Oak Flats, Nebraska, 1982
A MUD-SPATTERED pickup in the front yard of a weathered house. Summer-gold hayfields rolling back farther than the eye could see. In the west, a sinking sun screened by a line of trees—cottonwoods and willows. Under those trees, a band of children just into their teens, whooping and laughing in that way that kids do in the summer when night is just on the edge of the next breath.
Luki ran faster than all the rest, and then looped back to taunt them. Excitement like electricity ran through him. Something about this day, this hour, this prelude to night, was special. “Maria,” he yelled. “I’ll race ya!”
It started a stampede, all seven of the boys and Maria, the one girl who always hung out with them, running as if they could fly, thrashing through brambles and over sticks and stones as if they couldn’t feel them. Out onto the Old Granary Road, onto the bridge, right over the rail and into the river, just as they’d done hundreds of times before.
Luki swam underwater for as long as he could hold his breath, which was longer than anyone, except maybe Maria. When he came up, laughing and spitting, and slicked his hair back out of his eyes, all of the other boys had gathered at the shore, whispering, or maybe arguing. Maria hadn’t even gone in, and now she was worming her way down the steep embankment from the road to the river.
The sun sank under the skyline, and the river turned dark, and Luki felt a chill run through him.
“Hey, Luki, c’mon over here, man.” It was Ronny Jemison, the boy that was a bit taller, a bit rougher, a bit meaner than any of the rest. Maybe the leader, if they had been a gang. “We’ve got something for you. C’mon.”
Ronny scared him when he was like this. Luki had seen the bully push Little Jimmy down the bank, yank Maria’s hair hard enough to put her on her knees, kill birds and frogs and rabbits—anything that lived—just to be killing. But, scared or not, Luki knew he had to choose: go and fight and maybe get hurt, or be deemed a coward and so get picked on—probably for the rest of his life.
So Luki went.
Before he quite made it safely to dry land, Ronny smacked him hard in the face with a balled up fist, and yelled one word, spit it at Luki as if it was made of acid and would flay him.
Washington State, 2010
BRIGHT clothes, sunburns. Summer had arrived, and Port Clifton was awash in tourists. Since Juan de Fuca Boulevard constituted most of the town, they had nowhere else to go. They chattered and milled about, and Sonny Bly James wasn’t in the mood for chatter or milling because he was worried about his nephew, Delsyn, who always stayed gone for days, but who should have come home by now. Sonny quickened his long-legged strides and slid through the crush, trying to disturb the air as little as possible on the way to his truck.
Then he saw a man.
Which in itself wasn’t unusual, but this man, an islander, maybe Hawaiian, by the look of him, lounged cool and beautiful in loose summer whites, half-sitting on the fender of an ice-blue Mercedes, a strip of sand beach and the blue straits for a backdrop. Dark chestnut curls shining; straight, white teeth softly teasing a lush, plum-red bottom lip. His eyes, startling pale blue against brown skin, roved all over Sonny; the islander made no effort to pretend otherwise, and besides, Sonny could feel them. Their touch trickled over him like ice water, exciting every nerve he had, even those he’d never heard from before.
Which scared Sonny, a recluse by choice—and, he knew, because he’d always managed to be socially… well, clumsy. So, he turned to the weapon that had been his first line of defense since adolescence, when all the reservation had noticed that their star young grass dancer didn’t mind being gay: a smart mouth.
“What are you looking at?”
Even though the islander had responded by looking away, Sonny knew he hadn’t—couldn’t have—intimidated him. The stranger might have been a few inches shorter than him, but judging by his physique, and despite his laid-back manner, Sonny guessed the man could have dropped him with a cold look and a slap. It would have been less of a blow if he had. Instead, he freed his lower lip from his teeth and spoke.
“I beg your pardon.”
Sonny wanted to let a whole raft of words spill out, starting with “I didn’t mean it,” and ending with “so kiss me, now.” But the man’s attention had turned away. A baby in a stroller dropped a floppy brown bear at his feet. The young mother looked frazzled, at her wit’s end, carrying another child and trying to keep a third from making a dash down the boulevard. The islander squatted down—a graceful move—and picked up the bear. Right before Sonny’s eyes, his icy exterior melted, and though he didn’t smile and couldn’t pass for cheerful, he somehow seemed kind. He handed the stuffed creature back to the baby, who seemed to like him. She expressed her gratitude by spouting a number of syllables that all sounded a lot like “da.”
Sonny, angry with himself for blowing his chance to meet this chill but beautiful stranger—who might be trying to hide a kind heart—pretended he hadn’t seen. He turned his faux-stoic shoulder and walked away. A little shaky, perhaps; already sorry. Three strides and he heard a voice, unexpectedly scratchy, even hoarse.
The man took a deep, lovely breath, flashed his cold-fire eyes at Sonny, and said, “I have coffee most mornings at Margie’s. In case you’re interested.”
MARGIE’S it was, then, the very next day. Sonny had weighed the wisdom of that, thinking it might be better if he didn’t seem so anxious. But hell, he thought, I am anxious. Nothing about me is un-anxious.
He took the truck—which his Uncle Melvern had left him when he died a year ago and which functioned as a good luck charm. After he pulled over to the curb a half-block from Margie’s, he forced the clutch to cooperate, wrestled the column shift into first, and shut the engine down. Sort of. It kicked and spluttered, backfired, and groaned to death. He really, really hoped that the man he had come to meet had not heard that. He wanted to make a good impression. He crashed his shoulder into the door to get out, slammed the door twice to shut it, then paused to look in the side-view mirror. Some other person spoke out of his mouth—or at least that’s how it felt. “Sonny,” it said, “here’s your chance. Don’t blow it.”
Great. A confidence builder.
The wooden sign attached over the arched brick entry said “Margie’s Cup O’ Gold,” but nobody ever called the cafe anything but just plain Margie’s. The elegant door—leaded glass set in oak panels—had been pushed open and held there with a shoe. All that stood between Sonny and whatever fate awaited him inside was a wooden screen door, the old-fashioned kind; it might have been there since the block was built in the 1890’s. He crossed the threshold wearing a smile for Margie, then reached back just in time to stop the screen from slamming behind him. “Hey, Marge,” he said, maybe not quite as loud as usual. He glanced around lazily, as if he weren’t looking for the man he’d come to think of as “the islander.” He didn’t see him. He let out a long breath that he must have been holding, wondering if he felt disappointed or relieved. He walked, casually he hoped, across the expanse of black and white parquet floor.
“Well,” Margie said, hand on hip and scolding in ringing tones. “Hello, Sonny. You’re here awfully early.”
“Margie, usually people don’t give other people a hard time for being early.”
“Shush, Sonny Bly. So what do you want? Never mind, I already know. You and your fancy coffees. What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned cuppa, eh? Now that young man that came in a little earlier—real nice looking fella; I think you’d like him—now he just ordered coffee, black and sweet. There’s a man that knows what he likes, I say.”
She’d nearly finished making the latte by the time she stopped. That was one thing about a conversation with Margie. Sonny never worried about what to say, because he was pretty sure he’d never get a chance to say it. But this time she had him a little dumbfounded. She’d said, “that nice fella” with a sly glance out of the corner of her eye. Sonny figured she was on to him, but he couldn’t decide whether that was good or bad.
She cleared up those muddy waters as soon as she handed over his latte. “He’s around the corner, dear. The last table. Don’t worry, you look fine.”
Which left Sonny absolutely certain he should have worried more about how he looked.
There he was, the islander. Same skin, same lips, eyes, even hair. Of course. But the rest of him was dressed in a posh business suit, a light gray, summer fabric so finely tailored that he might have been born in it. “So why the getup?” Sonny asked.
“Ah,” the stranger remarked. “A way with words.”
He didn’t have to say that. Sonny was already giving his forehead a mental smack. He stared at his coffee for what seemed like, maybe, a hundred and twenty-four years. He’d all but decided to bid an embarrassed farewell and beat a retreat, when the islander spoke.
“I have to go to work in a while,” he said. When Sonny looked up he added, “That’s why the getup.” No smile went with the words, but his eyes danced, like they were laughing—or maybe teasing. He reached halfway across the tile-topped table, holding out his long-fingered, manicured hand.
Sonny stared at it.
The islander said, “I thought maybe introductions would be a good place to start. I’m Luki. Luki Vasquez.”
Embarrassed again, Sonny blushed, which—he knew from experience—made his off-brown skin look purple. But in an act of sheer bravery, he put his own dye-stained and calloused hand out and took hold of Luki’s. Somehow, what felt like gibberish came out sounding like his name. “Sonny James.”
Luki leaned back when the handshake was done, draped his left arm casually over the back of the chair… revealing a bit of leather strap that might be part of a shoulder holster and something sort of gun-shaped half-hidden under his jacket.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Luki pulled his jacket back and showed him what was under there. Or some of what was under there, and not necessarily what Sonny wanted to see.
“Is that what you thought it was?”
“I’m afraid so. Police?”
Luki shook his head. “Used to be, sort of—ATF. Not anymore.”
“Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms.”
Sonny said, “Oh.” Thinking he’d probably heard of such an organization, sometime. “What now?”
Security? Sonny’s mind raced. Luki couldn’t possibly have meant he was one of those people that walk around the factory at night. That wouldn’t make enough money for a man to feed himself, never mind buy a suit handmade by the angels of heaven. What kind of security work might be so lucrative? He imagined Luki running alongside royalty as they headed for the limo, staving off the paparazzi.”What, like bodyguard?”
Luki’s voice, low and raspy but sweet, tightened a bit. Apparently he hadn’t expected to be quizzed about how he paid the bills. “Yes, from time to time. And property—gems and what not. Investigations, sometimes. What about you? What do you do?” The look he shot Sonny was almost a glare.
The most honest response would have been, “Please, don’t look at me like that,” but belligerence is a tough habit to break. “I play with yarn.”
“Yep,” Sonny said aloud. Silently, he told himself he’d probably gone too far. He wasn’t sorry that Luki’s cell phone, attached to his belt in a stylishly businesslike manner, buzzed just then.
Luki glanced at the number, looked up, and caught Sonny’s eyes with an entirely unreadable gaze. He set his hand on the table, preparing to rise. “Sorry,” he said, “I’d better go.”
“Alright,” Sonny responded, his voice faint. A wish that he’d spent this time with Luki getting to know him a little, rather than engaging in subtle verbal warfare hit him so hard that it took his breath. Heart pounding, acting on either bravery or desperation, he put his hand on Luki’s where it lay on the table. Luki’s hand turned and grabbed hold. His thumb washed across Sonny’s knuckles; his fingers promised Sonny’s palm a kiss, which struck remote bits of anatomy like lightning. Sonny tried to put some of his chagrin into a smile. His lips had gone dry, and he licked them. “Luki—” He stopped, surprised at how the name filled his mouth with something sweet. He laughed a little and went on. “Maybe we can try this again?”
Luki stayed silent, worrying softly at his bottom lip—again.
Sonny stopped breathing.
“Yeah,” Luki said, with that already familiar something in his eyes. “I’d like that. Tomorrow?”
Sonny’s confidence underwent significant restoration as a result of that promising end. He smiled a farewell to Luki and sat a few minutes longer to contemplate and sip the last of his tepid, but still delicious, raspberry latte. Getting ready to leave, he stood, slid his feet more firmly into his flip-flops, and patted his back pocket, as always, to make sure that indeed his wallet was still there. He took a step toward the door, but stopped when he heard conversation around the corner. He’d thought Luki must have gone out the back door to the parking lot, but there was no mistaking his voice.
“The man plays with string, Margie.”
Step one, Sonny thought, deflate ego.
“Oh, yes he does,” Margie said. “And he does it better than anyone I know. Would you like to see?”
Step two: remember who your friends are.
“Not today, Margie. I have to go. Some other day, maybe. I’m sure it’s spectacular.”
Step three: write off potential romance as a loss for tax purposes.
Footsteps. The back door opened, closed. Sonny came out of hiding to find Margie standing with arms crossed and a raised eyebrow.
“Well?” Margie made words like that into whole dissertations, having a talent for saying more when she spoke less.
“The man plays with guns,” he mumbled.
“Quite competently, so I’ve heard. Any word from Delsyn?”
Sonny didn’t mind changing the subject, but thoughts of his too-long-absent nephew hardly cheered him up. He shook his head.
“Don’t worry so, dear. He’ll come home.”
This time Sonny nodded, wished Margie a good day, and started for the door.
“He wants to see your work sometime.” Which, of course, did not refer to Delsyn.
“Don’t bother, Marge.” Hoping to convince himself that he didn’t care, he added, “He wouldn’t know crimson from scarlet if they jumped up and shouted their names.”
THE next day, Sonny talked himself through some considerable misgivings and went to Margie’s as arranged. Luki didn’t show. After an hour and 2.8 lattes, he left. He didn’t say a word, but Margie did. Of course.
“His work is unpredictable, Sonny. He should have told you that.”
“No big deal, Marge.”
“He doesn’t live here, you know. Leases one of those condos up the street, temporarily.”
“Luxury, I’m sure.”
Margie raised her eyebrows. “I expect so. Anyway, he said he lives in Chicago, has a business there, but he can run it from anywhere. It takes him all over the world, I guess, and right now, he has a job here.”
Sonny remembered how closemouthed Luki seemed. “You got him to say all that?” But of course Margie could get a signpost talking if she had a few minutes to spend. She didn’t answer, but she did keep talking.
“He likes it here, said he’s tired of Chicago, tired of always being on edge. Decided he’d stay a while, maybe not work so hard.”
“Why are you telling me all this, Margie?
“Because you want to know.”
LUKI glanced in the mirror for a minimal look before leaving his condo. He’d dressed more casually than he generally did when working—which in the past had been always—but today his face looked even more grim than usual. He didn’t like to see it, anyway. The scar that ran straight down the left side of his face from scalp to chin made him ugly, and he knew it. And he knew that, try as he might to distract people with perfect clothes and beautiful curls, that scar scared people and turned them away. Everyone except kids.
And Sonny James, maybe.
Which explained the grimmer look.
He’d been working, a nasty job that involved a wife trying to get her jewels back from a former trophy husband who, it turned out, had full access to a lowlife but dangerous security force of his own—exactly the kind of job he hated the most, though it paid well. He couldn’t help missing his date… sort of date with Sonny, but Sonny had no way of knowing that. He’d called Margie late that first day and asked for Sonny’s cell. She didn’t think he had one, she said, for practical reasons. That left Luki baffled, and then before he could ask for his landline, things started happening outside. “Tell him I called,” he’d said. Three days ago.
“Maybe I’ll be lucky and have a chance to explain,” he told his reflection.
He walked the four miles to Margie’s for exercise. And because he didn’t think Margie’s would be open this early anyway. Not being someone who could remotely be called a “morning person,” he’d never paid much attention to what time things opened. They were always open before he got there, except when he had to get up for work, in which case he didn’t go have leisurely coffee with a beautiful… exceptionally beautiful man.
I can’t believe it, he thought. I’ve got freaking butterflies in my stomach. Cigarette.
He had one in the first mile and hoped the next three would blow away the smell of smoke. I should quit. Not knowing why he thought St. Christopher might help in a situation like this, he touched the medal he always wore on its chain. Let him be there.
Right. Because I’d certainly be there if someone stood me up without a word and didn’t show up for three days….
Sonny didn’t appear at Margie’s that day, nor the next, nor the next, despite Luki getting there early—though admittedly later each day. Margie said he hadn’t been in after that first day, and when he asked where Sonny lived, she laughed. He hadn’t expected a laugh, but he hadn’t really expected an answer, either—other than the usual, “It’s not my business to tell you that.”
Instead: “You’d never find it, Luki.”
“I’m a detective.”
“Well, if you can detect yourself around the forest, through the bog, and over the back roads, then you’ll do fine. He lives about an hour out of town—not because of distance, because of the roads. Hardly ever comes to town, to tell the truth. One of those reclusive artist types, you know?”
No. He didn’t know. When would he have had a chance to know what “artist types” do with their off time? “What about his phone, then?”
“Well, I don’t know….”
“I’m sure you have it.”
“I do, and I’ve got your phone number too. Do you want me to just hand it out to any looker that asks?”
“If the looker is Sonny James, yes.” He meant it, but it didn’t look like Margie even heard it. She’d already walked away, heading for a table newly filled with four tourists.
Luki left, resolving not to come back with his hopes in the air again. Why he had done it in the first place mystified him. He never pursued relationships. Went out of his way to avoid them, in fact. He liked a tryst as well as the next guy, had honed his skills at sex the same way he perfected his marksmanship and tai chi. But relationships? No; single instances, adding just enough class to keep them from being sordid. He found the idea of a relationship dangerous.
Sonny James threatened his well-being. Better left alone. So he told himself, but after he walked out Margie’s door, he turned around and walked back in.
“You said you’d show me some of his work sometime. Can you do that now?”
SONNY couldn’t get his mind around weaving. This happened rarely. Actually, it happened never, but this time thoughts of Delsyn’s absence loomed so large, he scarcely had room in his mind for anything else.
Almost true, he thought. Delsyn left room for one other subject: Luki Vasquez.
He’d reached an impasse in his thinking on both subjects, so in disgust, he moved away from the loom and into the rough-floored mudroom, which he’d set up with tubs and flasks and boxes of ingredients—even a long rack for stripping bark and a freezer for storing bags of exotic, color-yielding insects. He’d dedicated the space for making and using dyes, and that’s what he set about.
He had a project in mind, something he wanted to do that, for once, had not been commissioned. To be honest, he had two in mind, but one involved a sore subject, and he chose not to think about it. The project he applied himself to that morning nearly matched his mood, though perhaps a little brighter. It needed a big sky that duplicated the color and feel of the cloud-strewn mornings these last few weeks.
Colors just a hair off from what was called for could change a piece completely, even ruin it—Sonny knew that better than just about anyone. Creating effective, precise dyes had been the core of his doctoral work, and the subject had become a mainstay in his rare academic appearances. Being the kind of man that rarely does anything the way anybody else would, he’d developed a quirky but relaxing way to get every hue, tint, and shade exactly right. And now seemed a good time for relaxation.
Before dawn, he gathered swatches of silk cloth, dyed and set two days ago in a range of hues from off-white to beige to various grays. After tying each onto its own slender pole, he carried them to the beach at the edge of the straits. Hiking east up the beach, he stopped when he found a place that seemed right and had some high rocks to watch from. He planted the poles in the sand and climbed to his perch just in time for the light to show.
The job involved a lot of doing nothing. Or so it would seem from the outside. In reality, he observed and noted and carefully recorded, all in his brain. But when he saw Luki Vasquez running along the shore, he knew that if the islander saw him, he’d think he was lazing about. Strange, though, for all Luki’s “I’m a professional bad guy” attitude, he didn’t spot Sonny there until he came upon the silk flags fluttering in the breeze. He turned to scan the beach but still didn’t see him. When finally he did, he stood for a minute, inscrutable, then walked toward Sonny’s rocks.
“Hey,” Sonny said.
Silence. A promising start. Sonny scooted over on his rock. There was room for two. “You want to sit?”
Luki climbed up and cleared his throat a few times before speaking. “I was working.”
“You do that a lot?”
“Not as much as I used to. I’m trying to cut back.”
By the sound of his voice, Sonny would have sworn the man was smiling, but when he turned to face him, he didn’t see any expression more mobile than ice. At first. Then it peeked out, that tiny, shy little bit of something sweet behind his eyes, in the set of his mouth. A smile? Maybe so.
“What are you doing?” Luki stared at the flags as if trying to decode a hidden clue.
“I’m testing dyes, colors.”
“Aren’t they all pretty much the same?”
Sonny sighed, pretty sure this new acquaintance would lead nowhere. He wondered briefly what Luki wanted out of him. He suspected it would be a quick fling before he returned to his real life in Chicago. Maybe he had a lover there, though Sonny’s intuition told him not. Anyway, the last thing Sonny wanted was a one-nighter. He avoided them. That habit, coupled with his lack of the time needed to find love—or have any real relationship—had left him alone and even shyer than he’d been when he started out. And, he knew, probably the most inexperienced twenty-nine-year-old man, gay or not gay, this side of the moon.
But he had Delsyn to worry about, and that took up too much of his mind and heart to make room for lovers anyway. Now that he’d grown up enough to realize that Delsyn’s well-being couldn’t be expected to take care of itself, he would gladly devote himself to doing the caring if only Del would stay home. He wouldn’t, never did. But the boy knew he needed to come home every two weeks, maybe three at the most—his life might depend on it. That’s what Sonny needed to think and worry about. Not Luki Vasquez.
“No,” he answered. “They’re not the same.” He jumped down from the rocks, gathered up his poles, and strode away, affording Luki a wave.
RIVER sounds climbed the muddy bank where Luki stood shivering in moonlight so bright it glared, and he had to shield his eyes. He knew there were other kids in the water, though he couldn’t hear them, could barely make out the dark shapes of their heads, like shadows. He heard a call from a short distance off to his left, and when he turned his head, there was another shape. A boy, and something gleaming silver in the air.
Again he heard his name. “Luki, come on over here. I’ve got something for you.”
“Not again, no,” he whispered to himself.
“Yes,” Ronny said. “Again, and again, and again….”
Luki cried out, woke, and rolled instantly off the bed and onto his feet. Sweat soaked him, and the left side of his face burned as if newly slashed. Fear, then grief took their brief turns with him, each like a punch to his throat, cutting off his air. He hurried past them and embraced rage, stood in its white-hot flame until, for this time, it burned itself out.
He knew the drill, knew the dream, knew how to shake off its remaining shards.
Seconds after he woke, he gauged the light and estimated, morning. Which, he knew, demonstrated his brilliant powers of deduction.
“Better than Sherlock Holmes.”
As an alternative to testing his detective skills, he looked at the clock. Eight thirty. Still early by his standards, but he never contemplated going back to bed. He stumbled into the bathroom to vomit—an old and bothersome reaction—not even trying to hold it back this time.
Thanks to his invisible housekeeper, who came every day in his absence, somehow always knowing when he’d be gone, he had coffee ready to brew by the cup. He brushed his teeth so he could enjoy the taste and did just that. Two cups of black and sweet, into the shower, out again in no time. He put on his old and ragged clothes. Yes, he had some. He remembered Sonny’s blunt question. “Why the getup?” He almost smiled, almost wished the intriguing… frustrating and intriguing man could see him now.
Meanwhile, he got out three handguns of various sizes and capabilities, placed them in a case designed for just that purpose, and added ammunition. He kept his firearms, always, clean and in perfect condition. None of his weapons were intended for sport. Intimidation, protection, and defense constituted the mainstay of his profession and of his habits; a life, even his own, could depend on them. And honing all his skills, working them to stay in top form, fought off the dream and the havoc it would otherwise wreak. Guns and targets this morning, and then perhaps tai chi—which he considered the best and deadliest of his martial arts.
By the time he’d driven to the range outside of Port Angeles, reassured himself, and impressed his fellow shooters, the need for breakfast finally caught up, so he stopped at Front Street, a corner restaurant that served steak and eggs seasoned and cooked to perfection. On the way back to Port Clifton, he set his phone on speaker and delegated the day’s work to his various staff, using his fabulous office admin as a go-between.
“They won’t listen to me, boss. You know that.”
“Contrary, Jude. I know you put fear in their hearts every time you speak, and they wouldn’t dare go against you. Make my nefarious plans your orders, and they’ll get it done.”
“Are you coming back soon?”
“That’s all I get, just no?”
After an exasperated groan, Jude hung up. For the second time that day, Luki almost smiled. Which made him think maybe he should go back. Port Clifton was turning him soft.
FOOD digested, business taken care of, cigarette half-smoked, he decided to go straight down to the beach. He could have gone home. He had plenty of room in his condo, or on the balcony, for tai chi. He had a key to the top floor gym, a luxurious space that boasted a three-sixty view. But luxury had never seemed right for tai chi, and, Nebraska child that he was, saltwater still fascinated him. Besides, this was the closest he’d ever come to a vacation. He might as well at least make a pretense of it.
He drove a little way past town to a stretch not lined by houses and not crowded with people—in fact, it looked deserted. Perfect. For the first part of his tai chi practice, he always worked carefully and slowly through forms; for the next part, he “fought” target posts of various sizes, each about two inches in diameter. In early days, the posts had been wrapped with padding and duct tape, but once he’d mastered the art, he left them bare. The “give” had to be in his own hands, his own stance, and that’s what imbued his blows with deadly force.
He took the targets out of the car, removed his shoes, and walked across the beach to the edge of the water, where the wet sand provided a perfect base. After he’d set his poles and taken a minute to perfect his state of mind, he began the first form, working thoughtfully, slowly, aware of every muscle, every move.
By the time he’d finished, the sun had risen almost midway. With heat and exertion, he’d broken into a profuse sweat. He turned his face into the breeze, let it riffle his curls, took his shirt off, and tossed it to hang on one of his targets.
A dot in the distance moving up the beach toward him. A person. Sonny, no flags in sight.
Oh well, no problem. If there was anything he knew how to do, it was shut out emotional disturbance. He’d just continue with his practice, maybe work another form first, as if Sonny weren’t there. But with Sonny’s long legs, he covered a lot of distance in a short time, and now he’d come almost close enough for eye contact. My God, the man is beautiful.
“Hey,” Luki said.
“Nice out, huh?” Oh, yeah. Great. Talk about the weather.
Sonny ignored the comment.
Thank you, universe.
“It’s like dancing.”
The conversation seemed like some kind of mirror image of the last time they spoke, when Sonny was checking out colors, which certainly weren’t all the same, or so Sonny informed him, leaving him to feel foolish. Nice thing was, now they were in his territory. But he had no taste for retaliation.
“It’s been called that. Tai chi.”
“Oh. Yeah. I’ve heard of it. Sort of dancing that can kill. Seems exactly right.”
Luki didn’t know what he meant by that last remark, so he stayed silent.
“It’s graceful, the way you do it.”
Luki remained at a loss for a response. Was that a compliment?
“I’ve even thought about trying to learn it. But I could never get away from my studio—or maybe I should say get my studio out of my head—long enough for anything like that.”
Luki still said nothing, but now he subtly eyed Sonny from head to toe—a pleasant undertaking but one with purpose. “You’re in good enough shape to do it well.”
Luki didn’t know how he could speak and hold his breath at the same time, but it felt that way. “I could teach you a little,” he said, “right now.”
To his surprise and nervous delight, Sonny agreed after only a second’s hesitation. Soon Luki had him barefoot and mastering a perfect opening stance. From there, he taught him some traditional warm-ups—not part of the forms but a good way to get the feel of the art. Though his long, loose limbs gave him some trouble and made Luki want to secretly and fondly laugh, and though Sonny giggled—yes, giggled—at a few of the early warm-ups, he attended well and learned fast.
They’d reached the last of the warm-up exercises: Pushing Chi. A little more complicated than the ones that came before, it took focused coordination. When Sonny could Push Chi with acceptable grace, Luki decided to introduce him to at least part of the Chen form: First, he revisited the simple but all-important Opening Movement. Then, Pound the Pestle, Lazy Tying Coat, and Six Sealing, Four Closing.
Single Whip led into White Crane Spreads Its Wings, the name of which made Sonny adorably… all right fine, adorably happy. The sequence involved motions that at first felt counterintuitive. Like probably every student in the centuries tai chi had been around, Sonny needed help with it. As he would with any other student, Luki stood behind him, using his own hands to guide Sonny through the move. He wondered if he could get away with teaching him all the rest of the moves in just that way. Perhaps for hours. Every day. For a long time.
As he was teaching and wondering and probably even almost smiling, a wind rose up, splashing spray and sand and whipping Sonny’s long hair at Luki’s face and right into his mouth. On the word “open,” appropriately enough.
Sonny spun around, gathering up his luxurious baked-earth red hair. Before Luki had a chance to close his mouth, Sonny kissed him. A passionate, seeking sort of kiss. A kiss that Luki instinctively returned, though kissing wasn’t a large part of his intimate life, and especially not kissing on the beach.
As suddenly as he started it, Sonny ended it, leaving Luki bereft… frustrated and bereft.
Sonny turned away, refusing eye contact. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that.” Without any further explanation, he stepped away.
Luki knew fear, could spot it from afar and pick it out in a crowded room. Right now, it ran hot through Sonny’s veins. He reached for Sonny’s arm. “Sonny, what….” What are you afraid of? he ended the question silently. Sonny had already gone.
Luki hated roller coasters, both the mechanical ones and the emotional. In response to hating it, he relaxed completely, letting his tension be soaked up in the wet sand. Then he took that emotion out on his targets. Using tai chi fajin in a rapid-fire assault, he took every one of those posts down before they knew what hit them. Especially the last.
“You never even saw me leap, you stupid post.”