⚞ Z ⚟
The weather presented the city with a pleasant surprise, and over the week New Coalport thoroughly thawed. According to the forecast, it was going to be another nice sunny day, but before the Pharaohs managed to leave the city, the temperature dropped more than a dozen degrees, and heavy snow began to fall.
Tamika, who had planned the trip, cursed the unpredictable weather, and the bikers were forced to turn back. They were still set on hanging out at least, so after some deliberation the group headed to a bar. That was when they lost Sphinx, who said he wasn’t going to sit there without drinking, and since drinking and riding was against their policies, he was excused. Tamika and Josie hung around for a while, but the setup kept provoking them into discussing the plans for their own bar, and how they needed to do a bunch of paperwork and apply for a liquor license, so they were the next to leave.
Zack was intrigued to find himself with just Samut and Nakhti, but without the women or the recently absent Yen the conversation died, and the three of them sat in awkward silence for half-an-hour. Zack was almost ready to call it a day, when Sam mumbled that he was going to go do grocery shopping since they weren’t going on the trip and left.
Zack found himself one on one with Nakhti. They sat opposite from one another in a booth in the corner of the room. It was very private. Zack’s heart began to beat faster than the music. Nakhti was staring darkly into his glass. He was so sulky and dreamy. From his broad shoulders clad in leather, his fine cheekbones and flawlessly lined eyes, to his raven mane of hair. Like a dream come true. Zack tried to calm his nerves. It didn’t look like Nakhti was heading anywhere. This was his chance. He had to make the best of it.
He decided to start with something neutral.
“So, this whole conspiracy with hiding the truth about Yen’s accident from Sam seems to be working well. Very good call too, Sam would totally freak out if he knew.” Zack made sure to glance around and check if Sam wasn’t miraculously coming back all of a sudden. He wasn’t.
“Aha,” Nakhti said, but did not look up.
Zack frowned and mixed the ice in his Dr Pepper with his neon yellow straw. “So… uh, you and Yen are back together now?”
“No, not really,” the man said.
Zack’s eyebrows rose together with his excitement. The boy smiled.
Nakhti finally looked up at him. His expression didn’t change, but his answer did. “Actually, yes, we are.”
Zack frowned again. He didn’t know what to make of it. The first answer seemed honest, then the next one was almost like another coverup. Why?
“You don’t have to pretend that you two are together, if you just don’t want me trying to flirt with you.” Zack laughed awkwardly.
Nakhti continued looking at him. His expression remained unreadable. “Good. Then I won’t.”
Zack’s expression fell, but Nakhti didn’t react to that either. He just stared at him with his dark, dispassionate eyes until Zack looked away and studied their drinks instead. Nakhti hadn’t even had one sip of his own drink since Sam left, he just held onto the glass and stared right through it into nothing. It was as if someone had flipped a switch. The guy normally appeared brooding, but he also acted sly and cracked jokes now and then, and Zack had been convinced the glumness was a manner rather than a genuine emotional state. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“That’s cool, that’s cool…” the teenager said, partially to Nakhti and partially to himself. Oh, well, as hopeful as he had been, rejection was not entirely unexpected. Nakhti was way too cool for him. And it made sense that he didn’t want to get involved with an underage teen. Yes, it was probably that, Zack congratulated himself on a good mental save. “So… there’s still the entire afternoon ahead, and, well, now that we have established where we stand, we could just hang out? Catch a movie or something? Just as buddies, you know. What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
Nakhti shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just stay here.”
Zack waited patiently for a smile or another cue to laugh, but it never came. Nakhti was serious.
Maybe Nakhti was just a gloomy drunk… Wait a minute, they were drinking soda.
Zack looked at him with open concern. “Is everything ok?”
Nakhti snorted. Something like a smile tugged on his lips, but it wasn’t really a smile. “Yes, everything is great. Go home, kid and get busy with whatever you think matters.”
“Uh, you sure? You seem kind of down…”
“Really? Just spare me. I’m not a puzzle for you to solve.”
“Right, sorry. Um, have a nice afternoon then,” Zack said and retreated from the table, paid his bill and left the bar.
Well, that sucked. Great pick-up skills. Yen would have laughed himself into an early grave if he had been there. Zack rubbed his eyes, trying to adjust to the bright outside world. Too much snow.
The boy sighed and hoped his terrible people skills only spread onto his own romantic life, because he had another social call to make. Now that he was free early it made sense to ensure the other party was actually home, so Zack got on his bike and rode on to find a pay phone.
“Wow, this place is still a dump.” Zack looked around Wyatt’s flat with an unimpressed wince. “I’m sorry you have to live like this. It’s like a broom closet.”
“Uh… yeah… but I’m used to it.” Wyatt shrugged. “I spent like four something years here.” At least he managed to clean up before Zack came, even though it was earlier than he expected.
“Awful,” Zack said frankly. “Anyway, your life conditions might soon change for the better. I talked to dad about you. So if you still want to get back together with him, now’s your chance.”
Ocher stared at him. Had this kid managed to accomplish what the guardian could not? Then his eyebrows furrowed, and he smiled, touched. “You’re the best, Zack. Uh… please sit down.” He gestured to one of the unfolded chairs in the pseudo-kitchen. “Anything to drink? I’ve got some sodas. And a beer or two, not that I’m proposing it to you.”
“No beer for me, I rode here. And I just had a soda, which proved to be a mistake. It’s frigid. I wouldn’t mind some tea,” Zack said, scratching the back of his neck.
“Ri-i-ight, it’s tea weather out there, it seems. I haven’t been outside today yet. Tea it is then.” Wyatt rummaged through a cupboard. “I’ve got plain black Lipton. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Zack walked over to the window. “If you don’t mind, I’ll hover around here, gotta keep an eye on my bike. Your neighborhood seems a little skeevy, no offense.” He grimaced looking outside. “Then again it’s probably too cold for those one-percent motherfuckers. Can’t imagine one of them putting on a scarf and a knitted hat. They’d likelier freeze to death. I’d like that.”
“Trust me, I know about the neighborhood. But hey, there’s one less thief in the area now. Anyway, have those thugs been giving you guys a lot of trouble?” Wyatt asked as he set the water for the tea.
“You bet. But now they seem to be finally hibernating for winter.” Zack shrugged. “Anyway, since I mostly convinced dad to start seeing you again, I want to hear it from you — how sane do you actually feel? Dad said you did some pretty weird shit, aside from trying to kill him. He’s convinced he gave you Stockholm syndrome and split personality or what not, but you didn’t strike me as unstable at any point. What’s the truth?”
Wyatt stared at the kettle with a blank expression for a moment. Then he turned to Zack, putting on a smile. “I’m feeling pretty sane, thanks for asking. No Stockholm syndrome and well, I kind of know where he got the split personality thing from, but I’ve sorted that out by now.”
“Yeah, I figured you just grew to like dad without any syndromes. But the whole… what was it… ‘guardian’ thing sounded pretty weird.”
“So he told you about that, huh? What else did he say? I mean except for me obviously driving a mystery van through the front gate and wrestling down half a dozen bodyguards, while dual wielding firearms.” Wyatt snorted.
“I didn’t hear about firearms, I mean outside you shooting the dogs that is, which is already pretty wild…”
“Yeah, I added the firearms just now. But just like you say, it sounds ‘wild’, doesn’t it? Me, driving anything through the gate? Me, overpowering professional bodyguards. Shooting the dogs and then what, dropping that gun and for some reason stabbing your dad with a knife instead? I could have as well dual wielded something, right? He could have given me that in his stories. Or a flamethrower maybe. So what else did he tell you?”
Zack looked at him in confusion. ”Well… he said you threw sand around and yelled about space and aliens and keys and animals or something. It all sounds insane. But what less insane explanation can you offer?”
Wyatt raised his eyebrows, as he turned to pour hot water into their mugs. How curious. So Zack had talked to Hector, and yet he was not entirely convinced how the story went. To the point where he would come here and ask about Ocher’s perspective. That was… unexpected. Maybe being the beast’s son, Zack was somehow resistant to the influence? He did go by Zack now, after all, even though Hector had named him differently. Maybe it was simply in any child’s nature to rebel and question what its father decreed. Maybe instead of just being bitter, he could actually try to convince Zack to believe him. Of course it could easily backfire, but maybe if he played it right, he could have an ally in the kid yet again… It was horribly tempting. Setting the mug in front of Zack, Wyatt decided he could not resist.
“Less insane? Absolutely none, I’m afraid. There’s an even crazier one, though. Wanna hear it?”
Zack gave him another bewildered look. “Sure. It’s all crazy at this point.”
“Alright then…” Wyatt settled himself opposite to Zack and looked at him cautiously. He wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, and he was afraid he was going to regret it, but he would try his luck anyway. “But it’s really going to sound completely mad, so first I need you to promise that you will let me finish explaining, that you won’t just get up and leave.” He looked at the teen expectantly.
“Alright. I promise.”
Wyatt nodded. It had to suffice. “So, let’s try this… do you remember how back on the island you laughed and said that your dad is magic? That there is just no rational explanation as to why he always succeeds in everything he does. That the locals told you he brings good weather?”
“Aha…” Zack frowned, confused.
“I know you were joking. But it was the truth. Only your dad isn’t hmm… isn’t just that. Not simply magic. He is something way grander, on a cosmic scale. And I mean it literally. I’m not saying aliens because it’s actually more complex than that, but your dad is not of this world, and his belief is way more powerful than anyone else’s. He’s a being so powerful that his convictions shape not just what others think, but also the events around us.”
“Hm.” The teenager did not look like he believed him, but he didn’t protest. Instead he asked, “Okay but what does this have to do with you and what happened?”
“A lot, actually. You see, your dad wasn’t always in human form. He was a giant creature that roamed through space, destroying stars and planets. For that he was eventually captured and imprisoned, and that’s where I came into the picture. I really am a guardian. I was created out of rocks and sand for the sole purpose of guarding your father’s prison. I don’t know how long ago that was, I’ve lost the sense of time, but it was long, long ago. I sort of failed my duty and took a nap at one point and well, your dad used that opportunity to escape his cage. Long story short, I chased him down, and we somehow ended up here on Earth, but we were reborn as humans and forgot who we were. I remembered just recently, aka my running off to the desert and the crazy episode, but he still doesn’t remember, which as I learned, is for the better…” Wyatt paused there, looking at the teen intently.
Zack’s expression said quite clearly that it was already crazy enough. He looked like he was barely managing to make good on his promise of not getting up and just leaving. “Wow, okay, you really are mental. I’m sorry, but it’s true.” The teenager cringed, looking away from Wyatt and instead staring at the floor. “Damn, and I told dad to hook up with you again, what was I thinking? What was he thinking? You almost killed him…”
“Please, Zack… give me a chance here. Just… just look at me. Please…”
Zack sighed. He turned to Wyatt with a tired, somewhat pained look, like Wyatt was actually mentally ill, and the teen was finally accepting the full gravity of that fact.
It hurt to see Zack looking at him that way. Wyatt clutched a teaspoon in his hand. He wanted the boy to believe him. Even if Hector would make his son forget about it the very same day, it somehow still felt like it could be worth it. “I-I’m going to give you a little demonstration of my power now. Alright, 3, 2, 1, here we go…” He said a bit shakily, as he made the spoon slowly dissolve into sand.
Zack’s eyes opened wide. He stared transfixed at Wyatt’s fingers. “No… Is this some trick? How did you do that?” The teenager left his spot and walked over to Wyatt. “Do that again! With something big, I dunno, like a cereal box or something.”
“Sure, one second.” Wyatt took the box of cereal and an empty bottle from the kitchen counter and handed them to Zack. “Actually, you can even hold these if you want to.”
“Okay…” Zack stared intently at the items in his hands. “Go on… Holy shit!” Zack started, stepping backwards, as sand seeped between his fingers, the items melting away into a trickle of fine grains. “What the shit?! How the fuck?! What the-… How do you?!”
“I just do.” Wyatt said. “And there’s also this.” The scattered sand rose up from the floor, and swirled around Ocher in a thin geometrical pattern. “Pretty cool, eh? Though I must say it does look way better when there’s more of it.”
Zack poked one of the currents of sand floating through the air around Wyatt. “Oh man… Oh man…” He looked Wyatt in the eyes, excited. “Holy shit, you’re glowing, like your skin and eyes are glowing. Woah…”
“All this is what your dad calls me throwing sand around. Because you know, I’m crazy.”
The teen shook his head. “You’re not crazy at all, you’re like Clark Kent or something… if he… hooked up with Lex Luthor and then realized he’s Kryptonian…” Zack frowned, looking baffled. “Wait, so it’s real? You’re some kind of alien jailor of my dad… the planet-eating space monstrosity?!” Zack had to sit down.
Ocher winced a little. “Jailor sounds kinda harsh, I prefer guardian or keeper. But yeah, it used to boil down to that. It’s real. Your dad is a giant space beast, currently in human form, and my job used to be watching him sleep. I was created to do specifically that after my creators… uh, let’s call them, space gods I guess, caged him after a huge battle. And I did what they wanted, for eons, probably. I was supposed to stay awake and keep an eye on the cage forever, but I guess the bea- your dad was sleeping so soundly I kind of felt there wouldn’t be any harm in trying out this sleep thing too. And well, he must have been waiting for that, because the moment I nodded off somehow he snatched the key and bolted. Cue my key obsession here by the way. Anyway, I can’t believe I managed to catch up with him at all. But well, I’m pretty quick, and I guess here we are. Like I said, it is pretty damn crazy.” Ocher opened the door under the sink and let the currents of sand floating around him trickle down into the trash can, then leaned against the kitchen counter.
Zack looked at him impressed. “So you shine and manipulate sand, but what can my dad do now? Except for making people think that you’re crazy. And bringing good weather to tropical islands.”
“He can do… a whole lot. Like I said, his belief is powerful. Once convinced of something, he can make it happen, but luckily for everyone he thinks he’s human so he’s only using that to accomplish goals within his understanding. Success of his business ventures. Infallibility of his criminal empire. The prosperity of this city he loves. And yeah, making everyone think I’m crazy. But there’s more. When I first realized who I was, I was under the impression that I needed to stop your dad from destroying more worlds, so I made the mistake of confronting him and trying to remind him what he was, and there went the earthquake, the extreme cold and the soaring crime rates.” Ocher snapped his fingers, then added quickly, “Of course he denied causing any of that, and I’m not going to remind him again, and neither should you. It seems good for everyone that he’s in denial, and I’m just telling you so that you see my point, which is, even unaware of what he can do, he still affects reality in all kinds of ways. And they are mostly minor, especially on a galactic scale, but still noticeable. Like, even the stupid thing like the forecast for today saying sunny, right? It was supposed to be sunny, because that’s what your dad wants for Coalpoart. But he’s upset, probably something got him thinking about me and how crazy I am again, and he’s blaming himself for it, so it’s snowing instead. Sorry if it’s a bit too much to take in. I didn’t mean to trouble you with this, but well, you asked.” Ocher stopped talking. There was much more he could say of course, but he didn’t think Zack would appreciate knowing that Hector was to be held responsible for the death of the Christian God. So he just shut up and looked at the kid, gauging Zack’s reaction to his tirade.
Zack shook his head. “Thanks for explaining, I guess…” He stared at an imprecise point in space silently for half a minute, then he looked up at Ocher. “Ok, so you and dad are ancient aliens. And dad should keep thinking you’re the crazy one, and he’s a regular everyday normal guy, or he might destroy the universe by accident… Alright… But what does that make me?”
That was… a good question. And Ocher was actually pretty sure of the answer. Hector had lived many other lives before this one, and he must have had many other children. But since he had them with humans, and he believed his offspring to be mortal, they lived out their human lives and died. Telling Zack that was rough, but he didn’t want to lie again. He looked for a way to phrase it in the best way possible. “I… I’m sorry, but I don’t really know. Your dad’s belief affects people around him too, which might as well mean you are who he thinks you are. His son, that for sure. But aside for that? My guess is as good as yours. I’m sorry… I’m sure that’s not what you were hoping to hear.” He looked at Zack apologetically.
“I don’t know if I should be relieved or disappointed,” the teenager said. “Both, I guess. It would be cool to have superpowers. But then again, maybe not.” Zack gave Ocher a meaningful, sympathetic look. “So what, you go to the shrink now playing along with dad’s belief you are insane?”
Wyatt sighed, and looked somewhat bitter. “Uh, yeah. There isn’t anything else I can really do at this point. And if you’re wondering, then no, I did not resist the temptation of turning something into sand in front of the shrink, but as soon as she called your dad to tell him, she’s been seeing only what he wants her to see — which is me throwing sand all around her office. So, just so you know, there is a fair chance that you might soon forget we even had this conversation. And you’ll just remember that I threw some sand around in my kitchen, threatened you with a spoon and yelled about dogs in space or something.”
“Uh…” Zack looked troubled, but couldn’t keep a half-smile away at the mention of space dogs. “I’ll just refrain from bringing this up in front of dad and hope for the best I guess…” He thought for a moment. “Man, this is so weird… my dad is some kind of giant reality-bending space alien…”
Ocher sat down opposite to him again, and looked at Zack with a comforting expression. “He is,” he said, shrugging. “But that doesn’t change anything about your life. He’s still your dad, the same one you always knew. I tried to think of him in terms of what he used to be at first, but I was wrong to do so. It looks like he not only believes he’s human, but also really enjoys being one. It might be that he doesn’t even want to remember he used to be something else. I sure felt a lot of resistance, when I tried to remind him. You see, I thought I needed to stop him before he ran away again, but now that I had some time to dwell on it, it really doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere at all. He appears to like it here. And to be honest, so do I.”
“All of this is absolutely nuts… But I believe you. I mean you just turned stuff into sand in my hands. Is that what you did with the gate? And how you fought your way through dad’s guards?”
“Y-yeah… I don’t know what everyone remembers at this point, with your dad having ‘clarified’ how things ‘really’ were, but I turned the gate into sand, then I turned everyone’s guns and walkie-talkies into sand. And then… which I am really, really, really not proud about, I turned the dogs into sand too when they tried to attack me. Your dad’s chest wound is not exactly from a stabbing either. Eh.” Wyatt looked at his feet guiltily. “I just wish I could take that whole day back. Actually, that whole week. It opened my eyes, sure, but at what cost? I regret everything. Your dad will never think me sane again.” He looked up to face the boy.
Zack tapped his chin. “I dunno. Maybe he won’t. But I don’t think it matters as long as he doesn’t think your feelings for him are rooted in insanity. He says you can’t make decisions, but that has little to do with thinking you’re a space alien.” Zack wound a lock of his nappy hair on a finger, thinking it through. “You should play along, continue going to the shrink, maybe even accept the whole split personality explanation. Just tell the truth about how you feel about him. If dad hears the same stuff about your relationship from the shrink and from me, I think it can be salvaged.” The boy smiled brightly. “If you really are supposed to guard dad from wrecking planets, I’m even more for this union.”
“Thanks Zack. That sounds like really good advice.” Ocher smiled. “And I will sure guard him from that. Though, he’s already been doing a pretty good job on his own. I… uh… I hope you’ll remember at least some of this if he ever finds out we’ve been talking. But even if you don’t, I still wanna thank you. For always having my back, and for taking this so well.”
Zack showed him two thumbs up. “Don’t mention it.”
By the time they remembered about it, their tea had grown cold.
⚞ Z ⚟
That evening Zack dropped by the mansion. His dad did not expect him, and the teen found him quite busy with paperwork. As always, Hector was more than ready to put business matters aside to spend time with his only son, but Zack insisted they only chat a few minutes. He didn’t want Hector staying up late into the night because of him.
When the few minutes passed, the conversation was done, and the door of the study closed behind him, the teen was none the wiser. His father had been just as he always was. Nothing about him struck Zack as supernatural or extraterrestrial no matter how hard he had tried to look. Hector was surely an exceptional man, but perfectly human. But Wyatt did glow and turn things into sand. And Hector did often succeed in unusually spectacular ways.
Zack thought on his next move, standing at the door. All this hard mental work made him want to ruffle Phobos and Deimos. But they were dead, he realized with sadness. Turned to sand. Allegedly. No, Zack shook his head, not allegedly. Wyatt was telling the truth. There was more to his father than the eyes could see. He needed another person’s opinion.
“Oh, hi… Zack?”
Barney stood in the corridor, winter jacket over one arm. He seemed to be heading out, but must have caught sight of Zack on the way.
“Hi, Barney,” Zack said and stepped away from the door, walking with the man towards the front of the house. “How goes?”
“Well enough. You?”
“Good to hear. You dress warm, kiddo, it’s frigid out there.” Barney put the jacket on as he walked.
“Hey,” Zack said, struck by an idea. “You were in Nam with dad, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I was.”
“Did he ever do anything like… superhuman?”
Barney grinned. “Everyday, kid. Your dad’s a freakin’ legend.”
Zack arched his eyebrows at the man expectantly. Barney’s grin grew wider still.
“He spent all his time out in the boonies you know, never at the camp, he just wouldn’t go back, found ways to stay in action. The rest of us, we’d be praying to be rotated back to camp. But your dad was living and breathing the fight. He fared in that damned jungle better than the VC themselves. Sometimes we’d laugh he could smell them!” Barney forgot all about zipping up his jacket or leaving in general and instead stood in place gesturing like an overzealous preacher. “He’d shoot down snipers, he’d storm bunkers all on his own. One time I saw him catch and throw back a grenade! He saved my life at least eight times! It was like having a guardian angel.” Barney teared up and rubbed at his eye with a closed fist. “All of us would be shaken up, many counting days till discharge, but I think your dad only returned ‘cause of your mom. That lucky woman!”
Zack gave him an odd look.
“If I were a woman, I would’ve waited a hundred years for your dad to come back from the war,” Barney said dreamily. “Not that I would want to be a woman…” He suddenly sobered up, then he looked at Zack and, realizing how that sounded, he continued, “Not that there is anything wrong with being a woman, or being a gay man either!” Barney blushed and zipped his jacket, using the opportunity to hide some of his face in the collar.
“Too much information, Barney! I did not need to know that.” Zack laughed, cringing. “But, hey, thanks for the war stories.”
“No problem, kid.” Barney smiled awkwardly. “Welp, I better be going. Betty’s waiting for me. We’re going on a date.”
“Have a fun date with Betty,” Zack said, nodding slyly, letting the grown man reaffirm his heterosexuality.
“Thanks!” Barney waved and left hastily.
Zack shook his head, amused, and kind of relieved that if he was going to have a step-father, it wouldn’t be someone as awkward as Barney. Wyatt was way cooler. And with his weird sand superpowers he was also quite literally out of this world.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen rode out from around the corner and turned into the well familiar residential street that Sam and Nana Riley called home. It was chilly out, but as he parked in the driveway and kicked the stand, the door to the house opened, and the Pharaohs poured out with Josie at the helm.
Yen carefully climbed off his bike and raised his hands into the air before Josie managed to throw herself on him. “Mind the ribs!”
Josie hugged him nonetheless, but to his relief she did not squeeze him. “Sam, look, your prodigal son returns!”
Sam appeared the moment Josie let him go and hugged Yen in a firm but delicate embrace.
“There, there, I’m ok, I told you before,” Yen patted Sam’s back, feeling awkward. Everyone was looking at them.
“I’ll give you a piece of my mind yet, you self-destructive fool,” Sam grumbled and did not let him go.
Not expecting to be let go anytime soon, Yen waved a hand to everyone else. “Hi.”
Nakhti just nodded back at him silently, keeping their ruse alive. Sphinx saluted, amused. Tamika walked up to Yen and joined the hug Sam started. Yen groaned loudly, pretending it was killing him, but that did nothing to discourage them. The bastards knew a groan of annoyance from one of pain. The kid was there too, standing awkwardly in the doorway behind Nana Riley. He seemed genuinely glad to see him, or was polite enough to pretend this well.
“Yen… Is this a Vmax?” Josie stared at Yen’s new bike in awe. “It is a Vmax, oh shit…” She circled the bike. “It’s gorgeous!”
“If you ever want to drag race…” Yen grinned. “I’m in.”
“Oh, you!” Josie laughed. “If I ever feel like losing a drag race, you mean? This beast has what, 120 horsepower?”
“143,” Yen said smugly.
Sam was looking at him suspiciously, but he didn’t need to say anything, Yen knew perfectly well what was going through his head.
“I did not get it with drug money. It was a gift.”
Sam did not seem to buy it, but finally let him go.
“Hey, rich kid, do you wanna race your Harley against an Asian bike or are you chicken?” Yen smirked at the teenager on the porch.
Zack looked embarrassed. “I, ah, don’t have a Harley anymore.”
“Oh?” Yen looked around curiously. Indeed, the Harley was missing. “What-” He did not finish his question. He knew all the bikes present. All but that rat bike. A real piece of junk. It looked like something one would take to Nakhti’s junkyard to put it out of its misery. Yen looked at the bike and the kid in turns. “Huh? What gives?”
“Zack sold his Harley and gave the money to us to help start our bar, and now we have enough!” Josie grinned.
“We tried saying no, but he had already sold it.” Tamika shook her head. “This is a temporary replacement, but it would be nice if you could have a look at it sometime, Yen, you’re the most savvy mechanic of us all, and Zack maxed out his allowances helping us, so he’s not getting a new bike for a while.”
Yen looked towards the kid in disbelief. Zack was very red on the face and even more embarrassed now.
“Yeah, that was too generous, and we will never forget it.” Josie cast a genuinely thankful look towards Zack, then turned an almost painfully grateful look towards Sam. “But Sam was a total saint.”
“I just hope you were honest, Samut, and those aren’t all your savings, because that was a lot,” Tamika said, looking concerned.
Sam shrugged. “It wasn’t all. Don’t worry.”
Yen felt foolish. Here he was, on a new bike. A new expensive bike. In a new jacket, new jeans, new boots and with rolls of money in his pockets, and meanwhile his friends were giving up their last penny to each other. Josie seemed to read his expression right and waved her hands quickly.
“No, no, no, we don’t need more charity, please, it’s bad enough with those two!”
“Well, I don’t actually need such a fancy bike, I could have a rat bike, like Zack-”
“No, no, out of the question!” Tamika joined Josie’s protest.
“I know you kids are hot blooded and all but can we take this argument indoors maybe?” Sphinx asked, rubbing his upper arms to warm up. “The weather’s better there.”
It was a valid observation so they took it inside. But the ladies still wouldn’t hear of Yen selling his bike, and he felt like a complete tool. It didn’t help that he quickly noticed the bike wasn’t the only thing that Zack had sold in his absence. His cool winter jacket was replaced by something noticeably outdated and too small for him, and his boots were different too. As everyone went on about the bar and where exactly the ladies wanted it, and how long it would take to get the place opened, Yen stared at the kid, feeling… weird. He’d been so set on hating Zack, but now it was as if he lifted a bug-strewn visor, all the gross annoying shit was gone, and before him sat a sweet, awkward, rich, but clearly unspoiled kid. Yen felt like an idiot.
The conversation suddenly switched to him, and he readily fed Sam some predefined, Nakhti-approved lies. The rest of the club thought they knew more of the real story, but nobody, not even Nakhti knew the full one. It didn’t feel good lying to so many people at once, and when the questioning was over, Yen retreated from the living room to his and Sam’s room upstairs, claiming he wanted to get a warmer pair of socks on, which was actually true.
He leaned heavily against the door to the room, as it closed behind him. They didn’t know about Blaise. And they wouldn’t know. What had been just an amusing and financially beneficial arrangement turned into something more. And even though they were his friends, it was better that they were kept out of it. Everything Blaise did outside the church was too shush-shush, and their relationship… he didn’t want to have to explain that to anyone. Not yet.
Yen dug through his unnaturally neatly arranged belongings — thanks Sam-Mom — and found a pair of properly warm socks. He changed into those, hid some money in his mattress and was about to start making a mess of his things, just to counteract Sam’s intervention, when he heard the floorboards creak in the corridor.
He opened the door and almost came nose-to-nose with Zack.
“You looking to get knocked out with a door? It can be arranged.”
“Uh, no,” the teenager mumbled. “I, uh, I wanted to talk to you about Nakhti.”
“Oh?” Yen snorted. “What, are you two getting married, and you want me to be the bridesmaid?”
The boy blinked in confusion, then grew very red on the face. “No. It’s kind of the opposite.”
“Huh?” Yen looked at him closely, then opened the door and let Zack into the room.
The boy walked in and stared at the walls, dumbfounded. “Wow, it’s like someone spliced two rooms together.”
“Yeah,” Yen admitted. He waved towards Sam’s bed. “Take a seat, I’m sure Sam wouldn’t mind. He always says that my bed is a biohazard.” Yen dropped on his own bed and looked at Zack questioningly. The boy looked out of place on the background of Samut’s views of Egypt, hieroglyphs, books and other nerdy shit. Zack was no nerd, that much Yen would give him.
“So, uh, about Nakhti, I just wanted to say, you don’t have to worry about me… crushing on him. I mean, I’m still crushing on him.” The boy hung his head. “But he’s not interested. He made it very clear while you were gone.”
Yen frowned. “Uh… Did he do something weird?” The boy almost looked hurt. It would have been unlike Nakhti to injure the kid, but he could have said some hurtful shit for sure. Quite a tongue on that one.
“No, he didn’t. It was just a lot of small things. As soon as you weren’t around, it was like someone flipped a switch. He hadn’t smiled at me even once. He tried to pretend that you two are getting back together, but he didn’t do a very good job of it, and I’m… I’m not an idiot…” The boy sighed, he rubbed his neck, then looked to the ceiling, unable to meet Yen’s eyes. “I might be wrong, and please, don’t be mad, but I think he only was nice to me to mess with you. And I don’t know what you two are into, but it seems kind of nasty to me. I think he was pitting us against each other. For fun. Or something.”
Yen studied him for a long while. Then he leaned back against the wall, letting his back touch the posters on it. “You know, it sounds like something he would do. Nakhti is a bit of a bastard.” Yen smirked, then his expression softened. “I’m sorry I was such a dickwad to you before. You seem like a nice kid. I’ll help you fix that disaster of a motorbike.”
Zack smiled. He looked like the weight of worlds was lifted from his shoulders.
Yen got up and stretched. “Ok, let’s get back to the others, or they’ll think we’re banging, and I don’t need screwing underage rich boys on the already extensive list of my imagined sins.” He nodded at the door, then led the way out of the room.
“You mean you don’t sell drugs?” Zack asked following him.
“No. But if you’re looking to buy, I can hook you up with someone who does.”
“Woah, no, thanks, man!” The teenager laughed nervously. “My dad would kill me.”
“Too bad for you.” Yen snorted.
They returned to the rest of the Pharaohs, laughing and joking, and for a change no one accused Yen of anything.
Wyatt felt his life was truly on its way back to normal. He had been grateful for his friends being there for him before, but somehow winning Zack over again, was what truly let Wyatt feel like things were getting back on track. Having the boy to confide in and conspire with again, made it almost seem like he’d never fled to that desert like an idiot.
Almost. The damage he’d done, was not so easily fixed. Still, Wyatt tried to be optimistic. He meekly attended the sessions with Dr. Ely and tried to act as normal and predictable as he could. And he was eager to accept whatever crumbs of social interactions were thrown his way by Hector Viteri. In the meantime, he focused on studying.
But when his phone rang just as he opened his textbook, he happily abandoned the book to answer the call.
“Hey, Wyatt,” Zack’s cheerful voice came from the receiver. “Can you free up your evening for Valentine’s day?”
“Hi Zack,” Ocher answered automatically, then blinked. What a strange question that was… “I… huh… I’m pretty sure, I can, but what do you mean exactly?”
“Well, it’s kind of a surprise, so I don’t wanna tell you much. Just dress up, and be ready at like… four? I’ll come for you in a taxi.”
* * *
At four sharp on Valentine’s Day, Wyatt was dressed up to the nines and waiting for Zack outside his apartment building. He wasn’t sure where this was going, but he didn’t really have anything to lose at this point. When the taxi stopped beside him, he opened the door and greeted Zack, getting in beside the teen. He felt apprehensive, and it must have shown on his face because a moment after they took off, the kid asked him, “What’s up, man? Why are you looking at me all weird like that?”
Wyatt was silent for a moment. Then he let it out. “I’m… you know… kind of waiting for you to tell me how unimpressed you are after I threw all that sand at you last time you visited… but I guess you wouldn’t have come if that was all you remembered…” He looked at Zack with uncertainty.
“What? No, no, chill, I remember everything.” Zack glanced at the taxi driver. “All the well…” He waved his hands around. “Woosh, and zoom, and what happened to the cereal box and such.”
Wyatt was surprised and relieved to hear that. Still, he knew how this was going to end. He sighed. “I’m guessing you managed not to talk to your dad about it then?”
“Yeah, I was avoiding the topic like a pro,” Zack admitted. “But don’t worry, I made notes for myself, maybe that will help if… you know.”
“Good idea.” Wyatt nodded. Because maybe it really would help. But even if it wouldn’t, it felt good to have Zack on his side even for a while.
* * *
“Hi, Dad, I’m home! And I brought a friend.” Zack stepped into Hector’s study, announcing his presence, then pulled Wyatt in through the door, presenting him to Hector. “You could even say I brought your boyfriend. Fitting, isn’t it? Considering it’s Valentines and all?” The teen grinned mischievously.
Hector stared at the two of them in mild confusion. He had a file in one hand and a pen in another, apparently in the middle of some paperwork.
Wyatt looked back at Hector with giddy apprehension. He felt both elated and all kinds of anxious. Way more so than he had felt three weeks ago, when he first managed to buy his way back in here because of the cold. He lifted his hand and waved very timidly.
“I took the liberty of reserving a table for two at Poseidon’s Feast. It’s in an hour, so you should have time to prepare,” Zack announced.
The two adults gaped at him in surprise. Now Zack’s instruction for Wyatt to dress up made a lot more sense. Hector had clearly received no prior notice of this, which Wyatt guessed had been a good call on Zack’s part. He was certain that he wouldn’t even get to spend these five minutes in here if Hector had any say in this. Judging by the Man’s expression, Wyatt was sure the restaurant was not happening, but that didn’t matter. He was happy to simply see Hector again, even if he was going to be kicked out soon. It was just so nice to be here. He stood there calmly, smiling, and just enjoying the moment.
Hector looked at his papers, then at the two of them. He sighed and shook his head. “How did you even get that reservation?”
“Two weeks in advance,” Zack confessed.
Hector shook his head again.
“Your name does wonders over the phone, Dad.”
“And what if I can’t go?”
“Of course you can.”
Hector frowned, looking at his work. “What if I don’t want to?”
Zack groaned. “Of course you do, come on.”
“Very well.” Hector jotted down a note, collected his papers and set them aside.
Wyatt stared in absolute shock. He couldn’t believe Hector just… that he… actually agreed to go? In an instant, Wyatt lost all his calm. His heart started hammering madly in his chest.
He was… he was going to spend Valentine’s evening with Hector.
* * *
Befittingly to its name Poseidon’s Feast specialized in seafood and had a lavish decor composed of Ancient Greek elements such as marble columns and intricate mosaics depicting various sealife and the titular Poseidon and his court. There was a lot of space between the tables, and the ceilings — likewise covered with mosaics — were very tall. The people at the dozen or so tables were all dressed their best, and trying hard to mind their own business. Once the waiter took their order, Hector and Wyatt were left entirely to themselves.
To say it was awkward, would be an understatement.
Wyatt kept stealing brief glances at Hector and then staring back at the tablecloth in front of him, feeling just as anxious as back when they had first gone to a restaurant together. For once, it wasn’t about his clothes, though. No, this time Wyatt was dressed in one of the tailor-made suits Hector got him last year and did not feel out of place. And it wasn’t because of Hector being affectionate in front of people either. In fact it was because he was not willing to be that at all… No matter how evidently Wyatt would place his hand on the table, hoping for the other man to touch it, Hector would do his best to ignore that Wyatt even had that hand. If he could, he would probably pretend that Wyatt wasn’t sitting at his table at all.
Wyatt tried to make conversation as they waited for their meals to be served, tried to ask Hector about his work, talk about the geology thesis he was writing, about Zack and what a good kid he was, but the man in front of him offered only one-syllable responses and inspected the cutlery instead of looking at him.
Finally, catching a few curious stares from another table, Hector reached out to touch Wyatt’s waiting hand. The gesture worked, and other people seemed to stop paying attention to them. It could be funny to compare this to the reverse situation from their first time in a restaurant together. But it wasn’t funny. The hand-touching didn’t even last. As soon as the waiter arrived, Hector readily withdrew like Wyatt’s hand had been burning coals.
After that, Wyatt ate in silence, not even trying to look at Hector anymore. This had been a bad idea. Hector was willing to let him into his home, but not his life. The fact it was Valentine’s Day, and it was supposed to be romantic, made it all so much worse. He had been so excited and hopeful when Zack sent them out on this date, but now it was painfully clear that Hector did not want him anymore. Wyatt felt utterly defeated and ashamed for even thinking he could ever have this again. That was it. It was over. His one last hope died, and so did the butterflies in his stomach. All that was left was to eat up, or not, and go back home, where he would curl up in his bed for a week. Or maybe a month. Or a century. He could do that, after all. And why lie down in bed, when he could just go back to the desert, lie down in the sand and let a dune build up on top of him, so that tourists could ride over him on a camel or drive over him with a jeep once in a while. Yeah, that would probably reflect his emotional state best.
“Wyatt… The last thing I want is to hurt you. But it looks like I’m doing that again, anyway.” Hector’s voice was soft and quiet. “This is a bad idea. Our relationship was a lie you had to live…”
Wyatt couldn’t just listen to that anymore. His eyes were still piercing the barely touched calamari on his plate as he interjected just as quietly but with stifled emotion, “Sure. Sure it was a lie at first. But it was my lie, not yours. You said you’ve been in love with me. Why can’t you understand that even though it all started the way it did, after some time I fell in love with you too?” Wyatt finally dared to look up at Hector. His eyes were glistening, but he didn’t let himself tear up. “Yeah, I’ve been scared, and yes, it took me a while to look past that fear and realize that no matter what happened, you were not going to hurt me, and even longer to realize that I actually liked where this was going, and when I did, I found ten other things to freak out about, and I ran away, and I’ve said and done some really really dumb horrible things that I regret and wish I could take back. But I still love you. And it’s not because of me being a fan, or because I want your money, or because you broke me in some way — you haven’t. It’s because I got to know you, the caring, fun, clever, family side of you, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with you and Zack. So yes, it all started as a lie, but at some point it stopped being one. And it’s not one anymore. I want to be a part of your life. Do you really not want me to be a part of yours?”
He fell silent at last, and looked down at his plate.
“I had a different impression from our meeting on the desert. You were still very afraid…”
“Of course I was afraid!” Wyatt said in an exasperated half-whisper. “You easily located me in Africa and came for me in a freaking helicopter! You scared me out of my mind, and I said a lot of horrible things I didn’t even mean anymore, but seriously, who wouldn’t freak out, considering your, you know, reputation? Especially since I thought I’d left you a note explaining things, and that despite that you still chose to track me down. It was terrifying!”
Hector considered that for a long moment. Then he said quietly and in a slightly amused tone, “Yes, I suppose if I came for myself in the desert, I would also freak out.” He breathed out audibly, and when Wyatt looked up, the man was smiling at him. “I’m sorry I gave you such a fright. It was mutual, in all honesty, I was afraid you could be an impossibly cunning undercover agent about to crack my case and leave my life’s work in ruins. Fancy that.”
Wyatt looked at him incredulously and mustered a wry smile. “Well, I’m flattered. And I wish I were that competent in something. But I was just being a panicked loser, who needed some time far away to make sense of things, and then didn’t really manage to do that at all due to a swift aerial assault via helicopter. So I screamed at you, and then you said you were letting me go, but at that point and in those circumstances it was really hard to believe, and everything got even more confusing, and I am really, really, really sorry that I acted like a crazy person, but I guess it really did mess me up at that point. But it was that, and not whatever you think it was. I enjoyed myself before. Except for certain episodes, like you know, the basement, and the Flintstones following me around wherever I went, and my friends… suffering for it. Being with you is kind of difficult like that. But I still want to do it.”
Hector nodded attentively. Then he looked Wyatt in the eyes. He smiled sadly. “Are you absolutely sure you want this? I will not change. I will keep doing what I do, I will keep being what I am.”
“I know,” Ocher said. “And yes, I do. Now that I know I can trust you, and talk to you about this, I’m more sure than ever that we can figure things out. But you need to stop assuming what I feel, and stop protecting me from what I want.” He looked the other man in the eyes, and said bravely, and with conviction. “And I want you, Hector.”
Hector’s eyebrows furrowed, but his smile widened. The same small eyes Wyatt used to find so terrifying were now watching him with earnest, profound affection. Hector rested an open palm on the table between them.
Wyatt smiled and put his smaller palm inside it, tangling his fingers with Hector’s.
* * *
By the time they stepped outside together, everything was different. They were holding hands and when he looked up at the incarnation of the beast beside him, the guardian’s heart beat faster. As they walked to the car together, Hector was smiling. In the pleasant half-light in the backseat of the limo, Wyatt rested his head against his shoulder, and the Man held him close all the way back home.
They snuck through the quiet mansion, still holding hands like enamoured teenagers, until finally they found themselves in the master bedroom. Hector frowned all of a sudden, hesitation playing in his features as he surveyed the room with unease.
“If you ever feel uncomfortable with anything I do to you, please, tell me at once,” the Man said gravely.
Wyatt squeezed his hand reassuringly and looked up at Hector with confidence. “I promise I will. I’m not scared of you anymore. Quite the opposite.” He traced his thumb across Hector’s palm. “And it’s been like this for a while even before I ran. In particular, I would like to state one more time that the birthday thing was entirely consensual. I wanted you back then, and I thought I was ready for it, but it turned out I was like one percent ready and ninety nine not very. But I am ready now. One hundred percent.”
Hector smiled back at him, but he did not appear just as confident. He reached out and stroked Wyatt’s cheek carefully. Wyatt leaned into the touch, shutting his eyes and nuzzling Hector’s hand, but the Man remained uncertain. Finally, Hector sighed and withdrew a little. “I’d rather take it slow this time around…”
Ocher opened his eyes. “Sure. Let’s do that then. Whatever you’re comfortable with. I’d like a… fresh start.” He looked at Hector inquisitively. “So… what would you like to do with the rest of this nice evening?”
Hector considered his options. “Well, the night’s quite chilly… Perhaps a hot tub before bed would be appropriate?”
That would have been terrifying once, but now it sounded quite dreamy. Wyatt readily agreed.
A while later he was once more nestled close to Hector, as they lounged together in a large hot tub, watching the dark snow-covered garden outside and their reflections in the glass overlaying the view from the large windows. It felt kind of awkward to be so exposed, but someone would have to be flying over the mansion to even see them, so after a while, Wyatt relaxed. Hector finally looked at peace as well. Clumps of snowflakes drifted lazily through the air outside.
Wyatt sighed, and moved his fingers back and forth, disturbing the surface of the water. He shifted against Hector and started turning his head to look at him. But instead his eyes became glued to the fresh scar on the Man’s chest. It was short and narrow and looked nothing like it was supposed to. Hector’s power of conviction had transformed it into a scar from an actual stabbing, and for once Ocher was glad to have had the reality denied. This was much better than what he had done. Tearing Hector’s chest wide open, digging down to the bone, and through the bone… The Man was strong. But not strong enough to survive that kind of injury. Hector’s refusal to believe what was actually happening had saved him from the guardian’s power.
Hector caught him looking at his chest guiltily and offered a comforting smile. “Don’t worry, it’s all healed now. I must admit, I’m still very impressed you actually managed to land that blow. So many tried and failed to shoot or stab me over the years. Perhaps you should have been an assassin, not a thief.” Hector chuckled.
Ocher looked down, still ashamed and not at all cheered up. “Yeah. My speciality would be getting close to the criminal masterminds, until they loved me, and then stabbing them right through the heart,” he said bitterly.
“I’m quite sure there’s a market for that,” Hector said humorously. He lifted Wyatt’s face up by the chin and smiled warmly. “Don’t feel bad, what’s done is done. We’re here now, and that’s what matters.” Hector leaned in and pecked Wyatt on the lips.
Wyatt reciprocated the gentle kiss, then sighed and nodded. He smiled and reached out to hesitantly stroke Hector’s fancily trimmed beard with his knuckles.
Hector bowed his head a little and kissed Wyatt’s fingers. “Move in with me. Your place is a matchbox, not an apartment, it pains me to think you have to live like that.”
Wyatt looked at him with a loveable little smile. “I… I would really like that.” And since that was something that had come up before and triggered a whole lot of unfortunate events, he added reassuringly. “And I promise I’m not going to change my mind and run off to the desert tomorrow.”
“You better not.” Hector shook a finger at him. “I’m already thoroughly behind on work after last time. Let’s not make a Christmas tradition out of that.”
“Hmm… alright. We could make a Valentine’s Day tradition out of this though.” Wyatt grinned and splashed some water on Hector.
Hector grinned back and pulled him into a more passionate kiss.
* * *
As they lay in bed, Wyatt draped Hector’s arm around himself and nestled with his back against the Man’s wide chest. Here, in the arms of the beast, the guardian felt his world finally fall into place. It was ironic, but while his masters would probably beg to differ, the way he saw it, he was carrying out his duty better than ever before. From now on, he would stay close to Hector. Wherever the beast went, the guardian would follow. Not as its jailor, but as its lover, its family. How much easier and more interesting it was going to be to keep an eye on it now…
When he opened his eyes, it was already morning. An awfully early morning, and Hector was already fully dressed. He sat on the bed and turned to Wyatt when he felt him shift. One of the keys to the bedside table was in his hand, and he waved it at Wyatt as he saw him looking.
“Good morning, darling. I was wondering if you still want this perhaps?” Hector offered the key with a bit of humor.
Wyatt yawned and stretched, looking at Hector sleepily. “Mmm… nice try but nope. I’ll be generous and let you keep it. I’m done with the keys anyway.”
Hector put the key back on the bedside table. “And what about that box under your bed, if I may ask?”
“I threw it out… wait, what were you trying to find under my bed? An FBI badge and fifty forged IDs?”
“I just saw the box and it got me curious. Anyway, that is good to hear.” Hector leaned down and kissed Wyatt on the forehead and then on the lips. “It’s probably too early for your lectures, but don’t forget you still have them.” He winked and stood up, straightening his clothes. “Have a nice day, Wyatt. I’ll see you in the evening. Feel free to move in today if you like, the house help and my secondary driver will gladly assist you.”
“I… I might do just that.” Wyatt smiled blissfully. “Have a nice day as well. And thank you. For having me back.”
Hector shook his head and smiled as well. “Thanks for coming back.”
With that he left, leaving Wyatt happy and bewildered. He would go to his lectures, yes.
And then… he was moving in.