[A/N: This is quite possibly the most saccharine thing I have ever written. This is what happens when you spend three days frantically writing code and not sleeping, then do nothing but read slash on fictionpress for the rest of the week. IT TURNS YOUR BRAIN TO MAPLE SYRUP.]
Flour covered the kitchen floor. Pans and bowls were teetered in a stack next to the sink. Globs of dough and multi-colored frosting dotted the counter tops. A smell of burnt sugar emanated from the garbage, and all the windows were open despite the cool temperature. In the middle of chaos, Owen was bent over the table, cursing as he attempted to pipe frosting onto a tray of lopsided cupcakes.
"What did you do?" Lucas asked, frozen in the doorway, his hand still on the doorknob. Owen straightened, throwing down the pastry bag.
"What the fuck does it look like?" he demanded.
Lucas took a hesitant step into the kitchen, his shoes sticking to the floor.
"Sir," he began, then stopped, his hands moving aimlessly as he surveyed the room. His plans for finishing work early took one look at the disaster and started hitchhiking for Vegas.
"What?" Owen snapped. He was twice Lucas's age, with a kind of carefully maintained handsomeness common to high-powered executives. For the first year he'd worked for the family, Lucas had been terrified of him. Then he'd realized Owen was just as much a spaz as everyone else, albeit one with a talent for ruthless business maneuvers.
Something sticky landed on the back of Lucas's neck, dripping down his shirt. He looked up.
"Are those...eggs?" he asked.
Owen folded his arms over his chest, giving him what Lucas referred to as his "hardass look." The kind that made perfectly sane people want to throw themselves at his feet and beg for mercy. The tinge of pink on his cheeks counteracted its effects, however.
"It's my kitchen, Reyes. If I want to throw eggs at the ceiling that is my right," he said.
"Yeah," said Lucas. "But why?"
He crossed over to the sink, aiming for the paper towels, then stopped.
"Aw, man," he groaned.
Apparently the reason the dishes weren't in the sink was because it was half-full of cloudy, fetid water, soggy chunks of burnt dough floating over the top.
Owen raised his chin, daring him to say something. Lucas sighed.
"You know they sell cupcakes at the grocery store, right?" he asked. "Hell, there's whole stores devoted just to cupcakes."
"It's Mattie's birthday," Owen said grudgingly.
"I know," said Lucas. The little girl hadn't let him forget it. There was a present for her in his bag, insignificant compared to the haul she was going to get at her party on Saturday. Lucas had been invited, but he declined. The Parker-Collins were cool, especially compared to some of his other employers, but spending the day making awkward conversation with people who made ten times what he did wasn't his idea of good time.
"She has to bring cupcakes in for her class, and Jonah is away until Friday and..." Owen trailed off, his gaze landing on the floor. "I mean, how hard is it to make some fucking cupcakes?" His eyes snapped up as Lucas repressed a laugh, badly. "Fuck you."
Lucas couldn't hold back anymore. He laughed so hard, he fell backwards, taking the tower of pans with him as he fell. The ringing cacophony drowned out his laughter, and left only silence in its wake. Lucas blinked for a few seconds as Owen stared, wide-eyed, at him. Then he started to laugh again. After a minute, Owen began to laugh as well.
"Oh, god," he said, sinking into one of table chairs. "Promise me you won't tell Jonah about this. He'll never let me forget it."
"My lips are sealed," said Lucas. "Unless he bribes me."
Owen raised an eyebrow. Lucas returned it with a sunny smile.
"Hmmph," said Owen.
Lucas pushed aside the pans that had landed on him and stood up. His clothes were hopelessly coated in flour. Oh, well, it didn't really matter anymore. He was going to be here for hours.
"Tell you what," he said. "Let me clean up and then I'll show you the secret to fool-proof cupcakes, okay?"
Owen didn't reply. Lucas felt his smile slipping away. It had been a little presumptuous of him, acting like Owen's friend instead of his maid. He shook his head.
"Never mind," he began. "I didn't-"
"You don't mind?" Owen interrupted. "There's already a lot for you to do and...I don't want to intrude on your personal life." He shifted his weight, avoiding looking at Lucas.
"No, it's fine," said Lucas. "I can't have my best girl bringing in sub-par baked goods. I just have to make a call first."
The front door slammed, indicating that the girl in question was home.
"Daddy, Daddy!" Mattie ran into the kitchen, waving a piece of pink construction paper. She skidded to halt in the center, her face going slack as she took in the room. "Daddy," she said, in the kind of reproving tones only a six-year-old is capable of. "What did you do?"
Lucas snickered. Owen flashed him a glower.
"And then you add the chocolate chips," Lucas said with a nod at Mattie. Dumping them into the batter, she peered into the bowl as Owen stirred.
"Can I try some?" she asked.
"A little," said Owen. "Get a spoon, don't use your fing- Mattie!"
Mattie gave her father an innocent smile.
"What?" she asked.
"When was the last time you washed your hands?"
"It's not very hygienic to stick your dirty fingers into things people are going to eat."
"What's hygienic mean?"
"Oh. My hands aren't dirty."
"They have germs. Everyone's hands have germs."
"Other Daddy says that we need germs to help us not get sick," said Mattie. "He says we're going to wipe ourselves out with that damn sanitizer crap."
Lucas laughed as a pained expression crossed Owen's face.
"What have we told you about grown-up words?" he asked.
"They're for grown-ups?"
"And you are?"
Mattie was pouting now.
"A kid," she muttered.
"So what do you have to say for yourself?"
"Good. Thank you."
"But it is what Other Daddy said."
"Oh, I believe that," said Owen. He rested the spoon against the side of the bowl. "What now, master chef?"
"Now you pour," said Lucas. Mattie had already placed the shiny foil wrappers into the wells. "Don't fill it all the way or it'll overflow and burn."
"You got that right," Owen muttered.
Lucas's phone buzzed. He jumped up, Owen giving him a strange look.
"Sorry," he said. "Phone. Um?"
Owen waved a hand, and Lucas slipped away into the living room. One glance at the number made him groan.
"Ethan-" he started.
"Where are you?"
Lucas winced at the sharp tone.
"Still at work," he said. "I left you a message."
"I didn't get it," said Ethan. Lucas could tell he was lying, but he didn't want to argue.
"I'm sorry," he said. "But something came up and -"
"Something always comes up. You're at their house, aren't you?"
"If you mean the Parker-Collins, then yeah."
"Did you even remember that we had plans?" Ethan asked. Lucas rolled his eyes towards the ceiling.
"Yes," he said. "That's why I left you a message."
"So what happened?"
"Nothing," said Lucas. "There was just a lot of stuff to do, alright? You know I need the money."
"Are you fucking one of them?"
"Both of them? Decided to supplement your income by becoming some rich fags' boytoy? Do they take turns or are you such a whore you take them both at once?"
"Jesus, Ethan. What the hell is wrong with you? I'm just their maid, okay?"
Ethan laughed. It sounded forced.
"Just their maid. That's why you're at their house all the fucking time."
"It's where I work. That's what maids do, Ethan, clean houses."
"They take advantage of you."
"Not this again," Lucas sighed.
"They do," Ethan insisted. "You're too infatuated to see it."
"I'm not infatuated."
"So why are you there twice as much as your other clients?"
"Because...because...I just am."
"Did you tell them about the offer?"
"Not yet," Lucas said weakly.
"Jesus Christ, Lucas!" Ethan sighed, loud over the phone's tiny speakers. "I can't deal with anymore."
"Deal with what?"
"You're breaking up with me?"
"Don't tell me you didn't see this coming? You've broken our last three dates. Because of them."
"Don't," said Lucas.
"It's my fault, okay? I broke the dates."
"You're still defending them!"
"Ethan, don't do this."
"Give me one good reason why not."
Lucas opened his mouth, closed it. Ethan sighed again.
"That's what I thought."
"I'll see you around, Lucas."
"Yeah," said Lucas. "See you." He hung up and started at his phone. A discreet cough made him look up. Owen was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, his face carefully blank.
"We're done filling," he said.
"Oh," said Lucas. "Okay. The oven's preheated, so you can just stick the trays in. Middle rack."
"Okay." Owen didn't move. "Did you just get dumped?"
Lucas opened his mouth to say it wasn't any of Owen's business, then changed his mind.
"Yeah," he said.
"Ah," said Owen. "You want to lick the bowl?"
"Are you kidding? I think Mattie would gut me." Lucas shoved his phone into his pocket, following Owen back into the kitchen. "Okay," he said, plastering a smile onto his face. "Time to make the frosting."
If Owen hadn't already been one of his favorite clients, he would be one now. He didn't give Lucas any sympathetic glances or pry for details. He acted exactly the same as always. Lucas appreciated that. He didn't think he could handle it if Owen decided to start pitying him.
"What do you think, Mattie?" Lucas asked, crouching down next to her. The girl gave the cupcakes a critical examination.
"I like mine the best," she said. Lucas met Owen's gaze over her head, grinning as the older man rolled his eyes.
"Yours are okay," Mattie continued. "But Daddy's suck."
"But they do suck, Daddy! You got frosting all over the sides."
"That's..." Owen gave up. "You're right. They do suck. Daddy is a sucky cupcake froster."
"It's okay," said Mattie. "I'm sure there's something you're good at."
Owen narrowed his eyes at his daughter.
"Everybody's good at something," Mattie said cheerfully.
"I want a new kid," Owen muttered. "This one's defective."
"No refunds, no returns, Daddy."
"Maybe I can sell you for parts." Owen picked up his daughter, poking her stomach. "Lots of healthy organs in there."
"Stop it!" Mattie giggled as Owen began to tickle her. "Stop, Daddy!"
"But this is what I'm good at," Owen mocked. "Tickling little girls."
"Because that doesn't sound wrong at all," Lucas said under his breath. Owen laughed. Okay, apparently not under his breath enough.
"Put me down!" Mattie said, breathless with laughter.
"Nope," said Owen. "It's bath time."
"No! I took a bath last night."
"Maybe you should stop being so stinky then."
"Daddy! I don't want a bath!"
"Too bad," said Owen, heading for the back staircase. Mattie squirmed, attempting to free herself.
"Lucas!" she yelled. "Help me!"
"Sorry, kid," he said. "I've got to side with your dad on this one."
"I hate baths! I hate them, I hate them, I hate them-"
"Lucas brought you a present."
Mattie's tantrum derailed.
"Really," said Owen. "And if you're a good little girl, you can open it tonight."
"After your bath."
Mattie pouted, but ran up the stairs without comment after Owen put set her down.
"I'll wrap these up, then clean-up," said Lucas.
"You don't have to. You've already gone above and beyond."
"I don't mind. Really."
Owen hesitated, but whatever he was about to say was cut-off by the phone.
"Dammit," he said as the water in the upstairs bathroom started to run. "Can you get that? I've got to..."
"No problem," said Lucas.
"Just take a message. Oh, and if it's Jonah don't tell him about the present bribe. He's been reading things again," Owen said darkly.
"Sure," said Lucas. He picked up the phone as Owen ran upstairs. "The Parker-Collins residence."
There was a pause, then, "Lucas?"
Laughter flowed softly down the telephone wires.
"I told you to call me Jonah. Three years ago, in fact."
"That's better," said Jonah. "You're our receptionist now?"
"Uh, Mr. Collins-"
"Owen," Lucas said. "Owen is giving Mattie a bath."
"How brave of him," Jonah said. "What are you still doing there? You're usually done by five."
"Well, Mattie needed cupcakes for school and-"
"Oh dear lord, please tell me Owen did not try to cook."
"Answering that question would require a substantial bribe."
"I am so sorry, Lucas. Did he get eggs on the ceiling again?"
"Yeah. How does he do that?"
"I don't know. No one knows. He starts baking and they just...appear there. Was the kitchen completely awful?"
"It wasn't a problem," said Lucas. Jonah was one of those people that cleaned before the maid came over. When he was home, Lucas didn't have to do much more than spritz some air freshener and collect his paycheck.
"Did you tell him he could just buy cupcakes?"
"I did, but..." Lucas trailed off. Owen was Jonah's husband after all. He should know what Owen was like.
"He didn't want the girl with two daddies to show up with store-bought cupcakes," Jonah said, confirming Lucas's thoughts. "What an idiot."
"He didn't actually say that."
"So it's preferable to poison our daughter's entire class? He's an idiot, Lucas. I married an idiot. Thank god we can't breed. I'd hate to have idiot children."
"Mattie's class isn't going to be poisoned," he said. "I helped him make a good batch. Mattie decorated."
"Oh, really," said Jonah. "So this is what it comes to, replaced by a younger man. I knew I spent too much time away."
"What?" said Lucas, Ethan's words churning in his mind. "No- that's not- I would never- I mean, you and Mr. Collins are- I wouldn't- we just made cupcakes!"
There was a burst of laughter.
"Oh, lord, Lucas, I was kidding," said Jonah. "I'm just glad Owen's not going to charged with attempted murder by baked good."
"I'm sure they wouldn't be that bad."
"Did you try one? Of course not, you're still conscious. Let me put it this way, he made me a cake once, and I ended up with appendicitis."
"I doubt the two are related."
"Who's the doctor here?"
"All right," said Lucas. "I give in. Cakes can cause appendicitis."
"Damn straight," said Jonah.
There was a slight pause.
"Do you want me to get Mr. Collins- Owen?" Lucas asked.
"No, no," said Jonah. "Tell me what you're doing. I haven't seen you for a while. How's school?"
Lucas shifted, pulling out a chair and sitting down. Jonah always made a point to ask him about his classes and his family. Unlike Owen, he was a people-person, friendly, easy to talk to, easy to trust. Lucas thought that was a bonus in his line of work. Bedside manner and all that.
"Well, I graduate in two months," he said. "So it's kind of hectic, running around trying to get stuff done."
"Engineering, right? Have you started applying for jobs?"
"You should start now," said Jonah. "You don't want to be a maid forever."
"We're going to miss you having you around," he said. "You'll have to come back and visit."
"Sure," said Lucas.
"I mean it," said Jonah. "I know where you live. We'll kidnap you if we need to."
"That's a little creepy."
"It's only creepy if we keep you in the collared in the cellar. If we just take you out to dinner, it's adorably quirky."
Lucas didn't know what to say. He knew what was going to happen after he left. He was never going to see any of them again. People didn't socialize with their ex-maids; it wasn't how things worked.
"I'll visit," he said, because he knew it was what Jonah wanted to hear.
"Good. How are your sisters doing?"
Lucas put the cupcakes in the refrigerator for tomorrow, then scribbled a note on the white board stuck to the freezer. Chances were good that Owen would forget all about them the next morning. He was putting away the last of the dishes when he heard footsteps on the stairs.
"Lucas?" Mattie looked up at him. "Can I have my present now?"
"Mattie!" Owen ran down the stairs, a hairbrush in one hand. "Come here."
"No," said Mattie. "I want Other Daddy. It hurts when you do it."
"Other Daddy isn't here. I'll be careful."
"No." Tears were starting to form in Mattie's eyes. "I don't want to. No."
"Matilda Evelyn Parker-Collins, you come here right now," snapped Owen. "Now, Matilda."
Still sniffling, Mattie walked over to her father. She yelped as Owen raised the brush.
"For fu-goodness's sake, I haven't even started," he said. Mattie sniffled some more. Lucas fled under the excuse of straightening up the living room. With three younger sisters, he'd seen more than one hair-brushing battle. If he ever had kids, they were all going to have short hair until they were old enough to brush it themselves.
Mattie appeared ten minutes later, with red-rimmed eyes and her hair in a neat braid.
"Present?" she asked. Lucas handed her a brightly wrapped box. Mattie tore off the wrapping, dropping it on the floor. "Ooh," she said, pulling out the bracelet. "It's beautiful." She beamed at Owen, forgiven apparently. "Look, Daddy."
"Very pretty," said Owen.
"My sister makes them," Lucas said, blushing slightly.
"She has talent. What do you say, Mattie?"
"Thank you, Lucas," Mattie intoned, still fixated on the bracelet.
"It's almost bedtime," Owen said. "Why don't you go get your blanket and see if Phineas and Ferb is on?"
Mattie ignored her father. Turning towards Lucas, she gave him her best pout. She was manipulative little thing.
"Lucas, are you coming to my party?" she asked.
"Uh," said Lucas, feeling himself weaken under her stare. Owen once said it took so long for them to adopt because Jonah wasn't satisfied until he'd found the absolute, most adorable baby. Lucas believed it. Mattie was demon with that pout. "Yeah."
"Okay." Mattie smiled and ran from the room, twisting her wrist back and forth to let the beads catch the light. Lucas used to momentary distraction to gather up the wrapping paper. He moved towards the kitchen, but Owen stopped him with a outthrust arm. There was a white envelope in his hand and he waved it a little.
"Thanks," said Lucas, taking it. "Oh, I can get that," he added as Owen plucked the wrapping out his hand.
"I am not such an incompetent that I can't throw away wrapping paper, Reyes," Owen said. "Go home and eat some dinner, for fuck's sake. Just looking at you makes me want a sandwich."
"I eat," Lucas protested. "I had a cupcake."
"If Jonah were here, he would tell you cupcakes are not food."
Privately, Lucas thought that if Jonah were there, they would have had to make two batches of frosting. How a man who lived on coffee, cigarettes and sugar could advise anyone on health issues with a straight face was a mystery to Lucas.
"Yes, sir," he said.
Lucas resisted the urge to gape. While Jonah was obsessed with first names, Owen had always been perfectly happy being called 'Sir.'
"Owen," he repeated.
The owner of the name in question shifted, shoving his hands into his pockets. When he looked at Lucas, there was a defiant expression on his face.
"There's some extra in there," he said. "For your help."
"You didn't have to do that."
"Neither did you."
There was a long moment of silence. Lucas edged towards his bag. Now Ethan's words and Jonah's joke were circling in his mind, and oh, god, he really didn't want to hear Owen say-
"No," said Lucas. "No, I can't. I just can't. You and Dr. Parker- you're what I want someday, I mean no you-you, but a family like yours and..." He trailed off, aware that Owen was staring at him.
"What the fuck are you babbling about?" Owen asked.
"Nothing," said Lucas quickly.
"Did you think I was propositioning you?" Owen threw his head back and laughed. "Fuck me, Reyes, even if Jonah wouldn't murder me and defile my corpse, you're half my age. I know I'm at that certain age, but I'm not that far gone into a mid-life crisis."
"You called me Lucas," Lucas muttered, cheeks flaring red.
"It's your name. I was just going to tell you how much we've appreciated having you around the last four years," Owen said. "You're like another uncle to Mattie. I don't know what Jonah and I are going to do without you."
"Oh," said Lucas. "Thank you. I- thank you."
"You're a good kid, Reyes," he said. "Doesn't mean I want to fuck you."
Lucas stood awkwardly at the edge of the crowd, trying to figure out the mechanics of eating with a plate in one hand and a red solo cup in the other. He'd already done the obligatory greeting of the hosts and birthday girl, although with several of his other clients who lived in the neighborhood. Those conversations had gone over well. It was clear that people thought Owen and Jonah were deranged to invite their maid. The whole thing was just as uncomfortable and horrifying as Lucas assumed it would be. He was wishing he hadn't come, despite Mattie's pleading eyes. He was about to ditch the plate and cup, and slip away when someone nudged his arm.
Jonah grinned at him. Lucas didn't think it was fair of Owen to make fun of him being too skinny, when Jonah had the kind of waistline usually only achieved with a corset. Everything about Jonah was pointy - his cheekbones, his nose, his chin, even his wrist bones. If he held his arms against his sides, he could be used at a javelin.
"Hey, sexy," he said. "Want to make-out?"
"Oh, god," Lucas groaned. "Mr. Collins told you."
"He couldn't breath he was laughing so hard."
"Great. My humiliation is complete."
"Relax, Lucas. It was very sweet what you said about wanting a family like ours."
"Dr. Parker, if I-"
"Jonah," Lucas repeated. "If I crossed-"
"Do you like the cake?" Jonah interrupted.
"I-yeah, it's good."
"Want to know my secret?"
"Lyndon's Bakery down on Fifth street."
"Don't tell Owen. I always hide the box."
"But the bowls...the pans..."
"Oh, slap a little flour and sugar around and no one suspects a thing," Jonah said airily.
"Genius, I know. Seriously though, don't tell Owen. He thinks I am a culinary superman." Jonah waved to his husband across the lawn. "You have no idea how satisfying it is lording that over him."
"Don't you think he'll figure it out eventually?" Lucas asked.
"It's been fifteen years, Lucas. I'm not holding my breath."
"There," said Jonah. "Much better."
"You were looking so miserable, I could actually see the rain cloud forming over your head. A kid's birthday is probably not how a twenty-two year wants to spend his time, but-"
"It's not that," said Lucas. "It's-"
Just that your neighbors are snobs, but I can't really blame them because what do we have in common really, and if you and Owen weren't so...so you, then you could see that and let me go back to what I should be doing, namely vacuuming the living room.
Jonah frowned slightly.
"It's hardly nothing," he said.
"I shouldn't be here," Lucas said bluntly. "People don't know what to say to me, and I don't know what to say to them." He raised his hand to eye level, red solo cup going along for the ride. "This is your social level." Down to his waist now. "This is mine."
"Oh, lord, Lucas, don't be ridiculous. Owen grew up in foster care and my family had to move every six months to avoid the debt collectors. You're working to put yourself through school. That's something to be admired."
"That's not what-"
"Shush," said Jonah, looping his arm through Lucas's, nearly upsetting the duplicitous cake. "Joe Henley is a process engineer down at NSC. I'll introduce you. You can talk about math or gears or whatever it is engineers like to talk about."
Lucas allowed himself to be dragged away, although he wasn't sure if he could have escaped if he wanted to. Jonas was deceptively strong for such a slight man. Lucas suspected witchcraft.
"Well, if you're interested in pursuing a career in the more hands-on side of things, you should consider-" Joe Henley cut-off as Owen planted himself in front of Lucas. "Hello, Owen," he continued after a second. "You're looking especially loom-y today."
"Your wife's looking for you," Owen said over his shoulder. "Something about picking up her sister at the airport. Come with me."
The last part was directed at Lucas who found himself being tugged across the yard for the second time that afternoon. At least Jonah had had some tact about it.
Owen deposited him in front of young man about Lucas's height with neatly brushed brown hair, glasses and a sweater vest. It was argyle. Lucas did have to admit the man was pulling it off admirably. The words 'sexy librarian' actually flashed through his head.
"Ryan, Lucas. Lucas, Ryan. Ryan's about to start on his masters at Bayhill. Lucas graduates in a couple of months. Talk." Owen placed a hand on each of their shoulders and shoved them together, then stalked away, muttering under his breath about needing a beer.
"Hi," said Lucas. "What are you getting your masters in?"
"Russian Literature. What's your degree in? That was odd, right? It's not just me?" Ryan spoke in a breathless staccato, with the barest hint of a lisp. He smiled at Lucas, completely destroying his elitist-hipster-academic image.
"It's not just you," Lucas said. "I think he feels guilty because he thinks he and Jonah are the reason I got dumped."
Ryan nodded and took a sip of his drink. It left a faint orange stain over his top lip. Lucas resisted the urge to wipe it off.
"So I'm the consolation prize?" Ryan asked. He looked Lucas up and down. "Aren't I a lucky boy?"
In a deeper, slower voice coming from a man not drinking orange soda out of a red plastic cup at a six-year-old's birthday party, it would have been sexy. As it was it made Lucas laugh. Ryan flushed, a strange mottling pattern covering his cheeks and down his neck.
"I'm sorry," Lucas said. "You have something, uh." He pointed to his upper lip. Ryan snatched a napkin off the table.
"Excuse me," he mumbled. "I have to go hang myself now."
"If you do that, who's going to take me out tomorrow night?" Lucas blinked. Where had that come from? Ryan actually choked.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," he said. Again. "I don't usually- I think Jonah spiked the punch."
"So you don't want to go out," Ryan said slowly.
"Yes. No! Wait, I don't- I mean..." Lucas waved his hands in the manner of very inefficient dog-paddler.
They stared at each other for a moment, then the corner of Ryan's mouth tipped upwards.
"We're really bad at this," he said.
"You have no idea," Lucas said.
"Maybe we should start over." Ryan set down his cup down, wiped his hand on his pants, then struck it out in Lucas's direction. "My name's Ryan."
Ryan's palm was a little sweaty, but so was Lucas's.
"I think you're really cute," said Ryan.
"You're cute too," said Lucas, managing to feel both giddy and stupid at the same time.
"But not really cute?"
"No deviating from the script, buddy."
"Sorry." Ryan smiled at him until Lucas made a 'yes, and?' gesture. "Oh. Right. Would you like to go out sometime?"
"I'm washing my hair sometime," Lucas said. "Can you do Monday instead?"
Jonah definitely spiked the punch. There were times when Lucas wanted to demand to see his license, because there was no way Jonah was really forty years old.
"That is not the scripted response," Ryan said. "You were supposed to squeal 'yes' really loudly, and then run off to tell your friends."
"I'm not a fourteen-year-old girl," said Lucas. "I don't know if you noticed." He waved a hand up and down his frame. "Please note the lack of Justin Bieber merchandise."
Ryan laughed, loud enough to draw the attention from halfway across the lawn. Conversations ceased to flow.
"Shh," said Jonah in a stage whisper. "Let's all observe the gays as they attempt to perform their delicate mating rituals. Please, no sudden movements or you may startle them."
"For fuck's sake, leave them alone, Jonah," said Owen.
"But look how young and cute they are. Like puppies. Adorable, homosexual puppies."
"What's homosexual mean?" one of the multitude of little girls asked.
"What does fuck mean?" asked another, with a wicked glint that belied her ignorance.
"Okay, who wants to go swimming?" Jonah asked, clapping his hands together.
A primal shout of glee rose up as the horde of children sprinted for the pool. Released from the center of attention, Lucas relaxed. He turned back in time to see Ryan flash a thumbs up to Owen.
"Why don't you just write him a thank you note?" Lucas asked, striving for cool and aloof, and landing on mildly embarrassed.
"I should," said Ryan. "Dear Uncle Owen, if I had known you kept cute, funny guys stashed around your house I would have come over much sooner. Thank you so much for-"
"Mr. Collins is your uncle?" Lucas blurted.
"Yeah. He didn't tell you?"
"You were here for the introduction."
"Oh," said Ryan. "Maybe he didn't want to bias you."
"I thought...I thought he didn't have any family," Lucas said, which was marginally more diplomatic than 'Jonah said he grew up in foster care, so where the hell is he getting nephews from?'
"It's a long and complicated back story. The short version is that my grandparents were really crappy parents. Everybody got sort of...muddled. I didn't meet Uncle Owen until about ten years ago when my mother finally tracked him down." Ryan paused, looking at Lucas with the sideways smile from earlier. "You call him Mr. Collins? Is he your boss or something?"
"Well, yeah," said Lucas.
"You work at Dycorp?"
"No. I'm their maid."
Ryan's eyes widened before he released another one of his exploding laughs.
"You're that Lucas?" he gasped through the laughter. "Oh, man, I'm flattered."
Lucas jerked back.
"Not all of us have a rich uncle to mooch off of," he snapped. "Some of us have to work."
"Hey, I work," said Ryan. "Wait, where are you going?"
"I need some more punch," Lucas muttered darkly.
Ryan darted forward, catching his arm and knocking the remains Lucas's cake onto the ground. He sighed and sunk down, scooping up the moist pieces.
"What did I say?" Ryan asked, kneeling as well. "It'd been going well, right? What'd I do?" He spoke even faster when he was nervous, Lucas noticed.
"Sorry?" Ryan offered. Lucas just shook his head. "I don't understand."
"There's nothing wrong with being a maid."
"I never said there was."
"You laughed," Lucas repeated.
"Yes, but that was because- oh. Oh. I think you misunderstood me. I wasn't being sarcastic. You really don't know?"
"Jonah and Uncle Owen talk about you all the time. 'Lucas is paying for school himself,' Ryan said, trying to mimic Jonah's cigarette-tinged tenor. "'Lucas made the dean's list again.' 'Lucas ran a marathon.' 'Lucas won the Raymond J. Farrell award.' 'Lucas is sweet and perfect and wonderful at everything.' I swear to god, it's a miracle Uncle Owen even let me in the same room as you."
"Nobody likes a nitpicker, Lucas."
Ryan stood up, brushing the grass off his pants, then offering his hand to Lucas. Lucas found himself upright, close enough to see the bit of shaving foam stuck behind Ryan's ear. He wiped it away with his thumb, grinning as Ryan repressed a shiver. He may lingered at bit longer than necessary, but shaving foam was pernicious beast and Lucas wanted to make sure he got all of it.
"Did they really say all that?" he asked.
"It was Jonah mostly, but Uncle Owen did nod and call you 'clever little smartass' which coming from him is like a blessing from the pope." Ryan rolled his eyes. "Sometimes I think they adopted you along with Mattie."
Lucas's eyes dropped to the remains of his ruined cake. He'd left home the day after graduating high school. He loved his family, but, well, it'd been a very small town. It'd been a shock when he first met the Parker-Collinses. That he could have a family of his own someday hadn't ever occurred to him, hadn't been real until he'd stood right in front of a living example. He'd latched onto that. Somewhere along the line, Lucas had made the Parker-Collinses his surrogate family. It was something he could never admit, even to himself. Because he was just their maid, and when he finally left, that would be it. No more happy family illusions. Only him, alone and struggling, in the big city.
"Lucas?" Ryan touched Lucas's wrist, his fingers warm and faintly sticky. "Do you want me to get you another piece of cake? Only you've been staring at your plate for about five minutes now and-"
"I was wrong," Lucas said. "Here, hold this or throw it away or something. Whatever. I'll be right back." He thrust his plate at Ryan, then strode away, searching the crowd of parents.
Lucas found Jonah hiding behind the shed, sucking down a cigarette like it was the only thing keeping him from slashing his wrists right then and there.
"I know," he said when Lucas approached. "It's my daughter's birthday party. I'm a terrible father." He dropped the spent cigarette on the ground, crushing it out as he lit a fresh one. "In my defense, I did have to hear all about Shelly Quirk's latest colonoscopy, so I think I deserve this." He blew out a long stream of smoke. "I knew I should have told people I was an accountant. No one ever wants to talk about accounting."
"I'm not here to guilt-trip," Lucas said. "I just wanted to talk to you and Mr. Collins- Owen."
"That sounds ominous," Jonah said. "Are you breaking up with us?" He grabbed Lucas's arm dramatically. "Wait, Lucas! We can change!"
"You love it," said Jonah, finishing his cigarette. "Let's go find my wayward husband, shall we?"
As they strolled across the lawn, more and more of Lucas's nerve disappeared. The longer you waited to slay the dragon the harder it got.
"We can do this later," he said. "I mean, it's Mattie's party and you're probably busy and-"
"Oh, there's Owen," said Jonah. "Owen, Lucas wants to tell us something."
Shit, thought Lucas. He clasped his hands in front of him, realized how silly that made him look, and shoved them into his pockets instead.
"I, um, I wanted to say that I- that I really like working for you," he began, grabbing thoughts at random and stuffing them into sentences. "Your family is, um, well, awesome, and I- I love you. All of you. Platonically," he added, seeing Owen's eyebrows raise. "And, um, also that, well, I quit."
"What?" asked Jonah.
"I quit," said Lucas.
"Why? What happened? Is it because Owen made cupcakes? I'll get locks installed in cupboards. It'll never happen again."
"Fucking hell, Jonah, maybe if you shut up, the kid could tell us," Owen said.
"You shut up, this is your fault."
"What about you, tracking ash all over the place-"
"It's neither of your faults," Lucas said. "I got a job."
"A job?" Jonah repeated.
"America's leading expert on neurobiology, everybody," Owen said. Jonah narrowed his eyes at him.
"You're mean," he said. "You are a mean person."
Owen smiled. He leaned over, kissing Jonah's neck.
"You knew that when you married me," he said.
"I was drunk that day."
"You don't drink."
"Well, not anymore," said Jonah. "Look what happened last time."
Lucas cleared his throat. They would do this from time to time, and while it was oddly endearing, he had things to say.
"Qutech opening a new facility in Arizona," he said.
"Lucas, I forbid you to move to Arizona," said Jonah. Lucas smiled and shook his head.
"I'm not going," he said. "But they are sending some of the people from up here, so they're going to be reorganizing, promoting people and stuff like that. My advisor knows a guy and she recommended me, and well, I got a job."
"That's fantastic!" Jonah leapt forward, pulling Lucas into a hug. "I'm so happy for you!"
Then the floodgates opened, and there was flurry of congratulations and hand-shaking and hugging. Lucas found himself being kissed by Jonah, then Owen, then Jonah again, then Ryan, which was odd because Lucas didn't even notice him approaching. Ryan's glasses pushed against his face, but he tasted like orange soda and his tongue was doing such fascinating things that Lucas decided he didn't mind. It wasn't until Ryan's hands slid lower that he realized Owen was trying to get his attention.
"Yes?" he asked, a little breathlessly.
"The two of you do realize you're at a children's birthday party?" Owen asked. Jonah snickered.
"Oh," said Lucas, going red. "Sorry." He pulled away from Ryan, although the man kept a determined arm around his waist.
"Don't worry about," Jonah said. "The neighbors have seen worse when Owen's forgotten to close the bedroom curtains."
"When I've forgotten?"
Jonah ignored this.
"When do you start?" he asked Lucas. "After graduation?"
"Um, they want me to start right away," Lucas said. "So I can be trained before people start to take off." He hesitated. "I actually found out a couple of weeks ago."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"Come on," said Owen.
"I thought- I thought when I took the job, I wouldn't see you guys again."
Owen and Jonah exchanged glances.
"You're right," Owen said. "This is stupid."
"What have we been telling you over and over again?" Jonah asked. "I threatened to commit a felony if necessary. Look at me, Lucas. Do you think I would risk becoming someone's prison bitch for just anybody?"
"I'm sorry," said Lucas. Jonah sighed and shook his head.
"So I guess this means next week will be your last one?" he asked.
"I guess so."
"Good," said Owen. "Because I have to say, you are a terrible maid." He paused. "Decent baker, though."
"Owen!" snapped Jonah. "I swear to god-"
Lucas just threw his head back and laughed.