Luke had spent a few days alone with the animals Amalka had introduced him to. He woke up early, made breakfast for everyone, then retreated to the makeshift barn before anyone else came to the common room or kitchen. He suspected they were giving him space, and he was thankful for it. He needed to make sense of everything El told him, or at least of the fact that all these people had been participating in a life-size deception centered on his person.
The animals were a godsend. Feeding them and tidying up the place felt almost like he was back home on the farm.
Could he ever go back? He wanted to. He wanted to return to the Amish, to live that simple, hard-working life again, to worship just one familiar god and forget all these strange events and places, visions, violence and death. And beauty and mystery. And friends that he made.
No, he would not forget those.
Finally, he felt it was time to stop hiding, and for the first time in days, Luke timidly made a reappearance in the common room for the next day’s breakfast. They welcomed him warmly. Amalka, Anezka and Alena were there, so were Neha and Penny. And the villainous Russian, who wasn’t really Russian.
“Arthur Wright, my pleasure,” the man said, shaking Luke’s hand.
Luke faintly echoed the pleasantries. He couldn’t help but feel uneasy shaking hands with the man who had been his personal antagonist for so long. But the man sounded and behaved entirely differently, and as everyone sat down to eat, the memory of his would-be enemy began to fade and a new image of Arthur Wright, the actor, started to form.
Now that the cat was out of the bag, suddenly everyone wanted to share anecdotes from Luke’s escapades. And Luke found it more than a little uncomfortable how much everyone knew.
Arthur in particular had a lot of stories to tell. It appeared he had many times attempted to elicit a confrontation out of Luke. He’d very intentionally spoken loudly about stealing the compact disc not far from the tenement. But Luke had not taken the bait. And refused to do it each time Arthur tried.
“But then the Asian kid came along, and hoowee…” Arthur pulled on the collar of his shirt and stretched his mouth into a wide horizontal line. “I thought that was it for me. My final role. If not for Luke’s quick reaction, he would have gutted me like a fish! Or given me one of those Glasgow smiles.”
“I wouldn’t be able to tell if he did,” Neha grumbled.
“That currency-named kid is whacko, he pulled my beard right off!” Penny sounded more happy than complaining.
Luke frowned. “He is not named after a currency, it’s a Vietnamese name. He told me that.”
“Well, the kid’s Chinese, so it makes no sense.” Penny shrugged. “Should have named himself Yuan, if he were going for the currency, I suppose.”
“Always on about trade, is that why you are called Penny?” Arthur quipped.
Penny’s eyebrows went so high up that his forehead turned into a collection of horizontal wrinkles.
“But why Penny, why not Pound or Drachma or Shekel, or like that local thief that unwittingly plays the thief in our stories, what was it again, ah, Two Bits,” Arthur mused. “So many options, so why ‘Penny’?”
“Penny for your thoughts?” Penny said.
Everyone laughed. Except Neha and Luke. Neha seemed unable to make the sound, and Luke just smiled. It was nice to be among people after being a hermit for a couple of days. And as he listened to the conversations and stories, he felt more and more at peace and at home with the group. He watched them all and silently wondered if maybe staying here with them and with El would be the best course of action. While he loved the Amish life, he’d been in the city for too long, and that would make him an outsider among his people. Even if they let him be baptised and join, would he fit in anymore? Staying here with El also meant that should his curse suddenly manifest, he would have someone to turn to.
And he really liked these people. It would have been quite sad to leave them.
But then somewhere out there two little children and their loving mother were left sad and alone, their father and husband stolen from them. Stolen from them by none other than Luke. Did he even deserve to be happy?
Luke let the others talk about his adventures, while his mind began to wander to the top of the pyramid where a god called L revealed the secrets of the universe to him. If there were all these gods around, perhaps one of them could help him bring David Mance back.
It was mid-December, and the Viteri mansion was showing the first signs of impending Christmas with garlands hanging here and there, while an empty spot was left in one corner of the living room to host this year’s Christmas tree.
Despite his outspoken atheism, Hector seemed to have nothing against the holiday, he even announced he would much rather just exchange gifts on Christmas than trouble his family and boyfriend with presents for both that and his birthday. Which was today.
And that was why they were all gathered there: Hector, Wyatt, Zack and Rose.
Not that many people, now that Wyatt thought of it. Hector’s parents were long dead, he had no siblings, and Zack was his only child. Rose was almost family to both Viteris, and now so was Wyatt. And it didn’t feel that bad. In fact, it was kind of nice.
Hector smiled, reading the wishes that the teenagers wrote in his birthday cards. Rose had brought a box of home-baked cookies from herself and her family, while Zack had bought a custom-made cake that read “Best wishes to best Dad”.
The Dobermans were there too, wearing colorful party hats, courtesy of Zack. They looked much less intimidating like that, and Wyatt appreciated that, even though truth be told he was already getting used to the dogs, it’s been over half a year now and one could only live in fear for that long.
Wyatt had almost taken Hector’s repeated appeals about no gifts to heart and come empty-handed. Almost. He had a hunch there were going to be gifts after all. It was a birthday, duh. His gift was not edible. But there was a card involved. It fell out from between the pages of the old battered book of Greek myths when Hector opened it.
“Happy Birthday, Hector. May you always find your way out like Theseus, solve problems like Athena, enjoy life like Dionysus and reshape your story as bravely as the nine-year-old me.” Hector read out loud. Then he looked at the signature. With love, Wyatt. Curiously, with eyebrows raised, Hector flicked through the slightly yellowed, often bent pages. On most of the pages, something was crossed out, and the margins were full of childish scribbly writing. A quick inspection let Hector know that Cerberus had in fact thirty heads, while Icarus sprouted an extra pair of real angel wings, which saved him from actually falling. Prometheus brought fire, water, cars and electricity to the mortals and the entire part about his eternal punishment was blotted out with apparent emotion. Some of the vanquished foes were described as living on happily ever after. The improvements to the myths were accompanied by expressive stickmen, strewn here and there across the margins.
“I found this when I went home for Thanksgiving and thought you might find it amusing.” Sounding embarrassed, Wyatt leaned against Hector and peered into the book as well. “Like now you can see with your own very eyes that I wasn’t kidding when I said I used to be quite invested in Greek mythology.”
Hector chuckled and hugged him. He grinned. “Thank you, darling. I love it.” He shook his head, amused. “But now that I think of it, you’re just six years older than Junior, I feel like I’m robbing the cradle.” Hector winced a little at his own words. Then he looked at Zack attentively. “Please, tell me you won’t hook up with a man twice your age, Junior…”
“Don’t worry, Dad, he’s just eight years older,” Zack said and instantly regretted it.
A very awkward silence fell.
Hector cleared his throat. “Well, who am I to judge? Back to the matter at hand, the book looks like quite a read. Greek Mythology Abridged by Wyatt Brooks, 1971.” He weighed the book in his hand. “First edition, signed and illustrated by the author. This is a collectible.”
Wyatt couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “Hold onto it. Who knows, one day it might be worth a fortune.”
“I wouldn’t sell it for all the treasures in the world.”
“Ack,” Zack cringed. “Not in front of us.”
Rose elbowed him. “Don’t listen to Zack, uncle. You two are cute. And it’s your birthday. You do you, uncle.”
“Easy for you to say,” Zack complained. “He is just your uncle… Parents getting it on-” Zack glanced at Wyatt, and, realizing he was implying that they should get a room, something Wyatt would be opposed to, the teenager changed his tune mid-sentence, “… or well, flirting is something I will tolerate only on a birthday.” He sighed.
Hector grinned at the teenagers and thanked them and Wyatt again for their wishes and presents. Then there was the candle blowing and singing Happy Birthday to You, and Hector pointing out that in fact they were also celebrating Wyatt passing his fall term exams. Wyatt tried to mildly contest the latter, because the results were not in just yet, but Hector shushed him, with a knowing smile. Wyatt guessed it meant that Hector either believed in him or would make sure that he passed even if something didn’t go right. And though the latter felt kind of morally wrong, it was relieving.
Then they all sat down to tea with the cookies and cake, and when those were reduced to crumbs on their plates, they played some new board games that the teenagers were excited about. The merriment was interrupted now and then by the secretary bringing Hector the phone to receive wishes from some of his legitimate business partners and acquaintances.
“Hey, Hector, Happy Birthday, old friend! I couldn’t reach you for the last few weeks, your secretary kept telling me you’re extremely busy. I hope everything is well!”
“Hey, Siggy, thanks!” Hector grinned. He cast a curious look at Nina, but her face said absolutely nothing on why she could have bounced Whalesong’s calls before. “Sorry about that, busy times. You’ve got my total attention now. Anything the matter?”
“Oh, it’s nothing on my end. Just calling with the wishes. But how have you been?”
“All good. You?” Hector smiled at his family gathered around the table, playing Monopoly.
There was a momentary silence on the line, then Sigmund Whalesong cleared his throat. “That’s, ah, great to hear. Doing well myself… I was wondering with the New Year’s ball coming, you still planning on bringing that Brooks guy? I don’t imagine even a second shooting would save you two from the press there.”
“If I’m invited, I will invite him to accompany me, yes.” Hector looked at Wyatt warmly. Wyatt looked back. Hector covered the receiver and asked, “Would you go to another party with me? We can bring Mr. Shaazgai along again for security.”
Wyatt snorted and showed him thumbs up.
Hector smirked. “Yep, looks like we’re going together, as long as I’m invited.”
“Oh… He’s with you right now? Pass my greetings,” Whalesong sounded a little funny.
“I will.” Hector glanced at the receiver, confused. Siggy did not seem to take well to his relationship with Wyatt. But that was a conversation for another day. And another set of ears. Hector covered up his concern with another brilliant smile for his board game playing audience. “Anyway, thanks for calling Siggy. Pass greetings to Taylor.”
“Oh, I will.”
“Bye.” Hector pressed the button and handed the phone back to Nina. He raised his eyebrows at her questioningly.
She took the phone and left without a word.
Hector watched her go, then shrugged and returned to the game.
Several hours passed until at some point Hector went out to smoke, while Rose had gone to the washroom, and Wyatt and Zack were left alone in the living room.
Zack leaned forward in his armchair and whispered, “How are you holding up? Do you want me to stick around indefinitely until Dad gives up and sends you home?”
Wyatt felt a wave of gratitude wash over him. Zack was such a good kid. And a great moral support all these months. If not for Zack, he wouldn’t have survived until now. On instinct, he almost nodded, but caught himself realizing that he… didn’t really need Zack’s help any longer.
“Um… I’m actually fine. Thanks for the offer, but I think I can handle it.” He smiled.
“Are you sure?” Zack tilted his head. “I mean, it’s no trouble for me. But I guess you really don’t look like you need help… So you either deserve an Oscar, or you are actually enjoying yourself.”
Wyatt scratched his head. “Ahm… to be honest right now I feel it’s more of the latter. I think I’m getting over myself. I’m gonna be fine. Thanks for asking and for always having my back. I really, really really appreciate it.”
“Uh, sure.” Zack looked bewildered and doubtful. He shrugged. “I mean… I’m glad that’s how you feel. And… well, if you ever do need my help, ever, I’m there for you.”
Wyatt only managed to nod at him, before Rose returned from the loo.
The rest of the afternoon was a bit calmer, the amount of phone calls Hector received grew scarcer as the evening drew close. In the end the sky outside grew dark, and Hector pointed out the teens had school the next day. Zack groaned and complained, but after some nudging conceded and gave his father a quick birthday hug before leading Rose away to the garage to give her a ride home on his bike.
As soon as Zack and Rose left, Wyatt began having second thoughts about his decision. Strangely enough though, his train of thought did not pursue the tracks of regretting to have let Zack go. Instead it became derailed on the realization that as the birthday party progressed, he had been looking increasingly forward to being alone with Hector in the evening. Now it was the evening, and it was just the two of them, and as Hector bowed to kiss him, he felt the panic start to settle.
But it was not the same kind of panic that he would usually feel in such a situation, he decided as they began making out. He knew by now that he could maneuver his way out of the most intimate and inconvenient part of this. He had done it after the Halloween party, and repeated it with success about a week ago, when they had their first experimental romantic encounter since the incident.
The panic was there because he still remembered how a week ago, while they were going at it, he let himself think about suggesting to Hector that they should try to do it the regular way, instead of the Greek way. He felt panicky now, because even though he chickened out the last time, he was already seriously considering proposing that to Hector tonight for real, and he didn’t know why he was even thinking about it.
Hector rumbled a gentle ‘ah, darling’ into his ear and kissed his neck, pressing him a little into the couch, and Wyatt shivered with excitement, instantly reminded why. His whole body betrayed him. Or was it his mind that betrayed him first? Or did anything betray anyone? Did it even matter? Was it really all that wrong that he was starting to like this? And not just the almost-sex. Everything. This whole last month he actually felt like he belonged with the Viteris.
His already scattered thoughts dispersed completely when Hector’s hand rubbed him through the jeans. He reciprocated by finding Hector’s own erection and stroking it with his leg through the Man’s trousers. It was then that Hector proposed that they take it to the bedroom.
Kind of dazed but still heavily into it, Wyatt climbed the stairs beside him, and managed to provoke a small kissing session against the wall of the landing, where once again he succeeded at getting another go at Hector’s hardon, with his knee this time.
“Enough mischief, Mr. Brooks,” Hector rumbled playfully, then lifted Wyatt, threw him over his shoulder and carried him the rest of the way. That was kind of unexpected but did not scare Wyatt. Rather than that, it managed to amuse him for some reason.
His heart was pounding when Hector gently dropped him on the bed and crawled on top of him again. For the first time when they kissed and caressed each other, Wyatt’s only complaint was that Hector smelled and tasted of cigars. Everything else, even the tickling of Hector’s beard was strangely pleasant and familiar in a good way. There was no fear, no counting the seconds. There was just him and Hector and a lot of desire. The shirts went first, the rest just followed.
And when the time came for Hector to tell him to clench his thighs, Wyatt assured him that despite gifting him with the Greek mythology book, he wanted to make love the non-Hellenic way.
“Old man, we need to talk!” Sigmund Whalesong slammed open the door to the veterinarian’s office.
“Sigi?!” The old veterinarian jumped and looked between an equally startled client and the angry man at the door. “Excuse me, please, wait just a minute,” he bowed to the old lady who was now holding her cat close to herself and staring at Sigi in horror.
Dr. Oldman walked over to the door leading deeper into the clinic and opened it for Sigi, then followed him inside.
“You can’t barge in here like this. What happened?”
“What happened?! So you don’t know.”
“I have no idea,” the doctor said.
“Wyatt Brooks is still around,” Sigi hissed. “Ninshubur did not kill him even though she claimed she did.”
“It’s unlike her…”
“The Egyptian’s been away all this time, on his stupid vacation, but what excuse do you have?! Why didn’t the animal find this out?!”
“Because she was busy searching for your son like you requested. Stop yelling, Sigi.”
“I’m not yelling!”
The doctor leaned on a counter and crossed his arms on his chest, giving Sigi a very meaningful look.
Sigi breathed heavily for a moment, then with effort wrestled his temper back under control.
The doctor nodded. “She did find your son, by the way.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s on a road trip, travelling between national parks with some other guy.”
Sigi snarled, looking like he was about to burst again, but catching another look from the doctor, he only balled his fists. “Tell her to order him to come back to New Coalport at once!”
Sigi walked back and forth a few times, venting his frustration, then looked at the doctor with a more level-headed expression. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Just please, don’t burst in on me when I’m with a patient like this. We’re supposed to keep a low profile.”
“I know…” Sigi ran a hand through his blond hair and scratched his beard. “It just doesn’t make any sense that Ninshubur would be so uncooperative. It’s entirely unlike her.”
“It is,” the doctor agreed.
“We can’t let that happen again. Ishtar will hear of her servant’s failure and disobedience.”
“Yes, it’s probably better to let her sort it out,” the doctor agreed. “And we should call Akhenaten back from his vacation.”
Sigi nodded. “So be it.”
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Christmas was just a few days away, and the kitchen in Nana Riley’s house was bustling with activity.
“Yen… Why is the crown on the falcon cookie now a Santa hat?” Sam’s voice was as quiet as usual, but filled with scorn. “And those are supposed to be the jackal’s ears, not another Santa hat.”
Josie looked over Yen’s shoulder and snickered. “Aw, the jackal one looks cute.”
Sam huffed. “Well, if you must go freestyle, at least finish it. These inaccurate hats are your only contribution so far. Zack is doing amazing work on that cobra!”
“If Zack is so great, why don’t you adopt him instead of me?” Yen snorted and proceeded to create another Santa hat on the head of a vulture this time. “Also, rub the dough out of your eyes, I have fully colored this one.” He pointed out a detached foot that was now wearing a festive red and green stocking.
Sam groaned. “Please, Yen, there are limited amounts of red and green frosting for a reason. Just follow the guides.”
“Don’t stifle my creativity and go back to the oven you domestic tyrant.” Yen waved a hand at Sam.
The Egyptian rolled his eyes and grumbling went to help Tamika with moving another batch of finished cookies. Josie went over to Zack to check out his work.
“Oh, that cobra is very nice. Steady hand.”
“Thanks.” Zack smiled. “I like Yen’s Santa hats. I mean these are X-mas cookies anyway…”
“Ha! Your favorite is betraying you, Sam!” Yen cast over his shoulder. “And if you hate my icing projects, you’re not gonna like what I did to the idols in your room.”
“Go see for yourself.”
Sam left in a hurry. They could hear him stomping up the stairs.
“What did you do, you bully?” Nana Riley grumbled as she worked on more dough. “It better not be anything permanent, Sammy loves his idols.”
Yen snorted. “Don’t worry, Nana Riley, it’s nothing serious.”
Sam came back to the kitchen, holding a handful of doll-sized santa hats. “Where did you even get Santa hats this small?!”
“Where do you think?” Yen shrugged. “From a toy store. Did you think I assaulted some elves or what?”
“Did you steal them?” Sam frowned.
“Then where are the toys they originally belonged to?”
“Their mummies are your X-mas presents.” Yen stuck his tongue out.
Sam shook his head and returned to cooking.
Zack smiled at the whole exchange, but when Yen turned to him with a questioning and slightly hostile look, Zack let his smile falter and said cautiously, “It seems Sam hardly talks unless it’s to scold you. It’s weird to hear so much from him for a change.”
“Tell me about it.” Yen cackled. “It’s like all his words are reserved for me. I don’t think he talked at all until I came around.”
”Not much,” Nakhti said from across the table. “But he always had a lot to say. Believe it or not, but we used to write each other letters once.”
“Oh, look who’s still alive.” Yen snorted. “Letters are for nerds. Say, do you and Sam have to take turns on your vow of silence or what? You’ve been pretty damn quiet tonight.”
“Not really. I guess I’m just enjoying looking at you all here.”
“You mean like a proper Pharaoh you enjoy watching slaves toil away under the scorching rays of, well, electric light in this case.”
“Spare him, Yen, he did all the shopping,” Tamika called out from next to the stove.
Nakthi snorted. “I guess I meant it’s kind of like watching a family.”
Yen pointed a finger at Zack. “He ain’t no family of mine! And you’re not either, we’re still not a unit.” He moved the accusing finger to Nakhti, then back to Zack. “And you don’t get any ideas, I may be mad at him, but it doesn’t mean you can just move in and bang him behind my back, jailbait!”
Zack chuckled. “Don’t worry. My dad would kill me if I got freaky with anyone before I’m an adult.”
“And he’s goddamn right!” Yen shook a fist in the air. “No shagging for you, boy scout! Your dad can pay me, and I’ll make sure of that.”
“Oh, please, no.” Zack laughed, then looked mock-suspicious. “Wait a minute, how do I know you are not already on his payroll?”
“Shit.” Yen pulled the collar of his cut-off up and murmured into the side of it. “Yen to Zack’s dad, I’ve been compromised, over.”
Zack laughed. Yen snorted too. They looked at each other uncomfortably.
“So…” Josie broke the awkward silence. “Tamika and me have been meaning to tell everyone, and might as well do it now, in case you still haven’t got us presents.” She winked. “We want to start a business.”
“A business?” Zack perked up.
“Oh yes, we want to open a gay bar. A pub to be precise.” Josie grinned. “With an aquatic theme. Bamboo, aquariums, that kind of thing.”
“If we can afford aquariums,” Tamika added, walking up to stand beside Josie. “But yes, that is the plan. We’ve been saving up for this for a long time, and we might have enough money sometime next year.”
“Awesome!” Zack cheered.
“Good job, girls!” Nana Riley wiped her hands on a towel and went to hug both of them.
“That’s a bit premature, Nana Riley!” Josie laughed. “We haven’t opened it yet.”
“But you’re trying to!” Nana protested.
“What will you call it?” Sam asked.
“We were thinking ‘The Pink Lagoon’.” Tamika shrugged.
“Sounds legit.” Yen nodded his approval. “How short are you though? I don’t imagine real estate is getting cheaper in this town.”
The women looked less jubilant.
“Yeah, that’s why I said that thing about the presents.” Josie winced, looking uncomfortable. “We’re still quite a bit off.”
“Thirty thousand dollars to be more specific.” Tamika sighed. “We’ve been saving as much as we can, and we intend to borrow from every acquaintance who would lend us any, because the banks won’t. We really want to do this, we’ve been working on this for years, it’s just always been so far away.”
“And now we’re finally getting so close!”
“It’s very exciting.” Tamika hugged Josie by the shoulder, and they smiled at each other.
Sam went back to monitoring the gingerbread hieroglyph cookies in the oven.
Nana Riley watched the women with a smile. “Well, if I croak early, you can have my retirement fund. I thought I’d leave it to Sammy, but he’s getting the house anyway, so it’s only fair.”
“Nana!” Sam protested. “They want to open the pub next year, you are not dying next year.”
“Oh, alright, alright.”
“Yeah, Nana, I feel you’ll yet outlive some of us!” Yen laughed.
“If you keep putting Santa hats on everything, that’s bound to happen.” Zack snickered.
“Nah, Sam won’t kill me over it. I don’t think Sam can kill a fly, let alone a me.”
“The you is still in trouble though.” Sam grumbled from the side. “Double so if I find out you stole those toys.”
Yen made ‘blah blah’ gestures with his hands and made faces to Sam’s words. Zack snickered and moved his gingerbread cobra aside, picking another cookie to work on. Yen leaned over to have a better look at the snake.
“Shit. Kiddo, it really is a good cobra. Sam, check this out, he’s at least as good as you are.” Yen waved Sam over.
The short boxy Egyptian walked over and inspected the work. “Good job, Zack. Very on model. Have you done this before?”
“Thanks, Rose and I do this every year. I’ll probably be at their place tomorrow, decorating more cookies.”
“Impressive.” Yen nodded. “I bet you have good marks in art.”
“No.” Zack laughed. “The teacher hates me.”
“Cause you’re black and gay?”
“Same school story, brother.” Yen held out his hand for a high five.
Zack looked at it wide-eyed, then high-fived Yen.
“Up high,” Yen said and moved his hand, inviting a low five. “Down low.” He withdrew his hand at the last moment, making Zack slap the table. “Too slow.” Yen laughed.
“Yen, you will crack the cookies!” Sam hissed.
“Zack will, not me! Blame him!”
“If they crack them, they will have a more authentic feeling of historical ruins. Look at it like this, Sam, and relax,” Nakhti said leisurely from his place at the table.
“And no matter their final form, we will eat every last crumb, like we always do.” Tamika, who had been baking just as hard as Sam, already seemed reconciled with the possibilities
Sam sighed. Those were all very good points.
* * *
The cookies had been baked and mostly decorated, but they were not meant to be eaten just yet, though some crimes had been committed, mostly when Sam was not looking.
As the evening drew close, Zack, Tamika and Josie helped Nana and Sam clean everything up, then went home. Yen stepped out somewhere, assuring Sam that he would be back at some point. Now Nana Riley went to watch TV in the living room, and only two men were left in the kitchen.
Nakhti watched from his place at the kitchen table as Sam bustled around and cleaned after the cleaning, returning the dried cutlery and plates to their respective places and arranging the cookie cutters optimally in their box before putting the box away. Eventually, their eyes met.
Nakhti stayed silent and serious. So did Sam. Finally Nakhti’s eyebrows rose a little, and he broke the silence. “You know I’m not with Yen anymore.”
“For how long?” Sam turned away and continued rotating the cookware on the shelves, until everything was perfectly to his liking. Then he moved on to polishing the counter. Again.
“For good, perhaps.” Nakhti shrugged. “It really depends on you.”
“Does it?” Sam turned around and crossed his arms. “It seems whenever I so much as lay my eyes on someone, Yen simply materializes and takes over. And in your case he wouldn’t even be wrong to do so.”
“I’ve been with Yen for long enough, I know what makes him tick and how to work around it. I don’t think the Yen curse would be a problem for us.”
“It wouldn’t be a problem for you.” Sam looked unimpressed. “You could sleep with Yen on the side and pretend you aren’t. Please, Nakhti, I can see this is not for real. Yen will be back in your bed in a few weeks. A month at most. If not, we can talk then.”
“He’s not been in my bed for two months. Doesn’t that say something? Are you just going to avoid me forever? Because if you are, just say so, and I will leave you alone.”
Sam watched him for a while. His expression fell. “I’m sorry, Nakhti. It’s not just about Yen. You’re too… different. You’re not the same wide-eyed, earnest guy I got kicked out of home for eight years ago. I loved you then, and I care about you now. But you’ve changed so much while we were apart…” Sam looked at the floor and mumbled very quietly. “I don’t know you like I used to. And I can’t let you close until I do.”
Nakhti’s expression turned blank and tired. “I see. Well, maybe it’s for the better then. I’m not really someone worth getting to really know.”
“That’s not true.” Sam looked back up at him and smiled sadly. “I’d love to spend more time with you, as a friend, if you can promise to give me the space I need.”
Nakhti nodded. He needed space as well.
Almost a week had passed since Hector’s birthday, and Wyatt still couldn’t get over that day. He had slept with Hector out of his own free will. He had asked Hector to have sex with him, and the worst part of all was that… he’d enjoyed it. They’d gone at it slow and gentle, and he wasn’t even sore.
But was it really the worst part? No, that was when the morning after, Hector asked him to move in with him. Or was the worst part actually earlier today when Hector jokingly asked on the phone when Wyatt planned to introduce him to his parents?
Wyatt sat on the bed with his head in his hands. He had brushed today’s joke question off with a joke answer, and back then he told Hector he’d think about moving in, but on the inside he was screaming.
All this time he had been living this lie for one reason — to keep himself and his loved ones alive. He had been biding his time to try and find a way out. Settling into this life had never been a part of the plan.
What kept him tangled in this so far had been the fear for his life. But he knew by now that Hector would never harm him, at least not on purpose. Not unless he found out the truth. And the truth… the truth was subjective. He had been mortified to recently catch himself thinking that the only thing that still made this relationship a lie, was his own decision to look at it that way. Him and Zack were the only people who knew he had not originally wanted this. And he trusted Zack. The teen would never betray him. That… left the choice completely up to Wyatt. He could change his mind and just roll with it, and Hector would never know. He could move in. He could spend the rest of his life with Hector.
And maybe he actually wanted to.
It had been barely half a year, and Hector and Zack were already starting to feel like family to him. He had grown fond of Hector, not the crime lord part of him, but the family guy, the intellectual, witty, charming and considerate partner that he realized Hector had been from the start. He had simply been too blinded by fear before to really notice or appreciate it, but looking back, he could see it now.
And the fact that he’d kind of fallen for Hector in the end was hardly the only reason to stop looking for a way out. The whole arrangement was very convenient. More than that, it was a life saver, a winning lottery ticket. Hector had paid for his university and was covering all his other expenses, and he said he would find Wyatt a proper job in the industry after, or even before he graduated. He owned multiple construction businesses after all, that was almost as close to his area of study as it got. It turned out that even Hamsi worked for a company owned by Hector. As strange as it was, being with him, Ocher wouldn’t have to ever fall back on dabbling in crime again. Hector was fixing his life, and he seemed happy to continue doing so.
That was what one voice in his head was saying.
The other screamed at him that should Hector be caught one day, he would be complicit, he would spend the rest of his life in jail. Besides how could he even be thinking about this? Staying the rest of his life with the man who had Craig killed? Who dismembered people and put their bodies into bags? A man who liked to feed his dogs with chunks of human flesh from time to time? The man who murdered the birth parents of a little baby girl and then went on pretending he was her uncle? Was he seriously considering this? Just turning a blind eye to the nasty bits and letting a murderer become his what… his sugar daddy?
And the daddy part wasn’t even a joke. Hector was twice older than him. He could as well be his father, as he had not failed to mention to Wyatt at least a couple of times, mostly in a joking manner.
Still, it was enough for Wyatt to add that thought to the screaming, writhing pile of arguments against being with Hector. His parents would never understand this relationship. And even if they did, even if he decided to recoin that lie into truth and live it, what would Hector think when he finally learned that his lover had been lying to his own family about everything for the last several years? There was no way he could just confess to his parents without them making a scene and then a dozen follow-up scenes, without them calling him a million times or even showing up here. Hector was bound to find out about that.
And then what? Would that not get the Man thinking about what else could also be a lie? Hector’s mind was as sharp as it got. Going over their past interactions, analyzing, extrapolating… he was bound to realize, probably soon after. It was a terrifying thought, somehow even more so now that he had a whole new life to lose.
Coming clean to Hector in advance could solve that problem, but Wyatt wasn’t sure how exactly. Either side of Hector could take over in the wake of that revelation. Either the family man Hector would have a good laugh about it, and they would continue as normal. Or the crime boss Hector would rectify the situation and just have him killed. Maybe with time the probability of the latter could be lowered even further, but did he really want to live under such pressure?
Feeling anxious and torn, Wyatt picked up one of the hourglasses that sat on his bedside table. Playing with these had always felt therapeutic.
Rapt in thought, he watched the trickling sand. It wasn’t even real sand. Just like his life, it was a mixture of lies, sliding back and forth through the narrow glass neck. It was fake and trapped, just like him. And yet unlike him, it still managed to fulfill its purpose. Grain after grain after grain, it measured the time. And what was he doing? He used to have a purpose as well. The only one he existed for. But now his duty, his obligation lay forgotten.
Hector had done that to him. He was looking to imprison him. Had imprisoned him already. It was all an act of vengeance, Ocher knew that!
The hourglass slipped out of his hands. It shattered on the floor, as in a sudden moment of clarity, he dove under the bed and pulled out the box with the keys. Down on his knees, Ocher stared at them without further understanding. The moment of clarity was gone. Confused, he let the box go, pushing it back in there. He collapsed on the floor, looking at the broken hourglass beside him.
There had been something extremely important on his mind just a second ago, but now it lingered right outside his grasp, and each time he tried to focus on it, his thoughts were thrown into disarray. He couldn’t think, not under such pressure, not under Hector’s constant scrutiny, not in this city where eyes were constantly watching him.
What? No, he was just stressed and tired. He should go to bed, sleep on it. Tomorrow, with a clear head, he would make sense of things.
And so Ocher slept.
In his dreams, the beast was breathing down his neck, and there was gold and shadows in the shifting sands.
When he woke up, he had an approximate knowledge of what to do.