JOHN STUDIED the candy-colored sky, raspberry pink edging to smudgy purple, the color of a grape lollipop. The colors reminded him of Turkish delight, a candy he’d been offered once in a Bedouin’s tent. He’d been there to negotiate passage for troops and troop trucks over the old man’s lands. It was rumored that the Bedouin was somehow involved in the nasty little conflict that had disrupted the flow of food aid to the region. John had been sent in to stomp on the sparks before civilian casualties escalated.
The old man’s grandson had filled two cups with mint tea so sweet John could smell the sugar over the dust and sun-warmed canvas of the tent. Then he’d offered the plate of Turkish delight with a flourish and a bow. The boy had black liquid eyes, long, thick lashes, and John had felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Eyes that beautiful and dark should have been filled with warmth, but the boy was young and didn’t know how to hide what was in his heart. John had watched the boy slide his hand down his leg, clutch the bronze dagger in the top of his boot and pull it free.
Then Gabriel was there, quiet as smoke, his rifle cradled in his arms, and the boy froze. John set his teacup down, refusing the Bedouin’s hospitality. It was an insult, a hard line drawn in the sand, nearly as hard a line as the one drawn when your grandson cut someone’s throat over a plateful of Turkish delight. The old man had eyes like the boy, a raptor’s eyes, cold and wet and black. John stood up, backed out of the tent without a word, and Gabriel spread his arms, the rifle in one big hand. No one could mistake the gesture. It said, No one touches him. You come through me to get to him.
They were in Gabriel’s chopper, heading back to base, before John spoke. “What were you doing? You just spread your arms wide, showing your big chest to a little shit with a knife in his boot.”
Gabriel glanced over at him. “He was a backstabber. Not the man who would look you in the face and throw a knife. I was just showing him that I knew what he was.”
“Thank you for saving my ass.” John closed his eyes, let himself feel the weariness that seemed to have settled across his lower back. “I was sitting cross-legged and my left foot had gone to sleep. It might have been touch and go if I’d had to run.”
Gabriel’s eyes were dark as the night sky, warm and full of stars and so beautiful they caused an ache in John’s chest when he looked into them.
“My pleasure, General Mitchel. Call on me anytime.”
JOHN STARED down into the cold frame. The basil seedlings looked ready to come out into the big world, taste the cool night air. Gabriel walked across the yard in jeans and his favorite tee shirt that said First, Kill All the Lawyers. He slung an arm around John’s shoulder. “Hey, boss. You up for a steak?”
“I could eat a steak.” He turned his face up to the sky again. “It looks like Turkish delight, doesn’t it?”
Gabriel pulled John back to his chest, wrapped both arms around him in a gesture that was both protective and involuntary. “Yes, it does.”
“Abdullah is coming.” The words seemed to float in the air, and John looked up into the tree behind them.
“Is that the voice of God, or is Billy up there?”
A tiny figure drifted down from among the leaves, a spider or a hummingbird, attached to a string. When it got closer, John could see it was an origami bluebird, no bigger than a quarter. He studied the tree, and after a few moments, he could see Billy’s blue eyes staring down at them.
“There you are. Billy, what are you doing?”
“Research,” he said, and he swung his legs around until he was sitting on the branch.
Gabriel reached his arms up, and Billy slid off the branch and into his arms. He set the boy down on the ground. “What kind of research?”
“Camouflage. What it feels like.” He was wearing an old pair of jungle camo pants and a brown tee shirt, with a brown ski cap pulled low over his bright-blond hair.
John thought he recognized the camo as the old gardening clothes that had gone missing from the laundry basket. “So what do you think?”
“It feels safe, being invisible,” Billy said. “These clothes make me feel a little safer. A little stronger. That may be because they belong to you. Possibly it’s a combination of them being your clothes and the feeling of invisibility.”
John and Gabriel exchanged a look, and Gabriel pulled Billy in for a hug. Billy snuggled happily, rested his head on Gabriel’s chest. He’d been the victim of a particularly nasty attack by an older man he was dating, and John thought he was still a little fearful, still in hiding, his wildly blooming flower of a personality a shade more quiet and cautious than it had been before. He had taken to roaming around Albuquerque at night on his bicycle. John wasn’t sure if he felt safer in the dark or if he was trying to force himself to face the dangers of nighttime.
“Is this camo research part of an art project?”
Billy sighed, gave an elaborate shrug. “Life, art, what’s the difference? I’m thinking about becoming a mime.”
“What, like one of those guys in black leotards who try to find their way out of an invisible box?”
Gabriel was looking worried now, and John suspected the worry was mirrored on his own face. Gabriel pulled the brown hat off, rubbed Billy’s damp blond hair with the palm of his hand. “I like the new flat-top. What’s this about Abdullah coming?”
“He was talking to Kim on the phone when I came out here. I wanted to give them some privacy. Of course Kim still loves him, despite what happened. I mean, you always love your first, right? But he’s not sure if Abdullah….”
“What do you mean, his first? His first what?”
Billy’s mouth fell open, then he giggled behind his hand. Gabriel reached over, stroked John’s back the same way he’d just stroked Billy’s, a soothing touch. “Okay, now, let’s just stay calm.”
JOHN WOULD have been the first to admit that he was having a bit of a problem letting Kim, his darling nephew, fly out of the nest. But he would also have explained, if he was questioned, that he knew his little bird better than anyone on the planet, and he had a very clear picture of the dangers that awaited a boy as clueless and big-hearted as Kim. He also thought that there was no one on the planet good enough for his baby.
Unless it was Abdullah al-Salim, the son of one of his oldest friends, a boy who had walked thirty miles across the Kuwaiti desert in the first days of a war, searching for John, to beg his help to save his father. Abdullah was a wildly talented cellist, a boy of great passion and beauty. No one was good enough for Abdullah.
But the thing neither of the boys realized was that it required a great deal of attention and care and selflessness to grow a mature relationship. And John would, in all honesty, have to admit that both boys were just the tiniest bit self-absorbed. Maybe someone who didn’t love them would call them immature, maybe even selfish.
“John, he’s twenty-three. He’s old enough to have sex. Shit, he’s old enough to do anything he wants.” Gabriel was pulling on a sweatshirt so they could go for a run. Evenings in New Mexico were chilly, even during summer. John took a moment to enjoy the sight of Gabriel’s fine chest and belly when he stretched his arms over his head. “I mean, how old were you when you lost your virginity?”
“I can’t remember.” Gabriel grinned at him. Okay, so he was lying, but he was not going to be distracted. “It must have been that Christmas Kim was seventeen. How old was Abdullah then, twenty? So what happened? What have they been doing since then? Why are they avoiding each other? Something must have happened.”
Gabriel pulled him over by a finger tucked in the waistband of his sweats. “And why, General Mitchel, do you think it’s any of our business?”
“The warrior-philosopher uses many tools to keep his kingdom safe. Information is the most critical of those tools.”
“I love you.” John looked up at him in surprise, and what he saw on Gabriel’s face caused him to pull him close and taste his warm, smiling mouth. The touch of his mouth, and something scattered and anxious in John’s heart quieted.
“I love you, too.”
JOHN AND Gabriel had spent most of their lives as General John Mitchel and CW-5 Gabriel Sanchez, United States Army. Gabriel was the hotshot helo pilot everyone called the Horse-Lord, and John, General Mitchel, was the brainy strategist and high-ranking leader Gabriel was responsible for keeping safe. They were career army and dedicated to the work of defending the Constitution of the United States, keeping her lands and people safe. They had been lovers for years, but on the down-low, so they could continue to serve. John had given up the possibility of having a family. Gabriel had married, tried to make a family with a woman he could not love the way she deserved to be loved. Together, and after both had retired, they had taken a few shaky steps out of the closet, and were trying to make a life together, the life they should have been able to live all along. It was both easier and more complicated than they had anticipated.
They walked through the kitchen, newly painted and redecorated by Kim and Billy, and Gabriel stopped by the door to punch the blinking light on the answering machine. Martha’s voice, Gabriel’s soon to be ex-wife: “Gabriel, the tutor you hired for Juan has just resigned. It seems your son called him a faggot. He wants to speak with you. The tutor, I mean. Not your son.”
Gabriel stood as if frozen, staring blankly at the kitchen wall. There was a parade of funky little cars painted in shades of tangerine and aqua driving across the wall. John reached over, took Gabriel’s frozen finger off the answering machine. “Come on. Let’s run.”
They had a flat three-mile loop that was easy PT for two men used to the army’s disciplined exercise programs. They got home and walked through the backyard, and Gabriel sat on the wooden steps to the back porch. John went into the kitchen and came back with the gel cold pack. He kept it in the fridge for Gabriel’s knee. Gabriel put the cold pack around his leg with a couple of Velcro straps. “Thanks.”
It was the first thing he’d said since they’d listened to Martha’s message. John ran his hand over Gabriel’s head, down to the sweaty hot skin on the back of his neck. “You ready for supper? I’ll throw the steaks on the grill.”
“Yeah, I could eat,” Gabriel said. He turned on the step and smiled at John. “Thank you.”
“I’ll get dinner started. Take some time if you want.”
It had taken John a couple of weeks of them living together before he realized Gabriel needed some alone time in his day. Not much, sometimes only five minutes, but a few minutes alone, sitting on the back porch. John needed considerably more alone time, because the work he did required deep thinking and concentration. Gabriel used his alone time differently. John thought he was meditating, breathing, maybe, keeping his emotional life in balance.
John pushed open the kitchen door. The jury was still out on the new decorating. He had thought he was sending Kim and Billy out for an extra desk and bed, but that had somehow turned into a redo of the entire house. He had to admit the kitchen was cheerful. Kim and Billy had painted the kitchen walls bright cream enamel, then painted the trim in tangerine and aqua. The curtains were tangerine with cream polka dots, and there were little cars zooming all over the walls, hand-painted by a bunch of Kim and Billy’s artist friends. The new dining room table was Formica, with stainless silver legs, and the chairs were padded in aqua vinyl. Kim and Billy were very pleased with the kitchen. Gabriel liked it, as well, though he might have been just trying to get along. John was okay with the changes. The kitchen, he thought, was fine. It just didn’t look like his kitchen. It looked like the kitchen of a person who was considerably cooler than he was. The same could be said about the living room.
Kim was waiting for him to come in from his run, and he swooped down on John and wrapped his arms around his waist for a quick hug. “How’s my favorite uncle?”
John studied his face. “I’m fine. What’s happening with you?”
“Not too much.” Kim was head down into the fridge, looking for something to snack on that did not have a face or a mother. He’d explained to John this was his new criteria for healthy eating. “Can we talk about the couch?”
John crossed his arms over his chest. “So talk.”
Kim stood up and leaned back against the counter. “Okay, you have every right to be pissed off. You told me not to get a new couch, and I did anyway. I know I spent more money on the redecorating than you had planned. What I want to know is if you hate the couch for itself, or if you’re just mad at me for disregarding what you told me to do?”
John sighed. “The new couch is fine. I admit it’s not really what I would have picked out.” He walked over and stared gloomily into the room. The new couch which Kim had been forbidden to purchase was cream-colored Italian leather, a semicircle with a round ottoman that looked like a giant leather polka dot. It was very sleek and modern. He’d purchased some round maple tables in a pale golden finish to go with it, and the rugs on the floor were also round, in various sizes and shades of cream and pale gold. The whole thing looked very… Danish.
“The thing is, four men can easily sit on the couch at the same time, say to watch a movie together. Two men can lay down on this couch at the same time, like if you and the Horse-Lord wanted to lay down together and read books. It’s extremely comfortable, Uncle John. I just wish you would give it a chance.”
“Okay, I’m willing to give it a chance. And I admit it’s very comfortable. With the new rugs and the new tables it looks like winter, 1968, has come to Albuquerque. Peter Max in psychedelic white, not really my style, but I’m okay with it.”
“Peter Max? Winter?” Now Kim had his arms folded. “Holy shit! It’s not white. It’s cream! Big difference in tone and temperature. Okay, so tell me what you think would be the perfect couch. Maybe we can figure out how to meet in the middle.”
John thought a moment. “I suppose I’d like a couch that’s a little… browner. Maybe plaid would be good.”
“Okay, no plaid. I’m sorry, but no. A person would have to be deranged to buy a plaid couch. I will see what I can do about brown.” Kim looked around. “We could add some caramel accents, maybe a throw. I want you to like it.” He sounded young all of the sudden. “It’s really important to me that you like it. If you want, I can split the cost of the new couch with you.” He tried to hand John some cash. “I’ve got $275.00 as a down payment on my half.”
“I don’t want your money.” John stared at him. Kim was Korean, with eyes that always gave away what he was thinking. He was totally unable to keep a secret. John couldn’t help but notice the light in his face, like he was about to start laughing. “Wait a minute. Is this the money you made writing term papers for the students in my Political History seminar?” Kim was grinning now, and he shoved the cash back in his pocket. “Are you under the impression you’re too old to spank? Twenty-three isn’t too old.”
Kim was laughing now. “You don’t believe in spanking. Okay, let me and Billy see what we can come up with. Something browner.” He turned back to the garage. “What’s brown, anyway? Dirt? Gravy? Shit?”
“Wood, you knucklehead. Wood and chocolate bars and Gabriel’s hair, all brown. Oh, by the way. Are we expecting company?”
Kim stared at him, eyes narrowed. “Abdullah’s coming. How did you know?”
“Anything you want to tell me?”
“Nope. Not a thing! Later, Uncle J.” He slipped through the door out to the garage, where he and Billy had a studio apartment. Slippery as an eel, John thought. Something was definitely up.