Burt and Ernie and the Fish in the Desert
ERNIE JAMES Caulfield looked around the little nontown of Victoriana with a feeling of intense joy. The place was mostly a gas station with a fast-food place on one side of the highway and a tiny garage with a house for the owners on the other. Desert surrounded it, and even in the encroaching fall the landscape was flat and unexciting, with saguaro and creosote bushes for miles.
But for Ernie, this was the best place on earth.
“Really?” He turned toward Burton, body practically thrumming with excitement. “I’m staying here?”
Lee Burton, the assassin who’d been sent to kill Ernie and who had rescued him instead, arched a suspicious eyebrow in his sculpted bronze-toned face and said nothing.
“It is, right? I mean, that house—it’s got an add-on to it. Like, new. Even the siding is new. That’s your place, right?”
Burton frowned. “How would you know that?”
Ernie grinned, unrepentant. “I heard you talking to Ace. He’s nice. Your voice said so.”
Burton’s frown intensified. “You were supposed to be asleep.”
Ernie bit his lip shyly. He had been, until he’d heard Burton talking next to him. He didn’t need the gift to reckon Lee was uncomfortable with where their relationship had gone mere hours after he’d bailed Ernie’s ass out of the fire.
Well, not that Ernie wasn’t slutty as hell on any given day, but the thing that had bloomed between him and Lee was based solely on the fact that when they looked at each other and touched, the world stopped spinning, and that included Ernie’s ever-questing, witchy trouble-magnet of a brain.
Ernie didn’t need to be slutty anymore. He’d found the safety he’d been looking for his entire life.
“Safety” just didn’t know it yet.
“I was mostly asleep,” Ernie soothed. “You like Ace.”
Burton let out a sigh. “Yeah. Ace is good people. Not educated, mind you, so—”
“He’s smart, though,” Ernie said sunnily. Yeah, he’d read that much from the voice on the other end of the phone. That and the fact that Burton was scary smart, and he’d never be able to tolerate someone not scary smart like he was. But he was also—whether he knew it or not—intuitive, in the same way Ernie was intuitive, but not nearly as powerful.
Burton could see through what people were supposed to be and right into what they were. He’d watched Ernie for days when he should have just done his job and shot. Ernie was still walking around converting oxygen because Burton had seen there was more to Ernie than a brainless party boy who liked to make donuts.
“Yeah, he’s smart.” Burton let out a sigh. “Look, kid—”
“You know my name.” Ernie knew all the tricks to making somebody not important. Calling him “kid” was just one.
“Ernie….” And it came out like a plea, just like it had in the hotel room they’d shared—in the bed they’d shared not hours ago.
“Yeah?” he said sweetly.
“I need to go away—you understand—”
“Under cover.” Ernie wasn’t stupid either. “The guy who put the hit out on me, he’s bad news—”
“And he’s legit. Like, a real guy in the real military, and he wanted you dead. I need to find a way to work for him so I know why. This isn’t…. The hit out on you should never have happened—”
“You’re not just saving me,” Ernie said. “You’re saving anybody who carried out orders in good faith.”
Burton started to grimace, but it came out a look of complete tenderness. “You’re so… so very wise.” Like he couldn’t help himself, he reached out and cupped Ernie’s cheek. “God… so pretty.” For a moment his muscles tensed and he was going to pull his hand back, but Ernie licked his lips on purpose, knowing it would make him look soft and vulnerable, and wanting Burton to kiss him at least one more time before he fled.
Burton didn’t disappoint him. He leaned forward, claiming Ernie’s mouth with his own, and Ernie opened for him, as soft and as giving as he knew how to be.
He knew a lot. He was a sexual genius, mostly, and it took Burton a whole thirty seconds before he was groaning into Ernie’s mouth and trying to haul him across the center island of the SUV they were sitting in.
Ernie would have gone. Ernie would have shucked his jeans and sat on Burton’s cock if that’s what it would take to get Burton to commit, but the damned SUV was too small, and Burton smacked his elbow on the steering wheel in mid-Ernie-maul maneuver.
“Ouch!” He jerked back, letting Ernie go and looking damned embarrassed. “Dammit. Why can’t I…. It’s weird what you do to me, kid.”
“Ernie,” Ernie whispered throatily. “Don’t go. Stay here. We can have all the sex you want until it doesn’t seem so strange anymore that you want me. You can quit being an assassin super-black-ops guy and be my guy. Nobody will even know our names.”
He pulled in a quick breath, surprised at himself. That’s not what he’d intended to come out of his mouth at all, even a little.
Burton was looking as torn as a man could get. “Ernie… I… even if I come back, I might not be the guy for—”
Ernie pulled away and opened his door. “Let’s go meet Ace and Sonny,” he said, not wanting to hear it. At least when Burton was talking to his friend, Ernie wouldn’t have to hear him lie, not to himself and not to Ernie. “Will you at least be able to come visit over holidays?” he asked after he’d slid out.
Burton stopped and grabbed the duffel of clothes they’d bought Ernie on their way from Albuquerque. They’d had to leave Ernie’s little apartment, with his cats and everything, without stopping to get clothes. Burton had called the super and made arrangements for the cats—mostly strays that would just show up unbidden—and Ernie didn’t want to know what a colossal pain in the ass tying up that loose end had been.
But Burton had done it for him. It wasn’t even part of his job, just like being Ernie’s savior wasn’t part of his job, and Ernie didn’t want to think of the prices Lee Burton had paid for stepping out of himself in order to successfully not kill Ernie James Caulfield’s scrawny psychic ass.
But he had. And he seemed to be willing to pay any price needed to keep Ernie as happy as possible, considering he was a target or a dead man or worse.
Ernie was going to just keep on hoping the man would recognize that what they shared in the hotel room on the way here didn’t happen every time two men met, fell into each other’s eyes, and touched each other’s bare skin.
“No,” Burton said, sighing. “No, I won’t see you for Thanksgiving. Do you have the phone I bought you?”
Ernie nodded. “Yeah.” Clean, untraceable. It had been preloaded with Ace’s number, Sonny’s number, and Burton’s number.
“I’ll text you when I can.”
Ernie brightened. “I’ll text you when you can’t.”
Lee Burton gave out a groan and clapped his hands over his eyes. “Kid—”
“Don’t worry. Once you start thinking about me, I’ll fill in the gaps in the conversation just fine.” That wasn’t really how the gift worked, except Ernie was pretty sure he’d be just as connected to Burton from however far away as he was now.
“That, uh, actually makes me a little itchy…,” Burton said, slamming his door in a fit of what was probably pique.
Ernie smiled, so relieved he couldn’t let Burton piss on his parade. “It shouldn’t. You just have to tell the truth. To yourself. Especially to yourself.”
Burton’s low moan reassured Ernie to no end. It meant the man believed him. Took him seriously. Would work hard to be as truthful as possible.
Ernie already knew what Burton felt for him. He could wait until Burton figured it out in his own head.
ACE WAS exactly what Ernie expected, except way better looking. Sonny was not.
For one thing, Burton had figured Sonny to be spelled with a u and Sonny to be a she, which just went to show that sometimes the gift was a reliable way to get information and sometimes it was a big fat nuisance that overloaded Ernie’s synapses and made him absolute garbage at dealing with the rest of the human race like a sane person.
Ace was a solid guy with a chest like a brick wall and arms built like pistons. He had hazel-brown eyes and a mouth that could be cruel, Ernie supposed, but when he shook Ace’s hand, all he felt was a decent guy trying to live a decent life.
There was a current of darkness, but everybody had that. This guy had just negotiated his current and decided how it flowed, was all.
Sonny was much smaller, muscular too, but in the whip-thin way of someone who was all activity and nerves and not so much effort. He had blond hair, almost pretty, and a fox-pointed but narrow face.
His darkness was like a box, and Sonny would rabbit into his box and bound out even as they were talking. The three-billionth time Sonny rabbited into the dark box in his soul, Ernie let out a rough sigh and grabbed his arm over his shirt.
“I’m not here to take him away from you,” Ernie said, exasperated. “As if anybody could. Now calm down. You’re making Burton jumpy.”
Sonny gave a long, slow blink with his enormous blue-gray eyes and some of the rabbit jumped out of him. “Yeah. Sure.” He retreated behind Ace, touching him at the shoulder, then scooped up the tiny dog yapping at his feet. The dog shut up, and Ernie had a chance to look around their little house.
And it was little. The little kitchen opened up into a little dining room with a small table, which in turn opened up into a little living room. There were four doors. The bathroom—obviously, since Ernie could see it, and a laundry room next to it—a bedroom, probably Sonny and Ace’s-- and a newly painted porthole to what was obviously Burton’s personal space.
“Thank you, Ace and Sonny, for letting me stay here,” Ernie said with a yawn. He wasn’t usually awake in the day. “I’ll get up and you can show me how to earn my keep, okay? But I have to nap and say goodbye to Burton.”
With that he grabbed Burton’s hand and dragged him away from their surprised hosts and through the door to Burton’s space.
Ernie looked around carefully once they were there, biting his lip.
“He made this for you,” he said, awe apparent. “Like… like he loves you. Like a friend, ’cause he’s romantically attached to Sonny, which must be hard because Sonny’s not easy, but look.”
Burton looked around, saw what Ernie did. The simplicity of the room and the small serviceable attached bathroom, the nice queen-sized bed with the good mattress and a practical, high-quality quilt in a warm tan that matched the curtains, the wood paneling that matched the dresser. Ernie moved toward it and picked up a piece of driftwood sanded into a ball until it gleamed. There were a couple of other doodads there—a glass boat from San Diego, a snow globe from Tahoe, a small picture at the Chandelier Tree.
“Ace and Sonny,” Burton said quietly. “They go on vacations now and then, and they bring back things. Something for Alba, their receptionist at the garage, something for Jai, their employee, something for Kat, a girl Ace sort of adopted who’s living with Ace’s parents, and something for me. Every time.”
“It makes them really happy to bring stuff home for you guys,” Ernie said easily. “It’s… nice. You brought me to a nice place. This is your….” He looked around, feeling a sort of peace here.
“Haven,” Burton said softly.
“Church,” Ernie said, naming it for what it was. “When you go out and do the things you have to, you’re thinking about Ace and Sonny and protecting them.”
Burton shrugged. “Somebody’s got to.”
Ernie nodded. “So now you’re protecting me here too.”
“Somebody’s got to,” Burton rasped, and Ernie heard the need.
He turned and rushed into Burton’s arms, held him tight. “Be careful,” he begged softly. “Come back. Become a part of this, of these people you love. They’re here for you.”
“A man.” Ernie tilted his face up and took Burton’s kiss like it was a given. Ernie knew it wasn’t. But he’d lost himself already. Burton was going to do dangerous things to try to bring the people behind Ernie’s contract to justice, but afterward, Ernie was going to hope for Burton by his side.
Burton ripped away from the kiss like he was gulping air.
“Ernie….” His voice ached with tenderness. “You and me, we’re not over.”
Ernie smiled. “At last, he sees.”
Burton laughed gruffly. “Okay, I’ve got to—”
And then, dammit, the goddamned shining hit Ernie right in the gut. “You’ve got to protect them too,” he said, his voice remote.
“Ace and Sonny?”
“They’re far away, and they’re tied into this and….” Ernie sighed. “Broken. One of them is broken. Tiny little pieces, a shattered fish in a bowl of refracted light. A shark who loves him. And they’re coming. You’ll know them. You’ll protect them. They’ll need you.”
Burton blinked. “I, uh….”
Oh, goddammit. Ernie liked these people, the tough, battered one and the slick one in the suit. He couldn’t see their faces, but he could feel their decency, even through the shining. He rose to his tiptoes and kissed Burton’s cheek. “Come back to me,” he said simply.
Because that’s what you did when you loved a force of nature. You let him go be a force for good.
Burton left, and Ernie fell onto the bed dispiritedly. He was crying, because his heart was on his sleeve, would always be on his sleeve, had never not been on his sleeve.
He knew the door opened, and the small dog bounded on the bed and licked his face, but it wasn’t until he felt the tentative hand in his hair that he realized he might have, for once, truly landed someplace that would feel like home.
“Don’t mind Duke,” Sonny Daye said, voice matter-of-fact. “He knows you’re sad. I’m just gonna leave him here to keep you company while me and Ace go open the garage. You feel free to eat what you wanna—we’ll go shopping for you later, and Ace says that’s fine if you help with paperwork and stuff and—”
Ernie rolled over and grabbed Sonny’s hand. “Sonny Daye?”
“We’re friends already. Don’t worry about making me happy. Burton wouldn’t have brought me here if it wasn’t a good place. I’m comfortable. I get up around six or seven. Want me to make dinner?”
Sonny smiled a little. “That would be kind.”
“Okay, then. Don’t worry. I’ll get along here just fine.”
Sonny stood and left, and Ernie yawned and sank back down into the bed. In his pocket, his phone buzzed.
Was damned hard leaving you, kid. Be good until I get back.
Yeah. Until the fish and the shark got here, it was gonna be okay.