"Hey, did something awfully good happen yesterday?"
"Uh, Edna, as much as I'd love to chat, I'm not on a break, and I have two orders waiting."
"I see. I was just wondering if it was the lottery or amazing sex that have you grinning all day. Must be amazing sex 'cause you wouldn't still be here if you've won millions."
A tall man with a dark tan and long platinum-blonde hair sidled next to her, bumping her shoulder. "Hey, little lady, what's up? That sarcasm was more sarcastic than other days... something rubbing you the wrong way?"
Edna pushed him sideways, though Zaveid was just as quick to move out of the way. "You're rubbing me the wrong way. Just get out of my face before I start harassing you."
"At least that was honest. More honest than you'll ever be with this other guy." Zaveid wriggled his brows at Sorey.
An arm suddenly drapes itself on Zaveid's shoulder. "Don't mind her. Everybody knows who she's crushing on, right Sorey? You must be so damn popular in high school, huh?"
Sorey scratched his cheek. "Guys, this isn't break time. Just let it slide. And Rose, thanks, by the way. Your curry's the best!"
"Was it you, or your girlfriend saying that?" Rose gave him a wink.
At the thought of Mikleo, Sorey felt his face grow hot. "Both I guess? It put us in a really good mood."
"Oh geez, and I thought everyone's supposed to be working?" Edna sipped her iced coffee with a petulant frown. Rose turned around wordlessly but not before giving Sorey a pat on the shoulder. "Tell me later, okay?"
Sorey gave a helpless nod, knowing Rose did not expect him to interpret that literally. Zaveid gave a low chuckle as he dropped an ice in Edna's glass.
"Didn't ask for it. And quit staring, it's rude." Edna was definitely miffed.
"Whatever the lady wants, the lady gets. Eizen must have his hands full babysitting you."
"So? I bet you were far worse when you were my age."
"Is that even possible? By the way, I can't help but think that you and the boss must be pretty familiar. That's why you can hang around and do these things."
"Maybe. He and Eizen were college buddies. And cousins." Edna made a grimace. "But other than that I've got nothing to do with your boss so stop with the interview, I ain't spilling more!"
Sorey comes back with a worried look. "Uh, Zaveid, you want some help with that? I've got a plate for table seven."
"Oh, thanks. And nice to know you're doing better. Stay that way."
Sorey felt good about the attention. He knew that beneath Zaveid's bravado is a sincere sort of bluntness that has its own charm that wears down resistance easily. For certain, Zaveid can be anything but boring.
"I'll keep that in mind, thanks."
"Hey, mister, I want my cheesecake. And put some more whipped cream here. And some strawberries. Crushed ones. Can you handle that?" She waved her glass of iced coffee at Sorey with a twitching glare.
Sorey gave Edna a smile and a nod. "Be right back."
Zaveid chuckled as he turned to leave. "Can't fight that kind of cool, can we? The girlfriend must be so damn lucky."
"Shut up." Edna looked out the window, not expecting to see much. Snow has not quite fallen yet, but the wind must have been cold enough to leave a frost. She wondered for a minute why the hell she bothered to order iced coffee when everything outside looked just about ready to freeze over.
Even the grey skies seemed to want to dampen her mood. Everything looked depressing.
Sorey was back sooner than she had expected. He slid a pristine-white, carnation-embellished saucer in front of her with a perfectly-sliced cheesecake and two strawberries sitting on top of it. Next was a fresh glass of iced coffee with crushed strawberries on top of the whipped cream.
They looked almost divine, making Edna wonder if she could consume either one without feeling just a tad guilty for ruining the aesthetic.
"Anything else you wanna add?"
"That was quick. At least you know your priorities."
"I'm letting Zaveid and Alisha handle the others."
Edna gave him a sigh. "Come here, you jerk."
"What?" Sorey leaned closer as Edna pulled his tie. But he was not quite expecting what she did next.
She smashed their lips together, sucking Sorey's bottom lip a little before letting go. Someone must have dropped a tray before Edna decided to pull back.
"H-hey what was that for?"
"Let me see you grin all day with that."
Sorey scratched his cheek and wondered if he had to pay for the tray and the plates that Rose was delicately picking off the floor as Alisha rushed to the rescue. This is definitely not one of those days Mikleo would want to hear about.
"Chancellor, he's waiting in the foyer. He says he'd rather you meet him there."
"I see. Is he alone?"
A man in his late forties, with grim lines that sink into the flesh of his cheeks and the stubborn jaw that made his face wider, broader from an angle, walked up to the window, stubbing his cigar in one of those crystal ashtrays that made a prism of light even with the faint afternoon glow that made the office seem more somber than usual.
He had instructed his secretary to clear his appointments for the day and had even requested his driver to take the day off. He was planning a little get away, hoping that the attempt would have more success than other days when he had been more desperately pressed and eagerly planned everything with little reassurance that his expectations would be met.
But today seems to be an exception.
He walked with casual ease, wondering where the excitement was coming from, though he could barely stomach the idea of showing it even with the faintest of smiles. Politics has made him crude, has made his emotions volatile yet easier to disguise. All you need is a little motivation and a lot of incentive to be able to change so drastically into the image you want.
Truth had little to do with it. And honesty has always been overrated. In fact, a person who cannot lie to himself has no business questioning truths. If there are no truths to begin with, all lies would be the same.
But the moment he saw the lithe figure standing there, silver hair tousled carelessly by the wind, his heart grew restless. Here is truth plain and simple. Even age must know what love feels like when it is standing right in front of you unaware of itself... the invisible orbit that makes him the center of all present things.
"Rulay... I'm glad you can make it."
"Make this short and simple. I want to be back at the university before evening."
"Sorey is picking me up."
"I see. Are you well?"
"Strange that you should ask. I hope you and Michael aren't too busy investing my money on stocks these days. It's the least you can do after mom let you steal everything from under her nose."
"Accusations, you never run out of them, do you? As a promising law student you should know how to regulate that imagination of yours. Preponderance of evidence, lad. Have you learned nothing from law school?"
"I don't need law school to tell the difference between an honest man and a crook."
"But you need evidence to pin down anything, even that annoying fly who looks as guilty as hell. Guilt exists only to be denied. Anyone is innocent beyond reasonable doubt until you lay down that evidence. You think words and conviction make politics?"
Mikleo glared back with a disgusted look. "And you think anyone's innocent? It's just a presumption of law that gives everyone the benefit of the doubt absent any incontrovertible proof. It's no convenient logic for those who simply have the odds in their favor."
"Sounds benign to me. Too bad politics doesn't agree with that kind of thinking."
"If you asked me over to lecture me on politics, I'm not interested. Lies are lies... even if they sound like theories to you."
"Oh gods, what an idealist we have here! A lie that's believable has as much chance of winning people over than a truth that sounds suspicious. And believe me, lies have more logic than any truth out there. Because you make them with your mind... instead of waiting for reality to confirm them."
Mikleo shook his head. "Don't try to impress me, Bartlow. Or is Michael starting to bore you already? I admire your secrecy. It would be a scandal if anyone else knew what's going on between you two."
"Who would believe a pauper who has creditors on his heels? Muse made a stupid investment... or rather your father did. Then the bastard ran away and got himself killed. Astonishing. You should be grateful I took care of all the mess. But I'm not so heartless, I still worry about you... I know how miserable I must have made you feel..."
"Far from it. I'm actually doing well. Should I apologize for it?"
Instead of replying, Bartlow sidled up to him, holding him by the elbow. "Just sign some documents for me, and you can have everything back. And it would cost you almost nothing in return... nothing a personal touch can't make up for."
Mikleo hated the stench of cigar, but it was not the reason he drew back. Bartlow had snaked an arm around his hip, nudging his groin in a very suggestive way. He felt a gut-wrenching nausea climb to his throat, making his eyes moist with the pain of holding it down.
He pushed Bartlow away. "You touch me again, and I swear I'll kill you with my bare hands."
"Oh, is that a threat? Careful, you might be in trouble next time."
"I don't think there's any reason for me to see you again."
Bartlow caught him by the wrist. "I promise, you will want to see me again. Very soon, lad. Sooner than you think..."
Mikleo shook him off. "What is there to think about when it comes to you? Don't forget to give my regards to Michael... and pray he doesn't find out. Though when he does might be better for me. So he can kill you himself."
With that, Mikleo swung out of his way and left, taking long strides toward the elevator, ignoring the stoic look of gaunt-faced men in suits chasing him with their unfeeling gazes.
Mikleo swore he would listen to Sorey's warning next time. Though it might have been too late to say that now.
Grey skies, all fifty-one shades of them. No, maybe just fifty, damn that novel. Yurive never thought flights could be so tedious when one is aching to fly to someone who is probably as dead to the emotion as he is thrilled at the moment.
Unrequited love never sat so well with him. Not when he was used to being the object, not the agent, not the one obsessively pining after someone so oblivious and carefree.
He took a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and flipped through them. Sorey's contract was carefully labeled just as he had instructed his secretary to do, making it unlikely for him to miss it even when he has the usual paperwork in tow. Even now, he wondered why he could not quite let go of the idea of handing it to Sorey as soon as they meet.
He was almost certain that his overenthusiastic employee is working today at the cafe, as he rarely takes a day off and is almost always available to fill in for a co-worker. He could not help but imagine how he would look stumbling into the office straight from the airport, contract in hand.
He must be crazy. He rubbed his temple more out of habit than out of any real urgency, though anxiety would be one reason as well. He looked outside the window not expecting to see or find anything interesting.
Going over the events of the last three days, Yurive had very little to say. The trip to Nebraska was an unexpected detour, though there was little reason to complain about that either. He had stayed for ten years in the same line of work and by then has gotten used to painful demands from difficult clients who make long-standing promises and ingratiating compromises. He knew that charm can only go a long way when it comes to dealing with people on a long-term basis.
Casual friendships, casual sex... nothing would ever shock his senses so much as to stir his judgment away from cool reason and bloody logic that puts self-interest above all else. He played around every weakness, invested on everyone's temptations.
His sadistic drive to success is only weighed down by his unbearable urge to make himself suffer for every little benefit gained from the charade.
Definitely the game is just beginning to bore him a little, but not too much to threaten his resolve.
He has barely taken a sip of his cocktail when he found himself leafing through the thin pages of the same document he has gone over ten times at least with his secretary. Coming up with an employment contract for his new managing partner was not a product of an overnight whim or an urge that seems as intense but just as brief as sex. He has been thinking about it since the day he realized he could capitalize on the opportunity... or rather, since he discovered the perfect excuse to keep a hopeless fantasy alive.
It was a moderate proposal, in name rather than substance maybe, but still, it was one where all the legal jargon might permit not so much to convey, as to disguise his true intentions.
He thought age is making him a little too transparent.
Like the day he lent him that book. He wondered if Sorey had given it much thought. That picture would have mildly aroused his curiosity at least. And Sorey seemed more than just bright and good-looking to not wonder at the unexpected kindness Yurive was offering him.
More than occasional conversations with the young man whose deep, emerald eyes almost always seem to be mesmerized... more than glimpses of his cool levelheadedness and quick grasp of nuances, Yurive found Sorey's natural intelligence and lighthearted optimism illuminating, yet relaxing. His casual brilliance though a bit naive added only to his charms.
Even his capacity to churn off-topic insightful remarks was like a breath of fresh air, an indication of how original and creative he could be without even putting in any effort.
Vaguely he was reminded of those rare, literary sensibilities he used to admire in his younger lovers during his university days.
In many ways, Sorey easily surpassed his expectations as if to make him realize that he had them, that he had been looking forward to be surprised and amazed all this time.
And he had hundreds of them, Yurive thought, lost in the loose knots and tangles of his many failed relationships. Not that his lovers had been made aware of his expectations.
Men rarely surprised him with anything outside of sex. They could not grasp his need for enlightenment and inspiration, useless foibles they may be that dead white men have already written too much about, and have plagiarized and rewritten too many times in pulp fiction.
But Sorey was like his Hamlet, an original that will never lose color despite the awkward simplicity and the lack of complications. Here is an ideal standing before him, as clueless as he is brilliant. Here is an irony shining like a beacon of untainted reason and pure logic.
His innocence and beauty are refreshing, like the warmth of a complete stranger, or love at first sight.
Yurive thought how crazy he must be to be romanticizing such nonsense. Only teenagers do that a lot. They say men in their twenties are most promising, in their thirties most brilliant, in their forties most insecure.
In other words, a forty-year old would have jealousies, inspire love games, and play around like he were sixteen again.
Sounds like an excuse? He's only thirty-two, but whenever there was any occasion he could borrow Sorey's undivided attention by indulging in conversations on Asgard lore and ancient mythology, on Oedipus and Ulysses, he feels that light flutter of butterfly wings in his stomach that makes it so hard to ignore the cause and the reason.
Those fluttery feelings have, lately, been so arousing as to give him a difficult time suppressing the urge to pleasure himself, to chase the feeling and wonder when he had lost the excitement, the desire to want something so simple and yet so persuasively important...
He wondered when was the last time he had stopped believing he could feel like that again...
First love. After all these years, Yurive could hardly believe that, for the first time, he was falling in love all over again.