The shrill ringing found Patrick even in the depths of sleep, unrelenting no matter how he tried to ignore it and slide back into his dreams. He muttered something, unintelligible even to him, and tried to mash his head into the pillow as much as possible without actually moving. If Thad really loved him, he'd wake up and make the noise go away; his lover's deafness was no excuse.
But that was why Patrick had started practicing the signs for your turn one-handed before the ink dried on the adoption application. And that was why, when Sybil's condition took a turn for the worse, Patrick had started turning up the ringer and turning off the answering machine every night before bed. Just to be sure he would wake up, even in the dead of night, just in case--
His eyes snapped open. A shot of adrenaline washed away the cobwebs, propelling him upright. His physical reflexes didn't catch up as quickly, and he fumbled the phone, barely catching it before it took a dive off the nightstand.
Even as his thumb felt blindly for the talk button, he was already praying. Please, Jesus. Not yet. It was too damn soon.
But who called at 3 a.m. with anything but bad news?
He finally got the phone to his ear. "Hello?"
Silence. The line hummed for a moment, and he started to slump with relief. A wrong number, or some wasted BU student drunk dialing--normally it would piss him off, but not tonight.
All hope vanished with the sound of Amy's tremulous voice. His brain kicked into planning drive: ten minutes to get them up and out of the house, an hour and a half to Thayer, or possibly a lot less with a lead foot and the lack of traffic this time of night. "Amy. We can be there in an hour or--"
"It's too late."
The words killed his adrenaline, leaving him frozen and speechless for a long moment. "When?" he finally managed to ask, and the rasp in his voice hurt his throat in a minor echo of how the rest of him felt.
The pain in Amy's voice hurt more. "An hour ago. She couldn't sleep, and Dad was reading, so I went in to sit with her. We were watching something, but I fell asleep, and then I heard Daddy crying."
Her voice choked off on a final strangled squeak that made her sound more like five than twenty-five. His eyes burned, but he forced his own voice not to choke. "It's okay, baby girl. It's okay, it's okay."
The words had no meaning, and he knew it. Nothing was okay for Amy, or for any of the rest of them, and wouldn't be for a long time. But his voice seemed to soothe Amy's ragged breathing, and it delayed by a few precious seconds the moment when he would have to wake Thad and tell him his mother was dead.
"You're coming, right? You'll come right away. Patrick?"
"Yeah, honey. We'll be right there, I promise."
"Okay," she said, and he sat and listened to the static after she hung up.
When it was too much, he finally clicked the phone off and turned to reach a hand toward Thad. He stopped when he saw the glint of his husband's eyes in the dim light. Thad was awake and waiting, though he had not tried to get Patrick's attention. Now that he had it, his nostrils flared with agitation barely suppressed. "What?" Thad demanded aloud, not bothering to sign it.
I'm sorry, Patrick signed in return, mouthing the words he couldn't bear to vocalize. The lack of sound didn't matter to Thad; it didn't spare him the cold truth that was crumpling his face.
Patrick dropped the phone onto the comforter. His arms wrapped around Thad and held as tight as he could. Thad's mouth opened against Patrick's shoulder, and Patrick felt the moan as much as he heard it. "Mom."
"I know," he said, unheard. And maybe unheard was better, since it wasn't really the right thing to say. But it was true. He did know. He'd just lost his mom, too.
Patrick met Sibyl Stone when he was twenty years old, having dated Thad for a little over nine months of that span.
They'll love you, Thad signed, twisting in his seat so he could face Patrick head on, and repeating himself for clarity. His hands moved with the same effervescent energy of his smile, motions sharp and bright. Patrick tried to soak in some of his confidence. But as the bus pulled up to the station, he spotted the car waiting a few yards away, and he had to swallow to work the lump out of his throat.
"Yeah," he said, forgetting to sign until Thad gave him a chiding whack on the arm. Damn. Thad's gesture was playful, but he couldn't slip like that in front of the family.
He tried to correct his mistake, but Thad was already grabbing his backpack and heading down the aisle. Patrick grabbed his own duffel and followed fast, lest he get left standing awkwardly by himself. Thad stopped on the sidewalk, glancing around before he spotted the car and the man waving beside it. "Dad!" Thad shouted with glee and bounded over to him.
Patrick followed more slowly, forgetting to hurry in favor of watching Thad. Even after six months, he never got tired of watching Thad in motion. Thad was always in motion, but not usually like this: all flying curls and flailing arms reaching out for his father, his usual studious calm abandoned.
The noise of the bus pulling away snapped him out of his reverie. He shook his head and smoothed his slacks one more time before jogging to catch up with his boyfriend. Thad was already pulling back from his father's ferocious embrace, pushing at Mr. Stone's chest until he had room to sign.
This is Patrick, he said, finger spelling the name, then making the name sign he'd given Patrick not long after they met - though not, thankfully, the other name sign Thad had given him not long after they started sleeping together.
Mr. Stone examined Patrick from the top of his close-cropped head to the tips of the loafers he had spent an hour shining last night. Thad had laughed at him from his bed, trying to entice him to abandon his paranoid efforts. Looking down at his own neat slacks and dress shirt, then at the jeans and flannel Thad and his father were wearing, Patrick wondered if he should have let himself be seduced after all.
"So, you're Patrick." Thad's father made Patrick's name sign slowly, as though contemplating its subtleties. "Welcome home, son."
"Thank you, sir," Patrick replied, but his careful signing was squashed when Mr. Stone grabbed his arm and pulled him into a bear hug.
"You'd better call me Kelly," Thad's father said, pounding Patrick's back. "Before I think you're either going to salute me or arrest me."
"Yes, sir," Patrick said, and was relieved when Kelly laughed and thumped him on the back again before releasing him.
Thad paused in slinging Patrick's bag into the trunk and gave him a wink. "See, I told you he wouldn't care about your shoes," he said aloud, and whoever said deaf people didn't know how loudly they were talking was a lying dog, because Thad's voice carried distinctly and deliberately over to where Kelly was getting in the driver's seat of the car.
Patrick slammed the trunk shut, just as Thad caught him and kissed him happily. "How could anyone look at your shoes," Thad added, not bothering to sign due to his hands being occupied messing up Patrick's perfectly ironed shirt.
"Shake a leg, boys," Kelly called from the driver's seat, motioning for them to hurry up and honking the horn for Patrick's benefit. "You can make out when we get home."
Patrick was grateful again for his blush-proof skin as he slid into the backseat, leaving Thad to take shotgun where he could expound on the semester's events, half in sign language and half aloud. Blind to half the conversation, and already well familiar with everything Thad had been doing the last few weeks, Patrick stared out the window at the red and gold leaves that drifted and swirled over everything. Thad had told him at least a hundred times that his family was cool with everything, and so far, so good. But he couldn't help but notice that Kelly Stone was just about the whitest white guy he had ever met. No matter how accepting they were, how was Patrick ever going to fit into this family?
He wasn't any more sure of that when they got to the house and the whitest white woman he had ever met greeted them at the door. She hugged Thad fiercely before he made it all the way through the door, muffling his "Hi, Mom" against her body.
Hello, my baby, she signed when she released him, and laughed when Thad wrinkled his nose at her. Then she let Thad slip past her into the kitchen just as Kelly herded Patrick up the steps. She looked him up and down just as her husband had, but he felt like he was under a much more thorough examination. I guess I know who you are.
He stared at her for a moment, unsure how to respond, until she laughed and pulled him into her arms. "Welcome, Patrick," she said into his ear as she hugged him. "I'm Sibyl."
"Happy Thanksgiving," he said, sounding a little strangled. "Thanks for inviting me."
"He's a little stiff," Kelly said behind him, bumping Patrick's knee with his own duffel bag. "Almost sirred me to death before I got him into the car. But we've already started working on him."
"Patrick, come on!" Thad shouted from inside, prompting his mother to release Patrick and pull him into the house.
As soon as he entered the kitchen, he felt the warmth, physical and emotional. This was the warmth in Thad's eyes, the warmth of his arms, the warmth he always exuded when talking about his family, even in the heat of exasperation. This was a good kitchen. Patrick's life had revolved around kitchens for a long time; maybe if they let him spend most of the holiday in here, he could find his place.
But Thad was already grabbing his hand and pulling him out into the rest of the house. He let go at the foot of the staircase long enough to look back at his mother. Is Ben coming home?
"No, your brother has chosen to reject his family and celebrate the holiday in Berkeley with the dirty hippies," Sibyl replied.
"As opposed to the dirty hippies right here at home," Kelly added, avoiding Patrick's attempts to take back his duffel. "So the good news is that Ben and Thad's room can be Patrick and Thad's room for the weekend."
Patrick froze. He was acutely aware of both Sibyl and Kelly watching him for a reaction, though Thad was already shouldering his backpack and starting up the stairs. Patrick was saved by a noise at the top of the stairs that Thad didn't notice until a whirlwind of teenage girl flung herself into his arms with an ear-splitting squeal.
"Thad!" she cried into his ear, so loud that even Thad could probably hear her. Then she pulled back to grin at him. My favorite brother.
"Well, sure, he's the only brother who's home," Sibyl called, and Patrick had a sudden, intense love for this girl just for existing - and distracting the silent inquisition.
That love vanished as quickly as it had come when the girl looked over Thad's shoulder and spotted Patrick. She had a very pretty face, until her features pulled into a sneer. "And what is that?" she said, and the last word dripped with scorn in both voice and the sharp, angry motion of her hand.
"This is Patrick," Kelly said, laying a hand on Patrick's shoulder. He could hear the warning in Kelly's voice, though he wasn't sure for whom it was meant.
"And this," Sibyl said with a sigh, "is Amy. Our little angel."
Thad gave Amy a little shake. Be nice, he said and continued past her up the stairs.
"What? I'm always nice," she protested with widely innocent eyes, though her expression shifted back to open hostility as Patrick warily eased past her to follow Thad. "God, can't you wait? Excuse me for being on the stairs in my own house."
"Pick a direction, then," Kelly said to her, voice mild as he came up behind Patrick.
To Patrick's dismay, she chose to come back up, trailing her father. Patrick tried to ignore her, though he imagined he could feel her glare going right through Kelly and into his back.
He briefly forgot her when he entered the bedroom he'd be sharing with Thad - and saw just one large bed. "Oh," he said, hovering near the doorway. "I thought--"
Pushed them together when Ben moved out, Thad said with a grin. And sure enough, when Patrick looked closer he could see that the bed was actually two connected twin beds.
"You can move them back apart if it bothers you." Kelly dropped Patrick's bag on the bed and cleared his throat. "Excuse me, got to go chop some more wood. Almost cold enough for a fire."
"Very manly, Dad!" Amy called after him, making exaggerated Tarzan-like signs that made Thad laugh.
Patrick laughed, too, and shot her the warmest smile he could. Maybe they'd just gotten off on the wrong foot. Thad had said she could be difficult, but what teenage girl wasn't, in Patrick's experience?
She returned the smile. Hope rose, but only until Thad turned to clear out a dresser drawer. Then Amy plopped herself down on the bed next to Patrick's bag. She kept the smile on her face, but her voice was all sickly sweet venom when she spoke. "So, Patrick, tell me. Is it true that all black men have huge dicks?"
He gaped at her in shock. She just kept smiling at him. He glanced over at Thad, who turned to unzip his backpack and smiled happily at Patrick. Of course, he hadn't seen a thing. Amy had waited until he was looking away, and had kept her own back to him as she spoke, just in case.
Clever little bitch.
Her expression of bright interest never wavered. "Are you going to fuck my brother with it? Right here in his childhood room? With our parents right down the hall?"
Patrick took a deep breath to calm the flood of rage that was icing his spine and heating his gut. "Boy, you really are a piece of work, aren't you?"
"I sleep right upstairs - did anyone think to tell you how much sound carries in this house? Well, I guess Thad wouldn't think to mention that."
"I brought towels!" Sibyl's entrance came just at the moment when Patrick had been considering testing the soundproofing by strangling her youngest daughter. "Patrick, Thad tells me that you're in culinary school?"
"Um... yes. The university has a top-rated culinary arts division." He pulled himself together with an effort; no way was Amy going to see how she'd gotten to him.
"That's wonderful." She dropped her armful of towels on the bed next to Amy, then grabbed a washcloth and waved it at Thad until she caught his eye. I'm stealing your boyfriend.
Okay, Thad replied, then looked at Patrick. Don't let her put you to work, you're a guest.
"I don't mind," he blurted hastily, then followed it up with the signs, though not in time to avoid Amy's smirk.
"Oh, good," Sibyl said with a beaming smile.
As he followed her from the room, he bit back the urge to tell her that he'd do whatever she wanted, as long as it got him away from Amy Stone.
Amy shuddered in his arms, body wracked with sobs, although he felt no wetness where her face pressed against his shirt. He hugged her as tight as he could, then lifted one hand to stroke her hair. "It's okay, baby girl. Just let it out," he murmured into her hair, and she clung tighter to him.
Amy had called an ambulance after she'd called Patrick, which had brought Sibyl here to the hospital, even though it had been obvious there was no good a hospital could do her anymore. Across the waiting room, Thad was sitting on a couch, rocking his father. Kelly was one of the strongest men Patrick had ever met, but now he sat slumped in his son's arms, utterly broken.
An orderly came into the room and took in the scene. "Stone family? If you want to see her--" he said, looking hesitantly between them.
Kelly lifted his head. "I've seen enough," he said, eyes red and voice hoarse almost beyond recognition. He signed briefly to Thad, who looked horrified.
Amy shook her head violently against Patrick's shoulder, but he was watching Thad. His boyfriend was also shaking his head, but it was slower. After a moment, he gave a little shudder, detached himself from his father, and stood up. "Patrick?" he said, hands hanging limply at his sides.
The last thing Patrick wanted was to see Sibyl's body without Sibyl in it. But if Thad needed this, then Thad needed him. And when he had promised Thad for better or for worse, he had meant it utterly.
He began the more complicated process of detaching himself from Amy, walking her over and depositing her next to her father on the cold leatherette. Then he faced Thad. You're sure?
"Well, all right, then," he said and took Thad's hand.
Sibyl took Patrick's hand and pulled him into the kitchen. "You really don't mind helping me?" she said.
"No, of course not." She was doing him the favor, and he suspected she knew it.
"I don't want you feel like slave labor," she said, and Patrick tried not to wince too visibly. "But I could really use an expert eye on something."
"Well, I'm just a student," he replied, leaning over the kitchen table to look at the book of handwritten recipes she was opening. "But I'll see what I can do."
"It's my grandmother's stuffing. I've been making it every year since I married Kelly. It's a family tradition."
"So... it must be pretty popular. What's the problem?"
"The problem is that my grandmother, God rest her, wasn't a very good cook." She gave him a rueful smile. "A little gourmet update would do it some good."
Patrick frowned as he studied the recipe, social discomforts forgotten in the face of a cooking challenge. "I see what you mean. Well, let's see what we've got to work with."
She motioned him toward the refrigerator. "It's all yours."
Still frowning as he ran the recipe through his mind, he opened the refrigerator and ducked into it to study the contents. He popped his head up a moment later to give her an admiring glance. "Fresh herbs. I'm impressed."
"Don't be." She leaned on the table and laughed. "I don't have the slightest idea what to do with them."
"Here, I'll show you." He made a few quick decisions, gathered up an armful of ingredients, and headed to the table. "Great, you have good knives."
"Gifts, or possibly hints, from my well-meaning family. I don't know what to do with those, either." She brought the recipe book over to him, then picked up a knife, though she showed no inclination to start chopping. "I'm glad you could come spend the holiday with us, Patrick."
"Thank you," he responded automatically, then tried to lighten his tone. "Better than my house. My mom would just gather up the aunts and whatever cousins she could find, and then they'd follow me around the whole time praying to Jesus for me."
She matched his sharp laugh with an easier one of her own. "Thad came out to us when he was about Amy's age. I guess it's not always the easiest thing to deal with for a parent, but we almost lost Thad when he was born. After that, you learn a lot about what's really important. You sign very well, by the way."
He ducked his head to look with unnecessary intensity at the bunch of parsley in his hand. "Thanks. I get a lot of practice."
"Do you have someone deaf in your family?"
"No. I wish, would've given me a head start," he said, hoping he didn't sound too flip about a disability. "I didn't start learning to sign until I met Thad. Well, a little before that. I went and took a class before I got up the nerve to try to talk to him."
"That's adorable," she said with a laugh that he hoped was with him instead of at him.
"He did tell you I wasn't deaf, right?"
"He didn't mention it, but I kind of figured it out from the clues." She tapped the side of her head with the hand not holding the knife.
Patrick forced himself to laugh, then concentrated on chopping the parsley extra fine. "Did he mention that I was black?"
"Nope. That one was a surprise. Well, he did say you were tall, dark, and handsome."
He couldn't help grinning a little at that. "Does it bother you that I'm black?"
"Does it bother you that we're not?"
"Well, I did get fair warning about that," he said, and she burst out laughing.
"But did you get fair warning about Amy?" she teased, and he had to look up at her and return her smile. "Seriously, Patrick, there's only one thing I care about, and it isn't your gender, hearing ability, or even your skin color."
"So what is it?" he asked, obliging her with the set up, even as he tensed a little.
"That you're good to my son," she said, and her hand tightened on the knife she'd been idly playing with. "Because I'll tell you just the once, if you were ever to hurt him, I would take you apart so thoroughly that no one would be able to tell what color your skin was afterward."
He stared at her for a long moment, then cleared his throat. "I would never hurt Thad," he said, slowly and with no levity at all. "I love your son."
She looked back at him with equal seriousness, then nodded at him. "Good," she answered, and he didn't regret telling her. He just wished he had told Thad first.
Then she smiled a little and turned her head to the side. He followed her gaze, and oh God, there was Thad, standing at the kitchen door, with a full and clear view of Patrick.
And Thad had extraordinary lip reading skills.
"I'm going to go make sure Amy didn't short sheet your bed," Sibyl said, putting down the knife and patting Patrick on the shoulder. She gave Thad a kiss on the cheek as she passed him, but he hardly seemed to notice. His dark eyes were completely focused on Patrick.
They stared at each other across the empty, silent kitchen. Patrick felt his fingers twitch; he knew he had to be the first one to say something now. He wanted to be. Thad had already given him so much.
Suddenly sure that he had forgotten every sign he ever knew, except for these, Patrick raised his hands. I love you. Since the moment I saw you.
A smile broke over Thad's face, huge and beautiful. "I love you, too," he said and crossed the room to Patrick. "Since the first time you tried to sign to me."
Even if I'm not good enough for your sister? Patrick signed, and Thad laughed.
Idiot. You're perfect, he replied, then took Patrick's face between his hands and kissed him.
Obviously Patrick had no choice but to drop his knife, wrap his arms around Thad, bury his fingers in those impossible curls, and kiss him back. And then there was no choice but to keep kissing him for a long time.
The stuffing eventually got made, and was declared sheer perfection. But the beds never did get pulled apart again.
Patrick started to turn back into the waiting room, but Thad broke away from him and kept going down the hall and right out of the hospital. He heard the whoosh of the doors closing behind Thad and hesitated, wondering if he should go in and say something to Kelly, just in case Thad meant to leave for good. But he couldn't wait. Thad was his primary concern, and nothing could override his need to be with him now.
So he followed, breaking into a jog as he cleared the first set of doors. He stopped as he almost ran into Thad, who was standing at the outside threshold, keeping the second set of doors from closing. Patrick touched his arm, and Thad flinched.
It's too bright, he signed angrily at Patrick, every motion rough and painful. Why is the goddamn sun so bright?
It doesn't know, Patrick answered, but Thad was already storming out into the day.
Patrick followed and squinted as soon as he got outside. The sun had just been rising when they got to the hospital, but now it was high and bright in the sky, blazing into his eyes with a strength inappropriate to the waning season. He blinked until his eyes adjusted, then looked around for his husband.
Relief swept him when he spotted Thad standing just inside the overhang of the parking garage. His forehead was pressed to the concrete pillar. Though his eyes were open, he flinched again when Patrick put a hand on his shoulder.
"Baby," Patrick sighed, uselessly and helplessly.
Thad still looked exactly as he had when they had gone into the room to see Sibyl. His jaw clenched and pulsed; his brow furrowed as he stared at the blank concrete. Patrick knew this look. Thad was shutting down, shutting himself away so that nobody could reach him, not even Patrick.
Sibyl would not have stood for that. She would have smacked him until he looked at her, made him listen to her, not let him look away until she'd said what she had to say. But that was what a mother did. She'd done it for Patrick, too, and there was nobody else that could.
But nobody else could do what a husband could do, either. He molded himself around Thad's back and wrapped his arms around him. One hand settled over Thad's heart, and his mouth pressed against Thad's temple by his ear. "I love you, baby," he whispered over and over. "So much, for always, for everything. I love you."
Thad couldn't hear the words, but Patrick knew he could feel them, knew he understood the meaning beneath the nonsense of breath and brushing lips. He knew it anyway, but he felt the proof when Thad began to relax slowly, until he was leaning more against Patrick than the pillar. They stayed wrapped together, with Patrick whispering and feeling Thad's heart beat beneath his hand, until he felt his cell phone buzzing in his pocket.
Thad felt it, too, and turned his head a little toward it. Reluctantly, Patrick drew back from Thad and pulled the phone out. He didn't want to answer it, but right now he couldn't risk missing it.
"Yes," he said, and missed the next minute of conversation because Thad was leaning against the pillar again, the coldness of grief returning to his face.
"Mr. Thomas?" the woman said again after a pause that Patrick had barely noticed. "I'm sorry, is this a bad time?"
"Sorry, family crisis, my mother in law--" Patrick said, then tensed as both her identity and what she had been saying finally sank into his tired brain. "Wait. You're saying... now?"
She laughed. "Yes, now. I know it's taken longer than we had discussed, given that we expedited your application. You don't know how much we value families like yours, who are willing to open their home to a child regardless of the child's race or special needs."
"No, I know," he replied, putting his hand on Thad's shoulder and shaking him until he turned around. "Believe me, I know."
"Would you and Mr. Stone like to come by the office this afternoon to finalize the last details?"
"Yes. We'd like that very much. Thank you."
Thad took the phone from him before he could even shut it off. What? he said. What now?
His fingers trembled as he signed his answer. We have a baby boy.
A baby. Thad's hands dropped, then lifted again to cover his face. His shoulders heaved briefly as he fought back the same emotions Patrick felt burning his own eyes: the utter joy of having a child conflicting with the anguish of knowing Sibyl would never meet her grandson.
Thad swiped his eyes, though tears were still falling even as he smiled at Patrick. Let's go tell them.
In a minute, Patrick replied. Then he pulled Thad to him and pulled them both into the deeper shadow of the structure. The family Stone went on, but it could wait, just one more minute, for them.