Marcus is the only person at the convention wearing a tie. He’s probably the only person in this entire zip code wearing a three-piece suit. A few of the men, and more than a few of the women are wearing blazers, some with the sleeves rolled up, a few artfully rumpled, but he’s the only one in a tie.
He’s not sure what he was expecting—it’s the biggest software conference in the world, and developers aren’t known for business formal attire. But he put on his suit anyway. He’d like to say it was without thinking, but he knows why: some stupid, little boy part of him thought it might armor him against having to face this, the last gasp attempt to save his father’s business.
He’s got the deal with Seal Analytics, of course, but that looks like it might not go through. His lawyers are hammering it out with Seal’s lawyers, but the last time Lutorius called, he said it didn’t look good. So now Marcus has to find something else, some promising company that they can buy and save Calleva Software, because nothing else will work. There's nothing Calleva can do on their own.
He takes off the tie halfway through the first session. He meets a few people he knows from years in the industry, and gives a self-deprecating smile when people ask about the suit (a smile Fortune called charming, God, five years ago—now, they’d probably call it weak) and doesn’t answer the question.
The panels run together as the day goes on. The speakers are kids with weird hair. Kids too young to call themselves CEOs or CTOs or Innovation Gurus, or whatever the fuck they are. The older hipsters are here too, with big, black-framed glasses, short spiky hair, too much energy compared to their younger, and more blasé counterparts.
He checks his email a dozen, a hundred, times on his Blackberry. Nothing from Lutorius, nothing to tell him that he can actually enjoy this event instead of desperately hoping that at the next panel he’ll meet the person, the company who’s going to save him.
Marcus is exhausted by the end of the day, even though all he’s done is listen to some speakers and shake some hands. There’s a happy hour at the Javits Convention Center, hosted by Placidus Enterprises, but Marcus doesn’t want to see the youngest Placidus’s smug face. He inherited his father’s company and did something good with it where Marcus let his father’s company auger into the ground.
As soon as the last panel ends, Marcus leaves the center and starts walking east. He plans to stop as soon as he finds a bar far enough away that he won’t see any convention-goers. The sky overhead is blue, with high clouds, but behind him, in the direction of the convention center, it is an ominous gray. It’s fucking perfect.
The bar he finds is a little dive-y, but at least it doesn’t look like anyone from the conference is here. Marcus orders a Jack and Coke and sits down. He won’t let himself get too drunk, no matter how much he wants to, but one or two will take the edge off, give him the strength to call Lutorius and find out that their last, best hope is gone.
He isn’t planning on trying to get laid. He doesn’t need yet another reminder of how he’s not living up to his father’s legacy. But then the bartender says, “Yo, Esca, the usual?” and Marcus turns, and sees him, and it only takes that instant to change his plans.
Esca. It’s an unlikely name for an unlikely-looking individual. He’s built on a smaller scale than Marcus, but so perfectly proportioned that Marcus’s gym-honed biceps suddenly feel ridiculous, excessive. He’s got expressive eyes and a mobile mouth with a tendency toward a wry twist (if Marcus weren’t feeling so charitable, he might call it a smirk). Blue ink lines lead from the sides of his neck down under his t-shirt. Small black plugs decorate his earlobes.
His hand rests on the bar, black painted nails on the fingers that tap the wood, in time with no music that’s playing here.
Marcus turns to face him, leans in and asks, “What kind of name is Esca?”
Esca takes a long drink of his beer then sets it down deliberately on the counter. “It’s a none of your fucking business kind of name,” he says. The words are rude enough, but Marcus is too charmed by the British accent to take the hint and back away immediately, and it’s good he stays, because a faint smile ghosts over Esca’s lips, and he seems to back down from the belligerent pose. “It’s a family name.”
“I’m Marcus,” he volunteers. Esca reaches around with his free hand and shakes Marcus’s. It’s a good handshake, for all that it’s at an odd angle because he’s still leaning against the bar. Marcus has had years of business handshakes, good and bad, too hard, and too clammy. But he’s not here to do a business deal; he’s here to get laid, here outside of the stifling confines of Groton, Connecticut, population: everyone he knows. Lutorius and his bad news can wait for morning.
If Esca’s not into it, Marcus will find someone else, someone who doesn’t heat his blood as much, but someone.
“You here for the conference?” Esca asks.
The bar’s only a few blocks east of the Javits Center, so it’s a good bet, but Marcus doesn’t want to talk about it, and so he does what he learned at his father’s knee, and doesn’t answer the question. “Can I buy you drink?” he asks instead.
Esca still has a third of his beer left in his glass. He thumbs the side of his mouth and gives Marcus a long look up and down. “You can pay for this one,” says Esca. “I’m sharing my apartment, but—unless you’re thinking about the bathroom. Which, I wouldn’t.”
Marcus hopes he’s a mouthy fuck, because his voice is doing things to Marcus that he wants repeated when they’re naked, and alone. “I’ve got a hotel room,” he says.
They make small talk while Esca finishes his beer, Marcus his drink. Marcus puts a twenty on the bar, and they’re out the door before the bartender has put down the change.
Marcus’s hotel room is tiny, overpriced, and dingy, but that’s New York. Downstairs is a beautiful dark bar, the breakfast costs thirty dollars and comes on fine china, and the rooms look like shit. The view is gorgeous, though, floor-to-ceiling windows facing back across the Hudson toward the Jersey City skyline, with low summer thunderclouds dusting the tops of the buildings. A bolt of lightning makes the closest clouds glow from within.
“Nice,” says Esca, looking out. “The storm will get here soon.”
As Marcus watches, the clouds swallow up the farthest buildings, and soon closer ones are backgrounded with blank, gunmetal gray. It’s eerie.
But Esca is here and his skin smells fresh under the leather scent of his jacket. It’s pale where it’s not tattooed, and darkens when Marcus runs a firm thumb over the side of his neck. The room flashes with another lightning strike as Marcus kisses him there, just where the ink starts.
“No marking,” says Esca, but he reaches up to wrap his hand around the back of Marcus’s neck. Marcus makes his touch lighter, just a whisper of lips against skin. Esca shivers.
“Show me where these go,” says Marcus, tracing a finger over the point of ink that’s he’s just tasted. Esca pulls off the t-shirt and lets it fall on the floor behind him. For a moment, he’s caught in silhouette against the pink-gray sky, and Marcus can only see the lean, slim lines of his body in profile, but the light fades, and Marcus see them, the filigrees of ink that thicken into wider lines, running down the sides of his neck, then over his back. They are blunt, primitive designs, in dark blue, like nothing Marcus has ever seen before. He runs his fingers over them, where the skin is slightly raised, until Esca turns around, and pulls Marcus’s mouth down to his.
He nips Marcus’s lower lip between his teeth, the twinge of pain going straight to Marcus’s dick. He presses Esca up against the window, opening Esca’s mouth with his tongue, his hand held hard to Esca’s jaw. Esca fights him back, and Marcus doesn’t know who is invading who, who is winning and maybe it doesn’t matter. When they come up for air, Marcus’s lips are raw.
Esca puts his hand to Marcus’s dick, molding his fingers around it through the fabric. His fingers are hot through the thin, summer-weight wool, and Marcus’s hips twitch involuntarily against him.
He smirks slightly and runs his other hand up over Marcus’s waist, over the waistcoat that feels way too tight and hot with Esca looking at him like that. “How are you still wearing this?” Esca asks.
“Good question,” says Marcus roughly. The buttons don’t want to come open under his fingers, which have gone slippery and shaky.
“Let me,” says Esca. He undoes them slowly, one at a time, giving Marcus a minute to admire the fine line of his eyelashes shadowing his cheek. In the light from the open bathroom door, he can see the faint, fine blond hairs that dust his shoulders, making the skin soft enough Marcus wants to run his lips over it again. He bends down. But then Esca’s pushing Marcus’s waist coat off his shoulders and tugging at his shirt.
“Too many clothes,” says Esca. Now Marcus is free enough to take his shirt off over his head and pull Esca down on top of him on the bed.
Esca rolls his hips against Marcus’s and Marcus bucks his hips up against him. “Are you going to make it?” Esca asks archly. He palms Marcus’s cock again. Tracing the outline. “I want you inside me for a good long time.”
“Fuck, I’m not,” Marcus admits. “I should just take care of this.”
“I would have helped,” says Esca, “but now I want to watch.” He grins wickedly and sits back on his heels.
Marcus wants to say no, it’s too intimate—he thought—he doesn’t know what he thought—that he’d whack one off in the bathroom or something, but now Esca’s watching, helping him tug down his trousers, fingers skimming the sensitive skin of Marcus’s thighs, making his dick jump. Esca licks his lips when he runs his hands over the muscles along his hips.
“You’re some kind of fucking beast, aren’t you?” Esca says admiringly. Marcus is in no position to answer him, though—he’s whatever Esca wants as Esca watches him wrap his hand around his cock. He gives it the twisting stroke he likes; he’s not putting on a show now, his heart is already in his throat with Esca looking him like that.
“Wait,” Esca tells him. He bends down and takes Marcus in his mouth, hot and wet, slicking him up. His tongue slides along the bottom ridge, and Marcus makes a choked off noise—he’s going to come any minute—but Esca releases him again. “I said I wanted to watch.”
Fuck, he’s sensitive when he closes his hand around his cock again, now slippery with Esca’s spit. He only gets a few strokes with the weight of Esca’s gaze on him, in before he’s coming over his hand, his whole body bucking up with it.
The rainstorm hits the windows then, a splatter, then a deafening roar. If Esca has any more instructions to give him, he’ll have to do it in mime. Marcus feels light and free, washed clean after his orgasm. He wishes for a moment that they were out in it, under the pounding rain, but this is close enough.
“Lie down,” Marcus tells him. He goes to his suitcase and gets out the lube and condoms and puts them on the bedside table.
Esca looks absurdly young lying back in the sheets wearing only his jeans. “How old are you?” he asks.
“Old enough to buy beer.” Esca’s scowl makes him look even younger.
Marcus laughs and pulls Esca’s jeans off over his slim hips. He’s not wearing anything underneath.
He’s not as big as Marcus, but he’s uncut, and sizable enough, hard and flushed red against his taut belly. He doesn’t have the sort of skinny flab that Marcus associates with—let’s be honest—the twinks he usually likes, instead he’s lean and defined, muscles rippling under his skin whenever he moves.
Marcus works a nipple between his fingers and watches it tighten and peak. The tattoos cover his flanks as well, framing his waist. Whoever designed them was a genius. He’s getting hard again watching Esca like this, so he moves lower.
Marcus wants to taste Esca's cock, nudge the foreskin back with his tongue and taste his come and maybe later—maybe next time—he'll make Esca come like this, feel Esca thicken and shudder into his mouth, but now, after what Esca said, he wants to be inside Esca for a long time, too. A little taste will have to be enough. Esca’s hand lands on his shoulder when Marcus licks a stripe down his cock. He makes a choked off noise when Marcus swirls his tongue around the exposed head.
“Turn over,” Marcus tells him. The rain has slowed enough that he can make himself heard, but the light in the room is strange, charged with the storm.
“That was fast,” says Esca as he moves, but Marcus just smiles.
Esca’s ass is as pert as the rest of him, a high curve that Marcus palms admiringly, before running his fingers lightly into the cleft. Esca wriggles, pushing his ass up against Marcus’s fingers. “Patience,” Marcus whispers against the unmarked skin of his lower back. From here the tattoos look like wings.
He wets a finger in his mouth and traces it over Esca’s entrance again, teasing around the edges as Esca moans. “Fucking put something in me already.”
So Marcus spreads him open and licks a line down between his cheeks. Esca makes a choked off sound that might be a protest, but he just breathes as Marcus fucks him with his tongue, holding himself very still except his hand opening and closing around a wad of sheet.
“Please,” says Esca after a few minutes of this. “I really need you to—”
Marcus pushes a well slicked finger in, cutting him off, making him swear and push back against Marcus again. “You don’t have to stop begging, though,” says Marcus. “I liked that.” Esca saying ‘please’ went right to his dick, which is standing up at attention as if he hadn’t already stroked himself off tonight.
“Oh, was that begging?” Esca answers, a little breathless. “I thought that was asking nicely.” His last word turns into an abrupt groan as Marcus finds the sweet spot.
“I can take more,” Esca tells him after a moment.
“One more—I want to fuck you. How do you want it?”
Marcus adds more lube and slowly pushes in another finger. He can feel Esca’s muscles slowly yielding around him. Esca makes another choked off sound. “I want to ride you. Think you can take it?”
Marcus works his fingers in and out a few more times. He likes watching them disappear inside, but he’ll like it even more when Esca’s on top of him, so once Esca’s good and open, he lies down and slides on a condom.
Esca straddles him, rolling it down the rest of the way. His cock is still standing at attention, butting against Marcus’s, but then he comes up on his knees and slides two fingers into himself.
“You’re fucking huge,” he says as he positions himself over Marcus’s cock. He puts some more lube on his fingers and rubs it over the condom. “I might need a moment.”
He is incredibly tight as he slides down, millimeter, by millimeter, engulfing Marcus. It’s pleasure yes, but so intense that Marcus has to fight to stay still and let Esca do the work. Esca stops halfway, his hard-on flagging, and stays still, eyes closed, long enough that Marcus is suddenly concerned. “I don’t want to . . .”
“No, it’s—” he gains another inch “—fantastic. Just. A lot.” Marcus reaches up to his face and traces Esca’s lower lip with his thumb. Esca sucks it into his mouth, before sighing out and letting Marcus in to the hilt.
“Tell me when I can move,” says Marcus. The urge is overwhelming, but Esca’s fingers, digging sharply into his bicep, anchor him there.
“I’ll do it,” says Esca, and then he is, rocking his hips back and forth, not as much as Marcus wants, but tantalizing, hot and tight, just enough movement to edge Marcus closer to coming, each hitch of his hips adding a layer of sensation. Esca’s getting hard again, a bead of moisture on the tip, and Marcus wraps his hand around it.
“Wait,” says Esca, “I want you to get closer.” He rocks back and forth more, his eyes half closed, one hand pressing on Marcus’s chest. Finally he opens his eyes and licks his lips. “You can move.”
It’s like a burst dam, now that he can thrust up into Esca, meet his motion in the middle. He sits up and pulls Esca to him, kissing him brokenly. The rain starts up again, so he feels more than sees the noises Esca makes, as Marcus thrusts up into him.
He guides Marcus’s hand up and down his cock, and then he’s coming, spurting hot on Marcus’s chest, his muscles tightening around Marcus so he follows him over the edge, holding Esca’s hips down firm against his, and shooting into him.
The rain doesn’t stop when the waves of pleasure finally do, when he starts to soften and Esca climbs off him, looking dazed, but grows even louder against the window. Esca’s lips are bruised red, and his eyes are very dark. Were they blue before? Marcus doesn’t remember, but there will be time enough to find that out later. He’s already decided he’s seeing Esca again. New York isn’t that far from Groton.
“That’s hail,” says Esca, over the noise.
“You should stay then.” He pulls Esca against him. No, this isn’t just a fuck. Whoever Esca is, Marcus wants to see him again and again. Maybe he’d come up to the mansion for the weekend. It’s way too big for Marcus, but if Esca were there, they could fuck in every room, and it wouldn’t feel so empty.
“Can I call you if I’m in New York again?” Marcus asks.
Esca smiles, and it’s not a smirk now, but gorgeous curve of lips, deeply satisfied. “Of course,” he says. He sits up and sprawls half over Marcus so he can scribble his number on the notepad by the phone.
He lies there, chest pressed to Marcus’s stomach for a few minutes looking out at the storm, but then flops over on his back. His fingertips are just touching Marcus’s arm, making his hairs stand on end in the electric air. The hail is tailing off, the clouds rising and letting more city light in. Maybe they’ll doze for a while, and Marcus can wake him up with a blowjob. Maybe Esca will want to see him tomorrow.
The sound of techno music cuts through the noise outside, and it isn’t until Esca starts rummaging through his crumpled jeans that Marcus recognizes it as a cell phone ring.
“What? You arsehole,” he starts yelling into the phone. “No. Don’t sign anything. I’m coming over.”
He hangs up and glares at the phone like he wishes it was land line and he could slam the receiver down. Pushing the button doesn’t look nearly gratifying enough.
“I need to go,” he says. His eyes look wild. “My fucking business partner is doing some kind of deal without me. I wish . . .”
He leans over Marcus and gives him a lingering kiss, a kiss full of promises and regrets, a kiss that turns hot and hungry again. Marcus puts his arms around Esca and tries to push him back down onto the bed, but Esca breaks off the kiss. “I really. Have to. I’m going to kill him.”
“Go,” says Marcus. “Kill him. I’ll call you.”
Once Esca leaves, Marcus looks at the clock. Not even eight. And he hasn’t had dinner. And he should call Lutorius. Nothing could bring him down right now.
“Marcus,” says Lutorius. “I was just about to call you.”
Marcus rolls his eyes. Of course he was. He was rushing to be the bearer of bad news.
“We did it. Seal Analytics is ours. You might not like some of the terms but—”
“Don’t worry about it. I told you to do whatever it takes. We’ll go over the contracts later. Thank you. Can I take you out to dinner? Should I take our new partners out to dinner?”
“No. I’ve gotten us a room in your hotel so we can meet up tomorrow. Get things started. Liathan is bringing his chief scientist, Dr.—”
“I know, the young one with the Scottish name.”
“You should learn his name now. Dr. MacCunoval is part of the package. Without him, there is no Seal Analytics.”
“MacCunoval. I’ll remember.”
The meeting is at eight the next morning, before any of the panel sessions at the convention start. Marcus gets there first, and Lutorius joins him.
He hears Dr. MacCunoval before he sees him. He won’t soon forget that voice and accent—it just left him twelve hours ago. That voice is yelling now. “This is the fucking death warrant for this company,” he says, and then he’s in the doorway, wearing the same leather jacket as last night, and a different faded t-shirt. “Fucking Connecticut,” he says to Liathan. “But of course you don’t care. It’s not your fucking company anymore.”
He looks up and sees Marcus. Marcus can see the moment when he recognizes Marcus, realizes he’s the guy who fucked him last night, but he doesn’t show it beyond a slight widening of his eyes. “You,” he spits. “I hate you and everything you stand for.”
The meeting goes downhill from there. Lutorius briefed him on the contracts last night. If Marcus had read them himself, he would have seen Esca’s name all over them, and been prepared, but now he’s shell shocked.
Liathan is going to make a tidy profit selling his controlling interest. The terms require that Calleva employ Esca for at least a year. Marcus wondered at that when Lutorius told him—was this Dr. MacCunoval so difficult to work with that he needed that guarantee?—but now he’s not wondering at all.
He gives his prepared welcoming remarks to a sheepish-looking Liathan and a glowering Esca: they’re going to work well together, he’s excited about the partnership, blah blah blah.
“It’s not a partnership,” says Esca finally. He turns to Liathan. “Should you even be here?”
Liathan smiles tightly, and claps Esca on the back before he leaves. “Good luck, mate. This is going to be brilliant, I know it.”
“Why don’t we have a seat,” says Lutorius. He looks between Marcus and Esca as if he’s wondering if he might have to defend Marcus bodily.
“I’m sorry you’re not happy with the terms,” says Marcus.
“I wouldn’t be happy with any terms—we were doing fine. The product—”
“The product is wonderful, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have customers. A CEO needs to sell. Liathan wasn’t, and he knew it,” says Marcus.
“The product is six months from delivery.” The words are clipped and precise. Marcus would prefer yelling to this cold fury. Esca is as stunning angry as he was gasping and wanting last night, but Marcus wishes more than anything else that it wasn’t directed at him.
“Gentlemen,” says Lutorius, “I’m sure you’ll have many meetings about this—” Esca jaw tightens “—but for now we need to discuss next steps. Dr. MacCunoval, you’ll be moving your office to Groton. We need the teams co-located.”
“Lutorius, can you give us a moment?” Marcus asks.
Lutorius gives them both dubious looks and then steps out into the hall.
“The terms are—” Marcus begins.
“I read the terms. You can’t fire me.”
“And I don’t want to. Calleva Software needs you and your product.”
Esca’s chin comes up. “You won’t survive without it.”
Marcus nods. “And we own Seal Analytics now. We need each other. But you’re right. I can’t fire you. You can refuse to have anything to do with this, get paid for a year of doing nothing, and I can’t do anything about it. That’s your choice.”
“I wouldn’t. It was my idea, my data modeling. I’ll see it through until it’s ready to be released.”
“Then deal with this. You don’t want to move to Connecticut—well, I don’t want to be there either—but it’s where the company is, and I need my people to get up to speed so we can sell it, and ship it, and support it. I’m sure you read that part of the contract as well.” He takes a deep breath and spreads his hands out on the table. Maybe this will be okay.
“Are we done here?” Esca asks. “I have a talk to give.”
Marcus shrugs and Esca walks out without saying another word.
Marcus attends the second day of the conference. Esca’s talk is brilliant, of course. He’s still wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and he still looks absurdly young, but he speaks with competence and mastery, and has the charisma to hold his audience’s attention.
Marcus doesn’t understand the math, or the technology behind it, but the upshot is that Seal Analytics is going to revolutionize internet ad targeting, and they’re using cutting edge technology to do it. Calleva is going to look smart for doing this deal.
Esca only falters slightly when the question and answer period starts, and someone asks him about what the acquisition by Calleva means for the product. A flicker of annoyance passes over his face, and he pauses for long enough that Marcus starts to get nervous before saying, “As you can see, my expertise is not in the business side, but Marcus Aquila, the CEO of Calleva software, is in the audience. Perhaps he will answer.”
Marcus stands and makes his way over to the microphone, feeling obscurely pleased that Esca noticed him there. He gives a pat answer about how proud he is to have made this acquisition, and how excited he is to be working with a brilliant mind like Dr. MacCunoval. It doesn’t answer the question, but it doesn’t need to. He waves off any more questions, but not before noting the carefully blank expression on Esca’s face.
Liathan, of all people, gives Marcus a call that evening. “I didn’t realize he’d hate the idea so much,” he tells Marcus.
If Liathan had talked to Esca for five minutes he probably would have, but Marcus keeps that thought to himself. “Any tips for how to deal with him?” Marcus asks. He still doesn’t think it’s going to be that bad. Esca is upset, sure—his life just underwent a massive change without him getting a say in it—but he’ll come around. Right?
Liathan sighs. “He’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met.”
Great. “Anything else?”
“He won’t admit it, but he’s terrified of leaving New York. He doesn’t have a drivers’ license. He probably doesn’t even know how he’s going to get to Groton.” Liathan pauses. “He’ll hate that I told you that.”
“No, this is good.”
“He’ll work too hard, but he’ll never quit. If he gave his word . . . he sees things through—long past when they’ve become lost causes.”
There’s a story there that Marcus desperately wants to hear, but Liathan’s making noises like he needs to go. It’s probably nothing that matters for work, and Marcus will be better off thinking of the Esca from last night as an entirely different person. Maybe he’ll get to see that person again, maybe not, but he has to deal with the here and now Esca, who is scared and pissed off, and focusing his anger at Marcus.
He takes a deep breath and calls Esca next from the number he scrawled on the hotel pad. Esca picks it up on the second ring. So at least he gave Marcus a real number. That’s something. “Yes?” he asks impatiently.
“Pack enough stuff for a week. I’m driving you up to Groton tomorrow. What’s your address?”
Esca doesn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he sighs and gives Marcus an address in the West Village. “I’ll be there at nine,” Marcus tells him. “Late enough to miss the traffic.”
He picks Esca up in front of a beautiful old brownstone the next day. Esca has a small duffle in one hand and a computer case under his arm. He says nothing when he slides in beside Marcus in the passenger seat of his Lexus.
“You can pick the music,” Marcus tells him.
Esca attaches his iPhone to the car’s stereo as Marcus maneuvers them onto the FDR. He plays a mix of indie rock that’s too obscure for Marcus to recognize until they get out of the Bronx, but then he switches it to political podcasts. Very liberal. One after another. Esca is clearly trying to annoy him, and Marcus doesn’t feel like denying him the knowledge that he’s succeeding.
After the second Noam Chomsky speech starts up, Marcus says, “You know, I’m not very political.”
Esca doesn’t answer. Noam drones on.
“You know,” says Marcus a few minutes later. “This is isn’t actually music.”
“It’s your car.” Esca switches back to the indie rock. “And I am your employee.”
The music carries them up along the coastline. At Bridgeport, Esca looks out the window over the sparking water, and Marcus almost drifts into the other lane watching him.
When they get closer, Marcus says, “I know you don’t have a place yet, so the company can put you up in a hotel. But I’ve got a guest house, and no one ever stays there.”
Esca says nothing, but he does look over at Marcus. “It would be just like having your own place,” Marcus adds. “You can’t even see the house from there. And it’s within walking distance of the office. There’s a path through the woods.”
“You spent everything Calleva had in the bank and then some to buy us, correct?” Esca asks.
“And you’ve got a year at the current burn rate before your company goes under?”
“I’ll stay in your guest house and save you the $150 a night.” He sounds like he’s doing Marcus a favor, which, Marcus supposes, he is.
Marcus pulls up in front of the guest house and starts to undo his seatbelt to help Esca with his bag. Esca stops him with a hand on his wrist. “You own me for the next year,” he says. “And I will do everything I can to make it a success.”
His eyes are wide and blue. His mouth has lost that hardness that it’s held since the deal went through. Marcus wants—damn, he wants to take Esca back to his house, not the guest house, and see if they make it to a bed or just fuck on the floor. This is stupid. They work together now. But if Esca says the word, he will. Marcus licks his lips.
“I’m not going to let you ruin what I’m trying to build,” says Esca. “And, just so you know . . . I promise you . . . we are never going to fuck again.”
They spend the first week planning. Esca goes over the future of the product. They list features, argue them out. They plan—or rather Esca tells Marcus—the testing and release schedule. Marcus tries to hurry it up, because that’s what CEOs do, but Esca does this thing where he clenches his jaw and juts out his chin, his eyes glittering dangerously, so Marcus backs off.
Esca meets Calleva’s advisory board, but he flat out refuses to have anything to do with them after the first meeting, and Marcus resigns himself to the fact that his job is going to be a lot of running interference between them. Being CEO is a lot less glamorous than it sounds.
At night Marcus can see the glow of the lights in the guest house, the slim silhouette of Esca walking around. He tends to walk as he thinks. The office Marcus set aside for him is big, with a table and a work desk that he can stand at. Esca looks pleased when he sees it, lips quirking in that slight smile that makes Marcus’s chest tighten.
Esca behaves professionally enough, aside from his attire, which continues to consist of jeans and t-shirts fraying to the point of transparency. He wears scuffed combat boots, and the polish on his nails is chipping. When Marcus sees that, he suffers a brief fantasy of watching Esca apply it. He probably wears the same scowl of concentration then as he does when he’s bending over his work bench, sketching out some brilliant data mapping that he’ll explain to his engineers later.
When Marcus drives home from work on Friday, he sees Esca with a bag hitched over his shoulder, walking toward the bus station. If he thought Esca would accept, he'd give him a ride. Give him a ride all the way to New York or where ever he wanted to go, but the closest they've come to detente is when Esca ignores him, so Marcus drives on.
Another weekend alone. He could go up to Boston and see a baseball game, or see the girl he takes out from time to time. Or maybe one of his buddies in Hartford has time to get a beer, but fewer of them do these days. Most of them have kids and mid-level jobs now, rather than the legacy Marcus’s father left him, the company like an albatross around his neck. They’re always happy to see him, but it feels more and more like they don’t live in the same worlds.
Instead he goes for a long run around the wooded hills around his house. It’s a warm summer weekend with a heaviness in the air that presages a thunder storm. On Saturday night he finally reads the more detailed briefing material Lutorius prepared for him on Esca. Dr. MacCunoval.
It’s dry enough that he doesn’t feel like a voyeur: college—university—at 16, Cambridge; Ph. D. in Applied Statistics at 23 from MIT. Started a post-doctoratal fellowship, but didn’t finish because his friend Liathan, his rich friend Liathan, convinced him that his thesis project had the makings of a business. Marcus imagines some details between the lines: lonely, driven, always too young, he must have known he stood out, so he embraced it with the look and the attitude. The piercings, the ink, the nail polish.
And now at 25 he’s here, abandoned by his friend to the wilds of Eastern Connecticut.
The internet doesn’t yield much more beyond some race results—he’s a runner, a good one, sprint, distance and everything in between. One summer he did some climbing and put up a new route on some remote rock in Colorado. There’s a picture of him at the top, hands white with chalk, hair crazy, longer than it is now. He looks fierce and happy, with freckled shoulders, squinting against the sun.
When Esca comes into work on Monday, he has a bite mark on his neck and a blissed-out expression on his face that sets into something stiff as soon as he sees Marcus. It's a punch in the gut. Esca was getting fucked this weekend, by someone who wasn't him.
For a moment, Marcus thinks that given a chance, he could come to hate Esca as much as Esca hates him, but then one of Esca's engineers comes over to him, and Esca smiles that little, wry smile at what the engineer says, and the thought vanishes.
They spend the next week on logistics, getting Esca’s team settled in, and the week after that training the sales staff and Marcus so they can go out and sell the Seal Analytics package.
“Now don’t sell anything we can’t do.” Esca scowls. “I know how sales people operate,” he adds darkly.
Marcus has come to enjoy being ordered around by Esca, because at least then Esca isn’t insulting him or ignoring him, but he hides his smile, because Esca would surely stop if he knew Marcus liked it.
When Esca is assured that the sales team has some idea what they’re talking about, they spend a week creating presentations and practicing. Marcus divides up the team into new territories because, unlike their previous server log management products, this one will mostly be sold to agencies and big publishers. Big media markets like New York, Chicago, LA, Houston.
Marcus is going to need to let some of his sales team go, and hire people who know their new customers better. His father always said that being a CEO is half selling and half recruiting. And half running the damn thing, he always added. But Marcus will deal with that later. Maybe some of the old guys can learn new tricks over the next couple weeks.
Marcus leaves on Sunday night for a big two week sales trip. He stops by the guest house before he goes. Esca answers the door wearing only low slung sweatpants cut off at the knee, leaving Marcus momentarily speechless.
“What do you want?” he asks, but without malice. He yawns and raises a hand to his mouth, exposing his dark underarm hair, and flexing the lean muscles in his torso. He looks at Marcus suspiciously.
“I’m, umm, leaving tonight,” says Marcus. “Call me if anything, if you need anything.”
Head tilt. “Anything?”
Damn him, he knows exactly the effect he’s having on Marcus. And he’s finding it amusing.
“You know, if you need someone fired or something. I can do that.”
“I’m sure you can.” Esca sounds patronizing now. “Is that all?”
If Marcus is going to be mocked, at least he’s going to enjoy the view, so he takes another long look before saying, “No. Have a good trip.”
The trip is exhausting. This is the soft sell part of the process, the meeting people, the having drinks, playing golf, taking people out to ball games. It should be fun, but Marcus always has to be on. His dad was a natural at this. His dad liked golf, and could make conversation with anyone. Marcus has his father’s natural charm, the family name, the athletic background—it should make him a good sales person—but it feels painfully false. And maybe he’s doing okay, but it doesn’t feel like it should be so hard.
He makes some good contacts in the incestuous little worlds of New York and Chicago agencies, although it will take a while to reach the decision-makers. He’s about to board his flight to Los Angeles the next Wednesday when he gets a call from Lutorius.
“Dr. MacCunoval hasn’t been in to work for a couple days. Do you know what happened?”
Shit. Marcus had convinced himself that of all the problems he was going to have over the next year, Esca wasn’t going to be one of them. At least not professionally. “Have you talked to his engineers?”
“They have no idea. But they don’t seem that surprised.”
Marcus gets on the first plane home.
By the time Marcus’s flight lands in Hartford, he has put together a plan. He’s going to drive to New York and promise Esca anything he wants. He can keep his team in New York, and Marcus will drive down there when he needs a meeting. It will be much more expensive and they’ll run through the company’s cash much faster, but without Esca, none of that matters. Esca will listen to reason and they’ll be back on track.
He’s convinced himself of this, and is ready to head down to the city that night, when he sees the lights on in the guest house, and decides to check there first. It’s probably just the housekeeper tidying up, but maybe Esca left something, and that will tell Marcus if he ever plans to return.
He lets himself in. The first thing he notices is a faint scent of vomit in the air. There’s a wadded up blanket on the couch, but Esca’s not there. Lights are on all over the house, which isn’t Esca’s usual pattern. Marcus has spent enough time watching to know.
He goes through all the rooms and finally finds Esca in the upstairs bathroom, curled up on the floor. A stab of fear clouds Marcus’s vision. He kneels down next to Esca, who groans a little when Marcus shakes his shoulder, but doesn’t wake. Marcus bends down and gets his arms underneath Esca to pick him up. He feels surprisingly light, which worries Marcus further.
He deposits Esca on the couch, because it looked relatively clean, and goes to mix him up some powered Gatorade. Esca’s definitely dehydrated, and should probably be in the hospital, but Marcus doesn’t want to abandon him to the impersonal care of doctors and nurses just yet.
Thankfully he’s a little more aware when Marcus returns with the glass. He holds it up to Esca’s lips, and Esca takes a sip, too weak to glare at him or say anything haughty. When he’s drunk about a third of the glass, Marcus asks gently, “How long have you been like this?”
“What day is it?” Esca asks.
“I’m taking you to the hospital.”
Esca grabs Marcus’s wrist—his grip, at least, isn’t weak. “Please. I can’t—I hate hospitals.”
“Okay,” says Marcus dubiously. “But you have to drink this, and another glass. And I’m not leaving until I think you’re okay.”
Esca does muster up a slight scowl at that, but he doesn’t protest.
When Esca gets the whole glass down, Marcus brings him another, and then goes to start turning off lights. He finds wadded up sheets with dried vomit on them in the bedroom and strips them off and throws them in the hamper. There’s an empty Pepto-Bismol bottle in the sink in the bathroom, but he finds some clean sheets in the linen closet. He makes up Esca’s bed.
When he goes down stairs again, Esca has the glass of green Gatorade cradled on his chest, only a few sips gone. His eyes are closed, and he seems to be sleeping. Marcus slides the glass from his hands and puts it on the end table, then pulls the blanket up higher around his shoulders.
He sits on the floor next to the couch for a while, listening to Esca’s breathing and leafing through the magazines on the coffee table, Sports Illustrated from a few years ago. There’s a focus piece on Jacoby Ellsbury from when he was a rookie. Reading it makes Marcus feel old.
Esca keeps sleeping, which he probably needs, so eventually Marcus gets up and goes to rest in one of the other bedrooms.
He sleeps fitfully and wakes in the middle of the night to check on Esca. Esca’s sitting up when Marcus gets downstairs, holding the glass again, although no more liquid is gone.
“How’re you feeling?” Marcus asks.
“Like shit,” says Esca. “But better than before.”
Marcus feels his forehead. He doesn’t know what to check for, but one of his only memories of his mom is her cool hands on his forehead when he was sick. It’s what you do for sick people. It seems like Esca doesn’t mind because at Marcus’s touch he closes his eyes and lets his head fall back on the couch cushions. He’s neither too hot nor too cold, and not clammy. Marcus lets out a sigh of relief.
“What happened?” Marcus asks.
“On Monday I took a bus to Mystic and ate at this sandwich shop—”
“Lennie’s?” Marcus frowns. “Yeah. Don’t eat there.”
Esca gives him a look like, now you tell me, but all he says is, “Yes, Lennie’s. Something tasted off. And now I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours puking and shitting, and I can’t keep anything down. Even this—” he eyes the Gatorade with suspicion “—has me worried.”
“You didn’t call anyone?”
Something unreadable flickers across his face. “No.”
“Call me next time,” says Marcus. “Call anyone. Just . . .” Esca presses his lips together and sets his jaw, and Marcus decides not to pursue it. He can’t tell if that’s a shut up look or an I’m-going-to-be-sick-look, so he stands up. “I’m going to get you a bowl, just in case.”
When he comes back with it, Esca’s managed to drink a bit more of the liquid in his glass, and his eyes are closed again.
“Do you want to . . .,” Marcus begins. “I mean, would you be more comfortable in bed? I can . . .”
“Carry me again?” Esca asks, squinting up at him. Marcus nods. Esca is silent for a long moment. “I would,” he says. “But I can walk.”
He gets as far as sitting up before swaying dangerously. “Fuck. I’ll just stay here.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” He scoops Esca up again before he can protest. Esca makes a displeased noise, but then his tiredness gets the better of him and he rests his head against Marcus’s chest, warming the skin there. He smells sour and sick, but his hair is very soft where it brushes Marcus’s neck.
Marcus deposits Esca on the bed and goes to get him yet more to drink. “You’re extremely dehydrated,” he tells Esca when he gets back. “If you’re not feeling better tomorrow, I can get a nurse to come here and give you a saline drip, or I can take you to the hospital.”
Esca yawns. “How do you know so much about it?”
“I played football in college. Pre-season practices were pretty hard. Some guy usually ended up puking or passing out from heat exhaustion at least once a week.”
“More than once,” says Marcus. It seems like a lifetime ago now.
“That’s stupid,” says Esca, eyes already closed. “I would never do this voluntarily.”
Marcus waits for more, but Esca’s asleep.
Marcus hears Esca shuffle to the bathroom just before dawn. And, more gratifyingly, shuffle back out again under his own power. The next day while Esca dozes in bed, Marcus calls Lutorius to tell him that Esca will be out for the rest of the week, and that he, Marcus, will be working from home.
He goes out in the morning and brings back a selection of fruit smoothies from a health food store in Mystic. Esca manages to drink half of one before letting the rest melt and sweat on the bedside table, until it’s an unappetizing, separated mess when Marcus goes to check on him in the afternoon.
Marcus brings his laptop into the guest house kitchen, and spends the day researching potential customers, reading white papers about ad targeting, and planning a focus group. He gets the housekeeper to come by and clean up, bring food for them, bland things that maybe Esca will be able to tolerate.
He doesn’t know whether to be worried or pleased that Esca doesn’t try to kick him out that day. In the evening Esca makes his way downstairs and lies down on the couch.
Marcus has the Boston game on. He offers to turn it off, or change the channel, but Esca says, “No, I’m feeling just stupid enough for baseball.”
“Like cricket is much better,” Marcus answers, hoping for some good, old-fashioned trash talking, but Esca doesn’t answer. “Are you hungry?” Marcus asks.
“Maybe a little.”
Marcus brings him some crackers and another smoothie from the freezer, warmed up a little and stirred back to something approaching the right consistency, and a beer for himself. “If you want something else . . .”
“No, this is good.”
They watch the game in silence for a while. Esca nibbles on the crackers, takes small sips of the smoothie. Toronto is getting spanked so thoroughly by Boston that it’s not that interesting a game, but Marcus has always had a crush on Mike Lowell, from before he even realized he wanted men that way, so at least he can appreciate Lowell’s George Clooney-esque salt and pepper hair, and strong-legged batting stance for a while.
“You don’t have to stay,” says Esca after a few innings.
“I know,” Marcus answers. He takes a drink of his beer. It’s some Massachusetts micro-brew he’s never heard of, but it’s delicious, wheaty and citrusy. Esca’s been doing some exploring.
“Why are you, then?” Esca asks.
Because I can’t stand the thought of anything bad happening to you, is the answer that springs immediately to mind. Because seeing Esca pale and weak, and too sick even to glare at Marcus or insult him properly pulls at something in his chest and he can’t walk away.
Marcus can’t answer truthfully, not and retain any shred of dignity, so instead he says, “Because I think you’re stubborn enough to die of food poisoning rather than ask for help. I’m protecting my investment.”
Esca gives him a skeptical look, but leaves it alone. The Red Sox win, 11-2. Esca rouses himself from his doze and goes back to sleep upstairs.
By the weekend, Esca is feeling a bit better, but he still isn’t eating much. Marcus leaves him alone so he can go back to his house to work out, shower and change. Saturday morning is his long run day. He got in the habit when he did the New York Marathon last year, and never really dropped it, so it’s almost noon when he gets back to check on Esca again.
“You really don’t need to be here,” Esca says pointedly when Marcus lets himself in.
“You’re still too dizzy to answer the door, which is why I’m using my key rather than knocking like a civilized person.” Yesterday he knocked, and yesterday Esca was panting and leaning on the door frame when he got there to open it.
They sit on the couch and watch stupid action movies. Esca eats a quarter of a bagel, chewing slowly and carefully.
“I’m bored,” says Esca after the second Fast and Furious movie.
“How can you be bored of Vin Diesel?” Marcus asks. Esca just gives him a look.
“I could read to you.”
“Paint your nails?”
He gets a slight smile out of that. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice before that you were an enormous girl,” says Esca.
And you would have, Marcus thinks, but he doesn’t say it. He likes this slightly more friendly relationship they’ve fallen into. Esca’s prickliness is just habit. He’ll wear down.
“I’m not the one who wears nail polish,” Marcus points out. “Plus, it’s chipped.”
“You actually are a girl, aren’t you?”
Marcus goes to rummage in the bathroom. There he finds both Esca’s black nail polish and the remover.
Esca gives him a disbelieving look when he comes back downstairs. “You’re serious.”
Marcus thinks maybe he’s going too far, but Esca hasn’t actually said ‘no’ yet, and now it feels like a game of chicken, like, which one of them is going to blink first and not go through with this?
“Yes I’m serious,” says Marcus “I’m bored too.” Esca still looks skeptical. “C’mon. I’m good at this. You want your toes done too?”
That look is a definite no, but he does offer a hand. Marcus kneels so he can get the best light. He takes the old polish off and starts reapplying. Esca has long, mobile fingers, interestingly callused. Marcus wants to ask what hobby gives him those, but he doesn’t want to break whatever spell is over them right now by speaking.
Esca does, though, and says, “You are good at that.”
“I used to do my girlfriend’s toes in college,” he says quietly, not wanting to look up and maybe mess up the smooth lines he’s painting.
“Yes,” says Marcus, more defensively than he means to. “I date women sometimes.”
“Date women, and fuck men on the side.” Esca’s tone is suddenly venomous.
“You’re really determined to dislike me,” says Marcus, still trying to make it a joke. Esca’s not wrong, though. He doesn’t date men. He’s never wanted to. He knows how to date women, there’s an easy script to follow. Until he broke up with Helen, he always imagined himself married, with kids, a wife with shoulder-length blonde hair, expertly coiffed. He’d give up men. She’d give up her job. He’d thought Helen wanted the same thing.
“Have you ever dated a man?” Esca asks.
“No,” says Marcus, getting annoyed. “And I don’t think it’s any of your business. You made that clear.” He stands up. “I thought you just didn’t want to move up here, didn’t want anyone meddling in your company, but it’s me. You really hate me.” He’s still more incredulous than angry. People like him. He’s always had that.
But Esca doesn’t look like he’s going to deny it. “Liathan was going to sell your company,” Marcus adds. “Be mad at him.”
“Oh, I am,” says Esca.
“Then what? What did I do?”
“Do you know how many pricks like you I met at Cambridge?” Now Esca’s standing as well, the anger blazing in his eyes enough to burn off whatever weakness he was feeling. He shakes his head. “Different accent, same fucking entitlement. I’m sure you can be nice, but in the end you’re just using people and throwing them away. Is there anything in your life that wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter? You’ve been fucking up your father’s company for ten years, and now you want to fuck mine up as well.”
It’s like getting slapped. It’s worse than that; it’s everything Marcus has feared was true about himself thrown in his face. Marcus must look as stricken as he feels, because Esca’s voice is almost gentle when he says, “Go home, Marcus. Just go.”