Hemi woke up with a crick in his neck and a feeling of uncertainty. He cracked open one eye and winced at the light, then again as he realised that Auntie Tai was standing over him. He closed his eyes again and hoped she didn't notice. He felt awful, dry-mouthed and shaky even before he had even tried to move.
"Nice try, boy," she said, not bothering to keep her voice down. Hemi winced as the noise made his head ache more. "Get into the car. It's Koro's party this afternoon."
Hemi only dimly remembered anything about his grandfather's party, but he did recognise the command in his Auntie Tai's voice as something you'd best obey, and tried to get up. He stopped when he couldn't move his arm and looked down to see George's face shoved into his jacket and his arm looped over Hemi's chest. He was drooling, and as Hemi watched he shifted slightly and his eyes opened.
"What you looking at?" he mumbled, and Hemi kind of grinned at him for a moment.
"Nothing," he said. "Auntie Tai says we gotta get home for Koro's party."
"Auntie Tai can kiss my arse," George replied. Hemi winced internally and looked apprehensively at his auntie.
"Can she now?" asked Auntie Tai, and George shot up so fast he fell off the sofa onto the floor with a crunch and lay there moaning faintly. "You gonna kiss your koro with that mouth? Better get up and get home before I find some soap."
Hemi got up, wishing he'd had a chance to ease into the morning a little, maybe a cup of tea and a smoke on the back porch, but if Auntie said it was time to go, it was time. He heaved George to his feet and steered him out of the wreckage of the party. At least they weren't going to have to clean up this pig-shit mess.
"Not my koro," muttered George rebelliously. Hemi shushed him, but Auntie had heard. A slap connected with Hemi's head. He swore quietly and rubbed the spot with his free hand.
"If I hit him, he'll spew," explained Auntie Tai. "I'm not having that smell in my car. Besides, you need to teach him some respect to his elders. Not his koro indeed! It won't just be me scrubbing out your mouth with soap, not if you keep on like that, George Te Hau Kiwikiwi!" The look she gave George was fierce and he wilted again, but she smiled more affectionately at Hemi as she walked past.
George stayed silent and Hemi concentrated on getting them down the steps without mishap. Auntie Tai strode ahead and George awkwardly patted Hemi's hand and rolled his head on Hemi's shoulder to look up into his face. He looked faintly green and as sorry as Hemi had ever seen him look.
"All good, bro?" he asked. It was as good as an apology, Hemi knew, and he rubbed his head again like it was still stinging.
"Yeah, only broken," he replied. It hadn't been hard enough to hurt, but George sometimes got real worried about that shit, so Hemi smiled reassuringly and rubbed it again. George rolled his head back down to nestle more comfortably on his shoulder. Auntie Tai yelled at them to hurry up and they crossed the last few steps to the car. The back seat was covered in towels and there was a bucket on the floor. George crawled inside, but Hemi looked at his Auntie's scowling face and read the loving exasperation behind it.
"No blankets, Auntie?" he asked. "Don't you got nothing better for us?"
"Don't push your luck, boy," she said, but Hemi could tell she was about to laugh. "I'll eat all the bacon your Mum's cooking while you're in the shower." He squeezed onto the bit of the seat that George wasn't sprawled out on, and didn't even complain when Auntie Tai turned her old person music up loud. He kept George from drooling on the seats and thought instead about how worried George had looked. Since George had come home, to live with his Nan, Hemi had been his mate, yet he didn't know much about what his life had been like down in Auckland. He wondered, sometimes, quite what he'd done to be sent home. Then Auntie Tai drove a little too fast on the gravel and Hemi reached for the bucket, just in case.
George was already wolfing down bacon and sausages by the time Hemi was tidy enough to present himself for breakfast. He was wearing the last clean pair of Hemi's jeans. Hemi tugged uncomfortably at his school trousers and glared at him.
"Your mum said you wouldn't mind," George explained, around a mouthful of toast.
"I said you should use your bloody manners, too," she interjected, turning to the table with a plate stacked high for Hemi. She put it on the table and Hemi sat down, stomach growling. "Don't worry, boy, you look real smart for your Koro. It's not everyday that he turns eighty."
Hemi just grunted and gave George another dirty look. He didn't see why he had to wear the uncomfortable trousers while George lounged around in his favourite jeans. George looked unrepentant and munched on more toast.
Mum put a cup of tea in front of Hemi and ruffled his hair. He quickly smoothed it back, but picked up his tea and drank gratefully.
"Thanks, Mum," he said.
"Yeah, thanks, Mum," echoed George.
She left the room with a disdainful sniff in George's direction and Hemi started shovelling in his food. The bacon was perfect and his mum knew how to cook eggs alright. George kicked him under the table.
"You do look real pretty," he said, smartarse grin plastered in place. "You just need a cardigan and some slippers, bro, and you'll look just like your koro."
"Shut up," said Hemi. "I'm gonna tell Auntie and Mum that you want to peel potatoes."
"Nah, she won't believe you."
"Or, nah, I'll tell them you volunteered to take Nanny Piko to the urupa to see her husband's grave. You know she can't walk so good anymore."
"You can't do that!" said George, his smug grin fading. "Nanny Piko smells like cat piss and always wants to cut my hair."
"At least my jeans won't get dirty if you're hobbling round the graves with her," said Hemi. He took another big mouthful of bacon, then some mushrooms, chewing with satisfaction as George looked horrified.
"Anything but Nanny Piko," George said. Hemi laughed and shook his head. George kicked him again, half-heartedly, and poked at his fried potatoes for a moment or two. Hemi hid his smile. George had never been to a marae before he moved up here, and now, even after three years, he was still easily terrified about it. Hemi wouldn't wish Nanny Piko on him; he'd rather keep George by his side.
"Good, nearly finished," said Auntie Tai, bustling into the room with a basket full of food. "George, your nan rang and said she's bringing your good trousers." George groaned and Hemi choked on a mouthful. George's good school trousers were even dumber than Hemi's.
Tai hastily cleaned the plates and table as the boys started ferrying baskets and bags out to the car. Hemi tossed in his bag; it was almost certain they'd stay over tonight, after all the food and the waita and the speeches. Everyone would join in on the singing and laugh at the old stories, whether they were funny or not, and the kids would run around until they fell over where they stood. As they squeezed into the backseat next to a sack of kumara, George flung his arm around Hemi's shoulders to make more room. Hemi felt a little awkward being so close, pressed into George's side, even though he'd woken up that morning with George half on top of him. He was sure it was just what a mate would do, but he couldn't stop just a little bit of a skip in his heartbeat, at how good it felt. He suppressed a nervous smile and carefully didn't look at George, not even when he shifted and his thumb rested on the back of Hemi's neck.
They did get pressed into service peeling potatoes. They sat at one of the tables, covered in newsprint, and peeled a whole sackful. Hemi saw one of his cousins walking past with Nanny Piko, though, her walking stick jabbing at the air in front of them as she leaned heavily on his arm, and was very careful not to complain once.
Hemi kept an eye on the pile of potatoes and another on the door, hoping they might get to escape. The only entertainment was George's Nan, hustling him into his school trousers. George had complained loudly, but he'd given in, as Hemi had known he would. There was no point arguing with one of the ladies when they put their mind to something. George had drooped defeatedly for a minute when he'd returned, but Hemi just elbowed him and laughed, and said he looked pretty too. It was an odd thing to say about George, but he'd just grinned.
Eventually they could wash their hands and escape into the main house to greet the old man. It was just what he'd expected, with lots of waiata that they all joined in on, and his uncles telling stories one after the other. Koro looked a bit frail, sitting on the padded bench of the taumata at the door, showing he was a leader and orator for his people. He had his walking stick in his hands and leaned on it everytime he got up to reply to someone else's speech.
Eventually there was a pause and Hemi somehow found himself on his feet without quite meaning to. There was a bit of a hush and some stifled laughter. He'd never gotten up to speak on the marae before, but he'd seen it a lot and hoped he knew what he was doing. He glanced at George, who looked as surprised as he felt, but his friend grinned and gave him a thumbs up. Heartened, he turned back to the crowd and haltingly started the traditional Māori words. As he finished the customary phrases, he was heartened by the approving murmur in the crowd.
"When I was little, Koro used to take me out with him, because my dad wasn't around much," he said. "He taught me how to fish and how to catch eels, and it wasn't his fault I hit my foot with the axe when I was seven, even though he took the blame for me when Mum found out. I stole my first cigarette from him when I was eleven, and I choked so hard I thought I'd die."
Hemi paused, all his nerves coming back as everyone laughed. "So, I want to say thanks to my Koro, who taught me how to figure out what's right from wrong, and to look after my friends." He started to sit down, forgetting that he had to sing, but George hauled him back up with a hug and a clap on the back. His mum stood too, and then everyone else, as she launched into a waiata that made Hemi's eyes water as he stood there, embarrassed. He mumbled the traditional ending and sat down, trying not to think about what he'd just done, in case he puked. George gave him another hug and shoved him, making Hemi catch himself before he hit the ground.
"You lame bastard," George whispered. "Now your mum will hug us both and cry on us." Hemi just grinned and shoved him back.
The last of the singing had faded into the night and the whare was filled with snoring and faint voices. Hemi and George sat out on the field on the grass, a blanket spread beneath them, listening to the faint noises of the night.
"Shame Monique wasn't here," said George. Hemi made a noncommittal noise. He hadn't actually missed her at all, though he still thought she was hot as.
"I'll bet you wouldn't even know what to do with her if you got her," George continued. Hemi scowled at him and gave him the finger.
"Like you would," he replied. "I've heard you talk big, but I never seen you go through with it."
"The ladies don't appreciate my charms," said George, grabbing at the crotch of his trousers.
"You don't got no charms," said Hemi. "And that move looks fucking awkward as in your school trousers."
George glared at Hemi, relaxed now in his jeans, and shoved him. Hemi shoved back and laughed when George tried to push him over. Next moment, they were rolling over on the grass, arms flailing and breath coming in deep pants. Hemi was momentarily victorious, pinning George down by the shoulders.
"What you got to say to that?" he crowed. There was no answer from George and he looked down to see his friend looking away, hands clenched at his sides. "Hey, what's wrong, bro?" asked Hemi, shifting to try to see George's face.
George didn't reply, but as Hemi moved he realised that his own cock was half-hard, and his face flamed. He shifted to get off George, to run as far as he could at his sudden, humiliating realisation. This was why he hadn't missed Monique, why he'd felt so awkward in the car, and why waking up with George on his chest was so mysteriously good. As he moved, George grabbed him and rolled with him, and Hemi braced himself to be hit, but then George's hands were rough on his face and he leaned in and kissed Hemi. It was a brief fumble of lips, but Hemi took a deep breath and kissed him back.
Hemi wound his arm around George's shoulders and dragged him close. George opened his mouth and their moment of gentle exploration fled as they kissed deeply; extravagantly, Hemi thought. He rolled onto his back and pulled George over on top of him. They kissed for long minutes, hands moving over each other, and when George finally pulled back, Hemi was stunned to realise that the stars hadn't moved.
George was silent, and Hemi realised he would have to say something. He considered what he wanted, from George and from himself, what was the right thing to do, and propped himself up on one elbow, looking down at George's scared, scrunched up face.
"So, uh, I've been considering the implications of this particular situation," Hemi said. George cracked one eye open and Hemi continued, "I don't think we should give a fuck about the ladies."
"What, bro?" asked George, looking completely bewildered.
"I think we should do that again."
George smiled so hard that Hemi thought he might burst. Then he was tugged over, onto George's chest with his arms round him. He wriggled round to get comfortable, while George laughed.
"Legend," he said, and cut off whatever Hemi might have thought of to say with another kiss.