Disclaimer: This story is the property of the author. Characters, plots, and everything else may not be borrowed or posted elsewhere without permission. Any similarities to names, places, real people, whatever are a coincidence and this work is strictly a result of my imagination. Now that thats out of the way, if you are easily offended by relationships between two males you dont want to read this, and if you are too young, or if it is illegal in your area to read sexual content between two consenting males then dont read on.

Author note: This story is a sequel to my story, The Log Way,last updated in the Nifty archives on August 10, 2005. While Ill do my best to write this as a stand alone story it is recommended to read The Log Way (also known as The Long Way) first for deeper character background. As with the majority of my stories, the story comes before the sex, so if youre looking for a quick fix, please look elsewhere. Any comments/questions can be sent to dluka1983@hotmail.com


In the Fish Bowl


As Kyle Davis gazed past the glass of his round, fifty-gallon aquarium, past the fake plants and purple gravel to where the only goldfish attacked flakes of food, he thought of Travis Beltnick, as he often did at three thirty every day when he fed his fish.

Funny things, these aquariums. He’d had at least one at all times since he was six years old and won his first goldfish at the county fair. That one hadn’t lasted very long after he’d decided to give it a friend, and he still wished that when his father had taken him to a small pet store to look for one that someone would have told him that bettas were territorial predators and the pretty red one he picked out would happily end up picking his goldfish to death. But even with his first goldfish gone, he took it upon himself to give the betta a good home in the small fish tank that was like a miniature world in his bedroom.

Like all worlds, it changed as time passed, his betta becoming a variety of school fish, and then a catfish, and even a frog; and they lived out their lives in the home they made within the glass walls until they became old, or sick, and met whatever fate awaited them down the swirling porcelain bowl.

Kyle Davis had learned a lot from his fish. Just like the people around him, they each had their own place in their little world, their own personalities, and their own purpose. The little goldfish was his most recent addition to this tank, and already he could tell that the two mollys seemed to be mistaking its gleaming gold scales for flakes of food. And just like always, he did not interfere in the affairs of fish, just as he did not interfere in the affairs of Travis Beltnick, who the little goldfish was reminding him very much of at the moment.

Like Travis, this fish had a mind of its own. If it was smart, it would stay well away from the mollys and find another place to eat, because there was certainly always enough food. Perhaps near the tangle of fake plants. That side of the tank was closest to the window, and likely cooler, and goldfish were supposed to like cold water.

But, no. That was not to be, because the little goldfish was a lot more like Travis than what was good for it, and Kyle watched in disappointment as it came too close to the crab that dwelled at the bottom, and he felt himself jump inwardly when that crab (which he’d appropriately named “Crabby”) gripped the little goldfish in its claw and shook it mercilessly.

It was true that Kyle could have tapped the glass in an attempt to break up the scuffle. Or, maybe he even could have reached in, his hand becoming a warring hero to save his new fish. But then what? He could free the little fish, but then it might never learn from its own mistakes, so to keep it truly safe, he would have to remove it from the danger of the bowl only to watch it suffocate in his hands. It was that way with Travis, too. Kyle could no better protect the goldfish from danger than he could protect Travis from himself or the many predators that he seemed to go out of his way to walk into every day.

So, perhaps that’s part of the reason why when the goldfish somehow managed to get free of the grumpy crab to live another day, Kyle smiled. After all, if something as tiny as a fish could learn from its mistakes and make it through a gauntlet of life’s dangers, then one day people could evolve to that as well. People like Travis; and maybe then, people like Kyle would stop worrying about them every day at three thirty when he fed his fish.

But, to understand why Kyle spent so much time worrying about Travis, and so much time waiting for Travis to help himself, one would have to understand the obstacles that Travis had already overcome and the pain that he’d never managed to let go of. And to understand that, the story would have to begin not in a fishbowl, but in a small bedroom on the second floor of a rundown house on Lake Street, fifty-three miles away, where Travis Beltnick had once spent the majority of his time hiding under the covers from a very real monster. It was in that room where Travis celebrated his tenth birthday under a tent made with stale sheets around a lower bunk.

In the few times Travis had recited his story of that night, the first thing he always remembered was smiling as he held onto a peanut-butter-filled candy bar with a lit birthday candle sticking out of the top. He’d been very careful to keep the dripping green wax away from his fingers as he patiently waited for his foster brother to conclude the Happy Birthday song in his off-key, twelve-year-old voice. Though, the way the song temporarily kept the screaming downstairs out of their homemade sanctuary for even a few precious moments made Travis believe that he could keep that candle burning forever by means of sheer willpower. And the wish was enough that when the singing ended, he quietly requested, “Sing it again, Allan.

So Allan did. Because Allan was dedicated to Travis. They’d been together since Travis was six and Allan was eight, and had become brothers in the truest sense. But they weren’t the kind that teased and bickered. They were the kind that had made a silent pact to become family to each other, when neither of them had one to speak of, and anyone who argued that they weren't brothers often found themselves on the disagreeable side of Allan’s well-aimed left hook. Unfortunately, that kind of argument was often found among their peers at school, who like everyone else, could not see a family resemblance apart from the brothers’ obvious bond.

Physically, they were exact opposites. Travis had always been small and thin with a ghostlike complexion that seemed unable to hide the faintest of bruises, which accounted for the long sleeves he insisted on wearing even during the hottest days of summer, and his hair was black and thin, the kind that fell flat no matter how it was cut, which often happened to be long enough to hide the narrow dark eyes he’d inherited from his mother, or so he’d been told. Allan, who had no way to know where he’d developed his physical likeness, was fair-haired and golden-skinned. He was tall for his age, and the way he could lift Travis onto his shoulder effortlessly had long ago convinced the younger boy that Allan was a lot stronger than he looked.

“Come on, Travis,” Allan said after singing the birthday song the second time. “Time to blow it out and make a wish.

Travis sucked in more breath than he needed and let it all out on the tiny flame, leaving the two in utter darkness except for the dull light that found its way through the crack under the bedroom door, and there he found that his wish had already failed to come true. The screaming below came mostly from a male voice now, consisting of some stuttered and slurred words, and followed by the sound of a glass breaking and a woman’s scream. Close to Travis, there was a soft click, and then light in their makeshift tent once again as Allan picked up a flashlight.

“Don’t listen to them, Travis,” Allan insisted, though he himself knew that the task was near impossible. “Not tonight.

Travis gave an uncertain nod, and together they pulled down the sheet and snuggled under it together on the bottom bunk, splitting the candy bar evenly down the middle. For a while, the sound of their slow chewing was dominant in the room when the fighting downstairs dwindled into the lonely sound of a woman crying. They heard their foster mother, Sara, cry a lot. Sometimes even more than they heard her yell. But, it would stop soon, as it always did soon after the faint odor of marijuana wafted through the cracks in the door.

Travis yawned, and shifted uncomfortably next to Allan before finding a place on his right side that seemed easy enough to sleep on, at least until Allan’s elbow nudged the sore place between his shoulders and he flinched so hard that the bed rocked. Frustrated with himself for this, Travis tried to turn onto another side, but not before Allan caught him and lifted up the back of his faded red t-shirt, no doubt inspecting the dark welts that had swelled between the younger boy’s shoulder blades earlier that day.

“Just stop, Allan,” Travis insisted, reaching unsuccessfully for his shirt. “I wanna go to sleep.

“Did you put ice on this like I told you?” Allan demanded.

Travis’s small shoulder’s shrugged in response. “Bill was in the kitchen.

Allan sighed, and Travis flipped over when he felt him leaving the bed.

“Where’re you going?” Travis asked, obviously not crazy about the idea of being left alone.

“To get some ice,” Allan replied, licking a stray dot of chocolate from his top lip. “Stay here, alright?

Somewhere downstairs, a door slammed and they both fell silent and still, as they always did when trying to attempt to figure out if someone was coming or going. Going was always favorable, but the heavy footsteps moving through the house a moment later told them otherwise.

“Don’t go down there, Allan,” Travis whispered. “Bill’s drunk again.

“He’s probably going to bed by now,” Allan insisted, as always, refusing to let any sign of worry or caution to enter his voice, and sometimes that frightened Travis more than anything.

“I don’t need ice. Bill told us to stay up here, Allan. He’ll get mad.

“He’s always mad,” Allan replied. And it was true, there was no disputing that. But, sometimes Travis knew better than Allan that Bill should be avoided when he was angry. He’d made the mistake of momentarily forgetting only a few hours ago when he’d tried to fix a snack after school and upset Sara’s husband when he spilled a glass of juice over the table. Now, he knew he’d made another mistake by letting Allan know about it.

They’d both taken their share of beatings before, but lately, Allan had been taking more of them, sometimes in defense of Travis, so Travis made sure to get into as little trouble as possible. It was how he’d come to protecting his brother, and when he failed, Allan seemed to take offense to it, especially when he wasn’t around to fend off Bill’s wrath. And sometimes, Travis thought, Allan got in the way just to make Bill angry. One day I’ll be a bigger monster than he is, Allan had said one night not long ago, and then had been unable to figure out why Travis had burst into tears. He hated when Travis cried and they both knew it, so it didn’t help that Travis looked ready to cry again now.

“It’s my birthday!” Travis said forcefully. “Don’t go down there, Allan!

For a fleeting moment, Allan actually seemed to consider his brother’s request. But it didn’t last, and Travis became unnerved when the lines of the older boy’s face showed signs of knowing, and his lip turned up in an almost too confident look that Travis didn’t like at all.

“Come here,” Allan said with a nod of his head as he cut a path across the bedroom with the beam of the flashlight guiding him.

Travis rolled off the bed and in the dark made his way across the clear floor to the dresser they shared, reaching it just in time to watch Allan pull the top drawer open and push aside their collective piles of socks. Beneath there were jars of bottle caps, tacks, pennies, and the various other strange things that the boys collected together, along with something shiny and black that caused Travis’s eyes to widen excessively as Allan lifted it into his hand.

“Where’d you get that?” Travis bellowed, and Allan was quick to shush him, even as he held the revolver out flat across his hand.

“It’s Bill’s. Found out where he was hiding it under their bed... Hey! Knock it off, Travis! You look like you’re gonna puke!

And indeed, Travis did feel like he was going to do just that as he nearly doubled over. Allan had put out a hand to steady him, but all he could do at the time was shake it off as he tried to overcome the mind-numbing reaction overtaking him. “Put it back, Allan,” Travis whispered desperately. “Please put it back... you can do it when they’re not looking.

“I’m not giving this back to Bill,” Allan hissed.

“He’ll catch us with it... he’ll see it, and...

“Maybe he doesn’t want to catch us with it,” Allan cut him off, and Travis remained incredulous over the look on his brother’s face.


“He can’t keep hurting us ‘cause he’s bigger,” Allan said sternly, and then shoved the gun quite purposely into the large pocket of his sweatpants. “Next time, he’s gonna be the one who’s scared.                                                                                                             

Allan started moving past Travis, beaming the flashlight towards the door, but Travis was quick to latch onto his arm.

“Where’re you going, Allan?” he demanded.

Allan frowned, but then forced a reassuring look in Travis’s direction. “I’m just gonna get your ice. I’ll be right back.... Bill probably went to bed... okay?

No,” Travis replied, because it wasn’t okay. But this was one of those times that no matter how much he said so, Allan was too set on his mission to allow it any effect. He either wanted Travis to have ice for his wounds, or he wanted Travis to have ice so he could prove a point, in which case, they were both walking dangerous territory, just as they had the last time Allan had purposely mouthed off to Bill just to prove he could take the beating. He’d taken it, alright: twice before it stopped, and by then Bill had been so furious that he turned on Travis, and both of them had lost three whole weeks of the summer.

But unfortunately, just like this night, Travis became too frightened to argue with his older brother when Allan slipped into these moods. It was a disabling feeling, like he couldn’t find his voice, or move his legs enough to walk, except to the bed, where Allan took the time to tuck him in and once again promised that he’d be right back, and moments later, Travis found himself alone in a dark room, hiding under the sheets with a flashlight, pretending that that alone would keep him safe.

Too frozen to cry, he listened carefully, wanting to keep track of Allan’s every move, though it was a lost cause. Allan always moved silently, even taking care not to step on the two steps that always managed to creak and strain against the slightest touch. So instead of knowing for fact, Travis imagined Travis making his way carefully past their foster parents’ room, down the stairs to the right, and into the kitchen. He counted to fifteen; plenty of time for Allan to make it to the freezer.

A door opened, and closed, and the sound of heavy footsteps caused Travis’s breath to quicken, and he rolled into a defensive ball. He knew that sound all too well, and when a rough, muffled voice reached his ears he tried to cover them with a pillow to keep it out. The next thing he heard, however, had him shoving it aside and sitting upright in bed.

Allan should not have yelled. Travis knew it right away, but there it was regardless: his brother’s words raised in anger before there was the sound of a chair scuffling over, likely Bill attempting to get to him, and Travis quickly prepared himself to hear his brother’s cries; because no matter how hard Allan always tried not to, it always came, the sharp agony that it seemed Bill needed to hear before he stopped.

But on Travis’s tenth birthday, that sound never came. There were more words exchanged, and then Bill called out Sara’s name, something he had never done before, and when he called her, there was something in his voice that Travis couldn’t quite place. He placed it in Sara’s voice, though, after she moved through the house and met them somewhere downstairs. Fear.

Something about that sound coming from the very source of his nightmares forced Travis to push his own gut-wrenching fears aside as he made his way slowly to the door, pressing his ear against it in an attempt to catch some of the words being spoken in the other room. But all he could hear was voices, and Allan’s sounded so angry, and then there was the crack. Not in any voice, but in the room, in the halls, a boom that echoed through the entire house. Travis’s knees buckled from shock and he fell backwards, the flashlight falling away from him, rolling across the room to disappear beneath the bed.

Sara was screaming, a sound that Travis wanted to make himself before it pierced his ears in an aggravating way and he found himself praying for it to stop. His eyes half closed to block out whatever demons might meet him outside of the bedroom, Travis yanked open the door and made his way blindly down the dark hallway on trembling knees, stumbled down the first few steps when he reached the stairs, caught his balance and made it down the rest of the flight before he turned left and met Allan’s blue eyes across the room where he stood just behind the overturned kitchen table, looking shocked.

Travis’ mouth formed Allan’s name, but it was unclear if any sound other than a soft breath came out beneath Sara’s screaming. It didn’t seem to matter, because Allan wouldn’t have heard it, anyway. He looked down at the gun in his hand, wide-eyed and bewildered, and then back to Travis, who took the awestruck expression of his brother as permission of a sort to take in the rest of the scene filling the room.

There was blood, ominous and sticky, only a few feet away from Travis’s socks, looking far more real than the props he’d seen in the movies. There was blood spattered in a strange pattern that likely would have become whole of Sara was standing on the right side of the twitching body on the floor. But she’d moved; had the bearded man’s head in her lap as the palm of her hand covered the open wound on his throat. She just wouldn’t stop screaming.

“You killed him! You killed him!” Her voice was a strange, unconstrained shriek aimed at Allan. And indeed, he had killed him, despite the fact that the choking man wasn’t quite dead yet. Travis took a step closer, perhaps out of morbid curiosity, or for fear that standing in the same place too long would draw the blood to his white socks, but a gurgling sound from Bill as the forty-year-old man’s eyes suddenly shot to his and, angry and desperate and accusing, brought him up short and sent a petrifying chill through his small body. He felt something warm suddenly trickling down the leg of his cotton pajama pants, ripped at the knee, but the fear of finding that he’d wet himself somehow prevented him from looking.

And then he saw Bill die, and Travis heard a strange whine that he knew had come from him.

His body jolted, his shoulder feeling torn, and suddenly Allan was next to him, though he couldn’t quite remember seeing the other boy cross the room.

“Come on, Travis!” Allan screamed. “Travis!

Not knowing where they were going, Travis was quick to follow his brother out of pure instinct, screaming pointlessly when another, stronger hand gripped his other arm and tore him straight away from Allan before they reached the door.

“Let go of him!” Allan ordered, and only then Did Travis realize that Sara was pulling him, her voice shrill and screaming as she pulled him away, with no regard for the pistol Allan still kept in his trembling hand.

No longer in control of himself, and lost to the situation developing around him, Travis became smothered, wanting nothing more than to break free as he screamed, set his feet, bit and clawed at the crazed woman pulling him across the floor, through the blood, into the living room. He was aware of Allan trying to pull him, telling him that they had to go or else they’d be taken away from each other. To Travis’s young mind, it only made a small amount of sense, but still, he didn’t like the sound of it and pulled harder when Allan tried to force him away from Sara. And then she reached the phone. Travis watched as she dialed three numbers, and then he became strangely still, as if it all made some sort of sense now.

“Let him go!” Allan shouted again, but his order fell on deaf ears, and when Travis looked at his brother, he nearly wet himself all over again.

Allan, pale-faced and nauseous, had raised the gun again, like he didn’t quite realize he was doing it, just as Sara didn’t seem to realize that it was pointed quite neatly at her head as she screamed into the phone at the 911 dispatcher.

“Allan!” Travis managed in a strangled tone that felt ripped from his throat. “Allan, no!” Something in his voice reached his brother, because Allan met his eyes, startled. He looked lost, confused, and for a moment that Travis would not soon forget, desperate.

“I had to, Travis,” Allan whispered, and then as if he’d never been there at all, he dropped the gun and fled the house.

It was the last time Travis Beltnick saw his brother.

In The Fish Bowl

Chapter One

Thanks to jim for editing!

Breath fogged his cold hands as he attempted to warm them with his mouth and his thin cut of a nose felt numb beneath his foggy eyes. Snow fell in heavy flakes that covered the streets until they grew to the height of the sidewalks as he passed through the near-empty alleyway like a slow-moving drunk; in part because of the bulk of his bulky black snowsuit, and in part because he’d only acquired thirty minutes of sleep in the last twenty-seven hours before he woke at four thirty in the afternoon on a January Saturday to rush to work. And he was still late for his two part-time, five-hour shifts that he couldn’t afford to lose.

The pretty blonde with a lollipop sticking out of her mouth was predictably waiting behind the front door of the Video Warehouse when he entered, a mess of condensed snow following in his wake.

“You’re late again,” she told him immediately, removing the sucker from her mouth long enough to scold him. “I had to put away the delivery by myself.

Purposely ignoring her complaints, Travis threw a heavy arm around her shoulders for balance as he removed one of his thick snowboots, and she squealed in protest. Now at eighteen years, he was no longer a frail, weightless boy; she likely had reason to complain, as he towered above her recklessly, one bicep alone thicker than her neck.

“You cut your hair,” he remarked with a grin that seemed charming despite his chattering teeth. “I like it.

This earned him a smile that was as predictable as her wrath, and she moved to better assist him as he removed his second boot. “You think so?” she asked. “I wasn’t sure. It’s been long since I was little--what would you think if I went red?

“Don’t,” he said quickly. “You’ll ruin my fun if I have to stop making blonde jokes.

No longer amused, she shoved him away from her and he caught himself easily before he scooped up his boots and headed to the back of the store, into the manager’s office that doubled for a break room to remove the rest of his snowsuit and change into the horribly white tennis shoes that matched the rest of his uniform. Knowing without looking that she’d followed him, Travis asked, “Busy today?

“Not really,” she replied. “I’ve spent most of day back here finishing up some stuff for school.” The laptop and scatter of notes on the desk was proof of that. “I’ve still got more to do if you don’t mind watching the front by yourself.

Travis gave a sharp nod, knowing that the busy college student would be spending the rest of her shift in the office regardless of what he minded. Punishment, he supposed, for being late. “Sure.

“And, you’ve got some extra hours if you want them,” she added. “Ryan quit this morning.

Looking up at her, Travis raised an eye at the aggravated look on her face; mostly, because he didn’t understand what she looked so annoyed over. He knew full well that she could have cared less if her ex-boyfriend didn’t work there anymore. They’d hardly said a word that crossed the line of being sociable to each other over the last week. He, however, felt some disappointment. Ryan helped keep him entertained during longer shifts, and he supposed that in a way, they were friends, even if the only time they saw each other outside of work were the few nights a week that Travis went home; they were also roommates. But, he didn’t feel enough disappointment over it to avoid going to the schedule, where he wrote in his name over the shifts Ryan had had that he knew he could take on.

“Finally drove him away, huh?” Travis remarked.

“No,” she said heavily, and then shrugged. “He got another job. I figured he would have told you.

“Haven’t talked to him, except when we evened up to get the bills paid. You owe me forty bucks, by the way.

“I what?” she demanded.

Travis smirked. “Yeah. Ryan shorted me, and since you still owe him forty for fixing your car I figure I’ll cut out the middle man. You can pay up anytime this week.... yeah. That’ll be good.

She scoffed at him. You can pay up,” she corrected him. “I covered your phone bill last month--and I need it back, by the way.

Travis looked thoughtful for a moment, and then grinned as he pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket, easily handing her the difference between the forty she owed Ryan and the seventy he owed her. “I thought you forgot about that,” he said cheekily. “So, did Ryan mention where he’s working now?

“I don’t know,” she replied, though her expression told a different story, and whether she liked to admit it or not, she made a point to know everything about what her ex was or wasn’t doing. “I think they offered him a better position at that grocery store he was working at. He was gonna give two weeks, but I told him you’d want the hours.

“Well thanks for thinking of me,” Travis replied, and then gave her a searching look from head to toe that always made the person on the receiving end of it feel as if they were being heavily evaluated. “You wanna go out tonight?

Her blonde brow shot up and her hands went to her hips. “With you?


“Isn’t there some sort of rule about moving in on your roommate’s ex-girlfriend?” she remarked.

“None that I’d pay attention to,” he responded, and then grinned. “But, I’m not, anyway. If I was asking you out on a date, you’d know it. I’m supposed to meet up with some people at a club tonight; thought I should take someone to dance with in case I get bored.

“I love dancing.

“I know. Are you coming then?

She twisted her mouth as she thought it over. “I don’t know. Depends if I get my work finished.

“Let me know,” he replied, and then rushed to finish tying his shoes when a bell told them that they had a customer.

“I’ll get this one,” the girl insisted. “Just hurry up.

Travis looked after her, and then quickly called out before she managed to leave the office. “Hey, Lacy, did I get any calls here? My phone’s been dead.

She turned back long enough to roll her eyes at him. “You should charge it--and yes. Your friend Kyle called and said you stood him up last night. You should let him know you’re alive, ya know?

Travis did know, but as he continued readying himself for work, he seemed as unconcerned as Lacy as she took care of the last customer she would that day before locking herself away with her studies.


Kyle Davis slid a hand down his long face as he meticulously studied it in the mirror, turning his chin upwards left, then right while the razor waited impatiently in his hand. And it would keep waiting, too, because at nineteen years old, all he ever managed to grow on his face was fuzz that stayed gone for weeks at a time once it was shaved away, and by his calculations, it would be another two weeks before it needed attention again.

Placing the razor neatly back in the bathroom drawer, he turned up his wrist to check his watch. It was almost seven o’clock, and the short days of winter meant that the sun had faded just past four. He found himself wondering if Travis had seen it at all today, and then scolded himself for thinking of Travis at all. It wasn’t worth the effort, he’d told himself several times that day. But still, when the phone by his bed in the next room rang, he quickly went to answer it, his first thought being that it would be Travis calling to apologize for his failure to appear the night before. But, it wasn’t the expected chain of excuses that always seemed to make sense greeting him when he answered the line.

“Kyle, what’re you doing right now?” The lack of proper greeting caused Kyle to roll his eyes.

“I don’t know, Chris,” he replied in an impatient voice that was meant more for Travis than his employer. “What are you doing?

“Going fucking insane,” Chris replied. “How fast can you get here?

Kyle consulted the calender neatly tacked up behind his aquarium. “Don’t I work at ten?

“Not anymore. I double-booked a party and we’re missing servers downstairs. How fast can you be here?

Kyle sighed. Working at the family-owned nightclub was in all seriousness, the best job he’d ever had. He liked the hours, and the patrons, and considering the owner a close friend didn’t hurt, either. But, sometimes when one of those owners was met with stress that he was usually the cause of, like overbooking two parties, Kyle wanted to run in the other direction. He hated when things became messy and hectic. “Right now,” he finally said. “Be there in a few.

Chris sighed, an unnecessary display of release. “I owe you.

Kyle wanted to point out that his friend always owed him, but decided against it. It wasn’t like him to be so short, and if he was now he blamed Travis. “Alright.

“Hey,” Chris said. “Hold on. Did you ever find out what happened to your friend last night?

“Not yet,” Kyle replied. “But that’s Travis.

“Huh... you sure he’s reliable enough to offer a job to?

“He could be,” Kyle replied, though he was having serious second thoughts over the whole idea. “I don’t know. Let’s talk about it when I get there.

“Yeah, good idea.” And without a goodbye from Chris, the line went dead


Turning towards his closet to find something more suitable for a night at the club than his comfortable sweatpants, Travis tried to overcome his dark mood. But honestly, it was difficult to remain cheerful when the little brother he’d never asked for seemed so intent on embarrassing him. True, he hadn’t mentioned to Travis that the reason he wanted him to meet his friends was because he wanted to help him get out of two dead-end jobs--not to mention his various other means of making a quick buck. But then, he’d thought the guy would have the decency to show up when he said he would. He should have known better. Travis was simply too unpredictable to be reliable--unless he really felt like it. He’d be working at the video store today, though, Kyle decided. At least he knew that, because as difficult as it was to determine when Travis would show up when asked, he never missed work when he already had a job.

He’d slid a clean button-up shirt that wasn’t quite formal wear over his thin torso before he’d decided that he should call the video store to ask the useless question of how his unresponsible friend had spent his night, but before he could make it across the bedroom, he heard his apartment door open and close, a strange occurrence since he lived alone in the two-bedroom apartment. It also accounted for the way he rushed to the living room, ready to ward off intruders. But, before he had a chance to grab the heavy wooden bat out of the closet in the hallway, that effort became unnecessary as he took in the heavily bundled figure in the doorway with dark features that matched his own a little too well, and those dark features looked none too pleased.

“Nicky?” Kyle said, a little more than just a little surprised to see his younger cousin, who was supposed to be taking a semester off of school to live with his dad just to get to know his new wife and their young daughter--two towns away.

Kyle watched as Nicky Davis dropped a heavy dufflebag that managed to dump snow all over the small strip of tile before he more or less slammed the door and announced, “I’m moving in with you.” And then, with a cock of his head and a thoughtful expression added, “I’ll need a job if I’m gonna pay you rent. And I’m hungry. Got anything to eat?


The snow had finally stopped outside, and at midnight, what the storm had left glimmered beneath the streetlights in frozen blankets of powder and ice, leaving a chill in the air that seemed to seep through the thickest sweaters to chill cautious skin beneath. Travis had never been fond of the cold, always preferring the humid or dry heat of summer, but if there was one thing that could get his blood flowing on a cold night it was dancing, and if he was going to dance, he preferred Lacy Chapman as a dance partner. He’d met her dancing, actually. His first night in town, before he’d called a number requesting a roommate and met Ryan Sader, he’d stepped into a bar that didn’t bother to card him, and he’d spent all night dancing with the vocal blonde. Since then, he’d rightfully come to the conclusion that she was the only person he’d met thus far that could keep up with his constant waves of energy, so she was a logical choice when he wanted to rid himself of feelings that most acquired after drinking too much caffeine. Besides, she was a good dancer, and they’d become comfortable enough together to pull off just about anything on the dance floor; and only moments after walking into a club he’d never been in before, that suited him just fine since he didn’t see himself leaving the dance floor unless he absolutely had to.


In part, this was because dancing was relieving him of the dull memory of helping customers all afternoon, but he’d be lying if he tried to convince himself that it had nothing to do with the scrupulous looks he’d received from Kyle the moment his friend had spotted him from where he was working behind the bar with a tall blond who seemed more interested in flirting with the women than serving them their drinks. It must have been one of the owners, Travis decided. Kyle had mentioned him, just as he’d mentioned time and again that Travis should come to the club.

Travis hadn’t thought so. The Shadow was the kind of busy place where everyone else went, and he preferred the back-street little corners where there was a better chance of stirring up the regulars. But then, this place wasn’t half bad, he thought, with its dim and sometimes flashing lights and open atmosphere. The wooden floor was newly polished and crowded, and tables were filling up fast. He was tempted to ask Lacy if she wanted to get a drink--if his throat was parched by now, he knew hers would be, too--but thought better of it. He’d stay right where he was, thank you very much, at least until something in Kyle’s expression simmered down a notch.

Or, maybe not. Travis released a frustrated huff of breath as the music suddenly changed and people began to switch partners for a slow dance. Not him, though. Lacy slid her arms around him and took the opportunity to catch her breath while he was still interested in releasing all of that pent-up energy. “Good Lord,” she remarked. “I can’t remember the last time I was so tired.

“That’s ‘cause you’re out of shape,” he remarked unhelpfully. “Too much studying.

“You should be nicer to me,” she informed him, but offered no explanation of why that was. “Let’s go to the bar. I’m thirsty, and I wanna say hi to someone.

“Go ahead,” he insisted, easily slipping away from her. “I need the bathroom.” At least, the bathroom seemed a better destination than anywhere near Kyle at the moment. So, they separated, and as Travis passed the crowded ladies room to enter the men’s room where he could uselessly wash his hands, he tried not to think about facing Kyle, which, he really would need to do soon. He just wished that when it happened, his friend would cut him a break for once.

It wasn’t that Kyle would scold him, or otherwise voice his disappointment, but it was always there in his expression, and sometimes, Travis couldn’t stand it. Honestly, he didn’t understand it, either. But, Kyle was strange like that, a mothering sort that generally, Travis had no use for. But still, they were friends. They’d met through Ryan, just after Travis had moved into the six-unit apartment building where Kyle happened to be their neighbor. Apparently, Kyle had a cousin who’d been a friend of Ryan’s before moving away. He hadn’t met the cousin, but had heard plenty about him, at least enough to know that he, too, had dated Lacy for a while. But, he believed that she’d managed to stay friends with him, unlike Ryan. It was a little difficult for Travis to understand because generally, he’d noticed that Ryan and Lacy could get along with everyone apart from each other, but he’d never been interested enough to pry into what had happened between them. Sometimes, Travis wished that Kyle could have the same discretion when it came to his activities.

Not that Kyle pried, really. He knew about at least half the questionable things that Travis did, but never commented on them, or even judged. But somehow, someway, Kyle had managed to become Travis’s keeper, whether or not either of them had intended for things to happen that way. Travis could admit that it could be nice, when it wasn’t irritating. He wasn’t the type to keep close friends, but he had to admit that it was nice knowing that someone always had his back, no matter what the circumstances were, and it had been a long time since he’d known anyone who he was comfortable enough with that he could talk to about anything, or someone who knew him well enough to separate his often insulting sarcasm from cruelty. But, he’d never really known anyone who always expected more of him, either, and that alone sent him running in the opposite direction often enough.

He left the restrooms, returning to the noisy club in hopes that Lacy had said hello to her friend at the bar and was ready for another exhausting round with him; but he quickly discovered that tonight, it was not to be, and he couldn’t figure out if he was more annoyed or surprised when he found his dance partner looking perfectly content at a crowded table and a tray of nachos. It was always food with that girl, and for the life of him, Travis couldn’t figure out how it all didn’t go straight to her ass. He’d said as much once, and she didn’t speak to him over it for two days.

Looking over, he didn’t want to join her, and not only because he wasn’t ready to sit yet. It seemed that she wasn’t the only company he knew at that table. But, before he could flee for the nearest exit, Kyle’s dark eyes snapped up from where he was seated by Lacy, and Travis was pretty sure that he was being beckoned. Deciding that he’d avoided the inevitable long enough, he headed over like a scolded schoolboy, but then still managed to place a carefree grin on his face before he reached the table. To his relief, Kyle’s blatant disappointment didn’t pass one fleeting look before he said he was glad he finally made it and introduced him to the other three guys at the table who he didn’t know. One was the tall blond man he remembered from behind the bar, and another could have been a smaller version of him. The older, as Travis had suspected, was the club owner, Chris Dovan. The other was his brother, introduced as Owen, and they both seemed friendly enough to sit down with. The third, however, looked ready to spit at the next person who looked at him wrong. The owner of this sour mood introduced himself as Nicky Davis, and it was enough to spark signs of recognition in Travis as he looked between Nicky and Kyle.

“The cousin?” he asked, and then to Kyle, “You didn’t say he was back in town.

“It was sudden,” Nicky said in a clipped tone.

“What brings you back?” Travis asked, only taking an interest because it seemed like Kyle’s cousin didn’t really want to say.

“My dad’s a prick,” Nicky said evenly.

Travis shrugged as he helped himself to the seemingly endless supply of tall lemonade glasses at the table. “Aren’t they all,” he remarked, and was met by awkward silences. He couldn’t tell if that was because it was considered a strange thing to say, or because the majority agreed with him.

“So are you dating Lacy now?” Nicky asked, and Travis almost laughed at the other guy’s attempt to place the awkwardness on his shoulders.

“No,” he said at the same time as Lacy, but then took it a step further. “I think she’s pretty heartbroken after Ryan... but you know, lately she keeps talking about this other guy she dated. Mike... or Nick or something like that.” He looked at a mortified Lacy in all seriousness. “Hey, didn’t you say he was Kyle’s cousin, too? I don’t really remember...” She punched his shoulder then, and her cry of ouch over his arm being a little harder than she’d suspected, and the way he managed to dribble lemonade down his chin, stirred laughter around the table and left Nicky looking at her with interest.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before, Travis,” Chris said, just as Owen, Nicky and Lacy erupted into a conversation that suggested they wanted to order more food.

“I haven’t been,” Travis replied.

“Yeah?” Chris replied. “Where’re you working now?

The question caused Travis to send an annoyed look in Kyle’s direction, but suddenly Nicky’s cousin was too interested in his napkin to notice. “A few places,” Travis replied. “I’ve got the video store and this car dealership, mostly.

“Car dealership?” Owen repeated, obviously listening to their conversation while still managing to keep up with his own. “Which one?

“Isn’t there only one in town?” Travis replied.

“So you work for John Gordon?” Owen asked, as if he needed confirmation. There was also an noticeable amount of contempt in his voice, at least enough to cause his brother to elbow him.

“D’you know him?” Travis asked.

Owen opened his mouth to respond, but it was Chris who answered for him. “We know enough about him to keep our distance. How’d you end up working for him?

Travis shrugged. “I asked for a job, he gave me one.

“How is it?” Chris asked, and Travis, who didn’t understand the obvious distaste for one of his employers, found himself frowning.

“It’s a job I’m not half bad at. Not much for working mornings, though.

“So I hear,” Chris remarked with a smile that said he’d heard a little too much, and once again Travis’s eyes cut to Kyle, who at this point, pretended to outright ignore him as he asked Nicky to pass the salt despite having nothing in front of him to put salt on. Realizing this, he decided to salt Lacy’s nachos, which did not please her in the least. “I’ve been talking to Kyle,” Chris continued. “We’ve got some shifts opening up here at the club. They run about six hours at a time, but the pay’s decent enough that you could drop your other jobs if you’re interested. I could work you up to seven nights a week and even a few afternoons.

Of course he could, Travis thought. Because Kyle had asked him to, just as Kyle was attempting to look after him again, or more specifically, trying to place him somewhere where it would be easier to look after him. Sipping his lemonade to conceal his annoyance before he faced Chris, Travis found himself nodding before he finally said, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m pretty busy as it is these days. Don’t think I could cover all that.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.Ahh, and there it was. Travis knew he’d hear from Kyle sooner or later, and he smugly turned to his friend.

“I’m just being honest,” he told him, and then made an effort to look at Chris with an expression that was surprisingly sincere. “Thanks, though. Really. It’s a decent place you’ve got here.

Chris nodded. “Come see me if you change your mind.

“I’ll do that,” Travis agreed, and then somewhat fearing more conversation of the same topic, attempted to ask Lacy if she wanted to dance again. Unfortunately, she was already leaving the table with Nicky, so he turned his attention to the only person at the table who didn’t seem interested in finding him a better job.

“So, Owen,” Travis said. “Do you go to school with Lacy?

“I’m part-time,” Owen replied. “I’ve mostly put in a lot of hours here... and why the hell wouldn’t you wanna work here? It’s damn better than putting up with Gordon.

Travis’s eyes widened. Good god! It was a conspiracy! And now, he simply had to ask. “What’s your deal with John Gordon, anyway?

Owen actually looked ecstatic that he’d bothered to ask. “First off, he’s the biggest ass in town,” Owen started.

“Yeah,” Travis was quick to agree. “But he’s kinda fun, too,” and the comment left him with even more strange looks from around the table. “What?” he asked, still confused. But, before he got any actual answers, two more bodies joined the table to fill up the spaces that Lacy and Nicky had left, and Kyle and Chris at least, made a point to greet them before Kyle took the time to introduce them to Travis.

The first was just about as tall as Travis was, only thinner. He had longer hair and a dark complexion somewhat like Kyle’s and Nicky’s, though he didn’t seem to be another family member, with a face that was almost too handsome--the kind that was generally unapproachable, though something about his confident stride and ability to make meaningful eye contact suggested that Travis would like him whether he wanted to or not. He nearly said as much when he shook the guy’s hand and he was introduced as Aiden... something or other. Travis didn’t really get past the first name, and found himself looking around to see if anyone else noticed how unreasonably attractive this guy was. In doing that, he learned something interesting about Owen Dovan.

The other man--or boy, depending on how he looked at it--was small, curly-haired, and almost too timid to bother talking to. This was a boy who’d likely been pants’d many times in high school--if he wasn’t still in high school getting pants’d, that is. Travis felt a small pang of sympathy. He remembered what it was like being small enough to be looked over, but unlike him, this guy introduced as Reilly Chesley was likely going to stay that way.

From the sound of the conversation that followed the introductions, Aiden had been out of town visiting his mother, another parent that seemed to cause enough trouble to send her offspring fleeing back to this group comfortable group of friends, and during the telling of this story Travis shook himself out of his urge to flirt with Aiden--Knightly, that’s right, it was Knightly ( that sounded a little too familiar)--and looked towards Owen again, wanting to talk more about what the blond thought was wrong with John Gordon. But, like everyone else, Owen’s attention was elsewhere, and Travis found himself watching the younger Dovan with curious interest.

Owen was still watching Aiden, obviously concerned over the story about the obnoxious mother, but seemingly unwilling, or perhaps unable to add his voice to the mix. When Aiden looked in his direction, his eyes quickly averted elsewhere, and Travis nearly released a whistle of realization. There was definitely something between these two, and whatever it was brought more awkward silences and tension to the table than more would care for, but still, no one seemed interested in mentioning it as Owen and Aiden silently decided to avoid each other.

It was getting on towards midnight; Chris had gone back to the bar, Lacy and Nicky had returned to the table, and the conversation had turned to stories shared by friends that Travis had nothing to add to by the time he started checking his watch frequently until Kyle commented on it.

“You gotta be somewhere?

“In a while,” Travis replied, as if there was nothing unreasonable at often having plans in the middle of the night. “Hey, Lacy,” he called across the table with no regard for the conversation he was interrupting. “You’re good getting home, right?

She all but rolled her eyes at him. “I drove you here.

“Just trying to be polite,” he commented, and then abruptly stood. “See you at work tomorrow.” It was all he planned to say, and was a little surprised by the rest of the goodbyes he received, and one more offer of employment from Owen Dovan. He didn’t have to say goodbye to Kyle, because he followed him, just as Travis knew he would.

“Can I give you a ride somewhere? It’s gotta be below zero out there,” Kyle said.

“Aren’t you supposed to be working?

“I can get away for a few minutes. You wanna ride or not?

Travis shrugged. “Sure.

They left the club together, zipping up their coats in the night air as they made their way down the street to where Kyle had parked his car which had four wheel drive that served its purpose. “I’m guessing you’re not going home,” Kyle said.

“I’ve gotta go to Tenth Street.

Kyle looked up at that. “And how are you getting home from there?” He wouldn’t even start to ask why Travis was going halfway across town in the first place. They both knew he wouldn’t like the answer, and it was always better not to ask.

“I’ll figure it out.

Kyle sighed. “Look, I’ll be here for a few more hours, so if you need a ride...

“You’re not a taxi, and I don’t plan on treating you like one,” Travis said, and that was that. And fortunately, it was also the end of them being annoyed with each other for the evening as Kyle drove him across town and told him all about how he had a new roommate, and the story of how a few years ago, Nicky’s father had left the family for another woman, which his cousin still wasn’t very happy about.


Beads of sweat felt frozen against Travis’s forehead, and he didn’t really know how they’d developed in the first place. It was damn cold behind the alley of a florist shop and the pet groomer’s, even colder since he’d removed his coat to manage more movement in his shoulders. There was some laughter around him, the scent of puke and heavy liquor in the cold air, and he couldn’t seem to stop staring at the chattering teeth of the redheaded jock in a letter jacket standing red-faced in front of him. At least, until the redhead pulled back his fist and Travis braced himself.

He felt a small crack of pain as a tight fist hit his frozen left cheek, but it was hardly enough of a blow to cause his head to snap back, and the satisfied look on the redhead’s face was almost enough to make Travis laugh; in fact, he must have because the halfwit in front of him suddenly looked furious with him as he raised his fist for another blow. This one, however, never made it to Travis’s face as his hand shot out and he openhandedly shoved the younger boy square in the chest, not quite hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to make him tumble backwards into the snow, causing the small crowd to bust into laughter.

“What the fuck?” the boy demanded, but had the sense not to object when Travis reached down to pick the three twenty dollar bills from his pocket.

“You only get three,” Travis reminded him as he counted the money and shoved it into his pocket. “Bring another forty and I’ll show you how to make it hurt.

He let the boy’s friends pick him up as he turned his attention to collecting a few more debts from others in the group, all the while watching a burly enough guy around his age with a blond crewcut, who was watching him just as evenly.

“Something I can do for you, Phil?” Travis finally asked. He hoped so. Phil was always a good customer, sending high-school boys who wanted to be tough his way, and on occasion, introducing him to someone who was interested in getting hit back. There was a small profit to be made in back-street fights, and there was always more of it when Travis could bet on himself, which, he always did regardless of what he thought the outcome might be. Tonight, however, had been too slow for his liking, and if something didn’t happen soon he’d end up going home to sleep. He probably needed it, too, but first he’d exercise all his options.

“That depends,” Phil replied. “You feel like taking a ride?

Travis frowned, not liking the idea already. He stuck to places he knew, and the prospect of tagging along with the king of the rich kids, who acted like he was still in high school, just didn’t pique his interest. But still, he shrugged. “I dunno. What did you have in mind?

Phil grinned. “An old friend of mine is stuck delivering pizzas tonight. Throught we could track him down and pay a visit.

“Will he fight?” Travis asked. He wouldn’t mind a few rounds, and if the guy was delivering pizzas this late at night he was likely the tubby older man he’d encountered before while ordering one from the only 24-hour delivery service in town.

“He will if he has a reason to,” Phil insisted, and Travis was quick to shake his head.

“I don’t start ‘em, Phil. I just play along.” Even Travis refused to stoop so low as to pick a fight with an unsuspecting individual.

“Even if he gives you a run for your money?” Phil asked. It was enough to get Travis’s attention.

“Really? So why not call him up?

Phil laughed. “Because he’d hang up on me. Come on, I’ll make it worth your while.

“How so?

“Three hundred, win or lose,” and to emphasize his point, Phil held up enough money to cover nearly half of Travis’s next month’s rent.

“Win or lose?” Travis repeated, wondering if it wasn’t worth it to just go throw the fight he’d likely end up starting just to collect the cash.


“Win or lose,” Phil repeated. “On the condition that you get at least one good hit in before you do anything stupid. Three hundred’s worth that.

“Not really a friend of yours then?” Travis remarked as he weighed temptation against his own set of rules.

Phil grinned. “Are you coming or not?

And Travis took the money.


It was uncomfortable enough being in a truck full of highschoolers that obviously worshiped the ground Phil Clayton walked on, and staking out a late-night pizzeria only added to the insult of the entire situation, which Travis was about ready to regret. They’d been waiting for thirty minutes, and he’d had enough to try passing Phil his money back. But, Phil shrugged it away and pointed out the fogging front window.

“Keep it. There he is.

Travis took a look, and almost rid himself of the inevitable guilt when he found that he wasn’t about to ambush some poor defenseless kid that had managed to get on the wrong side of these guys. True, Travis still had about ten pounds on him, but they were similar in height, and the forceful walk of the shadowed figure making his way into the parking lot was overconfident enough to tell that he wasn’t the type to turn tail and run, meaning that even if he didn’t like what was about to happen, there wasn’t much of a chance that blue and red flashing lights would show up anytime soon.

“Alright. Let me out,” Travis ordered. “But don’t expect anything spectacular. I’m making this quick.

“Sure thing,” Phil replied, and Travis left the warmth of the vehicle to make his observations from the street corner before he crossed into the parking lot. His target was steadily making his way towards an outdated sportscar that didn’t look like it had any business being out in the weather, and he made sure to take a path that would purposely cross his. The guy wasn’t carrying any pizzas, so Travis could only assume that his shift had ended, which was probably for the best, anyway. He couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to go back to work after this.

Moving closer still, he saw a little more of the guy as he moved briefly beneath a streetlamp. He looked cold beneath his red jacket that was nothing more than a uniform, and there was a flicker of short, brown hair beneath the baseball cap that matched the jacket. His pace slowed when he realized that Travis was coming towards him, a sure sign that he was using caution, and finally, as Travis reached him with a sloppy grin on his face that was fit for a drunken imbecile, he took note of the name tag neatly hooked to the guy’s jacket, and then loudly hollered, when there was absolutely no need for it: “Dennis! Hey, never thought I’d run into you here!

Dennis stopped walking, and beneath the brim of his hat it was apparent that he was confused, and rightfully so. “Who the hell are you?

Travis blinked. Obviously this wasn’t the sort of guy that was into common niceties, but, he smiled, anyway. “Well, since you’re asking, I am currently... scum. And, in case you’re wondering why that is, here’s the thing... I’m about to hit you for three hundred bucks. But hey, I score some points for telling you first, right?” Because otherwise, it would have been just plain unsportsman-like to Travis’s way of thinking. Of course, that’s all the warning he allowed Dennis the pizza guy as he walked steadily forward and swung as accurately as he always did. So, it was really a surprise to Travis when it didn’t turn out to be accurately enough, or maybe fast enough. Actually, he had no idea how he managed to miss Dennis’s face completely, or how Dennis’s fist ended pressed so far into his gut that he actually doubled over.

Instinctively, and still too shocked to comprehend, Travis grabbed the other guy’s shoulder, ready to either fend off more of an attack or to release one of his own, and then cursed when he found himself on the ground instead, flailing in the snow much like the redhead from earlier, except, now there was a lot more pain involved.

“Fuckin’ hell!” he cursed, having a lack of better words. But, the sudden voices calling out to Dennis was enough to get his attention, and he came to his senses just in time to hear the engine of Phil’s truck roaring down the street. Asshole, Travis thought. He should have known something like this would happen, and there was no way he wasn’t getting even with Phil for ditching him, either. That is, if he wasn’t spending the next few nights in jail.

But, he heard Dennis calling back that he was right, and when Travis looked back up, he was being regarded with a certain amount of annoyance as Dennis shook his head, seeming expectant. “Well?” Dennis finally demanded.

“Well what?” Travis forced out in words that didn’t quite have enough air behind them.

“Was it worth it?


Dennis snorted in disgust, looked down the street and glared as if he wished the truck would come back just to give him some more. Travis watched him with morbid curiosity, and when Dennis stepped over his feet to reach his car, Travis found his way up before Dennis even got the door open.

“Hey,” Travis called, and when Dennis looked over his shoulder suspiciously, Travis grinned another open smile. “Can I get a ride?


Owen Dovan slipped quietly into the alley behind his brothers’ nightclub, forcing away a yawn as he crossed his arms against the cold and took a few steps out, the snow crunching beneath his feet.

“Following me?” a voice asked, and he turned to find Aiden tucked up against the brick building, well out of the wind.

“What makes you think that?” Owen replied.

“You’re not wearing your coat,” Aiden pointed out, a know-it-all smile crossing his mouth.

Owen rolled his eyes, but more out of amusement as he made his way over and leaned there against the wall, his shoulder coming into familiar contact with Aiden’s. There were a few moments of companionable silence, but they didn’t last. “Was it hard seeing your mom?” Owen asked. It was a polite way of asking if she’d gone back to her drinking even after sobering up and moving out of town, and they both knew it.

Aiden nodded. “She hasn’t changed much. I would’ve come back early. Wanted to. But, she would’ve made me feel guilty about it. I think I spent too much time alone with her. It’s not easy when there’s no one else to talk to.

Owen looked down as he attempted to shake some snow from his boot. “You could have called me.

Aiden was silent for a long moment, and then turned his head to face the blond seriously. “No I couldn’t have.

Owen smiled, but looked away at the same time. “So,” he said, changing the topic quite rapidly. “Are you seeing anyone new?

“I thought we promised not to talk to each other about that.

“I’m not,” Owen said. “In case you were wondering.

Aiden’s mouth tugged at something that didn’t quite reach a smile. “Me neither.

Their eyes met, but neither one gave away anything that they were thinking before they drifted apart again.

“Do you think we miss each other?” Owen asked.

It was a long time before Aiden answered. “Yeah.

“Okay. Are you headed home now?

Aiden looked at him and smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, just before he pushed off the wall and walked away, and when he did, Owen thought as he had countless times, that he was never going to get used to that.