Home > Portals and Puppy Dogs(4)

Portals and Puppy Dogs(4)
Author: Amy Lane

“Safe?” Simon raised his eyes quickly, and this time Alex didn’t look away. Simon met his gaze squarely, close enough that he could see the tiny flecks of gold deep in Alex’s green eyes.

Alex swallowed, loud enough for Simon to hear, then licked his slightly parted lips. “Protection,” he murmured. “Safe.”

But the look in his eyes was anything but safe.

It was Simon’s turn to swallow, and he allowed his thumb to trail from the necklace down the hollow of Alex’s throat. The world stopped, and the only thing Simon could hear was his own heart beating in his ears and then—

“Hey, you guys moving or what?”

Simon shook himself, and a polite social smile popped out all on its own.

“Uhm, yes, sorry about that,” he murmured, moving away from Alex and checking his surroundings before starting to cross the wide street. He turned his head in time to see Alex startle as well, as if waking from a dream, and then hustle to resume his spot at Simon’s side.

“So,” Simon said, his voice abnormally loud in his own ears as they walked, “your friend believes in that stuff? You know… witchcraft, Wicca, whatever?”

“Uhm, yes? Is that bad?” Alex’s voice should have been a warning, but Simon could feel the flush of embarrassment, of being caught out doing something improper and socially inappropriate and only knowing he’d missed the cues to tell him how not to make an ass of himself.

“It’s just, you know, sort of bizarre, right? I mean, does he dance naked at the solstice and sacrifice small animals at an altar?” Together they stepped up on the curb and turned toward the Home Depot parking lot where the food trucks gathered on weekdays.

“No,” Alex said coldly. “He sells baked goods at sci-fi conventions and works IT for his hated day job. Do you have a problem with that?”

Simon looked at him oddly. “No, no—it’s… uhm. Not conventional.”

“And you like conventional,” Alex said, and the disappointment in his voice stung.

“I’m an accountant, Alex. I obviously like order.” He turned his head and saw Alex appraising him as though trying to see where he’d miscalculated somehow. As well he should, because outside the office, it was a blatant lie. Simon tended to go for flash, for bling—wildly flirty girls, rock-climbing artist guys. Chris and Gabby gave him grief for his taste in partners all the time, and he was pretty sure his long crush on Alex Kennedy would surprise the hell out of them.

“I’m an accountant,” Alex returned evenly. “I like order. But I also believe that this little symbol around my neck will protect me, because it was crafted with love. And I think that’s important.”

“Maybe,” Simon said, and the skepticism in his own voice sounded smarmy even to him. “But so does health insurance and a bicycle helmet, right?”

“Well, yes. If I get hit by a car, I’d need the doctors and the health insurance and the bicycle helmet,” Alex conceded. “But I’d still want my friends praying to the god of their choice that I’m okay. And I know the practical stuff would probably be what saved my life, but the friends wanting me healthy would be what I chose to live for.”

“Wow,” Simon said, feeling shamed. “That’s… that’s really, uhm, spiritual.”

“You can’t separate life into numbers and humans,” Alex told him, still sounding disgruntled. “Humans can’t be logical unless they’re moving in harmony with themselves and nature. What looks like ‘convention’ is sometimes just a mask for being closed off from what’s real.”

Simon blew out a breath, that flush of embarrassment overtaking him. God, he hated that—hated being in the wrong, hated not having the right thing to say. He’d overcome a hideously awkward adolescence to be the guy who had the answers and ran the show. Having Alex Kennedy basically call him shallow and spiritless hit him where he lived.

“Well,” Simon murmured. “I guess we know what you think of me. Is that why you wanted to transfer?”

“No!” Alex said, and Simon glanced to his side and saw that Alex looked mortified. “No, I swear. I just… my friends and I practice Wicca. You sounded really condescending.”

My friends and I. Oh crap.

“Well, you know….” Yikes. There was no way to make this right. “You don’t look the type.”

“Would you expect me to wear rainbow robes and braid my armpit hair into wreaths?” Alex asked, obviously still offended.

“No. That would be weird. You just look perfectly average!” Simon exclaimed, and even as the words came out of his mouth, he saw the pit he’d dug for himself with the spiders and snakes in the bottom. Abort abort abort—object of pursuit is not happy! Apologize, you insensitive dolt. Apologize now. “In a good way,” he added weakly, and that pit wasn’t looking half bad. Maybe he could leap into it and have Alex cover his body up as the snakes took him. “In sort of an environmentally-friendly, super-competent way.”

Alex’s look at him wasn’t kind. “Swell.”

The single syllable hung between them as they neared the food trucks. “So, uh, the vegan one is over here,” Simon stammered, and Alex continued to glare from narrowed eyes.

“You can go ahead and wait for that one,” he said pointedly. “I prefer the barbecue.”

Flop sweat gathered around the neck of Simon’s black turtleneck sweater, a thing that hadn’t happened since he was a high school junior, asking Cyndi Laughton to the prom. She’d said no, he’d gone stag, and he’d ended up making out with Julius Bridges instead, and while the revelation that he was pansexual had been welcome, the flop sweat had not.

“I, uh, would really like to eat with you,” Simon said humbly. “Barbecue is fine.”

He watched as Alex dropped his chin to his chest and pulled in a deep, cleansing breath. “Okay,” he said at last. “But we’d better hurry. I have work to do.”

“No worries,” Simon said, trying to get back to that moment at the crosswalk when Alex had gazed up at him with a sort of reverence in his green eyes and the world had stood still. “Turns out, I know your boss.” He smiled hopefully, but Alex gave him back an almost wounded expression. God. How could he have screwed up so badly in just a few sentences?

“I know you do,” Alex said, and the words didn’t indicate that was a good thing.

Simon hung in there, though. They ordered, and Simon paid for both of them, insisting that he’d suggested the food truck idea. It was his fault they were there.

Alex accepted gracefully, and when they took their sandwiches and fries to one of the nearby tables, Alex sank onto the bench with a grateful sigh.

“Mm,” he said, inhaling gratefully. “Protein.” He looked up and eyed Simon suspiciously. “No cracks about how you think Wiccans are all vegan?”

“No,” Simon said, thinking it was probably safer to keep his surprise to himself. “But you are looking like meat isn’t your usual.”

Alex grimaced. “My roommate—”

“The friend who gave you the pendant?” Simon was thinking about being possessive, but Alex gave a happy smile. Not a lover’s smile, but he wasn’t wishing Simon would just disappear, either.

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