THE tree grew at the edge of the parking lot, in the narrow, scrubby strip of grass that bordered the street. Tommy guessed it had to be one of those little touches to smarten up the neighborhood: just a single birch tree, its slim trunk encased in a black iron railing. The bark looked gray between the bars, and though the last wreaths of April snow still clung to the ground, the pale branches had started to put out shoots, tiny gleams of acid green in the dismal air.
He blew into his gloved hands and watched his breath curl in the cold. He’d spent the last six years further south, where the weather tended to be slightly less vicious, and returning to Havre had come as something of a shock. To do with way more than the wind chill, sure, but it still felt weird.
Everything felt… big. Strange. Even the familiar things seemed different, dislocated somehow, like he was just moving between them the way he moved in a dream. Tommy stepped back into the lee of the bland square building that abutted the lot, and leaned against the wall. This time last week, life had been nothing but routines and repetitions. He’d got used to that a long time ago, but he had never imagined it would be so hard to shake off.
Two days. Not that long at all. He was still giddy from his homecoming, unexpected and unprepared for as it had been. Walking into his mother’s place—the house that had never been his home but that he was now supposed to live in, like he belonged there—had felt surreal, unnatural. Oh, they were pleased to see him… shocked, maybe, but pleased. Everyone was so loudly, ostentatiously nice, until the initial surprise wore off, and then no one knew what to do with him. It was awkward, and it didn’t feel real.
Nothing, he reflected glumly, had felt real until he got back here. Back to him.
He looked up at the sound of a familiar engine. A dark-brown 1980 Chevrolet pickup coasted into view, and, a broad smile washing over his face, Tommy glanced at his watch.
Damn, it’s only 5:20. Guess you couldn’t wait either, huh?
He and Brett had said good-bye last night, on the steps of his mother’s house, and Tommy had known then he’d made a mistake. He’d gone to Brett’s the minute he got off the bus… before his mom, before anything. Just gravitated right here, to this square box of a building that didn’t look like anything special from the outside yet held everything within it. He should’ve insisted on making Brett’s place his registered address right from the start, instead of the so-called family home.
Still, no use complaining now. He’d promised to come by. Six o’clock, they’d said, and from the looks of things, Brett had been just as impatient as him.
The Chevy eased into a parking space next to a green Hyundai. Tommy bit his lip in anticipation. His grandmother had bought that Chevy for him—thirdhand and pretty decrepit, even then—on his seventeenth birthday. She could never have known it would come to mean so much, a kind of symbol of… well, everything, he guessed.
Brett hopped out of the Chevy, his hospital work clothes half-hidden by a heavy coat, though Tommy could still see those horribly sensible shoes. He’d lost count of the number of orthopedic clog jokes he’d made over the years. Brett turned toward the condo, red-brown hair tousled, and for a moment, Tommy felt as if the breath had been choked out of him, like he was struggling for air under the weight of dark, murky water.
Don’t be so stupid. You only saw him yesterday.
Days didn’t seem to come into it, though. Time didn’t really matter. It hadn’t for so long, because it had been passing in a totally different way. Those long creaking seconds, sprawling out endlessly and then whispering away in the cracks of the hours, never leaving a trace of where they’d been. He shivered, but it was okay, because Brett had caught sight of him, and now he grinned, jogging across the lot.
“You’re early,” he said, teasingly reproachful.
Tommy said nothing for a moment, lost in hazel eyes bright with excitement and the way the wind had pinched roses into Brett’s cheeks and nose. He leaned in and planted a kiss on that supple mouth, the coldness of skin against the warmth of breath.
God, I missed you.
“I couldn’t wait. And, anyway, Lila kept wanting me to help her with her algebra homework. You know I suck at math.”
Brett smiled. “You don’t give yourself enough credit. C’mon. You hungry?”
Tommy gave a noncommittal grunt and followed him inside, up the stairs to the cheap apartment Brett rented. Somehow everything seemed to fall away. The suffocating sense he’d felt over the past forty-eight hours since his release—that it must all be a dream, that he’d wake up and find himself back in his cell—lessened, and as Brett unlocked the door, Tommy hung close to him, like he made it all real. Perhaps he did. He’d been the lynchpin that held everything together for so long now, the one solid thing that the rest of the universe bent and warped around. Tommy rested his chin on Brett’s shoulder, taking in his scent, overlaid with that vague hospital smell of disinfectant and liniment. He nipped the back of Brett’s ear, making him shiver and jab the key at the scratch plate instead of the lock.
Brett’s body tightened, and it was easy for Tommy to see just how much he’d been missed while he was away. He kind of liked the knowledge, even tainted as it was with so much regret. Brett aimed for the lock again and missed a second time, his hand shaking a little as his breathing grew fast and shallow.
“Sorry,” Tommy murmured, not meaning it for a moment.
He should be here, he thought ruefully. They should be here. The knowledge—the desire—grew heavier with each passing second.
Tommy reached around, slipped his hand over Brett’s, and guided the key into the lock. The door swung open with the weight of both their bodies against it, tangled in a kiss. Relief flooded Tommy; no more of the dim, stilted awkwardness of his mother’s house, with everybody tiptoeing around him and nothing but the endless phone calls to break up the empty daytime hours. He’d been grateful for them at first, after the crazy hysteria of his unexpected arrival and the impromptu celebratory dinner, but they quickly grew wearing. And however nice it had been fielding calls from friends and well-wishers, and taking some quiet time while everybody was out at school and work to consider his new position, Tommy knew he’d just been treading water until he got back here.
“H-hold on,” Brett managed, groping for the keys that still dangled from the door.
Tommy pulled back while Brett shut and locked the door. He slid the chain on and turned to Tommy with a sheepish smile.
“So, what? You miss me or something?”
He said it with a breathless twist of laughter to the words, but something deeper lingered in his gaze. Tommy laughed all the same. Brett had got so good at keeping things light, steering them away from the rocks, even when it hurt him to do so. Tommy knew that. It used to cut so deep every time he came down for a visit, and in every call, every letter…. Tommy pulled him into a hug, tight enough to feel the hardness of Brett’s chest against his own and the tension in his back and shoulders. Brett loosed a harsh breath as he clung on, and it broke damply against Tommy’s neck.
He recalled, last year, helping a friend who’d been studying some distance-learning course in literature. Shakespeare had been a part of it, and some half-remembered line drifted back to him. Lips like pilgrims…. It seemed they sought each other that way now, Brett holding him and locking onto his mouth, tender but tentative, as if he was scared of putting too much pressure on him. Tommy let his lips part, eager to show him that couldn’t happen, that this was all he’d wanted, and a stifled moan left Brett as the kiss deepened. He tasted faintly of coffee and fruit-flavored Life Savers, and he moaned again as he knotted his fingers into Tommy’s hair. He tugged gently on its thick black weight, a small, familiar gesture that finally broke the floodgates.
Six years was a long time for anyone, and it left a lot of things locked up below the surface. The kiss grew deeper, harder, laced with desperation and threaded through with impatient hunger. Tommy ripped the gloves off his own hands to focus on the strictures of Brett’s clothes, and they backed clumsily into the room, shedding the first of the many layers the Northwestern climate demanded. Brett cursed as he nearly tripped over the coffee table.
“We could slow down,” Tommy suggested warily, not really wanting to.
“Like hell,” Brett muttered, toeing off the ghastly white-soled shoes. “I couldn’t sleep all of last night, thinking about you. Are you okay?”
It wasn’t quite a yes, a no, or even a dismissal. Tommy had no desire to expand upon that, so he hoped Brett would take the hint, and kissed him again. After all, it always used to be a good way of distracting him from asking difficult questions.
Six fucking years….
It was a long time. Of course he wasn’t okay. And last night had been terrible. His brother Robbie, all of fifteen now, didn’t want to share his room but had no choice. Everything was awkward and difficult, and Tommy hadn’t been able to sleep anyway, too overwhelmed and turned around by it all, no matter how brain-meltingly tired he felt. That house wasn’t his home, and he wished that, even if he hadn’t listed Brett’s apartment as his registered address, he’d at least begged to be allowed to stay last night. In hiding… perhaps never to surface again.
He caught Brett’s wrists, pulling him toward the bedroom as he raised his eyebrows suggestively.
Don’t make me say it. I don’t wanna beg.
He flattered himself that Brett understood, that the way they tumbled through the door and landed on the soft mattress came from some sympathy, some wish to soothe his troubled spirit.
It wasn’t necessarily the case.
“Fuck it… want you,” Brett whispered, his voice taut as he tugged at Tommy’s belt. “Been thinkin’ about it all day. Damn nearly sent some poor guy to Orthopedics instead of Orthotics, I was that distracted.”
Despite the rush of it, the pent-up need of year after year that didn’t feel like it would ever be fully slaked, Tommy frowned. “Huh. What’s the difference?”
“He needed a back brace… not surgery.”
Brett pulled the hospital shirt over his head, flung it away, and turned his attention to Tommy’s fly. Tommy winced. He didn’t want to start thinking. Not now. He wanted to just fall into it the way they used to do, and prove that something more than the routines and dependencies of what life had become still bound them together. The breath whistled through his teeth as Brett’s fingers trailed the waistband of his pants. Only… the room seemed so big. Everything, just so… bright. New.
Tommy reached for Brett, clutched at him, pressing tight against him. There had been a time he’d wanted to blot himself out, exist nowhere except where Brett touched him, as if he could be remade that way, cleaner and better. He couldn’t make it feel the same now. Even intimacy seemed like separation.
No…. That’s not true. It just feels like that. Just feels….
“You all right?” Brett pushed Tommy’s hair back off his face. “You’re shaking.”
“I’m fine,” Tommy muttered, inwardly cursing his traitorous flesh. Last night, even that one brief fumble they’d managed before heading over to his mother’s had reduced him to tears. He’d wanted this to be like it used to feel: strong, familiar, endless, and natural. “I just… well, it’s been a while.”
Brett curled around him, his whisper settling magnetically on Tommy’s ear.
“Yeah. That’s why I wanna, uhmm, feel you. I bought… y’know. In the drawer.” Brett nodded to the nightstand. “So we can. If you’re okay with that?”
“But…,” Tommy began, not sure how to voice it, especially given his sudden light-headedness, “you said you, uh, didn’t. Y’know, when I was… away. Um. Are you sure you want me to—”
“Look in the drawer,” Brett repeated, a slight flush rising to his cheeks as he sat back and stripped off the T-shirt he’d worn under his hospital uniform.
Curious, Tommy tore his gaze from the supple cambers and planes of Brett’s chest, and the pattern of moles sprinkled across his arms and ribs. He kicked off his jeans, stood to open the nightstand, and peered into the drawer.
A grin slipped over his face, the knots of worry and the insecurities somehow all a little less threatening. He glanced over at Brett, who looked slightly embarrassed among the rumpled covers.
“Well? I said I missed you.”
Tommy, still grinning, picked the lube and the newly bought condoms from the drawer. Trust Brett—imperfectly amazing, unconditional, wonderful Brett—to give him something to smile about, something to bring him back to center.
He thought of the night a lifetime ago when he’d taken Brett’s cherry. How he’d tickled and wrestled and goofed with him until they got mixed up in each other, laughing like children. How it had melted everything away. He should have known that he had nothing to live up to, nothing to be judged on.
Never with you.
Tommy climbed back onto the bed and knuckled his way up Brett’s body.
“Oh, I know you missed me,” he teased, “but when did Doc Johnson get to be your new best friend?”
Brett’s blush deepened to an attractive shade of pokeberry red.
“You’re gonna have to give me a personal tour of that toy drawer, darlin’. I mean it. Really. I can only imagine what—”
“Seriously… shut up.”
Tommy laughed and turned his attention to Brett’s nipples, pleased to find the action did exactly what he remembered it doing. Brett twisted beneath him, fingers digging into Tommy’s shoulders. Soft laughter and half-formed cusses whispered between them until Tommy felt himself laid out on the sheets, layer after layer bared to the bone, deconstructed and defenseless. Hazel eyes, trusting and sincere, welcomed and enticed him as their foreplay turned serious.
He didn’t know what he’d worried about; there wasn’t anything outside of this. Nothing that could hurt, scar, or wound. Brett rolled over for him, all warmth and comfort laced with the heat of need, and Tommy kissed his nape as he slowly settled himself, listening for that sweet, rough little gasp that Brett always made. It didn’t seem like six years since he’d heard it last. Tommy tossed the lube to the pillow and covered Brett’s hand with his, fingers sliding over and over through the valleys of his knuckles as they moved together. The sound of his name on that mouth made him weak, yet stronger than he’d felt in a long time.
Need was need, though, and the sweetness grew hot quickly: a fierce, driving intensity. The bedsprings dissented loudly, and Brett flung his free hand out, catching at the headboard where it slammed against the wall. They bucked and heaved as one body, too far gone for anything but perpetuating this desperate catharsis. Tommy, vaguely aware of getting his foot caught in the boxers still tangled around Brett’s ankles, screwed his eyes tight shut.
Oh, God…. Not yet. Please not yet…. One times seven is seven. Two times seven is… is fourteen. Yeah. Three sevens are twenty-fucking-one, four sevens… oh, twenty-eight. Giants v. Patriots, 17-14. Colts v. Bears, 29-17…. Five sevens… oh, boy.
He cried out—pretty certain of that—somewhere after nine sevens and another run of Super Bowl scores, and he heard the crescendo of Brett’s guttural moans a little later, then soft whimpers as they parted. Tommy leaned down to toss the condom into the trashcan by the nightstand. Blood rushed to his head as he decided he couldn’t possibly get up ever again. A contented groan and a rustle of covers signaled Brett rolling over, and after a struggle with his recalcitrant muscles, Tommy hauled himself up. He collapsed back against the pillows, flushed, burning, and floating on air. Brett gave him a beatific smile and reached out to pat Tommy lazily, his fingers meeting the cotton T-shirt which had, in the heat of their enthusiasm, somehow never been discarded.
“Take that damn thing off,” he muttered, plucking at the fabric.
Tommy chuckled wearily and obliged, then tossed the shirt to the floor. Brett made a satisfied little noise in the back of his throat and dragged himself across the bed. He palmed circles over Tommy’s body, as if celebrating the touch of skin on skin. Tommy draped an arm around him and pulled him closer. Not something he usually did, but he didn’t feel quite ready to let Brett go.
Not just yet.
Brett Derwent stretched sleepily against the mattress, not quite ready to open his eyes. Not just yet. The warmth of the bed enfolded him too completely, and he wasn’t sure that—if he admitted to being awake—he wouldn’t find all this proved to be a dream. Reality could get sneaky like that.
Only…. Wait a minute.
Brett cranked open one eye, squinting in the yellow morning light.
“What’d you call me?”
A soft laugh rippled over him like calico. Tommy pressed up behind him and planted a kiss on the point of Brett’s shoulder.
“You heard. How’re you feeling?”
Slowly, Brett heaved up the other eyelid and did a quick mental check of himself. Two arms, two legs… ears, nose, and mouth all still there. Yeah, he was—oh, okay. Ouch.
“Good,” he said, shifting a little. “Though I may never walk again.”
“That mean you’re gonna stay here all day?” Tommy asked, fingers tracking up Brett’s stomach, tugging gently on the treasure trail of red-brown hair he found there. “’Cause that might not be smart. I wouldn’t be able to control myself.”
Brett tried to think of something funny to say as Tommy kissed his neck, but his brain felt decidedly fuzzy. The past few days had been too full of impossible things, not least the fact of Tommy’s presence. Brett had been prepared for the parole process to take months, for there to be endless waiting before his release. He hadn’t expected for a second just to open the door of his apartment and find Tommy standing there, looking lost and hopeful, but that’s what had happened.
Funny how two days could feel like a lifetime and a split-second, all at once.
He’d tried to preserve the memory, the way they’d held each other—uncensored by regulations for the first time in so long—but it had disintegrated too quickly, washed away in the whirl of activity, of letting Tommy’s family know he’d come… home.
Last night had been the first night they’d ever spent together, which was pretty damn momentous if he thought about it. Well, not the first night, but the first real, proper one, perhaps. Certainly the first in six long, dry years, and the first one that could have really been called normal.
The first time ever, in a real bed, that they hadn’t had to worry about Brett’s parents coming home, or Tommy needing to leave before dawn to get out to work or back to his place to get his siblings ready for school.
Those kids are teenagers now. God.
Brett wriggled a little in Tommy’s arms and reached up to bat the questing, pinching fingers away from his nipple.
“Quit it. For now.”
Tommy stroked his palm over Brett’s chest one last time before he released him, and Brett clambered slowly out of the bed. He paused before he stood just to look at Tommy. His hair spilled out on the pillows, an inky backdrop to his high cheekbones, hard jaw, and dark eyes. Despite his mixed ancestry—Canadian, American, and Chinese, as well as Nakoda—he had fully enrolled tribal status now. Brett had to remind himself of that; it seemed strange to think of him that way. Strange to think of him as Indian, by technicality and by identity, when he’d always been just… well, him.
Brett shook the thoughts as Tommy raised one lean gold-brown hand and rubbed it lazily over his shoulder, bobbing up to start the day with a kiss: chaste, on account of the morning breath. Brett traced his thumb over that square chin, rubbing against the prickles of beard growth and the fullness of his lower lip.
“I still can’t believe you’re here,” he murmured, sorely tempted to call work and tell them he’d woken up with leprosy, or maybe the Ebola virus.
Tommy smiled, though his eyes grew a little clouded. Brett knew better than to push it. Reluctantly, he tore himself away, his attention lingering for just a moment on the tattoo that covered the top of Tommy’s left arm. Prison ink. He’d got it done his third year inside, strictly against the rules. Brett remembered being so mad at him—not just for the infraction, when he’d promised to try and keep a clean conduct record—but for how easy it would have been to pick up an infection. Conditions were hardly sterile, and the way the ink got applied—jerry-rigged machines made of guitar strings and pen casings, and who knew what in the damn ink—made Brett queasy just thinking about it.
That wasn’t what he hated most about the thing, though. He knew what it meant. The tat showed a dragon, snarling and foul, bursting through an inexpertly drawn rip in the skin, the symbol of the single, terrible moment when the beast broke out, ravaging and destructive.
Like it had the night Tommy’s father died.
TOMMY stretched, luxuriating in the size and softness of Brett’s bed. Sure, it had given him backache, but it felt so good. Everything felt good, even the soreness and twinges in his muscles and each one of the marks Brett had left on him. Tommy didn’t recall him being so… demanding before, but maybe that was down to enthusiasm. Anyway, all kinds of stuff happened if you bottled shit up for long enough.
He thought of the last time they’d shared a bed. Stolen time while Brett’s parents were out at work, when they could pull the drapes tight and pretend it was nighttime instead of midafternoon. Long, lazy kisses, and Brett’s unquenchable delight in all the things that had been so new and beautiful. He had been that way too—all bright and idealistic, ready for the whole world—and then Tommy had managed to fuck it up.
It seemed like such a long time ago, and it had been a long time. But it hadn’t been normal time. It hadn’t passed like time between two people usually did, with the crushing weight of days and weeks and the chores of daily life. Instead, it felt as if they’d been suspended in some weird kind of limbo, not quite able to change but not quite able to stay the same.
Tommy realized with a kind of sinking dread that this probably would end up being the first day of the rest of his life.
That being the case, he ought to get up.
He yawned and glanced at the clock. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep again. He’d heard Brett leave for work, been aware of him saying that he should make himself at home, stay as long as he wanted and all of that. He’d just been too blissed-out to actually move.
Tommy rose, showered, and, towel wrapped around his waist, padded back into the bedroom to poke through Brett’s closet in search of clean clothes. He knew Brett had kept some of his old crewnecks… kinda sweet, really. He snagged one and pulled it on, choosing an elderly flannel shirt to layer up over the top. It still fit well enough, though he was a little broader than he’d been last time he wore the thing. In a mild flash of mischievous kink, Tommy retrieved Brett’s boxers from the floor at the foot of the bed and tugged those on too. He buttoned up his jeans and puttered about the apartment for a while, taking care of a couple of chores. He dumped the laundry in the hamper, washed a few dishes, and just enjoyed the sense of being in Brett’s space.
It might not be much, but the apartment had a hell of a lot more going for it than Tommy had been used to in the past few years. He leaned on the windowsill in the living room, gazing out at the infinite sky and the hazy mountains, distantly banded above the neat, plain, crowded grids of Havre’s streets. For a moment, Tommy fought hard against the desire for a cigarette. He’d started smoking—and quit—in prison, never appreciating before how such a simple action could so calm and soothe torn nerves.
Don’t know why you’re so fuckin’ nervous, ya jumpy little faggot. You never do anythin’.
Tommy started from the window, almost looking over his shoulder. The voice—the memory—came from too far back to touch him. He knew that. Even so, his pulse skittered, and, as restful and safe as this place had been, he suddenly needed to get out. Fast.
Tommy threw on coat, boots, and gloves and, without a backward glance, let himself out of Brett’s apartment. He jogged down the stairs and out into the icy street, appreciating the sharp, excising precision of the wind.
The relief of it wore thin as he walked.