FLIGHTS NEVER arrived on schedule anymore in this neck of the woods. The tiny concourse stood empty, save a few tourists eating shitty airport food while a security guard with a paunch sauntered by and yawned. Nobody spared Hunter a glance as he sat with his knee jumping under the table. He stowed his phone and wiped sweaty hands on his jeans as finally—finally—the arrivals board flashed incoming flight 203 from DC.
Hunter found his way to the baggage carousel, though there was no way Jake had checked a bag; he wouldn’t be home for long. To distract himself, Hunter stared at the families greeting their loved ones and leaned against a pillar, arranging his legs casually. He wished he had something to hold: a can of soda, maybe, something other than his phone to make him seem occupied. He should have brought his headphones. Some guys Hunter didn’t recognize, dressed in army fatigues, passed by, and his heart lurched like he’d stuck his finger in a socket. One of them was pretty cute—tall and blond with arched eyebrows that made him look mischievous. He gave Hunter a nod, and Hunter smiled in return, automatically checking out the guy’s ass for a second until his gaze was drawn back to the top of the stairs.
Jake stared down at Hunter like he was surprised to see him. Their eyes met, and a warm current lit up Hunter’s spine. The memory of the other guy faded like a star in a distant galaxy, blotted out by the light of the sun.
“Hey you,” Hunter said when Jake got to the bottom of the stairs. He pushed away from the pillar. He wanted to grab the back of Jake’s head and kiss him, but a display like that could inspire some pretty nasty looks. Instead, Hunter settled for a handshake, and their fingers slotted together, lingering. Jake’s hand was warm and callused; a shiver ran up Hunter’s arm. Just like that, the six months since they’d last seen each other melted away, and so did all the things Hunter had been planning to say. Now wasn’t the time.
“Hay is for horses,” Jake answered in his lazy Georgia drawl. “Man, you’re a sight for sore eyes.” Despite the dark circles and stubble from two long days of travel, Jake was as hot as ever. His fatigues hugged his solid frame, the green making his hazel eyes appear almost emerald. He seemed to have put on even more muscle since the last time they’d seen each other, and Hunter blushed self-consciously at the memory; he’d never think about olive oil in the same way again.
Jake gave Hunter an up-and-down appraisal, like he was remembering, too. “Thanks for coming to pick me up.”
“It’s no problem.”
“Been here long, eh?”
“Shut up! It hasn’t been that long.”
Jake nudged him with an elbow. “Only a few hours.”
“You think pretty highly of yourself.”
“I just know you, always early.”
“It’s good to be on time. You should try it once in a while.”
Jake grinned and looked like he might come closer for that kiss after all.
A few paces away, an elderly couple waiting for their suitcases watched them with twinned expressions of suspicion. Hunter tore his gaze away from where it had landed on Jake’s lips. Now that they’d dropped hands, he had no idea what to do with his, so he stuffed them in his pockets.
“You look… really good.”
“So do you, baby boy.”
Hunter glanced down at his ratty band tee, wishing he’d worn something nicer. He always felt a little gangly next to Jake, though he was a mere inch taller. And notwithstanding the slight height difference, Jake had at least thirty pounds on him now.
“Your hair’s so long.” Jake started to reach out before his hand paused in midair and dropped back to his side, an aborted gesture that made the flock of birds that had finally bedded down in Hunter’s stomach take wing again. “You look like an elf from one of those movies.”
“Yeah, I need a cut.” It had grown out in the last couple of months and now hung in his face no matter how he messed with it. His mom said he reminded her of his father when they’d first met, when he’d been a hippie, or as close to one as you could have gotten in the eighties.
“It’s nice. Pretty.”
Hunter wrinkled his nose and shoved Jake on the shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. Those old people are freaking me out.”
“Yeah, let’s. I’m beat.”
Except for his regulation boots echoing on the pavement, Jake was silent on the way to the car. Hunter bit his lip and tried to act casual. The past few months had been weird, and it was partly his fault. Ever since Jake had told him he was considering reenlisting once his contract was up, Hunter had worried about what that meant for them. On the one hand, it wasn’t like it changed anything; after all, Jake had been in the army the entire time they’d been dating. But Hunter had already started imagining what it would be like with Jake back in town on a permanent basis, even thought about living together like a real couple. They’d need to get a bigger place, for sure. Maybe it would be fun to rent a little house somewhere in the country. When he’d told his best friend Allie, she’d given him a look that was impossible to misinterpret, and the conversation that had followed stuck with Hunter until today, festering and making it hard to talk to Jake on the phone or even over e-mail. Mostly because he feared she was right. If Jake wanted to reenlist, he couldn’t be thinking about a future for them.
The sticky heat of the summer night made Hunter’s skin prickle and compounded the jittery feeling in his chest. Jake had been strange, too, during the last few months. It wasn’t like him to be so quiet.
“So, where do you want to go?” Hunter asked once they’d stowed Jake’s stuff in the trunk of his VW, and he’d fired up the engine. An onslaught of scorching air shot out at them from the vents before it began to cool.
Jake took Hunter’s face between his hands and answered the question with a kiss. Hunter responded with a startled grunt as Jake’s tongue stroked into his mouth and curled around his own. The kiss was hard and hungry, the kind that made him forget to breathe. A plane roared overhead, and Hunter gripped Jake’s shoulders to pull him closer. He’d already popped a boner at first contact, and it started to throb in tandem with his pulse as the kiss went on. Jake squeezed him like he wanted to check, and Hunter groaned. If Jake had decided to undo his fly and get his dick out in the middle of the public parking lot, Hunter might have let him. They’d have scared the shit out of that old couple from the airport, probably even cause a heart attack or two, and definitely get arrested. It would totally be worth it.
When they broke apart at last, Jake’s eyes were dark, and he was breathing hard. “Missed you so fucking much.”
“I missed you, too,” Hunter said, rubbing his chin where Jake’s stubble had scraped him. His heart felt heavy and just as raw. Even though they were free to sleep with other guys as long as they were honest if the other one asked, Hunter hadn’t been with anyone else in over a year. And screw the honesty policy; he didn’t want to know if Jake had. In that moment, he almost let out the words that had been rattling around in his brain for months; he’d practiced them enough to have the speech memorized by heart, hoping it would give him the courage he needed to make a break if it came down to it. But how could he ask Jake to choose him when they’d never even said the words? Hunter kept his mouth shut and pressed his face against Jake’s neck to inhale the sweat of his skin. Fear tickled at the back of his mind. He didn’t want to be alone anymore.
“And I was serious before,” Jake said. “I like your hair. Don’t cut it. Maybe you can get a part in one of those movies.”
“I don’t think they’re making any more.”
“I heard there was another one coming out.”
“That was last year, don’t you remember? We saw it together on Christmas.”
“Oh, shit, that’s right. Well, I still think you could be a star.”
“You’re an idiot.” Hunter blushed at the compliment, reached up, and rubbed the fuzz that coated Jake’s skull. He had a nice, shapely head, the kind that looked as good bald as it did with hair. “I wish I could see yours grown out.”
They’d run with different crowds in high school. Well, mainly Jake had run with the popular crowd while Hunter had kept to himself, but Hunter remembered how pretty Jake’s hair had been back then. Perfect, just like his face. In fact, Jake looked so different with his shorn hair that Hunter hadn’t even recognized him years later, the night they’d met at The O Bar. Now that was a fresh memory.
Hunter’d already had a couple of drinks in quick succession when he noticed Hot Buzz Cut Guy: tight T-shirt, nice muscles, crooked smile. Something familiar about him. He’d given Hunter a two-finger salute when their eyes caught across the bar, and later, after they’d sucked each other off in the bathroom, Jake had given him the sweetest kiss and slipped his number into Hunter’s pocket.
Now, the fond memory fizzled as Jake pulled back with a frown. “Can’t even remember what I look like with hair, s’been so long.”
Hunter cleared his throat. “So where to? You want to go somewhere first or straight back to my place?” He should have kept his stupid mouth shut.
“I just want to crash, if that’s all right.”
“I have to see Gran in the morning,” said Jake. “First thing, unless I wanna get my ass handed to me.”
“Okay.” Jake’s gran had stopped by the bookstore the day before and made Hunter promise to bring Jake over. Of course he’d agreed, looking forward to her shrimp and grits. “I think she’s planning a trip to church after breakfast. She said to make sure you wear your suit.”
“She should know better than that. The next time I go to church, I’ll be in a coffin.”
Hunter’s blood chilled. “Jake.”
“And anyway, I don’t have a suit.”
“You do. It’s at my place.” He’d even gotten it dry-cleaned, just in case.
Jake shrugged. “I kinda need to go see her by myself. I’ve gotta talk to her.”
“I’d rather not get into it, if that’s all right.”
Hunter bit down on the creeping feeling of rejection. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you want.”
“Mind if I smoke?”
The window slid down, letting the soupy heat of the evening into the interior, and along with it the sweet smell of Jake’s rolled tobacco cigarette. Even so, Hunter shuddered as he pulled onto the highway and accelerated. No matter how fast he drove, weaving between cars to get into the fast lane, the image of Jake in a coffin followed. He saw it every time he blinked.
“I’ve been fiending for one of these,” Jake said after a long exhale. “Fuckin’ long flight, and I had no time in DC.”
“Don’t let your gran see you smoking. Anyway, I thought you were gonna quit?”
“I figure I’ll quit when I’m dead.”
“Which will be soon, if you keep smoking like a chimney.”
“The worse crime would be to waste this fine Turkish tobacco.” Jake flourished a crumpled packet covered in Arabic characters.
“I’m just kidding, Hunt. And I promise I’ll quit; it’s just hard with all the other guys. You have no idea how boring it can get sitting up all night in that tank, nothing to do but smoke and shoot the shit.”
“When people aren’t trying to blow you up.”
After a year in the bloody Tangi Valley and a short leave home, Jake’s troop had been redeployed for peacekeeping duty during the last six months. They hadn’t seen much violence, but that didn’t mean Hunter hadn’t worried when Jake was in the thick of things. And now he was thinking of going back?
Still, it put his smoking into perspective. Hunter reached out and rested his hand on Jake’s leg. The muscle under his fingers bunched and then relaxed. He probably shouldn’t be doing this, not with all those things he wanted to say still unsaid, but he didn’t stop when Jake’s smile grew content, eyes closed and head resting back against the seat. Who the fuck was he kidding? There was no way he was going to fight this. Where Jake was concerned, taking what he could get came naturally to Hunter—he’d been doing it for years. And that, another part of his brain said, is part of the problem.
“Well, enjoy yourself now,” Hunter said. “Remember my apartment is a smoke-free zone.” He had a little one-bedroom on the second floor of the building that housed the bookstore where he worked. Gloria, his landlord and boss, had made clear in no uncertain terms she didn’t allow smoking, since if her books went up in flames, so would her income.
“I know the rules, baby.”
Hunter let his hand travel higher to knead along Jake’s thigh. Jake’s legs dropped open, and he let out a quiet groan of pleasure. “That feels good.”
“Yeah. Keep going.”
When he reached the warm crease of Jake’s groin, he paused, aware of the erection just inches from his fingers. His own blood ran hot. Jake’s cock filled out the crotch of his pants—Hunter trailed his fingers over the ridge of the head and felt for the little slit that Jake loved him to press his tongue into. He imagined the prominent vein just under the shaft, how it led to a substantial bush and the finest pair of balls Hunter had ever seen. God, he could even remember how Jake’s cock had felt inside of him the last time they’d fucked, hard and fast in the kitchen, just minutes before Jake had to leave to catch his plane. Hunter had come so hard he’d found stains on the cabinets a week later. With a sigh at the memory, Hunter let his hand fall away. It had been a long time, too long to do this while he was driving, unless he wanted his car to wind up wrapped around a light pole.
Jake finished his cigarette and butted it out in one of the empty soda cans rattling around the floor of the car.
“I see you’re still addicted,” Jake said, holding up the can as Hunter pulled into a parking spot.
Hunter smirked before parroting back Jake’s earlier words. “I figure I’ll quit when I’m dead.” He injected them with just a little bit of venom.
They hopped out of the car, and Jake hoisted his pack onto his shoulder. “I’ll be glad not to have to carry this thing around anymore, that’s for damn sure.”
The postwar building where Hunter lived was due for a substantial renovation, but with the shitty economy, Gloria didn’t have the funds for upkeep beyond the basics. Jake’s presence at his back distracted him while he fiddled with the key until the lock unlatched and the door squeaked open.
“You need a little WD-40 on that,” Jake said. “Fix it right up.”
“Yeah. I keep forgetting.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
The hall was empty, but as they reached the second floor landing, music from the apartment above thumped through the floorboards.
“Sounds like it’s party night,” Jake said.
Hunter sighed. “It always is. Fucking neighbors. This new guy is even worse than the last.”
“You should move out, get a quieter place.” Jake shrugged out of his button-down camo.
“I can’t afford it, you know that. And anyway, I like it otherwise.” Hunter stomped down the wistful vision of him and Jake in a place of their own.
Jake scratched his belly as he made his way toward the mattress near the front windows, then flopped down and untied his boots. Hunter watched, shoulders wilting. In spite of everything, he’d hoped they’d continue what they’d started in the car, but Jake didn’t appear interested. He’s tired, Hunter told himself. You’re just being stupid. His mind was running in a hundred directions it wouldn’t do him any good to go.
“I grabbed a bite before my flight. Wouldn’t mind a drink, though, if you’ve got it.” Jake reached up to switch on the AC unit. It spewed a little water onto his white undershirt just below the nipple. His pits were discolored with sweat, and Hunter wanted to bury his head under there and never come out again.
“I’ve got beer. And I think Allie left a bottle of Wild Turkey here the other night.”
“Sounds perfect. Ice?”
“Coming right up, Your Highness.”
Hunter went to get the bourbon while Jake settled in. It was probably for the best Jake didn’t feel like having sex; it would help Hunter keep a clear head, if that was even possible. Half of him wanted to get the conversation they needed to have over with, and the other half wanted to forget the whole thing. What did it even matter if he was dependent on Jake? Who cared? They were in love. They were in love even though they’d never said the words and Jake wanted to sign more years of his life away, away from Hunter, away from Georgia. More years for Hunter to wait while Jake tried to prove whatever it was he thought he needed to prove, for Hunter to dread that phone call in the middle of the night. More years of loneliness. Hunter filled two glasses with some ice and snagged the half-empty bottle left over from the get-together he and Allie’d had the week before. He took a deep breath.
Jake was looking out the open window at the street below when he returned. Hunter extended a glass. “Here,” he said. “Only the finest for you.” He kneeled down on the bed and toed off his sneakers, then moved to sit next to Jake, who’d stripped down to his boxer shorts. His torso was thick with natural muscle, broad across the shoulders and trim at the hips, tan from being in the desert for so long. Hunter had never seen the small, raised scar on his thigh before.
Jake took a gulp of his drink, and the ice clinked in the glass. “S’not as bad as some of the shit I’ve had. You know how hard it is to get a decent drink in the ’Stan.”
“Yeah, so you’ve said.”
Hunter sipped more slowly and wrinkled his nose. He’d never understood how anyone could enjoy the taste of hard liquor. And Jake—he’d already emptied the glass with two swift tosses of his head and was reaching for the bottle.
“So are you glad to be home?” Hunter asked to break the silence.
“Yeah, of course. Why?”
“Oh, nothing.” He shrugged and traced a bead of condensation with his finger. “Just wondering.”
Jake drained his glass with a grimace, and then set it down on the floor. He smiled his usual crooked smile, but there was something off about the expression; it didn’t reach his eyes. “You think I’m not happy to be here with you? I am. I just have a lot on my mind, s’all.”
Me too, thought Hunter. “Do you wanna talk about it?”
“Nah, and anyway, before I forget, I got you something. It’s silly, but I thought you might like it.”
Jake fished around in his bag until he was arm-deep in a mess of clothes, some of them smelling pretty ripe from where Hunter sat. Finally, he pulled out a small bronze object, which, upon closer inspection, Hunter realized was a humbler version of the genie oil lamps he remembered from childhood cartoons. He turned it over in his hands, examining the filigreed writing barely visible under years of burnish and grime.
Jake smiled when Hunter rubbed it in jest. “Careful, or you’ll release the jinn. At least that’s what the lady who sold it to me said. Either that or I have a face like a young Marlon Brando, couldn’t tell, it was so loud in the market.”
“What’ll happen if I release it?”
“Well, I guess that depends on whether it’s a good jinn or a bad one. They’re just like people, you know. If you mess with the wrong type, you’ll be sorry.” As he was speaking, Jake leaned back against the pillows with his hands behind his head. His eyes twinkled.
“I still get a wish, though, right? Whether the jinn is bad or good?”
“You have some wishes you want granted, Hunt?”
Hunter shook the lamp. If he were still a child, he’d have asked for his parents to stay together. In fact, he had—desperately and often—prayed that his dad would decide he loved Hunter and his mom more than the graduate student he’d fallen for at the university. It hadn’t come true no matter how many times he had asked, no matter how many good deeds he had promised to fulfill. He had a feeling his current wish had a similarly dismal fate in store. If Jake had decided to come home for good, he would have said something by now. Hunter’s eyes burned as he stared at the object in his hands. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand—he did. Jake fit in the army like a peg in a hole; the problem was there was no place in that life for Hunter.
Maybe he was silent for too long. He felt Jake touch his thigh and looked up to meet a worried expression.
“Nothing. Just thinking about my wish.”
“It won’t come true if I tell you.”
“All right, let me guess: ten hot naked guys and an unlimited supply of blowies for the rest of your life?”
Hunter mustered a grin. “I think that’s yours.”
“Sorry—ten hot naked guys and an unlimited supply of books for them to read out loud while you blow them?”
“You’re an ass. I’ll have you know my wish was much nicer, and only involves one guy, thank you very much.”
“Oh, do I know him?” Jake’s teasing annoyed Hunter. He set the lamp down and got up to turn off the light. “I was just joking, baby.” Jake pulled at Hunter’s arm, so he had no choice but to fall back onto the bed. Once he was down, he was glad for the darkness. “And anyway, all that shit about genies in lamps is made up by Americans because we’re too lazy to learn anything about Arabic culture. I should have gotten you something nicer.” Hunter detected a yawn in his voice.
“I like my present,” Hunter said. “I love it.”
While Jake passed out in what seemed like seconds, it took a long time for Hunter to doze off. He twisted to his side so he could watch Jake’s face in the moonlight. His lashes fluttered, and Hunter imagined dreams of places and people he’d never met. They didn’t talk much about the war. Jake sometimes told him stories about the guys in his unit or the places he’d visited, but he never mentioned being afraid or what had happened on the day they’d been ambushed at a checkpoint. All Hunter knew was two American soldiers had died and five Afghan civilians had been wounded, and that much he’d learned in the newspaper. Whenever he brought it up, Jake shrugged it off or changed the subject. Hunter had a feeling Jake thought he was sparing him the gruesome details, not wanting him to worry. How could he not know worrying was all Hunter did?
Asleep, Jake’s full mouth was soft and almost feminine. The combination of masculinity and vulnerable beauty sent a tremor through Hunter. He couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t in love with Jake. Even in high school when they’d barely said five words to each other, he must have been a little in love with Jake. Everyone was. He was too good-looking and too nice and too full of life not to love. Hunter kissed Jake’s cheek and lay with a throat full of hot misery until fatigue finally overcame him and pulled him into sleep.
It was still night when a loud cry startled him awake. The mattress jostled as his eyes shot open, heart thumping. “Jake?” He reached out and bit his lip as Jake flinched away.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh shit.” Jake scrubbed his hands over his face. “Dammit.”
Jake’s nightmares often woke him up, and from their conversations, Hunter suspected they’d gotten worse over the past year. Seconds ticked by, until Hunter reached out to squeeze the tense muscles of Jake’s hunched shoulders. His breathing started to slow, and he mumbled something.
“Nothing. Just a bad dream. Fuck, I hate those.”
Jake sprawled back and flung his arm over his eyes, but Hunter knew he hadn’t fallen asleep.
“You can tell me if you want.”
“I don’t want.” Jake snorted. “You sound like a shrink.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Jake turned over and welcomed Hunter into his arms. He was warm and just a little sweaty, and Hunter felt their hearts thud together. It gave him courage. “Allie says I depend on you too much. That my life is on pause waiting for you to decide what you want to do, and our relationship is holding me back from reaching my full potential.”
A quick intake of breath. “Oh? And what do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
Jake stroked Hunter’s hair and pulled him closer. “You do. Tell me.”
“I’m afraid she’s right, but… I want to be with you.”
It was so quiet for a moment that Hunter imagined he could hear Jake’s heartbeat as well as feel it. “I always worried that you’d resent me one day.”
“Are you staying in the army?”
“Why haven’t you decided yet?”
Jake sighed loudly. “I’ve only got six more months, but what the hell will I do after that? How will I get money to Gran? At least if I stay in, I’ll get a raise.” The flatness in his voice didn’t sound convincing. Not for the first time, Hunter wondered if Jake was hiding something from him.
“You could go to school,” he tried.
“I can’t afford it, and anyway, that’s not my dream.”
“What is your dream?”
Jake seemed eager to change the subject. “You know, I would never ask you to wait for me, Hunter, not if you’re unhappy.”
“I’m not unhappy.”
“Yes, you are. You know I want what’s best for you. What’s your dream, Hunt?”
Right now, Allie would be pretty proud of him, but Hunter felt like shit. The hard truth of it was he wanted Jake to sweep him off his feet, tell him that his dream was being with Hunter. But this wasn’t a fucking romance novel, and Hunter needed to wake up.