Chapter 18

Troubled Youth

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Squinting against the sunlight, Yen looked up at their new hang-around. Or more precisely, he glared at him with the intensity of a power drill. The boy was way too tall for a teenager. He was almost as tall as Nakhti, which meant he was actually able to comfortably watch the race, while most of the Pharaohs had to suffer in one way or another. Sam had apologized his way down to the bottom of the hill to get to the very front where he could actually see something. Tamika had found a bump on the grass that boosted her just enough to witness all the crucial moments as long as she kept her balance. But Yen was trapped between Nakhti and the new addition, standing just borderline tall enough to see things without tiptoeing, which would have been fine under normal circumstances, but now there was this ridiculously tall, annoying kid…

“Are you sure you should be right here, right now?” Yen asked.

The boy frowned and side-eyed him. “Yes.”

“But… shouldn’t you be at a basketball game, Mister Michael Jordan?”

The boy’s lips twitched. “That’s kind of racist, you know.”

“No,” Yen said calmly. “It would have been racist if I called you, oh, I don’t know… a banana or something. Now that would have been racist! As is, I am just comparing you to a famous athlete, you spoilt crybaby.”

The boy gave him a dark look. He turned back to the race and grumbled under his breath, “If anything, you’re the banana.”

Yen’s eyes narrowed. “Say that again to my face. I didn’t hear you.”

“You two are going to drive the rest of us bananas if you don’t cut it out.” Tamika looked out from behind Nakhti and shook her finger at them. “I hear one more slur from either of you, I will kick your asses down the hill to Sam, and you’ll be in for the lecture of a lifetime.”

“Oh, golly jeepers, anything but that.” Yen shook his hands in the air in pretend fright. “If you kick our bum-bums, poor baby boy here might get a boo-boo, and then he would need to run home to his rich mama and papa so they can kiss the boo-boo away.”

The kid looked like he just sat on a tack. Yen didn’t manage to hold in a snicker.

“Oh no, looks like baby’s already having an emotional boo-boo. Maybe baby needs to go home?”

“What’s your problem, Yen?”

“What? Oh no, you don’t have to be that harsh on yourself, kid. You’re not a what, you’re a who.” Yen grinned.

Nakhti snorted. The kid looked like he was going to cry. Yen grinned wider.

Then he winced, because Tamika stabbed him with a finger between the ribs.

“One more squeak out of you and I will punt you so hard, Sam will have to catch you.” The woman gave Yen a very expressive glare.

Yen opened his mouth to respond, but Tamika stared him down, and after a moment’s consideration he grunted and said nothing in the end. When she glared like this, she meant business.

“Josie’s in the lead.” Nakhti drew their attention back to the track. 

Yen shielded his eyes with a hand, trying to make out the motorbikes rushing at the far end of the track. “How do you even see through all that dust and sun? Is that some kind of Egyptian superpower?”

“No. They just announced it, but you were apparently too busy.”

Beside them Tamika clapped her hands excitedly and attempted the impossible of yelling above the crowd and the roar of the motorcycles. “Come on, Josie, come on, you can do it babe!”

This time they were silent for the announcer whose excited voice carried over the crowd. “Clarke is in the lead! But Jamieson is right behind her. We’re almost at the finish line! Will Clarke’s Honda hold up against Jamieson’s Suzuki? His is the newer bike, and oh, here you see that acceleration? Jamieson overtakes Clarke! It’s almost the finish, they’re so close- Jamieson wins! Clarke comes in second.”

The Pharaohs let out a long cheer. When it finally died down, Zack looked at them confused.

“But… Josie didn’t win?” The boy hesitantly joined in with some belated applause.

“Second place is great! Josie only ever came fourth in this race before,” Tamika said, grinning. “Sure we’d love for her to win it, but this is a new record! Now excuse me, gentlemen and gentlefruits, but I’ve got some major hugging to do!” With a bounce in her step, Tamika hurried through the crowd down the hill.

“What, babyface, second place not good enough for you? You could do better?” Yen used the chance to quip without consequences.

“I just thought she was going for the first place…”

“Well, with that clunker she has now, going for third sounded unrealistic, not to mention second or first,” Yen said. “But it’s either a new bike or saving to hopefully one day start their own business. Not everyone has rich parents buying them Harleys on a whim.” Yen relished the sour look on the boy’s face. Poor poor spoiled rich brat.

Nakhti turned to them and smirked. “That’s all true. But also consider that not everyone carries rolls of money in their underwear.”

Yen snorted and lifted his hands into the air. “Guilty as charged.”

Judging by the look on the boy’s face he had no idea what to make of that but wisely refrained from commenting.

The spectators were now going down the slope, and Nakhti motioned for them to start moving as well. “There’s no question that out of all of us Josie makes the best of her bike. And no, Yen, I’m not encouraging you to pick up racing. But enough talk. This calls for a celebration.”

The kid perked up. “A celebration? Can I be there?”

Nakhti and Yen exchanged smug looks.

“Sure.”

⚞Z⚟

Zack sat on the porch staring forlornly at the ragtag collection of motorcycles that he was charged with guarding. Music and laughter reached him from inside the house where the Pharaohs were celebrating Josie’s triumph.

Zack was left outside to watch the bikes.

He had known before he joined that being a prospect was kind of like entering a fraternity, there would be some measure of proving yourself and some measure of exploitation and humiliation until then. But he wasn’t even a prospect yet! And the understanding didn’t make sitting outside alone doing absolutely nothing any less unpleasant. Especially when people were laughing, drinking and partying behind his back.

Zack sighed. It wasn’t like anyone would even want half of those bikes. Only his and Yen’s bikes were new. Nakhti’s Suzuki GSX 1100 L wasn’t bad either, it could have been new when the club was founded a few years back, but he couldn’t even identify the older Hondas that Tamika and Josie rode. Sam’s bike looked like it was probably older than the bikers themselves.

A little girl walked by with a dog on a leash. The child ignored the bikes, but gave Zack a judgemental look. Zack watched her go. There. Theft averted. The dog didn’t try to pee on the bikes either.

The front door creaked behind him, and the world of music, fun and alcohol spilled onto the porch for a few seconds. Zack found himself turning to look at the door despite himself. He was hoping to see Nakhti coming out for a smoke perhaps… It was Sam.

Zack’s disappointment must have shown because Sam’s eyebrows furrowed. The boxy guy crouched beside Zack and held out a plate with a few slices of pizza, a glass of orange juice and a napkin.

“Uh, thanks, Sam.” Zack accepted the food and drink, feeling awkward.

Sam just nodded.

“And uh, thanks for the bug spray earlier.” It was a life saver in the falling dusk.

Another nod.

Zack stared at the food uncomfortably, then back at Sam. “Is there a chance I could get a beer? Or whatever everyone else is having?”

“No,” Sam said in a voice so quiet Zack could hardly hear him over the muffled noise from indoors.

Zack leaned in closer. “But why?”

“You’re sixteen.”

“I had beer before,” Zack protested.

Sam shook his head.

“Hey, but they’re like drinking in there and then, they’ll ride their bikes, you’re already breaking the law,” Zack protested.

“I don’t drink, and I’m the dedicated driver,” Sam assured him quietly and got up. “If you want more juice, knock.” He turned around and walked back inside. Before the door closed behind him, Zack caught a few seconds of Nakhti saying something, but couldn’t even make out what it was. His heart jumped to his throat, then sunk to the pit of his stomach.

Being a hang-around didn’t really let him do much of the actual hanging around so far. Would becoming a prospect really offer better prospects, or was the whole affair hopeless?

 ⚞☆⚟

Luke climbed the stairs of the apartment building where he knew the owner of the compact disk lived. The group of homeless people had moved on from the alley where the scornful man hung his laundry, but Luke still remembered the encounter very well, including which windowsill he had deposited the laundry on. It only took a little bit of mental flexing to figure out which apartment the window belonged to.

Luke held the compact disc in his hand and rang the doorbell.

The door opened to reveal the man he’d been looking for. Only this time the villain was in his boxers and a stained undershirt. The man looked baffled for a moment, then regained his composure and crossed his arms on his chest, standing tall.

“What do you want, hobo?”

“I brought back the compact disk. I don’t want any trouble, and I hope you can forgive the outburst of that young man who accompanied me last time. He is a wayward soul, but he is mostly hot air, he didn’t mean what he said.” At least Luke hoped that had been the case. “So, here, let’s put the unpleasantness behind us and move on.” Luke extended the disc to the man.

“I don’t want it anymore.” The man took a step back and grimaced. “Who knows where it’s been! I didn’t steal from the limo driver to- I mean I didn’t buy it to have hobo snot all over it!”

Luke frowned and withdrew his hand. “Stole it? But you’d accused the homeless of that…”

“I won’t tell you nothing! And no one will believe hobo like you anyway! Go away, or I call cops!”

“I’ll take my leave then. Have a good day,” Luke said politely, but without meaning it. He descended the stairs, and the door to the apartment slammed shut behind him.

What an unpleasant man. And from the glimpse of his apartment, it was much like its owner. How many of those items were stolen, Luke wondered. He looked at the disc in his hands. So it had another owner. He should have asked the unfriendly man upstairs about who exactly the original owner had been, but he didn’t want any more trouble. The “limo driver” descriptor would have to do. Perhaps like El said, fate was going to lead him in the right direction, and he would yet return the disc.

Luke carefully put it inside his bag, between an old damaged Bible he had found among a stack of abandoned books and a newspaper-wrapped sandwich he was saving up for the afternoon. The sandwich was tempting, and his stomach rumbled. But he had a few deliveries to make first. Neat little packages took up most of the space in his bag.

Luke stepped outside. He looked up from his bag and saw a man across the street staring at him and then at a piece of paper in turns. Luke’s stomach sunk. His instinct was to dash into the nearest alley, but he knew that one was a dead end. His thoughts raced, the area mapping out in his mind. He dashed to the right.

“Mr Mance, stop!”

Luke did not look back. He narrowly dodged a gaping young man and had to hop over a crate in front of a small grocery shop, and he most definitely wasn’t going to stop.

“Come back! I’m here to help!”

Sure. As if that ever ended well. Luke turned sharply into the next street and barely missed a woman with a stroller. She cursed, but Luke didn’t register it and instead sprinted to the side-alley to his right. That one would lead him to a labyrinth of narrow alleys with a lot of turns and twists few locals could navigate. If the bounty hunter was from out of town, he would surely lose him.

Luke heard the woman with the stroller cry out and curse even louder behind him. His pursuer was fast. Too fast. He wasn’t going to make it far. Panic. Why did he run here? He should have stayed on the busy street where he could lose the man in a crowd. Luke tried to turn a corner, but skidded on a puddle of muck and slammed into the wall. He pushed himself off of it and kept running. Away from the traffic and the busy street he could hear the heavy footfalls of his pursuer. The stretch of street in front of him was completely empty and the next turn was yards away. In a desperate attempt to escape, Luke scaled a chain link fence, dropped to the ground and scrambled behind some crates. His heart was hammering in his ears. He held his breath.

The man hunting him ran into the alley and past the fence. He stopped.

“Mr Mance! I just want to talk!” the man shouted. 

Luke lay completely still, curled up as small as he could manage, too afraid to move.

“Damn it.”

The bounty hunter, private eye, or whoever it was paced around the alley, then ran further.

Luke stayed in his spot for at least half-an-hour. He counted the minutes. In the end, the man did not come back, and Luke cautiously climbed back out into the alley. His fingers hurt from climbing the fence, but that was a small price for the narrow escape. He had to be more careful. Change his appearance maybe. That would be deceitful and perhaps also sinful in other ways too, even though he doubted it could be called vain in his case. Perhaps dying his hair was not out of the question.

With not just criminals, but also law enforcement, private detectives and who knows who else on his trail, he had to be more careful. Luke promised himself that first things first he would trade with Penny for a different set of clothes. He needed to throw the current detective off his trail. At least it seemed, Wilma and Betty were off his case for a while. Luke paused. They really were. He hadn’t seen them in weeks. Maybe the Citizens decided he just wasn’t worth the additional effort? Luke didn’t know, but he hoped it was indeed so. One less worry. He had plenty still. Luke tread lightly, checking behind corners, as he snuck back towards the Rat Trap, once more, like in the days before he met El, he was sticking to the side streets, looking out for police cars, duos of women or men holding photos.

⚞💮⚟

Xenia walked triumphantly towards El’s tenement in the Rat Trap, holding pretty pink and green sandals in one hand in front of her like a trophy. When she got to the stoop, she kicked off her worn sneakers into the pile and put the new sandals on. She twirled.

Penny appeared from behind the pile and gave her feet an evaluating look.

“You might wanna ditch the socks, if you’re going to be flaunting those.”

“Me, ditching clothes? Never,” the rusalka balked. Then she looked at her feet and hesitated.

“I can trade them for these leg warmers. They would go much better with the shoes,” Penny offered helpfully, lifting turquoise leg warmers from where he was rummaging in the pile.

Xenia’s eyes lit up. “It’s a deal!”

“Are you dressing up for the Amish boy?” Penny asked slyly as they made the exchange. “You know he won’t fall for it, don’t you?”

“Oh, please, can’t a woman look pretty for her own sake!”

“Just don’t get your hopes too high.”

Xenia huffed and went into the building. After a quick search she found Luke in the kitchen, dressed unusually nicely — for once the clothes did not look like they’d belonged to a man twice his size. With an apron over his new outfit, Luke was working on a massive dinner with Alena, who smiled brightly when she saw her enter. The old woman clasped her hands on her chest. 

“Ah, you are as lovely as ever, Xenia, look at those bright colors, like a flower!”

Luke looked up from the cutting board and nodded to Xenia awkwardly, muttering a greeting, then he quickly turned back to the vegetables.

“Thank you, Alena, and how do you like the shoes? I just got them.” Xenia lifted a leg up with the grace of a ballet dancer, letting the electric light play on the brightly colored leather of her new sandals.

“Oh, these must be expensive, very pretty!” Alena was positively charmed.

Luke only glanced her way briefly and nodded again.

Xenia by iisjah

“I got them from our common acquaintances, Luke. The inseparable duo. Or well, they were that way until I threw one of them off a bridge. The other didn’t follow. So much for friendship, m?”

Luke lifted his head and gaped at her. “You threw her off a bridge? What… why?”

“Well, she came at me with a big noisy gun and for no reason too.”

Luke grew very pale.

“Oh, don’t worry, true, my comb got broken, but El got me a brand new one, real jade! And even if he didn’t, I know how to look after myself. Didn’t you hear — I threw that gal off a bridge! And now she had to toss these shoes at my head to get me off the other one when I was tickling her.” Xenia sighed with delight. “I’m kind of glad they figured out my irresistible love for fashion, I’m going to have a whole new wardrobe soon.” Xenia grinned. “Just like you! I love the new look, by the way, your old clothes were all the wrong size.”

“Xenia, you have to be careful!” Finally she got Luke’s attention. But not in the way she wanted. The man was wiping his hands on his apron as he walked up to her, looking very worried. “Those women are diabolical. They must be trying to kill you.”

“Trying, yes-”

“And they are very good at it, trust me, I’ve been around them longer than you. Please stay away from them.” Realization and horror appeared in Luke’s eyes. “And if you are doing it for my sake, to keep me from harm, then please, stop! Don’t misunderstand me, I am grateful, but I couldn’t live knowing I got you killed!” Luke gripped his hair and looked away in despair. “Is that why they weren’t trying to get me anymore? You were luring them away! Heavens, Xenia, this is terrible! Please, please, don’t do that anymore, stay safely away from them.”

“I got it, I got it.” Xenia winced and held up her hands. “I’ll be careful, alright, I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Luke looked at her like she was a complete fool, and he was already mourning her passing. She groaned. So much for showing off new shoes.

“Please, do avoid them,” Luke said finally.

“I will try,” Xenia said noncommittally.

Luke nodded. “Thank you.” And went back to cooking.

He didn’t even so much as glance at the shoes.

⚞☆⚟

It was evening. The remnants of the rush hour were flowing smoothly through the no longer jammed city streets. Those that cherished the nightlife were indoors just beginning to get intoxicated or out looking for a new watering hole. Students and singles roamed the downtown looking for excitement, while the suit-wearing briefcase-carrying types were just starting to leave their glass towers. It was almost like a reprise of the rush hour, but more contained. Not a bad time to be out all in all.

Luke sat on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk of a busy downtown street. He occasionally jiggled a paper cup with a few loose coins that magically made every single passerby look anywhere but at him. He had to give Penny his due — the idea was genius. As long as he seemed to be begging, no one wanted to look at him, and so hopefully no one would notice he bore any resemblance to the photo that decorated the front pages these days — the long missing David Mance standing shaken beside a fallen billboard with a smudge of a pickpocket escaping off the picture.

The author of the shots, an amateur photographer, who was still in highschool, was now being offered scholarships and invited to prestigious art schools.

The thief was unidentifiable.

And Luke had his answer as to how the private eye had found him.

It took a while for the photograph to blow up. But the moment someone identified him, it hit the newspaper front pages. Luke adjusted his worn baseball cap — another one of Penny’s contributions — and snuck a peek at the newspaper that he kept at his side in case he wanted to hide his face. The photograph was visually impressive and dynamic. But it made him unhappy not just because it brought all this dangerous attention, but also because no one asked him if he consented to being in it in the first place. Especially like this, perfectly identifiable. And all over the front pages.

But no one even knew the man they thought to be David Mance was Amish. And he wasn’t a good Amish at this point either. Luke sighed and jiggled the coins in the cup, then winced when a passing man dropped some change into it. He made a promise to give these coins to a real beggar as soon as he saw one.

Finally, the waiting and pretending seemed to pay off. Luke watched attentively as a limousine parked at a glass and concrete building on the opposite side of the street. A tall muscular man in a beige suit got out, exchanged a few words with the driver and marched inside.

Luke jumped to his feet and making sure there was no traffic, hurried across the road.

⚞☀⚟

As Hector Viteri got out of the limousine, the chauffeur rested his head against the leather seat, bracing himself for more waiting. Waiting was all they ever did these days. 

During daytime, it did not matter, he could wait and hours seemed like mere seconds, because they were together, they were complete, and they were perfect. When he asked, his god would answer, when he was angry, his lord would allay his doubts and fill him with patience, and when he would be too at peace, he would remind him of their cause. 

But after sunset, the driver was alone. He could still call onto the one, but the night was not his master’s time, and it drained his powers to answer. And so the driver did not call upon his god. He waited all alone and minutes felt like hours, hours felt like weeks and-

He almost jumped when some hobo tapped on the car window. 

⚞☆⚟

Luke smiled apologetically to the man inside the car. He seemed to have startled him. Maybe a little too much. Luke pulled the compact disc from the bag at his side and showed it to the chauffeur, hoping to appease him before he attempted to drive off.

⚞☀⚟

The driver felt torn. Once he had looked upon the poor and hungry masses, and he planned a better world for them. But he had not been himself for a long, long time. Humans twisted him, forced him to wear a thousand faces that were not his. The revulsion he felt at the sight of this beggar on the other side of the window was not his own. It has been thrust upon him, he had to remember that. Fighting against himself, the driver clenched his teeth and slowly rolled down the window.

The beggar smiled and extended something to him. “I was told this shiny disc belongs to you,” he said. The surface of the circular object caught the reflection of the city lights.

The driver looked at it with suspicion. Then, he narrowed his eyes. “Did the whore of Babylon send you?”

“What…” The beggar looked at him aghast.

“No matter,” the driver said, taking the disc. Then his eyes rolled back, and his body spasmed as power coursed through him. Light, pure light, filled him in and out, and he moaned in delight.

So she did deliver on her promise. Surprising. He heard his god’s voice loud and clear, as if it was noon and not the dreary hours of evening.

This night was the brightest of all nights. The driver clutched the sun to his chest and wept with mirth.

⚞☆⚟

Luke gaped at the man in the car. He… appeared to be very happy to have the compact disc back. A little too happy for Luke’s comfort.

“I’ll go now,” Luke said, convinced that he had brought the item to the right person. He hurried away. The man didn’t seem to notice him go.

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Yen climbed through the window and into the moonlit corridor. The door to Blaise’s bedroom was slightly ajar, but no light came through it. Yen closed the window with a quiet thud, then walked across the corridor to the door, the floor creaking under his feet.

“Well, there’s only your car in the driveway, no crocodile shoes in sight…” Yen opened the door and squinted at the figure in the bed. “Aha, it appears you are indeed free tonight, Daddy. Finally!” Yen clapped his hands.

The lamp on the bedside table flickered on, and a tired priest came into view. Blaise was wearing a white nightshirt and looking rather disgruntled. “It’s the middle of the night, Yen, what do you want?”

Yen winced at the bright light, then winced more at the nightshirt. “Nothing much anymore. I thought we’d finally bang, but you’re dressed like that really old guy from the movie who hates Christmas… Grinch or something. I don’t think I’ll be able to get it up for weeks. Thanks.”

“You are welcome. Now, since it looks like your problem has been thus resolved, I wish you good night.” Blaise turned the lamp off.

Yen stood in place, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. “You know if you want to go all out you should have a candle and one of those funny gnome hats.”

“You mean a nightcap.”

“Then you would look like a propper Grinch.”

“Scrooge.”

“Whatever.” Yen shrugged. “Why do you hate Christmas so much?”

“I don’t hate Christmas.”

“Then why do you dress like a man who does?”

Blaise groaned. “Just come here already.”

Yen grinned. Then he carefully walked over to the bed through the dark, felt for the edge and sat down. He kicked off his trainers, then tossed his colors, bandana and shirt on the floor. “Do you need help getting out of your slice of antiquity?”

“As a matter of fact, I do not.” Blaise folded the nightshirt and set it aside. He moved closer to Yen and touched his face in the dark. “I’ve had you starved for this for weeks, haven’t I? I am sorry. Come ‘ere, my boy.” His fingers moved down Yen’s cheekbone and then to the nape of his neck, pulling him into a slow kiss.

Yen’s next clever quip faded from his mind. There was something different about the priest’s touch this night… and Yen really felt starved. He let himself be drawn in, let Blaise set the pace, for once not rushing things. They kissed for a few minutes, languidly, softly.

Then Blaise’s lips kissed the corner of his mouth and travelled down his neck and chest, while the priest’s fingers lingered, caressing his face and stroking his hair. It was strange and unlike any of their previous encounters. There was a sense of urgency as usual, but this time it was one of importance instead of a hurry.

“Did the Christmas topic-” Yen tried to joke, to break the tension that the unusual caresses were causing in him, but Blaise silenced him with another kiss, and once more the biker found himself unable to do anything but play along.

Their love making that night was slow and gentle as well and after it was over, instead of letting him move away like Yen usually would, the priest hugged him close.

Yen lay with his back on the older man, the afterglow haze was washing over him. The heat of Blaise’s body felt delicious against his skin. It was an unusual comfort. Nakhti wasn’t the hugging type, and it’s been a while since Yen actually spent a night with anyone else. It felt nice. Yen began to relax when the priest whispered into his ear as he stroked his face again, “My sweet, precious boy… you’ve been so good lately, you’re making your Daddy so proud…”

Yen tensed, suddenly fully alert. Before the priest could say anything more, Yen scrambled out of bed. Then he just stood in place, staring at the moonlit curtains drawn over the bedroom window. His heart was hammering in his chest. He wanted to turn and look at the priest, to ask what the fuck Blaise thought he was doing, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t turn and look at Blaise. He stood like that for a while, barefoot, naked, confused and very uneasy.

“I mean it, Yen.” Blaise’s voice had all the calm and composure that Yen had just lost. “You like to make this sound like a joke, but I know you don’t keep calling me that for nothing. There is no shame in any of this, and it is up to you. If you want it, you will have it. If you do not, I will not insist.”

The tension in Yen’s shoulders melted. He breathed slower and steadier as the priest’s words sunk in. It was Blaise behind him. The same Blaise that offered to personally tattoo him because modern tattoo guns were ‘pheh’, the same Blaise that rolled his eyes at his obnoxious sexual jokes, but got onto his bike behind him when Yen made the offer in jest, sparking their sexual and business relationship.

Yen turned to look at the priest. Blaise’s expression was as serious as ever, but didn’t bear a hint of judgement. And everyone was always judging him. Even his friends. But not Blaise. Blaise was cool. Yen breathed out, feeling tempted to sit back down, lie beside the priest and let Blaise continue this… whatever it was.

“I need to think about it,” Yen said honestly. Then he just stood there for a moment. He didn’t want to leave. He sat down with his back on Blaise. “Can I still stay the night?”

“Of course.”

Yen got back under the covers and, after a moment of hesitation, turned to the priest, shifted closer and hugged him. He pressed his face into Blaise’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

“You are always welcome.” Blaise embraced him and just held him close.

* * *

Yen stared at his reflection in the mirror. The morning light filtering into the bathroom on the upper floor of Blaise’s home shone in his wet hair. He felt weird seeing it down like that, but of course the priest did not have hair spray to offer. Yen looked at the tiny remains of an eyeliner pencil that he’d found in his colors before venturing into the bathroom. Usually Sam or Nakhti did the honors, they were the Egyptian crazies with mad makeup skills. Best he could do was not poke his eyes out while he messed things up, but with the rich kid on the loose among them, Yen felt he couldn’t show up with crappy eyeliner. That fucking kid…

Yen rubbed his face with a hand and stared at his reflection again. He was going to have to leave the bathroom at some point and face the priest. Makeup or no.

The previous night… He didn’t want to talk about it. Blaise wouldn’t want to talk about it either, right? It was… something you just didn’t talk about. Yes. Yen made finger guns at himself in the mirror and winked.

With his confidence momentarily restored he stepped outside into the corridor and then entered the bedroom, hoping to just pick up his clothes and act like nothing happened. But Blaise was sitting on the bed already dressed, and Yen froze like a deer in headlights, still clutching onto what little eyeliner he had left, like it was going to be enough to black out the events of the previous night in both their memories.

The priest scrutinized him in silence. Then he asked. “Do you need some help with that?”

Yen glanced about himself in confusion, then noticed the priest was looking at his hand and held up the eyeliner. “Oh. Yeah, sure.” He hated how awkward he was getting this morning, what an embarrassment. “That is if you were around in Ancient Egypt, Daddy, and you got a steady hand, be my guest.” Yen covered up his awkwardness with a smug grin and offered the eyeliner to Blaise.

The priest got up. “I was never in Ancient Egypt. But I know a thing or two about applying makeup.” He opened his palm, and when Yen deposited the remains of the eyeliner there, Blaise looked at it a bit critically and waved him to sit down on the bed.

“I don’t have the time now so this will have to suffice but next time we’re going to be using my own implements. I just need to find them.” Blaise began to work around his eye with astonishing speed and confidence.

“Wow, Daddy, what can’t you do?”

“I am full of surprises, am I not.”

“You are, where do you even store those ‘implements’ of yours?” Yen tried not to focus on the gentle touch on his face as Blaise moved to painting his other eye.

“Take a wild guess.”

“In the murder basement?”

Blaise sighed. “Yes… in the ‘murder basement’. I’ll have to take you down there again sometime and show you where’s what. At this point I think I might want you to know. But well, we’re done here now.” The priest stepped away from him. “Go and check if this is what you wanted.”

Yen went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Blaise followed him slowly and stopped in the door.

“Well, damn, Sam won’t even know I didn’t stay at Nakhti’s. You sure you don’t wanna join our gay biker club, Daddy?” Yen turned to the priest with a grin that wavered a little, as he took in the sight of the man in full daylight, standing so casually in the bathroom door like they were living together. Yen tried to find something else to say to defuse the impression, then a lock of his droopy hair caught his eye, and he laughed more nervously than he intended to. “Hey, do you have any hair spray perchance?”

“I’m afraid not. I could concoct something to do the job, alas I need to leave for the church soon. But you can get a can and keep it here if you want, along with other such things. For morning emergencies.” Blaise smiled and removed himself from the doorway, heading to do whatever Catholic voodoo priests did in the mornings before going to work.

Yen stared into the sink in frustration. He never wanted for things to get so complicated. Now he wanted to run away and never come back. Maybe skip town. All these attachments, how did people live with them? Didn’t Blaise worry that the neighbors would see Yen and start talking? Wasn’t it a nuisance to have a dude climbing into your window in the middle of the night? Or did Blaise actually care about him? Yen glared around himself, not sure what to think or how to feel about this thing they had anymore. He had to get out, speed about town, maybe go racing, get all that touchy-feely bullshit out of his system. He hurried to the bedroom to get dressed.

When he made it outside, Blaise was there, fully dressed for work and prepared to lock the door, and Yen again felt the scene was too uncannily domestic. But instead of getting angry he just felt awkward. Damn, he couldn’t even be mad at the priest.

“There’s this nosy amnesiac asshole of a neighbor always catching me when I leave at night. You want me to give him a thrashing or something? I mean he could start gossiping with the other neighbors.” Yen tried to sabotage the idyllic family morning setup.

“Always, you say?” The priest turned the key in the lock and then stepped towards his black SUV. “If you are genuinely concerned about my reputation, which I would appreciate, you might want to work on being a bit more discreet. But in the end, there are some cards I can still play with the neighbors.” Blaise opened the car door and got into the driver’s seat. He kept the door open as he smirked at Yen and added, “You are a troubled youth after all.”

“Yeah, but I’m not that young. I mean your neighbors must have like expectations, what with you being a Catholic priest, there’s gotta be some little boy action, and I’m not that little, so they might file a complaint with the city. ‘Our local priest is fucking boys that are way too old’ or something like that. Will you lose your job because I’m too old for your station?”

Blaise looked at him incredulously for a moment and then all he said was, “Bah, humbug.”

Yen grinned and pointed back at him. “That’s what Grinch says!”

“It’s Scrooge. You really need to watch Christmas Carol again. Or better yet, read it.”

“What is this reading you speak of? I know no such thing.”

The priest shook his head, shut the door and turned on the ignition.

⚞ Z ⚟

Zack watched the bikers discuss the impending road trip with mounting excitement. According to Tamika the road conditions should be great, the night rain had taken care of the dust and successfully evaporated. Their planned route did not need amendment, and any moment now they would get on their bikes and depart.

The teenager ate up the details, doing his best to remember everything. Tamika, who was road captain and therefore did most of the planning, made sure to tell him at least twice that he was going to ride next to last, in front of her, and that should anything seem even slightly off he should let her know by honking twice. It was a very humiliating image in Zack’s head, but if nothing went wrong, maybe he would not be left with a babysitter right behind him on their next ride.

As Tamika explained a number of other signals to him — hand on head for cops ahead, gesturing towards the saddle for running low on gas or needing to piss and dangling a leg for debris ahead — Sam was packing Nakhti’s and his own saddle bags with an impressive number of sandwiches. Zack nodded as he listened to Tamika’s other instructions, trying his best to pay utmost attention, but he couldn’t help but lose his focus a few times, as Yen who was standing right behind the woman made a demonstration of sucking his thumb at him. Zack felt impotent anger rising at the sight, but there was nothing he could do. He had to ignore Yen or else Tamika could be mad at him for not paying attention.

“If you feel you are getting tired, don’t hesitate to ask for a break. This is your first long ride, I assume, and so I don’t imagine you know how tiring sitting on your butt without moving can be.”

“Well, I dunno, classrooms are like that too.” Zack made sure to focus on the woman as best he could, even as Yen stepped aside to make sure he was very well-visible as he now made crybaby gestures, pretending to rub his eyes with his fists.

“Classrooms aren’t full of wind and sun and dust, honey, and most importantly they’re not rushing past you at seventy miles per hour, so no unnecessary bravado.”

Zack nodded trying not to look as sour as he felt. But it got very hard to do when everyone pulled out their sunglasses, and he realized he had left his new aviators at home. He stared in horror as Yen flipped open his own shiny new shades. What was worse the biker caught him staring and smirked triumphantly as he put on the mirrored shades. Zack looked at everyone else. Tamika’s shades had leather side shields and looked rather worn out, Josie’s sunglasses looked like they were meant for skiing, and Sam’s oversized goggles seemed to be as old as his possibly WWII motorcycle. And even though the last two looked a little goofy when all of them turned to look at him, Zack felt extremely foolish.

“I uh… Can we drop by my place on the way out of town? I forgot my shades.”

Yen laughed like a hyena. Tamika frowned in thought, possibly recalculating their route. Josie sighed, and Zack could have sworn she was rolling her eyes at him. He didn’t dare even look at Nakhti.

“Just use these for today,” Sam said quietly and passed him a pair of plain and worn, but serviceable aviators.

“Oh, thanks. Thanks so much.” Zack accepted the sunglasses with an audible sigh of relief.

“Hey, aren’t those my old ones?!” Yen barked angrily from his bike.

“Yes. But I found them under my bed. I hope that will teach you something,” Sam said seriously and climbed onto his own motorcycle.

Yen snarled and turned to glare at Zack.

Zack reluctantly put the shades on and straddled his Harley. Everyone was ready. Nakhti drove off first, Sam followed. Yen rushed off after them, Josie rode fourth, and Zack followed her with a mix of anxiety and excitement. Tamika was the last one to leave the driveway of Sam’s house.

The ride through New Coalport wasn’t anything interesting. They hit a wave of red lights and made slow progress for a while. Zack was kind of grateful for that, because it gave him time to get used to riding in a formation. It wasn’t so bad at all. By the time they left the city limits he was starting to feel the beginnings of confidence. Twenty minutes later it turned into real confidence.

And then something hit him painfully in the forehead.

He honked twice.

Luckily the road was empty and him and Tamika pulled over almost at once. Zack kicked the side stand and got off.

“What’s the matter?” Tamika hurried towards him. She slid her shades up on her forehead, looking concerned.

“Something hit me on the forehead, maybe a pebble… Shit, it hurts…” Zack touched a hand to his forehead and winced. It came off with some gross goo.

“That was no rock, that was a dragonfly.” Tamika reached out and pulled out a tail and a transparent wing from Zack’s hair. 

“Ew, gross,” Zack tried to laugh, but it came out forced. His head hurt like he had been hit with a rock, tears were forming in his eyes, but he did his best to blink them away. The last thing he needed was for the bikers to see him cry.

“Shoot, a dragonfly is no joke, you’re going to have a massive welt there.” Tamika looked concerned.

“What is this about? Does baby need a change of nappy already? Or is it baby’s bedtime?” Yen cooed mockingly, walking to them over the gravel.

“He got a dragonfly to the forehead, Yen.”

“Oh, no, baby got a boo-boo! Oh golly gee! I sure hope Sammy brought some kiddie band-aids or we’ll have to turn around and take baby home so mommy and daddy can kiss the boo-boo away!”

“Please, Yen, it’s like we don’t all eat our share of bugs now and then,” Josie remarked, coming up from behind him.

“It was a dragonfly,” Tamika repeated with meaning.

“Shit, that must’ve hurt,” Josie took off her shades and blinked furiously at the sunlight. She gave Zack’s forehead a close inspection. “Wow, good job getting off the road safely. That’s no fruit fly you headbutted for sure.”

“Oh no, our snivelling toddler was attacked by an actual dragon! Was it fire-breathing? Sam, I think you need to record this one for posterity, a young hero slays a vile fire-breathing lizard with his thick head, then cries a river and drowns the countryside.”

Zack unconsciously swiped a finger under his eye and only then realized Yen hadn’t actually seen him cry. Not up to that moment. Yen’s evil grin grew two sizes right then.

“Oh my goodness, do you need a hanky? Should we burp you? Is there anyone who knows how to handle newborns? Nurse? Nurse!”

Tears of pain turned to tears of anger. Zack balled his fists and stood straight, he took a few angry, stiff steps towards Yen. “Stop it. Right now.”

“Oh! Ohohohoho!” Yen pretended very poorly to be scared. “Or you’ll what?”

Zack breathed heavily and just glared at him. Really, what was he going to do? It’s not like he could fight Yen and expect to ever become a prospect after that. What could he do? Was there anything he could do? He frowned and took a stiff step closer. “Stop mocking me.”

Yen’s smirk turned into a scowl. Zack was almost a head taller than him, but it didn’t seem to matter to Yen. “Or what? What are you going to do, baby boy? You think you can take me? I’ve killed before.”

Zack’s tense muscles seemed to melt with surprise. What amount of intimidation his posture had provided now evaporated. He took a step back in sheer bafflement. While shorter than him, Yen stood clearly as the winner of the confrontation. And now that Zack lost ground, he seemed content to end it.

“Yen. A word,” Nakhti’s voice broke up the momentary silence, and Yen turned on his heel, walking off towards the club leader.

Zack just stood in place, shaken. Yen had sounded deadly serious. Zack tried to shake the impression off, write it off as a joke, but the dark look Yen had given him before walking away chilled him to the bone. Zack turned to the women.

“Is that true? I thought you were a lawful biker club…”

“We are.” Tamika snorted and waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t believe everything Yen says.”

“Yeah, especially when it comes to his life story,” Josie chimed in and pulled an actual handkerchief from somewhere, offering it to Zack, who gladly used it to wipe the insect remains from his forehead.

“He told me his father was a racist child molester,” Sam said quietly.

“And he told me his parents were junkies,” Tamika added.

“In the version I got his entire family was violent psychopaths who sicced vicious dogs on people. It took us some time to find out we all got different stories out of him.” Josie shook her head and grinned. “Yen is a cool guy when he’s not being a complete ass. But he’s full of shit. Take anything he says with a pinch of salt. Or maybe a handful for good measure.”

Zack felt his shoulders relax. The three bikers were looking at him with friendly expressions. Sam offered to disinfect his forehead, but Zack politely refused. He glanced towards Nakhti and Yen, but could not hope to overhear their conversation. They were too far. Still, Yen’s pose with his arms crossed seemed to indicate that perhaps he was being told off. Zack hoped it was indeed so.

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Off to the side, the leader of the Pharaohs was holding Yen under a scolding gaze of his stern, perfectly lined dark eyes. “We all agreed to let him hang around. If you had such reservations you should have spoken up back then.”

Yen glared at Nakhti stormily, but said nothing.

“It’s not like you don’t know what it feels like to get a bug to the face,” Nakhti remarked calmly. “I vividly remember the last time you got one — you flew into a muddy ditch so bad Sam had to go full archeologist to excavate your ass, so what’s with the attitude?”

“He bailed like a chicken ten minutes in over a freaking fly!” Yen grumbled. “Honk honk, the sky is falling, went the chicken little…”

Nakhti looked at him with deep scepticism. “It was a dragonfly like you’ve been well informed by now. Did you see his forehead? Because I see the growing lump from here.”

Yen rolled his eyes and kept frowning.

“Go easy on him. Or I’ll have to cut you off my stash.”

Yen’s mouth fell open. “You wouldn’t! Over a snot-nosed prep! Oh, come on, the fuck is with that?!”

Nakhti shrugged. “You heard me. This conversation is over. Give the kid a break.”

“But you’re the one who told him he’ll never be one of us, what happened to that?!”

“Maybe I changed my mind and want to give him a chance. He’s rather cute all in all.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, go choke him with your gorgeous dick already, see what he writes about it in his ‘how I spent my summer’ essay!” Yen spat to the side and walked off towards his own bike.

⚞ Z ⚟

They took another, planned break an hour later to tank up and then another, longer one to refuel not just the motorcycles, but their stomachs too.

The motorbikes were left at a small parking lot by a gas station, while the bikers moved a few dozen feet away, off the concrete, onto the grass and into the shade of a large tree — an oak, as far as Zack could tell. It turned out Sam had brought an actual picnic blanket, and now all of them sat on and around it, wolfing down home-made sandwiches and drinking nice ice-cold sodas they got at the gas station.

Zack found himself enjoying the sandwich so much he kind of zoned out for a moment. When he snapped back to reality, there were at least two conversations going on at the same time, and he had a hard time catching much of either, so instead he took to observing the bikers.

It was odd, now that he thought about it, this was the first group he’d ever been a part of where he did not visually stand out. Josie and Tamika were Black, Sam and Nakhti seemed Middle Eastern, and Yen was part Asian. Probably half-Asian. Zack watched the antagonistic biker with a new interest. Was Yen like him? A child of an interracial marriage? Then they had to have something in common. It was a very special predicament, being stuck as a minority child that didn’t fit in with his surroundings.

But wasn’t Yen’s family also somehow messed up? Those stories he had told his friends could have been bullshit, but why would he tell them in the first place if everything was rosy back home? And didn’t Wilma and Betty say Yen had been prostituting himself in the seventies — when he was a teenager? Zack froze for a moment, making sense of the implications, then chewed thoughtfully, keeping his eyes on Yen. Maybe that was why Yen was so mean to him — not just because he was better off financially, but because he had a loving family that Yen never had?

Did any of the bikers have that? Zack tried to piece things together from what little he knew. Sam was living with his grandaunt and shared a room with Yen. Nakhti appeared to live alone, and the two women lived together. So except for Yen, at the very least Sam was separated from his parents in a way that implied some sort of conflict. And likely that was true for all of them. After all, they were gay and lesbian bikers. Few parents would celebrate such qualities in their progeny.

But his Dad did.

Zack suddenly felt like he really was a spoilt brat.