Suddenly the chatter and noise around them cut through the pounding of his heart. In public! Peter straightened about half a second before Aiden would’ve leaned back. He felt like his face was burning again. He couldn’t look around, he needed to hide his face, but there had to be people looking. Some of those whispers had to be about them.

He stood up, grabbed Peter by the strap of his bag and started off. He sped up as much as the crowd would let him. When he’d put a few hundred yards, and a few hundred people between them and that place, he slowed down. Just as well, he was way out of breath. He let go of the moron behind him and braced his hands on his knees.

Peter stood close beside him. Aiden saw his hand move and for a second Aiden had the feeling he was going to touch him. An arm on his back, or over his shoulders, something to support him, like a thousand other little things he’d done for him. But he didn’t. In fact, he stepped back.

Even while trying to catch his breath the odd behavior got through. It reminded him about the past:

For three years, every month, for a week or three at a time, Peter had been visiting Ravenwolfe. Always at night. And since about the third time, maybe the fourth, Aiden had hardly left him alone. Aiden often had insomnia and, even at 11, disliked relying on medication. But, what kid likes to stay in his room staring at four walls, and listening to his brother snore? So he’d wander the halls of the gigantic house. There were always a few staff awake and active. He got familiar with them all, and they with him, in the first few months they’d lived there. But none of the kids his age. After 1 or 2 in the morning the few older kids he saw never wanted to do anything.

Peter had been only a little different, at first. He’d be polite. He seemed to know everybody and had a knack for guessing which ones were free to play if Aiden asked. He’d help him raid the kitchen for snacks. He’d help him reach a book that was too high, depending what it was. But he didn’t talk much. And he could practically disappear. Which he usually did after Aiden had what he wanted. He talked to the staff, most everyone knew who Peter was but couldn’t or wouldn’t say more. Finally, he found the nerve to ask Dr. Thompson.

He didn’t tell him “Peter likes to be left alone,” or “you shouldn’t bother him,” or just “don’t bother,” like some of the others. Dr. Thompson said that Peter, like Aiden, had spent more time with adults than with anyone else. So he’d forgotten how to play. That like other people at the House, bad things had happened to Peter. So he didn’t like talking about himself. That Peter knew all the House rules and followed them better than anybody. And the rules said only certain people were allowed to ask a guest questions, so that’s why Peter didn’t ask him any. So if Aiden wanted to keep trying, he should ask Peter about other things. Like books and history, or anything from his homework, or to do things. And as for finding Peter when he disappeared, he said Luka might help, but only if Peter wanted to be found.

He thought the old man was joking. But, one night when he asked, the big dog brought him right to Peter. The other things worked too. And eventually, Peter started finding him. The first time, he said Luka was tired of chasing Peter for him, and wanted to do other things at night. He stopped disappearing. Except when he had go before his curfew. Every other boy he knew could play after breakfast until lunch, and then after lunch until dinner, or dark. Peter lived backwards. But Aiden had taken it in stride. Weird parents that had weird rules and were harsh about curfews. Simple. To someone barely 11.

Peter’s foot scraped the ground. “Don’t.” Aiden huffed, “don’t… disappear.”

“What?” Peter crouched low beside him.

“If you…disappear…don’t have Luka…to find you…for me.”

Peter sighed. “Did what I did somehow contradict anything I’ve ever said?” He put an arm under Aiden’s chest and lifted him up. “You’re just making it harder to stand. If what you’re doing was efficient we’d never have evolved to walk upright. Here.” He pulled Aiden’s arm over his shoulder and put an arm around Aiden’s waist. When Peter lifted slightly Aiden hardly felt his own weight. “Well, did it?”

Aiden blinked at him. “No. Of course not.” Aiden said, then sighed, “You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t disappear on me. Not here.”

Peter’s eyebrow invited him to expand on this. “Let’s walk and talk if you don’t mind.” Aiden started moving his feet and Peter moved with him. As smoothly as they were walking before. As if carrying almost his own wait was hardly different than the backpack.

“At the house, there are times you disappear.” he spoke softly, despite the noise, he was right next to his ear, “You’re subtle about it. You’re never abrupt. But there are times you make some perfectly believable excuse or offer to get or do something, and then you’re gone a while. And when you come back it’s perfectly natural if you change the subject, or you pick it up in odd way that it avoids things. It’s really hard to describe, even harder to pin down a reason. But I notice it.”

Peter sighed. “If I said ‘I should have done that at the table, instead of what I did,’ would that explain?

“Are you saying that, at least some of those times, you left so-“

“So I could keep secrets.” Peter interrupted. “In one sense or another. Aiden I’m…” Peter looked at him, brow furrowed, eyes heavy. “Gods, I’m so sorry, Ady.”

Say something! He tried to open his mouth but before any sound came out, Peter had looked away, eyes on the pavement.

Peter’s voice turned disgusted his volume rising. “I fulfilled that ‘they’re predators out to corrupt our children into their perverted lifestyle’ rhetoric bigots love to assert.” Peter stopped to look him in the eyes, his volume dropped but his tone was urgent. “It’s not something anyone can teach or infect someone with. It’s just somewhere in me, in the same place that tells another man he desires women. I’m not broken, or deficient, or defective. This isn’t about my parents or anything someone did. It’s just me. And I never should have done that because you’re not gay, and I know it.”

Peter’s hand on his arm was tense, his arm around his waist was quivering. He’s shaking, jackass! Say something!

“Aiden, please believe me, I know that you aren’t like me. I know that you’ve never thought about boys the way you do girls. I never should have done that.” If Peter kept shaking he would end up holding Peter off the ground. If Peter looked like that much longer, Aiden was going to be the one crying.

Crap! This is not happening. The fuck can I say here? It’s a miracle if no one’s heard this. We can’t talk about this in public! The hell was I thinking? Why haven’t I said anything? Anything would do at this point… He closed his eyes, and he tightened his grip on Peter’s shoulder, just in case.

Breathe. Think. Speak. Focus. Breathe. Think. Speak…

“It’s… it’s alright. Peter, it’s alright, and you’re alright.” He opened one eye.

Peter was still there, still looking at him. But there was confusion mixed with the pain, his lips were parted but there was no fog. His audience was holding its breath.

“You’ve said it so much, but you’re not used to hearing it, are you?”

Peter, dumbstruck, actually shook his head.

“It’s alright, you’re alright.” He found a grin somewhere and gave it to Peter. “Fuck the bigots!” People looked up at that, he ducked a little, then, he tilted his head. “Actually they might like that, good story for bigot newsletters. So maybe we just tell them to fuck themselves? I’ve got it! We tell them ‘you get sexy with who you want, we’ll do it with who we want,’ there would be peace.” Come on, Pete. I’m doing my best here…

He didn’t laugh. Not even a chuckle. Shit! But slowly Peter built up a small smile. “You are outstanding, you know that?” Peter’s voice broke. “Truly outstanding.”

Was that..? Oh hell! He’s crying. Peter Dane in tears. I’ve broken the universe…“Ha.” He said, “You’re funny. How long did you work on that one?”

There was the genuine “Cat vs Water Bottle” look.

“I’m outside and I’m standing.” He said, rubbing Peter’s back. “Not bad. Not good. You’ve been out here for half an hour tops, you should have used that one at the beginning. This whole comedy thing might not be for you. But I like ya, I see potential, so we’ll work on it.”

“Aiden, that’s not what I meant…” His cheeks were red.

Seeing Peter blush, he blushed. And then he giggled, Peter chuckled, Aiden laughed and on and on building off each other until they were laughing so hard they both had tears, so hard they couldn’t hold themselves up. Which brought them right around. The ground was bitterly cold. Peter helped him up and followed him when he started off. Aiden put his arm around Peter. The closeness made it feel safer to talk.

“So, why’d you do it? The indirect kiss? I wasn’t watching out for…” he sighed, “but in three years, you’ve never done anything ‘weird. Why now?”

Peter grinned. Aiden cut him off “Don’t. Give. Me. That. Eyebrow. You know what I mean.”

“Perhaps I don’t. Let’s go for accuracy. Some examples?”

He was frustrated, and embarrassed, but he tried to put his thoughts into words, barely whispering “I don’t know…Look at my…” he waved a hand vaguely down his body. You didn’t stare at certain parts… of me. In showers or changing. And when you were helping with stuff like that, you weren’t, like, taking your time, and you never went near... And you didn’t make up reasons to change clothes, or go shirtless. I almost always had to ask for help. And when you offered, it was when… ” he blinked and looked at Peter, and said softly, “when I was too embarrassed to ask. You knew, you offered so I just had to nod.”

Peter nodded, watching where they were going. “Anything else? More recent? So far that sounds like the first year.”

“Well…” he turned red. “You’ve seen me hard, right? Umm adjusting? And you’ve pretty much caught me umm…” God. I sound totally clueless. We’re both teenagers. I do it, he probably does it… You can say penis, Dude. You can say “jacking off.” You’ve said worse in jokes! Wait…can he? He’s got one, and it isn’t always reeled in spaghetti… A flash image of Peter doing exactly what he did most nights. He swallowed. Shut the damn furnace off, somebody. Enough already! He stared at his black boots, and over at Peter’s black rubber soles with brown suede and darker brown laces. “A couple times you’d knock on my door and I was jackin’ and… well even if you didn’t see it, I’d tell you to wait and then I’d be red-faced, out of breath, box of Kleenex near the bed. I wasn’t exactly stealthy. I wasn’t shy either. I’ve shown you my porn.” He went pale, “You were the first person I told about the girl in my first wet dream…”

“You needed someone, essentially your age, to talk to. Simon…well, can’t. So, I listened. I talked Dr. Marsden into helping me frame explanations. I knew the answers, I’ll have you know. All of them, but I’d never had to explain them quite like with you.” He glanced at Peter and saw he was blushing too.

“All of them?” He grinned.

Peter laughed, but went redder. “Yes, Aiden, I’ve had carnal knowledge of women. Surprised?”

He nodded. “Positively flabbergasted.”

Peter snickered. “I said it can’t be taught or changed. But some people try. Some nicely, some by force.” There was no laughter on the last.

He looked at Peter, worried what he might have been through. Glancing at Aiden, Peter sighed. “I was raised somewhere that wanted to teach liking both to some degree, or a perfect lack of preference. A view where the sexual anatomy of the other wasn’t a biasing factor. In practice, it teaches you about yourself. What you like with whom and how much. But also when it’s ok to try it all, figure oneself out, learn that you’re unique in your specific set of feelings but not alone in any one of them, there’s no fear of those who are different.”

Aiden listened. It sounded good. Like a sexual Star Trek utopia. And fun

“I can appreciate a woman’s body, like art. If I’m doing something for her, and I like her, her pleasure from my doing it can make me hard, but…I have to use certain positions and visualize I’m with a male, and even then, it’s so much extra work to finish. And I can’t always. It’s mostly not worth it for me.” He glanced at Aiden, colored deeper, and laughed. “I don’t discuss this sort of thing very often. Seems I was a tad too frank.”

Aiden giggled. “Sounds like you need someone to talk to about sex. Bet I’m more fun than Dr. Marsden to do it with.”

“He didn’t handle discussing those different from him nearly this well. He thought himself non-judgmental. But resisted when I asserted that not only had he met others like myself unbeknownst, but that there was far more variation, in far greater numbers than he had been taught.”

“There’s lots?”

“Walk around busy areas of a city like Chicago and you may well pass hundreds. Kinsey said 1 in 10 males were like me, I think. I find my recollection of it hazy. Presuming so, I’m telling you that there’s a few of the other 9 that would enjoy my company, if they recognized their own desires were more complex, and acted accordingly to those…without letting what the world around them limit them.”

“Can you tell who they are? Could you point them out?”

Peter frowned, “I am able. But I will not ‘point the finger’ at them. Not even for you. You have no need to know. And though I’m able, I have no right to know.” Peter rubbed his back. People think and feel things whether it’s a conscious decision or not, they have a right to choose what they say and do. They have a right to the think one thing and choose to do the opposite. If they haven’t told you, why should I?”

“Makes sense. Going against yourself sounds like a good way to go crazy, though.”

“It is.” Peter whispered. “Those that feel different, rejected, and freakishly alone in their differences, suffer greatly, sometimes only from their own thoughts, sometimes they suffer at the hands of those who are believed normal no matter what the form. And die from it. Suicide.”

Aiden shivered. Peter must have felt it because he steered them into a coffee shop. Peter left him and the bag in a both. Ordered something, paid, and a few minutes later came back with a tall cup and a bag that was probably cookies. He set them down and took off his gloves and coat, putting them on the other seat. Then a lighter navy blue wool coat. Aiden stared.

He’d been so focused on Peter’s face at the house he’d never looked at his clothes. Some kind of thicker knit-looking long-sleeved polo. Bright white showed through the careless collar with only the first button done. The silver pendant set with some blue-black stone, that Peter never took off, hung right in the center of his breast bone. He worn light gray slacks, from the side the waist looked closely fitted, making the brown belt, the same shade as his boots and gloves, unnecessary. All the contours fit him perfectly as he turned and bent. And looking at him sideways like that, almost right at eye level. His contours looked… huh?

Peter’s mouth was moving. Was he blushing?

“What?”

“You should take off your coats. We’ll be here a little while.”

“Sure.” He threw his gloves on to the pile Peter had started. “Give me a hand with this polar bear pelt?”

Peter laughed and, once Aiden had the zipper down, Peter lifted it down his shoulders. Next the burnt orange. For the first time, he was only wearing want he meant to. He tugged his cuffs around to straighten his twisted sleeves. He felt pounds lighter and instantly cooler, aware of slight dampness under his shirt, but his face was so damn hot. He’d stared at Peter, it felt fair to stand there and give him the same chance. He just couldn’t watch Peter do it. What did he think? Was it good? Mature? Sophisticated? Or did he look like a kid in his dad’s clothes for a silly school dance?

Oh he so badly wanted it to work.

“Let me side in?”

What?! Oh! The booth! He colored and giggled at himself as he sidestepped. As if he’d ever… He lost the thought. He hadn’t moved far enough. As Peter slid by, his…the back of his hips… pressed against Aiden’s… front. Caught between Aiden and the table corner Peter ended up bent half over in front of him, trying to save his own crotch from the corner. Pushing back against Aiden. The few seconds contract seemed a lot longer.

God, will I ever stop blushing tonight? As Peter settled, he slid into the booth. Once he sat he felt a familiar tightness. No way… He surreptitiously “scratched,” copping a feel. Fuck! He wasn’t just a little stiff. Which he was almost all the time anyway. He’d nearly groaned. This was a full mast, one notch shy of “excuse me, while I go to the bathroom.” Full redwood, in public. And his best friend, his best guy friend, his very gay best friend’s ass had just made it happen. And Peter, had he felt anything? Maybe it wasn’t as noticeable as he thought it was. It was probably the first time he’d ever thought being smaller might be better. I’ve gotta look…

Peter seemed to be deep in profound contemplation of the table top. But he looked up and met his eyes with a sideways gaze. When he turned toward him fully, Peter’s cheeks almost matched his shirt.

Breathe. Think. Speak…

“Sorry!” They said at the same time. They laughed, but not much.

“Umm… You seemed a little tired.” Peter said, gesturing toward the cup. “So I thought a chance to relax somewhere warm, something hot to drink, something sweet to snack on.”

Aiden grabbed them and brought them close. “Thanks, Peter.” First, he inventoried the cookies: two chocolate chip, one sugar, one snickerdoodle, and, a brownie. It was usually like this. Peter cooked the best food. But when it came to snacks, he was usually ready to dole out something sweet. He’d always thought Peter was catering to his sweet tooth. But now, he wondered whether it was because of him, or if Peter, before his liquid diet, had a sweet tooth of his own. It would be sad. To have to sit and watch the world take something for granted that was forever denied to you. Okay, Aiden… move on… Second, the drink. He took a cautious tiny taste and didn’t get burned. He tried a small sip, no burn. Full sip. Thick and creamy hot chocolate, the chocolate strong but not overpowering, a hint of something else. Not too sweet. Chocolate heaven.

“This is great! What’s in this?” He turned to see Peter finish writing something on a napkin. Peter passed it to him. On it, in small but perfect cursive, was a list of coffee shop jargon that covered multiple folds of the napkin. He didn’t get very far before he gave up decoding it. “So, what you’re telling me is, I have to masturbate Count Chocula, and catch it in a cup.”

Peter barked out a laugh.

Already Aiden could feel the warm liquid settling into him. He stretched his legs under the table, far enough he started to slide out of his seat. He pushed himself back, and as an experiment, tried crossing his legs. First one way, then the other. He settled with his right foot on his left knee. It put his knee against Peter’s leg, but it was better than his boot. He broke the first cookie, the snickerdoodle, in quarters. “So, what were we talking about? Snuggle up over here so we can whisper.” He popped one piece of cookie in his mouth and took a drink, blaming that for any new warmth on his face.

Peter blushed, but then smirked. Peter’s left arm slipped behind him. It was much warmer than the vinyl cushion. Then he felt softness on his shoulder, weight on his bicep. Peter’s head was against his shoulder, first hair, darker up close, then two blue eyes. “Can you hear me okay, like this?”

He nodded. Mouth dry so he took a drink. There was something adorable about seeing those half sideways eyes looking up at him. Something out of TV and movies Aiden hadn’t yet had. Snuggling with a date on movie night. Ok, this is weird, this is Peter. Guys don’t do this, not regular ones, at least not in public… He almost pulled away. He wanted to look around and be sure no one saw. But hadn’t he just asked for this?

There was an odd feeling of familiarity to sitting with him like this. Had he done it that first year? He slipped his arm around Peter. More familiar but more off.  If he was younger, it would make more sense the other way. Him leaning on Peter. He tried the picture in the focus place…Something about friends, something scary, and then something with music. What was it? Six notes. So sleepy…

“What’s going on in there?” Peter whispered.

“I was reminded of something. A time I was sitting kinda like this with you, doing something. And then I was scared or something and then music, and then I fell asleep.”

“That explains it.” Peter chucked, “you were humming.” then whistled the same notes.

“What is that?”

Peter grinned, whistled the six notes and seven more. “One night you found me and asked me to watch a ‘new movie.’ A certain bittersweet tale of two friends torn apart by society. Nice analogies to prejudice, ‘the Fox and the Hound.’ You hated that they didn’t make everything nice again by the end. It really bothered you, so I put in the first suitable salve for your weary heart. We watched ‘Aladdin,’ twice. Although, you were out by the second magic carpet ride.” Then Peter sang softly, on key: “I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid…

Aiden cracked up. “You sing Disney musical showtunes?”

“This world is vicious, Aiden. There’s more than one way to cope with it. Our previous discussion reached intermission after discussing the high rate of suicide among the members of a collective of sexual minorities, after touching on the how the complexities of any single person’s sexuality render the common labels useless, and that after you were listing things I didn’t do that might have demonstrated my essential homosexuality before today.” Peter sighed and continued with his eyes closed, voice carefully neutral “Some of which, Aiden Desmond, implied that you find it reasonable that a gay teenager, based only on that, would objectify, fondle, and grope, a boy who was barely 11. There are people that would. But we were discussing straightforward homosexuality.”

The more he thought about the things he’d said, the more he saw Peter had a point. And, what had he been driving for when he switched to talking about recent times? Talking about things Aiden had told him, that Aiden had shared with him, might have been open to doing in front of him. He muttered in quiet, deliberately sing song voice almost directly into Peter’s ear. “Golly gee, Pete, here’s these naked girl pictures. You’re a boy I’m a boy, you know all about sex stuff already. So let’s look at these naked girls and play snake charmer thinking about doin’ ’em.” He sighed. “And I actually had to think about why you never…why anytime my curiosity to understand began sliding into getting off, you’d leave. I’m sorry. “

“I never could have made it work with the photos. But, if I stayed and stripped and said I would do it too, you would expect me to finish, and in order to finish…”

“You’d need to think about guys. In a room with a naked guy.”

“One that’s thinking about girls.” Peter swallowed, “I’m not a sage or a saint. I know what else should go into any two people having any kind of sex. But do I live by that every time I look for sex? No. I could imagine reasonable outcomes of “joining you” and none that would have been healthy. Not for either of us. The best course had been to contain my sexuality completely when around you. Silence, in this, served better than performing an unsustainable lie.”

“You hid, to avoid lying to me, and to avoid exploiting my assumptions or my trust.”

“Emotional intimacy supports physical intimacy, physical intimacy supports emotional intimacy. Or creates an illusion of it. Sex and the pleasure it associates with someone… it can feel like love. If I’d told you, if you offered or permitted something, I could make it good, I would have. Think for a moment how confusing that would be. The desire to love only women and the illusion of ‘loving’ this close male friend because the friendship was clouded by emotionally incompatible, but pleasurable sex. How does that end without harm?”

“I’m confused right now, and we haven’t even done anything.”

Peter laughed. Then, “Keep eating.”

Aiden took a drink and ate more cookie. “But now I know you’re gay. That is the answer, isn’t? To ‘why now?,’ it’s why you’ve made more sex jokes tonight than I have. Why you’ve made any at all. That still leaves…”

“Waitress!” Peter hissed. “Say I’m unwell, ask for aspirin.”Before Aiden could ask a question, he noticed a cute girl in the shop’s uniform. Talking to what must be her boss behind the counter. He did not look happy, she did not look happy. Half a minute and she was headed towards them. Oh… He watched her out of the corner of his eye, by the time she reached him she had a smile in place but he had seen the argument. And he’d seen smiles like that, he’d worn them. Just put the pain out of sight, and get through this smiles.

Brunette with blonde highlights. Long but folded and woven so that it fit under her hair net. Brown eyes, naturally pink lips. That smile only showed her top teeth. She was pale but had enough natural red that she didn’t look pasty. Probably older, and definitely taller, than them, even in flat shoes. She’d been in profile at the counter and looked like she had some curves under that apron. Already cute. She’d be killer on date night.

Breathe. Think. Speak.

“Evenin’.” She drawled. A southern belle, right in front of him. Just the wrong damn night.

“Evenin’, miss.” Goin’ for his best impression of a Southern man of quality. Aiden gave her a grin.

“I’m sorry to be so forward. But as you can see, we’re getting much busier than when you gentlemen arrived.”

Aiden looked around her, there were a few more people sure, a line had formed, but the place wasn’t packed. There were plenty of empty tables and booths two, no three, no they were clearing a fourth.

She didn’t turn, but she saw him looking. She had the conscience to blush just a bit, at least. “It may not look like it now… but I’ve been told we’re are expectin’ a rush shortly.”

“And… how might we humble paying patrons of this ‘ere fine establishment be of service?”

She was trying not to smile, whatever her boss wanted, she didn’t like. Liking him wasn’t going to make that anything but worse. Good.

“Well I would take it as a kindness, seeing as though you appear to finished, and I’m told we do need the seating shortly, if you and the other young gentleman could…” she blinked.

She was a kind of waitress. Service industry types have to take a lot of shit. Some of it, “likely plum out of proportion with their stature,” was from teenagers. Two well dressed, well behaved, undemanding teenagers, were being given the bums’ rush. He knew it, she knew it, everybody at the table knew it. And she probably knew silent teenager to be an oxymoron.

She actually held her hand over her heart. Though Aiden didn’t think she actually touched her clothes. “Where are my manners… Is everything…alright?” Real concern. Humanity. Bingo

He sighed, dropping the accent. “Look, Genevieve, right?” She nodded. He beckoned her closer. “Assistant manager?”

“Yes, at the moment, unfortunately.” She grimaced.

He waved it off. “I’m not going to betray a lady’s confidence.” He said with a ghost of the banter. She smiled a little. But she was looking at Peter with big eyes. “We’re out here in this weather, because I dragged him. Everything was fine until right before we came in here. And I came in here to try to get him to eat. And well…” he gestured at the table. “It ain’t workin’.

“Maybe somethin’ else might do you betta?”

“This sweetie has a sweet tooth bigger than he is. You might have seen him make the order. Anyway, I think he’s got a fever. And one thing I don’t have on me is Tylenol or ibuprofen or aspirin. I’d have been there and back.” Peter squeezed his side. “But he saw some documentary on disappearances and he’s got it in his head, that if we split up in place like this, the pier, I mean, I’m a goner.”

“He does look awful red. Maybe we should call an ambulance?” Woah, full stop…

“It’s just a fever. It’s not too high. But it’s put him on his ass. You track down some aspirin, we order something that takes a while to buy time for it to work, and we’ll get out of your hair. You did your job, that lout makes a little more money, and gets his bigoted wish granted.”

“I am awfully sorry about all of this. I’ll get an order in and find somethin’ for your fella.” Right, you’re just the messenger. That makes it okay…

“Thank ye kindly, Miss Genevieve.”

Aiden watched her walk away with a mix of regret and indifference. Just because two cute guys are dressed up, sharing a booth in this crumby place…all snuggled up… on February 14th…doesn’t have to mean anybody’s anything. Ok all that looks bad… Wait, just looks like they’re are a couple, not bad. Like any other. And they weren’t bothering anybody! A little kid can cuddle with another boy and nobody bothers them, what is the matter with anybody doing it?

Aiden spoke, angry but with no volume. “You mind telling me why the sick act? And I swear, Peter, if you say something remotely about my accent, or switching accents, or anything Southern for that matter… I shall hit you mightily.”

Peter smirked. “Frankly my dear, I just don’t give a damn.”

Aiden pondered. “That was from Gone With the Wind wasn’t it? But it wasn’t southern.” He scooted around, resituating himself and his “sweetie” closer to the window. Peter was blushing, but if he minded being moved, Aiden doubted be could’ve done it. “We are making a statement.”

“Just as well.” Peter whispered, “She wants to use us to get the manager fired.”

Aiden blinked.

“I heard them arguing so I looked deeper. She had a little brother everyone thought was gay. His life became horrible based on suspicion. No officials did anything, the school wanted it all to go away.”

“She ‘had’ one?” He shivered. “Suicide?”

“Four years ago, I think. He was 14. Dark hair, glasses, painfully shy.”

“Jesus, I ran my mouth and suddenly you seem just like her little brother to her.”

He nodded. “And no, I didn’t do anything to ‘help’ you know what to say. I knew he died because she was thinking about him, almost as soon as Lawrence pointed us out. Aiden get my wallet, please. Quickly. And there’s a pen in the inside breast pocket.”

He shrugged and went digging. When Peter had them he pulled out a business card. Flipped it, turned it and started writing. Peter had just settled back into his “sick bed.” When Genevieve turned.

“Here is some aspirin at last. And some warm water with lemon. I’m afraid there was a mix up in the kitchen. Your order will be delayed. As you have already paid, please make yourselves comfortable until you have your order. Here is your receipt. And do let me know if you need anything. Alright?”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you.” As she walked away, Aiden checked the bottle palmed two pills. Handing them to Peter and “coaxing” him to take them.

Almost an hour later, after another “delay,” they were standing at the door. Aiden, for the moment, carrying the backpack, and Peter the bag with the food.

“Do want me to call someone for you boys?” She kept fidgeting. Eyeing her boss one way and them the other.

Peter held out the plastic rectangle that was his phone. And he smiled, a big smile almost like the ones he gave him. But not quite “Thank you,” so damn quiet. It was adorable. Then Peter stepped close to her out on the manager’s line of sight. He pressed the card, now wrapped in five 100 bills secured with rubber bands, into her hand. “We agreed you should keep the change. There’s a note.”

And they left, before she or her boss could comment. Once the crowd had them out of sight, Peter took the backpack off his shoulder and put the food bag in his hands. “Eat.”

He watched Peter adjust the straps, swing the bag onto one shoulder, slide his other through the one he loosened and cinch it down. “Why do you do that? It looks weird for a kid to use both straps all the time.”

“Proper weight distribution is essential for efficient movement, Aiden. It’s designed with two straps for a reason.”

He laughed at Peter’s over-serious tone. “Ok.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Look into it, Doc. Stop trying to distract me and eat.”

He sighed. “It feels weird eating in front of you, Pete. It always has. But it’s worse now. Can’t we just throw it away? Or give it away?”

“Addressing this is not going to be fast. So, I shall use extortion.” Aiden blinked. Peter was straight faced. “Either you eat the damn food, or we’re leaving. First, layers notwithstanding, you can die in this weather if your body has no fuel. Second, if you do either of those things, you will be wasting Genevieve’s money. We didn’t pay. Third,” here Peter leaned to whisper, “I cannot eat the food, but I can taste it. I can smell it. I cook food for people for the enjoyment of watching them truly relish and appreciate the complete experience of a meal that they might otherwise take for granted. Fourth, if you lose the receipt, you won’t know what she wrote on it.” Peter winked “Two women in one night and it’s not even over, I believe now they call that a “dog”

Full break. “I got her number? You said she was a mom.”

“Her brother and she were close in age, perhaps even twins. I’m inclined to think that she’s at most 17, but she could be younger. Oh, I doubt she’s considering you for fatherhood, but…” his voice changed gaining drawl and twang. “For a gentleman, doin’ what he might to ease the burdensome loneliness of such a fine, upstandin’, woman, howeva he might. Well… I dare say it would be the propa thing. Certainly expected.”

Uh… no way… Aiden turned red and started digging. Crap! Where is it? Peter took his arm and they started walking. “Aiden,” He looked up, Peter looked thoughtful “I’d bear her in mind and urge you to remember: Contraceptives have been refined through history for a reason too.” Oh man, where is it?

“I’ve got that receipt around here somewhere.” Peter said “Maybe by the time you’re done eating I will have remembered.”

Aiden marched down the path, found a table, and proceeded to demolish the contents of the bag. Maybe 10 minutes later, as they were walking away from a trash can, Peter handed him the receipt. Ok… breathe. He scanned it, saw only food and turned it over. Extra paper had been run to give room.

“It’s always a pleasure to find a gentleman so far from home. I won’t say it’s a shame. Boys like your sweetie need people that show proper respect, kindness, and courage, as much as us girls. More so, I expect. Too many sweet ones are left alone in a cold world. We can do better. -Gene” and a phone number.

“Dude!” He slugged Peter on the arm. “You suck!” Peter just looked at him, eyes bright. Wait…he’s a…and he’s gay…and he sucks… Aiden threw an arm over Peter’s shoulders, and all but collapsed laughing.

Published September 14, 2018