It was pouring rain on Thursday morning when Meriwether took off work and drove down to the plantation house. Kasey looked up from where he lingered near the window, absently waiting for the familiar blue truck to rumble over the bump at the end of the driveway. He smiled when he saw it roll to a stop in the black Chrysler, and he picked up an umbrella leaning against the door frame as the truck's windshield wipers stopped.
The tall Yankee stepped out onto the front porch, rain splashing off the roof into the gutter. Meri hopped out of the truck, his Timberland boots splashing in a puddle as he put his arms over his head and grinned at Kasey.
"Of course it rained!" Kasey called, as the lanky youth came up the steps. Meriwether laughed at him, ducking under the porch roof.
"I thought you liked the rain!" he teased.
"Not after I found out the second-floor bathroom ceiling leaks," Kasey replied, as Meriwether shook out his ruffled and wet hair like a dog.
"Your movin' truck git here yet?"
"Sitting right there," answered Kasey, pointing to the U-Haul truck. Meriwether looked over his shoulder and grinned, biting off the end of a Slim-Jim.
"Well ain't that a nice long, wet walk," he remarked a little dryly, his manner still good-natured. "Hope that shirt of yours ain't dry-clean-only."
Kasey smiled wryly. "I thought we could have a little brunch and hope that the rain clears up."
Meriwether's eyes twinkled. "Well I'll be darned," he said playfully, "another free meal?"
"If you're interested."
"Well it's hot an' wet out here, so I think I might jus' take you up on that."
"Come inside," Kasey said, stepping aside, "Look out for the buckets on the floor. There are disadvantages to historically prevalent real estate, if you'd believe it."
Meri scuffed his heavy boots against the mat, shucking his damp jacket and looking around the tall and grand white foyer, whistling. "This is real nice, ain't it? Look at how high them ceilings are." Kasey closed the door behind the wet youth. "They ain't all original, are they?"
"Not original," Kasey said, "but twentieth century restorations. They were installed in 1934, I think." He winked. "Gabe made me into an expert."
"So I see," said Meri, looking around and pointing before glancing back to Kasey, "this the kitchen?"
"Yep," said the Yankee, motioning for him to follow, "newly renovated."
Meriwether whistled again. Kasey's kitchen was sleek and classy, with shining black granite countertops and silver appliances. It looked right out of a catalogue. "Well this is real fancy. Ain't 1934, that's for sure."
Kasey laughed, pulling down a few glasses. "Period details, modern luxuries," he recited, "that's what the ad described it as, at least. You can toss that jacket of yours there on the island." He motioned absently. "It's become my 'junk drawer' of sorts, at least 'til I get something other that dishes and sheets unpacked."
Meri grinned, leaning on the counter, "so how've you been farin', holin' up here in the house roughin' it?"
"I can't wait to not be sleeping on the couch," Kasey laughed. "Can I get you something to drink."
"Sure," said Meri, "I'll have a Pepsi."
Kasey clucked his tongue. "Only got Coke."
"What?!" Meriwether said, laughing indignantly, "I'll have water, then."
"It's that bad?"
"That stuff's awful!" Meri said, wrinkling his nose. "I can't believe you can stand it."
"To each his own," Kasey said mildly. "I was raised on it, I suppose."
"Stuff's disgusting," Meriwether teased, as Kasey poured him a glass of cold ice water. "Thank you."
Kasey smiled at him, opening the refrigerator. "I'll have to remember to stock some of that Cherry Pepsi you love so much for when you come back."
The words hung in the air like cigarette smoke. They sounded strange once spoken, and Kasey compared it to when the same word was repeated over and over until it no longer sounded like a word. They sounded heavy and serious, and Meriwether swallowed and took a deep drink of water.
"I meant…" Kasey started to say awkwardly. Meriwether lifted his face from the cup after another short but unproportionally awkward silence.
"I'll be coming back?" he said, not uneasily, but not confidently either.
Kasey laughed, almost nervously, and waved a hand dismissively. "It was only a figure of speech." He swallowed, and forced a smile. "Not that your company isn't enjoyable."
Meri grinned at him, loosening up and leaning on the island comfortably. "Of course it is," he said, "ain't nobody in this town that don't like me."
Kasey cracked an egg into a skillet after tossing in a little butter. "Is that so?" he said, amused, "or is it just that no one's told you to your face?"
"Well I'll be," Meri said charmingly, grinning and revealing the slight gap in his front teeth, "Yankee's got a little fire to him, don't he?"
"Hope you like your eggs over easy," Kasey commented in an aside manner, smirking at him.
"I'll bet you make terrible eggs," Meri taunted.
"No worse than yours."
Meriwether guffawed indignantly, "Why you sonovabitch!" he laughed, shoving Kasey lightly. The Yankee grinned at him patronizingly. "I oughta—"
Kasey laughed warmly, holding him at bay with one arm as he cracked another egg with the second. "Your grits are all right," he said, "but your eggs are awful."
"Sometimes I think I hate you," Meriwether said with a grin, pushing Kasey's hand off his chest. The eggs sizzled in the skillet, and Meriwether pushed his hands away when Kasey went to pick up a spatula. "What the hell you doin', makin' scrambled eggs?" He grinned. "You got to let them pool up." He slipped on a potholder and lifted the pan's handle about an inch, letting them pool until the whites started to set, and then he lowered it again. Kasey watched him cook.
"Now what did I just tell you about your eggs?" he teased. Meri shook his head, and looked over at him.
"You got salt an' pepper?" he asked.
"Yep," Kasey said, tossing him a pepper grinder. Meriwether turned it over until he figured out how to use it, and shook a little into the pan, letting it cook a little longer.
"You got to wait til' the whites turn…. well, white," Meriwether said matter-of-factly, "and pick the pan up 'fore you flip them, so you don't break the yolk."
"Where'd you pick that up?" Kasey asked with a smile.
"Jonas Lovett," said Meriwether proudly, "he used to work up at the diner an' he'd get so mad if we broke the yolks. Of course," he said, picking up the pan to flip the eggs, "if you do break them, you got to act like you meant to." He jerked the pan forward and up slightly, carefully catching the sizzling eggs. "Count to ten."
Kasey humored him, leaning against the counter. "…Nine…. Ten."
Meri grinned and flipped the eggs back over, letting them fry a little longer before sliding them onto a plate. "You got to learn to cook, Yankee."
"No I don't. I'll come to your diner every day."
Meriwether smiled at him a little less teasingly, and nodded once. "I think I just might like that," he said warmly.
Kasey lifted his blonde eyebrows. "Would you now?"
"Give me somebody to talk to, 'asides from Will," Meri said.
"I thought he was your best friend."
"Exactly," Meri said, "we already know everything 'bout each other, and ain't neither of us got a girlfriend, so it ain't as if we can brag either. Between the two of us, we don't got a thing to talk about."
"A crying shame for a mouth that runs as often as you do."
"I'ma spit in your food if y'keep that up." Meriwether warned. Kasey smiled at him gently, leaning on the counter casually as Meriwether scraped eggshells into the garbage disposal, tapping them down with his fingertips. He turned to look at Kasey, and their faces hung very close for a short silence.
"Meriwether…" Kasey said softly. "Meri…"
Meriwether's blue eyes flicked up to meet Kasey's green, and he smiled faintly, though his lips trembled. "What…?"
Kasey's eyes lingered on his face a little longer. "How come a boy like you doesn't have a girl...?" he asked softly.
Meri broke the stare, looking back down at breakfast and grinding salt and pepper over the hot eggs. "I ain't never really wanted one," he said, swallowing. "I mean, I used to go with Anna-Jean, that girl from the restauraunt, you know, but—" He scratched his head. "I don't know. I've been between girls 'fer a real long time now." He was talking because he was nervous, and Kasey could hear the wobble in his voice.
"You don't… you don't like anyone now, do you?" the Yankee asked tentatively. It was worth a try. Meriwether looked at him, looking surprised for a moment, before he grinned.
"Here you go," he said, shoving a plate into Kasey's chest, "Eggs over easy. If y'don't like 'em, don't eat 'em."
Kasey smiled, almost sadly, and set it down on the counter. Meri reached over and ruffled his hair. "Eat up. We got a lot of boxes to haul in. The rain looks like it's slowin' down a little at least." He grinned cheerfully.
"Lucky for us," Kasey said, taking a bite of eggs.
Meri lifted his eyebrows. "Good?"
Kasey grinned, nodding, "I was only messing with your head before. Your eggs are fine. Good even."
Meriwether looked a little smug, and picked up a handful of keys from the island, "this the keys to the truck?"
"Aren't you going to eat?" Kasey asked, bewildered. Meriwether picked up a fork and shoveled down both eggs faster than Kasey had ever seen, wiping his mouth on his wrist.
"Yup," he said, through a mouthful of egg. He picked up the keys, dangling them from one finger, "I'ma see if I can't park it closer to the porch."
"You do that," Kasey said lightly, watching him shrug on his jacket and leave with a smile. The blonde Yankee scraped up a bite of breakfast, and chewed contemplatively as he walked to look out the window where Meri was climbing into the moving truck and adjusting the side mirrors. His stomach felt very, very odd all of a sudden.
Meriwether ran a hand through his dripping hair and started the moving truck, glancing into the mirror where he could faintly see Kasey's tall, lanky figure in the transom window by the door. He smiled at it, and he wasn't entirely sure why.
-- . -- . -- . -- . --
It seemed to take a very, very long time to back the truck up to the porch stairs, and when Kasey finished his late breakfast and opened the door to look outside, Meri grinned at him from where one arm was slung casually on the truck window.
Kasey leaned on the door frame, taking a deep sip of his mug of strong coffee, and Meriwether parked the truck, hopping out.
"Ain't it a little late for that?"
"It's never too late for coffee," Kasey said mildly.
"Don't you hate what that stuff does t'your breath?" Meriwether teased, unlocking the back door of the truck and rolling it up with a grunt. Kasey set his coffee carefully on the porch railing, descending the stairs. Meriwether picked up the first box he saw, and Kasey reached to steady him.
Meri grinned at him toothily, hefting the box of books. "I got it," he said softly, playfully, tugging the box out of Kasey's arms. "You ferget I work at a farm."
"I don't want you falling down the stairs and your mother suing me senseless."
Meriwether laughed. "I won't."
Kasey smiled and hefted a box, following him inside. The phone rang abruptly. "Shit," he muttered, bracing the box against the island.
"Where you want this?" Meri said, lifting his eyebrows.
"In the den, if you will," Kasey said, picking up the white cordless receiver on the kitchen counter, glancing after Meriwether. "Hello?"
Kasey nestled the phone under his chin. "Neal," he said, recognizing the youth's thick Vermont drawl. "Hold on, I'm putting you on speaker." He pressed the button and set the phone back in its plastic nest, frowning. "Is there a problem?"
"Oh, no, Mr. Fergusen, not really," Neal mumbled apologetically, "but—"
"I thought I said not to call unless there was a problem."
"Where you want this one?" Meri called, from the doorway. Kasey glanced over his shoulder.
"Living room. Thanks." Kasey turned back to the phone, "what did you need, Neal?"
"Well… um… I wouldn'tve called but Mr. Hawthorne told Mr. Bishop you'd moved in and stuff and – even though it doesn't sound like you're quite finished—well… Mr. Bishop wants your new phone number so he can call you right off and git you back started working. He said Hawthorne doesn't make a real good head of the department."
"Hawthorne doesn't make a real good anything," muttered Kasey, "Hold on, Neal—Den, Meriwether, thank you."
"He put Hawthorne as department head on my leave?" Kasey said, almost incredulously, "and then told the intern to track me down?"
"Well…" Neal said, sounding apologetic once more, "you know Mr. Bishop. He likes his company to be run real smooth. And he likes Hawthorne."
"Give him my number right off," Kasey said with a scowl, "and tell Mr. Bishop I can be back up and running as soon as he likes. Hawthorne as department head. That's ridiculous." A sudden thought seemed to touch him. "Neal, if Mr. Bishop wants my number because he doesn't have it, how the hell di d you get it?"
He could practically hear the sheepish smile on the other end of the line. "I called the operator, sir."
"Astute of you," Kasey said a little flatly, and then sighed, "I trust you wrote it down?"
"Uh… l-let me get a piece of paper," Neal said quickly, shuffling around.
"This one says kitchen, Kasey," Meriwether said, coming in with a box, "want me to leave it here?"
"Right there, on the island," Kasey said, gesturing.
"Who's that on the phone?" Meri asked, curiously.
"One of the interns from the office," Kasey said, waving his hand dismissively, "just some work stuff. It's fine. I'll be out in a minute. Don't carry that whole truck in by yourself."
"You've got it, Neal?"
"Yes sir, I'm ready." Kasey rattled off the number.
"Don't forget to give him the area code," he warned.
"Of course, Mr. Fergusen. Thank you. I'll give this to him right away."
"Hawthorne as head of the department," Kasey scoffed, "I can hardly believe it. He doesn't know how to do his own job, let alone run the operation."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Fergusen," Neal said a little nervously, in a way that made Meriwether think he thought 'Hawthorne' was doing just fine. "I'll have Mr. Bishop call you."
"Get a haircut," Kasey joked, "if you haven't already. Mr. Bishop doesn't like it long."
They could hear Neal's nervous smile. "All right, sir, I will."
"You take care now, Neal."
"Yes sir, I will," Neal said obediently. "Mr. Bishop will call you." The line clicked, and deadened.
"I'll be damned," muttered Kasey. "Hawthorne as head."
"I take it y'don't like Hawthorne?"
"He's got a head full of hot air and an ego to boost, and he's never said a nice thing to no one in the company," muttered Kasey, "it's people like him that make me…" He let out a contemptuous breath, rubbing his forehead.
"Well it looks like you got quite a lot to set up in the next few days," Meriwether said, as Kasey looked around for his mug of coffee.
Meri grinned and pointed, "you left it out there on the porch."
Kasey smiled at him gratefully. "What would I do without you?"
"I dunno," Meri said playfully, "probably cry a whole lot 'cause you can't cook your eggs right an' can't never find your coffee."
Kasey grinned as he descended the stairs, "or forever be in a bad mood." He picked up a box and carried it inside, pausing on the stairs when Meriwether said his name.
He turned, lifting his eyebrows.
"How come if your job puts you in a bad mood, y'don't just quit?" Meriwether asked, cocking his head to the side as he leaned against the truck bumper, arms folded loosely and comfortably over his chest.
Kasey looked at him in silence for a long time. "I don't know," he said finally. "I can't quit. I just can't. It took me so long to work up to head of the department that…"
"Ain't nothin' wrong with not being the pick of the litter," Meriwether argued gently, coming up next to him with a box.
"Not in my family," Kasey sighed. "Meri… it's more complicated up north." He trudged up the steps and inside.
"Well there's all kinds of places you could work here," the teen suggested.
"And pay for this house?" Kasey snorted. "I'm fine where I am. I'm happy."
"You're stressed is what," Meriwether said, "I hope living down here is as good fer you as Gabe said it was gonna be. You got to learn to loosen up, Yankee," he teased, tweaking Kasey's nose. "I think down here we know a lot more th'n you'd think." He smiled at Kasey, and passed him on the stairs, looking back down from the porch.
"I try," Kasey said, a little mildly, with a grim smile, "it's harder than you might think."
"Well," said Meriwether, "you's always talkin' 'bout how life's so easy down here. It ain't gonna feel right if you come down with that hectic city life of yours, always talkin' on the phone and makin' deals and typin' and dialin' an' all that stuff. Don't matter how purty is down here, it just ain't made for lives like that." He paused, wrinkling his nose. "You know what I'm sayin?"
"I follow." Kasey graced him with a small smile. Meriwether set the box down, and paced on the porch slightly, before leaning on the railing and motioning out to the wide lawns dotted with old, thick trees. "I mean, look at this place. Even if it is pourin' down rain…"
Kasey turned and looked out over what took a moment to register as his own yard. A red pickup blazed by on the two-lane road streaking past his house, and the driver raised a sunburned arm to wave. Meriwether waved back, grinning widely, his blue eyes creased merrily by his smile.
"You don't think this all will help you slow down and breathe easy once in a while?" Meriwether said, as Kasey took a deep sip of coffee, "'cause I think it already has."
"Do you?" Kasey said, eyebrows peaking.
"Well from the way you sounded on the phone in there—" Meriwether glanced at the door, "to the way you sounded in that diner when I first met you… I think that's a dif'rence worth notin', don't you?"
"You know what I think, Meriwether?"
"What you think?"
Kasey smiled and looked over at him, leaning on the porch. "I think you're a lot smarter than you make yourself out to be."
Meri grinned. "Who're you kiddin'?" he laughed, "I'm real smart. Smarter than you, I think."
Kasey's stomach felt very odd, and he smiled at Meriwether's joke placidly, looking back out at the fields all around. "I'm serious."
"Well you oughta stop," the Southern teen said, "people bein' serious makes me nervous."
"You make me nervous," Kasey answered after a short silence. Meriwether's eyes slid to him, and a gave a tentative smile, as if unsure if he even should smile. Kasey ground his fingers into the sanded wood of the porch railing, looking down at his hand, and back up at Meriwether.
"Meri, I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like you," he said quietly, as rain rattled into the gutters. Meriwether pushed a frizzy piece of hair out of his eyes.
"Damn humidity," he muttered, with a sheepish little smile at Kasey.
"It's fine," the Yankee said, pushing Meriwether's damp hair out of his eyes. "Really."
"We should get back to movin'," Meriwether said, turning away from him, "we got a lot of boxes to get inside."
Kasey caught his wrist lightly when he turned to walk away, and swung him back around. Meriwether let out a surprised noise as Kasey took him by both his cheeks, and pulled him into a kiss.