Home > Portals and Puppy Dogs(5)

Portals and Puppy Dogs(5)
Author: Amy Lane

“Yeah, Bartholomew. He bakes every weekend. He sells his stuff at local conventions and events, but even when he doesn’t have an event, the house always smells… well, good, actually.” He half laughed. “But like sugar and vanilla. On the one hand, there’s always comfort food in the pantry, but on the other….” He took a healthy bite of his sandwich and closed his eyes.

“Protein,” Simon said, getting it. He was almost afraid to pick up his sandwich—the black turtleneck looked good, yes, but a big glop of barbecue sauce would wreck that.

Alex eyed him, and almost like he could read Simon’s mind he said, “You can tuck a napkin at your throat. Don’t worry, you won’t ruin the big bad boss image with me.”

“Thank you,” Simon murmured, doing that. “I didn’t realize how much I relied on that image until now.”

Alex gave a brief chuckle. “Well, you do work at being imposing.”

Simon grimaced because it was true. “I was five two until my sophomore year in high school,” he explained. “And when my growth spurt hit, I was—”

“All ears and elbows?” Alex asked kindly.

Simon felt a smile tilt his lips. “Yes,” he said. “To put it nicely. And acne scars and braces. All my friends got theirs off in junior high, but my jaw was apparently rotated at some sort of bizarre angle, so I got the full-court press until my senior year. My feet were too big, and I swear, shit just jumped off of shelves when I walked into a room. I was a mess.”

“Well, yeah,” Alex said, but his eyes were understanding. “But weren’t we all? I’m not sure I glanced up from my physics books until college.”

Simon let out a breath. “I wish. I could have hidden in my school books and D&D until I hit twenty-five and could maybe pass for human, but….” He shook his head. “My parents are in politics, and there was boarding school and debate team because it was good for me and student council so I could make the old man proud.” He shuddered. “It was a perfect storm of awkwardness,” he confessed. “I worked really hard after I got out of college to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

“Mm.” Alex was looking at him with quiet speculation in his eyes but not pity. Simon masked his discomfort with a bite of sandwich and was grateful for the napkin tucked in at his throat when that promised glop of barbecue sauce dove for the exit.

“What?” Simon asked, more off-kilter with this quiet man in the plain white button-down and Dockers than he ever had been with his work partners, both of whom were rampant extroverts and self-professed clothes whores. He’d made the black tee or black turtleneck and jeans his signature—there was no fucking up fashion in those clothes, and he was vain enough to know his black hair and the black shirt were striking together.

“Just, you know, don’t spend so much time trying to look normal that you feel like you have to shit on what’s unusual or awesome. Normal is overrated. I mean, I know I don’t look like one to talk—Dockers and button-downs, that’s me. But you have no idea what sort of wonder I’ve seen in the world. Just don’t… you know. Crap all over it until you have an idea of what it is.”

Simon sighed and studied his sandwich, feeling appropriately schooled. “Understood,” he said softly.

“Good.”

They dug into their sandwiches after that, but the silence wasn’t recriminatory, at least. Simon took some hope from that. After they’d finished and sat back, wiping their fingers and faces with the wet wipes the truck provided, Simon thought he’d give a go at some real conversation again.

“So, uh, you’re not going to transfer?” he asked, making sure.

“No,” Alex said, but it came out on a sigh.

“Why did you want to in the first place?”

“It’s not important anymore.” Alex tilted his head back, much like he had when they’d come out of the office, but this time it felt like he was trying to escape into the sky and wasn’t comforted by it.

“I, uh, hope you’re happy with us,” Simon said, thinking, Please God, let this conversation get better.

“I am,” Alex said simply. “It’s a good firm. You’re organized, you’re ethical, you pay well. It’s all good.”

“But you wish I’d go to hell,” Simon said, massaging his chest. “I get it.”

“No.” Alex met his eyes. “It’s okay, Simon. You get to make an ass out of yourself on occasion. I forgive you. I’m just… tired. And a little stressed. And I’ve sort of seen hell. Trust me, you wouldn’t wish anybody there.” He shuddered. “Fucking squirrels in hell. Everywhere. I’m not even kidding.”

Simon stared at him, lost. “There’s squirrels in hell?” he asked blankly.

Alex nodded in what appeared to be complete seriousness. “And they march single file,” he muttered. He stood and started gathering their trash. “Anyway, it’s okay. Just, you know, be nice to the Wiccan, for they shall fix what the mighty have broken.”

Simon blinked slowly. “You, uh, lost me again.”

Alex shook his head. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. You ready to go back?”

“Sure.” Simon stood up and snagged the last of the napkins for the trash and their empty soda cans for the recycler. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” They disposed of their stuff, and Simon let Alex lead the way from the food trucks, falling half a step behind him, which was uncomfortable for him and par for the course.

“Why do you have to be home at sunrise and sunset?”

Alex gave a soft, humorless laugh. “You,” he said, “would not believe me if I told you.”

Oh God. In spite of that nice speech about Simon being forgiven for being an ass, this did not bode well at all.

“You could, uh, show me,” Simon said hopefully, giving what he’d always been told was his best smile—the smile he’d only shown off after he’d gotten his braces removed.

Alex shook his head. “Believe it or not, I like you too much to do that to you. C’mon, let’s hurry back. I need to finish up so I can leave in time, right?”

Simon tucked his hands in his pockets against the chill, thinking Alex had been smart to snag his windbreaker on the way out. “Yeah, sure,” he said, feeling helpless. “So, uh, can we do lunch again tomorrow?”

Alex actually stopped walking in the middle of the parking lot to gape at him. “Really?”

Simon lifted a shoulder and kept striding. “Hey, it’s not the worst date I’ve ever been on, that’s for certain. I mean, compared to college, this was hitting it out of the park.”

“Wait!” Alex had to trot to keep up with him, and after how off-balance Simon had been for the past forty-five minutes, Simon was perversely gratified. “That was a date?”

“Well, no,” Simon admitted. “But eventually, I was hoping it would be. Can we just keep on making it lunch until a date doesn’t seem out of the question?”

“But… but….” Alex’s arms were flailing in a way that seemed wholly out of character with Alex’s usual quiet, self-contained persona. Good. Excellent. That’s what Simon wanted to do—freak the poor guy out.

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