“ARE you going tonight?” a bright voice called from his doorway, and Raine looked up from his computer, returning a grin from Jeremy, one of his young and enthusiastic managers. God, he loved working in a gay office. The best thing he’d ever done was leave that stuffy, big corporation and take the job in a fabric house. Most of the employees were gay; hell, the owners were gay. It made the office relaxed, and there was always plenty of scenery. “We’re all marching together in the parade.” The kid had so much energy, and Raine found himself wondering what he’d be like in bed. Maybe he could put some of that youthful energy to good use. “Scotty even made a banner.” Jeremy’s arms swished above his head. “It says ‘Gay Accountants… Don’t be Accrual.’ Get it? There’s an Elvis theme.” Jeremy’s smile brightened even further.

He didn’t want to rain on the kid’s parade, but that slogan was bad, really bad, but Raine couldn’t help laughing anyway. “Yes, I’m coming.” Raine tried to concentrate on the last entries he needed to make. “I just have to finish these and”—he clicked a few buttons before pressing save—“there, all done. Let’s go have some fun.” Turning off his computer, he pushed back his chair and stood up, walking toward his office door. 

“I love Gay Pride week.” Jeremy practically bounced as they walked to where the other boys were congregating, getting ready to join the party already in full swing. “I can’t believe the parade runs right in front of the building. That’s so cool!”

Approaching the group, he saw that some of his coworkers had already changed for the fun. “What are you supposed to be?” Raine asked as he approached one of the boys in full costume. 

“I’m the young Elvis,” Dexter answered, “and Harvey’s going to be the old Elvis.” Raine saw the other man approaching in a fat suit, huge belt, full sequined pants, shirt, and even a cape.

“They were going to try to get a coffin for the dead Elvis,” Davis interjected through chuckles, “but we all agreed that was too tacky, even for us.” The group laughed and began heading toward the elevators. “But we did get one of the guys on Accounts Payable to go as Army Elvis.” Good God, leave it to a bunch of gay boys to milk a theme, any theme, nearly to death. 

As the elevator door opened, their small group was indeed joined by Army Elvis, Hawaiian Elvis, and even Teddy Bear Elvis in a full bear suit, sans head—thank God—complete with Elvis pants, belt, and a paddle that read, “Don’t be Cruel.” “Don’t ask, you don’t want to know,” Jeremy quipped from next to him as they all piled into the elevator for the ride to the lobby.

Stepping out, Raine watched the looks from the other office workers in their business suits and ties. Heads shook, hands covered mouths, and a few guffaws greeted them as they filed through the lobby and out onto the street. “You guys go join the other Elvi and have fun,” Raine called as they walked down the crowded sidewalk toward where the parade was supposed to start.

“You’re not marching?” Jeremy looked up at him, lower lip jutting out on an adorable pout. “I was hoping we could march together.” Well, damn, that went way beyond a flirt. Hell, it was nearly an engraved invitation, and he very nearly accepted it. Hell, he would have without hesitation even just a few months ago.

“No, you go ahead with the others if you want. I’m supposed to meet some friends and we’re going to watch the parade. You’re welcome to join us if you’d like, though.” Raine watched as Jeremy looked up at him and then over at the other guys, trying to decide what he wanted to do. “It’s okay. Go on and have fun.” Raine smiled, and Jeremy bounded off after the Elvi. Raine watched him go for a second before continuing down the street.

His phone playing “Celebration” stopped him, and he pulled it out of his pocket, checking the display. “Hey, Geoff.”

“Good God, where are you?”

“It’s Pride Weekend, and I’m on my way to meet some friends for the parade. You know, you and Eli should come down next year. It’d be a blast.”

He heard Geoff’s laughter ripple through the line. “Can you see Eli at Gay Pride?”

Raine thought for a split second before laughing. “No, I guess not, although this year they actually have horses.”

“Real ones or just two guys feeling each other up under a horse blanket?”

“Actually both.” Raine’s laughter increased, and he continued down the street, spying his friends and waving to let them know he’d seen them. “But there are real horses, some sort of gay polo team or something. But seriously, you two should come for a visit, I’d love to see you guys.”

“We will,” Geoff responded, “and you know you can always come here when you need some peace and quiet or feel the need to shovel some shit.”

“And you’ve got plenty of that.” Raine could hear what sounded like a band starting to play. “I’ll let you go, the parade’s starting, but it was great to hear from you, and I’ll call you next week. We can figure out a good time for a visit.”

“Talk to you soon.” The line went quiet, and Raine closed the phone, shoving it into his pocket before joining his friends at the table, lifting the beer they’d already ordered for him, toasting friendship, pride, and all the guys they expected Raine to do over the next two days. The others were all in long-term relationships, so they lived vicariously through Raine, as he was the only “free agent” in the group. God, he loved this weekend. Taking a gulp of the beer to wet his throat, he joined the conversation, the five of them talking at lightning speed.

As the first float passed, the conversation died down, and it became all about the beads. While this wasn’t Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it was definitely the gay substitute. Put twenty thousand gay men in a confined space, throw sparkly beads at them, mix with alcohol, and you had the recipe for near pandemonium. People on the floats threw handfuls of beads into the crowds, and, of course, the less you wore, the more beads you got. 

“Look over there,” Don said as he pointed to what looked like a frat boy in a polo shirt and chino shorts. Sure enough, the shirt came off, revealing a toned chest, and then the pants dropped, giving the world a look at nearly everything the good Lord gave him. “Now that’s a view.”

His partner, Chuck, swatted him on the arm. “Keep your eyes in your head.”

“I can look. After all, he’s showing it off for everybody.” Don mock pouted and then put his arm around the shoulder of his lover of more than thirty years.

Chuck shook his head indulgently. “Go get yourself some beads.” Chuck shooed his lover from the table. “Just don’t you start thinking you can drop your pants.”

“Hey!” Don responded quickly. “I wonder if they’ll give me beads to keep my pants on.”

“Now that’s a winner!” Chuck joked as he held up his glass. Grabbing Raine by the elbow, Don dragged them both into the crowd. The man was a fiend for the damned beads, grabbing and clawing his way to the front, snatching them out of the air. The man might have been nearing sixty, but he was tall and had great reflexes. The little boys didn’t stand a chance. The parade continued, with the accounting Elvi passing in the middle of it, waving and tossing a storm of beads at them as they passed. By the end of the parade, they both had what seemed like hundreds of strands of beads around their necks. Returning to the table, laughing and joking, they rejoined the others, sharing their bounty and another round of drinks. 

“We should get going,” Bob commented as he and his partner Charlie stood up, “now that the parade’s over, the kids get down to the serious drinking, and we don’t need to be here for that.”

Chuck and Don stood up as well, and everyone exchanged hugs before wandering through the milling crowd back toward their cars. 

Chicago evenings in June could range from oven-baked to teeth-chattering, but tonight was absolutely perfect. Unsure what he wanted to do, Raine wandered along the sidewalk, occasionally catching the eye of someone. Twice, he really thought seriously about pursuing someone, but decided against it, at least for now. A few times, he saw the guys from work, still in costume, having a blast. He knew he could join them, but he felt a little off. 

After midnight, as Raine found himself walking back toward his car, a crowd of half-drunk, half-dressed boys made their way down the sidewalk, singing at the tops of their lungs, carrying anyone and everyone along with them. In order to avoid the mass of drunken humanity, Raine stepped out of the way between two clubs and decided to take a quick shortcut through the side street. 

Raine could see his car, parked in the perfect metered spot—thank you, parking Karma—when he felt someone yank on the strands of beads still around his neck. Stumbling backward, choking and coughing, he tried to stay on his feet as he was pulled between two of the shuttered stores. “What’s going—?”

Before he could say anything more, a fist landed on his side, shooting pain down his hip and up almost to his arm. Before Raine could think, let alone move, rough hands spun him around and a fist sank hard into his stomach. Falling to the ground, he began to retch, throwing up on the pavement as a foot connected with his side. “Fucking faggots, when are they ever gonna learn!” Another kick landed, the force enough to lift him off the ground. He landed with a thud, and Raine rolled onto the pavement, protecting his face with his arms and hands, doing his best to roll into a ball as he continued retching and gasping for breath.

“Leave him!” someone yelled, and another kick landed on his arm, and Raine heard something snap, pain building on pain. 

Footsteps hurried away. “Remember, faggot, you only got what you deserved!” Raine felt his hand slide back slightly, and he saw his attacker squat down, a switchblade appearing from nowhere. 

“People are coming!” the other voice called again, and Raine let his head rest on the pavement. It hurt too much to hold it up. He expected the feel the knife at any second and braced for it. Instead, a hand fished into his pocket, and then he heard footsteps running away, and Raine let his breath slip from his lungs. Gasping to breathe again, he lay there, letting the cool of the concrete soak into his body; at least it dulled some of the pain. 

Shadows passed in front of him, and Raine reached out to try to grab them, but they slipped through his fingers. He could barely get air into his lungs and talking was out of the question, so he lay there and waited. 

Hearing footsteps again, Raine’s muscles tensed, and pain shot through him from head to foot. Expecting another kick, he jumped when a hand touched his shoulders. “Somebody call an ambulance!” More footsteps, and then a voice near his face said, “Help’s on the way.” Something soft slipped over him and some of the chill abated. Finally closing his eyes, he let the threatening blackness take him.

Things seemed to happen on the periphery of his consciousness. People arrived, talking softly, and then the pain seemed to fade away, and his mind sort of flew. Maybe he was dead and on his way to heaven. Raine didn’t know and didn’t care. All he knew was that he could sleep, his muscles releasing their tension. Then he was floating, gliding through the air like he was lying on a magic carpet.

“Can you hear us?” The voice sounded like it was under water, and Raine tried to respond, but his head wouldn’t move, and he couldn’t get enough air to talk, so in the end he moved his lips a little and let the magic carpet take him where it willed.

People and voices tended to fade in and out, and he felt as though he were in a gigantic swimming pool. Sometimes, he’d almost reach the surface and the voices got louder, and he could almost understand them, but then he’d sink back down, and they’d fade again. Time and time again he’d swim for the surface, but he couldn’t quite reach it. Ready to give up, tired and exhausted, he made one more effort and broke through, gagging and choking, his lungs feeling like they were still filled with water. “Calm down, honey, it’s okay.” He felt a hand on his shoulder. “We just need to get the breathing tube out.” He felt as though he was going to be sick, and hands steadied his shoulder and something long and slimy slid out of his mouth. Taking a deep breath, pain shot through his chest like someone jumping on his body. “It’s okay, sweetheart, just relax and breathe steadily.” It was the same voice, calm and sweet, almost like his mother’s.

As he moved his eyelids, they ground against his eyes, and he squeezed them shut. Trying again, they felt less like sandpaper, and he opened them, curious who this angel with the sweet voice was. The room was blurry and so was she, but after a few seconds his vision cleared, and he could see a big black woman smiling back at him through the dimness. “Who?”

“Don’t try to talk, honey,” she soothed, and she placed a mask over his face. “This will help you breathe better, so just relax. Your cute friend stepped out a few minutes ago, but he’ll be back.” She moved around his bed, and he followed her with his eyes. “From one to ten, how much pain are you in?”

That had to be the stupidest question he’d ever heard. His entire body ached and throbbed, breathing hurt, and good God, there was crap attached to him everywhere… as in everywhere. “Ten,” he found himself mumbling, and she moved around some more. 

“Are you warm enough?”

Raine mumbled something that he thought might just resemble yes, and then the pain started to fade, and his mind began to fly, but who cared. Raine closed his eyes, and the lady with the sweet voice faded away, replaced with the blankness and warmth of sleep.

When he woke again, mouth as dry as the Sahara, room and windows dark, Raine looked around the room, seeing a dark figure curled on what appeared to be a sofa-thing under the window. That must be the friend the nurse had mentioned, although he had no idea who it could be. At least breathing was easier, even though the rest of him felt like he’d gone three rounds with a baseball bat. Finding a button near his bed, he pressed it, hoping to God he could get some water. The nurse bustled in, picking up a cup before lifting the mask and placing the straw to his lips. “Not too much,” she cautioned, and Raine sipped, swallowing gingerly before sipping some more. Eyes becoming heavy again, he blinked them closed.

At least it seemed like a blink. Now the room was bright, sun streaming through the windows. Moving his head slightly, Raine saw the figure, still curled up. Watching, he saw the figure stir and then stretch and sit up. “Geoff,” he tried to say, but he wasn’t sure if anything came out with the mask over part of his face.

“It’s okay, Raine. I’m here.” A warm hand slid into his.

“How did you get here?” He spoke slowly, hoping to be understood.

“The police called me. They couldn’t find any identification on you, and mine was the last number called in your cell phone.”

“But why?” He wanted to ask why Geoff was here, but talking was too hard, so he let it go. His friend was here, and that was what mattered. Geoff would look out for him no matter what.

“I couldn’t stay away.” Geoff’s fingers squeezed his hand, and Raine squeezed back, settling on the pillow.

“How long?” he mumbled almost to himself, having no idea how long he’d been here or even what day it was.

“Today’s Tuesday,” Geoff supplied quietly. He’d gone to Pride on Friday night. Three days—he completely lost three whole days. Raine began to shift as the pain reasserted itself. Geoff must have noticed as well, because he was there, soothing, “Relax, I’ll get the nurse.”

The hand slipped from his, and then Geoff was gone, returning right away with a nurse in tow. “Looks like you’re awake.” She spent a few minutes checking machines and tubes, then the pain began to slip away. “How’s your breathing?” She lifted the mask, and Raine got a breath of regular air. “I’m going to change this out so you can talk better.” She placed a tube under his nose and slipped the mask over his head. “How’s that?”

“Good,” he rasped. 

“The doctor should be in soon, and then, if he says it’s okay, we’ll get you some breakfast.”

“Thank you.” At least that was what Raine meant to say. 

“You’re welcome, honey.” She fixed his pillows and then left.

Rolling his head slowly against the fluffed pillow, Raine gazed up at his friend. “What happened to me?”

“Don’t you remember?” Geoff answered in a concerned tone.

“I remember being bashed, but that’s all.” He must have let a little of the anger he felt welling up inside him out because Geoff took his hand again. “Have they said what’s wrong with me?”

“You had surgery for a ruptured spleen. Luckily, that was all. One of your kidneys is bruised, but they think it’ll heal. Other than that you were pretty lucky. They cracked a few of your ribs and broke your left arm. You’re bruised up pretty bad, but you somehow protected your face from them.”

Well, that was a blessing, anyway. Raine was about to ask more questions when the doctor entered his room, pulling the curtain around the bed. “Mr. Baumer, I’m Dr. Pasch.” He reached down for the chart and glanced through the papers. “Looks like you’re doing better. Any trouble breathing?”

“Only when I take a deep breath,” Raine replied, careful not to demonstrate.

“Good.” The man barely looked up from the chart. “Looks like you’re still in some pain. That’ll probably continue for the next few days and then should start to lessen.” He put the chart on the tray by the bed and tugged down the sheet. “I’d like to check you over and then listen to your lungs. They had some fluid in them when they brought you in.”

He pulled down the sheet and did the pokey-proddy thing all over the place. Raine took the opportunity to look at himself and was shocked to see that his skin appeared black, blue, yellow, red, and purple almost everywhere he could see. “Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed, before resting his head back on the pillow.

The doctor’s fingers stopped. “Did that hurt?”

“Sorry, no. I just saw what a mess I am.” The doctor touched one of his ribs, and Raine did cry out again. “Now that hurt,” he explained, trying to keep himself from inhaling deeply and adding to the misery. Finally, the doctor pulled the covers back over him. “You seem to be doing well so far. We’ll keep you here for another week or so to make sure everything’s healing well, and barring infection you should be able to go home as long as you have someone to help you.” He placed the chart back in its holder, pushing the curtain back into place. “You can eat a little, but don’t overdo it, and there’s a police officer who’s waiting to speak with you.”

“Oh, okay.” Raine wasn’t sure he was up to anything like that.

“I’ll be here.” Geoff’s hand took his again. “He probably wants to ask you what you remember.”

“I’ll send the officer in. Just dial 700 for the kitchen, and they’ll send up some food for him.” The doctor said he’d see him later and left the room.

“A barrel of laughs, isn’t he?” Raine quipped lightly.

“That’s the snarky queen I know. You must be feeling better.” Geoff picked up the phone. “I’ll call down for your food before the police officer gets here.” Raine mumbled and rested back on his pillows, grateful that the pain seemed to be held at bay, for a while at least. It looked like he was going to be in the hospital for a while, and then he needed to find someone who could stay with him. Geoff hung up the phone and then took a seat on the sofa, picking up a book, while Raine let his eyes drift closed again. 

“Do you know if anyone called my work?” Raine didn’t even try to open his eyes. He was comfortable, and that was all he could ask for right now.

“I did. Your boss stopped in while you were out of it. He seemed upset and asked me to call him if anything happened. He seemed like a really nice guy. In fact, a number of people have stopped by, but the hospital wouldn’t let them in. It seems you’re still quite the social butterfly.”

“Mr. Abernathy stopped in? That’s nice.” The medication seemed to be taking over again, and Raine didn’t fight it. At least when he was asleep, nothing hurt. Opening his eyes again, Raine found another man sitting next to Geoff, the two of them talking softly.

“I’m Officer Clark with Chicago PD.” The huge man stood up, and Raine knew that if he’d been feeling better, he’d be all over the man who was just his type: tall, dark, and yummy. “I have just a few questions for you.”

Raine nodded slowly. “I’ll try to help.”

“Good.” He opened his notebook and began writing. “Did you see the man who hurt you?”

“Yeah.” Raine closed his eyes again, and a picture of the man’s face filled his mind. “I thought he was going to kill me.” Raine shuddered and was rewarded by a stab of pain in his chest and side. “He had a knife, and I figured he was going to stab me any time. He knelt near me, so I got a good look at him. I think someone else coming by saved my life.” His thoughts weren’t terribly coherent, but he was trying.

“We got fingerprints from the scene. If I were to bring by some pictures later, do you think you could identify him?”

“I’ll try.” Raine felt his eyes getting heavy again. “They kept saying all kinds of things. Calling me faggot and stuff.”

“Sir, do you believe this was a hate crime?” the officer asked softly.

Raine kept his eyes closed, it felt better. “Yeah, it definitely was, and I’ll testify that it was. They were looking for a fag to teach a lesson to.”

“How many were there?”

“I’m not sure, but there was more than one. That’s for sure. They kept calling me names as I was kicked and hit.” Raine felt tears well in his eyes. “I really thought I was going to die.” 

“I know, and we’re going to do our best to catch these guys.” Office Clark closed his notebook. “I’m going to let you rest, but I’ll be back in a few days when you’re feeling better, and hopefully I’ll have some news for you.” He walked toward the door. “Do you have someone to stay with you when you get out of the hospital? You really shouldn’t be alone after something like this.”

Raine was about to answer when Geoff spoke up. “When he gets out, he’s coming to stay with me for a while.” Geoff followed the police officer out of the room, giving him what sounded like additional information, and Raine let his eyes close again. Geoff would take care of him; he could let everything else go.