Summary: Christian and Ryan have been groomed to be leaders in the Traditional Values Protection Ministry, and they've wanted nothing more. That all changes when they discover they need something else – each other. Explores themes of homosexuality (slash) and religion.
Author's note first, again: Cripes, that was a long time. Thanks, school and EMS! Sorry, you guys, and thanks for sticking with me. This one's for all of you, but especially for magalina, who's been sticking with the story and reviewing it since the very beginning.
I'd also like to give a shout-out to the people from not-necessarily-English-speaking places like Sweden, Austria, Lithuania and Saudi Arabia! (I found out about you guys through FP's awesome new toys.) Thanks for checking me out!
The sky was overcast and the clouds were heavy with the threat of rain. I was standing in front of the seal tank in Central Park, gesticulating with a prophylactic umbrella, and attempted to maintain charge of a gaggle of children.
It was a Tuesday. The zoo tour originally scheduled for Monday, which had been cloudy and cool, had been moved due to the threat of rain. Dark clouds sagged overhead, and I watched the sky warily.
"So, um," I began uninspiredly. "Seals."
There was a flash of lightning, and a light rain began to pour.
"As you can see," I found myself shouting to the increasingly entropic crowd of elementary schoolers. "The seal's shape has been, um, designed, to suit its unique environment, and, uh, its layers of fat help it to stay – inappropriate, Marie! Pull that back down!" A girl who had pulled the back of her shirt over her head to protect from the rain hastily complied. "All right, everyone," I commanded defeatedly, "Let's all begin to move into the penguin aquarium…"
The amorphous amoeba of children oozed dreamily toward the shelter of the aquarium.
"Anyway," I said to the kids, trying to bridge their two experiences, "You can see how the seals and the penguins kind of look alike. How do you think that helps them?"
"It helps them swim better?" a young girl with straw blonde hair asked.
"That's right," I grinned. "What kind of food do you think seals might eat? What about penguins?"
"I've seen seals eat fish before, at the zoo. But I don't know what penguins eat. Snow?" suggested a brown-haired boy in tragically checkered overalls.
I stifled a good-natured laugh. "Not – not quite. Snow's just frozen water, so they couldn't really survive on just snow. Does anybody else want to take a guess?"
"Maybe they eat fish, too," offered the young blonde girl. A blonde woman in the zoo's uniform began watching curiously.
"That's right! They eat other things, too, but they're pretty similar. So they both have the same sort of lifestyle and they eat the same kinds of things. That's called a niche. And they look similar, but they're not the same kinds of animals. Seals are mammals like us, and penguins are birds. And that," I enthused, "is called convergent ev – oh. Um, the species…they're similar, so they…changed…" I lost steam. "So, that means that even if we're not the same, we can still share the same earth." My ears were red. It was a quick save. "Can anyone else give me an example of con…of similar species like that?"
A chubby, dimpled girl stretched her hand as far as she could reach, dancing on her tip-toes. "Ooh!" she cried.
"Yes," I laughed. "Go ahead."
"Sharks and dolphins!" she said excitedly. "I know that dolphins are mammals and sharks are fish, but they both live in the ocean!"
"That's great!" I told her.
More people began to filter into the aquarium building. I recognized some of them as the parents of the Creation Biology group. "Guys," I said regretfully, "that's all the time we have for today. Some of your parents are here to pick you up, but I'll stick around until they all come, all right?" I assured them.
As I was shooing the lagging dregs of the anarchic group from crowded penguin aquarium, I noticed the blonde woman making her way to me through the crowd. I straightened up.
"Hi, my name is Heidi!" the blonde woman said brightly. "I'm an assistant zookeeper, and I noticed that you were bringing children through." She offered her hand for a handshake.
I reached to shake her hand gingerly. "I'm Ryan," I introduced myself. "I'm here with the –"
She grabbed my hand and crushed my phalanges. "Anyway, I just wanted to introduce myself and to offer to show you and the kids around a little more myself, if that's all right with you. I have my master's in evolutionary biology, and – "
Say something, I commanded myself. "Um…er, ma'am, we're here with the Traditional Values Protection Ministry, and we'd like to present the facts to the children and allow them to draw their own conclusions," I attempted diplomatically.
"I see," she said with a cool diplomacy. "Well, I won't hold you up any longer, in that case. Please enjoy the Central Park Zoo." She began to walk way, then slowed down and looked over her shoulder. I began out of the building. "Ryan, wait," she said suddenly. She took a folded slip of paper from one of her many pockets. She lowered her voice. "Listen, okay? I know you're not stupid. I heard you talking as much as you could about convergent evolution without saying it."
I colored. "Was it really that obvious?"
"To someone who knows what they're talking about," she said. "This is an application to the zoo. We have some positions available – including tour guides – but I don't know what your experience is. Still, if you want a sensible place to work…I'll put in a good word for you. I've been listening to you, and I think you could do well here."
"I love my job," I said steadfastly.
She sighed. "All right," she said reluctantly. "But do me a favor, all right? Just hang on to this?" She thrust the paper at me.
"Sure," I said noncommittally.
"All right," she said. "Take care." She waved warmly.
"Bye," I said morosely.
I stepped outside the aquarium building and found that the gentle rain had turned into a veritably torrential downpour. I groaned as I realized I'd left my umbrella, and pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head. It was soaked almost instantly. I practically sprinted into the subway.
Forget this rain, I thought to myself as I kicked off my sodden sneakers. They hit the damp mat and a stale mildew-scented wave diffused into my nostrils. The apartment seemed to be even damper than usual.
"You look like you've been through heck!" Christian exclaimed, looking up from the desk with a start.
"Well," I admitted, stripping off my sodden sweater and massaging my sore shoulders, "It was very…heckish." I sighed heavily. "How was your day?"
Chris straightened a stack of papers on the table and placed it into a manila folder. "Boring," he said simply. "Same old, same old. Just finishing up some paperwork for Jenkins…"
"I mean, it's just so frustrating!" I burst out, ignoring him. "Today, I nearly told them about convergent evolution!"
"I see," Chris nodded blankly.
"That means when two species come to resemble each other without having a close common ancestor," I explained. "See? See how easy that was to explain? And I can't do it, because of our stupid idiot agenda!" To my surprise, my hands are shaking. "Some woman even gave me an application for the zoo, in case I 'wanted to work in a sensible place,' she said."
"Another girlfriend?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise.
"Shut up!" I said angrily. "That's not even funny! It's not -"
"Hey," Chris began soothingly. He stood up and pushed his chair in.
"I'm sorry I yelled," I told him. "I just – a sensible place!"
"Would you do it?"
"I like my job," I said obstinately. I inspected my hands and laced them together. "I just feel like I'm lying sometimes," I said dejectedly. "Most of the time," I amended. All the time, I thought. "Which is sort of the opposite of the point…"
I hung my head and twiddled my thumbs dejectedly. I felt a hand on my back as Chris pulled me closer to him. "Hey," he said again. "You're okay, all right?"
I cracked a grin. "You're not so bad, yourself," I told him.
I could smell his minty breath and something powerful and sweet in his cologne. I drew away and regarded him. His curls, heavy from the damp, hung lower on his cheeks than they usually did. His crucifix glimmered on his black tee. The clasp hung beside the cross. I reached to right it. "Your clasp is at the front," I found myself whispering. "That means someone's thinking of you."
"Yeah?" he asked quietly. "Anyone in particular?"
I allowed my fingers to linger on the back of his neck. "Couldn't tell you," I muttered.
He drew me closer once more. His hand on my waist began to slide a finger up my back. "I see," he breathed, and my lips tingled as I felt his warm breath. We looked at each other, and I recognized an intense tenderness in his eyes that nearly overpowered my vestibular instincts. For this reason, I dropped my gaze.
"It's just hard sometimes," I sighed in frustration, "to keep a balance between, you know, not supporting evolution, well, directly – and supporting creationism. I can't do that anymore. It's kind of a fine line."
"Well, what have you been doing instead?" he asked curiously.
"I've just been pointing out how the natural world is organized, I guess. I mean, no matter how they got there, we have families, monkeys have families, and as long as you know that, I guess you can try to come to your own conclusions…I don't know," I confessed. "I kind of ad-libbed it."
"Sounds like a plan, I guess."
"For now," I agreed. "So," I asked again after a while, "How are the violent youth?"
"I wish I knew," said Chris mournfully. "They haven't cleared me to work with them yet. I don't know why, but I'm still riding a desk, filling out paperwork. At least you get to work with the kids."
"My kids don't hide knives in their underpants," I told him.
His head dropped onto my shoulder and I realized with a start that he was still holding me. "It's just been kind of a rough week," he admitted.
"I hear that," I agreed heartily.
He drew in a breath. "At least," he began, "no matter what, I – "
The telephone rang. I jumped and quickly disentangled myself from him. We looked at each other for a moment.
"Yeah, so –"
"I should probably get that," I said finally.
We did not move.
The telephone rang a third time and I practically sprinted to catch it before it stopped ringing. "Hello?" I said breathlessly.
"Yes, ah, hello, is Ryan there, please?" I recognized my dad's businesslike, cordial tone.
"Hey, Dad, it's me," I replied. "How are you? How's the family? What's Hailey up to?"
"The family's fine," he said shortly. "We all miss you, of course," he added as an afterthought.
"I miss you too," I realized, remembering Hailey's ridiculous glitter pink unicorn spray.
"To tell you the truth," my dad said, a little uncomfortably, "I called you to discuss business. I have to get Hailey to set the table soon, but I just figured I'd call and give you a heads up, because we're kind of, uh, changing what you guys are going to be doing soon…"
I heard him shift the phone to his other shoulder. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, the ministry's decided that it's probably in our best interest to put you both on the marriage protection initiative. You may want to get a pen," he advised, and I scrambled to find one.
"What? Are they taking us off our other projects?" I panicked.
"Not exactly," my dad said, and I relaxed. "But you will be working on them in, er…a diminished capacity."
"What?" I protested. "But I'm just starting to get into the swing of the zoo tours! And Chris!" Chris looked up from across the room. "Chris can't possibly do less than he already does! They haven't cleared him to work with violent youth yet! He's doing paperwork! Come on," I practically whined.
"I'm sorry, Ryan," he said. "But you'll want to write this down."
I hastily collected one of Chris's notebooks, a pen, flicked on a lamp, and sourly began scribbling as my dad recounted dates, numbers, programs, and plans into my ear for half an hour.
I opened my eyes and it was dark.
I had skittered into and out of a fitful sleep, uneasy with anxiety and apprehension over the new programs, angry at being taken away from my own, and nervousness about my beliefs, and somehow, that grew into an overpowering depression that settled inside me like a cold weight.
Chris was curled in a corner of his futon, snoring slightly. His dark form barley rose as he breathed, and without warning, a tender, wild longing erupted through my body.
And I realized that I would never care about Heidi, or getting married, or finding a girlfriend, as much as I cared about the three short months that I had with Chris. I realized that after three months, I would dread my future wife or girlfriend, and I realized that now was the best time of my life, and it would be over soon. The feeling overwhelmed me and a sob racked my body. I tried to stifle it in a pillow, but an errant piece of fluff occluded my airway and I burst out into a hacking cough.
"You okay?" Chris's voice came, groggy and bewildered.
My voice nearly cracked. "I'm fine," I said, my voice wavering. "Go back to bed."
"Ryan," he asked in the same, bewildered voice. "Are you crying or something?"
"Yes," I admitted simply.
"Uh," his voice was approaching, and I heard his footsteps padding to the bed. "Why?"
It suddenly felt stupid even to admit. "It's…nothing," I mumbled into my pillow. The anguish that had seemed to course to every last nerve ending was rapidly dissipating, and I was left only with embarrassment at calling Chris's attention to essentially nothing.
"What did you dream about?" His voice became softer and more focused, and he sat down on the bed.
I continued to stew in my stupidity. "It wasn't a dream. It was nothing…important. Go back to sleep. I'm sorry I woke you up." I turned away from him.
"Well, jeez, Ryan," Chris said exasperatedly. "I'm sorry, you're my friend and I really care about oyu, but sometimes you just get into these moods! I was only trying to help, and you used to tell me everything, but lately, you've been telling me nothing! Is this just how it is? I try to talk to you, and it's like talking to a brick wall! No, wait. It's like ramming your head into a brick wall! Repeatedly!"
"It really was nothing," I said meekly, not changing my position.
"I'll just go to bed, then." He began to get up.
I caught his hand. "I just don't know what to believe anymore." I choked on the last word, and suddenly, I was sobbing again, and Chris was in front of me, sitting back down on the bed, and putting his arms around me.
"What do you mean?" he murmured into my shoulder.
"I mean – I mean – " I tried to calm down, but now my breath was coming in hiccups.
"Hey," he said. His voice was beginning to sound concerned. "You don't have to worry. I'm here. Now what's up?"
"That's just it," I said. "I just…today was the first day of zoo tours since – since we had our talk about, you know. Evolution. And I can't help but…" I trailed off.
He was now stroking my back. "But what?"
"Well, I just noticed how…easy it was. And I didn't know how easy it would be. And I don't think he's – I don't think Jenkins is gonna be happy about it – and I don't know how I feel about anything anymore, and I can't lie anymore."
He lay down next to me and tentatively draped an arm around me. "You're feeling sad because it's…easy?"
"Because why is it so easy? Why can I change my beliefs like that? Did I believe anything in the first place? Can I change my beliefs to something completely wrong, too? Something, you know, malicious? Didn't God warn about that? What if I'm veering completely off course, going completely wrong?"
"I can't make that call for you."
I closed my eyes.
"But I can tell you what I think." He moved closer.
I opened my eyes and focused on his dark face. "What's up?"
"I think that you should think. I think you're a smart person, and a good person, and you're not going to be malicious, no matter what you believe – even because you worry about that. It's about being honest, and doing good by yourself the people you care about. Which, in your case," he chuckled, "seems to be everyone."
"But how do you know?"
"But what if I find myself questioning – I mean, what if I don't, necessarily, in the same way – I mean, not that I don't believe, anymore, but what if it's changed, and I can't see myself the way I usually – "
"In you," he attempted to clarify. "I believe in you."
"It's because you're you. I believe in you," he repeated. As far as God…well…that's different. But I know you're not evil, and I know you're not going to be. Because I trust you. And I care about you. A lot."
His head moved closer, and he rested his head between my shoulder and my neck.
He was too close. "Hey," I said, feeling inexplicably warm and lightheaded, and spontaneously decided to seize a wild, wild chance. "I really…care about you, too."
"Do you?" he asked, his voice unreadable. "It's hard to tell what's going on in there sometimes."
"I do care about you," I protested. He didn't understand! "I really do. I really…I don't know how to…you're always there for me, no matter what crap I pull, and I can't even begin to – "
"Ryan," he whispered, and placed a hand on the back of my neck.
"That's my name, don't wear it out," I said stupidly.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
"For what?" I was confused. "You're not actually going to wear out my na-"
"For…doing…" he trailed off. I felt a slow, warm pressure on my neck. I froze. Had he just…? I felt my pulse spike by about fifty beats per minute.
"I'm sorry," he repeated softly. He moved his head on level with mine and didn't meet my eyes. "I'm so sorry, Ryan," he said, and he lowered his head and barely pressed his lips to my cheekbone. "I'm sorry," he said, and brushed his lips against my jaw.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, now against the corner of my mouth. "You can tell me to stop." His voice was fearful and breathy. "And I will. I'll take it all back."
I could have pulled away, acting disgusted. I could have ignored him – eventually, he would leave. I could have, as he suggested, told him to stop and take it back, and gone for a walk to clear my head.
Instead, I turned my head a fraction of an inch, and we were kissing full on the lips. Instantly, I felt a jolt that could only have been, I realized vaguely, the realization of many suppressed dreams. My hands, which felt frozen, rested on his back. His hands cupped my face, and his lips were moving against mine.
I made to move away for a breath of air, but he followed me. I lost my balance and fell against the nightstand, sliding down to the floor. Chris tumbled after me, landing about foot away with a thump. He looked at me, breathing rapidly.
"Ow," I said mournfully.
"I hit my head."
"Oh," he said. "Let me go get you some – some ice, or something…" He stood and trundled unsteadily the kitchen area.
I sat against the bed, staring at the bureau and feeling the throbbing of my head, willing myself not to question what had just happened, but still feeling, quietly and insistently, the graze of his lips against mine.
In the kitchen, I heard Chris rummaging around the freezer, looking for ice. I heard his footsteps approaching, and he appeared in front of me. "Hey," he said, holding a plastic bag. "I got you some ice. How's your – "
I stood up too quickly and the blood rushed from my head. Unsteady, I put my arms around his waist to steady myself and then looked up at him. His face was cloudy and indecipherable. "Chris," I began, but I couldn't find any words beyond his name. My hand slid up to his face, seemingly of its own accord. "Chris…" I tried again.
His breathing quickened, but he didn't say anything, and he didn't move.
Say something, I told myself. "Okay," I decided. "So…I just want to make sure I didn't just fall, and bump my head, and hallucinate the entire thing – what happened – I mean, that we, you know – that we kissed, because, uh. Oh, heck. Because I don't care how sorry you are, because it was…kind of nice, and I, um. Oh, heck. I… want to do it again. I want to kiss you again. So…yeah. And…yeah. I guess that's it. Oh, wait. Another thing," I babbled emotionally, my heart pounding. "You can't just do that. You don't get to just kiss me and then run off and come back playing it like we could pretend nothing happened. Maybe you could, but I can't. And I, um. Even if we hadn't kissed before, I, uh. I would still really want to – want to kiss you right now. So…yeah. So…now you know." My hands were beginning to shake, but I willed myself not to move them, and I offered a diminished shrug.
He bit his lip. "R-really?" he stuttered. Blood rushed in my ears.
I bowed my head, then looked at him defiantly. "That's all I can think of. For now. I could always think of something – "
He interrupted by sealing his lips over mine so urgently that had his hands not come up to hold my back tightly, I would have staggered back in surprise. "You are," he stammered between shallow and rapid breaths, "so…much. I mean," he tried to clarify, "you mean so much. To me. I…Ryan, everything you just said –"
I blanched. "You mean my verbal diarrhea that –"
" – honest, caring, and brave, and you just bared yourself like that," his voice cracked, "for me, and I don't deserve it – " A tear threatened in the corner of his eye.
"Don't you start crying, too," I said nervously, and patted him awkwardly on the shoulder.
He looked at me, and anguish flashed in his eyes. "This is really hard! But I…you're so…I…I really, really like you, Ryan."
I leaned into him and he caught me, pivoting, and lay me on the bed. My face flushed, and I moved to kiss him again. He pinned my hands above my head and kissed me deeply, like he wanted to kiss me, like he had waited to kiss me for a long time, and I had never imagined kissing anyone like that before. He bit down on my lip and I could not stop a guttural sound from escaping my throat.
He pulled away and stared at me. "Did you just grunt?"
"Maybe," I said dazedly. "Because…wow."
He smiled a shaky smile. "I like you a lot, Ryan," he said, more soberly. "I have, for a really long time."
"How long?" I asked curiously. "And I…like you too. A lot. I really do."
"Practically forever," he breathed. "What about you?"
"What about me what?"
"How long have you liked me for?"
"Aren't we getting a little vain?"
"Hey!" He playfully punched my arm. He was smiling now. "You asked first!"
"Okay, but I'm warning you, this is stupid," I began, "and you probably don't even remember it. It was a few summers ago, it was at one of your teen lectures, and some girl asked you how you knew you were in love, and you were listing off all these reasons, and I thought maybe…" I trailed off.
"Maybe I had felt that…before," I realized aloud.
I moved my hand to his cheek and adjusted the angle of his head slightly. His eyes fluttered closed, and a thrill of anticipation exploded inside me as I tilted forward and pressed my lips to his. The kiss was slow and sweet; it was a habit I was trying to form; it was a release of confusion, and it all seemed to meld together in a cathartic acquisition of feeling. We broke apart, and he sighed contentedly. I threaded my hand through his hair.
"That one time, at the beach," he began. "Do you remember? It was last summer, at the picnic."
"What about it?" One of my hands was on his neck, and the other tangled experimentally in his hair.
"I remember everyone else had left, and it was just us, sitting on the rocks, and one of us had to bring up that stupid marriage thing again –"
"It was you," I interrupted.
"And all I could think was that I wanted to kiss you so badly then. You looked so…" His voice lowered, as though he were embarrassed. "…Hot."
"You should've," I said, trying not to sound too pleased with myself. He thinks I'm hot. "I would've let you."
"Believe me," he laughed in relief. "From now on, I will. Every chance I get…" he trailed off.
"Me too," I affirmed giddily.
We sat in silence for a while. Presently, he took my hand. "Hey, Ryan?"
"Would I have a good chance right now?"
I couldn't help smiling. "Yeah."
He put a hand on my jaw. "Come here," he whispered. We both moved forward, and met in another tender kiss that didn't seem to last long enough, that never seemed to last long enough, and yet I found myself gasping for air.
"Thanks," he said, sounding as breathless as I felt.
"Don't even thank me because…yeah. You too."
We were laying close together when Chris eyed the clock. "We should probably get some sleep."
"Sorry for waking you up."
He laughed. "Believe me," he said again. He stood up slowly, regretfully, and leaned in for a final kiss. ""It was so worth it…"
I grabbed his shirt as he leaned in. "Chris, will you sleep with me?" I asked.
He lost his balance and began to fall forward, catching himself against the wall like an awkward hypotenuse. "Wh-what? Ryan, I – "
I sat up suddenly, bumped into his elbow, and began talking very quickly. "Ow. I don't, um, mean, you know, like that, you know, carnal knowledge type stuff, I mean – "
He steadied himself on his feet and cut me off with a laugh. "Did you just say 'carnal knowledge'?"
I caught his hand as he lowered it from the wall. "Just stay? Sleep here tonight? Please?"
"Okay," he said, and I could hear a grin creep into in his voice.
I moved over and he slid into bed beside me, and slid his arms around me to cradle my body. His head rested on my chest and he kissed my chest in a way that sent an inexplicable, deep thrill through my body and I repressed a shiver. "Good night, Ry," he said sleepily. I let the nickname wash over me like a caress.
"Good night," I replied. We settled into quiet disbelief, and neither of us slept, and neither of us spoke.
Rae: Thanks for understanding! I wouldn't drop this, though. It lives in my head. (In a non-creepy way.) Ryan's completely dense, but at least he's honest about it! P Thanks for reading.
fivestar ice: Nah, POVs aren't changing, I just get forgetful and airheaded. Sorry about that!
write25: Kids are crazy, but fun to write. I think kids everywhere are pretty much the same, haha.
magalina: Thank you so much for sticking with the story since Chapter 1. That means an incredible amount to me.
Inherent: Oh, I am terrible at updating on time. I thought I could make this happen monthly…er…I suppose not so much. Well, it's definitely on my mind a lot, and I'll finish it on here, definitely!
lalalaelelel: Er…whoops. So, about those two months…that turned into a year, kind of…That kind of compliment from you really means a lot, though. I hope this didn't seem terribly rushed to you, but if it did, I really value your input!
Amarez: Religion is definitely tricky to write about. Having struggled with my own faith and cultural background, it's definitely tricky. But thank you for thinking that I'm doing okay.
Kar3b3ar: I used to be very short with people who came to my door proselytizing, too, but since working with them in other capacities, I've grown to respect them a lot more (even if I don't really always…if ever…agree, lol).
Aime Atem: More is definitely coming! I have the story planned out, it's just finding the time to write it. I promise I'll finish it, though.
ddz008: Oh, horrible things are definitely on their way, don't worry. But they have to catch the small moments when they can.
LaylaLivesLoosely: I love writing about the guys, too. More is on the way!
Mareas: I'll definitely keep updating, because I can't get this story out of my mind. It will be a struggle for them to break out, but hopefully, they will find it rewarding.
KnittingKneedle: Thank you for the amazing compliment! Dialogue is easier to write for me, because I constantly play those conversations in my head (I'm not a creeper or anything…) but then I have a tough time exploring the characters' emotions through pure narrative.
Decline: Thanks! Sorry for the delay…hopefully it won't be too long next time, but maybe I just jinxed it.
Daydream Nation: Thanks. It sucks that it has to be sad, sometimes, but sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. These two have a tough ride ahead of them.