“You shouldn’t want him to love you,” Jesse muttered to himself. He dropped the cigarette that he didn’t remember smoking and smashed the burning embers out with his heel. He went in the back door of the house. He could already hear the woman—the Nicole—speaking to Ben.
“I can’t believe you let some whore into this house with our daughter,” Nicole said. Jesse reached the end of the hall and stood in the doorway to the living room.
Nicole was wearing a large winter coat, so Jesse was unable to properly assess if she was fat. He had really hoped she was a fat, ugly thing. Her hair was cut into a cute bob. Her face was, well plain, but then again, she’d been woken at one in the morning, so who bothered with make-up at that hour?
Ben was standing behind the kitchen island, using it as a shield to protect himself from her. He’d never looked so small before. He was a pathetic puppy who had disappointed, yet again, the woman he loved.
“Who are you?” Nicole asked. She put her hands on her hips and aimed her dagger-filled gaze at him.
“This is Jesse,” Ben said, speaking meekly. “He came over to—”
Jesse didn’t want to listen to whatever lie Ben had in mind. “I’m the whore,” Jesse said. “The whore who scared your little girl.” He turned his head so the head of the snake on his neck was visible to her.
Nicole’s eyes bulged. A look of disgust passed on her face. She looked back at Ben.
“You’re gay.” The words didn’t come from Nicole. They came from another member of the party that Jesse hadn’t even noticed. A boy, early puberty age, maybe twelve, sat on the couch to Jesse’s left. He was a slender thing, a stick of a kid who was swallowed up in his big winter coat. He was pale and so still, Jesse wondered if he had actually been the one to speak. The kid sat there, an amused look on his face. “Ben is gay,” the boy repeated, speaking the words while Jesse looked at him, confirming that he was indeed the speaker.
“And you are?” Jesse asked.
“Cooper,” the kid said. He nodded at Jesse. “And you’re a sinner.”
“This whole family is full of flattery,” Jesse said. He crossed his arms and looked at Ben. “You have two kids?”
“She’s my stepmom,” Cooper said. His tone was even. There was a hint of amusement, but otherwise it stayed emotionless.
“I can’t believe you let our little girl see you having sex with a man,” Nicole said.
“She didn’t see us doing shit,” Jesse said. He stepped to block the entire hall as she moved to pass him.
“The tattoos,” Ben said. He took a small step forward. “The snake and… she saw the Jungle Book the other night and…”
“Tattoos? Plural? What else is there?” Nicole asked. She looked Jesse over from head to toe.
“There’s a lot more,” Jesse said. “Want me to show you?”
A wave of revulsion crossed her face and she waved him away. “No, I do not. Let me pass. I want to see Maggie.”
He stepped to the side and let her dart down the hall. Ben quickly followed after her. He paused as he reached Jesse. “I told you to leave.”
“I’m not leaving you to deal with this by yourself,” Jesse said.
“You aren’t helping,” Ben said. The door to Maggie’s room opened and Ben slipped past Jesse to assist in calming their daughter. Jesse looked to the other occupant left in the room. The kid—Cooper—was staring at him.
“Are you a God-fearing man?” Cooper asked. He pushed the hood of his coat down and short blond hair jutted out. The hair was so light it almost looked white. The whole white hair/pale skin thing might not have looked bad on him, except for the dark brown eyes. It made him look—odd. As if all the pigment in his body were focused at that one point of his body.
“No,” Jesse said. “Are you?”
“No,” Cooper said. “Why aren’t you?”
“You first,” Jesse said. He walked into the kitchen to look for some aspirin.
“My answer won’t be one you’d like,” Cooper said. “Did you reject God because he doesn’t approve of your way of living?”
Jesse pulled out a bottle of over-the-counter pain relievers and popped the cap. He shook out four pills. “Which way of living is that?”
“All of it,” Cooper said. “The premarital sex, excess use of drugs, alcohol, lying with a man, adultery, marking your body with—”
“Whoa kid, that’s a lot of judgment. You just met me.”
“It’s not judgment if I’m simply listing the facts. You have done and will continue to do those things. I am asking if you have forsaken God to free yourself from those rules so you can live a lifestyle that brings you immediate gratification.”
“You don’t know that those are facts.”
“You deny them?” Cooper’s eyes went to the floor. “You lie. To everyone, even yourself.” His eyes shot back up and looked into Jesse’s. Those dark brown, practically black, eyes seemed to look directly into Jesse’s soul.
“Why are you here, tonight? In this house?” Jesse asked.
“I think I’m here to meet you,” Cooper said. “But to answer it in the way you meant, I’m not allowed to be home alone. Nicole had to bring me.”
“And why’s that? Why can’t you be home alone?”
“I have a tendency to not stay where people leave me,” Cooper said.
Jesse couldn’t help but grin. This kid was amusing. Egotistical and fighting a hell of a god complex, but still amusing.
Nicole came into the room, holding Maggie to her chest. The girl was bundled in a coat, her face buried against her mother. Ben came after, holding a backpack with a Hello Kitty symbol on it. A little blue bunny’s ears were visible under Maggie’s blond locks.
“We’re leaving,” Nicole said. “Cooper, take the bag.”
“The roads have gotten icier,” Cooper said. “It’s not safe. We should wait.”
Nicole aimed her daggers at Cooper. “I’m the adult, Cooper, and I say we are leaving. Take the bag and get in the car.”
Cooper rose and took the bag from Ben. “For the record, Jesse,” Cooper said. “I don’t view the things you do as sins. And you should forgive yourself, for Angie.”
A chill ran up Jesse’s spine. How the hell did the kid know about Angie?
“Sorry. He does that,” Nicole said. She freed an arm and pushed Cooper toward the door.
“He should start a psychic show. He’d be good,” Jesse said.
And he’d dressed like Matt. He looked like he was ready to go sing in the church choir instead of dance freaky on the dance floor.
“I told Jesse the cake would be a hit,” he said. Yeah, that voice could probably sing. Isaiah could picture him carrying the candles during service. “He thought we were overdoing the chocolate.”
“Not possible,” Isaiah said. “You can never have too much chocolate.”
The boy smiled. He looked like a teen, but Isaiah wasn’t sure how old. It’s just innocent conversation, he told himself. Even if his dick really did want to know if the kid was old enough to be legal.
“That’s exactly what I said.” His smile grew larger, showing off his perfect teeth.
“Glad you convinced him.”
The boy held out a hand for Isaiah to shake. “I’m Cooper.”
“Isaiah,” he replied, trying not to let his voice give away his surprise. He took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Cooper held it for longer than normal and Isaiah had to tug a bit to get it back.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Cooper said.
“You too.” Isaiah focused back on his cake and stirred the remaining crumbs around. There was a moment of silence as Isaiah tried to think of how to broach the topic. He hadn’t thought of what to say if they actually found Cooper.
“I know you and your brother are here for me,” Cooper said. Isaiah glanced back at him, vanishing for a moment in the dark abyss of Cooper’s eyes.
“My brother already talked to you?”
He smiled what seemed a genuine expression. “No.”
What did that mean? Isaiah bit his lip to keep from asking. “Do you know why we are looking for you?”
“Your brother is my prophet. Here to relay messages from God,” Cooper said. He looked through the crowd and Isaiah followed the gaze until he saw his brother. Matt hadn’t noticed them and was instead chatting up an elderly woman.
Well. This was going easier than Isaiah expected.
“I’ll go get him for you,” Isaiah said. He started to get up. “I was really here more to—”
“It’s not him I want to talk to,” Cooper said.
Isaiah forced his butt to sink back in the chair.
“I’ll go to your brother’s church, where he preaches, this coming Sunday.”
“That’s great.” Weird that he hadn’t asked which church it was, but whatever. “We should tell him.”
“I’ll talk to him Sunday,” Cooper said. “And you didn’t let me finish.”
“I’ll go on Sunday, if you agree to go on a date with me Saturday.”
“I don’t date.” The words came out automatically and he barely registered having said them.
“Then we won’t call it that. Lunch. Meet me for lunch at Della’s Diner on fourth street. Do that, and I’ll meet with your brother on Sunday.”
If Cooper was going to join his brother’s church, he was going to be sorely disappointed at their views toward gays.
“I think you should really keep your relationship to my brother and not include me,” Isaiah said.
“It’s not him I want a relationship with,” Cooper said. He slid a new slice of cake in front of Isaiah. He hadn’t even noticed he’d had it with him.
“You’re supposed to be the new messiah. I’m not sure you’re supposed to be in a relationship with anyone other than God.”
“As a messiah, that’s up to me to decide.” He stood and glanced at Matt again. “If you want your brother to be my prophet, you’ll show for lunch.”
He retreated before Isaiah could think of a proper response. Before he could finish the second piece of cake, Matt approached the table.
“I think people are realizing we don’t belong here,” Matt said.
“It’s fine. I already found Cooper.” And I know why God told you to bring me with you.
“Hi, Laurie,” I said, grinning across the table at him.
“Who are you?” the spectacled man asked. He looked like someone who was trying to live up to the stereotype of all scientists—lanky, wire-rimmed glasses, wrinkled shirt, and uncombed hair. Sitting next to him was a decently pretty blond woman; there was nothing remarkable about her, other than the fact she was sitting next to the ragtag nerd.
“Carter,” I said. “I play lacrosse with Laurie. We are supposed to practice together today but I didn’t hear back on a time.” I bit into my apple and stared at Laurie, waiting for him to confirm my story.
“Right, yeah, I forgot,” Laurie said.
“This is Stephen and his girlfriend, Carolyn,” Nick said.
“I thought you went by Stevie,” I said, knowing full well he didn’t. I watched the flash of crimson on his cheeks and wondered who at the table would stand up for him.
Silence awaited me instead, making me wonder if more drama had occurred in the tight group since Laurie’s tale about winter break.
“Do you go by Car-cart-cartie,” Stephen said, trying to stumble through his own retort. A half smile adorned Laurie’s lips, but he kept his eyes focused on his food.
I was sitting next to Stephen, so I swung one leg out from the bench so I could face him. I scooted a little closer. The man was taller than me but had no meat to his bones to fill out the physique.
“That is totally what they call me. How did you know?”
“Don’t be mean,” Laurie said, finally deciding to come to Stephen’s aid.
“Mean is sort of my thing,” I said.
“No,” Laurie said. He wagged his finger at me like I was child. “You need to stop doing that to yourself. You make yourself the bad guy.”
Yeah, I made myself serve a two-hundred-year sentence for assisting an alien race in invading a planet I was supposed to be protecting. I’m rehabilitated now and here to do good things on Earth; glad someone sees that.
“So, in case that wasn’t sarcasm,” Nick said. “Stephen goes by Stephen, no abbreviations.”
“Can I at least call you Nicki?”
“Why are you sitting with us?” Stephen asked. “Lawrence will send you his schedule. I’ll remind him. Please go.”
Stephen hunched his shoulders a bit more and I glanced at the woman to see if she would now take her opportunity to stand by her man and urge me to leave. She rolled her eyes and stuffed a forkful of salad in her mouth.
I wasn’t sure what kind of quip to make, but none were likely to make me feel more welcome. Stephen was protective of his group of friends. Of course, that’s why my love’s host needed to be one of the members in this close circle of friends.
I stood and leaned in close to his ear, so only he could hear me speaking. “You should be mindful of who you piss off.” I needed Stephen, but there were plenty of people around him he cared for that I did not need, people I could encourage my love to—
“We can practice now,” Laurie quickly said. He leaped up from the table, stuffed the last of his food in his mouth, and picked up the tray.
“Later,” I said, taking my items and backing away.
Laurie didn’t speak until we were in the hall. He swirled on me in what had to be some sort of ballet move and shoved me with both his hands on my chest. I bumped into the wall behind me, not expecting the assault.
“Can you not piss off my roommate?” Laurie asked. “He’s been a grumpy goose for a week now and I don’t need you making it worse.”
“That’s probably because he’s fucking a girl instead of you,” I said.
“Shhh.” Laurie placed both his hands over my mouth. “Don’t say that so loud. No one knows about it.”
It wasn’t an intimate touch, but it was the closest thing to intimacy I’d had in a long time. He’d pressed his entire body against mine, and his hands were against my lips… I moved them slightly and Laurie suddenly jumped, pulling his hands and body away from mine.
“Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean to touch you,” Laurie said.
“Its fine, Laurie. I’m not afraid of a little glitter.” I touched his cheek to brush some of the glitter off his face to demonstrate. An impulse to slip my hand behind his neck and pull his lips to mine flashed through my mind, but before I could, he stepped farther from me.
“I was lying, I can’t practice right now. I’ll email you later. I have a club thing. I just wanted to break up whatever it was that was going on between you and Stephen.”
“Do you have a boyfriend, Laurie?” I didn’t realize how abrupt the question was until the color seemed to drain from Laurie’s face. “I mean, have you had one, ever, because—” Shit, that didn’t sound any less evasive. “Don’t answer that, I’m just trying to make a point. Stephen is acting the way he is because he’s jealous. He thinks I’m a threat. If you have a boyfriend, Stephen probably treats him the same way he treats me, right?”
Laurie was staring at me now, like really hard, like my god side was showing and I was glowing.
“It was just a thought,” I said. “I’ll see you later, for practice.”
“We can’t let him see us,” Banya said.
“Who?” Jayson tried to look out the window, but she shoved him back down.
“He’ll kill us.”
He realized this might be a flashback of some sort.
“Who? What’s his name?”
“Carter must have sent him. Sent him to finish me off.” She didn’t look afraid, more like an Army soldier plotting their attack. The summer dress she’d been trying on was not suitable for her deed and he decided they should stick to pants. She kept low as she moved forward between the clothing racks and closer to the exit. Jayson stood and looked out in the hall to see who she was concerned about.
The god boyfriend was strolling down the corridor wearing his stupid high school jersey.
“It’s just Cooper. He’s here to give us the answers to the questions we texted him last night.”
“You know him?” Banya jumped to her feet, and for a frightening moment he thought she might attack him. Then her eyes seemed to blank out, like whatever she’d remembered had been taken from her. She wrapped her arms around herself and turned in a small circle.
“We know him,” Jayson corrected. He grabbed some more clothes off the clearance rack and led her to the dressing room. He pushed her into the room after hanging the clothes inside. “Try these on.”
He texted Cooper where they were, and he appeared a few minutes later.
“Is she here?” Cooper asked.
“Trying on some clothes.” Jayson pointed to the dressing room. They were the only patrons and the place was understaffed, so no one was around to complain of there being men in the women’s changing room.
Cooper pulled out a folded-up paper. “I wrote the answers down. I’ll let you read them and decide how to tell her.”
“Sounds great.” Jayson took the paper and shoved it in his pocket.
“You can text me more tonight, after you’ve gone over those with her.”
Cooper glanced around like he thought they might get in trouble.
“There are twenty infected people stumbling around in the parking lot; trust me, no one gives a shit that we are in the women’s changing room,” Jayson said.
“Right,” Cooper agreed. He seemed nervous. Jayson wasn’t certain why. Did it have something to do with the answers on the paper?
“So, I tried the ear rubbing thing and you were right. So I think this…” He gestured between them. “Might work.”
“Ah, so that’s it. You’re working up the courage to ask me for me sex advice.” Jayson grinned, loving that he was the reason for Cooper’s discomfort. “Did you want me to pull you into a booth and show you how to give proper head?”
Cooper rolled his eyes and kept them focused on the ceiling. “I know how to do that.”
“Sure you do. But let’s start smaller.” Since they were in a more private setting, Jayson figured he would take advantage. “Let me show you how to kiss.”
“I know how to kiss, Jayson.”
“Do you want my help or not?”
Cooper didn’t reply and instead gave a deep sigh. “You are the one who came to me.”
“It’s a kiss, Cooper. Can I have your consent?”
“You want to kiss me?”
“It’s the best way to demonstrate.”
Through gritted teeth, Cooper muttered something that might have been compliance.
Jayson sauntered closer. “What was that?”
“You can kiss me,” Cooper said, the words gruff.
“My dream come true,” Jayson said. Before Cooper could roll his eyes again, Jayson pressed his lips to Cooper’s. He didn’t touch him in any other way, and he didn’t want to. He kept his hands firmly planted against his hip pockets.
He used his tongue to skim Cooper’s lips until he opened them. Then he slipped his tongue in and ran it across the top of Cooper’s mouth, feeling all the ridges. He continued the caress, like the top of Cooper’s mouth contained a secret G spot. He kept it up until he felt Cooper’s body give a shudder, probably of disgust.
Jayson broke the embrace and took two steps back. “Now, I want you to try it on me.”
Cooper stared at him for a moment, and Jayson couldn’t quite read the expression. It certainly wasn’t one Cooper had given him before. He said nothing, but he crossed the distance between them and sealed his lips to Jayson’s. They were the same height, so there was no strain; in fact, they almost fit together perfectly. Cooper slipped his tongue across Jayson’s lips and he opened them.
He let Cooper stroke the top of his mouth a few times, then he put his own tongue against Cooper’s and sucked, pulling on his tongue like he might a finger. Cooper’s entire body shuddered this time and Jayson again stopped, thinking he was about to get punched in the face, but then two hands ran up his chest, skimming across his nipples on their way up to cup his face. Cooper pulled back, but only to turn his head, then his lips came crashing down again as he held Jayson in place.
Jayson’s brain froze up.
Was Cooper… enjoying this?
His own dick gave a twitch. He hadn’t been kissed like this since his boyfriend had gone to prison. Kissed like the person actually wanted him. Like he wasn’t some sick pervert, cause even when Isaiah kissed him there was disdain there. But this, this was pure want and need.
Cooper’s body pressed against him and Jayson felt his hard cock brush against his thigh. And that was it, the final stroke to break the spell and bring him back to reality. Because this was Isaiah’s boyfriend kissing him. And he’d screwed Isaiah over plenty already. He wasn’t about to do… whatever the hell this was.
He twisted and pushed, managing to break free of Cooper’s grasp.
He stumbled a few steps farther and managed a strained, “I think you’ve got the hang of it.”
“S-sorry,” Cooper said. He didn’t follow after Jayson. And thank God for that because Jayson wasn’t sure if he could break that embrace again.
Cooper’s face was red and a bulge was visible in his pants.
“You really are good at this,” Cooper said, averting his eyes.
“Yeah, well, I lived in a brothel, so… you tend to become good at something when it’s your means of survival.” Why had he said that? Brought up his shitty past like that? What difference did it make? It wasn’t like Cooper wanted him. And if he did, it was purely physical.
“Try the kiss on Isaiah. I’m sure he’ll love it,” Jayson said.
Cooper cleared his throat and adjusted his boner to be less visible. “I will, and let me know about the, uh, questions.”
He was dressed in tights with a loose T-shirt, not something he’d want a passerby to see, but he didn’t expect to see any in the alley. He used a sand bucket to prop the door open and went outside. He sat on a crate and lit the joint. He took a long drag and held it in his lungs.
He closed his eyes and wished the sun was out. He heard the scuffling of feet and opened his eyes, annoyed at the interruption.
“Not going to invite me?” Drew asked. He held out a hand expectantly. Laurie took another drag and passed the joint to him. Drew was sleek and had even more feminine features than Laurie did. And for some reason, that made Drew think they should be best friends. Sharing a joint was the closest Laurie had any intention of letting his lips come to Drew’s.
“Needed a minute to be alone,” Laurie said.
“So what’s your personal deal? Something bad happen to you when the Poly Symbiotes showed up?” Drew asked. He took a drag from the joint and Laurie decided he did not in fact want his lips touching anything that Drew’s did. “I had a second cousin in LA when it hit. She went missing five days after the video came out.”
“A quarter million people went missing in the first two weeks,” Laurie said. “Almost everyone has a connection to someone who went missing.”
“Right, well, yeah, I know,” Drew said. “So who was it for you?”
“We should get back in,” Laurie said. He got off the crate and looked to the now-closed door. “What happened to the bucket?”
“The one I used to prop the door open,” Laurie said. He glared at Drew. “Go around to the front and let me in.”
“Why don’t we both go?” Drew asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, because the front entrance is on a main street, populated with people doing their downtown shopping. And my name and picture are on every billboard in town, whereas yours isn’t.” Laurie gestured to his outfit. “I am not letting the public see me dressed like this. Go around to the front and let me in.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Drew said. He handed the joint back and Laurie flicked it to the ground. He watched Drew walk down the alley, sashaying his hips and taking his sweet-ass time.
It was taking Drew way too long to walk around the building. Laurie paced between the two walls of the buildings. He bent to pick up the joint, debating if it was salvageable, when he heard the scuffling of feet. If Drew had come back to tell him there was a problem…
Laurie turned to face him and found—not Drew standing two feet from him. The man had his head tilted to the side in an angle too drastic to be comfortable. His clothes were damp, like he’d just finished a dive in his backyard pool. His shaggy hair was stuck to his face and he stared at Laurie with eyes so dilated they looked entirely black.
“Shit,” Laurie said. He spun to go in the opposite direction but felt the cold, clammy hand grip his shoulder. How he had gotten so close so quickly, Laurie didn’t know. He’d seen video clips of people infected with the parasitic symbiote and they did seem capable of quick bursts of energy, like a freaking cheetah on crack.
Laurie kicked at the man’s shin. It didn’t seem to affect the man and he used his other hand to grab Laurie’s neck.
“No, no, no,” Laurie said. He thrashed and pushed, trying to dislodge the man. He saw black ink seep from the man’s eyes, mouth, and nose. Laurie uttered a sharp shriek as the tar-like substance dripped onto his clothes and skin.
Someone was shaking his shoulders. Laurie opened his eyes and saw the gray sky above him. Drew’s head appeared in his line of vision.
“Are you okay?” Drew asked. A wave of repulsion rippled through him at how close Drew’s face was to his own.
“Yes, some air, please?” Laurie pushed him back and sat up. He was lying on his back in the grungy alley.
“You ruined your clothes,” Mary said from the doorway. “Did you pass out or something?”
Laurie got to his feet and noticed that, yes, his clothes were now marred with smudges of grime from the filthy alley. He glanced around and saw no signs of the man who had assaulted him. He touched his face and found his skin dry. His mouth was dry too.
“I must have…” Laurie said. “I need some water.”
He wanted a gallon of it. He eyed the bottle Drew held and without hesitation he grabbed the container and chugged the contents. His shoulders ached and he felt a brief burst of pain run down his entire spine. It was gone so quickly he thought he might have imagined it.
“I think I’m getting sick,” Laurie said. “Can you call Colter? He’ll need to do tonight’s performance.”
By the end of the number, we were both sweating and staring into each other’s eyes like newlywed lovers, like this was our wedding. Laurie clutched my face with both his hands, one still gripping the microphone he held. He planted a deep kiss on my lips, which got applause from the attendees.
I kept my eyes open and searched the crowd, looking until I saw the waiter again, staring at us, his eyes huge and lips parted. I wished it was him I was kissing. I stared at him, hoping I was portraying my desire to him with my eyes.
Laurie pulled back and whispered a low thank you. Then he turned to his adoring fans. I slipped the microphone back to the DJ and escaped off the stage. I went to the bar and got the hardest liquor they had. I took two shots and sagged against the bar, clutching my head and resting my elbows on the counter.
“You were amazing,” Jayson said. I knew his voice and didn’t need to turn to know it was him.
“How’s your brother?” I asked, shutting my eyes tightly.
“He’s great. I’m staying with them, helping with the babysitting. I’d wondered how you were. I haven’t seen you since, well, since we saved the world.” His fingers touched my bicep and my entire body tingled at the contact. I dropped my hand from my face and turned to look at him.
“Not that we got any credit,” I said. He was hotter than I remembered. He’d gained some weight. The scar was still on his face, but he didn’t look ashamed of it. But now that I was looking at him, I noticed how stiffly he moved, like he’d slept in a bad position and had a crick in his neck.
“I’m surprised Cooper didn’t fix this,” I said. I reached over and skimmed my fingers across the scar, starting on his cheek and going down until it vanished under his collar. He averted his eyes and stepped away from me, but I didn’t remove my hand.
“It’s nice to have bit of my ugly on the outside,” Jayson said. My stomach lurched, and my brain fuzzed a bit, perhaps from the alcohol I’d drank on my empty stomach.
“It’s not ugly.” I gripped his neck, unable to let go. I ran my thumb along part of the scar above my hand. “I’m a physical therapist. I could help you loosen the scar tissue. Give you some exercises to do.”
“I can’t afford—”
“I wouldn’t charge you.” I did it without thinking. I leaned over and kissed him. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. A quick brush of our lips, then we were staring at each other, our faces inches apart. Shit. I told my body to let go of him, but then his hand was on my neck, pulling me back, mashing our lips together for a second round, but this time he took control, flicking his tongue into my mouth and skimming it across the top of my mouth.