the_discerning_palate_04

 

The Discerning Palate
Part 4



Thanks to Reed for the editing and the patience.

I always post my stories first on my Yahoo Group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NBstories/, and all my stories are at www.noelblue.com. Please check out 'The Groupie' and 'Creative Employment', also in 'Adult Friends' on Nifty.


 

It wasn't doing my eyesight any good, squinting up at Alex in the bright summer sun. I mentally made a note to get some sexy sunglasses that day, and tried to surreptitiously rub the last of the chocolate bar off of my hands.

"Sandy," I acknowledged coolly, ignoring his statement about 'needing to talk'. Talking to him was not something I felt like doing.

"Alex," He corrected through gritted teeth. Excellent, he was already annoyed.

"Huh. Added a random 'X' to your name, did you? Never figured you for the avant garde type." He sucked in his cheeks and started to answer, but I interrupted him with an evil grin. "How's your stomach?"

"You hit like a girl," He sneered. His sneer was damn sexy. Asshole.

"No, I don't, actually." This was true, years of martial arts. My training was what kept him from being in a hell of a lot more pain than he was - I'd been too well conditioned to not really go after someone in a rage. Also, my shock at the whole situation had kept me from doing any real damage. Don't believe what you see in the movies, kids - just because you can faux-beat the hell out of a sparring partner doesn't mean you know what's up in a real fight. "But you know that."

"When the hell did you get so cocky?"

I snorted with a humorless chuckle. "Oh, man, you have all day? Oh, wait, I wouldn't want to waste my breath, regardless." I made to stand up. "Pleasure talking to you, SANDY, but -"

"STAY DOWN," He snarled, and despite myself I complied. He had a certain je ne se authority. But I felt pretty sullen about it. A man walking his dog went by and gave us a suspicious look, so Alex sat down next to me. I moved as far as possible to the end of the bench in a not-so-subtle manner.

I heard him sigh. "What are you doing, Isaac?"

"Roasting in the sun?" I offered. "Wondering why I forgot to wear sunscreen? Watching the asses of the runners?"

"You know what I mean. Why are you going around asking questions?" He turned to me, but I couldn't see his expression inside his Tag Heuer sunglasses. "You've made some people very upset."

"Mmmm." I thought about that. "Is there a particular reason this should matter to me?" I stared at a tree several feet away, admiring the beautiful, wide trunk, the lovely leaves. I wished I was under those leaves. Looked cooler there.

Looking at the tree, of course, kept me from looking at Channing, in all his cool, linen-clad beauty. He could have been in a cologne ad. Or perhaps in one for a fine, masculine spirit.

Bad thoughts. My minded shifted to similar avenues. I could use a drink, a cool, refreshing, possibly blended drink with a little umbrella and -

"My god, you are still a complete and totally oblivious asshole, aren't you?" From him, that sorta stung. That's what he thought of me, even in ye old days? His voice was creeping up in anger. It was subtle, an increasingly clipped quality to his words, but I knew it when I heard it. His father had done that, and he'd picked the habit up at a very early age. "There's nothing they can tell you, Isaac. There's nothing to be gained."

"I'm surprised you remember me enough to recall what an oblivious asshole I was, Sandy." I smiled archly. "Since you didn't even recognize me in that bar."

He narrowed his eyes at me. "It was dark, and I couldn't see your damn hair, or your eyes. You look a helluva a lot different from the end of high school, and while you're still an asshole, you're a different asshole now."
     
"Yeah, I know I was a fat fuck. But I haven't changed that much."

He shook his head angrily, as if fighting off an annoying bug. "You were not a fat fuck. Stop changing the subject. Look, these people, their situation is different than yours..."

"Oh, is it?" I injected, with minimum effort, the maximum amount of scorn possible into my voice. "So you didn't have to threaten their future, their future financial health? It wasn't necessary to blackmail their family members into subservience?"

"It's not as bad as all that. We will take care of you; trust me. And -"

I cut him off, turning to glare into his glasses, not being able to hold it in any longer. "NOT. As. Bad? Take care of us? You took a woman in her worst hour, a woman desperate, worried, about to lose her life's dream, and you MANIPULATED her into a situation she couldn't escape. You preyed upon someone vulnerable in order to twist everything she had worked for, to victimize her into being your slave. Not that bad." I made a sound between a snort and a snarl, and stood up. "You're a bunch of sick fucks, you know that? I can't believe this is what you've turned into." I berated myself for that last note – that suggested I cared about what he used to be.

It was now Alex's turn to look up at me. "Isaac. Listen to me. There's more to this than -" There was a note of cajoling there, almost an apology, and I waited. But he stopped. "Well," he abbreviated, looking to the side of the bench. "It's more than you think." His voice was quiet. This just made me angrier.

"Fuck you." It made me happy to suddenly notice that I was wrong about him being resistant to the heat - he was sweating, noticeably. Beautiful, my ass. A beautiful scumbag.

I turned, but stopped as he spoke. "Don't go to the police, Isaac. No matter what, stay away from them. I can't protect you and Kim from what will happen if you do." I didn't respond. I heard him sigh, and then his footsteps as he walked away.

Those words, and the deep, serious way he had said them, gave me chills. I didn't care so much about my own health, but Kim's? They'd already seen how much I'd do for her; it would destroy me if they hurt her to make me pay.

I was overheated, pissed off and rather scared. I'd been complimenting myself on using my unfeigned anger to distract him from his warnings and demands, but his final words had reminded me how serious this all was.

The situation wasn't a joke.

I was now just drifting down the street, trying to stay to the cooler side, wandering aimlessly past attractive houses and well-maintained cars.

So no directly talking to the police, at least until I figured out exactly what Alex meant by his warning.

There were some pros. Alex had more or less admitted that my suspicions and the rumors Kim had heard were correct, they were involved all over the place in town, and I'd ruffled some feathers. That was the point, but I didn't want to ruffle so much that I put Kim and I in danger.

And what if the police were corrupt? This was certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

So. What do I do with my plan to talk to Jason Michaels? I didn't know him. A blow and a hand job combo did not for trust make, and while he seemed like a stand-up guy, who knows how he would react or what he would do if I told him what was going on? Maybe he himself was corrupt, or maybe he was such a straight arrow he'd ignore any requests to keep it to himself and go straight to his superiors.

Well, I equivocated, just because I can't tell him what I know, I can always pick his brain for information. My hopes weren't high that he knew anything at all, honestly, but it was worth a try.

This could all very well be a moot point, of course. The time on my phone read 2:30 and I hadn't heard from him at all, and after his conflicted response at the gym to my asking him out he had perhaps reconsidered his acquiescence. At the time I'd ignored the possibility that he wasn't that interested (and, also possible, couldn't stand me) in my desire to reveal everything to an officer of a law, but that was now off the table and my usual sense of pride had kicked in. Let him come to me, I decided. My hormones pouted, and noted that he was the best chance of regular sexual interaction I had in this town.

Then those hormones decided to skip to Mr. Channing.

Fucking Sandy... goddamn him. (I actually kicked at a can lying in the street as I thought that. Yes, I felt 6-years-old.) No, not Sandy. That was the name of my childhood friend. Alex was the scary asshole who made upsetting threats to me and mine, and had my balls in a vice. Alex I hated.

And yet, despite that, I didn't find myself less attracted to him – quite the opposite. That really upset me. I mean, really, how screwed up was that? Really fucking screwed up.

This, Isaac Kiersted, is why you're single, and why you should probably stay single for a good long time. I had crap taste in men, obviously; fucking gangsters and disinterested cops. Shit.

I stopped for a moment and just looked around me, at the sleepy downtown area and its hot, uncomfortable citizens dodging in and out of air-conditioned stores. Now what? What was coming next? When would my 'work' for the assholes start? I felt so aimless, and out of control. I wasn't about to sit down and plan the cafι menu - I had no desire to think about pastry, as blackmail was not the best creative incentive in the world.

My eyes wandered down the street. I was staying away from the cafι itself, since I knew if I saw those stupid construction workers I'd hiss at their scummy asses and probably say something that would get me in trouble again. I should probably take a trouble breather.

But I needed to do something, damn it. I pondered my options. I could pester Kim, check in on her. There was also drinking or picking up a new drug habit, but those seemed like unsustainable options; pestering Kim it was. I called her cell, and was pleased she picked up.

"Hey," she said, her voice small.

"You in?"

"Don't know – you still upset?"

"Yes, very, but not at you."

"Then I am home; come on over." She sounded so relieved, I had to smile.

"Be right there."

Her house was on the other side of downtown from the condo complex where I was staying; she lived in a beautiful old brick building that had been broken in to several apartments.

She opened the door before I even knocked, and the first thing she did was give me a really big hug.

"I'm damn sweaty," I noted from where my mouth had landed in her hair. I felt my phone vibrate as if I received a text, but decided to check later, as this was much more important.

"That's alright, I'm gross myself."

"Well, yuck, then!" I was kidding, but untangled myself regardless; she was killing my ribs. I held her arms and looked at her carefully. "You okay?"

"Define 'okay'," She said with a sigh, and motioned me in. She then instantly handed me a large glass of lemonade with ice cubes, for which I loved her dearly.

"'Not Suicidal'?"

"Then I'm okay, if barely." We sat down in her living room, which was cooled by central A/C. I chose the easy chair next to the couch she curled up on. "Isaac, I'm so –"

"No." I held up the lemonade free hand to stop her. "We're beyond apologies. You made a mistake, but you were lied to and manipulated by pros. You aren't the bad guy here, Kim; you're the fucking victim. Never fucking forget that."

"WE'RE the victims," she corrected, and pulled her feet up tighter while wrapping herself around a throw cushion, her body language miserable. She was wearing a sleep ensemble with shorts, her hair in a ponytail, and she had no makeup on. "I wish I was the only one, it would make this easier."

"I still think it's better you're not alone." I said stubbornly. "Misery like this needs company."

"That's why you're the most loyal cousin ever, sweetie." She smiled at me. "I don't deserve you."

I just smiled back; my usual answer would be a joking 'true dat', but she wasn't in the mood for our usual level of jesting. She looked like she might start crying again. "So what comes next?" I asked after a contemplative moment.

"Hell if I know." She shook her head. "All they've told me is to keep myself available at all times. This morning I received a call from Randy, the foreman, asking for some clarification on the plans, but that's it. The silence is maddening - I feel so damn powerless."

"Yeah," I agreed. "We need to find something to distract ourselves, or we're going to do something we'll regret."

"Like eat too much ice cream?" she smiled.

"Like blow up the Channing mansion," I countered dryly.

"Yeeeaaaah, let's not do that." She looked down at her hands on the pillow. "I'm going out with some girlfriends into the city tonight; we're going to go clubbing and crash at Alice's. It's been planned for weeks. " Kim wrinkled her nose in distaste and looked up. "Part of me really, really doesn't want to. It's hard to feel flirty and fun when you just want to cry incessantly and feel sorry for yourself, and it's not like I can answer honestly when they ask me what the hell's wrong."

"Yeah, true. But it sounds like a good idea to get out; make sure your friends watch you if you drink too much. Say you're stressed about the cafι. It's a damn good excuse. Sleepless. Too many anxiety drugs. Lady times. Whatever, you're good at that sort of thing."

"I suppose." Her eyes suddenly lit up. "You should come with us! You're a blast to party with, and you need distraction just as fucking much as I do!"

"Hmmm, maybe," I said; I had to admit, it did sound fun, although I wasn't crazy about all her friends. "Although I was sort of hoping I'd have my own `distraction' tonight."

"Like what?" She smiled slightly. "I thought you'd decided there were no gay men above 20 and below 45 in this town."

I laughed. "I have at least proved that's not exactly true, but I'm still not sure if it means anything."

"Hmmm... playing coy, are we? And speaking of you and coy..." she paused, and her voice was quieter. "How are you feeling about Alex Channing being involved?"

I sighed, and almost told her about him talking to me in the park, but changed my mind. I didn't want to freak her out and tell her I was digging for information, the fact that Sandy had quickly found out about it, and the even more disturbing fact that he had given me very specific instructions about staying away from the cops. So I started evasive. "What can I feel? He's a damn thug now, but since we weren't exactly friends since he dumped me in middle school, how can I be surprised what he's turned into? Maybe he's been a thug since he was 14 and I just didn't notice." This was partially lies. I'd watched him closely, surreptitiously, even after we'd stopped hanging out, and there had been nothing thuggish about him whatsoever.

Kim, rather unfortunately, knew me too well. She narrowed her eyes at me, her expression shrewd. "He tried to be your friend again, you know, and you kept blowing him off. But he and I were still friends, and you know as well as I do he was the classiest kid in school."

"So what happened?" I challenged.

She shrugged. "I don't know. I've seen him around town, with his sharp suits and that strut, and wondered what he was doing with himself. He was always very cagey whenever we talked, so I stopped trying to learn more."

"He seeing anyone?" I asked. "I didn't see a wedding ring."

"Now and then I spot him with some seriously made-up bimbo, but never the same woman twice. Some of my friends have hit on him at various times, but he never does more than flirt. He's an enigma." She sighed. "Was an enigma. Now we know where he gets his money. It sucks to know he's turning into his father, all thuggish and nasty."

My phone vibrated again before I could agree. I pulled out it out of my pocket, and saw I had two texts from Jason. "Hold that thought - I think I'll know more in a moment."

Can't make it for dinner – have to work late tonight . The second text was one word. Sorry. I wrinkled my brow. And no suggestion of a follow-up. I hated being right. I turned my phone over.

Goddamn.

"Distracted?" Kim had leaned forward lifted her eyebrows at me, and then leaned forward on her pillow and a smile on her lips. "You meet someone, cousin? Someone hot?" She saw my facial expression. "Who just cancelled on you," she correctly extrapolated, her voice full of sympathy.

"I did meet someone, he is exceedingly hot, and he has totally cancelled. Damn." I pulled the reclining lever on the side of the chair, and fell back with a 'thunk'. "I was looking forward to it more than I thought I was." I admitted. "It's been way too long since I've had a normal, real date."

"I'm sorry," Kim said sympathetically, and grabbed a little glass container full of M&Ms on her table and handed it to me. "Who was it?"

I popped some chocolate in my mouth. Bless her and her suburban housewife ways. "Remember the hot cop who busted up our fight a couple of days ago? Officer Michaels? I ran into him at the gym, and asked him out. He said yes, albeit reluctantly."

"Jason?" Her voice was disbelieving, and I lifted my head up to look at her. Her expression matched her tone. "You're sure?"

"Uh, yeah." I handed her the candy back. "He's not exactly the type you find two of in a town this small."

"And he said yes when you asked him to dinner?"

"Yes, yes he did."

"Maybe he was confused?" I lifted an eyebrow at that. "I mean, maybe he didn't know what you were asking, like he thought it was a friend thing?"

"Why?" I narrowed my eye. "You don't seem to be convinced he'd be interested in me."

"Because he has a girlfriend!" She sounded downright angry, not necessarily at me, but in general. She took a huge handful of M&Ms and shoved them in her mouth. "I'm good friends with her – Kristina Parker, she lives in the condo across from where you're staying. Hell, she's supposed to go out with us tonight." She was a bit gargled due to the talking around a huge heap of chocolate. I took them back.

"Brunette, slim? About our age? Very pretty?"

"Yeah - You've probably seen her." That made me wince. Yes, I'd seen her - and much worse, she'd seen me, prancing around naked. Lovely. "I know for a fact they have sex, Isaac, there's no WAY he's gay. You absolutely must be mistaken."

"Uh, no, I absolutely must not be." I poured candy into my mouth, gave her the container back and leaned back again; my ability not to choke was quite impressive – both because of the candy and because the fact Kim was convinced Officer Michaels was batting only for her team. "If he's anything he's bi-, because he sure as hell ain't straight, babe. He came on to me first, and straight men don't do the things he did, especially not that well. "I sighed. "Girlfriend, huh? No wonder he seemed conflicted."

"You've already hooked up with him?" She said, shocked.

"A bit," I admitted. I pulled the lever and was bounced back up to grin at her; she was blushing, which entertained me. "We made out in the locker room. He's really tasty. Also, well-proportioned."

"Isaac!" I loved how scandalized she sounded. "You're ridiculous!"

"Oh, come on now, you know you're jealous," I teased. My playfulness was a bit deceptive - the news that Hot Cop was playing at least two fields at once was disappointing; my brief interaction with him had been fun. But I had to acknowledge that meant I never had much of a chance with him beyond hot and steamy hookups in private places. Who was I to cry over that?

Okay, a lonely, human male, that's who.

But also, and rather more importantly, the fact that he was a cheater made me grateful I hadn't told him anything about the Mob situation. His down-low proclivities did not reflect well on his morals.

But then again: No hot sexy law enforcement for Isaac. I was genuinely sad.

"Maybe a bit jealous," Kim admitted, putting the almost empty M&M jar back on the table. "But I'm also disappointed in him." I nodded in agreement – this seemed to be the theme of our conversation. "He's been such a sweetheart, and according to Kristina, a damn good boyfriend. Those are rare, you know. I knew he was too good to be true!" She punched her pillow. "Why are they always too good to be true?"

"When you're that good looking, babe, you don't have to be actually good, at least in my experience."

"But you're not an asshole."

It took me a moment to catch her meaning. "I'm also not that good-looking."

"Yes you are!" Ah, Family.

I gave her a lopsided smile. "You're sweet; maybe in my tattooed, bratty way. Where are you going tonight?"

Kim allowed the unsubtle change of subject, and told me about their plans. They were leaving at 9:30, starting at a trendy bar, and then go to several top tier clubs. Kim was worried about money, but decided to let it go just that one night. I supported that decision.

She tried to convince me to join them, and I gave a tentative maybe.

We talked about other things, and even watched some tv; it was comfortable, and rather nostalgic. I thought about her offer. She was right, I was fun to go out with, as was she.

Her friends, however... Some of 'em were complicated, and capable of very diva-like behaviors that made me uncomfortable. There was also the small issue of me hooking up with Kristina's boyfriend.

And yet and yet... what could be wrong with a fun night out? And as mouthy as I can be, I didn't tend to brag about my sexual conquests to people who weren't very good friends, even drunk. I was really lonely, and probably shouldn't pass up the chance to be with other people, in an outside environment that let me get away from this drama. Usually I'd tell that to Kim, but she had far too much on her plate at that moment to think about my low grade social issues.

"My current answer is a conditional yes, but I'll call you," I decided, getting to my feet and giving her my patented grin. Glancing outside the window, I saw the sun was starting to make its slow way downward. "I think I need to get back to my place, relax, and figure out what's next, if anything."

Kim nodded, and as she stood up to see me out I pulled her into a parting hug. She clung to my back once again, and I headed out.

The air was far less oppressive without the direct solar glare, although it certainly wasn't cool. I walked to my apartment, my mind re-treading already tired, frustrating topics.

I thought about Officer Michaels a good bit. Usually I might have told myself to give the topic up, since it was most likely a dead acquaintance, but not today. The be-girlfriended hot cop who rejected me was a less depressing topic to dwell upon than that of the criminalized hot ex-friend and what a horrible slimeball he'd become.

I got home, showered, changed into my cotton black pants and a blue tank top, and after a quick glance up to Kristina's dark and shuttered apartment I sat down in front of Kim's laptop. Not long afterwards I had fired off 9 or 10 emails to friends I'd been shit about keeping in contact with. No, I didn't explain my issues - well, not fully, although I hinted at them to some of my more worldly peeps - but just the reaching out made me feel better. While I was writing a friend in NY who worked as a commercial interior designer, Sienna, I figured out that the reason I'd not done so before was because the placid, lost nature of my work in Marrington had embarrassed me a bit. After a decade of working my ass off, learning everything I could and traveling around the world, ending up in my hometown (which I was always saying I despised) seemed like nothing to be too proud of. And when they asked why I was there, well... what would I say? The only good explanation was the truth - I was lost.

I'd gotten as far as I could in fine-dining kitchens as a pastry chef, and it had ended up in disaster. Sure, that was outwardly because of Junichi and our messy relationship, but it was also because I had started to get bored. I'd stopped knowing what I wanted from life. Maybe it was time to change culinary pursuits?

I shook my head out of that train of thought; it scared the fucking crap out of me. I concentrated on the fact that my loneliness had won out over my pride and confusion, and now I needed to connect with some of my friends. Maybe tomorrow I'd even call a couple of them, wouldn't that be revolutionary?

Two hours later or so I was in the kitchen, finishing up a quick curry dinner I'd made, having some wine, and very seriously considering going out and dancing with Kim and her friends. Still, my inner conflict remained. Did I want to be around people, or did I want to be alone? My mood was too undefined to provide an easy answer.

As I placed my dishes into the kitchen sink, I glanced outside and saw what a lovely, glowing summer evening it had become. I decided I'd take a glass of wine out to the picnic table, and convene with my thoughts in the twilight for a while.

Naturally and without forethought, my eyes glanced up, noting that Kristina's curtains were open and the dimmers in the kitchen were on. The room was illuminated, but so slightly I'd not noticed it before.
And - was there any doubt, with the way my week was going - there they were. Wow, was I grateful Kim had warned me about their relationship, because if she hadn't I would have been damn confused what was going on there, and why a man who liked to make out with men was having a specifically emotionally fraught discussion with a woman.

Kristina was looking quite lovely in a short silver spangled dress, possibly the one she was going to wear that night. Her expression was unhappy, as was Mr. Michaels'; whatever they were talking about was obviously upsetting the both of them.

She was yelling for a while, her expression distressed. He was turned away from me, but his body language was not confident, and he had one hand leaning on her counter and one in his hair.

Kristina listened to something he said, and her face shifted into a look that I'd seen on Kim's face just as I'd left her - the face of a woman about to start crying. She turned, hand on her forehead, and spotted me.

I raised my hand in greeting with another apologetic head duck, and she gave me a pained but sincere smile.

Then Jason turned, his handsome face puzzled and then quickly outright shocked as he recognized me, and I saw Kristina's eyes narrow and turn to him. How much do you know, my dear? I asked her silently.

I smiled at them both, stepped forward, and swiftly pulled the curtains closed. "And, Scene," I said to the air, and shook my head.

Goddamn small town.

I poured my wine to near overflow conditions, stepped into my flip flops, and tramped outside. I needed that twilight moment even more now. As I hit the pavestones I looked up and was relieved to see Kristina's curtains were now also closed. I'd figured she and her two-timing man were going to make up, have nice angry sex, and she'd be out dancing in an hour. How could she resist that face and that wonderful, edible body? I certainly couldn't.

But if those curtains hadn't been closed, I was going to have to wander to the next courtyard over, which I didn't have a key to and would have to scramble over the gate to reach. Knowing my luck in such situations, someone would look out the window and decide I was some sort of wineglass carrying bum and call the cops on me.

And I'd had more than enough of cops. No, be honest - you're actually upset because you didn't get enough, honey. I rolled my eyes at myself as I hauled myself up on top of the table facing the koi pond that lay next to it, put my elbows on my knees and watched the fat carp slowly undulate around each other.

What an utterly boring life, I thought as I watched them, to be stuck in such an itty-bitty pond.

That obvious analogy fell apart quickly. I'd thrown myself into the ocean of the world, and where had that gotten me? Also bored. So here I was in the ultimate of familiar locations, and was questioning everything I knew.

Where these the two inevitable, inescapable states of the human condition? Utter boredom or utter chaos? Was there nothing in-between? Was I having a crisis because I was rapidly approaching 30, or was I having a crisis because I was currently contracted to a bunch of gangsters?

Was it both?

And last but hardly least, if I was going to be stuck forever in Marrington working for sleazeball gangsters, couldn't I at least find someone toothsome to sleep with?

No, no, not the important point. I took a healthy sip of my wine. No, it wasn't, as much as my body and my hormones disagreed.

Working for too long for sleazeball gangsters was not really an option I took seriously; I refused to accept that. I needed to continue to look at my options. How were they getting away with this in a town now filled with chains? Where did they get their money from - was it legacy, or did they have a steady stream of income from current residents? And was that extortion, or the most common source of modern urban gangster cash flow - drugs? While never a user myself, I was almost an anomaly in the culinary industry - coke flowed like water through the fine dining kitchens of the world. Heroin was not uncommon, and meth and other speedy pharmaceuticals were inescapable. Weed was everywhere also, of course, but whatever. Drunks were far more problematic in professional kitchens than potheads.

Anyways. I needed to figure out where the drugs came from and where they went in this town, and if it ended with the Channings. New mission, I thought, pleased. I did best with focused goals, like creating 300 crθme brules. I remembered that kid who worked in the wine store, the one I'd successfully annoyed. I think I'd start with him - he looked like he knew how to get his hands on some herb.

That led me to another distasteful thought. Alessandro Channing, glorified drug dealer. The thought truly disgusted me - more unexpected change on his part. He'd never had any patience for harder drugs in high school, was famous for walking out of parties when people were getting high, and supposedly even broke up with Elle Sales senior year because he found out about her speed addiction.

Do we all really change so much as we age?

"Isaac. What are you doing out here?"

I started, dragged out of my reverie by the accusing boyish male voice. I looked up, and tilted my head at the man standing next to me. "In what sense?"

"Are you waiting for me?" His tone was distinctly accusatory.

I started to laugh. "You wish. Actually, I figured you'd be busy with your girlfriend," I gave the word a slight emphasis, and was glad he blushed. I was sorta pissed off at Officer Michaels, and wasn't going to let him make me feel guilty for intentions I most certainly didn't have. "I'm here because it's a beautiful night, and I needed to clear my head. Also, I'm currently living here and paying sublet rent - which I doubt is true of you." I lifted my glass and took a drink. "I have a lot on my mind right now."

"Oh."

There was silence. I'd expected him to take off after that, to continue down the path and to leave me to my thoughts.

But he didn't; instead he glanced up at what I suspected was the closed blinds of Kristina's apartment, then back at me. There was a great deal of self-control on my part going into not looking at him. That green T shirt was quite attractive, and I liked him in jeans.

"Sorry. I didn't expect to see you here, or knew you lived in these buildings." he said, quietly. "I was going to call you tomorrow."

"Mmm hm." I seriously doubted that, but what else could he say? He was a polite man from what I could tell. "No worries; it was a pretty sudden and weird offer anyways - I was too excited to find someone who might be gay in this damn town, and wasn't thinking straight." That was only partially true, since I had also been calculating how to use him against Kim's shady backers. Still, truth was involved. I kept my voice casual. "And Kim told me about you and Kristina, so I figured the whole thing must have put you in a weird position."

"I..." There was a pause, then a sigh. I could feel his eyes on me before he turned away and looked around. "It's not exactly like that. Or... it's more complicated than that, I think. May I sit down?" That surprised me. I had figured this to be a very similar conversation to the one I had had with Alex earlier - tense, weird, and short, if less full of threats and loathing.

"Sure?" I turned my face to him slightly. The encroaching darkness and the glow of tasteful outdoor lamps were making him an outline, and a very sexy one at that. "But weren't you just concerned I was stalking you?"

Jason sat down on the lower seat. "I was surprised. And it was embarrassing to see you, in the apartment – it added to how crap I was already feeling." He leaned back and ran his hand through his very blond hair. "Just... I've felt bad ever since we hooked up, and for whatever reason, you're everywhere."

"How delightfully flattering," I said dryly. I'd not initially meant to say those words out loud, but I wasn't feeling particularly filtered at that moment. "I know I 'drive you crazy', Officer, but I don't mean to, and I'm not trying to be everywhere you are. This is just another coincidence."

"I don't mean it like that!"

I looked at him skeptically, and he sighed. "Sorry. Yeah, you do somethin' to me, and I don't even begin to know you." He now sounded both a bit angry and frustrated, and I finally turned my body enough to look at him thoughtfully. That hurt, but only a bit, as he'd already officially rejected me. I'd say I was looking into his eyes, but it was getting dark, and they were little more than faint white orbs in the evening. "god, this is ridiculous." He said, turning away.

I took pity on him. "It's a small town, Officer Michaels. Too small, obviously." I handed him my wine glass, offering him a sip, and he furrowed his brows. I laughed. "If I have cooties you already have them, I think."

He laughed softly. "Yeah, I suppose I do. Thanks. Sorry to be a jerk, I-"

"Don't worry about it."

Still looking troubled he took a drink, and handed it back to me. Our fingers briefly touched. "Nice wine."

"I have good taste," I turned and grinned at him, giving the full force of the expression I'd noticed tends to affect him in one way or another. This time it caused him to look away, but not rudely, although his face had that same disquieted flavor. I turned back to the koi pond. "You and your girl okay?"

"No," he answered softly. "Me and my girl are no longer."

"Ah." I stopped, not wanting to offend him too much, but not being able to resist the next question. "Because of us hooking up?"

"No, I didn't mention that." During the pause I handed him the glass again, and when he tried to hand it back after a drink shook my head.

"Keep it."

"Thanks, but that's okay. It's your wine." he placed it between us. "Kristina and I - we've been breaking up for weeks. We actually did officially call it off, and then tried again, and... it just hasn't worked." He fell silent.

"In what way?" I asked gently. I couldn't help it – I liked the guy and thought he was very sweet, even if he wasn't sure what to do about me. How attractive he was certainly helped. Also, after a couple of hours of whining to my friends about the ridiculous complications of my life I was surprisingly ready to sink into someone else's drama. I thought I wanted to disengage, but hearing something new was appealing.

"Sorry - I don't want to bother you. And... it's sort of weird, talking to you like this."

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to know. If I'm going to be stuck in this place the least I can do is enjoy the local gossip."

"That's worrisome to hear." There was a smile in his voice.

That made me laugh. "You've already figured out I'm a mouthy pain in the ass, so what's the point in pretending?" I gestured at him with my wine. "And the weirdness -let's just make like our little adventure at Lifetime Fitness never happened, and we're just two acquaintances relaxing on a beautiful summer night, talking about women. Spill, officer. You obviously need to."

"I guess." Jason paused, then looked down at his large hands. "Thanks. We just – don't have the same visions of the future. She sees forever between us, and I don't know if I want that with her. I love her, and enjoy her, but I don't think I'm ready to commit to settling down. Every time I try to convince myself differently, it feels wrong. But she loves me so crazy much, that whenever I leave I feel so horrible..."

"So she loves you more than you love her?" I interrupted.

He was silent. "Probably," He answered softly. "I was never into it all as much as she was."

What did he mean by that? The question that had been brewing in my head from the beginning popped out. "So, wait, do you identify as bi-, or are you straight with breaks?"

"I thought we were making like that never happened," he noted dryly.

I flashed my teeth. "I lied."

"Mm. Why am I not surprised?" I was pleased he sounded amused before getting serious again. "Bi, definitely. I mean, I've dated a lot more women, but I... can't say I like them more than men." That was interesting. If I had known him better I would have definitely pursued that line of inquiry. "I had one boyfriend for a while, before he moved away. And that's part of it with Kris. For a while I thought I wanted the wife-two-kids-and-a-dog life, but that doesn't feel right any longer. I don't know if I want the whole package, or if I want to end up with a man."

"You can have the husband-two-kids-and-a-dog life too, you know," I pointed out.

"Not as easily," he countered.

I shrugged. "Depends on where you are. They need cops everywhere, don't they? Even in big progressive cities or small accepting communities?"

"Then I'd have to leave the area, and everything I know. That scares me."

"So you're from around here?"

"Alicetown – so, right next door."

"Huh." Alicetown was the blue collar town to the west of us, a place that made Marrington look like a real happening urban center. As you might guess, that wasn't saying much about Alicetown. "So you don't ever want to leave?"

"No, it's not that, it's that I haven't decided yet, whether to stay or to go. Because my friends and family are here, and I didn't really want to leave them. I like living around here, its home, and it's not like we're far from big cities." He sounded defensive, and I didn't respond. As someone who was out of Marrington the second my high school bell rang for the last time and didn't regret it for a second, I had a very specific opinion on all that. "Just...at the same time, I have been thinking about exactly what you mentioned - I've been wondering if it's time to find a job elsewhere. And when it comes to guys or women... I don't know what I want. You mentioned how you were excited to find someone else here that was gay – you're right, there aren't many men to date. I used to go into the city, but that's not how I like to do things." He was a lot more talkative than I expected; loquacious, even. Adorable kept popping into my head, and I kept trying to ignore it.

"Not how you like to do things?" I gave him a quirked smile. "What do you mean?"

I could practically feel the heat of his blush. "One night stands. They're fun, but it's just not what I do. And it sucks if I actually rather like the guy – it's not like we can really get into something, what with that distance."

"Not what you do? Sorry, Officer, I don't completely believe you." I grinned again, and he punched my arm, playfully, but with a bite.

"Hey!"

"That wasn't normal. You-"

"'Do somethin'', yeah, yeah, I get that. I'm just giving you a hard time." I rubbed my bicep; dude wasn't fucking around. He opened his mouth to talk again, and I cut him off. "Officer Michaels, you should probably stay away from your girlfriend, and I think you know that."

"Can't you just call me Jason?" he said irritably, which sounded pretty cute on him. Then he sighed. "Just... it's hard. I like her. She's my best friend. I hate hurting her."

"Yes, I get that too. But, Jason," I practically purred his name, causing him to narrow his eyes at me. "You can't keep going in a relationship so damn unsustainable." I looked at the koi, still visible thanks to the snazzy underwater lights that gleamed through the water of the pond. They were so beautiful and monstrous all in one, like scaled manifestations of emotion. "I've tried, again and again, and every time it was a fucking disaster. It doesn't work, no matter what, no matter how hard you try to tell yourself it's enough. It's not." I took a deep breath and pictured Junichi, snarling at me that I couldn't leave him – he loved me too much, and because he loved me that much I was obligated to stay. Or Mac, writing me increasingly depressing love poems and vignettes that were Pulitzer quality but didn't make me love him more. Or Alan, or...

I hadn't noticed I'd drifted away from the conversation until Jason's voice brought me back. "Happened to you?" He asked quietly.

"Shocked, aren't you? What with how much of a pain in the ass I am, it's amazing I haven't been shot yet." I turned and smiled, and found Jason watching me intensely. Suddenly uncomfortable, I turned back to the fish. "But, yeah. For whatever reason, I keep doing it to myself. I keep doing it to them. In the beginning it's always fine, they like me, I like them, and we're heading for a beautiful future. But... things change. They get more intense, I didn't. But –" I switched tense. "You feel guilty, and you like them just enough to keep going. That make sense?"

"Yes."I turned and looked down at him, hearing a note in his voice. He had looked away, and was leaning on top of the picnic table, his head in his hand as he stared at the sky. I watched the light filter through his strong neck and over his Nordic features and amazing chin. The wine, which I had finished without really paying attention, was starting to sizzle in my veins just enough so I felt warm, and hormonal. I remembered what he had felt like in my mouth the day before, and then tried to suppress the thought. Velvety and strong, muscles and that frosty blond hair... I concentrated on his words. "That's exactly what happened. But you can't keep going forever, can you?"

"No." I shook my head, and finally slid down from my perch, landing on the bench next to him. That put us close – a little uncomfortably so, in the sense that I had an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch his leg. "The whole thing breaks, eventually. But," I moved my hand to his forearm without thinking, just wanting to make him feel better.

Okay, yes, I also wanted to touch him. But that was a secondary motive, since I'd already accepted the fact I annoyed him too much for him to be really interested in me. His eyes fell on where we touched, and I figured that was his indication for me to stop. I squeezed, and moved my hand away. "She'll learn to deal with it. There's always the chance of eventual friendship."

"Maybe, if she can forgive me for breaking her heart." Jason had obviously fallen into a pensive move, and I decided I'd done my duty by him. I'd also depressed the hell out of myself in the process, and had come to the conclusion I should probably call Kim and tell her I was going to join her wandering party. I needed a pick me up, because consoling hot men who'd rejected me and talking about romantic disasters was not a great way for me to end my night.

I patted his shoulder, and his wide grey eyes flashed up at me. I get it; I need to stop touching you. I pulled back, and stood up. "You're leaving?" he asked.

"Yeah –I'm going out dancing with your girlfriend. Sorry, ex-girlfriend." I grinned at his confused expression. "Kim invited me, and I think I need to get out of here for a few hours. Don't worry, I won't say anything to Kristina – like our little 'discussion' in the gym, this never happened. Don't beat yourself up too much, Jason." I picked up my wine glass, and started to turn and say goodbye when his hand grabbed my wrist, and he stood up to face me.

"I'm not sure you can be trusted on that one."

His tone was intense, and I blinked at him. He sounded almost angry, which didn't make any sense to me, because that certainly wasn't where he had been 10 seconds ago. "Trusted about what?"

"That you're going to forget this conversation – You said that earlier and yet you keeping bringing the gym up again. You're not very convincing." Holy shit, he was flirting with me, in that hot, gruff way I'd first seen when he'd pressed up against me outside Kim's car. What an absolutely strange creature – sweet small-town boy trying not to hurt his girl one moment, hot and manly flirt the next.

I liked both. He was, however, throwing mixed signals. I lifted our hands and looked pointedly at his grip, which he released, but didn't step back. I briefly chewed on my bottom lip, which felt like it had been stained by wine at the places where they were dry. "Because you keep making it clear you can't stand me, and then keep coming on to me, Jason, I have trouble being consistent in your presence. You -"

Before I could finish he lifted his hand again, took me firmly by the chin, and kissed me. This startled me so much I made a noise in his mouth, something that probably sounded a great deal like "What the fuck?!"

Then the sensation kicked in – those sexy, lean Nordic lips were firm, and he tasted like my wine. There was that politeness at first, that testing and teasing physical question, but he seemed to get his answer when I dropped my wine glass (which promptly shattered) and my hands went up to the front of his shoulders; not to push him away, but to grip tightly. His hand moved to the back of my neck, burying in my thick hair, and his tongue entered my mouth, coming forward and battling. I started to tease at him with mine, dancing and playing.

His body was so wonderfully solid, so muscled and complete, and I let him pull me closer with one of his gorgeous arms when it sneaked behind me.

God knows how long we kissed. My hands had started to explore his upper arms, squeezing into the muscle, and one of his hands had slipped down right above my ass. I lifted up to give him better access, and I could feel his growing erection.

We pulled apart naturally with a mutual expulsion of air, and he took a deep breath, not letting me go. "You're a really good kisser, I noticed that in the gym," Jason complimented me quietly, a small, somewhat embarrassed smile on his lips, and before I could comment he furrowed his brow and looked at me through narrowed eyes.

"And when did I say I couldn't stand you?" His voice was actually a bit upset. I was amused at the subject change. I could also smell his sweat, and it was lovely. Was it the lingering heat, or was it his proximity to me? I wanted to lick him and taste him again, like I had before, feel his sweat all over my body. I pushed my hardening cock into his upper thigh.

"Maybe not in so many words, but you've indicated several times I drive you nuts, Officer Michaels," he made a noise of annoyance at that, and because I found it sexy I didn't repent. He could make all the noises he wanted. "I might keep responding to you, but that doesn't mean that I'm a masochist who likes throwing himself at dudes who want to smack me." My erection and my hands contradicted my words, moving up his side, catching in his T-shirt. I really wanted to see him half-naked at that moment.

Jason obviously liked my touch, pulling me closer. His eyes were cloudy. "It's not that I can't stand you, it's that you confuse me," he admitted, moving his hands down and then up my arms. "You keep showing up in the oddest places, and you're never what you seem to be." Our legs hit the picnic table – had we been moving backwards? I hadn't noticed, but obviously we had, as we were suddenly at the end of the table. I lifted myself up, and wrapped my legs around his ass. "You..." His voice caught as my hands somehow ended up inside his shirt this time, and my hand roughly ran over one of his hard nipples. "...Are very strange." My lips hit his neck, and he put his head back with a groan, those great hands gripping at the top of my thighs. "And really goddamn sexy."

"Thanks, officer, I feel better now. But at no point have you denied I drive you crazy," I teased throatily, pulling back, and gave him that grin, almost as a test. And this time its effect was plain – his eyes narrowed, his checks flushed, and I felt a distinct twitch where his cock hit my thigh.

Then he kissed me again as opposed to answering, and he leaned enough of his weight on me so that I had to totally wrap myself around him, clutching at his back and tasting his lips and that excellent sweat. This is damn weird, I thought through my fog.

This time my hands clutched at his truly rock-hard ass and at the back of his jeans as he hitched up my tank top, his hands on my abs and sides. I nipped at his lips and we ground against each other, me starting to undo his jeans and rubbing the side of my hand against his length as he in turn gripped me through my thin cotton pants, feeling that awesome, solid tool and moaning as Jason started to –

"Oh my god!"

We pulled our lips apart, and turned to the owner of that shrieking voice with wide, startled eyes. That owner would be Kristina, standing there in her lovely sparkly dress and holding her cute little clutch, absolute shock and horror on her carefully made-up face. "What are you doing, Jason?" Her eyes snapped to me. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Uh..." I decided to not really answer that - this wasn't actually my situation, it was theirs; nor did she focus on me long enough to get an answer regardless. We were now both looking at Jason, her, stunned, waiting for an explanation, me, simply curious where this was going and too damn hot and bothered to concentrate.

"Kristina, listen, we need to talk..." Jason held out his hands in a calming, 'I don't have a gun' manner as he spoke carefully and evenly, an approach that would have been significantly more cop-like and effective if his hair wasn't a mess, his fly wasn't half open over his erection and his shirt wasn't pushed up his chest. Goddamn that was a great chest.

"He's a guy, Jason!"

Okay, I couldn't help it, I laughed at that. Something about her tone was hilarious. I wasn't making fun of her, it was just the absolute and utter shock as she stated the obvious that really brought the absurdity of the whole situation home. And I had thought the whole thing was silly and dramatic when I'd seen them across the courtyard... We'd now reached Asinine Drama Defcon 2.

They were both now glaring daggers at me.

"Sorry, sorry," I held up my hand with an apologetic smile. "I think I'm just embarrassed on top of too much wine." I pushed myself off the table, throwing dignity to the wind as I quickly adjusted myself, and walked towards my door. "I'll leave you two to it."

"Isaac -" I heard Jason behind me, and I just turned to him with a quick wink and a grin that I hope he saw in the light from the nearby lantern, and ignoring his expression full of regret and apology walked swiftly into my building. I slammed the door particularly loudly, wanting to ensure they knew I was gone.

I guess we have an answer to the question about whether she knows he's bi or not, I thought with amusement. Amusement that was heavily blunted by a sense of regret and embarrassment. I entered the condo and picked up my phone. God, we were like teenagers. Do you get much tackier and 16-and-dumb-like than making out with someone right outside the abode of the person they just dumped? No, no you do not. And poor Kristina. What a way to find out.

I texted Kim. Hey. Not going. You'll probs find out why soon. Have fun! I wasn't sure if Kristina was still going to go, but I couldn't exactly risk that she was.

Kim wrote back instantly: Wait, what? What happened?

I ignored her - if she didn't find out from her friend, we could have story time tomorrow.

I took the wine bottle and took a large swig, and then went into the bedroom to relieve myself of the ridiculous tension I felt after making out with Jason. His lips, his hands, that great and strange reaction when I smiled at him, those muscles... Man, I wanted to get that guy into bed so badly, screw these ridiculous drive-by make-out sessions. I came hard as I pictured us rolling around in clean cotton sheets, and then wandered into the shower for the second time that evening, leaving the phone on the bed.

When I got out I saw Jason had called, left a message, and texted asking where I am.
"Isaac -" the message said, "I'm outside, Kristina's gone out. I wanted to talk - just talk." A pause. "Okay - I'm going to go. I'm really sorry. I'll call later." I stared at the phone in consternation. He must have rang the not-so-loud doorbell as I was in the shower, which was a bummer. Maybe I could have gotten him into bed.

But who knew he was going to stop by? I was still confused. No, now I was even more confused. He might not have wanted to pistol whip me quite as much as I thought he did, but that didn't mean he was comfortable around me. I thought about calling him, and nixed the idea. Ball was totally in his court, and he did say he'd call later.

So there I was, home alone, not sure if I was seeing someone or not, stuck in the same stupid situation, and now no longer able to go out and party. Fantastic. I started to watch On Demand movies, choosing some epically silly bro-filled comedy.

The messages from Kim started coming in hard and fast. First she called - I didn't pick it up, but the voicemail was about what I expected. "Oh. My. God." she had hissed. "Isaac, Kristina just came in sobbing, luckily no one else was here yet, telling me Jason dumped her then made out outside her fucking building with the hot exhibitionist - wtf on that, by the way - who lived across the way, and I just told her you were my cousin. So. I'm trying to explain what the hell is wrong with you. Great job there, asshole! She's a goddamn mess!" She then hung up. Then came the updates over text, about how lucky I was that Kristina was only telling her friends about the break-up, not the make-out, to which I responded I'm sorry she saw that. Sucks. But beyond that I should feel guilty WHY exactly? And I got a huffy fuck you; I took that to mean she couldn't really justify how this was my problem no matter how embarrassed I felt. She also called me a tasteless skank, which I wasn't going to deny. My class ratings were certainly low this fine evening.

This exchange and the not-bad movie were keeping me somewhat occupied when I heard a very heavy knock on my door. I started – the pounding was damn close to violent.

I got up, went to the window, looked out the peephole, and recoiled back from the door in horror.

Robbie and Mr. Raeburn, aka Mr. Suit. Fantastic. Robbie had this nasty, shit-eating grin on his mug that was twisted and clownish in the distortion of the peephole glass.

"Let us in, Mr. Kiersted. We know you're on the other side of this door." Mr. Suit's voice was smooth and calm as always.

     
"And if you don't, you fuckin' fuck, we're going to beat the motherfucker down." Robbie appeared to be hopping and jittering.

I took a deep breath, pushed down the feeling of fear, and opened the door. "How's that crack doin' you, Robbie?" I asked dryly. By how I was standing I made it clear I did not want them to come in. Raeburn didn't move, but Robbie actually had the audacity to try to push past me, which I blocked with my hand on the doorframe and a snarl.

"Little shit!" He looked like he was about to start a fight when the other man pulled him back.

"We need you to come with us. Now, please." He made it sound like such a reasonable request.

I looked at them, the calm, collected man in the suit and the tweaked out asshole in the horrific Hawaiian shirt who was spoiling to fuck my shit up and considered my options. It was quickly apparent to me that I had none.

"Fine. I'll be out in two minutes." I closed the door, changed into some jeans and a t-shirt, slipped into my flip-flops, and went outside without a word. I got into the dark Ford sedan, and they closed the door.

I wasn't aware at the time, but this was the beginning of where things got truly fucked up.


To Be Continued!