowl off to the side for now. Robert continues to crack eggs until most of them are done and when I go to grab a knife out of the knife holder beside us, he intercepts and takes it out of my hands.

            “Leave the cutting to the pros, kid,” he says, smiling almost.

            “Oh, like I don’t know how to handle a knife,” I counter, sticking up for myself.

            “Cody, the last time I let you handle a knife you sliced your thumb open because you were staring at me,” he says in a remindful tone. “I’m not about to let you cut something with a kitchen knife while I’m around.”

            I glance down at the scar on my thumb and realize that he’s stupidly right. The last thing I want to do is lose a finger before dinner is on the table. Sighing, I surrender the knife and instead pull out a cutting board for him. For the next half hour, we work perfectly in sync with each other and manage to get all twenty-six eggs made with Robert’s suggestions added. Carefully, with all of them neatly set on a platter, I move them back into the fridge where they will remain until it’s time to stuff our faces. In the next several hours, we all make conversation and even manage to play a few games until the timer for Mary’s turkey goes off loudly. She leaps up from the couch, leaving behind her hand of cards, and rushes into the kitchen, quickly pulling on oven mitts as she goes. As soon as she pulls the bird out, the entire house fills with an amazing smell and I would be lying if I said my mouth didn’t water just now. Who knew Mary could cook such a good turkey? This beats all of my past mediocre turkeys.

            “Robert, I’m going to assume you know how to cut this thing?” Mary asks, looking over at him as he pulls himself off the couch.

            “Is that even a question?” He asks in return.

            From my large selection of knives, he pulls out the one he needs and starts cutting into the turkey with surprising accuracy. I watch him from where I sit at the breakfast bar, taking in how calculated his cuts and movements are. He really does know his way with a knife and even though it’s kind of terrifying, it’s also really intriguing. My eyes then drift over to the scars on his hands and I take an unnecessarily large amount of time to admire them. I know well enough by now that his many scars are just a part of who he is, but they also hold so many stories to them. How many of them did he get from whittling? How many of them are from carelessness when working on his bike? His truck? And the ones that cover his body? Out of all of the stories he has told me and out of the ones I have heard from others, how many are actually true? Has he been stabbed before? And why wouldn’t it surprise me if he has?

            “You’re staring at him, dad,” Amanda says quietly from behind.

            I suddenly snap back into reality and turn about seventeen shades of red. Great… So now my daughter knows just how pathetic I am. Playfully shoving her off, I help Mary move the plates and bowls of food over to the table for us to eat until we can’t anymore. Robert heaves the massive plate of meat to the center of the table and as he is bent over, my eyes dart down once but I force myself to not look again. Not for now, at least. Why does he have to have such a nice ass? Oh my god. I really am back in high school. From the fridge and various parts of the kitchen, Amanda pulls out multiple kinds of pies and leaves them on the counter for later. Robert eyes them all, counting exactly five.

            “You have five pies and you needed me to bring more dessert?” He asks, his eyebrows raised. I’m not sure if he has ever seen so many pies under one roof before.

            Amanda provides one of her award-winning grins and puts her hands on her hips proudly. “Rule number one of the Prescott household, Mr. Small. You can never have too much dessert.”

            Laughing under his breath, Robert seems to appreciate her statement and he may even see it to be true. Smiling to myself helplessly, I take the seat at the head of the table and Robert takes the open seat to the left of the head of the table. Mary claims the spot in front of him and Amanda, who so clearly wants to get a read on Robert, sits right beside him with absolutely no shame. I’m about to tell everyone to dig in because I’m starving and could probably eat my own arm, but I stop myself at the sight of the necklace Mary wears around her neck. Her life has changed so much lately and I know this kind of thing is important to her.

            “Uh… Do you want to say grace, Mary?” I ask, catching her attention.

            Mary at first is taken aback, but then she smiles a little and reaches to take my hand. In turn, she takes Amanda’s, who then takes Robert’s, and as Robert goes to take my hand I hesitate. I haven’t held his hand for so long. Knowing that I’m being stupid, I securely grab his hand and follow in suit as everyone closes their eyes.

            “Dear Lord, thank you for this food we are about to eat. We are grateful for your provision,” she says smoothly. “We ask that you bless this food and continue to guide our makeshift and dysfunctional family along Your path. In the name of Your son Jesus, amen.”

            We all exchange our amen and open our eyes, hungrily looking at the food around the table. In the most discombobulated fashion, we all fill our plates up and dig right in. Somewhere in the middle of dinner, Robert gets up to grab the bottle of whiskey he brought over and a few of my drinking glasses. I’m not entirely sure how he knew they were in the cabinet beside the fridge, but I also don’t want to question it. I’m fairly certain his answer would have something do to with breaking into my house while I was at work. Thankful, Mary and I each take one and we accept the whiskey he pours for us. He slips a little extra in my glass and I scowl at him, knowing he’s just trying to get me tipsy.

            “Can I try some?” Amanda asks right as I go in for my first drink.

            Choking, I slam my glass onto the table as the whiskey burns through my windpipes. My eyes start to water profusely and my face turns beat red as laughter struggles its way out of me. Robert pushes me back into my seat to help me out, laughing hysterically with Mary. This isn’t a good feeling. Not at all.

            “You want… You want to try… whiskey?” I cough, wiping the tears from my face as more fall.

            Amanda nods her head a little nervously and I find myself coming to a very interesting crossroads in my parenting journey. To be the cool parent or the authoritarian parent? I glance between Amanda and my glass, trying to make a logical decision. One more look at my daughter and I think I’ve made it. Amanda is a responsible young adult and I trust her to make good decisions whether she is away at college or here back at home.

            “Alright,” I agree. “But only because your mother would have given you your first beer on your eighteenth birthday. Take it slow.”

            I lift my glass and go to pass it to her, but Robert intercepts quickly. “Hold it. If you’re gonna give your kid her first taste of alcohol, you have to do it right.”

            From within his jacket, he pulls out a silver flask. I eye it suspiciously, unsure of what he’s about to do. Whatever it is, I trust him. He would never do anything with her that I would disapprove of. He holds it up to her and when she goes to grab for it, he holds it back.

            “I have had a lot of whiskey in my time and the stuff your father was about to give you would have knocked you on your ass. The stuff is much smoother. It’s still top shelf, but you’ll survive it,” he says. “Alcohol is a slippery slope to nowhere and you need to promise your dad that you’ll make good, smart choices.”

            Amanda nods her head, taking Robert seriously. She knows this is not an area to mess around in. I at least did this part right in her upbringing. “I promise, pops. I’m honestly just curious about it.”

            Accepting her response, I nod and Robert passes her the flask. “Knock yourself out. Or… Don’t,” he says.

            Mary looks between the three of us, a look of distaste on her face. “Should have let her try wine first,” she mumbles.

            I watch Amanda carefully as she brings the flask up and with her first sip, her entire face scrunches. She coughs and stares at the flask as if she doesn’t trust it. I start laughing a little, having expected this exact reaction. She goes in for her second try and her reaction hardly changes. In fact, it gets worse.

            “This is awful,” she says, holding the flask out in front of her as if it were a dirty gym sock.

            “Welcome to adulthood, kiddo,” I say.

            “Why do you guys drink that stuff?” She asks, rubbing her chest as she gets the warm feeling that comes with drinking whiskey.

            Robert starts chuckling and takes the flask back when she offers it out to him. It’s clear that she is more than okay with not having any more of that stuff ever again. “Think of it as an acquired taste,” he says honestly. “There is lighter stuff out there. Wine coolers are an easy place to start.”

            “But it tastes so bad,” Amanda reiterates, still in disbelief.

            “Trust me, I didn’t like whiskey much either. It took time,” I admit freely with a shrug.

            Mary laughs, looking between Robert and me. “You only started drinking it because Rob drinks it. He rubbed off on you.”

            Widening my eyes a little bit, my cheeks turn painfully red and I shift my gaze down to my plate. Why does Mary have to be right about pretty much everything? Especially with everything in between Robert and me? Trying to focus on anything else but what traits I adopted from Robert, I force myself to keep eating. The music is still playing on the Bluetooth and the song that is coming to an end turns over to a slower melody, making me freeze in my place. I know this song. How did it get into this playlist? Soon, my own voice begins to sing accompanied by Alex’s voice. My heart drops into my stomach. Amanda looks up from her plate, knowing what this is. She too knows what song this is as she heard it a bunch while growing up.

            “Do you want me to change it, dad?” She asks, watching my contorted face.

            Robert and Mary’s conversation is cut painfully short as they tune into the song, trying to figure out what Amanda is talking about. Truthfully, I haven’t had it in me to listen to this song for many years. So, to hear it now after all of the time that has passed? To hear it on tonight of all nights? It’s almost as if Alex was here for Amanda’s first drink in her own way. I smile a little and shake my head, finding it all just to be a little bit silly.

            “You can leave it on, Panda,” I finally tell her after a long pause.

            “What is this?” Mary asks, now way too curious to keep quiet about it.

            I slowly set my fork down and lean back into my chair, crossing my arms over my chest comfortably. “This is one of the few songs my wife and I recorded together before she passed.”

            Robert makes a brief face of surprise, thoroughly interested. “This is you and Alex?”

            I nod and try to stave off the tears that try to well up in my eyes. I missed hearing her voice so much. “Yeah. We were around twenty when we decided we wanted to record some stuff together. Craig knew a guy.”

            Amanda, knowing that the topic needs to shift before I lose my grip, pushes the conversation into another direction. “He’s really good. You should see him play some of his favorite songs. I’ve been trying to get him to do one of the Open Mic nights are the Coffee Spoon since we moved here.”

            A little embarrassed, I laugh nervously, and look down at the table. “Maybe someday,” I say. “I dunno about the rest of you, but I’m dying to cut into the pies and figure out what the hell Robert brought over.”

            Amanda makes a pure sound of excitement and pushes away from the table hurriedly, rummaging around in the fridge. She pulls out Robert’s dessert and looks at it from all angles, trying to figure out what it is. Giving up with a shrug, she brings it to the table along with four more plates and a new serving utensil.

            “Please tell me it’s not poisoned?” I ask, taking the dish from Amanda to peel the plastic wrap off of it.

            “Cody, if I was going to kill you, I wouldn’t poison you,” Robert says and he says it a little too seriously for my liking. Does he think about how he would kill everyone he meets? Or is that something he reserves for people he has a deeper relationship with?

            “So, what did you whip up this time, Robert?” Mary asks, sipping on some wine.

            “Lemon-berry savarin,” he says with a shrug.

            Amanda is careful as she serves, making sure to give out even portions to everyone. I inspect my serving carefully, completely invested in this now. Robert made this? A little nervous, I wait for Mary to take her first bite before I take mine and soon after, Amanda takes hers. Robert watches all of us as if he is waiting for something. Then, suddenly, all three of us tasters make a pleasing sound and he nods his head.

            “One of these days, you are going to tell me how you learned how to make food,” I tell him. “I didn’t even know you cooked until yesterday.”

            “That’ll be a story for another time, kid,” he laughs, but immediately I pick up on something off in his tone.

            Robert loves telling stories. He’s amazingly good at it and I know he gets a kick out of watching people’s reactions, so why isn’t he trying to tell one now? It’s the perfect opportunity. Hell, I think even Mary noticed this very out of character moment of his.

            “I look forward to it. I’ll be ready to take notes,” I say lightly, instinctively nudging his foot with mine.

            He looks to me and there’s something in his eyes that makes me feel a little sad on the inside. Since he arrived, I’ve felt something off about him and I didn’t want to say anything. I figured it was just a passing mood, but now it seems to be much deeper than that. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on other things around us, but my mind keeps wandering right back to him. For all intents and purposes, I know he’s having a good time being here. He’s getting to see Mary, Amanda is keeping him entertained, and even though we’re both kind of awkward around each other, I know he’s happy to be around me too. I continue to dwell on his mood until it finally clicks in place. There’s someone missing and I briefly thought about her when I invited him over. That look in his eyes is there because he misses Val. It’s Thanksgiving and she’s his daughter, but she’s not here. Hell, they’re not even talking at the moment. It’s not right and I know I have to try and do something about it even though it may not be my place.

              

            As I walk him back to his house way late at night, I notice just how slow we’re moving. Neither of us wants to call it a night and I’m not entirely sure if I have it in me to be harangued by my daughter and Mary over how much I clearly love Robert when I return home without him by my side. By the time we reach his porch, I’m sad and take the steps one at a time. I don’t want this night to be over. I don’t want him to walk into his house and close his door behind him. My gut and everything in me wants to stay with him.

            “I wanted to thank you for what you did with Amanda and her first drink tonight,” I say. “That meant a lot to me. What we were drinking probably would have made her dry heave.”

            “Just didn’t want her to have a bad first impression. Obviously, some of us drink a little more responsibly than others. It’s better if she dips into it instead of diving in head first,” he says, but there’s something so resigned about the way he’s talking.

            I think for a moment on it, taking in the seriousness of his voice and how quiet he seems. He’s been on a slow decline for the past hour and now it seems he’s at rock bottom. Did Robert ever get the chance to give Val her first drink? Or did she leave before he got the chance?

            “Thank you for coming, again… I hope you at least enjoyed yourself,” I then say, meeting his curious eyes. “I know Amanda kinda went nuts over the pies.”

            Robert opens his front door to let Betsy in, but he doesn’t step inside just yet. He instead turns to me with his arms crossed and there’s a faint smile on his cheeks. “It was good to be around people for a little while. Your daughter is very entertaining. I even got to hear you sing a bit. You’re really good.”

            I laugh a little, my cheeks turning red. “I still can’t believe that happened. It’s impossible, but I swear Alex had something to do with it. She’s always pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

            “Maybe she’s looking out after you,” Robert suggests. “You spend so much time looking after everyone else, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was trying to do the same for you even though she’s not here.”

            His words send pangs all throughout my heart. If anyone could figure out how to poke their way through the Great Beyond, it would be Alex. When I got the letter that was addressed to me in her will, she told me to get out there to find love again and when I told her about Robert at her grave, I meant everything I said. We’re stuck right now while we fix our lives, but I’m not ready to give up on the possibility of us being together. I don’t think I ever could be. And I know that if Alex were truly looking after me, she would be pushing me towards this. He and I are right for each other, I know we are. I get that feeling in my gut any time I’m near him and it’s simply right. He’s the guy who makes life exciting again, the guy I feel compelled to be by, and the guy I would support through anything. Taking in a shaky breath, I reach out and lightly take Robert’s hand.

            Robert looks away from me, not really knowing what to say, but he does secure his hand around mine. It baffles me to think back to where we started. It was so ugly and now we’re here on his porch. It’s not perfect and even though we’re not together right now, we’re making it work the best we can. This is okay for right now. I can live through this as long as it means we both get better.

            “You always say the damndest things, Cocoapuffs.”

            I laugh a little at my new nickname. “I mean it. There are still a few hours left of Thanksgiving. You should… You should text Val. You’re never gonna feel right until she’s back in your life.”

            “What do I even say to her? I doubt she wants to hear from me… Not after last year.”

            “Just let her know you’re thinking of her. I know you are. She’s your only daughter, Robert. She’ll want to hear from you. Don’t let this chance go.”

            Shaking his head, Robert seems doubtful. Trying to make him understand, I step closer and cup the side of his face, waiting patiently for him to look at me again. “Do you remember what I told you that night at the pond?” I ask. He remains silent. “I told you that nothing will change unless you do. Show her that you’re trying to change. Show her that you miss her and that you’re sorry. Don’t waste any more time.”

            “How do you make all of this seem so easy?” He asks, struggling.

            “It’s never easy. After Alex died, there were times when I thought I would lose Amanda too as she grew up. She was so angry at the world and she got angry at me too,” I tell him. “You have to fight for it and show Val that you still love her.”

            Nodding, Robert seems to agree. He then pulls me into a hug and I allow it, wrapping my arms around him as well. For a while we stand there before I have to pull myself from him and start heading home. There is still so much to handle and so much to fix, but I know getting Val back into his life will be a good shove in the right direction. He needs her.

Chapter Text

 

From Robert:
Cody

From Robert:
hey Cody

From Robert:
you should go outside

From Robert:
Come outside

From Robert:
I'll honk

From Robert:
or I'll break in

From Robert:
I’ll do both

            I open my eyes to the sound of my phone buzzing erratically on my nightstand. Groggily, I roll over and clumsily thump my hand around until I find it in the darkness, knocking over a book or two in the process. Squinting in the unholy brightness, I just barely manage to make out Robert’s sporadic messages panging up a storm on Dadbook. Why doesn’t that man ever sleep during normal hours like everyone else in the cul-de-sac? Yawning, I slip out from the warmth of my bed and pad through the hallway as I rub my eyes and try not to trip over the dog toys that litter the floor. Mary isn’t in the living room when I get out there, which leads me to believe she may still be out at the bars. Blinking tiredly, I open my front door just as Robert steps up to my little porch. He looks at me with a raised eyebrow, taking in my zombified appearance. I don’t think he has ever seen me exactly like this before. Usually when he shows up, and even before we broke up, I was at least somewhat put together. Now? I’m sure I look horrifying.

            “It’s two in the morning,” I grumble, crossing my arms over my chest, shivering.

            “Yeah? And? Come on. I wanna go somewhere,” he says.

            “I’m not going anywhere until I have caffeine in my hands.”

            Robert rolls his eyes and gestures back to his truck, which is waiting idly by the curb with a soft rumbling. “I made some coffee for you. You coming or what?”

            I yawn again and blink a couple of times, trying to pull myself out of this sleepy haze. "I suppose. It’s not like you’re giving me much of a choice."

            "You gonna put pants on? I don't mind, but you might get cold."

            I look down at my legs and sigh, retreating back into my room for my pants and my essentials for the night. By the time I come out again, I only have one of my shoes tied and half of my jacket on. At the doorway, Robert passes me the warm coffee in a travel mug and I smile, wrapping my hands around it.

            “What do I gotta do to wake you up, Cody?” Robert asks. “You’re killing my vibe.”

            "You could start by telling me what's so important you had to pry me out of my warm bed in the middle of the night?" I prompt. “It was so comfy.”

            "Didn't realize wanting to hang out with you was a crime," Robert jabs.

            I stare at him blankly as I buckle my seat belt, too tired to even want to deal with what he just said. "Robert, normal people hang out during the day. You usually give me less than an hour of warning or you threaten to bust down my door in the middle of the night," I point out. "So, if hanging out with me is a crime, then I'm willingly breaking the law just to be with you."

            "That hardly made sense, but okay. Just drink your coffee, Codes. Wake that brain of yours up."

            Mocking him under my breath with exaggerated gestures like a child, I sip on the coffee and I’m pleased to find that it’s actually really good. Whatever he did to make this is almost magic. Humming softly with delight, I rest my head back and breathe in deeply. I can still faintly smell the faint scent of cigarettes in the cab and for a second, it brings a smile to my face. The smell of cigarettes isn’t exactly something I would call pleasant, but it’s one of the many scents that I have associated with him in my mind. Regardless of what memories it brings me, I do truly hope he's still trying to quit. I've heard it's a hard addiction to quit, especially when you've been doing it for so long, but he needs to for his health. Sighing, I open my eyes and look out the window. Where ever we're going, it's far outside of the core of town.

            “Still got Mary living in your house?” Robert asks, breaking his beloved silence.

            “For now. She’s been in and out handling stuff with Joseph. Last I heard, they’ve started fighting over the custody of the kids," I say with a yawn.

            Robert falls silent again and he reaches forward to play whatever music he has in right now. Tom Waits. Big surprise. Turning, I look at his face and take in how he looks tonight. He seems tired, as per usual, but he also seems... Content? I'm not sure. I think I’ve managed to gather by now that he finds peace in being out in the middle of the night. There are typically no people around and he can usually get up to whatever he wants to without drawing too much attention to himself. Even though I’m half awake and would rather be in bed – preferably with him – I like sharing these moments with him. I can’t imagine when the last time he was able to bug someone to come do these things with him and have them actually agree was. Actually… what does that say about me? I eagerly go along with him, in most cases, without ever knowing what the hell we’re getting up to. For all I know, we could be on our way to light some old abandoned house on fire in the middle of the forest.

            "You're staring," he says in a remindful tone.

            "Didn't realize it was a crime to stare at you," I say, throwing his own words right back at him.

            Robert turns to throw a glare at me, which only makes me grin. I’m not sure what he put in this coffee, but there’s a lot of it and I’m starting to get a major caffeine rush. I could easily drink this coffee for the rest of my life and be perfectly okay with it. Taking another gulp, I slide my arm into the other sleeve of my jacket and fold over to finally tie my other shoe. When I pop back up, I examine the outside to only see trees lining the road. Okay. So maybe he's taking me out into the middle of nowhere so he can stab me and bury my body in a shallow grave? Huffing, I relax into my seat. Whatever we’re up to, I seem to be in it for the rest of the night.

            Pulling off into an old, unused road, Robert drives a little way down before parking and cutting the engine. I look around, still unsure of what it is we’re doing out here. Robert hops out of his truck and goes around to the back, rummaging around for things. I follow slowly, zipping my jacket up to shield me from the cold. Coming around, I watch as he slings a backpack over his shoulder and dual-wields flashlights. He passes one of them to me, followed by a closed pocket knife. I stare at both items and then back up at him, now growing concerned. Without a word, Robert switches his flashlight on and starts to pack it out after making sure his truck is locked. I follow along, switching my flashlight on after a short while. Robert remains completely silent and usually I wouldn’t expect anything different, but I know he’s doing this to be a jerk. He wants to keep me on the edge of my seat. Walking a little faster to catch up with him, I glance at him and then back down at my knife.

            “Okay, you gotta give me something to go on,” I finally crack.

            Robert smirks and points vaguely down the path we’re walking along. “We’re hunting.”

            Okay, let’s think logically. Robert wouldn’t actually take me out here to hunt for animals like this and I doubt that’s one of his interests. Out of all the stories he has told me, one of them has to have a connection. Oh. That’s it.

            “Hunting cryptids?” I then ask, storing the knife in my pocket.

            “What else would we be hunting?” He asks, giving me a side glance.

            “With you, I never have any idea,” I mutter.

            Giving up on the topic because I know it will only make me scared, I keep trudging along. I think I’m starting to regret my poorly thought out decision to wear my Converse on this little adventure of ours. I have a perfectly good pair of hiking boots in my closet that would have been perfect for this. Sighing, I adjust my jacket anxiously and focus on the fog that comes out of my nose as I breathe. I’ve been in Maple Bay for a long while and I know that the temperature is a little unusual for tonight. It’s much colder than what it should be. Flexing my left hand, I stuff it into my pocket in an attempt to keep it warm. Stepping over a large log, I look at Robert once again and draw my eyebrows together. He doesn’t seem to be shivering. In fact, he seems completely unfazed by the cold temperature altogether. It’s like he’s immune.

            “How are you not cold?” I ask stupidly.

            “Could be because I’m wearing more than a raincoat,” he replies sarcastically. “Should have doubled up on your layers. If you’re too cold, we can turn back.”

            “No, I’m fine. I was just curious. You always seem so unfazed by all kinds of weather,” I point out. “You hardly broke a sweat over summer.”

            “I’ve spent many years of my life in many different climates. You get used to it.”

            I laugh a little and carefully step around a tree root that threatens to trip me. “There’s actually a bet going on with the other guys in the cul-de-sac about you. Nobody can figure out why you seem to acclimate to any kind of weather with no problem. Craig thinks it’s because you’re an enigma, but Mat thinks it has something to do with your badass complex.”

            Joining in on my laughter, Robert keeps his secrets. “And why do you think it is?”

            “Oh, I have stayed far away from that bet. That and the bet that’s going on about what you do for a living,” I clarify.

            “They’re actually making bets on what I do for a living?” Robert asks, a little surprised.

            I make a face at him and start giggling, nodding my head enthusiastically. “Robert, you are literally the most closed-off person in the cul-de-sac. No one can tell when you’re joking or telling the truth. Craig has known you for years and still doesn’t know the story behind the scar on your chest. I don’t even know how you got it.”

            “You really wanna know how I banged myself up?” He asks, helping me over a large boulder.

            “It would lessen the curiosity I feel around you.”

            Robert sighs and decides to give me one piece of truth for once. “Full disclosure, it was a biking accident with Val. I hit a rock and flew over the handlebars. Went to the hospital and got sixteen stitches. Not a very interesting story.”

            I gape at him, a little surprised. “Oh my god. Didn’t that hurt?”

            “No, it felt like sunshine and flowers,” he replies bitterly. “Of course, it hurt.”

            Looking over my shoulder casually, I realize that we are no longer anywhere near his truck. In fact, all I can see behind us is pitch black darkness. Trying to ignore the feeling that is desperately trying to creep up my spine, I turn back around and slam right into Robert who has stopped walking. Stumbling back a bit, I glare at the back of his head and then peek over his shoulder to see what he’s looking at. As far as I can tell, he’s looking at nothing. But, then again, I probably need to see an optometrist.

            “Robert?”

            He holds up his finger as if to silence me, looking erratically at the tree line around us. “Listen.”

            Trying to hear what he’s picking up on, I look around and only manage to hear the normal sounds of the woods. Owls, crickets… I’m about to ask him again, but the sound of a twig snapping has me flinching in fear. Robert looks over his shoulder in the general direction of the sound, trying to see if something is there. He shuts off his flashlight then and I’m about to yell at him for it, but he grabs my arm strongly in the next second. Carefully, he starts walking towards the sound and I think I’m experiencing more fear than I have ever felt in my life. We’re about to cross further into the woods, but we freeze in our places at the sound of something breathing. As if I were a magnet, I snap against Robert and feel my heart quicken in pace.

            “Please tell me you hear that,” I say, voice squeaky.

            “Shut up,” he says, clamping his hand over my mouth. If this was in any other situation, I may even be turned on by that.

            Walking backward, Robert carefully navigates us away from the sound. Out of the corner of my eye, I see something moving in the trees and I point to it, unable to talk past the iron grip he has on my face. Robert sees it too and without a second thought about it, he turns us around back the way we came. We walk with a quickening pace, almost running back to the truck. I can still hear the breathing and the sounds of twigs snapping. Robert pulls me along by hand and when I finally catch sight of the truck, I breathe a momentary sigh of relief. I want to get as far away from here as possible.

            “What the hell was that?” I ask, clumsily getting into the truck. I don’t even think about my seat-belt until we’re moving on the road again.

            “Dover Ghost, probably.”

            I try to relax against my seat, but I still can’t shake the sound of that thing breathing out of my head. What if it followed us? What if it’s in the bed of the truck? Anxiously looking back, I find nothing. Digging my fingers into my thighs, I lean my head back and try to focus on something else. It was probably just an aggravated stag or something.

            “Cody, I say this in the kindest way possible, but you’re white as hell and you’re already really white,” Robert says, glancing at me. “Maybe try breathing.”

            I exhale a long-held breath and look at him, disturbed by how calm he seems. “Does that always happen when you go out on hunts?”

            “Depends on the day of the week,” he says with a shrug and there’s nothing in his voice that indicates that he’s lying.

            “Robert, you’re going to be the death of me,” I say, finally letting go of my fear. Nothing is going to happen to us. Not this time, anyways.

            Robert cracks a grin, flashing me a mischievous look in his eyes. “Well, then who could I toss in my bed and fuck the daylights out of?”

            I blush, but I end up laughing at his statement anyways. “You’re a classy man, Robert. A true paragon of class.”

            Turning his attention back to the road, Robert chuckles helplessly. As he settles down and I stop wondering where he’s taking me to next, my mind drifts off to a place that it hasn’t been to for what feels like months. I keep meaning to bring this up with him, but there never seems like a good way to do it or an appropriate time. I know we had our argument at Jim and Kim’s months ago, but that was hardly enough to cover the ground that we really needed to focus on. Taking a deep breath, I decide it’s time. We have to talk about this now or we never will.

            “You know… We never talked about it,” I say, starting off easy.

            “Talked about what?” Robert asks, not following where I’m going.

            “Us sleeping together at the beginning. How you felt about it,” I say, looking down at my hands that rest in my lap. Should I even have brought this up like this?

            Robert’s hands tighten around the steering wheel, his mind going back to those nights we shared together. The sex was so good, but it was empty. There was nothing but pleasure between us. I wanted to care about him more than anything, but he never let me get close to him. There was no emotion, no love… just hickeys and bruises to discover the next day. Each night, we would use each other and every morning, he would throw me out. It took so long for me to understand why he did that and when I finally understood, it was already too late. He hated me and wanted nothing to do with me. I screwed up.

            “You really want to dig that up right now?” He asks, forcing himself to relax into his seat.

            I nod, becoming surer of myself by the second. This is good for us. “It’s better than bringing it up months from now. We need to talk about before it turns into something else and you know it will. You know how I felt about it, but…” I trail off, not wanting to overwhelm him.

            Sighing, Robert nods. He knows this needs to happen. “I was pissed off. I was hoping you wouldn’t be like everyone else… and then you went inside with me. I was hoping you would tell me no or to tell me to stop, but you never did. I figured you were using me like everyone else.”

            It hurts to hear. I have long suspected that was the case, but I had no idea he was hoping I would change my mind. Robert Small, a man of many layers and mysteries. “I didn’t like using you like that, you know. I didn’t want to use you. I don’t use people and yet I was willingly going through with it.”

            “I kinda figured after the third time that maybe you wanted something else because you were different with me, but I was already set in my ways. I didn’t want to acknowledge it because I didn’t think I was worth your time. I still don’t. I got boatloads of issues and you already have enough of your own,” he says, turning into Downtown Maple Bay. “Why should I ruin you? Or risk hurting you?”

            When he pulls up next to the curb near a pizza place, I unbuckle my seat belt and turn to face him. “Robert, not everyone is willing to stick it through and stay by your side. But I am. We started our relationship wrong, but we’re not there now. We’ve seen what it’s like to really be with each other and nothings perfect, but it was to me.”

            “You should run while you still have the chance,” he warns.

            “No,” I say sternly. “I never ran from Alex. I’m not going to run from you.”

            Robert makes a confused face. “Why would you have run from Alex?”

            “Her parents hated me. Her father often threatened to shoot me with his shotgun. He was the sheriff of the town and he really didn’t like it when word got around that I’m bi. She struggled every day with depression even though she always seemed so full of light to everyone. I got her pregnant while we were still teens and I could have abandoned her, left her to handle it all on her own, but I loved her and I couldn’t do it,” I recall. “Just because somebody has some baggage doesn’t mean you have to leave them behind. Everyone has problems. Yes, yours are going to take some time to work out, but I’m here. You can’t scare me off that easily.”

            Robert looks at me, a look of pain in his eyes. “It has been a long time since I’ve felt something for someone in the way that I do with you,” he says truthfully. “I’m sorry things are taking so long.”

            “Don’t apologize. I think you need a friend right now and I’m more than happy to be that. I’ll be anything you need me to be.”

            Wordlessly, Robert nods and climbs out of his truck. I follow slowly and walk by his side to the pizza place he has taken us to. Pete’s Piece a’ Pizza. I’ve never heard one of the other dads in the cul-de-sac mention this place, so maybe this is just another one of Robert’s spots. When we get to the counter, he goes to place an order in for two slices of Hawaiian, but then he stops himself and turns to me.

            “Wait, Cody, you like pineapple on your pizza, right?” He asks.

            “Who do you think I am?” I ask, laughing. “Of course.”

            Robert laughs and puts the order in, paying the cashier with cash. As we wait, I notice that he’s watching me. He’s not doing it in a creepy manner or in an uncomfortable way. He just seems to be analyzing something. I check the time on my phone, surprised by the hour. It’s nearly four in the morning now. The sun will be coming up soon. Time goes by when I’m with him. I feel like we only left my house five minutes ago.

            “You’re a bad influence on me,” I joke lightly as he passes me my slice of pizza. “Craig is gonna have my ass if he finds out how late I was up tonight.”

            “That’s the joy of secrets, Cocoapuffs,” Robert reminds me after a while. “Craig doesn’t have to know what you get up to in the night.”

            “I’m pretty sure the bags under my eyes might be a dead giveaway,” I point out, leaning against the alley wall as I toss my empty plate into the dumpster.

            Robert laughs and leans in close, gently cupping the side of my face. I look up at him with widening eyes, feeling as he slowly swipes his thumbs under my eyes. “They’re not that bad.”

            I reach up and grab one of his hands, just resting it on top of his. I can feel his little scars and the softness of his skin against mine. It’s something I have missed feeling against my body. Is it wrong that I want to back him into the nearest wall and kiss him until he forgets where we are? Is it bad that I want him to reach down into my pants and make me breathless? I shake the thought from my head. We can’t do that with each other right now. But I’m addicted. I miss him… want him…

            “You look really good under a broken street lamp,” he compliments with a stupid grin.

            I glance up at the light, barely catching its dull glow before it flickers off again. “Where to now?” I ask, changing the topic before it can go any further in the wrong direction.

            “I figured I’d walk you home,” he says with a shrug.

            I raise an eyebrow. “What about your truck?”

            “I know where it’s parked.”

            Shrugging, I push away from the wall and shove my hands into my pockets. I wonder if he could tell that I was starting to wear out? As we walk, Robert watches me carefully again and this time, I meet his gaze. There is obviously something that he wants to say but hasn’t had the guts to do it yet. He’s afraid of something.

            “You’ve been looking at me like that all night,” I say. “What’s bothering you?”

            “I texted Val,” he reveals.

            Oh my. “What did she say?”

            “She was surprised to hear from me, but appreciated it. She wants me to call her when I get the chance,” he explains.

            “Well, are you gonna call her?” I press, hoping this is a good thing.

            Robert shrugs his shoulders, looking down at his feet as he walks. “I dunno. She’s probably going to want to come to visit and I… I don’t want to fuck that up. Not again. She already tried that once and look where it got us.”

            I take a moment to think through what I’m going to say to him carefully. Robert seems to take any advice I have for him when it comes to Val to heart and the last thing I want to do is suggest something that could mess up their relationship further. “If she wants to visit by the end of the call, then that means she’s still willing to patch things up with you. You shouldn’t be afraid of that.”

            “Cody… she keeps giving me these chances and I keep screwing them up. What if I do it again and she doesn’t have it in her to try anymore? What if I finally push her away for good?”

            I reach out to grab his hand as we walk, knowing he needs the gentle comfort. “You’re not going to screw up this time. It’ll be different.”

            Robert makes a face, clearly not believing a word I’m saying. “How can you possibly know that?”

            “Because you’re not alone this time,” I say, looking at him with a simple smile. “I’m not stupid, Robert. I know you’ve been on your own for years. You haven’t had anyone by your side. Now that you do, you have a support system you didn’t have before. And I’m not going to stand around and say that’s the only reason why you’re not going to mess up. There’s more to it than that. You’ve changed, Robert. In the past couple of months alone, you’ve grown and become stronger.”

            He listens to me carefully and it’s obvious that he still doesn’t trust what I’m telling him, but he chokes it back. He’s trying to see this clearly. “So… I call her?”

            “Yes. You know your daughter better than anyone in the world, Robert… even if things have been awful between the two of you,” I say strongly. “After you get some sleep, you’re going to call her and you’re going to talk to her. Okay? Don’t be afraid of what might happen.”

            Instead of going to my house, we somehow manage to end up by his and I look at the front door with a fond smile. He pulls his keys out from the depth of his pockets and he unlocks it, stirring a storm of barks from Betsy who sounds like she’s upstairs. He then looks to me with a shy expression.

            “You wanna come in?”

            The responsible adult in me knows I should go home and sleep, but I’m not in the mood for being responsible tonight. Not in that way, at least. So, instead, I nod. “Sure.”

            As he’s turning, I just barely catch sight of the smile on his face. He opens the door and closes it behind me, locking it once more. I look around his place and take in the subtle changes, appreciating what little cleaning he has managed to do so far. Going through my usual routine that I seem to have adopted for when I’m here, I kick off my shoes and slide out of my jacket. Feeling exhausted, I lumber over to the couch and pretty much crash down with my legs stretched out. I’m not sure where Robert went, but my mind is too tired to care. A few minutes pass by and eventually, he comes back, carrying a water bottle. He tosses it to me and I accept it, smiling almost.

            “Thank you for putting up with me tonight,” he says as he lifts my legs up so he can sit under them.

            I rest my head back against the throw pillow, tucking an arm under it. “I like coming out with you. It’s fun.”

            “Yeah, but you had a point earlier. I do kind of show up abruptly… and in the middle of the night.”

            I frown a little. Admittedly, it can be a little hard to keep up with him at times, but I’m hardly ever really bothered by it. “You know I don’t actually care about that. You can show up at my house any time you want. I don’t care. I want to be around you, Robert.”

            He looks to me and rests a hand on my knee, telling me he wants to be close to me without saying anything. “You’re crazy, kid.”

            Getting a stupid idea in my head, I quickly maneuver around and pull him to lie down with me. His head rests on my chest and he’s kind of situated in between my legs awkwardly, but it’s oddly comfortable. I wrap my arms around his securely and run my fingers through his hair, kissing the small part of his forehead that I can reach. He grumbles and reluctantly slides his arms around my middle, nestling closer. He then kicks off his boots and tries to wiggle out of his jacket, eventually needing my help. Once settled, I begin to draw lazy patterns up and down his spine and I’m using almost every fiber in my body to stay awake for a little while longer. This moment, even if it appears to be small or insignificant, is big for us. This is a private moment, a space that is being shared between us to help each other feel.

            “Can I ask you something?” He asks, muffled by my chest.

            “Yes.”

            “Why are you still hanging around?”

            It takes me a second to actually understand what he’s asking me. He’s not asking me why I’m still here in his house, he’s asking me why I’m still holding out for him. I could easily answer that question with the three little words that burn on my tongue, but it’s not the right time for that. Yes, I love him. I love him more than anything and it’s because I love him that I know that’s not what he needs to hear right now.

            “Because I don’t want a life without you,” I say simply. “Since the bar, I’ve been… mesmerized. There’s so much more to you than just the façade that you put up to keep yourself mysterious and protected from emotional vulnerability. I’m still around because when we have moments like this, I know it’s right. You’re right for me, whether you want to accept it or not.”

            He doesn’t respond. Instead, he grumbles some more and slips a hand under my shirt. He feels around my side for a moment, feeling the warmth that comes off of me. As fucked up as it is, I know we’re okay. And as I kiss him once more, right on the top of his head, I finally drift off. This is okay.

Chapter Text

I flop back onto my couch, trying to sink as far into the cushions as I can get.

            It feels like it has been ages since I have been able to sit on my couch. Mary moved back out into her own house this morning and ever since she left, the house has been unbearably empty. The six fish that I have and Max help keep the place somewhat lively, but now it’s just me again. Robert was right when he said Mary would grow on me. She and I managed to become close friends while she was staying with me. Not only is she gone, but Amanda won’t be home again until Christmas and that’s still a few weeks out. I love it when she’s able to come home, but it’s always so hard to say goodbye to her when she leaves. I know she’s a young adult now and she wants to be at college, but she’s also my daughter. I’m always going to want her around, no matter how far she goes.

            It has been a few days since I went hunting with Robert and for some reason, it feels like it has been longer than that. Robert hasn’t been around a whole lot and I can’t say that I blame him. He has a lot on his plate and although I’m glad he’s apparently getting stuff done, I wish he would let me in instead of keeping me on the outside. And, God. I just miss the guy. We agreed to get our lives together so we can be better for each other, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t miss him. How could I possibly not? Sometimes, I feel like he understands me better than anyone else. We’re compatible and it kills me every time we slip up and get close to each other that I can’t just kiss him. Sighing, I cover my face with my hands and squeeze my eyes shut as tightly as they can go. I need to get out of the house. Maybe fresh air will help clear my head?

            Peeling myself up, I glance out of my living room window to see what kind of weather I’m in for today. It’s wet, cold, and a little foggy. So, nothing too out of the ordinary, then. Shrugging, I grab my coat from the edge of the coffee table and pull it on as I head out the door. Coming out onto the sidewalk, I realize I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed. I could try to go to work, but Mat might kick my ass. I’ve seen the muscle on that guy. I know he could do it if he really wanted to. Kicking a rock at my feet, I pause when I pass by Craig’s house. It’s been a while since he and I have actually hung out. I know it’s a huge stretch, but maybe he’s free today. Turning on my heel, I dash over to his house and knock lightly on the door. It takes a long while, but soon I begin to hear thumping coming from the back end of the house followed by what sounds like mild cursing as he steps on some sort of squeaking toy.

            “Bro!” Craig says, grinning at me as he yanks open the door.

            “Hey, you busy today?” I ask, taking careful notice of the lack of children running through the house. He doesn’t even have River strapped to his chest.

            “No, bro. Smashley has the kids this weekend and it’s my day off,” he says. “It’s rare, but it happens. What’s up? You got a look on your face.”

            “I’ve been trapped in my house and I’m in desperate need of social interaction,” I explain, feeling sheepish.

            Craig contemplates for a hot second, even going as far as to rub his chin thoughtfully. “Mat just shot me a message over Dadbook. He has some new food he wants me to try out. Health stuff. You could come with me?”

            “That’s more than fine. As long as I’m not there to work, Mat won’t try to banish me from the premises,” I joke lightly. Though, it’s probably not too far from the truth. I’ve been working entirely too much to keep myself busy. If I’m busy, I can’t feel lonely.

            Craig laughs and grabs for his jacket that hangs on the nearby coat rack. He slings it onto his arms in a single motion, making himself seem extremely cool. I step out of the way so he can lock up and I take a moment to assess how he is today. He seems less tired than usual, which means he probably caught the chance to sleep in this morning for a change. Together, we dash down to the sidewalk and start making our way to the Coffee Spoon at a comfortable pace.

            “What have you been up to, bro?” Craig asks then, looking to make conversation to fill the empty space in between us. “I hardly see you past our workouts together. Even then, you’ve been a space cadet lately.”

            “I’ve mostly been working my ass off. It’s the only way I keep myself entertained. Besides that…” I pause, trying to find the right way to explain what I’ve been up to lately. “Mary was living at my house for a few weeks and Amanda was just home for Thanksgiving.”

            “Oh, man. That’s right. Did you guys at least have a good Thanksgiving? I meant to stop by, but River caught a nasty cold.”

            I shrug, recalling that night with a stupid smile. “It was pretty good. Mary makes a killer turkey. It was probably the best turkey I’ve ever had. I kinda let Amanda go nuts with dessert. She picked out five pies and we did some serious damage to three of them. I also found out that Robert can cook, which was surprising, to say the least,” I summarize.

            Craig raises his eyebrows, hanging onto that last little detail. “You had Thanksgiving with Robert? As in Robert our neighbor?”

            Oh, man. I guess I could have brought up some of my romantic endeavors to Craig at some point since summer. He’s just about the only person in my life who I can talk to about it. Mary is always an option, but she seems to always know what’s going on without having to ask any questions.

            “Robert and I have been… having a thing. Kind of. It’s really complicated,” I say. “He was going to be on his own and Amanda suggested that I should invite him over. So, I did. He made something called a lemon-berry savarin. It was so good.”

            Craig’s face lights up excitedly and he claps me on the back, making me wince a little. “I knew you had a thing for him. You get goo-goo eyes when you’re around him.”

            “What the hell are goo-goo eyes?” I ask with a laugh, turning the rounded corner of the block. The Coffee Spoon is just up ahead now.

            “You know, goo-goo eyes!” Craig reiterates. “It’s that look you get in your eyes when you’re around the person you love. You see it all the time in Disney movies.”

            “I do not get goo-goo eyes for Robert,” I protest.

            “Bro, I’ve seen you with Alex. I was there after Amanda was born and I was at your wedding. I know what your goo-goo eyes look like and I’m telling you, you get them around Robert. It’s so obvious!”

            Blushing furiously, I open the door to the Coffee Spoon and allow Craig to walk in first. It smells like muffins in here today with undertones of coffee, a smell that I have grown to really love. Mat, who is standing behind the counter, looks in our direction and as soon as his eyes land on me, he’s grabbing for one of the many wooden spoons.

            “Cody, I will not hesitate to use blunt force trauma,” he threatens, pointing the wooden spoon in my direction. There’s something so terrifying about Mat threatening me. The guy is generally so quiet and shy, but not when it comes to this. He’s too comfortable with me to be afraid. We’ve wrestled each other in the backroom countless times over muffins. Him attacking me with a spoon wouldn’t be too far out of the realm of possibilities.

            My hands fly up into the air and I widen my eyes, looking right back at my boss. “I’m not here to work!” I hurriedly explain. All around us, the customers of the shop look between Mat and me with concern in their eyes. Some even stop eating mid-chew. “Craig mentioned free food and I was desperate to get out of my house.”

            Lowering the spoon down, Mat appears to trust my answer. “Good. The last thing I want to do is ruin a perfectly good spoon,” he says. “Take a seat and I’ll be out with the first round of food in a minute.”

            Craig walks to the back of the shop and takes a seat at one of the tables, stretching his legs out as he does. I plop down in front of him and fold my hands together, looking at my friend carefully without making it seem like I’m dead-ass staring at him. It is really good to see that he finally has a day off for once. Mat often gets on my case for working too much, but I’m pretty sure I don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the number of hours Craig puts in. His work goes beyond his job. I’ve seen the amount of exercise that he does to keep himself in shape and I can’t even begin to imagine doing that kind of stuff while trying to take care of three kids. I’m almost certain I would explode from the pressure. Twice. Leaning back into my chair, I watch Mat as he comes out with two plates full of various kinds of sample food. Tucked in his arms, he also carries four different kinds of smoothies.

            “Okay, I have been working on this stuff all week to get it right,” he says, putting the items down in front of us. “Be honest about it. If you hate something or have suggestions, let me know. I’m all ears.”

            Leading us to do what we dads do best, Mat retreats. I look down at the plates and try to figure out what I’m about to eat. It looks like there’s a couple of different kinds of slices of bread, some kale chips, balls of some sort, and the smoothies.

            “I have no idea what to try first,” I admit, giving a suspicious look to the purple-tinted smoothie.

            “I’m going straight for the kale. I’m pretty sure he used my recipe for these,” Craig says, reaching for the green stuff.

            Going against what my gut is trying to warn me against, I grab for the purple smoothie. At first, I’m not sure what to think of it, but then it practically explodes with flavor in my mouth. It's definitely a protein shake, but there's a grape-like overtone to it and it seems to be supported by other fruits that I can't identify. Moving on, I go for the salmon-colored one and take a quick sip. This one seems to be peach flavored and it’s absolutely perfect. I don’t think there’s a single thing I would change about it. Craig seems to be enjoying the kale chips, but I wouldn’t have expected him not to. It is his recipe, after all. From behind me, the bell above the door rings and Mat pokes his head out from the back room, looking for the customer.

            “Oh hey, Robert,” Mat greets. “What can I get you?”

            I draw my eyebrows together and look over to the counter to verify what I just heard. There, standing right by the baked goods case, is in fact, Robert. My eyes widen and I quickly examine him, trying to make sure I’m not seeing things. He has his back to us and just from where I’m sitting, I can tell he’s wearing new jeans. I doubt he saw us when he came in and I think that’s the only reason why I’m safe right now. How the hell do I keep managing to run into him like this? Craig kicks me from under the table and I snap my eyes back to him, feeling my cheeks warm up with unwanted blush. I was definitely starring at him for too long.

            “Goo-goo eyes!” He whisper-yells, pointing at me.

            Making a mad grab for the red smoothie, I start slugging it down to force myself to cool off. Okay, so maybe I do get goo-goo eyes around Robert. Is it really my fault? He’s attractive, sexy as hell, mysterious, and… Oh my god. I need to stop before the feelings travel down south. I glance over at him again, unsure if I should try to talk to him or not. When he turns to go find a seat, I quickly busy myself with grabbing a piece of bread that I don't need given how full my mouth is of smoothie. I gotta look like a chipmunk right now. Craig snatches the red one out of my hands before I can finish it off, trying to make sure there's enough for him to sample. The sound of heavy boots walk their way up to the table and even though I should look, I can’t bring myself to. I know who it is. I know what kind of situation I’m in. I’m in deep, deep trouble.

            “Do I even want to know what’s going on here?” Robert asks, a drink held in his hands.

            I slowly glance up at him, my cheeks still puffy with the smoothie. I force myself to swallow and gesture down to the plates. “Mat is having us taste his new health menu.”

            Robert makes a face and eyes the left-over kale chips suspiciously. “I think I gagged the last time I ate kale.”

            “No, that was the seaweed Mary forced you to try a few weeks ago,” I correct, almost immediately regretting it.

            Craig looks between the two of us and Robert raises his eyebrows as my face turns pink. Sensing that I need help out of the awkward moment, Craig offers Robert a kale chip. “You won’t hate these,” he says confidently. “It’s my own recipe.”

            Robert takes it and pops it into his mouth, chewing slowly. After a while, he provides a light shrug. “Not bad.”

            “Cody mentioned that you cook,” Craig then says, throwing me right under the bus. “Wanna pull up a chair and help us sample this stuff? I’m sure Mat wouldn’t mind extra input.”

            Thanks, Craig. “What? No. I didn’t say that,” I backtrack unsuccessfully. “That didn’t come from me.”

            Robert shoots me a side glance and I’m quick to look down at the table to get away from it. “I can spare a few minutes,” he says casually.

            Walking over to the next empty table, Robert grabs for a chair. I slide the plates over a bit on our table to make room for him, trying to keep myself distracted. Craig can see that I’m completely flustered and I can tell he wants to ask me about it, but he knows better than to do it when Robert is in earshot. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Mat coming out of the backroom with another plate full of samples. He seems to have gone above and beyond for this new health menu of his.

            “What brings you out to the Coffee Spoon, Robert?” Craig asks, leaning back against his chair as he nurses the red smoothie that I nearly finished off in one go. “I’ve hardly seen you around lately.”

            “Just making my rounds,” he says mysteriously, keeping his real agenda to himself.

            Craig looks to me as if he expects me to have the actual answer, but all I can do is shrug lightly. I have no idea what Robert actually does during the day. That man keeps everything he does locked up tight. Even when Ernest followed him around with binoculars for a full week, the kid managed to dig up nothing of substantial value. Honestly, Robert probably knew he was being followed and for the sake of Ernest’s investigation, he probably kept a low profile. Blinking away the thought, I reach for one of the no-bake energy balls and pop one into my mouth, chewing slowly. Normally, I wouldn’t mind the silence that is surrounding us right now. It’s not so bad when it’s just Robert and me because I both expect it and know he likes it. But with Craig in the mix? Somehow that makes it awkward. When I look up again, Craig’s eyes are on me and it’s almost as if he’s begging me to say something. Opening my mouth, I slowly turn to Robert.

            “So…” I start, pausing. “How’s your coffee?”

            “How do you know it’s coffee?” He asks in return.

            I go to answer, but stop myself before speaking. He has a point. I’ve worked in this shop long enough to recognize the smell of certain drinks and what he has in his hand is definitely not plain coffee. “You’re right. You’re drinking a Smashing Pumpkin Spiced Latte. Extra pumpkin spice.”

            Robert makes a face, giving my nose a funny look. “I’m going to ignore your impeccable sense of smell for a minute. On any other given day, you have about a million and one things to talk about, but today is the day you ask me how my drink is? You doing okay?”

            Alright, he has another point. It’s like I woke up this morning and completely forgot how to talk and act around him. Have I reverted back to my awkward high school days when I couldn’t socialize to save my life? Probably. The last time we hung out together completely messed my rhythm up. I used to know how to be around him and I used to know what to expect, but now it all feels funny. I have no idea what’s going on with him and I, in turn, have no idea how I should act around him. Does he need a hug? Does he want to joke around? Hell, does he want to throw me up against the nearest wall and fuck me senseless? He might want all three.

            “I have no idea what’s wrong with me,” I blurt.

            Robert sighs and turns to Craig, cooking up a plan. “Has he been to The Corner yet?”

            “I doubt it. He never leaves his house. Mat mentioned he was gonna take him, but got caught up,” Craig says, eyeing me with a slight smile on his cheeks.

            “We could take him. Might snap him out of this funk,” Robert offers, sipping his drink.

            “That might do the trick,” Craig agrees. “He’d totally love it, bro.”

            I raise my eyebrows, trying to keep up with the conversation. “I’m afraid to ask,” I say.

            “Bro, The Corner is this place around the block. You’re gonna love it,” Craig beams.

            Getting the sense that I don’t have much say in this adventure, I nod my head and turn back to the many samples before us. For a half-hour more, which is at least twenty-seven minutes longer than the few minutes Robert said he could spare, we finish off the samples and give Mat our raving feedback. Practically being dragged out by my hands, Craig and Robert take me out to the street where it now rains. I follow along in between them – feeling like the smallest one out of the bunch in the way of muscle – looking at each passing shop and store that pass by in hopes of gathering a clue or two. Coming around the corner, Robert clamps a hand over my eyes to prevent me from seeing where we’re headed. When I’m sure we’ve entered a building, I start listening intently to my surroundings. There’s some light chatter from people, the sound of somebody testing out a guitar under the music that plays throughout the place, and the sound of what I think is a cash register.

            “Get ready to be amazed, bro,” Craig says excitedly.

            When Robert lifts his hand away from my eyes, I blink a couple of times and am welcomed into a large music store. My jaw drops a bit and I look around in amazement, trying to wrap my head around it all. There’s just… So much. There’s a section for guitars and basses. There’s a section for pianos and drums. The entire center of the store is full of CDs and records. I think this is my own personal heaven. How have I lived in Maple Bay for this long and not know about this place? Actually, me not knowing about this place may have been a good thing. I might spend more time here instead of at my job.

            “This place is… Amazing,” I finally say, taking a half step forward.

            “Look at that. He’s like a kid in a candy store,” Robert teases, his arms crossed.

            Practically bursting in my place, I look between Robert and Craig with excited eyes. “Am I allowed to go explore?”

            Robert makes a gesture with his hand and I immediately bolt for the record section. This is like Disneyland for me. I love music stores just as much as Amanda loves thrift stores. Going straight for the older music, I feast my eyes on what feels like the entirety of my youth. There’s Radiohead, David Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd, and so much more. I can hardly process it all. Allowing myself to become completely immersed in my hunt, I begin to flip through each album carefully. I hardly notice Robert standing over my shoulder until he starts to laugh quietly. Jumping, I look over my shoulder at him with Radiohead’s The Bends record held in my hands.

            “There’s so much music here,” I say with a wide, happy smile. I’m not sure how Robert knew this place would boost my mood, but it did and I’m so grateful for it.

            “What’s the story behind that album?” He asks, pointing to what I have in my hands.

            Surprised by his curiosity, I feel myself start to beam. I think this is the happiest I’ve been all week. “This is one of the albums I always had playing in the house before we moved. Amanda really liked it and I’ve been meaning to get my vinyl collection going again, so I figured this was a good place to start,” I explain. “I lost most of my collection after Alex passed. Had to sell it to keep paying rent.”

            Robert crowds into my space then, making me bump up against the display shelf. My cheeks start to burn red and my eyes drop down to his lips, but then he holds up an album in between us and I realize he wasn’t just crowding into my space for no reason. He was, in fact, reaching for an album behind me. Blushing hotter now, I take a look at it and audibly gasp. Now, this is a surprise.

            “Tom Petty’s Wildflowers?” I take the album out of his hands and flip it to the back. “I’m impressed, Robert.”

            “Tom Petty has a natural talent for telling stories. It’s practically research for my own stories,” Robert defends with a shrug.

            “Or, you have a soft spot for Tom Petty,” I counter, detecting the real reason.

            “Who doesn’t have a soft spot for Tom Petty? Has he ever put out one bad song?”

            Laughing, I decide I’ll be buying this album too. There’s no way I can pass it up now. Turning back around, I try not to pay attention to the way Robert puts his hand on my lower back to lean over for another album and I definitely try not to pay attention to how fucking good he smells. I glance over at him and take a closer look, realizing that he looks abnormally put together. He shaved, his clothes aren’t wrinkled, and his hair is less of a mess. Looking back up at his face, I open my mouth and want to say something, but the words get trapped in my mouth. Have I fallen into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers universe and this person before me is not actually Robert? Looking for a distraction, I spot Craig on the other side of the aisle looking at some of the first Aerosmith albums. I don’t think I’ve listened to those since college.

            “Hey, Craig. Remember when we got our asses busted that one time for playing Van Halen until three in the morning?” I ask, recalling the hazy and fond memory.

            “Bro! Of course, I remember,” Craig says with a proud laugh. “Wasn’t that also the same night we got high and had to pretend we were sober?”

            Robert raises an eyebrow, turning to me. “You’ve been high before?”

            “To be completely fair, it wasn’t our fault,” I clarify. “Alex accidentally got her batches mixed up and gave us the pot brownies when she came to grab Amanda. I ate three before I realized what happened. It was also finals week and I had an exam in the morning.”

            Robert laughs to himself and turns back to browsing, saving that information for later. I’m not entirely sure why, but I feel like him knowing that secret is going to find a way to bite me in the ass later.

              

            Almost like a child, I pull out each of the albums I bought and set them out on the coffee table. It cost quite a bit of money, but I was able to get ten records to jump-start my collection once again. Robert leans up against the breakfast bar and he watches me carefully, taking in my happy expression. I think he’s finally starting to understand my passion for music. It goes above and beyond almost anything else. Music has been my number one for as long as I can remember, right next to my loves for drawing, reading, writing, and even cinema. All of the albums I bought today come from different areas of my life and they all mean so much to me. And to finally be able to own them all again? That’s huge. I needed this kind of boost.

            “You haven’t stopped smiling since we left the store,” Robert points out.

            I look over to him and nod, unable to hide my bursting excitement. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to do this.”

            Robert’s eyes flicker between the albums and my face and he goes to say something, but the sound of thunder cuts him off short. Drawing my eyebrows together, I turn around and peek outside the window to see what’s going on outside. I figured we would be getting a lot of rain today, I just didn’t expect a full-blown out storm. At the first flash of lightning, I smile and push off the couch to go to my backdoor.

            “What are you doing?” Robert asks, standing from the bar-stool. “It’s raining out there.”

            I pull open the sliding door and gesture for him to follow me. I step outside, keeping myself under the porch cover. I cross my arms over my chest and look up towards the sky, watching as another loud clap of thunder shakes through the city. Robert eventually joins me by my side, but he’s not watching the storm. Instead, he’s watching me. He’s watching the micro-expressions that I wear and the happiness that bursts through my eyes at every flash of lightning.

            “Didn’t take you for someone who likes storms,” he comments casually, looking away.

            “I never got to see too many of them where I grew up. We’d get maybe three or four a year,” I explain, tearing my eyes away from the sky. “I love the rain, but I love storms too.”

            For a little while longer, we watch the storm until I get too cold and have to go inside again. I wrap my arms around myself as I migrate into my living room once more, eyeing the TV with an idea popping into my head. Robert is hanging out with me and I need to use that to my advantage. Turning towards the kitchen where he stands, I give him a look.

            “Come put a movie on,” I say with a gesture, knowing it’ll get him to loosen up.

            Wordlessly, he comes into the living room and drops down to his knees by my decent collection of DVDs and Blue Rays. While he’s doing that, I call in an order for pizza and it takes everything I have in me to not sound eager. I’m not sure why, but the idea of watching a movie with Robert while there’s a storm outside is really appealing to me. You read about these moments all the time in books and they’re often romanticized in movies, so the fact that I’m actually getting the chance to experience this myself with the guy I love? I can’t pass that up.

            “So about today,” Robert starts, plopping down on the couch with his arm thrown over the back. “What’s going on with you? You can’t even look at me without looking like you’re a deer caught in the headlights.”

            I freeze momentarily as I go to sit down beside him, feeling my heart skip a beat. I figured he would pick up on that sooner or later, I just hoped it would be later. Like, for example, when he’s no longer here and I can just pop off some witty comment over Dadbook about it. Clearing my throat, I keep my arms crossed over my chest and stare intently at the coffee table. How can I word this without sounding pathetic?

            “I don’t know…” I start, cringing at myself. “I think I forgot how to act around you. The last time we hung out… I just…”

            Robert glances at the TV where the movie waits to be played, but he doesn’t dare press play yet. It’s rare for him to initiate this kind of a conversation, so I know he must truly be curious about it. Surely, he must know why I can’t function around him anymore. It can’t all be in my head, can it?  

            “I feel like I’m back at stage one, if that makes sense,” I try to clarify after a minute. “We’re in a really weird spot right now. We’re teetering on what we want and what we should do. Or… I think that we are. I obviously can’t read your mind. But It’s messing with my head. For some reason, I just get so flustered around you. Craig likes to call it goo-goo eyes or whatever. You know I want you and I think a part of me worries that I’m going to somehow mess up.”

            Suddenly, his arm drops down to around my shoulders and almost immediately I stiffen up. He did that on purpose. He’s testing out a theory, testing to see how serious I am about what I said. With a gentle hand, he turns my face so I have to look at him and there’s something so caring in his eyes that I almost melt. I know the topic is centered around me, but what the hell is going on with him right now? What is this? He hardly ever looks at me like he is. It feels like he cares, like he… Like he loves me? I don’t know. I’m probably reading too much into it.

            “You gotta chill out, kid. I’m not going anywhere and I know you know that,” he says. “I meant what I told you last time we hung out. It has been a long time since I’ve felt something for someone in the way that I do with you, alright? You still got me.”

            My cheeks are so red right now and I can even feel it in my ears, but I don’t care. Somehow, he knew exactly what to say to make me feel a little better. “I want to kiss you,” I blurt and the amount of dread that follows that I feel for opening my mouth cannot be expressed in a simple string of words. What the hell was that?

            Robert smiles and nods his head, seemingly agreeing with my brain vomit. “One,” he says, giving me permission.

            Oh. I was not expecting him to allow it. Hell, I shouldn’t even be agreeing to it. I should say no, I should hold it out, but I’m moving long before I can talk myself out of it. I lean forward and kiss him gently, feeling several emotions erupt inside of me at once. His lips are soft and gentle and they draw me in, making it hard to think. I want to stay here forever. I want to pull him into my arms and kiss him until my lips are swollen, but he said one and I have to respect that. Pulling away, I let out a shaky breath and rest my forehead against his.

            “Feel better?” He asks, nudging his nose against mine.

            “A little,” I say quietly and I don’t have it in me to sound confident. I needed to feel that, just this once. It’s been months since I’ve been able to kiss him and although it was only one, it’s enough. I feel secure again, like I found my footing. He’s still mine even though we’re apart. I don’t have to worry about making a fool out of myself, I don’t have to worry about driving him away, and I don’t have to worry about him falling for someone else. He’s mine just as much as I am his. He’s gotta know how much he means to me now.

            “Just a little longer,” he says, keeping the side of my face held in his hand.

            I press against his touch and cover his hand with my own, trying to get closer to him in any way I can. I could easily stay like this for the next few hours, but unfortunately the pizza is here and I have to answer the knocking on the door. Sighing, I pull away from him and go do my job, giving the delivery girl a healthy tip for coming out here while the weather is horrendous. Closing the door behind me, I hold the pizza up happily and smile.

            “Hungry?” I ask, setting the box down on the coffee table. “Half Hawaiian, half pepperoni.”

            “I know you’re referring to the pizza, but all I can see is your ass right now, so…” He comments flirtatiously, winking at me when I look back with widened eyes.

            Awkwardly, I scurry off to the kitchen for paper plates and I grab some napkins just in case we make a mess. I can feel Robert’s eyes on me the entire time and somehow, I don’t feel like I’m under a microscope this time. This moment with him feels entirely natural. So, when I take my place right beside him and we start eating as the movie plays, I let go of everything I was feeling. He and I are going to make it, one way or another. About halfway through the movie, I end up with my head in his lap and I’m not even watching what’s on the screen anymore. No... Instead, I’m playing with his hand and I’m realizing that no matter where I go in my life, he’s coming with me. Our bond with each other is too strong to walk away from each other now. That’s what I was feeling in the kiss. I’ll hang on for a little while longer because he needs me to.

            And although I’m about to go through something tragic within the next few weeks, I know I have him. He’s always going to be there.

Chapter Text

Winter

They never really tell you how to prepare for it.

            In truth, I know there’s no way to truly be ready for something like this. It just happens and suddenly your world is taken out from underneath you. You can never prepare for it and the fallout that comes after is always the same. It’s devastating and it’s blinding. I would have thought that because I have already been through this before, it would be easier to go through it now, but it’s not. It hurts just the same and it feels like it’s never going to go away. With time, I know it will. It has to. The pain will fade out and my life will go on like it’s supposed to. But it’s not the future that I’m worried about. It’s now. Because now? It hurts. Now? I want to shut myself away until I feel okay again… until I’m secure.

            It all happened so fast. He wasn’t even supposed to be in Maple Bay. It was all meant to be a happy surprise and it went so wrong. All I got out of it was a broken wrist and some bruises, but him? I… I can’t even bring myself to think about it. I saw it happen and it’s still plaguing my mind. I want to get rid of the memory, I want to walk away and pretend it never happened. That would be the easy way out, at least. I wanted to wait until tomorrow. I wanted to wait until the rain cleared up and I wanted to wait because I wanted to stay in. But he wanted to go out… and I told him sure. I should have put my foot down and I should have told him no. Now I have to live with it. It’s not my fault, I know that… but the guilt. It’s tearing me up on the inside. It should have been me… why wasn’t it me?

             

            I snap my book closed and glance over at my computer, pressing my lips together in a thin line. He’s been unusually quiet lately and I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anyone to make sure the man is still breathing. Throwing my legs off the side of my bed, I force myself up and plop right into my desk chair. Christmas is in a few days now and knowing how Robert gets around the holidays, I feel obligated to make sure he’s doing okay. The monitor slowly wakes up as I tap on the space bar, waiting to log into Dadbook. When I finally manage to get there, I pop over to Robert’s profile and stare blankly at the blinking text cursor in the type box. What do I even say to him? If he wanted to talk, he probably would have messaged me or texted me by now, right? Unless he’s too nervous? Unless he doesn’t want to bother me? Shaking the thought, I force myself to write something. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just… Robert science.

 

To Robert:
Hey, I haven’t heard from you. Are you
doing alright?

            I quickly erase that message before I can even think about pressing send, deciding that it’s way too blunt. There’s gotta be a way I can reach out to him without sounding entirely desperate. How do normal people do this? Actually, I can’t even ask that question. Robert and I are about as far away from normal as two people can get. That kiss that he let me have a few weeks ago? I can’t get it out of my head. It’s trapped there, stuck on constant replay.

 

To Robert:
Hey, you wanna go out and do something?
I haven’t heard from you for a few days.
It’s totally fine if you’re busy.
People get….

            I press my finger firmly against the backspace button and slam my head down onto my desk. Is this what Amanda means when she tells me she doesn’t know how to talk to people sometimes? Is this what teenagers go through when they’re trying to text their crush? I need a crash course on social norms. Nothing makes sense anymore. How would I have done this back before texting was a thing? Suddenly, Dadbook makes a sound and I lift my head to find a message from Robert.

 

From Robert:
you know it tells me when
you’re typing right

            Figures. That would be my luck. When did they add that feature? Sighing, I write back to him without overthinking my response this time. This is just Robert for crying out loud. The most he could do to me is glare me to death. I think. Actually, that guy could probably come up with at least twelve different ways to kill me with a fork.

 

To Robert:
Sorry. Been wondering where you’ve

been. Haven’t heard from you.

            There. That wasn’t so bad. Quick and easy and to the point. What I really wanted to say consisted of mentioning that I miss him and that I’m worried about him, but I thought it was best to leave those parts out. He needs my support right now, not my miserable emotions. Support the guy first, then let him have my dumb schoolboy feelings. I can manage that just fine.

 

From Robert:
been busy

From Robert:
sorry

From Robert:
I’m not doing anything if you
want to hang out

            I perk up a little bit, please to see that he’s actually available tonight. We haven’t hung out much since we kissed and although we’ve definitely seen each other around town since then, I miss being alone with him. Maybe he and I can find something to do around here tonight? I wouldn’t say no to a movie. We seem to have a common interest in them.

 

To Robert:
Oh, yeah. Okay. When?

From Robert:
I’m already in your living room

From Robert:
come help

From Robert:
Max is eating me alive

            What the hell? I click off my computer and slide out of my chair lazily, marching my way out to my living room where I find exactly what he said I would. There, sprawled out on my couch, is Robert and he’s being attacked by my not-so-little Max. She licks at him and whines playfully, pawing at him for his undivided attention. I watch happily as he gives that attention to her, scratching her in all of the places that make her go berserk. She pretty much flops over onto him and he giggles quietly, kissing her mercilessly. He’s so happy with the dogs. Only Betsy and Max seem to be able to draw that kind of smile out of him. I’ll have to take notes.

            “Now how come you’ve never kissed me like that?” I ask, grinning as I move to stand in front of the coffee table casually. “Have you been holding out on me?”

            Robert lifts his head and beckons me forward. “Well, come here then, sweetheart. I’ll kiss you in any way you want,” he says alluringly followed by a wink as Max hops out of his lap.

            “You’re hilarious,” I deadpan, walking around the table to plop down right beside him.

            Robert raises his eyebrows and twists to face me, tucking one leg under the other. “And here I thought you liked kissing me?”

            Trying to fight the blush that insists on crawling onto my face at the worst times possible, I shake my head and look bravely into his searching eyes. “Oh, I do. Trust me.”

            Getting a rather mischievous glimmer in his eyes, Robert leans in dangerously close and cups the side of my face in the way he knows gets to me the most. I know he’s just fucking around, but it’s so hard to not let myself cave in when it’s all I want to do. I like the way he feels against me. Gently, he pushes me back against the cushions and his lips ghost around against the joint of my jaw, teasing me playfully. I grin wide and roll my eyes, enjoying this a little too much.

            “Then why don’t you let me?” He asks, his voice low when he presses a kiss against my neck.

            You know what? I don’t always have to be the chicken one in these situations. Two can play at this dirty game of ours. Moving quickly, I grab him by the shoulders and pin him onto his back, straddling either side of his upper thighs as he automatically unfolds his legs for me. Hovering above him, I dive down and hold my lips only a couple of centimeters above his. I’m keeping myself on the edge, daring him to make the move. I’m not sure why we keep teasing each other like this, but I don’t care right now… God, I want him…

            “You know why,” I breathe, feeling him tense up beneath me with excitement. He wasn’t expecting me to throw his own game back at him. Hell, I wasn’t expecting it either. If I told him to stop, he would, but I don’t want him to. I like this and I almost need it. It reminds me of what we have, of the passion we have burning in between us at any given moment.

            Robert grasps my hips and pulls me further against him, making me grind down right where I’ve been wanting to go with him for months now. “We can be bad for a little while…”

            My lips move to the soft spot below his ear, that very same spot that makes him squirm, and I kiss him there. He sighs and his fingers dig into my hips, begging me to keep going. “We’ve been bad before…” I remind him.

            Trying to win this battle that we seem to have tangled ourselves in, Robert skillfully pushes himself up and back down over me effortlessly. I look at him in awe, my legs still wrapped around his waist. How did he make that maneuver feel so smooth like that? He grins almost and pins my hands above my head with one of his, keeping me perfectly trapped in the way he knows I secretly like. He’s changing the game. Fuck, I want him…

            “I’ve made improvements,” he says slowly, his eyes looking between mine. “There’s no reason why we can’t pick up where we left off…”

            “I want you… I want us. You know I do,” I reply. “But you also know why we can’t yet.”

            “You never tell me to stop,” he points out, an eyebrow cocked.

            “Because I don’t want you to,” I admit freely.

            My heart is slamming against my chest with anticipation. Where did my sense of reason go? I want him just as bad as he clearly wants me. Drawing an invisible line from my lips, Robert feels my body all the way down to my belt and he winks at me when he slides his hand right over my crotch. I struggle to choke back my sigh and unwind my legs for him, unable to keep them there anymore. Robert watches my expressions carefully, slowly rubbing me through my jeans. I’m getting lost in how this feels, remembering how good he used to make me feel. I remember all of the times he pushed me up against walls, pressed me into his bed… shit. I should be telling him no. I should tell him that we need to stop before we go too far because the time isn’t right, but I’m losing the battle in my own head. His body against mine feels too good and I need him more than I’m willing to admit. Pulling against his grip on my hands, I feel my back arch up a little bit as I fall deeply into arousal. No, no, no… Cody, what are you doing?

            “Why do I… always have to be… the responsible one?” I struggle out, trying to keep my head as clear as possible. I feel like we’re teenagers going behind our parents' backs to do stuff were definitely not allowed to do and it feels so good. It’s dangerous, rebellious. I like this.

            “I’m plenty responsible,” he says bluntly and almost defensively.

            I huff out a breath of doubt and look up at him, knowing he’s full of shit. Because he’s not holding me as tightly as he would if we were really going to do this, I slip one hand free and move it to the side of his face. His hand stills on me and he presses into my touch, closing his eyes. This sight almost makes me sad. He misses the way I feel against him too and it’s not even in a sexual matter. He misses my little touches just as much as I miss his. I want nothing more than to let him make love to me right where we lay, but one of us has to keep us on track. I’m in love with him and it’s because of that very reason that I have to make sure we keep it in our pants for a little while longer. I’m protecting us from jumping the gun. I won’t let us fall back into the same patterns. Pulling him down, I kiss the corner of his mouth and I let my lips linger there for a moment.

            “Not yet, baby,” I say quietly, smiling sadly.

            Robert sighs and collapses down on top of me, completely smashing me into the cushions. I exhale roughly as he practically knocks the wind out of me with his heavy weight and I move my hand to the back of his head. I weave my fingers into his hair and take the time to appreciate how soft and thick it is. I now know why we keep doing this with each other when we both know we shouldn’t be. It would have been easier on both of us had we took the time to straighten out our lives before starting a relationship. But we didn’t and now it’s harder. We’ve had a taste of each other, we know what each other feels like, and now that it’s gone? We both crave it so badly. I miss his body and I miss the way he makes me feel. Most importantly, I miss him. I don’t hate that he pushes me up against walls and couches because I shamelessly enjoy it. It reminds me of what I get to share with him. He’s mine and mine only.

            “You’re killing me, Cody,” he grumbles against my shoulder.

            I laugh a little and wrap my other arm around his back, slipping it under his heavy leather jacket. “I don’t think you realize just how hard it is for me to be responsible when you’re on me like this,” I point out.

            I can practically feel Robert grinning. I totally walked into this. He grinds his hips down on me and I gasp, pressing my head back into the throw pillow I rest against. “Oh, I think I got a pretty good idea, Cocoapuffs,” he says broadly and he shakes with laughter.

            “Okay, the idea is to let it go down without making me change my pants,” I remind him. “As tempting as it would be,” I quickly throw on.

            Robert laughs again and I shake my head, realizing that I’ve allowed myself to fall in love with the biggest dork in Maple bay. How I managed to do that is completely beyond me. I like to think it has something to do with how attractive he is, but I know it has everything to do with who he is as a person. He’s that mysterious guy that lives in my cul-de-sac. He’s the bad dad. He’s the guy that everyone is slightly afraid of, so of course my dumbass fell for him. The mysteriousness was what drew me to him in the first place. I wanted to know more about him and although I know he’s a giant dork now, there is still a ton of mystery that surrounds him. Like, what the hell does he do for a living? Nobody knows. And I’m sure if I asked, he would give me a different answer each time. Still, I love him for it. He keeps me guessing and when it gets down to it, I know he’ll give me the answers I need.

            “Aren’t we supposed to be hanging out? And not trying to screw each other into tomorrow?” I ask, flattening my hand out against his back. Has he been working out? He feels different… He feels stronger.

            “Technically, we are. I’m hanging out on top of you and you’re hanging out underneath me,” he says, muffled by my shoulder.

            “Normal people don’t just lay on each other when they hang out, Robert,” I say blandly.

            “Where’s Amanda at?” He asks, completely changing the subject.

            I roll my eyes, knowing that I can get away with it because he can’t see my face. “She’s over with Craig and his kids. She’s been cooped up in here ever since she came home for break and wanted to go do something.”

            Robert remains silent and I’m about to relax underneath him, but then someone knocks on my front door. I draw my eyebrows together and glance at the clock. It’s nearly nine. Who the hell would be coming over now? The only person I know who would come knocking on my door at this hour is currently laying on top of me.

            “Ignore it. I don’t want to get off of you. Maybe they’ll go away,” Robert suggests, turning his head so he can speak clearly.

            I sigh, knowing it won’t be that easy. It never is. “It’s probably Mary again,” I say. “I’ve been helping her out with groceries and stuff since she went back home.”

            Robert still doesn’t bother to move and, because of his laziness, I have to hoist up his dead weight as best to slip out from underneath him. Falling to the floor with a painful thud, I wince and try not to pay attention to Robert’s helpless giggles as he finally sits up. Asshole. Pulling myself up, I march straight to the front door. Whoever this is, they better have a good reason for bugging me. I was perfectly okay with laying underneath Robert for a little while. When I get it open, though, it’s not Mary who I find standing on my little porch. In fact, it’s not anyone from the cul-de-sac. I stare with widening eyes, unsure if what I’m seeing is real. Am I hallucinating from hitting my head only seconds ago? What the hell is he doing in Maple Bay?

            “Tyler?” I ask, completely caught off guard. Did we arrange for him to come over and I somehow completely forgot about it? Have I finally gone crazy?

            My brother smiles slightly at the sight of me, pleased that he got the right house on the first try. “Hey, baby brother. Mind if I come in for a little while?”

            Stiffly, I step aside to let him out of the rain and when he enters, he eyes Robert who is still sat on my couch with one leg thrown over the other. Closing the door before all of the heat in my house can be sucked out, I look to my brother again and try to understand what’s happening here. I don’t recall inviting him over and I definitely don’t recall him telling me that he’s coming over so suddenly.

            “You have no idea what I went through to get here,” Tyler says, plopping down on the armchair. “Julia and Olivia would not get off my back.

            In any other circumstance, I would be excited to see my brother, but I feel like I’m missing something important. What’s going on? “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re here but… why are you here, Tyler? It’s not like we live down the street from each other. You live on the other side of the country.”

            My brother nods, patting Max’s head when she comes out to investigate the new guest. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I guess I should have called. I was going crazy back at home and I needed some time away. I figured I could come out to visit you.”

            Taking a seat beside Robert, I try to see things from my brother’s perspective. Was he trying to surprise me? “That’s fine, I just wasn’t expecting you any time soon. That’s all,” I say, trying to keep my voice casual.

            Tyler looks around the room, spotting several pictures of Amanda and several of my discreetly framed drawings. His eyes linger a bit on the picture of Alex that I keep on the end table beside the couch, but he is quick to jump back into the conversation. “Well, uh… How are things? It’s good to see that you and Robert are still together. What’s going on with you two?”

            My eyes flicker to Robert’s, feeling a rock drop in my stomach. I really didn’t want to have to bring this stuff back up. “We actually bro–”

            “–Cody still can’t flirt worth a damn, but he gives it his best shot,” Robert interjects. “I’m actually thinking about introducing him to my daughter soon.”

            I draw my eyebrows together and shoot him a look, unsure of what the hell he’s doing. Robert, completely ignoring that look, throws an arm around my shoulders and he pulls me closer against him to support what he just said. Tyler watches us with a fond expression, completely oblivious to the real situation. Robert and I aren’t together. We haven’t been for months.

            “Oh, so you’re a dad too. That’s really cool,” he says. “How old is she?”

            “She just turned 25,” Robert answers and he didn’t even have to think about it this time. “She’s coming down to visit in a couple of weeks.”

            Has he been talking to Val? Is she really coming down in a couple of weeks? Why am I just now hearing about this? Robert can have some of the worst communication skills sometimes. I’ll have to ask him about it when Tyler isn’t around.

            “Oh, no way. You look too young to have a kid that old,” Tyler says, laughing a little in disbelief. “Did you have her young like Cody did? Or… I mean. Unless you adopted… W-Which is totally fine.”

            “My wife and I had her at around seventeen or eighteen. We were too young, but we did what we could to support her.”

            I look between my brother and Robert, feeling really weird about this conversation. Robert seems so calm talking about this stuff when I know he hates being so open about his life. It’s hard enough for me to figure out when he ate last, let alone when he talked to Val last. Is he just sucking it up for my sake? I have so many questions and they’re burning a hole in my mind. Flushing, I settle my wavering attention on Tyler with the most forced smile on my cheeks.

            “So, you’re in Maple Bay,” I bridge, hoping to give Robert a break. “How long are you going to be here for?”

            “A few days,” he says with a shrug. “I’m staying at a hotel not too far away from here. I was actually wondering if you guys wanted to do something tonight? I know it’s kinda late, but it’s Friday…”

            I glance at the clock. It is getting pretty late and the rain outside isn’t going to let up anytime soon. “Oh, uh… I dunno…”

            Robert squeezes my shoulders as if to tell me to stop being so square. He would have no problem with going out right now. Part of me wonders if he’s just agreeing to spite me. “There’s a nice bar a little way into town. It’s probably more your speed,” he says.

            Tyler grins and claps his hands together. “Great! I’ll drive.”

            None of us get very far, though. As soon as Tyler pulls his car keys out, Amanda is bursting in through the front door with her bright yellow raincoat on and a flashlight held in her hands. She freezes in the entryway, looking between the three of us who stare right back at her. She wasn’t expecting so many people to be in here tonight. As far as she knew, I was on my own. She then looks at how Robert and I are sitting and she can just tell by the look in my eyes that there are more variables to the equation than what she sees.

            “Oh hey, Panda,” I say, squinting a bit. “I thought you were over with Craig and his kids for the night?”

            Amanda nods, closing the front door before Max can even think about bolting out of it. “I am. Craig just took us to get frozen yogurt. The twins and I are ghost hunting now. I have extra flashlights in my room.”

            Normally, I would advise not playing outside when it’s raining as heavily as it is, but I know there’s no stopping my kid. She will hunt those ghosts no matter what. “I see.”

            “If you’re hunting ghosts, I’d stay away from the cemetery,” Robert warns.

            Amanda smiles a little, putting her hands on her hips. “Lots of cryptids there?”

            “Tons of em’,” he nods.

            My daughter’s eyes flicker over to Tyler and it doesn’t take her a whole lot of time to figure out who this random guy is. She then looks to me and then back to him, her shock settling over her. Up until now, she hadn’t ever met my brother. “Are you… uncle Tyler?”

            My brother stands from the armchair and sticks his hand out for her to shake. “I am. You must be Amanda. You look a lot like your mom.”

            Amanda beams and rushes over to shake his hand. “And you look a lot like my dad. Or, my dad looks a lot like you…? You guys look alike.”

            “We’ve been hearing that since the dawn of time,” I say with a mild groan. “Panda, we’re actually on our way out. You gonna be okay until I get back?”

            Amanda nods eagerly. “I’ll be fine. After we go ghost hunting, Craig is going to set up a movie and we’re all going to camp out in his living room.”

            “You’re in good hands, then,” I say as I pull away from Robert and stand from the couch. “Text me if you need anything, alright? I’ll have my phone on me.”

            Rushing over, Amanda gives a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You got it, pops. Go have some fun. But not too much.”

            Before I get to dad her even more, Amanda bolts off to her room and I laugh. Turning back to my brother, I see something in his face that reads as admiration. Although it was brief, that was his first encounter with my daughter. I hope they get to see each other more. It’s good for her to get to know her family. “Sorry. She’s a ball of energy,” I apologize. “We better get going before it gets any later.”

            “She’s like a carbon copy of Alex. It’s insane,” Tyler says as he zips up his jacket. “I’ll go warm up the car.”

            Tyler then dashes out of the house and I have to grab Robert’s arm to stop him from following. I may have been briefly distracted by my daughter’s sudden appearance, but I haven’t forgotten about the million and one questions I have. “What is going on?” I ask quietly, shoving my feet into my shoes.

“I figured telling him we’re still together was a little easier than explaining we decided to take some time apart because we’re both a little fucked up and needed to clean up our acts,” Robert explains, grabbing my raincoat from the edge of the couch for me.

            “And the Val part?”

            “I will explain the Val part later. Right now, we need to handle your brother.”

            Sighing, I snatch my coat out of his hands and take care of Max before heading out. The rain seems to only be getting heavier by the second and as Tyler drives down the road, I force myself to let go of my curiosity and relax. Robert sits behind me, occasionally giving directions to wherever the hell we’re going. I’m sure Tyler would have been fine with Jim and Kim’s, but I have a feeling he’s trying to cater to Tyler’s refined pallet. All Tyler knows is high quality this and high quality that. It’s how we were raised. Taking a deep breath quietly, I cross one leg over the other and begin to tap mindlessly on my thigh. Driving without music is always so uncomfortable to me, but Tyler has always been this way. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

            “Cody, I am sorry about popping up like this out of nowhere. I really should have called,” Tyler says, turning his blinker on as we prepare to make a turn. “You’re just… You’re my little brother and I want to spend as much time as I can with you. I know things back at home aren’t exactly ideal for that, so I thought I’d make it easier on both of us.”

            I smile a little, turning to look at my brother. He may have been the child our parents preferred, but he was the only hero I had growing up. I hate that we lost so much time because of a stupid argument. “I get it. You’re welcome over any time. I’m sure Amanda would love to get to know you.”

            Robert and Tyler then engage in a conversation and I find myself zoning out. Is this how my life is supposed to be? With my brother in my life and Robert being the person that I love? It feels good. I never had much of a family and it never really bothered me because I had Amanda and Alex, but a part of me always wondered. Life has taken me in so many different directions and I think there’s a reason for that somewhere out in the universe. Everything I have done in my life has led me here and, yeah… It’s a little broken and messed up. Robert and I are still trying to figure ourselves out and I can tell just by looking at Tyler that he has something important to tell me. This night is going to be a long one.

Chapter Text

“This bar is amazing!” Tyler exclaims over the music.

            I watch him with a smile, appreciating how happy he seems to be. “I’ll be the designated driver if you guys want to drink,” I offer, looking between them.

            “Fine by me,” Robert instantly agrees, flagging down one of the waitresses.

            Tyler snatches the menu and slides it over to himself, deciding on what he wants for the night. Robert casually relaxes against the leather booth seat and he throws his arm around my shoulders again, pulling me against his body. I flush under the dim lights and try not to pay much attention to it, but it’s so hard not to. Even through the smell of the bar – which smells exactly like fried food and beer –, I can smell his cologne and it’s making it hard for me to think. I might kill him for it later. The waitress bounces up to our table and she’s a cute woman, I think. She has light brown hair and striking blue eyes. She wears a black cocktail dress, but I suspect that’s a part of the bar’s uniform. She smiles at the three of us and pulls out a notepad, getting ready to take our order.

            “Hey, guys. Welcome to The Reed. My name is Sarah and I’ll be your server for the night,” she greets cheerfully. “What can I get started for you? Our bourbon is pretty popular tonight.”

            “I will do the Mint Julep,” Tyler orders, smiling. I know this girl is his type, I can tell just by the way he’s looking at her, and it occurs to me now that he’s not wearing his wedding ring. What the hell happened between him and Olivia? Is that why he’s here?

            “Whiskey on the rocks,” Robert order smoothly. “And let’s get the kid a Shirley Temple.”

            Sarah nods and scribbles down the rest of our order. “Okay, got it. One Mint Julep, one whiskey on the rocks, and a Shirley Temple. Is there anything else?”

            Tyler leans back against the booth and glances down at the menu again. “Let’s throw in a round of waters and two large fries.”

            “Perfect. I’ll be back with your drinks shortly,” Sarah says with a wink before walking off.

            Tyler watches her as she goes and I decide then that I can’t hold my tongue. He’s my brother and I have to figure out what’s going on. I lightly kick him under the table and he looks at me with a raised eyebrow. I probably shouldn’t be so upfront about this, but what other choice do I have? It’s either I ask now or forget about it later.

            “You’re not wearing a wedding ring,” I say, gesturing to his left hand.

            “I’m not,” Tyler confirms with a nervous laugh, looking down at his left hand. “I uh… I decided to file for divorce. That’s kind of why I’m over here. I needed to get away for a bit.”

            Taking in the news, I find myself scooting closer to Robert subconsciously. As awful as it is, I kind of always expected things to go this way between them. Olivia never really loved my brother. She was always interested in the fresh meat she could sink her fangs into. Hell, she was always more interested in me than she was with him. I hate that my brother has to go through this and I know he’s gotta be hurting, but this is for the best. He can move on now and find someone who will actually love him. If he’s interested in our waitress, then okay. He should be. The guy has been with the same girl since high school. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I was in the same boat for a long time. Had Alex not passed, she and I would still be together today.

            “I’m sorry,” I say after a pause.

            Sarah comes back with our drinks and she passes them out to us, smiling at Tyler before leaving. My brother grabs his drink and he sips on it too, getting into the mindset he needs to be to have this conversation. If I didn’t have to be the driver for tonight, I’d probably be drinking too.

            “Don’t be. I know she wasn’t faithful to me and… Honestly, I think a part of me only stuck it out this long for mom’s sake,” he says honestly. “She’s going to be living with mom until she gets things sorted out. It just sucks because we were trying for a baby. I didn’t find out until last month that she was still taking birth control.”

            My heart sinks a little. Tyler hasn’t got to experience the things I have with being a father. The guy has been in and out of the military since he was eighteen and I guess he just never got the chance to have a kid. “You’re still young, Tyler. There’s still time.”

            Tyler shrugs his shoulders and gestures to our drinks. “I don’t want to drag the mood down. I want to have some fun tonight. You think you can keep up with me, Robert?”

            Robert laughs and holds his drink up, gesturing with it. “I think you should be asking yourself that, chief. This is my area of expertise,” he says as he flags down Sarah again.

            I know exactly where this is going to go and it’s going to be interesting. Tyler smiles and cracks his knuckles, getting ready for the battle. “Bring it on, tough guy,” he says tauntingly.

            I gulp, looking between my brother and my ex-boyfriend. “Tyler, you’re going to die,” I warn and the panic in my voice doesn’t go unnoticed.

            As Robert puts an order in for shots, Tyler winks at me. I should give my brother more credit, but I’ve seen Robert drink. He’s basically a professional at it. He can put down a lot of shots before he can even be considered tipsy. It’s insane. Coming back with the shots, the waters, and the fries we ordered a bit ago, Sarah leaves us to our doomed competition. Part of me wishes I could join in on this fun. Robert serves out one shot for each of them and without any fear, he knocks it back easily. They go in for their second one and then their third, staring each other down. I watch with astonishment, feeling worried. They’re going to drink themselves to death or until their livers drop out of their asses. By the time they finish, Tyler is swaying a bit and I can tell just by the look in Robert’s eyes that he’s feeling it too, but he doesn’t dare let it show. He has to keep up with his appearance.

            “Okay, you got me,” Tyler says in defeat, raising his hands.

            “I warned you,” I say, nursing my Shirley Temple. “You guys are crazy.”

            Robert laughs and slumps against me a bit, loosening up with the alcohol that pumps through his body. “Cody, drinking is a fine art. You’ll understand once you’re older.”

            I glower at him. Why do I have to be the baby of the group? “Tyler is only two years older than me. You’re maybe five. That argument hardly counts.”

            “Justify it any way you want. You’re still a baby,” Robert comments, reaching for his whiskey.

            I rest my head back against the leather seat, trying not to lose my mind too early in the night. “Okay, fine. I’m the baby. I’m a thirty-seven year old baby.”

            “See, there you go,” Tyler beams, watching us carefully. 

            I shake my head and take another sip from my drink. Robert and Tyler are a dangerous combination. They both know too much about me. This adventure of ours could easily turn around and bite me in the ass. Nervously, I shift around in my seat and I narrow my eyes when I feel Robert leaning over to kiss my temple. What is he doing? It’s gotta be the alcohol, right? He can act sober all he wants, but I know those shots are hitting him now. It won’t be long before he and my brother are completely wasted.

            “Oh, I got a great idea,” Tyler slurs as he snatches my phone from where I left it by the wall on the table. “Every couple should have some cute bar pictures. Olivia and I have tons of them. They’re good to look back on.”

            Robert and I exchange a look. I can tell he’s all for it, but I’m hesitant. We are not a couple, but we’re having to act like one thanks to Robert’s clever little lie earlier. Gulping, I shift my gaze back to my brother.

            “…What do we do?” I ask anxiously. I can predict where this is going to go. Did I somehow fall into some cliché romance movie? Probably. That would be my luck.

            “Let’s take a few normal ones and then you guys have to get trashy. It’ll be perfect. I promise,” Tyler encourages.

            “Trashy?” I reiterate. I’m not sure if I want to know what that means.

            “Cody, loosen up for once,” Tyler sighs. The alcohol is definitely taking him over. “You’re lucky I don’t drag you to a strip club.”

            I can be brave. I have to be. Going along with it, we act normal for the first few pictures. We smile, we laugh, Robert tickles me. It’s perfect. Tyler suggests a few poses and as we do them, we no longer pay much attention to the rest of the bar. We’re in our own little bubble now, completely shut off to the world. Tyler flips through the pictures he took and he hums, snagging one of the stray shots from the table that hadn’t been used. He knocks it back and shivers a little, getting a devilish look in his eyes. I’m so fucked.

            “Okay, now get trashy. Get all gross with each other. You’ll thank me for it later, I swear,” Tyler says, gesturing between us. “When you’re eighty years old, you’ll look back on these pictures and laugh.”

            “Tyler… are you sure?” I ask, making a contorted face of worry.

            “Just pretend I’m not even here,” Tyler says, making wild gestures with his hands. “Do it for the memories. I swear you’ll appreciate these later. Time to put some hair on that chest of yours, baby brother. You think Olivia and I cared when mom took us out drinking for the first time?”

            My heart is beating so fast that I’m afraid it’ll burst out of my chest. Honestly, if Robert wasn’t tipsy as hell, I’m sure he’d be freaking out about this too. I don’t get too much time to think about it, though. Robert turns my face and before I know it, he’s kissing me heatedly. I gasp a little and I have to remind myself to close my eyes to keep up with normal appearances. His lips are gentle and he tastes so much like the tequila shots that it almost burns my lips. I’m stiff and hardly moving, still trying to wrap my brain around what’s happening right now. What the fuck is happening?

            “Cody, come on,” Tyler complains. “I know you got some moves in there somewhere. Stop being so awkward. Kiss him like you mean it.”

            This is probably the weirdest thing I have ever done in my life and that’s saying a lot given the stuff I did back in college. Robert draws back a couple of inches and his eyes look deeply into mine. I can see the clarity in them and maybe he’s not as wasted as I thought he was. No, he can still think logically and he nods his head once as if to tell me it’s alright. He’s sincere, reassuring me. It’s okay. Putting my thoughts aside, I crash against him and kiss him so passionately that I zone out. My hands are all over him and he’s pulling me roughly against his chest, getting into it. Never in a million years did I expect to find myself in this position, but I don’t care anymore. Tyler wants to help us make memories so, fuck it. We’ll make the damn memories. After what feels like an eternity, Robert draws back and I feel incredibly dazed. It has been months since we’ve kissed each other like that. I can still taste him on my lips and my cheeks have to be so red by now. Clearing my throat, I turn back to Tyler and try to hide how fucking flustered I am.

            “Like that?” I ask, my voice wavering.

            Tyler nods with a wide grin as slides the phone back over to me. “Take a look for yourself. I’m telling you, these pictures are going to be a goldmine of nostalgia later.”

            I flip back to the beginning and hold it out so Robert can see too. The first few aren’t anything too out of the ordinary, but then I get further down and I can see the subtle changes in between us. The first kiss we shared was awkward and out of place, but when he drew back to look at me… The look in his eyes is so real and endearing. And when we go back in it again, it looks… perfectly normal. I wasn’t afraid anymore and I was putting my trust in him. Robert gently squeezes my shoulders and I know he has the same thoughts racing through his head. We look right together. The way he’s holding me, the way I’m pushing his leather jacket off his shoulders… It’s how we’re supposed to be. Together.

            “What’d I tell you?” Tyler prompts, grinning.

            “Okay, you were right,” I say, stashing my phone away for later. I can’t look at those pictures for too long. I’ll start freaking out about it if I do.

            “I think you bit me,” Robert complains quickly, touching his bottom lip.

            I frown a little and make an uncomfortable face. “I think I did. Sorry.”

            Tyler laughs and slaps his hand down on the table. “I’m calling it now. You guys are going to make it. You’ve got a lot of chemistry going on. Robert, you make my little brother smile in ways I haven’t seen for years. You’re good for him.”

            Both of us tense up at the compliment. It’s a little strange to hear that when we’re not together and I know it’s stupid of me to think like that. With how things are between us, no matter how broken it is, I know we’ll end up back together and we’ll end up back together soon. We’re not going to be able to fight it for much longer. Not now, at least. He’s irresistible and I’m so ridiculously lost in him. I’ve never been so drawn to another person before. His perfect eyes, the way he kisses me, the way he touches me… Something about him just keeps pulling me back in. I’m meant to be with him.

            “I’ll keep my eye on him,” Robert says after a while.

            “You better. I’m counting on you,” he says lightly.

            For a long while, we stay at the bar and eat enough fries to make us gain a few pounds, but we managed to have the time of our lives. It took some muscle, but I got them both into the car and doubled checked to make sure their seat-belts were buckled. Tyler and Robert are deeply invested in another conversation, talking about something I know very little about. I glance at Tyler beside me as I drive, smiling almost. Tonight was good. Odd and a little awkward, but good. This is the most fun I’ve had with my brother for…. fuck. We went pretty much twenty years without speaking to each other. Relaxing against my seat, I refocus on driving. The rain is getting heavier by the minute, making it hard for me to see. I flick on the windshield wipers and grip the steering wheel a little tighter.

            Tyler and Robert laugh and I go to make a turn, but something out in the distance catches my eye. Headlights… and they’re getting bigger. At first, I’m not worried about the headlights, but then they swerve into our lane and everything changes. With only a second to act, I slam my foot on the breaks. The headlights are too close to us. I can’t do anything. The deafening sound of tires skidding to a stop on the pavement and the sound of a horn blaring is all I can hear now. A huge blow hits the car destructively. The airbags deploy at impact and I can hardly breathe, smacking my head against the cracked window. Spinning out of control we roll once, coming back onto the tires and slamming right against a tree. Crunching, the car groans and shards of glass fall onto us from all directions. I can still hear the horn, blaring endlessly into the night.

            Feeling as if my head weighs a thousand pounds, I struggle to see clearly. It’s dark… I’m dizzy. I can feel rain splattering against my face and it’s cold, forcing me to cling onto the last bit of consciousness I have left. Slumping over, I rest my head on the shattered glass that decorates the out-of-place dashboard. I wheeze deeply, trying to blink the haze out of my eyes. Everything hurts. Trying to understand the situation, I attempt to get my hands free and only succeed in getting my left one out. Stretching out the best I can, I try to reach across the car in hopes that I can feel my brother beside me, but I can’t get far enough over. I think I’m crying now and there’s a warm, thick liquid falling from my forehead. What… happened…? Feeling weak, I lift my head up and force it back against the headrest. The rear-view mirror is shattered. I cannot see behind me.

            “Ty… Tyler…” I try, my voice sounding hoarse. When he doesn’t respond, I whimper and try to see him through my hazy, clouded vision. He’s slumped over, unconscious. “Tyler… please.” He doesn’t wake up.

            Cursing, I try to crane my neck to look behind me but I can’t. I’m stuck where I am, completely pinned in my seat. I need to… fuck… I need to know… “R… Robert?” I call, coughing roughly. Blood splatters out of my mouth, spilling down my chin. I think my cheek is bleeding… I can’t be sure. “Robert, come… on… wake up.

            Suddenly, I hear violent coughing followed by groaning in the backseat. “Son of a bitch…”

            I let out the best sigh of relief I can. Something is pressing against my chest and I’m starting to think it’s the steering wheel. “Are you okay?” I ask, fighting to stay awake.

            I hear the sound of glass being moved and what I think is a seat-belt being unbuckled. Robert is silent for a moment and I wait patiently, knowing that he is probably just as disoriented as I am. Please be okay… I can’t lose him.

            “I’m alive,” he grumbles, coughing up a storm again.

            I try to move again and end up wincing, feeling a sharp pain coming from my trapped right hand. There’s no way I’m getting out of my seat on my own. “Robert…” I say, taking in short breaths. “I can’t… I can’t breathe.”

            “I’m coming, kid,” he coughs. “Hang on.”

            Craning my neck to the right, I barely catch sight of him. He fumbles around in the back until he finds the door handle, all but kicking it open. Unsteadily, he comes to my door and pries it open, ignoring the way the window completely shatters when he does. I look to him helplessly, growing faint. I need to breathe. Where did his leather jacket go? He took it off. He assesses my situation and grabs the side of my face, forcing me to look at him.

            “Jesus Christ,” he mutters. “How are you still awake? Are you okay?”

            I shake my head slowly, unable to process too much at once. “My hand is stuck… I don’t know if Tyler is okay… I really can’t breathe. I-I… need help.”

            Robert nods and ducks down, feeling around my lap for the latch to my seat-belt. When he finds it, he unclicks it and carefully feels around for my trapped hand. When he bumps up against it, I whimper in pain. He hesitates before feeling around it some more, trying to understand how it’s stuck.

            “It’s just a little pinched between the console and your seat,” he says, wiping the blood from his forehead with the back of his hand. “I’m going to ease it out, okay?”

            When I nod, he carefully begins to pull my hand out and I curse, clenching my jaw together. Eventually, it slides right out and I wince, disturbed by how swollen and discolored it looks. I think it’s broken. “I need to know if Tyler is okay…”

            “Cody, you can’t breathe. I need to get you out first,” Robert urges.

            “Robert, please. He’s my brother and–”

            “–Listen to me, Cody. I can’t get to him right now anyway. The tree is blocking his door. I need to get you out so I can get to him, alright? Please work with me.”

            I vaguely look off in the direction we came from, spotting what slammed into us. It was a massive truck and it doesn’t look nearly as mangled as we do. Is the driver okay? Shifting my gaze, I try to look at Tyler again and this time I see him clearly. The sight makes my stomach twist into knots. It horrifies me. Looking away, I catch Robert’s worried eyes. I can’t imagine what this is doing to him… seeing me like this…

            “Hurry up,” I beg, wheezing. “He’s still unconscious.”

            As carefully as he can, Robert pushes back against the dashboard until there’s enough room for me to slip out. Unsteadily, I get to my feet and I have to grab onto Robert to stabilize myself. My lungs feel as if an elephant had been sitting on them, blocking almost all airflow. I take my first deep breath and find that my legs feel like jelly. I fall over onto Robert and his hands fly up to catch me, making sure I stay on my feet. He won’t let me fall.

            “I got you, kid,” he says and he doesn’t dare to move his hands until he knows I’m stable enough to stand on my own for the time being.

            “Tyler,” I remind him, weakly pointing to the car with my left hand as I keep my right held to my chest.

            Diving back into the car, Robert pushes the airbags away until he can get a clear shot at my brother. I watch woozily from where I stand, trying to see what’s going on. When another dizzy spell overcomes me, I stumble forward and place my hand on the car. Everything is spinning… the vertigo… I shake my head. I have to stay awake.

            “Don’t do this to him…” Robert breathes quietly, seeing something that I can’t.

            I draw my eyebrows together, and lean further forward on the mutilated hood, trying to see what he’s talking about. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

            Robert slides right out of the car and he tries to keep his face under control, but I can still see the look of pain in his eyes. “Cody, come on. You need to sit down.”

            “Robert, what’s wrong?” I ask again, fighting against him as he tries to usher me away. “What’s wrong with Tyler?”

            “Cody, please. Please sit down,” he begs and there’s something in his voice that makes all of this suddenly feel very real and familiar.

I know that tone. I know because I’ve used it before. Fuck, I know all of this. I’ve been here before. I shake my head and stare at Robert with tears welling up in my eyes, finding it hard to breathe again. “Robert… P-Please tell me. Tell me he’s okay.”

            “I… I couldn’t feel a pulse,” Robert admits with a haunted look in his eyes. “I don’t know for sure, Cody. We won’t know until someone looks at him. I’m so sorry.”

            I jerk away from his hand and shake my head, taking three steps back. So, that’s it then. It wasn’t enough to lose my wife to this, but I had to lose my brother too. Off in the distance, I begin to hear the sound of sirens coming our way from another part of town. The damage is already done. They’re coming too slowly. Dropping down to my knees, I let it all go. I can’t think, I can’t breathe… It’s all too much. Robert comes to my side and he drops down to his knee, pulling me close against him. I can’t go through this again…

              

            Amanda bursts into the room, her face covered in tears. I look away from Robert, who is passed out in his own hospital bed. My daughter rushes to me, leaning over as she practically falls into my waiting arms. I ease myself up against my pillows and hug her back as best as I can, watching as Craig enters the room soon after with my daughter’s bright yellow coat held tightly in his hands. Amanda sobs against me and I try to comfort her, but I know it’s not going to help her much. She clutches onto me for dear life and I can feel her tears soaking through the hospital gown I wear.

            “I’m okay, Amanda,” I say, voice rough. I think I need water. I rub her back and hold the back of her head, trying to make this easier on her.

            She draws back and gently touches the side of my face, her eyes darting all over me and my injuries. I know my face is banged up. “I-I was so worried… T-they called me and I didn’t know… I didn’t know…” she hyperventilates, gasping for air.

            I grab her hand with my left and wait until she calms down a little bit before speaking again. “I’m okay, Panda. I’m going to be just fine.”

            “You scared me,” she says in a small voice and I recognize the look in her eyes. This is how she looked when she lost her mother. I never wanted her to go through this again. It was hard enough to lose Alex, let alone almost losing me to the same circumstances. I can’t imagine what must have gone through her head when the hospital called her.

            Squeezing her hand, I reassure her once more and look up at Craig who looks like he’s panicking. He edges closer to my bed hesitantly and lets the door shut behind him, his eyes flickering between me and Robert. I have never seen him quite like this before. He looks terrified to his core.

            “What happened, bro?” He asks, voice soft. “Amanda and I got a call from the hospital. They said you were in a bad car accident.”

            I nod slowly, still feeling woozy. “It was. We were driving home. A drunk driver hit us and we rolled. I’m alright. I just broke my hand and have some bruising. I got lucky.”

            Craig looks back to Robert, unsure of what to make of him. “And what about Robert?”

            “He’s alright, I think. He was in the back seat. He–” I say, getting cut off.

            “–Quit talking about me like I can’t hear you,” Robert grumbles roughly, opening his eyes for the first time since we were brought here.

            I grimace and make some room for my kid when she takes a seat on the bed. “Your eyes were closed, asshole,” I snap irritably.

            Robert winces as he pushes himself up onto his pillows, blinking a few times. “I’m fine. Bruised ribs… Bruised everything. Concussion.”

            Craig exhales an audible sigh of relief and takes a seat in the chair in between Robert and I. Amanda looks around the room curiously and she seems to have calmed down a bit, but then her face is twisting up again. She knows something is wrong.

            “Where’s… Tyler?” She asks.

            I flinch a little, looking down at my sheets. Robert looks over to me, having not heard the official news as he had been out cold when I found out. Trying to find the right words, I shake my head.

            “He, uh… He didn’t make it, Panda,” I reveal weakly. “He got hit the hardest. Died almost immediately.”

            Amanda’s face falls and tears well up in her eyes again. Craig and Robert both look at each other, shocked to hear. I’ve been sitting here for what feels like hours trying to find a way to cope with it and although I have stopped crying, it still hurts. I was behind the wheel… I could have tried harder… Maybe he would still be here had I just…

            “Dad, I’m so sorry,” Amanda says, taking my hand. “It’s not fair… I’m sorry.”

            I nod stiffly, making a bleak face. “I know, Panda.”

            “Cody, it’s not your fault, man,” Craig says, wiping his tears away. “If the driver that hit you was drunk, then it’s their fault. You did the best you could.”

            “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. He’s dead and I just…” I snap, taking a deep breath to calm myself. “I’m sorry.”

            “Craig is right, Cody. You only had a second to act. There was nothing you could do. You did everything right,” Robert says, making a face of pain when he tries to move.

            “Look, I’d rather not talk about Tyler right now,” I say, wiping away a fallen tear. I look between the three faces that look back at me, feeling as if I’m trapped in some bubble. Maybe all of this was just a terrible dream. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be okay.

            Amanda grabs a tissue and mops up my tears for me, making me smile a little bit. “Well, I’m going to take care of you. I’ll take some time away from school,” she says assertively and I know I will never be able to talk her out of it. She then makes a face, one that I recognize to be the face she makes when she’s forgotten something important. Awkwardly, she turns around to face Robert. “Can I tell you something without you getting mad at me?” She asks him hesitantly.

            Robert, Craig, and I all make confused faces. What the hell could Amanda have done that would piss off Robert of all people?

            “I’m not going to like where this is going, am I?” He asks warily.

            Amanda sighs and looks down at her hands. Wherever this is going, it’s going to be interesting. “It’s a really long story. A few days after Thanksgiving, I got an email from your daughter. I guess you told her that I’m studying photography and she reached out to me to extend her information in case I ever wanted an internship or something which was really cool of her,” she starts and I can piece together where she’s going to take this. “We actually got to talking and… well… When the hospital called, I-I reached out to her because I thought she should know. She’ll be here tomorrow.”

            Robert freezes. “Jesus, Amanda…” he groans, dragging a hand down his face.

            “I’m sorry, Mr. Small. It’s just that… she’s your daughter and I-I didn’t know who was on your emergency contact list. I thought she should know and… I know you keep your life private… I’m really, really sorry,” Amanda struggles tripping over her words.

            “I’m not mad at you, Amanda. You did the right thing. Val should know,” he says, stopping her in her tracks. His words manage to surprise all of us, including himself. For a moment he is silent and his eyes soften, looking unwillingly in her direction. “Val lost her mom the same way you lost yours. It’s good that you contacted her.”

            I defrost in my bed, letting go of the air I had been holding in my lungs. Craig rubs his eyes tiredly and I frown, realizing just how late it is. I also notice now that Craig is pretty much wearing pajamas. They both are.

            “God, I’m sorry, man,” I say, getting his attention. “You guys don’t have to stay here. Robert and I won’t be released until the morning. You should go home and get some sleep.”

            “Pops, are you sure?” Amanda asks, rubbing her eyes. “We can stay.”

            I smile and take her hand again. “Yeah, I’m sure. You guys are wiped. We’re going to be okay. You don’t have to worry about me, kiddo.”

            Nodding, Amanda gives me one last hug. Before Craig and her pack it out, I go over the details of what will happen when we’re released tomorrow. Or, I guess I should say today given the hour. This night seems to be going on forever. After they’ve gone, the room gets really quiet except for the beeping that comes from the machines Robert and I are both hooked up to.

            “Are you okay, Cody?” Robert asks, turning serious.

            I glance over at him, knowing what he’s asking. “I don’t know. Everything just feels fake right now,” I reply honestly.

            Robert sighs, understanding what I’m saying. “I hate to say it, but it could have been a lot worse. You need to know that it wasn’t your fault. I know you’re probably going through survivor’s guilt because, honestly, so am I… but had it been any other way, Amanda would have been orphaned or Val. That doesn’t justify what happened in any way, but at least your kid is going home knowing she still has a dad. And whether I like it or not, Val is on her way to see me because your kid was smart enough to call her.”

            I take a deep breath and relax against my pillow, taking in what he said. As much as I hate what happened, as much as I wish I could change what happened, he’s right. After losing Alex to this, I can’t imagine myself leaving Amanda the exact same way. Hell, I can’t even imagine leaving her ever. The thought makes me feel sick.

            “I wish I wasn’t wired to so many things so I could go over to you,” I admit, feeling embarrassed.

            Robert smiles a little, his eyes never leaving me. “I know, kid. How’s the hand?”

            I sigh and hold up my right hand, angry about what’s happened to it. “The hand is broken. It was a clean break but still broken. I’m going to be using my left for a while. Which should be interesting.”

            Robert nods slowly, clearly fighting to stay awake. He watches me carefully and examines the way I’m looking at him, understanding the look I have in my eyes. “Would you quit staring at me like I’m going to disappear?”

            “You can forgive me for being worried,” I sigh, watching as he winces when he goes to move lower onto his pillows so he’s laying down again.

            He’s quiet for a moment, but I know he understands why I can’t seem to look away from him. “I’ve survived worse,” he says seriously but then his facial expression falters and there’s something truly sincere in his eyes. “You know I’m horrible at this whole comfort thing, but we’re going to get through this, alright? Everything is going to be okay.”

              

Tyler Grant Prescott. Loving son and brother.

            I read the words over and over again, trying to accept that they’re real. It was never supposed to be like this. Tyler was my older brother… he deserved more than what he got. He never got the chance to break away from our family like I did, he never got the chance to go after the things that he actually loves, and he never got to discover who he really was on the inside. His life was cut painfully short and as I rest a single rose on the headstone, I realize how numb I feel. I’ve had a few days to accept what happened and I haven’t cried since the accident, but it all feels like a nightmare. How can this be happening to me again? It hurts, I think. Robert stands beside me and his hand is on my lower back. He hasn’t said much since we came here. I can’t blame him. What the hell is he supposed to say? My brother died… there’s nothing I can do about it.

            “Merry Christmas, Tyler…” I say quietly, touching the headstone.

            Robert moves his hand to mine and he grabs it, trying to comfort me. “Do you want some time with him?” He asks softly.

            I shake my head, hugging my jacket closer to my body. It’s colder in Oregon than it is back home. There’s a chill in the air and some light snow falling from the sky, dusting down on the graveyard. “No… I just… I want to go home, Robert.”

            He nods and follows me when I turn away. All I can think about is home. The sooner I can get back to my life, the sooner I can move on from what we went through. Robert watches me carefully and when we get back in the car, he doesn’t put the keys in the ignition. Instead, he turns to me and waits for me to look at him before speaking.

            “I’m going to get you through this, okay?” He says, searching my eyes. “You know I understand what you’re going through. I get it and I’m not going to sit here and tell you how you should be coping with it, but you’ve barely said anything about it since it happened. If you need to talk to me, I’m all ears.”

            I’m silent for a long while, taking in what he said. I know out of everyone in my life, right next to Amanda, Robert understands what I’m going through the most. He lost his wife just as I lost mine. Out of all of the amazing things we have in common, we, unfortunately, have to share that too. Taking a deep breath, I nod my head.

            “Thank you,” I force out, my voice barely audible.

            They never really tell you how to prepare for it. I could sit here and try to pry as many answers from the world as humanly possible and I would never get anywhere with it. Loss, when it’s close to, you hurts. When I lost Alex, I never saw an end in the pain and, yeah… her loss still hurts, but I patched myself up and I kept going. I never imagined myself having to go through this again, but I know this time that there is an end. I just need time…