My first day back to work had passed in a blur of built-up workload and trying not to answer the standard office commentary—"And what did you do on your holiday?" with "my ex." Meanwhile Steve and Jake unhurriedly tallied the women they'd had sex with during the break. The hair-rising number they came up with would have made John Mayer feel inadequate.
By the second day, an hour into the first Tuesday morning of January, I'm already in need of another vacation. I never found it difficult to go back after the holidays when I was in school. Christmas for Tara and I was always the most barren, pointless holiday; our parents would be away, and the mountains of presents they left for us eventually lost their appeal. We threw the most ridiculous parties when we were teenagers. One for every night of the season, and when New Years was over we'd be completely exhausted. More than ready for the structure Centreville promised.
Now is a different story. Nicky and I are both dragging. He'd gotten twice his usual amount of homework and dawdled over it all Monday night with the tenacity of a turtle. I'd been short-tempered and snappy with him after my overwrought day at the office. We both went to bed pissed off, and had to face each other over Cheerios this morning with red, groggy eyes.
"He's coming," Jake hisses across the office suddenly. He and Steve both sit up straight, wide-eyed and attentive. I unhunch my back from a pile of receipts I'm date-checking in time to see my Dad striding purposefully down the hallway towards us, and then I straighten as well. It's more because I don't want to hand Steve and Jake another reason to give me shit for being the boss's son than because I'm worried about what my dad thinks.
"Good morning, sir," Jake offers tentatively. Steve chimes in after him, and I offer a weak third.
Dad stands in the midst of the room and looks at us for a minute, not speaking. I know this is one of his tricks, trying to make us think we've done something wrong so we'll start apologizing and offering up information he wouldn't hear otherwise, but it's intimidating anyway. For a moment hardly anyone breathes, and then Dad finally speaks up.
"We'll be having a bit of a to-do this Friday evening, in the hotel across the street," he says in the clipped voice he always uses at the office—no greeting in return for us, his lowly workers. "I want you all there at eight o'clock sharp."
I snort a bit, but Jake is already taking notes on a legal pad sitting next to him on the desk. Steve's hand is frozen on the pocket of his tailored black slacks. He'll have his Blackberry out the minute Dad steps out of the room.
"Black tie, appropriate company—I won't want to see you with that ghastly socialite you escorted last time," Dad continues with a hard look at Steve, who goes red around the ears like a scolded kid. Then his eyes fall on me. "And Kayton." I stiffen automatically. "You can bring your lover, if you like."
Amidst the confused whirlwind of my thoughts I almost smile at this antiquated language. Dad has turned, addressing some comment I don't catch to the others, and then he's out of the room. Silence trails in his wake.
"Your lover?" Steve asks at last, in the kind of tone I'd expect him to use if I was some declared-celibate WoW player. I look over and see that his hand is still stuck to his pocket. Jake is staring at me, too. I wince. What motive could Dad possibly have for this? He has absolutely nothing to gain from me taking a guy to a business function. More like everything to lose, and now I get the added bonus of dealing with all the annoying fucking ribbing from my officemates. And yet… And yet. I can't help being sort of absurdly touched. It's like a sign of acceptance, isn't it?
"Wake up. Since when do you have a 'lover'?" Jake snaps, waving a hand in front of my face as he dumps a fresh pile of legal briefs in front of me. I smile awkwardly back at him, shrugging a little as I try to think of how to get around this question.
And more importantly, how I'm going to convince Josh to do this.
"Kay, I can't. I don't want to."
Turns out convincing Josh to do it was the easy part. Getting him to get his sunglasses off before we go in is another story, unfortunately.
I'm standing in the hotel lobby minutes before eight o'clock on Friday night, backing Josh into a corner while he clutches the glasses to his face and sours his mouth into a sullen grimace. We're both in black suits, and Josh looks as little in his as he ever did. His tantrum doesn't help things. I feel like I'm dealing with Nicky at his worst, not any lover of mine.
"Josh." I exhale in a rush, trying to keep patient. "I'm glad you came, you know I'm glad you came. But you can't wear your sunglasses at a party like this. You'll look insane, you'll look like a rockstar with his head up his ass. You know that. Give them to me." I can visibly see his fingers tighten on the frames, and I pull out the big guns. "You know my Dad is here tonight, what is he gonna say if he sees you wearing sunglasses indoors?" Magic words. I see his fingers freeze before he gives and hands them over to me. God, the mental image is actually kind of hilarious. I can see Josh already staring sour-faced at the floor while my dad rants about 'children' these days.
I refrain from sharing this image with Josh; his blue eyes are already burning with resentment. I don't bite. I just smile cheerily at him as I tuck them into the breast pocket of my jacket.
"That's my boy."
"Never call me that," he grouses before taking hold of my hand without batting an eye. I can feel my frustration ebbing away already as he lets me lead him toward the ballroom; I am that whipped. "So am I like your society wife tonight? Should I have borrowed some earrings from Tara or something?"
"Sure Dad would have loved that," I joke. Josh gives my fingers a hard squeeze.
Past the ballroom doors, we enter a glittering world of pretend-cocktail party. People are all dressed up and pretending they're not here to schmooze and be schmoozed; I can already see the faces of clients I'm familiar with, all gleaming with makeup and barber shop-close shaves. I smile automatically.
"Wow," Josh says neutrally, not actually sounding impressed. I gently pull my fingers from his grasp, putting them on the small of his back instead. I know Dad had invited him, more or less, but I still doubt he wants me holding hands with my maybe-boyfriend.
"Yeah. We're gonna have to suck up," I warn.
"Then I need a drink." Josh pauses, taking in the room, his spine solid and relaxed beneath my fingers. Funny how a party at Tara's can make him into such a wreck, but a business gathering of this size affects him not at all. He turns to me and I admire his perfect hopeful face. "And can I have my glasses back?"
"Not a chance," I smile, and unarmored we plunge into the crowd.
Josh's sunglasses in the pocket of my jacket turn out to be the most unlikely aphrodisiac. Josh keeps looking at my chest and then raising his eyes to me with this naked expression of pure longing, and fine, it's not me that's causing that look, but it's pretty hot anyway. My constant refusal means he drinks fairly heavily throughout the evening. Besides a slight heightening of his color, he doesn't really show it, so I leave it alone. Besides, at best this "to-do" is boring as fuck. I've been into the liquor myself tonight, and unlike at Tara's party, it won't be running dry. By eleven I feel completely warm and content.
I've been introducing Josh all night as my friend, using his author name and watching when some of the women light with recognition and then, more slowly, realization. It's been forever since I've seen that expression, the gradual look of understanding that spreads as they look from Josh to me. I actually enjoy seeing it again.
As far as the husbands and the businesswomen in the room go, no one's caught on yet. A particularly clueless power couple had even sized up my ringless left hand within a minute of conversation and asked whether I've ever met their daughter Amy—so it's nothing Dad will mind. Plus for a quarter of an hour now I've been sucking up hard to this bigwig from an oil company he's been trying to woo away from his current legal reps.
Meanwhile Josh has spent twenty minutes reveling in the attentions of a trio of older women who have read his books. With the tycoon's ass successfully kissed I turn around to look for him again. The women are talking amongst themselves and Josh is standing a little apart, his shoulders rigid and his drink held stiffly off to one side. I narrow right in on the quivering liquid around the rim, and while I'm watching he backs up. I can't see anything wrong. My stomach is knotted regardless.
I'm moving towards him already, and when I reach him he nearly backs into me. He flinches.
"What's wrong, what is it?" I ask, my lips in his ear and my fingers wrapped around his shoulder. I feel him relax when he realizes it's me, and I'm gratified, but I still see no cause for this horrified reaction of his. Only a sea of suits and dresses. The backs of his thighs press to the front of mine and I realize again that he's shaking. I pull the dripping drink out of his hand. "Are you okay?"
"N-no. M-m-my dad," and his voice is so fractured and choked it takes me forever to figure out what it is he's said. What? The knots in my stomach pull tighter. I start reevaluating the suits, and then suddenly everything shifts and I pick James Courtland's professionally held profile out easily.
"Jesus," I mutter unthinkingly. I haven't seen him since Jack and Tara's wedding; he'd put in an obligatory appearance at the ceremony itself and I'd taken the opportunity to say all sorts of horrible shit to him in the hallway. He looks different, he looks… older. I'm staring. Then I'm tuning into Josh's violently trembling shoulders and I realize what he might be thinking. "I didn't know he'd be here, I don't know why he's here," I say urgently into his ear.
"Is your dad his lawyer?" Josh asks, his voice thin and dull.
"No. Well—I don't think—I've never heard—" I stop, confusing myself, and Josh's elbow catches me hard in the ribs as he suddenly tries to go pinwheeling out of view. I almost drop his glass.
"I don't want him to see me, I can't do this—" He sounds so shrill and desperate that I suddenly feel exactly the same way. I barely manage to catch him in my arms before he trips over his own feet, but I turn him, I somehow get us both with our backs to Courtland.
"Let's go get some air," I say perfunctorily, nearly dragging Josh across the ballroom floor and away from his dad. Once we've reached the hallway he yanks away from me and collapses against the wall.
"Oh my God," he says. He's breathing so hard and with such difficulty I actually wonder if he has an asthma diagnosis I somehow don't know about. "Oh my God, oh my God."
"He didn't see us, it's fine," I say as soothingly as I know how. I don't want to pull him into me again; he'd already pulled away. I don't know if he wants space or what. I settle for reaching out and smoothing his hair back from his face while he leans heavily into the wall. There's sweat on his brow. I wipe it away for him, trying to ignore the residue of horror in my stomach. God. Reacting this way at the sight of his dad… "Do you want me to get you something? Some water?" I remember the drink in my other hand and offer it to him. Josh pulls it from my fingers and drinks deeply.
"Fuck," he says. I can see already the alcohol has stabilized him. The glare of panic recedes from his eyes, and he's focusing on me again. "God. I'm sorry." He sort of laughs, a shaky sharp noise. "You must think I'm such a fucking baby."
"Your dad sucks," I answer, looking around the lobby belatedly to see whether we'd caught anyone's attention. The lights are dimmed for the evening and no one is looking at us. We're tucked into kind of an inaccessible alcove, anyway. "You want to go home? My dad's got all the company town cars waiting out front."
"Yeah." Josh wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and looks at it, handing the drained glass to me. We both watch his fingers shaking for a minute. "I mean, can you? Your dad won't be mad?"
"My dad should've told us Courtland was on the guest list. God, I can't… I mean, there's no way he did this on purpose," I rush, seeing the stricken look on Josh's face. "I'm sure he just wasn't thinking, or—or something.But he wouldn't do that to you on purpose, Josh, trust me. He won't mind at all if we leave, given the… circumstances."
"Okay." He doesn't sound convinced. I decide to give him a minute to think and fixate in on his tie, wrapping my fingers around the length of it and starting to fuck around with the knot. I loosen it a little and let my thumb stroke over the protrusion of Josh's throat. He's almost smiling by the time I raise my eyes to his face. "Thanks," he whispers.
"I'm sorry," I say back.
"Yeah. Can I have my glasses back now?" He asks, and I don't have the heart to refuse. I dig into my jacket and produce them, watching as he eases the frames onto his face with his unsteady hands. I move my hands off his tie and drop them onto his shoulders instead. His muscles are knotted; I start kneading my thumbs into them carefully, trying not to wrinkle the jacket beyond repair.
"What is it with you and these glasses?" I question neutrally, trying to keep him distracted from what had just happened, but also really wanting to know. His little meltdowns every time I try to get them off him seem kind of intense. Josh's thumb brushes along the top of the frame, and I feel rather than see him looking at me.
"I just feel better with them on," he says after a beat. I slip my hands beneath his jacket. His muscles relax beneath the pressure of my thumbs. "It's like, Dr. Gillespie's new life goal to get me 'feeling safe without them.'"
"You could feel safe with me," I say, completely devoid of thought. I want to swallow my own tongue when I realize the lameass thing I've said, but Josh's breath hits my chin as he chuckles.
"Because you're so big and strong, right?" He teases. He puts his hands on my shoulders and runs them down my arms, all the way past my cufflinks to where my fingers are. "Sure makes me feel comfortable knowing I've got an ass-kicking lawyer at my side."
"Shut up," I say, or start to, because Josh leans into me and smothers the words in a kiss. Now it's my turn to tense up. God. He kissed me. On his own. When he settles back onto his heels I'm giving him the stupidest expression, and Josh offers me an unexpectedly sexy grin of pure evil.
"I'm a good kisser, huh?"
"I was just—yeah," I say, deciding against whatever protest I'd been going for. "Yeah, you are."
"Let me show you something—" He's coming in again. I'm completely loving this, loving that Josh is flirting with me, but of course the universe kicks me in the teeth at that exact second as I catch sight of Courtland leaving the ballroom beside us. I pull Josh automatically, bringing him further back into the shadows with me. Courtland doesn't notice anyway. He's walking too self-importantly to look around.
"What is it?" Josh whispers. I've pulled him too far; he's right up against my chest.
"It's your father." I keep my voice low, too, and I feel Josh's spine go rigid again. Then, unaccountably, he relaxes, and he moves back slightly.
"Dad," he calls suddenly. The word sounds sharp and weird from him, almost challenging. I flinch, batting at his shoulder, but Josh ignores me. He pulls his sunglasses off and I feel a bolt of shock.
"What are you doing?"
"Hey, Dad," he calls again, louder, since James hasn't so much as glanced back. I wonder when the last time someone called that after him was. Possibly never. I wonder what it would be like to no longer turn, searching for Nicky, every time I hear the word yelled.
Josh pulls farther out of the corner and starts pacing after Courtland. I still don't know what the game is, but I shout after him too.
"James!" Josh glances back at me, but doesn't comment, and then Courtland has turned around to look and Josh skitters to a stop in front of me.
"Joshua?" I see a flicker of shock moving over Courtland's schooled features. He looks almost nothing like Josh; he's tall and tanned like Jack and Johnny. Again I notice how much older he looks than he did at Tara's wedding. His black hair has grayed and thinned out, and his eyes look duller than before. I used to think his green eyes looked as corrosive and sharp as acid when he looked at me. As if on cue, his gaze moves past Josh to me and freezes. Josh hesitates in front of me.
"Hello," I say. I don't know why. He looks like an old man.
"Hello," Courtland answers after a moment. His eyes flick back to Josh. He has the weirdest expression. His face almost seems to crack suddenly. "Hello, Joshua," he says in an almost urgent tone.
"Hi, Dad." Josh's voice has gone soft. All of the confrontation has drained out of it. I put my hands on his shoulders to steady him. Courtland obviously notices—I see his thin lower lip twitch—but he doesn't comment. My discomfort grows. This is the great destroyer of both our childhoods, more or less, and yet I somehow feel like a bully right now.
"How—how are you?" Courtland asks him. Josh makes a strange, confused noise in his throat.
"I'm. I'm. I don't know," he says at last. God, this is so close to civil. What the hell is going on? My sympathetic feelings fade into something more potent. "How are you?"
Courtland doesn't answer, which is probably just as well, because I'm already thinking Josh has lost his mind. Old or not, how are you? Except then he steps forward, hands extended, reaching for Josh's face. I jerk Josh back against me before I think twice about it, not willing to let him be touched by his dad no matter how civil they're being, and Courtland falters. Josh stands still beneath my hands. I can feel his labored breathing. His father raises his eyes to me once more.
"So you're around again," he mutters.
No one moves for a minute. Then, with obvious effort, Courtland drags his eyes away from my hands on his son and looks at Josh again. His lower lip has pulled tight again.
"I called you," he says slowly. "To tell you I was in town. Again."
"I keep telling Jack not to give you my numbers—" Josh kind of laughs, I think. It's a stiff, awkward sound. Courtland draws back from us a little. Christ, did Josh just manage to hurt him? I wonder what's happened to him over the last few years. And I feel Josh wincing. "I, I'm sorry, I—"
"I understand," Courtland interrupts with difficulty.
"I made mistakes. I fucked up." He ignores how hard Josh and I both jerk at the sound of him swearing. Josh even twists and looks at me, wide-eyed with disbelief, and Courtland doesn't even seem to notice. "I'm an old man. There's nothing I… I can't fix anything. I don't think you know how much I drank when you were growing up. It's not an excuse." At this, I'm even more blown away. If there was ever a man who kept his "family business" private, it was Courtland. Jack is entirely his son. Yet here he is, blithely telling Josh and me, of all people, about his alcoholic past. Josh leans heavily back against me. I look down and see his face is as white as a waxwork.
"I don't really expect to be in your life. I just wanted to say… that I apologize," Courtland finishes arduously. All this and he can't even say he's sorry. I hear a disbelieving snort escape me, and Courtland glances my way, but quickly turns his attention back to Josh. "I was wrong."
"Okay," Josh says faintly. No one says anything else. The silence stretches out over a long minute, and I'm watching Courtland critically over Josh's head. I don't care if I feel like a bully. I don't care if he's old. I don't give a fuck that he's apologizing; I don't even care if it's because he's dying or something. I bend over Josh almost jealously, circling my arms across his front—I know I'm showing off, I know I'm making sure Courtland sees he'll let me, and Josh probably knows too, but he doesn't stop me anyway. I put my lips on his ear and whisper so his dad can't hear.
"Are you done? Do you want to go home?"
"Yes," he says out loud. Courtland deflates soundlessly in front of us.
"Nice seeing you, James," I say almost jovially. I don't know why I'm being such an asshole. Josh takes my hand dazedly, and I step toward the door.
"Bye," Josh says over his shoulder. I wish he hadn't. Courtland sighs.
"Goodbye," he says to our backs.
Josh barely speaks the whole way home. My cocky feeling evaporates and I start realizing what a fucking moron I'd been. It should have been Josh's confrontation; I should have been supporting him, in silence, not making a point of marking my territory in front of his dad. And why did I think Josh was my territory to mark? Because he'd agreed to come to some stupid work party with me?
Still, he comes home with me. He stands next to my bed after I've checked on Nicky, and he takes off his clothes one by one, stripping down so methodically you'd think he was getting a physical. I sit on the edge of the bed and watch as his black dress socks come off, and then he crawls between the sheets in just his underwear.
"Get in with me," he demands. His soft voice is bossy, but it's the first comment he's addressed specifically to me. I oblige. I'm undressed quickly, leaving my suit and tie crumpled carelessly on the ground to slip in next to him. The sheets are cold, but Josh is surprisingly warm. It's usually him with his cold feet on my leg.
"Are you okay?" I ask him, feeling the brush of his knee against mine beneath the blankets as he turns to face me. He clasps his hands beneath his cheek.
"Yes." He pauses. The nightlight in the en suite is still on, and in the faint glow I see his eyes, dark, flicking back and forth between mine. "He looked so old."
"Swear you didn't know he'd be there?"
"I swear," I say automatically. I can't remember the last time another adult genuinely asked me to swear, but between Tara and Nicky I hear it often enough to hardly blink an eye.
"'Kay, good." Josh is silent again, then bites his lip. I can't resist putting my hand out to move his hair back from his face. "I'm glad we saw him."
"Why?" I ask, unbidden. I think back once more to him asking Courtland how he was. "I thought you hated him."
"I do. I did. I. I don't know. He—" Josh keeps chewing on his lip for a minute. Then his thoughts spill out in a jumbled rush I have to pick apart to decipher. "I thought he was bigger. He looked smaller than I remembered. I never knew he drank, not really. And he swore and he said he was wrong. He said he was wrong. Right? Didn't he?"
"Yeah. He did." Don't know what to make of that, either. I run my hand over Josh's hair again. "Does that make you feel better?"
"I don't know. No. I guess not." Josh wriggles closer to me. My hand stills on the side of his face, and he grabs hold of my wrist abruptly.
"Why am I okay with this?" He asks, his voice suddenly desperate. I blink at him and he pulls harder on my hand, squeezing it to his chest. It kind of hurts, but I can't shake his grasp any looser. "What makes me want to be here with you?" I sigh as I catch up to his racing thoughts.
"Oh, Josh. Not this again." I study him in the semi-darkness. He could have a civil conversation with his fucked up dad, but not be happy with me for more than five minutes? "Why can't you just let yourself be happy about this?"
"You're kidding, right?" He pushes my hand away. I put it beneath the blanket and pinch his bare thigh roughly.
"If you start telling me you don't deserve this again, I'll punch you."
"Oh, sure, you'll punch me," Josh says sarcastically, but the panic has edged back out of his voice. He puts his hands back on my face and squashes my cheeks in, pursing my lips out, and then he kisses me with a bizarre savageness. I bite his lip back and hear his muffled noise.
"Don't think so much about it," I warn him after he breaks it off. "You want this, right?"
"Right." His hands ease up on my face a little more. He strokes his thumbs along my cheekbones, making me blink. "It just seems so… fucked."
"Well, you're fucked," I answer, almost cheerfully. "I'm fucked. Everyone's fucked. Does it really matter, as long as we're happy? Jesus, life has sucked enough. We might as well have a good time."
"So your dad," I venture. I find Josh's hip beneath the blanket and slide my hand along the ridge of it. His bones feel sharp enough to cut glass. I should take him to McDonalds. "Admitting he was a dick. That has to feel good."
"Why would he do that?" Josh starts worrying at his lower lip again. I give his hip a little pinch. "You think he has cancer or something?"
"Jack never said. Maybe I should call Johnny."
"Maybe," I say again. "But hey, you took your sunglasses off. Your shrink should be glad."
"Oh… yeah. I did, didn't I." Finally Josh smiles a little. "Cool. Maybe your dad will let me stop going now."
"Don't count on it."
"God." Josh closes his eyes. I keep running my hand over his leg beneath the blanket, watching his face. He looks okay. Hopefully he doesn't freak out about this once the alcohol wears off. "I'm tired," he mumbles, and I give his thigh a small pat.
"Go to sleep."
"Yeah. You too. Don't lay there watching me like a creep." He cracks an eye open to peek at me and I grin, caught.
"Okay." I lean in and kiss him. He kisses me back, easily. It's like we never stopped. I wonder what Courtland had thought, seeing us together again after his one great effort to break us up forever. I kind of wish I could have seen it from his eyes.
"Night," Josh says, startling me out of my thoughts. He sounds half-asleep already. I kiss him on the forehead this time, pulling the blankets up over his shoulders.
Sigh. I think this was the hardest chapter I've ever written? I didn't plan for them to talk to Courtland. He wasn't even scheduled to appear in LION, but hey, here he is, and then when I was in the middle of trying to write REB a nice panic attack after Josh sees him, Josh up and decided he wanted to confront him and James up and decided he wanted to have regrets. WHAT? I have literally never in all my years considered that Courtland might someday feel bad for what he'd done. I think that's probably why it was so fucking hard to write, but omg, I agonized over this and I'm still not really happy with it. Oh well. I hope it reads better than I feel like it does. Sorry. :(