Trial and Erro
⚞ ☥ ⚟
Summer 1989, New Coalport
Sam’s alarm clock went off at 4 am on Saturday. He switched it off and groggily began to dress.
The yearly Wheel of Fortune Fair would open in five hours, and if previous years had taught him anything, there would be plenty of last-minute setting up to do. Nobody paid him to come this early and help with the panicked preparations. But he did it anyway, because he hated the thought of other underpaid history buffs injuring themselves. Many of the organizers, while handy and book smart, were not physically adept, and during his first time working for the fair, Sam saw a lot of injured backs and strained muscles after the rushed Saturday morning setup.
He recalled those injuries and miserable faces as he quickly whipped up scrambled eggs for breakfast and poured instant coffee into a thermos. His eyes could hardly stay open. That whole week had been rough. The fair was massive and took forever to set up, and the bike club meeting the previous night ran longer than he’d planned.
He left home at 4:30 am, and by 5:00 am he was at the site.
He barely managed to lock his pickup truck before he had to rush off to help a few skinny women struggling with a falling tent. From there he dashed off to hold the ladder for a careless boy hanging lamps on poles. He spent the next four hours in much the same fashion, jumping from one unnecessarily dangerous job to another, saving people from themselves. By the time the fair opened, Sam was exhausted and dehydrated, but pleased to note they got through this year’s pre-opening Saturday morning without any injuries.
The women that he helped before let him hide in the back of their fortune-telling tent. There Sam wiped the sweat off with a wet rag and changed into his costume. He was going to be the only Ancient Egyptian around, but he had been greenlit by the organizers. Sam snuck out of the tent and hurried away to hide his unfittingly modern backpack and emptied thermos inside his truck. He knew all the back alleys of the fair, and it was just starting to fill up, so he managed to go to the car and return unnoticed.
Now he could finally enjoy the fair.
This year was exciting, because they got three new themed areas. The Middle East Museum had organized a large educational display about the Cradle of Civilization including replicas of dozens of the museum’s exhibits, a few of them actually Egyptian. That was where Sam was intending to spend a significant amount of time. The head curator of the museum, Mr. Licht was an absolute delight to be around and always had archaeological news to share with a curious listener. Sam felt honored that the man actually remembered his name the last time they met and was looking forward to seeing him again.
But there were a few other new areas on the way, and he decided that before he committed to the museum one he would at least give the others a look. One was a very well-decorated Venetian mask workshop run by an older but highly energetic woman. The mask-making workshop had not yet started, but already the masks on display were drawing in the early visitors. Sam lingered there for a little while, then crossed the fair to investigate the newly added Viking area. The costumes of the Vikings were far from perfect. One of them even had jeans peeking through, but their weapons and armor looked very authentic. Sam heard hammer hitting metal and leaned sideways to look behind the group of well-armed smug Norsemen and inside a wooden pavilion.
“Looking for a smith, eh, outlander?” One of the guys in front of him grinned, clearly finding Sam’s Egyptian costume amusing. Or maybe it was the fact he was at least a head shorter than any of them. Sam was used to being the oddball at the fair. It had nothing on going through highschool as a gay teenager.
Sam calmly looked up at the guy. “As a matter of fact, I am. Tales of the indomitable Varangian Guard reach even the shores of the sacred Nile, and standing before you I marvel at the craftsmanship of your helm and axe. I would love to meet the master that produces such exquisite works wrought of the metal of heaven. Why, they are worthy of the pharaoh.”
The Vikings stared at him speechless for a moment, then puffed up from the praise. The guy that spoke before looked friendlier now.
“Well said for a Greek! Come on in, then.” He turned back towards the smithy and yelled, “Sven, you got your first customer!”
Sam smiled as well. Greek. The Viking guy knew his historic misconceptions. Sam had misjudged the situation after all, it was pleasant to be proven wrong. At the end of the day everyone here was to some degree a bookworm with niche interests. It would be a waste not to get along.
The Vikings parted, and Sam walked between them into an airy square pavilion with a dirt floor. In the middle of the space a huge guy in a leather apron and simple but very authentic clothes was hammering hot iron into shape on top of an anvil.
Sam froze in his steps. This here was a literal history buff. Sven, the blacksmith, could probably bench press the three guys outside with their armor still on. His long red hair was braided and tied at the back not to get in the way. When he looked up from his work, Sam saw a warm smile on the man’s freckled face.
“Hey there…” Sven started casually, then remembered himself and, clearing his throat, corrected himself in a deeper voice, “…that is, greetings, traveller. Are you here to browse my wares, or perhaps seek a custom made just for your needs?”
“Uh, greetings…” Sam found himself struggling for words. Now that Sven stood straight, he towered over him. Sam’s cheeks burned up, and it wasn’t from the warmth radiating from the forge.
The huge redhead frowned, with some worry. “Hope the fellows outside didn’t give you a hard time.” He nodded towards the entrance of the pavilion. “They’re not my usual… raiding party.”
“It’s… all good,” was all Sam managed to say. All his mental energy went into not ogling the smith in too obvious a manner. It was a much harder time in here than it was out there.
“Egypt then? I remember my drakar reached there back in the day, but we must’ve missed you by some few thousand years.”
Sam snorted. “Sounds about right…”
The smith was smiling at him, and Sam smiled back, even though his stomach filled with butterflies that had to be the size of seagulls, or at least it felt that uncomfortable. He was suddenly very self-conscious in his weather-appropriate but scant Ancient Egyptian getup. He had not shaved. He should have shaved. But it wasn’t like he was planning to be picking up guys at the fair. But maybe he should have? The silence was stretching, and Sam felt like a complete fool.
“Are the fine weapons wielded by the group outside of your make, master smith? I have been at this market many times, and never have I witnessed such commendable craftsmanship.” Sam prayed his guess was correct.
“They are indeed,” Sven said solemnly, and then lifted a hand up to his mouth and added quieter, out of character, grinning. “And that’s because it’s my first time. Please be gentle.”
Hot, skilled and funny too. Why was he even getting his hopes up? The guy was probably straight. Or taken. Or both. Sam scolded himself internally. “It is nice to see a new face.” Understatement. “And we haven’t had a blacksmith here for several years. I’d love to see more of your finished work.” Sam was beginning to worry he could be distracting Sven from said work. In fact, he was sure he was doing just that.
“My wares are down here.” The smith waggled his ginger eyebrows and beckoned helpfully to the table right in front of Sam.
Sam wanted to fall through the Earth from shame. He mumbled something apologetically and stepped over to the table. He scrutinized the pendants, knives, brooches and other items, hoping Sven was not still watching him. He wasn’t usually this obvious, but then he wasn’t usually bumping into massive, friendly beefcakes. Sam mentally scolded himself and focused on what he was actually looking at now. And then he saw it all: dozens of daggers, several swords, two chainmail shirts, a few helmets, two axes. And even more impressively, to the side from the larger items an assortment of wrought pendants, keychains and the like, many of them with runes and Norse motives, but also with what Sam quickly recognized to be Tolkien’s drawings. There were birds, dragons, the Eye of Sauron and the eponymous two towers. Sam looked up at Sven.
“These are the Professor’s drawings!” Sam slipped out of the role, but he didn’t care. Was Sven also fond of speculative fiction? On top of everything else?
“Keen eye! I am glad to know his works are as popular in Ancient Egypt as they are among the Norsemen.” The blacksmith laughed heartily.
Sam laughed too, more charmed with every second. He felt his ears and cheeks grow red and tried to mask it by inspecting the merchandise even closer. “Um, how much for a keychain?”
“Well… since you’re my first customer, I might have a special offer. I could exchange it for some… information.”
“Thank you, but I will gladly answer your questions and pay in cash.”
“Tempting.” Sven smiled. “But we’ll see.” He put away his tools and rested both hands on the table, looking at Sam seriously. “You’re with the Pharaohs, aren’t you? I’ve been meaning to get a hold of one of you guys. Namely to ask if you’re still recruiting.”
Sam’s smile faltered. He looked up from the keychains and stared at Sven speechlessly for a moment. So he was right. Sven was at least bi. He wouldn’t be asking otherwise. But this wasn’t entirely good news, because if he wanted to join the Pharaohs, that meant he would meet all the other guys, most of them hotter and more fun than Sam. But he couldn’t say no.
Before the silence got completely awkward, Sam cleared his throat. “Um, sure. We are recruiting. So what kind of bike do you ride?”
Sven grinned. “It’s a bit of an oldie I enjoy keeping alive. Harley FXE.”
Sam nodded. “Most of us have Asian bikes, but there is no rule about that. I can tell you about the rules we do have, and if they work for you, I can introduce you as a hang-around.”
“That would be great. Much appreciated,” Sven managed to say, just as several new people entered the pavilion. The fair must have officially opened. “Choose your keychain, and even if we don’t get to talk much more right now,” the red haired blacksmith side-eyed the newcomers, “I do hope to see you again later.”
Sam nodded, picked out the keychain with Smaug, paid for it and vacated the pavilion. The Vikings outside were busy dueling in front of a group of excited children and hardly even noticed him. The crowds were pouring in, and Sam headed in the direction of the further away food stand, hoping to get in line for a snack before it got too out of control. While waiting he thought about Sven and the predicament of introducing him to the Pharaohs. If he did it right away, he would lose any chance of getting the man interested in him. Practically everyone at the club had a stronger presence than he did. But he didn’t want to lie or refuse to introduce Sven just because he liked him. That would be wrong.
They already had a prospect and a few recently patched in members, and the fourteen-person chapter was getting a bit of a hassle to manage, so they’d even begun thinking of splitting it up into two. But it was all still up in the air. So he could introduce Sven a little later, when the chapter-splitting was fully decided upon. That wasn’t entirely an excuse. He wasn’t just postponing the inevitable and trying to get the hot new guy for himself out of selfish reasons. Who was he kidding, that was exactly it. Sam felt ashamed, but he’d been burned too many times to walk right into another disappointment without at least giving Sven a chance to know him before fading into the background as he inevitably would once the rest of the Pharaohs entered the picture.
The line moved, and seeing he was next, Sam realized he had not even read the menu. He skimmed it in a panic, and babbled out his order, saving face only by virtue of being a very fast reader.
* * *
“Thanks for the help, Samut, we can take it from here.” Mr. Licht finished attaching the tarp to the last museum stand and patted Sam on the back. “Good work, now relax, enjoy your evening.”
“Are you sure? There’s still stuff to load into the car.”
“Mr. Käse and I will take it from here. And you wouldn’t want to keep your friend waiting.” The curator pointed, and Sam turned to discover Sven, the Viking blacksmith, now dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt just like Sam, standing by a lamp pole nearby. Sven waved. Mr. Licht called out to him. “You will buy Sam here dinner! He deserves it! He’s always here before dawn.”
The ginger blacksmith showed thumbs up.
Sam looked between him and Mr. Licht, embarrassed.
The museum curator laughed. “Shoo, go on. Have fun. Don’t forget to get enough rest. And don’t overthink things.”
Sam ambled awkwardly to Sven.
“So your name is Sam?”
The blacksmith smiled. “That wouldn’t happen to be short from Samwise, would it?”
Sam smiled. “No, it’s short for Samut.”
“A genuine Egyptian heritage then, huh?” Sven raised both eyebrows and smiled when Sam nodded. Then the smile turned playful. “So about grabbing that dinner — how about something that a Viking and an Egyptian can both agree on… something round, like Jörmungandr swallowing its own tail, something like the disc of the sun…”
“Pizza?” Sam snorted, looking up at Sven incredulously.
Sven clapped his massive hands. “Ha! I couldn’t have phrased it better myself!”
* * *
Sam got home feeling unreal.
Running on sheer force of habit, he locked the front door, took off his shoes, washed his thermos in the kitchen and left it to dry. He brushed his teeth and prepared for bed, then he lay under the covers staring at the ceiling, completely awake.
The dinner that was not a date was the best not-a-date he’d had in years.
Sven was funny, easy-going and well-versed in not just history but also in the history of Middle Earth. Sam kept going over their interactions for the day and was now convinced he had utterly embarrassed himself in front of Sven. He was crushing so horribly, he must have spent the dinner gaping.
Sven told him he had just moved to New Coalport a few months back and had family upstate. He worked as a mechanic out of his own garage, but did metal and leather working as a hobby when he was not tinkering with cars and bikes. New to the city, he hadn’t yet made any real friends and saw the Pharaohs as the perfect starting point. Sam was sure the Pharaohs would welcome Sven too. Except Yen, who would likely throw a fit at the idea of another mechanic joining them. He’d grown desperately territorial about that ever since he started working professionally. Yet, the foreseeable hostility did nothing to convince Sam it would not be followed by Yen unavoidably stealing Sven from him.
It happened time and time again. Sam would bring a new guy over, a guy he liked but barely dated, and Yen would be in the new guy’s pants before the day was done, date him for a few months, up to a year, then move onto whoever Sam brought to the club next. It had almost become a rite of passage for new members. And left Sam feeling like he’d never find a boyfriend.
And Sven was tall, handsome and muscular. Not just Yen, but the whole male part of the club would be all over him the moment he appeared. None of them would care about his interests or hobbies the way Sam did, but it would not matter. Any one of them had more charisma on their worst day than Sam could muster on his best. He simply did not stand a chance. Against his own club, against his friends.
Sam wrapped the covers tight around himself and curled up on his side. Sven was too dreamy. Hoping to get with someone like him was going to just result in heartache.
* * *
Sunday night they hung out together again, after the fair closed, and Sven gave Sam a private blacksmithing lesson in the empty pavilion, leaving him all the more charmed, but feeling doomed at the same time. On Monday night Sam was so conflicted about introducing Sven to the club that he went to Tamika for advice.
As always, she listened to him attentively while she tidied up the bar at the Pink Lagoon. Sam wanted to help, but she insisted he sat this one out and just talked. Exhausted from carrying other folks’ moving boxes and furniture all day, Sam did not protest.
When he was done relaying his conundrum to her, the woman sat down at the bar next to him and leaned in, looking him in the eye.
“You are not being selfish, Samut. You are never being selfish. That’s the problem.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “You had the right idea to stall. Let him get to know you before you bring him over. You’re not the loudest guy in the club, so it’s good to have the mic for a while, so to say.”
“Yeah, if he’s anything like you described, bringing him over will result in half the club power-sliding to his mic, if you know what I mean,” Josie chimed in from a booth where she was wiping a table with a cloth.
Tamika shook her head smiling. “And even if they do, maybe he is not into that, but you won’t know if you don’t let him get to know you. And it’s just easier to do if you keep him out of the club for a little while.”
“It feels like I’m abusing my position,” Sam murmured.
“Bullshit!” Josie finished with the table and came over. “You’re not preventing him from joining the club, just making him wait a little. And it’s true like you said, we’re still not sure if we’re splitting up into two chapters or not. Bringing another guy in now would be the worst time possible. If we do end up splitting up soon, he’d just have a harder time choosing which chapter to go with.”
Sam looked unconvinced. “I don’t know if I should even bother.”
“Of course you should,” Tamika said sternly. “Is this about Yen? Are you worried about him?”
The women exchanged sour looks.
“I’ll talk to him,” Tamika said.
Sam looked at her, worried. “No.”
“Yes, I will. He needs to be held accountable for what he did to you every single time. He is bound to get antagonistic with the whole mechanic angle, hopefully that will make him keep it in his pants.”
Sam looked doubtful, but said nothing. He sighed.
Josie patted him on the back. “Chin up, Sam. You found your dream guy, go woo him. Leave the club to us.”
“Yeah, if the guys can’t listen to reason…” Tamika started.
“We’ll kick their balls,” Josie finished.
“I’d hoped you’d say ‘butts’.” Tamika sighed. “But yes, we will, if we have to.”
Sam snorted, touched but unconvinced. “Thanks.”
* * *
“What makes you think I’ll be trying to shag the new guy? Is he hot or something?”
“I don’t know Yen, you tell me, was every single boyfriend you stole from Sam hot?”
Yen slid out from under the car he was inspecting. He gave Tamika a stern look. “At the point I shagged them, yes. That said, Quentin’s new hairstyle is a war crime, I’m not letting that pink egg with dreadlocks anywhere near my crotch. You can be bald or you can have dreadlocks, but never both.”
“Charming. But back to the new guy. Can you promise me you won’t get into his pants?” Tamika stared Yen down.
“Oh, jeez, Tam, I don’t know. We’re all gay here, it’s not exactly a monastery. Though, now that I think of it, those are probably even gayer, but as for the new guy, if he doesn’t literally come onto me, I’m not gonna start it.”
“Ugh, promise. Now, can I go back to work, or do I need to pinky swear or something?”
“No pinky swear required.”
“I hope I’m not the only one you’re giving this spiel to,” Yen grumbled, disappearing under the car again.
“No, but you are my number one priority. Josie said if you mess up, she’s going to kick you in the balls.”
“That’s… unwelcome, but fair. I’ll keep that in mind.”
A moment passed in silence. Then Yen reappeared again, looking displeased. “I said ‘I promise’, what else do you want me to do? Sign an affidavit?”
“It wouldn’t hurt.” Tamika snorted. “Where did you even pick up that lingo?”
“One of my clients is a lawyer. I’m sure he’d draft something for us if I sell all my internal organs to cover the expense. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about me stealing that guy from Sam.”
“Alright, alright, as long as you are serious about this, my job here is done.”
Yen disappeared under the car again, and Tamika walked out of his workshop. One down, two more to go.
* * *
Next Saturday, after the fair, Sven took Sam out to see the new Indiana Jones movie.
It was fun, and they had a good laugh about the archeology angle, but Sam missed out on some of the flick, because at one point during the movie, Sven’s hand brushed against his own. He withdrew his hand on instinct and then felt too embarrassed to try putting it back on the armrest between them. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Sven just didn’t notice his hand was there, and Sam was reading too much into it, but he was so agitated, he spent a good several minutes swinging between butterflies in his stomach, doubts whether anything happened at all and burning shame for ruining it.
When the movie was over, he thought of doing something to compensate for the ruined hand touch, but couldn’t gather his courage and just ended up waving goodbye to Sven as they went their separate ways for the night.
He felt like a complete fool.
They met again on Sunday, for dinner at a Greek place. This time they talked about Dragonlance and Moorcock’s stories about Elric. Mostly Sven talked, and Sam nodded and asked him questions. A few times he couldn’t help but babble on when he vehemently agreed with something Sven said, but then Sven smiled at him, and Sam struggled with his gyros from intense awkwardness.
This went on for another weekend after that, until the Pharaohs finally agreed on not splitting the current chapter up, and Sven’s introduction as a hang-around was officially announced. And then Sam found himself riding his bike towards the Pink Lagoon, with Sven following him on his Harley.
They parked in a courtyard behind the bar and, with some trepidation on Sam’s part, went in.
All the Pharaohs were gathered already, and at the sight of Sven many of them openly gaped. In the deadly silence interrupted only by the quiet music playing in the background, Sam introduced Sven to the group. As always he said the barest minimum, allowing Sven to introduce himself the way he preferred before making the round shaking hands and hearing people’s names and their positions in the club.
It was here that Sam’s status as founder finally came out. Sven gave him a bewildered look and asked why Sam hadn’t told him before. Sam mumbled something about not wanting to pressure him.
Before things got too awkward, Josie stood up and clinked a glass with a spoon. “Hear, hear. As it is well known from before, some of us cannot remember names, so let’s do another round of who’s who, then Sven can tell us about himself.”
Some of the bikers groaned, others laughed, but in the end, everyone’s names were repeated a second time. Sam watched the proceedings from the sidelines now, amused, but also proud at how well-organized they could be. The club had become much more welcoming as it grew. He glanced towards the corner of the bar where Zack’s colors hung inside a glass box that comprised a small shrine. Electric candles and artificial flowers decorated the display case, as well as a tidy plaque explaining who the boy was and why they would never forget him.
Sam looked away from the case, feeling a tinge of guilt. He’d been the one who insisted on Zack joining, and then the boy was killed. Had he never spoken up, perhaps Zack would still be alive today. No other member, prospect or hang-around of the club ever suffered the same fate, but the original club members remembered. Some of them more painfully than others — Sam noticed Nakhti forlornly watching the shrine as well, before turning back to look at the new arrival. He wondered if Nakhti felt the same guilt that he did. Or even more of it.
“A mechanic?! What?! We don’t need another mechanic! Boo!” Yen burst out, interrupting Sven’s introduction and making everyone look at him instead. “I am the mechanic around here. And now you bring this Harley-riding white supremacist! Are you even gay, you paprica cracker?”
“Jesus, Yen!” Quentin turned to glare at him.
“Don’t talk to me about Jesus! Do you even eat Jesus?! I eat Jesus every Saturday!”
Sven looked clearly taken aback. Sam instantly regretted not warning him about Yen. He had previously purposefully avoided bringing attention to Yen, but now he realized that could have been a mistake…
While he was blaming himself for the situation, Sven seemed to have recovered from the initial shock. “Well, thanks for the warm welcome, Yen,” he said, when the quarrel between Yen and Quentin died down. “I don’t even really know where to start answering these questions, but yes, I’m as gay as a paprica cracker gets, and I would not dream of uprooting your position as the club’s mechanic.”
“You’re just a hang-around now, so yeah, don’t dream of uprooting the club’s anything yet.” Yen sneered, but then under the glares of everyone else let the matter go.
“I would like to apologize for that big-mouthed doofus, on behalf of the lot of us,” Josie said and gave Yen an intense stare, then turned to Sven with a cordial smile. “We are glad to have you here tonight and on any other night. Take a seat, have a non-alcoholic drink, tell us some more about yourself.”
Sven did, and the rest of the meeting went smoothly.
* * *
Josie caught Yen by the arm as the bikers poured out of the club, heading for a ride. “Hold on, spitfire.”
“What up, Sarge?”
“What’s with you tonight, why did you go all feral on the new guy there?”
“I don’t know, Josie, you tell me, am I supposed to suck his dick or am I not? In which scenario are you going to brutalize me?”
“What?” Josie winced.
Yen rolled his eyes. “Tamika said you’d kick me in the balls if I,” Yen checked that the rest of the club had left, “if I bang that guy.”
“Damn straight I will.”
“Then what’s your problem?”
“Well, can’t you be somewhere in between? Don’t shag him, but don’t be mean to him either.”
“That’s a hell of a thin line, I dunno if I can pull off such a balancing act.”
Josie crossed her arms and glared up at him.
“Ugh, ok, I’ll try not to call him a cracker again. Even though he is the whitest dude I’ve seen all year. Have you seen him?”
“Of course he’s pale Yen, he’s a redhead.”
“Excuses, excuses.” Yen made a talking gesture with his hand. “He’s at the wrong club, he looks like a one-percenter.”
“And you look like a Satanist mime.”
“And then you keep saying you go to church on Saturdays and none of us call you things for it, don’t you think you could extend some of that courtesy to a guy who barely arrived in town?!”
Yen rolled his eyes. “Alright, alright. Jeez. Wow, you just shat all over my heavy metal aesthetic.”
“Tamika told me about the pink egg with dreadlocks. Just cause Quentin is white and balding more than you are doesn’t give you license to be mean.”
“I wouldn’t say that to his face,” Yen grumbled.
“And don’t say it to Sven’s face.”
“Ok, ok…” Yen glared at her, then reluctantly followed Josie outside.
* * *
Their ride on that night was fun and uneventful. Sven was well-received by practically everyone else in the club. By the time they all parted ways, Sven was getting along quite well with most of the ladies, while Quentin, Bob, Jason, and even Nakhti seemed to take some interest in him. Sphinx, Lana and a few others appeared neutral for now, but that was normal. Everything seemed to be going quite well. Everything except for Yen.
The next time Sam met Sven at the fair he apologized profusely for Yen’s behavior.
Sven just laughed merrily. “Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you could have done. And I might be white, but I’m sure not porcelain. Whatever he says can’t even put a crack in this cracker. Still, I’d like to be friends with everyone, even your local demon-spawn. You’ll have to give me some tips.”
Sam smiled. “I’m glad you’re taking this well. Yen can be difficult. He says the wildest things, but his heart is in the right place. I think he’s just threatened by the idea of another mechanic. He might see you as competition at first. Hopefully, as friendly competition after a while.”
“I mean, I’m big and menacing, I see how that can be intimidating for a skinny guy like him. He needs more spikes on his shoulders. At least this long.” Sven spread his arms out dramatically.
Both of them laughed.
“But yeah. I hope we’ll get along.”
Sam felt bad for hoping they would not.
* * *
They did not get along. Whenever the club was out riding, during breaks, as soon as someone seemed to have the slightest trouble with his or her bike, Yen straight up sprinted over ahead of Sven, and it took several weeks for the opportunity to arise where he was not the first mechanic on the scene.
“Hey, what the fuck, I will take care of that, I was just taking a leak, you can’t go behind my back like that!” Yen hurried over to where Sven was helping Nefer, the prospect, with her bike.
Sven looked up at him with narrowed eyes and a smirk on his face, then returned to working on the bike. “Technically you were the one who went behind my back.”
“Ha ha, funny. Technically we both went behind each other’s backs.” Yen glared down at the redhead, walking around Sven and the bike restlessly, looking for an opening. “You wanna get technical with me?”
“Isn’t that what we do for a living?”
Yen huffed and snorted, then not finding a place to squeeze through between Sven and the bike, ended up just nudging Nefer who was squatting next to Sven. “Move over, prospect, let the professional work. And I guess just this once you can let the biking Viking work too, under my supervision.” He crouched in the spot vacated by Nefer and watched Sven like a hawk.
Sven’s eyebrows rose. “Well, aren’t you the benevolent overlord today, skinny meanie? If you’re going to watch me work, maybe do some sit-ups to toughen up a little in the meantime, I’m honestly not sure how you even stand on those noodle legs.”
“Woah watch that big mouth, you might catch not just all the bugs, but also a whole seagull. And careful with those ham arms of yours, don’t tighten the bolts too much.”
”Don’t you know that’s how us Vikings survive on the sea? Also don’t worry. I will be mindful and make sure you can still work on these bolts with your tiny weak hands.” Sven said and having finished tightening the bolt, he got up.
Yen got up and smirked up at him. “Over-torquing is a rookie mistake and could cost Nefer here life and limb. Or at least hella bolts and spare parts. So keep your bologna fingers under control, tighty whity.”
“I know how to do the job, thank you very much.” The redhead gave a hearty grin. “I’m holding back on racial slurs on my end, but so help me biking Viking gods, one day I’ll cross that bridge just for you. Have fun.”
With that, Sven waved at him and walked away to the other bikers.
Yen watched him go with his eyes narrowed.
“Good to see you two are getting along,” Josie congratulated Sven upon arrival.
“Yes, good form,” Tamika chimed in.
Sam looked between Yen and Sven and said nothing.
* * *
That evening was not supposed to be in any way special. After the fair, Sam and Sven drove together to Sam’s place. Sven was going to pick up several fantasy novels he had not yet read, and Sam was very eager to share. It was meant to be a short visit, because Sven had a client bringing a car in late for an emergency fix. But they still had a couple hours before that, so they grabbed some food on the way and then had some more snacks and herbal tea at Sam’s.
It was all going quite nice and casual, and Sam was delighted that Sven was lingering for longer. As they were sitting on the couch, the stack of books on the coffee table in front of them, Sven turned to him, smiled and leaned in.
Sam’s heart fell to the pit of his stomach and bounced back into his throat. He had not seen it coming so soon. And to say he was thrilled was an understatement. But what about his breath? He hadn’t brushed his teeth since early morning. And his clothes were sweaty-
Sven kissed him.
Sam forgot to breathe. For a moment he also forgot how to move any part of himself, including his lips. Then the paralysis wore off, and he kissed Sven back, even though his insides still felt like he was on a rollercoaster. The kiss only lasted seconds, and it was tentative, tender and lacking in passion. On his own end Sam was too nervous, and perhaps Sven was being mindful of that. One way or another, it ended soon, and neither of them made a move to try one more time.
Sparks simply did not fly.
They spent the rest of the evening amicably enough, chatting about books and bikes, and before Sven left, Sam did give him an awkward hug, which turned much less awkward when Sven reciprocated, but it had a distinctly platonic quality. This was through. He had his chance and blew it, Sven would not try to kiss him again, and he’d never have the courage to make the move himself. Not after this blunder. Just as he had feared — he didn’t even need others to impress Sven with their stronger personalities and presences, it was that he himself had too little to offer. Sven probably didn’t like his kiss. If only Sam had been quicker on the uptake with guys he dated earlier, he would have had more experience, he would have been a better kisser. And then maybe he would have had a chance with Sven.
Sam ruminated on all these things as he tidied the house, alone. Ever since Nana passed away, and Yen moved out, it was all on him. He kept the place pristine, but never dared to touch anything in Nana’s room. Not even the dust.
Had Sven wanted to spend the night, they would have had to improvise something with Sam’s and Yen’s old single beds. Or the couch. Oh, this was a complete disaster. He had to get over himself and do something with Nana’s room. Or his room. Not that he had the money. But he could sell Yen’s bed at least.
Sam sat down in a kitchen chair and wrung the washcloth in his hands. He was lonely in this house. But he didn’t have the courage to let anyone in yet. Not this fast.
* * *
It was another weekend, and the fair had finally folded, allowing Sven and Sam to both attend more of the Pharaohs gatherings. This time the club rode far out of town and made a bonfire. Quentin and Bob had brought guitars and amps and were playing some crowd pleasers. The women and some of the guys were dancing, Sam was making s’mores on the fire.
Yen did some mediocre percussion on empty soda bottles for a little while, then went to bother the family size redhead, who sat by the fire, helping Sam with the s’mores.
“Kitchen duty, eh? Good practice in case you make it to a prospect. Unless, of course, you’re already disappointed with us and wanna go join some more appropriate, more one-percentery establishment.”
“I’m good where I am, thanks Yen. But if you’re so fond of percentages, what are you doing here? You could be teaching maths, or working with computers. You’re clearly wasting away. Here, count some marshmallows.” Sven threw a sealed pack at him.
Yen caught it with a snort. “What am I, a calculator? Just because I’m a great mechanic and Asian, doesn’t mean I do math for fun. That’s for nerds. Like you and Sam. Not all Asians are nerds, bad Viking.”
Sven winked at Sam, showing him that he’s taking it well, then turned back to Yen. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to insult. But since you went on the topic, I’ve been dying to know. Is it true that if I put out a bowl of rice with a water-damaged electronic inside it, tiny Asians will be lured to it overnight, and it will be fixed by morning? I thought as a tiny Asian, you’d know.” Sven looked at him with wide-eyed interest.
“If you did it, it wouldn’t work.” Yen sneered. “In fact, if I were you, I wouldn’t even try. Sam however, would do with just a thimble of rice and get a whole new radio or whatever it is he would’ve dunked that needs repairing. But tiny Asians wouldn’t fix your shit for all the rice in the world.”
“Oh, and why is that?”
“Cause you never did nothing for the tiny Asians, you prick, why should we fix your anything?” Yen opened the bag and pulled out a marshmallow. “This is what you look like, only with freckles. Do you realize how ridiculous you’ll look with Egyptian eyeliner? And you’ll have to wear it if you wanna be part of this club.”
Sven laughed. “I really don’t imagine I could look any worse than you.”
Yen gaped at him in outrage, lost for words.
“Besides, you’re not actually making everyone wear that. I’ve never seen him wear any, for instance.” Sven motioned towards Sphinx who came to get some s’mores.
“Sphinx doesn’t need to wear eyeliner, because Sphinx is allergic! That’s a medical exemption.”
Sphinx gave them both a long look as he chewed on the s’mores he got from Sam.
“Sphinx, my man, this cracker is questioning why you don’t have eyeliner! Worry not, I got your back as always.” Yen made finger guns at Sphinx.
Sven lifted up a hand in a gesture of peace.
Sphinx said nothing, as was his custom, took a paper plate with some more s’mores that Sam handed him, and walked back to Romeo, leaving them to their roasting.
“Enough with the slurs, Yen,” Sam said sternly. “Or no s’mores for you.”
“Well, he kind of started it, sort of.” Yen gestured half-heartedly at Sven. “And I’m not planning on eating any anyway, I’m planning on staying a tiny Asian.” He poked proudly at his thin waist. “While for Sven here a few dozen pounds one way or another wouldn’t make a difference. It’s not even… one percent of his mass.”
“Is he bothering you again, Sven?” Nakhti swung by the bonfire, eyeing Yen with suspicion.
Sven began to protest, but Yen beat him to it.
“Nah, I’m just making sure Svenny knows what he’s doing if he dares to become a prospect, cause then I’d be empowered to assign him chores.” Yen laughed diabolically.
“Here’s my answer then. I’m going to take him away now. Enjoy your night, gentlemen,” Nakhti said and with that he grabbed Yen, threw him over his shoulder, and casually walked away with him.
“You have not seen the last of meeee!” Yen yelled, but struggled only for show.
Sven waved at him, then turned to Sam, faking dread. “For real though, on a scale of one to ten, how badly is he going to abuse his power once I’m a prospect?”
“Don’t worry about it. The club won’t let him.” Sam smiled and offered him a fresh s’more.
* * *
Some of the Pharaohs let out literal gasps when Sven showed up to their next meetup in Egyptian-style eyeliner. The black brought out his light grey-blue eyes, making the red-crested mountain of a man even more of a sight than usual.
Compliments rained on him. Until a barking laugh interrupted them, and Yen maneuvered his way through the gathering of admirers.
“You really did it! You look- It’s-” Yen struggled to form words or even breathe. He had to lean on Sam not to fall over. “If that’s how the Vikings raided Europe, no surprise the people couldn’t fight back, they must’ve been pissing themselves! From laughter!”
Sam glared skeptically at him, but magnanimously did not push Yen away.
“Say what you will, but at least I did my own make-up.” Sven smirked. “I’ve been hearing you’d only learned to do yours very recently. And let me tell you, it really shows.”
“Oh yeah?” Yen sighed, finally done with the laughing. “At least I did learn! And you still have that ahead of you. I can teach you, if you ask nicely. Heck, I might even teach you how to be a proper mechanic.”
“What is it, I’m not sure I heard you all the way from those lowlands. You’d like to be taught how to be a proper mechanic?” Sven boomed so that other Pharaohs heard him.
“And who would teach me? You, the over-torquer?”
Sven folded his arms on his chest and looked at Yen with a smug expression. “There’s only one true way to determine who should be teaching whom.”
“I’m all ears.”
“I’ve got a 54 Jaguar XK120M sitting in my workshop. It was in horrible shape, the engine was corroded beyond all hope. But I’ve been rebuilding it on and off, and I’ve got a collector ready to buy it when the restoration is complete. It’s almost ready, but it’s at least twenty more hours of work for me alone. If you can finish it in one day, I will tip my metaphorical hat to you as the greater mechanic. I will also let you have half the profit from the sale.”
Yen eyed him suspiciously for a while “An old-timey Jag, eh? Ah, fuck it, why not.” He offered a hand to Sven, and they shook on it. “When do you wanna do this?”
“How about next Saturday?”
“After 10 am, I am not missing the mass for your clunker.”
Sven’s eyebrows rose.
“Don’t mind the church bit, Yen always says this nonsense. Like they’d let him into a church!” Josie laughed. “He’ll probably tell you he was raised by wolves next.”
“I was not raised by wolves. I was raised by psychotic hyper patriotic ex-hippie junkies!”
“There we go.” Josie spread her arms. The others exchanged humorous looks.
Sven looked from her back to Yen and chose not to go there. “Sure, that time works for me. Don’t chicken out.”
“You wish.” Yen smirked.
* * *
Sam watched in silence as Yen and Sven quipped and made arrangements for their mechanic contest. And while the other bikers joked and egged them on, Sam couldn’t force himself to so much as smile. He knew where this was going. Even if Yen didn’t intend to, he was going to turn this contest of skill into something else. It was just like him.
It did not matter that the two of them seemed to be constantly at each other’s throats. Or that Yen was the instigator of those hostilities. He could trash-talk a guy one day and bed him the same night. And then, several weeks or months later, give or take, he’d move on. And now it was happening with Sven. Sam had no doubt about it.
Maybe if he told Sven about Yen’s history… No, that would be duplicitous and manipulative. He had no right to interfere. Sven was his own man. To have a fling with Yen or not, it was his choice to make. Not Sam’s.
But if he did, Sam knew he would lose him. After the whirlwind that was Yen, Sam was all the harder to notice.
Sam said nothing and silently retreated into the back of the gathering.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen arrived punctually at 10 in the morning. He left his Yamaha V-Max next to Sven’s Harley and instantly went for the scruffy-looking Jaguar. He gave the extracted engine a cursory look and a nod, then stuck his head inside the cabin.
“Ah, man, the previous owner sure did a number on this poor bastard.” Yen cringed. “Fucking hell. Wet batteries, huh? The headliner looks like shit. So does the leather. I hope you don’t expect me to whip the interior into shape in one day too? I’m no wizard.”
“Quitter talk already? You barely got here.” Sven laughed. “But no, just the engine for now. I’d like to hear this baby roar, so that it can have a fighting chance in the concrete jungle.”
Yen stretched and cracked his knuckles. “Let’s get down to business then, shall we?”
* * *
It was dark outside, and they were both covered in oil, but the engine was in one piece with no extra bits left. Yen was smirking smugly.
“Fit this baby back into its mama and see how fast and loud they run together.”
Sven looked at Yen mighty suspiciously. “I still don’t get how you knew what goes where so well. I spent days studying the engine before even attempting to rebuild it.”
“It’s the Asian-ness, the magic power of sky noodle dragons, it runs in our blood.” Yen wiggled his fingers in a would-be mysterious way.
“You say that, but I refuse to believe you didn’t seek the heavy metal guidance from your lord Satan.”
“I won’t answer that. As Lord Satan himself would say, ‘it’s confidential’.” Yen wiped his hands and forearms on a rag and tossed it to Sven. “You got any more of them old-timey cars to put back together?”
The huge red-head caught the rag and used it as well. “Aren’t your tiny hands tired already?”
“My adequately sized hands are never tired. Bring on whatever else you struggle with, mah boy, Uncle Yen’s gonna make that lost bet worth your while. Shit, I’m so good, I could do this with one arm tied behind my back. After a bottle of tequila.”
Sven laughed. “Really? Well then, why not? I don’t have tequila, but I’ve got something better.”
“Better than tequila?” Yen laughed, then looked highly amused when Sven went into the house and came back with a bottle. “Rum? Are you some kind of pirate?”
The huge man grinned. “The fiercest kind, at least according to you. Yo ho ho!”
Yen frowned, confused, then barked a laugh. “Ah you’re taking the whole biking Viking thing seriously then! Good for you. Glad I could help with the personal branding. Speaking of which, in case you need the real professional’s help with a car or bike, there you go.” He pulled a business card from the left thigh pocket of his cargo pants and handed it to Sven.
“Seriously? You have business cards?” Sven looked at the little paper rectangle incredulously, and read it out loud. “‘Yen Riley; If I cannot fix your ride, you must be riding a dick.’” There was a pause. Then Sven roared with laughter. When he was done, he wiped a tear with the relatively clean part of his sleeve. “I’m not sure if you should be helping me with personal branding, but I’m going to keep it as future blackmail material.” He pocketed the business card.
“Brave of you to assume this could possibly count as blackmail.” Yen reached for the rum.
Sven moved it out of his reach with ease.
“A-a, not so fast, you’ve got to work for it with your ultra-precise microscopic hands, like you said you’d like to. How about a mechanic drinking game?”
* * *
Yen gave up on trying to figure out which of the several bolts was the real one and pointed the wrench at Sven instead. “They say scars decorate a man, but whoever said that must’ve never laid eyes on you. What is this all about?” He gestured widely at his nose, almost hitting himself in the face with the wrench, then pointed at Sven.
“That is about taking a broken bottle to the face, so you know, watch out with these if you intend to fall over.” Sven laughed and moved some of the empty bottles aside with his foot — it turned out this pirate was quite well stocked up on the rum indeed. “Now, how can you be asking me about this,” the man touched his nose, “when you have a dick scorpion on your arm? What’s the story with that? I’m dying to know!”
“Funny story, actually. That bastard cost me my first full time job!” Yen pointed at the scorpion on his shoulder that had a dick head for a stinger. “Never regretted it, it’s one of the best tattoos I have, and I have many. Look at this shark fighting a panther! Or this high priest of the sun punching a llama. Classic shit. Anyway, long story short, I used to whore myself at the Rat Trap, working under this pimp called Ro-” Yen paused and made a zipping motion over his lips. “Unimportant what he was called, what matters is we had this whole con figured out. I’d go hang around hotels, find me a kinky old dude, let things get weird enough, then this other Asian relic bursts in and screams ‘Whatcha doin’ with my grandson!’, pedo panics, pays him off, we go back to our boss. I’m not supposed to get cash, but I steal some anyway. The money goes to my head, and I decide to get the most fucking awesome tattoo a thirteen-year-old can think of. Which was this.” Yen gestured at the scorpion with gravitas. “I show up for work, my pimp near pisses himself laughing. Turns out having a dick scorpion tattoo is bad for business when you’re trying to pass for a naive home-schooled kid. Had to go back to stealing and eating from the trash after that. Wouldn’t ‘ve changed a thing if I could.”
He waited for Sven to burst out laughing.
Sven didn’t. He looked at Yen frowning in complete silence.
“What? Didn’t you hear I tell wild stories with not a grain of truth to them? Like my biological family being a bunch of psychos and my real family being a shaman and an Egyptologist?” Yen laughed mirthlessly, then drank some more. “Well that’s the story behind the scorpion tattoo. Anyhow… How did you get to our fair city? With a raiding party?”
Sven stayed silent for a moment longer, then finally, to Yen’s immense relief, he laughed heartily and chugged more rum right from the bottle. “Yes,” he admitted solemnly. “Harken to my tale of terror, for it was so; together with my trusty crew we sailed long and tireless across the ocean, until at long last, we almost reached the shores of New Coalport. It was then that the lives of my brethren were reaped in their prime, when our drakkar crashed against the very stuff of nightmares…”
“What was it?” Yen whispered loudly.
“No… please don’t ask me, I can barely remember… oh no, it’s- it’s coming back now… it was… oh I dread to even say it, it was… your heavy metal aesthetic!”
“You’re saying I have a body count now?” Yen balked. “That’s so hardcore. All the other metalheads will be hella jealous. So what is it again about my ship-sinking aesthetic?” He leaned forward, smirking.
Sven smirked back at him. “Oh, it’s deadly. It cut through wood like butter, is what I’m saying. I’m lucky I survived. Say, is that black lipstick secretly tar from the depths of hell, or just motor oil?”
“Why don’t you get over here and find out,” Yen said without thinking.
Then when Sven kissed him, he equally on instinct pulled him closer by the stupid braids in his ridiculous red hair. He didn’t register when they moved from the garage to the living room couch. Or how his hand got into Sven’s jeans. But he was having one hella good time.
* * *
Yen woke up with a start. He tried to sit up, but there was a huge arm draped over him, keeping him securely in place like one of those guards on a rollercoaster.
“Fuck!” Yen proclaimed. “Shit! Why did I- Damn it!” He lifted Sven’s arm and tried to wriggle out of the huge redhead’s hug, but a sleepy Sven pulled him closer, not letting him escape.
“Well, good morning to you as well…”
“No, you don’t get it! This was not supposed to happen. Oh, for fuck’s sake, why am I always like this?!”
Sven looked at him with half-open eyes. “Hm? Like what? A cuss dictionary? Beats me, really-”
“No! Why did I shag you?”
“Because I’m pretty and conventionally attractive?” The huge man batted his eyelashes.
“Fuck you! You’re as conventionally attractive as my armpit! If I dyed it red.” Yen shoved him.
The ginger mountain snorted and held Yen firmly in place. “You can’t dye it red, because it’s an Asian armpit. I bet you can’t grow hair there if you tried.”
“You’re just bitter, you need to deal with all this shrubbery!” Yen waved a hand at Sven’s chest and arms. “But that’s besides the point, this shouldn’t have happened. Now lemme go!”
“No. And stop thrashing about like a halibut, don’t you see your evil make-up is already all around us?” Sven gestured to the blackened pillows. Then looked at his own hand. Yen’s make-up was there too. “And on us. What is this about anyway? I had a good time last night, I thought you did too.”
“Ugh, I did, but I promised not to shag you! I was specifically trying not to do this! It was a fucking mechanic contest, not a fuck-a-mechanic contest!” Yen pressed his hands to his eyes and dragged his fingers down, taking his look to a new level of spawn of Satan. “I always do this. Why do I always do this?!”
Sven let him go, and looked at him with a frown. “You promised not to shag me? Who did you promise to?”
“Tamika! Now piss off!”
“Tamika? What’s her deal? She wants to woo me so that I smelt custom chains for her girlfriend’s fire swinging gig or make decor for the Pink Lagoon?” The big man’s frown began to clear in amusement, only to deepen instead. “Wait a second… Is this about me and Sam? Because then you shouldn’t worry, recently I was under the impression Sam wasn’t all that interested after all.”
“Oh, he’s interested, he’s just a shy nerd who moves real slow. And doesn’t get drunk and shag a guy on a whim, like a complete jackass.”
Sven took a longer pause and appeared to be thinking, yet still lounged in bed unperturbed. “Well I’m not very slow, and I wasn’t aware there was an arrangement, so excuse me that I shagged you and enjoyed it very much. Now, how about we shag again?” He grinned at Yen brilliantly.
“Fuck no! This is not becoming a thing.” Yen moved away and sat on the edge of the bed, his back on Sven. “I had fun last night, but you don’t want this, trust me. You don’t know what you’re getting into. I’m a real piece of work! Ask anyone!” He cast an angry glare back at Sven.
“Why not? Maybe I like myself a piece of work. Plus you’ve got a dick scorpion tattoo, how is a man to resist that?” Sven reached out towards the coveted tattoo with his big hand, but Yen batted it away.
“Do you even hear yourself? A dick scorpion — that’s so tacky, such poor taste! Sam meanwhile has very tasteful Egyptian stuff all over his place and no weird socially taboo tattoos! You two are nerds, you should get along! Let’s forget this whole thing happened and with the new knowledge that Sam is, in fact, very interested, go forth and conquer him, biking Viking!”
“But what if there’s more conquering to be done right here? Us biking Vikings are our own people. And we thrive in rough, hostile climates, such as this. Sam is cute, but can he drag me through mud the way you do? No he can’t.”
Yen balked, openly gaping at him. “What are you, some kind of fucked up masochist?”
“See?” Sven laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
“No, no, no, no! I can keep pestering you, if it gets you off, but you should date Sam. Sam’s great! He can take care of you!”
“But I don’t need to be taken care of. I like to take care of people.”
“Then you could take care of Sam!” Yen gestured desperately.
Sven looked at him with cunningly narrowed eyes. “Are you admitting that you care for your friend, and feel guilty about what happened?”
“I’m just saying Sam is a great guy who deserves to be happy, and he can make you happy too!”
“Well, then if that’s what you’re saying, then I’m afraid your meticulous asshole disguise is slipping, and now I’m even more into you.” Sven flashed him a big innocent smile and shrugged.
“Oh come on!” Yen slapped his thighs in frustration. “You don’t wanna be with me! I’ll shag you twice and get bored! And I’ll get into Nakhti’s pants in between those two shags. I have the self-control of a horde of monkeys on cocaine!”
“Is that why you go to church on Saturdays, in a valiant attempt to change your ghastly lecherous ways?”
“No. I shagged the priest. Then he adopted me, but it’s a long story! In his defense, by the time we shagged, I was a consenting adult, so don’t you dare hold it against him!” Yen shook a cautionary finger at Sven. “And don’t tell anyone. He has a reputation, he’s a good man. And here I go again! See, I can’t keep a secret either! Fuck!”
“A priest you shagged adopted you? Well then, it means you do have a record of one night stands resulting in lasting relationships. We could be next.” Sven humored him with a smile that was not going anywhere.
“No, come on, that’s not the conclusion you’re supposed to draw! I shagged every Pharaoh that has a dick, except Sam, but not for lack of trying! I can’t keep it in my pants!”
“Well, and you don’t have to.” Sven shrugged. “I’m not all that possessive for a Viking, as long as you’re fine with me raiding overseas, and bringing slaves home once in a while, your pants are yours to command.”
“Slaves?! You should be hooking up with Quentin!”
“No kidding, you really can’t keep a secret.”
“And that’s not all! Not by a mile, you know. I-I uh, I’m messed up, I’m damaged goods!” Yen balled his fists in frustration, then shook them at the ceiling before turning to glare at Sven. “Do you seriously wanna be with someone who whored himself as a kid? You want those potential STDs, that baggage? You want to maybe clean me up or try to wean me off of drugs?! Well, newsflash, that’s not happening, I come from a family of degenerated junkies! Biologically!”
“What, you’re already planning kids?” The big redhead laughed and shook his finger at Yen. “Now you’re moving too fast, specifically to deter me!”
“Yes, it’s all about you! I do drugs just to deter you, that’s how I started doing drugs originally, with the thoughts of one day meeting you.” Yen gave him the finger. “So you know, I’m so far gone, I did drugs you wouldn’t even know names of!”
“Well that’s some heavy stuff, so let me get one off my chest as well. From time to time I… smith gadgets from Lord of the Rings.”
Yen stared at him silently for a long time, wide-eyed. “Ok, this is worse, don’t tell anyone. For shame.”
There was a long comfortable silence with both of them rather amused at the end of it all. But then Yen winced and resolved to use the heaviest artillery he could think of.
“I also cheated at our contest. I have the engine blueprints for this exact Jaguar at home. Xeroxed, of course, not the original. But I worked on one before. So I knew exactly what to do.” Yen rubbed the back of his neck, looking around the room, too ashamed to look Sven in the eyes. “I’m not a genius. And I didn’t win shit.”
There was silence so grave and sudden that Yen had to turn to see it.
Sven’s expression fell. The man looked at him, serious and hurt, whatever they had going on before, now shattered beyond repair.
Yen felt a pang of sadness at the sight, but also triumph. He finally got the result he wanted. His reputation was ruined, but it seemed he struck a chord. Yen struggled to contain the joy of his dawning victory.
Sven’s grin returned like a yoyo, and the man roared with laughter. He laughed and laughed, and then he wiped a tear from his eye. “Sorry. Was that supposed to somehow change my mind? Good to know that you can admit such things. But of course, the only possible way I’ll ever forgive your heinous misdoings is… if you let me Xerox that Xerox.”
“Oh fuck you! I’m gonna give you Xeroxes of my ass, you insolent cracker!” Yen looked around for something to throw at Sven, but couldn’t find anything suitable. “Where are the slippers in this house so I can throw them at you?!”
“In this household we walk barefoot, like real men, but here, have this if you must throw something.” He tossed a pillow at Yen.
Yen caught it and threw it back at him. “Thanks!”
They did it a few more times. Then Sven grinned. “Now, do I need to disembark on your shores to rape and plunder your villages and monasteries, or will you come aboard willingly?”
* * *
“Shit, I look like a sad clown,” Yen remarked upon seeing his reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Is that why you couldn’t keep your hands off of me? Do you have a clown fetish, you freak?”
Sven looked into the mirror as well. His mouth was covered with Yen’s black lipstick. “Well, I look like I ate a sad clown, so maybe there is something to it.” He turned to Yen with a haunted expression.
“You’re gonna have to gurgle with soap.” Yen shook his head.
“Dear God, I wouldn’t want to drown him too.”
“I guess it’s true what they say. You are what you eat. I think we should drop this whole mechanic gig and join the circus.” Yen gave their reflections an unimpressed look and got into the shower. He made room for Sven.
“So we are drowning him after all.” Sven stepped into the shower, taking up all the room Yen left unoccupied. “Sad times. I will cry now, so let’s run the shower, so that the rain may hide my tears.”
Yen snorted and ran the hot water. As usual, it wasn’t all that hot at the start, and Yen barely suppressed a shudder. As the first order of business, both of them washed their faces with soap. When that was all rinsed, Yen suddenly found himself being pulled close to the meaty redhead again. Sven grinned at him, and Yen gave him a wry look.
“You’re not scrubbing well enough, the spots are not coming off.” He poked the freckles on Sven’s cheeks one after another, then his eyebrows rose as his gaze ran down Sven’s equally freckly chest and further down. “We’re gonna need a lot of soap.”
“Oh, they’re not coming off no matter what.” Sven smiled, holding him. “These are marks from the leprosy that almost killed me when I was but a wee babe.”
“Are you sure they’re not scars from that fateful shipwreck against my heavy metal aesthetic?” Yen stuck his pierced tongue out at Sven. Sven caught it by the piercing. And that somehow led to kissing. Yen wasn’t sure why or how. But it felt good, and Sven was hugging him close, gripping Yen’s ass with his huge warm hand. Yen withdrew from the kiss with a laugh. “We just shagged, what kind of stamina you got, you horny leper!”
“Funny, cause that’s the same question death asked me when I was fighting my way back from its door at the tender age of five.”
“You boned the grim reaper when you were five? You’re slowly earning the right to join my metal clique.”
“I suppose the grim reaper is a type of sad clown.”
“Doesn’t get much sadder or clownier than that.” Yen shrugged.
They finished washing without incident, then when they were drying off with towels, Yen couldn’t help but stare at the epic struggle of man versus hair that unfolded beside him. Sven had enough hair for the two of them, Quentin and a random completely bald guy.
Catching his stare, Sven beamed. “You know, without make-up on you actually look like a normal person. Who knew you have a face under there? And it’s not such a bad one either.”
“I’m not a normal person, so I’d rather not look like one.” Yen snorted. “False advertisement.” He looked wistfully at Sven’s mane of hair. It was a bitch to keep up all that hair, he could respect Sven for keeping it this ridiculously long, but he didn’t want to voice it that way. “Have you not cut your hair since you were a teenager or something? Maybe I’m gonna pull a Delilah on your ass and cut it with my edge while you sleep.”
“You couldn’t even hope to handle the weight of my cut hair, so watch out.” Sven laughed, and threw the wet towel at Yen.
It hit Yen on the face and stayed there. “I’m not your laundry basket!”
“I did say, watch out.” Sven laughed louder. “Besides, it proves my point. You can’t even handle the weight of a slightly damp towel.”
Yen tore the towel off, wound it tight and slapped the Viking on the arse with it. “I’ll show you who can’t handle what!” He laughed.
“Hey,” Sven formed a protective barrier with his large hands. “I know you had an abusive family, but you don’t have to take it out on the poor shipwrecked Norsemen! It’s a vicious cycle!”
Yen snorted and menacingly pretended to aim for another strike with the towel. “I don’t mind at all, if this makes you go pillage those fucks. I can give you the address.”
“Nah, I’ll pass. Judging by what you said, I wouldn’t want to meet them. But if you drop your weapons, you might one day be invited to meet my family. Just like me, they have a thing for sad clowns, it would be a riot.”
“Pf, seriously?” Yen stopped fooling around with the towel and gave him an incredulous look.
Sven flashed his teeth in a grin. “Yeah, but only if you introduce me to your adoptive shaman priest father.”
“Hm, are we dating then or what?”
“You bet your sad clown ass we are.”
* * *
When the two of them walked into the Pink Lagoon, all heads turned towards them. Sven was as cheerful as always, but Yen couldn’t help but shrink under that scrutiny. Josie was somewhere out there waiting to kick him in the balls.
“So how did the bet go?” Tamika asked from the bar.
“Obviously Sven won,” Josie chimed in. Seeing Yen shrink even more, she added. “I mean look at Yen, it’s clear as day he lost.”
Sven beamed at them in a greeting, then looked really sad. “Actually, he won. We just decided to confuse you with our body language.”
“No way, if Yen won we wouldn’t hear the end of it, he wouldn’t be skulking like this.” Josie shook her head.
Quentin, who was watching Yen like a hawk, stood up and announced. “Yen won. But he also lost.”
“What is this poetry?” Josie winced. “Prose, Quentin, please, for the simple people.”
“Our mechanic rivals have become mechanic lovers. Behold the walk of shame, as yet another victim falls to trial by Yen,” Quentin spoke in a clear melodious voice. Then he sat down and said in a more casual tone, “He did the same awkward jig when he banged me, remember.”
“Oh, no, Yen, you didn’t!” Josie gasped in outrage.
“Yen!” Tamika slapped the bar with a rag in disappointment.
Yen grimaced and looked at the floor.
Sven cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention. Even the club leader looked his way. Sam was looking too, from his spot beside Nakhti, mostly hidden in the shadow of the other man.
“Excuse me, I just want to say that it’s all my fault. Yes, we banged, but nobody made me aware that for some reason Tamika and Josie wanted me all to themselves, and that Yen here was some sort of forbidden fruit. He was actually trying his best to be my sworn rival until the very last moment. Sadly we, Vikings, have this awkward conquering habit, I got carried away, but I thought it’s okay to be gay here, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong…”
Tamika and Josie looked confused for a moment, then exchanged looks and came to an unspoken agreement. Josie threw her hands into the air. “Bisexual threesome plot ruined! Damn you, Yen!”
Some of the bikers laughed, others looked bewildered but amused.
Yen gave an apologetic shrug, but didn’t look quite as guilty anymore. He remembered now, he’d promised Tamika not to come onto Sven himself — he never promised not to reciprocate if Sven came onto him. He wasn’t sure who came onto whom when they got drunk, but he had the vague impression he could have kept his word. Possibly.
He glanced towards Sam and found the little guy had fully retreated behind Nakhti. Yen hung his head, feeling like a very shitty friend.
* * *
Yen entered the confessional and knelt.
“Good morning, son. But why are you here?” Blaise sounded mildly baffled.
“I didn’t know when you’d be home, so I figured this would be the more reliable way to get a hold of you. And lo! I was right,” Yen jubilantly congratulated himself, then his tone grew less cheerful. “I uh, I actually have something to confess. I messed up, Dad. I stole Sam’s boyfriend.”
Blaise sighed. ”Again?”
“Yeah… It keeps happening, right? I just can’t help it. I guess I’m too lovable.” Yen snorted mirthlessly. “But Sam really liked this guy, and I feel shittier than usual about this. They would be so well-matched if I didn’t enter the picture. They’re both nerds and share the whole history obsession. The guy’s big, loud and nice, and he’d take good care of Sam, I’m sure.”
“Well, what has been done cannot be undone. I’m sure this big loud man has a mind of his own, and the blame is shared. Still, tell me more about how you stole him, and how the matters are shaping up.”
“It just kind of happened. He’s that new mechanic I’ve been ranting about, we were trying to one-up each other while drinking, and one thing led to another. We went on several dates since then, and I really like him. I know, I like all the guys I shag, and I shag a lot of guys, but this time it’s different. Sven is…” Yen bit his lip. “He’s really something. He’s got this wit, he’s like a fountain of jokes, and we keep roasting each other. Visually he’s not my type. I mean, his muscles are gorgeous, but he’s so white he’s got freckles. And he has this whole weird Viking thing going on like a total nerd. But he’s so lively, unlike Nakhti, he doesn’t idolize me like Quentin did, instead he taunts the hell out of me, while still showering me with affection like only you did before. And I’m loving it. I feel at home with him. I think it’s serious…”
“Hmm… now, that is quite a story, son. I suppose since you’re bringing that Sven to my attention, there really must be something to it despite the freckles.”
“Yeah, I never clicked like this with another guy. We even talked about introducing each other to our families. But hell, I shouldn’t be making these plans. I should be looking for a way to get him to date Sam instead. Sam did so much for me, and all I ever did was steal his guys.” Yen leaned his forehead on the lattice. “I’m a shitty friend. I don’t deserve to be happy with Sven.”
“So he does make you happy… Well, if you were expecting me to scold you, then I’m afraid you have come to the wrong confessional,” Blaise ruled. “Sam is a grown man who needs to work on his confidence and personal charm, but that doesn’t mean you need to tone down yours. I will be interested in hearing more about that new boyfriend of yours and perhaps in meeting him one day. For now, I grant you absolution, and if you are really looking for penance, then you can help me around here in the evening.”
Yen smiled and stayed silent for a while. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll be there.”
⚞ ☥ ⚟
Since the day Yen won the contest between him and Sven the bickering between them gained a new, flirty undertone. Whenever the bikers would stop somewhere for a snack, those two would be verbally at each other’s throats as they fussed over the bikes. Then they would get the job done and crack jokes at each other’s expense. And in the end ride home together.
Sam still got a few words in with Sven now and then about the books they were both reading or any upcoming exhibitions and fairs. Yen stayed pointedly away on those occasions. One time, when Sven couldn’t be at the club gathering due to an emergency client call, Yen tried approaching Sam with apologies.
“I’m sorry, man, you know how I am. I can’t help it. I tried pointing out to him that you two nerds are a far better match, but he wouldn’t listen. And I really like him now…”
Sam couldn’t look him in the eye, and Yen took it for a cold shoulder treatment and withdrew soon after. In truth Sam was reconciled with losing yet another potential boyfriend to Yen. He wasn’t even resentful anymore. Only disappointed and weary. Sam felt heartache at the sight of his newest crush hugging Yen close like a spiky leather-clad ragdoll. Sam couldn’t stand it and mostly looked away on those occasions, until one day he noticed that Yen actually hugged Sven back.
There was something different this time. Perhaps Yen finally found someone he would date for more than several months. Good for him. Sam accepted defeat.
He stayed in the club till late that night, and when he was almost done helping Josie and Tamika clean up, he noticed they were not the only ones there. Nakhti was still sitting in his spot, in their usual booth. He seemed to be lost in thought, his expression utterly apathetic, as it tended to get when the man thought no one was looking. Sam walked over to the booth, feeling about as apathetic and glum as Nakhti looked.
“Um, the girls are closing the place down. We should go.”
Nakhti barely looked at him, but he did look. Just a subtle turn of dark eyes. Then a nod.
“You’re right,” the club leader said after a moment, and got up from place.
They said their goodbyes to Tamika and Josie and walked outside into the cold night air. It was late enough that the street was mostly empty. It would be a nice, calm ride home. Safe. But also lonely. Sam wondered if Nakhti felt the same way. He’s been single for a while. But then he’d seemed depressed even when dating Yen. Escaping his own lonely headspace, Sam latched onto that train of thought.
“Nakhti, what’s wrong? Something’s been gnawing at you ever since you came to New Coalport. Do you want to talk?”
“No, not really.” Nakhti stopped next to his bike that was parked in front of the Pink Lagoon and glanced at Sam. “But thanks for the thought.”
“I also noticed you were very invested in our previous Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but when we started the new campaign, still set in Egypt, you didn’t want to participate. Everyone else made new characters. Would you like to carry over your previous one? We could figure something out with the levels.”
“Nah, thanks, Sam, but I don’t care about my character.”
That was not the impression Sam got as the dungeon master. He looked at Nakhti incredulously. “You seemed to be really into it back in the day. Erro had a great build, you put a lot of work into his backstory and played him well, and we even developed his family quite a bit. We could carry it all over into the new campaign.”
“It wouldn’t be the same.”
“Sure, but that’s the point of a new campaign. You can change things up.”
“No,” Nakhti said firmly. He frowned and for the first time this evening, there was some sort of emotion in his eyes. “Just leave them all be.”
Sam studied him. “Well, if you change your mind, I would love to get you playing again. I’m sure we could make it work if you want to keep playing Erro, even as an NPC or guest character.”
Nakhti got on his bike. “Sorry, Sam, but like I said, I’m not interested.”
“Very well. But if you change your mind, we’d love to have you back at the table.”
“Just let it go, Sam. I’ve never been a great team player anyway.”
Sam shook his head and got on his own bike. “I’m not trying to convince you. Just making sure you know you are welcome.”
“Yeah, I got it. But still no, thanks.”
They said goodnight, and Nakhti rode off into the night. Sam watched him speed away, then rode off slowly and carefully, heading home.
* * *
Some weeks later Sam was riding past their old hangout from the days before the Pink Lagoon opened. The place had many good memories, but also bittersweet ones. Sam looked at it with nostalgia, and then his eyes stopped on a very familiar bike parked in front of it. He signalled, slowed down and parked his own bike beside Nakhti’s. He stepped inside the bar and studied the crowd. Surely enough, there was Nakhti, sitting at their old table, alone, with a drink in front of him. Sam bought a glass of soda and walked over to the table.
The club leader looked up at him. If he was surprised, it did not show. “Hi.”
“May I?” Sam nodded at the table.
Sam sat down. He watched Nakhti in silence for a while. The other man didn’t try to fill the silence, so they just sat there. Sam did not mind. They’d spent long hours in silence reading together as kids. What bothered him was this joyless apathy that seemed to be Nakhti’s default state these days. It was always there, even when the man joked or interacted with others, it lay at the foundation of his persona. What others could mistake for nonchalance or aloofness to Sam looked like a depressive sort of nihilism. He wanted to understand, to help Nakhti somehow. But Nakhti had on several occasions refused an open invitation to talk.
He didn’t seem to have a problem talking when they’d played Dungeons and Dragons, however. Which was why Sam couldn’t even for a moment believe that Nakhti had truly lost interest. He remembered Nakhti’s earlier words. He wasn’t big on playing as a group, while he had previously been quite into playing in general.
“The other night I invited you back to the D&D table, and you said you’re not a team player. But what about playing a separate campaign, just you and me, picking up where we left off with Erro.”
Nakhti looked at him wearily. “Leave it alone, Sam. There’s nothing more to play there.”
“That’s up to me, I can come up with new adventures.”
“No. You just don’t get it. When we finished the campaign, you said they all lived happily ever after. Can’t you just leave them to it?”
Sam studied him for a long time, trying to gauge the hidden meaning behind Nakhti’s words. Nakhti kept saying ‘them’, even though he didn’t want to play with others. Erro had a family. He was the only character in the party that had a family. “We could play the happily ever after, if you like.”
Nakhti frowned in mild confusion. “How do you even do it?”
There was the time Nakhti kept them playing for ten hours straight when Erro’s family was kidnapped. He did not rest until the party rescued them. Sam had thought it was just commitment to character or intense need for closure. Now he wasn’t so sure. “Like we usually do, I’d tell what is happening, you tell me what Erro does. We roll dice.”
The club leader shook his head. “No, you see the problem with rolling dice is that something bad can happen, I never liked that. How is it supposed to be escapism when there is such risk involved?”
“Well, then we don’t have to roll dice. We can freestyle. It can be low stakes.” Sam looked at him, bewildered. “No stakes even. If you like.”
Nakhti frowned at him for at least a minute.
“Erro could go to the city marketplace with his wife and son and buy them surprise gifts, while they’re distracted by a display of caged exotic birds,” Sam offered softly. “He could teach his son to fight or pilot a boat on the Nile. He could help his wife arrange the home shrine…”
Nakhti gave him an unreadable but very intense look that made Sam trail off to assess the situation. Was Nakhti upset? Was he interested? Sam was coming up with something to say, when suddenly Nakhti grabbed his barely touched drink, downed it in one go, got up from his seat and said, “Alright. Let’s go to your place and do that.”
The club leader gave him another strange look. “Of course, now. You can’t just offer that and backtrack… I mean, you’re not busy now, are you?”
“Um, no. Sure, let’s go.” Sam drank his own soda, wincing as its full bubbling intensity hit him in the nose. He could almost feel Nakhti’s impatience, so he hurried up. They paid the bill and moments later they were on their bikes.
Sam had never seen adult Nakhti show that much interest in anything. It was almost unsettling. He spent the ride home remembering exactly where the campaign left off and what Erro’s family had been up to. When they arrived home, he quickly found Nakhti’s character sheet and his own notes. He left the dice on the shelf and set the papers on the table. He tried to offer Nakhti tea, but the man didn’t want any. He seemed almost restless. Sam brought them a glass of water each, just in case. He was getting the impression it might end up being a long session.
“So, with the heretical cult quashed and the invaders chased from the land, Erro and his family settled in their own small but comfortable estate in Memphis. We didn’t go into too much detail back then, but would you like to do that now?” Nakhti was nodding eagerly, so Sam continued. “Sopdet wants to decorate the house properly, Erro brought many trophies from his adventures, but his wife is as usual picky about what could be placed in which room. She likes the ritual blade from the false temple. Unbothered by superstition, she wants to hang it in the hall, as an announcement and a warning to all who come in: here lives a hero that has toppled the false idols — bring no ill will into this house. What does Erro want to do?”
“I want to embrace my wife…” Nakhti said without hesitation. Then corrected, “I mean, Erro goes to embrace his wife. He missed her a lot.”
Sam paused for a moment. That was a lot to unpack. “Sopdet is contemplating the dagger she placed on the wall, and so she is taken by surprise when Erro comes up to her and hugs her. She smiles and kisses him on the jaw. ‘It is good to have you home at last, dear’.”
“I hold her for a long time, and promise never to leave the city again. Sopdet, my guiding light, where is our son?”
* * *
It was 4 am. Sam lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Nakhti had just left.
They’d played for hours, ordered a pizza and then played more. Nakhti only went home because Sam had been struggling with his replies and nodding off at the table. Now finally resting under the covers Sam felt exhausted and worried that he had only a few hours left to sleep. But all he could think about was how engaged Nakhti had been. How utterly he had lost himself in Erro’s calm, mundane, happy family life.
Erro was the one of the two straight heroes they’d had. The other had been Josie’s male fighter, who was a renowned womanizer, but in the new campaign Josie was playing a female rogue. No one except Erro had an actual family, and nobody was as invested in their imaginary romantic partners as Nakhti was.
It made Sam wonder. Was Nakhti lonely now that he was single? No, he had always been quite intense about Erro’s feelings towards Sopdet. Even when he was still dating Yen, and their campaign was barely beginning. The session when the party returned to the safety of the city to find out Sopdet had given birth to a son bubbled up in Sam’s memory. A full range of emotion had crossed Nakhti’s face back then. He was never that emotional outside of the game. And as much as Sam would be flattered to think that it was his masterful storytelling that elicited such emotion in Nakhti, he now suspected it was something else.
Was Nakhti a closeted bisexual? Did he want a family? But what would be stopping him? He was the most conventionally attractive man in their club, possibly one of the most good-looking men in town. His job wasn’t glamorous, but he had means. If he wanted to find a woman, it would be easy as pie. And the Pharaohs would never turn away from him over something like that.
Sam couldn’t understand. But at least a dialog was started. Perhaps in time, through Erro, he would learn what was really gnawing at Nakhti, the source of his malaise. In the meantime, this was a wonderful opportunity to forget about his own problems.
Sam yawned. He was so tired, he didn’t even have the energy left to think about his own lonely life. He closed his eyes and drifted fast asleep.
* * *
Their son asleep in his bed, clutching a toy sword, Erro and Sopdet sneaked out of the house into the small but lush garden. There, between the palms they rested in each other’s arms and watched the starry skies.
“I want you to stay with me forever,” Sopdet whispered, caressing her husband’s face. “But won’t you miss your friends as their travels take them away from us?”
Erro looked at her lovingly, and ran his fingers through her hair.
“They don’t need me. You do. Besides, even after all our travels together, they still don’t really know me.”
“Yes, I suppose they don’t. But you’ve been away so much, risking your life for us, for this land, I feel I could get to know you better myself.” His wife watched him tenderly, starlight glinting in her eyes. A playful mood came over her and she shifted, resting her head on his shoulder, she walked her fingers up his chest. “So tell me, Erro. What secrets are you hiding?”
“I wish I could just show my mind to you,” Erro said and leaned his head against hers. “But I suppose words will have to do. Do you remember how I told you that I came here from a far away land?”
“Well, before that, I came from somewhere else.”
“Another, even more far away land?” She laughed.
“You could say that.” Erro smiled sadly, and he touched her face, gently turning it until her eyes looked towards the sky. “It’s very far away now. Too far to ever go back. But I am here with you and our child, and that’s the only thing that matters.”