Tainted By Our Choices

 

 

Tainted by our choices is a contemporary romance that has flashbacks, sex, environmental awareness, and a slight fixation on dessert. Potentially all at the same time.

Meet Jack. A successful environmental officer working within an industry that is so very far from his childhood dream of saving the planet, that he no longer recognizes himself. How he’s found himself in Houston, Texas, where he has no one, and nothing but his work for company, he tells himself repeatedly he doesn’t know. But when the place that became home had the heart sucked right out of it, and all around him were the remnants of a life he wouldn’t get to have, Jack ran, at the first opportunity given to him.

On a bright, sunny morning, Jack sees a face so familiar to him that he knows it better than his own, one that takes him back first to a beach in his childhood home of Tampa Bay, and second to a college in Boston where Jack learned – and lost – his heart.

Tainted by our choices is the story of first crushes, loves, and heartbreaks, and the fallout that left Jack clinging to his past. Join him on his rediscovery of himself, as a chance meeting reminds him of the life he always wanted to lead. Is he brave enough to live it?

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As Nature Intended – Extract

Cover As Nature Intended

Elliot remembered with painful clarity the events that had led up to the exact moment he thought his life might be effectively over.

One early evening the week after his fourteenth birthday during a sweltering summer, Elliot was stood on his aunt Ellie’s porch in the still blazing sun, sipping on homemade lemonade, when he first felt an unfamiliar ache in his lower back. He and his cousin Sebastian had been busy playing with the family’s new puppy, chasing it back and forth across the lawn, and in and out of the small cluster of trees at the bottom of the garden for most of the day, so it had taken him a while to notice, acknowledging far too late that the pain had been with him since early that morning.

By the time the sun finally set, Elliot’s skin was glistening with sweat, and a fever raged just beneath the surface like an itch he couldn’t scratch. His pulse raced, his heart trembled with a sense of anticipation, and coursing through his entire body was the palpable need to be ready, all radiating out from a point deep inside himself that ached in a way he didn’t understand.

Aunt Ellie had sent him to bed with pain relief and a soothing kiss to his temple, a grim set to her jaw that told Elliot even then, that she knew something that he did not. And when the following morning came, when that ache and need had him writhing and moaning in unaccustomed agony, leaving him trying to seek friction, and fullness that he couldn’t place, Elliot understood. With quiet horror, he moved, feeling a leaking slickness coming from him that soaked straight through his clothes and the sheets beneath him on the bed, leaving him unable to deny his new truth.

Omega.

An oppressive stillness had come to him then, forcing up memories of biology classes in school that he’d thought he’d tuned out at the time. About how somewhere along the line of humanity, it had become possible for both men and women to conceive offspring, and that from that development was borne the Alpha, Beta and Omega dynamic. Betas carried on much as regular people always had done throughout human history, but instinct drove Alphas to impregnate, and Omegas to get pregnant, with those needs underwriting every aspect of an Alpha or Omega’s life. During a period of population crisis, the allele for Omega had shifted from recessive to dominant, and Alpha to recessive, with geneticists theorizing it was because a single Alpha could impregnate many Omegas, and were therefore in an evolutionary sense far less essential. Elliot remembered joking about telling that to his Alpha friends, and the laughs it had gotten around the class.

Elliot also remembered from those classes the apparent fucked up way the human body chose to reproduce. How once upon a time, many, many generations ago, when the world was evidently an even worse state than it was then in Elliot’s lifetime, women could carry a healthy baby to full term at around nine months. But in Elliot’s lifetime, male Omegas statistically proved stronger breeders, had overall better fertility, could endure gestation periods of almost eight months, where most Beta women, if they made it at all, could barely cope with six. Omega women fell somewhere in between, and considered very rare, but were still at higher risk of complications than Omega men.

That only two genders were legally recognized, when an entire spectrum of creation, and existing was possible between people, would continue to baffle Elliot, even then, in that moment, trapped in a sterile waiting room where he was waiting for his results to be confirmed and unable to stop his thoughts from wandering, desperate for good news.

He had already paced around the room several times, pausing once or twice to glare at his reflection in the mirror to critique his appearance, taking in the family trait of strawberry blond hair that on his cousin Sebastian appeared red in places yet on himself Elliot could only think to describe as dirty. Pale blue eyes stared back at him, accusatory and mocking, goading him into actions he wanted no part of, until he had to turn away, only to be drawn back once again to looking at all his flaws, seeking out a visible reason for his predicament.

Elliot strained to hear the nurse beyond the closed door, but only muffled voices taunted him. The waiting left him incensed with fear, because the last thing he needed was for what was happening to him then to really be happening. But he could feel it intensifying in him, his instincts fighting to be allowed to surface and force him into wanting things he really didn’t want to think about. There was no other word for it; Elliot was frightened. He remembered that first, overwhelming heat, when he’d thrashed and begged for things he didn’t know, couldn’t understand, as his family stood by helpless and unable to do anything for him, and that aching sense of hard arousal so out of place in his innocent fourteen-year-old body that left him feeling wrong, and broken. Corrupted.

He remembered scaring Sebastian, only a year younger than him yet almost the same height, his petrified eyes peering at Elliot through a crack in the door as Uncle Bernard and Aunt Ellie tried to soothe him, tried not to look at Elliot as though he was different, something fearsome to them, because they didn’t really know what they needed to do.

Elliot remembered hearing Uncle Bern’s panicked call to his already-absent father, Carl, and his subsequent though much-delayed arrival, only to glance over Elliot with callous eyes that told Elliot one thing; this was his final failure as a son being what he was.

Remembering all those things, Elliot couldn’t, wouldn’t allow the Omega in him to rise and force such mindless need on him. It would not be his reality, and he would do all he could to fight it, whatever it took. He closed his eyes to the final assault of his most painful of memories. Of overhearing snatches of a phone conversation between his aunt and a doctor. Of being given sedatives, then picked up and carried in gentle, loving arms, bundled into a car and driven to an imposing-looking clinic to figure this out.

The Heat suppressants prescribed for him at the time, a carton of pills pushed across a pharmacy counter into his trembling young hands and clutched there as though they were his lifeline, had worked ever since. He’d lived normal – as normal as he could do, anyway, and more than that, he’d lived well. They couldn’t fail him, not after how hard he had worked.

Those muffled voices he still couldn’t make out were ending their conversation. Elliot swallowed hard and straightened in his chair, then leapt up to follow the nurse as soon as she appeared to beckon him into an office. He sat rigidly and watched her work, precise fingers typing furiously at a computer, not paying him any attention until she had completed what she needed to do.

“So?” Elliot asked, the moment she looked up at him, because patience was not a gift he’d been blessed with. “Tell me.”

The nurse looked at him kindly, and it was the worst look Elliot could have hoped to receive. Without her even opening her mouth, enough hesitance in the nurse’s expression for Elliot to know what she was about to tell him.

“It would seem, Mr. Roderick, that the reason your suppressors have ceased working to full effectiveness is because your body is ready for you to breed,”

***

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Two Bodies

Somewhere beyond the sea… somewhere waiting for me… my lover stands on golden sands… and watches the ships that go sailin’…

The lull and cresting crackle of the needle in its vinyl groove is soothing. A continuous background purr as the record spins, the speakers pulse, the empty air of the room is filled with music. Two bodies slot together perfectly, hip to hip, chest to chest, turning a small circle in time with the melody embracing them, lifted by lyrics as they lean on one another.

The view from the window, were they to take the time to look, is breathtaking. Waves roar as they crash, slipping along the sand and stripping it from the beach in a frothy claim. Seagulls caw and dive overhead, a child draws wet faces with a twig, a couple walk arm in arm dangling shoes from absent fingers and leave a trail of sinking footprints behind them as they pass.

Time passes. The sun slips across the sky, and more of the sand is swallowed. Two bodies slot together perfectly, hips around hips, chest against chest. Chasing forgiveness, clinging to memories, clutching for hope.

Sadness dims lingering looks, defeat taints tentative kisses, regret fills every movement as actions try to replace what words have lost the ability say. Silent goodbyes have already begun; this last attempt at reconciliation doomed to fail, because when a heart isn’t in it, the last thing you can lie to is a heart.

The needle lifts from the vinyl, the arm shifts and drops it back down, and the crest and crackle begins over once again. The whir of the vinyl turning blurs into the sound of the sea, as two bodies move together to fill the time until they must permanently part.

She thinks she hears a noise, lays her palm between his shoulder blades, whispers for him to still. He pauses, turns his head, listens, hears nothing. Rolls his hips again, an instant distraction for them both.

The second time he hears it; the scratch against the window, the dull thud of the door. A soft wail has them stopping, looking at one another with wild eyes, straining to hear it yet again.

The third time the wail feels closer yet simultaneously far away, but it is accompanied by a sense of being observed that clings to their skin like the cold sea air. He shifts, rolls beside her, unconsciously takes her hand.

By the time they stand, bared in every way imaginable, their hearts beat in a sync they haven’t found in months. Pulsing, rapid, fearful, as the vinyl crests and falls, mimicking the waves beyond their window. The wail is louder yet untraceable, stepping up behind them to suggest a whisper in an ear before spinning away again.

Too terrified to move, they cling and shiver into one another, teeth chattering and skin dimpling against the blast of coldness swirling through the air around them. One final, piercing solitary wail, and it becomes a symphony of three.

Two bodies slump together, a tangle of limp, lifeless limbs, blood mingling as it wicks up in the carpet. There is silence in the air now, calm contrasting cruelly with the linger of screaming.

The vinyl squeaks to an abrupt cease, the needle hovering in mid air held up as though by an unseen hand. Drops down again. The turntable comes to life once more, filling the air with the crest and crackle of the vinyl as it spins.

Somewhere beyond the sea… somewhere waiting for me… my lover stands on golden sands… and watches the ships that go sailin’…

Tainted By Our Choices

Tainted

Tainted by our choices is a contemporary romance that has flashbacks, sex, environmental awareness, and a slight fixation on dessert. Potentially all at the same time.

Meet Jack. A successful environmental officer working within an industry that is so very far from his childhood dream of saving the planet, that he no longer recognizes himself. How he’s found himself in Houston, Texas, where he has no one, and nothing but his work for company, he tells himself repeatedly he doesn’t know. But when the place that became home had the heart sucked right out of it, and all around him were the remnants of a life he wouldn’t get to have, Jack ran, at the first opportunity given to him.

On a bright, sunny morning, Jack sees a face so familiar to him that he knows it better than his own, one that takes him back first to a beach in his childhood home of Tampa Bay, and second to a college in Boston where Jack learned – and lost – his heart.

Tainted by our choices is the story of first crushes, loves, and heartbreaks, and the fallout that left Jack clinging to his past. Join him on his rediscovery of himself, as a chance meeting reminds him of the life he always wanted to lead. Is he brave enough to live it?

Dream Life

Contentment.

That’s a feeling that she’s always understood but never known what it meant.

Her life, everything about her day to day, is as it should be.

She has the home, the little house that overlooks a small farmland in the middle of nowhere and yet close enough to civilisation to not be completely isolated.

She has the home life, the man who looks at her as though she is the sun and it is his life’s mission to ensure she rises every day by bringing her every happiness. The big fluffy dog that bounds around their place with exuberant joy at just existing. The loyal friends who live close by and they can see whenever they feel like taking a trip in their trusty old battered truck.

She has the job, working on her writing from her faded white porch with the breeze in her hair and the sweet scent of honeysuckle all around, and in winter she retreats inside to the small office that overlooks the same peaceful fields and is kept warm by a small fire hearth.

It is a simple existence, a quiet one that is small but so full, and everything she needs.

There is nothing that she wants for.

Nothing, aside from a horrific recurring dream to leave her in peace.

This dream is far too lifesize, and leaves her with a pain in her temples and her heart pounding in her chest.

She dreams she is in a hospital bed, muffled voices all around her and a constant bleep of monitors playing in her ears. Her body aches so badly she feels as though she is broken all the way through; shards of agony interlaced with a dull pain that never quite seems to leave, and her head, oh, how her head screams in these dreams, such pain that all these vivid images are often overpowered by a bright harsh white that blocks out everything else.

She can’t remember a time when she hasn’t had these dreams, they have always been with her, always the same, following her along like a second shadow. She acknowledges they are part of her. Much like she doesn’t really remember growing up, can’t really describe what her schooling was like, but knows these things happened, these dreams are just part and parcel of who she is. Not something to be dwelt on. They are something that happens, that she has to deal with, and if she doesn’t reign them in the second they enter her thoughts, the accompanying panic is too much. She has to jam the lid on tight to contain them, otherwise the dreams become too big to manage.

Fragments of another life invade her mind, another life where her day to day knows no contentment, only hurdles to fall on, bumps in the road that loom up and pin her down, nothing but pain and struggle and fear.

Which is why she shuts any thoughts about the dreams down as quickly as she can, forcing her breathing under control and the beating of her heart to slow.

For the same reason, she shuts all thoughts about the past out. Even though she’d love to remember good things like how she met him, and where they got their dog. She can’t risk allowing any thoughts, because in the search for good memories she knows full well she’ll stumble on the bad ones too.

She looks up at the man who is walking towards her with a basket of eggs from their small chicken coop and feels calm descend once more. He is the balm to soothe these moments of fear, even if she has never mentioned them to him, in however long they have been together.

Their dog pounds up the steps, all panting excitement, and nuzzles his head into her hand, demanding attention. She feels her arm raise, without her control, and for a moment it isn’t a chocolate labrador pushing against her hand but an unknown human, raising her pale white arm attached to some kind of drip feeding into her veins, tapping here and there as if trying to rouse her.

She shakes her head, clearing it of the image and dismissing any concerns about her health by saying her head is just sore from doing a lot of reading. He takes her hand, pulls her to her feet and into his arms where she stays, as they dance a small, slow circle in the late afternoon sun. His lips fall to her ear and he whispers all the things she loves to hear. Her arms circle around his neck and she allows him to lull her into a sense of mindless comfort.

If she hears other whispers they are too faint for her to make out, and why would she even want to try?

Some words from the whispers do manage to filter through the buzzing in her head sometimes though, words like ‘wake’ and ‘live’ and ‘choose’.

Choose.

How could she ever choose another existence than this one?

She won’t give it up, not for anything.

(Originally posted on Inkiit)

Always

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“Shot time,” she heard and smiled as she watched his hands appear slowly either side of her waist, a glass of sorts in each. She felt him press against her and leaned back in familiar reassurance whilst grinning up at the man before her; his eyes met hers with mild amusement as he shook his head lightly, reached down to kiss her softly on the cheek, and walked away.

“Yes. Shot time,” she agreed, laughing, turning slightly in his half-embrace and accepting the offered drink.”What is it?” she asked, pondering the pale yellow liquid as she swirled it gently. “And aren’t these usually…smaller?”

He looked down at her hand. “In answer to your first: I have no idea at all. To your second, yes, I suppose so – these usually come in a test tube. But I asked for doubles!” He smiled triumphantly. “Hence the-”

“Boiling tube?” She finished for him.

“Exactly.”

“Reckon they’ve cleaned these out properly? Or are they straight from the lab?!”

He laughed. “Who knows? Where’s your sense of adventure?!”

Her turn to laugh. “It’s hiding at the thought of spending the rest of the evening hidden in a bathroom cubicle with the after effects of unknown alcohol and chemical cocktails. But OK. I will if you will.”

“We should toast! Ooh, toast. Jam, marmalade, butter?”

A giggle escaped her lips as it always did in his company.

“All of the above. What are we toasting to?”

“You, naturally.” He raised his glass solemnly and cleared his throat.

“To my best friend in the world on the best night of her life. Be happy. Always.”

She smiled, not hiding the slight glisten in her eyes at his words.

“To being happy.”

He lowered his glass to clink against hers and echoed, “To being happy.”

They both flung their heads back and the liquid disappeared, leaving a pleasant burn in their throats. He swayed slightly and she reached out to steady him.

“Had much to drink tonight?” She asked drily, gesturing for them to sit on two high stools at an unoccupied table.He followed her and sat down heavily with an uninterested shrug of his shoulders.

“Probably, possibly. Maybe?”

“Well. Guess it is a free bar…”

“Yes!” He replied enthusiastically, “Thank you for that!”

“You won’t be thanking me in the morning when the London Philharmonic Orchestra is doing a parade across the inside of your skull.”

He shrugged once more and rested his hands on the table, smiling across at her. His eyes searched her own and she felt nervous as he held her gaze intensely.”I love you, you know.”

She nodded and grinned back. “I know it. And you know I love you too. Best friend forever, right?”

He didn’t answer, just continued to stare her down, hold her gaze.”I love you.” He repeated softly, quieter this time.

They had known each other for twelve long years throughout school, college and university. All of the unspoken things neither had had the courage to say now passed silently through their locked gaze in a steady stream of silence. In the past, one of them had always backed away when this happened, sweeping it up under the carpet before any permanent damage could be done.

Neither broke away.

“I love you.” he repeated, more adamantly this time.

She swallowed her retort, eyes not shifting away awkwardly as she had done a thousand times before. “Me, too.”

Silence continued.

Finally, she whispered, “…since when?”

His face contorted into a self-deprecating grin. “Since the beginning. Can I ask-”

“Always.” she interrupted without letting him finish his question.

“Always…” He repeated in a remorseful tone heavy with regret.

“But-”

He held out his hand to stop her, like a shield to protect him from the assault of words.

“I know. God, do I know!” He laughed a little shakily and ran an awkward hand through his hair, vowing he would cut it first thing in the morning. He had only ever kept it long for her, and now…

As one, they looked over at the tall man who had been stood with them earlier. A good man, kind, loving, full of vitality and a world to offer her. Her husband of merely a few hours. A man she loved, truly loved. Yet here before her sat her best friend, the man she had pined for, loved and trusted like no other from her teenage years through to her young adult life. He loved her. She hadn’t been mistaken. It wasn’t all in her head.

And yet. He had walked her down the aisle, given her away in the place of her father, approved of this wedding with all the generosity and enthusiasm you would expect from your best friend.

Was it selfish for him to tell her now, now of all nights, her wedding night? Would it have been kinder to have never known? No, she was glad she knew. Their moment, had they ever had one, had passed long ago in the cowardice of untruth.

Music struck up as if on cue and she watched as her husband held his hand out to her with his eyes full of happiness; their first dance as a married couple. All eyes would be on them now in the celebration of their vows. With one quick look to the man beside her she sought what: forgiveness? Permission? Acceptance?

The smallest of smiles accompanied by tear-filled eyes greeted her unperceived by anyone else. He still loved her. He would always love her. He would always be her friend. No matter how much it hurt.

Standing a little shakily and without looking back, she took the few steps needed and reached out her own hand, allowing herself to be spun out onto the dancefloor as a thousand camera flashes created a snowstorm of lights around them.

(Originally posted in Inkiit)

As Nature Intended

 

When you first learn that you are an Omega, you learn all sorts of things you never imagined you would need to know when you were growing up. The essentials: Heat suppressants, scent masking, how to handle an Alpha that is scenting you, and of course, the laws that are in place to protect you, in a society that is accepting and progressive, yet still has elements of its attitudes stuck firmly in the past. You also learn that through no fault of your own, or conscious effort, it is possible for an Omega to adjust their body chemistry, to make themselves ready to do what some feel is their sole purpose in life: to breed.

Presenting as an Omega at the age of fourteen, Elliot has grown up cautious, distrustful of the world around him, yet determined to live a fulfilling life in spite of that. He is successful at work, has recently moved into a new apartment, and everything in his world appears to be falling into place. Which is, of course, exactly when his body decides to rebel, forcing ideas and urges into Elliot that he has spent his life trying to deny.

Enter reluctant Alpha, Oskar; as adamant as Elliot that he will not have his life disrupted by what he is, and just as horrified by his instincts as Elliot is finding himself about his own. Should they fight the inevitability that is their bond, that need they have for one another that will not get them a moment’s respite, or give in to just how easy, and effortless it feels between them?

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Keeping It Simple

For those of you who follow/have followed me elsewhere, you might recognise this story in another guise 😉


Looking back now, it all seemed like unnecessary fuss.

Everyone they’d ever met had commented on the way they looked at one another, how they gravitated towards each other without the slightest sign of effort, or even the intention of doing so. How, no matter what they were doing, or who they were with, they’d end up side by side, often forget there were even other people around them when they were talking, and more often than not would be the ones to walk each other home.

They shared clothes, split drinks, stole food from each other’s plates when they were out to dinner, and knew their way around one another’s apartments as though they lived there themselves. Which in some ways, they did, because they spent so much time together, that if any of their friends ever saw either one of them alone, they politely checked if the other one was sick, or working late.

No one said anything of course, as the looks between them became more loaded, and their closeness grew more heated, until the knowing expressions of their friends were so obvious that even they couldn’t ignore what was happening. There are only so many times you can fantasize about having someone’s lips on yours before you find yourself on them, without even realizing what you’ve done.

Mark hadn’t even said a word.

That initial kiss, when Liam had pulled back in belated realization of his own actions, all he’d felt was fear. Of rejection, of losing the best friend he’d ever had, of never knowing the taste of Mark again. He really shouldn’t have worried, though, he reflected, thinking about it all this time later with a rueful smile for himself, because the only thing Mark’s smile for him at the time had said was… finally.

And that had been it.

Well, not quite it.

Of course, there had been conversations, words that with anyone else would have stayed firmly hidden away under metaphorical lock and key. But with Mark, in private, Liam’s words flowed freely, and in turn freed him of all the burdens he’d been carrying by not letting what he really wanted to be known.

He’d laughingly told Mark of all the times he’d planned conversations with him, to tell him what he was feeling was more than friendship, or adopted brother since they’d known each other so very long. He’d imagined every outcome, both good and bad, and had reached for him countless times before forcing himself to pull back again at the last moment, never sure if this is something he could really have.

Mark had rolled his eyes, but smiled, kind as he had always been to him. He too had internalized those very same conversations, those wants, and also the same fears, he’d shared with him then, reaching out and grabbing his hand. And it proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that they really were both excellent at giving other people advice about talking, and honesty, but failed continuously at doing both those things themselves.

And after that, they just… were. No fanfares, no confessions, nothing involving any kind of fussing. No drunken announcements, or status declarations on Facebook, or lewd insinuations in their Whatsapp groups involving emojis of eggplants and winky faces. No acknowledgement of before and after. They just… were.

Everyone would figure it out, eventually.

Even if it did take one very drunken birthday party where Liam and Mark had been unable to see anything but each other, and alcohol had found them grinding together in a corner, smiles never far from their lips, lips never far from each other’s, oblivious to the flash of cameras behind them, the hollering, and even the eventual raucous round of applause. It had taken a hearty grasp around Liam’s shoulder by his brother, whose birthday party it actually was, for them to untangle themselves from each other long enough to turn around, realise they were being watched.

But it had been okay. After the initial blushing, and mumbled excuses for leaving early, they’d woken to a stream of notifications on their phones, and spent a lazy morning in bed skimming through message after message of congratulations, then losing themselves in each other once more; this time without an audience of smiling eyes to stop them. And it had taken them a while, what with the long shower and vast amount of breakfast food that followed, but then each and every one of those messages had been returned, with thanks, and love, and if they were both honest, a little bit of relief that no Big Conversation was necessary.

So now, here they were. It was okay to reach out and touch one another in public. It was fine to lean a head on a chest, or a hand on a heart, to check the other were still there. It was more than fine to somehow manage to fall asleep in each other’s arms every single night, no matter what was going on around them. Liam figured he’d done enough self-denying for so long when it came to Mark to allow him this one selfish thing.

Mark was more than happy to oblige.

So here they were, in a blissful kind of limbo between work and other obligations. Staring up at a starry sky with nothing but a blanket beneath them and a holding of hands between them, cliche dates on deserted beaches be damned.

It wasn’t always simple.

But in this moment, it was.

Tainted By Our Choices – Extract

Jack stretched up just enough to peek down through the tinted glass of his office window at the protesters gathered outside holding hand painted placards and could only bring himself to sigh. They had moved in that morning, encroaching on all the best parking spaces in the parking lot and chanting angry slogans that Jack thought perhaps were kind of funny but would do nothing to stop what was going to happen.

The fracking would be going ahead, whether anyone objected to it or not. Works had all been approved, reams upon reams of paperwork signed and countersigned, and if some bureaucracy involving clandestine deals and exchanges of money between those further up the chain and the local authorities had happened, well. It was absolutely nothing to do with him. Jack had done his job. He had produced the environmental report that had helped win them the contract, carefully detailing all of the possible risks and hazards involved, right down to potentially affected species in the local vicinity, and models indicating the likelihood of contaminated water coming into contact with nearby residential supplies.

With another sigh, Jack looked over his mostly-completed work for the morning and pushed himself back from his desk, spinning one full circuit on his chair before coming to a stop, then doing the same the other way. He stood with an exaggerated stretch, wandering over to rattle the cafetiere and frowning at its betrayal when he found it to be empty.

With every intention of topping up from the coffee machine in the break room, Jack made his way there, the voices drifting out to him immediately changing his mind. He took a brief stop in the restroom and gave himself a quick glance over in the mirror as he washed his hands, tugging at his hair and telling himself that lighter color was definitely blond, not gray, in his usual brown.

Biting down on his lip as he debated with himself with himself, Jack decided on a local bakery with excellent coffee and even better cakes, then shrugged into his suit jacket and headed out. If he was staying late as usual to go over those complex habitat surveys for their most recent site acquisition, and had to survive the dreaded afternoon meeting, caffeine and sugar would be essentials to get him through his day.

With a carefree jog, he took the stairs down, noting with no real surprise that the chants outside grew louder and even angrier the closer he got to the exit. Giving a brief nod to the receptionist Jack stepped out into the bright, sunny morning, shielding his squinting eyes behind sunglasses from both the sun itself and the attention of those protesting. His face became a neutral mask as he passed the group buzzing like irate bees over to his right, hoping they wouldn’t pay him any attention. This wasn’t his first experience with opposition against what the company did and he’d learned early on to feign indifference, despite what he might really think.

A mop of messy black hair caught his attention, though, as it always did, whispering to him to take a look just in case. Jack’s gaze turned casually in the group’s direction as he continued walking, coming to a complete, shuddering stop and ripping his glasses off in disbelief as he watched pale blue eyes look him up and down in contempt, then spark with recognition before narrowing in quiet fury. His stomach sank and his mouth grew dry, and the only sound Jack could hear in that moment was the misplaced shriek of the crashing of waves.

1993

On a clear day, when the sky was the brightest blue and the reflection the sea gave back just as vivid, it made Jack feel like he could stare out at the horizon forever and never know where one started and the other began. The waves roared away any sense of unrest he might be feeling, waxing and waning with soothing sounds that never ceased to keep him calm.

Jack had been visiting this beach since before he could even walk, crawling along the sand and fisting it up into his chubby palms, squealing at the crunch and squeak of it between his fingers. He remembered helping his little brother build his first sand castle and watching the water lick it away one misshapen turret at a time. He remembered a red checkered picnic blanket pinned down beneath a cooler box to stop it blowing away, and laughter as he chased a corner of it that got repeatedly caught up in the breeze. Happy memories were what Jack had when he thought of this place. Happiness and home.

Today was not a clear day. The normally creamy colored sand was painted with jet black slickness, foam churning up gray against the shoreline. As if in sympathy the sky was dull and flat, clouds outlined with dirty smudges that bled into one another. It seemed to Jack in that moment as though all the color had been drained from the world. The waves rolled in as they always did, as they always had, but on that day, could do nothing to bring stillness to Jack, as each crest spewed out further victims of the oil slick everywhere he looked.

Though surrounding him was a flurry of activity, with rescue workers rushing about clad from head to foot in once white hazmat-like suits and carrying bird after bird away to cleaning stations further up the shore, the only noise that got through to him, that broke Jack’s continual horror at what he was seeing all around him was one of heartbroken, hiccupping sobbing.

A boy knelt off to his right, gently stroking his fingers over a bird whose head, he had rested across his lap at an unnatural angle. The oil from the bird’s feathers left glossy rivulets of black running down the sides of his thighs, and he continued his gentle path along its back as though touch alone could bring it back to life. A trembling hand ran over the flat of the bill, tracing against the curved tip that suggested a hint of its natural red color beneath the poisonous black that every other inch of the bird was coated in like a terrible second skin.

Jack looked at the boy’s mass of messy hair and decided it was the exact same shade as the oil staining his fingers. He stepped closer to him, his own heart heavy despite what he’d been witnessing all morning. His footfall caught the boy’s attention, and when he looked up at Jack with a quivering lip and piercing blue eyes rimmed red with tears, Jack felt an inexplicable need to bring him comfort.

Now

“Dylan,” Jack choked out, utter disbelief rippling through his voice as he continued to stare at him open-mouthed. Dylan glowered back at him, dropping the oversized placard he was holding down to waist height and resting his hands along the top of it in a fierce grip. He glanced up behind Jack at the office complex snorting in derision before dropping his eyes back down to Jack’s face in blatant scorn.

“You work here?” he asked, incredulous, a furious glare pinning Jack in place.

“Yeah,” Jack mumbled, and for a second he felt determined not to show any of the shame that surged through him just from being in Dylan’s presence. He managed a full three seconds of maintaining eye contact then found his gaze dropped to the tarmac beneath their feet.

“How the hell did you end up in Houston? Working here of all places?” Dylan demanded, so full of anger Jack struggled not to take a step back from it.

“I-”

“So, this is what you’ve become, huh?”

“Dyl…” Jack pleaded, lost for any other words to say. What was he supposed to say? What could he, after all this time, without it sounding like a string of poor excuses?

As though reading his mind Dylan rolled his eyes, glaring back at him with ice lighting those eyes that Jack had first stared back at so long ago. “Thought you wanted to change the world, Jack? Not rip it apart from the inside out,”

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Waiting For the Right Time

When Evan’s brother is in an accident, he’s terrified, and doesn’t know where to turn, or who to ask for support. Which is stupid, really, since Peter’s been in his life for longer than he hasn’t, and has always been a rock.


 

It isn’t fair, Evan thinks, staring down at Tom laid pristine white in a hospital bed, willing himself to concentrate on the slightest evidence of his chest rising up and down. Tom’s the baby of the family, eight years younger than Evan is himself, and all Evan can think staring down at him then, is that he’s failed him for letting this happen.

It’s beyond not fair, he adds, eyes closing in anguish at the sight of the apparatus set around the head of that bed, proof that Tom’s only there because there’s machinery keeping him alive. The bandage wound around his head speaks of swelling that hasn’t shown any sign of lessening, and there are enough smaller ones dotted to his neck and arms to make him look tiny, fragile there in that bed.

Tom’s a good guy, the best of them, never done anything but try to live a good, honest life, and do the right thing, every chance that he gets. And okay, so maybe Evan’s a little biased because Tom’s his little brother and he’ll never see him as anything but a hero. But he’s also never willingly hurt anyone, and that’s a heroic quality Evan feels a lot of people in the world are lacking, turning a blind eye where Tom is always sticking up for people. Always jumping to the defence of others without any regard for himself, without ever being asked.

Which is apparently how he got himself into this mess in the first place.

Just a day ago, Evan had been putting the finishing touches to a customer’s garden, enjoying the many perks of outdoor work in the late summer sun, when he’d received the phone call. A quick glance around, his careful eye checking for any small details that needed fixing, was interrupted by the scream of his phone, and Tom’s near-hysterical friend Steven announcing he’d been hurt in a fight.

Evan had driven directly to the hospital, the mantra that Tom was against mindless violence doing nothing but terrify him even more, for all the images and possibilities it stabbed into his mind. Steven’s broken words when he’d collapsed into Evan’s arms, once he’d found him wide-eyed and startled on a hospital corridor outside the operating theatre, spoke of Tom standing like a fortress, when a guy at the table next to theirs in a beer garden had been attacked. Of course he did, Evan thinks to himself for the hundredth time as he reaches out to pointlessly straighten Tom’s blanket, of course he’d done that. Without even hesitating. Without even giving it a thought.

There’s only the two of them, Evan thinks then, his stomach knotting over and over, half-glad that their parents are already long gone and not having to share this burden with him, yet also desperately missing their support. What happens next? Who does he need to call? What can he do to fix this? There’s a thousand things he needs answers to, but no one there to tell him anything.

Thank god, or whatever is out there, he thinks, that Peter is there with him.

Peter is a calming, steady presence beside him as Evan stands watch over Tom, twitching, trying to anticipate whatever Tom might need, or want, even though he hasn’t yet opened his eyes.

“I’m here,” Peter says, seeming to sense how badly he needs him, not offering any platitudes about Tom being okay, knowing it will do nothing to soothe Evan’s nerves. Instead he drapes his arm around Evan’s shoulder and allows him to shuffle closer, the only acknowledgement paid to Evan’s frustrated tears being the circling of his thumb repeatedly against his upper arm.

***

When Evan gets Tom back to his apartment to watch over him as he recovers, Peter is still there beside him offering quiet support. He brings Evan coffee, swiftly grabbing the rapidly emptying whiskey bottle from Evan’s hands with a terse look that speaks volumes Evan doesn’t want to hear about, and replacing it with a large, warm mug he can wrap his fingers around as he quietly nods in thanks.

Peter empties the bowl Tom retches into sometimes, walks with him to the bathroom when he needs help getting there – when he’s sent Evan out on errands to force him into getting some fresh air, and continues his silent vigil over both of the brothers when Evan finally succumbs to much-needed sleep.

Peter is also there, when Tom is screaming, crying out in the middle of a nightmare, and Evan is leaking silent tears of his own for all the things he can’t do for him. Peter rests a hand on Evan’s shoulder, and Evan breaks, grabbing Peter to him and sobbing wrecked into his neck, clinging on with a vice-like grip. Peter soothes with words spoken softly into his ear, and gentle hands rubbing reassurances into his back.

At some point about a week into Tom’s recovery, Evan thinks that in a fear-fuelled moment late one night, he’s kissed Peter, seeking comfort, reassurance, and escape. But his mind is so twisted in confusion with all that’s happening, and so bone-tired, that he can’t even remember if the moment was real, or just an unrealised fantasy that’s taunting him. That has taunted him, for as long as he can remember. Either way, Peter resolutely stays by his side.

***

Tom is strong, and begins to show good progress, with strength returning to his limbs, and wit making a reappearance in his words. Evan looks on, smiling proudly, reminded of a thousand times he’d watched over Tom protectively in sleep when they were growing up, repeating his mantra of thank you over and over for having him there to still do that.

As Tom gets better still, Evan begins to leave him alone for longer periods as a solution to his argument that he should go home, get out of his hair. He’s never far enough away to be out of shouting distance if Tom needs him, or wants to yell at him some more for being an overprotective mother hen; but enough to give Tom what is surely much needed space.

Peter is still there with him, and Evan finds it aches thinking about him eventually leaving when things go back to normal. His overnight bag’s become a feature of Evan’s living room, his favourite shower gel leaves a teasing scent of him in the bathroom, and his attempts to force nutritious food on Evan have filled his cupboards with strange new worlds of ingredients for all the recipes he’s got him trying.

Evan pauses outside Tom’s room, one time, hearing Tom’s soft laughter and a bemused, gentle mirth in Peter’s low, gravelly tone, leaving Evan stuck between listening and leaving, both curious and afraid of what he might overhear.

“Don’t tell him, Pete, ‘cos I can’t handle justifying all his fussing. But I don’t know how I’d have got through this without him,” he hears, and Evan feels a lump form in his throat, that he quickly forces down.

“You too,” Tom adds, and from the rustling sound that follows, Evan’s sure Tom’s reached out to pat Peter on the shoulder, or something.

“Evan wouldn’t leave your side, Tom, not for a second. When we were in the hospital waiting for you to wake up, I had to drag him out of your room to make him take even a five second break. He was terrified for you. Kept telling me, he wished he could take your place there, wished he could be going through it all for you. And though I would do anything for you, help you in any way I can, it’s been… difficult. To have to hear him talking like that. It’s probably selfish, but… I’ve felt so helpless,” Peter finishes with a sigh, and Evan wants to walk in and wrap his arms around his shoulders, tell him how vital he’s been to him throughout all of this.

“You’ve been here for Evan.” Tom answers, stealing his words. “That is far from being helpless,” Evan hears Tom reply, imagines his smile, and closes his eyes, grateful that Tom is finally smiling again.

“He’d be lost without you too, you know?” Tom adds, and Evan freezes at his words, desperate to know Peter’s response.

There is a pause, but finally Peter gives a soft, breathy sigh that sounds like acknowledgement, and answers quietly with, “As would I without him.”

“You guys need to talk stuff out, you know,” Tom tells him, and Evan thinks he can picture Peter shuffling in discomfort.

“It’s not really the time, Tom. We need you to concentrate on getting better, more than anything else.” Peter’s tone is decided, and firm, adamant he’s right in his thinking. He is right, Evan agrees, but it doesn’t stop his heart sinking a little, even if he’s not worked up the courage to do anything about this – them, himself.

“Pete,” Tom’s talking in that gentle, patient, explaining-to-an-idiot tone of his, and Evan kind of loves him for it. “I’ve known you for… it feels like all my life. You two have been friends since forever now, and it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that there’s something between you even if you pretend that there isn’t. If you keep thinking about it like that, that now’s not really the time, there’s never gonna be a right time. So why not make it the right time now? What is it the two of you are waiting for?”

Evan doesn’t want to hear Peter’s answer, too scared it will be the confirmation of rejection, so chooses that moment to go in with the tray of food he’s prepared. But it’s not like Tom’s words don’t play over and over for Evan, or stop him sneaking continual glances in Peter’s direction for the rest of the day. Or give him any chance of sleep later that night.

When he’s admitted sleep is just not going to be happening for him, Evan gets up, sighing heavily at the early hour glaring back at him on his phone, and pads through to the living room, expecting to find Peter stoically asleep on the sofa where he’s taking up what feels like just as much permanent residence as Tom. But Peter is sat at the dining table, his face illuminated by the screen of his laptop, and his eyes raise at the sound of Evan entering the room.

“Can’t sleep,” Evan offers in answer to Peter’s silent question, “What are you doing?”

Peter pauses, then reaches over to flick on a lamp on the table, and silently closes the laptop lid.

“Nothing much,” he says, coming around to lean back against the table, his hands wrapping around the edge, as he watches Evan. “Couldn’t sleep either,”

Evan watches back.

The silence remains heavy, loaded with unspoken questions. And Evan decides he can’t stand just watching anymore, so takes a courageous step forward. He bends slightly to cup Peter’s face and tilt it up, slow to give him time to resist if that’s what he wants to do. And then Evan leans down, claiming Peter’s mouth in a kiss that feels very, very long overdue. Peter’s hands are immediately around his waist, gripping Evan as he adjusts the way he stands between his legs, and pulling him as close as he can get.

The silence between them might not be filled with words, but there’s soft gasps and gentle exploration in their place, and that adds more to the sense Evan has of them finally getting somewhere. Evan feels hopeful, and humble, and more than anything, home. And when they pull apart to catch their breath, Peter’s smile for him repeats the same thing back.

***

When Tom walks through in the morning, rubbing a tired hand down his face, he comes to a stop at the foot of the sofa, his head tilting to one side as he considers the view in front of him.

On the sofa lays Peter on his back, with Evan tangled between his legs and wrapped up in his arms, fast asleep in the crook of Peter’s neck.

Peter looks at Tom, and Tom looks on back at Peter, and where Peter’s smile is small and a little timid, Tom’s is wide, and beaming happiness.

They nod at each other in unspoken acceptance of the change in circumstances between them all, before Tom turns and heads into the kitchen, a spring in his step and a hum in this mouth. He rinses the cafetiere, measuring out a generous amount of coffee, then settles it down on the side, fingers drumming as he considers adding another spoon.

Tom pulls down two mugs from a shelf, leans over to fill the kettle, then leans back against the counter, a gentle smile lingering around his lips for how ecstatic he feels for his brother. And with that smile, and a barrage of teasing already forming in his head, he turns around, and reaches for a third.